A Necessary Killing

Chapter 1

by Hilary Lloyd

Email: hilarylloyd@hotmail.com

It's another of those glittering dawns. Sitting on my bed, watching the sun heave itself above the hill opposite in a ridiculous blaze of orange, I hate its energy, the way it sets the frosty fields alight, the way the bloody thing just keeps on rising day after day.

A bout of shivering forces me into my clothes - jeans and sweater over the T-shirt I've worn day and night for God knows how long, but it's too cold to strip off or brave a freezing bathroom and anyway, what's the point of clean clothes or a clean body when an hour with the sheep will have me stinking anew? I pull on thick woollen socks and turn to stare at the bed, at the hump down the centre that should be Ben but is only a line of pillows, a poor imitation I can't sleep without.

I've clung to my bed every morning for weeks, and though staying there is like prodding a bruise to see how much it hurts, I can't stop, can't let go of my obsession with pain. It's the only way I can be with Ben.

Come on, Julie, move. Get out there - they need you.

I turn away from my pit of misery and tramp downstairs.

Outside, the February sun is making diamonds of the frost on the yard and its dazzling light pierces my darkest corners. I hear Ben's voice saying dawns like these are a reward for being up half the night, a feast for tired eyes, and I head for the sheep with a bit more lift in my boots.

There's an animal warmth in the shed and the welcome of a hundred ewes looking up when I enter thaws my bones. Some put themselves between me and their lambs, others nudge forward with rumbling bleats and though I know it's cupboard love, I feel needed. I begin to move through them, checking for signs of labour and find one pawing the ground.

I steer her into one of the pens. Head down, mutinous, she stamps a foreleg, and I feel for her need to deliver her lambs in a remote corner of a field, not herded flank by muzzle with the rest of the flock.

Two orphan lambs gaze back at her from the next pen, ears at half-mast, barely a week old and still shaky but filling out nicely. Then I remember Fiona's promise to collect them this morning and a flash of pleasure displaces the hard grief of dawn.

I always feel better working outside so why do I why ruin everything by going to bed? Surely all I have to do is work myself silly all day and catnap on the chair by the fire all night. But at four every morning, an aching longing forces me up to bed to hug cold pillows and complete a daily cycle I can't seem to break.

Fiona tells me not to try. Just let it all happen, she says, and hang on. But though I trust her wisdom, how does she know what it's like? She still has her husband. She didn't search for his broken remains after a suicidal tractor took him along for the ride. And she's had years with Jamie. I only had one with Ben.

I march out of the shed, load a bale of hay and sacks of feed into the trailer and kick-start the quad bike into life with something like anger, then cross my front field to fill the troughs and watch the ewes fight to get their noses in first. Their lambs dance round them in hooligan gangs and I'm smiling.

I look over the hundred and fifty ewes turned out from the lambing shed since the middle of January, and congratulate myself for the way I've taken over from Ben. Work's kept me going, kept me alive. All I need is more energy. This clod of a body won't do what it used to.

The throaty cough of a leaking exhaust system drowns the sound of the bike as I chug home. Squinting left, I see Fiona's red car cruising up the lane, Ellie waving from the back seat. I press the throttle to race back to the yard, eager to see them even though it's only a week since their last visit. I get there first and escort the battered Marina estate to a standstill.

I hug the willowy Fiona, careful with my bovine frame so she doesn't snap in two, then lead them towards the shed. I know they can't wait to see their new charges.

Half an hour later, Ellie's bursting with importance, the proud owner of two cade lambs and desperate to take them home. But I don't want them to go yet. I need time with Fiona, need to see her on the other side of my hearth, the curtains of her hair framing her face and her grey eyes fixed on mine, saying little but listening to my every word.

I take them to the house and encourage Ellie to go up to the back bedroom where Ben's mother stored all his toys and books for more than forty years, in case they came in useful. Ellie loves them, the old-fashioned illustrations, the chipped tractor and trailer and faded plywood farm.

I almost run downstairs when she's settled. There's so much to say and I'm as greedy as a lamb for Fiona's company. I wouldn't have got through the last weeks without it. She's absorbed all my wild thoughts and desperate feelings then, in so few words, put them in order, arranged them into a lifeline I can cling to until her next visit.

She smiles her Mona Lisa smile as I sink into my chair.

'So how's everything at home?' I say, my needs inexplicably gone.

'Fine. The barn's ready for the lambs.'

'Have you started on the veg garden yet?' Just talking feels wonderful. 'And what about the wood?'

She smiles again. 'Jamie's finished the winter work. We've got tons of stuff to saw up for firewood.'

'And school?'

‘Just the same - I’ve got some good students. They're working on this year's play with stars in their eyes!' She leans forward. ‘Your eyes look tired.'

I shrug and study my ingrained hands. ‘I was up until four with a problem ewe.' When I look up at her again, it all comes out, the loneliness, pain, anger and bewilderment, and how my emotions leap from one extreme to the other for no real reason and without the slightest warning.

'And I hate going to bed,' I lurch on, 'so I sleep down here between checks on the sheep then...' I'm fighting to keep my voice steady. ‘Then something makes me go to bed and I can't bear it there but nor can I bear to leave it.'

It ends in a tidal wave. I tell her about driving myself into exhaustion and sinking so low I don't even remember which way is up. ‘Work saves me,' I finish, ‘but I ruin everything by going to bed. It seems to undo all the progress I've made during the day.'

‘But you're still going, Julie,' she says, 'and keeping the farm alive.'

Alive. Why isn't Ben alive? Why can't I have him to help me lamb the sheep and laugh about the thrown-together food and the piles of unwashed dishes of lambing time? And why can't I lie down with him at the end of the day, safe and needed in his arms? A sour image of Fiona in Jamie's arms fills my mind.

