This week has flown, but equally we seem to have been here forever. There is a noticeable difference in the way that people move around the farm - they are now quite at ease; regularly popping into the herb garden to make tea, or taking on one of the Trill kids at table tennis. Some of them simply lie in the grass. We are all very much at home.
It’s the final morning, and Alex needs a record 5 rounds of saucepan banging to shift them out of their beds. The breakfast cupboard is completely bare, and rogue crumbs around the toaster speak of midnight feasting. It’s cornflakes or nothing, but Akira encourages the sceptics to try them with jam, which they find rightly weird, but good enough at least to be able to eat. M is cross when he realises I don’t like cornflakes and therefore am without breakfast. He happily snitches on everyone who was up eating in the night, and as each one arrives sheepishly at the breakfast table, having been told sternly that Akira, Fabian and I are “starving because of them”, he insists on them making a heartfelt apology. “Don’t worry, K” he tells me, while scowling at them, “When it is lunch time they will give you their lunch. I make sure”.
Muji takes half of them to make healing balm; some of the others crowd around Ruth in the workshop, clamouring all at once for her attention in the rush to finish their stools; my group go with Sam to use up the clay they dug from the ditch the other day. They make mugs and ashtrays, with leaf impressions as decoration. These are surprisingly skilful, and it turns out several of them have worked with clay back home. K says it reminds him of being a child again - he used to make clay animals for his siblings.
The final meal is self-made pizza, cooked in the outside oven we made on the trip last year. The assembly line is snappy and ruled by Akira with a rod of iron. And just as the last one is pulled out of the coals, it’s time to go.
I ask them all if they have everything and they assure me they absolutely do, and they have checked many times, definitely. I do a scan of the guest house and return with an overflowing armful of socks, t-shirts, shoes and boxers which were all hiding in plain sight. We have forgotten to tell the coach company that we might need a trailer for the way back, as we are now bringing 14 kitchen stools with us, so the driver creates a jigsaw stack in the boot and then bags are crammed under the seats instead.
Last year, saying good bye was hard and so I am already apprehensive. But it seems to be going well. Each person in turn takes time to give their thanks to Romy and the Trill crew, and to express what the week has meant to them. M says he is happy to have been in a 'big family'. R says everyone was so friendly to him and he felt safe. A and M loved the carpentry; S is sorry they won’t let him take a sheep; H says he has got much fatter. It's all jovial and heartfelt, until Sam steps forward. He tells them all that his advice, having been in their shoes years ago, is to take every opportunity that opens up to them, even if it scares them. “You are all so talented, so strong, with so much to give” he says “We are very lucky that you came”. I can feel my eyes beginning to itch, and am clearly not the only one. The Trill team then speak, one after another, all with the same message: thank you for coming; thank you for your warmth and friendship; you are so welcome here; we are so happy to have been with you; we should say thank you to you. The boys look stunned. And when Ash is finally taken down by emotion, we witness one of the most striking moments of the week. Silently, the boys make a line in front of him and each one hugs him, at length, but without saying a word. There are no words to sum this up, anyway.
Finally they are all on the bus, and the Trill team line up to wave us off. The stinging emotion of the last 30 minutes quickly dissipates as Akira and I force sick bags on them all and pretend to vomit in a clear demonstration of how to use them. Last year, you see, S had insisted his pizza was “happy inside his stomach” and he “absolutely did not need bag”, yet 4 minutes into the journey, the same pizza was happy all over the backs of our heads, and none of us have quite recovered from this experience. I also play the mother card by insisting everyone use the loo before we go. No one needs it, they assure me. They are all absolutely fine. I say we will not be stopping every five minutes for someone to find a tree. They look wounded by my doubt in them, and say “No need, K, no need”. Then we have the same old battle over the seat belts (Them: “In my country we never wear!”; Akira and I: “I don’t CARE; it’s the LAW” and repeat, with each person) and by the time we pull away I can’t help wondering whether the tears on the faces of some of the Trill staff are actually tears of relief, after 20 minutes of waiting for us to actually go. I tell them all if they have forgotten anything, we are not going back. Z says it doesn’t matter, because he is going back, for sure, next year. Thinking of the fight we had to persuade him onto the bus to come here in the first place, this makes us grin.
