Recovery

The grass turned and the cows faltered. Two mornings of frost fried the blades and spooled them into ribbons which came loose at their roots like slack teeth. Having blown back and forth across the hill with the lightness of moths at the height of midsummer, the beasts were finally pressed into work. They covered the ground as September wore on, and they took more of the failing grass than ever before.

Until that moment, the hill had come to them in a breeze of easy living. The frosting drove them to bellow and moan, and they’d rush to me when I walked amongst them in the heather and myrtle. It was not discomfort, but something more like antsiness and a growing sense of impatience. They didn’t know what I could do to help, but they nagged at me for something. And in those few transitional days as the grass turned, I think the cattle did more good for the hill than in all the summer combined.

Deep, rank beds of vegetation were baffled by the grind of heavy hooves. Accustomed to lying loose in long, extravagant strands, the tussocks were trimmed down to the barest bristles. I found lumps of black grouse shit in the clearings, and a brood of young birds clattered up around the willow scrub like chickens going to roost. On the better ground, the bracken banks were mashed beyond all recognition; tangles of red wreckage destroyed and overturned like busted scaffolding. The beasts knew where to go and how to make use of the hill; they fanned out and covered the bogs and the deep flushes which trembled with scabious and white flags of parnassus. For ten days, they ruled the roost and delivered everything I had been looking to see all summer.

And then the moment passed. The grass moved beyond that jammy redness to something thinner and crisp, like miles of spooled out cassette tape. The antsy cattle spilled into open frustration. The cold weather pressed them to work overly hard, and two of them escaped back to the Loch and the marshes where the grass seemed greener. Watching them on my computer via the satellite tags, I could see they were travelling further every day. They began to ping around the moss like pinballs, gathering energy and momentum to move under their own steam. If I had all of this ground, I would’ve opened the slip gate and sent them out to cover the neighbouring hill for the winter – but for me it was time to bring them down again; home to the inbye and the promise of silage. And of all that I have learned this year, the most valuable lesson is how to spot that precise moment of transition when the beasts have done enough.

So I called them up to the gate and shook a bag and they came from half a mile away, thundering and moaning like teenage boys. Fearing that this final stage of the summer’s work would be the hardest, I had gnawed at my nails in anticipation. Any fool can put cattle on a hill, but it’s a tough job to bring them home again. Knowing that the final hurdle would be the hardest, I had trained the beasts to respond to this summons over many weeks. My nerves were frayed by the suspense of that moment, but it was no surprise to find them willing.

They barrelled up to the open gate, then thundered out to the old railway line where they dripped and churned with excitement. I found it strange to see them exposed in their naked entirety without a skirt of grass or myrtle to conceal their modesty. I had become used to finding them afloat in the moss; I hadn’t seen their feet since May. And how they’d grown!

Then I walked them down to the gathering-pens which were built in a steep-sided railway cutting. And “cutting” is a misnomer, because there is no carving granite – that slot was blasted into the rock with sticks of dynamite. I’ve heard it said that the busting of that line could be heard for thirty miles in every direction, and it’s fair to say those Victorian engineers achieved wondrous things in the far hills. Now that they’ve gone forever, the image of black, satanic steam engines feels more like a dream in this place than any practical reality.

Having pulled the cattle off the moss, it was wonderfully straightforward to run them down the railway line into the pens. They began to gallop, so I ran alongside them with a bag of nuts until they blew and clattered and tossed their heads. The first gate gathered them in, and the second closed fast behind them. It took a few moments to bring up the livestock trailer, and in the rush of thundering hooves, I realised that less than five minutes had passed since I first shouted on them to “come up” and “well done”.

And with the customary batter and slam of heavy trailer doors, the cattle were heading home after their first summer on the hill.

Beef

The butcher’s shop was broad and clean on the High Street. It was fun to go there as a child. I loved to see the meat laid out in banks and patterns like the start of a board-game, and like every shop I knew back then, the butcher’s had a smell of its own; crisp and familiar as the bell above the door.

It made sense to find scents of bread in the bakery. The grocer’s reeked of cabbage and soil, but the butcher’s smelled only of butcher. I rarely paused to wonder where that smell came from, but I knew it wasn’t meat. The butcher smell hummed in the air like an electric flytrap; a whined reminder of something else.

My mother would ask for chops and rolled shoulder, and I’d smile at the men and goggle at the wads of square sausage and sliced haggis laid out for display. One of the butchers slipped me a twenty pence piece from the till one morning. He was a small man and always smiling, and he kept an orgy of naked women on his forearms, bleached and blue as if they’d been drawn on cheap paper. He loved to run his dogs, and it was reckoned that most of the hares in that shop window had come from farms around the town. I wonder now if he ever had the pleasure of selling them back to the farmers he’d robbed, and I think he was the kind of man that would’ve been tickled by that. Years later, I heard that he drank one night and rolled his car on ice above Colvend. And that was the end of him; a graceful glide into the root of a roadside tree.

