Tom Fletcher was born in 1984. He is married, and currently lives in Manchester, UK. He is the author of two novels – The Leaping (Quercus, 2010)and The Thing on the Shore (Quercus, 2011) – and numerous short stories. He blogs at www.endistic.wordpress.com, his Twitter username is @T_A_Fletcher, and he can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tomfletcherwriter.
I head through the trees behind The Tup, beneath which it is not too dark. Large black birds can be seen in the treetops, as ever, and their cawing rings out. It is a sound I always associate with the smell of woodsmoke, and, although it is arguably quite an abrasive sound, it comforts me. The day is bright and cool. Before long, the trees thin out and give way to the bracken-coated foothills of Muncaster Fell. The Platt farm is on the far side of Muncaster Fell, but it’s possible to skirt through these foothills rather than hiking over the mountain itself, and it’s actually just a short stroll. Although I’m not strolling so much as walking very quickly, half-jogging at points.
I get to the ridge – the highest point of the journey, and about halfway – from which I can see the farm.
There’s a police car in their yard.
As I get closer I see that both Johns are outside, talking to a pair of police officers. The younger John moves away from them as he sees me approaching and meets me at the gate.
‘Morning Edie,’ he says. He is pale and blinking a lot and his eyes dart around like tadpoles. He keeps stroking his beard with one hand and then the other, compulsively almost. But he has always been so still and calm.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.
‘Found th’dog,’ he says. ‘You know Girt.’
I nod. I have seen Girt before, running around the fields when I’m out walking; a skinny mongrel sheepdog, black and white. Very friendly, if skittish.
‘Found her this morning,’ he says, ‘dead in the yard. All spread out. Pinned open, like, slit down t’middle and pinned open.’ He shakes his head. ‘Poor auld lass.’
‘Oh, John,’ I say.
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Come over.’ He opens the gate and I walk through.
The farm consists of a low white farmhouse, a grey barn, a couple of open metal sheds, the yard, some other outbuildings including a milking parlour, and then the surrounding land, I suppose. There is a Land Rover and a tractor in the yard, and some other vehicles and machines in the sheds. The surface of the yard is uneven and puddled. It is probably never completely dry.
John Senior turns to me as I get near. Tears shine down his cheeks.
‘Divvent gander if yis’re squeamish,’ he says. But I am already looking past him, to where the two police officers – men – are standing, crouching, taking photographs, and where the mess that was a dog lies sad and obscene.
She has been laid on her back and cut open right from her gullet down to her tail. Her eyes are wide but only the whites are visible. He tongue hangs out of the side of her mouth as limp, wrinkled and discoloured as a damp dishcloth. Horizontal cuts have been made across the torso and stomach, enabling panels of skin to be pulled over to the side, exposing the ribs and stomach muscles. Some of the ribs are missing and the stomach muscles have been forced open too, so the interior of the chest cavity is visible. It’s empty. The skin that has been pulled over to the side has been pegged to the ground with something.
I walk a bit closer until I can see that the pegs are actually the missing ribs. The one closest to me is covered in dried blood and a thin layer of something white. The skin through which it has been driven is all bunched up and rough around the edges. It looks torn, as opposed to cut neatly. Black and white hair sticks out from underneath it.
All around the dog is a scorch mark; a burnt circle.
Too late, one of the policemen notices me and moves between my eyes and the dog.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, staring at my dreadlocks. ‘Shouldn’t have let you see everything.’
He is quite young. Very clean-shaven. Smooth, greasy skin and big blue eyes. He takes his hat off and beneath it his blond hair is slightly damp.
‘Mr Platt,’ he says. He clears his throat. ‘Both of you. We need to know exactly what you saw and anything you heard last night. If we could just ask you a few questions…’
John Junior turns to me. ‘Might be some time,’ he says. ‘Sorry Edie. Come up later? We won’t be in the pub.’
I nod and try to speak but my tongue is all claggy. I raise my hand to say goodbye and take a few steps backwards before turning and hurrying away.
