It was my last summer with my parents before I headed off to university. I was an only child and I could sense their sadness at my impending departure. They had rented a cottage near Llandovery and we had had a good week of walking. I was impatient to get away, to spread my wings. But I knew that I would wound my mother and father if I let them feel that impatience. All three of us knew that it would never be the same again and made special efforts to leave only happy memories of the holiday. So, on our last full day, I accompanied them on a visit to one of my father's old acquaintances, a Mr Wadhurst, and his wife at Cym Sterth. My paternal grandfather had been evacuated to the farm during the war, and the two families had stayed in distant touch ever since. As my father explained, it would have been unthinkable to be in the area and not to visit the Wadhursts. But the visit was also charitable in nature. The previous summer the Wadhursts had lost the elder of their two sons, Jim, in a farming accident. My father wanted to pay his condolences. I half-suspected that the choice of holiday location was not by chance.
Cym Sterth squatted in the fold of a mountain, hedged and stone-walled green fields radiating out from the cluster of farm buildings until they reached the golden brown of the steep moorlands above. The Wadhursts were in the courtyard in front of the farm building when we arrived. My father parked the car and we got out into a hot summer's day. The two men nodded gravely. My mother and Mrs Wadhurst shook hands, and then I said hallo a little stiffly to them both. They looked frail and crushed.
'I'm so very sorry….,' my mother began.
Mrs Wadhurst bowed her head.
'Here,' said Mr Wadhurst, grasping my father's arm. 'I'll show you where it happened.'
The faded denim of his bib overall hung loose over his buttocks. He raised a scrawny arm and pointed up at the hillside with a long, thin, shaking finger.
'Up there,' he said. 'I watched it all from down here.'
We looked up through the shimmering heat at the high fields, just below the moorlands. We could see a tractor and its trailers crawling upwards.
'The tractor rolled all the way down to the bottom of the field. The police doctor said the first roll broke his neck.' He stared down at the ground.
Mrs Wadhurst let out a sob.
'The apple of our eye,' she said.
'I'm very sorry,' my mother repeated, putting her arm around Mrs Wadhurst's shoulders and giving her a hug.
'Who's that up there now?' my father asked.
'Oh, that's just Bob,' said Mr Wadhurst. 'But I'm forgetting. It's hot out here and you must be thirsty. Come into the house and we'll make a pot of tea.'
He led my parents across the courtyard and into the house. I stopped and watched the tractor for a few moments. The field looked improbably steep. How did the tractor turn, I wondered, especially given the trailer behind it? I followed my parents into the farmhouse. It was cool and dark. A polished walnut grandfather clock ticked loudly in one corner. A Welsh dresser stood against one wall, its shelves laden with old porcelain. Pewter and brass kitchen ware hung from various points on the walls and from the low, oak-beamed ceiling. Coals glowed in a hearth underneath a wood-and-stone fireplace. It was picture postcard pretty and yet somehow a gloomy atmosphere pervaded the space.
'Please, sit down,' said Mrs Wadhurst. 'I'll make the tea.'
She left for the kitchen. My mother and father sat down on the sofa. I sat on a wooden stool, set back behind and off to one side of the comfy chairs.
'I still can't believe it,' said Mr Wadhurst. 'He was so young and had so much to give.'
He stared down at the carpet.
'He'd qualified, right?' my father asked.
'Oh, yes. He qualified the year before and was doing his stint in the general hospital before going on to specialise. He was particularly interested in cardiology; you see?'
My father nodded. The clock ticked.
'But he always came back each summer to help get the silage in. He always came back.'
'Is that him in the pictures?' my mother asked.
'Yes, yes. That's Jim all right.'
Now that my eyes had got used to the dark I could see that every bottom shelf and flat surface was covered in photograph frames and every photograph showed a tall, slim, dashing young man with a friendly smile. In some of the photographs he was alone. In others he was with friends.
'He could have gone off to the Mediterranean with his friends,' Mr Wadhurst continued. 'But Jim wouldn't hear of it.'
Mrs Wadhurst clattered in with a heavily-laden tray. She set it down on the coffee table.
