Jennifer Hodson (Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom)
I draw the car to a halt in the slurry covered yard and cut the engine; the windscreen wipers stop mid-sweep. There’s no-one about. I eye the ground with distaste and reach across to the passenger seat footwell for my boots, grateful as always to Ted. When I first started at the Herald, he’d said, “Got any Wellies?” When I’d laughed he said, “Well, you won’t be smiling when you’re up to your muff in mud and worse.”
This is worse. I’m at Penny Lane Farm – a 400 acre dairy farm with a staff of four. If I had any illusions about the quaint ways of the countryside when I first moved here, they are now all gone. This farm, like most of the others in the area, is highly mechanised. No yokels leaning over five bar gates with straw in their mouths; just computer operated systems monitoring milk yield, automated feed hoppers, and cattle processed like commuters on a tube train.
I slip out of my office court shoes and into my boots. I check my mobile in my pocket, take my note pad and pen from the passenger seat, and push open the car door. It is immediately caught by a gust of wind, and I have to wrestle it closed behind me, hunching into my coat against the rain. Squelching across the yard, I go to the nearest building, which turns out to be just a machinery store. The next one is the milking parlour, and my ears are filled with the sound of the milking machines humming, and the whoosh, whoosh of the milk being pumped out and away.
Bovine eyes regard me without curiosity as I pick my way down the centre aisle, and at first I think there’s no-one supervising. At last I see a figure moving about in the office at the end of the building. I pick my way down towards him, bracing myself.
The man looks up, but regards me with about as much interest as the cattle have done. He doesn’t respond.
“Mr Weighford?” I ask again when I reach the door of the tiny office.
“He’s in with the dry’uns.”
“The dry cattle – the ones who haven’t calved yet.” He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “End barn.”
I retrace my steps and slush down to the end barn as instructed. Mr Weighford is examining a heavily pregnant cow. He’s in his mid sixties, his face rough and weathered like an old fence post. The cow looks faintly put out and demonstrates her displeasure by lifting her tail and shitting copiously, splattering his left trouser leg.
“Mr Weighford? I’m Tracey Miller, from the Herald. I wonder if I could have a word.”
“Got nothing to say to you.”
“Oh but I think you have.” I surprise myself with the way my own voice comes out – there’s an edge even I wasn’t expecting. But I’m on sure ground here.
“Said all I have to say. Folks don’t listen anyway.”
“But you haven’t said anything. Only that you refuse to allow the canal to be reinstated across your land. You’ve not explained why.”
“Because it’s my land, and that’s an end to it.” Mr Weighford wades out from the deep, straw filled pen and shuts the gate. “There’s no use for a canal anymore. We’ve done perfectly well without one for the last fifty odd years. I don’t want to see it re-instated, and if it weren’t for your dirty rag stirring things up, no-one else would either.”
“The Herald is just reflecting public opinion, Mr Weighford. There are lots of people who want to see the canal restored – it would be good for tourism, boost the local economy, give people another leisure facility. The lottery funding is in place, the building contractors and volunteer groups are ready to go. The only thing standing in its way is you, Mr Weighford. We just want to know why you’re so against it.”
“Listen – those people who want the canal – if it was going through their garden they wouldn’t be so keen! People see lots of space here – think it doesn’t matter if some of it gets eaten up with building works. Well, it does matter.”
“But you’ll be compensated for the land itself. And they’ll install a bridge so you can still move your stock. There’s already a right of way along the route – if you’re worried about an increase in numbers of people using it, the lottery grant will include boundary fencing to protect both the public and your stock…”
“That’s enough!” His eyes are small and hard like buttons. They glitter with anger. “It’s my land – that’s all you have to know. They’re not putting that bloody canal across my land.”
“So he gave you short shrift, did he?” The landlord in the Pot & Kettle grins at me. “You surprise me.”
“I just don’t get it. Why such strong resistance?”
The landlord shrugs. “Maybe he just doesn’t want the upheaval. All the machinery on his land – upsetting the livestock.”
“Dunno what he’s getting so uptight about.” I take a sip of my abstemious orange juice. “Surely he’ll be retiring soon.”
The landlord snots. “Weighford, retired? That’s a good one. Never happen. He’ll die in service.”
“Hasn’t he got any children he can pass the place onto?”
“Nope. No kids. I think he had a daughter, but she died when she was quite young. His missus walked out on him years ago by all accounts.”
