I’ve reached that six-month milestone again: six months to go until I’m ushered down the aisle by a relieved-but-skint Farmer Tim. Pre-Covid, that sentence would have very different implications. Now, of course, I don’t even feel the need to offer explanation.
The irony is that the engagement ring is off. It’s stashed away safely for the time being, because not only are we now on the six-month countdown, we’re also into calving.
The problem with the ring is two-fold:
- The ring has an intricate pattern adorning its surface.
- I have abnormally large knuckle joints for my slender fingers, and so the ring is necessarily large in order to slip over the knuckle.
This means that a) muck gets stuck in the grooves, and b) the task of distracting the greedy tongues of calves who have finished their milk by allowing them to suck my fingers could prove disastrous.
The same thing happened last year. I found myself cleaning it with an old toothbrush to remove a clinging bovine placenta and was later perilously close to having to ring Rhys and explain that a calf had accidentally swallowed my ring. The ring came off.
Sometimes I imagine conversations. Words spin in whirling clouds about my day-dreams. Have you experienced it? The sweet-nothings or the considerate compliments you could utter? The thoughtful commentary or the cutting one-liners? I’ve never imagined a conversation whereby I have to admit to my fiancé that I am sat waiting for a calf to excrete my engagement ring, though. Even my imagination fails to stretch that far.
Of course, this year, with us now living in our own home and me working almost full-time, my time calf-feeding with Maggie has been significantly curtailed. I won’t lie, I miss it. And not only because working cheek-to-jowl with my little sister and best friend.
There is no doubt that it is a physically exhausting time, especially for Dad and Maggie, upon whose shoulders lie the bulk of the work. Dad falls asleep at the table, the hallmarks of repeated midnight and 3am checks are etched in his heavy eyelids and the ashen cheek resting on a calloused hand. The Christmas pudding falls away from his waistband until he is thin. Maggie’s skin pales even further. Her back aches from carrying overflowing buckets, the milk slopping down her waterproof trousers. Skin hardens and fingers grow parched cracks. Clothes that stay clean beyond breakfast are a distant memory.
Still, the first calf will be greeted with excitement. They come at just the right time, when the winter and all its wet shit and misery is beginning to gnaw your spirits. New life and later, wobbly first-steps are so endearing that they warm your core even on the coldest and dreariest of mornings. Jubilant scampering lifts their tails to a wave and our cheeks to a smile.
These past few years, the wet noses and slobbery tongues have certainly been a tonic. Last year, the calves provided a solace and distraction from our grief when we lost Tadcu, but also a means to somehow feel his presence, being never more animated than amongst the animals.
This year, as the pandemic rages into its second spring, chaos reigns, disappointment and disillusion are palpable. Uncertainty lingers. Yet, there was that same flutter of excitement when Penelope dropped to the ground last week. In the shed, birth, life, milk, bottles, buckets, straw, even death; are just as they always have been. Nature brings her beat to bear on all our springs, but the animals bring a looping melody and enduring rhythm to our lives. Right now, I can’t help but think how lucky we are. And I wonder, will I be removing one ring or two this time next year?