Chapter 1 here
I stuck the book token in my back pocket and sneaked out of the Assembly Hall, keeping my head down as I crossed the marble corridor and exited through the double doors. The bright sunshine welcomed me to the outside world but failed to lift the darkness in me. I trundled homeward to an empty house, wondering what the future would have in store for me. I may have been the first person ever in my family’s history to have won an academic accolade but the occasion would go unmarked. I didn’t really care about that. My goal was not to seek favour from my family but to use my education to get away from them. I didn’t want a celebration party, I didn’t even want the book token, what I wanted was a one-way train ticket out of here.
I seriously thought about running away. I was sad and I was lonely, I was unloved there was nothing to stop me. I doubt that my father would have cared, he probably wouldn’t even notice. For me, running away from home couldn’t be some kind of attention seeking gesture, it would need to be a rational choice. What sort of future would the streets of London offer a thirteen-year-old lad with only a £5 book token to his name? Not the best, I concluded. There could be no short-cuts out of my corner of hell, hard work and studies would be my only salvation.
Unfortunately, school was over for the term. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit about moping at home during the summer months, so the next morning I asked David if there was any chance of getting some additional work at the farm.
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem Stuart, it will soon be hay season and we’re always looking for extra hands then”. He then went on to explain that the dairy farm was part of a wider enterprise with the company, Bowie of Poldun, having a wide range of agricultural interests.
The next eight weeks were to be the best of my young life as every day was filled with new opportunities and experiences. I don’t know how he managed to put the logistics in place but I do know that once we had milked the cows and cleaned out the byres we were rewarded with a hearty breakfast before a lorry of one kind of another picked me up and took me on my daily adventures. I say ‘on’ rather than ‘to’ because even sitting up front of a lorry was a great adventure for me.
My family never had a car and even just driving through the Ayrshire countryside filled me with joy and anticipation. Some days I would be taken to a pig farm, others a sheep farm. I learned quickly just how smart, loud and smelly those pigs were and how cute but stupid the sheep could be. Really, the sheep could be a nightmare, whenever we tried to herd them up, one would take fright and dash off in the wrong direction before getting itself trapped in a fence or stuck in a ditch. Of course, the others would follow en-masse. The farmer and I would spend ages disentangling them or dragging them out of the ditch. The whole charade would repeat itself time and again until we finally managed to get them into the right field.
Much less stressful but hard work was the ‘meal run’ when we delivering heavy sacks of animal meal from Mealha’ to numerous farms in the area. However, my favourite was working with the ‘fencers’. The lorry was gigantic and I felt tiny as I perched on the passenger seat looking down through the huge windscreen. We travelled all the way down to the Galloway Forrest and mechanical cranes loaded timber logs on to the lorry, which we would transport back to Struantoun to be cut into fencing poles. I loved the smell of that Scots pine being sawed. I didn’t like the smell inside of the battery hen huts though or seeing all those hens crammed into tiny cages. Occasionally, a rooster chick would have accidentally been put in the cages amongst all the hens and would draw attention to itself by crowing away in the morning. We would follow the sound and track down the caged cockerel. Cockerels don’t lay eggs and are of no use to battery hen farms. However, farmers don’t like waste and the birds would end up on a dinner table. I was given a few to take home but first I had to learn to kill them by wringing their necks. The hen farmer, Peter Millen showed me what to do. I had to firmly hold the cockerel’s feet with one hand and its neck with the other one. I then had to pull down on the neck and then twist it upward, fast and hard. I felt a snap and the rooster began flapping its wings. I dropped it and it started to run along the road. Peter laughed at me when I apologised for not doing it right before saying that I had and that it was only its reflexes that were making the dead bird run around like a headless chicken. When it stopped moving, Peter picked it up, produced a Swiss Army knife from one of the many pockets on his boiler suit and then proceeded to cut its throat. He then hung the bird upside down in a bucket to drain the blood, telling me that I could pluck it later and take it home for the family Sunday dinner.
