A story about sheep, fire and malted milk

A story about sheep, fire and malted milk (by Kriss Fearon)

Ferdinand was a fine young Cumbrian sheep, and being a sheep with vision and ambition he soon tired of grazing the mountainside, and began to yearn to leave Cumbria and travel the world.

As it often is with the young, he felt that the world was his oyster and that the possibilities were endless. But where would be the perfect place to go? While he mused, he spied a passing Ribble bus with 'Day trips to Blackpool' written on the side. In fact, since buses are rare in Cumbria, it took him some while to hit upon this plan, but an idea is an idea and soon he was ready to set off on his great adventure. And so he packed his spare fleece and some hay (for he had heard bad things about Lancastrian grass, and he liked plain food) and stood by the bus stop.

Eventually, after many hours of patient waiting, a bus approached the stop and some people got off. Ferdinand skipped on board with all the excitement and impatience of one about to embark on an adventure and asked for a ticket to Blackpool. The driver glared at him indignantly and then pointed at the notice: 'No animals. Guide dogs only.' 'Anyway, we don't go to Blackpool, only Lancaster, and that's no place for a young sheep, you mark my words,' said the driver before he closed the door and drove off into the distance.

Ferdinand watched the bus disappear into the haze of drizzle and exhaust fumes with a sinking heart. He did not know how he was going to get to Blackpool now. No one picks up hitchers when it's raining in Cumbria, even really sympathetic people with plastic seats. But he had told the whole herd that he was going on an adventure, so and adventure he must have.

Many hours later, he found himself in the middle of a desolate moorland in the pitch dark. He was lost.


When we last herd, whoops, heard from Ferdinand he was completely lost in the Lancashire countryside, in a dark and dismal stretch of moorland lit only by the faint glimmer of a distant fire. He began to despair of ever reaching Blackpool. But all is not lost - for as he approached the fire he began to make out the shadow of a figure in the flickering flames.

Cautiously, for he was a careful sheep, he stole up to the fire until he was close enough to see the figure clearly. Above the wailing of the wind he could hear a low voice murmuring sadly to itself, and he strained to hear the faint sounds of her voice, for to his surprise it was another sheep. She was hanging her head and bleating mournfully in a strange southern accent. Even from this distance he could see that something terrible had happened to her, and though they had never met he felt the stirring of empathy, for was she too not a sheep, and born to suffer like himself?

He held his breath as she told her tale of woe thinking her only audience was the sulky sky and a few ragged gorse bushes. Torn from her native land and let loose in this grim and sodden moorland, miles from civilisation, and cruelly shorn when the March winds were at their most cutting, how could she go on any more? She sipped despondently at her mug of malted milk and made plans to end it all by throwing herself off Blackpool Tower in a final gesture of defiance against her years of torment and abuse.

Ferdinand could bear it no more. He trotted out from behind the gorse bush where he'’d been hiding. Maria, for that was her name, jumped to her hooves in startled horror, but one glimpse of Ferdinand’s honest Cumbrian face calmed her. He asked her to trust him, and to her astonishment, perhaps for the first time in her life, she did. As she stood shivering before him he pulled the spare fleece from his bag and put it around Maria’s shoulders, for he’d always known better than to go out without a spare jacket and now he was proved right. Maria was heartened by the ace of spades that fate had dealt her in the shape of Ferdinand, her gallant protector, yet still determined that she would make the final sacrifice for one moment of unforgettable glory for all sheep. As for Ferdinand, he may not be able to save Maria, but at least he would find his way to Blackpool.


Ferdinand gazed into the dying embers of the fire and a plan began to take shape in his mind.

'So, where is Blackpool from here?' he asked. 'About 20 minutes drive south', replied Maria, chewing thoughtfully, 'or two days' walk.' Mindful of her plan to hurl herself to her doom from the top of Blackpool Tower, he bleated firmly 'We'll walk.'

Maria jutted out her jaw, tossed her head and trotted off into the dawn, her spirit unbowed by her traumatic experiences with the clippers. Ferdinand followed her, and as he watched, he noticed how her tail swayed from side to side as she went, and strange, long-forgotten stirrings moved him.

They walked through the grim Lancashire countryside in companionable silence, both of them thinking about Maria's terrible plan, she with calm resolve and he with increasing desperation. The more time he spent with her, the more sure he became that he must protect her from the terrible fate she had determined upon. Moved by her plight, touched by her passion, awed by her dignity, amused by her strange foreign accent, he knew she was the ewe for him. He loved her, and now he had found her, he could never let her go.

But did she feel the same? Something about the way she looked at him when she thought he was grazing told him there might be hope. And then the moment came - they stopped to rest for the night. In a field, by a stream, they lay down together. She gave him one last fond look, laid her head on his shoulder, and they slept, lit only by the distant lights of the Pleasure Beach on the shore beyond.

They reached Blackpool at noon the following day. This was the moment that Ferdinand had been looking forward to for so long, and now all he could think about was how he could save Maria. 'Let's go to the fair', he bleated, in a vain effort to distract her from her purpose. She looked at him pityingly, then glanced at the sign above his head. To his horror he realised that they had reached their destination: the sign read: 'Blackpool Tower. Bungee jumping, $25'. 'Do this one last thing for me' he said, pulling her towards the entrance. She gazed at him mournfully, admiring his strength of purpose - she knew he was a real ram, and if things could have been different... but it was not to be. She followed him onto the platform and bleated 'you go first!'

As Ferdinand was strapped into the bungee his mind was racing furiously. Was there anything he could do to stop her? The man who was lacing him in stepped back, and he found himself facing out to sea from a height of a great many metres - but he was a brave Cumbrian sheep and no stranger to heights. He stepped forward into thin air, but before he fell he found himself enclosed by four legs. He gasped with the sudden realisation of what was happening, then bleated 'No..!' They tumbled down into space, elastic stretched to its fullest extent, and as they began their return journey she kissed him and bleated 'I will come back for you'. Then she let go, and was flung off towards the sea in a graceful curving arc, her fall broken only by a white sheet on which was painted 'Justice for all sheep'.

They never found her body. Some say Maria was picked up by a passing Spanish fishing trawler and taken back to Spain where she lived the rest of her life in the sun. Others say that the sea around Blackpool is treacherous, and that even the strongest-swimming sheep must surely drown. All Ferdinand knew was that he had found and lost his heart's desire in Blackpool. He returned to Cumbria a broken sheep, haunted by his last vision of Maria as she floated gently down into the surf and left him forever.


Epilogue

One early spring day many years later, much like the day he had first set out on his trip to Blackpool, old Ferdinand was grazing on the Cumbrian hillside when he heard the damp rustle of hooves on the grass behind him. He turned, and to his amazement he saw Maria, standing in a field full of fresh grass and spring flowers, lit by the strange warm haze of a mediterranean morning. 'I have come for you', she said.
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