The dawn was five hours and thirty three minutes away when Alice clenched her young fist and banged on the barn door.
– ‘Brogan, you in there? I know you never leave.’
– ‘Who is it?’ snarled the old farmer Billy Brogan, perched in his barn like a cracked gargoyle in boots and overalls.
– ‘It’s Alice.’
– ‘Get gone, girl.’
– ‘They said you’re going to kill him.’
– ‘Who did?’
– ‘Can you just let me in? I’m getting soaked out here.’
Brogan raged as he rose up flinging the whiskey bottle from the generator.
– ‘Which scrubber’s mouth been putting muck on me now?’
– ‘Just let me in will you?’
– ‘Ain’t no-one meant to be up here.’
– ‘I’m freezing, Brogan, please?’
Alice clenched her coat above her head as the rain ran off her hair and into her mouth – but it didn’t taste like no sea. It was that deep rain that was falling. Deep rain from the dark trenches of the heaving Atlantic, falling down onto Alice, down onto Brogan’s farm, down against the hill, down onto the New Town she’d just left, down across the vale, into the roads and rivers, on the nightjar’s toes in trees, on the wet scarecrow’s smiles, into North Field and nothing, down into the ground, down into the mud, down to lost Saxon gold and down onto the tiny tongues of worms.
Dead down, down to ice and iron.
– ‘Just let me in, Brogan?’
– ‘You ain’t meant to be up here.’
– ‘I want to see him.’
Brogan threw his cigarette to the damp filthy floor as he spat through his teeth and tobacco.
– ‘Fuck’s sake…. These bolts on here for a reason, you know? You ain’t stayin’ ‘ere long.’
He unbolted the oak door as the storm bent thunder over the English vale and the New Town below, plunging it into darkness, car hazard lights blinked in the distance and Alice rushed out of the rain and into the barn.
– ‘The fuck you want, Alice?’
– ‘Why’s it so dark in here?’
– ‘The rain’s knocked out the generator.’
– ‘They said you’re going to kill Fergus.’
Brogan kicked the chugging generator like a lame dog and a dull light quivered on. The spiders retreated into their webs, tucking their eyes away, unaware of the savage night ahead.
– ‘You’ve done it already,’ whimpered Alice.
– ‘I ain’t done nothin’ yet. He’s behind there and he’s done for.’
Alice looked over the stable door and saw the horse Fergus lying lame on the straw. He was the colour of a copper sunset. A thoroughbred bay who had won every race in his prime but now lay old and bent. Steam was rising off his cold sweating skin as his hind legs kicked trying to raise himself to Alice. She clenched the damp stable door and began to cry. Brogan shoved past her and sat heavy on his wooden chest, pushing his rabbit skin hat up from his eyes.
– ‘You seen him, now get gone.’
– ‘I wanted to say a prayer for him.’
– ‘Don’t be bringin’ your spells to this barn,’ snapped Brogan.
– ‘I’ve been looking in on Fergus on North Field ever since I was a girl. Please, just let me say a prayer.’
– ‘Your still a girl. And you ain’t never meant to be on my land.’
– ‘This is our family’s,’ said Alice.
– ‘It’s mine,’ roared Brogan. ‘All mine.’
Whilst he glared into Alice’s face, he had a vague memory of his sister’s eyes which would not become clear until later. Soft face it was, looked like the rest. Looked like Alice.
– ‘And don’t think I ain’t seen ya from my top window these last years. Up in my fields necking with fellas.’
– ‘That’s a damn lie.’
– ‘No it ain’t, I seen you with Jimmy Turner.’
– ‘Jimmy Turner’s a prick. He tried to spook the horses so I hit him. I love those horses more than you do, and you know that, Brogan. They run to me. I’m the one who looked after Fergus in those fields whilst you were collapsed drunk in your barn.’
– ‘You got a lot of nerve coming up here, girly.’
– ‘Well, if it isn’t true then why haven’t you stopped me being there these last few years?’
Brogan swigged deep from his bottle to give himself a chance to think. He felt hunted, the wet snouts of past wolves nudging at his thoughts. He remembered the fear of being a boy and watching his father’s ice cubes in whiskey. Waiting for them to melt. To get it over with. Longing for them to break and vanish into brown soup. It takes so long when they don’t crack. He saw it then. Another glance. A flash of pain, a split of pang.
Brogan stood up and opened the chest. He pulled out a shotgun and slammed it shut.
