John Giles looked back at the three quarters of the field he had already ploughed, then surveyed what remained from his seat on top of his open tractor. If he carried on at this speed he would have the job finished before lunchtime. The forecast that morning had predicted rain in the afternoon. That would be good, his other fields could do with it, and it would help grow the grass that kept his herd of sheep fed, so he would not have to supplement their diet any more.
It was a shame to have to plough back the field of potatoes he was currently on, but too many of them were blighted. If he did bring the crop in, many would be lost to that, and the labour to sort the good from the bad would cost more than what remained of the crop. It wouldn’t be enough to pay for it. He yawned and stretched before pulling on the steering wheel and manoeuvring the red tractor into position to start another farrow next to the one he had just cut.
The tractor was bright red once, but many years of toil had dulled it, caking it in mud and grime. He had washed it off at first, wanting to keep it gleaming, but the novelty had soon worn off. He kept the engine and important parts more or less clean now, but didn’t bother spending much time on the bodywork. It would get dirty again soon enough. He should spend the few thousand pounds more that getting one with a closed in would have cost, then he wouldn’t have to concern himself with things like whether it would rain or not, but times were hard then and he just couldn’t afford it. Then? When weren’t they hard? He would be lucky to show any profit from this year’s labours if he had much more bad luck, like the field he was now in. He hadn’t quite been working since the crack of dawn, but not far from it. He had listened to the ‘Farming Today’ programme that usually accompanied his breakfast, then headed out to stop the job.
He pushed the lever that would lower the plough shears back to the ground and after waiting till they were in position slowly let out the clutch to get the vehicle moving. He felt the familiar judder as the metal blades cut into the soil again and the tractor almost paused before setting out on the course he had set. In his ears the headphones which led from the Walkman clipped to his belt tinkled another old tune for him to listen to as he worked. He adjusted the tractor’s course now and then, to maintain the straight line he was cutting as he thought about what he would do that afternoon. Something inside probably, even if it didn’t rain. His tasks so far that week had kept him outside most of the time and he could do with the change.
There were load-bearing struts in the barn that needed replacing. The wooden posts he had bought to do the job had been propped against the wall there for several weeks now. It wasn’t something he was looking forward to doing and he had put it off on more than one occasion before. He could delegate the task to Tim, the one worker that the farmer could still, just, afford to keep on to help him with the many tasks that needed doing, but it called for a degree of precision that he didn’t really trust Tim to apply if left on his own to do the work. Perhaps he would call Tim in to help him. It would get the job done much quicker and if it did rain, Tim would appreciate not having to be out in it. Yes, that would probably work out fine. He could do the more precise work of deciding where each post needed to go and Tim could do most of the harder physical work of securing them in place once John had made the initial decision. That way he could ensure they were going where they needed to be and supervise Tim’s efforts.
It was a shame that the lease he had just renewed for the land that he rented from Lord Allenby stipulated that it had to stay used agriculturally. John had grand plans both for it and for the adjoining land he owned to turn it into a theme park. He had tried very hard to get that clause taken out but Mark Peters, who he had actually dealt with, had told him repeatedly that it was Lord Allenby’s wish that it remained in.
A theme park would be expensive to set up of course but he had no doubt that he could raise the money. He had talked about it often enough with his bank manager who seemed quite keen on the idea and very happy to support it. It would mean putting his farm up as collateral, and the Manor and estate too if he could persuade Lord Allenby to join him in the venture, but once it was set up the costs of maintaining it would be relatively low and there was plenty of labour in the surrounding villages and the nearby town to operate the various rides he planned. The trouble was that Lord Allenby simply didn’t need the money that such an investment would bring in. He had shown the plans to Lord Allenby’s brother Julian and he had seemed more than willing to accommodate them if it was his choice. Julian’s only concern had been that the rides shouldn’t be seen from or overlook the Manor. There was one that might be a problem in that respect but it could easily be masked from view by putting in some fast-growing trees. If that wasn’t acceptable John could probably locate it elsewhere, there would be plenty of space to do so. Moving it would interrupt the flow of visitors that John was sure would come, so he would have to think about moving some of the other attractions he had planned too.
Yes, things would certainly be different if Julian were in charge rather than James.
