In 1956, eager, carefree, innocence in flush of evening dusk, joy of haying the summer rye, raking, tying sheaves, stacking into stooks. The Clydesdale clopped, pulled the dray-cart, crossed the stream to the hidden ley of laughing kids and folk The pitchfork taller than the boy, though he mastered it, broke it to his will pitching the sheaves to the stacker boys, the cart filled twelve feet deep.
The old grey stood, stubborn, careless, her face deep in the nosebag, giant ribs puffing in and out, a few glad snorts, a clear mist of breath. The reinsman under the elm, his tea a cheese and pickle sandwich his dear old mother made ‘This, the last load’, he sighed ‘been a long, hot, dusty day’
The dray-cart stacked high, not one more sheaf could be pitched, ‘all done!’ he cried Then the pitchers and stackers climbed on, hay-stalks between their lips, the dray-master whistled his going home tune The boy played, mother sang soft songs, sun’s shadow closed in. Mites and insects buzzed aloft, a pheasant screeched, a pigeon cooed, a blackbird sang it’s evening song, the entourage clipped on, old grey nodded rhythmically, knew this her last walk of the day Her dinner awaited in the stable, a hose down, fresh water then gulped down from the sweat of work, these thoughts picked up her gait.
Passed over the tadpole stream, the painted caravans stood long-side; the gypsy woman waved as she washed her pots and pans, and the brown moustached, gold-ringed men looked idly on. Passed by Bluebell Wood, the boy fell silent, heard of the mad witch lived there.
Passed the stocks, not so long ago, a punishment for theft, the guilty arms and legs locked in where decent folk threw insults and rotten fruit at the thug or tart condemned And just by there the old tramp stayed in his cobbled-up hut, a strange old rascal, some people said a wizard, and mother warned the boy stay away’ on pain of ‘off to bed without your dinner’.
Excitement peaked as they entered the gate, at the great hay barn they stared. Old grey made a vigorous stamp, quickening her hooves, saw the end of the work-a-day Then eerily quiet went the kids and mums as the dray-master backed up the dray Brass tackle and leather, and harness, undone, clattered to the ground; old grey shook her frame, saliva dripped, she gave a short sharp neigh, then led away to her dinner and a fresh straw bed.
Mums and kids and men pitched the sheaves to the stackers, right up into the corners of rafters, pushed, sweated, screwed up faces in this last burst of work The little ones sat in the corners, gradually filled up the barn with sweet hay sheaves for the milking cows through the 2 long harsh winter nights and days Then all is done, the moon a soft white rose, chatter died down as they wandered home, the boss waved ‘cheerio, see you all upon the morrow’.
Scratched limbs, hair full of hayseed, happy kids felt joy for the day, not seen as work, just another form of play, and the prospect of a shilling to spend in the lolly shop down in the village square. Tired Mums gone home, knew their husbands waited their tea, kids home from school, homework hidden, watched the newest black and white TV.
She shrugs, it’s her lot, ‘never mind I’m tired, I’m young and strong’, knows it’ll be midnight before her work is done. ‘Never mind, thank God, we’ve a roof and good food and a husband no drunk, and kids that pretend to be good’.
As she knelt to pray, her husband snored in secret dreams, she thanked God for a day of sunshine and fresh air, and wage at the end of the week, which she’d already spent on the Saturday market and bags of sweets for the kids. ‘Give me strength Lord, so tired, my bones ache to sleep’
She slid in to her side of the roughhewn bed, glanced once at the black curly head of her mate, Smiled. Her soul surrendered; her eyelids dropped to dreamless sleep.
Major Award – Port Phillip Writes 2020