A few weeks ago, I was directly contacted by a new author, Rosanna Hildyard, to see if I’d like to read her booklet of three short stories, Slaughter, published by Broken Sleep Books. I’m a bit cagey about responding to direct author requests, just in case I don’t get on with their work. (Once I got a snarky e-mail from an author for being slightly critical of certain aspects of her novel, which I had enjoyed). Rosanna, had included a pdf with her well-researched request and having read a little, I was very happy to read the full thing, and she kindly sent me a copy of her booklet.
I also looked at Broken Sleep Books, a now Wales-based small press “where community action, inclusivity, and innovation are at the forefront”. They tend to print what I’d call fat pamphlets – poetry collections mostly, some essays and short stories, plus some larger anthologies, some limited edition pamphlets, some charity editions. I shall be returning to explore further. Now to Rosanna’s stories…
Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard
None of the women in the three stories in this collection were born into farming, but it’s where they’ve ended up – with different consequences for each.
In the first, Offcomers, a sheep farmer and his wife are moreorless trapped in their farm at the very top of one of the highest dales by a different epidemic to that we’re experiencing now. Foot and mouth disease has spread fast through livestock across the country requiring isolation and no movement of stock, severe disinfection measures. The farmer and his wife are trapped with just their old ewes on their hilltop farm, all their younger flock having wintered down dale. They would have been moving them back to the higher pastures now, but can’t. The farmer is distraught at the probable loss of his flock, his livelihood, his wife, formerly a florist, comes second. When the lowland farm calls, he is momentarily full of hope,
He puts the phone down and looks up at me with eyes all sad and Bambi-like.
No news is good news, I try.
His face twists. Fuck you, he snarls, and stamps out, shoulders sunk, looking utterly defeated.
I can’t tell you the outcome.
The second story, Outside are the Dogs, charts the beginning of a relationship. A blind date goes well for a lonely farmer and his now girlfriend agrees to move in with him to his bachelor pad (his elderly parents still live in the main farmhouse). He goes mad cleaning and tidying for her.
A patch of early spring sunlight warming his back, sunlit dust settling on the surfaces. She’d be grateful. His princess. In his telling of the story, he has rescued her.
After the taxi has gone, wobbling into the bungalow in her white high heels, she does her best. She can’t help clucking with her tongue at the flocked wallpaper, faded floral sofa. ‘Looks untouched since the 1970s!’ (…) ‘Bit bare!’ is the kitchen, and he wonders if he shouldn’t have cleared it quite so brutally. When she reaches the end of the corridor, he hears her say: ‘Is that it?’
But then: ‘Well, I never thought this would be easy,’ she sighs, when he follows her into the bedroom.
The course of love doesn’t necessarily run smooth; a puppy baby substitute helps – but farm dogs should live outside…
The final story, Cull Yaw, tells of a more unusual farming couple. A former chef has returned to run his family sheep farm and a successful farm shop. His girlfriend is an old schoolfriend, also returned to the area. The man has an ambition, he wants to sell ‘Cull Yaw’.
His dad sold baby lambs to supermarkets, he explained, but what he himself really wanted to do was look for businesses that would buy meat from older animals. Cull yaw, the farmers called it: old ewe, basically. You slaughtered it once it’d had a good, long life, then aged the meat like Ibérico.
But there is a rivalry between the chef/farmer and his older brother over ownership of the farm and the sheep after his father died. As you might expect, things will come to a head.
Rosanna Hildyard gives us three different portraits of Yorkshire sheep-farming life featuring very different couples: three women, each strong in different ways, who have to find ways of coming to terms with farming life; the first two isolated, the third having to come to terms as a vegetarian with the circle of life of livestock farming. The farmers also have a strong voice, making all three couples well-drawn. If the aspect of the finality of an animal’s life in livestock farming is ultimately reflected in the title of the collection, the three stories themselves are solidly rooted in the landscape. There is a very strong sense of place, and the cycle of nature contrasts with the farming constructs – the first narrator hopes her husband doesn’t run over the curlew nests on his quad bike. The dales can be lonely, but are full of life.
I so enjoyed these stories, I wanted more! I wish Rosanna well with their publication and look forward to hearing more from her.
Explore more at Broken Sleep Books.