A Dead Thing
Fiction by Helen McIntosh-Marsh
September 30, 2022
On dry days, Llyr would jump across the top of the slurry pit, with me hopping behind. Like frogs, we were, only our lily pads were big round plates of shit turned hard by the sun. Llyr was always faster than me. One time, I landed on the edge of the shit-circle and the crust snapped and I started to sink in the wet brown gap in between. “Llyr, Llyr, fetch your Dadi!” I shouted, loud, and Llyr jumped off, onto the concrete, down the hill to the milking parlour, with me slowly going down into the muck.
I tried not to think about the calf that had drowned in that slurry. Llyr said it was still there, stuck at the bottom.
A dead thing, with rotting hooves.
Dewi ran up, and he pulled me out with a sucking squelch and I’d only gone in as deep as my knees, but I still lost a welly boot. Dewi hosed me down on the lawn outside the farmhouse, cold slurry running down my legs, and I dabbed my toes around to make a puddle of dirt in the grass. Then Llyr came and held my hand and we both squidged our feet in the mud. A worm squiggled to the top and I picked it up and threw it onto Llyr’s leg – slap. It stuck there for a minute, all pink and still, then it wriggled its head and fell onto the ground. Llyr looked at me and I looked at Llyr, and we laughed.
For a while we didn’t go back on the slurry, and the next few times when Mami dropped me off at the farm, Llyr said “let’s go make a bivouac in the woods,” and we’d run to get branches. Or we’d hide in his room and watch through the window while Llyr’s Mam Catrin killed chickens, tying them to the washing line in a row, yanking their heads, pop, pop, pop until they dangled, all floppy. Those pops and the flapping and squawking made my throat feel like it was full of marbles but I’d swallow them down, hard, so Llyr wouldn’t know. When the squawking stopped, after we’d sat all quiet for a bit, Llyr liked to jump up, flap his arms around like the chickens and we’d run out the door together, him shouting with a big fat smile on his face, and we’d go off and play swingball or throw sticks for Mabli the dog.
But then, there were the days when Dewi took Llyr off to help with the lambing or the hay, and I’d have to play Sindies with Llyr’s big sister Angharad instead. I don’t think she liked playing with me, because my ears weren’t pierced yet, like hers were, and she’d gone up to secondary school. I was still in primary but I wasn’t a baby, and I didn’t want Angharad to dress me up in her old frilly skirts, so I would just sit next to her, while we danced the dolls across the top floor of the Sindy house. I never really saw the point of all that.
“You’re eleven and twelve now. Big grown-ups. Look after the place for us!”
Catrin and Dewi were off to the pub. Mam was spending grown-up time with Dewi’s friend Alun, and Angharad was on a sleepover at her friend’s house so it was just me and Llyr at the farm.
After Catrin and Dewi had left, we sat for a few minutes in the kitchen, next to the open window. I touched my cheek where Catrin’s face had brushed against mine when she kissed me goodbye. The smell of her lipstick made me think of plasticine.
Once the sound of his Mam and Dad’s old Fiesta had properly faded, Llyr and I waited for a few more minutes. He swatted at a fly with the orange paddle that hung next to the saucepan cupboard. Then we went to sit on the floor next to the mahogany drinks cabinet. The carpet prickled my knees and I tugged down my crop-top, to make the neckline hang lower on my chest. Llyr cleared his throat with a growly cough. I stretched out my foot and poked him in the side with my big toe. “Geddoff me, Gwenllian” he laughed.
We spent the next two hours sloshing drink into our beakers. The Cointreau was all syrupy, and it burned its way down my throat. I liked the Vermouth better, but once it had gone down, it pooled like acid in my stomach. It was Llyr’s idea to add lemonade, and after that the drinking became easier.
How much did we need, I wondered? Before we could do all the things that adults did?
Llyr’s was the first erection I saw. He showed me the tight little rod, with its surprisingly pink tip, not just once, but twice and even though we were by ourselves, on the farm, I was never tempted to touch. As for me, the furthest I went was asking Llyr to undo the strap of my training bra. When Catrin and Dewi came back from the pub that night, the bra was on the living-room floor, in a tangle with my jeans, next to the den Llyr and I had built out of sofa cushions and blankets.
