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Clouds bowled along the skyline, a procession of billowing white shapes, like the sails of yachts I could not quite see. Not far beyond my window the mountain rose, rearing like a vast wave, hundreds of feet above the house. From my bed I gazed up its great green wall of new bracken, which flexed and rippled as the wind brushed it, at the knotty thorn trees that clung on here and there, and I watched the beetling white bands of the mountain ewes, and the blown black sparks that were ravens playing in the winds along the ridge. In the middle of the towering horizon, which darkened where it adjoined the sky, was a single still shape, like a man standing, looking over us. I had once asked my father, when he came to see us, what it was.
"It's a cairn," he said.
"What's a cairn?"
"It's a pile of stones, put there by walkers."
"Why do they do that?"
"Partly for fun, and partly to say they've been there. Cairns are marked on maps, so they help other walkers know where they are. When you pass one, you add a stone to it."
But we my mother, my brother, and I were not really in favor of walkers. When they appeared on summer weekends, stumbling notches on the horizon, we watched them jealously, daring them to descend and invade our land. We lived miles up, higher than anyone else, and we did not like people looking down on us. However, since my father approved of cairns, I approved of cairns, and when I stared up at the solitary shape, the watcher on the skyline, as I did every morning, I thought of him.
"Time to get up, children," our mother said, with lightly forced gaiety (she loved her bed), her voice coming clearly through the thin wooden partition that divided our rooms.
"Time to get up! Up, Horatio, up, Alexander!"
"OK, Jenny. . . "
"Yes, Mummy. . . "
(We often called our parents by their first names. Other adults thought it was some sort of sixties principle but we were never taught or encouraged to do it: we started because they referred to each other that way and because Jenny had banned "Mum," which she said was some sort of deodorant. "You call me Jenny when you're cross with me," she observed once, "and Mummy when you're being nice! One day I hope you'll call me Ma-ma, but I should think you'll go straight to Mother, which sounds so aged.")
My brother appeared in the door of my bedroom, which gave onto his.
"Come on then, slugabed," he said. "I'm up."
Seven years old, two years younger than me, with an idiosyncratic vocabulary: "idle slugabed" was one of our father's archaisms. We remembered and repeated all his sayings.
Now Jenny joined him, on one leg, pulling a long woolen stocking up the other. Her uniform was corduroy britches, a woolly sweater, and long socks. "Good morning, darlings. Up! Up! Or we'll miss the best of the day. It looks lovely out there, but pretty cool, I should think. Warm sweaters."
We dressed. Jenny unbolted the bedroom door and led the way, stooping, down the little stone stairs, which were chilly through our socks. The walls were smothered with thick white plaster which flaked if you touched it and there were gently bending postcards of Florentine angels on ledges all the way down. She unbolted the door at the bottom: we slept behind a series of rickety but reassuring defenses. The sitting room smelled of dogs and ashes: we had not had a fire since the end of winter but the hearth was huge and drafts from the wide chimney spread its gray smell around the room. Lark's tail beat a dusty tattoo on the old sofa; as she yawned and whined her greeting, her son shrank into himself, "hiding" ineptly by the front door.
"No disgusting little presents this morning, Toss?" Jenny demanded, suspiciously.
Toss snaked forward, head ducked low with shame, muzzle down, licking his lips apologetically, heavy with caution and reluctance.
"Good dog!" Mum said. "You don't have to be guilty if you haven't done anything!"
He always was, though. He associated mornings, not turds, with guilt.
Jenny opened the door to the kitchen. Lark sprang off her sofa; Toss brightened. Jenny pulled the curtains back from the kitchen windows. The dogs sat on their haunches and began scratching madly, heads back, teeth revealed in tight sharky grins as they pursued fleas and the idea of fleas across their chests and around behind their ears. Alexander and I tiptoed across the cold stone of the kitchen floor, gathering bowls, milk, spoons, and cereal, which we doused with delicious and disproportionate quantities of sugar. The radio talked quietly about unemployment figures. Jenny put on some strong coffee, sticking close to the cooker the one really warm spot in the house and toyed with her first cigarette. She lit it and pulled open the back door. The dogs dashed out. There was the mountain, bright and sudden. And past the smoke of her cigarette we could smell it, and the long grass out the back, and the new bracken, and all the air.