– ‘What are you doing?’ asked Alice.
– ‘Cleaning my old fella’s gun.’
– ‘There’s more dirt on you than those old fields.’
– ‘Those fields be the best grazing land in all of England. Why else you think I get the Tinker’s old thoroughbreds, ay? Only thing the Irish look after is their horses.’ Brogan pulled his tobacco tin from his pocket. ‘Fuckin’ trainers chasing glory and profit. Just like your new build down there. The horses be overproduced. Left to the Knackermen to clean up the mess. And your town be a mess, all right.’
– ‘Please don’t kill him.’
– ‘You think you can save him?’ said Brogan as he slammed the gun’s nose on the floor. ‘You think I ain’t in control up here?’
– ‘Then why don’t you just do it then?’ said Alice.
Brogan turned the cold shotgun in his hands.
– ‘Cause it’s bad luck to kill a horse after dark. Gotta wait till the dawn.’
Alice looked down at old Billy Brogan. A crack of flint glazed flame upon his face as flakes of tobacco caught fire. The blue smoke slipping from his split lips. His face like a bag of tired sonnets, lashed with lines and clustered with creases.
– ‘Just let me take him out one more time?’ begged Alice.
– ‘He ain’t fit to go out. You ever been to a Knacker’s Yard, girly?’
– ‘No,’ said Alice softly.
– ‘In the butchering room?’
Alice shook her head.
– ‘Then, don’t start then.’
Brogan saves these horses from the Knacker’s Yard. They line them up there in groups. When they hear the gunshots the horses buck and kick, bang and bite each other, their necks all raw, their mouths all tangled with mane. The Knackermen hook their hinds up, hang them up all twisted; it pours out of them like the sea. Then they butcher their bits into buckets, snap off their snouts and saw off their hooves. They mince them up and put them into pig feed and pet food.
– ‘I just want to say a prayer for him, Brogan?’
– ‘Piss off with ya prayer and let me go about my business.’
Brogan pulled a cigar box out of the chest and took out an old toothbrush. He wrapped a cloth around it and ran it down into the barrel of the gun. He jabbed and scrubbed, thrusting it round in circles of the chamber. He reached into his grease tub. A dollop smeared over his first two fingers, he greased up the hinges and ejectors, groping the chokes and muzzle, scraping the slide key clean, brushing tight in-between the lock ring and hoop.
– ‘Where you going to do it?’ asked Alice.
– ‘In ‘ere. Straight in his old head.’
The grotty cloth came out of the cylinder caked in lead and cartridge residue. Brogan held up the barrel to inspect it. He gazed all the way down the deep glassy tunnel and there, at the bottom, saw Alice, his young niece, her warm mouth staining the night with wet breath; her damp hair falling like autumn, pale eyed and fixed in gaze, rubbing the rain off her porcelain arms. Alice, whom he had not seen this close in years. Brave, young, Alice.
Brogan wiped slowly down the long neck of the gun and pulled back the forearm and released the safety and snapped back the barrel into place.
– ‘What will you do with him after?’ asked Alice.
– ‘I’ll take him up North Field.’
– ‘I’ll help you bury him.’
– ‘You keep away from me, you hear? Anyway, there ain’t no room left up there. I’m gonna burn him on the hill. Then I’ll take his bones down to the sea. Give him back to the waves.’
Alice took in the cramped barn; it was stuffed with stale smoke and jutted with junk. Dried food peeled on plates, the dregs of booze lay lost in black swamps at the bottom of bottles. The wooden beams bent to the back wall which was dressed with old bridal ropes, leather girths, stirrups and iron tools, steel snaffle bits dripped on nails. Dirty horse blankets were piled up with a wax Parka jacket on top. In the corner a worn tyre was covered in saddle pads, a wooden shovel was rusting alone against the wheelbarrow. The left wall was pinned with pictures of winning horses and layered in dust. She toed a hoof pick on the floor and leaned closer at a picture, pushing the dust away with her finger.
– ‘The Turners have sold up their land. Dad say’s they’re going to build army barracks on it.’
– ‘That cursed ground always been trouble. Once them soldiers get left up there they’ll wish they were at war.’
Alice walked across the barn and leant on the wheelbarrow brimming with chopped wood.
– ‘Dad was telling old stories about the Farm the other day.’
– ‘Blood and mud don’t mix, girly.’
– ‘But he’s your little brother, Brogan.’
