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New winter and the duty of care

Angus digs in

The first bale of silage is out
the plastic wrap slit
the bale netting tied back to the forks of the JCB,
the 4ft plug of fermented grass
drops with a thud,
settles like a core
of summer’s strata,
hauled from darkness.
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The cattle, always primed for novelty
and the hope of first dibs,
dip into the feeder immediately
in order of seniority,
butting and bustling at interlopers
Moira gets in first
I see this anew at the dry water trough-
suckling mothers need gallons
and the supply has failed.
Once I have restored the stream,
I notice that philosopher Flora
is first to refreshment,
young Holly next-
I thought the order had changed
but the old animal stands her ground
confident of her place.
Holly gets her turn

So: feed and water,
the winter round of care has begun.
The cattle have returned to me
after the summer’s insouciance,
waiting heads up each morning,
questioning and attentive.
I have to approach once more,
check their welfare,
encourage them with chatter
pet them when allowed:
learn to understand the herd’s
silent diagnosis of itself.

George watches the Nog

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INDEPENDENCE

‘Klong. Klong’
It was the bell at the workshop door-short, hollow like a galvanised mop-bucket dropped onto a tiled floor.

‘Huich the cattle in, Emmo’-
-her half-brother’s voice from the workshop dominated the sound of machinery.
‘Fetch them yourself, brute’ she yelled back,
‘and my name is Marie-Claire!’

Felix had a habit of insulting his clients, secure in the knowledge that they would not understand his deep Bearnaise accent, larded with words from the old language of the region. Their grandfather spoke this way, had run cattle: elegant Blonde d’Aquitaines herded in early summer to the high pastures of the Vallee d’Ossau where they roamed contentedly until temperatures plummeted in the back end, the calves were sold and the sucklers penned or pastured on the low ground of the valley floor.

Blondes d'Aquitaine

To this day their cousin maintained the habit of hanging a bell around the neck of each animal, graded according to size from tinny trebles for the calves to the flat sonority of the lead cows. The uplands where they spent long sunwashed weeks of the summer holidays, were configured in her memory less by the honey smell of alpine flower and heather, or by the greens and blues of the hills banked towards the bare peaks of the Spanish border, than by the all-pervasive cacophany of the herd. Each animal, each bell added uniquely, by timbre and rhythm to the pervasive symphony that coursed over the hills like water, ceaseless and constantly changing until the involuntary orchestra lay down to sleep at night.

Their grandfather used to boast that he could tell each animal by sound alone: a skill that he delighted to display to the kids, stopping to close his eyes in the shade of overhanging hazels on the climb up the interminable zig-zags from the old pilgrim way.

‘That is Stephanie, feeding her little one’ -he would say;

and sure enough they would hear the agitated tinkling of the lighter bell, counterpointed by a flurry of bass notes as the larger animal bent her neck to lick the calf’s rear or neck. They had no way of knowing whether he had picked the right animal or was making it up, but either way their love and respect for the brown and bear-like man was assured.

Felix barged open the lightweight door of the office, making the glass rattle. Red faced and dusty, with rivulets of sweat making tracks from the grizzled bristles pocking his scalp like seeded thistles, he filled the partitioned space where she sought refuge in orderly administration

‘I don’t care if you’re Sainte-Marie come down from the heights of old Oloron, fetch the foutering door!’

The visitor as she peered at him intently through thick lenses that allowed her the world perspective of a drinker emptying a glass-bottomed tankard, was young (so far as she could tell), sandy haired and slim. She guessed at a pleasant, open face, but there was no doubt about the halitosis that registered as she took his outstretched hand.

‘Good morning mademoiselle’ – he was struggling with the language and failed to observe the shiver of pleasure she experienced at being greeted as a young woman.

‘I have come to see monsieur Labourdieux, about my work?’ He placed an upward inflection on the last word, uncertain as to how to continue the inquiry.
She dredged some learning from her time at the Lycee st Josephe –

‘You are English?’ she asked in that language.

