Springtime it was at its worst, reaching a crescendo in late April. The sounds of heavy rutting could spill forth from an outcrop of shrubbery or woodland glade at any hour.
They left evidence of their meetings. Empty bottles of rosé, crumpled White Lightnings, half-finished cans of Fosters. And fag butts. Hundreds of fag butts, some of them more green than brown, lying like boundary lines surrounding patches of flattened grass and broken trees.
The males would saunter into town in search of the necessary supplies. Most shops turned them away. Their money was stolen or counterfeit, if they had any money at all. A test of local shopkeepers’ commitment was the semi-regular necessity to stare down two thousand pounds of half-cut muscle and hooves in order to prevent the theft of a bomber jacket or pre-cooked chicken.
If they could, the people who lived in country towns stayed home until the beasts had retreated into the deep, wild places. It was not uncommon to hear unsteady cantering outside an off-licence at any time of the year, but they mostly grew less brazen after the mating season. Livestock might go missing or an orchard would be drained, but it was never as bad as it was in the Spring.
That December had been unusually warm. Some people had left their winter coats at home, leaving the house with only a thick shirt covering them. Lots of folks threw words like climate change and global warming around, but Martyn didn’t care about that stuff; he relished not having to worry about the cost of central heating. He put off chopping firewood for a little longer, allowing himself to forget the frustration of not being able to get the stove burning without the help of firelighters and compact blocks of sawdust. Starting and maintaining a fire was one of those things a man is expected to be good at.
“The bloody ‘taurs are still at it late this year,” John told him from the end of the bar.
John was a regular barfly. Sixty-eight years old, six foot ten, and still a full-time farmer of dairy and cereals. The land on which the Golitha Tavern had been built was bought from him nearly fifteen years prior, a fact he let every new member of staff know upon meeting them. His tab was paid off nightly but, unlike other patrons, did not require confirmation of his credit card details to set up.
John drank Tribute except for when the Tribute was off. When the Tribute was off, John drank Carling, because it was the cheapest lager on tap.
“I found five of them in my barn last night, all naked and together. Five. Three of them were male as well. How does that even work, logistically I mean?”
Martyn nodded and said something banal like “Yeah, it’s crazy” and carried on putting the clean glasses away.
“It’s not like I can chase them away either. Damn ‘Taurs don’t give a shit about a shotgun, the adult ones anyway. I just had to leave them to it. All night I could hear them hollerin’. Still goin’ when I got up to tend to the cattle. Dirty buggers.”
At the end of the night, John paid his tab off after he’d finished his sixth pint. He exclaimed “You’re jucking foking!” when Martyn read out his total, as he always did, and they laughed together mechanically.
Martyn was only part-time. There’d been offers of a full-time position, but he never took them. He liked having four days out of seven off and, besides, Kizzy made enough to support them both.
For a week last month, she had given him the silent treatment because he had managed to shrink her favourite cardigan. Martyn protested: He didn’t know you couldn’t put wool in the tumble dryer.
“Why not? Seriously Martyn. You’re thirty-two. How can you not know that? For fucks sake.”
Then she grabbed the doll-sized garment, stormed upstairs and didn’t talk to him again until Thursday.
Martyn apologised over the next six days. He asked her what he was supposed to do? Was he supposed to look through every damp article of clothing before he threw it from the washing machine into the dryer, instead of scooping it up in orangutan arms in two scrunched up boulders? Who has time for that? He told her she was ridiculous. She remained silent. She didn’t cook his dinner. He bought Super Noodles and Rustlers burgers to survive on, staying in the kitchen for the shortest amount of time possible to avoid Kizzy’s complete lack of warmth. He slept on the sofa and drank tinnies every night. He didn’t dare venture out to the pub, but he felt unwelcome at home. He woke up a little hungover every morning of that week.
He apologised again, and again, and one more time, then he just went quiet and sad, being careful not to touch her as they passed each other in the dining room.
On Thursday she spoke as she put an unannounced plate of chilli down in front of him.
