The Richmond Review

book review   

   | WHAT'S NEW | LIBRARY | FEATURES | REVIEWS | WHO WE ARE | LINKS |

      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

The Restraint of Beasts
A short story by Magnus Mills








The Restraint of Beasts
Magnus Mills
Flamingo
London 1998
215pp
£9.99
0002257203




Merchandise Links

Books by Magnus Mills

Mr McCrindle had a sloping field. A sloping field! As if a farmer didn’t have enough to worry about. It was the curse of his life: always had been. Not only was there a terrible problem with surface water during the winter months but now all the government drainage grants were beginning to dry up. Worst of all, the bottom part of the field was so steep it was no use to him because his cows wouldn’t go down there. And if they did they wouldn’t come back!

Mr McCrindle told us all this as we stood at the top of the field wishing he would go away. Tam and Richie had heard it all before, of course, and now they kept slightly aloof, leaving me to deal with him.

‘Sounds like you’re better off with sheep,’ I remarked.

Mr McCrindle looked at me. ‘Sheep?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘With it being sloping, like. They might prefer it.’

‘I’m a dairy farmer.’ he said. ‘what would I want with sheep?’

‘Er… don’t know. Just a suggestion, really.’

The difficulty with talking to Mr McCrindle was that he had very watery eyes which made him look as though he was going to burst unto tears at any moment. You felt you had to be very careful what you said to him. I’d only mentioned sheep in a half-hearted attempt to change the subject of conversation. Up until then we had been talking about Mr McCrindle’s new fence, and he’d made it quite clear just how disappointed he was.

‘I’m very disappointed, boys,’ he kept saying, with a glance at Tam and Richie. ‘Very disappointed indeed.’

He’d been onto us ever since the moment we arrived. No sooner had we got out of the truck to survey the situation, than he had come chugging into the field in his van. I would have preferred to have a chance to work out what had gone wrong before he turned up. Maybe have a walk down the fence line to consider our position and prepare ourselves for awkward questions. But, in the event, he was on the scene straight away, so there was nothing I could do.

‘It’s a very sorry state of affairs,’ he said, the tears welling up in his eyes.

Mr McCrindle had every right to be disappointed. He had particularly specified a high-tensile fence, even though it was much more expensive than a conventional one. That was why he had contacted the company in the first place. It specialized in high-tensile fencing and had been a pioneer in developing the technique to its present state. Only best-quality galvanized spring-steel wire and weather-resistant posts were used, every fence being erected by highly experienced personnel. He knew this because it was all outlined in the illustrated company brochure (written by Donald).

Mr McCrindle now surprised me by producing a copy from his inside pocket.

It says here,’ he said, reading aloud. ‘"A high-tensile fence should retain its tension for the first five years at least.”’

He poked his finger at the line of print. ‘See? Five years. Cost me a fortune and it went slack overnight!’

We looked across at the evidence, a line of brand new posts marching off down one side of the field, with all the wires hanging limp.

‘No use to man or beast!’ he announced.

Poor Mr McCrindle. I thought he was going to break down in front of me. All he wanted to do was get his cows turned into the field, but he couldn’t. Of course he was disappointed! He was a livestock farmer whose new fence had gone slack, and I wanted to put my arm around his shoulder and say, ‘There there.’

‘Let’s see what the problem is then,’ I said, striding towards the fence. As I approached I remembered Donald’s injunction about checking that it was straight. To do so it was necessary to perform a sort of genuflection at one end of the fence and glance along the line of posts. I was just doing this when I became aware that Mr McCrindle had followed me and was looking puzzled. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked, as I stood upright again.

‘Nothing really,’ I replied. ‘Just making sure that it’s straight.’

Behind Mr McCrindle I noticed Tam and Richie exchanging glances.

‘What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?’ he asked.

‘Well… I just thought I’d look, that’s all.’

‘And is it?’

‘Take a look for yourself.’

Mr McCrindle stood at the end of the fence and genuflected with a grunt. ‘Oh, me bloody back!’ He shut one eye, then the other. ‘What am I supposed to be lining it up with?’

‘Itself.’

I left Mr McCrindle squinting along the line of posts and set off down the fence to see if I could find the fault. Realizing that they were now alone with him, Tam and Richie quickly followed after me.

I inspected every post as I went, to make sure each one was firmly embedded in the ground. They all were. I examined the condition of the wire. It was shining and new, straight from the factory. All the time I was aware of Tam and Richie watching me, watching the tests I carried out on their fence. Eventually we got down to the other end.

