Wednesday, 30 January 2013
The poaching larder was as stark as the landscape. The white background made camouflage impossible. Arn passed the poaching hiatus by constructing a series of snowmen around the fields of Foxley. His masterpiece was a seven foot sculpture to represent his giant of a friend Drim Dram Macintosh. He wedged an oak branch high way up to represent his colossal penis.
A week before Christmas the snow ceased. Two days later when patches of grass began to reappear slowly in the fields, Arn had to make a very difficult decision about his Merlin hawk, Ozzie.
He had kept Ozzie captive far longer than the Merlin’s improving health had warranted. His skill and tenderness had aided a full recovery from a broken wing, but he constructed a mountain of excuses for not releasing the bird back into the wild. The bout of Arctic weather had come as a godsend to Arn, but further increased Reg's contempt for the bird. The weight of snow had buckled the roof of the tiny shelter and the only place of refuge for the hawk was within the house. Arn pulled the drying rack from above the Rayburn and clumsily screwed it into the corner of his bedroom. A pyramid of droppings and garden bird remnants had grown steadily beneath.
The hawk had been free from the glove many times before, but always returned to Arn's pathetic cries and the tasty morsels frantically waved above his head. He didn’t want to release the hawk and it was testament to his affection that he housed it in the corner of his bedroom. In the middle of the night he would wake and whisper, “Ozzie, Ozzie,” into the corner of this room and be met with a dozy purr from the hawk’s throat. He’d then drift off into a world of dreams and imagine himself on the back of a giant Merlin, floating over the hills and bearing down on a vast expanse of ring fenced trees.
Reg disliked the hawk because to his mind they were closer to witchcraft than any cat, bat or frog. He disliked it being in the orchard with its all seeing eyes spying on things nobody was meant to see and he saw Arn’s decision to shelter it in the house as an affront to his authority. Unknown to Arn, Reg planned to pull the hawk's head off on New Year’s Day. The thaw saved the decapitation.
Arn chose Christmas morning to set his hawk free. While a poached goose sizzled in the Rayburn he shot a house sparrow off the bird table to bolster the hawk’s energy over the first days of freedom.
Ozzie screeched its usual greeting, but Arn didn’t answer back. It walked onto his glove and fanned its wings, tilting its head and looking into Arn’s bottomless stare. He held the gaze until he could look no more and took the hawk on its final walk. Arn's regal English game cockerel was studying the rarity of grass in the orchard as Arn wandered by. The cockerel had puzzled over the hawk ever since it tumbled out of the sky and scattered a flock of thrushes over the breath of the orchard. The cockerel had frequently strutted down to the little shed that housed the hawk to listen to the ruffling and calling from behind the door. Arn loved to see creatures interact and studied their reactions closely, recording the emotions in a pale yellow notebook bound with string and crammed with knowledge.
He climbed the stile opposite the house and moved out into the middle of the field. The hawk recognised the routine and jogged on the glove.
“Sling it then!” Reg yelled out. Hawk and handler looked over to the stile.
“Aye, aye,” Arn returned, calming the hawk with the fingertips of his naked hand.
The world glowed as land met sky in a sfumato of white. The sun was a milky blur. In a desperate need to feel the birds claws Arn swapped the hawk from the glove and allowed it to perch on his bare skin. It scratched the rough flesh, smattering blood on the crystal snow. Arn watched the blood trickle over his boots as he untied the ring from the scaled leg and without warning hurled the hawk into the sky.
It was weightless; spanning its delicate wings it flicked against the hostile air and made for the stile. Reg stepped onto it and raised himself up, causing the hawk to veer away with rapid wing beats and it came to rest out across the field on a bare gate post. It screeched across the field to Arn, but he made no response. The hawk's eyes were glued to his jacket pocket; the larder from which many delights had been produced. Arn opened his lips to call, but checked himself and wiped his hand across them, streaking blood in two wavering lines. Both waited, expecting the other to make a move. The hawk picked a line of dirt from a groove on its leg, ruffled its feathers then made a crow fly for another post. Arn moved backwards, leaving two footprints and the smattering of blood as the only evidence of friends departed. The hawk spotted his move and spun in the air heading for his glove, but he dropped his hands and signalled no rest making it shoot upwards and barrel roll back to the post. As he reached the stile it began to snow once again. He looked to Reg with a furrowed brow.
“Best call him in, eh?” Reg’s eyes froze in the cold. Arn squinted through the flakes and struggled to see the hawk, but it was having no trouble in watching the hedgerow fifty paces from the poachers. It bobbed its head and flicked off the post. Dipping low to the ground with its flecked underside kissing the snow it raced up to the hedge fanned its wings vertically and slammed into a hawthorn bush. It tumbled into the snow breathless, shaken, but triumphant. A plump robin was pierced onto its claws, the fire red breast burned against the white snow.
“Superb,” Arn whispered, producing his notebook and Reg nodded in acknowledgement but tempered it with thoughts of black magic. They moved away in silence allowing the hawk to feed in peace. After feasting it sat on the stile in the falling snow and watched Orchard House for the entire day until the night sucked the light from the sky. On the second day it called, on the third it pined and on the fourth the snow stopped.
On New Year’s Eve as Arn sped his mini van round a tight corner on the lane to the house, a Merlin hawk chasing a chaffinch, tore up and over the high hedge at great speed. He stood on the brakes, but the van skidded on a sheet of black ice. The chaffinch flicked the wing mirror and the Merlin dashed across the bonnet.
Ozzie was buried in a frozen, shallow grave on the first day of the New Year.
Monday, 14 January 2013
2011 has come to Llanevan weaving through the snow like a drunk squirrel looking for the lost keys to a drey in a tree, which no longer exists.
Snow fell on frozen snow, disappeared, snowed again, returned, thought about going, stayed, then disappeared again, all but for a note saying, “I’ll be back.” For James Johnston it was all too much. Coupled with the dismal form of his beloved West Ham and a new found interest in English cricket he boarded a flight and headed for Melbourne on the 20th of December. He also left a note. “Back whenever. Good luck digging the sheep out. Left a present under the tree. Merry Christmas. James Robert Johnston. No kiss.” I opened the present on Christmas morning which although looked suspiciously like a wrapped log turned out to be an unwrapped log. His hurriedly written card read, “Use wisely.”
The lowest recorded temperature has so far reached minus eighteen. It was so cold that Alan Zinc, Llanevan’s sixth oldest mole, knocked on the farmhouse door on Boxing Day and asked to be let in.
“I can’t go on Tommo. The ground just won’t give,” he showed me his buckled shovel then curled up next to the fire where he has been at the brandy ever since. The cold weather however hasn’t been hostile for all the animals. The sheep have been snug hugging happy in their winter coats chewing on meadow fresh hay harvested from a summer that now seems a new year ago and the cattle too have munched unperturbed cosy as toast under their inch thick hides.
The Mithil brook that scurries the length of the farm has continued to run gaily allowing Kroll Jnr the otter, Geoff the Kingfisher and Dr Danger the heron to fish and feed. Kaplunk the donkey was pleased as Suffolk Punch to find that he had achieved enough Nectar points to splash out on an electric blanket and Monkey Vest the shire horse equally so, when he discovered it was intended for a king sized bed. Shoulder to shoulder with the blanket draped like saddles they’ve brayed heartily in their stalls, playing pin the hat on the jockey.
Unwelcome Stain the red legged partridge retired to his wig-wam on the 18th and although he has not been seen since we know he is alive as smoke steadily drifts from its peek. No doubt he’s lay out next to the wood burner smashed on red diesel cocktails and glued to the A-team box set that Ranatunga bought for him before he escaped to Mumbai for a family Christmas.
Crossley the buzzard is the only animal that has suffered during the cold snap.
The kam aviator usually rubs his wings with glee as the pink skied morning warns of coming snow. As the first flakes fall he knots a napkin under his beak and gets ready to tuck into fallen stock, but this time the animals have revealed a thicker skin.
I discovered him last Tuesday perched on a hay feeder and screeching at the sheep.
