"The Good Farmers"

“Right then,” Father announced at breakfast about a week after mother and I returned with the new baby. “The hay’s ready to bring in and the forecast is good so no shilly shallying and dawdling about the jobs this morning. The men will be here soon to bale and we’ll borrow Harrington’s trailer. And you,” he said gesturing towards me“, will drive it.” He pulled on his wellingtons in the back kitchen and downed the usual half glass of whiskey my mother left on the sink for him, and then strode out to the yard.

My father was a tall, heavy-set man with bushy black eyebrows that practically met in the middle. His favourite saying was he only expected to say a thing once.

The grass in the top field and the lower meadow had been cut the previous Saturday and watched and turned, and turned and watched, until it was dry as autumn leaves, ready to bale and bring in. Hay smells of summer-blue skies, white scudding clouds, bottles of milky tea in the middle of the field and the sadness of time passing.

On a small holding like ours, with too little land and too many mouths, we all mucked in no matter how big or small the task. Each of us had designated work, even Maria, who was just seven. Driving the trailer was the worst job, as my progress along the rows of bales was always either too fast or too slow to satisfy Father.

My father had not spoken to me directly since I’d come back. Peter, my infant son, was to be raised as part of the family but I must never lay claim to him, with either my siblings or any friends or neighbours.

“Take it or leave it,” Father had said. “That’s all there’s to say.”

Instinctively, I kept an eye out for the baby irrespective of what work was on hand. Maria liked to wheel Peter and a selection of her dolls round the yard in the pram. She enjoyed making him laugh and coo. She read to him from her Ladybird books. At times, he interrupted with his ohs and ahs, and grunts. When she got fed up playing with her dolls, she put them to bed: “Go asleep and don’t be bothering me,” she’d sing out in her queer high-pitched voice. “I’ll only say it the once.”

Maria was a short chubby child with foxy-red hair and piercing blue eyes. There was an ethereal sort of strangeness, a streak of weirdness in her. She was not likeable. Those eyes always bored right through me. As if she knew more than she should. Her skin was pearlescent as if she was never in the sun. Probably too busy eavesdropping in shadows, ferreting out bits and pieces of information.

That hazy-blue morning mother stayed in the kitchen to bake the brown soda bread and make the dinner for the agricultural contractors. She was a slight, grey haired woman, a permanent crease between her eyes and puckered lips as if she constantly swallowed something bitter. Sometimes she spoke in eloquent shrugs and sighs. She left most of the talking and orders to my father.

“Your job is to keep the baby quiet,” she told Maria, “I want him out from under my feet. I’ve only got the one pair of hands and there’s enough to do on a day like today. Don’t be calling on me for every whinge and whine.”

The blue haze dissipated quickly, the sun was hot, and the swallows circled high. Beyond the gate, were heat-warped fields where cattle cooled underneath gnarled sceáchs.

I heard Peter whimper. But I continued mixing the mash for the pigs. Maria knew how to soothe him; made funny faces, or gave him his dummy, or shook the pram from side to side. I watched Maria from the piggery door, distracted by the baby’s cry. Once or twice, I’d seen her pinch the baby though she always denied doing it. I wasn’t altogether convinced that she’d taken to him as well as everyone claimed. It was a respite to stop for a few minutes, my arms ached from hauling, and dragging buckets back and forth across the yard. Deep in that inner place with no name I had a different, more primordial ache from which there was no respite.

One minute Maria cajoled, the next scolded Peter but he refused to be placated by her antics. She rocked the pram from side to side and wagged her finger in Peter’s face. She glanced in my direction, a tentative smile sneered her upper lip.

“This. Time. You’re. Going. Too. Far. I’ve only got the two hands. For crying out loud stop it this minute. I’m warning you or you’ll have good reason to bawl.”

Maria looked at me again, noted me watching. Purple-faced, she stamped her foot in time with each threat. It seemed I watched through a distorted window pane, yet registered the needle-pricks of sunburn on my nose and the sharpish stone of the piggery wall against my right shoulder. A corner of my mind niggled thoughts I couldn’t quite grasp, as if clouds parted only to fill in again before the mountains could be glimpsed. There was something I should do but remained paralysed, propped against the rough wall.

Maria flung the pram to the ground consumed with rage. Dolls sprawled everywhere in the dirt and muck of the yard. Sun glinted on the chrome handle, one wheel spun round and round. Stunned by her own tantrum, Maria plumped down beside the dolls. The navy pram-hood obscured my view. It was eerily still. No sound came from the baby or Maria.

My scalp tightened, my skin crawled, and my stomach lurched. Bile and tears choked my throat. I remained where I was, watched events unfold. Enthralled.

My mother ran from the house, alerted by the sudden quiet of baby and Maria. Her apron flew shield-like before her in the breeze. My father appeared from the milking parlour, a heavier protective apron tied at his waist. At the same time, the large green tractor towing the canary yellow baler hovered into sight. Chugs of dirty smoke from the exhaust pipe scribed black exclamation marks on sky the colour of a robin’s egg. I watched the tractor’s slow progress as it back-fired its way to the top field.

My father scooped up Peter. A tiny, still, white-faced thing in his thick hairy arms. My brother grabbed the dog by the collar and locked him in the shed. Mother yanked Maria up from the ground. Father carried the baby into the house. Within minutes, he re-emerged.