A growl and then nothing. It was the silence that surprised George Donald. Since they'd been grazing the sheep on Clapham Common, his sheepdog had become quick to bark at intruders.
George peered out from behind the sheep to see Birk, tail swishing to and fro, sitting in front of a youngish man. George knew that dogs could smile, but Birk was positively drooling.
'Nice dog, but shouldn't he be on a lead?' the man shouted over. 'There are children asleep nearby.'
George whistled, and although Birk came obediently to his side, George could have sworn it was with a tinge of reluctance.
'It's the middle of the afternoon,' George said. 'Why are children sleeping? And don't they have homes to go to?'
The stranger had been staring at the sheep, but he looked back at George, a pleasant open expression on his face. 'It's an Open Air school,' he said. 'We do everything outside, lessons, baths, meals, even naps. I'm just a teacher but the doctors want them to have as much fresh air as possible. It's for their chests, you know. We lost one to TB just last week.'
'That must be hard.' George gestured for Birk to bring a wayward sheep back to the flock.
'I saw worse when I was a soldier,' the man said dully, before changing the subject. 'My name's Evan Crossley,' he said, holding out his hand for George to shake. 'I've heard about you, of course,' he continued. 'You shepherds are quite the newspaper stars. I'm surprised you're not in the British Empire Exhibition itself.'
'It feels like it sometimes,' George sighed. 'One father brought his child the other day to ask if it was true that the sheep laid eggs.'
Evan smiled. 'I suppose they're both farm animals,' George conceded.
'So how did you get them down here?' Evan asked. 'Or is that a stupid question too?'
'I didn't walk them six hundred miles, as some seem to think,' George said. 'No, they came by lorry, and I travelled on the train. I had to accompany a young shepherd from Aberdeen for his first time in London.' George laughed quietly. 'For some reason, he's got it into his head that there are cowboys in the West End. I hear he won't leave Kensington Gardens now.'
'I suppose living in the middle of a city must come as a shock after the Highlands.' Evan replied.
'Apparently the women here call him the Kensington Shepherd and treat him as if he's Douglas Fairbanks,' George said. 'He's probably safer staying in the gardens, cowboys or not.'
George was aware that he was talking more than usual. Perhaps he'd been spending too long in the city himself. 'Best get on,' he said.
'Actually I wondered if you'd bring the sheep to see the children,' Evan said. 'It's just there's one…'
'We're not a tourist attraction.'
'And neither are we,' Evan said simply. 'Although you wouldn't believe the crowds we got when the school first opened, oohing and aahing during lessons.'
George could believe it. It's just what the city folk would do.
'There's one child, you see,' Evan went on, his neck reddening. 'We had hopes he might pull through, but now he's looking out for angels.'
George looked up puzzled.
'When the disease is in the final stages, the children's eyes… well, it's as if they can see something better. At least that's what we tell the parents.' Evan paused. 'Although Thomas is an orphan so there's no one that needs comforting in his case.'
Apart from you, George thought. Two sheep were wandering towards the edge of the common, and George paused to make sure Birk rounded them up.
'I love how the dog and sheep move together to create order,' Evan said.
George nodded. 'You've charmed my dog,' he said. He wanted to give himself time to think before he committed to anything, and it was true. Birk had run back to the men, and was now leaning in so close to the teacher, he was almost sitting on Evan's shoes.
'I'm used to being around working dogs,' Evan replied.
'You're a farmer?' George was surprised.
'My father is, back in Wales. Older brother too. Or he was before the war. We went together, but he was killed, you see. Now my father keeps asking when I'm going to take over. Come home, he says. As if nothing has changed.'
Just then a motorcar backfired loudly on Clapham South Side. The noise sounded so much like a gun that it made George jump but when he turned to smile at Evan, he saw the younger man collapse, toppling forward from the knees. He would have hit the ground if George hadn't rushed forward to catch him.
'I'm sorry,' Evan said. He was struggling to regain his breath.
'It's just an automobile,' George reassured gently. Even though George had heard of shell shock, he still couldn't begin to imagine the memories the sound must have triggered.
'I'll bring the sheep to see the children tomorrow,' George said a few minutes later, ignoring Evan's repeated apology.
'Maybe Thursday,' Evan said. 'We have mutton for lunch on Wednesdays.'
The only time George felt truly comfortable in London was the early morning before the city came to life. But then there'd be a stream of footsteps as people hurried to work, the thunder of automobiles, and voices. Always voices. Why did city folk always have to talk so much?
He looked at Evan's map, and leaning on his crook, whistled for Birk. The familiar comfort he got from the way the dog weaved through his flock made him think of Evan. Although the Great War had been over six years, he'd seen plenty of men who hadn't recovered properly, even in Scotland. It was as if they were living with a ghost on their shoulder.
He walked alongside the sheep until he reached the clearing marked on the map. Sure enough, he saw two straight rows of canvas beds set up on the grass and on each pillow a child's head. He couldn't help but laugh as they saw the sheep and sat up in unison, each mouth a perfect circle of surprise. A young woman wrapped in a white nurse's apron came rushing forward, shouting out: 'Mr Crossley!'
'He knows we're coming,' George said but the children were out of their beds now, squawking with both pleasure and fright as sheep walked casually in between the beds. Birk looked at George for instructions but the shepherd just stood there, as if rooted to the spot. The children were so thin compared to those he knew back home. 'He asked us to come,' George said softly.