"Oh! It is a lovely day!" she cried. "Not exactly hot, though."
We finished our cereal and joined her outside, where she sat on a log. Apart from the ash tree, which towered over the house like the mainmast of a ship, there was nothing between us and our infinite view. We looked out at the wide morning, and Jenny shook her head, because there were not really any words for it. We all smiled at one another.
"You off then?" she said later, as we set out. "See you back for lunch, I expect?"
"OK then. I've got a lamb to inject and then Mr. Pugh is coming to see if he wants to buy my ram and then I thought we might go and see Gwyn later and ask him about the shearing. You can take the dogs."
"See you," we said, not really listening to the sheep stuff. Once we had established we were not needed, and were free to go and play, nothing else mattered.
It was late May. The sun on last year's dead bracken made the hill look pink, dusted with the light emerald of the new growth: in ten days, when these fronds had spread and thickened, the flanks of all the mountains would be covered in their heavy, endless green. We went up through the long grass of the back patch, trampling through buttercups their pollen staining our shoes and the dogs' paws yellow and climbed out over the hill gate. Here, failing to hold back the unfurling goosenecks and new stalks of the bracken tide, ran the hill fence, the rusty, rickety, collapsing boundary between our land and the mountain. Centuries ago, when the old people first farmed up here, carving pasture out of the hillside, it had been stone-walled. Stacked traces of the wall remained, the stones barely visible under layers of lichens and mosses like seaweed. All along the fence were trees, and we made our way beneath them. Many were ancient birches, their black trunks gnarled, branches ending in bursts of twigs like witches' broomsticks. Among them were old bowed mountain ashes, with peeling silver arms holding out creamy plates of blossom, and one or two oaks. I had been reading Watership Down, about wars between tribes of rabbits, so my head was full of territorial battles, rival clans, and wide patrols; I was looking for tracks and signs, droppings, shed feathers, or tufts of hair on the fence. Alexander had been going over Alistair MacLean again, The Guns of Navarone, so he carried a stick like a rifle, and occasionally shot down ambushers. To our left side, rising from the soles of our feet into the height of the sky, was the mountain. To our right, dropping away below the hill fence, was the farm. The path we walked between them was one of the few flat ways in our steeply sloping world. We followed it around the angle of the gully, over the stony spread of the stream, and on toward the larch trees that marked the end of our acres. Now we looked back at the house, settled in the crook of the mountain's arm.
Jenny was in the yard. The swallows were nesting in the Big Barn and the sheds; she watched them arrowing in, the rush of their flight dispersing in a rustle of feathers as they reached their building sites. All the world was busy, this May day; the wagtails flitted around the yard in bursts of catching and gathering; the robin followed Jenny down the track as far as the plum tree, carrying a caterpillar in his bill; the hazels bustled with birds. Jenny had noticed something odd about the lamb yesterday, in the Middle Meadow. She had not liked the way it panted and blew. She glanced with pleasure at the choked stream by the meadow gate, which was clotted with myrtles, and let herself into the Middle Meadow, opening and closing the gate gently, so as not to disturb the sheep. A cuckoo called and the sheep nearest her bleated. They came up to her, their warm breath puffing over the backs of her hands. She talked quietly to them and slipped beet-pulp nuts to one or two. They whickered at her, nudging her legs; they sniffed at her pockets. On the edge of the crowd that surrounded her, ewes stood for their lambs, which were big now, butting greedily as they suckled. Jenny stooped, slowly, stroking and talking, then crouched and suddenly lunged, and the sheep jumped and scattered, leaving her and one lamb, kicking helplessly, as she pulled it in by its back leg.
