Welcome, Mandi! You said that you’d choose to meet Nichol from Scrap Metal – he had such a gentle and giving soul. I’ll hand you straight over to him.
Nichol: It was funny at first. I mean, I got teased about it for years, and I never minded. There isn’t always time for gentleness on a busy working farm, and when I was growing up – when Alistair and my ma were still alive, when the business was thriving and old Harry really had his empire at his fingertips – things were pretty rough and ready at times. Lambing was the worst, just as it is now, and if the farmhands found a newborn whose mother hadn’t made it, up the cry would go – “Och, where’s Nurse Nichol? Gie the wee ‘un to him!” Which, translated (no wonder I developed a gift for languages early on) meant, “Nichol’s the only one soft enough and daft enough to sit up all night and day giving bottle feeds to the orphans.”
You see, we lost money on each orphaned lamb. The artificial colostrum they need costs the earth, and if you factor in the man-hours for care… Well, Harry never let one die if he could save it, but I overheard him telling Al one night that he’d have to, if yon halfwit bairn (that was me) wasn’t willing to sit in the barn or by the fireside with one lamb on the bottle by my feet and another getting warmed up down the front of my jumper. If they lived, Harry would put as many as he could to ewes who’d had a stillbirth, but still at the end of a few days I had a few wee followers, trotting around after me and bleating for their next feed. They attach themselves to the first living creature that warms and nourishes them, and that was me.
I suppose I should’ve grown out of it. God knows, Al was enough to toughen anyone up, and his laughter and the whole Nurse Nichol thing did alter me, but only to the extent that I was willing to sit up later, do my duty better and make it financially viable for Harry to let the little things survive. Six months later I’d be wondering why I’d bothered, when the tups were turning lairy and butting me round the yard, and the ewes were fat and complacent and anybody’s for a bag of turnips, but I suppose you could say it laid habits of gentleness in me, and a sense that in a tough world, somebody had to be kind.
Which makes it all the stranger that I was ready to shoot poor Cameron on that freezing night when he broke into the barn, because never was a lamb more absolutely lost, soaked to the bone as he was in his useless little jacket and thin-soled city-boy shoes. Of course everything had changed by then. No more Alistair, no more farmhands, no more business, just Harry and me hanging on by a thread in a farmhouse about ready to collapse into ruin around our ears. A thief in the barn was just the last straw, the final push that made me reach for Al’s shotgun. If I’d found some hardfaced thug in there among the bales, someone scaring or harming that year’s handful of orphans, God alone knows what I’d have done.
But it wasn’t. It was Cameron, and the sheep were scaring him. Looking back, I was still pretty mean to him, and he’s never let me forget it. I made him fix the window he’d broken, and I marched him at gunpoint into the house. He still calls me hair-trigger Nic when he wants to get a rise out of me, and does comedy dives for cover if he sees me off after rabbits with the gun. But he knows how fast he broke me. All it took was the offer of a cup of tea, a touch of kindness. I’d been living in such a hostile world. Oh, I was down and disarmed.
Because it works both ways – that’s the thing. I never grew my hard shell, even though I knew Al and my granddad were waiting for it to form, in the hope that I’d be stronger, a better farmer, less of a dreamer and a liability. I actually tried. I’d read in one of Al’s comics that tough lads went out on wilderness expeditions, pitched their own tents, killed their own food. So off I went one night – I think I must have been all of six years old – and tried to camp on the beach. I was stalking a seagull with my penknife when my ma swooped down to grab me and ask what on earth I was doing, and I was so glad to see her, and so sorry for the poor bird (which I’d never got anywhere near), that I let her carry me all the way home, great big lad though I was meant to be by that point, according to Harry’s school of thinking and Al’s.
So I largely blame Ma, for keeping me soft and willing to lay down my arms for handsome young strangers. Ma and the lambs. But I’m grateful to her, you know? Even to my granda and brother for trying and failing to toughen me up. Because I needed to be what I was, and I’d never have found that out without them. I had to wait a lot longer to discover it was all right to be that way, that someone could love me for exactly the strange combination I’d become. Once Cameron arrived and taught me that – oh, not right away; over all the lengthening days of that first springtime – the whole world transformed for me, and then I was glad that I’d never grown that shell, that tough hide, because I was awake and wide open for all the beauty of that new life. Awake and wide open to him.
I hope you enjoyed your chat with Nichol, Mandi. Next Sunday we’re back in Cornwall with Gideon, answering this question from Helenajust…
Because I’ve just re-read the Tyack & Frayne series, I’d choose one of them. I’d ask Gideon how he feels about his increasing extra-sensory powers; he was always very understanding about Lee’s but regarded him as exceptional, so is he able to be as calm about his own?