As Grumps walked along, he could feel Oli’s hand, small and trusting, in his own. There was a time, he supposed, rubbing his free hand across the stubble on his chin, when his own hand had been as soft. Now it was burred and scarred.
‘What’s that?’ Oli asked, pumping his two-year-old legs to keep up.
‘They’re cows,’ Grumps replied, eyeing the Friesians in the field ahead.
Almost on instinct, Grumps took in the information about his dairy farm. He’d been born here one winter morning nearly seventy years ago, and there was nowhere in the universe that he knew better.
With a single glance he counted the cows (forty with calves at foot), he assessed when he would need to move the cows to preserve the paddock’s carrying capacity (Tuesday next week, around lunchtime), and he estimated how much he would make at market when he sold the yearlings (not as much as last year before the drought broke).
He stopped next to the gate, opening its catch. ‘Come through mate,’ he said to Oli who stepped around a cow-pat and stood on tippy-toes to push the latch back into place.
He liked helping Grumps. It made him feel grown up and competent with technical things – and Grumps had a lot of those.
His favourite place was in the shed. This was where Grumps had let him hold a funnel while he poured oil into a jerry can. Oli even helped wipe around the lid with a rag made from an old singlet. Another time he had helped Grumps straighten nails with a hammer. That took all afternoon.
‘For next time,’ Grumps had said, placing all the nails into an old jar on the shelf where he kept his tools.
This morning, as Oli made his way around the paddock with Grumps, he noticed that there were hundreds of spiderwebs strung between the wire strands of the fence. When he looked closely he saw that they shimmered in the morning sun because dew drops had collected on them overnight. He touched one, sending the dew drops scattering, but when he pulled his finger away, the web stuck to him and broke.
Oli thought he might cry, but Grumps distracted him. ‘Look over here,’ he said, leading Oli to where a newborn calf was nursing from its mother.
‘It’s hungry,’ Oli observed, watching the calf flick its tail while it drank. He flicked his fingers in time with it, and edged closer.
The cow wasn’t happy and shook her head at Oli. When she mooed, Oli jumped back, frightened, and hid behind Grumps.
‘Breakfast time for all hungry littlies,’ Grumps said, suppressing a smile as he picked up Oli and walked towards the house.
Oli had recovered from his fright by the time they arrived at the gate, and he fastened the latch. All by himself.
‘Can we go to the shed later?’ Oli asked, keen to be with Grumps.
‘Yes mate,’ Grumps said, laughing. ‘Where would I be without my helper?’