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Blaetarn, that were the name of our farm. It sat alongside Hadrian’s Wall, on the south side. If you looked to the north it were all bog across the borderlands, with a few scrappy alder and birch; no use for farming, that direction. The Scottish hills were off in the distance, when you could see ’em; as often as not, it’s murky and misty round here. Between the byre and the Roman wall were the Tarn: not more than a pond really, about a hundred yards long, and narrow. Nobody knew how deep it were.
I said our farm, but of course, it were Helen’s. She was left the farm by her father. It came along wi’ me, Joe the cowman. It were a lot for her to take on, her being widowed only a few months. Her man worked on the dams up north for some extra cash. He drowned in a September flood, compensation hard to come by back then, the seventies.
So it were just herself and the lad, Ollie. Only ten he were then. The farm didn’t bring in enough, see, even with the three of us working it. Money was tight.
That winter Ollie was ower little to be much help. I mind, I would be out at five to bring the beasts in, Helen joining me in the milking parlour, her hair – it were a deep red colour, same as Maureen O’Hara’s – tucked up under a paisley-patterned scarf. I would look over and she would give me a smile, her cheek pressed against the cow’s flank, warm and cosy. Then we would gan in to the farm kitchen for bacon and toast, afore I’d take Ollie in the van to the road-end for the school bus.
I had a little put by, and Helen took it as a loan, just until she got back on her feet. I started taking me meals at the farm, to make what little there was go further. And there was no thought of anything else, no matter what them in The Crown might say. But it was grand, just me and Helen and Ollie.
Though Helen would fret about the lad: how he would be quiet as a mouse and keep his own company, never any pals from the school or anything. Not that he were sullen or gie’d you lip, like some his age, but there were a sadness hung about him.
“Speak to him Joe,” she said. “He needs a man to take him in hand.”
I tried to show him the ropes around the farm, thinking one day he would take over. I reckoned, no matter what I might hope for, I would never be more than the cowman. But Ollie showed little interest in the stock, or the bit arable we had.
“Farming’s just a clarty cuddy-splatter of a life,” he’d say, giving a kick to a lump of turf, “and I’ll not be thinking of taking it up.” Then he would make off for the wall, loping along on those long legs of his. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to snap out o’ it.
When the spring came, Helen got to thinking about how she could make a bit more. A footpath ran beside the wall; ramblers and the like would come by in the better weather.
“We could fix up the old barn,” she said, “put in some table and chairs, a counter, and I could bake and do teas for the walkers. We can provide a safe haven for the weary and footsore.” And, laughing, she took my hands in hers; soft they were, from handling the Herdwick fleeces.
I got out my old tools and knocked up a servery for her and fixed the door. I did my best, but I’m no carpenter. She came in and, laying down a box of crockery on a table, inspected what I’d done.
“Thanks, Joe,” she said. “You’ve put in a lot of effort.” She picked up the hammer, the shaft smooth and worn from use, and seemed to weigh it in her hand, a dreamy look on her. Daft, I know, but I got the idea for a moment she would just as easy smash up the whole lot.
But sure enough the teas did well. Come May there was steady business at the weekends, and that’s what brought him: Mike. He came with a dozen lads from some “progressive” school over Dumfries way, where he was a schoolmaster. “Classics,” he’d tell us later. “Latin and Greek,” he said, looking at me as if I wouldn’t know.
He were tall and lanky, wi’ a ponytail and a mousey-brown Mexican-type moustache. I can see him now, lounging on the bank overlooking the tarn, smoking, wearing flares and an old vest like what me grandpa would wear, but dyed pink. Ollie, who was helping out, had to traipse all the way from the barn to where he were sat, with what he called his golden youth gathered round on the grass. Like bleedin’ Jesus and the disciples.
Says he to Ollie, “Are there any fish in your tarn?”
Ollie stared at the ground. “Don’t know, nobody ever fished it,” he said.
One of the boys giggled. Ollie put down the tray and headed back inside.
When he came to pay, Mike asked Helen if she would mind him coming over to fish the tarn.
“A bit of water like that is bound to have something worth the effort. I could bring a rod for the lad too, if you like.”
“Be my guest,” she said, looking up from buttering scones, tucking her hair behind her ear with her little finger. She held her hand in his just a heartbeat too long when she gave him the change. “Ollie could do with a hobby,” she said.
And so he came the next Sunday, with two rods and tackle, still in the bag from Bairds of Gretna. Right enough, there were perch and rudd in the pond. Coarse fish: no eating in them, a waste of time to my mind.
But Ollie took to the angling, I’ll admit, and to Mike, too. I’d hear him whoop with excitement as he got into a fish, and they would chat away about which hook to put on, or where they might get some bigger worms, or nonsense like that.
“My young piscator,” he would call him, and he blathered on about the Greeks and their Trojan horse and how the Romans had made the tarn when they quarried stone out to build the wall. Ollie showed me a block of stone in the farmhouse gable-end that Mike said was a carving of the goddess of love, Venus, robbed from a Roman shrine.
“Ain’t that fab, Joe,” Ollie says. “Just think…in our own house. A goddess! When Mike first seen it, Joe, he said ‘How very apt.’ What does that mean, Joe?”
“It means he’s a bloody chancer,” I said, and got on with stacking the silage.
When Ollie heard Mike’s car horn peep in the yard, he’d rush out. There he would be, in this weird French job, like an egg box wi’ wheels; pictures of flowers and caterpillars, or some such, stuck all over it. It were a fright. Ollie would steer, sat on his lap, down to the midden and back, while Mike worked the pedals.
