Jane Rusbridge Author of The Devils Music and Rook


Winner of Writersinc Writer of the Year Award 2005



Birds sing and I am cold. As the delivery van turns out into the lane, something slips out of me: a sudden moisture.

‘One of your difficulties,’ the doctor had said, ‘is hostile cervical mucus.’ That was a relief. Maurice and I had done our research. ‘However, there is very probably also mild to moderate male factor infertility.’ Maurice let go of my hand, uncrossed then re-crossed his legs.

Straight red roses with a single bud on each stem. The buds never open, just droop after a day and then die. The cellophane crackles as I drop them into the dustbin. Red used to be my favourite colour. Why can’t I simply tell him?

My new Wellingtons stand by the door. I’ll walk, instead of going back inside. I shove my feet into the boots and tramp down the lane, through the clods and wedges of mud left by tractors. We’ve been used to tarmac, asphalt, concrete, neat lawns. To warm myself, I stride out, push myself forward, feel the muscles in my thighs tighten and stretch. The air is moist. A sign, white paint on cardboard, offers free manure. I turn into the wide gateway of Hoe Farm. Today I’ll put out my hand and see if he’ll let me scratch his forehead. Thick black hair between my fingers.

The pens are empty. I don’t know where the cows will be; I may as well go back home.

In the kitchen, the iron hisses on its stand and spits as I pick it up. I’d forgotten it was on. Monday. I lose track. There’s no pattern yet for my days down here. Steam spurts and puffs as I press the hot metal down onto damp cotton. Six white shirts a week. All day, the crease will stay sharp and straight from shoulder to wrist, the sleeves undisturbed by muscle. In the grey cool of his air-conditioned London office, Maurice never needs to roll them up. He sits and frowns at numbers on a screen: other people’s money.

Once, his body was taut with energy. I remember the night we met: an end of summer barbecue party, grass doormat-brown, conversation polite. No one danced. Across the dry garden I glimpsed Maurice’s wiry arms, expansive in the air as he spoke. Someone introduced us just as the speakers began to vibrate with the opening bars of Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ all over the World’. He grabbed my wrist, steered me away from the crowd, showed me the moves: hands on hips, feet apart; the Rocker’s dance. When we were both exhausted and sweating, he fetched us a drink and we sat on the wall of a raised rose bed, laughing together over his ambition to make money. The roses’ scent grew stronger as darkness fell, and we took turns to make up lists of what we would buy if we were rich. Most of it we have bought, over the years.

Now Maurice is bone thin. He drinks strong coffee, black, all day, to keep alert. When he removes his narrow rimless spectacles for sex, his eyes are flat and fish-like. They don’t look into mine. Too much timetabled sex, trying for a baby. If we could be parents, it would change us, pull us together again. Hope is like a knife edge.

The steam, and the sunlight pressing heat through the windows, makes the kitchen very warm. There’s the faint oniony smell of my sweat. Dust floats like leaves falling, and shadows slant amongst the wooden pillars, beams and arches. I fling back the French doors and breathe the spring air, sappy and damp. The birds again. And the mournful bellow of the bull. A sweep of flat green and brown stretches away to the horizon.

I must have looked ridiculous that day, teetering along with mud clinging to my kitten heels, a map clutched in both hands. I was lost. Fisher Lane just ends, in a field. The map shows it as a dead end surrounded by an expanse of white space; white space criss-crossed with the red dashed lines of footpaths between the farms, and the meandering blue squiggle that is the Rife. The London estate agent had marked Fisher Farm Barn with a black biro cross, but somehow I’d missed it. I parked the BM in a field entrance where the earth was churned with the deep, wide marks of tractor tyres, and walked back up Fisher Lane to Hoe Farm.

