Ten Men

By Benjamin Myers

Commissioned as part of the ILS 'Crossing Borders' series.

When Ray-Ray got out the second time he came to work on the farm.

He was brought in on the first warm breeze of the season with nothing but two carrier bags and a mean squint. He said he had heard we were hiring; he said he’d take any damn bloody thing going. As it happened Uncle was short on labour for the coming season’s grunt-work so he gave him a pair of overalls and rigger boots and set him on there and then.  

The days were extending. As spring slipped softly into summer, the sunlight was there for using and a hand could easily work twelve or fourteen hours, breaking off only for drink or bait, or to slink away behind a particular hedgerow with a woodbine and a dock leaf. Thinking time, was what Uncle called it. He left a trowel back there.

Ray-Ray was a worker from the off. One of the best that he had ever seen Uncle reckoned, and he was as short on his compliments as he was temper, so you knew a good word that came from his mouth about any man had currency.

Uncle said that Ray-Ray might have looked like a runner bean that had withered on a winter vine but looks can deceptive and it didn’t take long to see that he had the might and stamina of ten men. Oftentimes you’ll see that it’s the skinny ones who can keep on at it until the moon is pink pearl in the sky while the big beefcakes who were throwing tyres like Frisbees all morning are bent double spitting strings of breakfast bile onto their toe-caps by lunch time. Big biceps count for squat out in the fields, said Uncle. It’s how long you can motor on down the road for that matters. It’s about the endurance.

And Ray-Ray had that of ten men.

Most the other worker were itinerants, brought on for short spells. There was a lot of foreign labour then. Romanians, Czechs, some Albanians. Plenty of Irish travellers too. Uncle didn’t care for the whos, whys and where-froms, though he always said that the Poles were the best. The Poles could work like dogs, he reckoned, and they never meddled. Some of them were buildings houses back home and they did the jobs that many English lads simply wouldn’t do, at twice the speed and half the price, and never once complained about their lot. Good boys, the Poles.

Mostly those that came in for picking and harvesting and baling were men with pasts that went unspoken. Men with secrets; men on the move.

Some like Ray-Ray had previously been detained at her majesty’s leisure, while others were shedding old names that had been recorded for life in registers for reasons they did not care or dare reveal, reinventing themselves anew out in the fields. Those few English men who went lasted to the season’s limit were those who had grown up with dirt streaking the lines of their hands, and didn’t have much of a compulsion to try anything else, for their lives were locked into older agricultural ways, their roots running deep through generations. They were in the soil and the soil was in them, though they were in the minority now and, as the song said, the times they were a-changing.

Ray-Ray had the good sense to keep to himself. Day times he worked the fields and nights he spent in the back static van hunched over a little black and white portable that you had to tune with a dial. He didn’t drink away his brown envelope like the rest of the hands who supped their week’s earnings in town each Saturday night, then went at it with the local toughs on the cobbles before spending the next seven days sweating and cursing through dry mouths of bitter regrets in the fields, only to do it all over again come the weekend. Ray-Ray kept his head down.

Spring through summer was spent ploughing furrows and baling hay, topping haulm or rinsing turnips. Whatever Uncle required. Down south our Kentish farming counterparts worked the hops too, but not up here in the northlands where the soil is bad for all that, and they say the sun doesn’t burn so hot either.

The men worked. The men drank. They bickered and they ate well, and for the most part they sorted out their differences the old way, bone on bone, with blackened eyes sported like medals.

Then later, as smoke scented the air and autumn beckoned, when the last grass had been stored and the cows brought in, and a wood pile the size of bungalow had been built with logs split from trunks that Uncle had us drag up mob-handed from the oxbow bend on the flood plain, the foreign men scattered to the four corners of the compass for the winter.

Sometimes in October picking time a few of the English workers might stay on to spend their shortening days up rusty ladders in the old orchard snatching apples from the breeze before the worms moved in and the first frost hit, but that harvest was a shortening window, and by then most had already moved on, to rented flats and seaside caravan parks, to estates and hostels and tower blocks. To malnourished children and mean-eyed women awaiting a summer’s wages already supped and spent.