Only one curly-haired girl stayed still, her eyes shut and a slight smile on her face. Her fingers were playing with the wool on a sheep's back.
Suddenly George spotted the two boys who were attempting to herd the main flock away from several newly planted rows of vegetables. With a whistle and a tilt of his head, he directed Birk over to help. When he turned round, he found Evan standing behind him. To George's relief, he was smiling at the scene.
'We've disturbed sleep time,' George commented. The nurse had managed to get most of the children sitting in a circle now, but there was no way they would be climbing back into bed. Only the girl stayed where she was, her hand still resting on the sheep.
Evan followed George's gaze and gave a start. 'Sandra's normally one of the more difficult children,' he said. 'In fact I'm not sure I've ever seen her so quiet before.'
'Is she, what did you call it, 'looking for angels'?' George asked.
'Her, no. But will you come and see Thomas now? He's in the tent over there.'
George whistled and Birk bounded up, nuzzling Evan's knees as if by accident. Ten years George had trained that dog and he turned out as faithless as a dandelion.
'Shall I bring the sheep?' George asked, but Evan shook his head.
'He can probably only cope with Birk right now,' he said, but then he noticed that George was looking anxiously at the flock. 'Sandra,' Evan called out and the girl looked up, her curls flying as she turned her head. 'Would you look after the sheep for us?' She nodded, and walked quietly over to the animals.
'I don't believe it,' Evan said. 'But she's the oldest of ten children so maybe she's done some shepherding already.'
George wanted to say something about how sheep weren't children, but he had a sudden memory of when he was a boy, barely able to toddle, hiding happily amongst the sheep on the Scottish hills. His mother always claimed that George had thought he was a sheep for the first five years of his life.
As the two men walked over to the tent, Evan put his finger up to warn George before lifting the flap. Although George had seen his share of sick animals, he was shocked when he saw the boy. His little body was tied to a series of boards that left his knees pointing up to the ceiling and his back flat on the bed. The expression in his blue eyes did indeed look as if he was searching for heaven, and George couldn't blame him.
Evan took one of the boy's hands, carefully placing it on Birk's head, gently moving the small fingers over the warmth of the animal. They stayed like that in silence, Evan helping the boy to stroke the dog. The boy's breathing seemed to slow down and he even smiled, but it was still more than George could bear. He fumbled his way out of the tent.
By the time Evan and Birk came out, George was teaching Sandra how to check the sheep for foot rot. The rest of the children were pretending to work in the vegetable garden under the nurse's watchful eye.
'She's a natural,' George told Evan, and Sandra's thin face lit up. 'We wanted to introduce the other children to the sheep, but we were scared of Miss Battleaxe over there.'
With Sandra firmly in charge, the children came up in small groups to see the sheep. 'No, they don't speak Scottish,' Sandra quickly took over answering the questions. 'Don't be silly,' she told another, 'do they look as if they grow on trees?' George tried not to catch Evan's eye.
A week later, George was sorting out the water when he heard Birk's excited yelps and went to find the dog circling round Evan's legs.
'Thomas died this morning,' Evan said baldly. 'I slipped out for five minutes and when I came back, he'd passed over.'
'He found his angels,' George said.
Evan bent down and let Birk lick his face. By the time he looked up again, it felt to George as if he'd come to some kind of resolution.
'There was this chaplain in the unit,' Evan said. 'He warned us about how we might feel shame for making it through. We thought he was mad back then, but it is hard. We have our lives, don't we, when so many don't. Not even children.'
'Is that why you don't want the farm?' George asked simply. If Evan went home to the life meant for his brother, George thought, might it feel as if he'd taken something that wasn't supposed to be his?
'Exactly, it's not fair.'
'Not even the best shepherd can keep his flock completely safe,' George said. Evan nodded, but the childish expression on his face made George want to comfort the younger man. He carried on though. This felt too important. 'But if you don't go back, what will happen to the land?' he asked. 'Your father's lost both his boys.'
Evan nodded. 'You do a lot of thinking when you're sitting beside someone's deathbed,' he said. 'I'm going home as soon as they can replace me at the school.' He paused and his neck started to redden. 'And, well, with any luck I'm not going on my own.'
For an awful moment, George thought that Evan was going to ask to take Birk with him. But the teacher went on, still blushing. 'I've asked 'the Battleaxe' to be my wife,' he said, laughing as he caught sight of George's embarrassed expression. 'Miss Dickins and I are hoping to open a school at the farm to help more children. Perhaps you and the sheep will come and visit us?'
As they shook hands, George noticed that Evan's grasp was stronger. Seemed the fresh air cure wasn't just for children.
Towards the end of the summer, when the grass was almost at the end of its goodness, George heard a familiar foghorn voice yelling at him from nearly the other side of the common.
He turned, keeping Birk close to his side, and waited for the curly-haired girl to catch up with him. 'I'm going home,' Sandra said. She was breathless from running, but George noticed that this didn't stop her talking. 'The doctor says I am a miracle. But I wanted you to know that when I grow up, I'm going to be a shepherd. Miss Dickins said I can work with her and Mr Crossley in Wales, but I want to stay in London. Just like you.'
Londoners, thought George, as the two of them walked on to inspect the flock, Sandra prattling on the whole time. Perhaps they weren't so bad after all.