You wouldn’t have thought it to look at him, but Keith Gunn’s bull was gay. But then who are we to impose our rigid notions of heteronormative masculinity on a bull?
Keith Gunn had named this bull Rambo, which only reinforced the existing stereotype, especially in the eyes of the holidaymakers in the Airbnb down by the burn. The Nortons always came in August for two weeks. Rambo used to look forward to their arrival, heralded each year by the first faint sugar-frosting of heather on the upper slopes of the glen. He would watch out for the five of them striding over the fields in their windproof jackets and wellington boots, the little one, Matty, trotting double-time to keep up. And they would be looking for him. Oh, there were plenty of bonny females in the herd – Joanie, with her dazzling forelocks, and Princess, of course, and Amber of the gleaming gingernut hide. But all the Norton boys wanted was to ‘see if they could see Rambo’. It made Rambo feel like a celebrity. He would position himself so that he was facing up the glen, to give them his best side. He couldn’t deny it; he was trying to impress them. They seemed like such a happy, normal, accepting family.
Then one year the Nortons’ visit provoked confusing feelings in Rambo. The eldest boy, Dominic, was no longer a calf. He had grown at least four inches and his chest was broader, too. His hair, darker now, had been sheared very close at the sides, while on top of his handsome young head lay a dense tousle of curls, just like Rambo’s own forelocks.
‘Oi, Rambo! Did you miss us?’ It was the first time Dominic had ever spoken directly to Rambo, who found himself tongue-tied, unable to say a word. In shy confusion he turned right round. Too late he remembered that he had enjoyed a particularly liquid evacuation just moments before the Nortons’ arrival. No doubt his hinderparts were still slick with his own filth. Placing one trembling hoof directly in front of the other he exited over the hill with as much dignity as he could manage.
Rambo kept a low profile for the rest of the fortnight. He was relieved when he saw the Nortons’ Mazda winding its way out of the glen. From then on, he did his best to put the lad from his mind, he really did. He knew it was wrong. He would try to think of something more appropriate, like burly young Angus with his trim waist and proud withers. Then he remembered that Angus was his own son, and moreover, he’d been castrated, so it really was out of the question. Rambo wasn’t that sort of bull. He exhorted himself to purify his mind, to practise meditation.
Yet sometimes, as he chewed the cud, he found himself keeping rhythm with his jaws, beating out the sweet dactyl of the boy’s name. Dom-in-ic, Dom-in-ic, Dom-in-ic.
And then it was August again, and this year, for the first time, Dominic had brought a friend with him. The two of them set off from the house almost as soon as the Nortons had arrived, leaving the parents and the two younger boys to unload the car. It wasn’t just a friend, Rambo realised as they drew closer, it was a girlfriend, a scrawny female with long dark hair who stopped when she spotted the herd up ahead.
‘I don’t like it,’ the girl said. ‘Dom, we should turn back.’ But Dominic said something soothing to her and they continued on, his arm around her waist.
Rambo had been readying himself for this moment. To Farmer Gunn’s irritation, he’d been dieting for weeks; his figure looked sharper than ever. Amber had checked his behind so he knew there wasn’t a fly on him. He made his way to the front of the herd to meet Dominic, eagerly anticipating the boy’s warm greeting.
The girl saw him first. ‘Oh my god it’s an actual bull! It’s coming straight for us, Dom, Dom, do something!’
Did Dominic laugh, and tell her oh, don’t worry, that’s my old pal Rambo?
No; he placed himself between the girl and the herd, with his back to Rambo. He kept his voicelow but Rambo could still hear him.
‘It’s OK, Amy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’trealise he was in there. You don’t have to worry, it’s not dangerous,
The girl was actually crying, or pretending to, at least. Let it be noted that Rambo seriously considered charging in their direction – not with the intention of causing any harm, you understand, just to give Amy a bit of a fright. But he did not. He slunk back through the herd to the high part of the field where he could watch them from afar. Amy’s big dark eyes followed him, softening from fear to wary curiosity. ‘What’s that tufty bit in the middle of his belly?’ she wanted to know.
He knew it. She was a real cow, this Amy, objectifying him just like half the females in the herd.
Dominic laughed. ‘That’s his schlong.’
‘Omigod are you serious? It’s so hairy! So – shit, are those his actual balls, then? I thought they were an udder or something.’
‘Yeah, poor bugger, can you imagine,’ Dom said. In some countries they’re actually a delicacy, you know.’
Rambo could hardly believe what he was hearing. Dominic, his Dominic, was some kind of pervert! He tried his best not to judge too quickly. Maybe he’d had a traumatic childhood, maybe he was moved from the udder to the feeding valve too soon, maybe he had trouble relating in normal ways.
It was when they turned to lick one another right in front of the whole herd that he found he couldn’t bear it. He let out a long, involuntary bellow – which made the young lovers spring apart, and gave Rambo the dubious satisfaction of watching the girl charge over the fields to the house, with Dominic in pursuit.
