The fact that both The Sixpenny Debt and The Lost College were continuing to do well, inspired a third collection which was published in 2010.
My story ‘Rural Bliss’ is a tale of love, obsession, death… and sheep; inspired by my own flock of rare breed, pedigree Cotswolds. The peace and quiet of the lambing barn at midnight, while waiting for the next arrival, was a great time to let my imagination soar – at least it kept the cold out.
I should add that all the characters, and incidents in ‘Rural Bliss’ are entirely fictional. The reason I stress that, will become apparent if you read the story printed here below!
Some twenty miles north west of Oxford stands the market town of Chipping Norton, gateway to the rolling swell of the Cotswold Hills with their open fields and lattice of stone walls, beneath which quiet villages of golden limestone nestle in wooded valleys.
Apple Blossom cottage was situated in one such village. It had been described by the Estate Agents as “a Cotswold gem set in a garden of picturebook perfection, along with an extensive and mature apple orchard.” The brochure had continued, “this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy this piece of rural bliss – do not miss out.”
Margaret and Robert Sparrow had indeed decided not to miss out, and had given up the pavements and tarmac of Birmingham to buy their “piece of rural bliss.”
The leaves in the orchard were turning scarlet when Margaret went down one morning to collect enough apples to make a pie for Robert’s supper. She was not immediately alarmed when an aging Land Rover, towing a small battered trailer, pulled up in front of the orchard gate. She only realised what was actually being delivered when a squat red-faced farmer dropped the tailgate and released five large, white and extraordinarily woolly sheep, with Rastafarian fringes, into the orchard.
‘My God! What are these?’ she heard herself asking.
The farmer stared at her, raised a grubby hand and scratched thoughtfully at his scalp. At last he said, ‘Why, they be sheep, Mrs Sparrow.’
‘I can see that! But what are they doing here?’
He looked at her with bright eyes. ‘They might ask you that, Mrs Sparrow. They be Cotswold sheep and they bin on these ‘ere hills since Roman times. There were thousands of ‘em. Now they be a rare breed.’ His final words were loaded with dark emphasis.
‘But why are they in my orchard?’ demanded Margaret.
‘Well, I meets Mr. Sparrow last week, and ‘e said you would be looking for summat to cut the grass. Well, says I, what you need is a few sheep. No petrol needed, no time sitting going round in circles. Jus’ leave ‘em to it. So says ‘e, that sounds like a good idea, Mr Jones. Then I says I’ll drop ‘em off. And ‘ere they be.’
‘But Robert told me we’re getting a ride-on tractor mower. We don’t need to borrow any sheep.’
‘Borrow? These be bought and paid for, and they be registered wi’ names.’ With that he shut the back of the trailer, handed her five certificates, climbed into his Land Rover and rattled off, leaving Margaret to shut the gate behind him. She glanced at the certificates. The sheep did indeed have names – India, Isabel, Ida, Irma and Irene. She looked at the five sheep. Which was which? They all looked identical to her. Anyway, why should she care? They would all be gone tomorrow.
She hurried back down the path towards the house, her stilettos sinking into the soft earth, brambles tearing at her silk skirt. Ridiculous, she thought. They knew nothing about sheep. In fact they knew nothing about any animals.
She closed the door firmly behind her. There had been some dreadful mistake. Robert would sort it out the moment he returned.
As Margaret waited for him that evening, she wondered if their rural dream was quite as perfect as it had initially seemed. They had been so pleased when Robert had been offered a move to the Oxford branch of Be Prepared Insurance Ltd. The office stood near the heart of the city, in the shadow of Queen’s College in the High Street, and they would live at Apple Blossom Cottage, a mere thirty minutes’ commute from Oxford.
Robert arrived home exhausted; the new job involved longer hours than he had expected. He had no interest in the sheep beyond, ‘So they’ve come. Good.’
When Margaret complained at some length that she neither had the time, nor desire, to look after sheep, he sighed, ‘Sheep don’t need looking after. They’ll just eat the grass that I won’t have the time to mow.’
And he looked so tired that she changed the subject. ‘I’ve made your favourite for dinner. Shepherd’s Pie.’
The following morning she walked down to the orchard. The sheep were contentedly munching their way through the ragged carpet of autumn grass. She realised that they looked just right; as if they had lived in the orchard, always.
The sheep looked up and trotted over to her. She was surrounded by a wave of pushing noses. Margaret realised they were all wearing numbered tags. She pulled the crumpled certificates out of her pocket and saw that each one had not just a name but a number too. So that’s how she could work out which sheep was which, if she wanted to, but she didn’t. The sheep began to bleat plaintively. They were after something, but what?
She needed advice and rang Mr Jones. He was happy to help.
‘I’ll send young Joe round, he knows ’em sheep like the back of ‘is ‘and.’
Young Joe duly arrived. He was in his forties, taller than his father, but with the same solid build. ‘You want to know about these ‘ere sheep. I suppose you don’t have ‘em where you come from.’
