Keeping it in the family
Bill Hayward, retired farmer, scanned the obituaries column of his local daily paper every morning, finding too many old friends there nowadays – his wife Betty told him to remember to take his pills or he’d be there too.
“Pills,” he muttered, running a gnarled finger down the page before exclaiming “Cox! Michael, husband of Connie. Seventy five. Cor, Micky Cox, haven’t heard of him for years, best kicker in the rugby team the scoundrel. Funeral Wednesday. Bet all the gang will be there.”
Betty looked up from her cereal, “What’s left of them.” Bill folded the newspaper and reached for his mud-splattered Barbour coat, cap and Wellingtons: his Labrador sprang from her bed to follow him. “I’m off for me walk,” his mind was racing.
“Have you taken your pills?” Betty called after him. He had a habit of forgetting them. Bill grunted, taking his stick and plodding off across the farmyard. “Pills!” he muttered, slashing a thistle with the stick.
He’d retired from active farming five years ago, only because Betty insisted when his heartbeat became irregular and she’d made him see some heart bloke who wanted to “shove something called a pacemaker in me chest”. Bill had told him in no uncertain terms that no-one was sticking a knife into him, reluctantly agreeing to take tablets instead.
Although retired he’d retained his land knowing he was of a dying breed, the small family farmer. Farms like his were going to investors: farmhouses sold off separately, the land put out to contractors. He wanted to keep his patch of Suffolk – farmer who rented the land kept it in good heart – but Bill’s greatest disappointment and sense of failure was that he was the only Hayward farmer not to produce a son. He would have loved teaching him, eventually passing the farm to him as was the family tradition, but with three daughters married to “townies” this was the end of the line. He dreaded the time when he might be forced to sell.
Walking across his meadow he thought of Micky Cox, friend from schooldays and beyond, drinking and playing rugby together – good mates. Micky’s father farmed in a much bigger way than Bill’s but that made no difference – until Connie. She was lovely. A blonde hairdresser, shapely, feisty. Bill had been madly in love with Connie and had courted her for over a year when someone in the rugby club told him she’d been seen with Micky.
Furiously slashing a clump of nettles Bill remembered being heartbroken when Connie admitted she intended marrying Micky, which soon after she did.
“I thought she loved me,” Bill had confided to a friend. “She loved Micky’s money more old mate,” came the reply.
Desolate, Bill left the rugby club, and never spoke to either of them again. Living some distance away he deliberately lost all contact. Some time later he met and married Betty, a plain but homely hardworking country girl, knowing deep down she was a more suitable wife for a small farmer. Nevertheless, reading of Micky’s death had stirred old memories and sensitivities and Bill was curious to see how Connie looked now. He didn’t give a damn about Micky but he would go to the funeral.
Bill parked his trusty old Land Rover among the huge four wheelers and flashy cars in the church car park, and found an aisle seat inside the building – he wanted to get a good view of Connie. Although time had healed his pain, in his heart he treasured fond memories of her beauty and the time they shared. Glancing at the photograph of Micky on the service sheet he noted with annoyance the familiar cheeky grin, thick black curls – a handsome chap – obviously an old photo. Suddenly conscious of his own appearance Bill wondered what Connie would make of him, the way he had aged – his wiry red hair faded and combed over a bald head, his face with its prominent Roman nose ruddy from a lifetime in the fields, jacket buttons straining over too many of Betty’s “puddens”.
When the cortege passed him down the aisle his stomach lurched as he recognised Connie, her blonde hair swept under a large black hat, shapely body under a fitted coat. From back view Connie in her seventies looked alright. Bill’s heart raced at the sight of her as his eyes followed her to the front pew. With trembling voice he attempted the opening hymn “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”. All farmers had this: he had requested it for himself. His throat tightened.
Throughout the service Bill’s eyes were fixed on Connie’s taught emotionless back, his feelings in turmoil – would he speak to her later or simply walk away? A robust countryman, fiftyish, with frizzy ginger hair, stepped up into the pulpit and began speaking. “I remember Father saying …” Bill glanced at the service sheet, “eulogy by Michael’s son Robert.” It was the usual sort of thing Bill had heard at so many funerals, an account of Micky’s life, his good works, sport and farming prowess, a wonderful Father and friend. At this Bill snorted and the lady in front turned round and glared at him. Robert droned on monotonously and, bored, Bill studied with interest this son of Connie who was not a bit like either of his parents. The hair must be a throwback to his forefathers, and the nose too … the nose!
With a jolt Bill sat up, taking in this man in the pulpit whose hair, nose and stature were all identical to his own! With thumping heart, his mind raced. “Connie married darn soon after dumpen me. After all these years wanting a son for me farm – had I got one and didn’t know it? A good solid looking farmer, the image of me.” Shaking, Bill bowed his head for the prayers and suddenly remembered Micky confiding one drunken night after rugby that he could never father a child, a medical reason. “So he stole my son!” Bill fumed to himself, feeling sick with rage and shock. Questions spun in his head, did Connie know when she left him? Did Robert know?
The service ended in a blur, Bill’s heart pounding wildly as hatred for Connie and Micky welled up inside him, and when the family walked out, Connie, on Robert’s arm, chin high – her once pretty face now heavily painted and plumped – Bill noticed she looked hard and haughty.
“Cor, she’s wholly gone off,” Bill muttered and the lady beside him chuckled. He noted the ginger-haired younger sons of the family, and signed.
Outside in the graveyard Bill braced himself to face Connie, although what he would say he did not know. Any feelings he had cherished for her had gone in that instant he’d recognised Robert as his son, and, feeling shaky and vulnerable, he wished Betty, good solid dependable Betty, was beside him. At that moment he was overwhelmed with love for her – something he had not considered for years.
After the burial the family moved among the large crowd of mourners, and suddenly there was Robert, his son, in front of him holding out his hand and saying.
“I don’t think we’ve met.”
Bill took the hand in both of his, gripping it hard, as Connie rushed across, and grabbed her son’s arms.
“Robert – no!”
The two men stood spellbound, their likeness so obvious. Bill tried to speak but words would not come. His pulses were jumping erratically in his chest, neck and wrists – the irregular heartbeat; he hadn’t taken his pills for several days – and, feeling sick and dizzy, he felt himself fading and gasped.
“Tell him Connie!”
From his favourite spot on the farm Bill gazed one last time across the valley – a view he loved so well.
“Time to go Bill.” Betty started the car and drove slowly out of the field, across the farmyard, and past the large “SOLD” board.
It was a sad day but the stroke had left Bill severely disabled and although his mind was unaffected he was unable to speak. Betty found caring for him in the large old farmhouse too much, their daughters were settled elsewhere, she had no alternative but to sell.
Driving to their new bungalow she reflected on how, since that Robert Cox had telephoned to say Bill was in hospital, their lives had changed forever, and she couldn’t believe their luck when the same Robert Cox, a wealthy farmer, had made a ridiculously high offer to buy the farm for his son and to her amazement this news had delighted Bill.
She squeezed his limp hand. “Ah Bill” she sighed, “if only you’d had a son to keep it in the family.”