High in the Langdales where the sun was striking the pikes over Dungeon Ghyll, slanting silvered rays across to Hardknott Pass, a young boy, small for one very nearly six years of age, was carrying buckets of water from a nearby beck up to the farmhouse door where he poured it into a large boiler. He kept spilling it and soaking his legs and feet because he was in a hurry, knowing that if it wasn’t filled by the time the farmer’s wife came downstairs, he’d get a beating from her husband. He might get one anyway, simply for being there, for existing, although there were times when the boy felt he must be invisible, since it was rare for the farmer to even speak to him, and never by name.
‘Hey you,’ he would say. ‘Fetch t’milk in. Look sharp.’
And young Alan would rush to carry out this order to the letter, fearful of what might befall him if he didn’t. He’d come not to expect praise or gratitude for the work he did. He knew that however hard he laboured, he was considered to be of no account on this farm, because he was of less use than the sheep and hens who produced meat and eggs, and the family cow who gave them rich, creamy milk. In comparison with the other children, who were the farmer’s own, he was seen as a second-
Sometimes he dreamed of what it must be like to have a mother. There were times when he could see her in his mind’s eye. She had glorious red coloured hair, rather like his own only brighter and it fell in soft tendrils about her neck and shoulders. Her eyes were a clear grey and her skin soft and pale as silk. He loved that face, nursed it in his heart whenever he was weeping with cold and loneliness, when the bruises stung too much.
Later, when the boiler was filled he would have to turn the handle on the mangle, pitting his scrawny muscles and sticklike limbs against the weight of the rollers. Unlike the farmer’s own children Alan didn’t go to school, but stayed all day on the farm to help with the chores: chopping thistles, picking stones, mending walls and endlessly filling water troughs and fetching feed for the sheep. Alan never went anywhere, save occasionally to market with the farmer, and then only to fetch and carry, or to be used along with the sheep dogs to guard and shepherd the sheep. Sometimes he’d go into Keswick or Ambleside with Mrs Brocklebank, the big fat farmer’s wife, to help her carry the butter and eggs she had to sell, or mind the stall. He loved these outings, as they were the only bright moments in what was otherwise a dull and lonely life.
He was certainly never allowed to eat in the big, warm kitchen, but took his meals in the cold, draughty barn which was also where he slept, among the cobwebs, which he really didn’t mind as the spiders were his friends. He would talk to them for hours, telling them of things which might have been memories, or then again only dreams. Sometimes, if there were ewes brought in after lambing, he’d creep down very quietly and sleep beside them where it was all warm and cosy. They never seemed to mind, and even a sheep as a mother was better than none at all.