Chapter 2 of The Owl Memory

Ben dipped a bucket in the old horse trough at the edge of the yard and used it to slosh away his puddle of conflakey vomit. He wet his hands in the trough and raked them through his untidy thatch of blond hair. Feeling shaky and faint he trudged back towards the collecting yard. The scene of devastation was still there, the dozens of pied bodies lying motionless. Already a haze of flies were gathering above the fallen cattle. Ben remembered reading somewhere, probably the Farmers Weekly, that cattle were very susceptible to electric shocks. They would need to get an electrician in to find out what had happened but in the meantime he supposed that they would somehow have to dispose of the carcasses. He’d have to remember to tell the tanker driver not to collect the milk tomorrow too, there wouldn’t be any. And what about the police, should they be informed? Ben had no idea. Best get some help. He trudged over to the house and called uncle Trevor.

The rest of the day was a blur, visitors, plans, Amy in tears, endless cups of tea and an evening visit to the hospital with Auntie Jenny. They brought Nan home with them. She was tired and drawn, not saying much and refusing any food offered. Granddad had not improved much and was on a ventilator.

The next morning the insurance company agent came, took a heap of photographs and told them that could bury the cattle on the farm if the ministry allowed it, and who could blame them, they didn’t want to fork out for transport and incineration. The ministry phoned to confirm they could bury the cows and so Trevor pulled his wellies on and stomped out of the door. Ben followed.

“Right Ben, you know how to drive the old Dexter don’t you?” The Dexter was Granddads old Fordson tractor. Ben was pretty confident he could make a job of driving it. “Get yourself a chain, hook it round a back leg of the first cow, drag it out to me in Home Meadow, unhook and repeat.” Trevor swung up onto his vast John Deere and roared off into the field, pulling behind him a low loader trailer on which was his equally huge Komatsu excavator.

Ben couldn’t help being a little excited to be given charge of the little blue tractor. Old though it was, it was still his grandfather’s pride and joy and to even get a ride on the back was a red letter day. However, after Ben had reversed up to the first carcase, his mind was rapidly changed. The cows had started to putrefy in the warm summer sun and the fly cloud was growing by the minute. Ben steeled himself and chained on the first cow.

The work was dirty, stinking and wretched and by the time all the beasts were on the edge of the monstrous hole Trevor had dug Ben was shaking with exhaustion and hunger. His jeans were smeared with cow muck, mucus and heaven knew what, his shirt was equally vile but with the addition of sweat stains. He smelled like a knackers yard.

“Off you go lad, you’ve done well. I’ll get them pushed in and covered over and I’ll be back in the morning, don’t forget to check the sheep and make sure the bull is OK” Even as Trevor spoke, Ben could hear the mournful lowing of the bull from the paddock, could he know about his girls? Ben guessed he had smelled the decaying cows and had drawn his own conclusions. Rather than go into the house and attend to his own discomfort, Ben knew he had to see to the animals first, the foremost rule of the stock-man. From the feed store Ben took a shallow bucket and put in a couple of handfuls of rolled barley, added a dollop of molasses, took a stick from the corner and set off for the bulls paddock.

The big curly white head of the Hereford bull was hanging over the gate when Ben got there, a long string of drool running from the corner of his mouth in anticipation of the bucket of treats. He was a friendly old soul the bull, but Ben knew that however benign they may seem a bull can never be trusted. With that in mind Ben stepped up onto the gate and hung the bucket over so that Billy could slurp up the mixture. It went in a few seconds, Ben could see that the water tank was full and so with a quick scratch behind the ears for Billy, he set off for the sheep. Sheep being sheep always have a few issues and today it was a ewe caught in some brambles. It was the work of a few moments to tug her free and then Ben was heading back to the house, pausing only at the orchard to give Brandy a pat. The pony whickered and put his ears back at the smell of death surrounding Ben.

There was no news on Granddad, Nan was much the same and Amy was nowhere to be seen. Ben stripped down to his boxers on the doorstep, leaving his rancid clothes outside and shot upstairs for a shower. After a scratch supper of beans on toast Ben fell into bed and slept, deep and long.

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