Authors: Natasha Carthew
There was good in this world and there was evil but the young girl had not yet learnt the difference. She didn’t have the time for noticing or wondering. Everything was just chores and more.
She sat with her face pressed hard against the thin scratched plastic of the windowpane, her legs bunched tight against the sill, and she counted the crows that bothered the crops in the upper sketch of field and the magpies that came into the yard. There were seven of them, gabbing their secrets to the chickens, who couldn’t have cared less.
The girl banged on the window. She hadn’t just thrown down scraps to have them eaten by the cackling devil birds.
Her breath fogged the fake glass and she drew a smiley, then smeared it clear and sighed.
Dad was calling from the other side of the trailer and she slid reluctantly to her feet.
‘Ennor, you about, girl?’ His voice pitched and split like a reed and Ennor pictured briefly how he used to be before, ordering her around the farm and laughing when she got things wrong, his little deputy, running three steps to his one.
The short hallway that led to his room was near dark in the morning half-light. Ennor had taken the bulbs from their sockets months ago to save on the leccy.
‘Girl?’ he repeated.
She knocked on his door out of polite habit and went in. The room smelt of stale cigarette smoke and night-old pee and she crossed the room to draw back the curtains and crank open the window.
‘I know, Dad, but you need some fresh air. It smells like rot in here.’
She went to the wardrobe and pulled out the spare blanket and stretched it over the bed. ‘How you feelin?’
‘Same as always.’ He coughed and reached for one of the many cigarettes she’d rolled and stacked in a pile on his bedside table.
Ennor took the lighter from her jeans’ pocket and lit his cigarette and one for herself, and father and daughter looked at each other while they inhaled, waiting for him to wake fully.
‘So how’s my girl this mornin?’
‘And the animals?’
‘Fed and watered.’ She smiled and sat down on the easy chair near the window like always.
‘Good.’ He nodded and flicked ash towards the heaving ashtray and missed. ‘And that brother of yours?’
‘Off to school, fed and watered just the same.’
They sat in silence, apart from the coughing. Ennor wanted to ask about money but she knew they had none. They’d had none for a long time now and she was running out of things to sell and places where shopkeepers weren’t suspicious of her idle standing.
She cleared her throat and looked out of the window at the heavy tinted sky, knowing, from necessity as a farmer’s daughter, that snow was heading their way. She leant forward to see if all four corners of the window were filled with cloud and they were.
‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘I know you got somethin to say so just say it to have it said.’
Ennor looked back into the room with a start. She thought of the ways to say something without upsetting someone but then it just came out. ‘We int got no food in the cupboards to speak of, the cattle are thin as bones plus we’re down to the last of the silage and most of all we’re eight weeks without rent and eight’s our final warning. The landlord’s bin knockin.’
‘My.’ He laughed and coughed at the same time. ‘Anythin else?’
Ennor nodded and got up to stand at the window. ‘Yep, there’s a storm comin.’ She held back the curtain and he looked past her at the yellowing sky.
‘What should I do, Dad?’
‘Close the bloody window for starters and get your old man a cup of tea. Can’t think without tea.’
Ennor stood beside the bed and crossed her arms.
‘Don’t be like that, girl. Dad always comes through with somethin, don’t he?’
Ennor shrugged. She wanted to disagree but you weren’t supposed to kick people already way down in the dung heap.
‘Yes, Dad.’ She smiled. ‘Only don’t be expectin strong tea cus the bag’s already bin through twice this mornin and the milk’s powdered.’
She left the room and went to the kitchen to get the tin kettle and she carried it to the outside pump to fill it, then brought it to the stove and banked the fire with clumps of offcut wood she’d scavenged from the barn.
The weather was getting colder and she refilled the five-gallon milk churns at the pump in case it froze and dragged them inside the makeshift porch that someone at some time had bolted on to the trailer.
She stood with her hands in her pockets and leant against the stove and saw by the clock on the wall that it was nine o’clock. Class would be starting around about now and she wondered if she was ever missed in the town’s small school.
Since the phone had been cut off the welfare officer had visited only once and that was three months ago. A lot had happened in those three months, things had fallen apart and gone wrong and were just plain busted and broke, but Ennor still stood in the kitchen that smelt of woodsmoke and chicken fat and watched the kettle boil same as always. She went and looked out of the window like she had a hundred times before, watching the seasons change and scanning the horizon and the leaves for colourful signs of hope. There was nothing but white, a blank-page stare and a laughable routine.