– ‘He stopped being my brother a long time ago. I hear business ain’t so good in town, ay?’
– ‘The warehouse sacked him,’ said Alice, fingering some bark off the chopped wood.
– ‘Punishment is promised on his head. Still in the bookies I bet. It’s people like him who send these horses to the Knackermen.’
– ‘You only hate him because of what he did.’
– ‘He’s done fuck all since he left this farm. Left the debts to me and I’ve sorted it. You think I can’t run a business? Look at the state of your lot now.’
– ‘You’re the backwards one, you never leave here,’ said Alice.
Seven years of the lonesome Brogan had felt now, he’d chased his brother off with a shotgun when he’d caught him trying to sell the land. At twelve years old he found his sister at the bottom of the old well. She’d thrown herself down it.
– ‘When was the last time you even been to town?’ said Alice.
Brogan rose bellowing into Alice.
– ‘I don’t want fuck all to do with that new town. Your old man betrayed these fields. Betrayed this land,’ Brogan jabbed with his finger. ‘This be a proper Brogan farm now. Billy Brogan’s.’
Brogan grabbed Alice’s arm and forcefully dragged her to the door.
– ‘Now get the fuck off my land and stay away from my fields.’
Alice broke off from his grip and pushed into his chest.
– ‘You should be dead.’
– ‘Watch what you say, missy.’
– ‘Mickey McCain found you by the old Rowan Tree, didn’t he?’
– ‘Be careful, young blood.’
– ‘You tried to do yourself in.’
The roar of the wind blew hard on the barn.
– ‘I got different rules up here,’ he said.
– ‘It was just before the charges were dropped. We all heard what they said you did to Valerie Turner.’
Brogan wiped the spittle from his angry mouth.
– ‘Those Turners be nothing but tongues. They’ve been out to get me ever since they lost that bet.’
– ‘How did you not die though?’ she said, peering closer to Brogan. ‘Let me see it?’ Alice picked at him. ‘Let me see the scar under that hat?’
– ‘Keep away from me,’ said Brogan seizing her arms away from him.
– ‘C’mon, just let me see it?’
– ‘I’m warning you.’
– ‘That’s why you’ve got to clean it so well, isn’t it? Alice pried into the jelly of his eyes.
‘The barrel was dirty when you shot yourself.’
Brogan erupted throwing Alice up against the wall.
– ‘Get out of here you little whore,’ he said pushing his hand across her throat. ‘These arms be snakes and I be poison. Stuffed with it, ya hear? Don’t make me bite.’
Alice panted for her breath; she could smell the foggy booze from his flecks of spit that lay on her lips. Brogan gritted his stained teeth. Her chest heaved next to his as she looked back into him:
– ‘The entire town think you did it to her.’
A grin cracked over Brogan’s face as he calmly spoke:
– ‘Really? Well, maybe I did do it to her. Maybe I did it to lots of them. But if you believe that little Alice, then why you come all the way up here on this dark old night? Just me and you here. Ain’t you afraid of what I might do to ya then?’
Her tummy felt like a bag of butterflies but she was unsure if she felt scared. She wondered if her Dad would realise she was missing from the house yet. How much trouble she may be in if he knew she was up here. She had to clean the church tomorrow morning. It was quiet work but it topped up her pocket money and in the summer she’d always find lots of dead bees and bury them in matchboxes. That’s where she found the prayer for Fergus. She would peek in the bible on the pulpit. She liked the verses that mentioned the horses best.
Her breath returned to her lungs as her young breasts rubbed against him. A baying shrieked over the stable door and Alice rushed over to see Fergus.
– ‘He’s in pain, Brogan.’
– ‘He’s just singin’ his way.’
– ‘Just do it now then. For Christ sake, Brogan.’
– ‘Not till the dawn breaks.’
– ‘Why you so cruel? You’ve got nothing but gravel in that heart.’
Brogan up-turned the wheelbarrow scattering the chopped wood over the floor.
– ‘I’m all gravel. I’m full of clowns and chlorine, I am. Yea, I’m as old as words up here. Best you run back to that circus in town whilst you still can.’
A crack of thunder bowed over the barn and a blaze of lightning lit the faces of the bloated scarecrows. The barn pitched back to blackness.
– ‘Brogan? Where are you? Brogan?’
Alice felt around in the dark but no answer returned.
– ‘Brogan? I can’t see…Brogan?’