The whispers of the grown-ups brought me out of my dream and I lay there, pretending to sleep, my tongue all sticky with the taste of Bailey’s.
“Let’s put her in with Angharad next time. They’re too big to sleep like this now.”
My mind gave little twitches as I drifted off to sleep, and I wondered if I might be in trouble. But nobody said anything the next day, about the bra, the jeans, the den. They just never let me and Llyr sleep alone together again.
When I was older and not so much of a nuisance to Mam, she stopped sending me off to the farm most weekends, but I still went sometimes, so she could have time with Alun. I’d lounge around with Llyr, watching Hellraiser or whichever horror was showing on TV. Sometimes, we’d steal some clotted cream from the fridge, and eat it with a spoon, right there on the sofa. I’d sneak looks at Llyr’s hands, eating that cream. His fingernails were short, his thumbnails twice as broad as they were long. The creases of his fingers were beginning to turn dark with farm-dust, pooled there in the wrinkles. Just like Dewi’s.
At school, people sometimes assumed we were cousins but we didn’t hang around with each other. I wasn’t part of the farmer-kid gang, and anyway Llyr was in the year below me. But we enjoyed the same stuff at the weekend. Locally grown skunk. Nipple-tipped magic mushrooms, picked on foraging trips across overgrown slag heaps. Small paper squares of acid, and waxy wraps of speed, no doubt cut with chalk or crushed sweeties.
During the week, for me school was a good place. I liked the calm of the corridors, the way everyone’s footsteps squeaked along the polished plastic tiling. It was all so different to the mess and shouting back home. But as for Llyr, he took to bunking off school, traipsing round the village, gathering with his friends outside Spar in a huddle of sniggers. Once, I was walking past Llyr’s gang with my friend Rhodri, a boy some people said was gay. The word ‘bender’ hissed its ugly way out from the group. I turned, angry, and stared Llyr straight in the face. But he wrinkled his nose, and pinched his lips up into a sneer so hard that he didn’t look like my Llyr any more. Ieuan, the most chopsy of Llyr’s friends, landed his hand on Llyr’s shoulder, then pumped the shoulder backwards and forwards. Llyr’s scowl changed into a laugh, but a nasty one, his eyes looking right back at me as he jutted out his chin and opened his mouth wide into a deep hahahahhah.
That Saturday, when Alun and Mam said I had to go to the farm, I felt sick with the thought of seeing that face again. But the Llyr who walked out to greet me was as normal as ever: friendly, smiley and I could hardly believe it was the same person I’d seen outside Spar. So I didn’t tell him how disgusted I was with the way he’d been towards Rhodri.
When we were curled up at opposite ends of the nubbly sofa, in the ad break of The Amityville Horror, Llyr turned to me.
“It’s funny,” he said, “I don’t like you when I’m with my friends. But I do like you when it’s just us.”
We kissed just once, at a family birthday party for Angharad. When everyone else had moved from the dining room into the lounge, Llyr had looked at me with an expression I’d only ever seen that one time, when I asked him to take off my bra. It made me want to kiss him, so I did. His lips were surprisingly soft, the hairs around his mouth more gentle than the prickly stubble of the other boys I’d kissed. The lapping of Llyr’s large tongue reminded me of his parents’ cows, as they reached out to lick the metal railings in the milking parlour. His wide fingers curled around the back of my neck, pulling me into him. As I stroked my hands over the silk of his auburn hair, I caught a glimpse of the two of us in the mirror behind the dining table. The girl in the reflection glanced back at me, a dull kind of surprise flashing from her half-closed eyes.
The next time we met, neither of us mentioned the kiss. And things just slotted back into normal.
In time, I won a place to study drama in London. And farm life for Llyr went on just as before.
I was away on a six-month tour of Spain with my new theatre troupe when I heard that Llyr was gone. I rarely spoke to Mam by then, only about once a month and she didn’t have my phone number so by the time Catrin was able to track me down, Llyr had been buried a week. The old John Deere had overturned in the top field, and crushed him, which, according to Catrin and everyone else I spoke to, would have been a quick, painless death. I didn’t see how that could in any way be true, but I decided not to contradict them.
Spain changed for me after that. Loud, half-understood conversations between local women made me leap in fright. Sardines grilled on the beach tasted rancid, their scorched, milky fish eyes staring up at me from the plate. I stuck it out, but by the end of the tour I was almost completely silent. The other actors kept their distance, as though a barrier of stench stopped them from coming near me.
