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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Death to Record

A Mystery

West Country Mysteries (Volume 5)

Rebecca Tope

Minotaur Books


Chapter One

The computer had packed up again. Gordon hovered impatiently as Deirdre struggled with it, tapping in vain on the unresponsive keys. 'You'll have to do it by hand,' he told her. 'I can't wait any longer. It's close to three already.'

Savagely, she slammed the laptop's lid down, making the farmer wince, and scooped up the two vivid orange plastic boxes full of small pots. 'All right, then,' she snapped. 'I'm ready.' Then she paused, and looked at him. 'Sorry,' she muttered. 'It's not your fault. Just me losing my temper again.'

He cocked his head in curt sympathy. 'It was better before they started giving you those things,' he commented. 'Funny, the way everything seemed better then.'

'Tell me about it,' she sighed. They indulged in a moment of bitter nostalgic intimacy: two forty-year-olds feeling inescapably middle-aged. Five years ago, milk and beef prices had been high, computers in the milking parlour a distant possibility and bull calves a valuable source of income. 'Funny how quickly everything can change,' Deirdre added, after a few moments. 'Still shooting your calves?' She knew the answer already - she'd seen the pile of pathetic bodies out in the yard, waiting for the local hunt to collect them as food for the hounds.

He made an inarticulate sound of disgust, and nodded. 'Only three or four stragglers left to calve now,' he said, with relief. 'Worst thing I've ever had to do, shooting the poor little buggers.' He paused. 'Yes - even worse than sending TB-positive beasts for slaughter. BSE hardened us to that. At least with TB you know they're sick, and likely to infect the others.'

Deirdre had heard it all before, not just from Gordon, but also from the majority of her farmers, forced to destroy newborns which until recently would have made good money as beef animals. Sometimes, she had an image of farming as a dark underworld, full of suffering and despair, unceasing hard labour and wholesale betrayal. Even the media were beginning to take some notice, as farms went out of business.

'It's a holocaust,' the farmers told each other, thinking of the thousands of incinerated animals, the brutal suicide levels, the generally uncaring attitude of the population at large. Nobody lthought it too strong a word to use, in the circumstances.

'What happened to number five-five-four?' Deirdre asked, running down his list of events in the herd since her last visit, and finding Dead written against that particular animal. A strangled sound made her look up at him. His face was twisted with the pain of the memory, and she wished she hadn't asked.

'She had a bad calving,' he said, looking away, his cheeks flushing.

'I remember her. The one with the curly topknot. One of your favourites, wasn't she?' Deirdre knew she was hurting him, forcing him to tell the story, but curiosity prevailed over sensitivity, as usual.

'I had to shoot her,' he said, pulling his top lip between his teeth and biting down on it visibly. The tears that filmed his eyes were not the result of the bite. 'The calf got stuck, and she would have needed a caesarian.'

'Which costs two hundred quid these days,' she supplied, understandingly. Another story she'd heard more than once in the past few months.

'I didn't let her suffer for more than a few minutes,' he assured her grimly. 'Now - let's get started.'

The cows were crowding and jostling in the yard, their breath making clouds of vapour in the frosty air. Their winter coats made them look unkempt, an impression increased by the patches of drying dung on their sides and the swollen joints on many back legs. Wisps of straw clung to the muck which extended to the soft area between the front legs in some cases. Even to Deirdre's familiar eye, they looked a mess. 'I see you've been economising on straw again,' she commented critically. Mucky udders were bad news for her - it took the dairyman long minutes of washing to get them clean enough to milk and she got home proportionately later.

'Long time till spring,' Gordon said, shortly. 'Have to make it last.'

Deirdre knew she had no right to carp - Gordon was doing his best, and it was as frustrating for him to have to pick away the dung and get his hands chapped by the rapidly-cooling washing water as it was for her waiting for him to get on with the job.

He pressed the switch to start the motor. A loud throbbing erupted, enhanced by whistles and hisses which were eliminated one by one as he closed valves and established a vacuum. Of their own accord, twelve rubber, plastic and aluminium clusters rose into the air, ready and waiting for the milk-heavy animals. The routine was unvaried, twice a day, year in, year out.
up0Except on Recording Day, when Deirdre showed up and the herdsman had someone to talk to, someone who was observing every move he made.

