Fiction. (Extract) The Ploughboy.

Rob rattled along on the back of the cart, chewing a tiny piece of tobacco that he’d pinched from his dad, and watching the dust fly up behind the wheels. As he listened to the rhythm of the heavy hooves up in front, driving the wheels forward while Matty slapped the reins, the sound of the school bell faded into the distance. Which was just how he liked it. Right through the winter, any time a farm cart came past that school gate he’d be straight out of the yard and onto it. School was for little ‘uns. It wasn’t any use to him. No use at all. Why would he want to be sitting inside cooped up all bloody day, when there was sun on the fields and he could be out there working? He knew what he was going to do. He’d told them. As soon as they’d let him out “he were off among t’osses.” His mother had tried to tell him to do his book learning first, but she was talking daft. He’d told her so as well. He could write his own name and that. He knew what was what. He could add up change, and he knew what was in his pocket. What was the point of buggering about learning more than that? He wasn’t soft in the head, and he was big enough to give anybody who said so a good hiding. Not that many did. Rob was a strapping lad for twelve, and he was ready to work. He’d been working for long enough whenever he could. He knew that he wasn’t going to be able to stop at home, there were only so many mouths they could feed, and anyway he didn’t want to. School wasn’t bothered. Well, Miss Richmond had tried to get him interested, to be fair, but it was a lost cause. Like a lot of others Rob had made sure he did enough to pass his exam, so he could be in the fields all summer, and he counted the days every year until he knew that he had turned up often enough not to have to bother any more. Sitting in a desk with a bunch of bairns and a slate wasn’t real work for a strapping lad like him and nobody pretended it was. Any East Yorkshire lad had to work at threshing or harvest time, or whenever help was needed on the land, exam or no exam. You wouldn’t catch Rob’s dad letting him waste time at school when there was real work to be done, and he didn’t see fit to explain himself to any teacher. As he said to Miss Richmond, “Why should I? You know nowt about ‘osses.”
When they got to the far field where he knew George would be working he jumped off the back of the cart and refastened his boots. George would have been out there since first light and he would be ready for his drinkings by now. George was what Rob thought of as a good ‘un. Sometimes he would go and fetch beasts in for George before school, or go round and watch when he knew he’d be feeding up the horses. You could always rely on him to give you a bit of snap and show you a thing or two, so long as you listened and didn’t answer back. You’d get a clip round the ear if you did that, or the toe of his boot. Not that Rob was ever cheeky. Not to George. He was like an eager spaniel as he watched George work, waiting for the moment when he would be allowed to help, taking it all in. George didn’t mind. He had a bit of patience, George, he wasn’t rough like some of the men out in the fields. Some of them only knew how to answer with their fists and they would knock a young lad to the ground if he made a mistake, rather than show him how to do something. There weren’t many like that, mind you, but if you met one you didn’t forget. Rob could see George now, working about half way down the field. He was ploughing and he was making a good job. Rob and his mates used to watch from the end of the schoolyard when there was ploughing going on, looking forward to the day when they would be working the same fields. Rob could usually find something to say about it. He knew a good job when he saw it. They all did. He made his way eagerly across the field now, jumping the half frozen furrows which divided the newly ploughed land and breaking the icy puddles between them as he went. George had seen him coming. He stopped his team and straightened his back, feeling for the lump of dry bread in his pocket.
“Now lad. Tha should be in school tha knows.”
Rob did know and he didn’t care.
“Nay. I’m fed up wi’ that game. Waste o’ time.”
George just grinned and threw a piece of the bread across to him. Rob grabbed it and chewed hungrily as he kicked at a furrow.
“Ground a bit hard for this lark in’t it?”
“Just a bit. It’s thawing nicely mind.”
Bess and Bonnie, the two black shire horses who were George’s team were standing in their harness quietly chewing on their bits, breathing soft warm smoke and steaming gently in the cold air. Rob walked round, talking soft nonsense to them under his breath as he admired the sheen of their coats, and gave the harness a shake. Sometimes you might have to watch yourself when you were doing that, but not with these two. They were gentle giants who weighed a ton apiece, but they used their strength sparingly and they were well used to Rob. He had been watching them roll in the stack yard like huge puppy dogs and pinching linseed cake from the farm store shed for them since he was a small boy. Not that he would ever dare tell his dad. He never gave it to them without George’s say so either. They weren’t his horses after all and feeding was a serious business. He went up and slipped his fingers under Bonnie’s bottom lip, stroking the soft skin and the delicate hairs and enjoying the feel of her warm breath over his hand as it smoked its way out into the cold air. She waved her lips gently across his palm, searching for crumbs.
“Can I give her this?” he said, looking at George and holding up the last corner of bread.
George shook his head.
“Go on then.”
Rob grinned as Bonnie took the sliver of bread eagerly.
“You’ll not get fat on that, lass. They’re in good fettle George.”
George slapped his horse’s rump proudly.
“Aye. They are that. Sleek as you like.”
Rob looked at George eagerly, asking the same question with his eyes that he always did. George grinned and shook his head.
“Reet then. Gerron, and we’ll see how tha makes out.”
Rob picked up the plough shafts eagerly and coaxed the horses round into position to start the next furrow. George watched him tolerantly. Bess and Bonnie were easy enough to handle, not like some, and he could trust them to know their job. Rob would be right enough with them. They would pull their weight, and neither of them were that likely to kick out.
“Gee up then.”
Rob clicked the plough strings and began to make his way down the first furrow, trusting the horses to do their job and trying to watch and control his plough, desperate to keep his furrow as straight as the final one that George had done, so he wouldn’t be shown up. He wanted to show George what he could do. He wanted him to think that he was a man. George had the kind of hard muscled arms that Rob wished he had and he had seen him swing a hundredweight sack of grain up onto his back as if it weighed nothing at all. His hero watched him critically.
“You’re not making a bad job of that.”
Rob’s back straightened with pleasure as he heard the praise, and he took his mind off the job for a few seconds. As the horses turned at the end of the field he forgot to turn the plough with them and the plough handles slapped him at the back of the knees and knocked him into the ditch at the end of the field. As he got up, red faced and gasping for breath, George shouted across the field through his laughter, his voice carrying through the cold clear air.
“Frame thissen you daft bugger. You want to sidle your plough round yoursen- don’t let your ‘osses pull it round. You’re about as much use as a man made of band.”
Rob pulled the plough handles round and gave the horses the order to walk on. He was angry with himself. It wasn’t the first time he’d had hold of a plough and he should know better.

