Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 19, 2010

The Slurry Wagon

North Atlantic gales and collies and labradors and a moment of ecstasy.

I adopted my doggie sometime late in the springtime.  Along the ridges and through the fields and bogs the furze was cloaked with blossoms of mustardy yellow. And all along the six-foot- high dry stone walls lining the narrow boreen that started at the top of the hill and wound its way to its eventual endgame  in the ocean, blackberry brambles were sprouting pale green leaflets and the sweet-smelling wild roses – tiny, old-fashioned, single-petalled and delicately white – filled the moist, cloud-drenched island air with fragrance.  I lived three quarters of the way down this boreen – a good half a mile below the double farmhouse at the top, with its cluster of barns and tiny fields in which fifteen or twenty calves grew fat and happy grazing on the lush, emerald green grass.  Two hundred yards above me was a small sheep farm; directly below and to my rear was the sea.  And it was here – in a typically squat, determinedly ugly, and utterly sea-worthy, bunker-like cottage – that I had unpacked my bags. For at that particular moment in time, I called it my home.

Like all such bunker-like cottages built within spitting distance of the jagged west-facing cliffs, the eyes of its soul – its windows – looked eastward, towards light and the morning sun and across the endless vista of hills and bogs and faraway grey mountains. Although the view on the western side was more spectacular, no one but summer visitors would think of inserting picture windows into west-facing rooms.  The constant north Atlantic gales that sweep through such islands and which have shaped the peoples since the dawn of time, and which enshroud the hills and valleys and bogs with perpetual mist and dampness and a sense of foreboding, simply laugh at such folly.  For as soon as the visitors move into to the new holiday homes they have built, the waves crash against their west-facing picture windows to drive their point home.  However, those  souls who were born to these gales, and who have lost generations of fisherman sons to the North Atlantic swells, and who have spent half their lives in darkness – for in winter the light comes late and does not linger for more than a few hours – such light as can be had is not a luxury.  It is a blessing and a necessity. Hence, windows face east, away from the storms and towards this life-giving light, as well as towards a gentler, more pastoral landscape; in other words, towards the dawning of the next new day.

Besides, as every islander knows, what good is a window unless it faces the road?  And what good is a window unless the neighbours can see that the window is spotlessly clean, and that the seldom-used front parlour behind it is as spic and span as spic and span can be.  For if it is not, never fear – the whole village and county will soon hear of it.  “Poor dear,” the biddies will lament with glee, as they gather with others to sit in their own back kitchens and hash and re-hash the foul tragedy over plates of scones and cups of black inky tea.  “Did you notice how she didn’t get up for mass last Sunday, and how she had to be helped with her shopping bags when she got off the community bus? There will be tears and a wake within a fortnight, with a Mass on a Tuesday, so you had better be getting yourselves over to Mary’s by the Friday before.  To have your hair set early, so it will be less frizzy, you know.”

In other words, everyone judges you by the state of your front windows.  And don’t think you can avoid the issue by simply keeping the curtains closed.  For to keep your curtains closed means one of only four things:  that you’ve gone away; that you are poorly; that you are dead; or that you are dead drunk.  Now, since I am not the type to clean my windows for the benefit of others, I always kept my front curtains closed.  True, I lived in perpetual gloom – for the windows at the back were so small that what light there was couldn’t find its way into the house – but being the stubborn male creature that I am, I couldn’t see any sense in going out in the middle of a raging storm to wash the windows.  Because, you see, there was always a raging storm in progress, but nobody else seemed to find anything strange about washing one’s windows right in the middle of it.

And speaking of gales and storms and howling winds, not even a hurricane-force howler would prevent even the most desperately ill pensioner from hanging her washing out on the line if that is what she had in mind to do.  And to be perfectly candid, if anyone waited until the weather was less rowdy in order to dry their laundry and not get soaked through to their bones, it would never be hung up at all.  When I first arrived I used to wonder why and how my neighbour would rush out into the fiercest gale and hang her wash and then simply forget about it.  For if we had been anywhere else on earth, all those clothes and sheets and towels would have been blown into the next county within a second and a half.  But not so on the island.   So I asked her how such a thing could be, and she let me in on the secret:  ‘Gale-Proof’ clothes-pegs!  And to think, I had never even heard of such a thing before.  Needless to say, they were by far the most popular item (after window-cleaning supplies) in the local hardware store – a store very much like an old-fashioned general store.    

I had not been there long before I decided it might be nice to be taken care of by a dog.  I didn’t want a sheepdog, simple because they are outside dogs and working dogs and I had no work for one to do.  They are not at their happiest if cosseted on a couch twenty-four hours a day.  Yes, sitting by the Aga and living the life of Riley might please them for a few hours of an afternoon and evening, but Border Collies are not among nature’s born contemplatives.  They grow bored and they grow restive (and, believe me, nothing can look as bored as a bored Border Collie).  They look out the east-facing window towards the fields of sheep and they sigh and they moan and they groan and they whimper, and should you persist in refusing to take the hint, they finally shout, “Please give me some feckin’ work to do!  Give me some sheep that I may take care of them and herd them this way and that and worry them half to death, and if you do what I want I  promise to love, honour and obey you forever and ever. And I won’t even nip you on your heals when you get in my way!” 

