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Silent under trees

snowy gateway

I stand looking at larch

planted in a semicircle

on the lip of a small quarry

grave spectators.

The grove is white and quiet,

skinny birches twist

along the brae

like hieroglyphs

on a white sheet.

Retreating to pasture

I am met by a light wind

blowing in my face

turned southwards.

The water in the burn

is running with snowmelt

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Odd barbering

Yesterday we walked above the clouds.

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Today I join a newborn under a cow.

Our heads are together. I feel his rough red hair against the side of my neck. We are both intent; he on dragging every drop of milk from his mother, while I focus on the scissors clearing long hairs around the delicate fleshy cones that might deflect a questing mouth.

He appeared Boxing Day morn – already on his feet as I come down at first light,

but hungry,

refuses to drop under Abby’s stomach,

signalled instincts misread,

reaches up not under.

A day later and I must intervene. Abby is wed to her companions so they’ll all have to come. I lead them rattling a feedbag
past Angus Halfhorn and the boys held back in the hayfield
so keen to meet young Holly and Alice!
Not yet boys..!

With the pair safely penned at the shed: the girls must be led straight back home: shunning Angus cantering along just the other side of the fence.

And now to work: Abby in the crush moves calmly, bless her ,stands while I squeeze loose the hard wad plugging the milk stream in each quarter.,

…and he takes it. Sometimes they exhaust themselves resisting, others just aren’t interested (one, George Halfcalf ..never cottoned on at all). This one wants it – glory be – and before long I can leave him while I attend to udder trimming.

It will be cold tonight: he’ll sleep in the hay with a full stomach.

Ready for bed

Ready for bed

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Organized chaos

Well - not all bad

Well – not all bad

So grey today. Snow melted and new rain from !ow cloud. So fitting then to wean calves – overdue O yes I know you judgmental tutelary farming deities. Old Billy was slow to service last year on account of his weakening hindlegs so the calves came late: March to June not January \February. So the painful separation of mothers from young normally happens in September: all sorted before winter regimes kick in.

Well, not this time.

I have waited my chance: the right animals in the right place:priority is getting the heifer calves young Holly and Alice behind the deer fence with – er- not so young Holly and Alice (from last year) where they are collectively sheltered from the attentions of Angus Halfhorn.

Single handed I work with the animals, persuading them that what I want is what they want. Holly follows the feedbag accompanied by her outstanding white daughter; Angus had been sidelined with a private pile of nuts, Alice is held at the yard.

Farm operations involve committing to a plan and then working to extend it as it happens: a mixture of planning, opportunism and blind faith

– bit like life really.

This time the young heifers find their place with the female yearlings: and the mothers of the bull calves- too complicated to explain- but both girls and boys are now sad and weaned

At the yard mother Alice rubs her neck on the gate as if to open it by sheer persistence, or seeking the magic word, equivalent to ‘Open Sesame’

‘Open Dark Grains concentrate’?

It’ll have to do

-its a rainy December day after all!

I know it'll open if I keep rubbing it!

I know it’ll open if I keep rubbing it!

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just a beautiful day

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After the thaw
black of rock and birch shows through
a thin blanket of snow.

The sky above granite

merges ridiculous girlie bedroom

soft pinks fading to blue.
air in my nostrils

is fresh cut

thin as citrus.
The cattle take their feed
jackdaw wings rustle the air
a stark heron stalks the water.

The day is latent
til the sun seeks
to free the shadows
folded into the crest
of the hills
beyond the marshlands.
It is beautiful
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Flora knows good timing

imageTraffic passes the farm with a slushy whisper: the birches hang their snowlumbered branches like tired cheerleaders resting pompons. A small squadron led by Angus Halghorn, envious of the privileged status of George Halfcalf & Moira, Morag and her boy baby, have forced the gate giving to the shed: its shelter and feed store. I must lure them into the yard with extra feed before I can resume my morning chores.

Snow has changed the days calculus: to refine choices. There will be no leaving the farm today, paths need cleared: no building work- structures need swept.

How are the animals handling the hardship? How warm is the house to return to? How cold the supply pipes?
snowbound roundhouse
Philo helps me take a bale of hay down to little Holly and Alice before the snow freezes to crust or melts to wet sugar, the quad barely hauls the bogie up the hill on return- timely done as the day darkens.

Old Flora waits at the gate to the shed, her calf hovering attendance. She took no part in this morning’s raiding party. I check the available interior space –

‘All right old thing – join the pensioners’ party.’

She sashays through-

they are long acquainted these three-

and the babies have shelter.image

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Surely snow should fall

Philo and I build the deck so that guests have outside space making the tiny studio more user-friendly.
This is not so easy- the weather is telling us to stay indoors.
Philo, from France, asks if this is usual: I tell him this is a Highland winter worksite – ‘Oui, c’est normal’.
He looks out from the shelter of the overhanging eaves, down the whitening farm road, New Snow 14across
snowswept pasture and marshland to where the grey gleaming river glides uneasily.

‘I am used to snow falling from the sky’-
he gestures accordingly-
‘- here it goes sideways.’

We turn toward our task, backs to the gale.

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Space for the small and infirm – I must be mad!

Heavy snow hides faded winter grass
They have been content to pull
at this shadow food
remnant of summer’s larder.
Now they gather intently
around the feeder
where tobacco scented silage
unravels under assault
by mouth and horn.
Something nags me;
I know that the herd is fed,
but there is a lack
a gap in the weft of welfare.
Moira and George Halfcalf
are left on the road;
Moira Hornless, bullied
accepting subservience.
Her little lad
dwarvish, unviable,
ill-adapted to the new condition
alive, God knows why.

I drive them to the shed:
they will have feed and cover
against this night’s cold.
Tomorrow Morag will join them
with her calf latest born
of this year
and last
to the old white cow
with arthritic hind leg
swinging clear of the ground.
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The net of care is filling:
the winter herd finds its new form.

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First Snow

The light is strange this morning
changed.
The moon shone full last night
but that’s not it.
Light glows white from muck
and rock
and stick.

I should have known it would snow.
New Snow 14
The animals have a new urgency
as I ride the quad to meet them:
they recognize ancient threat
to all outwinterers:
snow on the back,
snow to scrape
from frosted grass,
young stock shocked
and bewildered
by newfound hardship.

The old ones look first
to the easy supply,
the feed bags
the ring-fed silage.
They will batter each other for first call,
life has suddenly become
a competition.

I am concerned for the weakest
competitor: George Halfcalf,
handicapped of his own choice
refusing Moira’s milk.
I watch as he struggles
to ease his mouth over the lip
of the feed trough,
pulling at wisps caught on the edge
of the feeder by others leaning
over to select the sweetest.
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I have not finished my dry season’s work:
logs will remain uncut,
hinds unculled,
hardstandings not rolled,
walls not rendered.
The ground is softening
under the hooves,
the quad wheels make drains
for water to puddle pastures.
Snow is banking
in bulging grey clouds
looming on chilly westerlies-
so I do not understand
why
I am
suddenly
Happy.

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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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