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Authors: Hilary Menos

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BOOK: Red Devon
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Five shining blades. The tractor rears and strains.

There's winter wheat to walk, lime to spread,

the barn to clear before the auction date.

The quad bike's got no brakes. The lad's off sick

so that's another weekend spoken for.

Headlights blazing, mind a blank, he ploughs

long after dark. Post on the doormat, untouched.

Rammed

Grunt barrows each ram to its own pen in the shed

near Peg, the in-lamb ewe with the broken leg,

though he needn't have bothered: one lies in the straw

shaking, not even as good as dead meat,

the other scrabbles the air with its front feet,

eyes bled black, unable to stand or walk.

By midnight the shaking stops. What little breath

comes short and slow. Grunt's seen enough

to know where this one's heading, and when it's due.

The other watches with a mixture of fear and scorn,

pressed against the hurdles, its curved horns

heavy on its neck, its slack back end askew.

Grunt fetches a bottle of Life Aid from the meds box,

drops by the all-night vet for some steroid shots,

brings water and an armful of horse hay,

then hauls the live one up till it half stands, half leans,

drags itself after him, bluffing and harrying his knees

even as its back legs slide under and away.

Two days later Peg lambs. Grunt cuts her cast

and eases open the wadding and crumbled plaster.

Watching her test the bone as her two lambs feed,

their tails a-shimmy, each one nuzzling a teat,

Grunt reckons the ram's had time. He speed dials Teague

as he's shepherding Peg and her lambs back into the field

and gets home from ploughing that night to find

three empty pens, an hour off his daily round,

and only a field full of healthy sheep to mind.

The Great Hog Oiler Round Up

Colin bought it at a farm sale in Iowa.

A nineteen-fifteen Lisle Swine-Ezer Hog Oiler.

“The Pig Farmer's Best Defense Against Mange and Lice,”

said Colin. A divorce present for his ex-wife.

Now it squats in Grunt's garden like a fire hydrant

or stocky pillar box, glistening with tractor paint.

Grunt leafs through the vintage catalogue, keen to buy

their blunt promise – Hog Joy, Health Hog, Rub Hog Or Die,

coveting one shaped like an outsize billiard ball

snug in its sump, nineteen-twelve, patent applied for.

So many scrapped, or rusting in ditches and barns,

the weight – and the history – of their cast iron forms

worth less than a powder puff dusting of lindane

(moderately hazardous). “Like the wife,” says Colin.

The Harrowing

Armed with bolt cutters, gauntlets and hand-held winch,

he starts third time lucky, cursing the dodgy earth,

backs up to join the harrow to the three point linkage.

It looks like a folding bedstead, the weave of the chain

like Qs with tails worn bright. Its counterweight

sends his front wheels bouncing all over the lane.

He starts at the top of the hill, raking the bents

for thistles and stroil grass and thatch. He likes this part.

He circles the field once more, then starts his descent.

At the bottom, one thick wheel broadsides the sedge

and the back of the harrow swings out and snags

on something anchored deep in the blackthorn hedge.

It feels as if hands are sucking him into the redshank,

an ancestor ploughed up and out of his cold barrow,

or offended by the grubbing up of an ancient bank.

Grunt slams the diff lock on with a curse and a prayer

and the tractor lurches and tips. Mud spatters his face

as the wheels churn, and churn, until he pulls away

dragging a tangle of wire and posts strung together

– the buried results of years of winter fencing –

a barbed necklace fit for some monstrous mother.

He parks in the yard back down at the farm in the valley

where bees nose orchids and white campion

and the cadences of the church bells barely carry,

opens the kitchen door, still sweating from his trial,

a dark hulk against the light, a mud-reamed troglodyte,

and sits down with a ‘Value' pizza in front of Countryfile.

Badger Season

Grunt has Dad's old Webley & Scott twelve bore

with the dinged end and the open scroll chasing on the stock,

the right barrel choked by three quarters,

the left choked by a half, for close work.

Teague has his usual .22 for the fox

and his .243 because you never know when...

(he mutters something inaudible about Brock)

and – for fun with rabbits – he's brought his four ten.

Both fancy trying their luck down at Rolster Bridge

but Colin's trying to impress some bird he met online

by taking her lad lamping that side of the ridge

so they sit for a while in the car watching the moon

and comparing guns. Teague likes a ballistic head

which shatters on impact, leaving no trace. Grunt says

last year testing left thirty-five thousand cattle dead

so frankly anything goes; vaccination, poison, gas.

Far off down the valley they hear a vixen howl

calling her mate. After an hour they go back to the farm.

The sheep are grey ghosts in the kale,

their eyes bright dots reflecting the Clulite's beam.

Grunt sends in the kelpie. She looks like a fox.

He's saying how easy it is – the glint through your sight

could be the eye of a fox, or a torch face,

or a button. Even a mobile phone reflects light,

and these days kids are always – when a shot

cracks round the hills like a whip cracked right.

Teague raises his gun towards Rolster Bridge in salute

to what they both reckon is one less black-and-white.

They are in the field that Grunt has just cut for grass

when something whirls overhead, low and close by,

rotor blades slicing segments out of the stars

and a searchlight roving the hillside like one bright eye

that has both men and beasts running for cover.

After that there's nothing moving, so they go home.

Grunt is paunching rabbits in the yard when it goes back over

and he glances up as it passes, its low drone

sending the dog whimpering under the Fendt,

making his own teeth rattle and his stomach vibrate.

The trademark red and blue of the air ambulance

soaks the hills all around in crimson light.

He puts the meat in the fridge and turns on the PC

for a game of his favourite shoot-em-up, ‘Badger Season.'

As he blasts the black-and-whites red, the events of the evening

fall into place like cartridges into a gun,

the soft click into the breech, the gentle squeeze,

and a bad call which blows everything to kingdom come.

