June 18, 2015
EARLY TRENDS IN FARMING
From Silk for the Feed Dogs by Jackie Mallon
I heard the engine of the old red Massey Ferguson fart into life and I emerged running, scrambling to get my wellies on. We were on a rescue mission, Da and me. A cow was refusing to feed her calf. I’d seen it born that morning before I went to school, my bottom numb from being perched so long on top of the barred gate. But it was the animal’s back end that bothered me, or what protruded from it: two spindly legs cut off at the knees, hooves pointed in the launch position. Uncomfortable as the cow had looked, she didn’t seem inclined to finish what she’d started. I couldn’t blame her – it looked exhausting. But she finally summoned the strength, gave two or three great heaves, and the contents of her belly slapped onto the ground. The calf lay sprawled and shivering. The noises he made, after a few moments of silent outrage, were more like those of a curious cat. As his eyes rolled slowly over this new, harsher environment, all the aloof heifers kept their distance, swishing their tails. I held my breath, willing them to be kind, but they seemed to want nothing to do with him. I couldn’t leave him like that, crashlanded and splattered. It was only when I saw one or two cows join the reluctant mother in licking him clean that I jumped down and headed to school.
But throughout the day, he had stayed in my thoughts. As soon as I got home, I hurried to find Da. He said the calf had grown weak. The mother had disowned it. I had ten minutes to wolf down my tea, and we were off, soon turning onto our lane. It was pulpy from the rain and sported a shiny green mohawk that brushed the undercarriage. The hedges were higher than our heads, rampant with hawthorn, gooseberries, and whin. Sometimes Da let me drive on the lane and, as I let go of the clutch and we started to move, I felt the engine’s gentle exhalation, its big and biddable strength. But today we talked little and he remained in his seat, his lips set in a tight line. The Massey didn’t have a cab so the distant drone of silage spreaders, the flapping wind, the muted barking of a dog were our company.
From the dual carriageway people would see the Massey disappearing between the hedges and comment: “That’ll be Dan Connelly and at his shoulder there’ll be wee Kathleen, the great farmer. She’ll run that place one day.” That’s what they’d been saying since I was old enough to understand. I always concealed my pride, never letting slip even a smile.
The Massey represented freedom, the open land. Every time Da raised his boot to the footplate, threw his leg over and lowered himself into the calloused seat with the threadbare cushion, I could see the silhouette of our Sunday afternoon hero, John Wayne. My position was beside him up on the mudguard of the back wheel. Unless for funerals, Da only ever wore a shirt opened at the neck, rolled up to the elbows, and chestnut coloured trousers with the shape of his knees wedged in the cloth. At six, I wore smaller versions of the same. I had his farmer’s tan. My forearms, throat, and face were thick-skinned and freckled, my hair like tangled mélange yarn, often with a briar snarled in it.
We stopped in front of the cobbled-together cluster of byres with corrugated roofs, their numbers added to since granda’s time. Da led me around the back to a clearing where the cows congregated before milking.
“Mind the nettles,” he called.
I aimed to tread in his footsteps, but they were too far apart and my wellies sank, slivers of ground rippling at my heels like big wet tongues. I kept my toes clenched so the boots stayed on. While I’d been at school, Da had built a pen for the calf, using four iron gates tied together at the corners with twine, and scattered it with straw. That was where we found him, skinny limbs tucked underneath him, sleepy eyes trained on our approach.
“You stay outside, Kathleen. Right where you are is grand,” said Da as he climbed in. “Now, lift that plastic bottle with the teat and hold onto it. You’re going to feed him when I get him still.”
With Da’s help, the calf wobbled to his feet.
“Show him the bottle, Kathleen.”
I stuck the bottle through the bars and, with his nobbly knees quivering and hind legs crooked like elbows, he pushed off towards me. “Booley-legged’ was how Da described him, the same expression he used for neighbours he saw leaving The Farmer’s Rest some afternoons. The animal sent his tongue to examine the offering, then stretched his neck and grasped the rubber nozzle in his mouth. For all the size of him, there was remarkable force behind the cute sucking sounds. Ears pinned back, eyes wide and unblinking, he headbutted my hand to alert me when I wasn’t tilting the bottle enough. With my other hand I stroked the flat white forehead, imagined gliding a comb through those slinky albino eyelashes.