“No wonder he’s such a miserable old sod,” I mutter, and drain my glass. But my mind is already turning to another miserable old sod – Ted – and what he’s going to say when I get back to the office with no story.
Back at home in the evening, I sit in front of the news with the sound off, laptop open. Outside the rain hits the window like blown sand. Ted is, unsurprisingly, on my case. I need an angle for my canal story. The readers already know Weighford says no to the canal. They want to know why. I want to know why. I wonder about the dead daughter. I type Weighford – child – death. None of the links on the first page looks promising. I scroll idly through the second and third pages, half an eye on the silent, flicking images on the telly. I’m just about to give up when I catch sight of the word. Drowned.
He’s in the calving shed when I find him the following morning, leaning on the metal rail of the pen, watching, absorbed. I feel like I’m intruding on a private moment. The cow is licking, licking a slippery, black bundle at her feet. It moves, and I realise it’s a new born calf. It raises its head, submitting to its mother’s aggressive cleaning. It puts out a tiny, perfect foreleg and attempts to heave itself up. Back legs don’t hold, there’s a wobble and it falls into the straw again. Mother gives another aggressive lick. The calf tries again. Up, tottering, stunned at its own success.
Unconsciously, I drop to a crouch beside the pen, and look through the bars at this incredible creature only minutes old. It takes a couple of steps towards me and gazes, unfocused. Then it turns back to the warmth of its mother, hunting already for her milk.
“That’s amazing.” I get slowly to my feet, feeling like I’ve witness a mini miracle.
“Never get tired of it. Been doing this fifty-odd years and it’s like the first time every time.” The wooden old face has softened to real human flesh. “Shame it’s a bullock.”
“What will happen to him?”
“He’ll go to market – for beef. Or veal.”
“Oh…but he’s so perfect!”
He shrugs. “Makes no odds. Can’t keep stock that isn’t productive. We make next to nothing on the milk as it is.” He looks at me properly for the first time. “Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve come to talk about dairy farming?”
“I wanted to ask you about your daughter – the little girl who drowned. I wondered if what happened to her explained your attitude to the canal.”
The humanity is gone in an instant. Immediately I want to take back my clumsy questioning, but the words are out there, the damage done.
“What do you think?” he spits at me. “You’ve worked it all out – you don’t need me to tell you anything. You’ll print whatever you want to print.”
“But if the readers knew, they’d be able to understand your viewpoint.”
“And what? What then? It wouldn’t bring her back, would it?”
He pushes past me, half knocking me out of the way, and blunders away out of the building.
I won’t write the article. I have a row with Ted – in his office, door slammed shut.
“What do you mean, you’ve got nothing?”
I don’t tell him about the dead child. I allow him to think I’m simply incompetent. He takes me off the story. Gets me covering the Magistrates court instead, picking up titbits of news about the various cases. The new kid’s job.
Sunday night, late, I’m on my way home from a friend’s place, cutting across country. It’s a foul night. I find myself on Penny Lane, driving past the farm – the barns all bright and lit up, the house in darkness. I concentrate on the road through the swish of the windscreen wipers. No white lines on the tarmac – just the verges to guide me.
Lights in the distance – a car coming towards me on the other side. No, a car parked. I slow. It’s an old Land Rover, headlights and hazards on. I drop my window, slow right down.
Weighford, outlined in the headlights, is stooping in front of the bonnet.
“Car trouble, Mr Weighford?”
He doesn’t answer. There’s a winch on the front of the Land Rover; he’s using it to winch something out of the ditch on the side of the road. A slippery black body. A calf, the head lolling.
“Do you need a hand, Mr Weighford?” I put my own hazards on, get out, go to help. The metal winch cable has cut into the flesh of the calf’s hind legs. Mr Weighford is trying to free it but his hands are shaking. He moves to let me take over. The dead calf’s legs are stiff and cold, but the cable comes free easily enough. I look up at Weighford. It’s not just rain on his face, he’s crying.
“He was early – wasn’t meant to come till next week. I’d have had her in the shed, else.” There’s a catch in his voice. “Stupid thing tried to get under the hedge for cover while she had him – but it’s so wet, he must have slipped straight in the ditch. Didn’t have a chance, poor bugger.”
We stand helplessly in the rain, staring at the dead calf.
“I should have had her in,” says Weighford. “Should have had her in.”
