“Guess my weight”
“What’s that noise?” said Mrs. Hogget, sticking her comfortable round red face out of the kitchen window. “Listen, there ’tis again, did you hear it, what a racket, what a row, anybody’d think someone was being murdered, oh dearie me, whatever is it, just listen to it, will you?”
Farmer Hogget listened. From the usually quiet valley below the farm came a medley of sounds: the oompah oompah of a brass band, the shouts of children, the rattle and thump of a skittle alley, and every now and then a very high, very loud, very angry-sounding squealing lasting about ten seconds.
Farmer Hogget pulled out an old pocket watch as big around as a saucer and looked at it. “Fair starts at two,” he said. “It’s started.”
“I knows that,” said Mrs. Hogget, “because I’m late now with all these cakes and jams and pickles and preserves as is meant to be on the Produce Stall this very minute, and who’s going to take them there, I’d like to know, why you are, but afore you does, what’s that noise?”
The squealing sounded again.
Mrs. Hogget nodded a great many times. Everything that she did was done at great length, whether it was speaking or simply nodding her head. Farmer Hogget, on the other hand, never wasted his energies or his words.
“Pig,” he said.
Mrs. Hogget nodded a lot more.
“I thought ’twas a pig, I said to meself that’s a pig that is, only nobody round here do keep pigs, ’tis all sheep for miles about, what’s a pig doing, I said to meself, anybody’d think they was killing the poor thing, have a look when you take all this stuff down, which you better do now, come and give us a hand, it can go in the back of the Land Rover, ’tisn’t raining, ’twon’t hurt, wipe your boots afore you comes in.”
“Yes,” said Farmer Hogget.
When he had driven down to the village and made his delivery to the Produce Stall, Farmer Hogget walked across the green, past the fortune tellers, the games of chance, the ferris wheel and the band, to the source of the squealing noise, which came every now and again from a small pen in a far corner, against the churchyard wall.
By the pen sat the Vicar, notebook in hand, a cardboard box on the table in front of him. On the pen hung a notice--“Guess my weight. Ten pence a shot.” Inside was a little pig.
As Farmer Hogget watched, a man leaned over and picked it out of the pen. He hefted it in both hands, frowning and pursing his lips in a considering way, while all the time the piglet struggled madly and yelled blue murder. The moment it was put down, it stopped. Its eyes, bright intelligent eyes, met the farmer’s. They regarded one another.
One saw a tall thin brown-faced man with very long legs, and the other saw a small fat pinky-white animal with very short ones.
“Ah, come along, Mr. Hogget!” said the Vicar. “You never know, he could be yours for ten pence. Guess his weight correctly, and at the end of the day you could be taking him home!”
“Don’t keep pigs,” said Farmer Hogget. He stretched out a long arm and scratched its back. Gently, he picked it up and held it before his face. It stayed quite still and made no sounds.
“That’s funny,” said the Vicar. “Every time so far that someone has picked him up he’s screamed his head off. He seems to like you. You’ll have to take a guess.”
Carefully, Farmer Hogget put the piglet back in the pen. Carefully, he took a ten-pence piece from his pocket and dropped it in the cardboard box. Carefully, he ran one finger down the list of guesses already in the Vicar’s notebook.
“Quite a variation,” said the Vicar. “Anything from twenty pounds to forty, so far.” He wrote down “Mr. Hogget” and waited, pencil poised.
Once again, slowly, thoughtfully, the farmer picked the piglet up.
Once again, it remained still and silent.
“Thirty-one pounds,” said Farmer Hogget. He put the little pig down again. “And a quarter,” he said.
“Thirty-one and a quarter pounds. Thank you, Mr. Hogget. We shall be weighing the little chap at about half past four.”
“Be gone by then.”
“Ah well, we can always telephone you. If you should be lucky enough to win him.”
“Never win nothing.”
As he walked back across the green, the sound of the pig’s yelling rang out as someone else took a guess.
“You never do win nothing,” said Mrs. Hogget over tea, when her husband, in a very few words, had explained matters. “Though I’ve often thought I’d like a pig, we could feed ’un on scraps, he’d come just right for Christmas time, just think, two nice hams, two sides of bacon, pork chops, kidneys, liver, chitterlings, trotters, save his blood for black pudding, there’s the phone.”
