* * *
There were catkins on the branches but there were also a few snowflakes waltzing down out of a grey sky as Uncle Geoffrey, Robert and Susan trudged along the lane through Farmer Langley’s fields.
‘I expect Mr Langley will be out lambing today,’ said Uncle Geoffrey.
‘Well, his sheep might be lambing,’ said Robert, ‘but I don’t suppose he himself personally will be lambing.’
‘Oh, don’t be obtuse,’ laughed Susan. ‘It’s just a figure of speech as well you know. But Farmer Langley identifies so strongly with his sheep that he might well be giving birth himself.’
‘It’s true,’ said Uncle Geoffrey. ‘Every time he loses a lamb, or indeed a sheep, he seems quite inconsolable. It’s like losing one of the family for him. I suppose they are his family.’
‘Which makes it all the stranger that he sends the lambs away to be slaughtered without a backward glance,’ said Robert. ‘You lavish all that love on them, and then kill them. What sort of family love is that?’
‘It makes sense in a way,’ said Susan. ‘If you think of all the other professions which breed for killing, there is no false pity there at all.’
‘What other killing professions are there?’ said Robert.
‘Nursery gardeners,’ she said promptly. ‘Millions of flowers are grown every day only to be cut down in the prime of life and stuck in vases to bleed their life away. We talk about cut flowers as fresh flowers, but they are only fresh in the sense that they are freshly beheaded.’
‘You might say the same for the growers of Christmas trees,’ said Robert. ‘They’re all baby trees as well, killed before they grow up.’
‘Ah, but they are also killed before they get old and feeble,’ said Susan. ‘At least they are spared an undignified old age. Nature doesn’t much like the old and feeble. There are no residential homes for elderly elephants, no rabbit retirement homes, no...’
‘No old fox homes?’ said Robert.
‘Very good,’ said Susan. ‘Nature abhors a veteran as well as a vacuum. When an animal is past breeding, and past hunting, and past being able to feed itself, it is no good to the tribe.’
‘The mother duck feeds her ducklings,’ said Robert, ‘but it does not feed granny duck.’
‘How old are you, Uncle Robert?’ said Susan.
This question took Uncle Geoffrey by surprise. He had been only half-listening to the children’s usual nihilistic banter, and had just got the vague impression that they were talking about Christmas trees, so was not expecting to be asked his age.
‘I’m, um, forty-eight,’ he said.
‘No, you’re not,’ said Robert, who had heard his parents talk about Uncle Geoffrey’s unwillingness to admit his age. ‘You’re fifty-three.’
‘Don’t you remember your fiftieth birthday party?’ said Susan. ‘Though I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t.’
‘Oh, yes, come to think,’ said Uncle Geoffrey. ‘I am fifty-three, I suppose. Why?’
‘We were just wondering when you would become surplus to requirements,’ said Robert.
‘When you would be beyond breeding and hunting and feeding.’
‘And would have to be looked after by the tribe.’
‘And we wondered if you would have the courage to go out into the wild woods one night and do the decent thing by expiring from exposure.’
‘After all, you have never married and had any children, so you are useless as a breeder.’
‘That’s why you take us out for nature rambles,’ said Susan.
‘I expect that’s the real reason that people lie about their age,’ said Robert. ‘It’s an atavistic defence mechanism. It’s a memory of the days when the old people were turned out to die, and it’s an automatic response to deny that you are old enough to be useless.’
‘I have absolutely no intention of doing away with myself for the good of the tribe,’ said Uncle Robert. ‘Look – isn’t that a buzzard over there!’
But somehow the fun had gone out of the walk and they soon turned for home.
The Independent Mon Mar 13 06