Nicholas Murgatroyd

Fallen Stock

Fallen stock


Tony’s out of the door and jogging across the yard before the trailer’s through the gate, a sheepdog worrying his ankles. A moment later his face is at Ed’s window, a tired moon in the dawn light.

They’re up on the top fields. Do you need a hand getting out of the yard?

I’ll be alright. Get in.

A curtain falls back into place in an upstairs window as Ed turns, someone else who’s been waiting for him, the wife or a child. The headlights sweep across the corrugated panels of the barn, redundant now. He reaches to turn them off, but Tony moves to stop him.

You’ll need them up there.

The dog chases them the length of the track, barking as if they’ve forgotten something, but neither of them stops to listen. Ed turns left onto the single-track road lined by dry-stone walls and heads towards the grey cloud on the tops.

It’s good of you to come so early, Tony says. I know you must be busy.

It’s been quieter.

Tony nods in response. A silence settles on the cab. The rocking of the suspension over the uneven camber lulls Ed into a half-dream state. Abi lies beside him, her white T-shirt stretched over her sleeping back livid in the gloom. Shadows sketch and resketch themselves along the length of her spine as she breathes. He reaches out, careful not to wake her, and whispers, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later.

Did you say something? Tony says.

Eh? No. Just talking to myself.

You want to be careful with that. You’ll end up in the loony bin.

Comes with the job.


They settle into silence again. The headlights start to thicken as they go higher, prismatic cones against the swirling grey air. From below, it looked like mist, an early morning veil that would vanish at the first touch of sun. Up here, the smell seeps into the cab inside the first few metres. Smoke. Flecks of ash spot the windscreen. The dry-stone walls at either side of the road become soft grey smudges as he drives further. The beginning of a cough scratches the back of Ed’s throat.

Nearly there, Tony says.

Ed wonders how Tony can navigate when there’s nothing to see. He pictures them driving out of the other side of the smoke, emerging back into the daylight, free to leave the job for another day. His foot presses a little harder on the accelerator.

Steady, lad, Tony says. You’ll be driving past it at this rate. Here. That gap in the wall.

The trailer rattles loud behind them, a protest against his sudden braking. The smoke is so thick he has to squint to notice the gap. Stationary, Ed can admit to himself how much he doesn’t want to be here.

Do you need to get the gate? he says.

Tony glances at him. The gloom in the cab hides his expression.

It’s open. There’s nowt left to shut in.



Fluorescent orange flags mark the carcasses, like wildflowers springing up from the warm, charred earth. His face mask does almost nothing against the smoke or the smell of barbecued meat and burnt hair. Every breath comes loaded with traces of the disaster.

How many are there? Ed says.

Thirty-six here. The rest of them are dotted around. This lot must have stayed together until the end.

Did you manage to save any?

Couldn’t get close. The heat drove you away before you could even get the pick-up near. Then the fire brigade told us to leave the house. Five minutes to pack.

At least it didn’t get that.

The wind died down. That and the road kept it safe. It might have been better if it hadn’t. There’d be no point coming back then.

Tony looks down at the dead sheep and shakes his head as if in answer to a question.

Poor buggers. Half of them were pregnant still.

Ed flinches at the uninvited detail.

Shall we get started? he says.



They start with the group of thirty-six. The first blackened carcasses make a noisy protest of thuds and creaking springs and cracking bones as they’re hurled into the trailer. The others follow in virtual silence, their impact deadened by the mattress of dead bodies beneath them.

They manage twenty before Ed signals a pause. The distant shush of motorway traffic merges with the thrum of blood in his ears. He moves back to the Land Rover and takes a swig of tea from his thermos mug. It tastes of smoke. The ham sandwich Abi made him last night sits untouched in the glove compartment, a puzzle he can’t crack.

He takes off the thick blue rubber gloves and checks his phone, his fingers slippery with sweat and imagined grease. Abi’s awake. Her message says she’s so nervous she can’t sleep. Then there are three sets of crossed fingers and one of those faces that he never quite knows if it’s meant to be sad or worried. He texts back: Just try and rest. Love you xxxxxx

The message fails to send.

He walks away from the van in every direction, but whatever signal he had has gone.

Everything all right? Tony says when Ed returns.


I’ve managed another couple. This is probably the worst. Once we’ve finished this lot, there’s just a few more around the field.

Ed nods. He’s worked with enough farmers to mistrust what Tony means by a few.

Would it not have been easier to bury them here? he says.

Then we’d both be out of a job. You for the fallen stock. Me for the insurance that wouldn’t pay out.

They must know what’s happened.

They want the paperwork. You’re a witness and a cleaner in one. Saves them having to see it themselves.

As he hefts the next body up, Ed wishes he’d moved the trailer closer. It’s a bit of a walk now. The body warm with latent heat lies unresponsive against him, a child who clings to sleep. When he gets to the trailer, the pile is shoulder high. Tony’s been leaving them at the front, not getting them level. Ed has to lean into the bodies to swing the new one over and on top. A black leathered skull presses against his cheek.

Ed’s brought the largest trailer from the yard but soon the two of them have to work together to get each new body in. Tony passes them up from below. Ed balances on the trailer flap and forces them in. The last thing he wants to do is have to unload and rationalise the bodies to better fit the space.

He looks at his watch. On another day he would probably have split it into two trips, but it’s going to be tight enough as it is. A ball of nerves gathers in his gut at the thought of being late. First the fear of missing the appointment. Then the fear.



