The clarity is cleaner in retrospect, and I’m glad I did nothing to record the bellwether days between Christmas and mid-January. There was hardly a cloud in the sky for three whole weeks. When the fronts came at last it was merely to snow and shift the aspect forward.
In another year, I would’ve wasted that time by rushing from the hill to my desk to record every blink and crackle of ice in the haggs; I’d have cupped those details in my hands and hurried to set them somewhere safe before they could dribble away through the gaps in my fingers. Because freshness was everything, and urgency was imperative. Take the deafening thrill of ten thousand geese with their wings set to land in the fields below the house; the details fade, even as you listen. Recall the crunch and tumble of a vixen killed in the snow; if you aren’t careful, the moment can vanish like a puff of blood.
In carrying pails of water to the cows, I almost stepped on a jack snipe. I stopped and we stared at one another as he crouched like a beetle in the burn; the world compressed to a palmful. Then he flared away to the west, and like a fool I took a photograph, which came out as another pixelated lie. That stung me, so I tried to do better; to roll along with the time and be true to it more generally, allowing the most part away, even though it flew against my need to record and engrave.
I was drunk on New Year’s Eve. Some neighbours came and we stood at a respectful distance in the yard while a dumb, honey-coloured moon rolled up through the gaps in the cattle shed roof. Having failed to make much of 2020, we swore that the coming summer would bring better hay than anything we’d ever seen – we could already smell the grass frying like bacon in a pan. So we drank and laughed and never knew that another neighbour would die in his bed that night and his farm would wake into a new year without a plan or a master. The geese tramped his grass in the dark as if the deeds hardly mattered, but we are sorry that he’s gone.
Those pigs I keep were punctured by a boar in September. Progress was inevitable, and it came at the start of this week now passed. A string of wriggling young’uns rolled into the straw on Monday morning, and I would’ve said that a second litter is due in ten days – but the way that sow is standing and heaving at her own drab sides, I think they’ll come sooner than that.
There’s always another stage before the end of pregnancy in pigs; always something which has to happen first. The bar fattens and the milk drops once and then again before the teats turn red and thicken and the whole bay drops like the offload ramp on a digger trailer. She’ll nest and lie the wrong side up, then carry more rushes and bracken into her den like a bear.
Pathetically keen for progress, I mistake every one of these stages for the destination. I exhaust myself with anticipation, so that when piglets rush out into the darkness at last, it’s just another step and no arrival. And the first litter is firm and fit, and she had seven which is a far more sensible number than thirteen she dropped last time and killed one by standing on it. The sty is warmed by a red lamp; cobwebs hang pinkly on the lintels. As she recovered from the effort of delivery, the sow hardly ate and her slop lay for hours in a stone trough until the rats came for it. Checking the smallest pigs between two and three in the morning, I found an owl wedged on the rails above the trough, watching the trough lip, ready to curl in with an ell-shaped grasp like the knight in a chess game.
And always geese over the house, tramping the snow and moving without care in skeins that run for miles towards the bay. I cart muck to the field and shake it out with a grape; I smash ice on the water troughs and lug bales to the beasts in a darkening rush of sleet and expletives. I have become winterman again; The User. Birds die when I handle them; stores wither and dwindle. I revel at the smouldering fuel; I dish out the stuff I worked so hard to keep. So watch me burning up the summer’s fat, with no memory of what it cost to lay this comfort down. I squander as if replenishment was a given.
I wondered if I’d make a Resolution for myself this year; some fresh challenge to undermine the ground I already hold by the tips of my fingers. My time is apportioned with a razorblade and a microscope, but I tell myself that if I can just take on a few more projects, I’ll be satisfied at last – life will finally hurt enough to give me peace. I look around me, realising that there are hedges to renew and sheds to repoint in the summer. Perhaps I could act more as a father, and maybe there’s time to take on another screed of hill ground without losing the peace to write and read, which are two ends of the same thing. And I haven’t slammed into the buffers because that will never happen to me.