The Farmer’s son.
Danny Bray was born on the farm. By the age of three he was following his father, trying to help. He knew all the cows by name and they knew him, especially Dodo, who let him ride on her back. In those days Health and Safety had not been invented, at least not on Danny’s farm.
His older brother Ben, who was eighteen, and his sister Janet, who was fifteen, were allowed to drive the precious tractor, a much-loved, old, grey Ferguson. The farm was small, by modern standards - some three hundred acres of arable, seventy beautiful Ayrshire cows with their followers, and a few hundred hens. The staple crop was barley, to feed the stock, and anything left over was sold. In a good dry year this amounted to a considerable rise in their standard of living but in a wet year life was a bit grim. The grain had to be dried at great expense; the cows could not be let out into the sodden fields and they became depressed, and the farm was heavy clay that took ages to dry out.
One of the days that Danny loved best was the day that the cows were finally let out on the grass. They started out slowly, not realising what was happening, then, feeling the sun on their backs and smelling the grass, they forgot they were large ponderous animals and started to play like young lambs, kicking up their hooves, leaping in the air and racing each other round the field.
The vet always spoke severely to Danny’s father, Terry, for allowing the cows to behave as if they had their birthday and Christmas rolled into one!
“How on earth would I stop them, even if I wanted to?” Terry would reply. “Anyway, we all enjoy watching them.”
“Well, it will bring the milk yield down!” said the vet seriously.
“It will soon come up again,” Terry responded. “They do not get much fun.”
One day a man in a suit arrived to see Danny’s father; they were closeted in the kitchen for a long time. After a while Mollie, Danny’s mother, was called in. The children all lurked outside, trying to hear what was going on; it sounded serious!
When their parents came out the children were horrified to see that their mother was in tears, a thing they could never remember seeing before. When the man in the suit had gone they crowded into the kitchen.
Terry Bray started to speak.
“Sit down, kids. We have a sad thing to discuss!”
Then he seemed to get stuck, and sat looking at them.
Mollie took over, and wiping her eyes she said,
”We may have to get rid of Fred!”
“Oh no, not Fred!” cried Danny. He had loved the dear old Ayrshire bull all his life. When he had nothing better to do he would go the bull’s pen and lean on the gate, scratch his huge head between the impressive handlebar horns, talk to him and blow into his nostrils and Fred would blow back.
“The thing is….we are very close to the edge just now. If we get rid of Fred we could use the best bulls in Europe - it would improve our stock enormously.”
“Fred is the best bull in Europe!” said Ben.
“Best bull in the whole world!” snuffled Danny, his face in his sleeve.
“Oh, Danny, please don’t!” sobbed Mollie, “We are just as unhappy as you. It is the last thing we want to do, but the thing is, we could use Friesian bulls; we would get far more milk for the feed.”
Nothing more was said and Danny hoped it would be forgotten. However, a couple of weeks later, he came into the yard and found the bull-pen empty and the gate hanging forlornly open. Danny did not say anything to anybody – what was there to say?
For a while everything seemed to be going better. The next shock came from Europe; there was nothing anyone could do. A new law was passed saying Terry had too many cows for the size of the farm. He and all his neighbours were horrified. It was beyond belief! Terry had worked all his life, putting time, money and energy into the farm since his Father died, to build up the herd. He had started out with twenty cows and had slowly and laboriously built it up to seventy. Now he was told to reduce it to fifty.
All the local farmers met up on market day; everyone was furious.
“Just look at them!” said their neighbour, Bill Robinson. “Beautiful, shiny, healthy beasts; how can they say they are over crowded?”
Everyone agreed, but there was nothing they could do. The law is the law, even when it is an ass.
This last blow seemed to knock the stuffing out of Terry and Mollie. The children tried to cheer them up, but the air of gloom in the house was dreadful. Then the man in the suit came back. This time they all decided to face him together. He seemed almost as upset as the family.
“There is no way to break this gently,” he said. “You are losing money on the milk. You are losing about two pence on every pint; it can’t go on. Can you think of any way you could diversify?”
“No, we have thought of everything,” said Terry. “The farm is just too small.”
There was nothing else for it. They decided, very reluctantly, to sell the farm. Ben had planned to go to Agricultural College, and, in due course, take over from his Father, just as Terry had done.
“What would Dad say?” murmured Terry. “I’ve let everybody down!”
“No, you haven’t!” Mollie reassured him. “Nobody could have done more or worked harder. We are all in the same boat. Bill Robinson says he is going to join his Uncle in Australia.”
