If I’m going to start somewhere, then eating a bacon sandwich is as good a way to start as any. Lovely thin streaky rashers sizzled in their own fat, the bread cut fresh and thick with a smear of butter. The hot bacon, the cold soft bread and the cold butter. A bacon sandwich is a lovely thing. Pigs are lovely beasts. It’s a shame they have to die, but if you stick your teeth into a bacon sandwich you will know why; there is no choice.
But I didn’t start this to discuss bacon, I started it to confess. It’s a long time and I’ve kept it to myself. The gun, I should not have sold him the gun, but I needed the money, that’s my excuse.
There were guns everywhere back then – it was not long after the Second World War – they were brought back as trophies. Most people owned a shotgun, a four ten or a twelve bore, and air guns, most boys had one. I had two pistols: a Luger and a seven-shot revolver as well as a twelve bore. I like guns; holding a gun is as comforting as holding your cock in your hand while you piss.
Perhaps things would have been different if I had not decided to take the Luger out for target practice, I will never know. I had only one box of shells, but I decided I’d like to have a shot or two. I went up into the fells to make sure the police wouldn’t spot me. I only fired off three. It was a pleasure to feel the recoil in my hand. I hit the tin can on the second, missed on the first and third. My first mistake was firing the gun, the second was going to the pub afterwards. I parked the gun back home and the box of shells, I’m not that stupid. What I’d forgotten was that I’d picked the empty shell cases up, put them in my pocket – the same one on the left-hand side – where I keep any spare change I have. Well that’s not quite true as I usually carry more coppers than I should. Anyway, I went into the public bar of the Sun Hotel and ordered myself a pint of best. Heaved a pile of change out of my pocket on to the counter to pay not noticing that right next to me, propping up the bar, was big Johnny Allen the farmer, who was well into his cups, but still bright as a button. In among the change were the three shell cases. The bar was already thick with cigarette and pipe smoke and I decided I’d make a contribution of my own and knocked out a cigarette.
‘So young Jack has a Luger, as I thinks this shell comes from a Luger.’ He certainly knew his guns, and I had to admit I had such a thing. He picked one of the shell cases off the counter and smelt it.
‘Aye and it works, these is fresh fired. I’ll be having that gun from you lad, I’ll have first refusal on it. I’ll buy you a pint just to seal it.’
And he did. At the time I wouldn’t sell, but as sure as muck is muck I was short of money again, and it was time to talk to Johnny. He wanted the Luger, even though I had only a few rounds of ammunition left to fit. I would have preferred to sell the revolver, but it was the Luger or nothing for Johnny. You needed a licence to own guns and we both had one, but they didn’t quite cover owning handguns, in fact they didn’t cover handguns at all.
‘Me dad had one of these, alus wanted one. The daft bugger threw his into the lake as he didn’t want to lose his shotgun licence, which he needed to shoot rabbits. Waste of a good gun that was.’ He took the Luger in his hand and checked the mechanism. I’d oiled and cleaned it and it moved smoothly.
‘Looks good. I’ll take the shells as well. Well now, one day death will been knocking on my door, yours too Jack, just wait and see. I means to meet that bugger face-to-face.’
I didn’t see what he was saying at the time, but seventeen pounds was very good money for it, more than two weeks’ wages. I was hoping for this but thought I’d end up with less, as Farmer Allen was known for being tightfisted. He wanted it and paid the price without trouble. There again, the Luger came with ammunition and finding ammunition for pistols wasn’t as easy as it used to be. I asked twenty, he offered seventeen, I agreed and that was that. I learnt later he’d had a good day at the market and was up for a bit of a spree. He put the pistol and the shells in his pocket and walked away with a smile on his face. As for me, well after I’d paid a few debts, had a jar or two in the pub, it wasn’t long before I had no money and no gun, sadly that wasn’t the worst of it.
