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Profound empathy and understated eloquence mark a novel so artfully nuanced that the last few pages send the reader back to the first few, with fresh understanding.
There is no end to madness, Jack thinks, once it takes hold. Hadn’t those experts said it could take years before it flared up in human beings? So, it had flared up now in him and Ellie.
Sixty-five head of healthy-seeming cattle that finally succumbed to the rushed-through culling order, leaving a silence and emptiness as hollow as the morning Mum died, and the small angry wisp of a thought floating in it: Well, they’d better be right, those experts, it had better damn well flare up some day or this will have been a whole load of grief for nothing.
Healthy cattle. Sound of limb and udder and hoof—and mind. “Not one of them mad as far as I ever saw,” Dad had said, as if it was the start of one of his rare jokes and his face would crack into a smile to prove it. But his face had looked like simply cracking anyway and staying cracked, and the words he might have said, by way of a punchline, never left his lips, though Jack thinks now that he heard them. Or it was his own silent joke to himself. Or it’s the joke he’s only arrived at now: “We must be the mad ones.”
And if ever there was a time when Jack’s dad might have put his two arms round his two sons, that was it. His arms were certainly long enough, even for his sons’ big shoulders—both brothers out of the same large Luxton mould, though with all of eight years between them. Tom would have been fifteen then, but growing fast. And Jack, though it was a fact he sometimes wished to hide, even to reverse, already had a clear inch over his father.
The three of them had stood there, like the only life left, in the yard at Jebb Farm.
But Michael Luxton hadn’t put his arms round his two sons. He’d done what he’d begun to do, occasionally, only after his wife’s death. He’d looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat.
And Jack, who long ago took his last look at that yard, looks now from an upstairs window at a grey sea, at a sky full of wind-driven rain, but sees for a moment only smoke and fire.
Sixty-five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin. Ruin, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton had died.
Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundred into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? Who would have dreamed it? But cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though it’s small comfort and precious little help: Well, we’ve had our turn now, our share.
But years later, right here in this seaside cottage, Jack had switched on the TV and said, “Ellie, come and look at this. Come and look, quick.” It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in fields. The thing was burning day and night. The smoke would surely have been visible, over the far hills, from Jebb. Not to mention the smell being carried on the wind. And someone on the TV—another of those experts—was saying that burning these cattle might still release into the air significant amounts of the undetected agent of BSE. Though it was ten years on, and this time the burnings were for foot-and-mouth. Which people weren’t known to get. Yet.
“Well, Jack,” Ellie had said, stroking the back of his neck, “did we make a good move? Or did we make a good move?”
But he’d needed to resist the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place.
BSE, then foot-and-mouth. What would have been the odds? Those TV pictures had looked like scenes from hell. Flames leaping up into the night. Even so, cattle aren’t people. Just a few months later Jack had turned on the telly once again and called to Ellie to come and look, as people must have been calling out, all over the world, to whoever was in the next room, “Drop what you’re doing and come and look at this.”
More smoke. Not over familiar, remembered hills, and even on the far side of the world. Though Jack’s first thought—or perhaps his second—had been the somehow entirely necessary and appropriate one: Well, we should be all right here. Here at the bottom of the Isle of Wight. And while the TV had seemed to struggle with its own confusion and repeated again and again, as if they might not be true, the same astonishing sequences, he’d stepped outside to look down at the site, as if half expecting everything to have vanished.
Thirty-two white units. All still there. And among them, on the grass, a few idle and perhaps still-ignorant human sprinkles. But inside each caravan was a television, and some of them must be switched on. The word must be spreading. In the Ship, in the Sands Cafe, it must be spreading. It was early September—late season—but the middle of a beautiful, clear, Indian-summer day, the sea a smooth, smiling blue. Until now at least, they would all have been congratulating themselves on having picked a perfect week.
He’d felt a surge of helpless responsibility, of protectiveness. He was in charge. What should he do—go down and calm them? In case they were panicking. Tell them it was all right? Tell them it was all right just to carry on their holidays, that was what they’d come for and had paid for and they shouldn’t let this spoil things, they should carry on enjoying themselves.
But his next thought—though perhaps it had really been his first and he’d pushed it aside, and it was less a thought maybe than a cold, clammy premonition—was: what might this mean for Tom?
He looks now at that same view from the bedroom window of Lookout Cottage, though the weather’s neither sunny nor calm. Clouds are charging over Holn Head. A November gale is careering up the Channel. The sea, white flecks in its greyness, seems to be travelling in a body from right to left, west to east, as if some retreat is going on. Rain stings the glass in front of him.
Ellie has been gone for over an hour—this weather yet to unleash itself when she left. She could be sitting out the storm somewhere, pulled up in the wind-rocked Cherokee. Reconsidering her options, perhaps. Or she could have done already exactly what she said she’d do, and be returning, having to take it slowly, headlights on in the blinding rain. Or returning—who knows?—behind a police car, with not just its headlights on, but its blue light flashing.
Reconsidering her options? But she made the move and said the words. The situation is plain to him now, and despite the blurring wind and rain, Jack’s mind is really quite clear. She had her own set of keys, of course. All she had to do was grab her handbag and walk out the door, but she might have remembered another set of keys that Jack certainly hasn’t forgotten. Has it occurred to her, even now? Ellie who was usually the one who thought things through, and him the slowcoach.
