The Hill to Bedfordshire.
May 2007, June 2010.
“Major. I got wind of which way the fellow went, and -
’Squire. You did!
Major – and I went right off to the stable -
’Squire. Humph! Good Lord!
Major – and catch’d my horse -
’Squire. Humph! And catch’d your horse!!!
Major – and I flung the saddle and bridle on him -
’Squire. The Lord!
Major – and mounted him -
’Squire. Good Lord o’ mighty!!!
Major – I rode down to the branch -
’Squire. The Lord! And rode down to the branch!
Major – and stopped to let my horse drink -
’Squire. That – oh yes – In the branch.
Major – and while he was drinking -
’Squire. Well – but – oh, yes, yes – humph!
Major – and while he was drinking -
’Squire. But stop there – did n’t – ah – emphem
Major – and while he was drinking -
’Squire. The Lord! And what did he say?
Major. Why I’ll swear point-blank you’re asleep.
’Squire. Well, s’pose’n I am; what’s that to you?”
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, “Dropping to Sleep”
Over the eighteen years in which Ellen had been married to Pete Howling, he had imperceptibly lapsed into something sparse and mechanical – a certain number of constantly repeated functions and demands – which could no longer disturb nor surprise her, nor find an expression which was in even the slightest way unfamiliar to her. There were entire days when they did not exchange any words; the half-knowledge of her presence in the house, or of his out on the farm somewhere, was sufficient. The soft wildness had faded from Pete’s eyes and his body was no longer buoyant with power – with that physical bounce which had come from continuous labour and from never having allowed himself nor his body to truly settle. Pete now presented that overdressed and too-neatly dressed appearance which characterises middle age. He needed more sleep now, he dozed during the day, and on some nights he went to bed even whilst the sun still flamed on the horizon. Like many aging men, he met the world with the rueful manner of somebody resigned to losing a card game, but conscious of the need to do so with good-humour.
Was Ellen surprised, therefore, when Pete called her into his office one morning and told her that he was going to Salt Lake City?
“Look.” He pointed to the notice board, where a faded photograph torn from a newspaper was pinned over the lists of telephone numbers. Skyscrapers, snow-capped mountains, and a blue lake, shimmered in the desert heat.
“It looks really good,” Pete mumbled, shrugging.
“But…” Ellen seemed to drain of all sensation. “What are you going to do there?”
“I don’t know… Drink in the bars, wander around in the mountains… I just need some… time?”
“Pete!” Ellen hissed, although everything that she could and should have said to prevent this seemed suddenly hopeless. They would have to harvest soon – perhaps within the next three weeks – and Ellen was unequal to managing this alone. Pete had risen and he was walking hurriedly out of the house, towards the car. He had no suitcase – not even a jacket. Ellen’s frantic investigations later that evening would establish that he had spent over eight hundred pounds on the plane ticket. She needed time to reflect on Pete’s desertion – to understand whether it was a complete disaster or whether it presented new opportunities – but she was suddenly in charge of harvesting the farm’s three hundred or so hectares of wheat.
The combine harvester awaited in the barn – a nightmarish contraption which rattled like a gigantic diabolical sewing machine – how could she ever be said to own this thing and how could she exert any mastery over it? Previously, Pete had driven the combine harvester, whilst four assistants on bicycles, manoeuvring a sort of canvas tent between them, had collected the grain which flowed out of its chute. The harvester was second-hand and they had been unable to afford a tractor and trailer to go with it. Pete had been peevish throughout the harvest, constantly worrying that his assistants would crash their bicycles and overturn his tent. He had always insisted upon employing four “good men” for the job. If one of them was too hungover to turn up for work, then the others had to revert to the horrific “Plan B”. An unfortunate assistant would drive alongside the harvester in a battered Landrover. The sunroof would open. The grain would pour into the sunroof until the car was finally full, and then the harvester would stop and the car would bumble off on its way towards a nearby barn. The doors would be opened, the grain would empty out, and the breathless assistant would be dug from the car, to be replaced with a new man.
Ellen sat up in the cab of the harvester, her fingertips wandering hopelessly over the controls. Ellen was her husband’s intellectual superior – unlike Pete, she had a college education – and whilst her days and years had been eaten up by all the work of the farm, there had always remained an irritated sense of sophistication at the back of her mind, like a pristine tea service which has grown dusty from disuse. But the combine was too alien, too much. She would never be able to drive this thing. Supposing that they all got muddled up and that the assistants cycled into the blades of the combine. Her wits seemed to ring like a bell at this thought. Supposing that the tent fell open or that the Landrover crashed into something, and that all the grain blew away. Pete would be furious and they would be destitute. And she was not sure that she knew where to recruit “good men.” At best the farm hands would laugh at a woman trying to drive a combine harvester. At worse, they would refuse to work with her.
