Whatever the Wether

‘Peter Lewis is in real trouble this time,’ Charlotte said with satisfaction as she shut the bedroom door.

Sam didn’t hear her.  He was in the ensuite shower, a luxury missing from his and Charlotte’s farm, but then they didn’t run a B&B like Pete and Mary.  He was singing a tuneless trill of ‘Early one morning’ in a falsetto and reached ‘how-ow could you tre-eat a-a poo-or maiden so?’ with a collapse down an octave on the top note, before swooning back up to the higher register.

Shut up, Sam! Your obscene Young Farmer Club songs!’

‘It was the clean version, Charlie. And Pete and Mary won’t mind. We sang the bad version together when we were teenagers.’  He opened the shower door and stood there all pink and glistening wet, eyes screwed up, hands groping for the towel.  ‘Where is it?’

‘Why do you always get soap in your eyes?’  She thrust a hand towel at him and he rubbed his face vigorously.  Looking at her with one eye open he said, ‘You tell Mary to get some good man size towels.  Don’t know what she’s thinking of with this little flannel.’

‘B&B-ers steal their towels, don’t they? And where d’you think they’d get the money?  Had to sell their lambs last year at rock bottom prices.’

‘You’re right, Charlie.’

‘Think of other people sometimes.’  Charlotte folded her sweat shirt and skirt neatly on the chair in the corner.  ‘You were making so much noise in there you didn’t hear me saying Peter’s in trouble.’

‘What’s up?’  He rummaged through his unpacked holdall for his pyjamas.

‘Summons for ill-treating his sheep.’

‘Pete never.  Quiet as a lamb himself.’

‘Three witnesses.’

‘Farm police, I bet.’

‘One of them is the senior official for CARM.  Another is his friend, a local magistrate. The third one is a member of the local Animal Watch Group.’

‘Poor Pete.  No chance.’

‘Did his sheep have a chance, poor dumb creatures?’

‘There’s such a thing as innocent till you’re proved guilty, Charlie.’

She switched off the light over her side of the bed and turned her back on him.

Next morning Sam was up early and out to the fields. Dawn was long past, but there was still dew in the hollows and tree shadows.  A sudden loud clanging followed by a human-like panting and coughing made him jump.  Then he remembered.  Looking over the tumbledown fence into a paddock he said, ‘Hi, there, old fella, what’s your name.’  A large sheep glared at him from bulging eyes, its ears flickering wildly to and fro, its small hooves stamping.  Foam came from its angry lips as it bared useless teeth at him.  He lent over the loose corrugated iron fence and scratched its woolly neck, but it backed off, still snorting.  Then it charged the fence again.

‘Mad.  Quite mad.’

Larks were spiralling in the sky. Blackbirds sang from bushes. Gorse scrub and heather lined the trackway through rough pasture and the bees were busy among golden and purple flowers.  Peace and prosperity.

Pete and his dogs had penned some fat lambs and he was inspecting their condition.  Sam zoomed his camera lens onto the panting dogs as they sat alert, eyes on the sheep.

The dogs saw him and rushed over barking, and Pete straightened up slowly, calling them back.  Tails aplume, they accompanied Sam to their master.

‘Morning, Pete.’

Pete leant stiffly against the pen wall.  ‘Sciatica.’

‘Farmer’s complaint.’

‘Ah.’  The sheep watched them closely, ears flickering from men to dogs.

‘Good little bitch you got there.’ Sam nodded towards a dog sitting with tongue lolling and eyes on the sheep.

‘Ah.’ Pete looked worn and haggard in the bright sunlight.

‘I’m looking for a replacement for old Bess.’

But Pete merely shrugged. Pointing to the lambs he’d separated out he said, ‘A dozen for the local market next Tuesday. Not much at market these days.’

‘Most of ’em have closed down my way too.  New regs, most farmers tied in to the supermarkets or one of them welfare food schemes.’

‘Same here.’

They talked about bottled water that cost more than milk in the shops, lamb sold at prices too low to cover rearing costs and then sold on to the consumer at luxury commodity prices, and the government insistence that farmers stop wingeing and work harder because they received so many subsidies.  And the weather.

Pete watched a red kite drifting on wind currents high above them. ‘Don’t see voles now. They say they live off carrion but I seen them take young birds.’

‘So do kestrels. And shrews. Voles too . . . double whammy.’

‘Huh. More magpies and crows than I can remember.’

‘It’s nature.’

Humans interfering with nature.’ Pete looked more hangdog than ever.

‘Summons,’ Sam said after a silence.

‘Ah.’

Sam rolled them both a fag. ‘Them farm police, Conservation, Agriculture and Resource Management.’

