We recently ran a local history writing competition and promised that we’d put the top three up on here for people to read. In second place was a story centred on Newark as a market town for the surrounding countryside. Lucy Grace takes us into the relatively recent past through a child’s eyes and contains some beautifully written observations on farm life.
I waited all year for the Easter holidays. But I was a wise six-year-old not fooled by chocolate promises in the form of foiled eggs and fluffy rabbits – I knew about life. School was an annoyance I had to endure. The other kids didn’t like me anyway; they made fun of my clothes and boots and hair and home at the farm. It was unfair that the things I had no say in were the things I was bullied for. But no matter – Easter holidays meant no school, and no school meant the cattle market. All the animals sorted, tidied and ordered by size and colour and species and breed – like a giant sewing box with bobbins all nestled against each other. Even then sometimes an unruly bobbin would be pushed up against the others and rear up against the metal railings, resting on the back of the other animals, king of the castle.
Just as my fingers were drawn to the bobbins in my Granny’s sewing box, they were drawn to the different textures of the animals, to feel the warm backs and knobbly spines of the calves and the wiry faces and springy wool of the sheep. Except I knew that animals moved more suddenly than bobbins and that it hurt to trap little fingers, so I shoved my hands down into fists in my coat pocket, adding a frown and a slightly longer stride to look like someone who came to market every day. My little wellies skidded on the cobbles – my step wasn’t long enough to fall neatly between the slippery gaps and I reached for my father’s warm hand to steady me. Walking through the yard in his falling shadow made me feel like a king. He was my king – king of the cattle market. I watched him greet other worn farmers and rough cattlemen with a quiet nod and a glance and a raised brow. Whole conversations were held without words.
They were all ‘lads’, these weathered men, ageing in dog years. The wind and harsh life took them from twenty-one to sixty years old almost overnight, from apprentice to old-timer without the difficult parts in between. The softness of women and weddings and mewling babies was indoor work and they were not concerned with it. They spoke as men from another country. I loved listening, it was so simple, easier than the songs at church. Women seemed to use and waste so many words in one simple exchange. What if they only had a certain number of words, I worried, what if they used them all up, and fell silent aged forty? My dad would be all right – he would be able to converse until he was a thousand years old, eking out the words as he did, like careful rope paid out over a stack cloth.
In the sale ring the auctioneer was calling out. A different breed to any of the men I knew, he spooled a continuous river of sound, the consonants rolling and rumbling like stones in a barrel. He seemed posh; although he didn’t pronounce all of his letters the vowels were elongated and drawn out, changing their timbre like the Minster bell tolling. He stood over all of us, waistcoat and watch chain establishing status. As he strode along the high walkway, conferring new lives on the sheep in the pens below him, I watched and marvelled at the tweedy glamour.
But even he could not compete with my love for the animals. I looked sideways under my eyelashes at the sharp teeth of the sheep and the sucking mouths of the calves, all pink, wet and fleshy, foamed milk and feed crusted into slime at the sides of their mouths. I knew that if I touched their noses they would push back, rubbery not soft. I recognised, even with my fingers in my pockets, the similarity of all those sniffing snouts, the wrinkled piglets and the nudging goats with the firm pink pads of the cats on the farm at home. People thought animals were all cute and fluffy fur. They never got close enough to see what they were really made of, their sinews and muscles and scales. The Easter Bunny had made them all soft. I wasn’t soft.
The cloying smell of the poultry shed made me cough and I swallowed it down so as not to be sissy. Leaning closer to my father, I eyed the strutting cockerels nervously. On the yard I frequently ran the long way around to get to the road, as our cockerel had taken against me and I was frightened of his spurs. I dreamed that he sharpened them each morning before I awoke, and the crow he made to wake the farm was really a war cry, preparing for battle with me. But I kept on walking through this fog of warm feathers. My father smiled down on me, and I smiled back, our shared excitement unspoken.
The room at the end of the poultry shed had only one window. The pane was cracked across the left-hand corner, but the dirt caked on both sides held the loose triangle of glass in place. Garlanded cobwebs hung in elaborate grey strands across the low ceiling, making chandeliers from the bare bulbs swinging on the end of fly-spotted electrical flex. The far end was a wall of stacked cages and wire mesh. From some of them shone an eerie glow as heat lamps kept their tiny occupants warm, but it was the dark heat coming from the table at their left which drew us like moths. My father bent to squint at the badly written card on the second box, and as he turned and straightened up, he placed his hand on the wooden lid.
“Happy seventh birthday, Sam,” he said quietly, not looking at me. “Now, let’s get you all home.”
I spent every waking minute of the remaining Easter holidays in the barn with my box, carefully lifting the lid before gently closing it again, all the while speaking softly to the occupants. But I could not alter the fact that the new school term was approaching, and I would once again have to put on uncomfortable clothes and leave my beloved farm. It was late on Sunday night when my father came to the barn to find me, my forehead resting on the lid of the box.
“Come on Sam,” he said. “Bedtime for you. School tomorrow.” I could see from the empathic look on his face that he too wished I did not have to leave the farm just yet – although he liked solitude he enjoyed my little company too. Wordlessly, I rose and walked up to the house, my small feet dragging on the gravel.
The following morning I was woken by my father, into the cold early morning light which followed the clocks changing. Alarmed, I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs. He did not usually come into my bedroom, and I was worried that something was wrong. But when I reached the kitchen he was already at the door, holding out my coat and boots.
“Outside,” was all he said. And without further explanation my heart leapt in my chest and I hoped fervently that he knew. Outside.
In the barn, he stopped me at the door, placing his finger on his lips. We tiptoed to the box and he stepped back as we approached. I looked to him for guidance, but he gestured to me to go forward and open it. Taking a deep breath, I slowly raised the warm wooden lid. At first, I could not see properly in the dim light, but as my eyes adjusted I saw a small movement. Inside, nestled in the incubated straw, were six perfect eggs. No shiny foil, no smell of chocolate – these were the real deal. Eggs with life inside them.
As I looked, a tiny beak poked through a hole in a shell. They were hatching, right in front of me! I couldn’t move, and I was barely aware of the bales my father stacked behind me so that could sit down.
“It can be a long job, hatching,” he said. And with that I knew I had one more day’s reprieve from the beginning of the school term, confirmed when he said, “You’ve had a bad cough.”
Over the next six hours I watched each wet chick peck its way into life, and over the next six months I made friends with my lady hens as they started to lay. I became known up and down the lane as, “Sam’s Eggs”, delivering them to neighbours. Only one, an old man, said that it wasn’t the right job for me.
“Whoever heard of a lady farmer?” he asked me, one day. “It’s no job for a lass, Samantha.”
“My Dad has,” I replied, quietly. “My Dad says I’m the best son he never had.”