The whole thing about bum cracks and manual workers is derided only by people who don’t work hard, physically, and by younger people, thinner people. Alec didn’t care what people thought, what stuff looked like, what was falling apart or falling down as long as it did the job. It’s as much as he could do to pick himself up after bending down to fiddle with something. He picked up, pulled up what he could, when he could. He was at the stage where he had to prioritise physical effort in a very task specific way. After hours, years of hard labour, his time was spent just getting done, anything else was superfluous. It wasn’t giving up, it was getting by.Work had worn Alec out. He couldn’t sit down at the end of the day and do much more than eat and sleep. Alec was not one of those people who lived to work, he worked to live but life was now hollowed out. Yes he still made lists and lists still led to subsidiary lists, each new task created three, maybe four further tasks and his scribbles continued into and onto the backs of envelopes, receipts… He’d find old lists in the pockets of jackets, coats, trousers, the windscreen of the tractor, only half completed, long forgotten. The world moved on and so had priorities.
If only Alec had had some peace, some time, then things could be have been different, then he could have started living to work, rather than… If he could have moved again, got away from this place with its sad insular, covertly intrusive people, leaving him tied down to tedium and trivial distractions; what do the shore fields look like from the road? If he could have cut himself off, listen to the birds sing, not waste hours of the day on mundane back breaking routines, then he’d have moved away from simply writing lists. He’d have got stuff off his chest. If…
For years he’d come in cold and hungry, cooked, fed himself, fed the children, got them ready for bed. A couple of pages of Mrs Boot the Farmer and her children, Poppy and Sam, and their dog called Rusty… Two shovels of coal on the stove, pop open a can of beer, turn on the TV and he’d be away. Although that was never the intention. That was Alec for the rest of the night, and for the rest of his life, or at least the next twenty, twenty five years. Alec was there until the coal burned to ash and it started getting cold, really cold.
For twenty five years it’d been up in his clothes, ready for the next day, ready for the early shift before starting with the children, when they were here. No need for jim-jams, shiny teeth, no traffic jams or shiny suits, just straight up and out into the yard with the cows. For the cold dark months Alec would be unrolling frosty silage bales by hand while they were suspended from a spike from the tractor’s front loader, over an old rusty feed trailer. A scattering of sugar-beet pellets, if the silage smelt bad. Re-attach trailer to tractor and back a tonne and a half of feed into the big shed and let the cows back in, jostling for position. It was usually before dawn so only the tractor’s narrow lights gave Alec a limited vista of what was going on around him.
It’s like being an alcoholic. The monotony of the day job went on and on until everything else was gone. He was yet to get beyond list writing. He used to think his father was crazy or lazy, too dependent on his mother for his business admin, farm records, bookkeeping and the failure to get his tax in order, in time. Then Alec grew up and, after a brief sojourn in the city, where he’d found and lost a wife, he started doing the same work. Suddenly, Alec was there, replacing old with new, fully clothed, asleep in a chair. No stories written, nor even any bills looked at or necessary forms filled. Not even any stories read, anymore; no more ‘Mrs Boot the farmer with her two children, Poppy and Sam and the dog, Rusty’, no more ‘Harry Potter and his Philosopher’s Stone’ or any ‘Waiting for Anya’.
Occasionally Alec would hear about others, on the radio in the tractor while he was shifting silage bales. Or read about them in Farmers’ Weekly. Other farmers wrote about their experiences. It could have been, should have been him, that the modern world of city and commuting lapped up as a quaint anachronism, his world of ewes and tups, dams and calves, heather and horizontal rain, the world of remote hill farming. How had these internet sensations done it? Which ball did they drop? How did they not sleep at night, just sleep? How did these modern farming social media mothers manage children, sheep, writing third books and their daily social media feeds?
