My piece de resistance – penned in 1978; I was 28 years old
A big woolly sheep was standing on the grass; an ordinary sort of sheep in a bare grassy paddock. There was a pale brown fence around the paddock, but the sheep did not care or notice his enclosure. This sheep never moved around very much, just a few hoof steps backwards and forwards to nibble at some grass; that was enough. Not far away were a few other sheep, just the same. Plain ordinary sheep doing nothing, just standing there, sometimes bending their heads to eat in the fields. Sometimes they would all get together; one would see another’s head go down and the others would hoof it along and bend their heads and nibble, too. That was during the day.
At night, when the Shepherd of the Sheep told them to move into their sheds, leading them out of the paddock and across the fields, they followed him, with only an occasional bleat. It was so nice to be told where to go and what to do; never having to decide anything themselves. They lived like this for many days and nights, their coats getting woollier and heavier to protect them from the winter cold.
But one morning, the Shepherd brought in a new sheep. He was much younger than the other sheep, but he looked just like they did. He had a snowy, grey woolly coat, with little legs and he bleated ‘hello’ to all the other sheep. They just baad at him, then drifted apart in the paddock to stand there as they always did. The new sheep felt a little lost and lonely. He went from sheep to sheep to try and bleat with them, but they were not interested. Very soon, he wandered off into the corner of the paddock all by himself. He looked around at them, thinking how strange it was that none of them wanted to be friends.
He also stared beyond the fence and liked what he saw. Beyond the wooden barrier were lots of green hills, leafy trees and coloured flowers, with birds flying around the trees and he could see young children playing. They were laughing, too. He could also see lots of other animals; a few cows and running dogs and houses with red, blue and yellow rooves. He looked again at the paddock; it had no trees, no birds and no flowers and there were no children and no laughter. There was just nothing at all.
He tried to understand why it was that way, deciding that maybe some of the older sheep who had lived there longer could tell him. He was still a Young Sheep and hadn’t been in many paddocks. He went over to ask one of the sheep, bigger and woollier than he was, but this sheep just baaed nastily at him to go away.
“Stop asking so many questions. Go over there and just do what we do. This is your paddock now. That’s all,” he baaed coldly.
“There is so much happening over there outside our fence,” Young Sheep baaed excitedly. “Can’t you see?”
But the bigger, older sheep just turned his head away and put his rump into the young one’s face. Why was the bigger sheep so angry, so unfriendly?
He decided to go and ask some of the others, but every time he asked the same thing happened, nothing except a rude rump for his effort. He did this for days, going from sheep to sheep, while at night in his pen, he thought and thought. There is something very strange about all these sheep and I do not like them very much.
So one night, he decided he would leave. He would go to where the trees and the flowers and children were and he would laugh and bleat and be happy. But how could he get out of the paddock? That would be difficult and he had to plan and plot a sensible escape so he didn’t get caught. Each day, he circled the paddock. He examined the brown, wooden fence, looking for a big enough space to squeeze through. But it was no good. The horizontal planks, and there were four of them, were nailed closely together and the spaces between them were too small. Why did he grow so big, he thought angrily to himself? At night, he grew restless. He couldn’t sleep, the grass tasted horrible and he couldn’t eat very much. He started to feel a little sick, but none of the other sheep noticed. He didn’t care; he was too busy thinking of his Great Escape.
A few more days passed and then he noticed he was getting thinner. Bits of wool were falling out and his ribs were beginning to stick out between the fluffs, and while he was looking at himself, The Idea sparkled in his head.
“That’s it,” he smiled gleefully to himself. If I lost enough wool and got smaller, I could squeeze out between the spaces in the fence. He knew it would be hard; he still wanted to eat and even though the grass didn’t taste very nice, he had to eat something to be strong enough for his journey to freedom. He must not get sick. So he rationed himself on just a few blades of grass at a time, telling himself to be patient. It would take time to grow thin enough to squeeze out.
But there was still another problem. Maybe the Shepherd would see how thin he was getting and force him to eat. A thin sheep doesn’t grow enough wool. So he had to be really clever and think of a way not to get noticed. Yes, he thought, I’ll hide between the other sheep when the Shepherd comes to take us at night. I’ll make sure I’m lost in the crowd and the Shepherd won’t see me then. So Young Sheep slowly, patiently, waited out the days, nibbling just a little and watching his body grow thinner with joy. Not even the other sheep noticed. At night, he now slept soundly, content with his carefully worked out plan. He just had to wait. Sometimes he grew impatient, pacing round the paddock and baaing a lot. Then he felt better. Even the Shepherd never noticed his wool dropping off; he had hid himself so carefully.
After a few weeks, he began to measure himself against the spaces. He was growing a little weaker, but his determination was strong enough to overcome anything. Then one day he sat down near the fence and realised he was now thin enough to wiggle out. He would have to twist his head down and push slowly under the brown wooden planks. He wondered whether he should tell the other sheep, but decided against telling anyone. This would be his Secret. So he began to move out, bit by bit, sliding his body under the fence. His head was a bit sore and uncomfortable squashed down like that, but he knew it wouldn’t be for very long. He was in a corner of the paddock a long way from the other sheep where they could not see him, so he breathed in, pushing and scraping his wool on the splinters of the fence, but still he kept going, under and out. Slowly, he kept telling himself.