A bellow resonated from somewhere in the outbuildings. No-one was about. There was a smell, sweet and strong. It took me a while to place it as I approached, then I saw the cows. They were restless and jostling, crowded into an enclosure with a roof but no walls, just metal bars and a narrow metal trough all round the sides. The enclosure was divided into several pens filled with black and white cows and swathes of straw. It looked quite clean and golden, and I wondered what it would be like to lie on. The cows pushed against each other to get to the bars, to get closer to me. Perhaps they thought I’d come to feed them. How ungraceful they were, bones loose under their skin like boulders in a bag. Slack-jawed and chewing, they shoved their rubbery noses upwards through the bars. I put my hand onto the cold metal, snatched it away when a cow’s lips and tongue rasped on my sleeve. That deep moan again, a surge of movement, and the bull was standing there. I hadn’t seen him lying down in the next pen, hidden by milling cows. He stood, motionless, while they staggered and slopped around his low black hulk. His body was thick with muscle and, combined with his stillness, he made me think of water in a knotted hosepipe – the pressure building and building. Then he turned, head swung low as if to charge, and held my gaze. His pupils were purplish-black: enormous.


I nearly jumped out of my skin. ‘I’m sorry! I hope it’s all right – I heard the bull and wondered ….’ He wore a tweedy cap and his Wellingtons were coated with brown. With his padded shirt filthy and torn, he looked like a tramp. I put out my hand, hoping he was the farmer. ‘I’m Sophie, Sophie Blanchard. I’ve come down to view Fisher Farm Barn. Actually, I’m lost.’

‘Reg Bailey.’ My hand disappeared into his callused squeeze. He leaned his forearms on the bars and stretched out to scratch a cow’s forehead. ‘How’s that then, girl?’ The cow paused as if mesmerised. ‘Handsome, isn’t he, the Angus?’

‘The black one? Oh yes.’

‘Oldest breed in Britain, Aberdeen Angus. Beef breed. Fine quality of flesh. Highest rank. Produces good udder breadth, this one.’

I tried to pull together what little I knew about cows, to frame an intelligent question. ‘Is that why you keep him? For the meat?’ I knew it was wrong as I said it. ‘I expect you can tell I’m London born and bred.’ I laughed off my ignorance.

The cows shoved against each other to reach Reg’s hand. The bull remained still, head lowered. I could see the brassy looking ring through his nostrils, a few white hairs against the black. One of his ears was ripped. I tried to read the name on the yellow identification tag on the other ear, but it was buried in black hair. Is it hair or fur? I don’t even know that.

‘No, no. For sperm.’

I hoped I wasn’t going to flush.

‘To serve the heifers. Their first calves are small boned then. Birthing’s easier. Starts them producing milk, you understand. He’s too short to serve the fully grown Friesans, but Friesan bulls are difficult. Bad tempered. So, we collect his semen and inseminate the cows artificially.’

I wondered how they collected the semen. He must’ve read the question forming on my face. ‘Special apparatus. A machine. Want to see it?’

Reg led me to a whitewashed outhouse. The shape of the apparatus, its odd mixture of metal and cowhide, made me want to cry. I could imagine the bull, black and beautiful, fucking the machine, his breath roaring against cowhide that was dry as cardboard. Sterile sex: organised by numbers, marked on charts.

The kitchen is still stuffy and my mind smudges on the iron’s steam. I step out onto the York stone slabs. It’s warmer now, warm for the middle of February. I put my hand on one of the rounded pebbles that make the wall of the barn. Other palms held these, nearly two hundred years ago. A wave of heat washes over me and becomes deafness, a ringing absence in my head. I hunker down to put my head between my knees. After a few minutes I feel my way inside and into the bathroom.

Red. It isn’t mucus, it’s blood. My knickers vivid and clinging. A slab of blood slides like raw liver down the white neck of the toilet and red spreads in slow clouds through the water. More blood trails and dribbles. A brief spasm in the small of my back; my head in my hands; nearly a week late: the knife edge.

I hold the receiver and listen to it purr. The calendar hangs on the wall, one numbered square after another. My life tidied into neat, blank boxes. Maurice left at five, before it was light. His secretary is probably bringing him his third black coffee by now. There’s no point really. I put the phone down.

White space spreads like oil around me.

His face is disapproving now he’s finally home, wondering why I’m slightly pissed at seven o’clock. And I can’t explain so that he will understand.

‘Have a drink,’ I try to push the full glass into his hand. Some wine, dark and red, spills onto his pile of papers.