Pull up your trousers Alec, maybe it’s not too late? But he was getting the sort of body that didn’t work with belts, needed braces (suspenders) to keep his trousers up (still below the belly). One day at a time, he thought. Today was going to be different. He would pull his trousers up, socks up. Get things tidied away. Alec could spread out his paperwork on the kitchen table. Do one piece of essential farm work, then think about his story… It would be a start and start today.
It was an odd idea. An old story. A local story. A word of mouth story. He’d been meaning to flesh it out, fictionalise, factionalise it, franchise it. At least jot down what he knew so far, list the relevant facts, what he’d been told more than a couple of times, from more than a couple of guys. Old men, who lived here about, here all their lives and who’d died or were about to. Alec didn’t want to make it an internet sensation, just blend it, autobiographically, a story for the kids and the kids’ kids to hold on to, store it, clamp it for when everything else was gone, for posterity. An extended epitaph?
Once, he’d thought, with an early background in office work, the first in his family to go to university, he’d have a competitive advantage if he ever took over. He’d be different. Things would be different. At some point farming had changed from being hard manual to being form filling in, marketing, business skills, also hard, more about admin, social skills, driving, public relations, environmental management with Byzantine levels of bureaucracy. The tedious nature of a nine to five, spreadsheets, conference calls and very junior type management skills had inculcated themselves into the very pores of agriculture. If successful farming is all about competing in various markets, it is also about competing for various management contracts, complying with a plethora of changing regimes, dealing with piles of forms and surveys that have become necessary prerequisites. It was change management, changed management, changed almost as much as education. Alec had once thought he was the new model farmer, educated. He wasn’t. To begin with he hadn’t know it, but soon he discovered the incapacitating nature of work; work undermined work, both the work he had to do and the work he wanted to do.
Everyday he would start afresh, like a recovering alcoholic, with one overriding desire and the ability to compartmentalise things, such that the days would come and go with only a minimum of achievements. One day at a time, then he bogged down with what he usually did. Another day was a new start, a new challenge, a new place to fulfil desires, dreams, achievements.
Everyday Alec would succumb to temptation, sleeping it off in a chair. No marketing, no planning, no tax returns, no sheep records or cow records done, no rural stewardship scheme rotation plan written and lodged, feed delivery negotiated to get maximum early order discount. And that short local story never had a hope. All he did was last minute stuff, fire fighting. Get up off his chair, put on boots, coat, feed cows, feed chickens, feed sheep, feed the kids (when they were still young, and still with him). Scrap down the yard. Straw down the sheds. Do a couple of emergency medical procedures. (After all, there’s only so much you can do with a prolapse spoon and some blue spray.) Replace a broken hydraulic pipe on the loader. Look at mending a fence (literally or metaphorically). Cook. Eat. Check the wee ones (in the pens in the shed nearest the house). Back in the house, boots off, feed, fall asleep in the chair next to the stove, with a half drunk beer, fully clothed and unintentionally ready for the next day.
Alec was so ungracious. People management skills got washed out with the slurry, beaten out with the pride of doing dirty dangerous work that no one cared about, nor even the produce (other than radio stories and internet sensations). He was treading water, he thought as he dossed, more ‘drowning not waving’.
On the odd occasion when there was someone else, she took on the paperwork, the day to day business stuff, animal-health records, all the stuff his mother used to do and he’d been so critical of his father for neglecting. He now never quite got around to dealing with paperwork, until it was too late, animal management records, most of which were statutory and obligatory, as well as the funding applications, all of which she had to do whilst keeping up a remote and demanding full-time job that, while she was there, subsidized the farm, bought in a newer tractor (now very old). A few days before a deadline, he would be told that this weekend ‘we’ really needed to get the sheep records up to date. And Alec, ungracious as always, would huff and puff from a shed, while she called out sheep numbers. He treated the whole exercise as if it was somehow her fault, as if she’d invented forms on some whim, as if livelihood didn’t depend on it.
‘We’re down to six tups now then?’ she asked. ‘What happened to that old Blackie?’