"All right, lamb," she said, "calm down." She turned it onto its back, resting its rump on the ground between her legs, and carefully extracted the syringe and antibiotic from her pocket. She took the cap off the needle and drew 6 cc from the bottle: an adult dose. The lamb's breath came very quickly, and there was a rasp in it.
"Mmm. Maybe a bit of Pasturella. Didn't I vaccinate your mother, then? Lucky I noticed."
She bent over the animal, pulled up its right hind leg, found the muscle, and jabbed the needle in, anticipating and holding back the kick, pressing the plunger down. It was over quickly; she rubbed
the place and let the creature go.
"There you go, lamb. Saved your life," she said. "Easy!" She smiled at its mother. Then she heard the engine and turned around. Coming over the crest of the ridge, topping the second of the steep, deadly pitches that separated us from the world, was a Land Rover.
On the hill fence my brother and I were just shaping up to kill a few Nazis when the dogs took off, hurtling madly along the fence, uttering short, explosive woofs and whines, so excited they could hardly bark. We went after them as a wild rattling and shaking in the trees told us what it was.
"Quizzle!" we hissed at the dogs. "Sic 'im, Toss! Get 'im! Get 'im, Larky. . . kill!"
The little animal darted from branch to twigs to trunk, leaping, scrabbling, dashing, faster than Tarzan, quicker than any monkey, as if the trees were a highway through the air and the squirrel a getaway driver. It gained the trunk of a tall ash tree and veered up it, disappearing around the far side in a scrabble of claws. Toss whined and prepared to leap the fence, but we stopped him.
"Come on now, leave it."
"Missed again, Toss."
He had never been known to catch one.
"So, yeah, the Germans are in retreat going that way, and they've got a few troops covering them, and we've got to winkle them out. . . "
But we became distracted by two ravens mobbing a buzzard: we watched as the raptor turned its glide at each last moment, tacking away from the croaking attacks, going higher and higher, silent, apparently calm, as the ravens swore and flapped hectically. "It's a proper dogfight!" Alexander exclaimed as one of the ravens gained height on the buzzard and went for it, and the buzzard abandoned its leisurely maneuvering and tilted backward for an instant, showing the raven its yellow talons.
"Hello, Mr. Pugh," Jenny said, and she opened the meadow gate for him. The Land Rover rolled slowly through and stopped.
"Jump in, then," said Mr. Pugh. He had a long, smiling look about him.
"Oh no, thank you," said Jenny, instinctively, not knowing quite why. "I'll walk up," she said with a smile and a funny little wave of one hand.
The vehicle bumped up the track ahead of her. When she arrived Mr. Pugh was already in the pens, leaning on the gate to the Patch, and staring at the rams.
"It's that one," Jenny said. "What do you think of him?"
"Tell you when I've got hold of him," Mr. Pugh replied.
"I'll get a bag of nuts and they'll come," Jenny said, "Then you can catch him."
"Dogs'll bring 'em now," said Mr. Pugh, and before Jenny could say anything he whistled, and there was a scramble behind them and she turned in time to see the second of two sheepdogs jumping out of the Land Rover through the driver's window. They dived under the gate into the pens, shot past her, flowed through the bars of the second gate, and were out into the Patch in a flash. The rams jumped, Pugh whistled, and the dogs separated, throwing themselves down the field in two intersecting arcs, their tracks like a lasso around the sheep. Pugh opened the gate and stood back. Another whistle, a short rush by one dog and quick dart by the other, and all five rams came tumbling into the pens, flustered and amazed.
"Crumbs!" Jenny cried. "That's just wonderful what fantastic dogs. Mine wouldn't manage that in a million years."
