The sky over Dartmoor was curdling to grey.
“I can’t leave the flock on the top field any longer,” Peter told his wife.
“Shall I come too?”
Peter grunted, meaning No. He was angry with himself for leaving it so late, but the paperwork needed for subsistence farming always ate into his time.
“Keep your mobile on, Pete. The forecast is bad.”
“So is the signal.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“I’m taking the quad bike.”
“Take the Jeep.”
Sally glared at him, and he almost ran into the yard. He dreaded what she’d say next. Ever since they’d both turned forty, hope had turned to anger. They’d been married over fifteen years. Sex, once joyful, had become a source of sadness and deeper loneliness. She kept trying to talk about infertility, or adoption, and he kept ducking out of it, ashamed. It was almost a relief to whistle for Jip, heave a bale of hay onto his quad bike and go out into mud and misery. At least it meant that conversation was postponed for another day.
“You never listen to me!” Sally shouted, “It’s just work, work, work. Even over Christmas.”
“No choice, is there?”
It was a long, bumpy drive to the distant moorland, and thick flecks were whirling down. In minutes, fences, trees and fields were transformed. Ravens, their glossy feathers stark against the coagulating whiteness, were glutted already. It meant that some ewes and early lambs were gone. Snow, a delight to ordinary people, was the enemy of shepherds.
Peter’s ewes were wiser than some. People thought sheep were stupid, but the oldest ones knew which lees in the lumpen granite walls gave shelter. Snow like this was rare, but it buried sheep alive, starving. No shepherd could let that happen. This was what his stores of hay were for.
Stamping along, he longed for Sally, the warmth of the kitchen and her soft, wifely embrace like a secret store of summer goodness. “My dear”, she used to call him. They had been so happy, once, but childlessness poisoned everything. She never called him her dear now. Even his land felt saturated by regret.
In the top field. Jip bounded ahead but he must go carefully, on foot and feeling his way with the crook inherited from his father and grandfather before him. Jip found the first ewe, clotted with snow, anxious but well. The hay Peter had carried was slashed open to release the sweet scents of summer in midwinter. It would give the flock a precious jolt of vitality, but they could not stay up here.
Sweating and freezing, Peter led them down to the lower field, his dog circling the flock tirelessly, his one ally in a harsh landscape. It took over an hour and when he counted them some were missing; he’d have to go back.
Hands numb, he turned bike again, face sandpapered by icy flecks. For hours, he and Jip searched. All this for animals whose meat and wool were almost worthless, an income that meant fewer farmers were left each year. Who would choose this life? He’d never been more than twenty miles from home, hefted to it like his sheep, knowing nothing else. Sally had lived in London while training as a nurse.
“I loved it, but it did my head in,” she said. He never believed her. She had friends, knew what to say to people while words died on his tongue. Loneliness had got into his bones, like cold.
Tomorrow, children and parents all over Britain would rush out, writing joyfully on the fresh white page of the New Year. Only for Peter and Sally there was nothing new.
His dog was circling back to lick his hand.
“It’s hopeless,” he muttered.
Jip barked, sharply. Weighed down by tassels of icy snow, lit by torchlight, the missing ewes looked worn out, frightened. They would probably lose the lambs they carried, but he must get them to safety, only he, too, was exhausted. Why struggle on? Without a child, a farmer was nothing. You kept your land for the next generation, it was a living thing. He alone had failed. What if he stayed out here? Sally could sell the farm. It was worth a fortune as a holiday home to incomers. He could never leave; she could be free.
A single bar on his mobile. He tried to punch a last message to her, but that, too, died.
The howling night went on. He crouched, head bowed, among the stinking, shifting, suffocating sheep and a whining Jip; then even his dog left him. His lashes froze shut.
“Pete, wake up! Pete!”
“No,” he tried to say.
Scalding liquid at his lips, down his throat. It hurt to be alive, as if stung by a thousand bees.
“Go. Leave me.”
“Thank God Jip has more sense than you.”
“You don’t need me.”
In the lights of the Jeep, Sally seemed radiant.
“Oh, you silly man! I’ll always need you. And so will our child, this summer.”
Far away in the valleys below, he heard bells, pealing the New Year.
“I would have told you sooner, my dear, only you kept running away….”