She was thankful for Gareth, the seventeen year old boy of the Howlings’ friend Reg Mabbutt. The Mabbutts’ farm had folded two years before, Pete was Gareth’s godfather, and he employed the boy from time to time about the farm. Gareth was at an unlovely age, with blotched skin and tangled greasy hair, but he was a hard youth with a clear head. Ellen appointed him her deputy. He was reassuringly respectful towards his godmother and he listened carefully when Ellen consulted him about the combine.
“You want me to drive it?” Gareth demanded flatly. “I can you know. I’ve driven one before…”
Ellen was suddenly uncertain. “Well… err… “ she floundered. “I mean, it would be good if your father would like to…”
“He won’t!” Gareth laughed, shaking his head. He took a sort of bite from a pint glass of golden syrup. Going through the farm’s kitchen cupboards, eating almost everything which he came across, Gareth had earlier drunk a bottle of cough medicine, because the taste had reminded him of his childhood. Ellen had also found him sucking unhappily on a frozen chicken breast. “He’s doing jury service for the next few weeks.” Beheading St Boniface knew, or suspected, that “doing jury service” was a Mabbutt family euphemism for spending several weeks in prison, for having thieved something from around the back of the industrial estate.
“Can you just look at the harvester and see if you know how to drive it?” Ellen pleaded.
And so Gareth climbed up into the cab and he started the engine – and he turned it off – and he started it again – and then he sat there for about half an hour, absorbed in the manual. When he eventually descended, he looked grave.
“Is there something wrong?”
Gareth shook his head. “I can’t get the air conditioning to work.”
“Oh… Well, I think I can drive it,” Gareth admitted, looking troubled. “Though I could really do with some practice… I’ll need to take it for a spin somewhere…”
“Well, there isn’t anywhere…” Ellen said testily, although she knew at once that there was.
The meadow – her wildflower garden – was the only available waste ground on the farm where Gareth could practice with the harvester. And so for the next ten minutes, the bees continued to browse amongst the foxgloves; the ragged robin nodded gently in the breeze like somebody awakening in an armchair; the pungent fragrance of honeysuckle stuck out the hedgerows; the foliage strewn everywhere belched clouds of pollen and seed and sticky fur, which, in a particular light, made the air look like a tank containing an intricate world of senselessly swirling plankton; warblers piped out music as clear as gin; and then the combine harvester, gliding along rather too quickly, burst through the hedgerow and began to forge a great stripe into the meadow. Ellen could not watch and she went into the house. Outside, Gareth performed handbrake turns and emergency stops and wheelies, whilst a sort of reeking pink sludge – the remains of the “harvested” wildflowers – sprayed out of the machine’s chute.
Gareth strode into the house about half an hour later. “I’ve got the hang of it,” he declared triumphantly.
Ellen smiled weakly. “Your dinner is on the table.”
Ellen received the first visitation that night. She awoke abruptly, with the feeling that she had already missed half a dozen breaths. Her body lay insensible amongst the bedding – reduced to flickering eyes which skimmed around the ceiling like insects on a pond. There was somebody in the room – she could hear them padding about by the window. She tried to call out, but when her voice came it was wondrously rasping and thin. Ellen wanted to tear her eyes from the ceiling and glimpse the figure, but then she was suddenly desperate not to attract his attention, as if wishing to shrink deep inside her own lifeless body. The visitor was no longer distant and impassive, but with a great unseen movement he swooped down into her chest and face with a foul, keen intimacy. She could no longer focus on him and perhaps he was pouring into her throat, for the air seemed to be just beyond Ellen’s straining lungs and she became fizzy with the need to inhale until it all rose up and broke with a dull pop and she melted away as a mindless foam….
There had been enough reality to the visitation to convince Ellen that it had not been a dream. The next evening, she was jittery when preparing for bed and she took several sleeping pills in the hope of getting through the night without waking. But she received the same visitation, with the same sense of dread and final suffocation.
