The day after my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother sold the dairy. Her granddaughters were shocked at her heartless farewell to the pedigreed herd of Jerseys that she’d spent 30 years building up. We bade tearful goodbyes to our tender and loveable companions. ‘Cows are not tender and loveable,’ my grandmother snapped at us. ‘They are anxious, neurotic and moody.’ And so was she after years of getting up in the dark to milk and rushing home in the evening in time to milk again, as our grandfather sat on the porch reading Gibbon and Darwin and saying how a field of cows made him feel at peace with the world. To our mind, when the cows went, the farm died.
The dairy still had the smell of sour milk and hay and we would spend hours in blank lamentation, sitting in the cool empty space. Over time, the milking parlour began to fill up with broken pieces of farm machinery, plants that needed to be inside in winter, and piles of croker sacks whose grassy smell reminded us of the cows. Then my uncle decided to bring the farm back to life. He decided to buy cattle. Meat cattle. Aberdeen Angus. Sleek, glossy and black.
The cattle would be the answer to everyone’s prayers: scenic fields, minimal agricultural taxes on the land and nothing to do but watch the young steers grow to be the size of Pontiacs in the shadow of their mothers. Faithless as we were, we soon transferred our affections to these new creatures. Our grandmother was right: the Angus cattle were as calm as house cats. They came to us when we called them, loved having their foreheads rubbed, and had a soulful look that made us think of God. Somehow, the truck that came in the spring to take away the boys always came when we were at school, and, within a very short time, we had new calves to give our love to. There was only one small problem: like almost every farmer who went into beef cattle, my uncle nearly went bankrupt.
And so it came to pass that, when I married a farmer, I came with a bovine yearning. Not the perpetually menstrual dairy cows I’ve watched my friend and neighbour Jane Capon work herself to the bone with her organic herd of Jerseys. In any case, I long ago converted the old dairy into a country store and the bullpen into a cafe for the farmers’ market. I wanted cattle. More specifically, I wanted Suffolk cattle: those deep-chestnut conker red cattle called Red Polls (‘polled’ cattle means ‘with-out horns’.) Fellow barley barons of East Anglia sniffed at the idea. ‘Cattle are the crop of City bankers who want to decorate their country acres, non-farmers who want ambiance.’ My husband was reluctant. ‘Who’s going to look after them?’ He also dreaded my noisy grief on the day when the boys would go off and reappear on the restaurant menu.
But last week, at the gathering at the Rose and Crown after Reg Frost’s funeral, our former farm manager told me about a herd for sale in Cockfield. The farmers were retiring and moving to Scotland. This morning, my small herd arrived: Norah, aged 17, with her two-month-old calf at her side; Ruby with her four-month-old calf; and three more girls who have calved once. Red Polls are gentle, maternal, light-footed, and beautiful. Mine come from a hand-reared herd, and are affectionate and sociable.
My husband is content because they will graze his precious wildflower meadows and fulfil the requirements for the Higher Level Scheme. I am happy because the field looks like a painting by Constable, the low mooing sound is as spiritual as a Gregorian chant, and the smell is more evocative than anything dreamt of by Proust. I’ve kept vague about the economics of my beautiful new family and I look the other way when folks murmur ‘hamburger’. Right now, I’m enjoying the quiet exultation of cows at Wyken. Life is good.