She watched Gordon now, as she watched all the men she worked with. He was one of the more vigorous, fast-moving and focused. Unlike most, he worked with bare hands, even in mid-winter, dipping them in a bucket of tepid water now and then to clean them. He sported a matted woollen hat pulled over his ears, and a grimy brown scarf crossed over at his neck and tucked inside his ancient corduroy jacket. As protection against muck and other excretions, he wore a long grey rubber apron. Farmers' clothes were part of their camouflage, she'd long ago realised. Intelligent, efficient, courageous men disappeared into shapeless, colourless yokels when they donned their dairy garb. They became figures of fun in the public eye, sucking straws and scratching heads with grimy fingers. Deirdre knew better - she worked with a dozen or more of these men, glimpsing the complex individual beneath the camouflage as they made full use of her captive listening ear. The milk recording service monitored the quality and quantity of each cow's yield in a typical twenty-four-hour period, giving official confirmation for the farmer to use when compiling dossiers on his herd, as well as laboratory analysis of the milk. With the inexorable escalation of farm paperwork, the job of a milk recorder had also expanded. Every event during the previous month had to be entered onto computer files - births, deaths, sales, purchases, health problems, lactation details. Everything was assessed and quantified and used for predictions, until it was all too easy to forget that they were dealing with living creatures at all. Nobody referred to the cows by name any more, and it was a brave herdsman who developed close favourites amongst his animals. 'Cull' was a word used so often that it had its own keystroke on the computer.

The milking got underway. Gordon tolerated very little dithering from the animals, whistling them in, and slapping them if they stood awkwardly or moved too slowly. Deirdre had never seen him hit a cow hard enough to really hurt it - which was more than she could say for some of the men she encountered, including Gordon's own herdsman, who usually milked these particular cows. But she suspected that Gordon was more self-controlled when she was watching him; that she never quite saw the real man.

The herdsman, Sean O'Farrell, was employed by Gordon Hillcock, the owner of the farm, to do the milking for five or six days of the week, his days off a complex pattern that only he and his employer seemed to understand. It was fairly unusual for Gordon to be milking on Recording Day, but he generally joined Deirdre in the office for a ten-minute chat on her visits, and she met him now and then at markets or shows, or even in the shops. She felt she knew the owner of Dunsworthy Farm nearly as well as she knew his herdsman.

She had been a milk recorder for five years, and it was axiomatic amongst farmers that Recording Day was a jinx. Something nearly always went wrong, either because of the need for additional equipment or because the cows objected to the stranger in their midst. Sometimes it seemed that any disaster waiting to happen would habitually choose Recording Day to make its move. Deirdre had grown accustomed to the sighs of half-suppressed reproach from the many different herdsmen and farm owners she met, although none of them had ever openly accused her of causing trouble. After all, they had opted to pay for her services - there was no compulsion.

Two lines of six cows lumbered into the tight herringbone rows on either side of the parlour. In a pit, three feet lower than the animals, the two people manoeuvred in a long-established routine. Gordon moved down each row, squirting a jet of water from a nozzle hanging from the pipework overhead over the udders. Then he slowly worked back along the row, wiping a damp paper towel across each udder, pausing now and then to scrub a piece of dried dung from a teat or to inspect a suspiciously swollen quarter, before deftly swinging the unit of four simulated calves' mouths underneath the udder and, one-two-three-four, applying them in turn to each teat. The rhythmic sucking, like that of babies in a well-organised Soviet nursery, brought pause and relief.

Gordon wiped his hands and glanced at Deirdre, waiting with her rack full of small pots slung comically around her neck. 'Bloody awful weather,' he commented idly. 'First real frost of the year.'

The recorder merely nodded, waiting for more interesting conversation. When none came, she said, 'Sean's having a day off, then, is he?'

Gordon hesitated, glancing along the double row of cows, before replying. 'He agreed to swop this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, for Saturday. I want to - go somewhere at the weekend.'

She thought she knew where that 'somewhere' was, but said nothing. It ought to have surprised nobody that in the atmosphere of anxiety and frustration, farmers would feel compelled to fight back. In her awkward position as semi-spy, with deeply ambiguous loyalties, Deirdre had learned when to feign ignorance. So she gauged her reaction carefully, and widened her eyes teasingly. 'Well, well. That sounds unusually amicable for you two.'