On the third night, Ellen took Gareth to bed with her. Seducing the boy had been excruciating and it had demanded all of her patience. Gareth had cracked jokes throughout dinner – uncomfortable with being made to feel the equal of this very adult lady – and Ellen had plied the boy with red wine. She gathered that he had thrown up most of it in the kitchen sink. Ellen had no idea of what Gareth made of the evening – she told him that Pete had been on holiday for so long that she was lonely and needed company – but when they went to bed, it transpired that the boy had a great shopping list of sexual acts that he wished to inflict upon her. She tolerated this for a while, regarding it as a sort of payment, but she eventually suggested that Gareth be quiet and go to sleep. He cuddled up to her and she felt grateful for his presence.
When she awoke, she knew – even before hearing the padding by the window – that the visitor was back. The defeat was total. Ellen lay amongst the bedclothes, waiting for the terror and the suffocation. But then a cloud smothered the moon and she was running through familiar rooms, searching for Gareth and the reassurance of his attentions. The house, however, was dark and empty. Gareth was not in the kitchen – the plates from the evening’s dinner were still stacked up on the dining room table – and there was no noise from the living room, which she had expected to see flickering in the blue light from the television. Now desperate, Ellen broke into the garden – the cold, moist air all over her crawling skin like the tongue of a dog – her feet wailing naked on the wet lawn – ducking under washing on the line – surprising a fox beside the rockery – approaching that untidy area under the trees, which was the last place where Gareth could possibly be…
Ellen returned to her bedroom and found Gareth in bed, snoring gently.
“Where have you been?” she screamed
“What?” Gareth mumbled sleepily. “What is it?”
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere?” Gareth asked. “I’ve been asleep… We’ve been asleep, haven’t we?” He looked around uncertainly.
Ellen’s voice was high and unsteady. “Where the fuck were you? I needed you and you weren’t here!” In a movement so sudden that it frightened Gareth, she leant forward and pushed him, with a feeble viciousness. He half-fell out of bed – grabbing a pillow to shield his nakedness – but the sight of his thin legs caused Ellen to wearily resign her anger. She hauled him back into bed and hugged him. Bewildered, Gareth stroked her hair and cooed unhappy encouragement at her.
The next morning, Ellen looked out of the landing window and surveyed the fields wandering massively below. “This is lunacy,” she thought, as the wheat stirred with a gigantic restlessness; “any normal person would give up and run away.” She was then struck with a sudden panic: that she would be unable to hire labourers for the harvest; that they would have to revert to “Plan B”; and that it would be her at the wheel of the Landrover.
Like somebody forcing themselves to peer over a precipice at a waterfall, Ellen imagined what would happen: the grain flowing through the sunroof on to her head, venturing down the back of her neck and between her skin and her clothing, pouring from her hair and shoulders into her lap and down the sides of the car seat. A pyramid would gradually form in the middle of the car – its weight pushing her forward – until she would have to push back, and she would be buried up to her neck in the grain. “Keep going! Steady now!” Gareth would holler through his megaphone, above the rattle of the machinery. And then the grain would be up to her chin and she would be battling beneath the heap, trying to keep the Landrover going in a straight line. She would take a great breath before the grain passed over her face, and then there would be a minute or so of blind suffocation as she fought to get the Landrover over to the barn – the grain peeping into the corners of her eyes and the firm line of her mouth – until the vehicle felt smooth over the concrete, she braked, the doors were opened by helping hands, and in a moment the car had half emptied and she was sitting above it all, panting with relief.
She went down to the living room. Gareth and a friend were seated in front of the television with cans of beer.
“This is Joe,” Gareth explained. “He’ll be working at the harvest.”
“Pleased to have you on board,” Ellen beamed, eyeing their beer cans with distaste. It was barely eight in the morning. “I hope you’re a good cyclist…?”
“Erm, well… This is a strange thing…” Joe said, looking uncomfortable.
“You see, I’ve never actually learned to ride a bicycle. When I was a kid, my parents never got round to teaching me…”
“Well…” Ellen harrumphed. “This isn’t really what we’re looking for…”
“He can learn,” Gareth sung reassuringly. “We’ve got a few days and Joe here will soon get the hang of it.”
“Maybe you can fit stabilisers to the bike, Gareth,” Ellen snapped angrily.
“Sure thing, darling.”
To Ellen’s surprise, Gareth stood up and kissed her on the mouth. He then shot a significant look at Joe and Joe nodded, suitably impressed. Ellen screamed slightly and stalked off into the kitchen.
“Can you make us breakfast, sweetheart?” Gareth called after her from the living room. She chose not to answer.
