My neighbour’s name is not Mac. Let’s get that clear from the start.
He actually is a nice fellow, my neighbour, but he weighs about 100 kilograms in his hat and less than half of that is fat and it isn’t such a big hat and he does have something of a temper and he made it quite plain that if his identity emerged in this account, he would not even consider consulting his lawyer. Now, even without a lawyer, he knows perfectly well that some of the things he promised are radically illegal, so probably he didn’t mean them, but even so, there seems no harm in hereinafter referring to him as Mac, or the Party of the First Part.
A few years ago Mac, his wife Sally and daughter Sally and his son, er, Mac, well, let’s call him Mackie, passed through that stage of greenness that nowadays afflicts many city folks for a few months. Being farm-raised, I let that particular bandwagon roll by unmolested, but as well-meaning, uninoculated suburbanites, they fell for eco-freakism, and none harder than Mac senior. First he turned his garden into productive land; no more flowers for him; veggies and fruit trees; that was the ticket!
One Saturday I noticed a havoc of uprooted roses and dug-over petunia beds and ripped-up lawn. There was nothing strange about this; it was a sunny autumn afternoon after some rain, perfect for gardening. So I went over to pass the time of day and give the city-slickers the benefit of my rustic background. I should have known better. Mac I can resist when he isn’t in one of his man-breaking moods, but either of the Sallies can twist me round any finger of either hand without even bothering to sound reproachful.
Ten minutes later, already perspiring freely, I asked why we were scarifying the lawn so deeply. Scarifying? They were not scarifying anything, they were removing it so as to plant vegetables and fruit. I eased my aching back erect under the disapproving eyes of my enchanting but unrelenting slave drivers: “You are joking, aren’t you? This is couch grass and you haven’t even sprayed it with weed killer. It will be lawn again long before it is any kind of orchard or cabbage patch!”
But no, no nasty chemicals for them! Even as I stood, I felt my stock as an agronomist dropping.
Oh well, I could arrange to be frightfully busy when I saw the first signs of lawn regeneration. But what were they going to plant in the mean time? They pointed out a pile of nursery labelled graftings and a wad of seed packets. I moved over as soon as I could snatch a rest and looked at the labels. “Mac, you mutt! These are all flowering trees! I thought you were going to plant an orchard?”
“What does it matter? Peaches, apples, cherries, plums, quinces (I always wondered what quinces were like); they all have to flower if they are going to fruit.” He beamed patronisingly down at me. “Are you fussy about varieties? This isn’t for market, you soulless bumpkin, all we want is fruit, and the more beautiful the flowers, the better!” He picked complacently at his blisters, grinning at me with a “your move, sucker” kind of look.
In self-defense I put on my fatherly expression: “Sally, you had better learn how to make apple jelly. It is all you are likely to get from this apple tree; it is a flowering crab. Little sourish things the size of acorns. I will personally undertake to eat your entire harvest from the rest of the trees!” I felt a little guilty at their dashed expressions, and added inanely: “They do make a lovely apple jelly though!”
I moved onto the seed packets. “Cape gooseberries, not a bad idea. Gemsquash, mmm… Tomatoes? You DO realise that these are cocktail tomatoes? About as big as grapes? All right, all right, miss freckles! As long as that’s what you want… Cabbage? Mac, these are ornamental cabbage!”
“So? Are you going to tell us that ornamental cabbage doesn’t bear fruit either? It is the LEAVES one eats, Mr Clever-dick-Farmer-Brown!”
Well, after more blisters and grass-grubbing than I care to remember, the first-fruits of their labours materialised. The gooseberries were pretty good and the kids were ecstatic about the tiny tomatoes, so that was another one in the eye for the expert. The gemsquash didn’t do too badly, but the other squash and pumpkins succumbed to more snails than anyone had realised there was room for. The snails must have immigrated from every garden in the neighbourhood when word got around that the Macs were gardening and that they had dragooned a handy idiot into helping them.
I made snide remarks about snails with garlic butter. I should have known better. Mac may be dangerous when he gets his back up, but Sally is positively deadly. One evening I got invited to supper and told to bring something good in the wine line to go with a rich meal.
Yes. That’s right.
Sally had researched the preparation of escargots and they were the main course. What is worse, though they were a bit on the small side, they were plentiful and you would never find a better dish in any restaurant; even I had to admit that and I am no snail fan. I have squashed too many to find the association appetising.
