The vet didn’t have complicated equipment, only a small knife and a pack of antiseptic wipes. There were six calves, five male, in the enclosure. The vet and the farmer climbed in and cornered one of the male calves. They edged him across the barn towards the cattle crush, a metal cage made from scaffolding large enough to contain a bull. The calf stood hip-high and the prospect of the crush made him fuss. The farmer shoved the calf by thrusting his pelvis and the vet giggled.
The farmer took a small torch out of his pocket. He shone it on the calf so that the vet could get a better look. After wiping the knife with disinfectant the vet crouched down and stretched into the crush to snick through the calf’s testicles; the action was so smooth it was only when blood drooled out that it became apparent that the operation had been performed – the stream swung slightly, forward and back under the calf’s belly, then ran down the insides of his legs. That calf was let out the front of the crush and the farmer pressed the next one in while the vet cleaned her knife. It was easier to get this one into the crush because he could see his cousin on the other side: they don’t like to go in if they think they won’t come out.
When the second calf rejoined the little clique of animals, he disturbed the others. The female calf at the edge of the group dipped her face to the floor, sniffed, and moved towards the water trough where she drank noisily, snapping her jaw. One of the twins moved to the back and butted his brother’s behind. The pale-faced calf tensed his shoulders and tipped his nose upward as if he was bellowing, but no sound came out. The vet leaned in again. The calf in the crush shifted and his bollocks went just beyond her grasp. She leaned further forward and made the cut. This calf didn’t make any noise either. The farmer let out the third calf and steered in the fourth. The vet’s hand slipped over him and blood ran heavily down his legs.
This calf was smaller than the others. He was delicately built, with short legs, a narrow face and maroon-coloured eyes that noticed things. He had an unusual character – confident and watchful – and there was something impish about him. If a human tried to steer him in one direction he would take another. He liked to investigate anything unfamiliar and he took the lead when the little herd of calves was taken from barn to barn.
Until now, the calf’s life had passed not as a series of events but as repeated cycles. He awaited his food, sent the given food down into his system and received it back into his mouth when it had been partly digested. He chewed it again, returned it and passed it through. Then he dozed and dreamed of feeding. Every morning the farmer came into the barn and forked silage into the byre and every evening he returned to repeat the same action. Each day took the same form. The operation was the only occasion in his life that was unrepeatable.
In its aftermath, while still bleeding, he playfully attempted to mount the female calf. In his excitable state, he could only just maintain his balance: he scrambled on at the wrong place, hooking himself over her side so that he left a bloody streak down her ribs when he slid off. It would have been impossible to fuck her like that even if he had not been castrated and she immature.
Outside there was a splash. The farmer turned. His wife was standing just beyond the door, eyeing him, barefaced, while she polished her glasses on her top. She didn’t look right in the barnyard. Box-fresh trainers planted in a shallow brown oily puddle. A loose sweatshirt fell sexily off her shoulders. She was tiny and he was a giant – he could see the top of her head. Spiky short hair. Grey roots.
‘I’ve got cack on my trainers coming out here, couldn’t you hear me shouting? Anyway, house phone for you.’
‘I’m busy here, Caroline,’ said John.
‘I’m busy in there, and they’ll only ring back and bother me again. The handset’s in the front room.’ She tapped the small gold watch on her wrist. ‘Go on, I’ll wait here, give me that torch.’
She stood on the other side of the fence, shining the torch into the barn. She squinted in. The spotlight skidded like a fly on the walls and the floor until it found a pale flank, where it held steady.
The calf’s stomachs continued to process his food as though nothing was happening. Millions of microbes were dependent on him for their existence. They appeared, as if from nowhere, in the folded nets that made up his stomach lining. One after the other, these little beings fell into the habit of sending and receiving messages simultaneously and constantly. The colony acted as a single being, and surrounded itself with noise.
Among the many thousands of these creatures only one had the sense to keep silent. The eavesdropper’s body was long and broad, semi-transparent and almost motionless. He was a drifter, idling through the liquid from one space to another, listening in. He fed steadily but slowly, harbouring energy. To all appearances he was a nonchalant being, allowing himself to be suspended within the liquid that surrounded him, and floating with a wide berth through space. There was no way in which the other microbes could become aware of his existence. Nonetheless he needed to reproduce.
He was able to target the vulnerabilities of the older generation when he released his poison into the atmosphere. All the elderly bacteria died off rapidly and in swathes, leaving the area vacant and mercifully quiet. Only the youngest and strongest – and those closely related to the eavesdropper – remained.