Ellen drove over to Beheading St Boniface for the morning. She had decided to consult Natty Daws, the village G.P., about her night terrors. Natty believed that the growing array of diseases and disorders recognised within his profession were being daily manufactured by the National Health Service. Any patient with the temerity to complain of cancer, heart disease, arthritis or anything of a similar standing within established medicine, would be treated to a jolly good telling off. “Why don’t you stop wasting everybody’s time?” Natty would rage. This approach largely worked – most of Natty’s patients quickly forgot about their symptoms and aspired quietly to health.
Natty’s first patient of the morning was a villager who derived pleasure from dressing as a baby. Wearing nothing but a large diaper, he would roll around his living room carpet, soiling himself and gurgling nonsense at his appalled family. His wife had threatened to leave him and take the children, and this had finally persuaded him to seek help. “Mr Parker,” Natty smiled. “The only real treatment which exists for this disorder is to be strong. There is nothing more to it than that.”
Mr Parker blinked.
“I think you appreciate that you have a problem. You are embarrassed about this difficulty. And when you feel the compulsion to dress as a baby, you need to find a greater resistance within yourself. These things take time, of course, and it may be that the strength will come only when the time is right…”
Mr Parker nodded unhappily.
“There are inevitably all sorts of faddish therapies which you can indulge in, but the only real answer is to be strong.”
Mr Parker wandered out and Ellen’s name was called.
She described the visitations. “I don’t think that anybody is breaking into the house, but throughout the experience – the hallucination, I suppose it is – I am convinced that the visitor is real.”
“Mrs Howling…” Natty began. “The best thing to do would be to address the deep emotional problems which are causing your night terrors.”
“But unfortunately, I can only treat your illness superficially, as it were, by merely getting rid of the symptoms.”
Natty sighed wearily. “I have to close the surgery for a month. It’s a contractual obligation. I’m owed an arrears of holidays, and…” he shrugged in conclusion. “I’m going to prescribe some pills. They’re fairly cutting edge – in fact, they’re not yet available on the NHS. We obtain them from a specialist supplier in Ireland. They artificially replenish neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, and so on, in effect removing any need for sleep.”
“So I won’t need to… err… sleep?”
“It won’t be necessary, or indeed possible. Take three with every meal. Do not drive or operate any machinery whilst under this medication. You may experience some brief, light hallucinations, but they won’t distress you. Remember: nothing that you see is real.”
Natty was rising in his seat, smiling. “But what will I do with all the spare time?” Ellen protested.
“That’s up to you. It depends whether you want more work time or more leisure time.”
“Learn to play the piano. Knit! If you have any problems, then phone me at my home. I’ll just be sitting around the house. The nurse will provide you with my number. My wife has bought me one of those televisions, and if I can’t get any sense out of it, you’ll probably find me dismantling the thing. The technology is very intriguing. I doubt that the images are produced electronically, as the packaging claims – they are undoubtedly some variety of chemically-induced delirium.”
Ellen decided to show her face at the Coach and Horses. Walking over to the pub, she found herself briefly alone in a narrow walled lane, beneath huge, restless beech trees. Here, she was unsettled for the first time by a waking fear of the visitor’s approach – the idea of him nearing unseen, perhaps behind one of the dry-stone walls at her elbows. She quickly extracted the little plastic pot of pills from the pharmacy wrapping and, after twisting the cap this way and that, she finally cracked it open. She shook a few of the pills into the palm of her hand and quaffed them down.
She concentrated furiously on the sound of a car up on the main road, and this vague suggestion of a benevolent presence stabilised her. The odd thought then struck Ellen that the burial in the Landrover would not be so bad if she was wearing some sort of snorkel.
The Coach and Horses dated back to the sixteenth century. The pub’s ceilings were set with heavy oak beams and the rooms – however brightly and forcefully they were decorated – always remained shrunken and dank, conveying the gentle impression of poison. Ellen ordered a half-pint of ale and she joined Annie Mabbutt, the village schoolmistress, and her son Reg.
“Reg! I thought that you were on jury service?”
Reg grinned. “Well, these days there’s this new innovation. When you do jury service, they now give you this electronic “tag”.” An ankle was produced from under the table and waved in indication. “It’s so the Judge can spy on where you are. Hello Mr. Judge!” Reg called to the tag.
They all tittered wickedly.
“Err, Reg… If the Judge will let you away for a few days, I wonder if you could help us out with our harvest…?”
The mood changed abruptly. “You’ve got Gareth, haven’t you?” Reg demanded.