The day of the sale came by so quickly they could hardly believe it. They found the place filling up with strangers.
Terry had woken up thinking it would be the worst day of his life, but in a strange way it was not.
The first sale was all the cattle. Terry had been terrified that they would go for beef, but because they all had Ayrshire mothers and grandmothers, their milk was unusually rich in minerals, and they took their proud records with them and went for really good prices.
The next thing to cheer him up was the sale of the Ferguson tractor. By a stroke of luck three ‘Fergie’ addicts had spotted it mentioned in the bill of sale. Although it was not quite old enough to be called ‘vintage’, it was in beautiful condition, and the price zoomed up, and it finally sold for a ridiculous amount of money.
The sale of the remainder of the farm machinery went well. Finally, the land also attracted several of their neighbouring farmers, who knew it was well maintained. The family celebrated the end of the sale with a large cheeseburger from the travelling van. They had meant to go out for a meal, but were just too exhausted.
The next morning, Danny wandered around the cowsheds to find Dodo all on her own. She looked lonely and seemed very pleased to see him. He put his arms round her neck and wept bitter tears. Later, back in the kitchen, Terry explained why Dodo had not been sold.
“We are not going to go through what we did with Fred. The vet thinks I am mad but I’ve decided we are going to have her put to sleep, like we always did when a dog got too old.”
“Can’t we keep her – like - in the garden?” begged Danny.
Mollie put her arms round him.
“She is too old; she has dreadful arthritis; she has not had a calf for three years. Honestly dear, it is the kindest thing!”
Danny nodded; he knew it was true
The vet came, and although he laughed at them, he did understand.
They buried Dodo in a sunny corner of a field and planted a sweet apple tree to mark the spot.
Only the farmhouse remained.
What was needed was a really fresh start, but nobody could think of doing any more now. They were just too exhausted.
“Anyway, it would need a terrible lot doing to it, and that would cost a lot of money,” said Terry. “Let’s think about it tomorrow!”
“I remember when Granddad put in the central heating, and Granny insisted on an indoor bathroom,” mused Mollie. “In a way it would be quite nice to have a new house; the bathroom may have been the latest thing in those days, but it is really decrepit now!”
On the first morning after the sale Terry and Mollie sat up in bed.
“You stay in bed, I am going to bring you breakfast on a tray!” said Terry.
“When do you think we last did that?” laughed Mollie.
“On our honeymoon, I should think,” Terry replied. “Just stay put; I shan’t be long.”
When they were both settled down with a full English breakfast in front of them, Terry suddenly felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He finally realised what an unbearable burden the farm had become.
They decided to stay in the farmhouse for the time being, just until they had sorted themselves out.
Ben had decided to go to Agricultural College, even if he did not know where it would lead.
“If you are sure you can afford it, Dad? If not, I expect I can get a loan.”
“We did rather better than I expected with the sale, Ben.
I think we can manage, if you still want to go?”
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have been working as a cowman ever since I left school; I am sure I will want to do something in farming, even if it is not quite what I was expecting.”
With these last words, Ben went a bit pink, quickly reassuring his father saying: “Nobody’s fault, Dad!”
In the excitement of the sale they had all forgotten that Janet was waiting for tomorrow’s ‘A’ level results. Janet was very quiet and shy, compared with her brothers, and tended to get overlooked, but not when she rushed in the following morning, waving a letter from the school. She had got 4 excellent A-star levels, two in maths and two in science, and a pass in French!
“Bloomin’ ‘eck!” said Ben. This seemed to sum up the general feeling!
“I don’t care how tired we are, we are jolly well going out for supper tonight!” announced Terry, and so they did.
After the amazing results, they were hardly surprised to learn that Janet had got a scholarship to Cambridge.
“I am going to Miss Hedges’ old college - she still has friends there.”
“Is she your class teacher?” asked Danny.
“No, she is the head teacher; even I know that!” said Mollie.
“Bloomin’ ‘eck!” repeated Ben.
“We should have enough to buy a reasonable house. Anyway, I shall look for a job,” said Terry.
“So shall I!” said Molly. “I might try to brush up my shorthand and typing.”
Janet had a nasty feeling that shorthand and typing were a bit out of date, but decided to say nothing.
Terry decided to do nothing for while, but to get someone in to value the house. A few days later an estate agent called, looking amazingly young. Molly thought privately that he looked as though he should still be at school.
