The day starts early, as it so often does, with a ferry journey — a short chance to catch breath, a slow unfurling and a few moments to organise thoughts and watch the world awakening. This morning it’s peaceful, the sea a gently rippled dark petrol blue, the sky a vague haze of layered greys and dirty fawn hanging still above the marshlands.
The working day is already planned: A visit “down country” through winding lanes, freshly laundered countryside clad in vibrant green flecked with the blue, pink and yellow of wildflowers. My client this morning is an aging man of a certain breed, rarer and closer to extinction than the wild forrest cattle that he farms. Year on year it seems he leaves something behind, first his hearing, then one by one his teeth until it seems he’s giving his very being away. This year he seems barely present — no longer the ladies man who’s advances I cunningly evaded or the elite herdsman managing and milking 200 cattle. He moves purposefully and without words, a programmed stoic creature not so very different from the animals that he cares for.
The farm is — as so often is the case, an unlikely mishmash of crumbling moss clad stone, roof slates sliding, buckled gates fastened with ubiquitous orange baling twine. I wander scanning for signs of life and my host emerges from the gloom of a tool strewn shipping container, a weather worn giant, face so scarred by the elements that it’s difficult to read. I sense incomprehension for a few moments and begin to doubt myself — wrong place? wrong date? before, sensing my confusion, his face breaks into a broken smile.
The fifty or so cattle are an eclectic bunch of rough coated, lean, hard working animals — all shapes and sizes, some ominously horned, they eye us with suspicion from the back of a tumbledown barn as we attempt — the slow old man and I, to drive them calmly into the holding pen — and further on through the “handling system” — a metal gated lane, designed to allow them to pass one by one to the “crush” at the far end where they are safely restrained before being released back into the yard. I’m something of a crush connoisseur and within minutes it becomes apparent that this rusty contraption, is in a class all of its own.
The animals are quiet enough — used to the slow and deliberate handling of the old man, they walk placidly one by one down the race towards the possibility of imminent freedom. The first cow — a dun heifer, recently calved, is happy to play the game and within minutes she’s released back into the yard and calling to her new born she meanders with bovine equanimity to the hay rack. The younger herd members have other ideas — the open yoke is positioned in a perfect V shape giving a glimpse of sky and freedom. It’s a purpose built, enticingly arranged, bovine friendly show jump and the second patient, seeing her chance, launches all of her 500KG frame at the gap with the fervour of an olympic equestrian — head and front leg go skywards, leaving the widest part — the hips, wedged firmly and cow suspended in mid air. Both my companion and the animal seem resigned and after some mutterings the ancient tractor is brought into action and we set to on a reverse calving manoeuvre, delivering the heifer backwards, lifting the front end and gently manipulating the shoulders until after half an hour or so, we’ve freed our black friend who wanders out of the open door completely unfazed by her ordeal.
The tractor safely in place, we continue and time and time again, they leap — by the third animal I’ve devised a system that renders the tractor obsolete climbing above the stranded animal and hanging cowboy like over its back, using my feet to squeeze the hips from side to side, obstetrical lubricant easing the passage, until both hips pass through and like cork from a bottle the animal catapults forward.
These circus exploits seem to be accepted as par for the course and the entertainment continues as a flighty young calf manages to squeeze himself limbo dancer style through the railings into the neatly mown back garden of a neighbour. I look to the farmer for a reaction and seeing none we continue to work, oblivious of the calfs antics until the creature, inquisitive and disturbed by the absence of the rest of his herd, pushes open the back door of the house and disappears within. The farmer grunts:
“He’s gone in the kitchen”
Before heading back into his own world.
Some considerable time later there’s a frantic barking — two dogs are ejected through the doorway, followed soon after by an animated calf, and some two minutes later a disheveled pyjama clad woman clutching a towel.
The woman seems to accept the situation with surprising ease — perhaps it’s not the first time.
“Time she got out of bed” muttered my companion, head down as the calf leaps back into the yard and calm is restored.
At the end of the day, the cattle are turned back out onto the watermeadows, bunched together in the shady meanderings of the river bank a bucolic scene reminiscent of a Constable painting. By the time I leave my host seems to rouse himself, hoping for more conversation. He tells me he used to work on my Island home — until he was shot. This line proves too much to resist — why? and how? I ask and all too willingly he sheds the weight of his years and becomes animated, his front teeth (not those he was born with) wobble alarmingly as he described how his jilted cleaner, who he’d paid “in kind” for many years, appeared one evening and shot him with his own gun that lay forgotten in a wardrobe. He chuckles as he remembers.
“Taught me to keep my trousers pulled up!” was his final exclamation as he headed back to his kitchen alone and I located a hosepipe to wash down my overalls.
Driving out past the farmhouse, from behind the mud encrusted window he waves and I spot, out of the corner of my eye two other forms, undisputably feminine.