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Down on the Farm


Readers, do you dream? I mean, those sort of dreams where you don’t know which is real and which isn’t? I mean the sort of dreams  that, when you try to remember them, they gat all mixed up with real things into a kind of mush? Did that really happen, or did I think it happened?
Oh dear, I’m not explaining myself very well. Perhaps I should just tell you the story, as best I can, then you can make up your own minds. Let’s start at the beginning, if I can remember where the beginning is. You see how difficult it is! But if you get confused, just stop me. Then I know whether I’m getting it right or not.
I’ll call it a dream-story. It concerns a farm, two girls and a lot of very strange animals I’ll introduce myself first. My name is Emily, and I’m tall for my age, which is a stately eleven, and I have wonderful long blonde hair (well, I think it is anyway) and blue eyes. I live in Romford, in Essex, with my mum and dad, and two disgustingly useless and ugly brothers. Enough said. My friend, Li-chao, as you can tell, is Chinese, and comes from a large city called Taipei, in Taiwan. Just so you can tell us apart, she is also tall, but slender, with long black hair and lovely brown almond eyes. I almost forgot to say: she’s my pen-pal, and she came to England to stay with us for a couple of weeks.
We were all sitting around the supper-table one night when my dad said, ’How about you two going off down on the farm for a few days? You know, to uncle Dave and aunt Veronica’s? They’d love to have you, and Li-chao can see the countryside’. I looked at Li-chao. She looked back, and nodded enthusiastically. ‘Great’. I said. So, next morning, we all got in the car, and dad drove us off. It was a long way, right into the middle of Wales, where Dave and Veronica lived. It was already dark when we got there, so mum and dad stayed the night. I really liked my uncle Dave, with slightly red face and blonde hair and little moustache, and my aunt Veronica, with her long, usually scrambled red hair, and slightly tatty clothes.
They were really pleased to see us, and made a great fuss of Li-chao. To tell the truth, I didn’t just like them for themselves, but because they let you do whatever you wanted to. Their children seemed to be all over the world – Sri-Lanka, America, Nicaragua – some of the names I remembered. They were both doctors, and were usually out visiting patients, Dave on his motorbike, and Veronica in her old Jeep. They were the sort of aunt and uncle that everyone would want to have. No problems, no fuss and ‘see you when we see you’. When we went to bed that night, I smelt that wonderful smell of muck and manure, that their little farm always had. It had been a long time since I had been there, when I was just a toddler, but it smelt comforting.
This is when my dream-story begins, in the morning, on a warm, bright sunny day, down on the farm. I call it a farm, but it was really only you might call a smallholding, with a collection of animals who wandered around and seemed to do as they pleased. Just the kind of place I like, but you do have to watch where you put your feet! Wellies all round! Li-chao was very excited, and I was really pleased, because she was a bit of a ‘townie’, and hadn’t really gone out of the city very much. So this was all new to her.
After my parents left, Dave revved up his bike and shot off on his rounds, promising to be back at lunch, followed by Veronica in her thundering old Jeep. Then we put on our wellies and went outside. Through the back door, then around the house to the left. We turned the corner and stopped, frozen in our tracks
There, with his back towards us, stood a billygoat, on his hind legs, and leaning on the fence overlooking the vegetable garden. He was humming to himself, and every now and then a puff of smoke curled round his ear. I looked around at Li-chao. Her face was white, and her eyes seemed very large. I must have looked the same. Were we dreaming?
I just don’t know why, but I began to walk towards the billygoat. I could hear Li-chao following me. I came up next to him. He turned his head and looked at us. I didn’t know whether to run or hide. ‘Morning to you! Lovely day!’ he gestured with his hoof towards the distant view of the Welsh hills. He held an old briar pipe in his…hoof, which was where all the aromatic smoke was coming from. ‘Master and miss gone off on their rounds, have they?’ I looked at his face. It was kind. Long and shaggy perhaps, with a small beard, and very bright black eyes. For some reason I really liked him.
‘G.good morning’. I heard myself say. He grinned in a kind of billygoat way. Then he looked around again, at Li-chao this time. ‘Hello, got a friend with you? Hallo, lass. You look as if you come from foreign parts’.

