"Come on, Andy. Give it a rest." Martin Kuipers reached for the TV’s remote control, but the sixteen year-old’s hand was quicker and closed over it. "Enough's enough, mate,” he added. “Time you went to roll call."
But the other had only to turn his head a fraction for the Dutchman to warily draw back. "O.K. O.K." He said, leaving the young Londoner fixing stills from the screen.
They'd allowed him ten minutes’ worth, from the Animals - What Rights For Them? programme. Anything to placate him; keep him occupied. And now the most recent inmate of Ty Canolog Young Offenders’ Centre strained forward, muscle and sinew taut from the weights and other gear bought in to keep the Too-Much-Testosterone category occupied.
‘All at us taxpayers’ expense,’ the local community had complained when the planning proposals had been submitted to Carmarthenshire County Council three years ago. “We won’t sleep easy in our beds again.” And “what about our kids’ safety? The Castell’s always been .their playground… ”
They’d surely meant the likes of this lad who’d immediately seemed different to the others, drawn from the most deprived urban areas of .the United Kingdom. A loner. Self-possessed and polite to those introduced to him for the first time, but Kuipers knew better, and such knowledge carried fear.
An edgy stranger to the wild Upper Towy Valley from Peckham’s dangerous streets, his charge whose surname was still in dispute, had refused pottery, leathercraft and candle-making classes, wanting one thing only. What could be summoned at a touch. The movement of live sheep from farm to truck, from truck to transporter. From ferries to foreign autoroutes. To flies and heat. Scouring all the way to Hell. The knife against a shaved, quivering throat. Blood spooling into a shit-spattered hole..The slow, slow-motion death.
Through slatted fingers, this was the sequence he watched the most, and all the while, Kuipers knew these graphic scenes were affecting his charge’s mind. Making him more morose and distant. Once, during their usual afternoon walk, he’d stopped to stare at a flock of thick-fleeced Welsh Mountain sheep cropping the grass, untroubled by the sudden scream of a harrier jet overhead.
““Ow can anyone ‘urt such beautiful creatures?” The boy had asked.
"We’ve got to eat," Kuipers had replied flatly, by way of explanation. The teenager had turned to him., teeth bared, knuckles whitening at a world still beyond his understanding.
"Just fuckin’ meat on legs to you ain't they?"
Three weeks after the final piece of Christmas tinsel had been tidied away, the two walked once more down to the lower grazing, now winter-worn, its hillocks razed to earth by successive frosts.
As they approached the sprawl of Fferm Pantglas , a pair of lambs appeared, stilt-legged, mewling. The teenager crouched down, reached out to
them, clicking his fingers.
"Suffer the little children to come unto me," he said, then turned to Kuipers. “I saw that on a billboard somewhere. Cool, ain’t it?”
"They're not yours." Kuipers gripped the sturdy chain connecting him to the Londoner’s waist. "Look here chum, we don't want old Thomas coming out and taking a pot shot, do we? Or it'll be Peckham for you again."
"I don't care. 'E must be a fucking sadist rearing ‘em for that bloodbath."
Kuipers felt those steel links burn his palm as he pulled the lad back towards him. Gethin Thomas, their nearest neighbour had frequently been cautioned for misuse of a firearm, and already the man born in Leyden fifty-four years ago could see his hard-earned pension slipping away.
The teenager stopped in his tracks to glance up at the flank of land half-buried in heavy cloud. Land which had become his unlikely home.
"'E's still a cruel bastard," he muttered. "I'll get 'im one way or the other."
"Any more tricks my friend, and it's curtains for you. Got it?"
The other made no sound. Just kept staring at him in defiance. Thinking all the while. Thinking harder than he'd ever done before. The chain links slackened in Kuiper's hand.
"Animals 'ave souls, don't they?” said the captive suddenly. “The Pope just said so."
"Where did you hear that?"
"On telly last week."
"Sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Anyhow, what about birds and snails? And insects?"
"‘Ask ‘im." A frown lingered in the vast silence, as those rain clouds billowing black, tumbled down the Mynydd Castell
Two days on and still the rain fell. A sly, northerly drift that found the farmer's ears even though his donkey-jacket hood was up. Sparks of ice borne from the sky froze his bones through the hand-me-down clothes, and Gethin Thomas suddenly felt he wasn't long for this place. As vulnerable as theose wriggling newborns soon to slip from their mothers‘ wombs.
