Sean Bracken – When We Were Boys

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When We Were Boys

By Sean Bracken

I’d been waiting for over an hour. The Moody Blues were singing ‘Melancholy Man’ on the radio. I was not feeling so much melancholic as nostalgic. I was parked at the top of the drive, close to the front door to Uncle Brendan’s farmhouse. My brother Jack was late, as usual.

Everyone said that Jack would be late for his own funeral. Of course, he would, he’d be the late departed.

Justin Hayward’s rich voice gave way to the haunting sound of Ray Thomas as his flute carried the music towards heaven and carried my mind back to the past.

Back to times of glory, back to the times when Jack and I were adventurers, searching for buried treasure, back to the times when we were spacemen, exploring distant planets, and back to the times when we were knights of old fighting dragons. Back to the times of when we were boys.

Back then, when we were boys, the tallest trees stood only to be climbed, the widest ditches existed only to be jumped. And this farm was our playground, our home, and the centre of our universe for two months every year.

The crunching sound of Jack’s car on the gravel drive shattered the moment.

“You’re late,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “Traffic, you know.”

I knew that Jack was reluctant to be here, just as I was. We had come to get the house ready for sale. A task neither of us were looking forward to. After all, this house had been our second home, a place we loved.

Uncle Brendan had passed away two weeks ago. He was one week short of reaching one hundred and two years of age. He had outlived his wife, Auntie Mona, by thirty years. A man with a passion for the land and the environment, Brendan had always looked upon himself as the caretaker of the farm rather than its owner.

Probably because of loneliness, or maybe because of his solid farmer’s common sense, ten years ago Brendan had checked himself into Cedarwood Lodge, a retirement home. He had lived there ever since, but he never surrendered his fierce independence. He insisted on keeping his car, his mobile phone and most importantly to him, control of his bank account.

He had employed a neighbour, Charlie Hayes, as manager for the farm. Two, sometimes three or four times a week, he would drive home, climb into his green and yellow John Deere tractor, and spend the day checking that everything on the farm was in order. He would often spend a night or two back in his own bed. Perhaps, dreaming dreams of days long past.

“That cow’s teats are swollen, she needs the vet. That fence needs looking at. That field needs ploughing.”

That was Brendan. The farmer, the caretaker of the land, right up to two weeks ago, when he simply forgot to wake up.

Brendan and Mona never had children of their own. Somehow, Jack and I became surrogates. As soon as school ended in June, Mam and Dad would pile us into the back of the old Triumph Herald along with our battered, cardboard suitcase and drive us down to Brendan’s farm.

Entering the old house was like stepping back in time. Jack and I were almost reverential as we walked in silence down the hall. Stepping into a sacred place, into the cathedral of our past. Absorbing the feelings, the smells, the memories. Ghosts of our childhood, long forgotten, returned to life with each quiet footstep.

The door into the kitchen and parlour creaked on rusty hinges. Dust mites danced in the air as dappled sunlight lit up the room.

On the right, the Aga solid-fuel range stood waiting to be lit. The Aga was the heart that brought life to this house. A massive oak table filled the centre of the room. A table where more than a dozen farmhands used to sit for breakfast every morning. Beside it, a smaller table, where Uncle Brendan, Jack and I ate our breakfast.

The Welsh Dresser, proudly displaying Auntie Mona’s finest Willow pattern bone china and with cutlery drawers stuffed with enough knives, forks, and spoons to feed an army, filled the alcove on the left.

On rainy days, Jack and I would sit at the small table and read comic books, listen to Flash Gordan on the radio, or draw pictures with crayons.

One miserable cold and damp day, Auntie Mona brought in a plain old galvanised bucket from the milking parlour, along with some paint and brushes.

“Right boys, get to work. Show me what you can do with this old bucket. We’ll use it for the chicken feed, so I want it bright and pretty. If you do a good enough job, there might be an extra slice of rhubarb tart for you after dinner.”

Jack and I set about our task with gusto. The promise of extra rhubarb and ginger tart, smothered in thick, rich, creamy, yellow, homemade custard was more than enough motivation.

Two hours later, we produced our masterpiece, a lurid pink bucket with white polka dots all over it. Auntie Mona was delighted with our efforts, and sure enough, that evening we were rewarded with double helpings of rhubarb tart and custard.

Year after year, that pink bucket played a central role in our lives.