Allen was a big man, in his early forties, not tall, but solid, and very strong, huge arms and massive hands. A neck like a bull’s and bit of a beer gut as he was fond of a pint. Usually you could hear him sounding off in the bar of the Sun Hotel in the village, his face a whiskery weather-beaten thing, and the smell on him was mainly of pigs. I think he wished he’d been able to go to war, but he couldn’t as farming was a protected occupation. His job was to make food. No matter how many pints he drank he was up at five in the morning working all weathers. He spoke his words as if there was a shroud upon them, despite the way his voice lit up when he talked of his fresh pink porkers. He ran Calgarth Farm near the lake, with five fields to keep his beasts on and to grow feed for them. Part of the land he had working rights to was a wood.
It used to be a beautiful wood, named Daffodil Wood. We called it that because that’s what it was: daffodils under tall-standing broad-leafed trees, oaks, beech and birch. The fresh cold waters of the Trout Beck ran on one side of it. The beck had flooded in the early fifties, killing two men, and gouging gullies and undercuts into its banks. There were huge boulders still standing proud of its now-shallow waters. They had been carried downstream as easily as if they were pebbles when the flood water rushed to spill into Lake Windermere. On the other side were houses and just below them, still in the wood, a small stream where you could find caddisfly larvae – their soft bodies covered in tiny stones – and use them to fish for minnows and sticklebacks. The village children used to play in Daffodil Wood, even though they were trespassing. Farmer Allen didn’t own the land, most of it belonged to a family called Hedley, but the land was his to use as he saw fit. Further down, the wood ended next to fields and there the remains of a wooden bridge rose above a dub in the beck where the water was deep enough to swim in. By crossing the bridge you could make your way to the lake and to Hedley’s Wood on the other side of the stream. Farmer Allen turned a blind eye to the locals, but took a very bad view of outsiders on his land, and that was the problem, there were more and more of them.
How much have we heard of that wretched poet Wordsworth. Daffodils and more daffodils, oh and the clouds and Dove Cottage. What of him having never done a proper day’s work in his life other than looking after his stamps and being poet laureate; the gentile poverty, his sister waiting on him, the bastard child in France and another woman, whoever she was? Oh yes, that was Mary his wife. Him wandering about in his romantic glory, well we are grateful to him now, thanks to the tourists. We would be lost without the tourists, and have they actually read his poetry? I have and it is good. In fact it’s very good, but that is no reason to forgive him.
Or Ruskin who, so legend has it, was so familiar with the dilapidated vision of classical statues that he hadn’t the strength to enjoy running his fingers through his new wife’s pubic hair. It shows how little he knew of beauty. Needless to say she found another man to do the job for her.
And Beatrix Potter, I’ve a bit more time for her. The Lakes have turned into Beatrix Potter Land, but it probably wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for her, using the money from her lovely little books to buy land to help set up the National Trust. My aunt met her a few times as she passed through the village, apparently she hated children.
Well it was Wordsworth that did for Daffodil Wood. The tourists would stop by – dazzled with the few lines of his famous poem that everyone knows – climb into the wood and literally fill their cars up with flowers. What they did with them all later I’ve no idea, probably just threw them away. After a while Farmer Allen decided to put an end to it; perhaps if they had just taken the odd bunch he might have let it pass, but the sheer greed upset him and so he turned his pigs into the wood. For the pigs it was a feasting time, as they dug up and ate all the daffodil bulbs. After that it became known as Pig Wood.
‘I want respect’, Farmer Allen told me. ‘For me and for my land. It might not be mine to own, thou knows, but I pay good rent for it, and I pay on the nail. That means it’s mine as far as I’m concerned. It’s my bread and butter as well as the beasts walking on it. My lot has never gone hungry, they know nowt, them lot. Me father, me mother and us children, there was five us to feed, lived on a small holding. If it wasn’t for the family pig we would have starved in winter. Mother was right good at making what little we had spread out, we ate every bit of that pig, tail to snout. I’m not having fancy tourists walking on my land, for no good reason, what do they know? I want respect for my missus, for my lad, for my beasts, and if anyone lays a finger on my lass afor she’s wed, I’ll slice their bollocks open and eat them for breakfast.’
That put me in a tricky situation. I couldn’t help thinking that what he called respect was just him wanting people to fear him, not respect at all; the other farmers only respected his pigs. He was not a well-liked man, but he was friendly to me after I sold him the gun.
