PART OF THE The Spring Issue ISSUE
‘Spring should be well on its way but winter’s returned, sending a wind with icicles in its breath to bother the barn’s roof slates’
Spring should be well on its way but winter’s returned, sending a wind with icicles in its breath to bother the barn’s roof slates. They rattle in protest but, heedless, it blasts beneath one door, making a chilly tunnel through to the opposite one leading to the steading. It’s the same route Mum took on her way to sorting out Frankie but I’m staying here. I’m keeping away from the draught on the stairs leading up to the grain loft.
It’s full of calf-feed sacks. As I sit dreaming of the future, a whiff of linseed escapes through the bags’ hessian. It wafts past with the same odd pungency of the sawdust at the circus where Granny once took us.
Looking round, everything suddenly becomes so crystal clear that it merits jumping up and dusting my hands on my kilt. It’s a piece of luck that we’ve got this barn. Why didn’t I think of it before? It’s got loads of space: ideal for practising. What could be more exciting than life in a circus?
When I grow up, I’ll join one.
As a starting point: something simple. Remembering the ease of the trapeze artists flying through the air, I check the rafters. They’ll be perfect for swinging on, and if I jump high enough, easy to reach from the top of the stairs. The barn’s stone floor might have its drawbacks and even from this vantage point does seem far down below. Still, it’s mostly covered in a high pile of loose straw. It’s not quite a safety net but it’ll do.
Occasionally on a dark night at home shooting stars rain silver showers on our dimmed moor with the same magical ease that the circus artists gave to their act. As they flew, twirled and pirouetted from one trapeze bat to another, the sequins on their scanty satin costumes sparkled in glittering arcs under the spotlight. Who could imagine so many of these bright discs could be fitted onto so little a space? One day I’ll get to wear one of those costumes, then, starburst-like, will fly through the air to the rapturous applause of a huge audience.
It’s an inspiring dream. Of course everybody has to start in a simple way but the experience of being brought up on a farm with a wild bull should guarantee quick promotion in the circus world. Look at Frankie! Have I not managed to survive living alongside this awesome animal?
As if mind-reading, he lets out a high-pitched shriek. It cuts through the barn’s thick walls with as vicious a sound as that of logs being sliced on our circular saw. The combination of the roar of the tractor that drives the belt and wood being cut makes such an endless racket that I should be grateful that Frankie’s cry is brief.
Still, I shout, ‘Awa’ an’ bile yer heid, Frankie. I ken you’re mad cos you’re shut in, but it’s for your own good. Instead of making that horrible racket you should be glad you’re inside. It’s miserable outside. Just listen to that wind!’
I’ve never been close enough to stare back into our bull’s red-hot eyes but they appear too often in my nightmares. Today, however, he’s not grazing in some field you might have thought was empty and so get a fright to see him there. We’re safe enough because Dod’s properly fixed the hole in the wall that Frankie made.
Still I remember the warning. ‘Dinna go near that beast. Nay animal likes to be shut in, especially Frankie. He’s right enough outside but, to tell you the truth, when he’s penned in and I’m feeding him I feel the better o’ having a pitchfork wi’ me . . . just in case. Of course, your mother,’ his voice softens as he continues, ‘she says that all he needs to keep him in order’s a good row, but that’s your mother.’ He shakes his head in admiration. ‘Aye, she’s a bit of a control merchant, right enough.’
A pitchfork together with Mum’s method of managing Frankie seems a good combination. It would probably work on caged circus animals too. I remember the penned-in lions. They sounded like lots of trapped bulls on a bad-weather day but I also recall them slinking into the ring, looking more sad than angry.
And it did seem a bit daft getting them to sit on seats far too small for them. The trainer’s free use of a whip to help them get the idea meant they did as they were told but it looked cruel to me. It was probably just as well that Granny had nodded off at this point in the show and that Mum wasn’t there. What’s the betting she’d have been shouting advice at the trainer? I nearly did it myself but, just as I opened my mouth, Elizabeth shut me up with one of her dark looks and an elbow jab.
The black stallion was far happier. For his performance, he held his plumed head high as he galloped round and round the ring, his coat gleaming, tail streaming and mane flowing. It was easy to see that he was proud carrying his bareback rider. She didn’t need a whip. Instead, before standing up to wave to us, she whispered to him, gentling his neck. The sound of his hooves thumping on the sawdust added so much excitement that we all got to our feet to cheer at the end of the performance. Perhaps the horse enjoyed it too. He bowed his head right down to the ground, as his rider acknowledged the applause.
‘And I’ve got a horse too! I’ve got you,’ I call to Dobbin, patiently waiting at the bottom of the stairs. His head’s back on. It surfaced in Duck’s house under the fir branches. I had forgotten it was left there. Dobbin looked so much better when returned to his other half. He was also long-suffering when I tried to fix it on for good.
‘I’m afraid bits of wood’s not the answer,’ I’d to tell him, ‘but I’m sure if I get some Copydex glue that’ll do the trick. Let’s have another go tomorrow. Mum says it sorts everything out. Only I need to get it from her first. She says it needs to be rationed out. The last time I had it, it went everywhere.’
I hadn’t reckoned on Dod’s joinery skills.
‘When you were in bed last night, I nailed your horse’s head back on.’ He sounded so pleased it didn’t seem right to say that it would have been nice to have helped. Dobbin’s my horse so it would have proved to him that he’s got a caring owner. I’d have had a shot of the good stuff in Dod’s toolbox as well.