Farmer Hogget picked it up.
“Oh,” he said.
“There. Is that nice?”
In the farmyard, Fly, the black-and-white collie, was beginning to train her four puppies. For some time now they had shown an instinctive interest in anything that moved, driving it away or bringing it back, turning it to left or right, in fact herding it. They had begun with such things as passing beetles, but were now ready, Fly considered, for larger creatures.
She set them to work on Mrs. Hogget’s ducks.
Already the puppies were beginning to move as sheepdogs do, seeming to creep rather than walk, heads held low, ears pricked, eyes fixed on the angrily quacking birds as they maneuvered them about the yard.
“Good boys,” said Fly. “Leave them now. Here comes the boss.”
The ducks went grumbling off to the pond, and the five dogs watched as Farmer Hogget got out of the Land Rover. He lifted something out of a crate in the back, and carried it into the stables.
“What was that, Mum?” said one of the puppies.
“That was a pig.”
“What will the boss do with it?”
“Eat it.” said Fly. “When it’s big enough.”
“Will he eat us,” said another, rather nervously, “when we’re big enough?”
“Bless you,” said his mother. “People only eat stupid animals. Like sheep and cows and ducks and chickens. They don’t eat clever ones like dogs.”
“So pigs are stupid?” said the puppies.
Fly hesitated. On the one hand, having been born and brought up in sheep country, she had in fact never been personally acquainted with a pig. On the other, like most mothers, she did not wish to appear ignorant before her children.
“Yes,” she said. “They’re stupid.”
At this point there came from the kitchen window a long burst of words like the rattle of a machine gun, answered by a single shot from the stables, and Farmer Hogget emerged and crossed the yard toward the farmhouse with his loping stride.
“Come on,” said the collie bitch. “I’ll show you.”
The floor of the stables had not rung to a horse’s hoof for many years, but it was a useful place for storing things. The hens foraged about there, and sometimes laid their eggs in the old wooden mangers; the swallows built their nests against its roof beams with mud from the duck pond; and rats and mice lived happy lives in its shelter until the farm cats cut them short. At one end of the stables were two loose boxes with boarded sides topped by iron rails. One served as a kennel for Fly and her puppies. The other sometimes housed sick sheep. In there Farmer Hogget had put the piglet.
A convenient stack of straw bales allowed the dogs to look down into the box through the bars.
“It certainly looks stupid,” said one of the puppies, yawning. At the sound of the words the piglet glanced up quickly. He put his head to one side and regarded the dogs with sharp eyes. Something about the sight of this very small animal standing all by itself in the middle of the roomy loose box touched Fly’s soft heart. Already she was sorry that she had said that pigs were stupid, for this one certainly did not appear to be so. Also there was something dignified about the way it stood its ground, in a strange place, confronted with strange animals. How different from the silly sheep, who at the mere sight of a dog would run aimlessly about, crying “Wolf! Wolf!” in their empty-headed way.
“Hullo,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I’m a Large White,” said the piglet.
“Blimey!” said one of the puppies. “If that’s a large white, what’s a small one like?” And they all four sniggered.
“Be quiet!” snapped Fly. “Just remember that five minutes ago you didn’t even know what a pig was.” And to the piglet she said kindly, “I expect that’s your breed, dear. I meant, what’s your name?”
“I don’t know,” said the piglet.
“Well, what did your mother call you, to tell you apart from your brothers and sisters?” said Fly and then wished she hadn’t, for at the mention of his family the piglet began to look distinctly unhappy. His little forehead wrinkled and he gulped and his voice trembled as he answered.
“She called us all the same.”
“And what was that, dear?”
“Babe,” said the piglet, and the puppies began to giggle until their mother silenced them with a growl.
“But that’s a lovely name,” she said. “Would you like us to call you that? It’ll make you feel more at home.”
At this last word the little pig’s face fell even further.
“I want my mum,” he said very quietly.
At that instant the collie bitch made up her mind that she would foster this unhappy child.
“Go out into the yard and play,” she said to the puppies, and she climbed to the top of the straw stack and jumped over the rail and down into the loose box beside the piglet.
