Story for the Day: The Bad Neighbours
There are good neighbours and bad neighbours, and while bad neighbours might be decent people, their noise will make them offensive, especially when the noise is that of ten wanton children.
Baba continued along the fence, watching for the neighbour’s children, expecting them to harass her at any moment, and her cat followed her lead, pattering in and out of the pickets, scouring the adjacent field with nose high and tail low. Baba waited beside the fence, watching her cat swat a and just as Baba determined she was safe from all interaction with her neighbours, a familiar voice caught her ear. Her nose twitched, her chin whiskers bristled, and she began her grumblings on the man failings of “farmers who don’t know how to manage their sow and piglets.” She would have preferred a wanton boar roaming about her fields in quest of a few hazelnuts rather than the disenchanted whinges of fat children crying about the supper’s being not done or about there being no buns to be aet or games to amuse them. She plucked a stone from her apron, turned toward the fence, and with a gowl and one foot planted firmly at the fence, Baba prepared to launch a preemptive attack. “Oh, Gran Mara Connridh’s ready for ye th’day, ye lumberin’ little lard-tumblers,” she grumbled, raising her rock over her head. “’Mon, and get to the fence so’s I can give you a welt o’ the stone.”passing millipede,
She awaited their approach, the sound of juvenile tragedy creeping closer every moment, her hand cocked, her stone ready, considering whether she ought to have installed a pendulum or a swing plough, to repel the children with lasting force and possibly knock their shoulders out of joint for stepping onto her land. She had a few traps set up near the house, but after the oldest insurgent got his fingers stuck in the window for trying to take a pie off her sill, they had not come near the farmhouse since. She kept the traps where they were, in case one of the younger children should be inflicted with a poor memory and venture into sacred and trap-ridden ground, and while Baba would rather not have the children loping about her house, being prepared for noctivagant accidents was always best.
“’Mon!” she cried, shouting toward her neighbour’s house, which was situated on an adjacent knoll beyond the fence. Issuing thence was a series of voices, all clamourous and carksome, crying out in a chorus of strident woes, saying, “I wanna ride the sheep—no, I wanna ride it!—no, you got to ride the pony—no, it’s my turn to ride the sheep—I wanna ride it first!”
“Aye, just you come closer, ye wee fribblegibblers,” Baba seethed, grinning to herself. “We’ll see how you make a noise with a stone in yer mouth.”
She waited by the fence, expecting to be met with by sullied faces, soiled fingers, and running noses, but the voices soon ceased, and other more authoritative voices succeeded. Stairs were mounted in a flurry of anger and exasperation, doors were opened and slammed closed, and instead of the children being to appear running over the knoll and tumbling toward the fence, Baba’s neighbour, the Farmer MacClaidhin, appeared over the brow of the hill. He stood on the knoll, looking as though he had endured enough fatherhood for one day, his hair looking as though it were frantically trying to escape his hat, the straps of his overalls wilted over his shoulders, with his shirt disheveled, his features rapt in all the agony that being a father and wishing he had not enjoyed the evenings with his wife half so much could produce. If only his wife were a miserable creature, he should never have been persuaded to love her; the curse of marital redemancy paid for itself in the tax of children, and the more they loved each other, the higher the price of their affection became. He had done a right thing in seeing the local cleric, to correct what the gift of nature had so unwillingly bestowed, and while they were protected against the levy of future children, they must find a way to better manage the ten already inbeing. If only his neighbour had loved a child better—she lived alone so long, she had forgotten what a pleasure it was to welcome a stranger into her home. Even he and his wife had never been in her house above twice all the time they lived next to her, and really, she was such a dear old thing, it was rather a shame to see her always alone, crambling about her strawberry beds, digging up the beet and cabbage, milking the cow and taking in the eggs, and never did he see anyone assist her with the general farm work. Beryn did come every year to do the spring ploughing for her, and Lochan came to see whether her animals were well, and Regent MacDaede would look in on her once in a while, but she had no one else but her cat, who was looking old and grizzled and really ought to be put down one of these days. A child, someone she could love and who could love her, might be the very thing to make an old and forlorn woman happy, but Farmer MacClaidhin was made to rethink his ideas of passing one of his children on to Baba when he heard her voice call out from the fence, “’MON THEN, YE PORKERS! I’LL STUFF YER GOBS WITH ROCKS, SO I WILL!”
He turned, and standing at the fence below was Baba, with her hand raised and eyes searching. A sudden anxiety seized him, and trying to hide the indelible stains of fatherhood, Farmer MacClaidhin quickly tucked in his shirt and pulled up the straps on his overalls. “Ho, there, Gran Mara!” waving and called down to her, thinking it best not to approach the fence just now. “How’s that garden doin’ th’day?”
Baba lowered her throwing hand and grew suspicious. “Doin’ fine, just fine, now that it’s replanted.” She narrowed her gaze and studied the brow of the hill. “Where’re those wee-uns o’ yers? I heard ‘em makin’ a ruckus, and I’m waitin’ to unruckus ‘em.”
“Oh,” said Farmer MacClaidhin, with a nervous laugh, “they’re in the house—I hope. Just set up the pen for the new sheep what Lochan brought over, and the two eldest are already arguin’ over whose gonna have a ride on the sheep first.”