“Look, don’t worry about it. You just aren’t good at that stuff, are you?”
Martyn shook his head.
“But your brilliant in other ways, I guess.”
She didn’t look at him when she talked, and she spoke so quietly he could barely hear it, but she didn’t flinch when he reached for her hand and that night she let him make love to her. He promised he’d try harder, and for the next week or so he washed up and threw his dirty clothes into the hamper instead of on the floor and he cooked fry-up for dinner twice.
She didn’t want to marry him. Marriage, she said, wasn’t for her. He didn’t understand, and it hurt him to think about it. She didn’t want children either. Or at least not right that second. They’d been together almost a decade and she had said that the whole way through their relationship. They didn’t own their own house, so a baby just wasn’t viable. That’s what she said.
Martyn carried a bundle of his dirty clothes out to the garage, steadying it with his chin as he unlocked the door with one hand. He passed the pile of broken tree trunk pieces that John had gifted him after the spring ploughing had died off and the centaurs had gone home. He figured that he could chop it up in the summer and save money on wood in the winter. It sat by the fence untouched.
The garage was only accessible by the street or by a patch of land that technically belonged to the house next door. Thoroughfare was authorised, but they still left a big padlock on the garage doors.
Kizzy would return home from the farm soon.
Martyn dumped his load on the floor and emptied the washing machine into his arms. He turned to where the dryer was and stuffed it in, then looked through it haphazardly pulling out anything he wasn’t sure about. A shawl, a pair of winter socks, a shirt. He put them to one side so he could hang them on the line, then he started the dryer, forgetting to empty the lint tray. He tossed the new load into the washing machine, added an unspecified hit of washing powder, switched it on and went back inside.
Martyn entered the house through the kitchen. He flipped the kettle on and rinsed out two used mugs. A key moved in the door.
Kizzy walked in and sighed.
“Hey babe. D’ya want a coffee?” he called to her from the kitchen.
She didn’t respond. She just looked around and shook her head, moving toward the sound of the kettle. She left her shoes neatly by the front door and hung her bag up over the banister as she passed it. Nothing had moved since she’d left for work in the morning.
“Coffee?” Martyn said as she walked into the kitchen. He had cleared a small space on the work surface for the two mugs he’d rinsed. The rest of the kitchen was covered in dirty crockery and the remnants of last night’s dinner.
“What have you done today?” Kizzy said.
Martyn stopped smiling.
“Oh hello, darling. Nice to see you.”
“Martyn. What have you done today?”
Martyn went back to bed after Kizzy had left for work. He had woken up just in time to have a quick tug over Holly Willoughby (and by proxy, Philip Schofield) before This Morning transitioned into Loose Women, then he ate some toast. He had a substantial shit then spent the afternoon laying on the sofa watching youtube top ten videos about wrestlers and soap opera stars and things you didn’t know about the recording of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When he realised Kizzy was quarter of an hour from home, he decided to go to the garage.
“I put a wash on.”
She waited for more.
“Don’t worry; I took the non-dryer friendly stuff out and…”
He looked out at the washing line and remembered he’d left the shawl, socks and shirt draped over the box their TV came in.
“I’ll hang them up in a minute.”
Kizzy did not react externally.
“Did you sort out dinner?”
“Not yet, no.”
She turned, left the kitchen and made her way to her room to get out of her work clothes. Martyn paused for a moment, then rushed to the bottom of the stairs.
“Do you wanna go out for dinner, Kizz? My treat.”
Before they left, she had to remind him to hang the wet clothes on the line like he had said he would.
The Golitha Tavern served a nightly carvery in the winter months. Martyn suggested that they walk to it, cutting through the woods at the edge of John’s farm to make the most of the warm winter evening and his twenty-five percent staff discount. It was only just gone four when they left the house giving them plenty of time to get there before the sun set. Kizzy agreed because she was weary of disagreements. She was tired from work and just wanted to eat as soon as possible.
The evening was pleasant. It was getting cold, but in the way that old people describe as fresh. The ground was still warm from the day long sunshine. There seemed to be an abundance of squirrels ferreting nuts away and loping through the trees.
