The One About The Sheep by Sally Bramley

At heart, Reuben Jacks is not a sheep rustler. Yet, here he is, on a sunny afternoon in July, driving back across the Brecon Beacons, heading for home, with someone else’s sheep curled up in the back of his work van.

He follows the single-track road as it threads its way across the hills. The grass in the middle of the road swishes against the bottom of his van. It bounces over the ruts and he leaves his seat.

‘Bloody hell,’ he says.

His sleeves are rolled up and the windows are open wide. He can see the hairs on his arms ruffling like corn moving in the breeze. He feels the tickling on his skin. He leans forward, holding the wheel with one hand and peels his damp shirt away from his back.

If he tilts the mirror, he can see the animal sleeping, a mass of sheep’s wool on a hessian sack by the wheel arch. He can smell it too, a warm mix of greasiness and muck. He’s had little to do with sheep. He doesn’t dislike them, exactly. He certainly loves the smell of roast lamb. The woody tang of rosemary. The smooth mint sauce. It’s one of Jeannie’s specialities; a signature dish she calls it, although she hasn’t cooked it much of late. But that is more his kind of thing. Not live sheep.

It was Mrs Davy’s fault that he was there at all, saying that since she’d moved house, she couldn’t find a gardener in the whole of Wales, not one as reliable as him, anyway. How likely was that? She’d asked him to come and sort out her new garden.

‘I just can’t do the heavy work myself.’ Her voice wavered over the phone. ‘Naturally, I’ll pay for your bed and breakfast in the village.’

‘I’m not one for travelling,’ Reuben said.

‘It’s only Wales.’ She clicked her tongue against her teeth and it rattled in his ear. ‘Just over the bridge. A passport will not be required.’

He felt his face redden, even though she couldn’t see him. He ran one hand forwards over his scalp against the short stubble. And he wondered whether being away from Jeannie for a while might not be a bad idea.

‘Just for a week, mind,’ he said, eventually, as if he was struggling to fit her into his busy schedule.

Mrs Davy may have been responsible for his visit to Wales, but the sheep element of this adventure was definitely down to Albert. On the Tuesday before the trip, he and Reuben met up in the Bristol Flyer. This was normal for a Tuesday evening; being in the pub was nothing to do with the arguments with Jeannie. Reuben was sharing his lack of travel experience.

‘What do you mean you’ve never been over the bridge?’ Albert said. He sat back grasping his glass in one hand, forgetting to drink for a moment. ‘How can you not have been over the bridge?’

Reuben shrugged. ‘Had no reason to.’

Albert’s eyebrows lifted and he shook his head. After a second pint, he decided to share his knowledge of Wales. He sat back, his small eyes wrinkled up, as if he could see it in the distance.

‘So,’ he said. ‘It’s full of sheep, for a start.’ He waved his arm through the air indicating their presence. ‘Sheep everywhere. All over the mountains. Bleating and shitting and carrying on.’ Albert knew everything about animals, so he said, because he owned a butcher’s shop.

‘Right.’ Reuben lifted his glass and emptied it into his mouth. The beer warmed his insides as it went down.

He returned from the bar carrying two more pints and, before he could sit down, Albert was leaning across the table and jabbing a finger at him. ‘I tell you what,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a crackin’ idea.’

‘Uhuh.’ Reuben had come across a few of Albert’s ideas in his time. He sat down.

‘You should bring one back. A sheep. I’ll get it dispatched and we’ll split it between us. It’ll fill both our freezers, no problem.’

Reuben swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I can’t just buy a sheep!’ he said. ‘Would a farmer even sell me one?’

Albert sniggered. ‘You don’t need to buy one. They wander about on the mountains. If you come back over the tops there’ll be sheep everywhere just for the taking.’

Reuben rubbed his hand around the back of his neck. ‘I think you get transported for doing things like that.’

Albert breathed out with a noise. ‘Don’t be daft. Those days have long gone. Anyway ...they don’t belong to anyone. They’re wild. Like rabbits.’

Reuben shook his head. ‘Someone must have put them there.’

But nevertheless, after another two pints and Albert’s reminders about the smell of roast lamb, Reuben found himself persuaded. Of course, sheep didn’t belong to anyone. They were free to roam. And who was going to miss an odd sheep, anyway? They wouldn’t actually count them, surely?

Reuben told Jeannie that he would be working in North Wales during the following week. They were sitting in the kitchen eating supper. He concentrated on his chicken and chips and didn’t look up as he spoke. He could hear his own voice, higher than usual, tight in his throat. But it wasn’t such a big deal, was it?

He knew that it was.