She tripped as she tried to find the wall, kicking the chopped wood to the side. She felt around in the void, her hands passing through nothing, longing to feel something, then something, leather… no, rope, the girth, now…. steel, yes, on her finger tips and the scent of his sloppy mouth.
– ‘I can smell you….Brogan?’
The dim hum of the generator started again and a dull light flickered back on Brogan watching Alice from the other side of the barn.
– ‘Stop playing games, Brogan…I’m cold and I’ve had enough,’ she grabbed the wax Parka jacket off the horse rugs. ‘I’m taking this.’
She began putting her arm into what felt like a cave when Brogan spoke gently:
– ‘When was the last time you come up to this barn, Alice?’
– ‘Not since I was a little girl.’
– ‘Why you kids come up to my fields so much? Ain’t you got enough entertainment down there? What you looking for up here?’
– ‘I don’t know,’ she said as she pulled the jacket into her. ‘I go up there alone.’
– ‘Why you like that North Field so much?’ asked Brogan.
Alice wrapped the large coat around her and fumbled for the zip.
– ‘Cause it feels alive there. It’s where the brook and the horses are. All the colours. You seen the size of the dragonflies up there? And the Willow sweeps over the water. I guess the river don’t care where it goes.’
– ‘Why don’t you follow it then? Get away from here.’
Alice pulled the zip all the way up to her soft throat.
– ‘Sometimes I think Adam and Eve left the garden just to see somewhere else,’ said Alice.
– ‘Your Dad ever tell you what happened up there?’ said Brogan.
– ‘He said you both went catching dragonflies.’
– ‘He never say why this land so sacred? You know we buried your Granddaddy up there. All the Brogan’s go up there.’
– ‘No he’s not. I’ve seen his headstone in the churchyard.’
– ‘You think we’d put your granddaddy down there?’ Brogan laughed into his words, ‘We slung a dead pig in that coffin.’
– ‘No way.’
– ‘Last good deed your old man did. We washed his body in this barn then dragged him up there with just the shovels and the moon. Old Jerry Brogan looks over these fields with the rest of them Brogan eyes. There’s a whole lot of bone and Brogan under that dirt.’
– ‘Daddy don’t know that I’ve come up here,’ said Alice.
– ‘Did he tell you why we tried catching them dragonflies?’
– ‘No, but I seen them.’
Brogan looked over to Alice pressed in the corner.
– ‘Come here, Alice.’
She tilted her head slightly and glanced away.
– ‘Come and sit next to me.’
Alice shook her head.
– ‘I want to show you something.’
– ‘I want to show you why you have to leave this place.’
Alice moved away and perched like a small bird on the upturned wheelbarrow.
– ‘Come closer, Alice.’
– ‘You have to come to me,’ she whispered.
Brogan got up off his chest and went and stood over her. She felt his calloused hand run down her hair, down her cheek, the smell of iron in his smoky grip; his fingers ran past the side of her lips and cupped her chin in his palm. Brogan slowly kneeled down and faced her.
– ‘Now, I want you to look as deep as you can in my eyes when I tell you this.’
– ‘I’m scared, Brogan.’
– ‘Don‘t be scared, just look as hard as you can.’
Alice nodded and Brogan began to softly speak.
– ‘Back when this was all one great field. Back when they first farmed here. Whole land was full with wild horses and tall grass. And the young farm boy’s job was to break the horses in, capture them and bring them back. The boy broke lots of them all over the hill, you see? But one horse was too wild and too free, so the young boy didn’t want to anymore, he wanted to leave the horse be. But his father said that if he didn’t break it….and bring it in off the field….then he’d send the Devil himself to do it. But the boy still said no. So, the next morning at the crack of dawn….the Devil came…and he was drunk …and he…and…’
Brogan’s voice trembled.
– ‘and… he dragged the boy up to the field by the Rowan tree and…..and the father held the boy down and made him watch whilst the Devil mounted the horse and began to break it, slowly and painfully. The horse bucked and reared as he held its neck and lashed ropes around it, it was jumping all over the field. The sound of it shrieking. But he didn’t stop… He wouldn’t… stop… And the boy was crying as he watched the horse trying to run. Desperate to get away. But they grinded it down… broke it to pieces.’
Tears started to fill Brogan’s eyes.
– ‘The field grew black and wet and the trees all fell and the birds flew away and the branches all bent and the horse shrivelled and shred till all that was left was a little dragonfly. A tiny broken horse. It lives off insects by the banks, trapped by the marshes.’