“Listen, Babe,” she said. “You’ve got to be a brave boy. Everyone has to leave their mother, it’s all part of growing up. I did it, when I was your age, and my puppies will have to leave me quite soon. But I’ll look after you. If you like.” Then she licked his little snout with a warm rough tongue, her plumed tail wagging.
“There. Is that nice?” she said.
A little while later, Farmer Hogget came into the stables with his wife, to show her his prize. They looked over the loose box door and saw, to their astonishment, Fly curled around the piglet. Exhausted by the drama of the day, Babe lay fast asleep against his newfound foster parent.
“Well, will you look at that!” said Mrs. Hogget. “That old Fly, she’ll mother anything, kittens, ducklings, baby chicks, she’s looked after all of them, now ’tis a pig, in’t he lovely, what a picture, good thing he don’t know where he’ll finish up, but he’ll be big then and we’ll be glad to see the back of him, or the hams of him, I should say, shan’t we, wonder how I shall get it all in the freezer?”
“Pity. Really,” said Farmer Hogget absently.
Mrs. Hogget went back to her kitchen, shaking her head all the way across the yard at the thought of her husband’s softheartedness.
The farmer opened the loose box door, and to save the effort of a word, clicked his fingers to call the bitch out.
As soon as Fly moved the piglet woke and followed her, sticking so close to her that his snout touched her tail tip. Surprise forced Farmer Hogget into speech.
“Fly!” he said in amazement. Obediently, as always, the collie bitch turned and trotted back to him. The pig trotted behind her.
“Sit!” said Farmer Hogget. Fly sat. Babe sat. Farmer Hogget scratched his head. He could not think of anything to say.
“Why can’t I learn?”
By dark it was plain to Farmer Hogget that, whether he liked it or not, Fly had not four, but five children.
All the long summer evening Babe had followed Fly about the yard and buildings, aimlessly, it seemed to the watching farmer, though of course this was not the case. It was in fact a conducted tour. Fly knew that if this foster child was to be allowed his freedom and the constant reassurance of her company for which he obviously craved, he must quickly learn (and clearly he was a quick learner) his way about the place; and that he must be taught, as her puppies had been taught, how to behave like a good dog.
“A pig you may be, Babe,” she had begun by saying, “but if you do as I tell you, I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if the boss doesn’t let you run about with us, instead of shutting you up. He’s a kind man, the boss is.”
“I knew that,” said Babe, “when he first picked me up. I could feel it. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me.”
“You wait . . .” began one of the puppies, and then stopped suddenly at his mother’s warning growl. Though she said nothing, all four of her children knew immediately by instinct what she meant.
“Wait for what?” said Babe.
“Er . . . you wait half a sec, and we’ll take you round and show you everything,” said the same puppy hastily. “Won’t we, Mum?”
So Babe was shown all around the yard and the farm buildings, and introduced to the creatures who lived thereabouts, the ducks and chickens and other poultry, and the farm cats. He saw no sheep, for they were all in the fields.
Even in the first hour he learned a number of useful lessons, as the puppies had learned before him: that cats scratch and hens peck, that turning your back on the turkey cock means getting your bottom bitten, that chicks are not for chasing and eggs are not for eating.
“You do as I do,” said Fly, “and you’ll be all right.”
She thought for a moment. “There is one thing though, Babe,” she said, and she looked across at the back door of the farmhouse, “if I go in there, you stay outside and wait for me, understand?”
“Aren’t pigs allowed in there?” asked Babe.
“Not live ones,” said one of the puppies, but he said it under his breath.
“No, dear,” said Fly. Well, not yet anyway, she thought. But the way you’re going on, I shouldn’t be surprised at anything. Funny, she thought, I feel really proud of him, he learns so quick. Quick as any sheepdog.
That night the loose box in which Babe had first been put was empty. In the one next door, all six animals slept in the straw together. Though he did not tell his wife, Farmer Hogget had not had the heart to shut the piglet away, so happy was it in the company of the dogs.
At first the puppies had not been equally happy at the idea.
“Mum!” they said. “He’ll wet the bed!”
“Nonsense,” said Fly. “If you want to do anything, dear, you go outside, there’s a good boy.”
I nearly said, “There’s a good pup,” she thought. Whatever next!