"Go and lie down," said Pugh sternly, and the dogs did, instantly, flattening themselves against the field, their ears pricked. Now Pugh lunged at the ram and caught him. He straddled him, cupped a hand under the animal's chin, lifted his head and peeled back his lips, revealing little teeth and pink gums. He looked for a second. He reached behind him and briefly squeezed the ram's rump. Then he let him go. They both watched the animal collect himself, shaking his head at the indignity.
"Well. Nice straight back on him," Pugh said after a moment.
"Yes," Jenny said. "He's not bad, is he?"
"Don't you want him, then?"
"No. I've got enough. Don't want him going with his sisters much."
Mr. Pugh turned around and looked at the view. "Lovely little farm, this, Jenny," he said.
"Yes, it is," she said.
"And it's just you, is it?"
"And my boys," she said quickly. "And Jack Meredith helps me, and there's the dogs all the animals. We're not lonely."
"Old Jack must be getting on now, isn't he?"
"Well, yes, he is. In his seventies. But strong as an ox."
Pugh tapped the iron of the gate with the flat of his hand and shifted from foot to foot, as though thinking about something. The shift bought him half a yard closer to her.
"Do you think you'll take the ram then?" she asked, briskly.
"What'll you give me?" Mr. Pugh asked, with a lascivious grin.
"Nothing," Jenny said, shortly. Oh no, she thought. Oh, Lord...
We fought our way along the fence in a series of rushes, giving each other covering fire. We had to use grenades to clear a couple of strong points.
"Down to your right! In the field they're trying to flank us!"
We changed magazines, took careful aim, and chopped them down, our volleys mercilessly precise.
"Heavy machine gun down by the hill fence!"
"I see him. . . " We traded fire, ducking and cursing the incoming rounds, until a lucky shot killed their gunner.
"Fix bayonets! There's a nest of them down there, we've got to hit them before they get that thing going again. Ready?"
We loosed off a few more rounds, rose and charged. Toss and Lark came too. We all hit top speed as we came over the fold in the ground that protected their position. Our mouths were open and we were in full battle roar, but the sudden stink of death and the awful sight of the corpse hit us like a blast, and the attack faltered.
"Yaaaa-urr! Uugh! My God! Yuk."
"Uurch! Shit, that's disgusting."
"Not even a little something?" Mr. Pugh wheedled. His hands came up, palms toward her, and she stepped back smartly.
"No, no. Absolutely not," she said. She sounded arch. Oh, Lord, she thought, he probably thinks it's like Lady Chatterley.
"Bet you'd love a roll in the hay, though, wouldn't you?"
"No, Mr. Pugh, I would not. And neither would you, I promise you. And what about Mrs. Pugh, for goodness's sake?"
"She won't mind. She won't know. . . just quickly. . . a knee trembler!"
"No fear," said Jenny angrily. But Pugh was still grinning, as though she was encouraging him. He was close now, and there wasn't much between her back and the stone wall of the pens. She changed her tone, spoke quietly and in deadly earnest.
Something, dogs or foxes, had torn most of the flesh away from the face, leaving the teeth grinning along the bare jaw. One of the legs had been pulled off; it lay nearby, bone poking through tattered skin. All around our feet was a shell-burst of scraps of white wool, torn from her flanks; it was one of the Norsters' ewes, according to the smear of green paint on the tattered fleece. A stretch of the spine was exposed, as if a ferocious killer had enacted deliberate violence on the corpse, to make its sight more grisly, and there was some yellow and black skin left, stretched tight and stinking over the ribs. The summer's first flies crooned over it.
We looked at each other, our faces puckered in disgust, then leveled our weapons. There was nothing any medic could do for a Nazi in that state.
A couple of quick bursts and we moved on.
"Toss! Come the hell away from there! Oh no, look!"
He had picked up the severed back leg and was prancing along with it.
"Drop it, you horrible animal!" we shouted, laughing. We had to charge him before he complied.