He scanned the common land for any intruders - offenders from that bloody Centre, or weekenders up from Cardiff with their whining metal detectors. But the sweep of flattened grass and ravaged clumps of gorse hid nothing, save for the crows. Hunched black like funeral guests in the twisted alders. Waiting for delicacies. Baby eyes, still blind, unopened. Why he fired a shot into their midst, scattering black feathers to the ground. It was also why he began to run. For his heavily-pregnant ewes lined the low wall behind the farm, clustered like stones in its damp recesses. Each gasp of air brought him closer to his targets.
"Symudwch!" He flapped his arms at them. “Bugger off!”
He’d been a widower too long, and even Floss, his intuitive, eager collie had gone. What a time to be alone. One by one the heavy half-breeds raised themselves and lurched towards the safety of the farmyard. Smells of lanolin and urine filled his nose as he imitated his late bitch's bark to stop them scattering. She’d known what to do even without him. A swift dark shadow circling the flock too wide, until one morning a month ago, some speeding delivery vanhad tossed her aside like a shred of bin liner.
The barn reeked of unturned straw. Not his fault, of course. No family. No help. All down to him and the strange lumps beginning to alter the uniformity of his face. Smooth hummocks risen from the coarser skin. Like molehills, they were. Deadly busy below, deep down, through soil to rock. Tissue to bone. Cancer in the rain, in the ground. It had got all the other Thomases too, and Mari, his wife, before their time.
"Go to the doctor, why don't you?" Non Harries, Blaencwm, had said when she'd seen the state of him at the last mart for killing ewes. "That's what they're for, after all." She liked waiting rooms. Made a point of going at least once a fortnight, just to catch up on the gossip and read the celebrity magazines. See who was ill, on their last legs.
"Over my dead body," he'd said. "Bloody quacks." But now the sole survivor of Pantglas Farm ran his stained fingers over the latest changes to his cheeks, his nose. Eyes fixed on the flock, calling out in unison as the rain
drummed on their corrugated iron roof.
He knew he was being watched and suddenly spun round.
Someone younger, taller, was approaching, framed by the dull light behind. A dark-haired lad in dungarees. Black lace-up boots on his feet. A thick chain of some sort dangling from his left wrist.
"Who the hell are you?" The farmer demanded, aware his rifle was still propped up some yards away in the porch.
"I've come to 'elp." Droplets of water lay on the new moustache that didn't match the hair.
"You're on my property. Clear off."
"Look, Mr. Thomas, I know yer on your own…"
"I don't need anyone. Never have." Gethin Thomas aged sixty-nine, but always older in his head, turned to go. “Out!"
"Not till ye've said yeah." Two hard arms blocked his way. Two predatory rows of teeth glistened like the wrist chain and its handcuff..
The farmer's throat tightened.
"If you don't shove off , I'll call the police."
"Fine. They like me. I'm useful."
"What d'you mean, useful?" Overgrown eyebrows rose to meet the grizzled hair line.
"I keep me eye on things. This an' that."
"Who goes where. Number plates. Tax discs. Overcrowded lorries
"Where you from then? Up there? The funny farm?"
The farmer began to push past him. "Look, son, I'm tired."
"That's why I'm ‘ere." The stranger then re-positioned himself. "What's wiv yer face, anyhow?"
"Get out of my way!"
"Sorry mate Not part of the deal."
"What deal?" What the hell was going on? The farmer dared not ask, seeing in his mind's eye the television's bright comfort and the table laid for his Friday fish and chip supper. A single portion with free reading matter thrown in. All this faded as unease sealed his lips.
He'd so far managed to avoid the other’s eyes, but now they held him. The only blue in that sombre place.
"Best come with me." He murmured, finally.
"Cheers." The visitor allowed the old man through, out into the glancing rain. "Ye'll soon see what I'm capable of."
But Gethin Thomas' wet ears weren't tuned to gratitude, for there was something about the way this lad moved. The word ‘wolf’ came to mind. He tried thinking on his feet. The same as when he and his brother, now buried, hunted for rabbits up the Mynydd Castell. But nothing came. He had no answers. Just a
primal sense of foreboding.
"Nice crib, this."
"Weird. Always dreamt of owning a farm."