'I'll just let that brew,' she said.
'That cake looks delicious,' said my mother.
My father straightened his back.
'Ah!' he said. 'The tractor.'
'That'll be Bob coming back down with the silage,' said Mr Wadhurst.
The tractor roared past. Mrs Wadhurst served us tea and a slice of her cake. Throughout, we could hear the tractor's motor ticking over. There were long, reflective silences. As soon as I felt it decent, I asked if I could go for a walk.
'Of course,' said Mr Wadhurst. 'Bob will show you where to go.'
I stepped out into the bright sunlight and looked around. The farm looked pretty but I could well imagine how gloomy and depressing it would be in the winter, hemmed in by the mountainsides, cut off by mists and snow. The tractor had backed its trailer up to the open door of a big barn with a corrugated iron roof. The tractor engine was working a machine of some sort. A clanking sound echoed around the courtyard. I could see a figure pitchforking cut grass into the dark maw of the open barn door. I walked over to the barn and waved. The man appeared around the side of the trailer.
'You must be Bob,' I shouted.
'That's right,' he said, with a friendly grin.
'I'm Richard,' I said. 'I've come with my parents. They're inside.'
'I saw the car,' said Bob.
'May I help?'
'Of course!' he said. 'Always glad of some help. Wait a moment.'
He disappeared back round behind the trailer and returned with a second pitchfork.
'Come,' he said. 'I'll show you.'
Bob was the opposite of his older brother. Where Jim had been slim, Bob was stout, with massive yeoman biceps and thighs. Bob wore glasses and had freckles. Jim had had neither. Jim's hair had been blonde and fine. Bob's was black and curly.
'I'll carry on forking,' he said, 'and you can spread.'
Inside the trailer was a screw device that drove the cut grass to the open back. Bob forked the grass from there into the barn. Inside the barn was a large, broad silo, with a cement floor and concrete walls. My job was to spread the grass back into the silo so that it would be evenly filled. A heavy aroma of lush cut grass immediately filled my nostrils. I enjoyed the physical labour. I think Bob had deliberately put me in the barn, out of the direct sunlight, but I soon got a good sweat up nevertheless. My arms, unaccustomed to such exercise, started to ache but I kept to my task. There was something satisfying about spreading the grass evenly and something almost sensual about walking over the steadily deepening mounds of grass as they gave under my feet. Bob even encouraged me to walk everywhere because that would, he said, help the grass to tamp down.
When the trailer was empty I asked him if I could join him on his next trip up to the field.
'Of course,' he said. 'It's always good to have company.'
He helped me climb up onto the tractor and showed me where to sit, on the mudguard over one of the big wheels. Special handles and footholds had been installed. He busied himself with the trailer, disconnecting the screw device from the tractor's universal drive, gradually lowering the trailer back down to the horizontal. Finally, the back flap clanked shut. He climbed up beside me.
'Hold on!' he said, and the tractor lurched away. It was just as well he'd warned me. He grinned. 'Crash gears,' he shouted above the engine's noise. 'It's old. No proper clutch for the lower gears.'
We crossed the courtyard and took a winding dirt track up the mountainside. It was difficult to hold a proper conversation, but he and I both shot out questions and answers and so he learned that I was about to go to university to study English literature and I learned that he was a trained nurse and that, like Jim, he came back every summer to help with the silage.
Soon we were above the tree line and vistas and panoramas started to open up.
'It's beautiful here,' I said.
'It is when you can see something,' Bob replied. 'In the winter this high it's mostly in the clouds.'
The track grew steeper and Bob switched to a lower gear. The tractor lurched upwards but now I had to lean forward to keep my grip. When he saw me doing this, Bob grinned.
'A little,' I agreed.
'You an only child, then?' he asked.
The question had come out of nowhere.
'Yes,' I replied.
'Well…,' I began to reply.
'I mean, your parents didn't have to choose, did they?'
The cheery grin was gone. Bob was staring ahead through the windscreen, as though the track suddenly demanded far more attention on his part.
'I don't understand,' I said.
He stopped the tractor and took his glasses off. His huge hands gripped the wheel as though it was the only way he could hold on.
