by Robin Wrigley
Standing in the small village church of St Peter and St Paul, I looked around the congregation marvelling at the numbers, so many they also sat in the choir stalls. It must have been nearly sixty years ago that I spotted the small tower of this church from up on the hill from where I first viewed the farm belonging to the man whose funeral we were assembled for this morning.
He, along with one of his farmhands, caught me one night entering his barn looking for shelter for the evening. I felt sure that he would have handed me over to the police, but he didn’t. He took me home with him, and his wife fed me the best meal I had eaten in months. Later I was given a bed for the night and the next day started the most lengthy and difficult process of becoming a legitimate citizen of my new home. England.
It was easy to spot the farm workers and their dog as they arrived in the morning just before dawn. Their vehicle lights acted as my alarm clock. From my hideout on the hill, it was like watching a life-size clockwork toy from a distance. They resembled one of those town clocks that had fascinated me when I was travelling across Europe on my way there.
The cows would then head towards the buildings, anxious to have the weight of their swollen udders taken from them. Later, the milk would be put into heavy metal containers and stored in the room at the end of the cowsheds and the men would sit around after the first part of their daily labours. When they left the place at the end of the day, they loaded all the milk onto the trailer that was towed by a blue tractor and drove off down the chalky track before disappearing at the far end, over the railway bridge.
I would watch them as they got smaller, finally disappearing completely over the railway bridge until only the smoke from the exhaust showed. I would dream and conjure up pictures in my head of how their homes might look with a wife waiting to feed them.
Then I knew I had to stop those daydreams, or I would have become overwhelmed with homesickness and increase the depth of my inward despair at the loss of my family. Before I could banish the scene though, the smells of mother’s lamb stew became so strong I could taste it. The warmth of our family home and the friendship of my brothers. When could I own up to someone that I had come to their country uninvited, hiding on the hill?
After I was sure they were gone, I would search around the yard for any scraps of food they might have discarded, usually in paper bags if the cats hadn’t beaten me to it. I’d even had a bonus once with some hot tea when they forgot their flask. I had to be quick though, as those feral cats would beat me in the scavenging race. They also grew some rough cabbage and turnips on the farm which they gave to the pigs. I’d eaten worse in those times.
That day, I decided to chance sleeping in the barn and avoid the night cold on the hill. It would be risky but in the months on the road I had learned to sleep in catnaps. Always ready to protect myself or leave in a hurry. I didn’t think I would ever be capable of sleeping normally again.
There I would be able to sleep on the straw bales in the barn which they only closed with a chain and no lock. Either the people in this area were very honest or the farmer very trusting, or both. Where I came from everything would be left with a lock and key and possibly a guard as well. The only thing I really disliked around the yard was the large, noisy crow who never tired of making those incessant ‘caws’. I even threw a stone at it once, but it simply moved emitting an ever louder ‘caw’ as if to mock me.
That night, I was able to see my way around the place better because it was a clear sky with a full moon. As a boy that would have sent shivers down my spine walking home from school in the winter. Back then, I’d had so many scares I think I was immune from such petty things. Survival meant my ascent from boy to man happened overnight, or so it seemed. Maybe I had simply forgotten what real fear was. There were times when I just didn’t care.
The farmer and his workers seemed to be late that evening loading up the milk and making their way home. I didn’t mind, after all I had all the time in the world. After they eventually left, and the last puff of smoke disappeared over the bridge I came down and entered the farmyard. The sun’s shadows had started to lengthen as the day gave way to evening and the moon took over. The ever watchful crow eyed me from the roof of the barn.
That was my first experience of a clear, full moon since I took up residence on the hill. Though I inwardly boasted to myself all my fears were behind me, the iridescent, heavy moonlight on the buildings started to unnerve me. The biggest of the feral cats suddenly sprang backwards from behind a water trough, arched its back and emitted a loud hiss before backing off and disappearing. That caused a light sweat to break out on my forehead as I also stepped back. I cursed the animal though it did me no harm. It was necessary to tell myself to calm down; there was nothing to fear.
I carried my bottle of milk I had filled and reserved from the morning along with a medium size swede and made for the barn. A shadow crossed the yard in front of me causing me to start again. It must have been the wretched crow relocating to the cowshed where it could watch me enter the barn. I looked back but I couldn’t spot it. Maybe it had gone further afield. Who knows? Why did I care, it was just a stupid bird, wasn’t it?
I pulled open the tall barn door and the interior now seemed so much darker than usual because the moon was on the other side of the building. A rustling sound came from inside. Something I had never noticed before. It must have been my nervous state I had allowed to take over my mind.
As I stood there holding the barn door I started to quake in fear when a voice from behind me said, ’Hello, and who would you be?’
They had returned and caught me red-handed; I suppose I should have known they always would.
After the church service when all the kind words about the deceased farmer were exchanged, I excused myself and wandered back up the chalky track where the blue tractor and trailer had travelled so many times.
I walked past the farmyard now bathed in the low glow of spring sunshine creating shadows quite different from those moon shadows all those years ago on that fateful night.
The hill seemed steeper and longer now on my aging legs. On the crest I sat down regarding the sight of that white track as I did all those years ago. Memories of the family I lost and the family I gained.