THAT FIRST SUMMER ON THE FARM
Billy’s new stepfather was fixing a hole in a barn roof when he fell through it and broke his ankle. Billy was in the woods when it happened, and when he got back, his mother was making a cup of tea and crying a little. She told Billy what’d happened through sniffles and sips of tea, that they’d taken him to hospital, and that it was high time Billy called him Dad... Upstairs in his new bedroom, Billy took Queen’s Night at the Opera LP out of its sleeve, blew a few specks of dust off side one and placed it carefully onto the turntable. His new stereo was a gift from his stepfather, given with the smallest of fuss, such was his way. Billy would play his records loud, imagining he was Freddie Mercury, and would stride about his bedroom in long graceful steps like he’d seen Freddie do on telly. At Billy’s new school, Grant Cooper with his big rabbit teeth said that Freddie Mercury was a bum-snogging homo. Billy punched him, and was losing the fight when a teacher split them up. Billy didn’t feel like being Freddie today, and just listened while he looked out of his window. The sun was low over the woods, casting long thin shadows of barns and trees across the farmyard. Billy watched as Ernie the pigman slouched heavy-footed across the yard to his dirty blue car. Yesterday, Billy had watched Ernie cutting open a cyst on the back leg of a sow. The farm was a great place to play, but some things made Billy feel sick... Billy’s stepfather hobbled in on crutches just before bedtime. Billy’s mum helped Chris into a chair at the kitchen table. Sit down, poor luv, she said, and once certain he was comfortable, she busied herself making him a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. Billy looked under the table at the bright white plaster cast and said, Does it hurt, Chris?
The next day, Billy played football in the yard with Carl Partridge. Carl lived up the lane, and his dad worked at the farm in charge of the cows. Billy’s mum said that Carl’s mum was a bit funny with her because they got to live on the farm and she didn’t. The farm belonged to a man called Trout who had a long twisty moustache and wore shiny brown boots. Trout had lots of farms, and once, when visiting Billy’s mum, told Billy the importance of taking your shoes off so as not to muddy the carpets. Trout said it showed respect. Billy was looking at Trout’s shiny booted feet as he said all this, sat sipping his tea in the living room rocking chair, little cubes of dried mud peppering the rug around his shiny boots. Afterwards, Billy’s mum said it was okay for Trout to say such things and not do them himself because he owned everything. Billy said this was crap and Billy’s mum told him not to swear... As Billy toe-ended one past Carl to make it nine-all, they heard shouts coming from the hay barn, so Billy and Carl ran across the yard to see what all the noise was about. The farmhands and Ernie had found a mouse nest and were stamping on the mice. When they’d gone, Billy and Carl looked at the brown-red mush on the concrete floor of the barn. Under the corner of a bale was a tiny quivering mouse the farmhands had missed. It cowered with its nose twitching and its big black eyes closing then opening. Billy picked it up, cupping it in his two hands. He took it to Chris to ask what to do. Chris was sat in the garden on a deckchair. His broken ankle was raised up onto another deckchair and he was reading a book called Great Walks of the Peak District. He smiled when he saw Billy and Carl. Chris suggested that they put the mouse back, because it would do better in its natural environment. Billy thought about this, then went inside the house while Carl held the mouse, Billy returning with a shoebox filled with ripped-up toilet paper. Billy carefully placed the mouse into the box, where it sat hunched-up under the pink tissue, trembling its whiskers. Billy decided to call it Grand-Smart-Lucky because it was all those things.
That night, Billy sat in bed with the shoebox on his lap. The mouse had touched none of the cheese, and as far as he could see, none of the milk in the saucer. He dipped his finger into the milk and slowly put it to the mouse’s nose. Grand-Smart-Lucky shrank further into the corner of his box, turning his head away. The bedroom door opened and in hobbled Chris, smiling. Chris said Billy’s mum wouldn’t be happy with a mouse in the house, and if it escaped it would live under the floorboards and chew the electricity cables. Billy said it wouldn’t escape and put the lid back on the box, getting out of bed and placing it on top of the stereo. Chris smiled again and said that maybe Billy ought to put some holes in the lid. Billy used his stepfather’s penknife, carefully twisting the tip of the blade to make a row of holes, then handing back the folded knife said, Thanks Chris.
The next morning when Billy awoke he watched two sparrows fighting on the telephone wire outside his window. The noise of a tractor rattled by and the sparrows flew off. Billy got out of bed, and lifting the box lid, looked into the shoebox. Grand-Smart-Lucky was still in the same corner, its big black eyes staring dully out at Billy. He still hadn’t touched the cheese, and as far as Billy could see, the yellowed milk was also untouched. Billy prodded the mouse with his finger. It felt baggy and cold, and didn’t twitch, blink, or move away... Billy got dressed, then went downstairs for breakfast, where Carl’s dad was in the kitchen talking to Billy’s mum. The kitchen smelled of cow dung, and as Billy poured Sugar Puffs into a bowl, Carl’s dad said a smiley goodbye to Billy’s mum. Billy watched as Carl’s dad walked past the window towards the back garden. Billy poured cold milk onto his Sugar Puffs and asked his mum if she loved Carl’s dad. Billy’s mum dropped a spoon into the sink, and closed her eyes as a tractor shook by.
11. In the woods