We were leaning over into the pig pen down at Calgarth Farm, breathing in the pungent smell of fresh pig muck. There was a prize sow in there and she had just given birth.
‘Smell that lad, smells like shit to thee, but it smells like money to me. She’s a good one is that sow, a fine English white, always chucks yan more out than she’d got tits for, I’ve clipped their teeth as a piglet can make a terrible mess of a sow’s tits. See lyle piggly on the right. Titless is that lyle fella, and being titless is a bad job lad, whatever age thou might be. You should always have a tit to hang onto. He’s the runt. I only need one good boar and I’ve got a good one already. If a couple grows well I could sell them at market, as folks know I’ve good stock, the rest is meat: in six months or so they will be bacon, ham, sausage, black pudding and pork chops. Well the lyle bugger is trying, happen he’ll knock another off the tit and live, if not I’ll have to get our lad to put him on the bottle and fatten him up.
‘The normal sow has eight tits, but with breeding you can get them up to sixteen. This one has twelve, I’m right proud of her. Little piggly wiggly there, the runt, well he’s the thirteenth. And my boar have you seen the bollocks on him, almost touching the ground, full of goodness. And the cock, why it’s like a great length of ship rope. He lives better than a king does that fella, nowt but eating, sleeping, fucking and shitting. Filled this prize sow of mine up to brim. Just imagine how it is for those little piggies Jack. It’s like six pretty maids, with tits full of milk, leaking all over the place and all stood in a line. They take their fancy blouses off, and their undershirts and brassieres and there they are, full-bosomed and dripping with the milk of the moon, and every one of them is thy mother. Why that would be a sight for sore eyes would that. I wouldn’t mind seeing that afore I died. With a bit of luck I can get a fourteen titter from this lot. They need to latch on first before I disturb them or her. They need time to settle. I’d be a bit confused myself faced with that many tits, I’m not used to much of a choice me. The old woman at home, that’s me lot really, all I’ve ever known, we’ve been together since we were kids. She was a milkmaid going door to door with a milk churn, that’s how I got to see her, and when I did I set my heart on her. I’ve got a lad and a lass out of her, as you know. The missus has filled out a bit, she was a slender thing when I courted her. But thou has to see the beauty in the woman.
‘Thou knows when a lass lets thee into her knickers, and lets thou slip thy fingers into her fur-rimmed cunt and up inside her knicker bacon, why it’s like putting your hand into a can of worms, when thou gets past the stocking tops thou never knows what might happen. It can change thy life can that job.’
Farmer Allen was known for his colourful straightforward talk, and not everyone liked it. He said what he was thinking and he didn’t mind who he said it to. As far as he was concerned things were what they were. It was as if he couldn’t think if he didn’t speak it out loud. I was uncomfortable with this talk because he didn’t know that I’d had my fingers inside his daughter and it had felt much nicer than a jar of worms. She was lovely his daughter, and at an age when she wanted to be admired and touched. We would go inside one of his pig huts. They were circular and made of galvanised steel with conical roofs; we’d sit on an old crate and kiss, and she would move around so I could stroke her growing breasts and slip my hand inside her underpants. We were young and it was more curiosity than anything else. I think she was practising for when she got older. It was only later I realised that Farmer Allen was being a bit symbolic, poetic even, which was unusual for him.
Mrs Allen must have been a bit of a looker when she was younger, just like her lovely daughter. Time and hard work had taken its toll, but she still took care of herself. She might have filled out a bit, but she had a good figure, there was just more of it than there used to be, and there’s many men who like a big woman, so I could see why Johnny Allen was a jealous man. Jealousy is as cruel as the grave. If a man as much as looked or talked to her, he was at them, asking what they were doing, threatening them. All you could say was, ‘Good morning Mrs Allen, weather’s not so bad, Mrs Allen’, and she in her big skirts, pinnie and headscarf might answer you, but more often than not, if you were a man, she didn’t. It made her a prisoner on the farm, rarely going further than the village shop. When you did see her there she always had lipstick on and a touch of rouge on her cheeks, her hair nicely done under her headscarf and in nice shoes, rather than the wellington boots she wore on the farm.
