Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
Mother owned a restaurant called Sheep-on-the-Roof. It was classified as a tourist attraction as well as an eating establishment. This status doubled our dues to Bob, but it also meant we could charge a fee to anybody who experienced increased happiness as a result of seeing the sheep on the roof. The Happiness Fee usually appeared as a tax on our customer’s meal bills, but we also charged passers-by who stopped and stared. Pointing was expensive.
Bob liked the idea of taxing happiness.
Mother sent me to an evening class to study the Evaluation and Application of Marginal Increases in Happiness Fees. I had to walk to a makeshift classroom in one of Bob’s barns every Friday for three months; we took our exams in the stables. I became a qualified Happiness Assessor (HA). Bob’s Tax Advisor/Educator spoke very fast, but he didn’t expect us to memorise everything because the course cost included a large reference manual titled The Word of Bob, as well as my certificate. Mother framed the certificate and hung it in the restaurant’s outhouse.
Being a Happiness Assessor did not make me popular. The locals considered me less worthy than the wardens who ticketed people for illegally parking their carts at market.
“You’re a joke,” they’d say, “HA!”
And then I’d tax them because they’d laugh at their own joke, and laughing was a no-brainer [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Section 1(b): Laughter]. They always paid up though; the Word of Bob was second only to King Trusell’s Law, and King Trusell’s Law devolved most of its power back to the county leaders. Bob was the Royal Ruler of Shropshire.
I often think back to the last time that I would’ve been taxable under the Happiness Schedules; it would be before we put the sheep on the roof, when the restaurant was still called Delilah’s. Definitely before I ever knew how to assess happiness, back in the days when Donna and I would fool around in the hay on our breaks, and I would tell her I loved her.
I miss Donna; I think to myself all the time—if only we had married.
And before Donna?
Back before Father disappeared.
At one time we had four sheep. Herman and Cherie, our stoic Scottish Blackfaces, and Roger and Dolly, our Herdwicks. They were meant to be two mating pairs.
“Our pots of gold,” Father had said.
“Those sheep have empty pots,” Mother replied, referring to Roger and Herman, claiming that the “stranger” at market had sold Father blank-firing rams.
Father was a lumberjack. He chopped up wood with a great axe and, by special commission, he was allowed to fell a small quota of trees from Bob’s forest. He was good, but it had always been his dream to be a shepherd. This was a laughable notion considering the scarcity of livestock in England at the time, foot-and-mouth doing what it had.
There were only two occasions that I recall my father being impulsive. The first time he took the entire family savings to market and returned with Herman, Cherie, Roger, and Dolly, all as tiny lambs. Mother called him a hundred nasty names that only the devil should know, but what could she do? There was no return policy. She didn’t speak to him for a long time, but I think she still loved him. I would see her pause in the middle of a lunchtime rush and stare out of the kitchen window, into the yard where the sheep lived.
Father raised those lambs like children, loved them more than me, or so Mother liked to say. I certainly have more memories of him tending to his ‘flock’ than playing catch with the old potatoes, or tag amongst the trees on the edge of the forest. Then again I was working full time in the restaurant as soon as I was old enough to carry a plate and scrub the pots. Maybe it was me neglecting Father; even at eight and nine I remember yearning for Donna. I’d wait each Monday for her to deliver the week’s bread from her Mother’s bakery. This was before the wheat crops failed and she had to come work for Mother—that was a silver lining that outshone the sun.
Father’s second impulsive act happened a few days after the first time I kissed Donna (maybe the high point of my happiness). There was a frantic bleating in the middle of the night. Father woke and ran naked into the yard where the sheep should have been sleeping. I followed him into the moonlight. Cherie lay with her black throat a dirty mess, still gurgling bloody bubbles. Her eyes were scared and confused. Her body convulsed, legs twitching. The other three cowered in the furthest corner of the yard. I thought I was dreaming; it all seemed unreal. The moon was too white, Father’s scream was too high-pitched, and I watched—too calm for it to be real. Mother arrived late and silent, the only one of us wearing boots.
Cherie spluttered and was still. The shadow of a wolf slipped from behind the shed and fled back through the open gate, into the forest. Father had the contoured shoulders of a lumberjack and the strong legs of a shepherd, but he forgot his axe when he ran after the Wolf.
We never saw him again.
We didn’t expect to. It was Bob’s forest.
