Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Setting On

by Craig Aitchison

The single-track road had got narrower and more rutted, then crossed a cattle grid and became a gravel track before the car splashed through a dark puddle and into the farmyard. When Armstrong parked, she flicked on the wipers, which scraped, smearing the window before cleaning it and revealing the view. In the foreground, a field of sheep and young lambs, some feeding, some gambolling – that was the word – the hills sloping down to the village below – the kirk steeple, the sun glinting on the river, traffic on the road; in the background the blue of distant hills. Maybe she shouldn’t be here, but she wouldn’t be long. Better than being stuck in the office.

She reached into the back seat to grab a shopping bag from which she pulled a pair of wellies. It was important to be prepared. She always kept them in the car, because she never knew where she’d be sent. Usually, when she arrived somewhere like this, it was for a more typical rural crime – stolen machinery mostly -  and once a stolen bull that turned up two months later in Wales.

Her boots were spattered in mud from the last time she came here. The time they found the dead body of George (Dod) Rutherford, lying on his back beside the overturned quad bike, blood trickling out of his ear. Today she could tell Mrs Rutherford that the coroner had released the body. Accidental death.

She unbuckled her shoes and replaced them with the wellies, then put the shoes on the back seat. It was hard to keep the car clean – she used it for work, getting the shopping, dropping Archie here and there. Maybe on Tuesday, on her day off, she could give it a clean.

She got out and walked to the house, lifting the heavy door knocker and banging it down three times, then stepping back to wait. No answer.

Armstrong walked around the side of the house, following the bleating of sheep and the mewling of young lambs.

In front of the shed was a quad bike with a small trailer. Brian Rutherford was steering a sheep into the trailer with a crop. Son of the deceased. Armstrong watched him – competent, focused. He tapped its arse, then used the crop to push the sheep onto the low ramp. The sheep stumbled over a tiny lamb at its feet, almost falling forward into the trailer which Brian shut closed. Brian wiped his brow with the back of his hand then wiped his hands on his olive waterproof trousers. Ruddy cheeks, close-cropped brown hair, nearly six feet tall but still a laddie in the way he moved, the nervous smile on his face when he looked across.

‘Hello.’ His voice trailed off, unsure how to address Armstrong.

‘Hi Brian.’ She closed the distance between them. ‘How are you doing?’

Brian wiped his hands on the front of his jacket. ‘You know. Busy.’

‘Yeah.’

Brian tipped his head back, indicating the shed. ‘She’s in there.’

He paused for a moment, as if waiting to be excused, but then climbed onto the quad bike and started the engine. A collie dog jumped up behind him, perching behind his seat. As he turned to drive away, he lifted one hand slightly in an awkward farewell. Mud sprayed from the tyres.

She walked into the shed, feeling the warmth captured by the corrugated roof, picking her way through the stalls, until she found Jenny Rutherford, sitting on a small stool, head bent over a dead lamb.

Armstrong cleared her throat. ‘Mrs Rutherford?’

‘Just a second,’ she said and flicked open a blade.

As Armstrong watched she made a slit through the skin along the side of the back legs then set her knife aside. She wiped her hands on the thigh of her trousers. Then she stood, took hold of the lambskin and tugged at it, until the skin caught at the head and front legs. She took up the knife again and cut around the neck and front legs until a small woollen coat came free. Then she pushed the blade of the knife into a handle that looked like it was made of a ram’s horn. She laid the skin to the side, lifted the lamb’s pink carcass and dropped it into a hessian sack.

 She lifted her head to face Armstrong. ‘Now. What can I do for you?’

‘Mrs Rutherford. I’m DS Armstrong.’

‘Aye. I mind.’

Mrs Rutherford bent to tie the sack that contained the dead lamb; Armstrong watched. Ten days ago, a day of clay-grey skies. No lambs born on the farm. Armstrong making sugary tea in the farmhouse kitchen. Brian looking at the mug in his hand as if wondering what it was. Mrs Rutherford saying the lambing’ll no dae itsel. Her husband dead under a sheet.

Now, in the pens, lambs suckled at ewes. Mrs Rutherford stood up, wiping her hands on the front of a wax jacket already covered in brown streaks. ‘There’s never a good time.’

‘You’re very busy.’

‘I am.’ She lifted her head so that Armstrong could see the lines around her eyes, the wisps of red-grey hair that came from under a faded John Deere cap. She forced a tired smile. ‘But you’ve your job to do as well.’