Not Ray-Ray though. Ray-Ray stayed. Uncle said he could stop in the static so long as he didn’t mind the cracked glass and the perishing cold, or expect work when the rutted furrows were under a rime of ice, and the barn beasts were lowing, and there was little for a man to do after the milking except dream of the endless golden days of summer to come.

He fixed the place up good. He scrubbed off the mildew with a bucket of bleach and patched up that cracked window with cardboard and tape. There was a wood-burner in there that provided heat and space for one-pot cooking, and Uncle gave him cords of logs and kindling too.

Now and again Ray-Ray would let me into the van and once he gave me a tin of dimps to break down and rake out on a sheet of newspaper for re-rolling, the bitter twists of half-burned tobacco shredded and mixed and then shredded again, the recycled smoke turning my young tongue a mustard yellow.

I was eleven then and had already been nailing it two years.

He said little but when I asked him why he was called Ray-Ray he told me he was named Raymond Raymond Robinson, after both his father Raymond Robinson Jr and his grandfather, also Raymond Robinson. That made him Ray-Ray Jr Jr and I think his mother must have liked the name because it stuck like a burr, but when I said as much he just shrugged and replied that it wasn’t the worst he’d had done to him.

He was also the first man I’d seen who had tattoos up his forearms – just his forearms though - so that when he stripped shirtless in the sticky summer months he looked odd with his white biceps and hairless chest ink-free, his torso gradually browning as the shadows of the season’s stretched long, but his lower arms busy with swallows and skulls and names and dates on them, and strange sigils and insignias that I inherently understood represented nothing good.

One time I knocked on for him but Ray-Ray didn’t answer so I banged harder and eventually the door swung open and he leaned there in the doorway, blocking it and squinting as if the sun was in his face even though it was a damp November morning with a fine mizzle falling, and when he said what is it that you’re wanting  and I said nothing Ray-Ray, I saw a tinder spark of anger flash behind his eyes.

Go play round your own doors then.

When he went back inside I thought I heard the voice of someone else in there but I couldn’t be sure because by then he had pinned old sheets to the insides of his windows, and something in his voice told me not to meddle.

A week or so after that it started snowing and it didn’t let up for two whole days and nights.

First the flakes fell straight down, fat and gentle, and then they blew in sideways, whipping across the fields to rattle the corrugate sheets of the barns and sheds and pelt the farm house windows, and it came in so dark you could barely see the dim light from the battery lamp that hung in Ray-Ray’s van across the yard.

In the morning I went to see him but there was no answer. I tried the door and when it opened just like that I was met by a slightly sour smell hanging in there. Clothes were scattered on the floor and dirty sauce-stained plates were stacked tilted in the tiny sink; Ray-Ray’s water came from an outside tap and plastic bottles of different sizes stood around the van.

I stepped inside.

I knew that I shouldn’t have been in his private space; the thump of my heart in my eardrums told me so. I knew too that I was encroaching, and that could bring about trouble. He had once told me that in prison a man never walks into another’s cell without being invited because it was such rituals and considerations that maintained a semblance of order under cramped conditions. Every man needs his cave and to cross his threshold unasked brought trouble, Ray-Ray said, yet here I was wandering into his home.

A shaft of dull light crept in through a narrow gap where one of the sheets had come free and dust danced there. But still I didn’t leave.

The wardrobe door was ajar. I opened it with the tip of one finger.

In it there hung a pair of coveralls, a padded plaid work-shirt and a dress.

I leaned into the darkness and touched it, then pressed my face to it, smelling the scent of Ray-Ray’s secret girlfriend in a cocktail of citrus-sharp perfume, smoke and the dried remnants of sticky drinks spilled in the after-hours hinterlands of bars and clubs, places I did not understand but knew existed out there beyond the barbed wire fences and five-bar gates that were the limit of my life then.

The feminine odours were an intrusion amongst the rank stench of cow scat and rotting mulch piles that sat in the farm’s barns or trickled down its silage drains, a world of men, and in that moment deep within me was evoked a distant memory of a mother I had barely known, and whose face I could not recall. In that scent she came back to me, briefly reanimated, a miasmic form drawn through scent alone.

As I tramped back to the house I felt exhilarated and glad of the fresh falling snow that would cover the guilty footprints of a bored and curious boy stuck out there in the remote pastures of the north country, searching for meaning on the blank canvas of winter.

