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The Merry Farmer

A small crowd of people clad in assorted nightwear gathered in the dark gateway of the field. They watched with shaking heads as a large tractor, all lights ablaze, roared back up the field toward them, weaving languorously from side to side.

“What the bloody hell's going on!” demanded a petulant voice from behind them. They turned to see Rupert Withington-Smythe standing in the middle of the road, hands on hips, attired in silk pyjamas topped with an expensive smoking jacket.

One or two rolled their eyes and turned back to the spectacle in the field. In a long past generation Rupert would have been the lord of the manor. His family's fortunes might have diminished but they had retained the double barrel, and Rupert determinedly maintained the accent, despite having no mansion to park it in.

“It's old Clive, Rupert,” explained one of the men, though the tractor charging about the field should really have been evidence enough.

Rupert tiptoed forwards, trying to protect his tweed carpet slippers from the worst of the mud. He squinted melodramatically into the field and tutted, shaking his head. The tractor roared by, the farmer at the wheel oblivious to his audience, head tilted back as he belted out a bawdy song.

“Good grief! Should he be singing things like that in public?” gasped Rupert.

There were a couple of sniggers from the crowd. “It's past the watershed!” piped up one wag, invoking more sniggers.

“Sal said she was going to keep him off the sauce,” commented one of the men mildly as he leaned against the gate. “Guess he slipped out once she'd gone to bed.”

“He's a one!” chuckled a middle aged woman with her arms tightly folded against her flannelette dressing gown.

“He's not even put his blades down!” commented another man, noting the plough blades still bouncing along in the upright position. “All he's doing is churning up his top soil!”

“I say!” cried Rupert. “Is no-one going to stop him?”

They turned and stared at the would-be dignitary. “And who's going to do that then, Rupert?” asked the man from the gate. “Fancy your chances against 3 tonnes of Massey Ferguson?”

Rupert's mouth dropped open, then snapped shut decisively as his brain considered the wisdom of unarmed combat with large farming machinery. “We ought to do something!” he insisted at last. “He could have a terrible accident!”

“What's that bloody old fool up to now!” came a screech from down the road.

“That'll be Sal,” murmured the man at the gate.

“Get back to bed you silly old git!” screamed the woman as she blundered up to the gate. She was dressed in a pink nightgown, wellingtons and a tattered mackintosh.

As she hoisted herself over the gate the crowd stepped hastily back, fearing accidental glimpses of parts of Sal that were best kept covered. They watched as probably the only human being in existence who could take on a Massey Ferguson single handed stormed across the field, adjusting her nightgown and glaring at the brightly lit cab with a very particular expression.

“Shouldn't want to be in Clive's shoes,” murmured one of the men.

“Well, it serves him right!” snapped the flannelette clad woman, clearly feeling she should defend the sisterhood. “He leads Sal such a dance!”

The crowd fell silent as the tractor raced towards Sal. With an ease that defied reason, the farmer's wife reached up, grasped the door handle and swung herself up. Even from a distance the crowd could hear the shriek of terror as Clive belatedly realised his actions had not gone unnoticed. A few seconds later the engine died away, and the crowd were treated to ring side seats of the ensuing remonstrations.

When the yelling finally died away, they turned rather reluctantly for their homes and beds.

“At least it was his own field this time,” muttered one of the men.

The man who had been at the gate smiled. “He only did that once, Alan. And that was years ago.”

Which was true. One evening, roughly thirty years ago, Clive had chanced to sample rather too much of his own home brew, a lethal concoction that had to be kept in a barn surrounded by sandbags lest it spontaneously combusted. Overwhelmed by the resulting waves of optimism and general good will, the normally shy and sensible farmer had clambered aboard his tractor and proceeded to plough the beet field of Malcolm Hill, his neighbouring farmer.