‘Thanks. We can talk here. If you like.’

‘If you could give me a hand. That would help.’

She looked at the skin in Mrs Rutherford’s hands. ‘Of course.’

‘Grand. It’ll just take a second,’ Mrs Rutherford said. She stood, picked up the little three-legged stool then walked away.

Armstrong followed her to another of the pens where a ewe lay on its side, breathing heavily. Two lambs slept on the hay.  Mrs Rutherford put down the stool and unlatched the gate. With one hand, she lifted one of the sleeping lambs, turning it over and looking at it, then nodding. The ewe lifted its head weakly, then dropped it again. The lamb whimpered a little.

Mrs Rutherford sat on the stool then looked down at her hands – lamb in one, skin in the other. After a moment, she reached out the hand holding the lamb. ‘Take this,’ she said.

Armstrong bent down and took the lamb in two hands. Mrs Rutherford placed the skin on her knees.

‘Hold it. Here,’ she said.

Armstrong held the squirming lamb while Mrs Rutherford pulled the skin over its head and lifted its legs inside so that it fitted like a jacket. Then she took the lamb from Armstrong and walked away, lifting it into a closed pen and laying it on its feet, the jacket fitted tightly over most of its body, only hanging a little loose over its rear. The lamb wobbled a bit and let out a little whine. In response, the ewe in the pen came towards the lamb, looking from it to Mrs Rutherford, then back to the lamb. Mrs Rutherford leaned on the fence of the pen, watching. The ewe got closer to the lamb and dropped its head, while the lamb nuzzled in underneath towards the sheep’s dugs. The ewe shuffled, then pushed its nose towards the lamb’s rear.

‘Come on,’ said Mrs Rutherford. ‘We can talk for a wee while. Then I’ll come back and see how these two are getting on.’

Mrs Rutherford led the way out of the shed and into the yard. Walking behind her, Armstrong took her phone from her pocket to check for messages. After five o’clock. Mike would have collected Archie from childcare. She should pick up something nice for dinner on the way home. A bottle of wine maybe.

Mrs Rutherford leaned against a gate and looked into a field of grazing sheep and lambs. Armstrong stood beside her.

‘Just a few questions Mrs Rutherford. Formalities. You know.’

‘Aye.’

There was the noise of an engine and Armstrong looked up to see Brian’s quad bike on the crest of the hill.

‘It was your son that found the body.’

‘He did.’

Armstrong waited, watching the young man dismount to open a gate.

‘I was in the shed, helping deliver a lamb that had got itself the wrong way round. David was in the top field.’

‘How did Brian find him?’

There was a pause, a clearing of the throat. ‘I told them this. The other one, the man.’

‘I know.’

‘He hadn’t come back for dinner. It was getting cold. He never wore a watch, but he knew when it was time to eat. I sent Brian to find him. He’d probably lain there for a while.’

‘And he brought him down.’

‘Aye. Brian righted the quad bike and lifted him onto the back. He thought we could revive him. It was too late.’

A silence came between them. In the field two lambs leapt, springing into the air. A woodpigeon gave a throaty call.

Armstrong turned to face Mrs Rutherford. ‘How is Brian?’

‘Fine. Coping. It’s a busy time, the lambing. We just have to get on with things. He’s a good lad.’

Armstrong put her foot on the gate, making the chain that held it closed rattle a little.

‘I think they’ll be releasing the body soon.’

‘So there’ll be a funeral to organise,’ said Mrs Rutherford.

‘There will. I saw the autopsy report. Blow to the head, consistent with a fall.’ A crow landed on a fence post nearby, sunlight picking out a purple sheen in its black feathers.

‘It seems strange though.’ Armstrong pushed back a lock of hair that had blown across her face. She’d started now, she had to push on. ‘The quad bike tipping, him hitting his head like that.’

They both stood watching the crow turn its head left and then right.

‘Aye.’

Armstrong thought that was it, end of conversation. The crow flew off, across the field, out of sight. Then Mrs Rutherford stepped back from the gate. ‘Bad luck. The weather last year, all that snow and February, the beasts we lost. That lamb in there, stillborn. It’s part of life.’

Armstrong turned to face Mrs Rutherford. ‘And death.’

Mrs Rutherford nodded. Armstrong felt as if she was being appraised, sized up. ‘Let’s go in, see if that lamb’s set on.’