Mike would help with the customers, gabbing away and joking, especially with the lasses. But you’d never catch him in the scullery doing the washing up. Soon he started staying for his supper. I’d see the three of them sitting round the kitchen table when I headed out. Ollie told me sometimes they would go to the pictures in Carlisle on a Saturday, and he were left wi’ nowt but a ham sandwich and a glass of milk, and the telly for company. Mike left off the fishing too, from then on. “You’ve got the hang of it now, piscator,” he says to Ollie. “I’m more use helping your mother with the teas.”
One Sunday morning in October, I’m fixing my porridge, I hears a knock at the door. There’s Mike, in a dressing gown, wi’ nowt underneath, fag in hand.
“Hi Joe,” he says, giving me a corny smile. “Can I come in?”
“Bit of a mess,” says I, standing my ground.
“Well I just wanted a word,” he says. “It’s about Helen.”
“Yes,” says I. Looking at him standing there in the shit wi’ his bare feet.
“She’s in a bit of a state,” he says, looking over his shoulder towards the farmhouse. “You know we went to the flicks last night.”
“Well, it sounds funny, but the film really upset her. It was a new horror – Don’t Look Now – with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, you know.”
“No I don’t,” I replied. “Don’t get to ‘the flicks’ much, wi’ the cows to tend an’ all.”
“’Well anyway, it was pretty scary. Their little girl drowns in the garden pond, and then they go to Venice, and…Well the main thing is the drowning. Helen freaked out, man. Inconsolable. She’s worried about Ollie you see.” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “I don’t need to tell you.”
“No, you don’t.” I says.
“Well, here’s where I think you come in. The only way I could calm her down was to say we would get rid of the tarn.”
“How do you propose to do that?” I asked.
“Drain it. Dig a drainage ditch with the tractor?”
“Ay, you could.”
“Well, I thought you could?”
“I might. But she would have to ask me herself.”
He looked at me funny then. Angry, I can tell, but I cared not, and he’s too cute to make anything of it. He needed me.
An hour or so later herself comes over, all lipsticked up. She sat on my sofa, playing with her hair, wrapping it round her fingers, like a twist of auburn rope; her eyes full of tears and cheeks pink and damp. Of course I agreed, how could I not?
I called me marra who had a digger shovel – only an idiot would try to tackle that job with just our tractor. By five o’clock, there was a channel four feet wide leading down from the tarn to the beck. I called Helen over to watch the tarn drained. The Citroen was still in the yard, but Mike never showed face. Ollie trailed behind her, and they stood on the bank watching us break through the last yard to the beck. The sky was hard and cold by then, and the evening star shining in the west.
There was a sudden noise, like the sigh of a great beast, as the water surged down the ditch. It don’t take but twenty minutes for the water to run out. On the bottom of the hollow there’s a carpet of brown, red, green, and orange.
“It’s like the earth has sprung to life,” I hear Helen whisper.
The bed of the tarn was a foot deep with dying fish squirming and flapping: perch, rudd, the odd pike, roach, and sticklebacks. You can hear them gasping for breath, their jaws click-clacking, jammed up against the neck of the pool. I jumped into the chill of the mud, up to my knees in slime and fish. I swung my mattock, cleared the blockage, the fish slipping and sliding like logs down a water chute. Helen stood hunched, arms crossed, hands tucked into the sleeves of her cardigan. It took two hours to shovel all those fish down the ditch – there’s no way we can leave them there to rot; the stink would have felled a horse.
When I came back towards the yard, I saw Ollie standing on the wall – the way he used to, before Mike came along. I go over and ask, “You alright, young un? Sad to see the end of the fishing, eh?”
“I’m not bothered. Got fed up wi’ it, anyway. You can’t eat them fish, you just have to put ’em back. What’s the point in that?”
So I leave him there, scopping stones off the wall, making slurping sounds as they hit into the mud. Next morning I set out to fetch in the beasts and, passing the empty hollow of the tarn, I see what looks like a bundle of sticks in the bottom. I walk in and pulls them out: two fishing rods, snapped in two, and beside them a tangle of lines and reels.
I’m in Lidl in Carlisle. It’s late afternoon, dark already outside. I see Helen in front of me in the checkout queue. She’s put on a couple of pounds, and there’s puffiness below the eyes; not surprising, after all, it were near fifteen years since. But bonny, yet.
I say hello. She tells me her and Mike are living down Penrith way. I ask after Ollie.
“Oh, Ollie’s in the icy wastes. Greenland.” She always had a way of putting things. “A marine biologist. Still mad about fish!” she says. “Not married yet…like yourself. He likes the lonely ocean. We rarely see him.”
“How about you?” she asks, checking she still has her place in the queue.
Not much to tell her, of course: still in the cottage; two owners of the farm since she sold up; the herd half the size it was.
“Oh well, that’s a sign of the times,” she says. “I think that’s me now,” she says, raking in her bag for her purse. “Lovely to see you, Joe.”
She pays at the till but turns back, her purse gaping open in her hand. “Joe, about Blaetarn…what I owe you…the money, I mean. Things were tough – we’re only just getting sorted. I’m sure you understand,” and she gives a little shrug. For a moment she frowns, glancing at my bit shopping jerking along the conveyor belt, like an unpleasant thought has crossed her mind. Then she smiles that smile, mouths thank you, and blows me a kiss like she’s nowt but a lass.
I think, as her face fades away into the darkening, that even now, she don’t know what a grown woman should.
She always did get Ollie wrong.
It weren’t the fish he cared about.