Malcolm Hill, who had been boasting about the progress of that year's beet, was less than impressed by Clive's nocturnal labours and took steps to ensure he never felt the need to set foot on his land again, by burying him up to his neck in the slurry heap in the corner of his own yard. Sal, herself a farmer's girl, had decided that it was no more than he deserved and refused to assist him, leaving him to his public humiliation. Suitably chastened, Clive had never strayed from his own fields again, even when he had taken on board copious quantities of whatever alcohol he had managed to sneak past his wife.

Now, as the villagers returned to their homes, shivering and rather disappointed that the episode had ended without incident, the once again chastened farmer was driven home by his fuming wife, leaving the darkened field to settle once more to its slumbers.

“I don't know where he got hold of it!” grumbled Sal to the women as they bought fresh eggs from her the following morning. “It's not as if I let him have any money. And I tipped his last lot down the sink. Found it in the shed, the little sod!”

The women tutted and clucked their sympathies, shaking their heads over the farmer's latest misdemeanour. Sal swiftly filled their boxes, moaning without pause as she worked. “He told me he'd be doing paperwork. Silly fool that I am I believed him! Then I woke up at half-past two and he wasn't in bed!”

“Never mind, dear,” said one of the women kindly, cautiously taking her box of eggs before they were smashed in a fit of pique. “No harm was done.”

“You didn't see where I hit him with the yard brush!”

The women chuckled uneasily and drifted away with their eggs, silently congratulating themselves for having husbands who didn't get blind drunk and rampage around the village on tractors in the middle of the night.

The farmer's wife hurried through her morning duties, then set about hunting every nook and cranny within the run-down farmyard looking for her recalcitrant husband's latest stash of contraband.

Little did she know, but she was wasting her time. Her husband had carefully loaded the remains of his crate of beer onto the back of his tractor that morning and had driven it out to a crumbling byre in one his farthermost fields. He knew of only one safe place to hide it, far from the reach of his good wife, and he set about putting it there as soon as his chores were done. Which explains why he was found later that day with his feet sticking out of a rotting haystack and a smile of the purest contentment lighting his face.

It took several strong men to pull him out and load him onto the trailer hitched behind his waiting tractor. The fresh air on the bumpy ride home roused him sufficiently to facilitate the bawling of yet more risque songs, though sadly not enough to return him to sobriety. Before leaving the farmer in the clenched hands of his fuming wife, one of the men thoughtfully hid the yard brush beneath a pile of decaying corrugated iron behind the cow shed.

For the next few weeks Clive maintained a quiet existence, carefully attending the ever pressing needs of his farm, avoiding all contact with the demon drink, flinching at the merest sight of a yard brush.

Sal grew ever more vigilant. She had not been able to discover his source and that bothered her. Greatly. And well it might. Because without her intervention to seize his contraband, there was nothing to prevent a repetition, which duly came after the harvest.

Now, some may say the poor man had earned the right to unwind after weeks of strenuous labour and 18 hour days. Others of course would be less charitable, pointing piously to the man's inability to hold anything stronger than a hearty brew of tea. Whichever your opinion, the outcome was predictable.

Sal, in a rare display of kindness, had carried a basketful of her finest baking out to the fields as Clive and the hands gathered in the last of the hay. He had smiled delightedly as he peeled the paper from a large fruitcake, and the hands had gathered around, licking their lips and patting their rumbling stomachs as an enormous homemade pie was carefully cut into quarters and shared out.

Clive kissed his wife warmly on the cheek, his joy at being treated so pleasantly by his normally angry wife overcoming his usual reticence. She had giggled like a schoolgirl and bustled away, covering her blushes. She should have known.

With the sun beating down, the heady mix of warm hay and freshly baked cake lifting their spirits, and the comforting knowledge of the wad of cash that awaited each of the hands when the work was done, they inevitably decided the celebration required lubrication.

The farmer stared hungrily as one of the hands skipped away to the shallow brook at the edge of the field and returned with two cases of beer. He watched as the bottles were handed around but, as a delicious cold brown bottle was thrust into his own hand, he paused.

