It used to be a kiss. The last thing he did before he left the house. I would look up at him from my seat, fanning myself with a book, and he would cushion my head in his hand, bend down and touch his lips to mine. Our eyes would be open. Then I'd watch him walk across the yard and drag the gate wide, scratching up a cloud of dust that hid him from view. The early morning heat would ripple and flicker his body until he disappeared over the brow of the hill. It made me smile, that kiss, a good way to start my day.
Now it's the damn bags. It's like he's trying to suffocate the life out of his steps, wrapping thick blue plastic around his shoes and fastening them tight with rubber bands before he gets to the field. I wonder what those bags smell like when he throws them away at the end of the day. Salty and thick probably, hot, with effort and worry caked on the insides.
“See you,” he mumbles as he squints into the sunshine. I am watching a bead of sweat trickle down my calf, thinking about how tacky my bright pink toe nails look against the green of my flip flop.
“Yes, see you – what time do you think you'll be back tonight?”
“About nine I suppose, it depends how long it takes today.” His words tail off because he's walking away from me as he is talking.
And I don't care. I don't really want to know, it was just something to say. Before he's even stepped off the porch I pick up my coffee cup and head inside. The last dregs have already dried out and formed a skin in the bottom of the cup. I slowly scratch a cross in it with my finger nail, put it in the sink and head upstairs to get things ready. I know what I'm going to have to do.
This is not a journey I thought I would be making. We daydreamed about this ideal life over post-work wine in amongst scores of other Pall Mall professionals, probably doing the exact same thing. But we made it. Took the leap and gave it all up to come here, earnest and eager to give it a go, to make it work. We'd have these few fields, some cows, some sheep, David could work in the fresh air every day, I'd learn to bake and he'd come in from work to find me all floury and beautiful, waiting for him to cushion my head in his hands again. We would love each other more, because we loved our life more.
And we did, for a while. That first summer set us alight. It coaxed us to skinny dip under the willows at sunset, to walk naked around the house, to peel each others' clothes off whenever we got the chance. We didn't care about the neighbouring families, about what they'd think if they saw. There was an irresistible hot, stickiness to the heat. Not now though. Now it's stifling. I suppose we hadn't counted on a heatwave the second year. Or the third. When the crops failed again, everything changed. The willow trees withered as the stream dried out. No more skinny-dipping. Doorstep kisses and sunset swims faded out and were replaced by weighted footsteps, weary looks. Bottles of bleach and vinegar began to fill up our cupboards and strictly labelled bins lined our hall. Propped up against the kitchen counter on Sundays he would listen to the radio with his head hung low, arms tight around his chest. He looked heavy. Like his lungs were full of sand. I would want to speak up, to tell him not to worry, that we would manage, but instead I bit my lip and hung my head too. And the crops were just the start of it.
I gag as I think about what he has gone to do today, walking across our fields for the final time. An acidy sting bites the back of my throat. When I was little, my mum would pour me a big glass of milk if I felt sick. Settled the stomach she said. I open the fridge door. The inside offers up a welcome cooling sensation, but little else. No milk today. No anything.
I click on the television. It's the news, mid programme, some expert from the Institute of Animal Health explaining Defra's recommendations.
“…what you've got to understand is that if it bites an infected animal it can pick up the virus into its own system replicating within hours. And the warmer it is the shorter it takes, so at 35 degrees it will take less than half a day…”
The scientist is hot. He's got beads of sweat breaking through his makeup. His top lip looks wet and shiny and it's making the interviewer uncomfortable. I bet the air is stagnant in that studio. I hope they're always that uncomfortable with the decision they've played a part in.
“we're being attacked on multiple fronts….new strains carried on clothing and footwear….highly contagious….preventative measures….temporary solutions…”
I've heard it so many times now that it just fades into the background until it's a low grumbling. I step out into the sun. My sunglasses do little to fight the glare as I scour the skyline. I can see one - a turret of smoke rising straight up, gradually thickening. It's not coming from our field, so I guess it's the Grayson's, but it won't be long.
“Who you talking to?” Her quiet voice catches me off guard. Lily Grayson has snuck over the wall for the fourth time this week, all drawn out limbs and straggly hair. I gag again, the potent mix of bleach and vinegar too much to take. Lily's father has gone overboard – there she stands scrubbed raw in her blue bags, his desperate attempt to curb the spread.
“Can you see it,” she points to the thin dark line on the horizon, “is it them, going up to heaven? That's what mummy says.”
“Yes, I guess. It your dad's fire then?”
“Said he had to, to make things better he said. I'm going to miss them. I like their noises.”
Lily scratches around the edge of her blue bags, the elastic bands are making her ankles red and I can see she's got tears in her eyes. I bend down. “They look sore, Lily, are the bags too tight?” She's shakes her head and rubs her nose. An odd girl, real quiet. It's always like this. Stilted sentences, short responses. I've nothing to say to her that's why, not sure why I bother except that I am stood here. And she is stood there.
“I'm sorry Lily,” I add dutifully. “I like their noises too. I wish your Daddy and David weren't out there doing it, but they are. There's nothing we can do now.”
She nods and rubs her nose again. I suddenly see how lonely she is. To be here. With me.
The scientist on the TV creeps back into my conscious. ‘…it's the only way for our rural economy to survive. We have to cut our losses and start again…'
I take off my flip-flop and throw it at the screen. It's so barbaric. You can't just wipe the slate clean and start again, it doesn't work. There will be consequences. Lily tugs at my arm drawing me back to the skyline. Another smoke turret has punctured the horizon.
Through my binoculars I see him. Blue bags striding across the parched soil, arms stretching to lift bails of straw and then dump them without even a hint of ceremony on to a smouldering mound of dark, huddled shapes.
I leave her standing in the yard, staring at the thickening smoke as it silently stretches up into the deathly blue sky. With a limp caused by my discarded flip-flop, eyes down, I climb the stairs – my bright coloured nail varnish flashing in and out of sight. My suitcase stands open, where I left it. Ready and waiting by the dresser. I start to pack.
words: Clare Howdle, UK (wordslikepictures)
Brigita Pavsic, Slovenia (soul flowers)
another ending: Rain, rain.. (#19)