“Well yes, but…”
“The boy knows what he’s doing.” Reg stood and made for the bar.
Annie smiled. She leaned forward and, glancing around, she whispered intrepidly that, “he won’t work for a woman.”
The talk continued. Reg returned, with a pint for himself and a gin and tonic for his mother. “There’s another thing…” Ellen ventured hesitantly.
“I wonder if you’ve heard anything from Pete?”
“Well I had a postcard, of course…”
“I had two,” Annie reported. “Although strictly speaking one was for the children at the school.”
“Oh…” Ellen floundered. “I had the strange idea that he might be at your farm.”
The pair looked dumbstruck.
“It’s silly, I know,” Ellen laughed weakly.
Back at the farm, Ellen went into Pete’s office and she unpinned the lists of telephone numbers from the notice board. She soon recognised some of the names and she began to phone around, “on behalf” of her husband, certain that she would soon come across someone with a few days to spare for her harvest… From the window of the office, she could see Joe wobbling around the garden on a bicycle, whilst Gareth stood a little way back, occasionally prodding him steady with what appeared to be the end of a rake. By late afternoon, Ellen had enlisted half a dozen assistants and she had decided upon the weekend – when they were all off school – for the harvest.
Ellen usually had a brief nap before preparing dinner, but when she lay back on the sofa and turned down the television, sleep would not come. With vexation, she recalled Natty’s pills. At the stove, Ellen was not sure whether she felt alert or weary. She knew that she was owed a certain amount of sleep, and this irked her, regardless of whether or not she was actually tired. It then occurred to Ellen that she now had eight additional hours of the day to fill. Watching potatoes bobbing merrily in the boiling water, she tried to come up with a list of chores, but all of them seemed somehow unsuitable for the night. Yet if she forewent the next course of pills, then she knew that she would be visited again. Ellen moralised blandly to herself about the ingratitude of scorning Natty’s pills. Once darkness came and the night terrors returned, she would not be quite so nonchalant then! Ellen elected to sit the night out with an encyclopaedia, aware that this was the sensible thing to do, but the night ahead still seemed rather like a sort of exile.
At dinner, she told Gareth that he would not be needed that night.
He was shouting and gesticulating. Half way through dinner, he stood up and began to pace furiously around the room. Joe seemed to grow absorbed in ordering his peas into neat little regiments of squares and circles.
“I have a headache,” Ellen explained. “You can sleep in the spare room. I sometimes make Pete sleep there as well,” she added diplomatically.
“I don’t understand…!”
“Please stop shouting…”
“I am not shouting!” Gareth’s voice filled the room with the extraordinary volume of that of a hungry baby. “Why!? I thought that you liked me sleeping with you!”
“I do,” Ellen insisted unconvincingly. “Look, don’t get like this…” She started to explain that she felt guilty sleeping with somebody so young – she feared that their relationship might be holding him back in life. Hot tears zipped down Gareth’s cheeks and, rather incredibly, a small puddle had soon formed on the tablecloth beside the gravy boat. Yet despite her flutter of energy that afternoon, Ellen knew that she was ultimately dependent upon Gareth for the harvest to be successful. She lead him out of the dining room and up into the bedroom, and let him do… whatever it was that he was now doing to her. Joe sat by himself at the dining table, feeling humiliated. Finally, he started on the washing up.
That night, Ellen read a good third of “A”. The volumes of encyclopaedia – a wedding present from a bachelor uncle – were all stacked up in Pete’s office. Dust mites crawled amongst the pages and Ellen had to pick out their carcasses as she read. She stacked them in an ashtray. The boys now slept in the spare room, although Gareth had made a couple of attempts to break into her bedroom and had been repelled, bewildered at finding her still awake and dressed.
When the weekend arrived, it was raining. Ellen knew that she would have to wait until the following Saturday – when her assistants were all off school again – to commence the harvest, although she equally realised that the grain might be spoiled by this delay. By Tuesday, when she had gone for six days without sleep, she could no longer concentrate on reading and she gave up on the encyclopaedia before the end of “C”. Ellen now spent the nocturnal interludes of her unending day wandering through the rooms of the house, humming to herself, tiptoeing else she wake the boys upstairs, straightening and re-straightening cushions, and crouching to pick hairs and tiny threads of dust from the pine floor in the utility room.
On Wednesday, Gareth – fearing that the anxiety of the approaching harvest was making his godmother unwell – suggested that they revert to “Plan B” and that he drive the Landrover himself – so that they could harvest immediately.
“But who is going to drive the combine?”
