It was the owl again, always the owl. Every time Ben stayed at his grandparent’s house he saw that damned owl. It was clearly a barn owl but it always seemed a bit too big, and a bit, well, badly put together. Ben knew birds and he knew it wasn’t quite right. It had too much face; you shouldn’t be able to see that much face from that distance.
The circumstance was always the same too. If he slept in the back bedroom, the one with the twin beds, next to the attic stairs, it was always there, swooping in towards the window as he looked out. Each time he would snap the faded curtains closed and dive into one of the rickety old beds. He would pull up the frayed, pink candlewick bedspread and lie shivering until sleep finally took him.
Each time he saw the owl, the following morning would be strange too. He would feel lethargic and headachy, like he’d been at a very late party and spent too much time breathing in Uncle Harold’s pipe smoke. Everyone else would be slightly odd too. Nan would be quiet and withdrawn; Granddad would be grumpy and issue one of his stares at the slightest noise. Ben knew the cows would have been uncooperative when Granddad went out to milk at five thirty. Even Jim the collie would be reluctant to emerge from his den under the stairs of the cake loft. It was what always happened when he saw the owl.
This morning was no different. On any normal day breakfast would involve fresh baked bread, home cured bacon, golden yolked eggs and the best sausages you’ve ever had in your life. Today there was a box of supermarket cornflakes and a jug of milk sitting on the scrubbed pine table. The only thing that wasn’t different was the enormous pot of tea sitting steaming under its hand-knitted cosy of red and green striped wool. Ben poured himself a large mug, added a slosh of milk and sat down next to his cousin Amy.
“Morning Cuz” Amy muttered.
Ben gave a grunt through the steam rising from his mug.
“I going off on Brandy this morning” A statement, not a question.
“Fine” Ben responded. Brandy was supposed to be Ben’s pony but all his cousins just seemed to take it for granted that they could ride him. Especially Amy. Ben found it mildly annoying that Amy was one of those rare people who had that instinctive, empathetic relationship with horses. He was a fair horseman but would never have the deep understanding that came so naturally to Amy. She jammed a stained and faded riding hat over her blonde mop and shot from the door.
“Ben, when you’ve had your breakfast go out and help your Granddad wash down the parlour” Nan gave her orders. She wasn’t a stern lady, but you didn’t disobey, you didn’t answer back. Nobody knew what the repercussions might be, no one had ever tested her word but there was an unsaid feeling that there might be something worse than no hot milk at bedtime.
Ben picked up his bowl and slurped the last few cornflakes, ignored his Grandmothers stern glance and pulled on his wellies. The entrance to the dairy was right outside the kitchen door, an old red-brick building with a peeling wooden door on sliding runners. Ben slid it open and the smell of the mornings’ yield of milk hit him, fresh and grassy. The stainless lid of the bulk tank was open but Ben couldn’t hear the sloshing of the agitator paddle as it swished the milk round, cooling it quickly to ensure no bacteria could grow, very odd. Cooling the milk quickly was one of the golden rules. Ben glanced into the tank as he passed; the level of milk was about a third down on what would normally be expected.
Passing through the next sliding door into the milking parlour Ben grabbed a squeegee and slipped into one of the aisles. There was no sign of Grandad, must be taking the cows back he thought. He ran the squeegee down the smooth concrete, pushing the sloppy khaki coloured muck ahead of him, walked back and repeated until the walkway was clean, he then crossed to the other side and squeegeed that clean. The milking parlour consisted of a long central pit, just less than waist deep. On each side of the pit were the milking stations where the cows were fed a small amount of concentrate, had their udders washed, had the clusters fitted, were milked out, teat dipped and let go so that the next cow could take its place. Granddad usually had an annoying local radio station playing, today, the parlour was silent.
The next task was to take the high powered hose from under the edge of the pit and wash down everything, the stalls, walls, walkways, collection jars and clusters. Ben reached the steps at the end of the pit and took the first step down. At first, he could not make out what he was seeing. It looked like a bundle of old clothes on the floor of the pit, almost under the lip. It took another few moments to realise what it was.