I know of men who don’t go out for months

Michael Harding: They sit in their own solitude, knowing that never again will they hear a cow or calf calling out to them

Cattle know their friends, and they love those that feed them

Cattle know their friends, and they love those that feed them

 

I woke up one morning to the sound of a cow in the garden. It happens. The cows get hungry at this time of year. But they’re still out in the fields and they cry like beasts in a short story by Liam O’Flaherty. 

In the old days I wouldn’t stir myself out of bed, even if I heard a dozen cattle roaring. Someone would always attend to them. If they broke into my garden I’ld let them wander about in the rushes until I had finished my first boiled egg of the day.

But last week the call of a cow stirred me instantly to an upright position; because nowadays, a wandering cow is a rare event. And I just wanted to say hello.  

I fell over as I tried to get my trousers on, and I couldn’t find my shoes so I went out into the yard in slippers, and I found a little brown bullock eyeballing me, as he scattered shite up against the side of my beautiful campervan. 

Recovery truck

I only had the campervan a few weeks when it broke down. I was heading out on to the main road one morning when the steering wheel froze solid and it took all my strength to avoid ending up in a ditch.

My insurance company sent a young slim lad with a recovery truck. He strapped ropes to the campervan and then winched it on to the trailer. 

“That’s a fine machine,” he observed.

“Yes,” I replied, “I really love it.”

He moved with ease, hopping on and off the trailer as lightly as a rodeo rider ensuring that the van was positioned correctly on the trailer.

“You’re good at your job,” I observed.

“I’m long enough at it,” he replied, although his smooth face suggested he was hardly long at anything. 

He gazed around and declared:

“You have mighty scenery up here.”

Around us there were empty fields, high rushes, and a mist rolling towards us from the mountain.

When people who live in small towns declare their admiration for the scenery I know they really pity me, living in what appears to them to be the arsehole of nowhere.

 Wonderful neighbours

But there was no point in telling him that I have wonderful neighbours. Although when he was gone with my van swaying on the back of the truck like a big boat, the fields did appear particularly desolate.

When I first arrived on the hills above Lough Allen, there were usually a few tractors on the road in winter, with hay bales for cattle.

And although November was always a quiet time of year and the hills already held a trace of the darkness to come, farmers could be seen cleaning the land; chopping bramble from the ditches, or manoeuvring diggers into corners where they wanted to clean out scrub and dead trees and sharpen the drains and ditches.

Bachelor farmers are a dying breed; men who were monastic without choice

Fodder lay about; bales of silage scattered in every corner. At night lamps went on in the houses as the evening fog enveloped idle tractors and the smell of smoke from chimneys assured the beasts in the fields that there was someone inside at the fire; cattle know their friends, and they love those that feed them.

But eventually every old man sells his stock, and smoke rises less frequently from chimneys because the elderly are generally loath to squander their fuel.

I know of men who don’t go out for months. They sit in their own solitude, knowing that never again will they hear a cow or calf calling out to them.

A dying breed

Bachelor farmers are a dying breed; men who were monastic without choice; condemned to it by the long life of a parent who wouldn’t hand over the land, the lack of social opportunities, or just simply the poverty that clung like a bad smell to their shiny suits, in every ballroom from Glenfarne to Drumlish.

And what was once lived is now remembered in the stillness of nursing homes, where they sit and wait for someone to feed them. They linger in dayrooms, in wheel chairs, in beds with buttons, and on electronic mattresses; enduring urine bags and catheters with equanimity. Or else they cling to their own armchairs in the hills and pray that they’ll remain supple enough to stay at home until the end.

The camper van arrived back a week later, on the same truck, floating high above the hedges, where once my neighbours bent their shoulders into the wind with hay bales, for the animals they loved.

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