“Don’t see why we had to come to a poxy farm, anyway,” grumbled Michael Doyle, kicking his feet in the gravel of the country path.
This trip was supposed to have been a laugh; Grange Hill kids, let lose in the country, working in groups of three? Him, Robo, and Macker, were going to have a blast. But then, of course, like Caesar, he had been betrayed by those he thought he could trust most. He had only found out this morning, before getting on the coach, that it was Robo’s birthday. His mum had got him tickets to the pictures, right after school, long before the coach was due to arrive back, and said he could invite one friend. Rather than invite his handsome and intelligent friend, he’d invited Macker. And neither of them had even told him! Some friends they were. What did he pay them for?
So now he was stuck, alone on this poxy farm, in a group with the poncy Andrew Stanton and his wimpy mate Justin.
“We’re here,” voiced the aforementioned wimp, “to ‘find and sketch your favourite animal, and learn to appreciate the joys of nature along the way.’”
Doyle tutted. Whoever heard of a field trip for art? He could appreciate nature perfectly well just watching it on the TV.
“What’s your favourite animal, Andrew?” the wimp continued.
Stanton looked thoughtful. “Swans, I think. Don’t know if we’ll see any here though. What about you, Justin?”
“I like cows. They’re very intelligent creatures, you know.”
Michael shuddered. The creepy wimp would like those evil hell-beasts.
Stanton and the wimp continued to amble cheerfully side by side down the gravel path, while Michael Doyle plodded grumpily along behind them, sketchbook and pencil hanging limply from his fingertips, the other hand dragging a mostly empty satchel along the gravel path behind him.
After a few blissful moments of silence, the wimp spoke once more.
“What about you, Doyle?”
“What’s your favourite animal?”
Michael was stunned. Was the wimp really attempting to make friends? Or did he just want to get this project finished? He desperately hoped it was the latter. He racked his brains. What was his favourite animal? All the animals he’d ever met had been pretty awful. His ghastly cousin Tina had a hamster. He’d thought it was pretty cute at first, when he was stayed with his aunt Susan last Christmas, but then the little hairball had bitten him. And when he’d complained to Tina, she’d started crying, and then Aunt Susan wouldn’t let him have any pudding. The stupid fat cat his mother doted over at home was a hideous creature with an ugly squashed in face, that his mother for some reason paid more attention to than him. Just because he couldn’t be entered in pet shows, probably. And the pet mouse he’d had once had been great, until he’d let it out for a run, and the stupid fat cat had got to it. Now he couldn’t think of mice without remembering the mutilated corpse of poor Cheddar. It’s things like that that can scar a child for life, Doyle thought miserably. Rest in pieces, little guy.
He cast his mind further back, into his early childhood. When he was six, his father had sent him to stay with an old university friend, on his farm in Yorkshire. The friend’s twin sons had really had it in for him from the moment he got there. The less thought about that holiday, the better. Not that he’d had many holidays, mind you. The occasional weekend away, but never a whole week or two in the summer. Not because his father couldn’t afford it, oh no. Some of the weekends away had been to very exotic places. (Well, quite exotic, anyway.) No, his father was just far too busy for that kind of thing. He was on the council, you see.
There had been one happy holiday, though. The summer before the fateful farm visit, his family had spent a fortnight in Cornwall, just him, his mum, and his dad, all together. He’d enjoyed paddling in the sea, and playing crazy golf, but his favourite thing to do had been to visit Newquay Zoo. He’d demanded his parents take him back there several times that holiday. He closed his eyes and smiled, and he remembered hugging the stuffed animal he’d screamed at his mother to buy him, while holding a quickly melting ice cream with his free hand, and gazing up in awe at his favourite animal enclosure…
“Lions,” he said, at last. “I like lions best.”
Stanton snorted in mirth. “I don’t think you’ll find lions roaming the English countryside, Doyle.”
Michael stopped smiling and opened his eyes, flaring up at Stanton’s mocking tone. “I know that, you idiot!” he snapped, glaring daggers at the giggling pair.
The not so merry group finally reached a large, grey building. Doyle heard some vaguely familiar noises inside that filled him with dread.
“What’s this then?” he said, trying to make his voice sound as confident and aloof as possible.
“The cow shed!” the wimp said brightly, before going to enter.
“Stop!” Michael cried.
The wimp stopped, a look of vague confusion on his face.
Michael looked around in a barely concealed panic, desperately trying to come up with some excuse. His eyes settled on a seemingly empty field to the right of the cow shed.
“Well,” he said smoothly, regaining his composure. “Surely you don’t want to be sitting in a dark, smelly place like that until you’ve finished your sketch! Why don’t we cut across that field there,” he gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “and see if we can find another cow out grazing somewhere?"
Stanton and the wimp exchanged a glance. Stanton shrugged. “Makes sense to me,” he admitted.
“Fair enough,” said the wimp, and the three of them clambered over the rickety wooden fence.
Doyle suddenly let go of his grumpiness, and with a whoop, he ran across the field, looking over his shoulder to shout back at the other two boys, simply happy that he wouldn’t have to get anywhere near any-
He turned his head back round, only to find himself face to face with his very worst nightmare. “COWS!!” he shrieked, not daring to turn his back on the beast and run, merely instead backing up, as speedily as possible. He tripped over a rock that he was certain hadn’t been there before, and, he reasoned, must have been placed there by the cows, and fell, landing on his backside in what was either mud or a cowpat. The cow plodded slowly towards him, looming above him and staring down at him judgementally with big, brown eyes. He whimpered.