John lived a comfortable enough life with his wife and three children at the farmhouse that was more or less central to the lands that he worked. There was no doubt though that farming was a hard profession, and one that got increasingly harder as he got older. Too often he had had to struggle to keep the farm in profit and the windfall years where everything went right and he could inject some much-needed cash back into the business were getting fewer and fewer. It wasn’t as if he expected one of the children to take over his legacy. Of the two boys, one spent all of his spare time on the computer they had bought as a Christmas present for him three years ago and would no doubt find a way to turn his hobby into a moneymaking profession. The other boy was showing a liking and an aptitude for mathematics and wanted to be an accountant, of all things. Fiona, his little princess and youngest child wasn’t yet of an age where decisions about what direction to take in life were really important. She wanted to be a nurse at the moment, though last year her heart had been set on becoming a vet. No doubt she would have changed her mind again before it was time to choose ‘A’ levels to study. At least the oldest boy, Andy, was developing some useful skills and had turned John’s pencilled sketches into a proper plan on his computer, printing it out at school onto one big sheet of paper.
John unrolled and looked at this plan often and had shown it to Julian the last time he had visited John at the farmhouse. John liked Julian. The man didn’t return home to the Manor very often but whenever he did, he made a point of visiting John. He was usually invited to dine with the family at the farmhouse and when, most times, he accepted he always arrived with videos of the films he had been off shooting. He often brought presents for the children too. Not expensive ones, but little mementos from wherever he had just returned from, places that John and his wife Emily could never expect to see. Perhaps they would inspire the children to visit when they were older and had the time and the money to do so. John and Emily made sure that they took the kids away at least once each year but the farm required constant attention so they were never gone for more than a week. They spent their vacations on the south coast, varying their destinations each time they ventured down there. Over the years they had visited most of the resorts that the coast had to offer and would probably spend the next one in Wales for a change.
His thoughts had taken him to the end of this current run, and he turned the tractor round to start again in the opposite direction. He continued up and down the field, repeating each turn when it was time to do so. Sometimes he sang along to a tune he knew and liked. The fact that he got many of the words wrong wouldn’t have been heard above the roar of the tractor’s engine even if there were other people around to hear. There weren’t though. John continued his work alone. He did, as expected, finish the ploughing by lunchtime though it took a little longer than he had hoped. He telephoned to his wife to let her know that he would be returning somewhat later than his normal time. He wanted to finish the job, rather than have to return to make the three or four more passes necessary to do so. He was lucky, there was good coverage for the mobile phones he had invested in for himself and Tim on just about all of the lands his farm covered. The main road that passed directly by one of his fields was a busy one, and one that all of the phone companies had ensured they covered fully. He even got a small income from one of them, renting out a small square of land to them to mount one of their masts on. It was probably this mast that provided the signal he needed, it was rented to the same company as he had chosen the phones be connected to after all.
He put a big mental tick next to the job as he closed the gate from the field that opened onto the narrow lane that would take him home. His journey this way would be longer distance wise but quicker. He wouldn’t have to keep stopping to open and close gates as he went, or skirt around the edges of fields that had crops growing in them. He liked the satisfaction that ticking off a job brought and would repeat the exercise for real when he returned home. It would be even more satisfying if his list weren’t so long, or if more of the tasks written there had ticks next to them. He sometimes chose tasks deliberately because he knew they would be quick to complete, enabling him to tick them off. He also cheated a bit, recording a task a second time at the foot of the list so that he could tick it off higher up. He only did this when there were only one or two tasks left to be done on a sheet of paper, so that he could throw that one away. Some jobs, like repairing the henhouse that Emily looked after, had been moved several times in this way. If he had kept the pieces of paper it had appeared on he would have seen that it had been on the list for many weeks now. It wasn’t a big job but was fiddly, and would probably take most of a day to complete. He would have to make sure it was done soon, Emily was now nagging him about it almost every day. Perhaps it was something else to delegate to Tim.
When he arrived at the farmhouse’s kitchen, Tim was already there. He was eating a large chunk of the bread that accompanied the salad they were having. Lunches were usually cold, so that if one or other of them were late back from whatever task they were about that morning, which both frequently were, it wouldn’t matter. The family ate a hot meal early in the evenings, later in the summer so that John could make the most of the sunlit hours. It was usually the only time of the day that the whole family was together, John normally being already out in the fields working when the children rose for school.
