Jess of the dairy fields
By Jessica Miller; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in November ’15
As I stood at the Aga making mulled wine for our annual Bonfire Night party, I reflected upon the events of a year ago.
The sun warmed the ground frost as it rose above the coppice in a pale blue sky, while the scent of wood smoke and burning leaves drifted through the bedroom window as I dressed.
After dropping a very excited Lily at school, I went home to prepare for the arrival of our B&B guests – Mr and Mrs Smith and their six-year-old son, Douglas.
After a busy few hours cleaning and making up the beds in the family room, I went out to the garden and helped Jasper build the bonfire, which promised to be particularly incendiary by virtue of 2 dozen wooden pallets and a huge mound of old dry wood.
We were drinking mugs of soup and admiring our handiwork when our guests arrived. I went indoors to arrange their welcome tea tray and came outside five minutes later to find Mr and Mrs Smith in a state of panic. It seemed that Douglas had vanished into thin air.
‘He’s gone! Someone’s taken him!’ squawked Mrs Smith.
‘I doubt it very much,’ muttered Mr Smith.
‘DOUGLAS!’ screeched Mrs Smith, scrambling up the bank towards the old pigsty.
I was about to check the stable yard when I heard a rustling in the bushes at and glimpsed a small pair of wellington boots amongst the undergrowth.
‘I think someone’s hiding in the bushes; I wonder who it could be?’ I pondered aloud. Further speculation was rendered moot when Douglas leapt out with a deafening shriek and squatted, toad-like in front of me grotesquely thrusting his tongue in and out. I was still processing the fact that his startlingly white body was naked apart from the wellies, when he (impressively in the circumstances) whipped out a concealed weapon – a water pistol – and fired at my chest. He then dropped on all fours and scuttled with a born predator’s agility round the side of the house and out of sight.
I was gazing down at the viscous red splatter on the front of my treasured old grey Brora cashmere jumper as his father emerged from the walled garden.
At that moment, Douglas re-emerged, turned around, bent over, pulled his buttock cheeks wide apart and, with a cackle, ran off.
Mr Smith regarded my sweater with evident dismay: ‘Oh dear. I keep telling him not to fill it with fake blood. Boys will be boys….’
‘He’s a little tyke!’ I beamed through gritted teeth as he appeared again.
‘Oh you’ve found him, thank God! You naughty little monkey, Dougie!’ exclaimed Mrs Smith as she clambered over the orchard gate.
Neither parent appeared remotely concerned that Douglas was stark naked as he raced off into the bushes at high speed.
I took a deep breath and grabbed two suitcases.
‘Come on you little monkey. Carry your rucksack upstairs like a good boy,’ said Mr Smith
‘Do it yourself!’ hissed a disembodied voice from somewhere behind us.
I jumped as Douglas’s doughy white face suddenly appeared between some fronds of weeping willow.
Silently, he stared at me through eyes narrowed with malice, then slowly drew a pudgy finger across his throat.
With a not wholly convincing cheerful smile plastered on my face, I climbed the stairs, pausing to point out Bulbarrow Hill to the Smiths.
On the croquet lawn below, Douglas had kicked out all the hoops and was armed with a large remote control while Porgy and Bess – my new Indian Runner ducks – were waddling furiously hither and thither in search of sanctuary, closely pursued by a beefy toy Land Rover.
I went to collect Lily from school, leaving Jasper under strict instructions not to leave Douglas unsupervised.
‘Is the little boy nice?’ asked Lily eagerly as she clambered into the car.
‘Err, Yes. He’s lovely,’ I said, crossing my fingers.
She clapped her hands delightedly: ‘Goody! I’m going to give him the very best toffee apple!’
Douglas was skulking (fortunately clothed by now) by the hen house when we returned. Jasper and I held our breath as Lily walked over and shyly introduced herself.
Douglas glared at her and she glanced uncertainly at us.
‘I found an old bees’ nest the other day; would you like to see it?’
‘I don’t play with girls; they’re stupid,’ was his response.
‘And I don’t play with rude boys,’ Lily replied primly, then walked off.
She studiously ignored Douglas who watched her from a distance as she pottered about the garden. We observed, amused and slightly awed as his sulky belligerence gave way to confusion, and then benign curiosity.
A while later when she was making toffee apples, he sidled into the kitchen. Silently, Lily handed him a stick, and showed him what to do.
Later still, as the bonfire blazed beneath a star studded sky, they stood arm in arm, wrapped up against the bitter cold, their faces alight with excitement.
‘Can you believe it?’ I whispered to Jasper as Douglas shyly handed her the biggest toffee apple.
‘Toffee softlee catchee monkey….’ ◗