Slurry Chapter 3


In between clients at the veterinary practice my mobile buzzed with a text. It was Henry to say he couldn’t make it to the pub today. I’d met Henry fairly soon after I’d arrived at the practice. I’d been sent to see a sick cow at Halfway Farm and old Joseph Fotheringham could hardly get out of his ancient battered armchair. He suffered with his knees. Not that he ever complained, he just got on with it, driving his tractor with a stick when he couldn’t use his right leg to push the accelerator. He’d been offered knee surgery but never had the time to get away from the farm - sixty cows needed milking twice a day, rain or shine. But then he just couldn’t do it. Henry thought he’d escaped from farming when he went to college. I say college – Henry did Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Anyway when his dad rang and said he couldn’t drive the tractor anymore he gave up his high flying job in the city and came back to the farm. He just knuckled down and didn’t complain, just like his dad. He turned out to be a natural at farming but I suppose it was in his blood. He’d actually been christened Mark so it was probably a good thing that his nickname at Uni had just stuck. Anyway we just got along straight away and now I would officially classify him as my best friend. Other potential candidates for MBF were scattered over the country and some in other continents. Henry liked a beer. I liked a beer. Henry liked to chat about things apart from farming and so did I. The last thing I wanted after work was to talk about the price of a litre of milk compared to what it had been in 1948 when Woodbines were tuppence or some such. And Henry was my squash partner. I’d started playing at college where I’d also played hockey for the first team. Since then I’d kept myself pretty fit with the odd hockey game for the Vets-Vets and running around the lanes. Now we played squash every Monday evening at 8.0 pm in the sports centre in town. It had become very competitive with our different styles just about evening out. The vanquished one had to buy the beers - a great deal more about pride than money.

Bill had been writing up his notes when I went into his office. Now he stared distractedly out of the office window, pipe unlit in his mouth.
“You nearly finished Bill, fancy a pint on the way home?”
He started back from his reverie with a grunt.
“Hi, I’d better not. The missus, you know, says I’m never home as it is.”
“I wanted to ask you something and I thought I could buy you a pint while we talked.”
“No really, we could talk here…well maybe just the one pint then. I haven’t been to The Black Sheep for ages.”

We settled into the niche next to the inglenook fireplace and lovingly cradled our pints of Old Hook.
“While you were on holiday I picked up a call for you to see a sick cow at the Lucases”
Bill just looked at me quizzically.
“Well…it was a bit strange… he just said if couldn’t be you he’d deal with it himself.”
“I’ve known him for donkeys’ years. In the same class at school. He trusts me but he is a bit peculiar.”
“A bit peculiar?”
“He’s very old fashioned. He doesn’t believe in paying vets’ bills. If I go up there…which is not very often…it’s because he’s desperate about one of his prize animals. He’ll offer me a side or pork rather than part with real cash.”
“No wonder we’re not making any money.”
“He got worse after his dad died and he fell out with his brother.”
“What happened?”
“They fell out about how to run the farm and ended up splitting everything right down the middle and not speaking.”
“I don’t understand?”
“Well death in the country can be different, at least this one was. I’ll tell you what happened.”