I saw my first cow killed on Saturday. Down she went, and then a stench so powerfully familiar that I reeled away from it. Because here is the butcher’s smell traced back to source; not meat, but a moment written in scent so rich and wild that it could wake you in the night, like peat smoke or the shock of broken stone. It’s ox-blood and fresh death; a sticky baste of joint fluid and eyes drying; not meat, but killing as it always has been. And I can forgive myself for failing to recognise that smell because cows are one of two things to a child – alive or beef. It’s hard to imagine a space between those states, but believe me when I say there is a third way in the lolling, unstrung tongue which is neither living nor cold as the clots begin to wobble.

Feeling curious in the aftermath of that killing, I leaned headfirst into the drum where her lungs had hung. I drew that butcher’s smell into my nose and exploded at the recollection of blue tattoos and the heavy gold chain around his neck; and his Rangers hat which he wore to work in the coldstore where steam rose from his breath like hot liver and the bunchy clumps of kidney fat all strapped in slatted ribs like the staves of a busted barrel. Having seen what can happen when you fall to your knees, I fought to stay upright.

I went back to explore the carcass on Sunday, but the smell had gone. The body was steady and stiff with the cool, sober odour of beef; something you might serve to guests or children. But the recollection of an old scent can fairly set you going. And I have my hands full, packing and slicing joints into bags and wraps of paper. There is no time for me dwell upon the memory of a man who has been dead for two decades. But he swarms around me, and I can’t remember his name.

Rat and a rat

“Hello Rat;

Hello a rat”.

Gripped in a fever, I pull a blanket round my shoulders and watch a creature crackle in the pig sty straw. I repeat those words to myself over and over; hello Rat; hello a rat, And it occurs to me that there are two meanings here. And I say Go on then – let’s pass some time and draw a line between Rat and a rat. tarrat. atat.

And having asked, I think aloud and reply to myself that Rat is the substance from which a rat can be drawn. Rat is the mother; the fire from which a rat is cast like a spark to run and writhe and replicate like rice.

I shiver and watch as a rat comes to butter its whiskers on the lip of a trough. My toes curl with disgust, but having talked myself into an awareness of Rat, I’m glad to have some diversion; because the endlessness of Rat is enough to wake you screaming in the darkness. I recoil from an idea which runs like a stain to link the actions of a million slithering parts.

And I’m ever more thankful for a rat, which allows me to say “I know what that is”. There’s comfort in the hateful certainty of it; and reassurance because the replicant’s secrets are bare. A rat is one and the same wherever you find it; lapping itself in a relay of theft and coitus; countably foul. I know that a rat can be solved by a spade or a slavering dog.

And I’m sure there is no solving Rat.

I coil this idea round and through my clammy hands for twenty minutes. It leaves a mark like that day when the snow fell and the whiteness was hashed by the track and backtrack of small prints between the feed bins and the dump. I run a temperature of 100.5 °F, and the morning light is rancid in the doorway. I wonder – if Rat was here, could I see it? Because now I’m looking.

Autumn

You’ll have seen the daylight fading?

And you’ll know that dawn has become a workday normality; that night falls when you’ve hardly made sense of your evening?

Autumn is a fair time to walk in the darkening hills and think of all that sunlight you pissed up the wall in June and July. Remember how angry it made you when, as a child, you were sent to bed on summer nights when it was broad daylight outside? Remember how you railed at the loss of that time, swearing to yourself that if you could only grow up, you’d never waste the possibilities of sunshine?

And does it not bother you to break that promise every summer now you’re grown? When did you start to care that it’s time for bed; that you’ve work in the morning and deadlines to meet? By Christ, you’re lucky that boy can’t see you now – now you’ve haltered yourself in a stall.

So if you’ve clocked this downward trend, perhaps you’ll take solace from a few autumn days which come stitched together in a semblance of stability. Perhaps you’ll find the season that you hoped for in a week of fine weather; matching days for golden leaves and the din of a stag in the gairies. Having failed to grab your childhood summer, grab this now because it’s all you’re getting. Before you know it, a wind’ll swing (as winds can swing) to bring rain or a sense of dullness. You’ll wake to find it’s dark for an hour longer in the morning, and comforting yourself, you’ll say “it’s just the weather – Autumn can’t have vanished overnight”.

And you’re almost right, because chances are that fair weather will return in a day or two. The light’ll widen slightly, and it’ll feel like a recovery. But there is no coming back from that first impact, and when rain drives in for a second or a third time, you’ll begin to see the shortfalls plainly. And so with every descending step into winter, each setback of darkness or fog will be restored with something fainter; each rally will reveal some fresh absence until, in a mass of low cloud and heaviness, you’re unable to recall the last fine day. And you’ll say

this must be how it feels to grow old