“Come on you bastards! Die! It’s bloody freezing! I can’t eat tinned beans for a whole winter!” He took to the wind as Kevin Pietersen the Ram dropped his trousers and revealed his thermal underwear, the sheep’s new found weapon against the freeze. “Tommo can you not pick a straggler off for me? A mouldy sparrow is all I’ve had for six weeks and even then it was only a teenager.”
The poor old bird of prey has wondered lonely as a rat on a dance floor craning his neck in the hope that he can hear a condemning cough from the throat of a sheep. Nothing. All was quiet, all was still. Until the early hours on New Year’s Day.
I’d barely hit the switch on the blender to start making Alan Zinc’s earthworm porridge when a shrill screech ripped through the air across the Ulux Meadow.
I hurried out, with Alan in my pocket, to see Crossley’s head bob up then disappear shielded by the Mithil brook bank. A few tearful ewes were slowly peeling away from the waterside, while several hysterical girls clutched their hooves to their brisket and wailed. Alan and I reached the brook to find Crossley pulling the mercury intestines from within the ribcage of one of Llanevan’s newest additions.
“Happy bloody New Year!” Crossley screamed with an eyeball on a fork as I handed Alan a tenner.
The financial exchange with the mole skinned miner took place because of a bet. The outcome of which I should have seen coming at the end of October.
November the 1st marks the day when the Ram is presented to the ewe. 5 months later a spluttering, bleating pro type falls out of the said ewe. The Ram clan spend all of October buffing their coats, oiling their quiffs and polishing their plums ready for the end of Halloween when Lamb-Bang, as they call it, begins. During the final days of October they stand at the gate to their private boys club as horny as a rhino in a Viking helmet wolf whistling over to the flock of ewes, gyrating and muckying the clean air with prose more suited to a blue movie. The atmosphere is so dank it can be spread on toast.
A large problem loomed however in the run up to Lamb-Bang. The flock of ewes is 470 strong and there were only three Rams to go round. That is a lot of Archers and lemonade for three fellas to shell out on. Last winter had been Crossley’s finest hour. Eleven Rams went out, but only three returned. The bitter weather and unceasing snow took its toll on the private boys club. Kevin Pietersen, Radnot and Choppy although thread bare and knackered returned with smutty stories and brimming memory cards, though Tex-mex, Gilt-Edge, Freddy Four Hoof, Tinker, The Appealing Question, Tape This and UK 721284 did not return from duty; and the least said about Nine Lives the better. So mid October James Johnston and I called a meeting with the three remaining Rams.
Sat on wool sacks with goblets of mead me mused about the coming mating season.
“We’ll take ‘em,” Choppy said running a cloth over a testicle.
“There won’t be an honest one among ‘em by the time we’re through,” Pietersen declared, but in the eyes of Radnot I saw growing doubt. Radnot looks like he should make a will urgently, but then has done so since he was a lamb. Time was despite his bony frame and sunken eyes he has amazing powers of stamina and resolve. Such were the days he could walk into a field of 200 ewes and have them all flicking through a Mothercare catalogue by sunrise. But not now. He gets out of breath licking a stamp.
“There’s wood in the hearth boys, but I gotta take a pack of firelighters to keep the heat coming. If you know what I mean.” Poor old Radnot, after all he is one hundred and twenty. In sheep years.
With the aid of the bee syrup it was decided that a few new recruits would add extra thrust to the Lamb-Bang. So off to Rhayader market James and I went.
Breeders and buyers stood in flat cap chatter amalgamated by desire for the coveted Rams. Shoe horned snow white dove’s watched from wires that led to the loud speaker, then exploded in silly string lines as an invisible voice crackled welcoming all to the sale. The sheep herder who guided the animals from trailer to pen wearing his face like a haunt wears a ghost, clapped his hands and lurched through the drifting rain. Hundreds of Rams stood shoulder broad and pearl and handsome eager to catch a farmer’s eye and insure many months of hot ovine lovin’.
Yesteryear farmers bent double by decades of wet and toil traded gossip and figures oblivious to the rain that over time had bowed their bones. Bacon and sweet tea aromas weaved among the droplets from the cafe salivating mouths that would later be tamed by bitter pints from The Red Lions pump handles. James Johnston left my side and coasted through the agricultural throng signing autographs and chewing the fat off the brisket of the spiritual cows that had lowed in the market pens for generations.
But the beloved scene is an endangered one. As trends blend and the ever powerful supermarkets continue their super malice grip on the farming industry, many live markets such as this vanish under housing estates and ironic Supermarket developments. Time was, pre and post war, when ten thousand sheep were offered up for sale, when the stories swapped above their mint jelly heads were lost to the sponge clouds, but forever recorded to be swapped and stamped into legend. Farming may only ever be about the mastery of pressure and angles, but it is the spoken word and dying knowledge that remains the staff of life.
I had spied five suitable suitors to join the private Llanevan boy’s club and as the bell tolled to signal the start of the sale James and I took our places. The art of bidding is one that James has acquired over the years and so with an arsenal of subtle winks and nods the infamous five were enrolled into Llanevan folklore.
We took them to the warmth of The Red Lion for a meet and greet and, of course, James Johnston did the honours.
“Fella’s, welcome. James Johnston managing director of Llanevan. This is farmer Tommo, muck shoveller and hedge layer. To be a member of the Llanevan family is not one of circumstance, but of privilege.” The Rams looked up in awe at the best self publicist this side of Brecon. “We are not a farm, but a movement, our collective mind is a landmark. I may bear the features of a dog, but purely because I am an anagram of God. I’m master and commander, the be all and end all and with me as your overseer I can bless you with safety, honesty and a forever lasting Brothership. Step forward and announce yourselves.”
So it was in the bar room of The Red Lion that Best Before March, Chequered Orient, Steve, La Aqua and Owrya? swore their allegiance to the greatest land mass in Radnorshire.
Back at the farm we opened the gate to the boys club and the new Rams piled out. Old and new had two nights debauched drinking to bond before James ushered them across the Baxter meadow to the awaiting harem. Kevin Pietersen had dived head first into the flock of lovelies.
“What ya havin’ sweet-teats?” he asked a buxom ewe, pinching an equally rounded buttock.
“Pint of Guinness, shag.” The buxom ewe replied in a deep voice and Pietersen gulped instantly realising that he would not be on top in this conquest. As the private boys club got acquainted with the ewes Alan Zinc popped out of the soil.
“You’ll be one down in the New Year. You always are.”
“Not this time Al, these boys are the real deal.”
“Every year Tommo you spend a fortune on them and one carks it soon after Chrimbo. A tenner and a go on the JCB says so.”
Done over it would seem. So as we stood there on the first day of 2011 watching Crossley sweat some onions in a pan, I rued another two hundred and fifty pounds that sailed merrily down the Mithil Brook.
“Which one is it?” Alan asked as he folded the tenner into his moleskin trousers.
I edged closer, “Damn. The finest of the lot. It’s Best Before March.”
“Best Before January more like.”
Monday, 7 January 2013
My favourite dish, like, ever. Pigs brain is a much daunted and under used piece of favoured air loveliness. It is as equally foot tapping when fried on a piece of toast or as part of this salad melee. Calves brains are prevalent on British menus and lamb's brains form the think tank foundation of many Middle Eastern and Turkish restaurants, but poor piggy is left out in the cold. So let’s bring him back into the heat...Lamb's heart is the finest part of a sheep. This is not just my opinion. I saw God on the bus the other day and although he didn’t say much he did definitely make that statement. The little pump organ combines the taste of shoulder with the tenderness of fillet. Diners get all squeamish when offered the choice of heart. But once it has been sliced and seared and is unrecognisable to the thing on the front of a fancy card, then all is forgiven and the plate is cleared.
The brain is easily scooped out of a halved head with a spoon, though unless you have a piggy at the bottom of the garden then the butcher would have already done this. Select a couple of hearts, as when you start eating you’ll rue the fact that you only cooked one. Butter is best to cook the offal in because it really aids the flavour. Melt a knob in a hot pan and add the brain. The thought gadget of a pig has a fun texture. Many foods that are cast into heat at least move or shrink or open a window, but old piggy just laps it up. Brown one side with a twist of salt and pepper, then flip and brown the other. When you have gained equal colour, add the sliced hearts. A heart should be sliced from wide top to bottom point. Don’t worry about the capillaries, just slice and add. The brain needs to be cooked through but the hearts can be eaten anyway between bleating and coffin. If you require that the hearts be weeping red, then cook the brain for a touch longer.