He came from a firm that the man in the black suit recommended and he went into raptures about the house.
“How old is it?” he asked, his eyes shining with excitement.
“About three hundred years.”
“Gosh, have your family lived here for long?”
“We are not sure; certainly my Great Grandfather was born here; but it will need an awful lot doing to it.”
“No, don’t touch it!” exclaimed the agent, whose name was Paul. “It needs an expert. I will be in touch. I suppose it is listed?”
He seemed in a hurry to be off, obviously bursting with plans.
“By the way we have got a priest hole,” said Mollie.
Paul sat down again, a look of joy on his face.
“Oh how wonderful! Do tell me about it!”
“Well the chimney was falling down and we had
to put a lining in it. While the workmen were inside
they found a little door in the wall. Danny was not
too keen on going in; he was convinced there would
be a skeleton inside!”
“No, just a little upright chair
and a broken clay pipe.”
After Paul had finally gone, they
sat down for a cup of tea.
Mollie was in a thoughtful mood.
“I hadn’t thought about the priest hole for ages. That poor man! I suddenly thought of him in there, terrified to move, gripping his pipe so tightly it broke, while soldiers stamped about the house, shouting and slamming doors!”
“The family must have been frightened as well. If they had found him they would all have been executed in some horrible way.”
“Oh Terry, they were so brave. We should try to go to Mass more often.”
“I know; they would be ashamed of us. Perhaps now we will not have any milking to do, we might try to do better!”
The estate agent, Paul, returned a few days later, still full of excitement.
“Have you got the house deeds?” he asked.
There was a long pause while the family stared at each other.
Mollie suddenly remembered. “I am pretty sure we lent a load of documents to the librarian lady at the city library. She was writing a history of the area or a thesis of some sort. I don’t think she ever gave them back. I hope they are safe! It was ages ago; I had quite forgotten all about it!”
Paul went pale.
“For Heavens sake, get them back!” he exclaimed. “It would be really awkward if we can’t prove your ownership of the property.”
“Don’t panic!” said Terry. “We must have squatters’ rights after all this time!”
“Well, I suppose so. But get them back anyway; historical provenance will add to the value.”
“She was a very nice lady,” said Mollie. “I’m sure she has just forgotten to return them.”
The following morning Mollie set about finding the documents, going first of all to the County Library. Unfortunately, she could not remember the name of the lady to whom she had so rashly given the papers.
“I think her name started with a W - Welsh or Watts or Wyett?” She gazed rather hopelessly at the librarian.
Nobody could think of any one whose name started with a W.
“She must have left at least 2 years ago, or I should remember her,” said the senior librarian. “I expect old Sammy Smithers would remember. Does anyone know where he retired to?”
“I expect Miss Ross would know. Leave it with me; I am sure we can trace her for you. I feel a bit responsible; those documents should certainly have been returned to you,” said one of the people who had gathered round Mollie.
So that is how they had to leave it.
Time passed quickly. Ben secured a place at the local agricultural college; Janet made exciting plans to go to Cambridge, half terrified and half thrilled at the prospect of leaving home for the first time. Danny hung about the much-loved farm - it was the end of term so he was at a loose end.
He had expected to go on to secondary school with all his old friends but now it seemed nothing was certain. It all depended on where the family decided to live and what sort of job his parents could find.
They had definitely decided they were too young to retire, even if they could afford to, which was not certain. Although Paul seemed very optimistic about the house, everything was up in the air. Danny felt alone, everyone was getting used to the idea of leaving the farm except him.
A few days later a large, rather untidy lady arrived on the doorstep, carrying an equally large, untidy parcel. Mollie remembered her at once - Miss Matthews, of course - not a W at all!
“Do come in!”
“I feel so awful! I should have returned these documents you so kindly lent me, ages ago. I have no excuse at all. The truth is I completely forgot. When Miss Ross got in touch I felt simply dreadful. Do forgive me!”
“Of course!” said Mollie. “ I am very pleased to have them back. Thank you for bringing them, it is nice to see you again.”
“Well, it was the least I could do!”
After Miss Matthews had sat down and had a cup of tea, she turned rather shyly to Mollie.
“I have been having such an exciting time; my little thesis is going to be published, including the bit about your house, if you are agreeable?”
“How wonderful! We would be delighted, especially as we are thinking of selling the house.”
Mollie and Miss Matthews had a great deal to tell each other: the priest hole had been discovered after she had left the library and she was fascinated to hear about it.