Herman was never the same after Cherie’s death. He grew violent at the smallest provocation, butting, and clamping his teeth on anything, which was normally the poor Herdwicks. Mother made a fine meat stew from Cherie. I dug out the Fresh-Meat sign that I’d made after our dog had died a few years back. News of fresh meat spread like a bout of flu, so the next day we had a mass of people queuing down the restaurant’s steps. The meat broth that Mother made was all gone within half a week, swapped for a sizeable pile of coins. We exchanged Cherie’s skin for four gallons of milk from Tony, who owned an old cow, and Mother kept the hooves and head in a box for no reason I could fathom. I showed them to Donna, thinking she would be impressed, but she wouldn’t kiss me again until I stole some cider from Old Peter down the way, and got her drunk in the barn.
Mother’s hair changed from black to grey like a new coat of paint, but we never spoke about it. Nor did we speak about Father. Mother took to carrying Father’s shotgun after dark, strapped across her back like a vigilante. I thought she’d become the Shepherd, waiting for the day when Father would walk out of the woods, which is why she kept the flock. For my part in the lie, I kept Father’s axe oiled and sharp and resting in a stump beside the restaurant. I thought of it as a shrine, and in time I grew strong enough to heft it and split wood for Mother. We sheared the sheep once a year so that Mother could knit a few hats and scarves to sell in the restaurant, but beyond that they were basically bleating lawnmowers.
This was all before Mother came up with her Sheep-on-the-Roof idea: we sliced the back lawn into long strips and tore out the roots as we rolled the sod. I carried the sods up the ladder and laid the turf on the restaurant’s roof. I dragged our old dog’s kennel up to serve as shelter and fussed about with hay for bedding and a small wooden trough for food and water. At this point Donna was still speaking to me, still sleeping with me in the barn. She painted a new sign for the restaurant and I hung it over the old one. She helped me with the last and hardest task, holding the ladder steady, while I lifted the squirming, woollen bodies to their new home. It wasn’t easy, and Herman hoofed me good and hard in the head.
The sheep were a success, and later, (using the first Happiness Fees to buy timber, before people learnt to be less ‘happy’ about seeing the sheep), we built a wooden bridge from the main restaurant roof to the outhouse. This gave the sheep more space, and also allowed us to apply for a Free-Range Certificate. The Free-Range Certificate meant we could add ten percent to food sales even though we didn’t serve the ‘free-range’ sheep! I also used it to justify a higher increase in happiness [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Section 2(c): Implied Feelings of Wellbeing].
It was my idea to install a mechanical pulley system that allowed children to turn a wheel and send some pre-purchased food up to the roof in a small bucket to feed the sheep. Not only were the sheep fed, but they could never eat the amount of food that was sent up to the roof, so at night I would climb up and collect the excess to sell back to the children the next day. Mother never said anything, but I knew she was proud.
We had one glorious year. Mother repainted the customer toilets, and we bought some chickens to live on the roof with the sheep. The chickens were content and produced eggs enough that Mother started opening for breakfast. I did not share Mother’s rejoicing; if the sheep had started laying golden lambs I don’t think it would’ve been worth it. Donna had left Mother’s employment four weeks after the sheep moved to the roof. She did not return my letters of apology and ignored me on the occasional days when I was allowed to market.
The problem had been Donna’s tendency to point and smile at the sheep. She would climb the ladder, feed and pet them, and she became friends with Herman. For a time Herman had seemed less glum, similar to his old self. At the end of the month, Donna’s taxes were taken out of her wages [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Appendix IV: Beyond the ‘Reasonable’ Happiness of a Employee]. Donna ended up owing Mother twenty-five pounds, which was at least a month’s work. She slapped me with the solid hand of a waitress, shoved the official HA Claims form down the front of my trousers, and kneed me very hard in my testicles.
“You, you,” she said as I crumpled to the floor. “You pathetic bastard.”
She didn’t turn up for work the next day, and I had to work twice as hard because Mother refused to hire another helper.
“Waste of money,” Mother had growled at me. “You’re as useless as the sheep with a girl around.”
I wish that Donna and I had been engaged. If we were engaged then, under the Family Exemption clause, she wouldn’t have had to pay the Happiness Fees.
Two disasters struck during Sheep-on-the-Roof’s inaugural spring. First, Herman fell off (I think he jumped) the wooden plank bridge and broke his neck. He ‘”fell” at our breakfast peak, and nearly took Mr. Davies (one of our regulars) with him. Second, Dolly got pregnant. Mother thought this was a miracle until Dolly gave birth to a stillborn lamb and then died from internal haemorrhaging.
