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
‘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
‘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
‘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
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?’
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
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
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,
‘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.’
‘Until you came along.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. ‘Who was he foreman of?’
‘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
‘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
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
‘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.’
‘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
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?’
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
‘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
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.
‘No, really. I’m very, very sorry.’
‘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
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?’
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
‘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?’
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
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All rights enquiries to David Miller <[email protected]>