"Look," Jenny said, "I can't, anyway, even if I wanted to. You know when a ewe has a prolapse? How the whole uterus comes out like a big pink balloon and bobs along behind her and gets covered in mud? And you have to get the vet to shove it back in and tie it there, and sometimes it gets infected and she dies? Well. . . "
At first Pugh stayed close, but as she elaborated his smile faded, then he looked sympathetic. By the time she had finished inventing and elaborating, Mr. Pugh looked quite ill.
"Hello, children," she greeted us as we trooped in. She was washing carrots under the tap. "How was your walk?"
"Fine," said Alexander.
"Yeah, nice," I added.
"We found a dead sheep by the hill fence, halfway to the larch trees," Alexander reported.
"Oh, really? How long dead?"
"Don't know. . . "
"Well, was it all blown up dead for a day or so? Should I go and look at it?"
"No, no, half-eaten," I said, remembering Watership Down and the rabbits reporting back after their wide patrols. "Probably an old one. It's just by the fence but it wasn't caught on the wire. You can't tell how it died."
"Whose was it?"
"Oh, right. I see." She went back to the carrots. Derwyn ran hundreds of unvaccinated, semiwild sheep on the mountain and expected them to take their chances.
"I had a pretty successful time," she said. "I caught that lamb and gave him an injection jolly good thing too, just in time and I sold that unpleasant ram to Mr Pugh for seventy quid! Aren't I clever!"
"Mmm. Yes, very good."
She sometimes waited years before telling us about her narrower escapes, especially anything frightening or otherwise inappropriate for the ears of children. But the three of us were very close, and she was a wonderful, busy talker. Everything seemed to come out in the end.
We had salad for lunch, from Jack's garden (the farm's vegetable patch, which Jenny had turned over to Jack, who tilled and tended it with great skill), with bread and ham from Fine Fare, the little shop in town. Afterward, Jenny invited us to go with her to see Gwyn.
"No thanks, Mummy," I said.
"Will you come with me, Alexander?"
"Um, no, I think I'll stay here."
Our eyes met, both longing to retreat to the attic, where our toys were.
"Oh, come on, boys! Please! Keep me company."
There was a pause.
"Come on! It won't take a minute. Nice for me to have some backup. . . . I'd quite like you to come, if you don't mind."
There was a feather of authority in her tone that we both knew would harden into frustration and disappointment if we thwarted her. It was not worth the argument.
"OK," we sighed with bad grace. But by the time we were in the little car, rattling down the track, with Jenny chatting happily about all the squirrels around this year and had we noticed the hazelnuts coming? our resentment had passed. It was a lovely day to be going down the hill and up the valley, and we had chained the dogs up in the yard, to spare us their furious barking when we got to Gwyn's, so perhaps it would not be so bad.
As the eldest I sat in the front passenger seat except on the rare occasions when Jenny or Alexander made a stand against this routine unfairness so it fell to me to do the gates. First the Middle Meadow gate, then, after the really rough part of the track, the Far Meadow gate. You could see miles up and down the valley from the exposed corner where it stood; in the winter the east wind waited here, and the freezing iron of the gate licked and scalded the skin of your palms.
Here the tarmac began, and now we rolled down the lane, which turned toward the top of the first pitch. On our left were the shins of the mountain, skirts of ground between us and the view, and it was still our land: these were the Horse Fields, fifteen gently sloping acres tipping over into a deep wooded gully. On our right, above the lane, were the Norsters' fields; mostly empty, except one, covered with droppings and overcrowded with sheep, in which the grass had been picked nearly bare. A cloud crossed Jenny's face.
"They've been standing on nothing for a week," she grated.
The pitch tilted us steeply forward, and we curved down toward the wood. At the bottom we passed our lowest pasture Ty Newydd, "new house," named after a long-vanished dwelling a big, dropping field, the quickest route to the valley.