‘Why Jack, it’s a funny do. The missus, well I’ve lived with her many a long year, but I know no more about her than I know that stone yonder, and what do I know about that stone, other than tripping over it a few times, fuck all, is the answer to that. My young John well he’s a funny bugger is that lad, full of daft thoughts, lazy, why he’s good for nowt, there’s as much sense in a wooden frying pan, and as for our lass, well she has walls full of pictures of pansy pop stars and wears daft clothes, she shows so much of herself off I don’t know why she even bothers to put the buggers on. I do my best to make sure she looks decent. Mini skirts, I’m not having my lass walk about in that rubbish. The missus, she’s propping them up behind my back, working against me. If thou’s at pub tonight I’ll buy thee a pint, if thou’s not I won’t.’
That decided it for me. I was not going to the Sun; I’d take my thirst elsewhere, perhaps the Windermere two miles up the road.
John, his son was a strange one, sullen and given to flashes of temper. He kept himself to himself, didn’t get much schooling. His father had little time for schooling for boys and thought it a complete waste of time for girls; as long as his lad could count, read and write, that was all he would need for farming. It didn’t occur to him that his son might want to do anything else. Johnny Allen was a pig man through and through, and his aim in life was to breed the best and pass all his knowledge and his stock on to his son. As for his lovely daughter, well she was to be married off to a farmer with good land. He didn’t mind if it was sheep or cows, he was broadminded about that, but he would prefer a son-in-law who could work pigs. He was going to be disappointed there as I knew she was pretty serious about a plumber from Kendal.
With the son John though it was another story. Once when I was younger, I was sitting in a tree not doing very much, as there were a few great oaks in Pig Wood that had places between their boughs as comfortable as armchairs. The pigs were snuffling about in the undergrowth when I saw one of them being hit by an arrow. The arrow didn’t puncture its skin; it was a brass-headed shaft of the type you use for shooting at straw targets. The pig squealed and shuffled off before settling down to forage again, then another arrow, another squeal from a pig, then the shooter appeared. It was John the farmer’s son shooting at his father’s pigs. There is no doubt his father would have given him a belting if he knew. It was said Farmer Allen did use his belt on his children and sometimes on his wife as well.
I stayed in the tree until he had gone then decided I’d make my way down to the lake. I crossed the broken bridge and through the lower field which went straight down to its banks. Johnny Allen was a tidy farmer compared to some, but midway down the field next to a clump of trees close to the beck was a dump – heaps of old silage and pig bones. Pigs have very thick skulls, which makes them hard to kill. A simple way to do it is to hit them over the head with a sledge hammer. Knock them out cold and then string them up by the back legs and cut their throats, letting their blood bleed into a good clean bucket. There is a lot of blood in a pig, and all of it is perfect for making black pudding. Which is where the farmer’s wife and her daughter would come in. Making the puddings was their work, however it’s a long time since butchering a pig at home was allowed. They need to be taken to a slaughterhouse, and pigs are not stupid, they know when they are being taken and they squeal and fight. It’s dangerous work, as you don’t mess about with an angry pig. It’s hard to drive them into the truck, I know, I’ve helped out a few times when it was abattoir time.
I passed the dump: the bones and the silage, brackish puddles stained with the rainbow colours of spilt diesel and in one of them a drowned weasel. This mire was in contrast to the still beauty of Lake Windermere which was a stone’s throw away. I sat on the lake’s grey clay banks and watched the water lap and swell as the steamers and boats broke its surface.
Shortly after the time I’d leant on the edge of the pig pen chatting to Johnny Allen, his world began to unravel. First of all it was his daughter; there was no doubt the plumber from Kendal had got past her stocking tops as she was pregnant, and despite the pleading of his wife, he threw her out and told her never to come back. Then they found his son in Pig Wood, hanging from an oak tree, just dangling there for no reason at all. As dead as dead can be. No one ever knew why, perhaps it was a kind of revenge – most suicides are. If that was not enough, and all of that would be enough to break any man, it would seem that despite his best efforts Mrs Allen did have a fancy man and she’d upped sticks and went. He came back from market one day and she was gone; there was a note on the table – they had been planning it for months. After that Johnny Allen wasn’t seen at the pub. He worked and worked, the farm got messier and messier. He might have thought his son was useless, but without him, his wife and daughter, he couldn’t keep on top of it all and he was too proud to ask or hire help, and rumour had it that he was behind on the rent. Several villagers, myself among them, went down and offered to help out, but he was having none of it.
