Friday, 26 June 2009

A girl named Bob

We were a hen short. There were only five pecking around Molly's feet as she got stuck into her evening meal. Bob was missing.

For a few days I kept an eye out for her and had all but given up hope when she appeared in the pig shed, very defensive and hungry enough to think boiled tatties and rhubarb were delicious.

Then she was gone, appearing again three days later, puffing her chest out and spreading her wings wide at the other hens - she obviously had something to hide. The pattern continued for some time until the other day when The Boy said: "Come and have a look at this Dad."

There was Bob with five. . . no, six. . . seven. . . hang on, nine. . . hell's teeth, ten. . . eleven, we've got a football team. . . twelve, and a sub, chicks.

The next problem was to get them out of the open air where they would be prey to gulls and, maybe, cats. Easy - The Boy got a box and we gathered up the chicks, putting them in the old stone shed recently vacated by Molly.

Then we ushered Bob around to the shed before erecting a barrier which she could hop over, but the chicks couldn't. The trouble with that was that Bob and her sister Leroy (don't ask) look almost identical and, you've guessed it, we'd got the wrong hen.

So we hurried back to where Bob was frantically searching for her chicks and, after she had attacked The Boy's feet a couple of times, swopped her over with a now very confused Leroy. Mother and chicks are doing just fine.

Saturday, 20 June 2009


The small, unassuming accountant quietly unlocked the front door of his semi-detached Wolverhampton home and went inside. It was about 6am, some time in the early 70s.

"Where on Earth have you been?" asked his wife.

In a fairly befuddled state, honesty seemed the best policy, so the accountant said: "I've been out drinking with Slade."

"What? All of them? Noddy Holder, Dave Hill, Jimmy Whatshisface and the other one?"

"Absolutely. I've got these albums they brought back from America. Look."

"OK then, what do you want for breakfast?"

I may have taken a liberty or two with the story (it could have been 5.30), but it makes me smile. The accountant was my father-in-law Ray who died in Kirkwall's Balfour Hospital last week at the age of 80, having taken his battle with Parkinson's Disease to extra time and penalties.

There was a wee bit of the devil in Ray. As recently as last month, he raised one last defiant fist against his failing health, ignored a Sally-imposed ban and went on a treacherous, cliff-top walk with his eldest son Stephen to view the puffins at Westray's Castle Burrian, grinning all over his face on his return.

I first met Ray properly one Boxing Day maybe ten years ago. As a family gathering wound to a close, Sally disappeared out of the room with the words "my dad doesn't really do small talk." Left alone, we eyed each other warily before I burbled something of little consequence. I was 38 years old and I'm not sure which of us felt more awkward.

What I didn't learn from Ray himself, I quickly learned from his family. He was man of rock-solid principle and political passion, a lifelong standard bearer of the communist cause, campaigning against injustice and inequality in his own quiet way all his life. He was devoted to his wife Marion and, in hindsight, he never got over her death from Alzheimer's disease three years ago.

Partial to a pint and a glass of malt, he was keen on his music with a taste that ran from Tom Paxton to The Dubliners, Bessie Smith to Cabaret and then, more alarmingly, Dr Hook (he is the only person I've had to ask to 'turn that bloody noise down'). A big believer in audience participation, Ray wouldn't exactly sing along, but he certainly liked a good growl in time to the music.

Ray didn't believe in any kind of existence after death, but he and Marion live on through his children Stephen, Martin, Alan and Sally and an ever-growing family of some of the best people I've met.

I'm glad Ray decided to make our move to Orkney his last adventure, even if there was rather more 'last' than 'adventure', and glad that we got beyond the 'awkward' stage and got to know each other. I'll miss him. Cheerio matey.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Pintus interruptus

I was settling down for what I felt was a well-deserved pint. Perched on the bar stool, I lifted the glass to my lips when the phone behind the bar rang.

Mr Hotel Proprietor had a kind of "mmm, aha, yes, yes he's here" conversation. He put the receiver down, turned to me and said: "One of your pigs is out and heading north at speed."

"Oh testicles!" I exclaimed and hurried out, jumped in the car and set off. A mile or so down the road, Squeaky waved me down and pointed to the field where Molly the sow was wandering around in an agitated state. Our neighbour Neil had put her there while Squeaky had kept an eye out for traffic.

Molly has been a bit skittish ever since she was taken away from her piglets a few weeks ago, trotting around her pen, spreading her bedding all over the place, digging enormous holes, but this was the first time she'd got the wanderlust.

As luck would have it, I had a feed bucket in the car and, although it was empty, Molly knows the routine and trotted happily after me as soon as I started rattling it. Tailed by Mr Hotel Proprietor in his very big Jeep she followed me the half-mile up the main road to the "farm" where I discovered I had forgotten to switch the electric fence on. Duh!

A quick scoop of feed and an armful of fresh straw settled Molly back down. I plugged the fence in and returned to the abandoned pint the phrases "insurance claim" and "new gate" rattling around my head.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Democracy in action

The ladies at the polling station hurriedly put away the cheese and dabbed oatcake crumbs from their lips as the pig "farmer" and entourage swept in.

"Hello, I'd like to decide who gets to stick their snouts in the great trough that is the European Parliament," I should have said. Instead I made light chit-chat about what good weather we've been having, although the ground could do with the rain and so on.

The first polling officer looked at the four of us (me, The Boy, stepson Pat and stepdaughter Amy) and apologised for the fact there was only one booth. Apparently we were an unexpected rush.

As the queue built up behind me, I marched into the booth, trying not to trip over the several feet of yellow sheet that was the ballot paper. For the first time in my life, I hesitated before putting my X in the box. I really wasn't sure.

I was a month too young for the May 1979 election and, as a result, Thatcher got in. I've voted Labour ever since and look where that's got us.

The pencil grew slippery as my palm sweated and I scanned the lists. I dismissed the Jury Team (?), the Christian Party (oh please), the Lib Dems (what do they stand for this week?), UKIP (racist nutters), BNP (racist uber-nutters), Tommy Sheridan's latest ego-trip.

I made up my mind, scrawled an X in the box (don't get cocky Alec, I'm just trying it out) folded the paper into a big yellow dinosaur, put it in the slot and strolled out into the sunshine which was exactly the same as when I went in.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


The City of Kirkwall pipe band* were out in force in front of St Magnus' Cathedral, watched by a crowd of around 150. Somebody must have told them the pig "farmer" had just got off the Westray boat.

Seriously everybody, you shouldn't have. . . you know I don't like the fuss. . . bit disappointed there wasn't a buffet.

I'm told the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay/Cornwall (name changes depending on their location) were also in town so it's nice the lads had their pipes out anyway.

* Orkney isn't all that Scottish so they go easy on the tartan and shortbread (unless there's a game against England). The pipe band appears to be the one exception to the rule.