'It's no problem to him. Doesn't matter what day it is to Sean.' He spoke over his shoulder, as he moved to reapply a cluster that had fallen off one of the cows before she'd finished milking. Watching him retrieve it and patiently reconnect it to the cow, Deirdre prepared to go into action herself.

Moments later, one of the milking units detached itself from a cow and swung free, up and out, in an arc calculated to catch an unwary person full in the face. Deirdre adjusted her rack, felt in her top breast pocket for pencil and dipper, and went to work. Squinting at the flask adjacent to the cow, she read the calibrated figure indicating the milk yield and wrote it in indelible green on the white lid of the appropriate pot, already carrying a black number corresponding to that on the cow's rump. Then, with the manipulation of a sequence of switches and levers, involving the hissing of escaping air from the vacuum suction system, and several drops of milk trickling down her sleeve, as well as into the dipper, she captured a few millilitres. This was poured into the pot, the lid raised and then pressed home again with a practised flick of the left thumb. Finally, she kept one finger on the lever at the top of the flask until all remaining milk had drained away, leaving it ready for the next cow.

Thus was captured a record of the quantity and quality of Line Number 740's milk for that afternoon. The recorder would have to repeat this performance for all one hundred and four cows currently in milk - and then laboriously transfer the yields to printed sheets in the farm office. Normally, she would key them directly into the laptop - but the laptop was playing dead again. The same process would be duplicated in the morning.

Deirdre often wondered exactly what the men thought of her. They were usually friendly, glad to have someone to talk to for a change, and eager for the gossip she brought with her from her other farms. The chief topic of discussion these days was which farms had gone out of business since her last visit. Those hanging on would buy up the best of the dissolving herds at knockdown prices, and congratulate themselves on being amongst the survivors. Where once there had been friendly rivalry, there was now anxiety, grief and numbing shock, combined inevitably with schadenfreude and self-righteous smugness - 'I never thought 'e'd make a go of it, borrowing as heavy as 'e did.' Gordon Hillcock was the youngest farm owner in the district, by a decade or so. Farming was becoming an old man's pursuit, which in itself sounded a death knell in many people's ears.

Opportunities for conversation were brief. Gordon's pace increased as time went on, but his mood seemed to darken. Deirdre's own spirits were also far from sunny; since her computer had died on her, she was going to have to spend time she begrudged doing the job by hand afterwards. Gordon wouldn't get his computerised print-out, either, with an assessment of each animal's performance. But she didn't want to appear standoffish. Maintaining good relations with the farmers was all part of the job.

'So you and Sean aren't cross with each other any more?' she prompted.

'What?' He turned to stare at her. 'What do you mean?'

'Well, last month, you weren't speaking, you'd had some sort of fight. It probably seems a long time ago now.'

Visiting only once a month, her perception of the passage of time was inevitably very different from that of the men who performed this same task something like sixty times between her attendances. No wonder they couldn't remember what had been happening a month ago. And this time, there'd been Christmas and New Year in between.

'We get along all right,' Gordon said curtly.

The slightest sceptical flicker of an eyebrow was her only response. For the past five years to her certain knowledge, and probably much longer, Gordon and Sean had been antagonists. They would both regale her with stories of the misdeeds of the other, given the slightest encouragement. Mostly, she tried to ignore it, and to avoid taking sides, but it was an uneven struggle. Sean was not an easy man to like, and there had been instances where Deirdre had witnessed behaviour towards the cows that she regarded as needless cruelty. There was a tense atmosphere throughout Sean's milkings that was absent from Gordon's. She wondered whether the cows felt the same relief that she did, when the herdsman had a day off.

And Sean complained constantly. He was underpaid; overworked; nobody understood what a trial his life was, with his sick wife and unpredictable daughter. Gordon had no idea how to manage a dairy herd - he thought he could survive the crisis in farming, when everyone else around him was going to the wall. Well, Sean could see the way it was all going, and even Dunsworthy could go bust, the way things were.

Copyright © 2001 by Rebecca Tope