A lie, Gethin Thomas could tell."Hard work and nothing else." He said, taking longer than usual to shake off his boots, too pre-occupied to notice the rifle had gone. But he did notice his old Cortina facing the open five-bar gate. Its keys still in the house.
The lad waited, clicking each of his fingerbones in turn.
Suddenly another car was coming closer and slowing past the barn entrance. A new, silver Mazda. Mrs.Harries, breeder of snub-nosed Texels further down the hill, was back from having her feet seen to. She stared in, as was her habit, and the young visitor waved her on as if clearing an inner city traffic jam. But she was too distracted to obey. Didn't see him sprint over to wrench open her car door.
"Nosy fuckin’ parker! Move yer crate over there!" The teenager pointed further down the yard near the farmhouse, the rifle muzzle lodged on her plump sheepskin-coated ribs. "You’ve two seconds, old fanny, or else."
The Mazda’s gears screamed as it lurched forward, throwing him off balance. But once he’d recovered the advantage, things fell sweetly into place.
Using the rifle butt, he nudged her into Thomas' arms – a skinny old ram and
lardy ewe - terrified like all their stock. Although she had the biggest gob, both
stayed wide open like those rock caverns higher up the Castell Mountain, as fragments of teeth in hot, red blood, sprayed his new dungarees.
Their din mingled with the racket from the barn. The old male couldn't breathe and let the female slip from his grasp into the drain’s slurry stream.
"Come on, into the ‘ouse ye go." The stranger’s boot found her head of stupid curls, sending her glasses splintering to the ground. "And ‘im."
The rifle’s muzzle moved from one to the other, almost playfully, forcing them through the farmhouse doorway. Hip to hip. Jammed together like what he'd seen on that TV film, and in that barn outside, trying to stand. Three, four, five deep...
"Gerrup!" He jabbed them with the polished wooden butt harder than intended, but still they clung together on the muddy linoleum. Pathetic really, specially the ram wearing socks full of undarned holes.
He grabbed his ankles and hauled him, then her, to the end of the hallway where after two shots, the only sound was the wormy grandfather clock’s soft tick, tick… *
"Thought I was one of ‘em nutters from the Gulag, didn't you?" The teenager sneered after them, making his way into the squalid, cubby-hole kitchen, crowded out by dirty plates Dried gravy and the rest. "I don’t fink so.”
No need for the rifle now. He'd had a better idea, nicked from that same TV film. Much neater, less tiring than parading around the ferry ports with animal
welfare placards. He could help solve the problem at source. In a crumb-filled
drawer he picked what was best for the job.
‘Do as ye would be done by,’ was a little phrase he liked, appealing to his sense of justice. He ran the knife blade along his thumb. Pity there was none of that see-through stuff what the supermarkets use to wrap things up nice, on little plastic trays, with just a little – not too much - pink blood showing. He'd remembered them from his bedsit days, hounded by loneliness. Plenty of carrier bags here, though, hoarded like everything else. Just in case…
He’d been too fast. Too keen. Blood from his cut thumb welled up redder than anything he’d seen before. He sucked on its coppery warmth until he heard the shout.
"Andy? You in there?"
His keeper then tried on his calm and controlled act.
"Look, just open this door. I'm on my own, by the way. You'll be alright."
This time it didn’t work.
Empowered by the knife, the lad ran to the one window and slapped the curtains together, whereupon dust filled his eyes.
"Fuckin’ liar!" He yelled, for just like other times, the net was closing. Just as he'd shaken free and taken control. Always the same, like night follows day. Or was it? On this occasion, with his thumb’s pain making him light-headed, he really did know how it was. But nothing mattered any more. Motherless, fatherless, rootless, with only half a name, he was just another creature, penned in, pushed about, branded. Aching, thirsting, swollen with life.
His Adam’s apple bobbed a bit between his fingers, but he soon chose the best spot, and sucked in his breath as his blade made a fine, deep line around his throat.
His reply was to suddenly open the farmhouse door and lunge towards the iron-roofed barn. Kuipers and two bigger men in coppers’ uniforms gave chase, slipping and sliding like stoned dancers on the yard’s blood-wet cobbles.
Once inside the warm, cloying stench, the orphan slotted the door’s thick beam back into place. All he could do. Here, the bloated ewes received him. A thousand eyes set in skulls already, showing no fear. Too tightly packed to scatter as he fell among them. Too knowing to let him live.
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