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Authors: Patrick Gale

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BOOK: Gentleman's Relish
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Bringing a camera to the camp was as strictly against the rules as men without wives. It transpired Wolf's father had not only been busy taking surreptitious snaps of them all but that his wife had been carrying a concealed cine camera in her cunningly modified knitting bag. All film was confiscated and exposed and, in a final, glorious flourish, the policeman friend had insisted on inspecting their passports before the family was escorted off the grounds.

‘Germans after all,' Lara's mother said when she thought Lara wasn't listening. ‘I told you I didn't really care for her.'

THE DARK CUTTER

He crossed two fields, opening the gates wide as he went, then clambered onto a hedge, cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and called.

They each had a slightly different cattle call. His older brother produced a low, booming sound midway between a moo and a foghorn. Their father's call had two notes, the second lower than the first, and usually had a trace of words to it, a sort of weary ‘come ‘long'. His own tended to emerge as a sort of falsely cheery
Hey-oop!
with a rising note at the end. He hated raising his voice or trying in any way to seem different but, try as he might to imitate the others, his call always came out the same way.

Fog had come in off the sea soon after dawn and was drifting inland as a succession of clammy
curtains. The steers were Charolais crosses so in these conditions became almost invisible, their buff and off-white flanks barely distinguishable from the pale granite of the hedges and pearly grey of the fog. There was a distant low-lying field where they spent the night sometimes, grouped together out of the wind like so many companionable boulders. He was about to jump off the hedge to go in search of them there when he heard them – one crazily high-pitched moo first and then a chorus of baritone answers – and stayed put to call them again. There was another moo, closer at hand, before their great forms lumbered out of the surrounding grey.

They were following one of their leaders, a burly, roundshouldered animal, whose lopsided horns had been sawn off a few months back when one threatened to grow into its cheek.

He slid down off the hedge and, calling them again, waited until a few had come close enough to sniff and recognize him then began to lead them back the way he had come, across the fields to the lower yard. The trick was to walk slowly enough to hold their interest but with enough speed to keep them from merely falling to graze on a different acre. Luckily the herd had been in this run of fields for ten days now and was eager for change.

As he walked, he heard their snorting breaths and felt the ground shake whenever one of them
gambolled up a yard or two to his side. Occasionally, driven by an overflow of energy perhaps, one would mount another and ride it for a yard or two or a couple would suddenly pair off for a quick trial of strength, thumping their huge skulls together, eyeball to eyeball, fringe to fringe, then pushing until one yielded to the other. All about him now, they gave off what he thought of as their smell of contentment – a yeasty mixture of the sharp-sweetness of chewed grass with the sweaty tang of their pelts.

He slipped back to close a gate behind them as the last stragglers passed through then hurried forward with a shout to encourage the herd to keep up its momentum. Seven times out of ten they came like this when called, not from obedience – he knew better than to credit them with that – but from hunger, curiosity or boredom. The other times, when they refused to come but simply ran in maddening circles or, worse, lay unbudgeably munching, tended to arise when the field they were in was still fairly new to them.

Who was he kidding? There was no order or method to these creatures; sometimes they were cussed or flighty, sometimes they weren't.

Inspired, perhaps, by the dawning realization that they were nearing the farmyard, where they were fed barley in season, and the familiar Dutch barn where they were bedded down in the coldest, wettest weeks of winter, one of the steers suddenly kicked
up its heels and broke into an ungainly, farting run, taking the others with it. They surged through the second gate and he raced to shut it after them. As he secured it with a length of old barbed wire he grazed the inside of his wrist and swore softly.

The herd was swallowed by a fresh veil of fog as it rounded the awkward corner above the farmyard. The hope was that his father and brother were ready for it with open gates and an open pen so the steers could pass straight to their destination. Sometimes some small thing, a laughing child, a darting cat, a fertilizer bag caught and flapping on the gorse, would panic them at the crucial moment and send them skittering back in a way that would be comical if it weren't so irritating. An angry half-hour or more could follow in which they attempted to round the herd back towards the yards in an L-shaped field with all too many awkward corners where they could baulk and huddle. He wished at such times that they possessed a cattle dog. Not a spooky border collie, with those staring eyes, but a proper cattle dog, reliable and sturdy, like the ones Australians used, to help round the beasts back towards the yard. But his father hated dogs, having been mauled on the hand as a boy, so the wish was futile, at least while the old man lived.