We leave Trill, with everyone yelling their good byes through the windows. 5 minutes into the journey we stop for S to go to the loo. We continue for another 7 minutes, before both Ms think they should do the same. 6 minutes later, 4 more say they desperately need to go. Akira has his head in his hands. Luckily, our driver has saintly patience, and by the time we hit the motorway, all the boys, and Akira, and me, are asleep.
There is a lot to digest: a lot of thoughts to process and it will take a little time to bring them into order. But for now Vicki, Jocelyn and I would like to thank Akira and Fabian, for giving up a week of their time to live alongside us; for their humour and patience and unflappability in the face of the unexpected. We will not let you go, boys, because you are far too brilliant. And of course, our love, gratitude and thanks go in spades to Romy and the Trill team for a wonderful, fabulous week; for the inspiring programme of activities and opportunities, for the fantastic food and continuous provision of tea and cake, for the utterly flawless organisation and inspirational teaching and occasional use of saucepan lids...and above all else, for their warmth, humour and acceptance that pulled us to the heart of Trill Farm and welcomed us to become part of this unique and magical place. To finish with the words of M, “I lived for a while in another world, and now I feel strong”.
I don’t even know where to start. Was this morning only today? It started so calmly, just me and my coffee at the breakfast table, and slowly the rest of our team arrived. Fabian and Akira look more tired than usual and Fabian admits that yes, he did finally have to get up in the night to tell the boys that although he loved their music and dancing, he thought it best they didn’t actually crash through the ceiling. And when the boys arrive, they shuffle into breakfast with the hunted look of people who have indeed been having a jolly dance party till the early hours, before being rudely dragged from their beds by Alex and his saucepan lids.
We start in the herb garden with Trill Farm’s resident herbalist Muji, who exudes peace and calm, and encourages everyone to kick off their boots and walk barefoot amongst his herb beds. D grins a me and whispers “We are like hippy!" But they listen to Muji. Digestive problems, headaches, stomach pains and insomnia are common ailments for people living with the stress of forced dislocation from home, and Muji carefully takes us round the remedies for them all. There is nothing he doesn’t know about what's growing in his garden and the boys are fascinated. K and R tell me they want to sleep better and stop having stomach pains when they think. They also say it reminds them of home where herbs are used much more - R says he didn’t know we even had them in the UK. M remembers how back in Sudan his grandfather healed his injured leg by using plants and oils. They are delighted to see Muji growing Khat and tobacco, though he is quick to point out that they are not allowed to grow these themselves, and that there danger of ingesting plants you are not knowledgeable about. “If you smoke that,” he says, “it will kill you”. D takes a step back, the thoughts of filling his tobacco pouch thankfully discarded. Muji also points out rosehip and tells us how the seeds make perfect itching powder. I see I’s face light up and watch him slip a handful into his pocket. “For K,” he whispers, beaming at me. “For his bed”. Having seen K throw I’s shoe into a swamp yesterday for no reason, I think there is little need to intervene. Muji suggests we all "do some meditation" together. This is a lovely idea in theory, though in reality, there are six of us sitting on a mat, and the proximity means that snorts of laughter are hard to contain. The boys try to be serious until the sounds of a shrieking M being chased by a guinea fowl waft over to the garden and send everyone into suppressed fits. But Muji is wonderful. We all leave the garden feeling slightly on another plane, and he encourages everybody to come back whenever they want and to help themselves to the tea herbs, which everybody does. B tells me later that Muji has cured his headache and cramps. He has had them every night for 4 months, but after drinking some Trill Farm summer tea, they have gone.
A real treat of the day was a visit from Julian to talk about keeping bees. He explains all about bee navigation systems, how they live and sacrifice themselves for the colony, the guards at the entrance to the hives to keep out any imposters - it’s not hard to see an analogy, for anyone. It turns out that one of the lads has worked with bees at home, and was intrigued by the protective gear. “We don’t use that” he laughs “We just watch, and maybe run”. Julian talks about how to work with them, the presence of danger and the need to be constantly alert, but the great reward when all goes well. Again, there are nods of recognition. The mood lightens when Julian brings out 6 pots of honey to try, and the quiet order of the classroom is lost to a scrum around the jars.
