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Braes of Gold

Author: Rae Cowie

The hum of the engine thrummed through my chest as the yellow combine lumbered, whirring, over the Doctor’s Brae, hazy in a cloud of dust as it champed on stalks, inching closer to where I stood. The school summer holidays were almost at an end — my new pencil case bought, sensible shoes polished — as the field of barley shone, golden as a well-baked loaf. A flight of swallows chittered on a wire in the warmth that lingered, as the gentle evening light stretched on and on.

The man perched high on the combine wore a red neckerchief over his mouth and nose. He waved a work-roughened hand. My heart birred like the machine.

It was Granda.

A grieve on a farm, he worked long, tiring days managing the other men, moving cattle, lambing, ploughing, sowing crops. As he turned the hulking contraption at the foot of the brae, I worried he was too busy to stop, but the engine whined then purred, as he lifted his goggles to reveal circles of white in a face grey with grime. Of course, Granda made time.

Corn lice wound between the fine hairs of my arms, tickling.

He shouted for me to "jump up".

As I stumbled across hard clumps of stubble, I imagined the squeals of mice, whole families of juniors and babies that scurried the length of the park; me, terrified they might race up my shorts and nip my leg.

The warm handrails shuddered beneath my palms as I tried to hoist myself high, but the metal step hung too far from the ground. Granda left his seat and bent, revealing a pale triangle of neck that rarely saw the sun, as the bib of his dungarees dangled, and he reached a tanned arm to help. He gripped tight to my hand as he winched me to safety.

Secure on his knees, he laughed as I reached uselessly for the pedals, turned the steering wheel one way then back.

But too soon he needed to crack on. Granny brought him a flask of tea and pieces spread with fresh raspberry jam, so he could keep hairstin’, row after row, until the dew came down. The combine only broke on bonny days when the crop was flour dry — or so it seemed to Granda. There wasn’t a minute to be wasted.

He waved again and the combine crawled uphill, followed by a tractor towing a bogie that waited for the tumble and whoosh of grain that rushed from the side pipe.

Granda once mentioned that combines were double the size in Australia, with a cutter bar twice as long, but his combine was big enough for me.

Once the grain was dried, it came back to a shed on the farm, where pigeons cooed in the rafters, and kernels ran with a satisfying rustle when I kicked them.

But other bairns did worse.

They jumped on and shifted the square haybales that Granda neatly stacked. Sometimes, they struck a match and set them ablaze, then the firemen and Granda shot off to Logie Head to try to contain the damage.

Come mid-September, once Granda was finally done and the combine stored away, my hard work began as my Sunday School class helped decorate the kirk for harvest festival.

Mams filled vases and jars with the last of summer’s blooms — asters, dahlias, chrysanthemums. They arranged fragrant dog roses picked from hedgerows, clusters of elderberries that drooped, boughs of crackling autumn leaves in shades of bronze.

A pristine cloth was flapped across the communion table in readiness for our offerings — curved sticks of rhubarb, waxy leaved cabbage, freshly-laid eggs with the odd feather still attached, the best of the garden plums, mountains of paper bags filled with tatties.

At the front, lay a glossy plaited sheaf kneaded by the baker especially for the service, complete with a twist of straw, knotted to bind the wheat. Even I wasn’t afraid of the cute little mouse, with cloves for eyes and a doughy tail, that scaled the harvest loaf.

A honied fruity aroma drifted as bairns pretended to play the organ and slid up and down the pews. A brave soul even tried the pulpit for size, peeping over the lectern as they pulled a grave face, preaching, before nerves made them laugh.

Then the mams said "enough", and we were tasked with placing apples — chunky spotted cookers, dinky windblown, blushing red — in a row along the balcony known as the laird’s loft.

The fisherman’s loft was opposite, hung with a net that glittered with a shoal of tinfoil fish, beside the big round-faced clock that ticked slower and slower each Sunday.

Later in the evening, when everyone else had gone home, Granda strode quietly up the aisle carrying a bundled stook of oats which he leant against the table. Next, came three stiff white sacks, bleached, and starched and ironed — kept just for the job. He rolled down the top of the bags to reveal his offering — barley, wheat, oats.

The following morning, he sat broad-backed next to Granny, his tweed cap clutched between his hands, his bald head shiny from the sun. I slipped, with my family, into the pew behind. He turned and gave me a wink.

I strained to see Mam’s jar of strawberry jam, made from berries I helped to pick, chuffed when I spotted it on the table, tucked between a neep and a plate of iced cupcakes.

We stood to sing...

We plough the fields and scatter

The good seed on the land...

Although I didn’t know it, it was Granda’s autumn too and the winter that followed was sharp and bleak. He seemed happiest working, so I hope he is still chauvin on, driving a combine that is as wide as any found in Australia.

Now, when swallows gather and fields of ripened barley sway and hush in the wind, my memories of Granda shimmer, bright as braes of harvest gold.