There was one thing for the survivors to do. They set about reproducing with a kind of frenzy – the whole family was of one mind. Using all the space available to them they came together, grew apart and broke up, enlarging and splitting themselves open: parting into multiples with a regularity that became almost a rhythm. A huge new family extended itself, supplanting those that had existed before it, and it continued to grow.
The eavesdropper became old as his descendants increased around him.Younger bodies encroached on his space. The population continued to grow. When the noise reached an intolerable level, for the first time in his life, the eavesdropper lost his appetite. Almost as soon as he stopped feeding he relaxed into the digestive system and died. His life had only endured a matter of moments when his body floated into the upper part of the calf’s stomach and was washed into another chamber where his corpse was reabsorbed into the body out of which it had been created as protein, which the calf digested using a series of muscles that contracted grasses, juices and microbes through his tubes and out into the light. The barn was partly lit – the beam from the woman’s torch was unsteady, it jiggled and alighted on the dung that was dropping on the floor.
Even as the dung was dropping the flies were bearing down to congregate on the liquid pat. The male flies released pheromones and struck shapes to summon the female flies. There was only a short time. The barn was warm with mammal bodies, the dung invested with body heat from the young cow that was already ebbing away.
One of the males was physically smaller than the other male flies, his body yellow-brown and practical, a bulk optionally suspended on wide lightweight wings, or supported on thin legs when grounded. This fly did not have a strong presence but he needed to reproduce all the same. When he landed, at the same time as several others, he took himself into the thick of the crowd where the scent of the other males might pass for his own. He was at his strongest when he was in among the others, a parasite within parasites.
Each male could impregnate only one female at a time, and it wouldn’t be long until the ground on which they stood set too hard to penetrate. Many of the flies landed and then moved off. Some strong instinct at work in them drove them on.
In time the females landed. Each was too far away from the male fly and though he made several approaches he never quite got there in time. The sexual activity was dense and rapid everywhere that he was not: other flies united, separated themselves, and then the females brought eggs out of their bodies.
When a nearby couple parted the fly moved in and immediately took the female. His sperm would race his predecessor’s inside her. Another male fly landed on top of him before he had withdrawn, then another and another. They became a ball of scrambling arms, with the female at the bottom, holding them up. The ground could not support her. She sank and drowned in the liquid mud before she could lay any eggs at all. It was a waste.
The fly had failed to mate and most of the other flies were moving on to new territory. He took off, flying low, and then landed on another part of the emptying pat. The female was bearing towards a different male, but the weak male got to her first and they mated. It took a few seconds. Then she began to lay her eggs and he moved out to guard her.
The other males approached as she eased out one white egg, which was large in proportion to her body. The males struggled against one another as she pushed out each egg. The father kept them all back until the mother’s eggs were buried under the warm crust. His eggs. The crust was hardening protectively around them when the female flew away. The male took off again and drove himself on towards the large dung-producing bodies that moved so slowly. He would never have much time, and he needed to mate again, and again and again before the time ran out.
He landed in the wrong place and was trodden underfoot by the bullock. It had been dropping blood on the torch-lit floor while nosing his way, without looking up towards the gate that had been pulled across the open barn doorway, and on which the woman with the torch was leaning.
Caroline was looking into the barn but she wasn’t really there – unlike the other animals she lived substantially in her memory, and she had a hangover and was thinking about the previous evening while the vet reached towards the next calf to make the cut.
Caroline didn’t look like a farmer’s wife – her skin was deeply tanned and her spiky hair was dyed a shade of maroon. She wore glasses some of the time, and tight tops which clung to the padded flower-print bras intended for adolescents whose breasts had not yet fully developed: Caroline was small all over. She was short, short-haired and plain-spoken. She worked during the day as an administrator at a solicitor’s office and at night managing a pub. Every morning before work she ran several miles at the local gym, and every evening after work she read two chapters of a novel. She had four children and advised her daughters, both recently married, to stop at two.
As a result of the running, of lifting barrels and crates of glasses most nights, and of five pregnancies (of which four went to term), her body was thin and tired but strong, with sinewy muscles in her arms and thighs and a loose little pouch on her belly. Her husband’s eyes pitied this worn body when they saw the clothes pulled blindly over it in the mornings, but his sense of touch was a different thing: he found that his body responded to hers when they were together at night in bed at night.
However, they had recently stopped having sex.
While she watched the cattle, the vet and the flies in the barn, Caroline was replaying the events of the previous evening in her mind’s eye. She, Caroline, had tried to avoid the hen party that had been organised for Josie, her daughter-in-law-to-be, who was currently living under Caroline’s roof – the young couple had moved home after Ben, Caroline’s son, got the sack from his job.
