“Bettina has farrowed.” The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology. “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.” I was shown the picture. A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.
“Ten!” I was impressed. Lots of things impress you when you are six.
“Poor Bettina!” My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”
Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest. The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.
Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell. Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks. And there were pigs, of course. But all these were a backcloth: the star performer was the farmhouse. The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.
Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is). He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this. A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.
On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen. I would eat frugally and say nothing. And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.
“You see they are not little piglets anymore.” He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard. They weren’t.
Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly. Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially.
“We are weaning them. Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.” Emil informed me. “We have to get them back to her now. Would you like to help me do this?”
I needed no second bidding. Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within. She did not bother to rise. Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest.
“We go each side, I think.” Emil advised.
The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily. I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun. Furthermore, they taught me respect. They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor. As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs. They teamed up, then divided again. They twisted, they turned. They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back. After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me. Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms. It was their decision, not ours.
I needed washing. So did my clothes. How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense. Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed. In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window. It was a cold journey.
Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.
I asked to see the pigs. Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances. Eventually, Emil gestured to me. “Come.” He said.
The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted. A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.
“But these two we keep!” Emil said grandly.
The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it. Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us. A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.
Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while. Then he said: “You know we have no names for them. You can name them if you like.”
I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own: they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them. They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity. I became their friend.
You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig. You befriend him. If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will. He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level. He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours.
“Did you think of their names?” Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.
“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children. “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”
At home I kept their picture on my wall. Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs. I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.
It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew. Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.
The little pig-pen was empty.
Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil. I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food. As I tried to enter he barred my way. “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”
“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time. “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”
I could not miss the solemnity in his tone. “Ah, little man!” Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see? Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her. Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?” He smiled indulgently.
I swallowed hard. “And Hansel?”
“Hansel. Where’s Hansel?”
Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes. “Hansel is gone.” He said.
Gone? The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top. The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning. Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German. With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit. And I knew. Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.
So I saw Hansel just one more time. I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.
There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly. I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends. The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.