But even had I wanted one of these treasures, I had to remember that I was surrounded on all sides by small sheep farms, and on each farm on lived a couple of sheep dogs, none of which would be happy to welcome a newcomer. Of course, I could have made a compromise amenable to everyone – to the neighbouring dogs and to their owners and to myself – by simply adopting a Border Collie pup.  For many of the neighbouring sheepdogs were getting on in years. A puppy can easily be integrated into an existing community; it could simply join in with my neighbours collies in their tasks, and then at such time as one of the older animals died or got too weak, it could take its place.  Also, under this arrangement, if and when I should decide to leave and move elsewhere – for I have notoriously restless feet and little feeling for a settled life if it doesn’t suit me – my dog would have a home and a job.  And everything in the garden would be lovely.

However, as much as I love and appreciate Border Collies, what I really wanted – if I wanted anything at all – was a companion dog, a low-maintenance beastie whose natural inclination was to sit on the sofa and snuggle and be a best friend.  I also wanted a quiet dog, a tidy dog, and a dog that wouldn’t eat me out of house and home.  In other words, the last thing on my mind was a Labrador.  For although when it comes to food I am extremely disciplined and rarely give snacks either to myself or to any pets I may have, a labrador’s natural-born love-affair is not with its owner so much as with the owner’s refrigerator.  They can’t help it; it’s how they are made.  Now, every once in a while every well-behaved Labrador should be taken outside and away from its beloved refrigerator and its jealously guarded food bowl – for as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s fulltime indoor job – when not guarding the refrigerator – is to monitor whether, in a moment of inattention, an atom of food might not have made it way into this treasured receptacle; for surely, such a morsel must be there somewhere – just waiting to be slurped up by the labrador’s tongue.  And since a Labrador has a particularly suspicious mind where food is concerned, a speck of food can only mean one thing: that another dog will appear from the depths of nowhere and gobble it up. Right in front of him.  And since he is suspicious on an equal-opportunity basis, and insanely jealous in regards to every edible thing in the entire universe, he is – it goes without saying – profoundly distrustful of the neighbour’s cats.  For all cats – no matter what colour, no matter what shape, and no matter if the cats are never let out of their owner’s house – are always covetous of a labrador’s food bowl; they will stop at nothing to lure the poor Labrador away – possibly even to its death in the bog – so that they might claim that one tiny remaining titbit that is lurking on the bottom of the bowl. And that is the truth.

But as I started to say, every once in a while, every Labrador should be torn away from its beloved refrigerator and food bowl and taken outside.  And this, to every Labrador, means just one thing.  Playtime.  And to a Labrador, playtime invariably means water and mud and poking its nose in the neighbour’s business (which, in turn, often annoys the neighbour’s sheep dogs) and, of course, it also means raiding every neighbours’ refrigerators and cleaning their cat boxes and,  just perhaps, even relieving that one neighbour of her bothersome budgerigar.

 Now, Labradors are not scrappy individuals.  They are not terriers, always spoiling for a fight.  They are simply the canine version of the happy-go-lucky village vacuum cleaner.  From the minute of their birth, they know that no one – except for you, but you don’t count because you are evil-minded, pinch-faced and stingy – can resist feeding a visiting Labrador that extra wedge of cake (the wedge that was absentmindedly left unguarded for a nanosecond); for you see, as far as the labrador is concerned, everything that is within reach of his mouth belongs in his stomach.  And as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s mouth is faster than a speeding bullet and able to eat entire picnic baskets without appearing to move a muscle.

Now everyone claims that Labradors are ideal kids’ dogs, for they are patient, long-suffering and they rarely if ever lose their cool.  But the only reason that any labrador assumes this living-cuddly-teddy-bear disguise is that they know that sooner or later – whenever the kid is in the vicinity of food – he (the living-cuddly-teddy-bear) will consume every bite of it.  And if a kid should get upset and end up with a second or third of even a fourth helping, the kid still will go to bed starving. Because where food is concerned, labradors know their stuff.

As regards kids and food and Labradors, we should put aside – for the time being – any thoughts we might have about taking him straight to the vets for a permanent vacation. For, although you might not have given this much thought, Labradors are extremely far-sighted.  They instinctive know if a kid has a future as a high-fashion model. And that being the case, all it is doing is preparing that kid for a life of starvation and deprivation.  And let us never when forget the starving children of Biafra and Somalia and The Congo.  Had their parents not had Labradors at the beginning of children’s lives, those children would not have been as well prepared as they are for a diet of one meal per lifetime.