Pretty much anything can be selected to fashion the make-up of the salad, but one rule for this dish is that you want to add some bounce. This allows the brain and hearts to airate and not create a pool in which the greens go sage. A mattress of lettuce is a good foundation onto which non molested spinach and chicory or chard would be a good addition. A few well spoken leaves of mint are a sly choice to flirt with the lamb, but not too much, else piggy gets waspish. Don’t ever use the supermarket stuff; it’s a waste of the factory lights ‘they’ used to grow it with. Tomato is sound, parsley is not, neither is pepper: roasted or raw. Watercress gets a nod, but he can’t bring his mate cucumber etc etc. I trust you to find the right mix. If you don’t, I’ll come round and disconnect the modem. A dinky teardrop of lemon juice will hurt neither brain nor heart and if you really want to show off to your mum, plop a teaspoon of horseradish on the side. Yeeow!
When the offal has cooked to one’s liking, drain off any butter and seeping juices and let it cook dry for twenty seconds. Crisps it up, innit.
Donk piggy in the middle of the salad odyssey and scatter the heart ribbons liberally. Drink with a deep, dark ale. You’ll see why.
Your head says no, your heart says maybe, but your belly says good work.
“Can you offer me some counsel?” I asked, bowing at the wigwam entrance.
“Hang on, this is a classic bit,” he said summoning me into the incense rich tent. He was watching the A-team.
“Brilliant, just plain brilliance,” he chirped as Murdoch ducked a telegraphed punch from Mr T. “Face is my favourite. He is so in touch with civilisation. And he’s got sweet wheels.” Unwelcome drives a Porsche Boxter that he won in a game of cards from Kevin Pietersen. “What’s troubling you Tommo?” He rose to his red legs and waddled over to the extensive bar. “Can I make you a Partridge?” he asked, glugging numerous liquors into a highball.
“I don’t know. What’s in it?”
“Pretty much everything. I tell you this for ten pence, I’ve got a job to three point turn the Boxter after six of these. I put the bugger through a hawthorn thicket last Thursday after a session in The Suspicious Finger.”
“Thanks,” I said with furrowed brow as I accepted the luminous orange drink.
“Tell the Stain your pain.”
“Thing is Unwelcome I’ve got lambs everywhere, lactating sheep, cows running out of hay and I am desperate for some grass to come. I don’t want to mess with nature but I’ve come to see you because I’m in need of some....”
“Black Magic?” Unwelcome said offering me a chocolate.
“Thanks. I’m in need of some spiritual encouragement.”
“I hear you. I’ll say this, did you ever see the episode when Hannibal and Mr T turned a lawnmower into an armoured truck with a pencil and a strip of magnesium?”
“My point is, anything is possible.”
I got to my feet, bowed and sunk the Partridge. “Love a bullock. Is there petrol in this?”
“Probably,” tossing a woodlouse into his beak, “I added a dash from that Jerry can.”
“Tommo. You know who’ll wake up when the rain comes?”
I knew what terror he spoke of. “I need the rain. I’m willing to face the consequences.” A shiver ran along my spine and Unwelcome took a Colt. 45 from behind the Jerry can.
The extreme winter weather has already taken its toll on the lambs. The severe cold meant that food was scarce for the pregnant sheep and stunted the growth of the foetus. The lambs have been born smaller than required, but at least they’re alive.
“It’s better to have a live little ‘un, rather than a big dead ‘un,” Owlet the Thrush observed. He’s a wise old bird is Owlet.
Unwelcome Stain spent days inside his wigwam. Only a faint meander of smoke drifting to the heavens spoke of his concocting. He did appear briefly to hand me a list of a few required ingredients.
“Sheep wool I have, I can tap Ranatunga for the snake skin, but how can I get the cream of a blackbird?”
“You want rain don’t know?” he sniffed and waddled home. Kaplunk the one toothed donkey, owed me a favour, so I called it in.
“Jeez I haven’t basted a bird in months. Give me twenty four hours”. Though he was back in six with a phial full of ooze.
“Just don’t ever ask me to do that again,” he brayed and skulked away massaging his front right hoof.
“Ah, the finishing touch,” Unwelcome proclaimed and dropped the phial into a steaming burgundy potion. “Meet me on the fourth cock crow tomorrow morning by the trunk of the gnarled oak,” he said.
Poland the First, Llanevan’s cockerel, got plastered on strawberry gin the night before and so was tardy with his town crier act. His fourth crow came a full hour later than usual, but as it sped over the fields Unwelcome Stain extended his wings from beneath his donkey skin cloak and mumbled over a shiny black cauldron.
“Lady sky come cry your tears,
Send cats and dogs to chase our fears,
Spit on us as though were are vagabonds,
Dampen the earth and fill our ponds.
Wring out the wetted handkerchief
Steal the grass from the root, like a thief
And bring forth the green desire,
To light the Spring flame on our barren pyre!”
Unwelcome clasped his wings over the cauldron. Herds, flocks and gaggles of animals waited in open mouthed awe for something to happen. Unwelcome looked to the sky that remained a dreamy blue, then down to the base of the cauldron.
“Tuh bollocks, the plug has blown. No wonder she wasn’t boiling.” He picked up the flex and whipped out a Philips head screwdriver. “No-one’s got a 13 amp fuse?”
“I got one in the glove box of the Capri,” Bullitt said and trotted off.
“You’re supposed to be an Ancient arts Witch Doctor. What’s with an electric cauldron?”
“It is the 21st century, shag, I’m a modern Merlin.”
“Kind of takes the edge off you a touch,” I said despondently.
“Oh yeah? I don’t see Farmer Tommo cutting the grass with a scythe. The Ancient arts has gone two phase, get with the evolutionary disco. Ta spev,” the partridge thanked Bullitt and fixed the plug. “Right where were we?” He spoke the wet words once more and the thick grey clouds puffed forth from the bubbling potion.
“Hope you’re prepared for the consequences, Tommo,” the 21st century Witch Doctor said and removed his gun.
“As long as it rains,” I said and looked to a hump on the hill. The clouds congregated over the farm and a thunder clap echoed in the valley. Bulbous drops began to fizz from the sky.
“I’m worth my three fifty an hour!” the partridge yelled over the noise of drumming rain. Gay animals removed their coats and danced in the forming puddles. Jeff Beck the mallard drake took his wife’s hand and performed a jig. But the merriment was short lived as a booming croak sounded from the hilltop.
“I warned you!” Unwelcome cocked his gun.
The mound on the hill began to move. Llanevan’s nemesis had woken from his hibernation.
Bitumen Jalfrezi is a two ton Natterjack toad. He was born from a deformed egg and as a spindly tadpole suffered taunts from the fitter, strong, blacker kids in the puddle. When he finally grew legs, they were bent and short and could barely support his ugly body. He spent his adolescence years glued to the masking shadows and sheltered his amphibian ears from the jeers of the bullies that never left him alone.
He crawled onto the hill where no spiteful words could reach him and vowed to return one day and silence his critics. While he wallowed in self imposed exile he befriended a slanted eyed Meadow Pipit called Misery Jugs, another creature who had suffered abuse due to its name and its deformity. In the case of the small brownish bird it was a gammy gusset. In the dark hours of late nights Bitumen would weep into the Pipit’s breast feathers and speak of his torment.
“We shall have your revenge,” Misery Jugs said stroking the bubbling warts, “I shall make you into a Toad of War.”
Misery Jugs trained Bitumen for days, for weeks, for years. He bought him an exercise bike from a garage sale in Builth Wells and within a year the bow pegged toad had legs thicker than a West Wales quiz night.
One grey autumn night the toad came down from the hill with Misery Jugs on his harbour bridge shoulders. He ate twenty sheep on his descent. He singled out the bully toads of his youth, then married with their own tadpoles and ate the lot. He crawled through the farm swallowing animals as he went and flattening gates and fences, goaded all the while by his mentor Pipit. When he had finished he stuck a flag in the earth with a single raised toad finger on the billowing canvas.