* lamping –
hunting rabbits or other nocturnal animals using off-road cars and high powered lights

* to paunch a rabbit –
to remove the innards

Full Load

The rumour runs round the parish like a case of lice:

the Garveys have gone down with TB.

Even Teague admits he doesn't know for sure

but at seven this morning Jo Tucker, thirty-three,

the best haulier for miles and not just on price

points her truck towards the Garvey's place.

The verge runs red with rain and the Devon mud.

She flips the wipers on to double speed,

turns the radio on and, as the road starts to flood,

drops down a gear and slows to walking pace.

Been a while since Jo has driven down this way.

A line of young alders has sprung up along the brook

and a new gateway gapes in an old hedge

fresh laid with a chainsaw and baler twine for crooks.

Garvey's farmhouse squats in a veil of grey.

Grunt, in waterproofs, heaven diluting his tea,

stands by the slate porch. Jo Tucker steels

herself for the sight of Grunt's face. Just one look

and she doesn't need to ask, can already feel

the awful weight of a full load to Hatherleigh.

She backs up to the shed and drops the ramp,

slots the side gates in as Grunt opens the doors

and they watch the cows come out and sniff the air.

They smell of good grass and good straw,

the smoky molasses stink of Grunt's silage clamp.

Grunt goes to push them on in but Jo says to wait,

there's plenty of room in the truck. She walks past

working their flight zone, and the cows move on

slipping a bit on the wet ramp. At last

they are all in and she slams the partition gate.

“One more to come,” says Grunt, his face a blank

and out of the shed looms his Red Devon bull.

The truck rocks as he walks in, his head low,

the knock and echo of his hooves terrible,

sweat on his nose and shoulders and muscled flank.

Jo starts the truck, fighting something like horror,

and pulls away, wheels briefly adrift in the mire

only then daring to glance back at Grunt in the lane

staring at her, at the truck, hands loose at his sides,

getting smaller and smaller in her rear-view mirror.

Kingdom Come

At market the talk is all about Colin and his

six-month sentence suspended for two years

and the boy

and the other boys

Tom who took the tractor for a swim

Dick who fell in the sheep dip

Harry rolled flat by round bale hay

the wives who drown in grain silos

flailing in bullion like calves in a slurry pit

brothers winched away by an unguarded drive shaft

or last seen dancing on overhead power lines.

“Closer to thee, my Lord,” says Teague.

“Skip, trip or fall,” says Grunt.

Trapped by stacked material

Uncontrolled exposure to poultry dust

Manslaughter by gross negligence

“Meant the world to him, that boy,” says Teague.

They observe a minute's silence.

“And to top it all, he's disqualified from holding a shotgun licence.”

Once Upon a Time in the West

As Jo hands an entry form to the market men

she clocks Grunt unloading fat lambs in the pennage.

Waiting to wash out, she's behind him in the queue,

parks alongside his Bateson, plotting a duel.

Two quid for the lad. She grabs the high pressure hose

and gets a squirt in quick while Grunt is still dozy.

He's right back at her, gets her full blast in the chest

then it's back and forth like a Spaghetti Western

until Grunt surrenders, hands reaching for the sky,

Jo's barrel cocked at his groin and ready to fire.

The effect of Grunt's smile wasn't part of Jo's plan

– Sedgemoor livestock market is no place for romance –

but when Grunt offers lunch “for the sharpest shooter”

Jo flushes bright red and finds herself strangely mute.

A Load of Old Bull

One deliberate hoof tests the ramp. Head low,

the bull shoulders out of the slant shadow,

sashays into the pen with a swagger,

muscled like a bovine Schwarzenegger,

and leans on the gate, enjoying the strain.

“Seven hundred quid,” says Grunt. “A bargain.

And if he brings me any sort of fight

he'll be off quicker than a bride's nightie.”

In the late sun, Grunt and the bull glow red.

Midges dance a garland around their heads.

Driving home, Jo broods on the loading bay,

four blokes with sticks, the seller's cagey eye

and wonders what postscripts have been added

to the given pattern of this old bull's blood.

New Blood

Grunt says he got him for a good price.

Jo says, “Buy cheap, buy twice.”

Grunt says, “Better buy than borrow.”

Jo says, “Buy in haste, in leisure sorrow.”

Grunt says, “Pedigree blood for pedigree seed.”

Jo says, “Better a good bull than a bull of a good breed”

and “Many a good cow hath an ill calf.”

Grunt says, “Have you seen his EBV percentiles graph?”

Grunt says he took a first at the County Show.

“Handsome is as handsome does,” says Jo.

Grunt says the vendor is switching to A.I.

Jo says, “Half the truth is often a lie.”

Grunt says he covered fifty cows last year.

Jo says, “Naught so brisk as bottled beer.”

and “They that promise quick, perform slow.

Speak as I find,” says Jo.

Shoot Supper

There have been two, maybe three, other men for Jo.

She'd say “mind your own” if you asked her who.

There have been two, maybe three, other women for Grunt

but not lately. He confronts the mirror, splashes on Brut,

digs out his one good suit and is good to go.

Jo rakes through her wardrobe, twice, but nothing appeals.

Weeks, she's been waiting for this – like an old fool –

the one day of the year Grunt's off duty in a public place.

She looks in the mirror, checks her face, her arse.

“A Devon heifer,” she mutters. “Beef to the heels.”

It's boy-girl-boy at the supper. John Teague

sits up straight all night admiring Jo's cleavage

until Colin invites him outside to see his new pick-up.

Jo empties her glass for courage, and another for luck

and the evening starts to come unstuck. She has vague

impressions of Grunt laughing, Grunt filling her glass,

BOOK: Red Devon
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