When he had finished, his tongue shot out again, but less suspiciously this time. Baby pink, as long as my forearm, the underside was a loofah exfoliating my damp knuckles. He went on to explore my shoulder and chew inquisitively on my collar. I squeezed my eyes shut as he discharged a gust of warm air in my face. The loofah worked its way over my nose and curled lazily across my forehead, finally inspecting what rested on my head: my ‘rainbow tiara’, constructed of three tiers of Caran d’Ache pencils adorned with clusters of M&Ms and trailing ribbons. Da laughed as the calf lapped contentedly at the candy, the ribbons tickling his nose, making him snort. When I opened my eyes, I noticed all the other cattle had gathered at the open gate and were looking on. The calf’s mother had separated herself from the herd and was sauntering towards us.
“There you are, you see, Kathleen?” said Da. “Your creative side might not always be appreciated by your classmates, but here they’re lapping it up. You just need to hang with the right crowd!”
Beloved though Da’s tractor was, it was another industrial machine that forced its way in to dominate my childhood: mum’s Singer sewing machine. Black and spiky, it towered over our kitchen like the arthritic nun that watched over school assembly. While the Massey pulled the plough that churned up the land, scattering new potatoes, Da proudly erect at its helm, mum sat hunched over the Singer, pressing the footpedal, easing the fabric to the needle, a crushed velvet waterfall tumbling over the side. She made curtains, or rather, window treatments, great bustled affairs with fancy names like ‘swags and tails’, ‘tie-backs’, and ‘pelmets’, garnished with rosettes, and little braided ropes, and tassels. People came from far and wide; she did a roaring trade making twitching net curtains for the parish to peer around.
I remember the day it arrived. I was doing geography homework in front of the fire when two neighbour men carried it in and wordlessly set it on the tiles. And that’s where it stayed. There was only room for one of us in the kitchen, and it soon became clear which one. I went to open the fridge door, and a bolt of fabric fell against me. At the doorstep, I kicked off my mucky wellies and trailed threads through the house instead. I swept the floor, but had to leave the sweepings so mum could pick the pins out. By the time she got round to it, it was all over the floor again. Da built an annex onto the kitchen, and we called it The Sewing Room. Mum stacked it to the ceiling with spools, thread, and cloth, crammed in a second-hand overlocking machine which drove her and the Singer back into the kitchen and me back out in the yard.
Cow dung was normal; thread balls were not. The loose gurgle of the tractor engine was music in comparison to the whirr of the Singer, which was neurotic, and monotonous, and drowned out the theme tune to “The Dukes of Hazzard”. I hated to invite what few friends I had home because I knew our kitchen didn’t look like theirs. They’d say mean things about mum and Da, and I couldn’t have that; we’d be known as gypsies like Fiona Harkin’s family who lived in a caravan. So on the afternoon my new friend, Siobhan Devlin, was due over, I asked if tea could be served in the hay shed; in fact it occurred to me that all my future entertaining could take place there.
An almighty row kicked off. Mum wouldn’t hear of it. What were we, tinkers? She started to cry. Da came in and at the sight of her tears ordered me to my room until I learnt some respect. I didn’t budge. He raised his voice, pointing to the door I was to disappear through. Just as he was about to go for me, he impaled the tender, paler underside of his arm on the Singer’s spindle. We spent the rest of the day in the hospital getting Da checked for tetanus and his arm stitched up.
Still, mum thought I would go into business with her when I finished school.
“Sit down in front of it,” she tried. “Don’t be scared. I’ll teach you the basics. There’ll always be money to be made in curtains. People never get tired of their privacy.”
But that beast had turned on Da. I thought of the old fable in which the King gives orders for every spinning wheel in the kingdom to be burnt because his daughter, cursed by an old maid, would prick her finger on one and die. Then to mum I responded, “I’ll be staying well clear of it. In fact, if I never go near a sewing machine again, or thread, or needles, or fabric, I’ll live happily ever after.”