“I the Natterjack, will be back.” And year on year, woken by the first raindrops of Spring, he returns.
Now, as the rain crippled down, animals scattered for their lives. Jeff and his wife took to the wing. Bullitt squeezed into his Capri and wheel spun along the farm track. The toad lumbered down the hillside and removed three sheep with a swift tongue flick as if they were no more than snowflakes hand swept from a jacket lapel. Kaplunk fumbled for cartridges to feed his sawn off Smith and Weston. Caught in the toadlights rabbits froze and became canapes to the toad tongue.
“Toad. Hungry,” the wart ridden beast croaked and plucked a Hereford bullock clean from the dampening soil. It snapped two Douglas Fir trees as if they were celery sticks and lolloped towards the cauldron. Unwelcome fired two point blank shots but they were mere grazes on the amphibian’s armour skin. Kaplunk fired but the toad licked the gun from his hooves and gulped it down. The toad filled the optical of the donkey’s eye and he took off like Shadowfax.
I froze. I turned to Unwlecome Stain but in a wing clap he disappeared in a whirl of smoke.
“Toad. Hungry,” it croaked once more and devoured a flock of fleeting pigeons. It ripped a fence from the earth and cast the wire over its shoulder like silly string. I was out in the open, with nowhere to run. My agricultural life flashed before my weeping eyes. The summer harvest, the romantic autumn nights, the foreboding winter months and the life breathing Spring; seasons I would never see again.
“Get him Bitchy!” Misery Jugs ordered, “he’s the protagonist!” Streams sped off the toad’s gargantuan body and raindrops pinged off its dome forehead. The mouth opened and from within I could see the cocked tongue.
But as it took aim a stout figure appeared between us in a full length black woollen jacket. The toad’s pupils dilated and it took a step back.
“Forward!” Misery screamed, “no one stops Bitumen Jalfrezi!” he pointed at the figure who held a pair of tights in one hand and a crab apple in the other. “You’re gonna want a bloody good surgeon sonny, ‘cos this toad’s gonna spill your guts!” The toad stepped forward.
But the unflustered figure gently struck a match and lit his pipe. “There’s only one medic around here. And that’s Dogtor Johnston. Step aside boys. This is where James earns his chicken bits in a gravy sauce.”
Bitumen shot out his tongue but James rolled to the side and cast off his jacket. Even in the dull light his coat shone like a beacon.
“Bet he takes cod liver oil,” a cowering sparrow said to his mate. The toad fired again but James swayed and caught the pink elastic in his right paw. The curry toad lent back but James held tight, then released and the toad licked its own face as the tongue slapped over its cheeks.
“Crush him!” Misery commanded but in the moment it takes Poland the First to neck a pint James Johnston had loaded the apple and with a swish of the sling shot tights the apple fizzed through the rain and struck the toad between the eyes. Ach. The sound was as sweet as a perfect square cut from the hoof of Kevin Pietersen, the Ram.
Bitumen Jalfrezi was dead before he hit the sodden turf.
Ever since the new grass has grown in steady silence around the toad’s festering body
James and I are back on speaking terms, new growth brings the best out of him. I love a dog who doesn’t muck about. The animals all agreed that the problem with Bitumen Jalfrezi is that he never toad the party line.
If the British farmer doesn't favour his conditions, he leans on the bars of a market pen and grumbles to his equally disgruntled companion, putting the world to rights without telling a soul in authority; yet many support the very root of evil they chastise. The best conflicting conversation I have ever witnessed went like this:
Farmer no. 1: "What about this sheep trade, mate?"
Farmer no. 2: "Ruined."
No. 1: "Know whose to blame, don't you?"
No. 2: "Supermarkets."
No. 1: "You got him. Got the monopoly haven't they?"
No. 2: "They will be the death of farmin' in these Isles."
No. 1: "Spot on."
No. 2: "They drive the prices down and we have to stomach it, in it?"
No. 1: "Too right. Course they're in bed with them buggers in Whitehall."
No. 2: "Never a truer word spoke, mate."
No. 1: "But I bet them in suits and them at the top couldn't go a spud or dag a sheep."
No. 2: "Spot on. They never seen a farm, yet they control every bugger on the island."
No. 1: "Doomed we are." Hand wringing pause. "Anyway, how is the Mrs.?"
No. 2: "Oh, her's tidy. She's just nipped off to Tesco for the weekly shop, like."
Tremendous. The British farmer took the BSE crisis on the chin. Much said, nothing defied. The French wouldn't have 'stomached' the resulting regulations which is that any beef animal over thirty months of age, when slaughtered, have to undergo a lengthy, drawn out process during which the brain is tested, before the meat reaches the plate. Or the pooch. This so perturbs the beef farmer from keeping his animals over the designated age of two and half years. The result is immature meat. The best beef comes from an animal that has had at least three summers grazing. The figures don't add up. The French have no such regulations. They know their beef. They think nothing of consuming an eight year old plus cow. The fat is sweeter and the meat is richer because it has had so many summers worth of sweet grass. The French beefeater is happier.
At Llanevan I'm bucking the immature trend. An old cow usually goes to a live market where she is sold for a measly price. The best cuts may make it to the plate, most go for pet food. Not on my watch.
This week I will be taking Dimplex and Mary Sue, two ten year old cows for a, uh, 'day out' from which they won't return. Time to reach for the Kleenex on this one.
Dimplex is my favourite cow on the farm. She's a quiet old thing, not like Skittish, a five year old cow who once jumped a six bar gate like she was Red Rum in the National. Dimplex sits in the meadow chewing her cud and reading TheAngler's Mail. When the rest of the herd congregate for an anarchical meeting discussing how best to overthrow me, Dimplex raises her cow brow and sidles down to the brook to chat to Thespian the Otter about trout, scout knots and Welsh crafts. Now she is an old woman her stride has shortened and she wheezes with every step, though not necessarily from old age, but the result of heavy smoking during her wild teens. She's a switched on old girl though and she's sussed the inevitable.
"Why you fattening me up?" she asked me last week as I dolloped a bucket of oats into her trough.
"Uh, because, you are my favourite cow."
"Pull the other one Pedro, I know what's coming. Listen fast. If you'll do one thing for me, you'll give me a last meal."
"You name it."
A Hawaiian pizza is an odd choice for a cow, but what Dimplex wants, Dimplex gets.
"You won't have to worry about Mary Sue," she said, "she heard that me and her were going for a 'day out' and thinks were off to Alton Towers."
"I could take you to Alton Towers first," I suggested, trying to lighten the mood.
"Then there would be no point in having my pizza. One go on the Nemesis and the bugger would be all over my brisket." Fair point. "Will it be a quick death?" she asked as she scrawled her will on the shed wall.
"You'll be out like a light."
"Can't argue with that. And I thought I'd go making love." Sadly that is something I can't help her with. Though it isn't all bad news because her legacy lives on. Her daughter, Multiplex, has been added to the breeding herd and will go on to have many of her grandchildren.
"She's a good looking girl is my Multiplex, she'll break some hearts along the way."
"Takes after her mother."
"Cut the charm, Pedro, you're about to stick my arse in the oven." That's what I've always liked about Dimplex: she's a straight talking kind of cow.
Dimplex and Mary Sue's 'day out'.
The process that Dimplex and Mary Sue will undergo, is thus: they will be driven to Alton Towers (the abattoir (French) or the slaughterhouse (British)) and I will speak to the ride attendant (the vet). When he has checked that they are fit for the ride (slaughter) and that they are the correct height (not covered in excrement) I will hand over their ride tickets (passports). They will then sit in a comfy seat (a holding pen) and a safety harness will lower over their necks (ear number check). The ride will then start (a sliding door will open). The ride whirls along (they are led down an alleyway) and then at the summit of the ride (end of the line) they will see God (slaughter man) and it is at this point that they will know they have had the ride of their life....
If you got lost during any of that softening explanation, I'll fill you in: they never got to pick up 'the' photo.