Our mornings began with Tyson’s “Cock, A, Doodle, Do” announcing the dawn of a new day. Out of bed, down the stairs and out the back door to join Uncle Brendan and the farm hands. Into the fields, herding the cows back to be milked. Milked by hand, me, Jack and all the workers squatting on three-legged stools, pulling and squeezing on teats, squirting milk into buckets. As the buckets filled, we emptied them into churns, and as the churns filled they would be lifted out to the back of the tractor and trailer, waiting for delivery to the creamery, three miles away.

After breakfast, it was time to feed the hens and collect the eggs from the coop. Once our chores were finished, Jack and I would set out into the woodland bordering the main pasture. We would run and climb, explore and play. We spent several days building a den from leftover timber and tree branches. The woodland ended on the banks of a river that flowed through the farm and out under an old stone bridge. One day Jack noticed fish swimming in the river.

We developed a technique of our own to catch the fish, big brown trout. At first, we tried using our hands, without much success. After a little trial and error, we found that by lying on the riverbank, holding a stick under the water and waiting for a fish to swim over it, a quick flip of the wrist and the fish would fly up out of the water and land on the bank behind us. There was only one problem, most of the fish we landed would wriggle and flop back into the river. The solution was simple. The pink polka-dot bucket was perfect. From then on we would return to the farmhouse with a bucket full of the day’s catch.

In the mornings, we would collect wild mushrooms while herding the cattle in for milking. Auntie Mona used to throw the fish and mushrooms onto the range, smother them with home-churned butter and add fresh parsley from the herb garden outside the back door. All the farmhands agreed that these were the finest breakfasts they had ever eaten.

It didn’t take us long to find another use for our bucket. Clyde was a huge, brown plough horse, with a white star on his forehead. Retired to pasture ever since Uncle Brendan had bought the tractor. His friend Queen Bess was a younger, more agile, jet black pony. Bess worked on Sunday. Uncle Brendan would harness her to the family trap, which was also lacquered in jet black varnish. The brass on her bridle polished to a shine every Saturday. We made a fine sight as we trotted down the country road, on our way to Mass.

Jack and I were determined to ride the horses. The problem was that they were impossible to catch. That was until we arrived into the meadow with the pink polka-dot bucket filled with oats. It was easy to lead them to a wall where we could climb onto their backs. What joy, the freedom of galloping at full speed, bareback and with no bridle. Clinging to the horses’ manes for dear life. My lifelong passion for horse riding began with Clyde and Queen Bess.

The bucket also served a grimmer purpose. Every Saturday morning Uncle Brendan would bring a chair out into the farmyard. First Jack and then I would be placed in the chair. Brendan would put a bowl on our heads and use the sheep shearer to give us a haircut. I’m sure that both of us must have looked like miniature monks after these weekly shaves.

As soon as this ritual was completed, Auntie Mona would come out, carrying the polka-dot bucket, full of boiling water, and the carving knife from the cutlery drawer. She would sit in the chair and wait for us boys to catch a chicken and bring it to her.

Catching a chicken was always great fun. What came later, maybe not so much. With one swipe of the knife, the chicken would lose its head and then run headless around the yard for a couple of minutes. Then after ducking it into the boiling water, Auntie Mona would pluck away until all its feathers were gone. The deceased chicken was destined to be served up as the Sunday roast, its innards used to make soup.

Modern sensibilities might see this as cruel. They might consider it outrageous to expose two young boys to killing a chicken. Back then, sixty years ago, it seemed natural. Back then, we saw cows give birth, the newborn calves kick their way out of the birthing sac and struggle to stand up on four spindly legs. We saw the bull service the cattle, we learnt to fish, to ride. Life was a true adventure when we were boys.

It didn’t take long to inspect the house. There was little or nothing that needed attention. Charles Hayes sent his wife down on a regular basis to clean and maintain the property. We unlatched the back door and stepped out into the yard. Little had changed. The hay barn, stables and chicken run all looked just the same as they did all those years ago. The milking parlour had been replaced by a new automated modern building, where machines now do all the work we did by hand.

We wandered around the yard, checking the tool shed, stables and haylofts. Walking in silence, both of us lost in personal echoes of a distant, long-forgotten childhood. That was until we came to the chicken coop. There it was, even after all these years, our pink and white polka-dot bucket, hanging where it always did, on the door to the coop.

We glanced at each other, and back to the bucket, and back to each other.

I smiled at Jack and said, “Let’s go fishin’.”

We never did sell the house. We decided to keep it, to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren. So if you’re ever driving across an old humpback bridge in County Kildare and you happen to spot two old men carrying a pink and white polka-dot bucket, don’t worry. It’s only me and my brother, reliving sweet memories of when we were boys.