She turned to walk away; Armstrong followed her back into the shed.

Mrs Rutherford stopped by the pen where the lamb was suckling at the teat of the sheep.

‘Good girl,’ Mrs Rutherford said, nodding.

‘Success?’  

‘Aye. Better for all concerned. The lamb will get fed and that sheep’ll be happier now. The other one would struggle with two. Just a gimmer.’

‘Gimmer?’

‘Sorry. Two-year-auld. First lambing.’

‘I see.’

‘Sheep toughen with age. Like the rest of us.’

‘I see.’

They watched the lamb feeding, its throat welling with milk, the skin it wore hanging a little loose. Armstrong heard a hum that got louder, a buzzing sound that became the noise of an engine coming closer.

‘Have you got children, Inspector?’ Mrs Rutherford looked beyond Armstrong to the entrance of the shed.

Armstrong put her hand in her pocket, clutching her phone. ‘One. A boy. He’s three.’

‘And you’d do anything for him. If you thought it was the right thing. Anything. To protect him.’

Armstrong thought of Archie. She should have picked him up from childcare - it was her turn, but she’d phoned Mike, asking him to go so that she could be here. Archie would be at home, drawing a picture in big colourful swirls while chatting about his day.

‘I would.’

‘He wasn’t David’s you know. Brian.’

The rattling of a gate outside. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘I had him young. His father left. Well, he still lives in the village. But he left me.’

Armstrong looked to the door, making out Brian, collie dog trotting at his heel.

‘I never thought of him as having a father. Not David. Not… Not anyone. Just mine. I fed him and looked after him and comforted him when David lost his temper. I was there when he was ill or scared or when the other boys at school called him names. I taught him how to tend the sheep and I encouraged him to do something else. To get away.’ She gestured with her hand to the entrance of the shed and the hills beyond.

‘Away from the farm?’

‘Mrs Rutherford lifted the cap from her head again, looking into its grimy rim, turning it in her hands.

 ‘It’s a hard life. And his father…’

‘Didn’t they get on?’

Mrs Rutherford pushed her hand into the pocket of her jacket. The knife. Armstrong stepped back a little, thinking of the way she flicked it, slit the skin, smoothly, no fuss. ‘Ach, you know. Fathers and their sons.’

She pushed the cap back onto her head and turned to a noise - Brian coming into the shed, slowing at each pen to look in.

 ‘He’s a good lad. But he still needs looked after.’ Mrs Rutherford’s voice was almost a whisper. ‘I’d better get his dinner on.’

She brushed past Armstrong, walking towards her son, taking his arm and steering him out of the shed and back into the yard.

Armstrong followed, shielding her eyes from the sun when she stepped outside.

Mrs Rutherford turned. ‘Would you like to come in? A cup of tea?’

‘No. I’ll need to go.’

The three of them stood for a moment as if each waiting for the other to say something more. The sheepdog nudged at Armstrong’s calf and she reached down to stroke its head.

‘Yours, Brian?’

‘Aye. Not much of a sheepdog. More of a pet.’

‘Sometimes they don’t take to it,’ said Mrs Rutherford. ‘Even if they’re born to sheepdog stock. You never know.’

A look passed between Mrs Rutherford and her son. Armstrong tried to understand what was in that look. A pact of silence? Her desire for Brian to leave? The work that needed done?

‘Thank you, both,’ said Armstrong. ‘For your time.’

Mrs Rutherford just nodded, and she and her son turned towards the house.

Armstrong went to her car. She took her phone from her pocket, opening her contacts and scrolled down to the direct line to the station. She should phone, speak to DI McPherson about what Mrs Rutherford had told her, the doubts she had. Her thumb hovered over the number.

She’d better let Mike know. If she phoned McPherson she’d need to go into the station and that would mean getting home late. She opened his contact, the profile picture a photo of Archie, holding up blue paint covered hands beside his blue paint covered face. The paint was in his hair too. That boy.

McPherson was probably at home by now. Even if he was still at work, what would she say? What did she really think? What was the point?

Better to go home, make dinner, give Archie a bath, read him a story. The case was closed, the day was over. She put the phone back in her pocket.

After a moment looking down the valley, listening to the gentle bleat of lambs, she turned the ignition and reversed the car, looking down at her wellies as she changed gear. There was already a streak of muck or shit on the black car mat. She’d book it in for a valet on her day off, let someone else deal with it. Too late now.