Stuck Between A Fence And A Hard Place
I can't free a stuck ram, but maybe I can try to untangle myself a bit.
I am alone on a country road, and I am trying to free a sheep.
(A ram, I should say. Maybe if I specify “ram” rather than sheep, you’ll be more understanding about how I merely tried to free him, rather than successfully completing the act.)
I am alone on a country road, and I am trying to free a ram.
It's a little after 9, and I am taking the dog on a congratulatory “well done for your first night without chronic diarrhoea” walk. Chronic diarrhoea in a cocker spaniel is never a good thing – they’re so excitable that they even interpret the clean-up as a compelling play activity – but a spaniel with chronic diarrhoea in a caravan is something different altogether. Every morning for the past three mornings, my dad and I have entered the kitchen-slash-living area with the tip-toeing hopefulness of children on Christmas morning.
There have been many disappointments.
Yesterday, we drove to the local pharmacist, who doubles as an unlicensed vet. He gave us two pills to wrap in bread and butter, and warned us that while it would stop the diarrhoea, it would probably bung him up for a few days. We said we’d risk it. He said not to tell anyone where we got the pills.
When was the last time you saw a ram, outside of an illustration for Aries? Unless you, for some reason, have decided to take a month out of your life to stay in your parent’s caravan in the southwest of Ireland, I’m willing to bet that it’s been a while. Let me tell you one thing about rams: Rams are scary. The male species of virtually any farm animal is scary. Cockerels? Forget about it. Bulls? Get out of here. The only male farm animal I don’t have a bad word to say about is donkeys, because donkeys are fundamentally useless, and that is part of their charm. But rams. Rams are different. There’s a camp fury to rams: something dishevelled and judgmental, like the last drag queen at a roller disco. They’re virtually indistinguishable from adult sheep, which must be embarrassing, except that they have Princess Leia horns, which must also be embarrassing. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that rams are overcompensating for something.
This ram has a black face, and orange eyes, and its face is stuck in a wire fence. The dog sees it first. All bravado from his first night without diarrhoea, he leaps at the ram, playfully tugging at the wool that's pressed up against the letterbox-sized gaps between the fencing. The bleats ring out like a police siren drowning in a mud puddle: Blehhhhh. Blehhhhhh. Blehhhhhh.
“Shit,” I say, to no one. We are at least five minutes from the nearest house, and at least 20 from the farm that owns the ram.
“Blehhhhh. Blehhhh. Blehhhhh.”
I wrestle the dog off the ram’s wool, and tie him to a post where I can still keep an eye on him. He starts to whine, incensed that I am being such a spoilsport about this.
“OK,” I say to the ram. “We’re going to get you free.”
“Shut up,” I say, but I don’t mean it. I sound weak, like a city person in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t want the ram to shut up. I want it to suddenly develop the power of speech and tell me exactly what someone is meant to do in this situation.
The dog is still whining, but not because he’s been left out. He is now squatting, straining, miserably attempting to defecate while staring bleakly at me, wondering why I am letting this happen.
“Shut up you, too,” I say, with the growing realisation that I am trying to navigate two stuck animals while being a very stuck one myself.
I come towards the ram, still sounding like it is vomiting backwards, and try to touch it. I can see what the problem is: It has tried to get at some grass on the other side of the fence and, in the process, tangled its Princess Leia horn around some wire. To get it out, I will have to put my hand on the ram’s face, push it back through the fence, and unwind the wire from around its horn at the same time.
The horrible vomit siren grows more urgent, and instead of accepting my help, the ram tries to buck me through the fence. It manages to get a little of the way through, its wool shrinking to fit the fence holes, but the horn holds it back. Its nostrils flare at me, and it sticks a hoof through the wire, in an almost “why I oughta, why I oughta” gesture.
Like I said, rams are overcompensating for something.
This happens during week three of my hermitage, the month-long trip I’ve taken away from London to “work on my second book” and “get my head straight”. I finished my full-time job in April, wilfully giving up a well-paid media job at a website that most of my friends would kill to work for. It was a fiscally dumb move that I was determined to dress up as an artistically romantic one, and so far, I've enjoyed it. I have been working steadily, putting in a solid 500 words of my novel most days, and cycling down to the local pub to get Wi-Fi whenever my connection in the caravan cut out. My dad, recently retired and on the lookout for a buddy, has been driving up and down from Cork to Kerry to join me, incontinent dog in tow.
The dog is now rubbing his rectum on the grass, in an attempt to stimulate his own sphincter. The ram keeps bucking at the fence, his rage growing the more I try to help him.
Why isn’t anyone here? Why am I the person who has to deal with this? Why don’t I have my phone? Do rams bite?
My first book is out next year. I started it in 2015, sold it in 2016, and now have to wait until 2018 to see it on the shelves. Part of me worries that I won’t relate to it at all when it comes out: that the issues I feel so passionately about now will feel trite then, that the characters I love now I will not sympathise with then, and that it will come across when I’m trying to get people to buy it. I’m excited, and I’m grateful, but I hate the waiting. The waiting makes me edgy, cross. I’ve interviewed enough actors to recognise the ones who are frankly puzzled at having to publicise a movie they worked on several years ago, and can hardly remember filming it. I push the worry away with more work, more projects, more books.