This morning they were lucky and the beasts ran, unstartled, into the main yard and down to the lower one where they could be sorted. The lower
yard gate, a far heavier one than those they had passed in the fields and with proper fastenings, was clanged shut behind them. He then had to join his father and brother in trying to persuade the herd into the big pen.

Like many parts of the farm, the lower yard had evolved by a subtle interplay of accident and necessity in which design had played little part. It was an L-shape, or a V, even, with gates top and bottom and pen and crush off at the farthest end. There was also a marked change in level where the yard turned a corner.

As usual his brother had parked one of the tractors to block off one angle and placed a line of feeding troughs behind it so as to steer the animals towards the pen's open gate. As usual the steers ignored the hint and surged down to the other, closed, gate, pressing their faces to it to peer out at the tantalizing fresh pasture beyond. When shouted at and chased, they simply ran back uphill the way they had come. They ran back and forth a couple of times, from the top of the slope to the bottom. Growing increasingly nervous and with one or two of them slipping and falling in the rush, until enough of them led the way into the pens for the others to be fairly readily chased and whipped into following suit.

He hated whipping them. He and his brother had stiff lengths of blue plastic water pipe which
extended their reach when trying to head the animals off but which were inevitably used to prod and beat as well. Their father preferred the riding crop from his hunting days, which was shorter but had a little tassel of leather on its end ‘to pack a good sting', as he liked to say.

He knew this soft distaste in him was shameful and unmanly, that directing the animals firmly, with shouts and even kicks, was the only and the safest way. Yet he winced inside at the sound of whip on hide. He never whipped the face of a turning animal the way the others did and only used his hose when he was frustrated at some beast's stupidity. They all talked to the animals as they worked, saying things like, ‘Get in, would you?' and ‘Oh, you bloody thing!' but he suspected he was the only one of them who, in his mind at least, muttered apologies too.

As always he was the one to jump into the pen with the steers to direct them, four at a time, into the smaller pen and on to the crush. His brother would work the crush gates and neck-clamp and his father would peer into twitching ears and tick off herd and animal numbers in a muddy notebook. Being inside the pen was, he knew, the most dangerous job next to lassoing a steer's swollen foot in the crush, one where you were likely to be kicked or crushed against the bars, but he was quite unafraid so knew he could do the job without hitting them. He liked to think he could calm the animals
by talking to them in a kind, low voice as he waved them through the gate between the pens or out into the crush but knew they were basically wild at heart and wanted no man near them however kind-hearted. They hated this abrupt interruption of their freedom and the replacement of grass with shitty concrete and the clamour of cold steel. The crush weighed them as they passed through it and made a terrible oily clanking. Even briefly held in place in it by the neck, they invariably shat themselves soupily with the shock of it. The sharply grassy smell of the herd in the pasture was soon replaced all about him by the sourer stench of fear.

Thirteen steers were needed for collection by the cattle lorry the next morning. The law had relaxed since the BSE crisis but they were still effectively obliged to have every animal slaughtered before it was thirty months old. One or two were obviously finished, weighing in at six hundred and fifty kilos or more and with properly beefy flanks and thighs. Others of the same age were not such good feeders and needed a few weeks more. So there was much arguing about which of the borderline cases should go. Then one of the ready ones was found to have lost his metal ear tag which won it a stay of execution because it was illegal to send them to slaughter without two tags in place, and another Hansel and Gretel discussion ensued as to who was fat enough to take the lucky animal's place.

The twelve already picked had been ushered in twos and threes to the cattleshed on release from the crush. The remaining animals now milled nervously around as they were inspected, snorting, ducking their heads, and seeking comfort in the closest possible proximity to each other. Some even thrust their heads shoulder deep between their neighbours' legs. Others pressed, head first, in tight huddles in the inner corners of the pens as if affecting an interest in the weeds on the high walls, all unaware that it was their rumps, not their faces, that were being assessed.

