Moving from the city to the country to live the smallholding dream is not always all it’s cracked up to be – especially for the less obsessed partner of the Foodie in the family. Telling it like it is, Good Life Wife feels sorry for herself and the calves in the barn that have also got chest infections – poor cows.
In mid December I made the fatal claim, quietly and only to myself but still a dangerous articulation, ‘this is going to be the best Christmas ever.’ I know when Foodie says ‘this horse cannot lose’ to distract myself, leave him to his delusional compulsion, ultimately secure in the knowledge that after all these ‘life changing’ bets he comes out even – else over the cumulative years we would have become destitute or loaded. But I really did think I couldn’t stumble. Three years into the hard graft of moving and changing our lives from city to country I was finally ready to exhale and celebrate. We had such proper, proper snow we took the kids to get milk from the neighbouring dairy farm by sledge. We had two fat, white home-grown geese to share with our families and I had even made a wreath with holly picked from our hedge and pine cones collected by Groovy Youngest.
I was postively in danger of becoming Martha Stewart-smug. But if pride comes before a fall then it may be that seasonal smugness comes before a nasty dose of Swine Flu.
Just as all these lovely people and ingredients are being assembled I go down with a virus that turns into a grim chest infection and am knocked out for the whole holidays. Like the Queen Mum I am only wheeled out for key moments requiring the full line up and then returned upstairs to my sick bed with the occasional wide-eyed visit from Drama Queen Eldest to ask if I’m dying. From downstairs come the elusive rumblings of ‘the best Christmas ever’ and beyond that the poignant lowing of the young calves that our neighbours keep in the small barn. They want their mummy and so do I.
Getting a closer look at dairy farming makes me feel sad sometimes. The life of a milk cow seems a relentless one; long winters inside, bodies that can look uncomfortably angular as if entirely spent on making milk, a hardworking existence of fairly constant lactation with often only fleeting contact with their offspring. The youngest calves huddle together in the barn in a rather bewildered way, the pretty soft brown ones still wet like just-licked caramels. They are waiting for the blue plastic teats that will deliver their communal milk, a little bit of which may have come from their mother. With my temperature in the hundreds generating a fevered imagination it starts to read like a feminist sci-fi nightmare – the Handmaid’s Tale with udders. On his delivery of tea upstairs I give Foodie a fright when I ponder that for the first time I really do get why people commit to being vegan. This would be the end of his smallholding dream (what no pigs?) and I see mild panic in his face which then gently lifts as we both remember that I am way to greedy to do it.
But empathy with animals can be illuminating. At a birthday drinks I got talking to a young dairy farmer who’s just invested in a new milking parlour. He tells me it means his cows can be milked three times a day instead of twice and I ask if that reduces mastitis and the need for antibiotics. I’m feeling quite chuffed with myself, the blow-in townie with insights about the subtleties of dairy cow welfare. And he is nearly impressed until I reveal why I have any understanding of milking, ‘I breast fed my children for three years.’ He then looks slightly mortified at the prospect of being perilously close to a mid-party share about the pain of infected milk ducts. We politely part with no chance for me to explain that it was one year per baby not three each or tell him one of my mother’s pithy observations on childrearing ‘breast feeding is great, but I’m not mad about it once they are in shoes and can ask for it.’ A dedicated girlfriend fed her daughter for the (supposedly) optimum two years, she grew to be a very bright toddler and by the end would request maternal sustenance by the nicknames Mick and Mike. I never worked out which was left and which was right.
After several rounds of antibiotics I am better and come out again along with the snowdrops. Well enough to make another attempt at party small talk with a dairy farmer we know, telling him my tale of Swine Flu woe. He asks if I’ve had three or more courses of antibiotics, turns out if I was one his cows I would no longer be organic. Best not tell Foodie.