But are Labradors appreciated for their childhood starvation preparation talents?  Not a bit of it.  And does it occur to any of the stressed-out dieticians and healthcare professions that deal with the issue of childhood obesity that there is an easy and cost-effective solution?  Buy each kid a Labrador, and that kid will lose all its surplus avoirdupois in a day and a half.  Unless, of course, the kid simply turns around and eats the Labrador.  But you can’t win them all.

I will admit, Labradors do have one serious behaviour problem.  Should anyone within two hundred yards happen to be taking a deep breath when a Labrador decides to fart, that person will have no chance at all.  He will be dead.

Come to think of it, with all the problems the American seem to be having with their methods of executing their death-row inmates, wouldn’t it save a lot of time simply by feeding a Labrador two kilos of corn beef and cabbage and baked beans, and then simply locking it into a small, airless room with the condemned man?

It goes without saying that a Labrador is not for me.  Besides, they all seem to wear this perpetually happy-face, and I’m just not a happy-face kinda guy.

Did I finally settle on a dog?  Yes and no, for although I settled on a member of the canine family, she was not only not a dog, but she a bitch.  For if it is a nice clean undoggy canine you want, then I should recommend a female any day of the week.  But, “What was she?” I hear you ask.

 Well let me describe her for you.  She was about thigh high and her coat was dark brown.  She had liquid, almond-shaped eyes of darkest chocolate, and the figure of a supermodel; she could run like the wind, and she was as dainty as a gazelle.  She was completely fastidious in her habits; she was hypoallergenic and had no doggie odour whatsoever.  So polite was she that she would not even enter a room without permission.  She never begged; she didn’t appear to even know what a refrigerator was.  Her appetite was tiny – less than a cup of food two times a day – and being polite, she always left that one little bit on the plate. She was incredibly healthy and always maintained her perfect weight.  She preferred me to be in the room with her while she ate, but didn’t like it if I looked at her while she was eating.  She was also incredible quiet; she never barked.  And if she had to go outside, she would simply give me a certain ‘look’, and make an almost inaudible ‘squeak’. That was her sign that she was in a hurry – and if, in the middle of the night, she heard a hedgehog snuffling about on the grass, she would squeak twice.  It was her, “Let’s go hunt a hedgehog” squeak.  I only ever heard her bark once, and that was when a hare jumped up on the window sill and looked in at her. Otherwise, she never made a sound.  

When I first adopted her, it was during lambing.  It goes without saying I did not want to take any chances that – when I took her out for a run – she might take off after a new-born lamb. After all, she was born to the chase.  And so what I did was to fasten a thirty foot lunge line to her collar and take her as far away from the lambing shed as possible – down to the far pastures on the cliff.  And there she would run.  And run.  And run.  And when she had finished she had a habit of leaping on to the top of one of the great dry-stone walls, as if to say, “Here I am!”  And there she would recline like the lady she was – not even panting – waiting to be escorted home.

The rest of the time she was a complete couch-potato.  And at night, she slept under two duvets on my bed.  She never scratched, never chewed herself, and besides having a natural tendency to sleep right up close to me for warmth – which occasionally left me with only a few inches for myself – she never, ever disturbed my sleep.

The day after I brought her home was the day the farmer was spreading slurry on the fields.  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, let me explain.  Slurry is usually cow manure that has been left in a vat to ferment for about a year. It is an ancient method of making fertilizer and it is strictly regulated.  

On the island, because of the weather and climate, the fields normally grew at least five cuttings of silage each year.  Each time the silage was mowed, slurry would be spread on to the stubble.

Needless to say, the day the slurry was spread the smell was somewhat strong.  Personally, I like the stink; to me it  smells like the earth and nature and how things ought to be.

Now, on that magical day, my doggie and I happened to be sitting outside the front door the first time the slurry wagon passed.  And the minute the wagon passed in front of us (for the wagons themselves smell very strong), her eyes glazed over; she tilted her head back and breathed in.  It was a very long, very deep breath.  She shuddered.  Her eyes started to water, her whole body started to vibrate.  And then she sighed.

Never before or since have I seen anyone transported like that.  It was – purely and simply – ecstasy.  And when it was over, she put her head in my lap, turned over on her back, and moaned.

Over the months and years that followed, she never paid the slightest bit of attention to the wagon, and since she was very fastidious about where she walked, she didn’t even like walking down the boreen with me on days when slurry was being spread – for, of course, the spreader dribbled when it was closed and left a string of splatters on the track.

It was just that one time. The first time. When life was new, and my lovely greyhound and I were sitting on the grass in front of our cottage; everything in heaven and earth was in its right place, and as a bonus she was given a special welcome to her brand new home.  For one split second, the cosmos held its breath and time stood still – and let the slurry wagon pass and give her its blessing.

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