     ‘Yes, I’m from Taiwan. From China’.

I looked at Li-chao. She looked back at me. ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to strange things’. she said, shyly. Certainly more than me, I thought.

‘Do…do my aunt and uncle know that you can speak to us?’ I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.

The billygoat laughed. ‘’Course they do. We all get along here. It’s a special place here. No problems ‘twixt humans and animals. We all talk to each other. Speaking of which, ‘ere’s a lot that talk too much’, and his head nodded towards a cluster of hens, brown and white, that were all scrambling out of the big hen-coop over to the right of the house. ‘I warn you’, said Billygoat. ‘they are right proper gossips’.

Sure enough, they were, and both Li-chao and I could understand them so clearly!

          ‘I tells you, that there Nutmeg knows something!’

          ‘No, I don’t!’

          ‘Yes, you do! Come on, you tells us!’

          ‘I don’t know nothing! I were just talking in me sleep!’

          ‘You were squawking and clucking all night long! I ‘eard you!’

          ‘So what! Anyway the way you carry on wiv’ that Rooster!’

          ‘That’s none of your business!’


          ‘Watch out! ‘e’s coming!’

The hens all fell silent. Out stepped a large male rooster, his feathers shining and glistening. On top of his head was a gleaming red head-dress. His tail-feathers waved elegantly in the sun. He walked mincingly towards the pond, further on to the right. Over his left wing, he carried a small bath-towel. ‘Good morning, ladies!’ he cried, grandly. ‘It is time for my morning bath! You may join me!’


They all trooped off after him, sighing.
     I heard this strange sound behind me. It was Li-chao, giggling. I started giggling too. Billygoat began laughing and wiping his eyes.

          ‘What a bighead!’ said Li-chao, when she had stopped giggling.

          ‘Definitely!’ I said.

          ‘Amen to that!’ cried Billygoat, and laughed again.

This story-dream had now become strange. Both of us now just accepted that animals could speak, and that they were like us. But, there were other surprises in store, not all of them so funny.
     ‘Now, said Billygoat, ‘Do you want to see something else that might make you laugh?’  We looked at each other and nodded. ‘Come on, then’.
We followed him along a muddy path, towards the open fields. He walked upright, still on his hind legs, holding his old pipe. I began to feel that, in fact, he was both human and animal. I don’t know why, but I had become to like and trust him. Whatever you may think of this strange story, at least, it promised more adventures. Why not?
     He stopped at last, and leant on a gate that overlooked a wide field of grass. ‘Look over there’. Li-chao stood at the gate next to me. I was really worried that this was all too much for her, but she looked at me and smiled, and then whispered, ‘Let’s just accept everything. If it is not a dream, then it is a wonderful adventure. I was brought up with adventures, and all the Chinese legends. Let’s see what happens’.
     Out in the field, there was a black and white shepherd dog. He was trying to round up about twelve or so sheep, with white coats and black faces. But he certainly wasn’t having much luck. The sheep just drifted nearer to where we were standing, and finally stopped. We could tell clearly what they were saying!. The dog, who wore, for some reason, a peaked cap over one eye, was clearly, absolutely, furious. He was shrieking at the sheep!

‘Get in line, you ‘orrible lot! Now! Right now! Pull yourself to attention! You’re on parade! In front of posh people! Get in line! At once! Do it!’

The sheep didn’t take any notice at all. They continued to amble around, chattering to each other.

          ‘No talking in the ranks! I’ll have you for insubordination!’

“insub… what, ossifer?’ asked one of the sheep, grinning all over her face.

‘You ‘eard!’

Ooooh, ‘e’s getting a bit cross!’

‘That makes a change, don’t it?’

Lots of laughter and giggles from the sheep. The dog looked as if he was about to explode with rage.

One of the sheep sidled over. ‘Here, Adolf, my mate Maisie over there fancies you something rotten. Why don’t you go over and give her a big kiss? Make her day, that would’. Maisie, one of the smaller sheep giggled and simpered.

‘Or would you like someone like me? Bit more meat on me bones? Oh, come on, you’re ever so cute really. Specially when you’re being so masterful…’ She fluttered her eyelashes at him, or seemed to.

