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Extract from ‘Offcomers’

Shortlisted for the Benedict Kiely Award and given a special mention in the Galley Beggar Prize, Rosanna Hildyard's 'Offcomers' takes you back 20 years, to the Foot & Mouth epidemic in Yorkshire.

Foot Mouth

From Slaughter (Broken Sleep Books, 2021)

Ravenseat, North Yorkshire, 2001

I wake up because he is not snoring.

I turn my head. Still dark outside, the moon resting on the moor like a fingernail clipping. His head is on the pillow beside me, and I can see the gleam of his eyeballs. When his voice rasps, it is a shock.

What if we get it, he says.

I blink and mumble. We won’t, I say. It won’t get as far as us, don’t worry.

I’m not worried about us, he says, and he spits the us. I’m thinking about those fucking tourists down in Catterick. Fucking offcomers.

He is talking about the farmer he pays to shelter our sheep in the valley over winter. It is spring now, lambing time and time for our eight hundred pure-bred Swaledale ewes to come back to the uplands, with us. But we’ve just heard that all movement of animals is banned until the foot-and-mouth is over.

His tone sends a chill down my spine. Farmers don’t talk about other farmers in that way. They’re not just colleagues; they are allies in the same fight. No matter how much he might scorn or whinge about his neighbours, he does it with a grudging respect.

This sounds different. They best take care of them, he says, and I know that note of warning, and I feel it in the pit of my stomach: bad things lie ahead in the Catterick farmer’s future. Then he rolls onto his side, his back rising up before me, and I can no longer see his open eyes.

I close my own eyes and try not to think of the pigs in the Essex abattoir, hanging dead and cold with blisters on their lipless mouths. The first cases in England. They say it’s spreading north. I wonder how it is that I can’t just reach out and touch him – hey, are you awake? – and yet I am as unable to do that as if I were paralysed, or frozen, or something was holding my arms behind my back and pinning me down.

I open my eyes again. The moon looks like a thin, curved smile.

*

When I was training as a florist, back when I lived with my dad, my boss told me about shipments of exotic flowers carrying stowaways. Tarantulas, poisonous red ants, Black Widows, she’d said, walking her dirty fingernails over the counter. They invade the ecosystem and have no predators. I imagined it: unrolling brown paper on your kitchen table, all a-crackle, when out of the stems squirms some fat, boneless, black thing that has scuttled off before you can move a muscle. And, later, you’re trousers-down on the bog or sweating over your onions when you feel a cold snip at your ankle... And that’s it, for you.

I told him about the spiders in flowers and he snorted. That’s how diseases spread! I said. Maybe there are sheep ticks, or flies, or something!

We were sitting on the sofa. He was shovelling in his baked beans and I was screwed up in a corner, toothing the chocolate off the sides of a Blue Riband and trying not to shiver. Fuck that, he said. Be easy enough if it was a matter of catching a couple of spiders.

You what? I said. Have you ever tried to catch a spider?

He didn’t even bother to look up from scraping the baked bean tin. They’re bloody great big things, he said. Foot and mouth’s a virus. It’s carried on the wind.

His brow started going all creased as he stared down into the tin. Then he shook his head abruptly, and cleared his throat. Nineteen-sixty-seven, he said. It got blown northwards by the wind. And in nineteen-eighty it got blown onto the Isle of Wight, from France. It’s a windborne virus. But it can be carried on cars, clothes, shoes – those bloody hikers, offlanders, they don’t belong here. That’s why they’ve locked the Coast to Coast path down so fast, this time.

He stopped, tipped his head back and shook the last dregs of juice from the tin. I watched his Adam’s apple bobbing up and one small orange drip trickling down his beard. He put the can down, sighed and rubbed his jaw, apparently without noticing. Windborne? Wasn’t that what people thought in, like, medieval times? I thought. He had to be kidding.

I felt suddenly starving for baked beans, put down my gnawed chocolate bar and got up, glancing at the grey hairs in his beard as I did. Windborne? He was obviously desperate. He’d left school years ago; he needed to have an explanation, I thought. He was older than me, after all.

But that was in late March, and as we watched the news each night, I began to feel a creeping suspicion. It was like an invisible giant was stamping north, county by county: Devon, Wales, one quick stride up into Lancashire, coming for us. We watched its footsteps tracking up the country, and my old world – Tesco and school friends having babies, Afghanistan on TV and catching the bus to town – they just bled away.

And when I realized that’s what it was – coming for us – I felt relief, deep down in my gut. I’ve come to realise that’s what you feel, when the worst happens: relief. You should have known. You were right, that plague would descend; and on you, of all people. You knew what you always feared would come to be.

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