The beef carcasses will be hung in a cold room for two weeks while their brains are tested to see whether or not they are, were, or are indeed, 'mad'. There is a million to one chance that they are, were, or are indeed, 'mad', because they are purely organic and have never been subjected to contaminated feed.
The meat will then be taken off the bone, by knife, and re-hung for a further two weeks. One month from when they visited Alton Towers, they will be ready to eat.
Where to eat Dimplex and Mary Sue during the week of February 15th
You can come round to mine, but James Johnston isn't too keen on entertaining, so the next best thing is too eat the cows, at these fine places in London Town.....
Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden
Fernandez and Wells, Lexington Street, Soho
St. John, Bread and Wine, Commercial Street, Spitalfields
Anchor and Hope, The Cut, Southwark
The Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, London Bridge.
Ask for Dimplex. Of course, they will have no idea what you are on about, but, hey, you could end up with something completely non-mental on a plate.
Ta, then. I'm off to spin the pizza dough.
The hill is two hundred acres. I have 800 sheep. So that's...... uh, so many sheep to an acre. I set off last week in search of any strays from the flock. I stood at the foot of the hill with stick in hand and James Johnston, my sheepdog, at heel ready to embark on an arduous journey to rescue my loved ones.
"Where do you think they are?" I asked James.
"Sod this, mate. Let's get back inside for a cup of Bovril and Test Match Special," my ever work shy sheepdog said.
"Come bye, James. If all sheep perished, who would you chase?"
"The postman," he said, rolling his eyes and buttoning the top of his wax jacket. We set off.
The highest point of the hill is eighteen hundred feet above sea level.
"I've never even seen the sea," James said stopping to roll in fox excrement.
"Do you have to do that?" I protested, spitting on a used hanky.
"Back off. This will attract a bitch as far off as Painscastle," he said and trotted off with his dander in the air.
The snow has been fluent. Great puff ball flakes arrowed from the heavens by the relentless east wind. On the lower ground the snow has fallen to the depth of six inches, but on the hill, ushered by the prevailing wind, it can drift to cover the land at two to three feet. With its many undulations, that can be tricksy. Sheep will look to the foreboding clouds and pick a spot in a hollow in which to shelter from the impending storm; but before they know it they are submerged. Right up to their cataract. However a sheep can survive in a snow drift by eating the wool off its own back and nibbling the snow for hydration for up to three weeks; if so required.
"Well Christ, if you had told me that at the bottom of the hill....." James barked pulling a bobble hat out of his pocket, "I needn't have left the kennel."
James jogged ahead trying in vain to light a saturated roll up, until we got about twelve hundred feet high, when the started to yap at a raised lump of snow.
"What you found, boy?" I asked wiping handfuls of snow from my numb face.
"A two-bar electric fire!" he shouted back. He's a sarcastic mutt, is our James. I arrived at the spot and found two horns poking from the snow.
"Where is he boy? Dig him out. Good boy," I encouraged.
"Love a pigeon," James retored, "do you want me to dress you in the morning as well?" He produced a telescopic shovel from his backpack and began to hue at the snow. He got down a foot when a sandy coloured face thrust skywards.
"Alright boys?" It was Savage Grant, the oldest Ram at Llanevan.
"Are you ok, Savage?" I asked. He looked frozen.
"Thank God you boys came along. Got a light? I've been trying to light my Primus for two days." James handed him a Clipper.
"We've got to get you back to the low ground, Savage."
"Balls to that fella's. I'm snug as a bug in here. I've got four steaks and a pork chop. I'm good 'til Valentines day. It's up top you're needed." Flame sprung from the stove and he unfolded some anchovy butter from a scrap of tin foil. "I saw twenty ewes in bikini's up there four days ago. As blue as whales they were." We continued on.
The sky was seeped in lilac. Damson, snow laden clouds were clustering in heaps above the white as Columbia hills. Great clumps of ice hung from branches of old trees like snot from the nostrils of a grumping toddler. It was minus 5.
"As Lassie is my witness if we're not back at the house for Home and Away, you are scratching my belly until Corrie comes on," James spat, but he didn't have to wait long until he spied another familiar body in the cold, "Up ahead. We've got a casualty."
The big freeze inevitably brings death. Nature consumes nature on the farm. When an animal succumbs to the elements another may prosper. Sheep, belying their joy of death, are actually a hardy breed, but now and again the plunging temperature proves all too much. In the time it takes to discover a dead sheep on the hill many scavengers have almost filtered it away in the blink of an eye, but at this point we were lucky enough to capture wildlife at work.
"Oi! Oi!" a voice screeched across the snow. It was Crossley the Buzzard. He was sat atop a dead sheep tying a napkin over his chest feathers. "You boys should be in front of the box in the warm, no?" Crossley said, drawing a sneer from James.
"We're out looking for sheep. Live one's, preferably."
"Well you're too late with this bugger, " Crossley said producing his Swiss army knife, "she has been ailing for a while. I've been sat in a tree, with salt and pepper poised for 48 hours."
Crossley said he had had to fight off a feisty red kite, four foxes and This Way Up, a notorious gnarled badger who roams the hill at night.
"That was a tricky one." Crossley added taking a bottle of chili sauce from his satchel.
"How did you get rid of him?"
"Told him I'd seen Bill Oddie with a pair of binoculars coming through the snow. He scarpered."
We left Crossley to feed in peace.
Sunshine began to peek through the fragments clouds sending lazer's of piercing light speeding over the white carpet.
"This is beautiful, isn't it James?"
"Oh here we go. Don't get romantic up here with me or I'll sink my teeth into you." And they say that a dog is a man's best friend.
It took us an hour to reach the summit of the hill when James spotted the errant ewes. They were huddled together under an overhangong slab of rock.
"Girls, what on earth are you doing up here? Couldn't you see the bad weather coming?"
"It just took us by surprize," said Jazelle, a three year old Welsh Speckle faced ewe, "we tried to get down to the lower ground, but you try walking in the snow in stilettos."
Honestly, sheep eh? James gathered them up and we descended the hillside amid much complaining.
"I think I've chipped a hoof!" a bleat rang out.
James guided them to the safety of the lower ground around the farmhouse to where the rest of the flock were waiting. I lavished them with meadow hay and energy blocks and padlocked the gate onto the, for now, forbidden hill.
"But what about Savage?" Jazelle cried.
"Dont worry love, he'll be down for February 14th. He's not one to miss a snog in the hay."
Sheep are great this time of year; to eat that is. The most recurring question I am asked is, "But don't you feel sad when you take them slaughter?"
"Not after you've worked with them for more than a day."
They were put on this earth to torment me. They regulary gather in groups to whisper behind my back and take great joy in discovering holes in fences and absconding onto the neighbouring farmers land, but I always have to remember, on the days I am chasing them around the fields, that it is all worth it in the end; because they do taste bloody good.
Overnight Mutton Shoulder
Mutton is the meat from a sheep over two years old, though the best comes from a ewe that is at least six. I have a ten year old ewe. She will be divine.
"I'll be tough as old boots," she continually tells me.
"Not if I cook you overnight."
One shoulder of Mutton (ideally hung for two weeks)
1 big ol' onion
2 handfuls of mushrooms (standard hands)
Tin of prunes in the juice
Two glugs of chili sauce, the orange West Indian stuff (like what the Buzzard was using)
Two each of winter vegetables. (I say Parsnip, carrot and butternut squash for colour variance, ahhh)
Four fresh tomatoes
Quarter of a bottle of wine (drink the rest while you prepare it)
Pint of spring water (but only if you have it flowing past the house, or if you are massively pretentious)
Salt and pepper
Don't muck about with this. It should only take the time to drink the wine, to prepare. Grab a bowl and crush the tomatoes into it by hand or fork. Glug in the chili sauce and the wine and the pint of spring or mains water. Add the prunes. Stir her up. (If you have some dried basil and thyme lurking in the back of the cupboard you can add a sprinkle of both). Get a metal roasting tin big enough to fit the shoulder in. Bonk it on the hob on a steady heat. Add oil. When it is hot (test by sight not finger) place the shoulder in and brown on both sides, twisting salt and pepper to cover the skin. When she's done take her out for a mo. Add chopped onion and mushrooms to the oil. Stir them for no longer than a minute. Place the shoulder on top of them. Add rough chopped raw vegetables. Add the bowl of goodness so that the shoulder is covered, but do not worry it it protudes from the mixture. Simmer over the heat for half an hour while the oven preheats at 150 or gas mark three or, if you have a woodfired Rayburn, two bloody good logs. When the half hour is up, whack her in. Cook for twelve hours overnight. Just before you go to bed and first thing in the morning you can turn the shoulder over in the enriching stock. A fork should easily sink into the meat as it falls off the bone, if it doesn't, then return to the oven until it does. When done rest for half an hour.
