Short story published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ magazine in the Spring 2018 edition.
‘Lost Sheep’ is the second short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series. Please read ‘The Final Vote’ the first story in the ‘Selwyn’ series before this.
The Selwyn series is written specifically for the Terrier. Each story is a self-contained episode in the life of an early-retired Council Property Manager from 2003 to the present day and beyond as he continues to maintain occasional contact with his former colleagues from the fictional Herdwick District Council. The characters often present controversial and outspoken opinions on local and central government policy and practice. Please accept that those stories, all names, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and are views expressed by the author, not those of ACES. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Also, occasional historical background details may have been changed to fit the chronology. Enjoyment of these stories will be enhanced if they are read in order from the beginning. The first one is available by clicking on this link – ‘The Final Vote’
Lost Sheep (2005)
Bernard had lowered his voice so that no-one at the other tables could hear him.
‘It was when I started to contemplate suicide that I realised things had gone too far. It’s the loneliness that gets to you. You can put up with the long hours, the hard work, the bad weather, worrying about money. Sheep farming, no matter how much you love it, is no picnic at the best of times but, when you’ve only got the dog to talk to, it starts to eat away at you. Fortunately I had enough sense to pull back from the edge.’
‘So what saved you?’
‘Diversification. It sounds silly I know, but it’s the truth.’
Selwyn placed his half-empty pint back on its beermat and looked across the table at Bernard. They were sitting in the bay window of the Shearer’s Arms with the remains of their meal pushed to one side. The pub was slowly emptying from the lunchtime trade. From their seats they could see along the village main street, busy with tourists enjoying the fine summer weather.
‘And this is all since we last met?’
‘Yes. Our meetings were part of the good times but they were quite a while ago now.’
Selwyn thought back to their first meeting. It had been many years ago when Bernard’s parents had still been alive. He had called at the farm by appointment to discuss the purchase of a parcel of land at the top end of the village. As Property Manager to Herdwick District Council it had been his responsibility to negotiate the terms of acquisition with Bernard’s parents. The land was needed to create flood storage capacity in the valley to mitigate against the flooding that occurred in the winters. Then the small beck running through the village would swell beyond its ability to cope and flood water would wash through the Council housing estate at the lower end of the village. Bernard’s field was to have its natural basin-shape scoured out to enhance its capacity with a bund to raise its edges to contain the floodwater and a dam and overspill at its downstream end to create a lagoon. A penstock would enable the catchment to be released slowly back into the stream when the rain stopped, thus preventing the surges that caused the flooding lower down the valley.
His elderly parents had authorised Bernard to handle the negotiations and Bernard had appointed a local Land Agent to represent his family’s interests. Nevertheless, Selwyn had cause to visit the farm with the Council’s Engineer to discuss the detailed terms and practical issues with Bernard as well as his Agent. Sometimes they had met in that same village pub. Negotiations had gone smoothly and, although Bernard was some twenty years younger than Selwyn, they had struck up a friendship which had continued long after the acquisition had been completed. It was one of those friendships that relied upon Selwyn making the effort to cross the district to entice Bernard out for a drink as Bernard was always so tied to the farm.
‘I had no idea. You should have called me over for a chat.’
‘It wasn’t something that I could talk about. Our meetings, listening to your tales of the goings-on in the Council, were a genuine highlight so I didn’t want them to descend into counselling sessions for me. So I put a brave face on it and ignored the problem. That’s what men do isn’t it?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘You remember after the foot and mouth outbreak. The flock destroyed, the farm quarantined, the wait for compensation with nothing else to do. That was my lowest point. That’s when I began to think about ending it. My parents died within a short time of each other. There was little money coming in, no future except on my own. I had a choice. Change direction or end it all. But what else did I know about except farming? I was born on that farm, my parents and grandparents had farmed it before me. It was a way of life. And, before I ended up on my own, I used to enjoy it. It’s in the blood. But in middle age, with no kids to leave it to, you begin to wonder if it’s worth it. Then foot and mouth leaves you with nothing else to think about.’
‘I remember that time. I was prevented from visiting by the quarantine. That’s when I got out of the routine of coming. I’m sorry for that. And then, when it had cleared up, I had my own family situation to deal with. Now that I’m retired I have more time and won’t let it happen again. And diversification?’
‘With all that time on my hands I began using the computer. I’d bought one after attending that NFU course in that mobile classroom that used to tour around. I could get on the Internet. I stumbled onto diversification. You know – encouraging farmers to develop other arms to their businesses so they didn’t just rely upon farming to survive. Plenty tried Bed and Breakfast or opening farm shops selling organic lamb. My nearest neighbour started a Visitor Centre about Herdwicks. Now everybody’s at it – making ice cream, growing mushrooms, selling goats cheese, herding llamas … you name it. Grants and other forms of help were available and I had the money from the land sale to the Council and the foot and mouth compensation to invest.’
‘And despite those more obvious choices, you went into this.’
‘You now know. That’s why you’re here on your first visit in god knows how long. I was gob-smacked when your details popped up in the application folder.’
‘It’s a great name for it … The Lost Sheep Dating Agency’
‘I’d sat down and thought. What do I know most about apart from shepherding? And then it came to me – loneliness. There must be thousands of lonely farmers out there all looking for love. I was one of them. The country’s full of them, all too busy to spend time looking for the right partner, too old for clubs, too far away from cities to bother… and where can you meet them around here? And there’s always lonely women looking for reliable blokes with their own businesses and all wanting to escape to the countryside.
So I diversified. Someone from the NFU put me in touch with a guy who could write me an algorithm and with his expert help I built a web-site, advertised it in the farming publications and charged for introductions. At first it was local but then it spread. I started organising events for groups of mature singles from the farming community to meet. I became good at it. It snowballed… I expanded it to include other categories of people with interests in rural matters – surveyors, lawyers, agricultural contractors, foresters, etc. It’s a wide field … no pun intended.’
‘That’s where I came in. Early retirement was fine at first as it meant that I had more time to care for my wife until she died. Later I threw myself into all the DIY projects that I’d been neglecting and then I travelled a bit but soon realised that it was no fun doing everything on my own. My kids had their own lives and didn’t need me hanging around apart from occasional babysitting. I saw the dating site on-line, figured that I met the criteria and thought I’d give it a try.’
‘I’ve cut back quite a bit on the farming now. Would you believe that I’m looking into converting some farm buildings to offer themed farm weddings? The fells provide a great setting for that. My accountant seems very happy about it.’
‘No thanks. I’d better get back. The wife likes me to take a break but it’s not fair leaving her on her own for too long … after all I know what it’s like. So, you have the list of matches on-line. Give them a try. A widower like you with a decent pension shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding someone suitable. Let me know how you get on.’
©David Lewis Pogson 2018
Next read ‘Weapon of Choice’ the third short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series.