In February 2017, I read in the paper that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was heading off on a state visit for which he was expected to bring 459 tonnes of cargo with him, including two Mercedes-Benz s600 limousines and two electric elevators. Two days later, when he arrived at his destination (Indonesia), I saw a headline stating, “1,500 people, two Mercedes Benzes, 459 tonnes of luggage and a golden escalator: how the Saudi King travels,” and I wondered what would happen if somebody mistook an escalator for an elevator.
My mother was constantly confused over my brother’s business arrangements. Most of his schemes fell on the wrong side of the law so he was careful not to tell her much about his activities but he could not stop her from talking to people she met at her medical appointments, which often resulted in a hasty winding down of the current business.
It started when Norman was a teenager and he filled the shed at the back of the house with pot plants, while a constant stream of visitors called at night and at weekends, to ‘help with the horticulture’.
“My son has a gardening business,” my mother said to her doctor one day, “he has ever so many pots.”
Norman threw his weed into the river later that night, before the doctor could recount the story to the authorities, and he complained about his lost profits for weeks.
His next venture was an unofficial liquor outlet for the local youth which lasted for several months before the parents of the local youth found the source of their offspring’s frequent inebriation at weekends and paid a visit to my mother.
“Your son is selling alcohol to minors,” said one man.
“Miners? I didn’t know there was a mine around here,” said my mother, looking at the deputation on her doorstep. “My son has a business selling boots, I think, although I can’t say that I have ever seen any boots. I’ll ask him when he gets home.”
The liquor business closed after that and was replaced by a series of other shady ventures which he tried to keep a secret from our mother. I moved out once I graduated from school but Norman stayed, taking advantage of the large property and using our mother as the excuse.
“She’s old, she needs looking after,” he would say, while my mother would fuss and cook for him.
There followed a number of years when Norman dealt in stolen goods, buying them low and selling them on at a healthy profit but my mother’s mouth ended that trade also.
“My son does fencing,” she told one of the neighbours who called to talk about an actual broken fence on the property. Norman evaded that question by saying that he would get one of his men to fix it and then had to engage a real contractor to mend the fence, all the time grumbling at the cost and the fact that his activities may have been compromised.
The biggest problem came when my brother agreed to keep some cows for a friend who had been ordered to destroy them after an outbreak of disease on his farm.
“But is that safe?” I asked when I heard of the plan. “What if the disease gets into the food chain?”
“Nobody’s getting diseased,” said Norman, “and there’s no food chain if the cows are kept alive. Just think, we can have fresh milk every day and when the ban is over my friend will still have his cows, instead of being ruined, like the other farmers.”
“How long are you going to keep the cows,” I asked, “and “who’s going to milk them?”
“Only until this scare is over; a year at most” he said, “Isabel is going to milk them and maybe you’d like to come home and help?”
“And how will you stop Mum from telling anybody about them?” I asked.
“Oh, she knows. I’ve told her there are no cows here and that some film people are making a movie on our land, so there might be some noises and movements, but that she’s not to worry.”
I could not resist going to see the invisible herd so when Norman said he and Isabel had some business out of town the following weekend I drove over to the farm with my husband, Richard.
“No cows!” said my mother as soon as we came through the door. Her eyes opened wide and she shook her head to be sure that we understood.
“Yes, Mum, I know there are no cows here. We just wanted to come and see you,” I said, while Richard went into the kitchen to look for a drink.
“Have you come to be in the movies?” my mother asked, shuffling over to the kettle which was on a constant heating cycle in that house.
“No, Mum,” I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, and Richard’s too ugly.”
Richard, who had found a beer and was looking out of the window, made a rude sign at me, which my mother did not see as she was reaching into a cupboard for the good tea cups, the ones she only used when visitors came.
“Oh, it’s just that I mentioned to that lady in the pharmacy that we had a movie set here and she said that movies often have parts for extras.”
Richard turned and looked at me, shaking his head in a way that said, “what has she done now?” while my mother set out the tea cups and saucers on the table, still chattering away.
“I told her the movie’s not a Western, as we don’t have any cows, but I don’t know much else about it.”
“Maybe it’s best not to talk about the movie, Mum,” I said, “we don’t want crowds of people coming to try and get autographs or anything.”