At last a choice was made, a stocky two-year-old that, though still giving the impression of youth because he was so much shorter than his companions, had filled out his frame as far as he was likely to do. He joined the others in the shed with something like relief, kicking up his heels as he felt himself on deep straw and out of scrutiny. The rest were turned out from the yard's lower gate into new pasture and soon broke into a run and were lost to view in the fog.

How soon did they forget? It was a question he had last dared ask thirty or forty years ago, when he was a boy and it was still profitable for their father to run a dairy herd alongside the beef one. Some calves had just been separated from their mothers and the despondent, regular lowing had kept waking him in the night.

‘They're animals,' his father said. ‘They don't remember. They don't understand time. They get worried sometimes but that's just instinct, not feeling. Don't let it bother you.'

But it did bother him. Frequently. And he envied friends at school whose fathers produced only daffodils and broccoli on their land, or potatoes and anemones. Growing up, he had hoped for but never acquired, the hard outer layer that had come so naturally to his brother. He mastered all the tasks that were set him. He had been on courses on chemical spraying and hedgerow management and conservation headlands. He learned how to fill out the complex paperwork that would prove they had complied with new regulations and qualified for various EU subsidies. He had even done quite well in ploughing matches over the years. He had proved he was a good judge of calves at auction. But still this inner softness, weakness even, persisted and made him feel an impostor among his family and peers.

Looking at advertisements in
Farmer's Weekly
sometimes, at the sentimental picture plates of wet-eyed calves and contented sows with titles like
Little Mischief
or
A Mother's Pride
, he wondered if he were not mistaken. Perhaps all farmers felt the way he did and were simply masking their occasional discomfort from one another, the way men liked to pretend to each other that they had neither respect for women nor emotional need of them.

Once, when a steer they had only had a week sickened and died, racked by seizures thought to be caused by lead paint poisoning from some shed on the farm where he was reared, his father seemed upset for a few minutes but that might simply have been because he had not put the animal down himself with a gun instead of incurring hefty vet's bills in the hope of pulling the wretched thing through.

Another time a cattle lorry had come driven by a man who started using an electric prod as they herded the steers on board and his brother had sent him away indignantly and complained to the haulier who had hired him. But that hadn't been concern for the animals' welfare so much as worry the animals would not fetch a fair price. If an animal was frightened before slaughter, he claimed, it could tense up so badly its muscles held too much blood in a way that would spoil the meat. He had simply feared that a cattle prod would tense them up more than a simple whip or stick would do. The slaughtermen called such a blood-heavy carcass a
dark cutter
, his brother told him, a term that now came back to him whenever he passed a butcher's shop window or was chopping meat for a stew.

He had topping to do all that afternoon so he could listen to the radio in the tractor as he drove up and down the grass fields for a few hours, dreaming of other places, other lives. But that evening, just before sunset, he slipped down to the
shed where the cattle were waiting. If his brother had challenged him, he'd have said he was heaping up the silage for them but he also came down to exercise his guilt and wonder.

It was amazing how swiftly the mud and shit crumbled off their coats when they were bedded down in a good depth of clean straw. He stood a while, leaning on his pitchfork, watching their eyes on him as they chewed or rubbed their noses on the silage heap in a kind of ecstasy of greed. They looked healthy, content again, and, of course, entirely unsuspecting, and this cheered him. He wanted them to have as good a last night as possible and was disgusted at himself. Faced as they must have been with an occasional lovely face or particularly endearing child, had concentration camp guards indulged in a similar sick sentimentality? Had they given their charges pet names and convinced themselves their arbitrary instances of kindness counted for anything?

They had toad-in-the-hole for supper. He ate too much and slept badly, tormented by indigestion and dreams in which he must answer for himself to his father and accusing friends but could muster only bovine bellows.

BOOK: Gentleman's Relish
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