He smiled:
‘Scottish, easy mistake..’
‘Ah, non- most incorrect- I am sorry.’
‘O de ..Nil’ he persisted, maintaining his death-or-glory assault on the fortified redoubts of spoken French.

She ushered him towards the workshop patting her unruly greying hair into place as she followed through the cluttered foyer that was supposed to demonstrate the skills and product range of ‘Menuiserie Labourdieux, Pere et Fils’ but had degenerated into an untidy depository for display equipment used at old trade shows and joinery fixtures rejected by clients as ill-fitting. As Felix greeted the newcomer with wolfish bonhomie, she trawled a finger through the dust coating an unwanted kitchen cabinet.

‘We can still sell them-
Felix would insist, all outraged indignance at the incompetence of clients and architects-
‘-sales betes who can’t tell a tape measure from a tapeworm hanging out their arse- French
bastards!’

She was long used to her brother’s habitual denigration of everything French, ie. non-local: politics of course, the growth of the professional classes, decline of traditional industries, percentage of pork in saucisson de canard: but, above all, taxes and the punitive local impots that must be paid on property, employment, equipment.

‘If I buy a machine, I pay twice’, he would growl,
‘Do they want to kill off all small business? And they talk about maintaining traditions, patrimoine,-
the only tradition they maintain has a string of noughts after it and a fat pension!’

In short, anything about the world that Felix found unsatisfactory apart from those areas reserved for Le Bon Dieu like the weather and cheese fermentation was the fault of the majority culture.
For all her disapproval of her brother’s intemperance, she had a mischievous respect for his
unyielding militancy His anger was a lifeforce like the winds funnelled along steep-sided valleys; his rages like the violent thunderstorms that hammered between limestone cliff-faces, sparking huge lightning sheets that threw the crests into briefly glimpsed dark relief like the arching spines of predators made uneasy by firelight

Sighing, she returned to her invoices. She liked to send these out a week before the month’s end so that late payers could be reminded before the end of the following month. Looking up at the pornographic image masquerading as a calendar, she checked the date, 18th September.

Why was this significant? Oh, yes – today was the day of the Independence referendum in Scotland.

She was not clearly aware of the divisions within the United Kingdom (though they seemed as disaffected about Europe most of the time as Felix was about France), but her favourite weekly, Photo-France magazine, had a cover dedicated to Queen Elizabeth with the confident statement -‘Last Queen of Scotland.’ She imagined that Felix’s client (one of the new breed of Britons cashing in on inflated property prices come to do the same for Aquitaine) had already voted, or was escaping politics for mountain walks and chilled drinks taken on warm evenings at pavement bistros.

The men’s voices rose as they approached the workshop door – she could tell Felix was being
affable, balancing his role between inspiring confidence as a tradesman and acting the yokel to ensure ongoing loyalty as a ‘colourful character’. His exploits would regale visiting foreigners (French included, of course) whose silvery laughter she imagined flying upwards into the rooftrees that he had constructed or repaired like bright coloured birds among slowgrown mountain hardwoods.
Felix poked his head round the door after the Scotsman had left:

‘Another apple ready to fall, my little cabbage- a fine English fruit. But, phooh, breath like the wind from granny’s midden..’
he paused,
‘or the wind from granny in fact.’

He tousled her hair at the memory in a clumsy show of bullying affection.

She flared childishly, near to tears at the reminder of the love and awe she had always held for her older sibling and the slow degradation to manipulation on the one side and resentment on the other.

‘Don’t do that – you know I hate it – and please reserve your diminutives for that longsuffering wife of yours. Besides he’s Scottish, not English- as you would know if you took the trouble to distinguish one..one..fruit from another!’

‘Hooee ‘ ..he whistled – ‘you must fancy him, Emmo – and he wasn’t even wearing a skirt like a real Scotsman!’