The dog’s eyes rolled in fury. He started to splutter, then turned and stormed off, pausing to glare us and Billygoat.

‘Bye-bye, Honeybunch! Come back soon, loveboat! Make us swoon with your tender looks and fond caresses!

They all just fell about laughing, one or two of them lying on their backs and kicking their legs in the air.
‘Well, that was Adolf, the expert shepherd dog. He has such a lot of authority, as you can see. Never been the same since he went on a course to be a military guard dog’.

          ‘What happened?’

I looked at her in surprise. Li-chao was normally quite shy. But she looked sad and anxious.

‘Failed it, of course. Never got over it’.

Billygoat said no more for a while. As we walked back to the farmyard, he suddenly said, ‘Best you talk to the pigs now’. Now, I am a curious person, and I like to know what’s going on. So I asked the right question.


Billygoat stopped. ‘Why? because you pair have come down to do an…in..vestig…ation, haven’t you? He lowered his voice. ‘There’s summat going on here. None of us knows as yet, but there’s a strange feeling around’.

He looked around, as if to as if to make sure no-one was listening.

‘Nowt definite, like. But something’s up. Best you talk to the pigs. Sharp as nails, they are. Nothing gets past them. The best in their class. Sharp minds and brilliant detectives. What they don’t know ain’t worth knowing’.

He led the way to a filthy old pigsty, which I hadn’t noticed, down by the other side of the farm. ‘Ay, up lads, got them fancy detectives down from town to see you. Wake up, then!’  Li-chao and I peered in. Two very large and muddy lumps lay in the middle. One of them stirred, and opened an eye. ‘Whassup?’ it grunted. ‘Detectives!’ shouted Billygoat. “Come from city to help with your enquiries!’ The other lump stirred. ‘Oh, ay? In middle of the night?’ The first lump prodded the second with his hind leg. ‘It’s morning!’
‘Well, it’s got no right to be. Anyway, no crime committed as yet. G’night’. It began to snore gently. Then the first lump closed its eyes and also began to snore.
     I looked at Li-chao. She looked at me. We both looked at Billygoat. He looked back at us. ‘Brilliant detectives?’ I said. ‘Sharp as nails, you said? Nothing gets past them, you said?’

‘Well, they’re not at their best at the moment,’ said Billygoat hastily. ‘That one there’, indicating the first lump, ‘is Detective Chandler, and the other’, pointing to the second, ‘is his mate, Detective Marlowe. Just wait till you see them in action’.

‘Goodbye detectives’, I said. ‘good work’.

The only sound in return was a gentle snoring. We were not impressed.
     Anyway, the rest of the day was quite pleasant. My aunt and uncle came back for lunch, and then went off again to do their rounds, as they called it. Billygoat took us around and introduced us to some of the others, like Jack the horse, who was quite friendly, though he was definitely not happy about the idea of me riding him. ‘Chuck you off quick, I would’. Thanks, I thought. Then there was Ralph, the ginger cat, who was nice, even though he was carrying a dead rat in his mouth, and couldn’t speak clearly. So, all in all, an interesting day.
     But we weren’t prepared for what happened that night. The first we knew about it was a strange flickering light that we could see even through the curtains of our bedroom. We got dressed and ran down stairs. All the animals were outside, the hens running around everywhere, the rest watching as my uncle Dave and aunt Veronica were directing a hosepipe at the flames that were licking up the side of the henhouse!. It was so strange – the light of the flames, the black shapes of the animals, and the noise of the hens squawking, others shouting, and the heat of the fire. Finally it died down.
          ‘Stand aside!’

          ‘Make way! This is a crime scene!’
     Pushing their way through were Detectives Chandler and Marlowe, their huge bulk easily clearing a path through the assembled animals. Chandler went carefully up to the wall of the henhouse and begin to sniff loudly, as he moved his snout over the wall. Marlowe, with head down, was busy, closely examining the ground. After a few minutes, and a lot of fretting and whispering all around, they trotted over to my uncle, who was standing next to us.

‘Kerosene’. said Chandler briefly. ‘White paraffin. Thrown or squirted all over the wall of the ‘enhouse’.