“Wait there, lads,” he said softly, holding the bottle at arm's length as though fearing its contents may leap spontaneously down his throat. “We've still a couple more bales to load. Let's finish the job first!”

The men agreed with this surprisingly sensible suggestion after little more than a second's thought, and hastily set about loading up the last of the hay. Clive, content once the work was finished, cheerfully raised his bottle in salute to his workers, and took a healthy slug of beer.

It's worth remembering that farm hands, even old ones, are not above a bit of banter and teasing, and Clive's men were no different. The happy crew had devoured their lunch and made a sizeable dent on the beer within an hour of the last of the hay being loaded. Whilst the men took all this in their stride, Clive was knocked clean off his feet after three bottles.

Working men can only take so much temptation, and the sight of their inebriated boss sleeping off his lunch beneath the trailer proved too much for them. Instead of turning him over to his wife, they made the most of the opportunity to engage in some tomfoolery.

It wasn't until later that evening that Sal realised the tractor was back at the farm but her husband wasn't. Concern, tempered by suspicion, saw her searching the hay field for any sign of the wayward farmer. Finding none, she turned to her neighbours for help.

And so it was that half the village turned out to conduct a search of the area. They scoured the fields, hedges, ditches, barns and even, with some trepidation, hunted the dark forgotten recesses of the churchyard. But of the farmer, there was no sign.

The following morning the vicar arrived at the church to see to preparations for an afternoon wedding. The vicar hummed to himself as he carefully arranged the hymn books and checked the flower arrangements. He checked the tower, testing the bell ropes in turn, then climbed the creaking old staircase to cast a cursory glance over the bells.

Satisfied that all appeared to be well, he started back down the stairs when a dreadful moaning sound brought him to a terrified standstill. He froze, one hand on the rickety bannister, eyes gazing fearfully in the direction of the sound on the roof.

“Ooooh!” it came again.

The vicar, naturally a God fearing man, was suddenly besieged by an equally natural primordial fear, and that day broke all records for descending the church tower. He charged from the church, his cassock flying, all thought of dignity forgotten, and had run a good hundred yards before he regained control of his emotions.

Two men working in their gardens downed their tools at the sight of the vicar's uncommon behaviour and rushed to his aid. After several attempts, the clergyman finally managed to tell the concerned men about the haunting wailing sound in the tower, and, bolstered by each other's presence, the three of them set off to investigate.

They crept up the stairs, clinging to the bannister as though it might somehow protect them against whatever evil distemper had taken up residence. They reached the small bell platform and formed a protective huddle, tense as coiled springs, ready to trample each other to death should a swift escape be called for.

“Oooooh, my gawds!” came the moan.

As one, the men turned and stared at the cobweb strewn ceiling. “Don't sound like no ghost to me!” muttered one of the men.

“Ooooh!” the moan said, as though in agreement.

“If it is a ghost, it's suffering must be terrible,” murmured the vicar.

The third man smiled quietly to himself “I have a feeling,” he said thoughtfully, “that we might have found Clive.”

Some time later, the fire chief, struggling valiantly to maintain an air of unamused professionalism, informed the villagers that Clive had been securely tied to the weathervane in a manner that suggested some effort had been made to ensure his safety. This would have been all very laudable, he continued, if only the weathervane had actually been firmly fixed to the tower.

“Perhaps you could impose upon your congregation, vicar, that church towers are no place for drunken men,” he said, as he handed the broken weathervane to the bemused clergyman.

Clive was not seen for several days after that. When he did emerge, he hid beneath a large trilby and seemed disinclined to engage in conversation. His men received their payment, despite Sal's protests that their actions could have been disastrous, and the farmer swore, in front of the vicar, that he would never again partake of alcohol.

Though a couple of the villagers noted afterwards that he'd had his fingers crossed as he said it.


© 2011 Kay Lawrence.


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