Afterwards, there is falconry. Karen of Kingswood Falcons keeps her birds at Trill Farm, and they watch us appraisingly as we walk up to meet her. Everyone is given a glove, and we are introduced to George the Barn Owl, Rosie the European Eagle Owl with her bright orange eyes, (“Ow! So heavy! Arm is shaking!”) Inca the kestrel, Artemis the Buzzard, and Khan the falcon. Karen talks us through their histories - most of these birds are rescue, taken from caged environments and brought back to health and happiness by dint of huge dedication on Karen’s part towards building trust and respect. “You have to look after them properly” says H carefully "It's difficult to trust people when people have given you a bad life". You don’t want to look for metaphor in everything, but I think everyone feels it. It’s something we notice again and again - we are in the thick of a holiday atmosphere of hilarity and camaraderie, but the biting reality of past experience and future uncertainty is never far below the surface. Karen takes us out into the field and shows us how to swing the lure. I get tangled in my line and whack myself in the face with the lure, which generates shouts of sympathy mixed with explosions of mickey-taking. M is so good, he is sent out to try it for real, with Khan. He stands nervously in the field while Khan sweeps around expectantly, and M panics, throws out the food early, and squeals as Khan heads right for him. Everyone else is delighted by M’s consternation, and film him gleefully; later K tells me she could see the whites of his startled eyes from across the field.
In the evening it pours with rain, which puts football and swimming off the cards, but we have two guitars and a keyboard and the craft room is turned into a jam session. Everyone is reluctant to start and Ruth and I have to be brutally encouraging, in a you-have-no-choice kind of way, to Trill staff and Akira and Fabian, but they are brilliant and are properly applauded. We have to field requests for songs from Africa and the Middle East that we have never heard of, but by the end it turns out that everyone knows Bob Marley, everyone can sing the chorus from Hallelujah, and everyone will sing Stand By Me.
The evening ends with a game that has become a central part of this week - it is part football, part piggy-in-the-middle and (it seems to me) part dancing. I can’t understand it at all, but it involves everyone, and a heck of a lot of shrieked laughter. And more to the point, it wears everyone out.
M, D, H and S say they have one problem. They do not get enough sleep here and they feel “very tired” when Alex bangs his saucepan lids at 08.30. Fabian politely suggests it is because they stay up chatting, or dancing, until 4am. They look thoughtful and agree that if they went to bed earlier, they would indeed have more time to sleep. It seems to be quite a revelation, but I am not sure how far it will sink in. The general energy here can carry on into the night. Akira says he doesn’t care, because he can sleep through anything, so I make a mental note definitely to ensure that Akira comes next time, and for me to reclaim the beautiful (and separate) guest house.
Before I go to bed, H sidles up to me and informs me that actually he is not leaving tomorrow. He is not going back. He looks pretty determined and I think we will come back to this in the morning.
I spoke too soon. Today it took 3 rounds of saucepan banging to get some of them out of bed. Scattered UNO cards on the grass outside suggest late night gaming, and the bleary eyed faces at the breakfast table back this up. But the wonderful news is that Sam has arrived. He bounds in with his infectiously joyful energy and within seconds everyone is pulling on wellies to start the day. They ignore my advice to wear socks and two of them consequently get stuck in them, which is what I said would happen. Anyway, Sam is a treat for everyone. Last year, he and the boys built a pizza oven. This year, he is teaching us all to find clay and turn it into useful things, like mugs and bowls.
My group are first with Sam, and we set off to dig up the clay. It’s so dry here, but Sam jumps into an arid ditch and proclaims it a good thing, because we can break off bits of the clay, and eat it. This, he tells us, will be good for our stomachs. He says that back in his homeland of Uganda, clay is given to pregnant women before the birth, (which makes me grateful for my grandmother’s advice to drink Guinness). The boys and I are unconvinced. It looks like Sam is eating handfuls of mud and encouraging us to do the same. He hands pieces of clay to Z, who breaks it up with a doubtful expression and passes it around. It doesn’t break evenly and the boys insist I get the biggest piece, assuring me the tiny pieces, barely a morsel each, will be absolutely fine for them. I am slightly suspicious about this sudden burst of generosity, which certainly didn’t happen yesterday when there was cake, but I eat it, and watch them trying not to laugh.
