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Weekend Read: Laois man wins national Macra short story competition with ‘After Milking’

Laois man Peter Farrell was last week announced as the winner of the Macra na Feirme short story competition.

A member of the East Laois Macra club, he works as an assistant editor with RTE digital and is also secretary of the St Joseph’s GAA club.

You can read his winning entry, After Milking, in full below.

The rain was lightly pattering against the window as the alarm sounded. John instinctively reached out to silence it, before closing his eyes again. A dangerous game.

Despite the temptation to drift back to sleep, he gently rolled from bed a minute later, dressed and went to the kitchen. Two slices of buttery toast, a tea with two sugars and out the door.

He crossed the starlit yard to the shed, picked up his bike and silently set off about his business. Five minutes later he was down the gravel roadway to the paddock, where 70 impatient ladies were waiting.

His arrival was greeted with little more than a petulant look, and as he opened the gap the cows made their way towards the yard. For them, it was just like any other day.

When he reached the parlour, behind the stragglers in the herd, John tried to settle into a routine. At first it was slow and cumbersome, but as he diligently milked the rows, he started to get the hang of things again.

In the background, a politician was being grilled about something or other on the radio. The finer details were lost beneath the hum of the parlour, and the noises from his herd. John didn’t say a word. There was no one to say it to anyway.

When milking was over, the sun was up, shining palely across the countryside. It brought little warmth, but the light was better than the dark. The cows made their way back along the gravelly path to a fresh field, their burden lightened. John tidied up around the parlour, before returning to the house.

His mother was up. She almost smiled as she gestured to the range in the corner and said ‘I made some rashers, and there’s tea in the pot’. On the radio, another politician was being asked something, and giving a typical politician’s answer. They sat, not listening to the radio, as he ate a hastily-constructed sandwich and drank another sugary tea. Plates of cake and curling sandwiches sat on the counter.

Eventually, she broke the silence. ‘Have you much to do today?’ ‘Just the usual, really,’ he replied, before adding he needed to go to town after lunch.

With that, he went outside and returned to the one thousand and one mundane tasks that go with life on a small farm. Dinner passed in much the same fashion, after which he took the keys of the jeep from where they had hung in place for the last five days, and went to the co-op. He badly needed to pick up a few bits, but was dreading the journey, and the inevitable small talk.

There were three other vehicles in the yard when he arrived at the small co-op on the edge of town. He recognised the two jeeps, both of which had seen better days, as belonging to neighbours who had also seen better days, but not the small van and trailer that was parked near the shed where bags of ration were kept. 

He went inside to the shop, picked up his supplies and Andy on the desk greeted him warmly. He preferred that to the way people had usually been greeting him in the last few days, usually with an outstretched hand and a mixture of sadness and embarrassment.

The chat was brief, and Andy smiled as he handed him the docket. ‘Mind yourself now John, and your mother,’ he said. ‘Give me a shout if you need anything else’.

John walked back to the jeep, dropping off his purchases from indoors before loading several bags of coal and a bag of dog food into the back. As he closed the swinging back door, Tom Cuddihy was walking towards him. He vaguely remembered seeing him in recent days, but wasn’t sure when.

‘Good to see you out and about again, John,’ he said. ‘How’s your mother keeping?’ John lied and said she was OK, hoping to keep the conversation short as possible. He felt guilty for doing so, but he just wanted to return home, to where the only intrusion on his thoughts was the tinny sound from the radio or a cow who half-heartedly tried to kick his hand as he attached the clusters.

Luckily, Tom seemed satisfied with this answer. ‘Good. If there’s anything ye need at all, ye know where I am. Do ya have my number?’ John admitted that he didn’t, and awkwardly saved it into his phone as Tom called it out. With that, the interaction was over and he set off again for home.

When he was home, he unloaded his haul from the co-op and set off on his bicycle again. The cows seemed in better form this time, having enjoyed a relatively warm, relatively dry day at fresh grass. They trotted gingerly up towards the parlour, their loyal servant pedalling slowly in their wake. 

Afternoon milking was uneventful. Uneventful was good. When he got the parlour washed down, and himself cleaned up, he steeled himself before going back inside.

The kitchen was empty, so he put the kettle on and sat down. He took his phone out, and noticed a message, letting him know the football lads were going for a game of 5-a-side in town and saying he should join them, if he felt up to it.

He contemplated it for a minute, the simple joy of attempting to string passes together on the dodgy astroturf surface, but ultimately decided that he didn’t. ‘Maybe next week, thanks,’ he replied.

With no sign of his mother, he made a cup of tea rather than a pot. As he sat back down to drink it, with an assortment of slightly questionable sandwiches in his paw, she walked in the door from the hall.

‘Typical, if I’d known you were coming down I’d have made the pot,’ he said. ‘Not to worry,’ she replied as she sat down, ‘I’ve been drinking tea all day.’ Then another silence fell. With no radio to intrude on it, it lingered over the table like a great weight, drawing everything towards it. Eventually, it was broken. 

‘He’d be fierce proud of you, you know’ she said.

And with that, they both cried bitter, bitter tears. 

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