Now the road leveled into a thin ribbon, winding down past an old oak sentry at the start of the wood; then we were into the trees. They closed in suddenly, impenetrably dense above us; thinner, taller, and clinging to a steep slope below: in places it looked close to vertical. The car picked up speed and Jenny kept her gaze ahead, never glancing left: the plunge beyond the thin fence made her feel sick. Our spirits rose with the swoop of the car; sunlight dappled the young leaves and flickered over us as we went; falling in bright showers through the canopy, it pooled and splashed on mossy trunks and silvered branches, scattering light all through the jumbled wood.
We passed the ruined cottage where Derwyn Norster was said to take refuge when his mad wife and son ganged up on him, then the road fell again, the trees thinned, and we were at the head of the second pitch. The turning at the top of it is as steep as a car can manage, and we dreaded the day we would meet Derwyn in his tractor anywhere on its savage slide. (Coming back up we would all will the car around that corner; it never failed, but there was always a moment when you thought it might.) Ahead were the upper reaches of the valley, hills like a circle of old friends with their arms around one another's shoulders, a choppy sea of fields and woods slipping and sloping between them, animated by the shift of cloud shadows and the dimming and brightening of the light.
It was another quarter mile down to the village from the bottom of the pitch, but instead we turned right along the back lane, one of the old roads up the valley. The gentle climb was interrupted every half mile or so by the edge of one of the mountain's toes; suddenly the road would dip down to cross a stream and loop steeply up again on the other side. Here and there were farms, most still working, some ruined: I remembered going to one, when I was a toddler, with my father and the owner, who had sold us a load of stone tiles.
We came to Emrys's place, slowing at the sight of him in his yard. Jenny and Dad had bought our farm from him, and Emrys in turn had bought this farm from Jack, when Jack and his brother Alfie retired.
"Hello, Emrys!" Jenny cried, winding down the window.
"Hello, Jen!" he called back. He wore a dark old jacket done up with a length of string and a checked tweed cap the color of mud. Like most of the farmers he had livid, wind-reddened cheeks; his seemed emblems of well-being and good humor. His eyes twinkled as he peered in at us.
"All right there, boys!" he shouted.
"Look at you with your string!" Jenny laughed. "You don't fool me! I said to the boys, there's the richest man in the valley, and his jacket's done up with string!"
"If only it were true!" Emrys retorted, and we pulled away, waving.
This did not seem at all strange to us: from an early age we were acquainted, as were all farmers' children, with the mysterious power of the European agricultural subsidies. "Some of these farmers are millionaires!" Jenny would exclaim, in scandalized exaggeration. "Forty quid a year for every ewe, and so they keep thousands look at them all!" The fields on both sides of the valley were covered in sheep, and the hill was flecked with them.
"Look at these ewes, though. Don't they look well? He's a jolly good farmer, Emrys, a really hard worker."
We came to another combe, where the road descended into the shadow of an old copse. Jenny tapped the window, indicating a deep streambed, which wound away through darkly green foliage and rotting fallen trees.
"In the winter of '47 Jack's father lost a flock of sheep down here. They'd been to market, old Mr. Meredith and Mr. Watkins, and they'd bought forty hoggits each ewe lambs for store, for breeding, you know and then the blizzards came. From November to March it snowed. They had to keep digging them out of the drifts, and Jack says they were all buried under the snow together and they ate each other's wool, which I've heard they do, if they're desperate, 'ate each other naked,' he said, and then they froze. When the spring came Mr. Meredith only had eight left, and Mr. Watkins twelve. They died in that gully there."
"Wow," Alexander and I said as we tried to imagine the whole sunny valley black and white and filled with deadly snow.
"The winters were harder then," Jenny said. "Perhaps they'll come back."
"Hope so!" I said.
"Hope not," Jenny emphasized.