‘What do you mean?’ Jeannie said. Her fork was in mid-air between plate and mouth. ‘Mrs Davy asked me and I couldn’t say no. You know what she’s like.’
‘But do you have to go now? I thought... There are things we need to talk about.’ Reuben chewed slowly. At last he said, ‘It’s only for a week.’

Jeannie put her fork down and gave up on her supper. She had that creased, pale look that had become familiar to him. That made him hurt inside as if his muscles were in spasm.

When she spoke again, she said quietly. ‘I guess a few days away will give us both some time to think.’

He breathed in quickly, suddenly afraid that they had crossed a line. ‘I’ll be back on Friday,’ he said.

It was quiet. He could hear the clock ticking. The traffic some distance away. Jeannie nodded but didn’t meet his eyes. And he wished he could be someone else for her. Someone who felt differently.

He tried to make her smile then and told her about Albert and what he’d said about Wales. And about the sheep plan.

‘Albert’s an idiot,’ she said with her back to him moving the heaped plates onto the side.

‘That’s just what I thought,’ he said, breathing out with a croak of a laugh. ‘I won’t be doing any sheep stealing in a hurry.’ But Jeannie missed the laugh and the words. She’d already left the room.

Reuben stayed on at the table, sitting back, staring at the door, wondering how things had ended up like this. Three years they had been together now, yet he couldn’t remember them ever disagreeing so strongly about something.

When they’d married, he could remember many feelings. Shock. Relief. Happiness, maybe. He’d certainly felt surprised to find that he might have a normal life like other people. Even at his age it was possible. In fact, neither of them were teenagers. He was just amazed to meet a woman who wanted to know him. Someone who seemed to notice who he was.

Grateful. Most of all he felt grateful.

The weather was kind to Reuben and he spent the week digging flower beds, repairing garden walls. Feeling the soil between his fingers and under his nails. Feeling the familiar aches in his body that soothed him and reminded him of who he was.

And there were conversations going on in his head every day – with Jeannie, with himself. With some other being, God maybe. But as he bent and stretched and reached to the highest branches, or pushed his foot down on the spade, loosening the compacted earth, these movements made his thinking easier. It was as though the thoughts already existed in his mind and were simply moved along by his actions. And that made his shoulders relax and his breath deepen for a while.

In amongst all his thinking, he thought most of all about Jeannie.

Jeannie was a librarian. Is a librarian. She has been a librarian all her life so she knows things. She reads lots of books. Like a lot of books. He likes that about her, although he worries that she knows so much more than him about everything. He assumes that she can see straight through him. But he likes that she reads so much. It suits him that he doesn’t have to speak all the time because he isn’t one for constant chatting.

Sometimes he sits and watches her as she reads, carefully peering around his newspaper so that she won’t notice. She stares at the page, turning it quickly when she needs to. Even anticipating that point and holding the page between her fingers, ready, not wanting to waste a moment.

As she stares at the words, her face flickers and changes. He can see her feelings race across her skin like clouds in front of the sun, shadows skimming over the earth. A smile. Or deep furrows between her eyes. Her teeth chewing at her bottom lip. Once he caught sight of a small pool gathering at the bottom of one eye and he waited, holding his breath, for it to become a proper tear and spill down her face. But just before it was about to fall, she wiped it away with the side of her hand. And he breathed out again, quietly relieved for her.

At times, he tries to guess what she might be reading that creates these feelings. Occasionally, her mouth will fall open and a sound might escape. A small ‘Oh’. And then she will look up, suddenly, her face pink as she wonders if she has been observed. When this happens, he quickly looks back at his paper and pretends nothing is happening. Nothing has been noticed. And she will sigh and return to her book.

It was at one of these times that Reuben finally realised that he loves her.

This reading of hers, this way she has of concentrating so hard on someone else’s words. It aches and warms his bones in ways that he has never imagined. And he wonders if he has ever inspired such feelings in her. He is pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened.

By the end of the week the garden was neat and tidy, the grass cut, the edges clipped, manure on the roses. A couple of tubs on the patio to give some colour. He stood back to look at it, breathing out with a satisfied noise. Then he took his leave and his pay packet from Mrs Davy and headed for home.

At midday, he pulled into a passing place high up in the mountains. He wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. He opened all the van doors to get a breeze blowing through and then sat in his seat, his legs out of the door, and ate his packed lunch.

He was at the top of a long shallow valley dotted with sheep munching at the scrubby grass. ‘Sheep everywhere,’ Albert had said and he was right about that. The lambs were almost fully grown now with thick wool on their bodies and bare faces. Neat and tidy. But the mothers were something else. Dirty wool falling away in long threads as if they had already lost half of it in a fight. Spindly legs. Scraggy, untidy bodies. Muck around their rear ends. They certainly didn’t look very appetising. They bleated now and then for no apparent reason.