Several days later she appeared on the doorstep again.
“I hope you don’t mind me coming back?” She looked rather red and flustered again.
“Of course not,” said Mollie, “do come in.”
“On the way home on the train, I had an idea. I thought you might like a copy of my Ph.D?”
“Thank you very much, I shall really enjoy reading it.”
“Oh, that wasn’t my idea, well, I suppose it was part of it. I hardly know where to start.”
“There is no hurry,” said Mollie kindly, “just start at the beginning.”
Miss Matthews took a deep breath and began.
“Well, Professor Bullen, the lecturer at the Uni who oversaw my work, has been left rather a large sum of money for the department. He is hoping to fulfil a long-standing wish to establish a small museum locally. He feels our area is of great historical interest and has been neglected for too long. We have been hunting for suitable premises. It just occurred to me that if you are really thinking of selling this wonderful house - well, you might consider – well - selling it to us?”
Mollie stared at her visitor with her mouth open - she was too shocked to speak.
“You would obviously have to talk it over, if you were to consider it. I can see I have taken you by surprise. But do think about it. I am perfectly serious. I will go home now. Perhaps I could phone you in a day or two?”
Molly walked into the kitchen feeling as though she was dreaming. She sat down and stared at her family.
“You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!” said Terry.
“Not exactly, but I’ve certainly had a shock,” and she proceeded to recount her extraordinary conversation with Miss Matthews.
Danny’s immediate response was: “What a cheek!”
“Well, not really,” said Mollie. ”I did tell her we were thinking of selling, and, of course, they would have to pay the market price.”
“I tell you what,” said Ben, “it would be better than having it made into masses of flats or anything like that.”
They sat round the kitchen table and talked till two in the morning.
“Thank goodness I don’t have to get up and do the milking,” said Terry, with a yawn, when they finally made their way up to bed.
“I wouldn’t mind!” said Danny, quietly.
His mother gave him a hug. “I know, love!” she said.
Over breakfast the next morning it was decided that they should consult Paul, the estate agent, who had proved very helpful up to now. He was as surprised as everyone else and when he was convinced that they were not going to cut him out, he began to think it might not be altogether a bad idea.
“We shall obviously still need to get your professional advice - we have never sold a house before. Anyway, we may not do it at all. We haven’t decided. I think we had better all meet Miss Matthews and.…what was his name?” asked Terry.
“Professor Bullen. Shall I make a few phone calls?”
Danny wandered off. He did not want to think about the future. The planning went on without him.
Terry and Mollie did realize that Danny was unhappy, but they were so busy with new plans, meetings with architects and planners. They decided to go ahead with the museum idea and were getting really excited about it. They put off worrying about him for the time being.
“I expect he’ll cheer up when we find a new house, he can have first pick of the bedrooms. He will be the only one left at home.”
“The trouble is that it will not seem like home for a long time.”
“Lets get him a new bike! He has been dropping hints for ages. That racing bike, like his friend has - that might help.”
Mollie looked doubtful. She felt it was going to take more than a bike.
They found a modern house about ten miles from the farm. Unfortunately, it was really too far from the secondary school that Danny had been expecting to go to. Mollie loved the house; it was bright and warm with no starlings in the roof, no deathwatch beetle, a proper damp course and central heating that really worked, and a nice garden just the right size. Danny had a lovely big bedroom with an en–suite shower room.
“You can have it decorated in any colour you like and choose a carpet.”
“Thank you very much...it is…very nice.”
“Oh dear!” said Mollie later. “I do hope he is going to come out of it soon. I hate it when he goes all polite.”
When the day arrived that Danny had to start at the new school, he was not particularly worried. He had always done reasonably well at school, not brilliant like Janet, but then who was? He had always made friends quite easily.
But this time it all went wrong.
To start with he had to see the headmaster, with his parents. He seemed a pleasant enough bloke, but by the time he had finished the introductions the lessons had started. Danny felt very shy all of a sudden. Everyone turned and looked at him.
“Come in, lad,” said the teacher, checking his register. “Bray - what is the D for?”
Before he had time to answer, a boy behind him piped up: “Donkey, of course! Well, donkeys bray, don’t they?”
A titter ran round the class.
“Thank you, Weasel, very droll, but I think we can do without the funnies!” said the teacher, whose name was Mr Harris. “I think we will get some work done, unless everyone would like to do it at break?”
