Megan had a bonny, chubby sort of prettiness, which was at its most attractive in
childhood, this contrasted with the angular blondeness of her older sister, who
relatives referred to as "the clever one."
Peggy was the first born, so small that she was clothed in cotton wool and bathed in
warmed oil for a number of weeks. As her parents little miracle, she rose to sainthood
even before her death. Megan could not compete.
"The bull in a bowler hat" had long since replaced Fergie, a generally placid creature
who could be slowed down by a well-directed sledgehammer when he was over-
excited. He had once escaped when a neighbouring heifer was in heat and chased an
aunt, who was wearing an A line skirt, the fashion of the time, to the top of a chicken
shed, having first drooled his displeasure over sleeping twins, who were fortunately
behind a mesh gate fixed in front of the porch.
The A.I. man never seemed to fit into the rurality, which he serviced. He had sparse
hair and a mean moustache matched his thin lips.
A naturally town-based man; he wore a suit, tie and hat, with the addition of
Wellingtons which were never dirty. His bowler hat was as incongruous as his
humour. A joke at the expense of the children was relentlessly reiterated.
"Those dog's ears would make great winter gloves. Just the right size and shape for
my hands. It gets cold in winter on the fells. Let me know when it dies. Great gloves
The younger children had not understood the intended joke and that led to their hatred
of the small man who needed a job artificially inseminating cattle. The man stored
thin glass files of sperm in a leather, brown square case. He read the credentials of the
donors in an almost reverential tone, their lineage and propensity for bettering the
herd were discussed intimately between the farmer and himself.
Later the youngest girl told her father of her dislike of men who used dog's ears for
gloves. (She was too young to lie effectively.) Tom had placed his large hands on the
table like an open prayer book and explained that the man had only tried to amuse
them and that the story of his holding a guinea pig up by its tail to watch its eyes drop
out was not possible because they didn't have tails and that A.I men did not, by nature
dismember family pets. The father was not successful in dispelling her mistrust,
which was unusual because she had trusted him before.
The father was a wiry man with his visible skin pitch brown but in the summer heat
when he wore his blue overalls with no shirt, the unexpected whiteness of his upper
arms and body contrasted with the leathery skin of his face and forearms. The
paleness of the skin previously hidden from the outside weather gave him an air of
vulnerability, which none of his family ever mentioned because he was their strength.
His forehead had a circular crease when he removed his black beret, which he wore
for working. The beret was smoothed with grease because of his habit of leaning
gently on the cow's sides as he milked them. His wife had once, uninvited, washed
the hat but it never really fitted after that and a new one had to be bought at the Army
and Navy Store. At two shillings, it was expensive.
The table was unusually large, extended for a family occasion by a leaf, which being
stored and having not been wiped by a dishcloth or the Rayburn's soot, sat like an
unfamiliar guest in the centre.
The fat table legs had carved knees which harboured forgotten grime, although it was
polished every Sunday morning. Things got overlooked. Two Irish linen cloths
covered the difference in the surface and a hotchpotch of tablemats not designed to be
together protected a surface, which didn't need it. Tablespoons were crosshatched in
the corners of the table, as was their mother's understanding of how servants had been
taught in her days of gentility. They didn't have paid help. She was glad of it. Her
love would be more recognised if she could complete the day-to-day tasks, it would
please him. She knew she wasn't clever, at least not in the sense of schooling. She had
never felt educated and recalled weekly canings for miss-spellings. To compensate for
this, she adored her husband who she knew to be her superior and nurtured her
children, whom she privately wished would stay as children. She would be needed.
She dreamed of being an interior designer, but family and opinions stopped her,
despite a scrapbook in which she kept swatches and ideas in a case under their bed.
Eileen was a big boned woman, who before her marriage had taken a two-week
residential course on keeping house because of her desire to please. She had large
masculine hands and wore a five-opal ring, which had been specially crafted to fit the
breadth of her finger. Tom and she had married only six weeks after they met. He had
previously been unintentionally engaged, an arrangement made by his mother, to a
girl he had met twice but who had written to him occasionally in prisoner of war camp
and had once sent him a cake. His mother had bought the ring and organised a party
of sorts to celebrate, but had forgotten to mention the intended betrothal to her son,
this caused some difficulties when he returned to his hometown with the woman he
had asked to marry him.
They had been comfortable together, each understanding their role and being happy in
the security of knowing what was expected from a husband and wife, he to protect
and provide and she to make him believe he did. The children had been a bonus. At
thirty-two she had feared it might be too late.
The twins, Rachael and Robert were not usually referred to by name but rather as the
twins, which gave them a sense of belonging together but not of themselves.
Sunday mornings, the girl in a wide, circular, brown felt hat with an elastic strip under
the chin was sent with her twin, in his smart grey flannel shorts, long socks and a tie
which was also brown, to Sunday school.
The rusty staple, carelessly fastened with binder-twine on the granary door could
easily be undone. The grain store was at the back of the building away from the main
yard. They were unlikely to be caught.
The tiny stickers of Christ and the Virgin (given as a reward) had lost their appeal but
at nine, they were trusted to attend. Mouse racing held a more immediate interest.
Each twin selected a feral cat, which they believed to be the best "mouser."
It was dusty and warm with the late summer left- overs of barley huddled against dry
wooden boards. One twin pulled the door behind them against being found and as a
necessary part of the game.
It was a fair race. They had agreed that only one sack should be moved for each cat.
The boy had chosen Queen and the girl a less spectacular cat but one she believed to
be faster. Two bags were dragged from the wall.