‘See?’ said Tam.

‘What?’ I said.

‘You said a post must be loose.’

‘No I didn’t. I just wondered why the fence had gone slack, that’s all.’

Tam looked at me but said nothing.

‘So why has it then?’ I asked.

‘Mr McCrindle shouldn’t have kept interfering.’

‘Yeah, alright, but that’s no reason…’

‘Well I don’t fucking know!’ he snapped. ‘I’m not fucking foreman, am I?’

‘What difference does that make?’ I said, but Tam had already turned and gone stomping off up the field.

I looked at Richie. ‘Now what?’

‘Tam used to be foreman.’

‘When?’

‘Until you came along.’

‘What, today?’

He nodded.

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. ‘Who was he foreman of?’

‘Me.’

‘I thought you were both equal.’

‘He’s been a fencer longer than me… or you,’ he said.

I sighed. ‘It’s not my fault. This was Donald’s idea.’

‘Oh.’ Richie was now idly toying with a fence wire.

‘By the way,’ I said. ‘Why do you think it’s gone slack?’

‘Mr McCrindle kept interfering,’ he replied.

Well, maybe, but it looked to me as if the wires simply hadn’t been tightened up properly in the first place. The fence bore all the hallmarks of a job that had been rushed in the final stages, and in a way Mr McCrindle probably could be held to blame. Tam had complained earlier about how he was forever sneaking up on them and poking about while they were building the fence. I came to the conclusion that Tam and Richie had simply failed to tighten the wires properly because of their haste to escape the attentions of Mr McCrindle. It was no excuse, but, nevertheless, it was probably the reason.

‘Is that what you want me to tell Donald, then?’ I asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Richie.

Well I knew, and I could just imagine what Donald would say. After all, the company was hardly going to make a profit on a job that had gone wrong like this. Tam seemed to have conveniently forgotten that it would be me, not him, who would have to report back to Donald. It was me who had to take responsibility for restoring the tension in Mr McCrindle’s fence. I could see already that we were going to have to come back again the next day. It had taken so long to get all Tam and Richie’s equipment sorted out and straightened up, before driving out to Mr McCrindle’s, that the light had already started to fade by the time we got there. At this time of the year the darkness crept up on you so slowly you barely noticed, and it was far too late to start tightening wires now. Which meant we’d have to return tomorrow. All highly inefficient. It wasn’t really a job for three men over two days, yet what could I do? I could hardly send Tam and Richie back here unsupervised tomorrow, especially not with Mr McCrindle lurking around. And it seemed unthinkable to split them up and just bring Tam. Or just Richie. As far as I knew that had never been done. Fortunately, Donald seemed to have washed his hands of the Mr McCrindle episode and wanted nothing more to do with it. As long as I got it sorted out ‘before the beginning of next week’ he would not intervene. Hopefully, by the time the question of profit and loss came up, Mr McCrindle would be a forgotten name in the accounts.

We found Tam brooding about halfway up the fence. There didn’t seem to be any sign of Mr McCrindle anywhere, and we decided he must have cleared off for the time being. So at least we had some respite.

‘Got a fag, Rich?’ said Tam, as we approached. Richie reached for the lump in his shirt pocket and produced his pack of cigarettes, then fished the lighter out of his jeans. As they lit up I wondered with irritation why he didn’t keep them together in the same pocket.

Tam turned to me. ‘We’ll have to come back tomorrow, will we?’

‘Looks like it.’

‘That’s a cunt, isn’t it?’

Yes, I agreed, it was. Dusk was now approaching quickly. I left them smoking and went and stood looking down the steep part of the field into the gloom.

To my dismay I saw Robert coming up the other way. What was he doing there? I turned to warn Tam and Richie, whom I could just see in the fading light. I got their attention, put my finger to my lips, and beckoned them to join me quietly.

‘He’s come to snoop on us,’ murmured Tam.

We could now see that Robert had Ralph with him. It was interesting to watch their progress up the slope. Instead of scrambling alongside the fence, as we had done, Robert was following the ‘correct’ route for his ascent, taking a very meandering path that gained height gradually in a series of switchbacks. This also suited Ralph, who was getting on in years. However, looking from above, Robert hardly appeared to be getting anywhere at all. First he would move across the slope to the right for several yards, then over to the left, back to the right, and so on. With Ralph plodding behind. It seemed to take for ever. Robert never looked up to see how far he’d got. He just kept his eyes carefully on the ground as he chose his path. It was not until he finally reached the top of the slope that he saw us all standing there watching.

