So here’s Fionn, all these years later, in the main square of Plasencia, inspecting the chunk of pig face on his fork.
“Fuckin’ ’ell. I think I got the moustache.”
He bit into it and grimaced. “Christ, that’s rough. No offense, Lola, but you Spaniards are rough. Rough as Christmas.”
“Don’t talk to me about rough! I lived on the farm in Ireland, too. I still have nightmares about that shower.”
There was a large room in the basement of the main house, next to the boiler room. It contained two large freezers, a washing machine, and an electric shower in the corner. (There was no toilet. You had to go upstairs for that, or, if you were feeling lucky, you could use the claustrophobic, spider-infested WC under the stairs.) The room was a tangle of clothes lines, always sagging under the weight of our permanently damp clothes, which you had to duck and dodge to get to the shower. But the room wasn’t only used to hang clothes, recently slaughtered animals were hung on the same wall as, and uncomfortably close to, the towel hooks. It was not uncommon to go for a shower and find that somebody had been up to a bit of morbid mischief. A gutted pig sporting a bra. A featherless duck looking quite dapper in a pair of tube socks.
It’s amazing how quickly you get used to a situation and start to consider it normal. Well, not Lola. Fifteen years later she still goes off on an occasional rant about the state of that shower.
As time passed, Colm realized I was more reliable than most of the volunteers (the bar wasn’t set very high, to be perfectly honest), and he gave me more responsibilities. Some good, like putting me on the insurance policy so I could drive. (He left the Land Rover in a field one day and told me to drive around in circles until I felt comfortable. I had never driven stick before. I had also never driven on the left hand side of the road before. The next day he sent me to Cork City to run errands.) And some bad, like being in charge of dragging hungover volunteers out of bed and getting them to the breakfast table on time.
Interesting characters were always passing through the farm. There were loads of WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), EVS people (European Voluntary Services), and lots of oddballs and free spirits who had heard about the place by word of mouth. One day there might only be three or four of us at the breakfast table. The next day there might be eight or ten new people, from as many different countries. Some stayed for a few days, some for a few months, and in the very rare case, a few years.
There was Berndt, a gigantic, bloodthirsty German who would quietly sneak around all the sheds and outbuildings and knock pigeons down from the rafters with a pitchfork. He gave them all to Llorenç, a Catalan volunteer, who made excellent stews.
There was Omar, a scrappy little Egyptian who was sent to the farm through an organization that works with teens from troubled backgrounds. He’d been raised in a strict Muslim family. Never had a drop of alcohol in his life (or so he claimed). One day Fionn and I had to run some errands in nearby Coachford so we took Omar along for the ride. We stopped for a pint before heading back out to the country. We ordered a Coke for Omar, but when Fionn wasn’t looking Omar took a long draught of his pint. It was apparently love at first sip. A couple of minutes later, when a complete stranger had his back turned, Omar grabbed the guy’s pint and sucked the whole thing down in a few seconds. While Fionn and I were apologizing and ordering the guy another pint, Omar stood up and proceeded to projectile vomit stout all over the bar.
There was Kaatje, a burly, no-nonsense Belgian who sported an impressive, unkempt, fiery flourescent orange mastodon on top of her head. She kept a small bottle of white port on her person at all times (which she sipped on all throughout the day). She was hard as nails and had little patience for those who weren’t. At the Monday morning meetings, when we organized the week’s activities, Kaatje was always the first to volunteer for the most grisly of jobs.
For the most part, you could choose what type of work you wanted to do at the farm. Unfortunately, what ended up happening is exactly what you would expect to happen. Most of the female volunteers, after spending a couple of days working with the animals, gravitated towards the garden, and most of the male volunteers, after a couple of days in the garden, chose to work with the animals. Kaatje was the exception to the rule. When we were disbudding (cauterizing the horn buds) or castrating calves (two of the nastier jobs on the farm), Kaatje watched how it was done, then rolled up her sleeves, claimed the next animal for herself, and sang cheerily in French as she performed the task at hand.
“If anybody wants meat this week, there’s still some mutton in the freezer…” Colm said one morning.
Everyone groaned and grumbled. The meat was truly awful stuff. It’s a miracle nobody lost a tooth gnawing on that mutton. The sheep had been twelve years old, blind, and nearly crippled. If we had just waited a few more weeks, it probably would’ve keeled over of its own accord.
“Or somebody is going to have to kill a few chickens…” he added.
Kaatje’s hand shot up without hesitation.
I helped her pluck and gut the birds after watching her ring their necks. Some of the more sensitive volunteers were slightly put off by Kaatje, but the rest of us hypocritical carnivorous cowards, who grew up eating neatly packaged, perfectly cut strips and squares of boneless, featherless (and don’t forget headless) supermarket meat, were grateful she didn’t mind doing the dirty work.