And the soup? Cabbage soup. Potage du chou ornemental, or so I was assured. Delicious! The ornamental cabbages were one of the few vegetables that had withstood the resurgent couch grass, but when they were harvested it turned out that the reason they had survived was that they were even tougher than the grass! Chewing on a leaf was like chewing wadded string. “But I wasn’t going to let a detail like that stop me,” Sally said with grim satisfaction, “I cooked them and mashed them and strained out the stringy bits and voila!”
Voila indeed. Sally’s expression left me too, mashed and with the tasty bits strained out. Mackie punched me on the biceps, Sally junior grimaced like a little freckled monkey, then laughed like an angel, jumped into my lap and hugged me warmly. Honestly; I don’t know whether that child will be strangled in her youth or marry her pick of millionaires!
I was in moral retreat on practically all fronts. It was Moh that turned the tide – for a while.
The Mac family had been on holiday and, driving home, had passed a flock of white goats with the most adorable kids. Inspiration! Goat milk, self-sufficiency, all that Good Stuff. While they were gaping, the farmer drove up and it turned out that the goats were not cheap; in fact, Mac wavered when he heard the going rate. You see, these were special goats, angora goats, the source of mohair, and if it was a nice cheap common-or-garden goat they wanted, they could go to a neighbour who had a flock of ordinary boer goats, which would taste just as good. Fleece? What fleece? Boer goats didn’t have fleece; for fleece you bred Angoras! Or merinos.
It was the farmer’s sneer when he spoke of merinos that hardened Mac’s heart. He didn’t know what the sneer meant, but he wasn’t going to compromise on anything that a Real Farmer could sneer at. There wasn’t room in the car for more than one kid (fortunately, if you ask me) so he paid cash on the nail and the farmer told him to help himself. The whole transaction sounded a bit peculiar to me and, between us, I would like to track down that farmer someday to get HIS version of the story.
“So how did you come to choose this particular specimen?”
“We let the kids choose the kid,” grinned Mac. “This one was the friendliest. She actually came up to see whether we had anything for her and ate a tuna sandwich. Sally junior hates tuna sandwiches, so she fell for her right away and Mackie laughed so hard at the sight of a goat eating a tuna sandwich that we thought he would choke!”
“Hmmm, I HAD wondered. I bet you a tenner that this specimen never yields anything to grace your table! You can forget about goat milk and parmesan for a start! Next time get the farmer’s advice on your choice.”
“You mean…” Mac grabbed the little beast and upended it. Sure enough, its face was so cute that no one had bothered to inspect the other end. As nanny goats go it was a most unpromising specimen. Mac said… well, never mind what Mac said. Just accept that it certainly was appropriate, as addressed to that end of a little billy-goat. But once he had calmed down and I had taken my fingers out of my ears and Sally had finished telling him about his language, he consoled himself with the thought of all the lovely mohair. And anyway, they could get a nanny-kid the next season.
But a nanny was not to be. For sheer whimsical naughtiness kids are in a class of their own. Little Miss Muffet’s name had been summarily changed to a more masculine Mo, because that was logically where mohair should come from. By the time that he was three months older, the interpretation had changed to: “There ain’t gonna be no Mo.”
Mo was very friendly and affectionate with the family and very self-assured, but he demanded company all the time. If you left him to his own devices, he would find the most insane things to do. There had been no goats on the farm where I grew up and Mo was a revelation to me. For one thing, he loved climbing. The neighbourhood cars were perfect for the purpose and from a scratched and dented car roof Mo would jump onto the cement fences round the gardens. He would run along the narrow top of a fence as casually as if it were a highway. He might stop next to someone’s cherished tree and browse complacently, meanwhile sneering down at us as if to say “You stupid humans! You have four legs and you only run on two of them, and you go to the trouble of building lovely walls like this, and then you never walk on them!”
From the tops of the walls he could get onto a house, and leap from roof to roof, frightening nervous occupants and ruining afternoon naps. It is amazing how hard it is to ignore an unexpected “Crash! tap tap tap tap … long pause while the performer lets the tension rise … tap… taptaptap THUMP tap tap…” Burying ones head in the pillow didn’t help; the percussion was too resonant. It penetrated bedclothes which could keep out the most aggressive hi-fi. If only the miserable beast would settle down to a steady, restful rhythm! But no, Mo was a genius at syncopation and JUST as you got up to break the sixth commandment, there would be a farewell rattle and a thump as he landed on the roof next door. By that time murderous impulses robbed you of any hope of getting back to sleep. I nearly invested in a shotgun after being woken repeatedly from my Saturday morning lie-in.