Queen almost immediately secured a mouse under each outstretched paw and trapped
a wriggling youngster in her mouth. She seemed unsure of what to do about the
remaining mice, the boy tried to herd them to a corner for the final tally.
The second cat had a lesser challenge; one slow pregnant mouse and a nest of pink,
sightless babies shaped like jujubes, the penny sweets the children had as a special
They argued as to how many baby mice were equal to a fully-grown one, which could
run, only agreeing that a replay was necessary.
Later the twins walked to the lane, which on usual Sundays they would have used as a
short cut, dodging low behind the dry stonewall which their father had constructed.
and wondering if their return was at the correct time. Neither possessed a watch.
It was difficult to remember the shared story they had invented to explain the
teachings of the morning but the arrival of the harvesters spared them.
Eileen was aware that some of the farmers were prone to using "rude words" which
she was not prepared to subject her children to, at such a young age or ever. Eileen
had explained to them, that it was as easy to show annoyance by your tone and, she
added, "wheelbarrow" was the word she used when angry.
She had then busied herself with preparations of a beef- roast for the men, sandwiches
and orange squash for the children, who were to eat in the dining room away from the
Each year an un-discussed order of harvest was settled. The combine, bailer and sacks
were hired from a Mr Porfit, who referred to all young boys as Jimmy, because he
explained he was originally Scottish. He was a regular visitor to the farms at this time
of year but in later life, after his wife died, he had professed love in a clumsy physical
way to a fifteen year old who reported him to the authorities After this he was no
longer required to do business with the local farmers. Gossip and more streamlined
machinery made him redundant.
The twins, knowing "swearing" was likely, put the latch up and eased the oak door
open a little, in the hope of catching something they shouldn't. Disappointingly the
talk was of the weather, yields and second servings of food.
Megan, being temporarily the eldest, (Peggy staying with an aunt for the day) shut the
door before the conversation became more interesting to nine year olds, to show her
maturity and possibly to protect the twins from their own curiosity and the probability
of being caught.
She had always disliked being the middle one. The twins had each other and Peggy
the adoration of her parents, though Eileen insisted that she loved them all equally.
From her first day at school she was known as Peggy's sister, her own identity again
Megan felt the uneven balance of affection, being less loved had left her fragile.
Friendships had been fleeting, as were the affairs with middle-aged men when she
was eighteen and played first trombone in a Cumbrian brass band.
The girl twin knew Peggy had high cheekbones, large eyes and thin blonde hair from
the photograph in an EPNS frame, which occupied the centre of the mantelpiece.
Eileen placed a fresh flower by its side daily and more blooms on remembered
birthdays. But in the girl twin's reality Peggy was smudged, even when she recalled
childhood events where her older sister must have been.
There was the Easter egg. The larder had been entered before the Sunday and a whole
large egg had been eaten; one of the children would be without the morning's
intended gift. The two eldest had taken one twin at a time to the den next to the
ploughing to interrogate them. There were large, harsh words from the elder girls
united in their search for justice but later the remaining three eggs were divided
between four. The girl twin only recollected the presence of Megan, she couldn't hold
the faded image of somebody else.
The larder was a large room with uneven flags and a utility meat safe. She would
never have entered there at night without a companion, the corridors were too dark,
the oak stairwell too threatening and she was not brave. She believed it to have been
Peggy and, tried to pull back the reality of her eldest sister because others could and
she was aware, it was expected but to her it was no longer possible.
The pheasant hanging from a large hook had feathered her cheek. She believed that
God had waited in the coolness to visit her for her thoughts (which she had not been
able to keep free of badness.) Someone had explained it was not so. The girl twin
could not hold the likeness and wondered whether she had sinned and this had
prevented the memory of the eldest being a comfort.
Electricity arrived soon after the harvest. The landlord, thinking of selling the
property decided to install it, at some cost and an inevitable increase in rent. The
family had been used to games of cards, the wireless and talk because Calor gas did
not run televisions, only lights and a fat green iron with tiny jets of ignited gas but
Tom explained he would be able to power a machine for milking, necessary to meet
the milk quotas and that life moved on, even if it were at an expense.
Eileen was used to her Calor gas iron but prepared carefully for the modern power.
She placed the outdoor mat of thick rubber, next to the ironing board, put on her
Wellingtons and blew into the Marigold gloves before wearing them. The pleasure
she normally took in neatly folded handkerchiefs and shirts never quite returned.
That particular night there were still candles in holders with flat saucers for safety,
which adults used. The children had been forbidden to use these since a small fire on
a wicker bedroom chair, when the draught had caused the wick to become unreliable.
It was cold, two nights before Christmas, the inside of the windows were patterned
with frost. Megan was under the eiderdown, She had not wanted to use the last of her
battery because she was reading under the covers. Usually she would have gone for
the water, if she had known how important it would prove to be, she would have
certainly brought it. She hadn't realised and couldn't explain afterwards.
The next morning the children were unsettled seeing their father run down the cinder
path to a neighbour's, who had a telephone, giving no explanation for his haste.
The ambulance had arrived and was quite an excitement; it gave the younger two
something to write about in the school daily news. Eileen had explained, aware of the
responsibilities of motherhood, about dolls hospitals, where toys were put back
together. The children didn't understand but pretended to.
The following afternoon, about five, the cows were unusually late for milking.
Later the girl twin wondered if she had been to blame, tried hard to remember the
vicar's words in his sermons during family services. She recalled that "thinking bad
things was as bad as doing them and that God listened to your thoughts, punishing by
hell fire," but there had been no mention of the kind of punishment He might give for
missing Sunday school or mouse racing.