'I'm sorry,' I said.
He shook his head, then leaned his forehead on the top of the steering wheel.
I sat there beside him in embarrassed silence, wondering if I should leave him and walk back down the hillside.
'I'm sorry,' he said. He sat up, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and put his glasses back on. Then he laughed and grinned at me. 'Sorry,' he said. 'I don't know where that came from.' He put the tractor back into gear. 'Onward and upward.'
The dirt track ended at the bottom end of the field we had seen from the farmyard. Bob had left the gate open and just outside he had parked an old, yellow, rusting harvester. He unhitched the trailer and hitched the harvester to the tractor, and then the trailer to the harvester, forming a train of three vehicles. Now the tractor's universal drive was connected to the harvester. I helped Bob throughout these manoeuvres and I could only wonder at how Jim or Bob had managed to do all of it alone - let alone their ageing father.
'Coming?' Bob asked.
I climbed back to my perch above the wheel and the tractor once more lurched forward, though not so violently now that it had to drag two vehicles instead of one. The field was more than half-mown already. Bob steered the tractor along the bottom of the field until we reached the uncut section. He slowed the tractor down until it was barely creeping forward and then turned it uphill. When the train was pointing vertically up the mountain he engaged the harvester and we advanced slowly up the mountainside. Behind us, I could see cut grass gushing from the harvester's spout into the trailer behind it. I wondered how we were going to turn when we got to the top of the field. We didn't. Instead, Bob turned off the harvester and then drove on into the bracken. After about twenty yards we came to a dip in the hillside and it was here that Bob turned, at a snail's pace. We continued back down the hill at the same slow speed. When we got to the bottom of the field, Bob reversed up it, all the way back up to the bracken, and then he drove down again, repeating the exercise until the trailer was full. Now Bob reversed back up the hill at a slight diagonal and I realised that he was heading, expertly, for the dip where he had first turned the train around. From there we drove slowly straight back down to the gate where, as he must have done a dozen times that day, Bob detached and parked the harvester and then re-attached the trailer.
'What exactly happened to Jim?' I asked.
Bob looked at me quizzically.
'He took a risk,' he said, 'and it didn't pay off.'
'You saw how long it takes to harvest the grass in this field.'
'Of course I did. It seems almost impossible.'
'Jim was in a hurry,' Bob continued. 'His girlfriend was waiting at Llandovery. There's a slight dip in the middle of the field and it is, just, possible to turn the tractor there rather than going all the way back up the mountainside, but not when the trailer is full. Jim forgot about that and the whole thing rolled over. It's a classic way for a farmer to die; tractor rollover. But not a doctor.' He gave a wry laugh.
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'These things happen. Truth be told, we shouldn't be harvesting with a tractor on such a steep slope. It used to be done by hand, with scythes. But my father couldn't do that all on his own and so he found a way of doing it with the tractor. And then, when he got too old, he taught Jim and me how to do it.'
We chugged down to the farmyard. I helped Bob fork the cut grass into the silo once more. When we had finished he told me that he didn't intend to go up to the high field again. It was already six in the evening, most of the silage was in, fine weather was forecast again for the next day and, anyway, he had something else he wanted to do. We said our farewells and I set off back to the farmhouse.
'So, there you are!' said my mother.
'Sorry,' I said. 'I was helping Bob.'
The four of them were gathered around the coffee table. On it were piles of photograph albums and a loose-leaf manuscript of some sort.
'We've been learning all about Jim. He was such a clever chap. He had written a novel, see?'
I looked at the manuscript. The title was Cym Sterth, by James Wadhurst. He had finished it just before he died.
'Well,' my father said, starting to stir, 'I suppose we ought to be getting back.'
'It was so good of you to come,' said Mrs Wadhurst.
'I'll wait for you outside,' I said.
When I stepped out of the farmhouse I saw Bob crossing the farmyard, a shotgun in his hand. He grinned at me, and then put his fingers to his lips, as if to say 'sshhhh'. My parents and the Wadhursts came out and I turned to say goodbye to them. They walked with us to the car. As we started to get in we heard a muffled bang.
