You may think it a joke but it's true: my first love, John, was a ditch digger. That was his job. He lived on a farm outside the hamlet where I grew up. The day he asked me out at the village show, he was an exotically grown-up 21 and I had just turned a demure 17. I say demure, but if truth be told, I was only outwardly so, and if you'd ever seen the glint in my eye, you'd have known that for all my coyness, underneath I was as rampant a vixen as ever ruined a country lad. At my school, I was the only 'A' level student from “up the valley” and I still remember the shrieks and giggles of outrage when I announced the liaison to my fellow sixth-formers in town. To them, he was "a simple country lad" and hence an object of titillated amusement. He could hardly read or write, he signed his name in block capitals and dirt was ingrained in his hands like the markings on the skin of a panther. Inevitably, the entire school proceeded to rechristen me "Lady Chatterley" and as I walked through the gates each morning, I would be hailed with cries of "Thou looks right rosy this mornin'! Appen Milady paid a visit to John Thomas last night?" As I made my way to lessons, I was often greeted by rounds of inexpertly choreographed groin thrusting accompanied by an intermittent touching of forelocks and the odd obsequious bow.
"Have you even read the book?" I would demand, "Or did you just jizz off to your dad's porn version?"
I, for my part, quickly shrugged off my demure image, instead adopting the charming custom of cursing my fellow students as "a bunch of childish fuckers" and sticking my fingers up at them in a manner that owed precious little to my well-bred literary namesake. In the canteen, one girl made it a popular tradition to relate fantastically lyrical tales of Milady’s imagined adventures in a breathless, throaty voice, lingering on the rough feel of those filthy workman's hands upon her soft, quivering ladyflesh and unfolding tales of passionate romps in cowsheds, hencoops, silage pits and other such deeply romantic settings. But I didn't really mind the teasing; the truth was, I took a secret pleasure in it. The eroticised deference my presence now commanded was far from unpleasant and the sight of fine young men spontaneously thrusting, caressing their groins and genuflecting as I passed through the corridors was not without its appeal. And, apart from anything else, I was amused; they were so very close to the truth.
Sometimes, after a night out, John and I would take a detour over the fields in his old Land Rover. He used to let me drive, although I was nowhere near getting a licence. I remember there was a collection of tweedy caps in the back, and I used to like putting one on and imitating a selection of toothless old codgers from our village as I drove along. I loved the almost helpless way he laughed and I think he loved the playful way I provoked him. Then we'd find a dark, deserted spot next to a dry stone wall or a little wood, spread out a blanket and fuck with the wordless concentration of wild animals. It was always damp and freezing cold at nights and the air was swarming with bloodthirsty insects, so we never fully undressed. Our eager hands would rove over the goose-pimpled landscapes of our bodies, searching out secret folds of flesh beneath each other's clothes, panting and fondling, teasing and grasping in the throbbing blackness of the chill, grass-scented night.
Unfortunately, there was one major drawback to our night-time al fresco trysts. It was the sheep – those ubiquitous, dumb observers of our outdoor lives. So lumbering and stupid by day, they seemed to take on a new, surprisingly unsettling guise by night. There we would be, quite happily rolling about in a state of frothing carnal ecstasy on an old green blanket in the dark, contracting a perplexing profusion of cuts, bruises and severe grass burns in the process, when one of us would look up and discover, quite by chance, that at some unspecified point we had become enclosed within a tight ring of luminous greenish eyeballs, all gazing blankly down at us like pairs of weirdly floating peeled eggs that had - for reasons yet to be explained - been vigorously boiled in phosphor and then festooned about us in the manner of fairylights. Straining to focus in the blackness, we would eventually realise that motionless sheep must have somehow materialised noiselessly around us from every corner of the field with the precise objective of staring impassively at our writhing entwined figures. This was slightly off-putting, to say the least. The suspicion flitted through my mind that they could well be in the employ of my father; woolly white chastity guardians – his own personal army of sheepbots. I wouldn’t put it past him, even now.
The first time it happened, I believe I may have emitted the very, very briefest imaginable of bloodcurdling screams; not that I’m generally the screaming type, but when an erect male is present, one so often finds oneself obeying the traditional niceties of courtship. And yet, I cannot stress how deeply scary the phenomenon was, the first time it occurred. It was all just a teensy bit too reminiscent of a scene from a zombie film – but with sheep. The strange thing was, as we soon discovered, if you made the tiniest movement by day the sheep would bolt away bleating, but at night nothing we did seemed to faze them. We could clap, flap our arms around, run at them shouting "Shoo!" and "Mint sauce!" and "Oh God, just fuck off, you fluffy perverts!", fling hand grenades, turn fire hoses on them, pump lead into them with machine guns whilst cackling like maniacs and screaming “Die, die, you woolly bastards, die!”; never once did I see one of those buggers flinch. They just stood there obdurately, like stiff palace guards, frozen into position while tourists waft leaflets and burgers and Union Jacks in their faces.