When Caroline tried to excuse herself from the hen party – ‘at my age it’s funerals you go to’ – poor Josie was dismayed.
‘Oh no! I’d be so upset! We need you there.’
‘She needs you there,’ echoed Ben, and Caroline, betrayed by her own son, didn’t put up a fight.
She arrived at the club late and sober, straight from work at the pub. It was already one in the morning – she had wasted as much time as she could cleaning up after last orders – and the queue outside was short, but Caroline walked to the front of it because she knew the bouncer, whose habit it was to come to the Swan for a quick pint before his shift started. He was a sad customer, sitting at the bar drinking Guinness in long silent gulps and pouring peanuts into hands that were too fat to get into the packet, while repeating the same stories to different barmaids about his involvement with Fathers 4 Justice and his grievances against his ex-wife, who held a court order against him for reasons he didn’t go into. He was huge and vulnerable. He greeted Caroline with one of his apologetic smiles.
‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’ He unhooked the red rope.
When the door closed behind her she found herself at the bottom of a wide, shallow staircase below a plastic chandelier. She realised that she was alone for the first time that day. She stood for a moment, removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Then she took a deep breath and urged herself into wakefulness by taking the stairs two at a time. The walls and pillars were painted to mimic marble: red with veins of white – they looked like meat. At the top she passed through swing doors.
Humidity, greenish light, ‘Thriller’, the smell of sweet drinks and sweat tried to take her in. On the dance floor groups of males and groups of females mostly kept themselves separate from one another. When passing a group of men, a smell assaulted you: deodorants and aftershaves, implanted with musks and pheromones, designed to draw women into their atmosphere.
Josie was sitting on a leather sofa with a group of women – girls really, with the exception of the Josie’s mum and aunty and nanna – wearing pink rosettes that bore their names or nicknames. They had one for Caroline which read, the mother-in-law. She allowed them to pin it on her. They were all drunk. Some of the younger women got up to dance. Caroline made her way through the herd to get to the bar.
She saw one of the bridesmaids, identifiable by the rosette, stumble out of the toilet, her ankles bending over her heels, holding a phone which she was looking at when she shouldered into a boy bringing bottled lagers from the bar to the dance floor. The boy grabbed the railing to stop himself falling down the stairs but he didn’t quite succeed, and had to jump to the bottom where he sat abruptly on the floor. One bottle of beer landed upside down in his lap and dribbled itself, leisurely, over him. The man blinked, then broke into laughter, as did his mates and everyone surrounding him. Then another girl in heels stamped on his hand, by accident, and he yelled in pain. Then he laughed again.
Everyone was drunk. The scene they made was funny and they knew it. When they danced they were imitating themselves dancing. Girls were grinding on their girlfriends but without touching: their eyes remained on the men. The men moonwalked badly. There was something sheepish about the way they scooted themselves out on sliding feet, then scuttled back into the group. Perhaps it was the aggression in the air. Each cluster of friends faced inward but everyone was looking out. People threw glances over their shoulders. The small dance floor was warm and damp and full of nervous grins worked up into laughter, cagy. The men and women were excitable; everyone could only just maintain their balance.
Caroline was excluded from the physical contact, but still exposed to the examining stares. She perceived it all too clearly because she was sober and because she was old. She felt embarrassed to be there but she told herself that it was more for the others’ sake than for her own. She didn’t want them to be seen in this animal state. They were all on the dance floor to reproduce themselves, just like anything else.
It was going on for four when she got out of the taxi, let herself in through the back door and went straight up to bed, but her bed was empty. John was not in it and the covers were pushed over. Caroline checked her phone, wondering where to look. Shouting out might wake Ben. It was possible that there was something going on with the cattle. She took her dressing gown. She was tempted to go back to bed. She drove herself on, downstairs.
John was in his pyjamas sitting at the kitchen table, straight-backed, looking into his tea, listening to a podcast, and he didn’t sense his wife’s presence until she pulled an earbud out. He flinched and looked up.
‘Why aren’t you in bed?’
‘I fell asleep fine, but then I woke up again.’
John had always been a light sleeper and an early riser but recently his habits had changed, he’d started to nod off in front of the evening news, his head lolling because the back of the sofa was not tall enough to support him. When a sound on the television started him awake he didn’t say anything, but blinked, rubbed his eyes, looked slyly from side to side to see whether the others had noticed. Then he would wake up in the middle of the night and find it difficult to get back to sleep. He didn’t talk about it.
‘How was your thing?’ he asked now.