The End

When We Were Boys

By Sean Bracken

I’d been waiting for over an hour. The Moody Blues were singing ‘Melancholy Man’ on the radio. I was not feeling so much melancholic as nostalgic. I was parked at the top of the drive, close to the front door to Uncle Brendan’s farmhouse. My brother Jack was late, as usual.

Everyone said that Jack would be late for his own funeral. Of course, he would, he’d be the late departed.

Justin Hayward’s rich voice gave way to the haunting sound of Ray Thomas as his flute carried the music towards heaven and carried my mind back to the past.

Back to times of glory, back to the times when Jack and I were adventurers, searching for buried treasure, back to the times when we were spacemen, exploring distant planets, and back to the times when we were knights of old fighting dragons. Back to the times of when we were boys.

Back then, when we were boys, the tallest trees stood only to be climbed, the widest ditches existed only to be jumped. And this farm was our playground, our home, and the centre of our universe for two months every year.

The crunching sound of Jack’s car on the gravel drive shattered the moment.

“You’re late,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “Traffic, you know.”

I knew that Jack was reluctant to be here, just as I was. We had come to get the house ready for sale. A task neither of us were looking forward to. After all, this house had been our second home, a place we loved.

Uncle Brendan had passed away two weeks ago. He was one week short of reaching one hundred and two years of age. He had outlived his wife, Auntie Mona, by thirty years. A man with a passion for the land and the environment, Brendan had always looked upon himself as the caretaker of the farm rather than its owner.

Probably because of loneliness, or maybe because of his solid farmer’s common sense, ten years ago Brendan had checked himself into Cedarwood Lodge, a retirement home. He had lived there ever since, but he never surrendered his fierce independence. He insisted on keeping his car, his mobile phone and most importantly to him, control of his bank account.

He had employed a neighbour, Charlie Hayes, as manager for the farm. Two, sometimes three or four times a week, he would drive home, climb into his green and yellow John Deere tractor, and spend the day checking that everything on the farm was in order. He would often spend a night or two back in his own bed. Perhaps, dreaming dreams of days long past.

“That cow’s teats are swollen, she needs the vet. That fence needs looking at. That field needs ploughing.”

That was Brendan. The farmer, the caretaker of the land, right up to two weeks ago, when he simply forgot to wake up.

Brendan and Mona never had children of their own. Somehow, Jack and I became surrogates. As soon as school ended in June, Mam and Dad would pile us into the back of the old Triumph Herald along with our battered, cardboard suitcase and drive us down to Brendan’s farm.

Entering the old house was like stepping back in time. Jack and I were almost reverential as we walked in silence down the hall. Stepping into a sacred place, into the cathedral of our past. Absorbing the feelings, the smells, the memories. Ghosts of our childhood, long forgotten, returned to life with each quiet footstep.

The door into the kitchen and parlour creaked on rusty hinges. Dust mites danced in the air as dappled sunlight lit up the room.

On the right, the Aga solid-fuel range stood waiting to be lit. The Aga was the heart that brought life to this house. A massive oak table filled the centre of the room. A table where more than a dozen farmhands used to sit for breakfast every morning. Beside it, a smaller table, where Uncle Brendan, Jack and I ate our breakfast.

The Welsh Dresser, proudly displaying Auntie Mona’s finest Willow pattern bone china and with cutlery drawers stuffed with enough knives, forks, and spoons to feed an army, filled the alcove on the left.

On rainy days, Jack and I would sit at the small table and read comic books, listen to Flash Gordan on the radio, or draw pictures with crayons.

One miserable cold and damp day, Auntie Mona brought in a plain old galvanised bucket from the milking parlour, along with some paint and brushes.

“Right boys, get to work. Show me what you can do with this old bucket. We’ll use it for the chicken feed, so I want it bright and pretty. If you do a good enough job, there might be an extra slice of rhubarb tart for you after dinner.”

Jack and I set about our task with gusto. The promise of extra rhubarb and ginger tart, smothered in thick, rich, creamy, yellow, homemade custard was more than enough motivation.

Two hours later, we produced our masterpiece, a lurid pink bucket with white polka dots all over it. Auntie Mona was delighted with our efforts, and sure enough, that evening we were rewarded with double helpings of rhubarb tart and custard.

Year after year, that pink bucket played a central role in our lives.

Our mornings began with Tyson’s “Cock, A, Doodle, Do” announcing the dawn of a new day. Out of bed, down the stairs and out the back door to join Uncle Brendan and the farm hands. Into the fields, herding the cows back to be milked. Milked by hand, me, Jack and all the workers squatting on three-legged stools, pulling and squeezing on teats, squirting milk into buckets. As the buckets filled, we emptied them into churns, and as the churns filled they would be lifted out to the back of the tractor and trailer, waiting for delivery to the creamery, three miles away.