Word soon got around and we had to make fake graves in the front yard using old bits of wood tacked together for crosses. I scratched their names into the wood with an old knife: HERMAN. DOLLY. We stored the sheep in the larder until the initial grief had died down, and then Mother made me drag the Fresh-Meat sign out. She licked her lips without realising. The profits from Herman and Dolly (and the stillborn lamb) were good, but short. And then we were left with Roger. Roger was sad and silent, like my father before he’d bought the lambs. He would often lie in the kennel all day, even when the children wheeled the food. We were still classified as a tourist attraction, but even though I was collecting very few Happiness Fees during those dark days, the Tourist Taxes were still due to Bob.
Bob was a large, affable sort of man, with one exception—when the taxes weren’t paid. He burnt the Douglas’ outhouse because they were three months overdue. He took one of the Lexington’s daughters to be his slave until they could pay off their debts (she was only twelve), and he slaughtered Tony’s last bull for a barbecue because Tony had under-calculated his Taxable Milk-Output. The message Bob was giving was this: I rule Shropshire by supreme right of the King Trusell himself. So don’t mess with me.
Nobody messed with him, but that didn’t mean they could always afford the taxes. Mother was a woman of solutions, especially when she was threatened with burning, raping, and pillaging (although I doubted Bob would rape her). She smiled big white teeth at me and told me I should live with Roger. This would lessen Roger’s depressive moods, and bolster the flagging enthusiasm that people were showing for Sheep-on-the-Roof. Her throat purred with the excitement of it, but in hindsight I think it may’ve been a growl.
“But who’ll wait the tables,” I asked.
“Don’t worry, Donna said she’d come back if I promised you’d stay on the roof. Two birds!”
My heart bounced at the mention of Donna.
“And the taxes?” I asked.
“I’ve studied the reference book, I think you’ve been missing a few.”
“I’ve made a costume for you from the coarse wool we can’t sell.”
She produced a hand-knitted woollen suit.
“Put it on,” she said.
I put it on and it itched.
“And the hood.”
I pulled up the hood: a balaclava with ears.
Living on the roof with Roger was terrible, and I do not think I helped with his separation anxiety. The one good thing was that Donna came back to work and I would get to watch her twice a day, once as she arrived and once as she left. She still refused to talk to me, and, since Mother was very strict about my vocabulary use, I was reduced to bleating noises only. It is hard to tell someone that you are sorry and that you love them using only the first two letters of the alphabet.
I tried to be content.
I had a small hut to curl up in at night and a growing pile of brown food pellets building on the edge of the roof. My eviction also seemed to have given Mother a fresh squeeze of youthfulness. She prowled the yard, taxing people every time they looked up at me, which was something they couldn’t help doing. I was, after all, the county’s first sheep-man.
If I was dozing in the sun Mother would encourage the children to throw stones at me, to make me move. Then she taxed their parents on a per-stone-thrown rate. She was right about that one: [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Appendix II: Taxable Props]. What was I meant to do? I hadn’t seen her that active for years. She hadn’t been that happy since before Father disappeared.
Seeing Donna everyday also went a long way to making my life bearable, even though she refused to recognise me. The smell of sheep manure, the colder nights when Roger would not let me snuggle, and the deep ache in my bones from sleeping on damp grass—none of it mattered. I could’ve lain on the roof with Roger for a lifetime, as long as I had the hope that she would one day look up and smile at me.
But Bob ruined everything.
The third Wednesday of the month was Collection Day; I watched Bob walking up our path, jingling with the coins he had already collected. He stopped and looked up at me and smiled, but Bob was exempt from the Happiness Taxes [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Section 5: Exemptions: Bob]. He disappeared into the restaurant and stayed for longer than was needed. Much longer than it took to count the money and have Mother sign a piece of paper.
The very next day he returned for dinner. He was back the next week, and after some time he was dining at the restaurant almost every evening. Mother wasn’t happy; Bob ate a lot and rarely paid, but he also scared the other customers away. Being around Bob was a game of chance, and the probability of something bad happening was a stacked deck. It did not take me long to work out why he’d chosen Sheep-on-the-Roof as his favourite dining spot, and it wasn’t for Mother’s lentil and split-pea burgers.
Bob fancied Donna.
The concept infected me.
How dare he?
I discovered that if I lay down and hung my head over the edge of roof then I could see most of the diners, but I stopped when I saw Bob pull Donna onto his knee. His left hand cradled her breast as he gave his order. That was my little Donna; we’d grown up together. I’d seen those breasts grow. We were the kids who everyone expected to marry when we were old enough, and then show paintings of ourselves sharing a bath as babies at our wedding to prove them all right. We had never actually shared a bath, but I thought about it often. Donna smiled and noted down Bob’s order, and then giggled when he pushed her to her feet and slapped her buttocks to send her on her way, like a mule. Bob’s hands were stubby and wrinkled, like a fat baby’s. They were dirty with grease and food. It made me sick to see them touching Donna.
