I have always been fond of cows. One of my earliest memories is of standing on the five bar gate that hung between the end of my parents’ Somerset garden and the bordering field. I recall my elder sister by my side as together we watched Charlie the cow man tending his herd. Charlie was small, and ever dressed in blue overalls and black wellies except on high days and holidays when we might also see him in church dressed in his Sunday best. Diminutive he may have been, but his firm demeanour and the stick in his hand ensured that there was little doubt as to who was in charge when it came to his bovine friends.
It was Charlie who invited my sisters and me to wander down the lane to the farm so we could enjoy watching the performance in the milking parlour. I say performance because even now I feel a little thrill of excitement at the thought of it, much as I do before the curtain rises at the theatre. The slight tension surrounding the choreography required by the cow hands to encourage each cow into the milking yard and parlour within, the raised voices, the short ‘grunts’ of direction and the waving of the stick to encourage any recalcitrant beast to move as desired. I have a vague memory of warmth, of a fug within the building and of dusk descending… but here my memories fade.
When I try to summon up the milking process I am transported to my 18 year old self in Israel in the 1980s. I had read Lyn Reid Banks’ ‘L-Shaped Room’ trilogy and though I barely remember the story now it was these books that introduced me to the Kibbutz movement. The combined influences of this, my time spent living with a Jewish family on an exchange programme in my early teens and my paternal Grandfather’s lifelong work devoted to improving Christian/Jewish relationship were all, I think, part of my motivation to experience Israel and this sort of life for myself.
Spending four months living and working on a Kibbutz, near the small town of Hadera, I passed many happy hours working in the milking parlour. I loved carrying out milking duties amongst those huge animals, appreciated their radiating body heat on cold mornings and enjoyed observing their perceptively differing personalities. I can conjure up now the mechanical clunks and whirrs of the milking apparatus, the heavy breathing and mooing of the cows, a radio playing Rick Astley (yes really!) and the chatting and banter of those of us on shift. Perhaps it was in part a tenuous connection to home that I enjoyed – when so much else about where and how I was living was new and unfamiliar the cows themselves were reassuringly similar to those at the end of my parents’ garden. I feel a little pang of sadness that I can no longer bring to mind the number of my favourite cow. In those days I had long hair, routinely scraped back into an elastic on the back of my head, and this particular beast not only enjoyed a face rub and a gentle nuzzle but on one occasion wrapped her muscley tongue around my ponytail and proceeded to give it a good suck!
Sampling the creamy white liquid immediately after milking was a perk of the job, a small glassful whose warmth surprised me at first. I suppose we are so accustomed to associating milk with an icy coldness that feeling the gentle warmth through the glass felt at odds with my subconscious expectation. It brings to mind though the pleasure that I derive these days from picking up a freshly laid egg in my garden.
Growing up in the countryside in the 1970s pretty much guaranteed that there were no surprises as far as procreation and birth were concerned, and watching the birthing of calves on the Kibbutz was no cause for alarm on my part. I do, though, vividly remember the slight awe and enormous empathy I had for the mothers-to-be as they laboured away, and the bitter distress I experienced along with them as their young were taken away.
Bringing to mind the anguished calling from them afterwards chills me even now. The chill I experienced from that though is a mere shiver in comparison to the glacial shock I was to encounter on the day of my return home to the UK.
Security in Israel has of course always been an issue, queuing hours to reach airport check-in where every single case was unpacked and searched was a frustrating bore but it didn’t feel either surprising or worrisome. In honesty I wasn’t all that excited about returning home; I had enjoyed both my time on the Kibbutz and even more so the travelling I did in Egypt (many stories from that for another day) but I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and with sufficient funds I might just have happily postponed reality a little longer.
Still, my flight had been booked and having finally made my way past security I boarded the plane which was to deliver me safely back to Gatwick airport in the late evening. In those days the journey from Gatwick to Somerset seemed to be longer than it is now, but my mother had gamely driven to meet me and bring me back home. In retrospect perhaps she had even missed me and was looking forward to my arrival, but I was a pretty horrid teenager and I could easily forgive her if she hadn’t been! We chatted happily for the three hours or more it took to wend our way westwards and on arriving home I think I simply crawled into the familiar comfortable and warm bed Mum would have lovingly made up for me.
The following morning though is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life. As I walked into the kitchen rather than greeting me with her usual cheery good morning my Mother simply motioned to the broadsheet newspaper spread out on the counter. I was confronted with reports of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, resulting in the deaths of 270 people.
The details were horrific and hearing the name of Lockerbie so often over the years has always given me leave to stop and reflect a little. Having no personal link to the dreadful events myself, what has stayed with me more poignantly all these years is the fact that my mother had heard the news reports coming in as she drove to the airport to meet me. It was 1988 and the speed of accurate accounts of this type of disaster was very much slower than today, so she initially had no idea whether it could have been my flight. It wouldn’t have taken a great leap of imagination to conclude that a flight coming from Israel would have been at risk.
But she didn’t say a word to me all the way home. She wanted to hear all about my adventures, to hear my happy recounting of tales from the milking parlour, perhaps to savour being in my company again after an absence in which I was a hopeless correspondent. The older I am the more I appreciate this selfless act on her behalf. She knew that I was safe, and that sharing such dreadful news before the morning would bring neither of us anything.
It was just a couple of weeks ago, in pursuit of a pretty photo to provide some countryside context to preface romantic images of shepherd huts, that I found myself laughing at the sight of an unexpected face in my viewfinder; comically shaking her head from side to side in an apparent attempt to attract my attention, had she been a small child she might have been tugging at my clothing. It worked, and although my photographic endeavours were not as skilful as I might desire, watching that funny bovine face through my camera allowed neglected memories to resurface and gave me the opportunity to truly reflect on my luck. Firstly in having the sort of mother to whom kindness and compassion for her offspring comes easily, and perhaps more philosophically for the fact that I was on a flight that brought me safely home that evening when it could so easily have been otherwise.