Brogan began to shake and a look of terror flashed across his face.
– ‘We never did catch those dragonflies,’ said Brogan.
– ‘What happened to you up here?’
– ‘It has to stop!’ yelled Brogan.
The wind sat still above the barn and his hand slipped off her chin.
– ‘I need you to promise me one thing, Alice?’
She leaned closer into him.
– ‘Don’t let them bury me up there,’ Brogan pleaded. ‘Burn me or throw me to the sea. Anything.’
– ‘What’s wrong?’
– ‘Please, I’m begging you,’ said Brogan, holding her arms. ‘Just don’t let them bury me up there with them old Brogans….promise?’
He collapsed into tears and crumpled to his knees, his hands slipped down her arms and onto the filth of the floor, he looked at her thin ankles and wept into her feet. Alice lent down and pushed the tears from his face. She moved his hat out of his eyes and looked at him:
– ‘I promise you, Billy. I promise you.’
Brogan adjusted his hair under his hat and tried to compose himself, wiping his face with his hands as he got to his feet.
– ‘I‘m sorry… you know, your eyes were always like flowers, I could…I could smell them on me….Now, you get going. Before your Dad finds out. Not a spit of this to anyone, okay.’
– ‘Can I say that prayer? … for Fergus.’
Brogan picked Alice’s small hand up in his own and nervously spoke:
– ‘You could….you could…..stay…..if you want?’
Alice squeezed Brogan’s baggy hand.
– ‘I have to get back to town, Billy…..I have to go home.’
Brogan looked down at his boots and back up to Alice, he let go of her hand.
– ‘He’ll hear you if you lean over the door.’
Alice walked over to the stable door and looked in at Fergus. She took a small breath and bowed her head. Brogan listened to the gentle words come softly on her mouth.
– ‘Dear Lord,
If we have run with footmen,
And they have wearied us,
Then how can we contend with horses?
And if in the land of peace,
Where you are trusted,
They have wearied you,
Then how will we do here?’ she looked up. ‘So, run on Fergus…………………….run on.’
Alice blew a silent kiss to Fergus and walked behind Brogan towards the barn door. She pulled the coat tight around her and reached for the handle.
– ‘Who said that?’ asked Brogan, staring into the stable.
– ‘Jeremiah,’ Alice said. Then she smiled. ‘…and me.’
Brogan didn‘t look back.
– ‘Take care, Brogan.’
Alice stepped out of the barn and into the wind, into the rain, back into the night, with Brogan’s jacket wrapped tight around her.
The storm had since faded when the dawn began to break. In time it would pierce the whole landscape and become the morning, a slow swelling blue singing across the hills, fingering its way between the curtains of the town below and onto the sleeping face of Alice. When time’s stout glass is turned and this land returns beneath the ice sheets, the volcanic tints of another will come, cracking the slabs above the vale, where the sunken silt of ancient memories are pressed silent and Brogan’s brief dawn bursts with churning ice and froths of foam. But for now, his dawn was young, bringing a mere glint to the dew on the hill, slipping down the necks of the nettles.
The gun laid in his lap like his dinner. He slid the cartridges snugly into the extractor. He walked to the stable door. Fergus was sitting straighter now. His large eyes appeared to hold vast energies to Billy Brogan. He pulled his trousers straight and felt the steel belt buckle brush over his finger. He checked the nose of the gun. He cocked it. He raised it. He traced the trigger with his finger. He trembled in pure brilliant pain. He stopped. He stared down the barrel. And pulled the trigger.
The dramatic fire shook the stable and quaked the beams, the mouth bits rattled on the nails as the spiders swayed on the rippling webs.
The slow groan of the shotgun howled up past Alice’s dreams and into the hardening dawn. Up above all that Brogan bone. Up past the tops of the Rowan tree, up above the sleeping dragonflies and the nightjar’s songs, up past North Field and the scarecrows, way above the churchyard, above the roofs of New Town and looking down upon the vale, down upon the bucket in the disused well, headed past the moon; into the thick soup of stars where constellations conjure horses. Flaying into fire and indeterminate in sound, reaching for forbidden vanishment, to rot into god, beyond the sparks of nature’s mould, in the deep livers of the abyss, falling far away, faintly flooding on forever and floating far on into fathom.
Fergus bayed suddenly.
© Simon Jagger