Murky brown water filling the potholes littering the top yard, remnants from the morning’s showers, splashes up Ben and I’s wellies as we run towards the top barn. Dogs cry out from their kennels as we get closer, begging to be set free and nip at the heels of the last season’s fat lambs. Down in the yard below the cows can be heard bellowing out as they amble their way into the shippen, Grandad following close behind hurrying the stragglers in. Ben and I race through the open barn doors and across the wooden planks to the doorway on the other side, weaving in between the hay bales that have been left abandoned in a system of tunnels from last night’s game of hide and seek with Uncle Adam. We bound down the moss-covered stone steps, skidding to a halt at the familiar black and white animals blocking our path, placid, doe eyes stare peacefully on as they queue patiently at the entrance to the little shippen waiting to return to their stalls. Confidently, I push my way past my brother down onto the concrete and weave my way through the muscular mass of girls into the big shippen. Ben, not wanting to be left alone, follows close behind. Together we stand watching in awe as Grandad slaps the rumps of the cows, slipping skillfully in between to fix collars around their heads. After tieing all of the cows up and throwing them some feed, Grandad then gets started on cleaning the udders and attaching the milking cups. He moves around the cows effortlessly with no hesitation, these girls are his life and he is theirs.
After milking, the warmth of the house and hot tea beckons Grandad in. Ben and I don’t have time to waste. Our wellies squelch in the mud threatening to rip them off. Light blue silage bales perch precariously, piled high, taller than the faded red tractor abandoned in the centre of the yard. Tumbling and rolling, hissing and spitting like the wild farm cats we play! Ben and I could spend hours here, racing along the tops of the bales, pushing each other off and into the cracks or down to the thistles below. Unfortunately, we can’t as there are other, more exciting, things to be done. A beep of the horn tears us from our games and we head out in the back of Grandad’s land rover amongst the buckets of grain and bales of hay.
Fat droplets pound down onto the slick, muddy layer coating the top yard, deep tracks cut through the surface, evidence of Grandad’s busy schedule. Trudging towards the shelter of the hay barn, frigid fingers of water chill my back as they evade the grasps of my coat’s collar. The dogs lay, sulking, in the small opening between the barn doors, anxious to run amongst the tangle of cow’s legs. Safe in the warmth of the barn, the sweet smell of dry hay and damp wood lingers in the air, tickling my nose. The faint murmuring of cows moving below, previously muffled by the thundering of the rain, becomes evident as I grow closer. Strands of hay latch on to the fleece of my pants as my legs brush past the neat stacks of hay filling the barn to its aching rafters. I stride through the doorway but falter in my steps as a powerful set of hind legs stick out of the entrance to the little shippen, blocking the bottom of the stairs. My heart thumps in my chest as my blood heats up and I clench my hands willing the shaking to stop. Closing my eyes all I can picture is their inky hollows staring into me, a void of emotion, I let out a ragged breath and when I open them again, the cow has fully moved inside out of my path. In her place now stands Grandad and together we walk around to the big shippen, our wellies slipping on the fresh mud brought in by the cows. A wave of familiarity crashes over me as we enter the room, everything is the same. The milk chugs along inside the pipes lining the ceiling like nothing has changed, and I suppose for it nothing has, it’s me that’s different.
Grandad nods his head as he stumbles past Dad in the doorway, his small frame hunched and weary. Together Dad and I make our way to the Land Rover and as the engine croaks and the mud churns under the tyres, my eyes unintentionally wander to the light blue silage bales down in the yard below. Memories flood my head, the dam holding them back finally bursting, crumbling the walls so carefully had built around me. Images of our favourite times and our worst times: climbing trees, chasing cows – being chased by cows, punching each other, arguing, the funeral. A tear escapes my eye as I see him lying there, my beautiful brother Ben cold to the world around him. Hastily I push it away, there are things to be done. Grandad can’t do it all alone forever and right now he needs us.