‘For God’s sake, Sophie!’ He leaps up, rushes for a cloth to dab up the splatters. Some sheets of paper are wavy with damp. I put a hand on his thigh, to say something more than sorry, but he moves away clutching the papers. ‘I’ve all these to go through,’ he says, as he heads for his study. I sit on one of the new sofas and study my bare feet flattening the woollen tufts of carpet. Inside my skull, the wine thickens and silts. The glass coffee table glints, so I switch off the light and sit in the dark.

His hand between my legs wakes me, his finger wet, and we’re falling onto the carpet. That tumble and chaos of limbs and mouths and my skin is smooth against his. There’s no time, his breath coming fast against my ear. He doesn’t mind that I’m bleeding, nor that the new carpet is pale oatmeal, his body heavy against mine.

Nothing yet. February 29th. Girls can propose to the man they love today. I couldn’t stop thinking about that as I lay on the carpet for my mid-cycle injection this morning, holding the point of a short fat needle against my stomach the way the nurse has shown me, preparing for the prick of pain.

A Leap year. While we struggle to divide our years by our months and days, the earth goes on spinning, travelling round the sun.

The barn is silent.

Still nothing.

In one hand I hold the smooth metal of a tin of beeswax; in the other, the soft duster. The phials, tablets and indicator wands are back in the box. Another double pack from Boots; I always check everything is there. On the side, in capitals, it says: ACCURATE FROM FIRST DAY OF MISSED PERIOD. I’ll want to know as soon as possible.

It’s hard to lever the lid from the tin; I get the end of a spoon handle under the lip. The sound of metal on metal puts my teeth on edge. The lid comes up with a phut and there’s a twinge on my left side. The wax waits, pungent, to be spread and rubbed on the oak table. Another twinge becomes an ache. My egg is released from my left ovary, in a puff of blood.

Through the south-facing glass expanse that was once the entrance to the barn, I can see snowdrops. Daffodils in bud. The sky is white. I want to feel a baby stir like a butterfly within me as the days lengthen into early summer.

I pick up my camera, push my thick socks into the Wellingtons and leave the French door of the empty barn open. Reg is galumphing past in his large muddy boots. I ask him if I can take pictures of Angus. I want him to take me to the bull and describe in detail the finest points of his compact, low-set body, but I don’t like to say.

While we walk between the barns and outbuildings, Reg talks about silage bales and provender cubes. I slide my fingers into the left front pocket of my jeans. I notice, as we pass, the door to the little whitewashed building is wide open. Two men in overalls are scrubbing the concrete floor. It’s hard to believe the manufactured smell of a cow on heat can deceive the bull so completely.

Today he is a torrent of flesh, storming the air. It rocks with his heat and vibrations. He is outside, in a small pen with a heifer on heat. She skitters around the edge of the field, eyes rolling and hooves slipping as she tries to escape the bull. Her shoulders and ribs are splattered with mud from his forelegs. He pounds the earth, breath heaving through his nostrils and throat as he thunders across the field and thuds into her, balls swinging. For the first time, I see his penis. It’s pink, startling and vulnerable against his blue-black sheen. As long as my forearm, but not much thicker than a man’s penis, it flails the air when he rises onto his hind legs. I want to touch it. The heifer hunches down, as if by mistake, and the bull’s weight knocks her lower as he mounts her.

When Maurice’s secretary phones to say he is delayed in a meeting and will stay in London tonight, I sit with the glass entrance un-curtained as the sky turns dusky purple. Stars stab their way through the black. The bull’s moan is long and lonely. I step out onto the cold slabs in my bare feet.

He is aware of me before he sees me and his head turns, lowered in the way I am used to. I peel the wool and cotton and silk layers from my skin. He smells my new smell as I climb over the metal five barred gate, and his head lifts. He gathers himself for movement. Then the soles of my feet feel the ground jar and shiver.

I am naked and my body is smooth, supple. My nostrils and throat fill with a strong, sweet smell. I dance, sinewy against a slow mountain of muscle. A flare of heated blood and a dense crush and tussle of weight and warmth in the darkness. The punch of his breath roars in my ears. His tongue rasps on my neck, across my flanks. My hands are lost in a black chaos of curling hair and something is about to break open.