“Ellie,” Jack thinks. “My Ellie.”
He’s already taken the shotgun from the cabinet downstairs—the keys are in the lock—and brought it up here. It’s lying, loaded, on the bed behind him, on the white duvet. For good measure he has a box of twenty-five cartridges (some already in his pocket), in case of police cars, in case of mishaps. It’s the first time, Jack thinks, that he’s ever put a gun on a bed, let alone theirs, and that, by itself, has to mean something. As he peers through the window he can feel the weight of the gun behind him, making a dent in the duvet as if it might be some small, sleeping body.
Well, one way or another, they’d never gone down the road of children. There isn’t, now, that complication. He’s definitely the last of the Luxtons. There’s only one final complication—it involves Ellie—and he’s thought that through too, seriously and carefully.
Which is why he’s up here, at this rain-lashed window, from where he has the best view of the narrow, twisting road, Beacon Hill, which has no other purpose these days than to lead to this cottage. So he’ll be alerted. So he’ll be able to see, just a little sooner than from downstairs, the dark-blue roof, above the high bank, then the nose of the Cherokee as it takes the first, tight, ascending bend, past the old chapel. The Cherokee that’s done so much hard journeying in these last three days.
The road below him, running with water, seems to slither.
Of course, she might not return at all. Another option, and one she might be seriously contemplating. Though where the hell else does she have to go to?
It’s all gone mad, Jack thinks, but part of him has never felt saner. Rain blurs the window, but he looks through it at the rows of buffeted caravans in the middle distance to the right, beyond the spur of land that slopes down beneath him to the low mass of the Head. All empty now, of course, for the winter.
“Well, at least this has happened in the off season.”
Ellie’s words, and just for a shameful instant it had been his own secret flicker of a thought as well.
He looks at the caravans and even now feels their tug, like the tug of the wind on their own thin, juddering frames. Thirty-two trembling units. To the left, the locked site office, the laundrette, the empty shop—grille down, window boarded. The gated entrance-way off the Sands End road, the sign above it swinging.
Even now, especially now, he feels the tug. The Lookout Caravan Park, named after this cottage (or two knocked into one), in turn named after its former use. He feels, himself now, like some desperate coastguard. Ellie had said they should change the name from the Sands. He’d said they should keep it, for the good will and the continuity. And so they had, for a year. But Ellie was all for them making their own mark and wiping out what was past. There must be no end of caravan sites called the Sands, she’d said, but the Lookout would stand out.
It could work two ways, he’d said, “Lookout”—attempting another of those solemn-faced jokes of the kind his father once made.
Ellie had shrugged. So, didn’t he like the name of the cottage? It wasn’t the name they’d given it, after all. Lookout Cottage (usually known as just “The Lookout”). They could always change the name of the cottage. Ellie was all for change. She was his wife now. She’d laughed—she’d changed her name to Luxton.
But they hadn’t. Perhaps they should have done. And before the new season began, for the sake of uniformity but also novelty, and because Ellie thought it sounded better than the Sands, the site had become, on the letterhead and the brochure and on the sign over the gate, as well as in plain fact, the Lookout Park.
And it was lookout time now all right.
1. “Wish you were here” is a powerful phrase in the novel. Why is it so significant?
2. Jack says, “…cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact” (page 4). But in what ways in the novel are cattle like people, or vice versa?
3. What parallels can you draw between Jack and Tom and the earlier pair of Luxton brothers?
4. “To become the proprietor of the very opposite thing to that deep-rooted farmhouse. Holiday homes, on wheels.” (page 29) What is Swift telling us through Jack’s observation?
5. What does their Caribbean holiday symbolize to Ellie? To Jack?
6. Did Jack really want to leave Devon, ten years earlier? If Ellie hadn’t suggested the Isle of Wight, what do you think might have happened?
7. Before they move, Jack sells the ancestral Luxton cradle, but keeps the shotgun and the medal. Why?
8. Madness comes up again and again—mad-cow disease, the madness of war, the possibility that Jack has gone mad. What point is Swift making?
9. Time shifts frequently over the course of the novel, hopscotching across decades. How does Swift use these shifts to expand and deepen the story?
10. Why does Ellie refuse to accompany Jack back to Devon?
11. Why is putting down Luke such a pivotal act for Tom and Jack?
12. What do we learn when Swift shifts from Jack’s point of view to others’—Major Richards’s, the hearse driver’s, Bob Ireton’s? What do we learn from the brief section told from Tom’s perspective?
13. At several points, Swift writes extended hypothetical passages—what might have happened if one character had said or done something slightly different. What effect does this have? How does it help to fully form the characters?
14. How does the Robinsons’ transformation of Jebb Farm work as a metaphor for twenty-first-century life?
15. “. . . anyone (including the owners of Jebb Farmhouse, had they been in occupation) might have seen two hand-prints on the top rail, one either side of the black-lettered name.” (page 267) What do Jack’s hand-prints symbolize?
16. “Security” means different things to the Luxtons and the Robinsons. Which definition do you think Swift endorses?
17. What does the medal represent? What does it mean when Jack tosses it into the sea?
18. Does Tom really believe Ellie had a hand in Jimmy’s death? Why does he say it?
19. Tom’s ghost plays a major role in the novel’s final scene. What does he represent?