“Let ‘em both do it at once. The sheep’ll buck and make a run for it, and both o’ ‘em’ll fall aff, probably break somethin’ and lose a few teeth. They’ll never hollar about ridin’ again.”
The farmer was silenced.
“Aye, well,” Baba sniffed. ‘S what happens when you have more sheep than sense to stop breedin’. Yer fornicatin’ like hares over there. You have one, and that one sprouts two more.” Baba gurned up at him. “Didn’t have anymore wee-uns overnight, did you?”
The farmer thumbed the straps of his overalls and averted his eyes. “No, ha ha. Think we’re all right for wee-uns for th’ while. Ha ha.”
“Ha ha,” said Baba mirthlessly. “Better get yerself and the wife stunted before there are anymore accidents roamin’ around my garden.”
The anxious smiles that Farmer MacClaidhin was cherishing now failed him, and he felt the full meaning of Baba’s vicious gowl.
“Caught yer little dirt-dandlers pullin’ my flowers the other day,” Baba asserted. “Lucky I didn’t cut their toes aff for trespassin’.”
The farmer made a heavy sigh, closed his eyes, and pulled his hat down over his face. “Amhaile, I’m real sorry, Gran—“
“Aye, yer plenty sorry,” she spat, whistling through the embrasure in her teeth. “And you were sorry the last time, and the last, and the last on top o’ that. Well, I’m tellin’ you now and ye’ll hear it, so you will: I see anymore o’ yer hedge-nippers traipsin’ on my land, whether garden or field, I’m settin’ the bear traps along the fence. They don’t learn by a-tellin’, they’ll learn by their limpin’, and shise shin. D’ya hear me?”
He was in the midst of forming a more completely and sincere apology on behalf of his unmanageable children when his wife suddenly appeared behind him. She came from the house, and was come, by her restful aspect and thundering step, to ask why her husband would send the children back into the house when she sent them out on purpose, to be out of doors and away from her while the dinner was in preparation. She came to be scolding and officious, but when she descried Baba standing just beyond the fence, looking very displeased, her indignation failed her, and the countenance of civility must prevail when company was by. “Oh, Good afternoon, Mara,“ she beamed, waving down to the old woman.
“Fah! Keep yer afternoons and save yer breath to cool yer bolaig,” Baba rejoined, tossing a dismissive hand at them. “It’d be a good afternoon if I didn’t find yer offspring pullin’ up my garden. Keep yer pissant little gobshites out of my fields, and tie yer legs closed to keep me from findin’ more of her babes in my cabbages.”
Mrs. MacClaidhin was mortified, but her neighbour was old and irritable, and she could allow for Baba’s curt observations, knowing that her own attempts at parenting and policing her children had been comparatively poor. “I know you’re still upset about the pie—“ she began.
“No, I’m not. Yer bastard didn’t get the pie, but I got his thievin’ fingers. Lucky I didn’t set the knifes up to cut them aff when the window came down. Heh! Next time I find him in my fields, he better be helpin’ me pull up the carrots, or that’s him tanned and skinned.”
She stabbed her finger at the farmer and his wife, and the MacClaidhins were silenced by the force of their humiliation, each of them murmuring their heartfelt apologies for all the trouble their children made for her. Their children were their fault, they knew, and their being disagreeable and unruly was also their doing: as parents who were doing their utmost to be responsible, they had too many voices to listen too, too many mouths to feed, too many characters to contend with; when they were scolding one child, another would escape and begin scheming against their younger siblings whilst making designs on how they would compete in who could touch Old Baba Connridh’s house without ending up in her stew pot. Everything was ruined by their petty and childish velitations: everyone must have the toy of some other, everyone must have what was on their brother’s or sister’s plates, and nothing was done without a fracas, birthdays and holidays beginning well ended in misery over who received the better present and who had more cake-- even the sight of new sheep, which would be an otherwise happy time on a farm, was ruined by their constant bickering and bellowing. They quarreled with each other because they would, they pulled each other’s hair, they kicked and bit one another in an incessant fight for attention, and when one was attended to, the other nine cried over the indulgence, of how unfair Ma and Da were behaving by themselves. There was no peace in the house; the time for equanimity had long passed away, replaced by the cacophony of shouts and starts, and all either parents could do was settle their children into order and be very much ashamed of their large family. Their farm was the scene of mismanagement and mistake, each of them regretting how much their love had blinded their expectations. Now, they were too weary for love, and every moment of silence was a treasure in itself. It was silent on the knoll, however: all the children were in the house, fighting over who was going to pet the sheep first and who was going to name it and who was going to be allowed to shear it first, and the MacClaidhins, though injured by Gran Mara Connridh’s candour, could not refute her. She was right in all her prognostications, excepting her commentary on what the farmer’s wife should by way of preventing their having another child. Some had many children and were happy under such a blessed house, others had one child and regretted their parental despondence from beginning to end, but the MacClaidhins were too wearied to argue or dissent: they did love their children, but hearing the muted debates issuing from the house, they wished they could love them better than they deserved. Having children had never been their difficulty; raising them not to kill each other and not to alienate the family by tormenting their friends and neighbours was their greatest trial, and as they watched Baba Connridh noggle away, they could not help but think a missing toe or two on a few of the children might teach them the conduct they would not learn any way else.