There would come a day, he knew, when he could no longer remember what it was – the thing he needed to tell Marcus. Marcus knew about the headaches he’d been having recently, but not about that devastating diagnosis – inoperable. He and Jen had decided amongst themselves to protect the boy from the truth for as long as possible.
Heavy duty pain-killers had done a lot to ease the headaches, but already he had noticed himself forgetting or not being able to do certain things. Not people’s names and not the names of his entire flock of Cotswold sheep, which he still had by heart. No, it was silly things like where he’d put the honey jar. Jen had found it in the fridge. She’d pretended she’d done it, making some weak joke about forgetting her own head if it wasn’t screwed on, but he knew it had been him, and she knew he knew. There were lots of little lies – kind, sad little lies – between them now.
He had always done the wages for his workmen himself but this last quarter he’d found himself in a terrible pickle with it, and it really got to him. Jen had found him in tears – a shocking event in itself – and they had agreed that now would be the right time to hand over the farm accounts to Jim Parry, their neighbours’ excellent accountant. They had been thinking of doing just that for some time, was their mutual pretence. ‘Save you the bother,’ Jen said. ‘Free you up to do other, more enjoyable stuff.’
But they wouldn’t tell Marcus. Not yet. Let the boy have this lovely, white Norfolk winter – the last of his childhood; tell him in the spring, maybe. ‘See how it goes,’ said Jen.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘let’s just see how it goes.’
It was funny how, as his short-term memory faded he seemed to be remembering more and more of the past. He was thinking only this morning to the times when he and his father would go shepherding together – real, old-fashioned shepherding out on the hills at night in all weathers. No need for all that nowadays: they had security cameras. The farm had prospered over the past twenty years and they had been able to upgrade in all sorts of ways. They even had a gadget called (oh please, let me remember) a photoelectric cell. If a fox, dog or any other animal broke the invisible beam from this cell, his mobile started ringing. My mobile, he thought, bewildered. A fox enters a field two miles down the road and my phone rings…
Nowadays he puzzled endlessly over things – small things he would just have accepted before. He needed to sort out in his head why things were, why things worked the way they did… These things, they brought him to a stop sometimes. He wanted to get on but found himself motionless, wondering.
From the age of eleven had gone onto the hills at night with his father, and that was when they really got to know one another – not as father and son but as men. That was what he had thought, watching over the sheep, dark shadows dotted over dark fields. I am a man now. There were things his father had told him during those long, sleepless nights that he had not known before. There were things he told his father.
It wasn’t that difficult to disable the security cameras. Just a snip to a single wire. The switch in the barn remained in the “on” position but the screens went blank. He returned to the house doing a good job, or so he thought, of grumbling about unreliable electrics and demanding that Jen to phone the electrician first thing in the morning.
“Marcus,” he said, turning to the boy,“how d’you fancy a rather chilly night out? Old Reynard’s been round a lot recently and I can’t risk him getting his teeth into my… our flock, especially now, with so many ewes in lamb. Of course, if you’re tired I could go by myself but the company would be…”
“I’ll come, Dad. No school in the morning, remember? No biggie.”
No biggie, he thought, no biggie. What on earth was that supposed to mean? Yes, presumably.
As they huddled together by the primus stove in the tumbledown looker’s hut he said, “In the old days, you know, there was a custom: a shepherd would always be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand so that as soon as he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They’d know a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday.”
“I never heard you tell that story before,” said Marcus. “Do you know any others?”
“Probably,” he said, but he couldn’t think of any. Had he ever known any others, or had they vanished. The thing in his head was voracious, he thought; feeding on memories. “If another story pops into my head at any time I’ll tell it, how’s that?”
“Yeah,” said Marcus. “Good plan. ‘Cos you’re always so busy. It’s nice just to sit and talk sometimes.”
“There was something I wanted to ask you, Marcus” he said. “Something… in the way of… a favour”. Now it had come to it, he wondered if he was going to be able to spit the thing out at all.
“I know, Dad. That’s why you sabotaged the security cameras; so we could do the man-to-man chat thing?”
“How did you know that?”
“You dropped your scarf.”
“Ah… oh, yes. Guilty as charged, Your Honour. But… that favour.”
“I know that too, Dad. The Lock of Wool. You want me to…” His voice sounded odd all of a sudden. “You want me to do that for you when – I mean if you…. And I will. I’d like to be the one.”
“Marcus, there’s something else,” he said on impulse. “Something your mother and I were planning to tell you, but not until…”
“Dad. I overheard you talking in the kitchen the other night. I know already. Gosh, I’m a bit of a know-all tonight aren’t I?”
And that was all they would say on the subject that night because right at that moment somebody – or something – knocked what little was left of the looker’s hut door.