The ambulance lurches alarmingly along the track.
‘Good job this guy’s not a spinal injury,’ says Rae, wrestling with the steering wheel. ‘Although he probably will be after a ride in the back.’
There’s a raw, untamed feel to everything out here. The hawthorn trees all bend over in the direction of the prevailing wind; there’s an agricultural dump of rusting tractor parts, bags of sand, butane canisters, all piled up out of sight beneath a ragged clump of elderberry; a steel container with the door rusted open – a crude scattering of stuff, like a whole community decamped in a hurry and chucked what it no longer needed.
Todd still lives in the workmen’s cottage he was born in, one of an isolated group of four, at the far end of the track. An ancient sheepdog is waiting for us at the door. She watches us climb out of the ambulance, then turns to show us into the tiny front room. It’s a jolt to see that she only has three legs.
Todd is sitting on a simple wooden chair in the middle of the lounge. The countless fires he’s lit in the fireplace have left a great pile of ash and cinder that spill out over the hearth. Maxie goes up to Todd, rests her head in his lap, accepts a stroke, then goes to take up her place again in her basket by the Rayburn heater.
Todd has abdo pain, low down, into his groin. Despite his stoical outlook, it’s obviously causing him some problems. After checking him over we decide to take him to hospital; the fact that he agrees to come without arguing is a sign that there’s definitely something wrong.
‘Could you just go upstairs and give my boy Charlie a knock? He should be out of bed by now. He works all night, you see. On the old compooters.’
One last fuss for Maxie, and we take a slow walk back out to the truck.
‘Maxie’s a lovely dog’ I say to Todd, putting the paperwork aside as we rattle back along the track. ‘How long’ve you had her, then?’
‘Oh - since she were a pup. She’s been a working dog all her life – just like her parents, and her parents before that. She’s called Maxie, because her Dad was called Max. She’s been a great little dog. Very smart. She’d be out all day with me, dawn till dusk. I was a stockman, you see. I had to get up at three, milk a hundred and sixty head of cow, then it was back here for breakfast, and on with the day. She was the best sheepdog I ever had. Almost magical, the way she understood what was needed. I remember one winter morning, the snow was up to here, she went straight out and brought them all down to the yard before I’d even got my boots on. She just sat there, shaking off the snow, with this expression on her face like: Come on, lazy bones! Let’s get this over with!’
‘So how did she lose her leg?’
‘You’ll never believe it – but it was an adder.’
‘An adder. A beautiful thing, but deadly dangerous. It was hiding in a rabbit hole, and it reared up and bit her on the leg as she ran past. Well, you should’ve seen it. The leg went all swollen and black. She was in terrible pain – the skin was almost falling off. So this vet, new she was, she took one look and she said: The only thing that’s going to save Maxie is for that leg to come off. So I said: On you go, then. So she took it off. And she was right, you know. And after a while Maxie didn’t seem to miss it. She just got on with things. Well they do, don’t they? Animals.’
‘I must admit I’ve never seen an adder.’
‘No? Well they’re a sight, I’ll tell you that for nothing. The last time I saw one I was fishing on the river bank with Maxie right next to me. Next thing you know she’s sitting bolt upright, pointing with her nose at something in the middle of the stream. And there it was – an adder, swimming along proud as you like, with its head held high. They’ve got this V on their heads, you know, just like someone drew an arrow with a marker pen, pointing in the direction they’re going. We just sat there watching as it reached the bank, wiggled out, then disappeared into the grass. We kept well away from it, though. ‘specially Maxie.’
‘Yes. Well. They’re beautiful creatures, but they’ve definitely got a little twist of the devil about ‘em.’