Conversations With Strangers

by Kate Carty.

I saw no one all that day. A severe weather warning had kept me at home. I stayed in my bed most of the day, listening. Listening to the sound of the wind whooshing around the leaves. I remember these country sounds from childhood visits to my grandparents in Mayo. I recently moved from a suburban house in England to a rural residence in Westport. A blow-in who has yet to meet all the neighbours. 

A lost lover introduced me to the art of wind-listening. “Just lie there and listen, it’s as good as that Mozart you keep playing.” I did as I was told but was doubting Thomas. He was right of course. Later when it was very dark, he showed me how easy it was to catch a bird on a wild windy night. If I close my eyes, I can still see that scrawny sparrow we found hanging on for dear life, against the violent gusts, its claws tight around the low branch. I feel the tiny heart pounding beneath soft feathers cradled in my palm. Farmers seem to know things like that. Things most of us don’t know. 

At dusk, tired of my Sunday of sloth, I go for a walk down the lane past my house. The wind not fully abated, is fresh on my face. I wear my wellies and wade through water thick as jelly, a joy undiminished by middle-age. The farmer from next door is outside loading a bale of silage onto his weathered white truck. He wipes his hand on his blue overalls and he shakes my hand. “How are ya doing? She is dying down now thank God. He smiles at me. Yes, should be calmer tonight. Are you feeding cattle? I am. I’ve just fed the lambs. Have ya seen any this year?” To be honest, I didn’t even know they’d been born yet. “Have ye time to look?”

I follow him into the shed which is beside the white cottage that is always adorned with flowers. Today I see tubs of daffodils, hyacinths and primroses. In the half light of the evening I can see a number of ramshackle stalls containing black and white ewes with their twins, bedded on thick yellow straw. He tells me there are twenty-six. There is a brown donkey in the middle stall. I used to hear it baying daily in the summer from my bedroom window. Her call was haunting, sad and lonesome. She must be happier here with the sheep. Over to the right side of the shed, is a pony that shines like Black Beauty. She enjoys licking the back of my hand. She has a soft tongue. I enjoy it too. 

“Their tongues are smooth, aren’t they? If she were a cow twould be like sandpaper.” We both laugh. “She likes you, there’s not many she licks.”

The lambs are tiny like the furry black and white pyjama case that I used to take to bed with me as a little girl. He lifts one out for me to cuddle, she is soft as a toy and snuggles into the crook of my arm, but the mother’s distress is too much to bear so I give her back. 

“What breed are they? Jacobs. They are all Jacob’s sheep. First mentioned in the bible. That is how they got their name. Popular breed. If I take any to the Mart. I sell them like that.” He clicks his fingers. He delights in telling me what great mothers they are, very attentive. I ask him if they are inside because of the weather. “No tis the foxes are the danger, not the cold. They’re sly divils, they circle the mother, mother her till she moves away from the weakest lamb. Then he pounces, takes its neck in its jaws and he’s off with it. The ewe could be crying for days.” I feel sad, then glad, that these are safe inside. I ask him if it was common for all Jacobs to have multiple births. He smiles. 

“They are if they’re on good grass.” He tells me that higher up the hills they throw single lambs because the pasture is too thin up there for anything more. 

We inspect the nursery on the other side where there are three sets of triplets. Inside these sheds are similar to how my father’s used to be; all cobbled together with a mishmash of old doors, pieces of discarded timber and ancient gates all tied together with the ubiquitous orange baling twine. 

I’d forgotten how much pleasure there is in conversations with strangers who know things I don’t know and who are kind enough to share them with me. 

I wade back through the flooded lane awash with wonder at the joy of a conversation with a stranger— a new friend, my neighbour. I open the back door into the house. It feels good to be home. I sit beside the warmth of the stove and reflect how I get carried away with myself and my fancy education. I’d forgotten that all the answers are not on the net or in a book. I’d forgotten how much pleasure there is in conversations with strangers who know things I don’t know and who are kind enough to share them with me. 

I am looking forward to the next conversation salon. Who will I meet? What will I learn?