I look at her and wonder if she knows what I'm thinking. She mustn't. ‘I like working with the sheep,' I stutter, ‘but... I want the old me back, the one that coped with everything life chucked at me - the one before I met Ben.'

How could I say that?

She makes me promise to ease up on work and get out more, drive over to see them, give them the pleasure of my company if only for an hour between checks on the ewes.

The pleasure of my company? What do they want with second-hand misery?

‘You're good company,' she says, reading my thoughts. ‘The children think you're smashing - the way you know everything there is to know about animals, all those stories you've told them about when you worked for a vet.' She pauses. 'Lambing isn't enough for you, Julie, especially at the moment. Come over and see us. Please?'

Doesn't she know how hard it is to go out, even to the village shop for milk and chocolate biscuits? Just being alive takes all my energy and...I catch a distinct whiff of sheep and realise it's me, stinking, unwashed. Fiona hasn't recoiled from me yet but...

'OK.' And suddenly I'm planning out the rest of the week - light the boiler for a bath, find some clean clothes, bung the rest in the washer, change the bed. Yes, change the bed.

"Friday,’ I say, needing time, a few days to sort out my mind as well as my body, ‘when your lambs have settled in and Ellie knows what she's doing.'

They leave soon after and I lean on the gate and watch them crawl down the lane then accelerate towards the village. Thanks, Fiona, I telegraph to the red beetle of her car as it crawls up the hill opposite. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

I turn away at a movement to my right and see Mike Corley pushing four sheep and six lambs out from his yard into his front field. The ewes tread carefully, heads on swivels as their lambs leap into a new green world.

I wave and, hundreds of yards away, Mike waves back. It never ceases to amaze me how farmers manage to drive tractors, round up hundreds of sheep or bury their attention in a drainage ditch and still notice everything going on in the valley. I wonder if I’ll learn to do the same now I'm a proper farmer managing eighty acres on my own.

On my own. The old familiar ache sneaks through me but I put it aside and head for the shed reciting my formula for survival, the one that works when I'm not in bed - food, sleep and company.

'Phil? It's Julie. I've got a problem - triplets, I think. She's too bad to bring in.'

'OK - about an hour do?'

'Fine. How's things?

‘Busy- see you.'

I put the phone down and go back to the shed, not that there's anything I can do for the ewe but it's better to be occupied, add more straw to the deep litter, fill the water buckets in the pens, anything but watch the poor thing writhing fit to bust with a bellyful of knotted lambs. I hate it when I can't help them, when I can't make use of almost thirty years as a veterinary nurse and perform a caesarean, or just put the poor thing out of its misery.

I hear the car at last and rush out to see my former boss unfolding his lean frame. His old rubber waterproofs squeak as he walks round to the back of the car.

‘I shouldn't tell you what to do,' I say after greeting him, "but I've set up for a caesarean.'

He yanks a yellow plastic crate out of the boot. ‘Wish all my clients set up for me. I've just spent the last hour chasing ponies round a paddock because the owner couldn't be bothered to get the lame one in.' Grumbling like a distant jet, he follows me to the shed. ‘Ever thought of coming back to the practice? We could set the animal world to rights with you keeping stupid clients in order. Shouldn't say that, I suppose, but I'm tired, knackered through and through.' He parks the crate by a pen and stares at the bales I've set up for him. 'God, Julie, I miss you.'

'Come off it, Phil - you've got a good team of nurses,’ I say, dropping easily into the familiar banter, 'and I should know, I trained them.’

‘Yes, but they can't read my mind like you do.' He rumbles on while soaping his hands in a bucket but I ignore his way of coping with the tension of a busy day and hoist the ewe onto the straw bales of its operating table.

The ewe and one of its lambs survive. We leave them to recover and head for the house.

‘Thanks for coming so soon,' I say as I plug in the kettle. Picking out the two cleanest mugs from a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink, I rinse them and make tea. ‘Three sugars as usual?'

'Shouldn't, I know,' he says from the fireside, 'but it's been one of those days. Everyone's in a panic.'


'Don't tell me you haven't heard the news - are you so wrapped up in this farming lark that you haven't got time for a bit of telly?'

I give him a mug of tea. ‘What's the point? It's all doom and gloom. Anyway, lambing takes most of my time and I'm still learning. When I'm not in the shed, I'm napping.'

Or stumbling through despair, aching for Ben, desperate for something in life to feel normal.

He cradles his mug and studies me and I know he's seeing the pain carved round my eyes and mouth. I try to avoid mirrors, scared by what I saw in one recently, my sturdy body somehow crumpled, its face gaunt, eyes dull, hair spiking up as though in horror.

'Bloody not fair,’ he says. ‘You deserved better, especially after all those years working for a miserable old basket like me.'

The years I worked for him struggle to come into focus but my mind won't let them - it zooms instead to the year before last when Ben Sumner walked into Phil's practice with an ancient dog in his rusty arms. The dog died but we lived. We grew from its pain and distress.

Remembering, my stomach caves in. ‘I'm OK, Phil,' I lie.

‘It's a bloody shame.'

I have to get him off the subject, for my own sake. 'So what's this news?'

‘You're bloody brilliant.'

I can't help smiling. 'And that's why everyone's in a panic?'

He scowls. ‘I meant you're bloody brilliant for keeping the farm going, lamb all those sheep...'

'Ah, but I've had so much help. You've no idea how good they are round here - being a good neighbour is a farmer's first commandment. I think it's etched in tablets of stone.'

He sighs. 'And you're all going to need it. Foot and mouth disease is back down south and spreading. If it's anything like the sixties' epidemic, all hell's about to break loose.'

©2003 Hilary Lloyd

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