The Kids from Kidderminster
4th March 2016. I drive out of Birmingham at 8am. Heading west, traffic’s fluid. No-one’s heading my way it seems.
The sun’s out. March daffodils sunshine yellow on city verges.
It’s after 10. At the farm, we’re poised for the group’s arrival. Stomping to keep feeling in our feet. I’ve borrowed wellies from a long, neat line in The Grain Barn and we make teas and instant coffees. The little welcoming party consists of Anthony and Amanda who’ve been emailing me every so often about the upcoming residency, then Kate an artist who works part-time at the Trust and Roger, who seems to do a bit of everything. Then there’s Effie the collie and the lab whose name I can’t remember. Effie presents us with sticks to throw – she tries each of us in turn - waiting for someone to give in. The lab’s got his eye on the biscuit jar.
Then they appear – our six visitors from Kidderminster - four young people plus two support workers. We do hellos and nods and smiles. The teenagers smoke round the wooden picnic table. Two girls and two boys. I wonder what they make of us lot.
“Where’s the toilet?” She’s got a cheeky grin and blonde hair. “I don’t know” I answer “I don’t work here – Anthony?” It gets awkward because Anthony thinks I want him to take her – I don’t want him to – “but where’s the toilet?” she says. Kate steps in.
It’s strange and hard. People make small talk. The four teenagers mainly flirt and make jokes between themselves. The support workers – Lisa and Russ - have an easy grace, chatting to us and gently chivvying the kids.
The quieter girl – long, dyed black hair - is wearing thin silver leggings and dithers visibly. She’s careful – asks where to dispose of her cigarette butt.
I want to know their stories but I don’t ask. The dark-haired boy seems at home in the countryside – says he’s ex-army. Looks so young - skinny frame, wary eyes.
We’re off. Heading for the chickens and geese. The blonde boy keeps volunteering to do stuff and we watch as he lets the chickens out. They’ve been inside longer than usual and dart out in a line, strutting. “That one’s the cock. Listen to him” Cheeky grins. The others collect the still-warm eggs and pass them tenderly between one another, slipping hands out of gloves to touch their skin to the shells. It’s like eggs’ve suddenly become little miracles. Anthony whips a goose egg out from his pocket to gasps of amazement. “Can I hold it?” “Here let me?” “It’s massive. Imagine laying that? Ouch.” “That’s a big breakfast isn’t it?”
Volunteering boy volunteers to let the geese out – “oh yes I see” he says and stands ready by the little wooden door of their shelter. Roger says “you’ve got to be ready to run – they’ll go for you.” Cheeky says she’s not scared so her and Volunteerer pull back the hut door. The geese dash out, parading round, screaming their heads off, ‘We’re here! We’re here!’. We all laugh. The geese and the eggs and the striding about help us talk.
We head across the big field, sky’s clouded over now. There are four or five massive sheep at the far end – I don’t think I’ve ever seen sheep so huge. Then they run – really run - full pelt as Cheeky empties their pellets into the trough. Roger says the geese like to ride on the tame sheep’s back.
Lisa, the support worker from Birmingham says “doesn’t being here make you calm?” “Yeah” says Cheeky “I’d like to live in the country but I’ve got no signal.”
Effie and Army boy seem to have become friends. Army is patiently hurling the stick for her – then back she comes – lays it on his wellies – crouches – darts away again - she’s panting hard.
“Hey” says Cheeky “Can I take a selfie with this cow?”
We head into the cattle enclosure and Roger shows us how to lay new straw beds for them. The lads vault over the low metal bars and the rest of us shuffle and slide through the gate. ‘I’ve got shit in my hair’ says Cheeky – Quiet girl laughs, says she’s not been at their centre in Kiddy long – it’s Army I first hear calling it Kiddy and I like it. Dad always said – Kidderminster is where they make the carpets. The stuff you pick up. I think about him and Mum. The cows barge back in and leap about, mooing on their new bed.
