The next morning, Gareth and Joe stood at the back door. Joe was picking at the most edible bits from 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. We’re now running this farm, mate.”
“She’s not a well lady, Gareth.” Inside the house, Mary was swooping around the living room, shrieking with laughter as the grain chute – which circled above 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 capered 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.”
“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 Mary 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 Mary’s head, allowing her to emerge from under the dining room table. Once up, she looked suddenly alarmed, and then a bit sheepish, and then she finally batted Gareth away.
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.”
Mary was back on her hands and knees again, though she was now searching the floor. “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 be both having the same hallucination,” Joe groaned.
“Maybe you’re not having this hallucination!” Gareth countered smartly.
“We’re starting the harvest now,” Mary 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…?”
Joe smiled. “We’re getting too old for that sort of thing.”
“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, panes of glass were dropping out of the windows and they were both scrambling back behind the sofa for cover.
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 over for good. Once the combine was in motion, Mary 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 Land Rover. It was too difficult to talk to Gareth at the moment and whenever she tried she became racked with the most exquisite 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 shining powerfully, a rigid blue, and a flotilla of crisp white clouds swept across it, each one indescribably perfect.
The Land Rover approached. Gareth was behind the wheel and he nodded sullenly as Mary wiggled her fingertips in greeting. His great lump of a friend was presumably waiting over in the barn. Once the Land Rover had driven under the combine’s chute, there was a faint whirr – barely discernible from the cab of the combine – as the sunroof opened. And then, reminded with bemusement of the methodical way in which one might set about mowing a lawn, Mary started on the first stripe. Enthroned above the harvest, she kept an eye on the Land Rover 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 Land Rover. The vehicle was finally full. The combine came to a stop and the Land Rover withdrew, veering blindly off in the vague direction of the awaiting barn.
Mary looked back at the hay bales and she saw a scared little mouse trickling across the ruins of the field.
Clouds swept like motorway traffic across the sky. And then the Land Rover 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. Mary screamed and hammered on the wheel as the Land Rover approached. And then, blank with incredulity, she observed the combine’s chute passing over the opening sunroof. The car began to collect the grain, its driver apparently unconcerned by the combine’s odd, erratic flight across the field. As unwillingly as if swallowing back vomit, Mary settled back in her seat again.
They had mown a great, mad stripe through the wheat. And then, as the Land Rover beeped to signal that it was full and it started 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 Land Rover was almost away now – carving its own path through the wheat – but she accelerated aggressively – abruptly cutting off the vehicle. Beeping in protest, the Land Rover tried to reverse and drive around the combine, but the combine dogged it, repeatedly bumping into the car, refusing to let it alone.
Mary snatched a brief impression of a figure leaping nimbly from the Land Rover – 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 Mary 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 crazy. It was all going to end in tears.”
Gareth bellowed with vexation.
Dreamily, Mary wanted to take command. Had they called the fire brigade or done anything to prevent the fire from spreading to the fields? Yet 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?” Mary 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,” Mary insisted.
The sky was cloudless and the great trunk of smoke climbed and climbed, defying any prospect of a ceiling. “I guess it’s all over,” Gareth sighed.
Much of the day was consumed with explanations. Mary 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 was oddly unconcerned about claiming insurance on it. The police led Gareth into Pete’s office for a formal talk and Mary prepared mugs of tea for the firemen. The police were soon won over by the idea that Pete Howling had run away with another woman. They became indignant and sentimental, and they freely overlooked all the discrepancies in Mary’s and Gareth’s accounts. When the convoy of police and firemen had finally left the farm, Mary 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 dismayed.
“I’ll cook for you,” Mary 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…”
Mary did not even blink in response. “Gareth! Please, Gareth! You’ve always been good to your old godmother…”
Gareth was trying to mumble 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 Mary was raucous with gratitude. Joe coughed.
“I’ll see you later, Gareth.”
Inside the house, Gareth sat down on the sofa and he looked at the television, but he made no attempt to turn it on. Mary was afraid to tear her eyes from Gareth, else he try to make some kind 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. Mary silently complied and then, half convinced that Gareth was now too subdued to run away, she crept softly into the kitchen and began 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, Mary 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 Mary – but after an hour he ached so much that he needed to turn over on to his other side. He could hear Mary whimpering behind him and he did not wish to face her, fearing that this would somehow confirm his sympathy. Eventually, however, the discomfort became too much. As discreetly as possible, he attempted to turn over. What he saw caused him to shoot bolt upright. Desperate to stay awake, Mary 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 dancing monkey. At some point in the coming hours, Gareth would begin to bang his head on the wall – in merciless thuds – determined to silence that untiring, maddeningly deaf voice in his brain. Still, 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 glimmer of morning in sight.