‘Good evening,’ he said.

I must admit I was impressed by Robert’s demeanour. Not only had he just ascended a steep slope without a pause, but he had also come face to face with three people he evidently meant to surprise. Yet Robert greeted us with a casual ‘good evening’ as though we had been expecting him. A bit of a gent really, although Tam and Richie probably regarded him as ‘posh’.

‘Everything under control?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We’ve just got to add the finishing touches tomorrow.’

‘Good.’

‘Are you going to speak to Mr McCrindle?’ I asked.

‘No, that’s your job,’ he replied.

‘What about Donald?’

‘I’m here on my own account,’ he said. ‘You need to report direct to him … if and when appropriate.’

Then, after a polite nod to Tam and Richie, Robert turned and went back the way he had come, with Ralph trailing after him. Why he’d journeyed all this way to see us remained unclear. If he was merely snooping, as Tam put it, then it was only in a most harmless way because he’d given the fence nothing more than a cursory inspection in passing. He was unfamiliar with the technical side of fencing anyway, and was probably only taking a proprietorial interest in a business he could no longer influence. It was like a powerless head of state paying a visit to foreign subjects about whom he knew little. He stayed a short while just to remind us that he existed, and then he went away again. His role was generally unimportant, and as he disappeared into the gathering dusk I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

‘It’s the dog I feel sorry for,’ remarked Tam.

When we were convinced Robert had definitely gone the three of us trudged back up the field. We found the truck in the darkness and headed for the gate. On the way out we passed Mr McCrindle’s van coming in. He flashed his headlights. I flashed back in a friendly way and we fled.


By the time I’d got home, washed and changed and gone out again, the Leslie Fairbanks evening was in full swing. Leslie Fairbanks had a residency at the Crown Hotel Public Bar. Once a week he performed his musical programme entitled ‘Reflections of Elvis’ to what seemed to be the entire local population. We lived in a quiet place on the road to Perth, and the Crown Hotel was the only establishment you could get a drink apart from the Co-Op off-licence. It occupied one side of a small square opposite the bank at the top of the main street. Which was, in fact, the only street. I don’t think Leslie Fairbanks was his real name: I’d seen him once or twice behind the wheel of a lorry with the words ‘L.G. Banks, Road Haulage’ stencilled on the side of the cab. Leslie Fairbanks was his chosen stage persona for the nights he appeared with his accordion. Sometimes the show was billed as ‘Reflections of Hank’ by way of a change, but he always remained Leslie Fairbanks. He generally wore a spangled waistcoat for the occasion. A hundred or so people turned up on such evenings at the Crown Hotel, and they needed to be entertained. Leslie Fairbanks had acquired an amplifier for this purpose, and always spent an hour beforehand setting up his equipment and carrying out a sound check, assisted by a youth in dark glasses. Jock the barman, polishing the surface of his counter, could never for the life of him understand why they had to turn it up so loud. It was more than a man could bear. Jock kept a pair of spectacles on a chain round his neck, and he would frequently peer through them at the tangle of cables running from the low stage to the mixing desk.

‘Whatever do they need all those for?’ he would ask anyone he thought might listen to him. Nobody did. They came to the Crown to drink, and on the nights Leslie Fairbanks played they just drank more. This was rural Scotland. There was nothing else to do.

The amplified accordion sounded like some endless, mournful dirge as I approached through the drizzle that evening, but the lights of the Crown Hotel were too bright to let that discourage me. Once inside the door a more convivial noise took over, as Leslie Fairbanks’s endeavours were augmented by the combined racket of drinks being served, laughter and shouted arguments. The place was packed, bodies pressed against each other in a churning mass of persons bent on enjoying themselves despite the odds. Meanwhile, Jock bawled over the tops of people’s heads and kept general order at the bar, assisted when things got especially busy by a girl called Morag Paterson. Sales always increased marginally while Morag was behind the counter, but she was only helping out and most of the time she remained at the other side amongst the customers. Seated on one of the barstools nearby was Mr Finlayson, the greenkeeper at the local golf course. His three sons also drank here. One of them was Tam. He was sitting at a big table with his brother Billy and some of their cohort, so I worked my way across the room. They watched me approach and I saw Billy ask Tam something. Tam nodded, then looked up at me as I joined them.

‘Alright to sit here?’

‘If you like.’

They made a space for me and I sat down, glancing round. ‘No Richie?’

‘We’re not married, you know,’ Tam replied.

‘No, I know,’ I said. ‘I just wondered where he was, that’s all.’