Back in England, with the troupe disbanded, I never tried to keep in touch with the others. They left me alone, too.
By the time I made it back to Wales, almost a year had passed since Llyr’s death.
“How’re you doing, Angharad?”
“Well – you know. Not great, but that’s life, isn’t it?” Angharad lowered her head as she said this. Dark shadows gave her eyes a new smudgy quality. We drove in silence to Llyr’s grave, and laid two large bunches of forget-me-nots next to the glossy headstone. Angharad plucked out a couple of wilting carnations from one of the other bouquets. Re-arranged some red roses in a pot, topped it up with water. Adjusted a large bunch of lilies, so it stood upright.
On the way back in the car, my eyelids felt sluggish, and the hedgerows blurred into a greeny brown strip.
“This is going to sound so wrong, but you’re the only person I can tell. Because you knew him so well.”
As Angharad spoke, I turned to look at her. The profile of her face had the same pale hillocks and dark hollows as the moon.
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I wonder what he would look like now, if I came back and dug him up. Would there be anything left of him?”
Angharad half-giggled and, taking my cue from her, I mustered a dry chuckle. “That doesn’t seem wrong to me at all,” I said.
Angharad sighed, then smiled, her breath unwinding slowly into the cocoon of the car. We drove quickly, the occasional flaccid overgrown branch slapping against the edge of the windscreen.
As the car twisted its way around the narrow lanes, I thought about Angharad’s words.
Would there still be some of Llyr’s sleek red hair left, to run my hands through? A pair of strong farmers’ thighs, and his broad, capable fingers?
My mind dwelt on Llyr often over the next few years, but I didn’t look back to our childhood. Instead, I played guessing games, about how he would have turned out if he hadn’t died so young. I imagined him living in one of the farm’s outbuildings, which Dewi would have converted into a small cottage. Llyr’s wife would be a local girl: long-haired and large-breasted, displaying a practical manner and liberal tendencies. Llyr would leave the child-rearing to this wife, and he’d defer to the authority of his mother on everything to do with the house and home. He would expect his wife to do the same.
Another Llyr of my imagination would stay single, and become one of those men who used to drive aimlessly round our village until well into their thirties. The ones who would slow down when they encountered schoolgirls, and shout senseless phrases out of their car windows, in barren, insistent tones. Just like crows.
He might even have decided to break free of small-town life, and moved to London. London Llyr would live close by, and we’d gather in the bar after my performances, to talk about our old friends, viewed through the shared lens of our new city lives. This fantasy took a powerful hold on me, in the months after I broke up with my girlfriend. For weeks I walked my local streets, expecting to see him around every corner. To hear his voice calling, “Gwenllian”. The only person in the whole of London who could properly pronounce my name.
These days, I’ve stopped speculating about how Llyr might have turned out. And my memories of our car pulling into the farmyard, and hearing Catrin call for Llyr to “come out and say hello to Gwenllian,” have worn out from too much replay. In place of these thoughts have come new flashes of intensity: like the joyful, sweaty ache of rehearsing a difficult scene, over and over. Relentless fairground rides, hurling me around on a dark evening. A residue of ochre hair dye on the pillow, as I wake up in a strange woman’s bed.
But on the rare times when I go back to visit Catrin and Dewi on their farm, and I catch a scent of silage, that smell of sweet decay fills me with a familiar longing: a desire to share a glass of cheap Vermouth with the boy I played with, when others in my life were looking elsewhere.
During those evenings, as I lie in Angharad’s old bed, hemmed in by the same scratchy blankets that Llyr and I used for our living-room den, I know that if Llyr appears in my dreams, on that night and in that farmhouse, this time it really will be him. The smile that beams out at me, and the fingers that curl around my own, will lead me dancing over the slurry pit.
This time, I’ll make it across without sinking.
And we won’t pay any heed to the dead thing.
Helen McIntosh-Marsh grew up in Wales before migrating to south London, where she lives with her partner and two children. She works as a manager in a charity that promotes reading as a means to empower people. She draws on her neurodivergence, and her experiences in queer activism to craft stories that explore human connections in a fragmenting world. Twitter: @HelenMcMarsh
Artwork by Kita Das