After breakfast, it was time to feed the hens and collect the eggs from the coop. Once our chores were finished, Jack and I would set out into the woodland bordering the main pasture. We would run and climb, explore and play. We spent several days building a den from leftover timber and tree branches. The woodland ended on the banks of a river that flowed through the farm and out under an old stone bridge. One day Jack noticed fish swimming in the river.

We developed a technique of our own to catch the fish, big brown trout. At first, we tried using our hands, without much success. After a little trial and error, we found that by lying on the riverbank, holding a stick under the water and waiting for a fish to swim over it, a quick flip of the wrist and the fish would fly up out of the water and land on the bank behind us. There was only one problem, most of the fish we landed would wriggle and flop back into the river. The solution was simple. The pink polka-dot bucket was perfect. From then on we would return to the farmhouse with a bucket full of the day’s catch.

In the mornings, we would collect wild mushrooms while herding the cattle in for milking. Auntie Mona used to throw the fish and mushrooms onto the range, smother them with home-churned butter and add fresh parsley from the herb garden outside the back door. All the farmhands agreed that these were the finest breakfasts they had ever eaten.

It didn’t take us long to find another use for our bucket. Clyde was a huge, brown plough horse, with a white star on his forehead. Retired to pasture ever since Uncle Brendan had bought the tractor. His friend Queen Bess was a younger, more agile, jet black pony. Bess worked on Sunday. Uncle Brendan would harness her to the family trap, which was also lacquered in jet black varnish. The brass on her bridle polished to a shine every Saturday. We made a fine sight as we trotted down the country road, on our way to Mass.

Jack and I were determined to ride the horses. The problem was that they were impossible to catch. That was until we arrived into the meadow with the pink polka-dot bucket filled with oats. It was easy to lead them to a wall where we could climb onto their backs. What joy, the freedom of galloping at full speed, bareback and with no bridle. Clinging to the horses’ manes for dear life. My lifelong passion for horse riding began with Clyde and Queen Bess.

The bucket also served a grimmer purpose. Every Saturday morning Uncle Brendan would bring a chair out into the farmyard. First Jack and then I would be placed in the chair. Brendan would put a bowl on our heads and use the sheep shearer to give us a haircut. I’m sure that both of us must have looked like miniature monks after these weekly shaves.

As soon as this ritual was completed, Auntie Mona would come out, carrying the polka-dot bucket, full of boiling water, and the carving knife from the cutlery drawer. She would sit in the chair and wait for us boys to catch a chicken and bring it to her.

Catching a chicken was always great fun. What came later, maybe not so much. With one swipe of the knife, the chicken would lose its head and then run headless around the yard for a couple of minutes. Then after ducking it into the boiling water, Auntie Mona would pluck away until all its feathers were gone. The deceased chicken was destined to be served up as the Sunday roast, its innards used to make soup.

Modern sensibilities might see this as cruel. They might consider it outrageous to expose two young boys to killing a chicken. Back then, sixty years ago, it seemed natural. Back then, we saw cows give birth, the newborn calves kick their way out of the birthing sac and struggle to stand up on four spindly legs. We saw the bull service the cattle, we learnt to fish, to ride. Life was a true adventure when we were boys.

It didn’t take long to inspect the house. There was little or nothing that needed attention. Charles Hayes sent his wife down on a regular basis to clean and maintain the property. We unlatched the back door and stepped out into the yard. Little had changed. The hay barn, stables and chicken run all looked just the same as they did all those years ago. The milking parlour had been replaced by a new automated modern building, where machines now do all the work we did by hand.

We wandered around the yard, checking the tool shed, stables and haylofts. Walking in silence, both of us lost in personal echoes of a distant, long-forgotten childhood. That was until we came to the chicken coop. There it was, even after all these years, our pink and white polka-dot bucket, hanging where it always did, on the door to the coop.

We glanced at each other, and back to the bucket, and back to each other.

I smiled at Jack and said, “Let’s go fishin’.”

We never did sell the house. We decided to keep it, to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren. So if you’re ever driving across an old humpback bridge in County Kildare and you happen to spot two old men carrying a pink and white polka-dot bucket, don’t worry. It’s only me and my brother, reliving sweet memories of when we were boys.

The End

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Please visit Sean’s blog at https://sean-bracken.site123.me