‘Cedric Lucas was an ornery old bastard who’d never willingly part with ha’ppence. He left a string of unpaid debts trailing in his wake. These would keep turning up to harass George and Alf when they inherited Devil’s Table Farm, 150 acres of upland limestone to the west of Ambover. Cedric may have been only five foot three in his holey socks but he was a feisty character who’d been a bantam weight boxer when he was in the army.
Cedric and Alf had been working together when it happened, making the first cut of silage at Lower Delves Meadow. Cedric was doing the cutting and Alf followed with the huge blower, showering new mown grass into the trailer. He’d suddenly stopped the ancient red Massey-Ferguson and started tugging frantically at the tow hitch. Without warning, and in mid-curse, he pirouetted and slumped to the ground facing the grey skies.
“Father, father. You alright? Well bugger me if ain’t gone and done fainted again.”
Cedric was a diabetic but he’d refused to take insulin and the fainting fits had become more and more common as his blood sugar see-sawed out of control. Alf squatted over his father, wanting to rouse him but scared of unleashing his boiling wrath. He didn’t stir. Alf’s mouth was dry with fear.
“I’d better be getting you down the doc’s sharpish, father.”
He turned off the still chugging tractor and picked up his father over his shoulder like a sack of spuds. With some difficulty he heaved him up into the trailer on a soft bed of new mown grass. He revved up the yellow Renault tractor and put his foot down, heading for the surgery two miles away in Ambover.
Dr. Norman Maitland was examining old Mrs. Hogsbody’s chest when Alf burst in, ignoring the protestations of Mrs. Maitland, receptionist, on guard duty at the door.
“Come quickly doctor, it’s an emergency. It’s me father. He’s sparko again, in the back of me trailer.”
Dr. Maitland let the stethoscope fall from Mrs. Hogsbody’s generous bosom and looked at him over half moon glasses. Seeing the panic in Alf’s eyes he followed him at a swift trot out to the trailer, the tractor engine still running. Alf leapt onto the trailer like a mountain goat and pulled the doctor up by his hand. Dr. Maitland knelt over the prone figure listening to his chest and feeling his neck and wrist for a pulse.
“I’m afraid he’s dead, Alf, dead. Has been for sometime judging by his temperature. I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do. I told him what would happen if he didn’t take his insulin only last week.”
Alf just gave him a chilling smile.
“Shall I arrange the undertaker for you?”
“That’ll be fine Dr. Maitland. I’ll drop him off at Len’s me sen, it’s on me way.”

‘Mostleberry & Sons Est. 1893’ was written in black and white tiles on the long stone building opposite the village green. A wisp of smoke rose from the chimney perfuming the air with burning wood. Alf hoisted Cedric back over his shoulder and rung the door bell on the double doors that led through into the yard. A door within the door opened and a tall thin man with a slight stoop appeared silently. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie with his long lank hair greased back over his ears, revealing a single gold stud. He had sawdust on his shoulders mingled with dandruff.
“He’s gone Len, me dad’s gone.”
“We’ll have to get a doctor to see him, Alf, I can’t just take him.”
“I’s just brought him from Doc Maitland he’ll sort out paperwork and stuff.”
Len Mostleberry looked around to see Mrs Hogsbody approaching, her eyes wide with curiosity and he gestured him in quickly.
“Bring him in here,” he said pointing to an office off the yard. Alf stuggled around the magnificent Rolls Royce Silver Wraith hearse which almost filled the yard. He heaved his father’s body onto a settee and sat down beside him gasping from the effort.
“I’m very sorry Alf. Must have been a terrible shock.”
“Not really, he had it coming.”
“What’ll you do about the funeral?”
“Cremate him, but not this week I’ll have to get the silage in me sen now.”
“Sad. Very Sad.”
“Look Len, you know as well as I do that me dad was a complete shit. I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Does George know?”
“Not yet he don’t. I brought him straight here via Doc Maitland’s”
“He’ll be shocked.”
“No he won’t. He hated his guts.”
Cedric flopped over to one side as Alf got up to leave.
“Perhaps you let me know when you’ve fixed the date with the vicar.”
“Are you going to choose the coffin while you’re here?”
“We’ll just be having the basics. I’ll leave it to you. Nothing fancy mind,” he said as he began to squeeze back around the gleaming hearse.
A trickle of blood and spittle had run down the stubble on Cedric’s chin.’

Bill gazed absent-mindedly out of the window and readjusted his pipe. “See when old man Lucas dropped dead he didn’t leave a will. George and Alf fell out big time about what should happen to the farm. There was a fight. A real fight with broken noses and teeth,” Bill said.
“And there was no way either would back down and they couldn’t work together so they split the whole farm down the middle.
They’ve not spoken since as far as I know.”
“Well I’ll not be going up there in a hurry. By the way, Bill, does George Lucas keep sheep?”
“God is that the time? Marje’ll kill me. Thanks for the pint see you tomorrow.”
He rose and strode out of the pub waving his hand at the landlord as he passed the bar.

A few days later Bill brought me in some tea in my favourite ‘Bob’s Bull Semen Services’ mug. This was a ritual. I made the coffee in the morning and Bill made the tea in the afternoon. Margaret, secretary, receptionist and general factotum never made either. This was, you understand, a statement. A statement about liberation. The liberation of Margaret. There were lots of things she just refused to do and ‘skivvying’ for men was one of them. You had to watch your political correctness with Margaret and we had lost a number of clients because of her withering responses to a misplaced word. Frankly we’d have sacked her ages ago if we weren’t scared she’d take us to a tribunal. And win.