But youthful ardour must needs prevail and, in the end, we learned to ignore the soundless apparition of their bulky forms and the horrible unblinking eyes that hovered in the air around us. Yet, try as I might, I could never rid myself of the continual sense that they were watching and waiting. As soon as our backs were turned, I feared they might leap on us from behind, wrestle us to the ground and suck out our soft, liquefied brains. It must be said, much as I adored country life, teenage sex could be a rather grisly business.
Daytime al fresco couplings didn't present the same disadvantages. The sheep remained picturesque, docile and were mostly quite well-behaved. We would seek out a wild, beautiful spot right up the valley, next to a tiny bubbling stream, with the hills rising up around us and buzzards whirling in the sky above. The only hitch with these rendezvous was that I always had to take the dogs with me as an alibi for my father, who seemed to be labouring under a totally unfounded impression that I was incapable of performing lewd acts in front of animals. Regrettably, though, despite my carefully laid plans, the dogs proved more troublesome in their way than the sheep. They used to go splashing around in the stream as we were getting down to the business of hyperventilating and roughly tearing each other's clothes off. But just as things were getting interesting, they'd come bounding back up to us and one would start shaking itself, showering our naked bodies in icy, dog-flavoured stream water, meanwhile the other would absolutely insist on joyously ramming a cold wet nose up the most conveniently located unprotected arsehole with the unerring accuracy of a guided missile.
More often than not, we'd be hurtling towards a glorious crescendo when both dogs would come scampering up and collapse onto us, pressing their clammy, stinking fur onto our exposed skin and bestowing a well-intentioned but toe-curling lick on the nearest crevice. Many was the time I'd be lying on my back, tentatively approaching what promised to be an exquisite climax and the happy muzzle of one of the dogs would loom into view as it playfully attempted to drop a truncated sheep's head or a decomposing squirrel onto my face. If I ever tried to push them off, they'd look so sad and hurt that my annoyance would melt into guilt and pity. All in all, I probably used to have more laughing fits about the dogs than orgasms. But we still loved it. It was an intoxicating feeling, fornicating completely naked in broad daylight, totally exposed within the vast expanse of a breathtaking landscape, with nothing – no walls, ceilings or barriers of any kind – to hem you in or protect you. Only sky and land. And rotting sheep cadavers. And dead squirrels – let’s not forget them.
But in spite of the danger of putrefying animal remains descending onto my face, the sensation felt primal and somehow timeless, and I remember that it made me feel very small and vulnerable, too. Sometimes I lost all sense of orientation. Like when you stand on your head for too long and you begin to feel as if you might drop off the floor and plummet towards the ceiling at any moment; I would feel as if I was clinging to some remote, topsy-turvy tangent of the planet, and I could see nothing at all that was preventing me from falling off the side and spiralling away into space.
I left John when I left the village to go to university. It was a terrible wrench for us both and he did all he could to persuade me to stay: he tried to give me the little Austin Morris he'd been restoring ever since I knew him; he proposed marriage; he offered me a life in the prettiest little cottage on his farm. But I had to go. He had to stay. I had paused for one summer on the brink of adulthood, but now the time of parting had arrived. Like a hothouse flower and a bramble, we could not have shared the same soil for long.
John stayed single for what seemed like years and years and then eventually married my childhood foe, Michelle – one of the most evil freckle-faced bitches who ever commandeered a public toilet, but that’s just my opinion. All I know is, she never let him have any fun and she wouldn't let him speak to me anymore. But if ever he was out on his own and he saw me, back on a visit, we'd sneak away to the village pub, get wrecked together, talk nonsense and fall off our stools laughing, as if no time had passed at all. Sometimes it took all my willpower not to reach out and hug him, but I knew that I couldn't, because I was the one who broke his heart and it was wrong to think I could mend it with a hug.
I last saw him two years ago, just before my parents moved away. It was to be my last night in the village, and, feeling lost and fiercely fragile, I made my way to the pub. I needed to feel that sense of belonging one final time, before I could say goodbye. He arrived, as if by arrangement, and I took the chance to steal another evening from his life. When the pub closed, we staggered out, arm-in-arm, crooning some ancient jukebox melody, pretending to be drunker than we were. Then we stood for a moment on the dirt track that led through the village, joining it, to the right with distant civilised worlds, to the left with the wind-lashed hills of our home. As our merriment died, the air seemed to resonate with the memory of our voices, like the vibrant hush that follows the lullaby. I could hear the trees and the bats chirping. The air was damp with drizzle and wild winds whipped my hair so that I could hardly see him in the darkness. He turned to me, pushed me gently back onto the gritty wet sandstone of the wall and, pulling the dripping hair from my face, he pressed himself against me and gave me a sad, slow kiss. It had been so long. I'd forgotten how soft his lips were and the clean smell of dirt and tractor oil. But now I can remember it. Then he took one road and I the other. I have never seen him since.