“That’s not a problem,” Gareth countered quickly. “It’s easy-peasy. Maybe you could do it?”
“I can’t drive that thing. I can’t concentrate on anything at the moment. I can’t even make our dinner without burning everything…”
“That’s true,” Gareth agreed. “But perhaps Joe can drive the combine and then I can take the Landrover…”
“Joe can’t even ride a fucking bicycle!!”
That night, the hallucinations started. Ellen felt something on the back of her neck, and after searching, she removed a little kicking dust mite. Something as slight as talcum powder padded gently but firmly over her hair and on to her shoulders, and then she was shaking her head beneath the shower, as if to clear it. The mites were being poured on to her from above, and she shuddered as hundreds of the creatures slipped down the back of her neck and into her shirt, venturing down and down, their almost-weightless little skeletons brushing against her bare skin. The pyramid was rising behind her, pressing her forward. The whole, vaguely red edifice stirred with billions of little kicking legs and, suddenly giddy, Ellen playfully toppled the heap over, so that it spread across the floor of Pete’s office. Whooping triumphantly, she grabbed at the vacuum cleaner and began to suck up this sea of mites. But they were still pouring on to her from above, and then a sort of clot unfolded over her head and fell over her face so that she could no longer see. Panicking, she started to brush the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner around her face.
“What‘s happening?” Gareth had been in the kitchen, searching for something to eat. He frequently found his way downstairs in the night and he had prepared a coffee mug filled with cold pasta sauce, and a glass of custard powder, to take back to bed with him. “Are you on some sort of trip?” He had noticed a small pot of pills on Pete’s desk and he quickly slipped them into the pocket of his dressing gown. Ellen’s hallucination was receding and she was now sinking into the office chair, uncomfortable with how excited she still felt. She looked up at Gareth and half-murmured, half-cried at him, with triumphant hilarity. Startled, he backed out of the office, laughing and waving goodnight.
The next morning, Gareth and Joe stood at the back door. Joe was picking at the most edible bits of a plate of cold beans and burnt bacon.
“We have to get out of here. I think that we’re getting too involved in this.”
Gareth smiled. “Don’t pussy out on me now. Once the harvest is in, we’ll be raking in more money than our fucking parents. I’m virtually running this farm!”
“She’s not a well lady, Gareth.” Inside the house, Ellen was swooping around the living room, shrieking with laughter as the grain chute – which circled around her head like a wasp – tried to settle over her, so that it could commence the pyramid. But she would not let it, and she clambered furiously away whenever it got too near.
“And I think that she’s murdered her husband,” Joe confided gloomily.
“Don’t say that. Let’s not talk about him.”
“She’ll do the same to us,” Joe warned. “As I said, she’s not at all…”
“Look,” Gareth snapped. “I’ll tell you a secret. She’s on something. A sort of drug…”
“You mean like acid…?”
“Here,” Gareth handed the pills to Joe. “I found these in the office last night.”
Joe studied the container. “I don’t know what they are,” he said finally.
“I want to take some. But I’ll only do it if you do.”
Joe did not smile. “They could be like medication or something.”
“Most medication will make you high. It’s all painkillers. Come on…” Gareth emptied the pot into the palm of his hand and split the pills roughly into two. “One, two, three?”
Joe sighed. “Okay.”
“One… two… three!”
Joe grimaced. “I could have done with some water.”
“Let’s sit down. Inside.”
In the house, they found Ellen crouching under the dining room table. “Get out of there!” Gareth shooed her away angrily.
“I need you to cover my head.”
“Why? With what?”
“With your hand.” She gestured in indication.
“For fuck’s sake,” Gareth muttered to himself. He placed his hand over Ellen’s head, allowing her to emerge from under the dining room table. Once up, she looked suddenly alarmed, and then a bit sheepish, and she finally batted away Gareth’s hand.
Joe and Gareth sat down on the sofa.
“Nothing’s happening,” Joe said suspiciously.
“It’s acid or something. I can feel it starting to work.”
Ellen was crawling around the living room on her hands and knees. “I really need to find this medication,” she whined. “It’s really, really important.” Gareth winked at Joe, who frowned in reply.
Gareth had a thought. “Maybe we’re hallucinating now. We could still be in the back garden.”
“We can’t have the same hallucination…” Joe groaned.
“Maybe you’re not having this hallucination!” Gareth countered smartly.
“We’re starting the harvest now,” Ellen muttered. She went out the back door – leaving it wide open – and the boys shouted at the draught.