Then- suddenly- sensing the butterfly wingbeats of politics in the close air of the cramped office:

‘Come to that- if he’s a Scotsman why isn’t he at home for the vote? Why come here swanning
around when any patriot would be at home? Imagine a referendum for Bearn! Would I be sitting on the patio of my Scottish Castle swilling whisky and eating porridge while the destiny of my people was decided?’
‘Of course not!’ he finished emphatically, glaring at the fullbreasted teenager on the wall as though she was ripe for political conversion.

Claire kept her head lowered over her paperwork until he had returned to the workshop, whistling cheerfully at the clarity of the world after a storm. She must show no weakness that he could exploit – or none apart from the obvious ones of her unmarried status and poor eyesight that gave rise to the odious nickname: M-O, Marie-Obscure for Marie-Claire. When she heard the spring door clack safely behind him, she wiped her cheeks with a crumpled delivery note, and sat looking fixedly ahead.

Mid- September- summer’s end- brought the tax demands that so exercised her brother. He,like all local tradesmen found ways to lighten these, but a superficial financial credibility needed maintained if fines or even prosecution were to be avoided.
She reflected on the prime oak stacked at the old barns with sticks between them for the wind to blow through.

‘Just can’t find seasoned timber these days’, Felix would tell clients like the Scotsman.

They would use green unseasoned oak – less stable, prone to cracking in hot weather (the popular time for full occupancy by wealthy ‘foreign’ houseparties) with a sound like a small grenade going off – but good timber nonetheless. The old cattle barns were roofed using the same, he reasoned, and they had stood long enough.
Meantime every order of timber charged to a customer had an additional twenty percent sent straight to the farm on arrival, where Nature conspired to increase the value as the stresses and weaknesses in the boards were drawn out over time.

‘God provides my pension’ Felix would say, while his buddies nudged each other and strangers
applauded his piety.

Marie-Claire assisted in the fraud knowing that it was necessary, had always been done, even
assisted their father to provide for the family as well as he had. She had no problem with this, even though, if ever the authorities penetrated the tightly angled road to the old dairy where the wood was piled, she would be in as much trouble as him; perhaps more as it was her signature on thepaperwork. For all that, she justified the stratagem as necessary, even rightly subversive of oppressive central control.

This year, however, Felix had confronted her with a new financial device.

In order to safeguard his illicit pension plan from unwelcome intervention, he raised additIonal cash to release the bank’s charge over the farm buildings that up til now had guarranteed the business debts. This additional money could not be justified by income from the joinery business, so fictional or unconnected revenue streams like the rent paid to her mother by lodgers, were employed to swell the flow of money to estuarine levels.

These apparent profits necessarily increased the tax liability of the business and ultimately that of the partners, including herself at 20%. Felix was happy enough to offset the increased tax against longterm gain, and besides he made sure that he drew enough from the business for the daily needs of his family, while a few cash jobs each year accounted for the holidays required by his wife.

Marie- Claire, however, on her fixed administrator’s salary, and with no partner’s dividend, found herself confronted with a tax-bill out of all proportion to any money that she had at her disposal to spend.

‘How does this happen?’ she complained to Felix, and then again to the family book-keeper.

‘I thought you could only be taxed on earnings- but I never saw this money.’

The accountant told her that in strictest terms of financial protocol she had indeed earned the money, but that he would look into it for her.
His subsequent silence was preferable to Felix’s rage:

‘Everyone has to pay taxes to the bastard French – do you think you are somehow special? This is the burden that we carry like a mule carries logs until our back gives out, our joints swell with arthritis and they shoot us to lie and stink at the side of the road.’

‘I am not a mule Felix, and neither are you, but I cannot pay this tax from my salary. I am sure that Papa did not intend this when he made me a partner.’

‘How dare you invoke Papa in this? He always kept the family together, did everything he could for us. He asked me to look after the business, and you as well with all your problems, Lord help us. I have always done this. Do you want to throw away everything our parents worked so hard for?’

– by now warming to the task-

‘Do you wish to spit in the faces of the family? Why not stand among the family graves and squat in the flower urns? Or better still, take a jackhammer to the cold tombstones of our ancestors in the floor of Sainte-Croix!’