‘No tracks’, added Marlowe. ‘Ground’s too ‘ard’. ‘But’, he added again, ‘I found four old burnt matches nearby’.
‘There’s summat else’. said Chandler slowly. ‘Whoever did it, didn’t manage to get the  fire going more than halfway up the wall. So we’re looking at someone not too tall. Not ‘umans’, looking at us, ‘or Jack there either. So the rest of you better get some alibis for where you were’.

Everybody gasped and looked very shifty, apart from one young sheep, who loudly asked another, ‘Ay, do you think if I give her the wool, me mam’d knit me an alibi?’

          ‘Oooh, you woolly jumper, you!’

The sheep fell apart, screaming with laughter. Both pigs groaned, and my uncle, Li-chao and I decided it was time for bed. As we moved towards the house, we brushed up against Adolf the dog.

’Indiscipline! That’s what causes these things! Bah!’

He turned and trotted off back to the other group of animals, all clustered around the detectives.
     For the next two days, we had a great time. Meals anywhere in the day and all the animals to talk to. I got on really well with Billygoat, who told me lots of tales about how he went to sea, as a sailor, got into trouble (what kind of trouble he never told me) and then came back to Wales to retire, and write his memoirs, as he called them. Of course, I didn’t believe him, but his tales were wonderful to listen to. Li-chao was really happy. She sat and talked with the hens all day, and often also with the sheep. She said she really enjoyed all their gossip. Oh well, I thought. Every now and again, we saw one of the detective pigs, waddling past, as if half-asleep.

          ‘How’s the case going, detective?’

‘Case? Oh, the case. We are pursuing our enquiries, as you speak’.

It was the next night that it all really happened. Li-chao and I woke up to a flapping and squawking outside the bedroom door. We rushed to the door and threw it open. There was a small bedraggled hen standing there.

     “Quick, quick! Fire! Another one! Barn! Horse! Come quick!’

We decided we were needed, urgently. Li-chao and I threw on some clothes and shoes and ran out after the hen, who was pattering away in front of us. We came round the corner of the house and saw what was happening.
     The whole end of the big barn was on fire. Huge flames were licking up the wall. Small spurts of flame were shooting out from between the wooden planking. The whole farmyard was lit up as if it was day. But above all was the smell of burning – burning wood and straw, that made us cough and gasp as we got closer. From inside the barn there was a desperate pounding of hooves on wood, and a gasping kind of neighing, as if a horse was in trouble. Which it was.
     My uncle dashed past us, dragging a large hosepipe. ‘Put the water on!’ he yelled. Immediately, a large jet of water sprang out of the hose, and Dave began to play it on the fire. ‘Oh, no! I’ve forgotten Jack! Here, you two, keep the water on the fire!’ He pushed the hosepipe into my hands. I could barely hold it by myself, but Li-chao grabbed it too, and together we directed it as best we could, at the flames. I was aware of the animals all around me, who were carrying buckets of water to try to throw at the little fires around. Most of them missed, bit it helped at least. Looking around, I saw Dave leading a gasping, coughing Jack out of the barn door, and then he came over and took the hose from us.
     It seemed like hours before we finally got the fire out. We were all so tired, and absolutely filthy with smoke and dirt. The hens were sitting around their hen-coop, for once quiet and very subdued. The sheep, their wool now grey with cinders and grime, all huddled together in one large mass. Jack was standing to one side, still snuffling and coughing. We were drinking tea from large mugs that Veronica had brought out to us, too tired even to sit down. Billygoat was leaning, as usual, against a fence.
     The only two things moving were the detective pigs, snuffling and grunting as they nosed through the pieces of charred wood and straw that lay scattered on the ground. Looking for clues, no doubt, I thought. The end of the barn was charred and blackened, and some of the bales of hay inside were still smouldering. Then they wandered over to Dave, sitting on the ground, drinking his tea, and spoke to him in low voices. Dave shook his head, got up, and came over to us.

‘Chandler and Marlowe reckon that Jack went into the barn to sleep for the night. But the key in the barn door had been turned, and he’d been locked in. I didn’t realise at first when I got him out. But someone, or something, had turned the key from the outside. It’s a real mystery’.

‘Dave’, called out Chandler, ‘where’s Adolf?’

‘Right here’. said a dog’s voice from behind us.