They all ignored him, concentrating on their chewing, heads down, wandering close.

Eventually, Reuben got out of the van and stretched his arms, reaching up to the sky as he breathed. He leaned on the van roof and looked out over the mountains, the heat from the metal warming his chest. He sighed. He wasn’t in any great hurry to get home.

The gorse was starting to yellow. Rank smells came from it on the breeze. Way out, as far as he could see, there were more hills that disappeared in the haze, and a river, white in the sunshine. The only sounds – apart from the sheep - were the birds, skylarks, he thought, twittering high over his head.

Jeannie would love this. That’s what came into his mind. He could picture her face relaxing as she looked at the view. She would breathe out with a satisfied sigh. He would have liked to bring her here, to this place, and hear that sigh.

Now, he wondered if that would ever happen. His eyes were suddenly damp and his face felt a wobble coming on. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. He wasn’t sure if they would ever get over this. He hadn’t rung her all week, even though his missing of her was like a wound in his ribs. He didn’t know what to say.

And he wondered what she would have been doing while he was gone. He tried to picture her at work, taking books from customers, carefully opening the first page and wielding a stamp to mark them with the date.

‘We don’t do that anymore,’ she had told him once. Smiling.

‘I think I’m pregnant,’ Jeannie had said one morning in that straightforward way of hers. He could see she was trying hard not to grin. But her face beamed, her skin pink, her eyes wet. And he couldn’t stop smiling either. When he was working, or in the pub, or eating his supper across the table from Jeannie, he would suddenly realise that his face was grinning. It made him think of Jeannie’s reading.

It was like that for two months.
But it hadn’t worked out as they had hoped.
As Reuben stood looking out over the mountains, images flitted through his mind.

The worried expression on Jeannie’s face when she told him she was bleeding. The drive to the hospital with her skin as white as the first snowdrops. People dashing everywhere. The noise and speed of everything. And then later, the quiet. The silence. The slow drive home. Jeannie’s face. These are the things he still sees when he closes his eyes.

But now. Now she wants to try again. Try? He thought they’d both tried their best the first time. What else were they meant to do?

Time to get going. He couldn’t stay away forever. He went around to the back of the van to shut the doors. As he did this, one of the sheep, wandered up to him on its skinny legs, its knees dirty, as if it had been kneeling in the mud. Maybe a youngish one but it looked fully grown. Suddenly it turned away from him, peered into his van and then bent its legs slightly. Before he realised what it was doing, it leapt straight into the back. It turned around, circled until it was happy and then knelt down and settled on the pile of hessian sacks.

‘Well, I never,’ Reuben said. ‘Out! Come on, out. You’re not going anywhere.’

The sheep peered up at him its ears sticking up like bats ears, pink on the inside. Its face was smooth. Black marks around its mouth and nose and underneath its eyes made him think of miners emerging from twelve hours down the pit. Thick wool surrounded its head like a polo-necked sweater. Its jaw moved rhythmically, chewing the insides of its mouth.

‘For God’s sake! How stupid must you be?’ he said. His voice rose as the sheep ignored him. ‘Get out!’

Reuben looked around for help. He didn’t like to grab the sheep in case it bit him. Did sheep bite? He had no idea. But there was no-one around to come to his rescue; just mountains and sheep. He stood for a minute or two waiting for something to happen but nothing did. The larks kept on twittering. The other sheep wandered and bleated.

Finally, he slammed the doors shut, climbed back into the driver’s seat and headed off, muttering to himself. Driving south, back towards his home.

So. Here he is. Here he is with a sheep in the back of his van, looking very much like a sheep rustler. Angry with the sheep for getting itself rustled. For taking the liberty of jumping into his van.

‘Be it on your own head,’ he says to it over his shoulder. ‘You shouldn’t have got in my van without asking.’ He does know how stupid that sounds.

Then he drives back towards the bridge and his home. And he forgets all about the sheep.

As the sun starts to sink and Reuben pulls down the visor, he feels something tickling the side of his face. He jumps and the van swerves, hitting the grass verge and skidding back again. The road is empty but he feels a wave of heat pass over his body. ‘Strewth!’ he says. He turns, thinking there must be a spider or something, dangling, but it is the sheep. It is standing behind him facing forwards peering over his shoulder.

He raises his elbow and pushes its head away. ‘Lie down,’ he says in a deep voice as if it is a dog needing a firm hand.

The sheep moves away slightly, although it carries on standing behind him.

‘Jesus,’ Reuben says. ‘Bloody sheep.’ As if he knows all about sheep. As if he carries them in his van every day.