Before you tuck in, take a picture and mail it to my ten year old ewe. She'll love it.
On a balmy evening in 1685 two Spanish sailors, Jose and Hose B were on the starboard side of their ship moored just off the coast of Mauritius, when one remarked to the other, "Do you remember the dodo?" Four hundred years on two men, Will.i.am and Will.i.ain't, are stood in a willow plantation in Herefordshire, that was once a green meadow, when one remarks to the other, "Do you remember the cow?"
A fierce debate currently rages on, not that 97% of the British nation have realised, about whether or not to enter into an extensive badger cull. I say fierce, but then there is very little ferocious debate that can be stirred up from woolly badger lovers, just the added spice that the rent-a-mob activists will come and bash a badger dissing farmer. The cull is in reference to the rising tuberculosis levels in our nations cattle, which are critical from Carlisle to Carmarthan, from Penzance to Perth, and the belief that the largest native carnivorous mammal in the British Isles is to blame. Yes, dear old badger, agony uncle to Fantastic Mr Fox and close aide to Bodger, is no more than a disease ridden black and white pig. Off with his head! Or not? Unfortunately the subject is far from black and white.
TB compensation costs the British taxpayer over 20 million pounds a year, but money is immaterial when you consider how many cattle are slaughtered to get to that financial statistic. Fine, the animals are destined for the chop anyway, but we'd surely rather see them on a plate than in a plume disappearing up an incinerator chimney? The dairy industry, already on its knees and gagging in the dust, is disintegrating into history. Tens and tens of reacting TB dairy cattle are slaughtered out of hundred plus herds, to the point where the broken farmer pockets the compensation, then eases it into another venture; anything else just as long as it doesn't come with udders. Thirty years ago a drive through Wiltshire and Somerset would have set the sight of hundreds of roadside grazing Freisian cows full to the ears with milk. Go for a spin now and the only daisies you will see are speckled throughout the crops stretching to the horizon.
Beef prices are the highest they have been for twenty years, because the livestock numbers are spiralling down as more and more cattle are shot and burned as TB reactors and all the while those magpie faced mammals snuffle happily through the undergrowth sending squirts of destruction in their wake. Off with his head! Or not?
All badgers harbour TB, but only disturbed and stressed badgers become a danger of passing it on. While cattle can soak it up like a sponge there is no direct threat to humans, though of course if there was Billy badger would have gone the way of the dodo sometime ago. My cattle at Llanevan have been 'clean' of TB since 2003, yet there are three active badger sets, a trail of nocturnal traffic evidence and regular badger sightings. It is proof that both animals can live happily ever after in the same environment without urinating on the each others chips.
Theories abound that it was the cows all along what started it guv'nor, that they infected the badger and so the circle was set in motion, if this is the case then the corner becomes far more acute. The irony is that if a badger cull was to take place, the 97% wouldn't have a fiddler's guff that it had happened, because the beauty of the badger is they are essentially nocturnal; only appearing in daylight for the rare event of a Roald Dahl book to film Premiere. The only clue of a black and white trim would be the absence of black and white hit and runs on our country roads.
Poor old badger helped save Fantastic Mr Fox and he still gets bad press for being a dirty disease monger, despite the fact that they (along with the humble pig) are the only mammal to employ an en suite bathroom in their accommodation. Nobody, woolly, flat capped or uddered, wants to see the end of old magpie cheeks and it is wrong to heap all the blame onto his broad shoulders, but if nothing affirmative is done now, then in the near future we won't be eating beef or drinking milk. Though at least we won't be able to move for badgers.
James Johnston, my sheepdog, and I were watching ‘The Piano’ last night. As the credits rolled up, tears rolled down his whiskers; though I knew those drops were not for a woman and her instrument, but for an altogether larger expanse of salt water.
“Do you want me to take you to the sea side?”
“Yes please,” he sniffled. He can get awfully emotional. “My mother would tell me stories about the sea. She said she could feel it moving within her,” but that’s because his father was an Irish mariner.
This morning as baby day blinked her sleepy eyes, James and I loaded the Land Rover for a trip to the Welsh coast. When the buckets, spades, crab nets, towels, flip flops, knotted hanky’s, deckchairs and fishing kit were packed in there were two empty seats.
“Who can we take?” James asked.
“Who are your favourite animals on the farm?”
“Not overly keen on anyone, but we could take Kaplunk the one tooth donkey. We could pimp him out to the kids.” He’s economically sound is James. “And let’s take Ranatunga. He’s always good value after a few lagers.”
Ranatunga is a middle aged Adder who lives in an old oak at the foot of the hill. He made his money as a model for M and B games in the late eighties, until Nintendo brought out the GameBoy and the sales of snakes and ladders board games declined. I had picked him up as he was hitch hiking on the A44 six summers ago. He had a sign for Dublin dangling from his neck.
“Ireland please,” he'd asked, slithering into the foot well.
“St. Patrick drove all the snakes out years ago, mate,” I said sympathetically. “You could come and work for me.”
“I’m a dab hand with a ladder.” And ever since then Ranatunga has been chief fruit picker at the farm. He has an endless repertoire of apple jokes.
I placed Owlet the Thrush, Llanevan’s janitor, in charge of the farm for the day and we whisked off. Me behind the wheel, James riding shotgun, Kaplunk with the travel sweets and Ranatunga with the Back Seat Drivers Guide to Games.
“I sssspy with my little eye, ssssomething beginning with FT,” he began.
“Uh, Fir tree?” James offered as we skirted by a large coniferous wood.
“Uh,........ give up.”
“Flat Tyre,” he slyly grinned.
“Brilliant.” We didn’t even have a jack so Kaplunk had to pick the Land Rover up while I made the change.
“Typical. Even on my day off I’m working like a mule.”
“You wait ‘til we get there,” James said rubbing beeswax onto a saddle.
With the ride restored, James found an old Beach Boys cassette in the glove box and we sung all the way to the sea.
We arrived at Borth and there was not a cloud in the sky. Dive bombing sea gulls cawed over the crashing waves; granules of the golden beach bled into the white soup. A romantic couple walked knitted together as the tide brushed their Wellington boot soles and a pair of collie bitch’s gambolled and thrashed in the salt water. A hurled stick slapped onto the waves and the mutt’s bounded after it.
“Look at that talent. I’ve got something they can chase,” James barked and pulled on his Speedo’s. He spat in his paw, ran it through his fringe and trotted across the sand. Kaplunk had barely erected a deck chair when two little boys skipped across the beach.
“Can we have a ride Mr.?”
Kaplunk lit a cigarette and blew out. “Tenner each and a bag of chips,” but the two nippers turned on their heels and raced back to their mum, “ah! A talking donkey!”
“Got your trunks?” I asked Ranatunga as he slithered towards the surf.
“Do I look like I’ve got an exposed penis?” he spat back and sunk into the waves.
Lethargic steam liners were pinned to the horizon. A lone albatross made light of the lifting breeze and sailed effortlessly above the waves. Dunking cormorant’s returned to the surface, their beaks glittering with fish scales that glinted in the winter sun. Kaplunk sunk down into his chair, dug his hooves in and opened a tin of Holsten Pils with his tooth.
“Now this is the life, Tommo,” he brayed sinking half the can and slipping on a pair of Aviators. I sprinkled sand into a sandwich to keep with tradition, as one of James’ jokes hit home and the two collie’s giggled and tittered and let him sniff them all over. Ranatunga had found a piece of driftwood and cut like Kelly Slater along the arch of breathing wave.
“Didn’t know snakes could surf,” Kaplunk said.