“My second book will be set in Ireland,” I say, as if being Irish was an ace card I had up my sleeve this whole time. “I don’t want to write a second book called Further Problems of People Who Live and Work in London.”
Having spent a lot of the last month being silently judged by a wide selection of sheep, lambs, and rams, it has come to my attention that Further Problems of People Who Live and Work in London may be all I’m capable of. I am 12,000 words into my new book and my characters are all dressed up with nowhere to go. No matter how much I shake them, they don’t seem to want to go on their Irish adventure. I have spent my whole adult life as an expat, and coming here, to the Irish countryside, was supposed to remind me – and everyone else – that this is who I am really. I’m not actually a city person: I am a rugged country girl, with freckles on her hands.
And I can’t even free a ram.
I can’t just leave him like this. Can I? Someone will be along, eventually, and sort this out. That’s the city-person reaction to situations like this: Someone will be along. Someone will usher along this wino, collect this bin, remove this stained mattress from the underpass. I leave the dog tied up, and start walking along the road, determined to find someone who can help. Eventually, I find a woman in her sixties, driving a blue Jeep. I flag her down.
“Ram,” I say, pointing to the fence.
There’s a theory in sociology called “high- and low-context cultures”. Living in a low-context culture means that there are so many differences within the population – a diversity of religion, ethnicity, background, etc – that people rely on speech and words very heavily to communicate exactly what they mean. London is a low-context culture; that’s why small talk is so important. Kerry is a high-context culture: Everyone knows where everyone else is coming from, so the urge to say more words than is necessary doesn’t exist here. I don’t have to say “There’s a ram stuck in the fence and the ram hates me.” “Ram” will do.
The woman gets out of her car and moves toward the animal. She clamps her hand down on its muzzle, and the bleating mercifully stops. The ram locks eyes with her, furious, but it puts down its boxer’s glove of a hoof. She untangles it from the fence in one swift movement, while I watch her in awe.
“You’re some woman,” I say, watching her tiny frame climb back into her Jeep. “For one woman.”
“Eh?” she responds. “Oh. You get used to it. Happens all the time around here.”
She drives away and, likely, forgets all about meeting me. This is just another animal mishap in a long life of animal mishaps, something she won’t even bother bringing up during her coffee break that afternoon. The ram will forget, too. The arresting strangeness of the animal, the glowing orange eyes, the attempts to unstick it from the fence – it is only significant to me, the person who did the least to help any of it. I am a city person in running shoes, alone with a dog on a country road. Irish, yes, but not real Irish. Not proper Irish. Not ram Irish.
I untie the dog and bring him home, stopping several times along the way for micro-poos. Two animals unstuck. I, however, am still a problem. I had waited my entire life for something as big as a book deal, and now I feel oddly cramped with sharing space with it. My book has not come out yet, and so no one can judge whether it’s a success and, therefore, whether I’m a success. I am merely someone who has been given a chance at success, and has to notice the small changes in the behaviour of other people as I wait to see if it has worked. Old acquaintances send me Facebook messages asking for “tips”; friends of friends hold me at arm’s length and look carefully at my face. I can feel what they want to ask when they tell me how lucky I am: What they mean is “What makes you so special?”
The pub nearest the caravan has a secondhand bookshop. Except it’s not a secondhand bookshop at all: It’s a pile of books near the door to stop flooding, and an honesty box is next to it. A handwritten sign says “£2, or whatever you have”. There are huge names there: Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Philippa Gregory, John Le Carré. Books that have wound up in this pub doorway because the sheer volume of the author’s success means that, eventually, their books will wind up everywhere.
But there are nobody names, too. Authors I’ve never heard of, books I’ve never read. The covers hang on to their spines feebly, like baby teeth. I spend the most time looking at these books. Turning them over, looking at pull quotes that say “promising young voice” or “thrilling debut” on them. I think of them the same way I think about those terrible restaurants I pass every day in south London: the ones with greasy menus and broken furniture and signs falling apart. I think, You were someone’s dream once. Then I stop myself, reminding myself that it is unfair to judge the success of anything – or anyone – based on your encounter with it in a pub. I wonder if there’s any good kind of success: If you do well, people resent you. If you don’t, they pity you.
What makes you so special?
I look at the abandoned books of debut writers gone by.
“Imposter syndrome,” says a friend, full of swagger at having remembered the term for it correctly. “You have imposter syndrome.”
I don’t feel like an imposter, though. I feel like the ram: stuck between the road and the pasture, bleating into the grey sky. Waiting for someone to come along, sort me out, untangle my horns from the fence and tell me that all the chances taken – the job quitting, the caravan dwelling, the book writing, the worrying – were exactly what I was supposed to be doing all along. Part of both a greater destiny and a primal nature.
It’s what we’re all hoping for, I think, when we’re tangled in whatever our version of the wire fence is: that the fence is just a minute in a very long day, a momentary inconvenience on the path to something more sure, more steady. That we are stronger than this second in limbo, steadier than a brief flirtation with change. That this anxiety will all smooth out and become less than a memory. That we will stop feeling stuck. That we will sleep easy again, someday, and soon.
We are rams, after all. ●