“First off, the sky goes dark.”
“Of course it does.”
“Then they come out the ground and, if you’re a certain type of person, drag you under, where your body is consumed.”
They got to the gate of the pen and Kate opened it, letting her brother through first.
“And I’m guessing you are that type of person,” he said.
She slid the bolt back across while he ran ahead, his boots squelching in the mud. Walking on, she watched him duck under the low roof, slapping the wooden joist with his free hand as he went inside the shelter. At eleven years old, her brother awoke every day buzzing. Everything he saw in these first few hours--the gravestones of pets, log piles, frost--deserved a high five.
“I’m gonna milk the face off you,” Albert told the goats. “I’m going to milk you to death.”
He did resemble a trainee grim reaper, she thought, in his deep-hooded navy poncho, carrying a bucket to collect fresh souls. Following him into the shelter, she sat on a low stool next to Belona--her favorite goat, a four-year-old Alpine with white legs and a black, comma-shaped beard--who was against the back wall with her neck tied. She stamped her hooves as she ate from her feed pan. Belona was notoriously difficult in the mornings; this was part of her and Kate’s affinity.
Albert was talking as he milked. “. . . so she has this massive picture of what’s at the center of the universe and it’s basically a pair of eyes--two huge evil eyes . . .”
Kate tried not to listen. She squeezed, tugged, closed her fingers from index to pinkie, and focused on the noise of milk on metal; the sound slowly deadened as the bucket filled. She put her ear against Belona’s side and listened to the gurgling innards. The swell and slump of the goat’s breathing.
“. . . and research shows, you’ll have to wave bye-bye to gravity and time and university and . . .”
He stopped talking but she knew his speech continued, unbroken, inside his head. She started to get a rhythm going, two-handed, fingers finally warming. Her brother, meanwhile, played his goat like an arcade machine.
“One–nil,” he said, as he picked up his bucket and stool and moved to the other side of the divider. He put a feed pan in front of Babette and she immediately dug in.
Belona started battling a little, her legs jerking, clanging against the bucket. With her knuckles, Kate stroked the tassels that hung from the goat’s jaw and, leaning over, whispered to her.
“What are you saying?”
“Are you in love with Belona? That’s okay if you are. Mum and Dad won’t mind. They’re totally easy with whatever. They just want you to be in a loving relationship.”
Belona kicked and the bucket tipped--spilling half the milk onto the mud and straw. Kate’s jaw tightened.
Her brother, through years of collecting words from international visitors to the community, had compiled an armory of exotic insults. He tutted and proceeded to call her something bad in Bengali.
It was just getting light. There was the smell of hay and shit. Hooves skittered on the stones. Outside the gloomy hut she could see the rain still coming down in the pen, filling the holes left by their boots.
Back at the yard, Albert poured his milk into a dented churn. Spots of mud and dirt camouflaged themselves among the freckles on his face. His right ear hole, she noticed, held a cache of grit. She often tried to convince him that it was a duty, as someone brought up in a community, to battle stereotypes by maintaining, as she did, exceptional levels of hygiene. Albert wasn’t interested. He longed to summon a bodily stench, regularly checking his armpits and foreskin--waiting for the big day--taking wafts from his fingertips like a sommelier testing a vintage.
She waited, then said “tick,” which was the signal. He looked at her, blinked--said “tock”--then ran, letting the empty bucket clang on the brick.
They sprinted round the front of the house, skidding on gravel, in through the open double doors, up the wide stairs, side by side, a trail of mud across the landing, up more stairs and into the large shared bathroom. She was too old for this, but without her she doubted he would ever get clean. They raced to undress.