“I wasn’t aware donkey’s could drink,” I returned as he cracked open his third tin. “You’ll be piddling like a racehorse if you keep that up.”
James strutted back to us with his tail in the air.
“I bloody love the sea side,” he said.
“You should have stayed. Looked like you were in.”
“Na, all got a bit degrading when that fella threw a stick and said ‘fetch boy.’ ‘Do I look like a Golden Retriever?’ I asked him. Got their numbers though. Jess and Minty. Lovely teeth.”
Sea mist grew in hanging swells and swirled in the breeze. Sand Piper’s pitted along the beach scurrying to where the tide had just washed to delve for lug worms and shrimp. A dozen boys played hit and run cricket shouting and clapping as one took a diving catch and slapped broadside into the sea, but his elation was short lived as he scampered back to damp land shouting, “Snake!” They all stood perplexed as Ranatunga emerged from the soup with a piece of wood on his head.
“Bloody kids,” he hissed as he rolled himself up in a towel like a sausage roll, “I’d have filled him with venom if I wasn’t in such a good mood.”
“But you’re not poisonous,” Kaplunk pointed out, breaking a pasty from its packet.
“I know, but I’ve got some pretty savage put downs. I once had a Charolais bullock in tears on the dancefloor at Butlins. Last time he'll step on my toe.”
"But you haven't got any feet?" Kaplunk continued.
"You keep interrupting me ass and I'll play pin the teeth on the donkey. Put your mouth to better use and furnish me with a tin. “Have I told you about the stolen car and the stripper in Somerset?” We all drank and laughed as Ranatunga unravelled the story of his brother’s stag do in Minehead. He’s got a dark past for a snake.
The two little boys returned with twenty quid and a bag of chips. “Can we have a ride now please Mr. Donkey?”
“Love a foal, I’m settled now.”
“Course you can boys,” James said lifting the saddle off the sand.
“I’m half cut, mate. I can barely walk in a straight line.”
“I’ll lead you. Get up, there’s a recession on.”
“You’re going to pay for this Johnston. I want a ten pack of camel and pound of carrots when we get home. And if you little buggers pull my ears I’m bucking you off.” James strapped Kaplunk up and the boys clambered on.
“Giddy up donkey!” they yelled.
“And you thought being thrown a stick was degrading.” They meandered off down the beach with Kaplunk belching every fourth step.
“Spot of fishing Tommo?”
Ranatunga and I cast out six hook lines, baited with lug worms that we'd swapped with a Sand Piper for a six pack of Tuborg. Arctic Terns wove in Picasso lines searching for the surface fryling. The steam liners had been replaced by yacht’s rushing along the tightrope horizon. The cricketing boys had exchanged their sport for a bigger ball and played football tennis over a groyne, ever weary of the fishing snake.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if you caught an eel,” I said to Ranatunga.
“You joke,” he replied casting his line, “I once caught a Conger off the South Australian coast. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or him. Oh, look out,” he said nodding up the beach, “spot of bother.”
The drunk donkey and James were leading the little boys back trailed all the way by a burly fellow with a stick and rope. He had Dog Warden written across his uniform.
“What have you done now James?”
“Nothing! We were giving these nippers the ride of their life when PC World here came charging over a dune."
“No dogs are allowed on the beach without a lead, Sir,” the authoritarian said puffing out his chest, “it’s for hygienic purposes.”
“Hygienic purposes? He’s wearing Speedo’s.”
“Don’t get smart with me please Sir.”
“Smart? I’m on a beach with three talking animals, one of which is drunk, the other fishing and one in a European tackle net, at point did you think any of this was smart?”
The warden surveyed the scene, removed his hat and tucked his stick under his arm. “I’m too bloody old for this,” he muttered and sauntered back to his van.
“Ta, Tommo, that was close,” James said blowing out his cheeks, “I had visions of me in a pound later this evening with my nuts in a jar. Did you enjoy that boys?”
“Yeah!” they cried bouncing up and down on the encumbered donkey, “again! Again!”
“Not now boys, donkey’s itching for a smoke. Another day.” The little boys patted Kaplunk on his sweaty neck and galloped off to their mother. As they hooted and raced one turned to the other and said, “wait ‘til we tell Billy Saunders we rode a talking donkey, he’ll never believe us!”
Kaplunk collapsed onto the sand. “Fetch us a tin Johnston. I’m dehydrated now.”
James returned with refreshments. “Any luck yet boys?” as he enquired Ranatunga’s rod tip flinched.
“Thank Pegasus, I’m famished.” Kaplunk brayed.
Ranatunga reeled in a fishmongers shop window of mackerel.
“James fire up the barby and bring the chips. It’s tea time. Borth style."
As Ranatunga chased the yelping boys across the sand James, Kaplunk and I ate grilled mackerel fillets and soggy Welsh chips.
Avuncular clouds married to the fading sun. Fog grew from the guts of the angry waves and lost the ships at the tip of Turner’s brush. A lightening beaked Oystercatcher swung in the gathering breeze and dunked down onto the beach. Only the sporting dreams remained of the snake chastened boys. Kaplunk’s sleep breath whistled passed his single tooth as the sixteen imprisoned beers fastened his eyelids. James slid a canvass from his satchel, adjusted his beret and recorded the anti-light with oil paint. The granules were no longer golden but an end of the day grey.
Ranatunga returned from his sport. “Right boys, the serpent has worked up a thirst. Last one to the Boar’s head is a slow worm. Mine’s a snake bite.”
Ever been to the Welsh coast? Don’t, you’ll never leave.
James Johnston, my sheepdog, and I were watching one of the 'Twilight' films the night before last, but I barely saw a thing from behind the sofa. Gosh, it was scary.
"Grow a backbone you big wuss," James snorted.
"Don't tell me you aren't unnerved. You said you didn't trust anything that gets up before half past ten in the morning."
"They're just mis-understood people with a wet patch for blood. Anyhow, they wouldn't get me. Not this time of year, anyway."
"Even you couldn't out run them."
"Well, a, I could and, b, it's not about out running them, it's a case of what you run into. Dickwad."
Yesterday morning James rose from his bed (after half ten) and beckoned forth to show me what he had been referring to.
It was a grim, eerie scene that greeted us as a veil of fog crouched on the soil. We very easily could have been stalking through the hills of Pennsylvania en route to meet the Count. We hiked across the meadows and into the Smatcher wood. Coal tits and linnets were busy about their work, flitting from branch to branch gathering tufts of pussy willow and twigs to make their nests. Crossley the buzzard was reading a paper high up in the canopy of the oldest oak tree on the farm. When he saw us moving between the trunks below he jammed the paper into a fork of the tree and swooped down.
"Alright fella's? You haven't got 20p for the bus have you?" I reached inside my pocket, but James stayed my hand.
"20p?" James snapped, "minimum spend on the bus is £1.30 for a single."
Crossley looked furtive. "Alright, give me £1.30."
"But you asked for 20p."
"Now I'm asking for £1.30."
"We are not giving you anything, because you don't want it for the bus. You're going to spend it on cider." Crossley began to fidget.
"Is that true, Crossley?" I asked.
"Come on Tommo, a buzzard has got to get his kicks."
"I'm disappointed in you Crossley," I said and we continued on.
"Can I have £75 for the train, then?" he yelled, but his cries died out as we strode further into the shade of the trees.
The rapier rays of the sun began to slice through the fog and dappled light landed on the woodland floor. Owlet the thrush, Llanevan's janitor, was cutting fencing posts from the body of a fallen ash tree. He stopped the engine of the chainsaw, lent against the horizontal trunk and fished for his rolling tobacco.
"How's it going Owlet?" James asked, "I couldn't nick a rizla?"
"Thirsty work this is boys. You haven't got £1.30 for the bus?"
"Yeah, no problem," James said and handed over the fare. "Cheers for the skin," he said and we continued on.
"How is the bus going to ease his thirst?" I asked.
"What? He's going to spend it on cider."
"But why wouldn't you give it to Crossley?"
James stopped to light his cigarette and then shook his head, "you've got a lot to learn," he said and marched on.