As he comes down off the mountains, he feels something on his face again. This time it isn’t so unexpected. He feels a weight on his shoulder. Something on his cheek. He glances sideways. The sheep has its head resting on his left shoulder, its right ear tickling the side of his face. It is staring straight ahead as if keen to see where it is going. It looks so serious, its black and white face pointing forwards, as though at any minute it is going to give him directions. At the third exit...A laugh rumbles in Reuben’s throat and the noise surprises him. How long is it since he’s laughed?

The sheep stays there for the next hour, feeling heavier as it relaxes, the warmth of its head spreading through Reuben’s neck and shoulder. It moves with him as he rounds bends, leaning, swaying slightly. Grinding its teeth now and then, a quiet rumble in his ear. It breathes out regularly with a little ‘humph’ noise. The wool, soft and warm leaning against Reuben’s body is comforting. One of Albert’s crude jokes about lonely men and sheep comes to mind and, for a while, Reuben pushes the sheep away from him. But it soon returns and he lets it be.

As they near the Severn Bridge, Reuben pulls off the road into a layby, opens the driver’s door and sits looking out across the river. What is he going to do? He thinks about his life. About how he imagined it would be. He lets himself think about how it would have been to be a parent. He knows he would have tried so hard to be a good father, even though he hasn’t much experience of such things, so he isn’t sure that he would know how. But he would have tried. He would have tried really hard to learn how. He would even have read books. Like loads of books.

And he looks across the river to the city that is his home and sits listening to the birds and the distant traffic.

‘The thing is...’ he says, finally, into the quiet. He looks around to make sure no-one is listening. ‘The thing is, Sheep, it’s been hard.’ And he tells the sheep everything. Right from the beginning. He tells it about Jeannie, the unexpectedness of her appearing in his life. About how much he wanted to be a father. ‘I never imagined my life could be like that,’ he says. ‘And then suddenly it seemed possible. We could have been a family. One of those proper happy families.’ His voice cracks and breaks and the words disappear and he sits in silence for a while. The sheep continues to stare and chew and breathe.

‘But it didn’t happen,’ he says. And he tells the sheep what had happened, as if it needed to know every detail. The responsibility he had felt. How hurt Jeannie had been. How he had to be strong for her. The way his body had shaken and trembled when he was alone. He had felt as if his bones could no longer hold him up. As though, the disappointment would burst out of him. That huge disappointment.

As well as the fear, of course. He even tells the sheep about that. That he is scared it was his fault in some way.

He is surprised to find that he knows the words. That once he starts it is possible to say them. That he is able to talk about all these things. He’d thought that he couldn’t do that. He feels tears slipping down his cheeks and off his chin. ‘I couldn’t bear it,’ he says and his voice gurgles and the tears keep coming.

‘But you see, Sheep,’ he says at last, mumbling through his handkerchief. ‘Now she says she wants to try again.’

Reuben is quiet for a long while. He listens to the sheep chewing and breathing. The birds in the hedgerow by the van. The distant traffic heading for the bridge.

‘How could I?’ he says, eventually. His voice drops to a whisper and he turns to look at the sheep. ‘How could anyone risk it again?’ Yet, as he says this out loud, he wonders for the first time if it might be possible. And it hits him just how brave Jeannie must be. How much harder it has been for her and yet she is willing to risk it all for a second time. He sighs. The front of his shirt is soggy with tears. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ he says, but there is no response.

And the sheep chews and stands and watches and leans. And listens. Possibly. And Reuben takes out his handkerchief again and blows his nose so loudly that the sheep jumps.

‘You’re a good listener, Sheep,’ he says.

Then he suddenly remembers Albert. The plans he has. And he looks the sheep in the face and feels himself blushing. Has he really stolen a sheep? Really? He imagines the blood of the slaughterhouse, the cold concrete, the noise of it all and his jaw clenches.

The sheep suddenly bleats. A loud Maaar right in his face. Its breath smells of rotting grass. Reuben wrinkles his nose and breathes out. ‘Jesus!’ He pushes it away and swings his legs into the van and starts the engine.

‘Well, I have to get back now, Sheep,’ he says. ‘Jeannie will be waiting for me.’ His face smiles at the thought. At the things he might say. ‘But first things first.’

He pulls out of the layby. He does a U-turn in the road, tyres skidding on the loose gravel, the sheep leaning hard into him, as its feet slip on the metal floor. And he heads back towards the mountains.

And the sheep looks over his shoulder, sniffing the air, its face blank as it heads for home.

Sally grew up on a farm in the north of England and worked for several years in environmental and public health. Last year her novel Structural Damage won the Caledonia Novel Award and it is currently in the hands of her agent Laura Williams at Greene & Heaton Literary Agency. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and lives in Bristol. When not writing, she tramps endlessly along the UK’s wonderful coastal paths.