“But that’s just it,” she said, her hand wavering as she poured hot water into the teapot, getting almost as much water on the table. “The pharmacist says that her children want to meet the movie stars and can they come over here one day. So I said that no, they couldn’t come because Norman says we don’t have any cows and it’s all a secret.”
She looked down and noticed the spilt water on the table and reached for a cloth. “Now look what I’ve done; this movie business has me all worked up.”
I waited while she wiped the table, refusing any help, and then poured the tea into the cups, and set out the milk and sugar, all the time muttering about cows and movies. Richard, who hates tea, sat down with his beer while I added milk to my cup and stirred it, obliging my mother with the familiar ritual.
We talked of other things and soon my mother had relaxed and wanted to know about our health and our jobs and she appeared to forget about Norman and his deals until the door burst open and Norman himself came in, followed by Isabel, both of them looking very flustered.
“Mum! What have you been telling people?” Norman asked looking all around the room as if he expected somebody to be hiding behind the sofa. “I’ve had a call from the agriculture department who say they have been told we have cows on the property.”
“No cows! I said no cows!” my mother repeated, looking from Norman to the rest of us, becoming agitated.
“We’ll have to hide the cows,” said Norman, looking at his watch, “we have about two hours before the inspectors get here.
“Where are you going to put them?” Richard asked, “they’re not exactly small and you only have one barn.”
“We’ll have to bring them into the house,” said Norman, “we can cram them all into the parlour; nobody ever goes in there, and we’ll get Isabel to fry up some onions to cover up the smell, and Mum can be watching TV with the volume turned up due to her bad hearing.”
“You must be joking,” I said, but Norman was not listening, he had already opened the back door and was racing towards the barn.
“Come on, everybody, there’s no time to argue!”
It took us nearly two hours to move all thirteen of the cows from the barn into the parlour. We had to lay some sheets of plywood to create a ramp up to the porch as they refused to put their feet on the steps and they stood lowing on the grass while Norman kept shushing them and Richard, who was thoroughly enjoying the escapade, whacked them with a stick.
The whole house stank from the onions and garlic that Isabel was frying in the kitchen and Norman turned on the compressor to make more noise so that we had to shout instructions at each other.
“What about the movies?” I asked, “Won’t they expect to see sets and cameras?”
“No, we’ll just say they were shooting a scene with two people talking so the director didn’t need any equipment.”
An hour later, just as we had gathered around the table with plates of fried onions there was a knock at the door and an official with a clipboard came in. He nodded to us all and asked for Norman, while I held my mother’s hand, willing her not to speak, wondering why we had not taken her upstairs to her bedroom.
“I’ve had a report that there are cattle on this property, sir,” the inspector said.
“Well that’s not true; there are no cattle here,” said Norman, sweeping his arm around to point at the fields outside, “come out and have a look.”
Norman and the inspector went out to the barn and I turned to Richard and said, “did anybody clean the barn after we moved the cows out?”
He grimaced, and I could tell what he was thinking. Evidence of the cows was all over the barn. I wondered if Norman would be fined or arrested, and what would happen to the cows when they were discovered, and how we would ever get them out of the parlour. The band on the TV belted out its songs and the compressor whined while we sat in silence waiting for the verdict. After a while Norman and the inspector came back, both laughing.
“So I said to the producer that he could bring in cow manure to set the scene, but then they left it all behind after they’d finished shooting and now I’ll have to clean it up myself,” Norman shook his head as he recounted a tale to the inspector.
“I hope they paid you well to dump all that poop on your land,” said the inspector, who appeared to believe the story.
“Oh yes, we got a good deal, and they’ll mention us in the credits, too,” said Norman, and I wondered if he was going to name some big star who was appearing in the movie and further complicate our lives.
“Well, I look forward to seeing it,” said the inspector and turned towards the door. “Thank you for your time, and sorry to bother you.”
“Cows,” said my mother, who seemed to suddenly remember what we had been doing earlier.
“No Mum,” said Norman, “the man was looking for cows but there are no cows here.”
I gripped my mother’s hand and shook my head at her, while moving a plate of congealed onions in front of her.
“No cows,” I said.