“Doyle,” said Stanton sweetly, but with a vicious triumphant glint in his eyes. “Are you frightened of cows?”
Mickey Doyle groaned, and buried his head in his hands. Horrific memories came flooding back to him. It had been on that fateful farm holiday when he was six. His father’s friend’s two sons, James and Daniel, had been 12 at the time, and had resented him for the attention he’d got the moment he’d entered their home. They’d asked him if he’d wanted to play with them, and of course he’d agreed. They’d led him into the cow shed, and as soon as he turned around to ask what he was doing there, they slammed the door in his face, locking him in. It was so dark, and he could hear and almost see these strange, enormous creatures milling all around him. The smell, and the noises, still haunted his nightmares to this very day. When they’d eventually found him, two hours later, he’d curled up in the foetal position in a cowpat and wet himself, and was crying hysterically. But he wasn’t going to tell Stanton and the wimp any of that.
Instead, he silently gave them a look, halfway between glaring and pleading.
The wimp sighed. “Come on, old girl,” he said soothingly, reaching out a hand and scratching the demon beast between the eyes. Mickey watched in amazement as the wimp slowly lead the cow away from him, whispering gently into its ear all the while.
He struggled to get up. Stanton roughly grabbed him under the armpits and hauled him to his feet.
“Are you okay?” the wimp asked softly, coming back to stand next to them.
Doyle glared at up, but muttered a quiet “thanks” under his breath.
Eyeing the cow warily, Michael set off again, following the other two boys to a small stream.
“Oh look!” breathed Stanton, holding out an arm to stop the other two. “Swans!”
Indeed there were, two swans, wrapped around each other as they dozed in the afternoon sun.
“Aye,” said a voice. Doyle spun round, to find himself face to face with a farm worker. “We call them Victoria and Jamie.”
“I didn’t know you had swans here!” said Stanton, staring at the birds with a soppy grin on his face.
“Aye, well, we don’t normally,” said the worker. “But Jamie there injured his wing, and Victoria won’t go anywhere without him. Swans mate for life, you know.”
Stanton and the wimp cooed sickeningly at this, and for a moment Michael could’ve sworn they briefly joined hands, Stanton giving the wimp’s fingers a squeeze before dropping to his knees and getting out his sketch book.
Mickey huffed and turned away, noticing a small brick pen. He walked over to it, finding it full of tiny piglets, all squealing and wriggling amongst themselves. Where was their mother? His brow furrowed slightly.
“Oh, how sweet!” said the wimp, leaning on the brick wall next to him. “Hey, look at that one!”
Michael followed the wimp’s gaze, spotting one piglet, easily half the size of the rest, yet squealing more furiously than any of the others, and ramming himself into the side of any pig that dared come near him. A brave attack, barely felt due to his weak stature. But still, it’s the spirit that counts, he thought. He smiled.
“What a right little Napoleon!” said the wimp.
The farm worker strolled over, leaning on the wall on the other side of Doyle. “He’s a right little firecracker, that one.” He scratched an ear, thoughtfully. “He was the runt. But don’t worry, we’re sure he’ll get big enough.”
Doyle’s brow furrowed once more. “Big enough for what?” he asked.
“To go the same way as his mother!”
“Where’s that?” Michael asked, though he was beginning to have an awful suspicion.
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry. She was getting on a bit, that was her last litter. There was nothing else for it.”
Michael turned to the wimp. “What does he mean?” he demanded.
The wimp laughed. “Well really, Doyle, don’t tell me you don’t know where that ham sandwich you ate at lunch came from?”
Michael turned away from both the wimp and the farm worker, and focused his attention on the tiniest pig.
“Now, young Justin,” he heard the farm worker say. “I hear you’re interested in sketching some cows. Well, one of our mothers just had a calf, they’re on one of the fields just over yonder…”
And with that, he was dimly aware of the farm worker and the wimp walking away. He continued to watch the pigs. After a while, he turned around. Stanton had his head hunched over his sketchbook. The farmworker and the wimp were nowhere to be seen. Satisfied that no-one was watching, he tossed his satchel over the wall of the pen, followed by his sketchpad, and then clambered over myself, settling down in the straw.
“Come here, little Napoleon,” he said softly, catching the runt and placing him down in front of him. “It’s just not fair, is it?” he scratched the little pig on the top of the head. “As soon as you’re big enough and strong enough and loud enough to get these other porkers to listen to you, someone bigger and stronger and meaner comes along and makes sausages out of you.”
He sighed, picking up his sketchbook and settling down to draw.
Some hours later, children began to pile onto the coach. Michael Doyle pushed through the crowd to the back of the bus, clutching is strangely full satchel to his chest, and plonking himself down into an empty seat. Mr Hopwood, the woodwork teacher helping supervise this trip, sat himself down just a few seats in front.
“Successful trip, everyone?” Hopwood said, jovially.
“Oh yes, sir!” piped up that irritating mare, Penny Lewis.
“Oh yes, and what’s your favourite animal, Penny?” asked the teacher.
“Ponies, sir!” said the sickening suck-up that was Lewis.
Michael tutted. Typical of her.
“And you, Doyle?” Hopwood called back.
Doyle looked up, guiltily. “Sir?”
Hopwood sighed. “What’s your favourite animal, Doyle?”
Michael Doyle smiled, as he stared down at the face of the wriggling creature hidden in his satchel.
“Pigs, sir,” he said.