'Rabbits?' said my father.
'That'll be Bob,' said Mr Wadhurst. 'Always hunting rabbits.'
'I saw him with his shotgun,' I said.
'He thinks we like rabbit,' said Mrs Wadhurst, 'but we've eaten too many of them over the years.'
My father backed the car out and then we drove away, waving farewell out of the windows before the car turned a bend.
'Poor Mrs Wadhurst,' said my mother. 'I can't imagine what it must be like to lose a son like that.'
Two weeks later I started university and forgot all about Cym Sterth and the Wadhursts but, it transpired, not for long. About a month after I started my studies my father wrote to explain that Bob Wadhurst had completely disappeared and that it was probable that I had been the last person to see him. Consequently, a policeman would come to talk to me and take notes, in case something I saw on that day might prove useful for the local police inquiries. When he came, the police constable was young and friendly. I told him how I'd helped out with the silage operation then gone back into the farmhouse and later seen Bob crossing the farmyard on his way to hunt rabbits, and that was that. I didn't see any point in telling them about his sudden breakdown in the tractor. How could that have been relevant? By the time we had driven down to the farmyard Bob had long since been back to his cheerful grinning self. The constable told me that an extensive search with dogs and helicopters had revealed nothing. The local police had widened the search to the high mountains, but there was simply no trace of the man. He thanked me for my help and that was that.
When I came home at the end of my first university year I realised with a shock that my parents had aged visibly. I had seen them briefly at Christmas and at Easter but then there had been rushes of relatives and friends and I hadn't really paid much attention. Now, sitting across the dinner table alone with them once again, I noticed the wrinkles around their eyes, my father's thinning hair and my mother's growing stoop. And was my father's hand trembling slightly? We went through all the local gossip and I gave them a heavily-edited account of what I had got up to during the year. It was towards the end of the meal that my father sprang his surprise.
'By the way, Richard,' he said. 'Did I tell you that they found Bob?'
'Bob Wadhurst. You remember?'
'Of course, yes, I do remember. Where did they find him?'
'In the silo pit. He'd scrabbled down to the very bottom in one of the back corners and made sure that the grass tamped down well above him. And then he put his shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. That must have been the bang we heard. You remember? Chilling, really, when you think about it.'
'Poor Mrs Wadhurst,' said my mother.
'Poor Mr Wadhurst found the body when he was taking out the last of the silage for his sheep. Bob surely knew that that corner would be the last place to be uncovered.'
'It's terrible,' said my mother. 'How can a son do that to his parents?'
'But the police dogs?' I said. 'Surely they should have found his body?'
'I don't know very much about silage, Richard, but from what I understand the grass at the bottom starts to ferment pretty much straightaway, and the odours it gives off are powerful enough to mask any other similar odour. I wonder if Bob hadn't thought about that as well.'
In my old bedroom that night I thought through the affair. I felt slightly to blame, but I wasn't sure why I should feel any sense of guilt. If I had told the police about Bob's breakdown on the dirt track it surely wouldn't have made any difference to their search. In itself, it just seemed like a sudden outburst of grief and frustration, and certainly not a pointer to a suicidal frame of mind. And if I had told them about the way he 'sshhhed' me, would that have helped? At the time, I'd thought he meant that I shouldn't make a noise and scare away whatever it was he wanted to hunt. Later, when I learned about his disappearance, I wondered if he had wanted to make me complicit somehow. I ran the events of that day through my mind several times, and then I finally realised why I had that slight sense of guilt.
When my parents and the Wadhursts came out of the farmhouse I had continued to watch Bob's figure out of the corner of my eye and now, I remembered, he hadn't walked off up the dirt track to the fields where the rabbit warrens were to be found. No; he had walked into the barn where the silage was stored - and not just walked; he ran into the barn, as though he didn't want his parents to see where he was going. Poor Bob. Even if I had recalled those images at the time he would still have died.
As to his parents, I remembered the cloying atmosphere of grief in the farmhouse. Of course, to lose both their sons was a terrible thing to have occurred, but I couldn't help feeling that, through their behaviour, they had probably lost Bob before they had lost Jim.