Maggie and Alec had an argument this week. Even if Maggie hadn’t ended up prowling around my kitchen violently gutting and stripping a pheasant I’d found outside my front gate that morning I’d still have known that they’d had an argument because the whole of the upper end of the village, along with a substantial chunk of the next parish, must have heard them. Given the fact that a couple of large fields separate the farm from the village, I leave it to your imagination how loudly they were bellowing at each other. Of course, they were doing the bellowing in the farm yard and it was a particularly still and frosty morning, but even so the decibels were impressive.
She slammed into my kitchen unannounced – but not entirely unexpectedly – as I was eye-to-eye with the road kill, both dogs gazing up at me adoringly and the Old Girl gently weeing with excitement. Throwing herself into the armchair by the Aga, Maggie proceeded to pronounce at length upon Alec’s questionable parentage, his morals, his intellect and his general worthiness to move freely in polite society.
‘So what was the argument about then?’ I asked as casually as I could manage, attempting to convey that it was a matter of no great interest to me, even though I was gagging to know.
‘He said my bookkeeping is crap.’ Without warning, she lurched to her feet and snatched the pheasant from my awkward hands. ‘For God’s sake give me that before you hack a finger off.’ The dogs immediately switched allegiance.
I haven’t seen too many people gutting a pheasant before, but I can safely say I’ve never seen anyone doing it with such … venom. I think it’s called ‘acting out’.
I digested what she’d just said for a few moments before cautiously venturing an opinion (and mindful of the fact that she was holding an extremely sharp knife). ‘But your bookkeeping IS crap. You told me so yourself ages ago.’
In fact, she hadn’t needed to tell me, because it was stating the blindingly obvious. We were in her breakfast room at the time, surveying a wilderness of bills, Defra paperwork, spreadsheets and assorted dirty mugs, empty plates and chickens – live ones. It was summer and the so-called breakfast room opened directly onto the farm yard. It was not unusual, Alec had once informed me, to find a curious pig wedged in the doorway.
Feathers were now flying as she wrenched furiously at the plumage. They fluttered down to the delighted Old Lady and Boy Dog, who started snuffling around the floor like demented hoovers. I did consider asking her if she wouldn’t mind doing that outside the back door, but it seemed both churlish and slightly inadvisable in the circumstances. She chuntered on, enraged:
‘The fact that my bookkeeping leaves a lot to be desired is beside the point. The point is …,’ another handful flew in the air. ‘The point is that he isn’t being very supportive. It’s all very bloody well criticizing, but it’s a hell of a lot more helpful to offer a solution. I’ve got Defra and the accountants on my back and all he can do is tell me my bookkeeping is crap. And THEN he tells me, while he’s at it, that my clerical skills in general are lacking too. That was the word he used: LACKING. Well bugger it, I’m a farmer, not a sodding clerk and he can effing well go to ……’
‘Cup of tea?’
‘Eh?’ She looked up at me, feathers in her dark hair and an unmistakably wild glint in her eyes. ‘What?’
I waved the kettle at her. ‘Tea?’
‘Oh.’ She subsided very slightly. ‘Yes. Thanks …. Where was I?’
I filled the kettle, switched it on and busied myself with the mugs. ‘You’re a farmer not a sodding clerk.’
‘That’s right. Yes. I’m a farmer, not a …’
‘Are you in a real mess with the paperwork?’
She paused in mid pluck, then sort of wilted like an unloved and unwatered geranium. ‘Yes. Nightmare.’
‘Would sorting it out require specialist knowledge, or could anyone do it?
‘I suppose anyone could …’ She fell silent. I didn’t entirely like the sort of silent she fell. It was the sort of silent people fall when they’ve had an idea you’re probably not going to like – but before I could suggest that she put a card in the Post Office asking for part time clerical help, she said:
‘Would you? Would you do it? You’re a form-filling, pen-pushy type, aren’t you?’
Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a frustrated writer and artist, forced into clerical servitude while I waited for the world to discover me, so being told I was a form-filling pen-pushy type was NOT the way to my heart.
‘I wasn’t actually going to …’
‘I’ll pay you. By the hour. And feed you. I’ll give you lunch.’
Lunch was no inducement. I’ve eaten Maggie’s cooking. The money though, was. I have, as you may recall, a tiny accountancy problem of my own.
‘I HAVE a job.’
‘There’s no reason why you can’t have another one, is there? How long does it take to write about snails? How much is there to SAY about snails anyway? Please? Pleeeease?’
She look so pathetic and un-Maggie-like sitting there surrounded by feathers, with a dead pheasant in her hands and a toothless, arthritic Jack Russell bitch trying to climb into her lap that I weakened.
‘All right. But only until you’re out of trouble.’
‘You angel! You absolute, copper-bottomed, gold-plated brick! When can you start? You’ll need somewhere to work. I’ll ask Alec to clear out the old office over the tack room. We can put a heater up there. Fabulous. That’s all agreed then. Pop up tomorrow morning and we’ll agree an hourly rate and take a look at what needs to be done.’
Suddenly, she was the old, no-nonsense, business-like Maggie again. She stood up, sending clouds of fine, downy feathers into the air, and handed me the almost-plucked bird, which she seemed to be surprised to find herself holding. ‘About midday good for you? We can talk over lunch.’
‘Midday’s absolutely fine … but let me bring lunch. My treat.’
‘Great.’ She headed for the door, then paused on the way out to look around the kitchen. ‘Did you know,’ she said, frowning slightly, ‘that the place is full of feathers?’
(Picture credit: From an image by flickpicpete on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)