But the damage was done; wherever Danny went in the school he heard whispers of: ‘Donkey Bray’, started by Weasel, to whom Danny had taken an instant dislike.
Danny soon found out that, although Weasel was evidently the class clown, he was not actually the alpha male. This honour undoubtedly belonged to Tom Nicholls, known as Nix. Unfortunately, he seemed to find Weasel extremely funny and between them they made Danny’s life a misery.
Terry and Mollie realised that Danny was unhappy, but thought it was only that he missed the farm, which he did, but they thought that the school was new and he would soon settle in. They reminded themselves how unhappy he had been on starting nursery school, but this seemed to be lasting much longer and they began to be really worried.
Unfortunately Danny had always found it difficult to talk about his problems. He did tell his parents about Weasel and Nix, but made light of it, saying it would soon pass.
Luckily, a few weeks into the new term, Weasel turned his attentions to the youngest boy in the class, who admitted that he used to think that rabbits laid eggs, presumably getting confused about Easter. Weasel assumed that the young boy was still under this delusion and wouldn’t leave it alone, eventually reducing the poor lad to tears.
Mr Harris decided it was time to cheer every one up.
“I don’t think there is anyone here who knows everything, except Weasel, of course. I am going to arrange a trip to a local farm. We did it last year, and it was a great day out. I will find out when we can have the bus. You can bring packed lunches; last year the farmer gave us all strawberries. Weasel may not want to come – as he knows everything already!”
“Oh, Sir, I would love to come. I do not know everything!”
“Well, we will see. If I hear any more of your nasty, unkind remarks, I shall leave you behind. So watch it!”
The day was fixed. Danny was not sure how he felt about it. It would be wonderful to spend a day on a farm, but it was not his farm, and Weasel would be there. He knew Weasel would not stay subdued for long.
The day finally arrived and they all set off in the bus. Danny sat at the front, Nix and Weasel sat at the back and larked about.
When they all tumbled out of the bus at the farm gate Danny felt such an overwhelming wave of homesickness that for a moment he thought he was going to cry, which he simply could not do in front of Weasel and Nix. He wandered away from the others, unnoticed. After a few instructions about not leaving gates open, and keeping to the paths, Danny was not listening, he knew how to behave on a farm. He noticed a bunch of young heifers gathered round a tree and strolled over to them to see what they were staring at. They were obviously very interested in something.
Looking up into the branches he was very surprised to see a white face looking down at him - it was Nix.
“Hello, what are you doing?” he inquired.
“It’s these bulls - they chased me up here and they won’t go away!”
Danny felt like laughing but decided it would not be very tactful.
“They aren’t bulls, they are only heifers. They won’t hurt you.”
“Well they look like bulls; why were they chasing me?”
“They are just inquisitive. I don’t suppose they have ever seen a person in a tree before. I’ll get them to move, I can see a man with a bucket of meal; I think he’s going to feed them.”
Sure enough, the animals lost interest in Nix as soon as they saw their food arriving and hurried over to the trough.
“I can’t get down! I got up here in such a hurry, I can’t remember how I got here!”
“It is not really a very long way. Come on, I’ll give you a hand.”
With a bit of help Nix managed to struggle down, unharmed except for a few scratches.
“What are heifers anyway?”
“Young cows until they have had their first calf.”
“You won’t tell anyone I was frightened of heifers – will you?”
“Course not!” said Danny.
At that moment Weasel strolled over and joined them.
“Hello Donkey! Have you been chatting to your relatives?”
“For heavens sake, give it a rest, Weasel! The Donk is all right.”
Nix turned to Danny, with a rather sheepish smile:
“You can come in the back of the bus with us if you like - it’s a good laugh.”
“Thanks, I’d like that,” said Danny with a grin.
When Danny got home, he found his parents together, looking really worried.
“We have been thinking,” said his father, “If you really hate the school we can try and find you another one. We are fairly well off at the moment, we could probably send you to boarding school – if you like?”
“Boarding school!” Danny went pale. “You mean sleep there? Oh no! I would hate that!”
“Never mind, I’m sure there are other day schools we could try.”
“Honestly, Dad, I don’t hate it; I quite like it. We had a smashing visit to a farm today. I think I would really like to go to agricultural college like Ben, if you could afford it when I leave.”
Terry and Mollie looked at each other in astonishment.
“What about Nix and Weasel?”
“Oh, they are alright - when you get used to them.”
That night in bed Danny thought about his day. It was really strange how a few kind words could completely change his life.