They are on what Tony swears are the last lot when Ed has to accept the trailer’s full, a wall of burnt flesh. His lips move in silent apology to Abi as he opens the back of the Land Rover and spreads a tarp over the floor. He can already hear her complain about the smell. Scared, her anger’s bound to escalate. She’ll move from the smell to his job, from the choices he made when he was young to why she ever thought they could be something together. It doesn’t matter that the reason for this was all over the news two days ago: the moors ablaze; the headlines no longer distant; the world closing around them in judgement. Her words will be a wildfire ripping through their lives, with nowhere for either of them to shelter.

He turns to Tony, expecting him to be walking over with the next one, but Tony doesn’t move to pick up the body beneath him. When Ed comes closer, he understands why. It’s difficult to see what it is at first. There’s a surfeit of limbs. The shape expands in too many directions. Then the forms reassert their individuality: a ewe; two lambs suckling on her as they died, their faces fused to her by heat.

His heart thuds with the sense he’s witnessing an omen, the splayed bodies a black star hanging over him.



Ed sits five minutes with the engine running and the windows down against the stench before Tony re-emerges from the farmhouse with the dog and the paperwork. He’s about to sign the familiar sheet with its yellow and pink carbon copies when he stops.

82? he says. I counted 55.

Tony stares at him. He sets his jaw like a boxer ready for a fight.

27 of them ewes were pregnant. It’s the start of lambing season. Are the insurance going to get me that back?

I’ll be in right bother if anyone checks.

I’m not going to argue the toss with you about what’s a body and what isn’t. All you need do is sign that paper and they were alive. Simple as.

The whole day threatens to become a test Ed has no idea how to pass. He scrawls his name in the box and passes the papers back. The mask of a smile returns to Tony’s face.

You sure you don’t want to come in for a cup of tea? he says.

I’m sure.

Alright. See you next time.

Yeah, Ed says, putting the engine in gear. See you next time.



Abi walks across the car park in front of him. It would be easy to catch up but he stays half a metre behind, indulging her rage at the same time as he denies her the victory of snatching her hand free from his attempted grasp.

They walk past the vapers and the smokers and the doors slide open and deliver them to the lobby. Another couple cross it, hand-in-hand. The father carries a newborn in a carseat. Beneath a white hat, the baby squints as if it’s trying to make out what’s coming.

Abi stops and scans the array of multicoloured signs above them – labels that would fix them as cancer or cardiac, trauma or general, physio or intensive care – but they’re redundant. There’s been no change in the last eight months. They both know where they’re going.

She stretches her hand behind her. Her restless fingers move over his until he catches them and holds them tight, fusing the two of them together.

This way, he says.



The waiting room looks much the same as the last time they were here: padded chairs covered in a pink and blue geometric pattern like something from an old bus; faded magazines scattered across the coffee table; expectant faces.

Abi leans into him when they sit down, then pulls away, her nose wrinkling in disgust.

Sorry, Ed says. Is it that bad?

I just can’t cuddle you when you’re like that.

I thought the overalls would have kept it off, but the smoke was everywhere. It might be a good sign though.

What might?

You not being able to get near me. You know, the heightened sense of smell.

Her look tells him he should have kept the thought to himself. Words are too freighted with meaning. To open his mouth is to invite God or whoever to punish the two of them for their misplaced faith. A memory of the ewe and her lambs as he and Tony cradled them to the range rover presses against his chest. Today has been about death from the start. Why should now be any different?

He looks away from her and up to the silent flatscreen TV in the corner. Activists throng around a bright pink boat in the middle of a London street. Then the picture cuts to one of the blokes from Springwatch. He’s standing in the street and saying something but the subtitles are out of synch. He says: Banks are hoping this is a sign the Chancellor will give them more.



A guy who looks like he’s straight out of school calls Abi’s name. They follow him to a darkened room where Ed looks around in search of the same sonographer as last time. But there is no one else. The guy, who introduces himself as Harvey, is going to do the scan. His friendly smile does nothing to settle Ed’s mood. He can sense Abi’s unhappiness. In a moment, she’ll walk back to the front desk and demand someone else, someone with the experience to give them the result they crave.

But Abi releases Ed’s hand and lowers herself onto the paper strip atop the couch and raises her T-shirt, obedient to this new master. She listens patiently as Harvey talks through the procedure, as if they don’t already know it, haven’t been here before. He squirts the gel on Abi’s upturned belly and places the probe against her skin. Then he turns the screen away.

Ed takes Abi’s hand again. Together they stare at the shadow of the back of the screen, the judgement that lies out of sight.

Harvey clicks his mouse and repositions the probe. Types something. Clicks again. Squints and frowns. Repositions. Double clicks. Types.

Abi clasps Ed’s fingers so tightly the blood stops flowing. His dread swells with each silent assessment Harvey types. The memory of her cry: an ocean of loss rising from within her.

Last time there was no heartbeat.

The time before the baby stopped growing three weeks before the scan.

This time it could be something else: Abi’s cousin was 20 weeks when they discovered the heart was growing outside the body.

In the darkened, windowless room, the smell of moorland smoke intensifies. Ed is both here and in the field. The acute dread he felt this morning returns. The world is closing around him. The words of all those infertility articles are ready to write themselves into the fabric of their lives once again. And now, despite himself, he thinks it might be for the best. Who are they to protect a child from the fires, the floods, the end of the world? They can barely protect themselves.

Harvey swings the screen back towards them.

Would you like to see your baby? he says.

Abi gasps. She looks towards Ed and grins and looks away as quickly to the screen, as if the foetus might have chosen this moment to disappear from sight. Because at first there is nothing there. A cone of static surrounded by text, a funnel of smoke. But then Harvey shifts the probe and a body emerges. Their child.

Like a tour guide, Harvey takes them over the head and the limbs, the tether of the umbilical cord. Then he zooms in on a flickering disc Ed takes a moment to recognise. It’s the heart. The oldest drum, it beats its ancient tattoo into the darkness: hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope hope


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