Jack Squint


Karla Smith




“This pork tastes piggy.” 

I’ve no idea what he means by this.  I eat my own dinner, saying nothing.  Scowling like a sulky child he champs his food noisily, false teeth clicking, mouth open, particles of pork and spittle oozing from the corners.  Carving himself another forkful of lean, succulent chop, he crams it into his mouth.  “Tastes piggy,” he says again, indistinctly, “horrible.”

In spite of his comments, mouthful follows mouthful, punctuated by oozing, clicking and complaining, until his plate is empty.  He pushes it away with a dismissive grunt.  Extracting his teeth, he examines the pale pink plastic, winkling out remnants of pork with a dirty fingernail.  My stomach turns as he puts the slivers of meat back into his gummy mouth.  Finally he replaces his teeth and waits belligerently for his pudding. 

I stand stiffly and clear our plates.  I hate him, the man they call Jack Squint.  But you have to try to get on, don’t you?  No choice really, when there’s only two of you.  Two people, two neighbouring farms, nothing and no one else on this bleak Welsh mountain, except several hundred sheep.  That’s why I put up with his bolshy, bullying ways.  That and the fact that Jack knows something about me that can never be told.  I give Jack a dinner now and then, in return for his silence and a bit of help on my farm.  The way it’s been for forty years.

I get the pudding.  “Tinned fruit, is it?” he asks.  He knows it isn’t.  It’s from my garden.  Lovely pale-gold gooseberries, stewed with sugar, served with homemade shortbread and ice cream.  He eats it all up.  “Hate tinned fruit,” he grumbles, shoving aside his scraped-clean dish.  Out come the teeth again.  Hastily, I turn away to make the tea.  Jack sucks down two cups.  His teeth, redundant now, remain on the oil-clothed table.  When he goes, he’ll wrap them in a grimy handkerchief and put them in his pocket.  He mainly only puts them in to eat. 


He’s leaving now, to my relief.  I watch him as he pushes his chair back, scraping it roughly across my faded, brittle lino.  He’s dressed as he’s always dressed.  Grubby corduroys tucked into woollen socks, tweed coat belted with string, dirty check shirt, bought from the farmer’s co-op years ago and washed even less often than Jack himself.  He looks at me with slightly crossed, but all-seeing, blue grey eyes.  “Mart tomorrow still?” he growls, probably hoping I’ll say no. 

“Yes, please, Jack.”

He nods curtly, touches the bump of his teeth in his pocket, and pulls his cap from the hook behind the door.  Stepping into his waiting wellies, he stomps out into the cooling end of the autumn day.  Not a word of thanks, but that doesn’t matter.  He’ll be back at 6 a.m. with his trailer to take my lambs to market.  Quid pro quo.

Through the briefly open door I hear my sheep for market, already penned, bleating in the yard.  They’re calling to the ones still free, out on the mountain.  I change my nylon overall for an anorak, push my feet into outdoor shoes and go to tend my stock.  I’m a good stockwoman.  It’s bred in me.  My sheep will sell well tomorrow but I won’t go to the sale.  I’ve nothing to say to people I might meet.

Jack will use some of my money for groceries on the way home, restocking my larder for his next free dinner.  He’ll have a pint or two on me as well, with his friends.  Not a skinful, though, not these days.

Out in the yard I feed my sheepdogs, shut up the poultry and feed and water the penned lambs. I’ve lost count of the generations of hardy little mountain sheep I’ve bred and sold over the years.  They’ve been my life.  They drive the seasons: tupping, lambing, dipping, shearing, selling, tupping, lambing… An ever changing, never changing, pattern, running through decades, crushing unspoken ambition, grinding down hope. 

Dusk is falling fast, making the lights in my cottage windows shine brighter by the time my jobs are done.   I feel my sixty years today, my hips and hands hurt and my back aches from standing at the cooker.  Inside my house I wash up dishes and wipe down the oilcloth, rubbing harder where the teeth sat, scrubbing cantankerous, dirty, ungrateful Jack Squint out of my home. 

I’ll go to bed soon and read my book.  I love reading.  Scanning the inky symbols on pulped up trees, I can go anywhere in the world.  I’ve lived a thousand different lives, alongside the characters in my books.  My present book is a lively romance, filled with pretty women and charming men. 

Out of my kitchen window, I see lights coming on at Jack’s farmhouse, high on the hill above me.  He’s walked fast tonight, despite his advancing years.  He lives in only two rooms of the big house, the rest are crammed with decaying furniture and assorted junk.  An elder son, he inherited his house, as I inherited my cottage.  But his home is grander, bigger and utterly wasted on him.

I put a brush round my kitchen floor.  My last chore of the evening.  As I sweep, my mind is occupied with my book.  I can’t wait to get back to it.  I’ve a good few pages to go, but it looks like being another happy ending.  When I put it down last night, a first tender kiss had just been exchanged between the beautiful young couple in the story.

Jack kissed me once, when we were young but there could never have been a happy ending to that.  Out of his mind with drink, Jack went too far and I couldn’t stop him.  Afterwards, he said it had been my fault and that he’d make sure people knew that if I ever tried to leave the mountain.  In my youth and ignorance I believed him.  That single, shaming incident has held me here all my life, penned in, like my poor lambs. 

I finish sweeping and climb the narrow stairs to my bedroom.  As I switch the light on, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  White hair, shapeless jumper over a stooped back, woollen skirt, slippers.  And blue grey eyes, slightly crossed.

©2009 Karla Smith

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