Tam looked at me. ‘Rich can’t come out tonight. He’s got to pay the instalment on his guitar.’

‘Oh, I didn’t know he played the guitar. What sort?’

‘You’ll have to ask him, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, ‘spose.’

I tried to engage Tam in some conversation about fencing, how many miles he’d done, and where, and so forth, but he didn’t seem interested in talking. Judging by the number of empty glasses on the table he’d already had quite a lot to drink before I got there. Also, it wasn’t easy competing against the continual din in the background, especially when a loud ‘clunk’ signalled that the microphone was being plugged into Leslie Fairbanks’s amplifier. I shortly became aware of a man’s voice, apparently singing. Someone had got hold of a mike from behind the bar, and was standing next to Leslie Fairbanks singing as if his life depended on it. His voice was nasal, to the extent that it sounded as if there was a clothes peg clipped onto his nose. He sang with his eyes shut and his fists clenched, while Leslie Fairbanks followed on the accordion, his head tilted to one side, and a faint smile on his face. He appeared to have no objection at all to being usurped by this floor singer and I began to think it was probably something that happened every week. No one else in the place seemed to take the slightest notice of the new addition on stage. They just carried on drinking and shouting all the louder. This more for less put paid to any further talk, so I entertained myself by lining up empty beer glasses with each other across the table-top, watched with vague interest by Tam. It had been a fairly pleasant evening so far, but things began to change after Morag Paterson came to collect up a trayful of empties. It would probably have been alright if Jock hadn’t been too busy to do the job himself. Jock would have parted the crowd roughly and elbowed his way round the tables, grabbing five glasses with each hand and finding something to be grumpy about. Instead it was Morag who appeared, gently leaning over to ask if I’d mind passing the empty glasses. I hardly looked at her, but after she’d gone Tam began to slowly ferment. Several times I caught him staring at me and I had to pretend to be listening intently to Leslie Fairbanks and his partner, who were now in full flow. Tam had been drinking pints of heavy all night, and as he drained the latest one I thought I hard him say something like ‘Well, it’s about time ex-foreman Tam Finlayson bought the new English foreman a drink, is it not?’

Whatever his intention had been when he rose to his feet, something must have got to Tam before he got to me, because instead of asking what I would like to drink, he just lunged at me across the table, so that several glasses went over. I leaned back to avoid him and the next moment he had reared up and was standing before me yelling ‘C’mon, English bastards!’ at the top of his voice.

As far as I knew I was the only English person in the place, so I stood up at my side of the table and waited to see what happened. Tam looked like he was about to make another lunge when Billy intervened.

‘Tam, no!’ he shouted.

‘English bastards!’ Tam screamed. It was odd the way he kept going on about ‘bastards’ in the plural. This suggested it was nothing personal.

Then Billy got Tam in a sort of bear-hug and they both toppled sideways onto the floor amongst the seething mass of drinkers. One or two people began jeering playfully.

Leslie, Fairbanks, man of the moment, saw what happened but decided to press on during the disturbance, somehow managing to change to a much slower, more soothing tune without anybody noticing. This had the interesting side effect of causing his vocal accomplice to fall temporarily silent. In the resulting calm Tam and his brother resurfaced and were all smiles. Billy said something in Tam’s ear and put his arm round his shoulder. The incident seemed to have been already forgotten by most of the bystanders. Their father, sitting at the bar, had turned round on his stool, vaguely aware of some commotion, but quickly lost interest and began to contemplate his drink again. My glass was amongst those that had been knocked over, and as a result it was now empty. As I forlornly stood it upright on the table, Tam settled down opposite me. Billy sat next to him, a large grin on his face.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Tam.

‘That’s OK.’

‘No, really. I’m very, very sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘C’mere.’ Tam reached over the table and clasped my hand. Now he wanted to be my friend, my buddy.

‘Like a drink?’

‘Go on then.’

As Tam lurched off to the bar Billy said, ‘Don’t worry about Tam. If he goes like that again just come and get me.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘What am I going to do with him when we get to England?’

Billy just shrugged.

There was a squeal over at the bar. Tam had managed to spill beer across the counter and most of it had gone over Morag Paterson. Despite the squeal she didn’t seem particularly upset. In fact, she was laughing. It was my beer, of course, that Tam had spilt, and after a while I realized he wasn’t coming back with another one. Eventually I went and bought a drink each for me and Billy. Making sure it was Jock who served me.


Tam was late for work the next day, so I sat in the truck with Richie, waiting for him to turn up.

‘Go out last night?’ I asked.

