Fowl play not suspected

24th September 2004 at 01:00
It was early on a December morning, well before six o'clock.

I was still in bed and half asleep when I heard the knock on the door and the sound of a tractor outside. I opened the window. David, our neighbouring farmer, was standing there, looking up at me, breathless and pale.

"It's Sean, I think he's dead", he said. "You'd better come, Michael."

I rode with him on the tractor, along the lane and then down the farm track towards the milking parlour, towards Burrow Cottage where Sean lived, David shouting at me all the time against the noise of the engine about how he'd found Sean in the lane on his way down to milking just minutes before.

By now I could see Sean for myself. He was lying there outside the hen house. I knew he was dead before I even felt how cold he was, before I discovered how stiff he was, how hard to the touch. A blackbird piped a requiem from high on the wall of the garden, Sean's garden. I crouched there beside him and wept, my hand on his shoulder.

His coat was wet from the rain. He'd fallen like a toy soldier and lay face down as if at attention, his hat half off, his stick and his right arm trapped underneath him.

I was alone with Sean for a while waiting for the doctor to come. I talked to him and it didn't seem strange at all. The doctor came mercifully quickly. He spent more time comforting me than examining the body.

"Listen", he said, "here's a man of nearly 90 who's just died the best way you can. I reckon there must be a hundred ways you can go, and believe me, when the time comes this is the one you would want. He'd have known nothing, I promise you. I can tell from the way he fell."

The police came too, routine they said, because it was a sudden death, and then the ambulance. Sean was taken away. I stood there in the lane watching the ambulance leave, and only then realised that I was still holding his hat and his stick. The blackbird was still there, still piping.

Sean Rafferty was in his life a poet, lyricist, playwright, then latterly a barman and a vegetable gardener. He had been almost a second father to Clare my wife as she grew up. Clare had spent most of her holidays staying with Sean and his wife Peggy, at the pub they ran together, The Duke of York in the remote Devon village of Iddesleigh. Here with Christian, Sean's daughter from his first marriage, Clare first wandered and played in the fields and lanes of Devon, and here she came to love this place and its people. It was her paradise. She would spend her days with Christian messing about in streams, catching slowworms in the graveyard, talking to foresters and farmers and thatchers, and looking after any animals she could, wild or domestic.

So it was that many years later she returned with me and our children to set up Farms for City Children, because she wanted to enable thousands of city children to have the same life-enhancing experience she had had. By now Sean and Peggy were in their seventies and about to retire from The Duke of York. They came to live at Burrow Cottage nestling in the valley just below Nethercott House, the old Victorian manor house where the children from the cities came to stay for their week down on the farm. Bur Sean wanted to help. So he worked everyday in the walled vegetable garden behind the house, growing vegetables for the children to harvest and eat.

And every night he took it upon himself to shut up the hens because he lived nearer to them than us, and besides he needed the walk up the lane last thing at night - it would be good for him, he said. We knew it wasn't that. It was his way of helping out, that's all.

All this time Sean was writing, squirrelling away his poems in the old oak coffer in his sitting room. Sometimes he would give us one for Christmas, but otherwise he would never talk of his work. He would simply do it quietly. We visited one another often, for Sunday lunch or to share a bottle of wine or two in the evening. And after Peggy died, he came so often he became one of the family. So now he was like a grandfather to us, and the dearest of friends to whom we could confide our hopes and fears, with whom we could talk straight and be ourselves. I have admired no one more, nor has Clare I think, for Sean was a writer without ego, a generous-hearted man, a great listener with a knowing eye, a flawed and funny man who seemed to have found the inner peace we all yearn for. He lived simply, needing only warmth and whisky and Ryvita and oranges, and Bordeaux wine when we came. He was also the best read man I ever met.

His works were published, but he went unrecognised for the most part. He didn't care about that. We did. But he did want his poems collected and published, he wanted them to be there afterwards I think. I remember his joy the day the Carcanet Press contract came confirming that they would be publishing a collected works. The Bordeaux warmed by his fire down at Burrow tasted so good that evening. That was the evening he sat back in his chair, glass in hand, and laughed. "I know how it'll be", he said. "I'll be going up that ruddy lane in the rain one night to see to those ruddy hens, and one of them will still be out as usual, and I'll have to chase it in and shut them up. And then I'll be walking back down the lane and I'll drop dead just there, right outside the hen house. And the police will come and they'll say 'Fowl play not suspected'." And he laughed so much his wine spilt on his trousers.

The collected poems were published, but Sean was dead a year before the book came out.

We had a memorial service up in the church in Iddesleigh. The church was packed. We read his poems. I read one one which begins From Hereabout Hill:

From Hereabout Hill

the sun early rising

looks over his fields

where a river runs by:

at the green of the wheat

and the green of the barley. and Candlelight Meadow

the pride of this eye.

He left no instructions as such, but Christian and his family and friends knew he always wanted his ashes to be scattered on the River Milk up in the borders of Scotland which he loved, where he'd grown up. He'd written of the place, of the event itself even, in one of his poems:

Rowan by the red rock, plead,

gean, white gean, in the green holm intercede

for him,

dipper in your flying vestments stay

midstream on the dripping stone to pray

for him on the first morning of his final day.

And so it happened just as he foretold. As the ashes blew away and settled softly on the water, as they became a living part of the river, we saw a dipper sitting on a stone in the middle of the rive, and waiting, watching us, waiting for him.

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