“Hit him again, he’s no relation” Johnnie said, laughing at me as I brought the axe down on to the huge, round section of tree trunk, to little effect. I’d never heard that expression before but it made me laugh and stop what I was doing. “Hold on a minute, I’ll be back” he said, and ran back to his Land Rover.
He handed me a heavy metal wedge and showed me where there was a tiny crack already appearing across the rings of the wood. I knocked the wedge into the crack with a lump hammer and then struck it with all I was worth with the sledge-hammer. The wedge vanished as the wood broke into two.
He helped me stack me firewood into a neat pile by the front door, where I covered it with an opened out fertiliser sack, held in place with a large stone.
“There!” I said, holding the small of my back and straightening. Looking up at the sky I could see that I hadn’t beaten the rain by much. “Come on in and have a cup of tea with me, please”
He came in, shyly. Confident on his own terms, as Forestry boss, he now seemed quiet and awkward and I began to feel nervous too and wish I hadn’t forced him to come in.
I was staying at The Lodge, a log cabin, that my American friend owned, right in the middle of the forest! Of course, when her husband had built it, it hadn’t been a plantation. It was farmland, and Paul had intended to do up the ruin of an old crofter’s cottage. It had proven too costly and far cheaper to build the cabin instead. And then the land had been sold to the Forestry Commission and the whole place was now a plantation.
Jody had gone back ‘State-side’ for the winter, and asked me if I would be interested in living her life for six months. I had her house, her car, her dog, Benjy and cat Scooter (named after a Muppet!). I had met her through her husband Paul, who I knew from University days. He was a writer. It was this that had attracted him to the solitude of this location, and why I had jumped at the chance to come. I too was trying to finish my first novel and welcomed the escape from all the distractions of the city.
“I see you’re settling in nicely” he said, removing his tweed cap and looking around. Fortunately for me, it was Saturday, and I had swept the floor, beaten the rugs outside and dusted. I had even made a batch of cookies, which I now offered Johnnie, when the kettle had come to the boil.
“You know, strictly speaking” he said, looking gravely at me across the little pine table, “I’m not really supposed to give you the timber at all!”
“Oh!” I said, genuinely surprised. It had never occurred to me before that this might be an unusual thing for a head forester to do. “Oh dear, well I wouldn’t want you to get in any trouble over it. I’d be quite happy to buy it from you”
“Well, I was thinking that we might come to some sort of arrangement” He said.
“What had you in mind?” I asked, arching my brow at him.
He reddened furiously, and then continued, recovering his composure, “No, well, um, what I mean is, when Paul was here, we used to pay him a hundred pounds a year to care-take the forest for us, you know, report any fires, watch out for people stealing Christmas trees, poaching game, shepherds letting their sheep into the forest, that sort of thing. What do you reckon? Do you think you might be interested? I don’t think we could pay you, but perhaps we can pay you in kind, you know, with fire wood?”
So that’s was my fire wood sorted.
The evenings were beginning to close in and I was glad to have the range and the open coal-fire lit before dark. There was no electricity in the cabin, although there was a telephone. Lights downstairs were beautiful antique gas lamps and upstairs were kerosene lamps. The little range heated the hot water and my bedroom directly above, where the copper cylinder was, and the coal-fire had a back-boiler that heated chunky radiators; gravity fed, upstairs.
My water came from a tiny stream, and constantly conked out when leaves got stuck in the pipe and I frequently had to climb up the hill and unblock it and clear the airlocks. Benjy and I tread that path so often we could have walked it blindfolded.
When my chores were done, we would go for a walk. Every day we’d take a different route and the cat, Scooter, a beautiful ginger Tom, followed us, meowing piteously if we got too far ahead of him.
One day while we were exploring the woodland walkways, we came upon a little clearing. It was dank and musty, and it had an eerie feel about it. I went on as the smell grew mustier and I took stock of my surroundings realising that I was standing in the middle of a ringfort. I stood, respectful and silent, wondering who the people were, Bronze age? A thousand years ago? I wondered how they lived and what they were defending themselves from? Benjy was very excited too and was snuffling around in the undergrowth, stirring up leaves, scenting foxes or badgers, when he suddenly yelped so loud it made me jump and brought me from my reverie. His yelps grew louder as I rushed to him and discovered to my horror that he had caught his leg in a snare. What kind of fucking nutter would leave a snare here in the middle of a publicly owned forestry? Panic welled up inside me as I tried to prize the evil teeth apart. I found a stone, wider than his leg and used it to keep the thing open while I carefully withdrew his leg, which hung broken and bleeding. Scooter must have thought I had hurt her pal and he sank his claws into my arm as I tried to help poor Benjy. I tried my best to stabilise the fracture, using my torn off shirt sleeve and two sticks as splints. I wrapped him, now trembling, inside my coat and carried him, as quickly as I could, back to the cabin. I decided it would be better to find the forestry road, and hoped I might meet someone and get help quicker, although it was further than the way we’d come. The fog was beginning to roll in on that upper road and I thought I could make out a figure in the distance. I quickened my pace and grew hoarse from calling out for help. My muscles were aching as I tried to ignore the pain and eventually the figure of a man came into plain view. I recognised him as one of the local shepherds, an amiable man, who had told me I could bring my car batteries down to his shearing shed to charge them (they powered the radio and the tiny black and white television). He took the dog from my arms, surprisingly gently for such a large man, and I was grateful to stretch out my arms. I told him what had happened and a frown broke out on his kind face. We came to his jeep and he put the dog in the boot. “Shhhh, boy” he said kindly to the dog, and went to get some kind of drugs from the glove box in the front.