Of course, like everyone else, Alec made up sheep casualty details. He had no idea. He may have never got around to writing short stories but most of his farm records were an impressive, authentic looking, work of fiction. Even if he could remember, life was too complicated to fit into a box on a form measuring one centimetre by three.
Alec had cooked for the kids, cooked fallen stock for the dogs, and mostly neglected to cook the books until it was late or too late. At the end of the day he’d eaten and fallen asleep, year in, year out. Alec wasn’t a rebel, but he didn’t do what he was told, what he was supposed to. Alec didn’t write it down, make a note just after it happened so he’d remember. While sheep were dying he was either not there or too busy, too covered in blood and gore, too tired to record. The kids came home and went to school, then went away entirely and he worked, cooked, ate, fell asleep in the chair and failed to write anything beyond the odd perfunctory list. Though he collected and unconsciously collated lists.
Alec couldn’t get up again after he’d sat down of an evening, no matter how important, list or no list, life or death… His cans of beer got drunk but short stories went the way of all those unnecessary sheep casualties figures, nasty, brutish and short lives, never properly recorded.
‘Did that old Blackie tup die then?’
He assumed he’d remember. And remember that short story. He’d remember well enough to transcribe it, roughly.
He remembered being knee deep in a freezing stream, trying to pull up his soaking trousers, trying to pull up an old tup, lying on an inaccessible bank. He was a tup Alec should have culled the previous season. But he’d liked him. He remembered there were signs of trauma. Perhaps there’d been an altercation, perhaps a few days ago, perhaps a little longer. If there had been, it was a fight lost. The old Blackie tup was off his feet now and had been for a while. That was serious. The tup had managed to crawl, on his mud and abrasion scared knees, to the side of the burn, deep in the glen amongst bracken and brambles, all almost entirely impassable. It had lost condition, rib cage showing angrily. From the look of the fesses around its rear, off its feet for a while. The old tup was still heavy though, much too heavy to haul up the side of the bray. Alec would need the tractor, a front loader. But he’d never get close enough.
‘What did that tup die of?’
His breathing was erratic now. There was some bubbling around the nostrils. Wet trousers halfway down Alec’s bum crack, bending uselessly to try and get the tup up, back on it’s feet. He’d gone too far. It was hopeless. The only thing that still seemed alive, healthy, were the big brown eyes, passive, friendly, searching. It’d take on anything in its youth and that seemed so recently. Now it was tired, too tired to get up and deal with the bare essentials.
‘What did that old tup die of?’
What did he die of?
Alec suspect it’d died of a tiny, precise, incision to the side of the throat, in one jugular and out the other, cutting off the blood supply, the oxygen supply to the brain. Brain dead in less than a minute. Simultaneously, the old noble head was held briefly underwater, mostly to stop the blood spurting, but also suggesting that drowning might have been a cause of death.
What did he die of?
Failure to get up once he was down. Old age? Tiredness. Tidium. Too worked out to get up and work anymore. Life had become death. And what was the cause of death? Simply a working life, a working death. Futility, can that be a cause of death in older males?
Alec had another rough night, asleep on the chair, again. He had taken a drink. Drunk too much. He awoke cold, miserable, alone, again, wandered into the yard in his boots and only the clothes he’d slept in. Alec didn’t feel well. The air was bitter. His trousers slipped half way down his bottom as he bent to pick something up, what looked like a part of a childens’ toy, scraped up from the broken concrete by the yard tractor. There was a flash of everything that had been done and not done. A long visual visceral list. His arse crack was showing as he eased himself down lower. He was tired, his breathing laboured. There was some slight bubbling around his nostrils. There was a gap between where his fleece ended and his trousers began that let in a freezing draft, a gap of about four inches, maybe only three, or even just two, enough; enough to be uncomfortable but not enough for him to be able to rectify it. This would have to be his short story. The two inch gap at the top of his posterior rugae could be the shortest suicide note in history.
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