‘No,’ Margaret agreed.
Joe had brought a large bucket with him and he shook it vigorously. The sheep trotted briskly towards him. ‘Tis nuts they want. Rattle a bucket and they’ll follow you anywhere. He looked at her, ‘Little ‘uns love sheep. You got any?’
Margaret shook her head and sighed. But that pain belonged to a distant world of hospitals, tests and monthly disappointment. ‘No,’ she said softly, ‘no children.’
Joe must have heard the sadness in her voice for he gave her a small, lop-sided smile before changing the subject. ‘I think it’ll fair pour it down tonight.’
Over the next few months Joe visited frequently. He helped her shear the ewes, worm them, and vaccinate them against unpronounceable diseases. One day he arrived with a book entitled ‘Lambing for Beginners.’
‘Oh, I won’t need this.’ said Margaret.
Joe stared at her with copper-brown eyes. ‘I think you will. Look at the size of ‘em ewes. They be due ‘bout the beginning of April.’
Margaret had just been congratulating herself that very morning on how well her flock were doing on the early spring grass. She looked at their swelling bellies afresh. Of course they were pregnant; they looked like overfilled rugby balls bursting at their laces.
Now each morning when she woke she hurried to the window and watched the white shapes grazing peacefully amongst the apple trees. Whatever the weather, she leaned out of her window and called, ‘Good morning, girls.’
For a while Robert said nothing, but one Monday morning he snapped. ‘For God’s sake, Margaret, do you ever think about anything except those bloody sheep? The house is a tip, and you look a complete mess.’ He picked up his brief case and a small black holdall. ‘I’ll be away till Wednesday. The Paris office has a problem. You can get things sorted while I’m gone.’ The front door slammed shut.
It was true, thought Margaret, looking round the bedroom at the piles of clothes scattered over the floor, that her life and her house were almost unrecognisable. She pulled on a pair of mud-spattered jeans and a baggy jumper, and hurried downstairs.
Life is so good, she thought, as she sat in the pale spring sunshine some weeks later, painting the girls as they grazed nearby. As her brush feathered each stroke and the ewes came to life on the page, she felt utterly content.
When the afternoon turned to dusk, she gradually became aware of some restlessness in the flock. She looked up from her work and saw Ida alone by the hedge, pawing at the ground. Margaret remembered that this was one sign of lambing. She sat on the gate and waited. Robert would have to manage his own Heat and Serve Fisherman’s Pie.
Dusk turned to moonlit night before Ida lay down and, with her head arching backwards, began to strain. Margaret watched, transfixed. Eventually a glistening bundle of black slithered out into the moonlight. Ida struggled to her feet and began licking her lamb. Unbelievably soon the tiny thing lifted its head and rose unsteadily to its feet like a badly handled puppet. Just then a second bundle dropped to the ground. Margaret smiled as she made her way back to the house.
‘We’ve got twins,’ she told the snoring Robert.
He grunted, then peered at her through half-closed eyes and muttered, ‘More bloody sheep.’
It was three weeks later, and all the ewes but Isabel had lambed. Margaret slept little. Every four hours she would climb out of bed to check the sheep.
Then, one morning in the cold greyness just before dawn, Margaret found Isabel lying in the shed, exhausted, and with no lamb in sight. She rang Joe and he arrived fifteen minutes later. ‘There, there girl, I’ll soon ‘ave you sorted,’ he soothed, and plunged his arm inside the sheep.
He looked up at Margaret. ‘She’s got three, all jumbled up in ‘ere.’ A few minutes later, after three firm pulls, he laid three steaming packages on the grass. Two of them at once began to twitch and wriggle, but the smallest lay motionless.
‘Oh no! It’s dead,’ Margaret whispered.
‘Don’t stand there gawping,’ Joe commanded, ‘Clean out its mouth and nose, then rub it ‘ard wi’ straw. An’ if that don’t work, then you pick it up by its back legs and spin it.’
Margaret picked up a handful of straw and began rubbing frantically at the lamb; but it lay as still as death.
There was no time to lose. Margaret took hold of its legs and swung it wildly round before depositing it back on the straw. It lay there unmoving for an endless second, but all of a sudden it sneezed and twitched. Isabel began licking it dry.
Joe sat back on his haunches and studied the group. ‘That there ewe’ll not manage three on ‘er own. You’ll ‘ave to help by bottlin’ the little ‘un.’
Margaret looked at the tiny white lamb she had resuscitated, with its ridiculously long legs and black button nose, and fell in love. ‘Jenny,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll call her Jenny.’
‘For Heaven’s sake, why Jenny?’ said her exasperated husband later.
‘I like the name,’ said Margaret, remembering the daughter she had never had.
Every four hours she would make up a bottle of Lamb Save: as she held it for the frantically sucking lamb, she felt complete in a way she never had before.
The summer passed and Margaret’s babies seemed to grow bigger each day. Robert was often abroad now, sometimes in Amsterdam or even Prague. He could be away for weeks at a time. Margaret grew used to his absence.