The kettle sent sudden spits of steam towards the ceiling and momentarily lifted the linoleum on the wall into blisters of warm air, moving mouths of gossip followed by tight lips.
Ennor loosened the tea in the damp tea bag with a pinch and poured the water in, pressing and stirring this way and that until the liquid hinted at colour. She added a dip of the powdered milk to make it look better.
She returned to the bedroom to find that Dad had drifted back to sleep. His cigarette lay in a burnt hole in the blanket. She put the butt into the ashtray and checked the hole wasn’t smouldering, then pulled the blanket around him before taking the mug of tea to the bedroom she shared with her brother, Trip.
In the squat room she put on her mother’s old Loretta Lynn CD and sat cross-legged on her bed, listening to the lyrics for clues to her own miserable life and wishing she knew the reasons behind all the things she didn’t understand.
She sipped the tea and its dryness caught in her throat and tickled her ears, the brief hit of warmth heavenly on such a cold morning.
Out of the window the sky fixed heavy with mood and a few sparks of sleet flicked against the pane like bad reception in a news report from a war-torn country, fussing her reflection into a messy scowl. She stood up and sighed because work never had a line put through it. She clicked the misery mute button inside her head and went to the porch to put on her hat and coat and the ripped wellies with the posh buckles.
Outside the easterly wind caught against her cheek like a well-placed slap and she lifted her coat collar as she ran across the yard and through the gate that led to the field.
The cows were still at the silage she’d dumped there that morning and Ennor swore at herself for not listening to the weather last night. Not only would she have to lead them down to the barn, she would have to bring down the silage too.
She opened the gate and they glanced up, puzzled, briefly concerned for the young girl who fed and cared for them, then continued eating.
‘You got the life, int you, girls?’ She patted one of them on their hindquarters and winced as her hand cupped the knuckle bones that popped through the skin like studs on a leather jacket.
If the cows didn’t survive the winter, she’d have no calves in spring and no money coming in except Dad’s social, and their carcasses would be taken by the knackers to be minced into dog’s dinner.
Since the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth things had turned worse from the top of the country to the bottom. Ennor didn’t remember it all so well. She was only seven at the time and losing the prize cattle was the least of their problems once they had lost the farmhouse and the land and her dad went half mad with the misery and then the drugs.
The half-dozen cows, a barn and the field that caught the worst wind were all they had left, and them a rope-run of farming kin that went back to the day dot.
She stood with the wind pushing against her back and rubbed her chin like the old men in the village and she wondered whether to bother moving the silage and decided against. If the cows were hungry, they would more than likely have it eaten before the snow came proper and, besides, there was nothing but fumes left in the ancient tractor, not even enough for sniffing.
She leant into the wind and took some comfort from its support as she watched the grey muck landscape get scrubbed and cleaned white. A transformation that hid the unfertile truth: this land was a hopeless scuff of nothing.
She gripped her collar to her jaw and ran from the cover-up hill back down the path to the trailer and sat by the stove in her outdoor clothes until heat seeped back slowly into her bones.
Ennor pulled out the tiny plastic table that was meant for outdoor use and swung it in front of her. She set a biro and her notebook square in the middle.
She sat flat-palmed like she used to at school and clicked the radio on for company and hummed along to a tune she didn’t recognise, looking to the window for creative inspiration and, when inspiration didn’t come from the cold, she watched the embers of the fire for sparks.
Another song came on and then the news headlines and talk of the weather and instead of poetry Ennor wrote ‘Things to do’ at the top of the page. She underlined it three times to compound its importance and wrote one to ten in the margin of the notebook, circling the numbers and drawing smileys in each corner of the page.
An expert on the news was telling Cornwall to brace itself for the worst winter since 1978 and Ennor laughed as she connected the smileys with chains because they said this every year. She looked at the radio and told it that it knew she was right.
The newsreader rattled on about 1978’s Winter of Discontent and history repeating itself and when he listed the latest riot hot spots Ennor clicked the button to shut him up.
She’d rather have no company than bad company. Talk of the looting and strikes was everywhere but Ennor fancied there were other things that might be important besides doom and gloom, like hope. Without that they’d all be close to swinging out in the barn like her friend Butch’s dad. He was lucky they found him before he choked, though she supposed he didn’t see it that way.
She ripped out the ‘Things to do’ page and wrote ‘Things I’d like’ on the fresh page, making the letters bigger than before.