“We’re starting the harvest!” Gareth mocked.
“God!” Joe agreed.
“I know… I mean, driving a combine harvester on acid… I mean…?”
“We’re getting too old for that sort of thing” Joe smiled.
“You can get sent to prison for that.”
From outside came the splutter of the combine starting up. Joe and Gareth were immediately on their feet, but before they had reached the door, the sound of a great crash was rolling, like thunder, over the farm…
It had all seemed fantastically simple. They could just start the harvest now, and if they all had a good crack at it – and if they stretched themselves and were confident and good humoured – and if there were no complications – then the harvest would be in by the evening and the weeks of waiting would be finally over for good. Once the combine was in motion, Ellen felt overwhelmed and she had to stop it and start it a few times, before she had conquered her nerves and she could drive it along the lane to the first of the fields. She was sure that the boys would surmise what was happening and eventually follow in the Landrover. It was too difficult to talk to Gareth – she became shredded up with impatience. Every little noise that he made – even his slightest glance – burned deep into her brain. She waited for them at the entrance to the first field. The sky was a deep shining blue and a flotilla of crisp white clouds swept across it, each one a perfect, intricate little work of art.
The Landrover approached. Gareth was behind the wheel and he nodded sullenly as Ellen wiggled her fingertips in greeting. His great lump of a friend was presumably waiting over in the barn. Once the Landrover had driven under the combine’s chute, there was a faint whirr – barely discernable from the cab of the combine – as the sunroof opened. And then, reminded with bemusement of the methodical way in which one may set about mowing a lawn, Ellen started on the first stripe. Enthroned above the harvest, she kept an eye on the Landrover as it filled with grain, like the bottom of an upturned hourglass. But then, like a leaping forward in time, she was roused in the midst of the wheat by a honking from the Landrover. The vehicle was finally full. The combine came to a stop and the Landrover withdrew, veering blindly off in the vague direction of the awaiting barn.
Ellen looked back across the desolate trail of hay bales and she caught a glimpse of a little mouse trickling forlornly over the ruins of the field. Clouds swept like motorway traffic across the blue bowl of the sky. And then the Landrover was racing over the field and she knew immediately that he was in there, behind the wheel. Dumb with panic, her hands slipped helplessly at the controls, before, with a furious effort, she managed to start the engine. The combine rattled off, breaking from the already-mown stripes, grain spraying freely from its chute into the dirt and the wind. Ellen screamed and hammered on the wheel as the Landover approached. And then, blank with incredulity, she observed the combine’s chute passing over the opening sunroof. The car started to collect the grain, its driver apparently unconcerned by the combine’s odd, erratic flight across the field. As unwillingly as one may swallow back vomit, Ellen settled back in her seat.
They had mown a great, mad stripe through the wheat. And then, as the Landrover beeped to signal that it was full and began to pull away, a new terror soared within her. She had placed half her grain in the hands of this visitor, and he may be bent upon somehow destroying it. The Landrover was almost away now – carving its own path through the wheat – but she accelerated aggressively – abruptly cutting off the vehicle. Beeping in protest, the Landrover tried to reverse and drive around the obstacle, but the combine dogged it, repeatedly bumping into the car, refusing to let it alone.
Ellen snatched a brief impression of a figure leaping nimbly from the Landrover – to land just beside her cab – like the turning of an hourglass – so that the grain was spilling into the cab over her head – and she was labouring to inhale, gasping desperately, frantic to grab even the very bottom of an actual breath…
And then Ellen was on her feet. Joe and Gareth had each taken an arm and they were leading her aimlessly around the front garden. A gigantic tower of smoke, as huge as a cathedral, was emptying from behind the house.
“That combine is totally fucked!” Gareth yelped.
“I knew that this would happen…”
“Oh! Did you? Did you really?” Gareth exclaimed with shrill astonishment.
“You know what I mean. The whole thing up at this farm was hopeless. It was all going to end in tears…”
Gareth screamed with vexation.
Dreamily, Ellen wanted to take command. Had they called the fire brigade or done anything to prevent the fire from spreading to the fields? But she sensed that her instinct to intervene was fuelled by a sort of false energy and so she kept quiet. And then, suddenly nauseous, she was terrified that the boys would notice her.
“The trouble with you, Joe, is that if it were up to you nothing would ever happen! You just sit on your fucking arse all day! I was doing all the work here! I don’t know why I even put up with this fucking unhelpful shit!”
“Calm down Gareth – this isn’t doing any good.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down!”
