Updated: Jun 5
When she first arrived, she dismissed them all out of hand. “A shit-hole,” she called the place, “full of Drifters, Druggies, Alcoholics and Odd-bods.” She thought of them all in their caravans smoking or drinking or doing whatever they were doing, and it angered her. “They’re pointless!” she raged inwardly, “They’re doing nothing!” Yet even as the thoughts crossed her mind, she noticed how harsh they sounded. Wasn’t she supposed to believe that the value of each person was innate and unearned? Wasn’t her reaction extremely judgemental? It occurred to her that perhaps she was, in fact, afraid. Afraid she might become like them, or, worse still, that she might actually already be like them – after all, wasn’t she also staying in a caravan on the farm?
Who were they anyway? She’d met most of them the night she arrived, when Tom had made them pizzas in the oven in his van. Tom, with his long beard and man-bun, who’d cornered her to tell her that the governments of the world were conspiring to suppress her freedom, in league with the planets and cosmic forces. The intense eye contact along with wild gesticulations rendered her mute with no idea what to say. What could one say? John talked about weed the way the millennials discussed avocados, and he dispensed it liberally, expressing obvious approval of anyone who accepted.
Then there was Craig, the silent, thick-set man in his fifties who wore a dark-grey woollen hat over a number-one shaved head. Why did he park his van at the end of the lane and not in the field with the rest of them? What was his purpose in hanging around? Was that 19 year old really his son? And what was that … around their noses, as they reappeared from the dark of the bushes while they stood around the fire?
How about the wild-looking guy with long grey hair and a beer in his hand at 8am – Barry, he was called - you know, the one with the ‘alc-y-glow’? Was he joking when he asked me to, “Tell Craig, I’ve sorted two ounces, so there’s three left to go.”
And what about Paul? He was totally crackers! He kept repeating that he didn’t imagine that he would be the crazy guy in the van one day – but how could he be anything else?
One thing was certain. This was not the kind of place she wanted to fit into.
The morning after a raucous evening of joking and drinking in a caravan with other newbies, she discovered to her dismay that she’d run out of teabags. Blurrily, she stumbled into the barn to start her morning duties bedding down the ewes.
“Are you alright?” she heard a shout from the doorway. It was Tom calling over to her as she tried for the third time to tie a bucket of water onto a fence for the ewe who’d just given birth.
“I haven’t had any caffeine yet,” she answered grumpily.
“You can share my coffee!” he proffered, immediately disappeared back to his van, returning moments later with a clean mug full of freshly ground coffee, steaming and ready to push-start the day.
They drank the shared coffee together, leaning against a bale of straw. He’d added CBD oil to the coffee - he was sorry he should have told her, he just forgot – but it contained anti-inflammatory properties – he’d once had a Muslim woman kneeling to pray for the first time in ten years after using his oils - … It was obvious, she realised as he continued to talk, he was anxious. Didn’t she also know what it was to use shock tactics to test a person on first meeting them? Didn’t she also know what it was like to feel anxious? Was he really so different to her? At that moment, he caught sight of the tiny newborn triplets that were in the pen where she was standing. “Can I have a cuddle?” he asked, entranced. She picked up the littlest lamb and watched as he held it carefully, gazing into its face. “Oh, you are just unbelievable!” he breathed.
A few days later, Craig revealed that he kept his van at the end of the lane because he was a light sleeper and the cockerels keep him awake at night. Suddenly the skinhead demeaner seemed a little softer – maybe she’d been imagining it all along. Observing him around a fire that evening, she noticed how kind he was, and how positive, to and about everyone. He was quiet simply because he didn’t feel the need to fill silence unnecessarily - but he could crack a joke with the best of them. She started to notice the tone of admiration with which people mentioned his name around the farm – need to cut a tractor in half? Talk to Craig. Need to install a heater in a van? Talk to Craig. Want an extra-large barbecue? Talk to Craig. He can weld, forge, fix anything, Craig can.
One lunchtime, Craig popped by her caravan when they were cooking just to let them know that his brother-in-law had died – he’d known him since he was a kid – he was going to have to go home for a bit – back up to Sheffield – he normally only went at Christmas and Easter – not that they were religious, mind – a right shame – real sad – he turned away and sipped his coffee… She decided she liked him, with his quiet voice and soft, Northern accent.