I’d first met Maggie Mostleberry when I was called urgently to the dog tent over my walkie-talkie whilst on duty at the Show. The need for my urgent attendance was simultaneously being broadcast over the crackling tannoy with increasingly frantic tones albeit interspersed with exhortations not to park diagonally. They were also requesting the attendance of Dr Maitland. Fat chance of getting him out of the members’ beer tent. I’d been taught by Bill that running to an incident was normally over the top and panicked the punters, so I just walked at the pace of a Roman soldier. As I approached the dog ring the hubbub grew. Gaggles of owners and their dogs were ‘well I nevering’ at twenty to the dozen. I walked through them with a sense of mission and they parted without missing a ‘well I never’. I mentally classified each dog according to breed and rated owners out of ten. Identifying the dogs was much more difficult than it sounds as all the dogs were crosses and many the results of several generations of just being friendly with whoever was next door. As I approached the dog marquee the raised voices inside began to drown the outside chatter. The first voice was piercing.
“For Gawd’s sake, do you have to make so much fuss he’s only playing?”
This was followed by a barely audible whisper – human rather than canine. My grand entrance was hindered by the tent flap and I paused to take in the tableau. The woman hence forth to be identified as Maggie stood arms akimbo, head thrust back and radiating irritation. At her feet on all fours, with her head buried on the trampled grass was a spherical lady. One hand covered her eyes, the other was spread and twisted and at its end there was a ball of curly fluff which didn’t move. I weighed up the scene. The currently unnamed Maggie put me straight.
“This is Meg and Florence entered in the obedience class and they are ruining the dog show and I’d be grateful Mr Marley if you’d sort them out.”
I moved towards the ball of fluff and it growled, sotto voce.
“What seems to be the problem Meg?”
“I’m Florence and it’s Meg that’s the problem,” said the spherical woman,” She won’t let go.” I moved closer and got the growl and a slight shake of the head but like a ventriloquist Meg didn’t move her teeth. Florence whimpered, Maggie tutted. I contemplated my options.
“Mrs…could you get me…”
“Maggie, I’m Maggie.”
“Well, Maggie could you get me some water, a cup full will do.”
She turned and strode out of the tent.
“Now Florence dear I want you to close your eyes and relax – perhaps think of a sandy beach and gentle waves.”
I karate chopped Meg hard on the nose. It was her turn to whimper, dropping Florence’s hand she scuttled under the judges table, draped with a blue cloth and covered in coveted cups. I helped Florence to her feet and into a chair. Maggie returned with the water in a dog bowl and I handed it to Florence.
“Well perhaps now we can get on with the bloody show we’ve lost 45 minutes because of your mangy animal.”
I inspected Florence’s hand.
“Meg has a very fine set of teeth but she’s not broken the skin.”
For the first time Florence looked at her hand. The impression in her ample skin was clear but no blood dripped.
“However, I do suggest you get a tetanus jab from Dr Maitland and possibly a new dog.”
Her bottom lip quivered as she put the chastened Meg on her lead. She mumbled her thanks as she set off, head bowed, for the St John’s Ambulance caravan.
I’d known Maggie by sight for some time because she was a regular at the surgery with her baby, an Irish Setter. But she’d always seen Bill who’d got to know her well. He described her as difficult but vulnerable. We’d interviewed her for the receptionist job during which she’d been both tearful and aggressive. Her previous experience as a lollipop lady did not seem particularly relevant. Her only selling point was her devotion to an elderly Irish Setter. She left the office, shutting the door just a tad too hard.
“Well, thank God we’ve not got her as our receptionist. We’d be out of business in weeks.”
Bill had looked at me in that doleful way.
“I think she could do a good job with a little bit of training.”
“What? She’s rude, flaky and has no relevant experience – surely we can do better than that.”
“She needs a job.”
“Since when has that been a selection criterion?”
“I’d really like to give her a chance.”
“But why? She’s completely useless.”
“I want to help her, she’s got problems…”
“I think she needs a psychiatrist not a job in our surgery.”
“A job would make a big difference and I’m sure I could work with her.”
“Come on Bill, what’s going on, you fancy her don’t you?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just she’s got big problems at home and I would like to help her. That’s what living in a community like this is all about.”
“What sort of trouble at home?”
“It’s her marriage; she’s found out Eric’s playing away.”
“Yes, Eric the milkman, Eric Mostleberry.”
“Eric the Milk? He never told me he was married. Any children?”
“No just the dog. Anyway I figure if we give her the job it will set her up. She needs the money.”
“Well I never. I didn’t know he was a Mostleberry either.”
“Yep. He’s Len’s cousin.”
“Well, I think she’ll be a complete disaster but you’re the boss.”
“Let’s give her a trial then.”