‘What are you listening to?’
‘Farming Today from yesterday.’
Caroline turned her back to him to look in the old mirror that hung near the sink. The kitchen light was harsh and her eyes shrank from it. She touched her hair gently. After a pause, John resumed.
‘Badger cull. Then milk prices, then more on badgers. So what happened?’
Caroline turned to reach for her dressing gown. She hung it over her shoulders like a cloak as she began to unbutton her top.
‘All our kids have settled down now. Nothing happens, does it? Each one’s just more of the same, the hen party then the marquee in the garden, and then what? More kids. Does it make you feel sorry for them?’
John leaned back and laced his hands behind his head.
‘It makes me feel sorry for my bank account.’
His wife stood on one leg to peel her leggings off, and had to grab the back of the chair to steady herself.
‘I’m pissed,’ she admitted. ‘I’ve got pissed. That Josie’s a madam. She had us all drinking drinks that she set on fire with her lighter.’
The leggings turned inside out as they came away from her ankles and fell on the floor. Two black tubes kicking out. John nodded towards them.
‘Looks like there’s still legs in them.’
Caroline looked down at what remained of her real, naked legs. Thin, with her feet splaying on the floor. They did not appear to belong to her. She sighed and moved in front of his chair, facing him, where she stood still.
She blocked out his light. The dressing gown was still on her shoulders. It took a moment for him to notice that she had undressed within it. She took hold of his hand and moved it, perhaps too abruptly, to her crotch. He allowed only the tips of his fingers into the hem of her knickers and looked at her quizzically, slightly amused. She swayed, then plumped down to sit on him with her legs spread wide. Her knees gripped his hips with determination because her seat was precarious; his thin legs dug their bones into hers. When she lifted the jacket of his pyjamas she saw that he had tied the drawstring of the trousers in a bow. She pulled at the loop but it defeated her, and the couple looked down with the same perspective to see Caroline’s hands working at a knot which had intended to remain knotted until morning. She sat back with embarrassment. It was only then that her husband leaned forward, kissed her and pushed his hand deeper, pulling on the loose thread to undo his trousers with the other hand, but as he did so the door banged and Josie stumbled in.
‘Oh my,’ she said. ‘Oh my.’ Her words were slurred. ‘Mrs P, Mr P. The girls went back to Lauren’s, but I missed Benny too much! I’m gabbling anyway excuse me, erm – I’ll leave you two to it.’
When she had gone they heard her run up the stairs, stumble and start to giggle.
The next morning Caroline leaned on the gate shining the torch into the barn and feeling hung-over – slightly dizzy, slightly teary, slightly weak, slightly anxious, slightly distracted in a way that was not wholly unpleasant. It was dark inside the barn and Caroline couldn’t be sure whether she was seeing right. She watched the sex lives of the young cattle move from the future into the past. The vet asked Caroline to shine the torch on the one that was bleeding. A twinkle of light moved from left to right, from the head along the body to the rear end.
Right now he seemed still, but one part of him was always on the move, his ear lapping back and forth or his tail flicking. These small disturbances only exaggerated the calm that he established around himself, all movement approaching a point of stasis.
The cattle had created their own tropical atmosphere in the barn; warm and wet with a rich sweet smell of silage and dung rotting into one another. There was a feeling that they were waiting for something, but there was no restlessness, they were settled. Something had been screened off, something was over; the bullock’s body was like a wall. From behind it he ruminated, dreamed, digested and kept watch. The cattle gave up their dung, milk and meat, as well as their young and their lives, and their climate, diet and the lengths of their lives were calibrated by their keepers. The cattle gave a kind of consent to the many smaller bodies – bovine, insect, microbial, human – that were dependent on them, but each animal remained, in itself, distant and opaque. There was a grandeur to their passivity. No human could surrender his body while sustaining this intensity of calm.
Caroline was only watching the bullock for a few minutes. To her, his ruin had a kind of dignity: when he tried to mount the female calf she had to admire his drive, which was brave because it was a farce. He had a confused memory, stored in his body, of what it might be like to feel desire. Seeing the blood run down the insides of the bullock’s legs, Caroline experienced a sense of satisfaction, and this feeling marked the beginning of the end of the period of her life when things were changing inside her body, and things seemed to be changing in relation to it, outside herself. Later she would laugh about this interval as the time when she felt a bit angsty.
Everything seemed to show how the animals were driven on and finished off by reproduction. In reality the creatures that surrounded her were living at different speeds, on scales that went beyond her sense of vision, and it wasn’t in her nature to understand them – she could only see the others as an image of herself.