She had stumbled off in distress, unable to withstand the emotional juggernaut that he conjured when confronted. Now, sitting still as the heat of the day swelled toward noon, the sense of injury returned locked together with her own uselessness like clammy honeymooners.

The multiple bells of church and clocktower began their midday celebrations trickling through the thick aggregate of glacial stone in the walls of the building that had fused the family concerns like a crucible for longer than her lifetime.
In the excess of her misery she found herself confusing the noontime bells with the sound of cattleherds of her childhood,
-and something surfaced too of the young Scot whom she had welcomed in,
who had smiled and complimented her unknowingly while his country’s future balanced on the scales.

She rose with the haziest of intentions; stumbling over the wastebin with a clatter that drew Felix from his bench.

‘Off out?! Where are the invoices? Don’t forget we need the money in – cash-flow is the
oxygen of commerce , that’s what the bank says!’

Her distress did not allow her the customary patience for his posturing, patronising her while she held his business affairs together.

‘I am going Felix’ she said as she pulled her mother’s old bicycle into the roadway, hitched up her trousers revealing surprisingly strong tanned calves, and started to pedal.

‘Where to?’ a trace of shrillness coloured his voice now, normally a chesty rasp, tobacco
cultured.
‘But that’s not the way home!’

She drew slowly away from him, head down, navigating the dotted lines bordering the roadway.

‘I don’t know where I’m going Felix,’ she called over her shoulder as he stood watching her wobble towards the point where the white lines disappeared over a small rise, with only the sky visible beyond.

Then he heard her laugh and words came drifting back to him mingled with the sound of bells,
‘except to vote-
‘- I am voting Yes to Independence!’

alpinages

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Predawn

An early train to edinburgh
distorts the farm
with schedules
and absence,
warping like wet wood worked negligently.

Animals announce themselves
as paired glimmers
when my headtorch
tunnels through darkness
fringed with light rain
to pick out eyes
turned on as if switched-
illumined inside.

These my companions
seem turned robotic overnight:
my untimeliness preempting
secret daily resumption
of blood and bone.

light in the east

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Water changed worlds

Long days of wind and rain close our dry summer.
Hurricanes tail lashes us half heartedly beating rain against the windows,
rocking the buildings almost gently as if to reassure,
but the rain is relentless.
The cattle now stand silhouetted against a new lake
as if beached.
New shorelines
Holly and Alice are missing this morning;
eventually to show at the top of the marsh.
They pick their path gingerly
coming down to the trough to feed,
cantering when they meet firm ground.
Girls on firm ground
This afternoon I coax the quad across wet ground
to collect two hinds
picking up speed only when sure of my way
where there is no path.

freedom from rain

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Work is not sport

The tops are hidden in mist this morning.
I have to take the quad bike over the crest to the far valley-
-vallee oscuree par nuages-
(I do have French guests after all).
Mist over the tops
Edouard shot two small stags yesterday
the type that the government wants culled
so no sporting triumph here.
It was late –
we emptied them of innards
and left them overnight.
So my work is not done.

I left reluctantly this morning,
rode the quad out to the hill gate
with the Nog as Passenger;
juggled the machine up the line of the burn
that leads down from the saddle
and hence over to the far valley.

It is rough ground,
and there are many dangers.
A quad bike will go anywhere
but being lightweight,
needs agility
to be kept balanced –
and constant vigilance.

There are holes hidden in heather
many cross drains to drop into
with jarring abruptness,
or to take the wheels away on one side,
to tilt the bike.
There are deep holes left by peat cuttings,
banks that give way
puddles that plunge into
Alph-like caverns.

(I was glad of these once,
when the bike tipped and dropped me
safely to the bottom
with the quad propped on the banks
above me
inverted.)
On the return journey,
my little rig is unstable
with the carcase weight.
It will take little more than
a moment’s unwarinesss,
or a hidden rock,
and I will be over.

There is no-one else.

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The season is bound to turn

It's October for goodness' sake!

It’s October for goodness’ sake!

Last night I blew myself up.

