The Little Grey Tractor

IMG_9908‘Gran, please! I’ll be all right, and I’d love to go round the fair with my school friends.’

Sarah sighed. Her granddaughter was a happy-go-lucky nine-year-old, her eyes dancing above shining red cheeks and an infectious smile. Behind her, a trio of giggly girls looked up at the older woman expectantly.

‘Well all right,’ she conceded. ‘Meet me back here in an hour, and here’s £2 for the dodgems.’

‘Brill! Thanks Gran!’ The little gang had streaked off into the crowds of Middleton’s Country Fayre, and within seconds, they had disappeared from view, leaving Sarah alone.

It had been a good weekend so far, staying with her daughter and son-in-law on their farm, keeping an eye on little Julie while her busy working parents got on with the tail end of harvest. She had grown up on a farm very like theirs, only a few miles away, but she had married a young solicitor, moved to the market town, then to Birmingham, then Leeds. Country life seemed a distant memory, and she’d hardly been able to visit at all when her husband Jim was seriously ill. Now she had been a widow for three years, and had all the time in the world.

Sarah looked around her. Well, if she had an hour to spare on her own, she might as well have a look round the ‘Country Fayre.’ It was so different from the village events she remembered as a girl. There, ladies she knew as her mother’s friends from the WI sold homemade jam and chutney from rickety trestle tables. There was bowl for a pig, a sack race, maypole dancing….

‘Scuse me love.’ A man of about 40 edged past her through the crowd, mobile phone clamped to one ear. ‘No, I told him, forget about that Fordson, it’s the little grey Fergie he wants to look at. He won’t find a better one.’ His conversation carried on, almost oblivious to the surroundings, as if his friend was walking beside him. Sarah often wondered what these mobile phone discussions were all about, and something in this one was tugging at her memory. ‘Fergie’. Was that someone who worked on the farm? A nickname from school?

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She walked on through the fayre, past stalls offering fruit smoothies, double glazing and cheap T-shirts. In the distance, the fairground was alive with the shrieks of delighted children. She smiled at the thought of Julie enjoying life with her friends, and managed to suppress the usual twinge of anxiety that came with the responsibility for such a young life.

The stalls were giving way to a more open section, and Sarah stopped to watch a working dogs display. Bright-eyed collies, the very picture of alert obedience, sat stock still, waiting for their master’s command. Then, at a barely discernable grunt or whistle, they were off, skillfully corralling the sheep into a waiting pen. Another tug at her memory. Not the sheep – mum and dad never had those – but the sight of Tess, the collie she had raised from a puppy, waiting for her at the farm gate as she walked home from school.

In the next display, young men with chainsaws were carving fantastical creatures out of great hunks of wood. Sawdust flew from the shrieking, buzzing machines as they cut out the shapes of ears, eyes and wings. Gradually, the creatures took shape – owls and eagles, totem pole monsters. The men were skilled, no doubt about that, and she was half tempted to ask the price of one handsome looking owl. But it was all so different from the way old Bill, the farm worker who had seemed ancient to her when she was Julie’s age, would take out his penknife in spare moments, and whittle away at a piece of elder.

‘There you go young Sarah,’ he’d said to her once, handing her the results of his labours. ‘That’s a fairy on a stick. Put ‘er at the top of yer bed, and she’ll watch over ‘ee. Fairy on a stick always brings good luck.’ Dear old Bill – Sarah wondered what had happened to him. She’d lost touch with so many people after moving away.

The buzz of the chainsaws receded, to be replaced by the thump-thump-thump of ancient engines. Each one of these clattering little machines had been given a job to do. Some were pumping coloured water round a network of transparent pipes, others were running displays of light bulbs or powering other elderly machines. Men stared at them intently as the owners basked in deckchairs,

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ready to answer questions. Her dad had one on the farm, but it was a broken down old

thing, sat in the corner of the barn, and she took even less interest in dilapidated machinery now than she had then. She moved on.

