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On The Gray Hill
By Tom Brennan
William sat at the head of the massive kitchen table, leather patched elbows on the pitted and scored wood. He stared absently as he ate, his balding head tilted to the bulky clockwork radio perched high on the dresser, the crackling signal swelling and fading like waves against a sea wall. The short-range weather report broke through with the probability of more snow from the east. William looked past Sarah, his wife, huddled over the dishes in the deep Belfast sink, through the rimed window to the filtered landscape of the valley. The radio subsided to a becalmed murmur.

The back door latch rattled and Michael stumbled in with a swirl of cold air and a mumbled "Mornin'". Six feet tall and broad shouldered, he filled the luridly colored waterproof jacket; the shoulder seams were already splitting. The older man nodded to the farm hand and watched Sarah ladle porridge from the blackened pot. Michael stared uneasily at his bowl as air bubbled through the coagulating liquid.

"You feeling rough this morning, boy? What time you get in?" William's voice had a smooth cadence.

Michael swallowed hard and sipped the mug of sweet tea. "About two, maybe half past. Feeling rough."

"Well, what do you expect, up all night drinking." It had been closer to four when Michael had returned: William had heard the Japanese performance bike racing up the icy valley road, feeling his muscles tense as the rider braked for the many turns and accelerated hard through the few straights. Eventually the headlights had skidded into the cobbled yard, throwing bright lozenges of light onto the faded wallpaper and ceiling of the main bedroom.

"How about some toast?" asked Sarah.

"No, thanks, Mrs. Evans. I'll just drink this." Michael curled his hands around the mug, a hideous pottery gift brought back from a day trip. His face looked grey and unwashed beneath the mess of blonde curls.

"Where's Ginny, she not coming down to eat?" William turned to his wife.

"No, she's feeling tired. We had a busy day in town yesterday." Sarah spoke without turning from the sink. The bare electric bulb reflected the gray strands running through her chestnut hair, drawn into a tight bun instead of the usual complex plait.

"Not ill, is she?" asked William.

"No, she's just been busy, getting back from college and all. She'll be alright."

William spoke to Michael. "Well, boy, you better buck up, we got a lot to do this morning, can't have you moping around." His chair scraped the stone flagged floor as he rose and grabbed the filled Thermos from the range. "Any sandwiches?"

"There's a couple of pieces of cheese, and some cake," said Sarah, offering him a foil parcel. "What time will you be back?"

"Oh, three, four, it depends." William shrugged into his waxed coat and tied a frayed scarf around his thin, wrinkled neck. "We got to feed the sheep in the lower field, then bring down the stragglers from the hills. There's 'bout ten missing. Morgan says he's seen some of ours up by his place." He opened the cupboard beside the range and took out the double-barreled shotgun, its breech cracked open, and dropped a handful of cartridges into his pocket.

"Why do you need that?" asked Sarah.

"Ewan's eldest boy, Bob, reckons he saw a dog out the past few days, worrying sheep high up. It's probably some walkers' animal, might be harmless, but I'm taking no chances. We lost enough ewes this year."

"You be careful." She smiled nervously at him, new lines creasing the soft skin around her eyes, and kissed his cheek as the two men left.

Sky the color of blue ink falling slowly through water, bunched white clouds crouched on the horizon. The two men crossed the yard, its collection of derelict machinery hidden under smooth snow, past Michael's glass-cracked caravan and into the cavernous barn. William's high whistle brought the dogs out: Honey bounded out first, her sleek body filled with tight energy. Monty appeared slowly, pausing to stretch his front paws out in front, tail held high. He ignored Honey and sidled up to William, looking up with sleep-filled eyes.

"Why not let them sleep in the house?" asked Michael as William ran his hand through Monty's graying fur.

"They's working dogs, boy: you coddle them and they turn soft." William opened the door of the battered Land Rover. Honey and Monty growled at each other and circled, teeth bared, both eager to take the middle seat in the cab. Monty barked three times and Honey capitulated, lowering her head, allowing Monty to jump up while she made her way to the canvas covered rear. It was becoming harder for Monty; soon Honey would be riding up front by William, while the old dog lay on the cold metal floor.

