Today is my first bit of the torch relay blogging – the rest of the posts may be found here!
We are supposed to add a bit of a story about the area we have been allocated, something that has either been published or is about to be published. As a very new author I can’t do that but I can post a bit of one of my many WIPs here and link to it.
So here’s my offering. This is a section of a very long story about a place between places where the old influences the new and sometimes seeps through into the present day but this part is about loneliness and community. It’s a winter story to cool us down on what is promising to be a very hot day.
All week the village had been in the grip of winter. There had been brief thaws where the ditches had brimmed with frothy snow melt and the fields had been sodden between the dwindling patches of snow, but each night the temperature plummeted and then the flakes floated down masking the treacherous ice with feathery drifts of white. School was cancelled. Those people who worked outside the village couldn’t get to work. Families congregated for sledging and snowballing on the slopes of the old castle. They made snowmen, bought mulled cider at the pub and enjoyed their unexpected freedom.
The air was so still that Charlie could hear their squeals and shouts as he stumped across the lower pasture, boots cracking the ice, carrying his own weight in sheep nuts. On the farms around the village there was no holiday. It was killing weather for lambs; the fluctuation between chilling wet that soaked their thin fleeces and the hard frost that froze them to the ground. As soon as he realised where the weather was heading, Charlie brought his flock back into the shelter of the lambing barn, put down straw for them, carried in food. It was a hard week, following so soon after the feat of endurance that was lambing, but worth it to see the new lambs thriving.
Friday night was the coldest yet with a black sky filled with brilliant stars, but to the east they were obscured by cloud as heavy and thick as any fleece. A lazy wind drove sharp stinging crystals against Charlie’s cheeks as he crossed the yard to the house. He shut himself in, built up the fire, and heated a can of soup for supper, while Bess lay by the Rayburn — a blissful heap of black and white fur. Charlie sat nearby letting the warmth seep into his bones until he realised that the wind had dropped. He got up then and went to the window to pull back the curtain. He had to rub the frost off the window pane to see out, and there was the snow falling in a silence so profound it made his ears ring. He closed the curtains with a sigh.
“Looks like it’ll be a bad night, Bessie,” he murmured, but the old bitch was sound asleep, paws twitching with what he hoped were sunlit dreams of youth and rabbits.
Next morning the snow was hip deep and Charlie had difficulty reaching the barn. Bess tried to follow him but the crust broke under her. She made a frantic leap, then another, then stuck fast. Charlie heard her outraged whines and went back to find her, spotting her by the little black dot of her nose, the pink of her tongue as she opened her mouth to bark for help. It suddenly occurred to Charlie that if he should slip and fall there would be nobody to help him, but he pushed the thought away and reached down into the snow to stroke Bess’s ears
He lifted her out and carried her home straining his head back to avoid the loving swipes of her tongue. In the kitchen he heated the last of the milk for her and set her bowl down by the Rayburn. He stroked her sadly as she lapped. Bess was eight, old for a working collie, and this winter was plainly going to be her last. He gave her a pat, put on his boots and coat, and tried the trip up to the barn again, pursued by Bess’s desolate howls.
Charlie had to dig his way to the barn door. Inside he found the air frosty, the lambs shivering and the ewes listless.
He carried hay to them, gaining comfort himself from the scent of summer that still clung to it, even if it was thin poor stuff in comparison with other years. He put down extra sheep nuts and cracked the ice on the water troughs then returned to the farm. Acknowledging that the old ways were the best he went to the back kitchen and dragged out the hurricane lanterns he remembered his grandfather using. Bess tried to follow him out again and whined piteously when he pushed her back inside. He blew the dust and cobwebs off the lamps, found the paraffin can and carried everything up to the barn, panting and sweating with the effort of forcing his way through the snow.
With the lanterns hung from the nails driven into the beams, giving a pale yellow light and a little extra heat, he sat, shivering and blowing on his cold fingers, and watched his flock pick at their food. An hour, then another, and a lamb bleated, tail wagging as it suckled. Another half hour and two began to play. The ewes munched and lambs sucked and the air began to warm as they moved around each other making nests in the straw.
Charlie sighed in relief. He picked up the paraffin can and gave it a shake. There was just enough to last the night, but would Bess last the winter and how would he cope – a shepherd with no sheepdog?
