24 March 2008

Bovine visits

As I write the view from my window is of cows and calves grazing outside. We have no cattle, but one day The Farmer announced that, if he opened a gap in his fencing and reinforced ours, his cattle could have access to our field. He did all the work with invisible efficiency. All we knew was that one day there were cows in our field. We saluted their formidable presence; large, serene faces ruminating with slow persistence, looking at us with a quiet confidence that belied their condition as newcomers in our land.

But we were delighted. K loved the calves, their grace and their agility. I celebrated the fancy that the place looked like a working field. Besides, although we prize the solitude of where we live, the proximity of these large beauties felt exactly right, as if in some way the family had grown. The first night the cows spent near us there was a different feel to the place, one of solid confraternity among creatures. It was with disappointment that we saw them disappear.

We never quite understood what made the cows – or their Farmer – decide when to come across to our field and when to leave. The fact is that their visits proved as erratic as they were welcome. Sometimes days would elapse, perhaps a whole week, without any cattle being seen. And then one day K would phone me at work to tell me that the cows have arrived; she likes to call them coos, with a warm intonation in her voice. I would then look forward to coming home and driving past them down the drive. K was less pleased when occasionally a cow would lean across the fence to eat the holly tree or even the much lower-lying daffodils, but these were forgivable offences. Things changed somewhat when, at the corner where the eaten holly and daffodils, the fence gave in.

Since the beginning of the bovine visits K had expressed the hope that they would be restricted to cows and calves; bulls, she thought, were intimidating and could be aggressive. Fate dictated that on this particular day, the first time cattle spilled onto the drive and the garden, a large bull was among them. I was working in Newcastle; K was alone. She phoned The Farmer for help, but he was out, so she left a message. Then, realising that there was nothing to stop the cattle venturing out on the road, the bridge and the outside world, K walked among the cows, past the large bull, up the drive, and she closed the gate; then she walked back among the cattle. Apart from that, all she could do was wait to see what happened. The next development was that H, one of The Farmer’s helpers, knocked on the door and apologised for the inconvenience. By this time the cattle had been herded back to their farm.

That evening The Farmer dropped in, as is his habit when you have left him a phone message. He explained that there had been a breach in the fence which had now been repaired. In any case, he added, lambing was due to start soon and he did not think allowing the cattle out of their field would be a good idea. I didn’t understand the connection but who am I to question The Farmer’s wisdom?

This morning the cattle came out through the same gap again. Being at home, I did as K had done before me: phoned The Farmer and closed the gate at the top of the drive. The bull’s countenance was such that it made me take a deep breath when walking past him towards the gate and back. And I knew I was not going to try to herd him anywhere. The Farmer was not long to come. He adroitly coaxed and menaced the animals back into the field, except for one black cow who somehow ignored all entreaties and stubbornly failed to join the herd. Thus she attracted her owner’s personal attention. It was a joy to behold The Farmer mounted on his quad, border collie next to him, giving chase to the black cow as it cantered up the hill towards the farm.

Our neighbour returned later to repair the fence again. When he finished the job he apologised.

Far from me to cast aspersions on my neighbour’s fence-fixing, but the evidence of my senses was that in the evening there was a fresh cattle invasion. In what was now a familiar routine, I rang The Farmer and shut the gate. Once again he turned up without delay, but there was pleading in his voice when he asked “Shall I let the cattle spend the night here? Tomorrow there’s a lad coming to fix all the fences up the hill”. I knew my good friend had planned an evening out in town, and time was short. Of course I didn’t mind. So I am sitting in the study, recurrently looking out of the window as a small army of cows and calves under the large bull’s command tread on our admittedly long-neglected garden, patio and drive and help themselves to as much greenery as they can find. Some of them come within touching distance, and although I like the brutes I am glad there is a window pane between us. One needs some privacy to work.