But she was enjoying it!
I sobbed into Roger’s greasy coat. He butted me away.
It got worse. Bob began dining later and later, he always made a point of looking up at me and smiling. He knew my pain and it pleased him. He was soon the regular last customer, and would escort Donna home. They held hands, they linked arms, and then one night Bob dragged Donna into the barn. My barn! It was where I had first seen Donna’ small white breasts in their fully developed form. Where we had lost our virginities, straw tickling the backs of her bare thighs, leaving swirling imprints on her shoulders, before we fell asleep, naked and uncomfortable.
I heard them. Bob’s grunts, like a winded racehorse. Donna’s squeals, like a broken bicycle pump. I put images to the sounds and it made me sick. I pushed my palms into my chest and contemplated throwing myself off the gangplank, like Herman had, but I didn’t have the energy to move. My stomach felt chaotic and overwhelmed, as though I’d swallowed the universe. I fell asleep, exhausted from crying.
Then a half-brick caught me on the thigh.
“Wake up, sheep-meat,” barked Mother.
And that was how I carried on. Instead of helping Roger with his depression, I followed in his footsteps. We’d lie on the roof and be victims together, until a stone or a brick forced us to shuffle around. Nothing needed to be said; few bleats were exchanged. In one of our shared deep, sad stares, I realised what Roger already knew. It was the reason why I couldn’t stop my life by will alone: we were not brave enough to end it, not like Herman. Suicide was a hero’s act, and we were cowards.
Bob and Donna’s night visits to the barn continued. I should’ve slept on the other side of the roof and shoved wool into my ears, but I was masochistic. I watched them leave every night. I listened to the rhythmic slapping of skin, or the thudding of wooden struts, and my imagination murdered me.
One night, a long time after their first visit to the barn, I watched Bob and Donna leaving the restaurant. Donna looked at the floor. I’d only ever seen her dressed in dirty dresses, almost see-through with wear. She now had a new set of black ankle boots and a bright red travelling cloak with a hood.
“DonDon has some news for you,” called Bob, staring up at me.
Donna was quiet. Bob nudged her.
“I’m pregnant,” she murmured, not looking up.
“You’ll have to speak up, DonDon, if you want him to hear.”
But I had heard. Donna looked up at me then. I was lying on the edge of the roof, trying to breathe.
“I’m going to live with Bob, he’s going to look after me.”
I blinked a few times, but couldn’t speak.
“Can’t even give us a bleat?” said Bob. “Come on, DonDon, I told you. He’s turned feral, waste of time.”
Donna hadn’t moved, but Bob walked away, dragging her with him. In her eyes I saw a plea for help; they said, “I don’t want to do this.” They said, “I love you.” They said, “What choice did I have? Where were you to save me?” A picture of Herman cowering in the corner while the wolf ripped out Cherie’s throat formed in my head. Roger must’ve seen it too because he bleated, as if giving me permission. I stood up for the first time in months. I grabbed the nearest thing to hand and flung it at Bob. The chicken squawked and tried to fly, but its wings were clipped and it dropped on Bob, flapping and clawing.
“Fucking chicken, cock, twat.” Bob bent forward and slapped the back of his head. “What the hell?” he said, looking up at me.
I picked up a half brick and threw that. Bob ducked to one side and it clipped his shoulder. I let out a wail that came from deep within my stomach. I swung my foot into the pile of food pellets and they sprayed off the roof like chewable bullets.
“You’ll hang for this,” said Bob.
He was gasping for breath. The level of his rage seemed too much for his body. His quivered like a miniature earthquake, fumbling inside his jacket and drawing a short-barrelled musket. Donna flung her body in front of him, grabbing his sleeve.
“Bobby!” she cried.
Bob threw his arm back. She left the ground and fell hard behind him. The gun rose to meet my eye. Bob pulled back the hammer with his fat thumb. I had nothing left to throw, perhaps Roger, but no time to throw him.
“You stupid pathetic bastard,” said Bob. It had been said before. It was probably true.
I heard the front door of the restaurant burst open. Bob’s eyes flicked down and his gun followed, slower. He was blown backwards and I heard the boom of a shotgun. My father’s shotgun. Roger pranced about the roof like a lamb, but Bob and Donna lay beside each other on their backs. Mother walked down the steps; she glanced up at me but kept her gun aimed at Bob. Her face scared me as much as Bob’s gun had; there was no emotion, just eyes like the surface of a pond at night. She nudged Bob in the ribs with her toe, and then kicked him hard. He didn’t move.