The boys set to work with shovels and a pickaxe and in seconds, the wheelbarrow is full. I say I will do some pickaxing too. They all look doubtful and says it is not for women, so I insist sternly to demonstrate gender equality, and they reluctantly hand me the pickaxe. It is much heavier than I have imagined and I immediately swing it into my own foot. They quickly take it off me and rub my foot in concern, but also exchange rolled eyes and words, which I can’t understand but I suspect might include “I told you so”. Still, we have harvested enough clay anyway, and Sam soaks it ready to use tomorrow.
Our big activity for everyone today is about being with horses. Sue from Adventures with Horses has brought two beautifully gentle animals along and each group spend time with them up in the field, learning about their behaviour and the signals of physical language, how to lead them and to bond through grooming. Everyone is mesmerised as Sue and Jo explain the messages being given by Harry and Tristian. Sue demonstrates the art of leading by asking Jo to be a horse. The boys' eyebrows shoot up at this, and they look at me incredulously, as Jo trots and neighs at Sue's side. It IS funny, but it definitely works. They take the real horses on the lead around the field, and when Sue encourages them into a trot, S and D begin to run, and are charmed when the horses break into a canter, and then outrun them. Even the more nervous participants are stroking and patting them by the end of the session. But the clearest bond is immediately formed between Tristian and our A. Sue explains that Tristian had not had the best start in life and how he is still learning to trust. He had no issue trusting A though. They stick to each other like glue, with no lead required, and when A begins to groom him, Tristian sways gently with his eyes half-closed, the very picture of peace. Later, when A sits alone in the field, Tristian goes to stand with him, pushing his shoulder gently with his nose. A stands up and puts his arms around Tristian’s neck, and they stand there for a long while, and in a way that makes me wonder whether we might be bringing a horse on the bus home with us.
In the carpentry workshop the stools are taking shape. These sessions are the quietest as everyone is so involved in their own work. Ruth is the best of teachers, and nothing goes awry, so although Joc and I pretend to be helpful, really we are just drinking coffee. The concentration and precision that goes into the work here is astonishing. I am not actually sure how we will get 14 stools home with us, but that’s a question for Friday, not today. I tell M and D that I have a stool that my grandfather made when he was at school, and that I still use it and love it. Maybe this stool will go to their grandchild. They are taken by this thought and M says "Inshallah, K; inshallah".
Akira’s group have been flying hawks and working with owls, falcons and kestrels. H tells me he is amazed at the control our brilliant falconer, Karen, has over the birds when they are so far away. S says the birds look into his heart. I ask him what the birds see there, and he says “hope” and “excitement”. Which has to be a good thing, surely.
Joc and I look for Fabian’s group and are surprised to find them just round the corner. The lack of noise confused us. Sam has them rolling out clay and find leaves to make imprints, and each of them is fully immersed in creating mugs. The mugs are well-shaped and beautifully decorated, and Sam is beaming. “There is so much talent here” he says “Everyone could be potters”. M’s is so impressive I ask him if he has done this before back home. “No, never” he says “But I like this. I am relaxed with this”.
We finish the day on the top of the hill with the two enormous pans of curry they prepared yesterday heating on the campfire. It is a busy scene, as most of Trill is with us - the volunteers, the staff, their families, friends and kids, and us, either sitting around the fire and eating, or playing football; a mass mixed age, mixed nationality game, also involving several sheep and Trill Farm’s resident dog, Rosa. Z tells me it reminds him of being at home. Alex gently chides everyone to finish the food, and the queue goes on for seconds, thirds, fourths... Marielle cooks Scotch pancakes on the fire for dessert, and douses them in Trill honey, immediately winning a place in the heart of all of the boys, who accuse each other of being greedy, while they also try to jump the queue for more. I wonder whether I will be allocated the largest portion, like with the clay, but oddly, that doesn’t happen this time.
Anyway, as every sits round the fire listening to Akira’s guitar, we all seem pretty happy. As M asks me before he goes to bed, “Yesterday good, today better, tomorrow best?” Who knows? I am just pleased, for Fabian and Akira’s sake, to see them all yawning.
The people at Trill are the most most wonderful bunch of open-minded, open-hearted beings you could ever wish for. And as I pick up a pair of discarded boxer shorts which have somehow made their way onto a vegetable patch, it strikes me that everyone feels very much at home.