Next to John’s full plate which waited for him on the large and solid looking rectangular wooden table which dominated the centre of the farmhouse kitchen, lay a parcel wrapped in brown paper held in place by a great deal of sticky tape. His name and address was printed on a label stuck at the centre of one of its faces and a yellow one in a corner of the same side showed that the correct postage had been paid. Repeated along all the sticky tape was the single word ‘Fragile’. John didn’t need to open it to know what it contained, but did so anyway as he sat down to start his meal.
From the parcel he slid a wooden box, and from the box, once opened, he took the bottle of wine he had been expecting. Everything about it said ‘expensive’. The box itself, well-made and lined with straw to keep the bottle safe, was a sturdy affair well up to the task it was designed for. The bottle’s label included a golden crest surrounding the mediaeval lettering that spelled out its contents.
“Is that the present for Lord Allenby?” asked Emily, as she took a seat opposite John and Tim next to her own plate, its contents now half eaten. She poured a serving of lemonade from the jug at the centre of the table into a heavy looking glass pint mug and pushed it towards John. Tim already had one, the liquid starting just below the glass’s rim didn’t reveal whether it had been drained once and refilled or if he had not yet quenched his thirst on its refreshing tang.
“‘Tis indeed,” replied John as he stood the bottle on the table and examined it, turning it slowly by its neck as he did so. “A pretty penny it cost too,” he added. The wine had been recommended by Julian during his last visit, when asked to do so, as being one that his brother would both recognise and appreciate.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering,” said Emily, “it’ll take more than one bottle of wine to change his Lordship’s mind.”
“Ah well,” said John, “you never know. The good Lord works in mysterious ways … and all that!”
He had just about finished eating, chasing the remaining salad cream he had coated his plate in with his last mouthful of bread, when there was a knock at the kitchen door.
“It’s Julian Allenby,” said Emily as she glanced out of the window on the way to answer it.
“Sorry to call by unannounced,” he said by way of greeting when she opened the door to him. “Thought you would be back at work by now John, you too Tim. Planned to have Emily all to myself … ha ha!”
” You’ve arrived just at the right time,” said John, after greeting his friend warmly. He held up the bottle of wine for Julian to inspect.
“Ah, just the ticket,” said Julian, taking it from him and examining the label. “Yes,” he continued, “I think James will be very happy with that … I assume it’s a gift for his birthday?” He handed the bottle back to John.
“It is indeed,” said John. “Actually, could you do me a small favour and take it back with you, seeing as I haven’t been invited to the party that rumour has it he is throwing for himself.”
“Ah, don’t be like that,” said Julian. “You know James. He has only invited movers and shakers who he thinks he can influence. You wouldn’t like them anyway. Frightful bores, the ones I’ve met.”
John returned the bottle of wine to its box while Julian was speaking, then moved to the kitchen’s Welsh dresser to find a gift bag to put it in. Getting the box inside the bag was a struggle, it was sure to tear when taking it back out again, but he managed the task and put the bag down on the kitchen table for Julian to take with him when he left.
“Fair exchange is no robbery, huh?” said Julian, holding out the white plastic bag he had been carrying. “Brought these over for the kids …are they around?”
“Still at school,” said Emily. “Do you want to come back tonight, when they home? You could stay for dinner then.”
“No, won’t tonight thanks all the same,” said Julian. “James is away at the moment so I rather feel I should keep the girls company back home. Besides, I don’t expect to be going on any more of my little adventures, so we’ll have plenty of time to do it another time. Shan’t be being any more of these either, I’m afraid,” he said, waving the white bag before setting it on the table.
“Oh well, I’m sure they’re grateful for what they’ve already got,” said John, taking the bag and moving it to the dresser. “They must have more than a dozen each now. Thanks for these,” he added.
They continued to talk for a few minutes, about where Julian’s last venture had taken him to, how things were going at the farm and what juicy bits of gossip they had heard in the village. Tim nursed his drink, enjoying in silence the extended break the visit was giving him.
“Well I won’t keep you from your work any longer,” said Julian, “just wanted to drop the gifts off and let you know I’m back. Maybe we could do lunch at the local pub on Saturday, my treat?”
Emily pointed out that as Saturday was Julian’s birthday, they should really be taking him not the other way round.
“Wouldn’t hear of it, Emily dear,” laughed Julian. “Tell you what, you can buy the first round, that suit you?”
She laughed too, and said that it would.
“Great. Let’s say one o’clock then, at the ‘dog'”. With the arrangements made, Julian took the gift bag from the table and left them to get back to work.