Injury was insufficient; there had to be insult as well. My neighbour on the other side had a parrot with a fiendish expression, a sadistic sense of humour and a voice like a public address system. Whenever Mo was at his tricks it set off the parrot, who imitated Mo’s bleats and the clatter of his hooves on tiles amazingly well. I lost count of the times I charged futilely round my house when Mo was already gone. Either that or I would be lured to the wrong side of the house. The umpteenth time this happened, something snapped. I don’t remember how I got over the wall, but I did get at the parrot. The parrot does his Mo imitations to this day, but the scar where he bit me seems likely to outlast him.
Mo grew rapidly and together with his horns there emerged a nature so devilish that I began to observe him with almost as much curiosity as annoyance. He seemed to know just how far he could go with anyone. He knew when he could intimidate a nervous antagonist by stamping his hooves and shaking his horns. He could tell when it was safe to sneer at an impotently fuming householder from the security of a roof. He knew when a watering the besieger with a few disgusting squirts from on high would rout the opposition utterly. He demonstrated why goats have a reputation for eating everything, though strictly speaking it was a case of half-eating everything, particularly washing hung out to dry. After finding mangled shirts and sheets under their lines, neighbours took to using tumble dryers.
Finally, and fortunately, Mo also knew exactly when running for it was the only option, and then he went like the wind.
Mo was from first to last a study in contradictions. He would never have survived the neighbours’ enmity if he had not had an impressive natural charm. All his life he had that cute little erect tail and purposefully jogging gait of the Angora goat and his forelock was unbearably dapper. On the other hand, as he passed out of adolescence, I found out why billy-goats smell like that. In Mo’s case he achieved it by skillfully peeing sideways onto his whiskers, wearing a fastidiously lecherous expression; an amazing sight, accompanied by much sniffing and sneering. In their expression of superiority, goats rank close to camels and Mo en toilette was positively surreal. As an antidote to his charm it was distinctly dadaesque.
While Mo was still an “adorable” little kid, everybody opened their hearts to him. For instance, the local dogs were taught not to touch him, a piece of thoughtfulness which every neighbour was to lament in days to come. But by then the damage had been done. By the time that he became an Ishmael, Mo had grown horns and aggression and he accordingly re-inforced the lesson personally.
Once a new family moved in with a huge German shepherd. As soon as Eichmann saw Mo, he attacked, woofing bloodthirstily. I saw it all and came running to save the goat, but I wouldn’t have been in time. What good I could have done, I am not sure. Eichmann was HUGE! Mo however turned, stamped, lowered his head and unhesitatingly charged, in a series of astounding, springy, stiff-legged bounds.
Eichmann’s advance lost some of its joyful anticipation and he paused. Obviously this was a deviation from the scenario as he had envisaged it and he needed time to reconsider his options. Reconsideration had just progressed to the point where he had begun to turn away, when Mo catapulted into his shoulder. There was a sickening hollow thud and an agonised yelp. The dog tumbled over and over as Mo stood back. As soon as Eichmann got his feet back on the ground, he headed noisily for home as fast as three legs would carry him.
Mo did not follow up, but watched the retreat, occasionally shaking his horns as if to say: “Come back, I haven’t finished!” Some hope! That dog was a killer, but ever after, when Eichmann saw the goat, he headed for his kennel. The funny thing was that he always did so on three legs, as if the mere sight of Mo was enough to dislocate his shoulder all over again.
It was probably the German shepherd event that led to the next name change. Mo became MOH; master of the hounds. Sally senior’s idea. She does cryptic crosswords.
Moh also had his influence on the Macs’ home life. With the family he was affectionate and sportive. He would playfully butt them from behind, and learned quickly that Mac senior suffered from an impediment in his tolerance when he came home of an evening, all tired out. Visitors were treated according to the reigning whim. I got off lightly, never actually being knocked off my feet.
Strangers often had a harder time of it than I did. After some embarrassing incidents (I think it was the language the pastor’s wife used, that decided it) Mac found it expedient to put up a “Beware of the goat” sign. The children made a game of finding translations and the sign soon sported the warning in over a dozen languages, living and dead. Probably the Egyptian hieroglyphic was the most effective, but I suspect that its artistry outweighed its authenticity. Sally junior in particular has a way with words that one would never believe of such an innocent-looking bunch of freckles. Some of her translations, as nearly as I could make out, were strictly accurate, but contained word plays which would have amazed any polyglot adult who watched the children painting the sign.