I want to say something to make it seem less awful. “Well, at least it’s only a bullock.”
Weighford drags a hand across his face. “It’s still a life.”
I help him lift the calf’s body into the back of the Land Rover. Weighford is still shaking, and when he gets back in the cab and drives off, I turn my car round and follow. By the time I pull into the yard, the carcass is gone from the back of the Land Rover and Weighford is walking back towards the house. He waits for me.
In the warm fug of the kitchen, he puts the kettle on. A moth eaten dog lies on an old bit of duvet in front of the Rayburn, his tail thumps the floor rhythmically at the sight of us but he doesn’t get up. His head drops back on his paws, eyes closed.
Weighford passes me a towel. It smells faintly of washing powder and warmth. I towel my soaking hair. He makes tea in large, chipped mugs and we sit at the big wooden table. I glance at his red rimmed eyes and wait for him to speak.
“She were on a school trip, my little Amy. Nine years old. It was November – cold and wet. She had a big coat on and boots, and a little rucksack with her sandwiches in.” He pauses, holding the picture of her in his mind’s eye. “They were on a canal tow path. They said afterwards the path was slippy, with all the leaves and that. She’d been at the back. Got distracted by something, ran to catch up. Slipped. The way the sides of canals are built – well, they’re flat, upright, aren’t they – nothing to get hold of. One of the teachers went in after her, but…”
There’s silence. Just the sound of the dog’s rhythmic breathing.
“She couldn’t swim.” His voice breaks. “My fault. I wouldn’t…wouldn’t let her have lessons.”
“Why was that?”
“I…was afraid. She was such a dainty little thing. Couldn’t see her in the water. Wanted to keep her safe.” He swallows, eyes fixed on his tea. “Her mother was all for her having lessons, but I said no. Too dangerous.”
“But swimming’s fun. Why were you so afraid for her?”
“I’ve always hated the water.”
“Because of the canal when you were a child?” I guess.
“Not the canal. Oh, I remember it from when I was a lad, but it wasn’t of any interest – all silted up. Stagnant. People chucked rubbish in it.” He pauses. “We preferred the pond – least, my brother did. He was a couple of years older, but he let me tag along with him and his mates. The others, they were all jumping in, splashing each other – all that. I was just paddling round the edges where it was shallow. They were trying to get me to go in the deep bit. Taunting me. Then my brother picks me up and throws me in. Got all my clothes on – boots, everything. And the water’s freezing even though it’s a nice day. Got water all around me – the noise, the power of it, pulling me down. Like I’m tumbling in water. Can’t breathe. It’s so deep. Don’t know where the surface is.”
Weighford is leaning forward over the table as though stretching out to the memory.
“They got me out of course. Made me promise not to tell anyone. But I hated water after that. Never learnt to swim. Had the bloody pond filled in when I took over the farm.”
His head drops. He broods over his mug.
I try to think of something to say. Everything sounds trite.
“There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t wish I’d let her have lessons.”
“You were doing what you thought was best,” I say lamely.
“I was a fool.”
“What’s done is done, Mr Weighford, you can’t go back.” Something clicks in my head. “But we could do something – to make a difference to now.”
He looks up, his eyes still heavy and dark with memory, and listens while I outline my idea.
A crowd is gathered in the spring sunshine. There is a speech from the Chairman of the local council, another from the Canal Preservation Society. The big orange digger makes the first excavation into the silted up canal basin. Cameras flash.
Weighford, stiffly strange in a suit, stands to one side, keeping out of the limelight. I go to join him, hand him a folder. It contains all of the articles we’ve run about our “SwimSafe” campaign, about our lobbying for funding, plus the latest leaflet the local swimming pool has produced – free swimming lessons for school children.
“They won’t just learn to swim – they’ll learn about safety around water, how it’s not just about being a good swimmer. They’ll do exercises like swimming in their clothes, and against the wave machine.”
He takes the folder, flicks through it, nodding to himself. “Very, very good.”
The digger clunks and rumbles. Weighford slips the folder under one arm and says, “You know this is going to take years? I’ll be long in my grave by the time they get the bloody thing finished!”
“Get on…” I grin at him.
Jennifer is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. She has previously written stories for children’s magazines, and has had one or two articles published. With a few draft novellas lying abandoned in a drawer, she is now half-way through what she likes to think will be her first “proper” novel. She lives in Shropshire with her husband, step-daughter, cats, dogs and hens.