We approached an area of the wood where young self seeded oaks twisted towards the light.
"Halt!" James said and looked me dead in the eye. Silence. He drew gently on his cigarette and stared at me. For an age.
James narrowed his eyes. "Why wouldn't the Vampires get me?"
"Uh, because you are boring? What are we doing stood here?"
James shook his head again. "You're going to have to learn the hard way," he said and headed off back to the farmhouse.
Midnight. I declared that it was time for bed, but James had other ideas.
"Put your running shoes on, you are coming with me."
The day of radiant sunlight had left a clear night sky in its wake. A million stars became our ceiling.
"Where are we going, James?"
"We are going to educate you. There's one thing I need you to do. When I say 'run', don't stop to ask 'why?'."
It was then that I knew we were not alone.
James paced purposefully on, his eyes continually skirting over the still night around us. His feet moved quicker and quicker, until we were both trotting. Then his ears pricked up and he looked behind us.
"Run!" I glanced over my shoulder to see three dark shapes moving swiftly across the meadow.
James was already twenty yards out in front moving quicker than a chav for the Primark doors on sale day.
He was heading for Smatcher wood.
"Who are your mates?!" I yelled as we sped into the wood and the throaty husks of the shapes grew ever so closer.
"Vampires!" he barked and my legs moved in an even swifter revolution. The thought of becoming the juice in a Vampire cocktail can't half make one pick up the pace and as we plunged deeper beneath the trees Usain Bolt wouldn't have got a hand on me. James and I were now stride for stride.
"What the hell are you doing?!" I screamed.
"The education is just about to begin!" he replied with a wicked grin and as we ran into the area populated by the young oaks the Vampires were close enough to pick a pocket; or nick a neck; and just as they were about to sink their teeth, they fell to the cool earth and thrashed about on the soil.
"Halt!" James ordered and he stopped. The Vampires climbed to their feet and bore their teeth, but would not advance. James set his rump down in the foliage and yelled, "come on then ya buggers! Blood on tap, right here!" but still they kept their distance.
"What kind of dark arts are at work inside this wood?" I asked.
"There are no dark arts, you plonker," James said ripping some leaves from the woodland floor, "it's just wild garlic."
He was right. And we were stood in a green sea of it.
"Well, well. You learn something new every night."
James and I filled our pockets and walked coolly passed the frothing Vampires back to the bosom of the farmhouse without so much as a fang injection.
Wild garlic pesto
The shiny, green leaves of wild garlic can be confused with other seasonal plants such as the lily of the valley on sight, but the simple way to differentiate is by ripping the leaf and inhaling the odour. Wild garlic, like it's bluebell chum, is a mean spreader and once you have found one leaf, you find a million.
100g of fresh picked wild garlic leaves
50g of shallots or spring onion
50g of pine nuts
150ml of olive oil
50g of grated Parmesan cheese
Half a tea spoon of salt
And/or half a tea spoon of sugar / black pepper depending on your tastes
Blitz the greens, nuts and oil in a blender, then mix in the rest of the ingredients with a spatula. It is a winner on toast.
Wild garlic and venison heart.
Venison is not only a fine meet, but the subject of the shortest joke known:
'Venison is dear, isn't?' You can thank James for that one.
Simply open up the heart(s) with a sharp knife, removing the capillary tube top-end, cut into slithers and fry in a very hot pan with olive oil. Lay the heart on the leaves and drizzle the pan juice all over. Deer me, it is a fine dish. The punch of the garlic marries well with the density and flavour of the deer engine.
‘Spring has sprung, the grass has ris
I wonder where the birdy is?
Some say the bird is on the wing,
But that’s absurd, cos the wing is on the bird.’
Llanevan knows that Spring has arrived when James Johnston strolls onto the yard into the cool bright air and declares those words. Devoid of scarf and brandy he stands there in flat cap and with ale and welcomes the daffodils that crane their jaundice bonnets towards the five month shy sun.
Llanevan welcomes Spring this year with trepidation, however. The Schmallenberg virus has been reported to have hit 121 farms so far in the UK and although none have been confirmed in Wales, it is a nervous time. The virus has been transmitted to the ewes by a European midge believed to have been blown across the Channel by the unseasonal warm autumn weather. (A carbon copy transition that bore the Blue tongue threat of a few years ago). The virus cripples un-born lambs in the womb and makes it difficult or impossible for the ewe to give birth. In order to save the mother the lamb’s limbs need to broken and only then can it be brought into the open air. If the lamb is born by the ewe it dies a few hours later. Thankfully my first lamb has been born and it is a hopeful sign for the rest of the flock.
The lamb, born to Lisa the Ryeland ewe, is a picture of health, although it’s solid body, square shoulders and horn stubs suggest that it is the legacy of Tap ‘n’ Go: http://llanevandiary.blogspot.com/2011/11/horny-ram-love-knows-no-boundaries.html and not the intended offspring of one of the five Speckled Faced rams bought for the very purpose of breeding. But at a time of such unknown peril it is churlish to be picky; a sprightly lamb is a welcome relief no matter what the parentage might be.
The threat of a virus is distasteful at any time, but especially at a point when such a strain is already weighing on the livestock of Britain.
The price of red meat is the highest for twenty years and shows no sign of dipping. The reason for this is that the numbers of livestock have dwindled dramatically over the last two decades, taking huge blows from the BSE crisis, foot and mouth and despairing farmers who have ploughed the penniless meadows in favour of cash crops. It was not long ago that desperate shepherds were unloading their sheep at RSPCA holdings declaring that they could not afford to keep their animals alive.
Yet in such reactive times it only takes a slight global shift for the tables to be substantially turned.
The emergence of superior Chinese spending has seen much of Britains imported red meat landing on their soil. Australian and New Zealand lamb that was supplementing a fair majority of the British meat market now makes a considerably shorter journey to the shores of their Asian traders. Argentina have retained much of their beef in an attempt to bring their own prices down and so steak by chop the British Isles have found themselves becoming more and more self sufficient, but without the animals to do so.
Farmers would have been hoping for an abundance of lambs with a view to flooding the future market with sheep, now they stand powerless, unsure whether the pregnant ewes carry duff cargo.
Yet farming is a fickle business. Six years ago, after suffering a dreadful spell in the market doldrums, the price of lamb swung skywards. To cash in on the favourable prices and to ease the pain of the penniless years, many farmers killed pregnant ewes obtaining an eye watering price for a previously worthless sheep, yet scything down a generation before it was born. That generation, and the many others it would have created, are notable by their absence.
Farming still faces the same old questions and uncertainties, but it seems they become keener by the season. Is it too extraordinary to suggest that sheep and cattle will only be seen in nature reserves or referred to as extinct animals of yester year? It is not an extreme suggestion with so many issues obscuring the scene. http://llanevandiary.blogspot.com/2011/05/not-black-and-white.html
Many farmers are market nomads, never satisfied to ride out the bleak in hope for the bright. The potato phenomenon is a classic example. Buoyed by the endless possibility of the humble spud and a nation’s love of chips, the potato trade turned red hot. Salivating farmers watching the market graph head for the heavens, bought up expensive equipment and ploughed the grazing fields in favour of the spud seed. The band wagon wheels sagged under its many passengers. Times, for a while, were good, but soon the market was awash and the graph started to dip.
Nine years ago, post foot and mouth, a carcass of beef could be bought for £1.80 a kilo, barely enough return to warrant keeping cattle at all and many beef farmers sold their herds and went in search of cash crops. Now the average is £3.30 a kilo. Those that stuck to their guns are reaping the rewards, those that didn’t are still searching. Farming moves in a circle. You can guarantee that when the chips are down if you KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON you’ll return to the point of prosperity previously realised.
Yet if the farmer feels the need for change the skill is to twist into a new phenomenon before anyone realises it will be just that. The current trend is with wheat, cornering the bread and bovine feed market, but the phenomenon for the future is timber. Whisper it quietly though or else everyone will want a piece of the pie and soon we will not be able to see the wood for the trees.
Yet an island rich in trees would at least please a few animals. The cattle and sheep would welcome it. They’d have something to hide within giving them a chance to prolong the inevitable: before they’re hunted to extinction.