The vet medicine cupboard hasn’t the same attraction. From where I sit on the stairs, it’s easy to look down on what was an old wardrobe. Dod didn’t manage to fix the door, which is always open, but he did fit the shelves that hold Cow Drench, boxes of M&B tablets and huge tins of ointment for soothing cows’ cracked teats. There’s also black rubber ones and they’re for putting on feeding bottles for orphan lambs. I wonder if Shadow remembers that. She certainly knows how to drink out of a pail. If you’re carrying one, she’ll butt you to get at it.
And she’s persistent. The battering sound coming from the other side of the barn door announces that she’s trying to force her way in.
‘Stay outside,’ I shout. ‘You only followed me so you could sneak inside to steal the cattle feed.’ As her pathetic bleats continue, I harden my heart. ‘Look! I’m only here to practise for the circus an’ I know you wouldn’t want to be part of it. Whoever heard of a performing sheep?’
There’s other more suitable cast members. Nell the collie, meanwhile, out helping Dod with some cattle work, might do but it’s doubtful. As soon as she saw a collection of anything, she’d herd it into a corner. She’s not beyond giving the odd ankle nip either and I suspect she wouldn’t worry about sinking her teeth into somewhere even sorer. You should see her biting the Fergie tractor’s wheels.
All in all, beginning to be aware there’s limited choice, I say, ‘Right, Dobbin. It’s going to be you and me, and now that your wheels and head are together I’ll come down and get on your back and we’ll round up the barn cats. They’ll be great and they’re bonny as well.’ I raise my voice for Shadow’s benefit. ‘They’re clever and not half as greedy as some animals I could mention.’
Cats might not be quite the same as lions, but you have to start somewhere and there’s quite a few of them around now. A horrible insect used to scuttle about the barn walls. They were tempting for those natural hunters to catch and eat. Unfortunately, they were also deadly poisonous. Mum was at her wits’ end trying to keep cats but never succeeded until she got Pansy, our tortoiseshell tabby.
She was the runt in a litter of healthy kittens but the only one to survive. Since then she’s boosted the numbers of insect-immune cats to a very healthy count. Actually, now that I look properly at her, rather too healthy. She could have more kittens and any minute now.
She comes to watch and starts to groom her ears as I fiddle with a stick and a length of Glesga Jock. It’s a funny name for thick twine, which looks more like a lion’s tail of the same colour. Normally, it’s used for tying onto weights to keep corn stacks in place, so I suppose that’s why it needs to be so strong. It feels harsh in my hands and difficult to knot but at last I manage to make something that looks like a whip.
For a moment, Pansy stops to consult her cleaning-paw and looks thoughtful as I say, ‘Hey, Pansy! It looks as if you need to be excused from today’s training but you’d better not let Dod see you.’ I stroke her head. ‘You know he disna want any more kittlins.’
What I don’t tell her is that she’d probably be a useless performer: she’s too independent to be trainable. As well as that, she’s got a wonky leg from trying to pull herself out of a snare. If Dod hadn’t rescued her and carried her home, she’d have had to settle for a three-legged future.
At the time, he’d said, ‘She’s a proud wee catty, and doesn’t usually take you on, but what a fuss she made of me. Ye’d have thought I’d rescued her fae a blazing inferno.’
These days, however, he’s fallen out of favour, but I haven’t. She purrs and watches as I experimentally flick the whip.
‘I’ll no’ be using it for hitting anything, Pansy. It’s a lure. Maybe you won’t, but I bet the other cats will chase it.’ Imagining them running after Dobbin and me in a circle exactly like a circus ring is beginning to get me excited, but just as I’m preparing for action, Pansy starts.
‘Miaow!’ It’s such a loud cry, nobody could ignore it. Her tail’s straight up as she pads towards the barn door leading to the steading. Then she stops and looks back.
‘Prrh!’ It’s the encouraging noise she uses when coaxing her young to follow her and it’s a very clear message.
I use my strict voice. ‘Look, Pansy,’ I say, ‘it’s freezing out there and can’t you see I’m busy? I’m on my way to become an animal trainer and, you might not know this, but it’s a fiddly business getting things for a training session. I should’ve known you’d want to do something different.’ I nod at the other cats. ‘They’ve come to see what’s going on. Look at them. They’re just happy to watch.’
‘Miaow!’ She comes back, looks at the rope in disgust. ‘Miaow.’
Her call grows more insistent. As she heads back to the door again, she looks over her shoulder as if to say, ‘For goodness’ sake. Just follow me. Can you not take instruction?’
I sigh and throw down my labours. ‘Well, Pansy, if you freeze to death or drown, don’t blame me.’
When I open the barn door, she slips through, but before I can shut it, she runs on a little way, turns, then calls to me in the most wheedling of tones.
Between Shadow crying to be let inside and Pansy caterwauling to be allowed outside, it’s becoming apparent that Shadow’s the brighter of the two, especially when I get a clue as to what this is all about.
Pansy might not want to be in the barn but she still wants to be inside. Tail still up, she mixes her calls with purrs, glancing up at me with the same encouraging look that Mum gives when I can’t down thick, lumpy porridge.
Mesmerised, I watch from the door whilst she trots back and fore to the last place on earth anybody would want to go. Then, horrified and making the other cats scatter, I squeal, ‘No, Pansy! You must be mad. You canna go there. That’s Frankie’s pen.’
Telling Tales: Growing Up On A Highland Farm by Jane Yeadon is out now published by Black & White Publishing priced £7.99.
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R. M. Murray is founding director and Head of Visual Art & Literature at An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. He studied in Aberdeen and then at the Glasgow School of Art, where he was in a punk band with Peter Capaldi and Cr …
404 Ink is an alternative book and literary magazine publisher based in Edinburgh. Established in mid 2016 we sought to provide an alternative literary magazine for the Scottish reader market and beyond by publishing unusual fiction, non-fiction, poetr …