(My first chicken was not one of my finer moments. I had the bird pinned upside down under one arm and was pulling on its neck.
Colm yelled, “Harder, Yank! Harder!”
I pulled a little harder. The chicken’s head popped off and landed in the dirt. Wolf was there, ready and waiting. She snatched it up and sped off to enjoy her treat under the tractor.
“You’ll get the hang of it.” But I never did get the hang of it. I never killed another chicken after that.)
There was Olaf, the stereotypical tall, blonde Swede, who was travelling around the world with a golf club playing mini-golf everywhere he went. Supposedly he was writing a book about his travels. His first night he had a room with four sets of bunk beds all to himself in the main house. The next morning at breakfast somebody asked who’s tent that was near the duck pond.
Olaf, looking exhausted and pretty frazzled, said it was his tent. He refused to sleep in the house again. In the middle of the night his bed began to shake uncontrollably. He said, “There is something in this house, something not of this world.”
It wasn’t the first incident of paranormal activity on the farm, and it wouldn’t be the last. A wealthy English family, the Woodleys, acquired the property in the mid 17th century. (One member of the family, Francis Woodley, owned 3,800 acres in County Cork in the 1870s.) The property remained in the family until the 1980s when Colm’s family bought what was left of the rundown decrepit shell of an estate. Colm and his brother made a living farming for several years, but there was never any money to restore the historic buildings and gardens. When Colm’s brother got married and moved overseas the place fell into further disrepair, so he had to look for outside help from volunteers, and locals like Fionn, to keep the place up and running. A place with that much history is bound to be the setting of a few ghost stories.
In fact, there were quite a few chilling tales about the estate:
-the tale of a 19th century servant girl who was hanged on the property for theft
-the tale of a mysterious woman who woke up a volunteer in the middle of the night and said breakfast was ready (the volunteer stumbled into the kitchen, realized he was alone, then looked at the clock, it was 4 a.m.)
-the tale of a volunteer being chased around the gravel paths of the kitchen garden by some invisible being one night (he heard footsteps charging towards him, but there was nothing there, he ran like hell)
-tales of volunteers hearing children playing in the halls in the middle of the night (there were no children on the farm)
-and then there was the cillín…
In a small wooded area surrounded by stone walls, in the middle of a field, there was a cillín (pronounced kih-LEEN), a burial ground for unbaptized children who died during the Great Famine of the mid 19th century. There was a Slovenian workcamp around on Halloween one year. They decided it would be fun to go into the cillín and tell ghost stories after dark. I snuck down there with a Polish volunteer, Krzysztof, (who later earned himself the nickname “Chainsaw Massacre” after lopping Kaatje’s thumb off one day while cutting firewood) with the idea of scaring the hell out of them. Our plan backfired. All that happened was we scared the hell out of ourselves.
“What was that?”
“Shut up, that was you.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Let’s go join the others.”
And then there was Henry, Colm’s father. Henry was a good-natured old fellow. He was pushing ninety and was almost completely blind. A lifelong farmer, he now lived a quiet life just down the road in a little bungalow which he shared with his wife. He spent his time listening to books on tape and looking after the birds on the farm. Twice a day, once in the morning and again in the late afternoon, he would grab his walking stick and make the ten minute journey on foot to the farm. Failing eyesight be damned, he knew the way by heart.
It was a beautiful thing to see Henry open the sheds in the morning and watch dozens of birds – chickens, turkeys, ducks and guinea fowl – follow him across the yard, waiting for him to toss fistfuls of seed for their pecking pleasure. Then he would enter the sheds and collect the eggs.
One morning I was walking up through the yard and saw Henry standing outside one of the sheds. I yelled good morning.
“Yank, Is that you?”
Some animal had been entering the sheds and breaking eggs every morning after he let the birds out. Henry was furious. On this particular day he stepped inside one of the sheds and waited patiently in the shadows. When he heard a flutter of wings whoosh past his head, he quickly stepped outside and closed the door. That’s when I walked by.
“Grab a pike, Yank, and we’ll end this once and for all.”
We slipped inside and quickly shut the door behind us.
“What do you see?”
“There’s a jackdaw up in the rafters.”
“That’s the bastard. Knock him down so I can teach him a lesson.”
I took a few half-hearted swipes up at the rafters with the pitchfork. The jackdaw swooped down and crashed into the window.
“Henry! He’s on the windowsill!”
Henry moved towards the light, his thick, leathery old hands ready for action. As he wrapped his fingers around the bird it let out a nervous squawk. It was all over in a few seconds. Henry reached into one of his pockets and pulled out some baler twine. He hung the dead jackdaw upside down in the open doorway as a warning to others.
to be continued…