I ran to the ladders and scurried down. Donna’s eyes were open but blank. I checked the pulse in her neck. My fingers came away bloody. I rolled her over and her head peeled away from the jagged corner of the half brick. The base of her skull was a sticky mess of blood and hair.
The next day Mother dragged the Fresh-Meat sign out to the road. I watched her walking back up the path, but she didn’t look up at me. Her hair was greyer, nearly white, her eyes darker. I imagined Donna’s and Bob’s head and their severed feet lying in the larder with the sheep’s, shoved inside any empty flour sack. Somehow I knew Mother had done this, after I’d helped her move their bodies, and she’d sent me back to the roof.
Over the following weeks I saw a steady stream of people come from all over Shropshire to sample Mother’s broth. The prospect of meat made them happy; they chatted and joked as they queued out the door and down the steps. I kept a tally of the taxes in my head; I recited the Word of Bob like dogma.
“Where’s Bob?” they asked.
He’d been killed in a hunting accident by a black wolf. Foot-and-mouth had finally mutated into a human strain and he’d fled. King Trusell had summoned him for mismanaging the County. He’d eloped with his latest floozy, some redhead, what was her name?
I may have called them out. I could’ve flopped off the roof on top of them and hoped to break their necks, but I didn’t. Roger and I lay on the roof and listened to it all. I was sad and lonely, but I tried to be a sheep being sad and lonely. Just like Roger. I barely noticed the work crews that came to do this and that, or I noticed things after they were done and it surprised me. The stair rail was fixed, the outhouse re-roofed, and some new outside-tables appeared without me seeing how. I did witness a cart arrive with a new queen-size bed, complete with a padded headboard; the workmen left with Mother’s old bed, the one she’d had since Father disappeared.
I would see Mother about the yard. Her nose had lengthened. When she smiled and spoke to customers I saw the sun glint off her teeth—sharp and sparkly white. She’d stopped taxing people, even though each day more people remembered how to laugh and the Happiness Fees clicked away in my head like the hooves of running sheep. I guess she was making enough money off the meat sales and knew Bob wouldn’t come collecting, although it couldn’t last forever. The meat would run out, and at some point Trusell would send another fat cat replacement. There would come another Collection Day, but Roger and I, as the Tourist Attraction, had ceased to entertain. We were two woolly rocks. When stones were thrown we didn’t care. I was ready to die on the roof, and when I died I would meet Donna. I was going to tell her that I was sorry, that if sadness were taxable then I’d be a very poor man. I thought I had nothing left to care about, nothing left to live for, but Mother proved me wrong.
I woke to a weak bleating. I thought it was Roger having a nightmare and I tried to sink back to sleep. He bleated again, a little louder. I rolled over and saw Mother dragging Roger off the roof by his hind legs. He had a deep gash over his eye and the jagged half brick was abandoned beside the kennel. Mother’s eyes were small and black, her nose and mouth had formed a snout, and when she saw me she growled a warning. What big teeth she had. She backed up and stepped down onto the upper rungs of the ladder, she clawed Roger closer to the edge.
Time, it felt, slowed. I think it might’ve stopped. I felt an angel spread its wings inside me; maybe it was my heart about to explode. I thought about my father, the Lumberjack-and-the-Shepherd, now the sheep. Memories of Donna lined up behind me like an army. I stood up, took two or three steps and kicked Mother in the face. I did it before I could think about it, before she could speak, before I lost my nerve like I had with everything else in my life. The blow flung her back; she let go of the ladder, wheeled her arms as uselessly as the clipped wings of a chicken, and landed in a crumpled heap. I’ve killed Mother, I thought, for the first time I felt the pleasure of the predator. Guilty elation; relief and release, [Word of Bob, Happiness Schedule, Section 666: Devilish Pleasures]. I climbed down the ladder and stared at her. I pulled the axe from the chopping block, ready to finish the job for certain. It felt wrong; maybe my father lived on in the wood of the shaft and the steel of the blade. I looked up and saw Roger standing at the top of the ladders. He seemed tall and powerful to me, like a lumberjack. I swung the axe three times. The head so she could not bite, the feet so she could not chase.
I climbed the ladders and slung Roger over my shoulder. He felt heavier than he should. I thought he might run once we were on the ground, but he didn’t. We headed out along the path. At the road junction I kicked the Fresh-Meat sign over. It was like flicking a lever; all my courage fled. We ran north, stretching our legs in the moonlight. I didn’t know where we were going. I thought we might head to the homeland of the Herdwicks in Cumbria, and live in the southern fells. Or maybe, if we could find the courage, continue to the Highlands of Scotland.