‘That’s them.  Still, I guess they do a good job.’

Sam said a few rude words about the government’s latest agricultural regulating body that would have called up Charlotte’s immediate wrath.

Pete’s face brightened, then he said sadly, ‘Caught me red handed. You know that regulation, “Sheep must not be caught by the fleece alone; they must be handled or restrained by means of a hand or an arm under the neck, holding the neck wool only if necessary, with the other arm placed on or around the rear.”’

‘You’ve got that off neat.’

‘Quoted in the summons, wasn’t it?  Think of it at nights, I do.’

‘Guess they’ve never tried to catch a sheep.’

‘That ain’t the point, Sam.  It’s part of the stock-keepers’ skill.  And our local CARM officer is a farmer himself, with three shepherds.  Land runs next to mine.’  He pointed out the boundary walls on the hill.

‘Handy for him if they ban you from keeping sheep.’

Peter looked round anxiously.  ‘Don’t you say that so Mary can hear.’

‘He’s over the top,’ thought Sam, worried. ‘How’d she hear us out here?’

Peter picked up his stick and the dogs jumped to their feet.  ‘He’ll be inspecting at the market.’

‘Will he now. By the way I see you still got your big wether.’

‘Old Lucy.  Yeah.’

‘Wicked look in the bugger’s eye as I came past. Now if you take him down the market with the lambs . . . ’

‘The kids reared him on the bottle, Sam.  Called him Lucy after his op. I couldn’t sell him.’

‘Did I say sell?’ Sam swung his iPad gently.

Peter looked at him and the shadow of a grin crossed his face.  ‘OK, Sam.  We’ll take him tomorrow.’

After market Mary was waiting for Sam and Pete in the farmyard.  ‘Will you boys tell me what’s been going on?’ she demanded.  ‘I’ve had phone calls from my brother and your sister and Jack the butcher and . . .’

‘Didn’t they tell you?’ Pete was grinning all over his weathered face.  ‘Make us a cup of tea, then.  We’ve had a hard day.’

Mary made tea and put a fresh lemon sponge cake in front of the men. ‘Out with it.’

Pete looked at Sam, and put his mouth to his mug.

Sam took a huge bite of cake. ‘Lovely cook, you are, Mary,’ and he sprayed crumbs over the scrubbed kitchen table.

Charlotte scowled.  ‘How many times I told you to shut your mouth when you’re eating? They’ve been up to some stupid mischief, Mary. As if Peter isn’t in enough trouble as it is without Sam making it worse.’

‘Well, it’s like this, see.’ Sam said.  He looked at Pete and his voice quivered before they both burst into laughter.

Pete said, ‘Lambs didn’t sell too well, love.’

‘What’s new?’  Mary’s mouth turned down as if she was going to cry, but she turned away and busied herself at the sink.

Sam broke in, ‘A sheep escaped its pen.  Got real scared.  Head down, charging everyone.’

‘Knocked the auctioneer’s assistant sideways.’

‘No one could catch it down the gangways.’

Mary said, ‘And how hard did they try?  You boys like a bit of fun.’

‘Mary!  As if we’d chase a sheep.’  Sam sounded shocked.

‘More than our job’s worth when the welfare police are in full force.  Dunnett from CARM.’

Him! You’re already on the wrong side of him.’ Mary stared in horror at her husband.

Sam said, ‘Not any more.’  He winked at Pete and took a gulp of tea.  ‘Now this old wether comes charging down towards Dunnett who’s too well fed to get out of his way.  Immovable object and irresistible force, see.  Dunnett don’t know damn all about sheep even if he owns the biggest flocks in the district, so he’s scared rigid.  Face white as your tea towel, Mary.’

‘Mind you, Sam, Lucy on the rampage is big enough to scare anyone.’

Lucy!’ said Mary, and ‘Granted,’ said Sam together.  Before Mary recovered, Sam continued, ‘Beyond Dunnett old Lucy can see the end of the pens and freedom, so he bounds forward and Dunnett catches hold of him any which way he can, thinking he’s being attacked personal like.’

‘And Sam here snaps such a pretty picture of them both.  Dunnet pulling half the wool off Lucy’s back, and Lucy struggling to escape . . . ’

‘Which he did, Pete.  Scarpered into the carpark.’

‘Didn’t take us too long to corner him once he’d quietened down.  He’s home now, looking very sorry for himself in the paddock.’

‘So Pete goes up to Dunnett and dusts him down.  “Real good shot my friend took of you both”, he says.  And then Dunnett sees my iPad.’

‘And you trying not to laugh.’

‘And he sort of . . . ’

‘Melts away . . . ’

‘Big sort of fellow just to melt away like that,’ Sam said.

 

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