Monday, 14 January 2013

(Un) Happy Ewe Year (archive)

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.”

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