Christmas came and Uncle slaughtered a suckling pig and roasted a few geese that he had been fattening with grain mash that he liked to dash with cheap rum.

That night we were joined in the kitchen by a number of neighbours, many of who had trudged across the fields to feast on Uncle’s wares, and on Boxing Day we rose early to load up the truck with sacks of logs, plastic jugs of a home-brewed cider that Unc called stingo and spiced himself with cloves and raisins soaked in spirits, and leftover cold cuts wrapped up on grease-proof paper, and we took them to the furthest-flung families of the valley where fathers were out of work, injured, signed off, incarcerated or absent.

Ray-Ray rode with us, smoking out the window and when we stopped he threw down supplies for me to take to the doors of these places of poverty and wanting, where families existed in isolation away from the eyes of the authorities, who rarely saw a city, an unseen England. At each we were offered nips of whiskey or pouches of tobacco or jars of jam. Everyone knew Uncle; his name was good.

When he and Ray-Ray declined a drink the women pressed slices of fruit cake wrapped in thick marzipan or twists of paper containing nuts and raisins into my hands instead. At one house I was gifted a brand new hand-knitted scarf.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve I was up early to muck out the pigs and do all my usual chores, when a man appeared in the yard. He nodded at me.

Looking for a lad by the name of Ray-Ray.

When I didn’t reply he said: do you know him?

Even then I understood that to be a man of the world was to say little and be discreet at all times. Sometimes a grunt or a look was enough. Always best to let others do the talking, Unc said.

I pointed to his van.

The man turned.

There, is he?

I shrugged.

A friend, are you? I said.

We were inside as kids, he said. Then later I celled with him in Durham. Is he here then?

I shrugged again.

Bloody hillbillies he muttered, and then walked to the van.

The snow came down thicker that evening and I watched from my window as it silently settled on the hardened crust of ice. It hung from the power lines and blanketed the muddy morass of the yard.

Uncle let me stay up until after midnight, the two of us staring into the banked fire, flinching as the logs hissed and popped, until finally he stood and said well, that’s another one gone, and then climbed the creaking stairs to a bedroom I never saw.

I could not sleep. In the deepest part of night, when all was still and white, I heard a skein of migrating geese fly overhead and then just moments later a cough followed by footsteps. I parted the curtain and saw two women tottering through the snow and into the yard.

They were drunk as owls and unsteady on the ice. They held their coats shut and clung to each other. Flakes of snow had settled into their styled hair. Their heels imprinted tiny dots in the fresh white carpet.

The two women went into Ray-Ray’s static caravan and shut the door behind them. Minutes passed as I watched the faint light flickering through the snow-thick night and it was like that of a lighthouse seen by a solitary love-sick sailor from far out at sea, and I wondered too if it was true that the architecture of each flake was unique.

The night was too alive and my mind too curious so I climbed out from under my blankets and pulled on my clothes. Downstairs the fire was still glowing in the grate and the front room so warm that I hesitated there for a moment. Then I opened the door and went into the yard.

The snow sat shin deep and was still coming down, the flakes spinning silently, the light a strange shade of darkened purple, like a two day bruise.

The snow came in over my boots. I was not wearing any socks.

As I crossed the yard to the van I heard the jostle and clatter of the cows in their shed, and the occasional snort.

Ray-Ray’s van sat low in the snow, as if the ground were consuming it slowly. I went to the side window taking quiet high steps through the drifts that had curled up to the side of it.

Gentle music came from within. Treading slowly and carefully I looked through the tiny gap between the hung sheets and saw that inside the van was lit by candles in glass bottles, their wicks flickering as oily white wax dripped down their necks.

One of the women had her back to me and was obscuring my view. I held my breath so as not to steam the glass as she laughed and tipped her head back, and then stood, swaying slightly on muscular hairy legs.

I saw then sitting opposite her was Ray-Ray in the same dress that I had been hanging in his wardrobe. A wig was on the table before him, splayed like the pelt of a skinned animal, his bare arms carrying the strength of ten men, those familiar tattoos telling the narrative of his life.

He too was laughing as he brought his lighter up to the stub of his cigarette, and around me the silent snow fell thicker still.