“Here” he said I’ll give him this and see if it deadens the pain a bit, and then we’ll take him straight to the vets”
He drove Benjy, going past the cabin en route so that I might grab a coat and my purse. I thought it would be best if I took Jody’s car too, so that he didn’t have to wait for me or bring me all the way back up here again.
The vet kept Benjy in overnight and I drove back to a house without light or a fire. It was a dark and creepy place to come upon at night.
I groped around for matches and lit the gas light, then lit a fire in the range. It was then that I realised I’d forgotten all about the cat. I opened the front door and called “puss, puss puss puss, puss, here pussy, here Scooter” but there was no sound of him anywhere and it was pitch black, without the smallest trace of a moon or a star.
The house, usually so warm and cosy, felt cold and empty without my two four-footed friends and I wondered if I should phone Jody in America and tell her. I decided against it.
I tossed and turned all night, a broken sleep, disturbed by dark thoughts about the cat and dog, and as soon as first light crept over the horizon I got up and dressed and went back to the ringfort. As I neared it I heard a pitiful mewing and my heart sank as I thought he must have fallen foul of another trap. But he hadn’t. He’d been waiting for me to come back for him. He wrapped himself around my legs as I laughed at his mad behaviour. Why hadn’t he just come home by himself? Was it stubbornness or confusion? I wished I could have asked him. I went to look for the trap, found its rusty chain and post which had been hammered deep into the ground and knocked it with all my might from one side and then another until I had loosened it. I carried it, with Scooter behind me, following me closely, right up to the top of the hill to the tarn, and there I threw it out into the black, peaty water, where I hoped it would never be found.
When we got back to the cabin, my shepherd was there, with a present of a leg of lamb. He said he’d sold his wethers at the mart last week and had a couple of them butchered for the freezer.
So that was my meat sorted.
He asked after Benjy and I had to confess that I hadn’t called the vets yet as I had first to find the cat and dispose of the trap.
“You know those things are illegal, don’t you?” He said, a worried expression on his face. “You don’t think you should have taken it in to the police?” I realised that he was probably right, that is what I should have done, but as I tried to explain to him I had just wanted to make sure it could never be used again. He nodded “Perhaps it’s just as well. The kind of people who’d use a trap like that aren’t the sort of people you’d want to tangle with”
“I don’t have a freezer” I said, nodding towards the plastic bag with the leg of lamb in, “so it’ll have to be cooked quite soon. How about coming for Sunday lunch?” A broad smile crossed his face, and I noticed a twinkle in his lovely blue eyes as he answered that he’d hoped I might say that, and he’d also got some cooking apples if I was interested in making a pie!
We went to the vets together that afternoon and collected Benjy in his jeep. Despite a cast and bandages, Benjy romped, lopsidedly into the house and he and Scooter greeted each other with licks and nuzzles.
After a hastily brewed jug of coffee, he left me with “See you on Sunday, around one?” “Yeah!” I called out to his back.
On Sunday morning I got up extra early. Truth be told I couldn’t sleep anyway and was relieved when daylight finally arrived.
I busied myself getting fires lit and in the absence of any flowers I filled a vase with some lovely holly, bursting with red berries. A scarlet ribbon finished the affect perfectly. I found a rather lovely old damask table-cloth in the airing cupboard and laid the table, opening a bottle of claret to let it ‘breathe’.
When the range was ready I put in the leg of lamb, a good coating of freshly milled black pepper and sea salt and little pieces of rosemary and garlic stuck in it here and there.
After about half an hour, when a good colour had been achieved, and the house smelt delicious when I opened the oven door, I covered it in foil and damped down the range as best I could.
I began to peel my potatoes (another donation from my guest) and get all the vegetables ready to go on. I decided to make an apple crumble (it’s easier!) but thought I’d make up for it by making some delicious home-made custard, with free-range eggs (more offerings!) and a vanilla pod.
It was a horrible day, the rain was pelting down, so the front door was shut and I hadn’t heard him pull up outside. Benjy’s bark alerted me to his arrival seconds before he came in and the cat vanished upstairs.
Several hours later, when all the washing-up was done and put away, he hovered in the doorway, reluctant to go back out into the awful, dark and wet night. Eventually, he plucked up the courage to ask me to come dancing with him later on.
He has been my dance-partner these four and twenty years!
Matt’s Countdown Word Game for Monday 25th February 2013, from @miblo_ (Matt Mascarenhas)’s Countdown Scorecard
Tonight’s words are:
Rules and examples of the game can be found on Matt’s website:
- http://miblodelcarpio.blog.co.uk/ The Life and Times of Miblo del Carpio