So we did and she was. And Maggie became born again as the Margaret we now knew and had been forced to love.

“How’s it going?” Bill said perching his backside on the window sill and sipping from his ‘Equi-Vacc’ mug.
I stretched back in my bottom of the range executive chair, put my feet on the desk and yawned.
“Not s’bad I suppose. Is it me or is there twice as much paperwork as last year?”
“It’s the Department of Fools, Robbers and Arse’oles. Bastards.”
“Guess who I saw in the village?”
“Jenny Lucas. Not seen her for ages. She looked humungous.”
“Well she’s done a lot of breeding.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know the girls.”
He pronounced the word ‘girls’ in such a way as to make it sound like dog shit on your shoe.
“How many ‘girls’ are there?”
“Eight all told. As far as I know it is unique for one mother to have had four sets of twins.”

And Bill was off again in story telling mode:
‘George was not only the spit of his dad, he’d inherited his anti-social personality. He was still single into his thirties, never one much for the girls, and then he just caught everyone out. Jennifer drove the milk tanker which visited Devil’s Table Farm. She was ten years George’s junior and had been the ugliest girl in the school by a country mile. She was also a bit simple but never got bullied because she was as strong as an ox. And she was built like one, not fat but with huge hindquarters and powerful shoulders. Her face was plain and broad and there was a prominent mole on her hooked nose. Her hair was scraped back into a severe bun encased in netting. Her mother had been the milk maid at Devil’s Table Farm and there were those that said that Cedric was Jenny’s real dad although there was no physical resemblance.
Nobody had a clue what was going on until the bans were read in church. Although nobody was invited to attend the wedding, half the parish turned up out of curiosity. Jennifer had towered over George in her bell tent white dress. The vicar had conducted the service as if trying to suppress a very bad smell. That just might have been genuine as George had always been a stranger to the soap.
“Do you take this woman,” had been said with a contemptuous sneer on his face. The responses were inaudible mumbles. The vicar was saying “For God’s sake speak up man, without moving his lips. Eric the Milk was the best man and looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else, his brown suit trousers flapping above his blue socks.
After the wedding Jennifer had kept on driving the milk tanker until she couldn’t fit behind the steering wheel.’

“Very peculiar. When they got married they didn’t have any children and George gave Jennifer one more breeding season or she was out. Old Doc Maitland told me, in the strictest confidence of course, just between you and me, that she went on fertility drugs and bingo she drops four pairs of twins in four years.”
“And they all looked the same. Like they were F1 hybrids.”
“And isn’t there something strange about their names?”
“Oh yes. Very strange. Now let me think. Annabelle and Beatrice are the eldest then it goes Chloe and Dora, Ethel and Freda, Gertrude and Harriet.”
“Not slavish followers of fashion then?”
“No … just the alphabet. I occasionally see the girls when I’m up at the farm not that I can tell them apart. Not the eldest though… they’ve gone away to a boarding school somewhere. Or maybe it’s just one of them, I’m not really sure. Probably a remedial finishing school. I’ve not seen them for quite a while.”
“And what about Alf?”
“Well, after his dad died he sort of lost interest. As a family they’d always been of the ‘if it’s broke don’t fix it’ school of farming. But now he’s taken it to a new level. His part of the farm is practically derelict and he’s scarcely seen. I try and look in when I’m up there and Alf, who was always on the sickly side, has virtually faded away. The animals he’s got left are in a pretty appalling state and I try and do what I can for them. I really ought to report him but I feel sorry for the old bugger.”
“Fancy a pint after work then?” I ventured.
“No, no, no. Marje you know.” His hand gestured as if cutting his throat as he stared vacantly out of the window. “On the other hand, sheep and lambs. Perhaps just the one.”

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