Within a few minutes, he felt the pressure from the fence ease and he knew he had succeeded. He was out. Carefully, he lifted his head, turned around and looked at the paddock. The fence was now behind him and he was able to stand up. His legs wobbled a bit, even felt a little unsteady, but inside, he felt a warm, happy glow of relief and joy. He wanted to go and bleat something to the other sheep, but knew that was just a waste of time. They would not understand. Just go, he told himself. He had to take the trip across the fields slowly as he still felt a little weak, but as he hoofed, he could hear the children laugh and felt renewed strength. As he got nearer the trees, the flowers and the birds, he began to get a little nervous.
“I must not get frightened of being alone. I must be strong and brave. I must keep going”, he told himself quietly.
Inside he was shaking. As he hoofed over the grass even the grass outside felt richer and looked greener and he decided to think only happy thoughts to put all his fear away. There was really nothing to be frightened of. He had managed to escape; he was still a young, healthy sheep with lots of days and nights ahead of him. There was much to be glad about. Very soon, he came to the top of one of the hills. Beneath the hill stretched his happiness, but while he just wanted to run to it all straight away, he knew he must not. He looked, took a deep breath and started off slowly. Halfway down the hill, a few cows were roaming around, munching grass. He thought they looked like sheep, standing there, eating alone.
He went up to one of the big cows and baaed hello.
“Moo to you,” Brown Cow answered warmly. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you here before.”
“I come from the paddock on the other side of the hill but I didn’t like it,” Young Sheep told him.
“Why didn’t you like it?”
“None of the other sheep ever talked to me. They were very rude and unfriendly. It was an awful paddock. There was nothing to do all day and I was bored; nothing to look at, no one to play with, no laughter, just nothing.”
“Did you come all this way by yourself? Alone?” Brown Cow asked.
“Well, come with me and I will take you to meet my friends. There are lots of things to do here and lots of laughter and animals and children to play with. Do not be afraid. I will help you.”
Big Brown Cow then led Young Sheep down the hill, telling him that while they played a lot, sometimes one had to learn to be alone, too.
“There are times to play and have fun and be with friends but other times it’s nice to just be by oneself; to nibble grass, look at the countryside and think one’s own private thoughts. You cannot expect to play with us all the time.”
“Yes, I think I understand,” baaed the sheep. “I like being alone too sometimes, but when you’re alone all the time it’s horrible.”
The first animal Young Sheep met was a funny little dog. He had a black coat with little brown socks on his legs and a white circle around his left eye. He was yapping the Young Sheep before Brown Cow had even introduced him.
“Hello, hello, hello,” he yapped. “What shall we do? What shall we do?”
Brown Cow watched as dog and sheep went running over the grass and he smiled to himself. It was nice to see them so happy together. While sheep and dog tossed the leaves and flowers around them, a Little Girl with red hair and a yellow dress came over to see them. At first, she just stood and watched; there was a new animal and she had never seen it before and she wondered what it was. Black Dog saw her standing there and ran barking to her feet. She kneeled down and rubbed his coat.
“Hello,” she said. “You’re happy today.”
“Yes, yes,” he yapped. “I have a new friend.”
Young Sheep was standing still, the leaves caught in his fluff and flowers in between the curls of wool. Little Girl thought how pretty he looked.
“Why doesn’t he come over?” she asked Black Dog.
“I don’t know. Perhaps we should go to him?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
So Black Dog and Little Girl skipped over the grass to where Young Sheep was. He saw them coming and felt nervous. He hadn’t met a Little Girl before and he didn’t know what to say. Instead, he just stood there and felt his mouth go all dry and inside he started shaking again. But Little Girl spoke to him first.
“Who are you?”
“I…I…I,” but Young Sheep couldn’t baa anything at all.
“Where do you come from?” she kept on asking with warm interest.
Slowly, Young Sheep began to feel a little better. What a pretty Little Girl, he thought, and such a happy smile.
Young Sheep blushed. Somebody has understood; what a lovely Little Girl she really was and he began to feel a lot better.
“I’m very hungry,” he baaed.
“Well, you must eat and grow strong again. Go on. It’s all right.”
Young Sheep bent his head and nibbled at the grass. He ate and ate and soon, he felt all his nervousness disappear. He wasn’t shaking at all. He lifted his head proudly and said “I am a sheep.”
“But you can’t be a sheep,” Little Girl said. “All the sheep live behind the hill in a paddock with a big fence around it. And they never come down here.”
“Well,” baaed Young Sheep, “I used to live there too. But I ran away. That’s how I got so thin. And he told her of his Great Escape.
“I’m glad you did that,” she replied. “But I’m sure you’re not a sheep. They never do anything at all. Maybe you just got mixed up in the beginning because you look a bit like one, but you’re different from the ones I’ve seen in the paddock.”
Young Sheep blushed again. He really was a shy little sheep but he liked Little Girl and what she had said. He knew they would be friends. And he felt happy. He knew then that leaving the paddock had been worth it; that he could stay with the trees, the flowers, the birds and the cows and Black Dog and Little Girl and be friends.
He could just be himself.