     We all turned. There was Adolf, without his cap, and looking rather grubby. “I’ve been here all night’. he snapped. Chandler and Marlowe stared at him, then Chandler finally said ‘That’s all right then. Because if there was anyone missing, we might know who did it’. ‘Well, I was’. growled Adolf, and turned and began to trot away. As he passed one of the piles of embers, a spark from it seemed to catch on his nose. It made him sneeze suddenly.
     As he sneezed, a sudden whoosh of flame came out of his mouth. Now I’ve seen everything, I thought. A flame -throwing dog! Then I suddenly realised with a terrible shock what it meant! So did Chandler and Marlowe. For pigs, they moved really quickly.In a second they were standing in front of Adolf, one on each side.

          ‘So, my lad, it was you, wasn’t it?’

     Adolf just stood there, staring at them. Then his mouth opened into what I can only describe as the most vicious snarl I have ever seen on a dog’s face.

‘You fat porkers! You over -bloated swine! I wish I could have got rid of you too, as well as that rickety old horse over there, who kicked me! And these stupid humans who turned me down for the army! But no! I ended up here on this run-down old farm, trying to turn this cretinous set of morons here’, jerking his head at the sheep, ‘ into some sort of disciplined order! And getting no thanks for it, oh no! All I got was a lot of insults from those stupid old tarts!’

          ‘Here, you…’ shouted one of the sheep.

          ‘Shut up! I’ve had enough of all of you! I’m leaving!’

He leapt back, turned and streaked off into the darkness. No-one moved. We were all too tired to run after him, though I thought I did see a flash of black and white running across a field. But we simply went back into the house and went to bed.
     We were all up very late next morning. Veronica made us some breakfast, but I could see that she was very anxious. About halfway through, Dave came in, and sat down at the table, looking very tired. Finally, he spoke.

‘I had some bad news this morning. Old Brewster, who has the farm next to me, woke up just before dawn, and saw what he thought was a fox worrying his sheep. It was snapping and snarling at them, he said. So he took his old gun out and shot it.

‘Then he realised that it was Adolf’.

          ‘Is…is he dead?’ This was from Li-chao.

          ‘I’m afraid so. Yes’.

We all did the washing-up in silence. Then I went out to find Billygoat.
     I found him, leaning on the fence as usual, smoking his pipe. After a while, he turned his head towards me and said quietly, ‘Have you heard?’
I nodded. I didn’t really know what to say or think. He puffed at his pipe for a little longer.

‘When someone has a big vision for themselves’, he began, ‘and when it all goes wrong, then you have two choices. Either you get on with something else, or you let it grow inside you, and start taking it out on others around you. That’s what happened with Adolf. I can’t blame him for that, but I can blame him for trying to do away with Jack, who only put him in his place sometimes, for trying to bully the sheep. He started the fires, by finding cans of kerosene, which were only blocked up by paper, screwed up, carrying them out in his teeth, and tipping them over by the hen-coop and the barn’.

     He paused for a minute or two, then continued.

‘Then he had a problem lighting it. He tried matches at first, but they wouldn’t light. Remember he had to do everything with his teeth. Then he had the idea of turning up a lantern as far as it would go, swallow a bit of kerosene, get as close as he could to the flame so it would light, and breathe fire onto the kerosene. Dave has lamps that go out when they’re knocked over, but if you do get close to a flame, you can set it off by blowing it out, like fire-eaters do. The detectives found a kerosene lamp next to the barn, and the hen-coop, too. But it was still on his breath, so when a spark came close, off it went. That was the proof’.

     ‘But’, I said. ‘How was Jack locked in?’

‘Easy. Adolf simply stood up against the door, and turned the lock with his teeth. And that’s the part I can’t forgive. Perhaps he didn’t want a witness, or maybe he had a grudge against Jack, and likely everyone else. But that was attempted murder, not just fire-raising to get back at everybody. It was lucky that we all got there in time. It’s sad, but there it is’.
     ‘But’, I said again, ‘didn’t the pigs, I mean the detectives, know?’