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Please to remember…………………

November is a great time for bonfires in the garden. As the big day approached my granddad would start gathering all the remains of summer into a pile in the middle of what had been his vegetable patch. All the prunings, clippings, and unwanted boxes- anything which would burn basically- would be heaped up ready for ignition. That bonfire was a promise and I watched it grow each year with mounting excitement, pestering my mother for things to throw on it.

I was allowed one box of standard fireworks, but Miss Gill in the village sold fireworks loose and it was easy to persuade my granddad to take me down there for more. I would be lifted up so that I could see over the counter into her big box. I would choose the ones that there were never enough of in my box at home. They never quite lived up to their name but, ever the optimist at that age, it was their names that I used to help me choose them. Golden rain, traffic lights, and Roman candles, and a very big rocket which would never fit inside any box. No bangers. Ever. They were a waste of time. Anybody could make a noise. And I hated the unpredictability of jumping crackers. They were downright dangerous. I liked the idea of danger, not the reality.

On the fifth of November itself Mr Naylor would get out the grey history books and tell us the story all over again. I would look at the picture of the row of plotters, thrilled by how wicked they had been and trying to see if it showed in their faces. At the end of school we would be given a talk on firework safety and I would rush home, hardly able to believe that I was going to be allowed to take part in something so dangerous. I was kept safe, relentlessly, boringly safe, all the time and it was hard to believe that for this one night I was going to be allowed to hold fire in my hand on the end of a stick and play with it. We were actually going to have explosions, beautiful showers of molten colour, in our own back garden. Unlike Christmas, which was always taken over by the adults, bonfire night was never a disappointment to me. Nobody else cared about it nearly as much as I did and I was allowed to get my own way. It was my night. I always ate my tea staring out of the window longing for it to be dark enough and when it was I would go out into the garden with a torch to check that my granddad had brought out the old table from the back of the greenhouse and shine my torch onto the strange black hump that would soon be on fire.  I would find the milk bottle which had been buried for the rockets and shine my torch on that too. We were ready. Finally the fireworks could be allowed down from their high cupboard. I would lay them out in the box and decide which order I wanted them to go off in. Rockets last of course. Seeing an explosion of stars which had been sent up into the sky just for me was the best bit of all. Then my granddad would go back outside and light the bonfire and I would watch the flames spread while he walked around it contentedly, moving burning wood towards the centre with a garden fork. When the bonfire had taken hold properly my dad would take the first firework, a big one, out of the box and light it. We had begun. My contribution was to stand well back and yelp with excitement every time a shower of coloured sparks shot into the air, and cheer other people’s distant rockets as they hit the night sky, hugging myself because mine were still in the box. Finally they would be sent up with a last exultant hiss of pleasure and it was all over for another year.

I still love bonfire night now. I love the darkened faces, the acrid smell, the sparks spiralling up into the sky on the wind, and the warmth of the fire on my back as I stare into the cold night air while I rest my face from the heat. The huge display down the end of our road, with fireworks that are sent up from what sound like rocket launchers, really does light up the sky as the advertisements promised me in a way that my spluttering little Roman candles never did- except in my imagination. I finally have the excitement which I was promised, spreading out across the darkness in overlapping circles of colour and movement. I may have to share it with a few hundred other people who congregate on the field but I am still convinced it is all for me and I am always right at the front.

