My father’s name was Bernard. My mother, Linette. They hailed from Swansea but had found their way to the West Country when I was ten years old. We still had the Welsh accent. I don’t suppose I minded much that it marked us out as different. I was a sheep-farmer, not one of the sheep.
Father and Mother used to say I had the gift of the gab, and Mother in particular used to tell me I was a good-looking young man, and that I could charm the birds off the trees, and it’s true, even though I do say so myself, I did have a certain way with the ladies. Let’s put it this way: dealing with the wives of the merchants was a more successful hunting-ground than having to barter with their husbands.
How I spent my days would depend on the season. January to May was lambing season, our busiest time, when I’d find myself in the barns by sun-up, sore head or not, needing to see whether any ewes had lambed during the night. If they had, then they were taken into one of the smaller barns and put into pens, lambing jugs we called them, where Father would take over, while I was cleaning feeders, filling them up again, changing the hay and water, and Mother would be assiduously recording details of the new births in a journal. Me, I didn’t have my letters then. I do now, of course; Caroline taught me them, along with much else that made me a man, but not back then, so that duty fell to Mother, whose own letters weren’t much better but enough to at least keep a record.
They loved working together, Mother and Father. Even more reason why Father liked me going into town. He and my mother—it was as though they were joined at the hip. I had never seen another two people so much in love and with so little need to make a display of the fact. It was plain to witness that they kept each other going. It was good for the soul to see.
In the autumn we’d bring the rams through to the pasture to graze with the ewes, so that they could go on with the business of producing more lambs for the following spring. Fields needed tending to; fences and walls required building and repairing.
In winter, if the weather was very bad, we brought the sheep into the barns, kept them safe and warm, ready for January, when lambing season began.
But it was during summer when I really came into my own. Shearing season. Mother and Father carried out the bulk of it while I made more frequent trips into town, not with carcasses for meat but with my cart laden with wool. In the summer, with even more opportunity to do so, I found myself frequenting the local taverns more and more. You could say I became a familiar sight in the taverns, in fact, in my long, buttoned-up waistcoat, knee-breeches, white stockings and the slightly battered brown tricorn that I liked to think of as being my trade-mark, because my mother said it went well with my hair (which was permanently in need of a cut but quite a striking sandy colour, if I do say so myself).
It was in the taverns I discovered that my gift of the gab was improved after a few ales at noon. The booze, it has that effect, doesn’t it? Loosens tongues, inhibitions, morals . . . Not that I was exactly shy and retiring when I was sober, but the ale, it gave me that extra edge. Or at least that’s what I told myself at the time. After all, the money from extra sales made as a result of my ale-inspired salesmanship more than covered the cost of the ale in the first place. Or at least that’s what I told myself at the time.
There was something else too, apart from the foolish notion that Edward in his cups was a better salesman than Edward sober, and that was my state of mind.
Because the truth was, I thought I was different. No, I knew I was different. There were times I’d sit by myself at night and know I was seeing the world in a way that was all my own. I know what it is now but I couldn’t put it into words back then other than to say I felt different.
Either because of that or despite it, I’d decided I didn’t want to be a sheep-farmer all my life. I knew it the first day, when I set foot on the farm as an employee, and not as a child, and I saw myself, then looked at my father, and understood that I was no longer here to play and would soon go home to dream about a future setting sail on the high seas. No, this was my future, and I would spend the rest of my life as sheep-farmer, working for my father, marrying a local girl, siring boys and teaching them to become sheep-farmers, just like their father, just like their grandfather. I saw the rest of my life laid out for me, like neat work-clothes on a bed, and rather than feel a warm surge of contentment and happiness about that fact, it terrified me.
So the truth was, and there’s no way of putting it more gently, and I’m sorry, Father, God rest your soul, but I hated my job. And after a few ales, well, I hated it less, is all I can say. Was I blotting out my dashed dreams with the booze? Probably. I never really thought about it at the time. All I knew was that sitting on my shoulder, perched there like a mangy cat, was a festering resentment at the way my life was turning out—or, worse, actually had turned out.
Perhaps I was a little indiscreet concerning some of my true feelings. I might on occasion have given my fellow drinkers the impression that I felt life had better things in store for me. What can I say? I was young and arrogant and a sot. A lethal combination at the best of times, and these were definitely not the best of times.
“You think you’re above the likes of us, do you?”
I heard that a lot. Or variations of it, at least.
Perhaps it would have been more diplomatic of me to answer in the negative, but I didn’t, and so I found myself in more than my fair share of fights. Perhaps it was to prove that I was better than them in all things, fighting included. Perhaps because in my own way I was upholding the family name. A drinker I might have been. A seducer. Arrogant. Unreliable. But not a coward. Oh no. Never one to shrink from a fight.
It was during the summertime when my recklessness reached its heights; when I would be most drunk and most boisterous, and mainly a bit of a pain in the arse. But on the other hand, all the more likely to help a young lady in distress.
She was in the Auld Shillelagh, a tavern halfway between Hatherton and Bristol, which was a regular haunt of mine and sometimes, in the summer when Mother and Father toiled over the shearing at home, when I’d make more frequent trips into town, it was regular to the tune of several times a day.
I admit I hadn’t taken much notice of her at first, which was unusual for me because I liked to pride myself on knowing the exact location of any pretty woman nearabouts, and besides, the Shillelagh wasn’t the sort of place you expected to find a pretty woman. A woman, yes. A certain type of woman. But this girl I could see wasn’t like that: she was young, about my age, and she wore a white linen coif and a smock. Looked to me like a domestic.