‘Oh, yes, they knew, But they didn’t have any evidence, at least not until last night. And a confession, if you can call it that. I told you they were smart. One more thing, though’. He looked hard at me. ‘This is a special place. No-one knows that we animals and you humans can talk to each other. We need to keep it that way. Folks round here know it, but they keep it to themselves. Don’t ever tell anybody else about it. It’s a secret, for you and your friend’.

I nodded, and this is why I have called this a dream-story.
The next day we went home. Dad was coming to pick us up. But first, Dave told us to come into the farmyard for a few minutes. All rather puzzling. But we went out anyway. There, in the middle of the farmyard, around an arrangement of wooden benches and logs, were all the animals. We were going to have a group photograph taken! Not any old photograph, but one of those old-fashioned silly school photographs, where everybody lines up with the teachers in the middle, and have to smile or pull faces at the right moment. But it sounded really jolly!
     Mind you, it took a lot of organising! To our delight, we sat in the middle, each side of Dave. Behind us stood Billygoat, and Jack the horse, breathing heavily over Dave’s shoulder. On our left, were all the sheep, and on the right, the hens. Cockerel came marching in and stood right in front of the hens, until he was told to stand at the side.

     ‘Huh!’ he said disdainfully, against a background of ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ from the hens who all gazed at him as if they were love-struck young girls (Whoops. Wrong thing to say). It took ages for everybody to settle down. The hens kept falling off the benches, and had to be pulled back up again, with lots of clucking and squawking. The sheep were all jostling and pushing each other, trying to be at the front.

‘Mind you get my best side!’ shouted one of them to Veronica who was going to take the photograph.

‘What best side? You haven’t got one!’ shouted another.

‘Oh, shut up, you! Just because you’re as ugly as sin!’

‘How dare you……..!’

‘Silence! All of you! And sit still!’ It was Billygoat.

     Finally, everyone was settled. Veronica looked down at her little box camera, one of those that you hold against your stomach to see the picture.

          ‘Right, arms folded! And nice smiles!’ called Veronica.

All the sheep and hens tried desperately to fold their front legs or wings in front of them. Veronica peered down into the camera. Goodness knows what she saw. The two detective pigs were reclining, or, I would say, lying at our feet, but they at least raised their heads and looked at the camera.



Click, and the photograph was taken.
We said our last goodbyes, before dad arrived. I went to see Billygoat, while Li-chao sat down with all the hens and sheep. ‘Hallo, lass. Had a good time?’ ‘Well, yes and no’. ‘I understand’ he said. Then I did something which I thought I would never do. I hugged Billygoat. I had never hugged a goat before. He felt hairy and musty, and, well, sort of goaty. But he grinned at me. ‘Off you go, then’. I did, and I have to say this in secret, but I felt some tears on my cheek. I felt really fond of him. Li-chao joined me. She had a few tears as well, but I didn’t say anything.
     We finally called in to say goodbye to the detectives. As usual, they were lying in their sty, snoring.

 ‘Goodbye’, I said, ‘good work’.     

Chandler opened one eye. ‘You off, then? No problem. Case over’. He prodded Marlowe with his foot. ‘Oi! Big city detectives are off!’     

Marlowe stirred, then lifted his hind leg and broke wind with an enormous snort. Li-chao and I staggered back. ‘That smell! It’s awful!’ she cried.

‘Aye, that’s the trouble these days’, grunted Chandler. ‘Can’t get the staff any more’. He smiled a pig-like smile. ‘See ya’ around, babes’. And that was that.

     There is just one more surprise for you, reader. Just as we were getting into the car to go home, Veronica came running up to us. She looked very agitated. ‘I’ve just realised! There was no film in the camera! So, there’s no photograph!’ Li-chao and I just looked at each other. ‘It doesn’t matter’. I said. ‘Well, these things do happen!’ my dad laughed cheerfully. ‘Never mind’. We didn’t talk all the way home.
     Well, reader, what can I say? All that I remember, I have told you. Perhaps it didn’t happen after all. As the detectives would say, ‘there’s no evidence’. I have described this as a dream-story because that is what it is. Nor did I want to break my promise to Billygoat. But I do know that Li-chao will be going back to Taiwan with some wonderful tales to tell. And, I can only add, both she and I, despite some of the terrible things that happened, will always remember the time we spent down on the farm.

Frank Jackson (2/03/09)