Hardship Farm

by Iain Metcalf

Little sunlight filtered through the grimy kitchen windows at this hour of the day, but Elijah still did not turn on the light. He stamped the snow and pig muck from his boots on the mat by the door before going to the Aga to warm his hands. He took a log from the meagre pile and placed it in the oven. If you looked closely, you could see the remains of some old jeans and a pair of boots in the ashes.

Once he lost some of the chill, he turned his attention to cooking. He heaved the big cast iron cooking pot onto the Aga. Some grotty carrots and shrivelled onions were roughly chopped and thrown in. A small piece of back fat was sliced off an already tiny lump, all that was left from the last pig he slaughtered. It was put in the pot to start caramelising the veg. The large fire blackened kettle was filled, and half the water poured in with the veg, before the kettle was placed next to the pot on the Aga.

Elijah took the least dirty looking mug off the sideboard and rinsed it, then took a couple of the used teabags off the draining board and threw them in it. With the water heating, he stirred the veg and then went to get the rest of the ingredients for his stew.

He undid the lock on the cold store door, then unlocked the extra padlock and pushed it open. The cold store was almost empty. Some rabbits, jointed, were by the door along with a couple of pigeons. From the ceiling only one small carcass hung. Elijah lifted it easily off its hook and carried it through to the kitchen, dropping it onto the large wooden table.

From a kitchen drawer, he took a roll of cloth, placed it on the table next to the carcass, and unrolled it, revealing his knives. They were easily the most expensive items in the kitchen, top quality butchers knives, his father's before him. He selected a chopper and carefully lined up his cut before bringing the blade down hard on the meat. In three quick blows he severed a leg. The remaining carcass was lifted back onto his shoulder and hung again in the cold store. Once done, he shut the door and secured both locks again. The kettle was just boiling. He poured the water into the mug and gave it a stir. The teabags were removed and placed back on the draining board; he added no sugar or milk.

The tea was weak but warmed him nonetheless. He held the mug in both hands, as handling the meat had chilled them again. He looked at the pathetic joint on the table before him, barely enough flesh on it to last four meals. He ran his finger over a tattoo at the top of the thigh, the initials EM in black ink, an owner's marking.

Two loud knocks sounded on the front door. He covered the leg with a couple of tea towels and went to answer it. A woman wrapped in what appeared to be several coats stood on the door step. She smiled at him and he recognised her as Mrs Monkton, the farmer's wife from the farm over the hill.

'Mr Merton, is it okay to come in quickly?' she asked. Elijah stood to one side and motioned her to come through to the kitchen.

'Would you like some tea, the kettle's just boiled?' he asked.

'That would be lovely, it's bitter out there,' she replied, standing close to the Aga to gain some of its warmth.

In deference to his guest, Elijah took a fresh teabag from the packet, the third last, and cleaned a mug properly. He filled it and passed it to Mrs Monkton.

'Sorry, got no sugar or milk,' he said. 'How can I help you?'

'I'm sorry to disturb you, but I came to ask if you had seen a young woman; my son Edward's girlfriend from University.'

Elijah shook his head.

'She apparently came up a week ago but no one has seen her since she got off the bus. Unfortunately we didn't know she was coming or we would have raised the alarm sooner.'

'Not seen a soul out there but my pigs,' Elijah replied.

'We're really worried, I don't fancy her chances surviving if she's stranded out there somewhere. Hopefully she's found some shelter somewhere and just can't contact us.'

'It's hard enough surviving here with shelter,' said Elijah, looking at his worn out boots.

'Yes, times are hard,' agreed Mrs Monkton. 'She would have a harder time than most though, got into a car accident when younger, and has a metal plate in her left leg.'

'Aye, wouldn't like to be out on the moors in this weather if you can't walk so good.'

'No, well if you hear anything?'

'Aye, I'll let you know,' said Elijah taking her mug and showing her to the door.

Once Mrs Monkton had left, he returned to the kitchen and took a boning knife out of his roll. Good bit of timing that, he thought to himself as he uncovered the meat. If I hadn't known about that metal plate I might have damaged a knife.