I was down at the edge of the lake in Hedley’s Wood when it happened, me, the dog and a twelve bore, a double-barrelled job. I was only going to get one shot, fire both barrels one after the other, as I was trespassing and poaching at the same time. Headley’s Wood was private and I’d had the gamekeeper fire a shotgun over my head more than once when he’d caught me in there. It was duck I was after. I’d made myself a rough hide, rearranging a couple of bushes quite close to the wall, so Farmer Allen’s field – the one with the tip in it – was on my left. I’d set a couple of decoys up, handmade and painted, had them on lengths of twine floating on the water. When duck see other duck on the water they think it’s a safe spot. The first lot to fall for the trick were going to get it. The dog would be in the water to get them out. I’d haul in the decoys, break the gun down, barrel, stock and underclip into my bag and we’d be off, as the gamekeeper would be out sharpish when he heard the gun. I’d be gone by then. I’d even built myself a small a place where I could conceal the bag, with the gun, the decoys and the catch if I was disturbed so I could come back later to reclaim it all; I’d climb over the wall into Johnny Allen’s field and carry on just as if I was out walking the dog.
I crouched down and used my binoculars to spot incoming birds and to see if I could see anyone who might catch me. The other thing to worry about was hedgehogs, or hedgepigs as I’ve always called them, lovely little beasts, though when you pick them up after they’ve rolled into a ball in self-defence they are usually covered in vermin. I’ve been told they are quite tasty to eat. One way of cooking them is just to take them, the living ball of the animal, cover it in clay and stick it on a fire. I’ve never tried it or tasted them. Thanks to their spine-covered bodies they have no fear, they move through the undergrowth, making no attempt to conceal themselves. The noise they make sounds as if a man is coming through.
There was no sign of duck; I looked out across the field towards Calgarth Farm.
I saw him, my farmer friend, walk out to where the clump of trees were by the tip and focused the glasses on him. He went to where the pile of rotten hay, silage and pig bones were. He took the Luger out of his pocket and put it to his head. Then nothing, he seemed to check the mechanism of the gun, then put it back to his head. There was a shot; a loud crack in the still early-morning air. It knocked half his scull out, and he fell. People who take a bullet from a Luger don’t get up and walk, and everything he ever knew about pigs was gone too. That was it, I packed up fast and went. No duck for me today and I wanted to get as far away as I could. I didn’t want to be mixed up in that mess.
At the time I thought if he hadn’t used my gun, he’d have used some else’s, his own shotgun would have done the job, but I shouldn’t have sold it to him, besides I miss it and wouldn’t mind feeling it in my hand even now. I was tempted to go and try and get the gun back. Then realised how stupid that would be. If the Luger was traced back to me I’d be in court, and if I had the gun itself they could charge me with murder. No doubt Hedley’s gamekeeper would be on his way at the sound of the shot. He had a sharp ear and he stood for no messing about on his master’s land.
I made my way back up Hedley’s Wood, back across the broken bridge. As soon as I got into Pig Wood I knew I was safe, safe enough to light a cigarette. I didn’t call the police, I didn’t say a word. That was the end of my poaching days. I went to his funeral, but his wife and his daughter didn’t show up, in fact not many people did. The story made the Westmoreland Gazette, but not the front page. Being a tenant farmer is a hard job and suicides among farmers are more common than most people think.
I worried for years that I’d hear a knock on the door, despite the result of the inquest, that someone knew and would talk, and I’d find a policeman standing there. The years went by. Now the village is full of newcomers as the locals can’t afford the house prices. It’s as if the entire history of the village has been lost. If you go to Pig Wood now, it’s overgrown, almost impossible to get through, full of weeds and thorns. There are no pigs; the new farmer isn’t interested in pigs, but there again there are no daffodils either.
Pig Wood by Edward Allington, a story sent out in five parts over five days (3–7 September 2012) courtesy of Akerman Daly ©2012, Edward Allington and Akerman Daly