The engine whined and reluctantly turned before starting with a cough of blue smoke. Michael threw bags of feed onto the tailgate as William scraped at the icy windshield. They climbed in beside Monty, the narrow seats covered with generations of adhesive tape. William skidded to the lower field, wiping the inside of the screen as it fogged. The sheep were huddled in a steaming mass by the gate, pressed against the dry-stone wall. William broke the surface of the water trough with an old hammer while Michael stood on the tailgate pouring feed into the old iron trough, over the heads of impatient animals.

William guided the car up the unseen track to the higher fields, waiting in the cab while Michael and the dogs rounded up the few tired stragglers. William's hands rested on the wheel, swollen knuckles and thin fingers covered with dry skin, growing pattern of brown spots dotting the backs. He remembered warmer days, young hands clasped around the thin waists of dancing partners as they whirled, the touch of soft flesh through cotton. And he remembered the rusty guillotine of the unlatched tractor hood, although the irregular tracks of scar tissue on his left hand were fading. Michael had proven himself in those three months, running the dogs as William supervised, his shattered hand bound and helpless. Natural aptitude, that's what the lad had shown.

Lambing time had brought the main surprise; the older man had watched as Michael stripped the skins from dead lambs in a few deft knife strokes, fitting the matted coats over the bleating orphans and rejects before offering them to the distraught ewes. Suspicious at first, then fooled by the scent of their own offspring, they gave up their milk.

Michael yanked the door open and lifted Monty onto the seat, then jumped in beside him. They turned and drove through the yard, following the stragglers into the lower field. Yesterday's snow, disturbed only by the single furrow of the motorcycle, still covered the track to the public road as they continued. William waited until they turned onto the road, then asked Michael, "So, what happened last night?"

"We went up to the Vaynol. The new manager barred us from the Bull."

"What for, fighting again?"

Michael laughed, then regretted it and winced. "It wasn't our fault, last time. Group of climbers started mouthing off at the pool table." He had a vague recollection; pints of lager, music blaring, the catalytic word. His jaw still ached from a grazing punch.

"You'll meet someone bigger than you, one day, then you might think twice," William advised him.

"We don't go looking for trouble." Michael smiled. "It just happens."

"I reckon." William guided the car down the narrow minor road, past small stone cottages and boulder-strewn fields. The valley floor came into view, pub and shops standing out from the low houses. William turned off the road and drove up an old pot-holed track at the valley side. Low ratio gears whined as he struggled up the gradient, fell quiet as the road leveled and ended at a padlocked gate. William killed the engine and stepped into clean snow.

"Where are we?" Michael gazed at the smooth encircling hills.

"It's a short cut," said William. "We'll go by the reservoir, over the old quarry, drop into Morgan's fields and see if there's any of our animals."

"Isn't that Power Company land?"

"It is, but they won't mind so long as we got good reason; lost sheep is good as any." William pulled on his old Hawkins boots, heavy with dubbin and iron nails hammered into the sole. He retrieved the shotgun from the cab and rested the open breech across his forearm, the barrels pointing to the ground. "You ready, boy?"

They left the dogs dozing on an old blanket in the cab and climbed the stone wall beside the gate, walking in silence beside the service road. The wind was light, occasionally picking up quick flurries of snow. Michael's cheap work boots sank deep into the soft powder and began to absorb the melt that stuck to the uppers. Their breath condensed into opaque haloes around them. They looked back to the mouth of the distant pass and the small island beyond it. The clouds had grown, a delicate white wall streaked with gray.

Small stone cairns marked the steep path behind the reservoir, leading up towards the old quarries. Michael labored behind William, his head aching. "Hang on," he wheezed, "a minute."

William stopped. "Too many pints of Robinsons, boy."

"I'll be okay, just need a rest." He sat against a cairn, garish jacket sunshine yellow and fire engine red against the snow.

"What made you get that coat?" William snorted. "You wearing it to frighten birds off?"

"Tony, down the pub, sold it cheap."

"Tony? Light-fingered, that one; some poor bugger'll be looking for that coat, let's hope they don't spot you. Hard to miss you though!" William scanned the ground beneath them and caught a flash of color below the path. He dropped down, could read the paint sprayed on the jutting rump of the dead sheep; red and blue, his mark.