Suddenly, Sarah was aware of how quiet it was. She had walked through a gap into another field, leaving the buzzing machinery muted behind a thick hedge. In front of her was a line of old tractors, every one of them polished to perfection. Little groups of people clustered around some of them, leaning on the tyres, discussing technical details, and perhaps memories.

She was about to walk on when a the sign in front of a small grey tractor brought her up short. ‘Little Grey Fergie,’ it read in carefully hand printed script. ‘1954. Rescued from a hedge and restored. I drove this tractor as a Young Man.’

Sarah stood transfixed as the memories flooded back. 1954 in her father’s farmyard, when as an awkward 14-year-old she watched the farm’s first ever tractor being delivered. It was a little grey Fergie, just like this one, and she could remember the sceptical stares of Granfer and Bill as they too watched the new arrival. ‘New fangled machine,’ grumbled her grandfather. ‘What can that do that a team of good horses can’t? And who’s going to drive it I’d like to know?’

‘Don’t worry father,’ laughed Sarah’s dad. ‘I’m not expecting old dogs like you and Bill to learn new tricks, and I’m too busy on the other jobs. Anyway, we’re the last farm around the parts to be relying on horses – we’ve got to move with the times you know! And this,’ he added, ‘is the lad who will be driving it – Mike Peters, bright lad, just done his apprenticeship and knows these machines inside out.’ He motioned to the young man who had just carefully backed the Fergie into the yard.

He was a nice looking young chap, though Sarah, confident with the machine, but not cocky. He hadn’t worked outside long enough to acquire a farmworker’s ruddy complexion, but he looked at

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ease in his open necked shirt on that spring morning. He smiled at them, a little shyly, knowing that he and his Fergie were the newcomers, and Sarah felt the colour rise in her cheeks.

That year, she had got to know Mike a little better, walking out to the fields to watch him and the Fergie planting, harrowing, cultivating, harvesting and eventually ploughing the soil ready for next year’s crop. Mike wasn’t a big talker, but clearly took great pride in his work, and slowly began to open up to his new friend. ‘Do you know Sarah,’ he said once, ‘sometimes when I’m out here on the Fergie, I can forget about everything else – just the steadiness of the job, the sun moving overhead, and seasons changing. I wouldn’t swap this for anything.’

It was quite a long speech for Mike, but it touched Sarah, reminding her of exactly the same quiet calm that Granfer and Bill showed with the horses. She liked the tractor lad very much, and for a few weeks they had embarked on a tentative and (looking back) quite innocent romance. It had been sweet, gentle and warm. But then she had stayed on at school, gone to secretarial college, met Jim and moved away. She’d never heard from Mike Peters again.

‘Tis a beauty, ain’t she? Just like she were new. Me brother did her up.’

Sarah turned to see a small woman with a kind face standing next to her. ‘Yes, spent hours in the garage, bless ‘im. Drove ‘er when he wasn’t much more than a boy, then found ‘er in the scrapyard a few year ago – should’ve seen his face!’

Sarah smiled at the woman. ‘Did he? It certainly looks wonderful, and it’s brought back some memories. My dad had one of these too – I can remember it coming to the farm. We lived near here.’

The woman was looking at her intently. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, m’dear, what’s your name?’ ‘It’s Sarah. Sarah Judkin, before I was married.’

‘Well I’ll be…Mr Judkin’s girl! My brother knew you! Lives on his own now. You just wait here my love – don’t go away!’

Sarah barely had time to respond before the woman was walking away up the grass with surprising speed towards a little group of caravans.

‘Who was that grandma?’ Julie, her faced flushed with excitement, was back from the fair, her £2 long since spent and her friends gone their separate ways.

‘Well,’ said Sarah, ‘Sit down here on the grass with me, and I’ll tell you.’ They sprawled down in the shade of the little grey tractor, and she began to tell Julie about the little grey Fergie, and the farm lad who drove it. Then out of the corner of her eye, Sarah could see the woman walking back down the field towards them, more slowly now, with a slightly older man on her arm. He had a shy smile, wore no wedding ring and was wearing an open necked shirt.

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