Kate sat on the bench and yanked off her muddy boots, then peeled away her socks. Unbuttoning her jeans, she let them pool at her feet. Albert was kneeling, working determinedly at his laces, which he had finally learned to tie, but too well. Kate turned away from him and pulled her jumper and T‑shirt off in one, uncovering three well-tended spots in the center of her chest and, despite her posture that tried to hide them and a bra designed to downplay them, her breasts. Albert, seeing that his sister was already down to her underwear, became a frenzy of pushing and tugging, kicking at his boots, getting his hoodie stuck on his head, a line-caught trout, flapping on the tiles. She sat on the bench and pulled down her thermal long johns and knickers in a crouch. Kate’s shoulder-length hair was the red color of late-stage rust, though the box had called it “vampiric.” She dyed her pubic hair too. Unclipping her bra, she stepped over Albert, who was just getting free of his boots, and slipped under the showerhead, spun the tap to starboard. The applause of water rushed over her. Silt and mud and hay ran in clockwise swirls toward the plug.
“Go back to Velcro,” she said.
The creature responded in Malay.
Finally Albert yanked off his jumper and wriggled out of his trousers and pants. Kate blinked at his skinny, china-white body, full complement of visible ribs, hip bones sharp as flints, glowing knees, dick like a popped balloon.
“Cold, cold, cold,” he said and, getting to his feet, launched himself under the water. Kate, with a matador’s grace, took a step back and raised her arms to avoid making contact with him. He hopped from foot to foot in the steam. His goose bumps sank. The water at their feet turned the color of the liquid on top of Patrick’s homemade yogurt.
“Tick tock,” Albert said. “How long have we got left?”
“A minute, maybe less.”
The community used a small, solar-powered, forty-liter water heater that gave up easily and now, in late April, would be overachieving if it got four people clean. When the shower “turned”--channeling deep-chilled hill water--the screams of visiting backpackers could be heard from the bottom of the garden. Kate and Albert knew there was only time for pits and bits. No exfoliant, no conditioner.
“Not long left,” Kate said. “You know what to do.”
Albert bowed his head. Squeezing out a palmful of egg yolk and oatmeal shampoo, she splatted it on his scalp, rubbed it around quickly, then blasted him with the showerhead.
“You’re clear. Now me.” Kate doused her head under the water, then took a dollop of the gray shampoo and spread it on. “We have a problem,” she said. “No lather. Find the contraband.”
Albert located a travel-size bottle of Pantene hidden among the tall lotions and emollients huddled on a corner shelf at the back of the cubicle. One of the wwoofers had smuggled it in.
The shampoo bloomed into froth on her scalp. Her brother watched the foam drift down her back, bum, legs. They started to feel the water temperature drop.
“How long?” he asked.
They began the countdown together.
“Five, four . . .”
Kate quickly dealt with her armpits.
“. . . three, two . . .”
They clambered out of the shower, soap-blind, feeling for the clothes rail, arms out like the undead, clamping towels around them just as the column of ice descended. Kate reached in and spun the tap off.
They sat breathing on the cork-topped bench, wrapped up, Kate’s towel tucked above her breasts, their backs making wet patches on the floral wallpaper.
After a while, Albert spread his towel out in the middle of the bathroom floor.
“Albert, please don’t do this.”
He crawled into a ball on the towel, his head between his knees. Goose bumps spread across his arms and legs.
She counted the teeth of his spinal column.
“What am I?”
“Too old for this.”
“What am I?”
He shivered a little. “No. What am I?”
“Nope. Try again.”
For Kate, it was these moments after showering that were the real problem. He still behaved and looked like a child, but somehow she could sense puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder. She was damn sure she didn’t want to be sharing a bathroom with her brother when it took hold. This would have to be the last time; she couldn’t do it anymore.
“A sack of bones?”
“An empty shell?”
“A failed experiment?”
Plus there was the thought of what the boys at her college would say if they knew this happened. You get soaped up with your brother? Is that how they do it in the commune? Dark . . .