Light flakes of snow fell as they continued onto the wide ridge. Clouds meshed overhead and descended. The ridge merged into the quarried hill's flank and formed a plateau as clouds embraced them with trailing vapor wraiths. The wind stiffened as they ascended, ripping cloud holes to offer sudden views of the vast chiseled hill, tier upon tier of fragile slate.

William strode ahead as Michael skidded over wet rock. The snowfall deepened, stellar crystals turning to plates. They reached the ravaged peak of the hill, the excavated hollow of mottled water that silently absorbed the fall. Sluice gates would open in the night to pour cold water through new turbines buried deep in the hill. William shouted to Michael, "We'll have to drop down, this is too thick."

The path diverged, leading onto the worked face of the hill. Michael made out the gaping toothless mouths of old mines and the remnants of stone cottages, some no more than a grid of walls and doorways above the snow. The rusting gradient of the incline railway lay straight and true, a steady forty-five degrees down to the hidden buildings below.

William led them into the ruins of a cottage whose central wall, complete with fireplace, stood higher than the rest. The leaning stone bore crystalline striations, milk-white and amber. William's face was ruddy beneath the frozen cloth-cap brim, his collar dusted white. He leaned into the sheltered cavity of the fireplace and the charred remains of the last fire. "I come here every now and then," he told Michael. "When I need some privacy." He wiped snow from a large flat stone at the chimney side and lifted out dry wood. The small bundle took light and William built it up.

Michael sat close to the fire, shivering, and accepted tea from the Thermos. He drank it straight down and held the cup out for more. William sat at the side, shotgun across his knees, staring through the flames. They were protected in the lee of the wall as the fitful wind circled.

"This used to be Glyn Davies' cottage, years back," said William. "When the quarry was still open, me and my sister would visit. He was some relative on my Mother's side; good man, very religious, worked here Monday to Saturday, then church all day Sunday, never touch a drop of drink. Must've been a hundred men, maybe more, working up here. The noise was terrible, early morning 'til night came. Hard, it was." He sipped tea and glanced at Michael. "What about your family?"

Michael hesitated. "Don't know, really. Parents never spoke much about relatives. We weren't close." He could remember, if he had to: shouts and screams, arguments and recriminations that lasted for years. The imprint of a gold sovereign ring in his bleeding cheek. If he had to.

"Where you from, originally?" asked William, already knowing the answer.

"Cheshire, but we moved around a lot."

"Same as Sarah; born near Warrington, but she never really settled before we were married. I think that's why she liked me, bit of stability for a change, despite my age. She's more your age, in fact."

Michael looked over but William's face was hidden. "Been difficult for her," William continued. "Stuck out in the hills, no real friends. Been worse since Ginny went away. That's why I don't blame her. Devil makes work for idle hands, my dad used to say, and it's true."

William's hands tightened as he remembered the sounds from the bedroom, his bedroom, and the feel of the shotgun as he paused outside the door, his heart beating hollow in his chest. His grandmother's solemn Victorian face had gazed silently at him from her colorless portrait, no stranger to unhappiness, until the sounds had ebbed away and he silently left the house. William continued speaking, his words aimed more at the dying embers than Michael's motionless figure.

"I know about yesterday, too, and their visit to town. Must've been hard on Ginny, watching her mother go through that. She's a strong woman, no mistake." The fire died in a flurry of wind and snow, a silent exclamation. Michael looked sideways at the open shotgun, barrel pointing to the floor, and tried to remember William loading it, tried to catch the glint of cartridges. His powerful legs threw him over the low wall of the cottage and down the hillside. William picked up the discarded cup from the pool of warm tea and screwed it onto the Thermos flask, then began to pick his way carefully down the slope.

The wind howled, created vortices of snow around him, whipped crystals into his numb face. He saw the bright jacket discarded in a ravine and, for a brief moment, the curtain of snow parted to reveal Michael's figure careering through the deep drifts and skidding on the icy scree. William heard the frenetic barking of a dog close by, savage and desperate above the wind. He slotted two cartridges into the open barrels, then snapped the breech shut and continued calmly down the hill.

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Document last modified on: 01/12/2002

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