One evening, they invited Paul to come and join them in the caravan – or rather, Paul begged to be allowed to come over. Clearly he was desperately lonely, with a bad case of what could only be described as verbal diarrhoea. He brought a bottle of wine with him, and, not noticing the half-drunk bottle already on the table, opened it and filled up a mug for himself. As she watched him, a memory surfaced of a time when, after two days of not talking to anyone, she’d begged to be invited to dinner with some friends of friends she knew only vaguely, only to find that she’d forgotten all the social rules. She’d proceeded to help herself to ¾ of a dish of food that was supposed to go round five, followed by farting loudly, then feeling so mortified that she’d left soon afterwards. The memory of this ridiculous encounter softened her to Paul’s social stumbling, and she listened more attentively as he jittered about his work taking boys who were expelled from school out on wild camping trips, drinking the entire bottle of wine by himself as he spoke.
A few days later, Paul stopped her on the path. He wanted to apologise for the insensitivity of bringing up his newly developing view of women as “maybe not just sex objects”. After a little reassurance, they got onto discussing childhood heroes. His was Arnold Schwarznegger, he remembered, whereas she’d only seen him in the film where he got pregnant and had found it quite disturbing.
“Well who was yours?” He asked.
“I grew up on a diet of adventure books – you know, Enid Blyton, that sort of thing.”
“You remind me of an Enid Blyton character – Oh, and did you read Swallows and Amazons?”
“I wanted to BE them!” she responded excitedly.
And there it was: something in common. Connection. And suddenly Paul wasn’t just the strange waster in an abandoned green caravan any more, but was a human who had fallen on hard times, but still shared a love of adventures and outdoors and imagination. As they parted, they both said, and meant it,
“It was SO nice to meet you.”
One evening, Barry and his girlfriend joined them after dinner for drinks, which escalated into dancing when he brought out his speakers and started blasting 80’s ballads. Barry, it turned out, came from the same area that she did – which made sense, now she thought about the way he played reggae music through his car speakers on a Saturday morning when the sun was out. His girlfriend was younger than he was and had twin sons, and Barry, she saw, was surprisingly good with his girlfriend's kids: very kind, but taking no nonsense.
Barry owned a piece of rare, wet woodland a few miles away that he had been paying off for 15 years and was just about to make fully his own. He spend his weekends laying hedges, strimming and pruning to improve the biodiversity of the site, which, he boasted, was officially part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As he talked, it quickly became evident that underneath the wayward exterior was a man who was passionate about wildlife and connection with the land. This was something she could only be filled with respect for.
The day before Easter day, two things occurred to her. Firstly, that all these men had unquestioningly accepted her and made her welcome despite all of their imagined and real differences. Secondly, that she no longer needed to be afraid of the outlier in herself – the parts of herself that wandered on the margins of different groups never quite fitting in, because this was in fact a community of kind, interesting people who cared about the world and were just doing their best to get by, with little external encouragement. Far from shunning this community, it had become a privilege to get to know them, because they were in fact beautiful, infinitely valuable people. The firm belief that they deserved to be treated as such had crept up on her slowly as the days and weeks heaped up. So that evening, she went around the farm like a town crier, announcing that the next day, Easter lunch would be served outside the caravans, and everyone was welcome.
The next day, she got up early to look for some dishes to use for cooking. Luckily, Tom was able to provide a few quite earthy pyrex trays which had been left outside for a while but would be fine with a quick wash wouldn’t they? As the hours progressed, people went back and forth across her door, one letting her know he would be there and what time should he come? One offering to lend a table, one bringing her a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, one asking if she needed anything. As the time for lunch drew near, she laid out colourful scarves as a tablecloth and picked daffodils that her new friends placed into mugs at each end of the table. It was an odd combination of food – cottage pie, daal and feta salad that she’d made, along with some gluten free cake-fingers provided by the unusually down-to-earth blacksmith who worked onsite; some blueberries brought by the older man who was doing up a van in the next-door field, and strawberries and crème fraiche brought by Tom.
“Thank you for bringing us together for this meal,” said one of the men.
“Thank you for accepting us newcomers and making us feel so welcome!” she exchanged, and they all beamed at each other from the logs and boxes and plastic chairs they were sitting on, warm with a meal made and shared with love and from the early Spring sunshine pouring down on them from the heavens.
This, she decided - this accepting others; this accepting the parts of herself that she had avoided; this being accepted despite her own judgemental attitudes; this odd group of people with their hurts and loves that she temporarily belonged to:
This was community.
Happy Easter, they all smiled.