“What should I do?” he asked the nearest ewe, but she just stared at him before turning to nuzzle her lambs.
He felt a sudden overwhelming twist of envy, of rage. Huw Morgan who farmed on the eastern slope at Maeslas had Sarah to confide in. Gomer Probert had Mari. But Charlie would cope – it was his choice. It would have been wrong to take a wife when he was – as he was. It would not be fair. But sometimes he longed for someone to confide in, for someone to care for him as much as he would care for them.
“I suppose,” he murmured to the ewe – and was pleased to see that the steam of his breath was much less than it had been, “I suppose that I’ll need to get a new pup.”
Sunday morning church was full even though the old building was icy — unusually unpleasant weather generally ensured a good turn out just in case of the Apocalypse — but by the time they had sung half a dozen hymns, fogging the church with their breath, and the Reverend Luke had belted out one of their favourite sermons, on the Book of Job, they had taken the chill off. That half the congregation had brought their dogs to church with them and had warmed their feet under them was ignored.
After paying his respects at the church door, Charlie went in search of one particular red head that he had spotted at the back of the church – a man who seemed to be very popular.
Bess stayed at Charlie’s side. He waited while Huw, Gomer and Tom had words with Bill from the garage. When they had moved on he stepped into the vacuum with a deliberately shifty look and whispered, “Have you got it?”
“You want it, I got it,” Bill replied hoarsely then grinned and swapped Charlie’s empty paraffin can for a full one out of the back of Bill’s van. “I feel like a rum runner,” he said as money changed hands. “Oh, hi, Bessie!” He sat on his heels, snapping his fingers and Bess gave him a toothy grin. She wagged all over as she limped into his welcoming hands.
“At one point last night,” Charlie admitted, “I was wondering if whiskey would work in the lanterns if the paraffin ran out. Awww, she really likes you.” He looked at the old bitch, an idea formulating, and his sigh and tone were sad as he added, “Make the most of her while you can. Poor old love.”
Bill glanced up, frowning. “What do you mean? She can’t be that old. What? Seven or eight?”
“That’s old for a working collie,” Charlie said, watching the way Bill’s hands were rubbing through Bess’s ruff. She was leaning against him, tail thumping. “And that rat bite she had at Midsummer really affected her. She can’t work the sheep any more but she tries and they bully her.” He shook his head. “She needs some self-respect, a job to do, so – really – it would be kinder.”
“Oh no!” Bill’s hands tightened on her fur and Bess gave a soft whine. “A job. She can still bark, can’t she?”
“Oh yes,” Charlie assured him. “She lets us know if anyone’s about. Why, Bill? What are you thinking?”
Bill shrugged, looking into Bess’s adoring brown eyes. She was doing most of Charlie’s work for him as a good collie should by raising her pointed black nose and giving Bill’s chin a sneaky lick.
Bill smiled. “I was thinking of getting a burglar alarm fitted. I still might,” he said, “but a dog now – that would be company, too.”
“Yes she would,” Charlie agreed.
Bill looked up at him then down at Bess and gave an exaggerated sigh. “You weren’t going to have her put down at all, were you?” he said.
“Well …” the shifty look was back. “Thing is – she likes you. And she really can’t work the sheep any more and it is upsetting her, poor old lady, so I’m having to leave her in the house when I go out and she howls! But if she can have company, and walks and people to woof at, I think she’d be very happy. And at the moment it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra heat source, now would it. She’s lovely and warm…”
Bill nodded, his eyes on Bess’s again. Then he looked up and past Charlie to see Huw and Tom and Gomer nodding their approval too. “But – the sheep? How will you manage?”
“Bloody good old bitch that,” Gomer said, then glanced in apology towards the church. “She’ll see you right, Bill. Charlie, you’ll be needing to borrow my young bitch, Jess, I think?”
Charlie let out the breath he had been holding. “Thanks, Gomer.”
Bill gave Bess’s glossy black and white fur another ruffle before standing up. “I’ll walk up to get her tomorrow,” he said.
“Weather permitting,” Charlie reminded him.
As one, all the men glanced at the sky and sighed their agreement, then began to chat about more general subjects such as the work they would all have to do that afternoon.