[To hear this tale in the dulcet tone of the moors click play above.]
In 1980 my father took on the tenancy of the hill farm where I now sit, way up on the North Yorkshire Moors. At the age of one and a half I made the move here from my birth place; sixty rocky acres on the side of a mountain in North Wales. This farm seemed a step in the right direction for my father and, being short of money, I felt he needed all the help he could get.
So it was that Bill became our neighbor, his farmhouse overlooking our own from the moor top a half mile away. The track leading to our farm left the road through a gate aside Bill’s yard so my father would often pull up his Lada to talk with the old man in passing. To me, these meetings seemed an intolerable indulgence, so, as my father lingered, I would do likewise in protest. My mother being wise enough to remain neutral simply held her breath beneath the strap holding her in the passenger seat.
In recent years my father has recounted to me several times a note worthy episode which took place during one such meeting between Bill and himself; shortly after our arrival in the dale. Standing face to face with Bill and ear to ear with his then unfathomable dialect, my father came to notice a light pattering upon his gum boots. Unable to restrain himself, he risked breaking eye contact with Bill to discover that the old man was in fact relieving himself. Shocking though this may sound to some, Bill doubtless wished to avoid causing consternation by breaking off the conversation and so simply did as ewes do in such circumstances. Being a newcomer to the Moors however, my father was unsure how to react, but, since this impromptu boot cleaning seemed quite the norm for Bill he found himself rooted to the spot and could do nothing but nod agreeably as the old man rounded off proceedings.
I treasure this tale now for it is one of the finest examples of that utterly single minded character which, to me, so clearly differentiates true men of the uplands from those of low birth. The population of such men has dwindled now, the once straight back of the moors sagging in their absence, and yet, there was a time when they seemed every bit as permanent as the sentinel cairns upon Rudland Rig. So seemed this neighbor, as a child.
Though my own relationship with Bill lacked the warmth of those conversations he shared with my father his presence had no less of an impact upon me. Knee-high to a grasshopper I often found my supper interrupted by my father whispering urgently: ‘Jess, look, Bill’s at the window!’ When I turned to look Bill would duck out of sight and my father would set about stealing the choicest morsels of food from my plate whilst I searched for for the old man. Since there were few children of my age in the dale father failed to note that my growth was somewhat stunted and he thus thought this conspiracy exceedingly humorous. I myself found these disturbances somewhat troubling as I was less than comfortable in the knowledge that our neighbor spent his evenings stalking about our garden. I am wary of such men to this day.
As the years rolled by with Bill and my father’s mealtime allegiance growing from strength to strength I attempted to make up the nutrients I lacked by snacking on sheep feed: small mealy pellets of protein packed goodness. They had a most agreeable flavor so my sister and I decreed between us that they were a delicacy. Though bearing a passing resemblance to the Middle Eastern sweet ‘Halva’ this was likely prompted by father’s continual warnings that sheep feed was exceedingly expensive. In spite of this, whilst my father was engrossed in greasing his ball joints, we’d quietly snatch bony fistfuls of the stuff from the one tonne sack; to suck on as we roamed the woodlands. With this lifeline secured my sister and I shot up until we were almost of shoulder height to other children our age. All good things come to an end however. Father caught us in the act one night and swiftly put a stop to our indulgence, he didn’t scold us but simply informed us that the pellets were manufactured from chicken shit. I believe my sister and I stopped growing that same year.
With our upward spurt at an end we accepted our fate and set about thinking laterally. We decided to make allies with others of diminutive stature and began preparing meals in bottle tops of dock seed and mashed leaves for the farm’s fairy population. These feasts would be set in a hollow between the roots of an old oak which stood at the bottom of one of Bill’s field’s. Upon returning to the tree the following day we would find the bottle tops empty and there, in the dry dirt, would rest a ten or twenty pence piece. In time this metaphysical catering service grew so lucrative that our profits all but filled my sister’s palm.
Despite the success of our industry a doubt slowly began to weigh on our minds regarding the fairy’s use of Pound Sterling. We mentioned the subject to our father in case it was he that was leaving the coins in some kind of schizophrenic episode. He clearly knew nothing of fairies so we cut the interrogation short before he caught wind of our wealth. Being of an aristocratic lineage there was no question of mother throwing around money so frivolously and we thus came to believe that our small fortune had, in fact, been left for us by old Bill. Since he doubtless passed by the dining hall on a daily basis whilst checking his sheep it seemed the most likely explanation.
So, questionable though his nighttime habits were, Bill evidently had a warm heart. Thinking on this as I write now, I can’t help but wonder whether that fairy money was something other than a whimsical offering in support of our childhood fantasy. Imagining the old man stood in the dark outside the kitchen window, gazing in whilst my father cleaned my plate, I see something other than those foreboding features I conjured up as a child: I see concern furrowing Bill’s brow. Could it in fact be that our fairy silver was Bill’s attempt to credit me for those meals I’d lost on his account?
Heartening though the thought is, his patronage brought no such satisfaction to my stomach. As I passed the remaining years of my childhood strolling beneath low hanging branches with my minds eye set on an invitation to the fairy banquet, my sister was out spending our fortune on tutti frutti chewing gum. …I saw not a stick.
The author stands at five foot, five inches tall. Bill lived with his ample sister, Nora. He was not a large man himself.
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Notes and Disclaimers:
Though based on true events the characters in this tale are caricatures which do not represent real individuals.
To friends or family of Bill:
Though humorous this tale is intended to convey respect, please contact me if this causes any unrest to you.
Text, audio & images © JPW 2014