‘Couldn’t afford it,’ he replied, lighting a cigarette.

‘Tam tells me you play the guitar.’

‘Well, I’m still learning it really,’ he said. ‘I’ve only had it three weeks.’

‘What sort is it then?’

‘Electric.’

Richie was not being very forthcoming, so I gave up trying to interview him about his hobbies. Instead we sat silently in the cab as it slowly filled with smoke. Eventually Tam arrived, failing to provide any excuse for his lateness, and we set off on what we hoped would be our last trip to Mr McCrindle’s. It was imperative we got his fence finished today at all costs, or we’d never hear the last of him.

He was nowhere to be seen when we arrived, which was a good start. He must have been occupied at another part of the farm. While Tam and Richie prepared the wire-tightening equipment I went off to take a measurement of the fence, something we’d forgotten to do the day before. This was simply a matter of running a measuring wheel along the entire length of the fence. A small meter at the side of the device clicked up 513 yards. (Donald had decided not to convert from yards to meters because, as he put it, most farmers were incapable of thinking metrically.) When I got back Tam asked me how long the fence was.

‘513 yards,’ I told him.

‘I’ll measure it,’ he announced, taking the wheel and setting off down the field. I let him get on with it as there was plenty of time to spare. When he came back the meter read 522. I don’t know how he achieved this figure, but I recorded it all the same. Now we could concentrate on getting Mr McCrindle’s new fence up to the required level of tension. Tam had elected to do the re-tightening. I didn’t protest as it was his fence officially, and he was supposed to be a good judge of torque. I sent Richie down to the bottom of the field to keep an eye on the job from that end, then all I had to do was stand and watch in my capacity as foreman.

The wire-tightening gear consisted of a wire-gripper and a chain winch. Tam began the process by anchoring the winch to the straining post at the start of the fence. This was a substantial piece of timber, dug deep into the ground and supported by a strut at forty-five degrees. He then fixed the gripper to the bottom wire and slowly tightened it by means of a handle which ‘walked’ link by link along the chain. When he was satisfied with the tension he tied the wire off at the post, and moved up to the next one. As Tam settled into his work the true form of the fence began to appear. The second wire was tightened, then the third, and fourth, each providing a new taut parallel line. It was beginning to look good. At last I could see how perfectly straight the line of posts was, and there was no sign of any weakening of the structure. Tam would pull his handle to the left, re-position his feet and pull to the right, and so on, until, slowly, the correct level of tension was reached. As usual Tam wore his rubber boots, and he was digging his heels hard into the ground to maintain his balance as he heaved on the handle. At last he came to the top and final wire. This was the most important one, especially in a fence intended to restrain cows, because of their tendency to lean over and eat the grass on the other side. It therefore had to be especially tight. Tam placed the gripper on the wire and carefully cranked the handle one way, then the other. And again one way, then the other. Very slowly now. One way, then the other. He paused.

‘That should do it,’ I said. The whole fence was humming under the strain.

‘I think I’ll give it one more,’ said Tam. He looked at me for a long moment. ‘We don’t want it going slack again, do we?’

‘Suppose not.’

He planted his feet and began to heave carefully. He really was taking this to the limit this time. It was just as he got the handle about halfway that I noticed Mr McCrindle had joined us. I don’t know where he’d come from, but he was now standing directly behind Tam, watching him work. Maybe it was Mr McCrindle’s sudden appearance that caused Tam to lose his footing. I’m not really sure, it all happened so quickly. Mr McCrindle said something and Tam seemed to glance sideways. Next thing his balance had gone and he was jerked off his feet. The shock of the change in direction sent the chain snaking upwards for a moment. A moment just long enough for the gripper to release the wire and fly back towards Mr McCrindle. He was still speaking as it hit the side of his head.

It sounded to me like ‘Norbert’ or maybe ‘Noydle’. Whatever he was saying, the words trailed off as Mr McCrindle keeled over. I stepped forward to catch him, and discovered how difficult it can be to hold someone upright when they appear to have stopped trying. So I leant him against the fence.

Mr McCrindle had a very surprised look on his face. His eyes were wide open, but he was, apparently, dead.


Copyright © Magnus Mills 1998

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Restraint of Beasts is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and his agents, Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency.

All rights enquiries to David Miller <davidm@rcwlitagency.demon.co.uk>

UTILITIES


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder



Browse our network:


Visit The Big Bookshop www.thebigbookshop.com

| LINKS | WHO WE ARE | REVIEWS | FEATURES | LIBRARY | WHAT'S NEW |    


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review