Fuck you, don’t you dare judge me, she thought, making a mental note to carry that resentment into her morning classes. For the last seven months she had been studying at Gorseinon College, finishing her English, politics, history, and sociology A‑levels, since there were no adults in the community whom she considered sufficiently “specialist” to teach her. Prior to that, all her schooling had taken place in the community--with her brother--and, not unusually for home-educated children, they were substantially ahead of schedule, academically, compared to their state-educated peers. She had arrived at college with the expectation that it would be entirely populated by sexual predators and intelligence-hating dullards and, as a result of this, she had spoken to almost no one. Her first term had been characterized by walking fast between classes with a fearsome lean, bringing her own intimidatingly Tupperwared vegetarian lunches and working really hard. As a result, no one spoke to her either. By the start of her second term she had conditional offers from Cambridge and Edinburgh and an unconditional from Leeds, all of which confirmed her belief that she had been right not to make friends. The downside was that she had no one to whom she could actually say: Fuck you, don’t you dare judge me.
“Oh no, hang on,” Kate said, pretending to puff on a pipe. “Are you . . . a boulder?” He was always a boulder. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t like her to guess too quickly.
“Alright. Are you the last remaining human?”
“Or are you a boulder?”
“Yes!” he said, and he stood up, putting his hands in the air, his nipples like freckles. “I’m a boulder!”
She picked his towel up and wrapped it round him.
“Great. Now get out.”
Albert pulled open the door and ran into the corridor. She put on her dressing gown and attacked her hair with the towel. There was a thuk thuk thuk sound coming from next door, her parents’ bedroom. She knew what it meant: the community had recently held one of its open days to find new members. On these occasions, the farm was awash with all kinds of lost and cheery wayfarers as well as, quite often, an “undercover” journalist pretending to be a primary school teacher. To become a full-time member you had to volunteer (and do shit jobs: cleaning tools, turning compost, infinite weeding) then have an initial short interview, which, if approved, was followed by a minimum two-week stay (recommended six weeks), then a cooling-down break of at least one month, then another, more involved interview to decide on full-time suitability. It was an undoubted power trip for the panel--particularly Kate’s father, Don Riley, who, still stinging from a failed Oxford interview when he was eighteen, took great pleasure in devising questions.
Q: If there’s a power outage and it’s cold inside and out, how do you dry your clothes?
(A: Washing lines in the polytunnels.)
Q: If you were to cook a communal meal using seasonal ingredients, what would it be?
Arlo Mela was, famously, the only person who, having made elaborate culinary promises in interview, produced, as promised, a game-changing chocolate mille-feuille.
“New members must have realistic expectations of us, and of themselves,” was how her father put it. “Beware strangers promising bouillabaisse.”
The combination of a ruthless selection process and a high likelihood of mental illness among applicants had, over the years, produced some interesting correspondence. The community sent a primly bureaucratic template response to all abusive letters. Thank you for your generous feedback . . . Their father, however, was thin-skinned when it came to criticism of the community--he took everything as a personal attack--and liked to write replies, even though he never sent them. The typewriter allowed for maximum release of tension. Thuk thuk. In a similar way, everyone knew if Kate and Albert’s mother was upset because a pile of newly chopped wood would appear in the barn.
The community had a guestbook and a detestbook, the latter containing choice quotes from twenty years of occasional hate mail. Highlights included a drawing of the barn in flames and a comprehensive list of unflattering anagrams of residents’ names (only one of which stuck: Patrick Kinwood, a no-work dick-tip). Both books were on public display in the entrance hall to manage the expectations of new visitors.
But when Kate pushed into her parents’ bedroom, she found that it was, in fact, her mother at the desk in the corner, fully dressed, writing at the beige Smith Corona. Her dark hair ran down to her armpits, parting over her shoulders. She was wearing a woolen jumper the color of margarine. Kate watched her forefinger locate a letter on the keyboard, hover above, then drop. Noticing her daughter behind her, Freya stopped typing and rested her hands on the desk.
“What’s going on?” Kate said, and massaged her mother’s tightly upholstered shoulders. She read the letter, if it could be called that. There were just two words, Dear and Don.
Kate turned to look at her dad, who was in bed, sitting up against the headboard. He always kept two pillows under his right foot because he said it needed “to drain.” He had a thick castaway’s beard--badly maintained--a trophy of unemployability. His children had no way of knowing whether he was strong or weak chinned.
“Dad, why aren’t you up?”
“I am up,” he said, which was the same thing that Kate said when she wasn’t up. He was in his pajamas.