Sunday is the one night of the week on which a visit to the Platt place is actually possible. We do Sunday lunches on a Sunday, which go on until about six, but then we don’t do evening meals. The bar remains open, but it’s a night off for us in the kitchen.
The roast dinners pass by in their usual blur, and I find myself on the other side of the afternoon, alone in the gleaming kitchen and slightly dazed. The daylight is slowly dying, the sky out there golden and orange and red beyond the brittle leaves that are still attached to the trees. This is how time gets away from us I suppose.
By the time I’ve changed and am heading back over the lower ridge of Muncaster Fell, the air has taken on a bitter quality and the month feels more like November than September. Though it is late September, and it was a clear night last night and it’s been a clear day today. Behind me the sea is a blaze of gold and the sun on the horizon is a great hulking red thing.
John and his father are still standing in the yard. I doubt that they’ve been there since I left but I can easily imagine them standing in one place for that long, not talking, just looking at something and thinking. John Junior nods at me but doesn’t say anything. He still seems twitchy.
Girt has been wrapped in an old blanket – one she slept in, judging by how thick with malted dog hair it is – and laid in a wheelbarrow.
‘We’re going to bury her,’ John Senior says, ‘and then ‘ave a drink.’
‘Give her a good send off,’ I suggest, nodding, but I don’t know where the words come from. They sound like they’re from a film or something. It’s easy to accidentally say these things when something bad has happened. Anyway, the two Johns are nodding.
John Junior collects three shovels from a low stone outhouse, and we set off onto the fellside.
It doesn’t take long to dig a hole. The ground is still soft from the rain the other night.
John and John lower Girt’s wrapped body into the hole. It’s about three or four feet deep, and longer than it needs to be. Without saying anything, John Junior takes the wheelbarrow – the bottom of which is now awash with a small amount of blood – and heads back to the yard before disappearing round a corner. John Senior looks down into the hole.
‘Something we need to tell you, Edie,’ he says, without looking at me.
I wait for him to tell me this thing they need to tell me, but he doesn’t. The silence is only broken by the persistent cawing from the trees. Before us, the ridge slopes upwards, becoming the spine of the mountain. In the light of the sunset, the crags round here turn pink.
I hear John Junior returning. It’s difficult not to; the wheelbarrow is shaking. It sounds like it’s shaking itself apart as it rolls over the bumpy surface of the yard. When I look, it’s no surprise that it’s protesting so loudly; John’s upended a sandstone gatepost into it. The stone rests across the front and rear edges of the barrow, making it difficult to manoeuvre, but he gets it to us somehow. I expect him to struggle pushing it up to us, but he doesn’t slow down at all.
I am about to ask how we’ll get the stone into the hole – which I presume is the intention – but before I can, they have each taken an end and lifted it clear of the wheelbarrow. They don’t grunt or appear to strain at all. It’s as if they are just carrying an old rotten plank or something between them, but this thing is bigger than either of them and solid stone.
‘Mek sure it dunt land on ‘er ‘ead,’ says John Senior, as they move round to the top of the grave.
‘Do you want me to – ’ I say, but then, with what looks like a sudden lapse of control, John Junior drops his end of the stone as he reaches the side of the hole. With a scraping sound and a wet thud, the gatepost lands squarely into the space past Girt’s head. Exactly where it was meant to land.
A strange sound echoes around the farm; a high, truncated shriek. Mine.
The Johns are both shoveling soil back into the grave already. I join in.
Once we are done, the top half of the gatepost protrudes from the turned earth like - well, like a standing stone, like a totem. I walk around it so that it stands between me and the woods, The Tup, Ravenglass, the sea, the sun. It is black against that oozing orange-red sky. From this angle I see that the gatepost still bears an old, rusted metal bolt, for hanging a gate on. It is gnarled and weathered and organic-looking, like a branch, or like a horn.
(C) Tom Fletcher 2011
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