I am not one for goodbyes. Not someone who starts those long goodbye ceremonies that begin with a visitor’s ‘well, I must be off now…’ and last for a further twenty minutes of eking out the long scraggy tail of the conversation, the searching amongst the things not already said as if looking for a mis-placed permission to actually, physically go.
It isn’t that I don’t think goodbyes are important. I do. And I greatly admire the orchestration of a well-formed goodbye, one which leaves from the top of an unbroken wave, or soars away like the last note of a haunting melody. A proper goodbye has balance, it has content, it is a work of art in itself. It is not some attrition down to the bedrock of boredom, nor the asymptotic capture of absence. Well, not to me anyway. So I guess you could say that I’m something of a goodbye snob.
I was wondering how I could possibly conjure some appropriate goodbye to this place out of the loose ends and the bits of dreams scattered around the croft and the moorland. But I was starting at an acute disadvantage – we did not put the ewes to the tup last December because we knew that we would have to be away just when young lambs would need our care – and although a close friend is going to re-home the ewes as a family, it was by no means obvious where a suitable new home for a further ten or twelve slow-growing Hebridean lambs might be found in the Autumn. So I have no lambs of my own this Spring. As far as the croft is concerned I am already some lingering irrelevance before I even start with ‘well, I must be off now…’
Still and all. I have a kind and wise neighbour up the road who works a flock of fine Blackface, sometimes alone when younger family members are away at work. This is a remote crofting community and the young men and women have always had to be away for paying work – the herring, the navy, the ship-building, the rigs. And so it came about that I was one last time in a bare-lightbulb shed in my waterproof over-trousers and my old jacket with makeshift toggles to close over the broken zip, looking at a ewe in bother. We put her down on her side on the concrete, my kind old neighbour and I, and spoke to her softly in Gaelic and in English, and told her it would be well. I have the soft, small girl’s hands, we agreed, laughing, and so I would see to it.
The lamb’s head and one tiny pointed foot were out. But the other leg was back, which puts the shoulder all wrong and bulging just where it needs to be smooth and small. Judging by the wool her head had been out some time and it was starting to swell with the pressure of blood. Had she not had one leg forward she would have been dead already. Somehow the position of that one leg allows just enough circulation and a shallow breathing. But she was very, very tired and her tongue lolled and the eyes were so sleepy and there was barely the spark to dream either of life or of death. I felt past the shoulder for the other leg. Sometimes, if the leg has started forwards and only the foreleg has gone back, you can crook a finger behind the knee and put things right in a moment. But I could feel nothing of the other leg. I pushed my hand further back and the ewe bickered her hard pain but still I could make no sense of it. Maybe then the thing to do is to push the lamb back in aways and get the legs together. But the lamb’s head had been out some time and the whole neck was out with it and it would have been like pushing on a rope.
No time. The lamb stole some little breath and I put my foot on the ewe’s backside and took hold of the head and the tiny foot with a hand on each and pulled. She came past the point and I let the ewe push her out. She lay in a mess on the concrete, the other leg pressed firmly into the length of her body and still in the half-torn sack. She only wanted to sleep but we would not let her. We harried her back into the world with a shake and a swing and breath of our own – gently, very gently cupping a mouth over hers. She filled and gurgled. The ewe stood and looked. We all looked at each other and then we all looked at the lamb.
When the four legs eventually worked out to whom they belonged, and the tongue retreated back to its cave and the head became less heavy with blood, the lamb finally stood. With one perfect little snicker of a baa it waved me on my way. I did not need to conjure up my own goodbye after all. The lamb had said it for me.