Silent witnesses.

On the mantelpiece near my computer there are two white Staffordshire pottery dogs. They are Victorian, made around 1880 and they are rather lumpy, lifeless objects. They stare rigidly ahead of them and, while they have nicely painted feathery red blotches on them, their fur is hard and cold, with no movement in it at all and they have harsh unforgiving faces. If I am truthful I don’t like them very much. So why are they there? They have a small value- I could sell them quite easily and buy something which I do like.

What makes it less simple is that those dogs have been sitting on a mantelpiece staring at me for longer than I am able to remember. They were bought new by my great grandparents before I was born and when the family took in an evacuee during the second world war she never forgot my great grandmothers fierce order never to touch them, given almost as soon as she walked through the door. There was no money in a farm labourer’s family for luxuries and buying them had been a major event, saved up for and relished.

Those dogs sat there, never moved from their position, watching just about every important event as I was growing up. They watched every meal, every celebration and every crisis. They would be hidden under the bed when we went away on holiday and dusted with a care that was never given to anything else. After I left home they would wait for me to come back and still be there, staring, as they shared my news alongside my parents. They would be the first thing that I would look for when I walked through the door and the fact that they were still there was a reassurance that, in spite of the changes which came and went over the years, home was still there. Some things didn’t change.

The mantelpiece they sat on for almost fifty years doesn’t even exist any more. There is a blank wall where it used to be and not even a shadow of them is left in their old position after the house was renovated by its new owner, but they still survive and stare blankly at their new surroundings in exactly the same way they always did. They don’t have pride of place any more, but they have a new mantle-piece and it fits them quite well. They are grumbled at rather than cherished these days, and life is quiet for them in the spare bedroom, but they seem to accept it with the same dumb insolence they showed to the people who loved them.

One day they will move on, to somebody who doesn’t know their history. Oh they will probably know the trivial stuff like when they were made, perhaps even which factory made them if a dealer gets hold of them, but not the important things. Not the things which those dogs have been an empty witness to over the years, or the thoughts of the people who cared about them. They will move on, but it won’t be any time soon. Putting up with them is a way for me to take possession of my past and pay respect to the people who made it. Come to think of it, they could do with a bit of a dust…………………..

A horse is a horse, of course, of course……………..

For the last week or so I have been watching an episode of Mr Ed on DVD every day. Obviously this is shameless self indulgence and shouldn’t be encouraged, but I am now middle aged and do not care in the least what anybody else thinks. When I last saw Mr Ed, in 1962, I was about five years old. I was sitting right up close to a tiny grey screen, with the curtains shut so that I could see the picture, wearing my red kilt with the bib on it, white socks and start rite sandals and refusing to eat anything but toast for my tea. I would wait for Mr Ed to introduce himself and then sing along to the song, swinging my legs, with half an hour of pure happiness in front of me, the kind of uncomplicated happiness which it is hard to achieve in adult life. If the picture began to spin around, as it very often did, I would have to run and fetch my granddad. It was very serious because if it wasn’t put right straight away I would lose my one chance to see Mr Ed. I would have to wait a whole week and that particular episode would be gone for good. My granddad would twiddle one of two knobs at the side of the television while I watched anxiously. I wasn’t allowed to touch those knobs, even in an emergency like this. If the picture was still somersaulting he would hit the back of the set, just once, very hard. Mr Ed would look startled for a moment and then everything would usually be all right again.

I liked Mr Ed for several reasons. First of all he was a horse, which was a big advantage if you wanted to grab my attention when I was five. He also talked, of course, and what was even funnier he only talked to Wilbur. This was because Wilbur was the only person he had ever liked enough to bother to talk to. This appealed to me very much and I admired him for it. I wasn’t allowed to ignore people who I didn’t like. Mr Ed was also very clever. He only talked if he had something worth saying and this was more evidence for my firm belief that most animals were a lot cleverer than people gave them credit for. This applied to my dog, my cat, my rabbit, my budgie, my goldfish, the minnows in the water butt down the end of the garden, my granddad’s ferret, and even my newt. All of them could do things which I couldn’t and that had to prove something.

So how is Mr Ed wearing, forty five years later? You know what- he’s doing all right. It’s actually very sharply written and edited and Alan Young as Wilbur has a genuine fondness for Bamboo Harvester (Mr Ed’s real name for those who are not as obsessed as I am) which really comes across. Yes it is lightweight, and it is silly, but there’s a warmth about it which is very appealing and the light dusting of kitsch which it has gathered over the years does it no harm at all. You could waste half an hour on a lot worse.