Horticulturally Moh was a disaster. Goats are browsers by preference and by the time that the penny dropped, it was too late for Mac’s “orchard”. Sally never did need a recipe for crab apple jelly. It was also too late for the one patch of roses they had preserved for rose hips and no vegetable, not even the cabbage, was so tough that it could withstand Moh’s incisors. The only thing that held out, even patchily, was the couch grass. The Macs soon had more lawn than anything else in their garden. Not that they got much use out of it. Moh couldn’t see the point of sanitary selectivity and the garden became unattractive by day and hazardous by night.
Nor was the lawn the last of the sanitary problems. Dog-lovers of the parlour variety were dismayed to find that the Macs’ dogs liked goat droppings both for rolling in and to eat. It never seemed to harm them; in fact it seemed to be something of a canine tonic, but some people found the idea unappetising. Reciting “chac un son goat” and explaining about recycling cut no ice. It is hard to stay enthusiastic about recycling while a dog affectionately breathes essence of recycled goat-pill over one. Anyway, the dogs couldn’t solve the droppings problem on their own. Supply exceeded demand by a generous margin.
Moh loved the children because they romped with him while the adults were unavailable, but Sally senior was Moh’s favourite human. He was so affectionate towards her that she never could credit the stories retailed by aggrieved neighbours. She defended him so staunchly that anyone less popular than Sally would surely have been lynched.
One reason Moh loved Sally was that she combed his coat daily. He would stand in disdainful bliss, chewing his cud while she brushed and combed and combed and brushed. It led to the one material dividend that this intriguing, infuriating beast yielded. Sally had wondered about shearing, but she found that regular combing not only kept Moh handsome and biddable, but gathered all the loose fibres. In a couple of seasons she had enough to spin into yarn and knitted Mac a sweater of unbleached mohair. All Sally’s workmanship is impressive, but this sweater was special, with a sort of gleaming, barely-cream opulence. Certainly it had a quality that one could never find in any shop.
Mac loved that sweater and swore that it alone was worth all the other irritations. He wore it so often that it became his trademark. He tried to talk me into accepting that the sweater meant that he had won our bet, but I turned the tables by pointing out that the condition was that Moh should yield something to grace the TABLE, not the torso, not even one as fat as his! I refused to budge even when the devious Scot, in an access of beery cunning, draped the sweater over a table. Mac was miffed by my meanness and muttered something about getting Sally to weave a table cloth, but Sally is Sally! I had no fear of Mac talking her into nonsense on such a scale!
In the end it was the sweater that won the the Macs back to the ranks of normality. One evening I was invited to supper again and instructed to bring a bottle of something red and robust to go with a curry. As always with Sally’s cooking, the curry was excellent, but there was a certain strain in the air; Sally was far less cheerful than usual and the children were positively morose. In fact there was a suspicion of red eyes, I thought. Mac is normally ebullient, but on this evening he was quite reserved. For him there was some excuse; his normally florid face sported the worst sunburn I have seen for years. It looked painful, so I prudently did not mention it.
The atmosphere was so tense that I thought that there had been a family tiff and did my best to cheer things up, but it was uphill work. In spite of the excellent meal, the thing didn’t go with a swing. I tried topic after topic till: “Well Mac, why aren’t you wearing your sweater?” Then it came out.
A couple of days before, Mac had taken a nap in the garden. He certainly couldn’t lie on the lawn, but explained to Moh that he was not to be disturbed, and settled back in a deck chair with his sweater over his face. He had had a tiring week and went out like a light for a couple of hours.
Mac woke from a dream that his face was on fire. He found that his sweater was gone and that as far as his face was concerned, the dream might as well have been reality. Moh was peacefully munching the sweater at the other end of the garden. Mac’s approval of recycling stopped short of letting Moh reclaim his own hair and he took umbrage. What he said I never found out, but he started out after that goat with murder in his heart and on his lips. Moh always was sharp at taking a hint and he took off with Mac in earnest pursuit. What would have happened if Mac had caught him, I cannot guess, but in the event Moh went flying over the fence, across the road and under a passing car. R.I.P.
“Oh well,” I consoled, “he WAS a definite liability even if he did have a certain charm. After all, that sweater was the only material benefit he ever yielded.”
“Not exactly,” Mac said grimly, “What do you think this curry is? NOW let’s see you wriggle out of the tenner you owe me on that bet! You bet that Moh would never yield anything to grace our table, so pay up and look pleasant!”
As I said, Sally’s cooking is superb. Nor am I such a bad sport about bets that I minded paying the tenner; but one way or another, I am now right off curries!