Peter was the first person that I knew that wore contact lenses but they didn’t seem to fit him too well. It wasn’t unusual for one of them to slide up to the top of his eye and I was given the job of finding it. With my thumb and forefinger, I carefully lifted his eyelid up and turned it inside out until I could see part of the contact lens. I then placed my forefinger onto the lens and gently slid it back down his eye and onto the iris and pupil. This was not a task that I enjoyed but I did appreciate the confidence that he must have had in me to allow my young fingers to prod into his eyes.
Farms can be dangerous places to work and I’ll never forget witnessing a farm labourer getting his arm caught in a mechanical hay baler. The sound of his screaming and the sight of the blood spurting from his arm as the baler pulled him in will live with me forever. I watched in awe as his colleagues immediately sprang into action switching off the machine and trying desperately to free him from the contraption. They ripped off his shirt, tore it into strips and then tied a knot around his upper arm. There was a lot of cursing going on but amongst it, someone was told to phone an ‘effing ambulance’ and someone else to get a crowbar. The black metal bar was fed into the knot and then twisted, increasing the torsion on the makeshift tourniquet and cutting off the blood flow. The poor guy lost the lower part of his arm but could easily have lost his life.
Another event which was to have a major impact on my young life was when one of our dairy cows went into labour but the calf was too large to fit through the birth canal. Instead, we had to call in the vet. In a small barn, we lay the poor beast down on its side on top of a bed of straw. I sat down beside her and stroked her head as the vet used electrical shears to shaved off a section of the beast’s brown and white coat. As he did so, the cow’s huge tummy bellowed in and out and she stared at me with the biggest and saddest eyes that you could ever imagine. I had to fight back the tears as the vet then scrubbed the shaved area clean before wiping it with an alcohol soaked cloth. Next, he injected a local anaesthetic into the cow’s back using the biggest needle that I had ever seen. He waited a few seconds for the injection to take effect using a cleaned and very sharp scalpel to cut open the side of the cow. He said that it was alright and that the beast couldn’t feel a thing. Whilst this may have been true I only saw a sadness in those huge dark eyes which looked at me for comfort. I told the beast that everything would be ok as I gently stroked its gigantic head. The vet continued his work and a calf’s hind foot was pulled through the incision in the cow’s side. He and David then attached a chain to the protruding leg. The dairyman held the chain up whilst the vet pulled out the calf’s second leg and attached another chain to that one. The two men then pulled strongly on the chains until the entire calf came out of the side of the cow. The newborn looked healthy enough but I soon realised that it wasn’t breathing. My gaze shifted from the calf to the cow’s huge sad eyes and then to the vet. I watched in awe as he stuck his fingers up the calf’s nostrils and removed some fluid, he then took a few strands of straw and tickled the creature’s nose. The vet then took a handful of water from the bucket by his side and put some of it in the calf’s ears, the baby bovine shook its head. It was alive, it was breathing, and t was a beautiful sight to behold. I then returned my gaze to those big sad eyes and comforted the cow as the vet stitched up the large cut in her side. The two men unchained the calf and we collected together the vet’s instruments before quietly leaving the barn, allowing the mother the time and space required to clean-up and bond with her new youngster.
All these amazing experiences were having a profound impact on me. I grew a lot during those two months, not only physically with the hard work of carting bales of hay etc. but emotionally too. I met a lot of new people, all much older than me and I learned from them how much they relied upon each other and also how they, as human beings, interacted with animals and the natural environment. I also heard their discussions around the dinner table and I started to develop an interest in what was going on in the world around me.
Another thing that I learned to do was to manage money. I’d never really had much before, the wages from milk rounds and then milking the cows had really just made up for the lack of any pocket money and allowed me to buy a few sweets and an occasional comic. Now I was earning a relatively decent income, one that I didn’t feel safe leaving in my pockets or hiding in my socks at home. Instead, I opened up an account with the local Building Society. “You’re our youngest ever customer” Alan McDonald, the manager proudly advised me. Every Saturday morning after work, I would swagger into town and dutifully pay most of my wages into my deposit account. I’d check the total amount that I had saved every week but it didn’t have any bearing on my day to day life. I wasn’t saving up to buy myself some treat or other. No, I was saving for my eventual escape.
Chapter 3 here