There is no end to madness, Jack thinks, once it takes hold. Hadnt those experts said it could take years before it flared up in human beings? So, it had flared up now in him and Ellie.
Sixty-five head of healthy-seeming cattle that finally succumbed to the rushed-through culling order, leaving a silence and emptiness as hollow as the morning Mum died, and the small angry wisp of a thought floating in it: Well, theyd better be right, those experts, it had better damn well flare up some day or this will have been a whole load of grief for nothing.
Healthy cattle. Sound of limb and udder and hoofand mind. Not one of them mad as far as I ever saw, Dad had said, as if it was the start of one of his rare jokes and his face would crack into a smile to prove it. But his face had looked like simply cracking anyway and staying cracked, and the words he might have said, by way of a punchline, never left his lips, though Jack thinks now that he heard them. Or it was his own silent joke to himself. Or its the joke hes only arrived at now; We must be the mad ones.
And if ever there was a time when Jacks dad might have put his two arms round his two sons, that was it. His arms were certainly long enough, even for his sons big shouldersboth brothers out of the same large Luxton mould, though with all of eight years between them. Tom would have been fifteen then, but growing fast. And Jack, though it was a fact he sometimes wished to hide, even to reverse, already had a clear inch over his father.
The three of them had stood there, like the only life left, in the yard at Jebb Farm.
But Michael Luxton hadnt put his arms round his two sons. Hed done what hed begun to do, occasionally, only after his wifes death. Hed looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat.
And Jack, who long ago took his last look at that yard, looks now from an upstairs window at a grey sea, at a sky full of wind-driven rain, but sees for a moment only smoke and fire.
Sixty-five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin. Ruin, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton had died.
Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundred into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? Who would have dreamed it? But cattle arent people, thats a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though its small comfort and precious little help: Well, weve had our turn now, our share.
But years later, right here in this seaside cottage, Jack had switched on the TV and said, Ellie, come and look at this. Come and look, quick. It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in fields. The thing was burning day and night. The smoke would surely have been visible, over the far hills, from Jebb. Not to mention the smell being carried on the wind. And someone on the TVanother of those expertswas saying that burning these cattle might still release into the air significant amounts of the undetected agent of BSE. Though it was ten years on, and this time the burnings were for foot-and-mouth. Which people werent known to get. Yet.
Well, Jack, Ellie had said, stroking the back of his neck, did we make a good move? Or did we make a good move?
But hed needed to resist the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it, it was his proper place.
BSE, then foot-and-mouth. What would have been the odds? Those TV pictures had looked like scenes from hell. Flames leaping up into the night. Even so, cattle arent people. Just a few months later Jack had turned on the telly once again and called to Ellie to come and look, as people must have been calling out, all over the world, to whoever was in the next room, Drop what youre doing and come and look at this.
Excerpted from Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Copyright © 2012 by Graham Swift. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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