One night in early autumn when Robert arrived home, he found no dinner at all waiting for him. Indeed Margaret looked at him as if she was not quite sure who he was.
‘The lambs must be about ready to go,’ he snapped.
‘Go? Where?’ Margaret stared at him, her mouth open with surprise.
‘To Carvers. The abattoir, of course.’
Margaret looked at him as if he had told her that the world would end in five minutes. ‘My lambs will never end up on a plate,’ she said icily. Then with as much dignity as she could muster she stalked off down the path to the orchard.
The word ‘abattoir’ was not mentioned again, and in all other ways their lives continued as usual, until a letter arrived inviting Margaret to a school reunion.
‘You really must go,’ said Robert. ‘It’ll be good for you to catch up with people you haven’t seen for thirty years.’ He had not been this encouraging about anything for so long, and his enthusiasm took Margaret by surprise. She would ask him to keep an eye on the girls, just for the day.
On Tuesday, two weeks later, Margaret drove up to Birmingham and had a most pleasurable time catching up with her old classmates. As she drove back, she reflected that, much as she adored her girls, it was refreshing to have a break from them occasionally.
It was dark when she arrived home and she was exhausted. She went straight to bed. Robert was already snoring contentedly. Yet, as she dropped off to sleep, she had a nagging feeling that something was wrong…
The sound of plaintive bleating woke her. Robert was still asleep, and the cold bleak light of dawn was only just breaking as she pulled on her clothes and hurried outside.
When she arrived at the orchard gate, she saw instantly that the lambs were not there. Fighting to control her rising panic she checked the fences, but there were no gaps. She searched for tyre marks. It didn’t take long for her to spot the tracks that led away from the gate. She tore up the path to the cottage and, flinging open the bedroom door, shouted, ‘Robert, wake up. My babies have been stolen. Ring the police.’
Robert rolled over and looked blearily up at her. ‘Get a grip, woman. Mr Jones took them to Carvers yesterday. You weren’t going to organise it – so I did.’
Margaret stared open-mouthed at her husband, shock distorting her lips into a ghastly grin. ‘You sent Jenny to the abattoir?’
And he grinned back at her. ‘Of course. And if you’re interested, I’ve resigned. Too much travelling. We’re moving back to Birmingham. Then the rest of the sheep can go to Carvers.’ He shut his eyes, but his lips were still smiling.
Margaret stared down at him. Rage and grief clutched at her throat, strangling her. She hated him then more than she had ever hated anyone in her entire life.
In late October Margaret invited several of her old classmates to lunch. It was an unusually warm day and they ate on the patio, which gave them an excellent view of the orchard where the girls were grazing peacefully. She could see Joe perched on the roof of the old apple store. It was kind of him to mend it for her. He was always so helpful, and really he was quite attractive in an earthy sort of way.
‘ Joe’s a bit of all right!’ said Melissa glancing sideways at Margaret. ‘What’s Robert up to at the moment?’
Margaret gave a small smile. ‘Oh, I’m afraid he’s away on business. Abroad. Prague actually. Won’t be back for ages. Maybe months.’
‘It must be so lonely for you,’ said Anna, sympathising.
Margaret shrugged. ‘Not really. I have Joe to help out, and of course my girls keep me busy.’ She took the lid off the casserole in front of her, and the air was filled with an unusually rich spiciness mingled with hints of apricot and honey. Margaret smiled: it was the first meal she had cooked in ages, and it seemed worth all the effort. She began ladling the meat onto plates and passing them round. ‘Do help yourselves to salad,’ she told her guests.
‘This casserole is quite superb. The meat is so wonderfully tender. Aren’t you having any?’ asked Sarah.
‘Oh no… thank you. I’ll just stick with the salad. But I’m delighted you’re enjoying it. I did make sure the meat was well hung,’ Margaret assured her.
It was only then that she noticed the row of empty glasses lining the table. ‘My goodness. The wine. I’ll find the corkscrew.’
In the kitchen, Margaret searched the drawers. She was sure Robert had had it last. Where would he have left it? She pulled open the drawer by the sink where all the essentials were kept, everything from matches to insurance certificates. She paused. Robert won’t be needing those, she thought, and picked up a small folder, along with a box of matches and the missing corkscrew.
She carried everything into the sitting room. It was cool, even on such a lovely day as this. A fire would be just the thing to take away the chill. She crossed to the fireplace and struck a match.
It was only a matter of seconds before the wood began to spark and glow. She methodically emptied the contents of the folder onto the fire. The papers burst into flames almost immediately. But the passport took longer. Margaret watched the edges smoulder, and then suddenly the whole booklet curled and blackened. Dust to dust, she thought, ashes to ashes. Then she picked up the corkscrew again and went outside.
‘Now, who would like some wine?’ she asked cheerfully.
If you have enjoyed this story, then please do read the other stories in the collection.