But something had broken inside him. The next day, when Farmer Gunn introduced two new heifers into the herd, Sunshine and Baby, both sweet young things, in full heat for the first time and giddy with oestrogen, he found he couldn’t even bring himself to go through the motions. Usually Rambo was pretty good at his job. He prided himself on maintaining a decent success rate despite his obvious unsuitability for the position. And a lot of the cows appreciated his gentle touch, having heard horror stories from their mothers about the kind of bull who’d cover you with his full weight while you were innocently wrapping your tongue around a tussock of fresh young grass. Rambo liked to think of the girls as colleagues, not competitors or subordinates. But he shrank from Sunshine and Baby. They made him feel very old, and very tired, and if he were being entirely honest, a little bit repulsed by what was expected of him.
Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m trying to say with this story. Is it autobiographical in any way? Is it all a metaphor? Am I secretly a bull myself? And if not, what right do I have to exploit Rambo’s narrative in this way?
The sad truth is that Rambo is no longer around to tell his own tale. After his encounter with Dominic and Amy, he found his way into a new plantation of pine trees, enclosed by a high deer-proof fence. One of the gates was loose on its hinges; a couple of good head-butts and he was in. It was several days before Farmer Gunn found him. Man and bull eyed each other through the fence. Farmer Gunn fetched a long stick and tried thwacking Rambo on the rump, to nudge him back to the open gate.
That afternoon, Dominic was out walking on his own. It was the second week of the Nortons’ holiday and Amy had gone home. The company of his younger brothers had become intolerable to him. He went for lots of long soulful rambles, listening to his iPod, lost in thought and dreams of Amy. So it took him a while to realise that Keith Gunn was calling to him.
Keith’s Scottish accent was very thick, his speech studded with Doric dialect words that stressed Dominic out. Whenever he struggled to understand something Keith was saying to him, it felt like he’d failed some crucial test of manhood. Finally he managed to grasp what Keith Gunn wanted him to do: to enter the tree plantation and help to shoo Rambo out again.
Dominic didn’t much want to get too close to Rambo, but he was even more unwilling to have Keith Gunn think him a wuss. So in they went, forming a sort of pincer movement as they clapped and waved their hands at the bull.
‘Aye, there’s something right queer about this one. He’s off his feed again, hisna touched a coo in weeks. Been carrying on like a right buftie.’
Rambo saw it all, in a moment of perfect, desperate, hopeless understanding.
He saw Dominic’s genuine fear, of him, Rambo, but also of Farmer Gunn; he saw the boy’s self-hatred, the weakness he felt he had to overcome; and he saw his own craven nature, as his heart leapt at the words ‘queer’ and ‘buftie’, Farmer Gunn recognising him for what he was at last, albeit in anger and derision, and he hated and pitied himself for this. He had no idea the world was on the brink of a new phase in the sexual revolution, and that in just a few years’ time the farmyard would be a much more permissive, accepting place to live.
Rambo lowered his head and closed his eyes. He resolved there and then he’d never cover another female as long as he lived – which would de facto not be long, once he ceased to be useful to Farmer Gunn.
And indeed just three months later Farmer Gunn purchased a new bull and sent Rambo off for slaughter. Rambo’s successor, Big Mac, was considered a definite upgrade by most of the herd. He was even bigger than Rambo, with a black hide as lustrous as dupion silk. Mac was the strong and silent type, the cows agreed, a real male of mystery. In fact, Mac suffered from crippling social anxiety. He felt particularly self-conscious about his size. Whenever he saw a guest approaching from the holiday cottage, he would lower himself meekly to the ground in order to seem as inconspicuous and inoffensive as possible.
Rambo’s ropey old carcass was sold to the frozen food brand Findus. There he was made into lasagne, although that particular consignment never reached the shelves, because the product line was recalled in its entirety when Findus was discovered to have been mixing horsemeat in with the beef.
The news story resonated with Dominic Norton. One day he woke up and found he simply couldn’t face eating meat again. Amy – who was a bit of a food snob, and had anyway been looking for a reason to dump him – said that she just couldn’t fancy the kind of guy who didn’t appreciate the joys of a nice juicy steak.
Dom was broken-hearted at the time. Five years later, with veganism on the rise, Amy briefly became a good pub anecdote, a neat way of demonstrating that women, too, could commit microaggressionswith their crude gender stereotyping.
But when he told the story on a first date, it was received with a raised eyebrow and an ‘oh yeah, hashtag not all men?’ Skulking in the gents he wondered if he hadn’t been too eager to shut down women’s voices. Dominic washed his hands and returned to the table. ‘Sorry, I misspoke back then. I can be so clumsy sometimes, I’m like a bull in a china shop. It’s just nerves.’ He glanced bashfully at her from between his forelocks, aware of performing a contrition he didn’t quite feel. It seemed to be working, though; his date was sitting forwards in her chair again. She had milky skin and big brown eyes. He could see her nipples through the thin silk of her camisole top.