Late night- last thing
and I needed to fix an error.
I missed the undercounter fridge socket
from the ring main:
the circuit that supplies power to all
the other sockets.
So I have to take a line from one of these-
a spur, to remedy my neglect.

Connections made, I tidy up
by pinning the cable to the studwork.
Unnoticed in the failing light,
I nick the cable when driving in a clip.
Switching the power main on
confidently-
results in:
BANG! FLASH!
And scorch marks up the wall.

Today I must make good,
and, going to the shed
to fetch a replacement socket,
I find I have company.
A wren
has taken refuge
in the sheltered warmth.
Wren at the door
I don’t know how she entered,
but when she batters against the window
I open the door
as usual with trapped birds
wide to the great space of sky
to enable her leaving.
Instead of which,
she perches on the sticks by the opening,
and watches me while I ferret for the part.
Until finally I turn to leave
and she bustles out the door
as if dutybound.
Low ground evening
Later, walking the Nog up the hill,
I spy the first snow on the cap of Cairn Gorm
and a rainbow’s arc,
steepening.
rainbow steepening

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Mr Wind has a job to do

Sometimes the wind arrives as an envoy
of distant places:
this one comes as an assault force.

A major part of the day was spent
fetching connectivity to the new studio falt
beneath the bunkhouse.
Even though it involves hardware, cables,
connections and fixings:
it doesn’t feel like work-
somehow insubstantial
like releasing a balloon or chucking a bottle into the sea.

The wind too is an engineer;
has real work in mind.
His job is with the fabric of the house,
stick and stone, glass and metal-
he will unpick it if he can,
crush it if he cannot.
I fall back for refuge in these buildings,
retreat cut off,
to endure the siege.

Meantime the moon has risen over my spire,
and small flickering lights from the new machine
remind me of other worlds
beyond the wind.

Moon over the roundhouse

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Signals at the end of the day

You can just see the deer below the trees if you look very closely - but you cannot HEAR HIM ROAR!

You can just see the deer below the trees if you look very closely – but you cannot HEAR HIM ROAR!


Calum’s door is always open on a sunny day,
his dark wee house faces south
but the small windows deny him the benefit.
Announcing myself with a shout
I enter briefly but it is more congenial
enjoying the bright evening on the step,
all the sweeter for the forecast of storms.

From here we study the sunlit valley below us,
upper Strathspey
where one of Scotland’s great rivers
has yet to find its power and meanders
sleepily through farmland and marsh
like a teenager.

We review the new broadband signal from the hill,
all the while conscious of the signal
being broadcast by the stag below the wood,
now with a harem of upward of a dozen hinds
and a possible rival further along the riverbank.

I take my leave of my valued neighbour
and follow the dog out to the open hill.
The light is failing and a halfmoon appears:
once again it is the time the world changes
from manifest to half-seen:
and a shot cracks the quiet.
The Nog grovels, gripped by gunshyness,
a stag has died.
I listen longer
and pick up the groaning serenade once more.
Catching the Nog to the lead for reassurance
I descend
alert to the ironies
of his boastful clarion.
Half moon return

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Guardians of the Gloaming

Lit interior
There is a time a site becomes a space:
something to do with hung doors,
working electrics, flushing toilets-
the whole greater than the sum-
and I’m almost there.
Looking into the lit interior
I can see the time when this studio
will welcome new guests to the farm.

Almost the studio
So its a day like those I used to enjoy,
at the bench,
head down
focussed
all day.

So it’s 7
before I’m done,
the light is fading under grey cloud,
but the wind is warm,
from the south.Grey but warm
The Nog and I head out in the gloaming,
the changeover time,
when senses sharpen.
A woodcocks lifts from the bracken
with a single muffled clap of wings.
A dozen hind stand watching our approach,
low-down the hill:
perhaps drawn by the groans and roars
of the rutting stag across the river.

This road is old,
and ageing as the light fades:
there is a watchtower here,
set on the prominence of a morraine,
surveying those approaching
a people’s domain.
Watchtower
I turn below the bank
and start to climb
after the hinds.

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