“Have you seen my medication?” Ellen broke in. An arc of water pattered briefly before the inferno and a little rainbow appeared like a shy smile.
Joe looked at Gareth. “Medication?” Gareth said innocently.
“I can’t go to sleep. I hallucinate. I have these pills to stop… to stop the hallucinations.”
“Nope. Haven’t seen them.”
“The fire brigade are going to tell the police about this,” Joe reasoned unhappily. “We should get our story straight. Were you ever licensed and insured to drive that thing, Mrs Howling?”
“None of us are insured to drive anything here” Gareth exploded. “Look, we’ll say that kids did this. Or gypsies. Yeah, gypsies were messing around with the combine and they crashed it.”
Joe looked sceptical. “I really need to get these pills back,” Ellen insisted.
The sky was cloudless and the great trunk of smoke climbed and climbed, defying any prospect of a ceiling and confirming its true magnificence. “I guess it’s all over,” Gareth sighed.
Much of the day was consumed with explanations. Ellen repeated to about eight different policemen that she had no idea how the fire had started and that Gareth had been supervising the farm that morning. Despite losing the most valuable piece of machinery on the farm, she seemed oddly unconcerned about claiming insurance on it. The police lead Gareth into Pete’s office for a formal talk and Ellen prepared mugs of tea for the firemen. The police were eventually won over by the idea that Pete Howling had run away with another woman. They became indignant and sentimental, and they freely overlooked the discrepancies in Ellen’s and Gareth’s accounts. When the convoy of police and firemen had finally left the farm, Ellen tottered across the front lawn and her squirming hand found Gareth’s.
“Boys,” she panted. “I need you to stay with me tonight. Please!”
Gareth and Joe looked alarmed.
“I’ll cook for you,” Ellen crooned desperately, a deranged twinkle in her eye.
“Um, I have to revise for my exams,” Joe said doubtfully. “My parents are worried about me spending so much time up here. I’m sorry Mrs Howling, but it’s finished. And you don’t look very well…”
Ellen did not even blink in response. “Gareth! Please, Gareth! You’ve always been good to your old godmother…”
Gareth mumbled something. He looked down at his trainers.
There was almost an entire minute of silence whilst Gareth struggled to find nice words of refusal, but then the opportunity had seemingly passed and Ellen was raucous with gratitude. Joe coughed.
“I’ll see you later, Gareth.”
Inside the house, the living-room windows were blackened with smoke. Gareth sat down on the sofa and he looked at the television, but he made no attempt to turn it on. Ellen was afraid to tear her eyes from Gareth, else he try to make some sort of run for it. She perched herself on the windowsill and watched him fearfully.
“I’ll make us a solid feed,” she promised, her eyes bright. “Steak and kidney pie! You’ll like that!”
“Err… If you could turn on the TV?” Gareth suggested finally, in a quiet, flat voice. Ellen silently complied and then, half convinced that Gareth was now too subdued to run away, she crept softly into the kitchen and started to make dinner.
“It looks really nice,” Gareth murmured as they sat down at the table. She poured him a glass of water. They ate in silence.
That night, Ellen reached out through the dark for Gareth and begged “help me, please!” Gareth rather lamely pretended that he had not heard her. Like any active young man, Gareth’s thoughts usually cut out from the moment that his head hit the pillow. But tonight sleep would not come. Gareth was faintly outraged at encountering this unexpected insomnia – the day had been so full and it had left him feeling so tired. He lay facing the wall – away from Ellen – but after an hour he ached so much that he needed to turn over on to his other side. He could hear Ellen whimpering behind him and he did not wish to face her, fearing that this would somehow affirm an interest or sympathy. Eventually, however, the discomfort became too much. As discreetly as possible, he attempted to turn on to his other side. What he saw caused him to shoot bolt upright. Desperate to stay awake, Ellen had taken a pair of scissors and she was now drowsily stabbing herself in the thigh with fierce little jerks. The wall beside the bed was flecked with blood.
Gareth turned back on to his old side, which seemed to emit a fathomless groan at the renewed ache. His wits were now as light and as lively as a butterfly. At some point in the coming hours, Gareth would begin to bang his head on the wall – in deep hard thuds – determined to silence the seemingly inexhaustible twitterings of his brain. But perhaps we should leave this pair imprisoned on their bed as it voyages through the night, their minds wandering deep through catacombs of inane memory, interrupted only by the hoots of an owl from far over the un-harvested fields, and with no vestige of morning in sight.