We sniff the silage bale that Roger slices open – it’s all cider and sweetness. ‘You can smell the booze’ he says. ‘I’m an alcoholic’ says Cheeky ‘ and that’s not booze’. She giggles and wrinkles her nose.
We stomp down to the river to find the fallen Black Poplar – the river’s shallow and fast, lined by alder trees. Quiet girl says she had a Shetland growing up, says her and Cheeky haven’t slept – not a wink - cos they were up all night talking. The four of them are gentle around each other. Army tells me about how he and his dad used to fish trout – salmon – crayfish: “But now you know, our crayfish got taken over by the American ones – beasts they are, massive, and it’s illegal to catch them – protected. Like what happened with the red squirrel. I’ve eaten squirrel – not the red ones mind – endangered. When Dad was in the army they served it up. Yeah.”
Anthony loves these trees. His face softens as he talks about them and I struggle to keep up with the flood of information that spills from him. He says they’re endangered, they’re male and they’ll only produce male trees. Cheeky says that’s sexist. We will take the cuttings that Volunteerer is making, down to a spot on the bank that’s washed by the river but never flooded. Army says “People these days think wood’s just wood don’t they?” “Anthony?” he says “Do you get money for saving these?... No? Serious? Why? Can’t believe the bloomin government don’t even give you money. You got to do everything yourself.”
We plant the cuttings down by the river and they write their names on the pale green plastic tubes. “Just think” says Anthony, “those trees might still be there in 250 years”. “Yeah man” says Volunteerer, “long after us”. We walk through the river where it’s shallow, Roger’s left behind in his walking boots – looking on. We stand looking up at a fully grown black poplar in a little copse. Russ, the other support worker, is getting messages about work on his house “I’m having it done art deco - I love art deco – look at these windows – it’s expensive though”. It’s nearly lunch and on the way back up to the farm, we pass a stabled horse and Quiet One’s face lights up, she murmurs sweetly and instinctively strokes the horse’s dark, warm muzzle. “We had a Shetland” she says, then “Oh I said that already didn’t I? He’s beautiful isn’t he?”
We eat lunch, warm up and as I’d forgotten to tell anyone I was vegetarian I boil fresh eggs that Volunteerer went off with Kate to collect. Bright yellow yolks.
The kitchen in the farmhouse is warmed by the big AGA. Afterwards, Kate offers round a bowl of apples with tiny red Lindt eggs nestled at the bottom. I imagine the other artists and me sat in here in a couple of weeks. Amanda shows me round the accommodation – her face is kind and she has such gentleness about her it makes you calm. The building is reassuring, solid, simple. Things move more slowly here and I feel it doing us good.
It is also good to be warm again.
Amanda and I re-emerge and Roger has them all chiselling, planing away at great chunks of wood in the barn. The radio’s on. “That’s apple and that’s cherry – apple for the seat and cherry for the legs.” Army says he’s using this for his life skills course and Russ has carefully made up workbooks for them to fill in. Cheeky plonks herself on a ready-made bench by the kitchenette ‘Here’s one I made earlier - in my sleep’.
We look at the rings of the big trunk to see which years it grew fastest.
I notice two skulls at the side of the workbench – massive – “oh that’s an elephant and that’s a giraffe. Oh the old boy collected all sorts” Anthony says. The old boy being the Australian artist Sidney Nolan who set the place up.
Quiet One tells me about the arts award she’s doing – there’ll be an exhibition at the Birmingham museum – I tell her I only live round the corner and I’ll have to come see. She looks happy. She’s still shivering in her sliver leggings. Cheeky says she’s got work that night at a club – new job – “it’s called Tribe” in Kiddy.
Slowly something’s emerging.
I chat to Anthony about the plans and ideas for the residency and take over on the bench-leg he’s planing away at.
It’s nearly 4 and in a sort of quiet imperfect miracle, we’ve made a bench – it looks like a fawn or a foal maybe.
And suddenly we’re loading it into the back of their minibus. And waving them off.
Can’t put my finger on it but that was a very good day.