Big Metal Bucket

It is 1970. I am standing in our farmyard. I have skinny legs and I’m wearing a home-made pinafore in pink corduroy. My hair is tied with a big blue ribbon. I look clean because I’ve just got home from school. Behind me is the great stone barn and in my hand is a dead duck, which is yellow and dirty and stiff.

I am trying to cover my face but you can see I am crying.

My little sister, Tricia, gazes into the camera. Tricia is only three and is filthy after trailing round the farm all day with Dad. Her blue patterned dress and red cardi are smeared with dirt. So is her face.  It looks like my mother has cut her hair – possibly with the aid of a bowl.

I have fished out the duckling from the mud between the cobbles to save it but it is too late. 

The moment after the photo is taken my dad comes out of the barn carrying two buckets. My dad is always carrying buckets; big metal buckets full of milk or food pellets or water, buckets that crash when he puts them down and with handles that clatter.

My dad carries lots of buckets; that’s why his arms are so long. He says he was goalie at school because he had the longest arms in the village.

He puts his buckets down and takes his cap off and wipes his head with it round and round and then puts it back on, nudging it back and forth, back and forth trying to get it comfy.

‘Don’t bother about that,’ he says, and he laughs a bit and shakes his head. ‘It’s only a duck. There’ll be lots more of them.’

 

 I was five years old before I realised not every one lived on a farm. All my cousins – and I had over 30 – had fields and woods and ponds to play in like we did. Primary school was full of kids whose families lived or worked on farms.

           

It was different when I got to high school.

I was eleven when I brought a high school friend home for the first time. Her parents were university lecturers and they lived in a bungalow. They ate Vesta curry and Cadbury’s chocolate rolls at a neatly folding Formica table in their fitted kitchen; then watched TV in the lounge on their bright orange modular sofa in front of a coal-effect fire.

We didn’t.

            Our kitchen had a huge table constantly laden. There were great jugs of milk, brought in straight from the tank with the cream rising frothy and thick to the top – a constant temptation to the cats.  There were homemade cakes and pies, often still surrounded with all the baking accoutrements including my mum’s Kenwood mixer, bowls and scrapers.

There was no knowing what you might find on the kitchen table. I once opened a plastic bag to find a cow’s tongue inside – long and coiled – waiting for my mum to cook and press it.

            The day I brought my friend home she picked her way through the cats waiting at the back door for an opportunity to get to the milk jugs, and inched her way through the kitchen with its wonky walls and low-beamed ceiling and past the enormous table like she’d arrived somewhere Very Different Indeed.

            For the first time I saw my home through the eyes of another.

            We went into the living room, she took in the open fire with the teapot of diesel that we merrily poured over the flames to get them going, the battered leather sofa, the table with my mother’s sewing machine and the mounds of homemade dresses in progress and then she stood stock still; her eyes fastened on the far corner of the room.

            ‘What is that?’ she asked, and I cringed.

            Circling gently above the television was a dangling fly paper coated in dead and dying flies. Some still managed to buzz. Others waved their legs.

            Where there are animals, there are flies - but my friend did not come from a place where there were many animals or, apparently, many flies.

            ‘It’s for the flies,’ I said and we both stood and watched it slowly spin.

            My mother fought a valiant and ultimately fruitless war against flies; armed with sprays and swatters and fly screens and, in extremis, in the height of summer, sticky fly papers. She later branched out into commercial-standard electrical fly-killers. But nothing was ever up to the task.

‘Oh,’ my friend said, transfixed.

I had a mad impulse to wrench it from the ceiling and thrust it on the fire but I wasn’t sure that would help.

 ‘What does it do?’ she asked.

How to explain to an animal lover who had just given a school talk about the love she had for her gerbil?

‘It kills them,’ I said.

We watched it circle again in the draught from the ill-fitting window.

‘But they’re not dead,’ she said.

‘No,’ I said.

This visit wasn’t going how I’d hoped.

Even so, I knew I should be grateful; I’d got home from school recently to find Dad in the yard castrating a pig. 

‘Shall we go and listen to some records?’ I said.

My friend tore her eyes from the flies and we headed up the creaking stairs to my bedroom. We sat on the floor cross-legged and I put on some Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I turned the record player up loud and we sang along to Sweet Home Alabama.

At least stuck out here, in the middle of nowhere, we had no neighbours to complain.

Over the racket I heard the crash as Dad put down his full metal bucket followed by the clatter of the handles.

I turned up the volume.