I am amazed to find everyone up and eating breakfast at the time we had stipulated. Remembering the saucepan banging and ankle dragging we had to do last year to get them up every day, I had not expected the morning to begin so smoothly. Akira and Fabian (our fabulous co-leaders) say everyone slept really well and they didn’t hear a sound after midnight. Last year, I had dancing on my ceiling at 2 am and an egg frying feast most nights at 4, so Akira and Fabian are clearly doing something right.
The farmer takes us on a tour of the farm and there is much involved comparison of farming methods in Iraq, Sudan and the UK. Everyone however agrees that the bull, whose job is to service 50 cows and then have a long rest, is very lucky. The sheepdogs fascinate everyone, but especially when the pup-in-training falls under the feet of an escaping sheep. S laughs so hard he falls over, and ends up with a “cow present” on his trousers. Then half of us go to the beach, while the other half stay with Trill Farm resident chef, the very brilliant Chris Onions.
The boys are delighted to leap into the sea, and immediately less delighted to discover that English sea is “very cold and very salty”. Not that it stops them. An impulse purchase of a rugby ball leads to the birth of an unusual hybrid of rugby and water polo, which exhausts everyone by the time lunch has arrived, the classic fish and chips on the beach. Tartare sauce is declared to be “very really disgusting”, but everything else is received with joy. I am momentarily disconcerted when R runs to me to tell me in panic that M is being attacked by many “big angry girls, shouting and biting and trying to eat all his chips” but relieved to find out it is only that M had decided to ignore the warnings not to feed the gulls, and was experiencing the consequences. It is incredibly hot and sunny and I get sunburnt. The boys are fascinated and amused by this; they try to look sympathetic but I have now learned the word ‘tomato’ in both Arabic and Sorani.
Back in the kitchen, the other team have baked 50 rolls of bread, and prepared onion and garlic flatbreads for tonight’s evening meal. Group 2 set to making two enormous curries which are to be heated on the campfire tomorrow, with naan bread and vegetables. They chop the salads from the garden with such competitive gusto, that our excellent co-leaders hover anxiously, but no one loses any fingers. Supper is set out in the courtyard, and there is real contest to wield the barbecue tongs and be the one to decide when to turn the meat. This indeed brings up much noisy debate, on how and when and which to turn first, but it is all a success because the lamb koftas barely touch the table before they disappear. Several of the Trill Farm team join us for dinner and it is a noisy, clattering affair, with everyone pointing out exactly what they had made, and declaring it the best.
After tea, there is a huge game of meadow football, which ends abruptly when the ball is kicked into the middle of an adjacent pond. One of our aforementioned co-leaders, Fabian, gallantly strips off and prepares to jump in, but the boys won’t have this at all and in the end, S pushes past and runs into the stagnant water fully dressed to get the ball. He emerges dark brown from the waist down and the boys show their gratitude by holding their noses and shouting “Eeuw, you smell”.
Tomorrow they can get up later and they are all happy about this. I have promised to run an extra grammar class for anyone who wants to get up early, but oddly, no one has signed up for this yet...
We have arrived - three hours late, but at least in a dignified fashion. unlike last year, when the entire group shot out of the bus and fell retching at the feet of the startled greeting line of Trill people, after an unfortunate travel sickness incident just before arrival. The boys are mostly excited - they have loved the scenery on the way down, especially the emergency hedgerow pitstop, on the top of the hill. A couple of them, however, are wary; a little confused about what has brought them to a farm in this remote part of the world. One says to me “But what we DO?”
Three hours later, they have had a carpentry lesson in the workshop, and put the first steps in place towards making a kitchen stool. They have made two columns of herbal soap each, mixing their own fragrances out of herbal infusions from the garden outside. They have picked and packed trays of onions in Ash and Kate’s vegetable garden, finishing it in under half the allocated time. They have played football with the Trill residents, both senior and mini, and taken a leap into the lake to cool off. And they have demolished trays of jerk chicken and lasagne. The ones who had been reluctant to come seem to have changed their minds. And the lad who asked me “But what will we DO?” is asking the same question, but in a way that is now far less puzzled, and far more full of anticipation for tomorrow.
Our two co-leaders are doing a marvellous job. And somehow I have found myself in a glorious room in a separate building, with two of the quietest boys next door. I have been careful not to mention any night time stories of last year to the marvellous co-leaders. I don't want them running for the last train to London. Anyway, let’s see. Maybe this lot won’t hold a rave at 3am, while frying every egg in the building.