But too many things are going on all at once.
First of all: they are walking through this farmyard at the end of a long lane, a way they thought they went one time before. They both remembered it: you came up the lane laced with cow parsley and turned left before the house, and crossed a sleepy dirt yard with hay in a barn on the right, and maybe a dog gave a bark – yes, they remembered that. And on the other side was a footpath sign with a stile in the wall, leading to a field with cows peacefully grazing, where the path went on round the edge towards the cliffs. But it isn’t like that, it isn’t the same place at all. And now they are rowing, blaming each other for taking the wrong turn.
Because now a thing like that can make them row.
And the other things. The yard itself: concreted over and filled with a loud mechanical hum, and on the right, where they expected the barn, an open area under a corrugated roof where cows stand corralled, looking listlessly at them over the rail, a metal bar sweeping back and forth at their feet, pushing the piss and shit into channels that overflow, yellow-brown liquid swilling across the yard. And the way, each time the bar comes back, the cows lift their legs without even looking. Conditioned, automaton. And the stink: sharp, and somehow bad, nothing like the sweet rich manure smell they know.
And then there are the things on the minds of the man and the woman.
The fact that at this very moment the man’s eighteen-year-old daughter is backpacking in Australia, alone, and the image he’s plagued by: her body slumped on a beach or in the outback. And the awful fact that he has no way of contacting her, of checking she’s safe. He only knows that she’s there because someone else has told him. Because since he left her mother, both she and his daughter have cut him off.
The sense that his daughter will never forgive him.
Another worry: that his social work job is on the line. Because the wife he left, her mother, threatened to march into his Head of Department’s office and report his affair. He doesn’t know that she did, but he doesn’t know that she didn’t either, and ever since then, it seems to him, his boss’s attitude has changed. His boss now seems to doubt his professional integrity, finding fault with everything he does.
The fierce will and sense of injustice that propelled his wife to do it, those very things that in the beginning attracted him to her, a sensitive girl raised in tough working-class conditions, determined never to let her background get in her way. But the deep insecurity she never overcame, which always led her to lash out. That background of hers, that history, rebounding on him for all of their marriage, and still leaning on him now. And that background of his own that pushed him towards her, from which he was rebelling, the stifling atmosphere of drawing rooms and afternoon tea, the cold obsession with manners, the lack of passion, that still make his heart sink whenever he remembers.
And the things on the mind of the woman. The fact that while she is here in the country her teenage son is in the care of a man she no longer trusts. That whenever she thinks of him, her ex-husband, even now when she’s meant to be settled with this man, her chest tightens with resentment. And the truth, which she now acknowledges, that she’d never have married him, her ex-husband, had she not been so desperate to escape her home situation, primed to fall into the arms of the first young man, a fellow student, who came along. That home situation: ringing with quarrels, reeking with her father’s alcohol addiction – which she knows is the result of cruelty, the beatings he received from his own father, her grandfather. Who, she knows, was himself an angry and frustrated man: forced to flee another country only to encounter prejudice and slum conditions in this. And sadness at her own self-deception, those years when everything seemed to be solved, the neat house she and her husband shut the door on in the mornings, before he dropped her off at school on his way to the office, and she spent the days teaching her classes how to keep their sentences contained, and thus their meanings and intentions clear and intact, by always including a verb and never starting with a word like and or but or however or because.
And on top of these personal histories, on top of the horror of the factory farm in which they find themselves standing, there are bigger, wider issues. Their knowledge that the sea, visible below as they climbed the lane, is now polluted with chemicals and choked with plastic. The recent discovery that microscopic plastic is now dispersed throughout the water and floating in the air and caught in the soil, from where it can be absorbed into the bodies of fishes and plants. Their sense that this time, two years on from the last time, the cow parsley bobbing in the lane, and the grass on the slopes around, have plastic and pollutants laid down in their cells. The threat to the food chain, to the cells of their own bodies and those of their children. The fear for further generations, even for their existence: the images of these slopes turning parched and bare, or the sea below inundating the land.
They know now that this is the same farm as before, overtaken by the need to modernise in order to survive. And by a farmer opposed to the old right of way across his land. The footpath sign is gone, and where the stile once went over the wall, boards and rusted metal bar the way. On the ground in front, where once there were stones obligingly laid down for walkers, is a further deterrent: a swamp swilling with manure and littered with empty chemical fertiliser bags.
They stand defeated in a world of dismaying consequences and subverted intentions, of runaway ands and becauses.
Except. However. And yet.
They don’t want to be defeated. They pick their way through the swamp. They pull back the metal bars and the boards, revealing the old stone stile. They climb over, splashing into another swamp on the other side.
They step out of the mire.
They join hands and set out across the cowless field.
Elizabeth Baines' stories have been widely published and several have been placed in prizes, including twice in the Short Fiction Journal prize (runner-up and longlisted). A story will appear in Best British Stories 2019 (July). A new novel will come from Salt in 2020. Latest publications: ‘Kiss’, MIR Online http://mironline.org/kiss-by-elizabeth-baines/, also to be published in Best British Short Stories, 2019 (July); ‘Bitter, Horned’, Litro Magazine https://www.litro.co.uk/2019/02/bitter-horned/
Forthcoming: October: ‘Space Travel’, Confingo Journal; ’The Words He Said’, Issue 12 of The Lonely Crowd.
Used to Be (Stories, Salt 2015) The Birth Machine (Novel, Salt 2010) Too Many Magpies (Novel, Salt 2009) Balancing on the Edge of the World (Stories, Salt 2007) 'The stories in Used To Be are the work of a dazzling writer’ - Nuala O’Connor, author of Miss Emily 'One of the finest short story writers in the country' - Neil Campbell www.elizabethbaines.com