Gwyn's farm was right at the head of the valley, straddling the stream. It was down below the level of the surrounding fields, as if hidden from marauders. The track led downhill from the farm gate toward the yard between barns and sheds of all kinds; henhouses, cow byres, hay barns, and something that looked like a railway car. As soon as we began the descent a rolling chorus of fierce barking went up and a wild tribe of dogs ambushed us from every side. They leaped out of windows, threshed and wriggled frantically under gates, hurled themselves over the tops of fences, and charged. Some were shut in: they furiously thrust their muzzles under the chewed bottoms of shed doors and barked and barked, saliva shaking in their whiskers. The noise was terrifying; when we had our own dogs with us it was unbearable. Jenny stopped the car in the yard and remarked how cleanly it had been swept, while the dogs circled us and we made no move to get out.
"Look at that one. Mean or what?" Alexander said, pointing at a yellow-eyed brute, a heavy-hackled animal whose barking seemed to carry a particular malice.
"Yes, I wonder if that's the biter?" Jenny mused.
"Vicious," Alexander muttered.
"Gwyn's got one he told me about; you don't want to turn your back on him, he said. I should think not! Oh good, here he is."
A tall man, broad and strong, with an aquiline look and dark black hair, thinning on top, Gwyn wore thick serge trousers tucked into fat Wellingtons, a checked shirt, and braces. Jenny wound down her window and waved as he came toward us, keeping her wrist high, wary of a jumping dog. The hounds redoubled their barking, to impress their master, and kept an eye on him, for cues. He told them to be quiet. Most of them obeyed.
"Hello, Jenny," he said, stooping to the window.
"Which one's your biter then, Gwyn?" Jenny began.
The conversation wound from dogs to sheep, weather to markets, to prices, to people. Jenny asked after his wife and sons. He reciprocated, stooping again, to peer past her into the car.
"How are you, boys?"
"Fine, thanks. How are you?"
"Not so bad. Are you going to be farmers like your mother?"
We shook our heads. We had no intention of becoming farmers. Jenny and Gwyn laughed sadly. Finally, Jenny broached the question of shearing, and after a bit of thought Gwyn said he'd be able to do us in two weeks. She would pay him, of course, but he was doing us a favor and we all knew it.
"Two weeks time, then, you promise?" Jenny wheedled.
"Aye, we'll see you then," he said, and she thanked him, and prompted us, and we thanked him, then we said our good-byes and carefully drove away, avoiding the barking dogs.
We wound down the valley and all the way back up our hill. Alexander and I went up to the attic to our toys, at last, while Jenny had tea and a cigarette before going down to the meadow to check on the lamb. He seemed fine. She took a longer route back, checking on ewes in the Lower Meadows and the animals in the Rough Field, finishing with a trudge up the Patch, the steep little field below the house, where she kept the ill, the oldest and most decrepit sheep, her "old biddies." A little while later she contemplated supper and decided on cauliflower cheese and bacon. She cooked, listening closely to the shipping forecast, and called us down when the meal was ready. Afterward, while she enjoyed another cigarette and listened with half an ear to the wireless, I mooched around and Alexander sat at the table, looking at a book. This was one of the times when we all talked; in the winter we would be in front of the fire. We had no television, but between our toys and games, the dogs, the radio, and the stories we told one another we were seldom bored. Now, as the evening quietened beyond the windows a listening hush, into which a mistle thrush sang loudly, summoning summer rain we discussed this and that. We often talked about Robert, our father. Alexander and I loved to hear about him, and particularly about the early years of our parents' relationship, the times before we were born, when they were happy together, when they began their great adventure with the farm. That night, not for the first time, Jenny found herself describing how she had met him.
"I was staying with Max, in Scotland, at a place called the House of Tongue," she said, staring at the floor, as if into the distant past. "When I walked into the room Robert was the only man who stood up."
We listened closely, nodding along. We had heard the story before; I had built up a vivid image of how it might have been. It was not an entirely accurate picture but it was as close as I could get to the truth, and to explaining how we three came to be here, on this mountain, so high up and far away from the rest of the world.
Copyright © 2006 by Horatio Clare