Martyn held Kizzy’s hand. She did not pull away, but she didn’t reciprocate either. They walked along the woodland paths in silence, Martyn ignorant to the impression of a fish gripped in a vice their linked hands were performing. Kizzy was used to his ignorance.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Martyn said, gesturing at nothing in particular.
Kizzy thought about the dishes that had just stayed on the kitchen side all day. She thought about the cardigan he had shrunk. She thought about the times he sat chuckling to himself about something on his phone whilst she cooked their dinner or scrubbed the kitchen floor or unblocked the bathroom sink. She thought about how old she was now and how much harder having children would become if she didn’t have them soon.
Martyn caught her eye and smiled, pointing up to a tree branch where two wood pigeons nuzzled each other. She smiled back in a way she knew he’d like.
“I’ll have a good tidy of the place tomorrow, Kizz. I am Sorry. Today just got away with me.”
She nodded and smiled again. She thought about days getting away. How days that had gotten away pile up into years that have gotten away. She thought about how couples used to just stay together because it was the done thing, even if they resented each other.
From the trees to their left, they heard a noise like a baby crying. Martyn looked at Kizzy then looked back in the direction of the noise that stopped and started.
“What… What do you think that is, Kizz?” he said.
Kizzy felt a little sick.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think… I mean, maybe we should go look?”
Martyn looked at her questioningly. Kizzy looked at the wood to the left, then back to him. The wood pigeons had flown away. She nodded as confidently as she could.
Martyn’s brow furrowed the way it did when he wanted to look decisive. He moved off the path towards the noise, clumsily moving branches out of his way. Kizzy could see he was doing his best to hold them open for her.
The pauses between wailing grew longer.
Martyn kept pushing forward. A thorn snuck up the leg of his trouser and scratched the skin just above his sock.
“There are bramble’s there, Kizz. Watch yourself.” He half-whispered.
After about three hundred yards they reached a small clearing. It was natural in origin, so hewn roughly, but the two of them could stand comfortably in it. Near the far edge of it, they saw a large shape where the crying had been coming from. The canopy above them was dense enough that it took their eyes a minute to focus.
A centaur foal knelt there, shaking. It’s equine lower-half fidgeted as it became aware of the two people near it now.
It’s infant half drooped over heavily, wobbling around in a direction dictated by the nervous spasming of it’s legs. It did not move, save for rapid desperate breathing and huge wet eyes that fixed upon the couple. It’s tongue flicked in and out of it’s mouth, searching for a teat that wasn’t there. It’s face was red and moist with mucus and tears. The mixture pooled in it’s hairline causing it to mat.
Kizzy held her hands to her mouth.
The animal was only days old Martyn surmised, based on the development of it’s humanoid half.
“Fuck,” he breathed, “It’s neck’s broken.”
He put his hand on the back of Kizzy’s skull and pulled her into his chest, kissing her forehead as he did so. He held her for a couple of seconds. He felt her tears seep into the fibres of his shirt, warming his shoulder. He kissed her on the top of her head then let her go, he slowly moved towards the centaur.
He had seen this once before. It happened when he was a boy. At Christmas, whilst they stayed over at his Grandad’s. Grandad had told him there was nothing that could be done. The parents fall into mourning and leave the baby to die.
Kizzy was crying. Her mouth was dry.
Grandad had said that was the trouble with centaurs. He said that this kind of thing happened a lot when they were new-born. Sometimes they gallop before their neck has ‘set.’
Martyn knelt next to the foal, like his Grandad had that Christmas. He smoothed the fur around the beast’s haunches to settle it. The beast flinched as his fingers discovered wet heat just under it’s shoulder. His fingers naturally found buckshot in amongst the pool. He rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, examining it as it dyed his fingers red.
Gently, he lifted the baby half up, so that it’s head rested on his shoulder. He held it in place with one arm whilst his other arm continued to stroke it’s furred back, avoiding the wound as he did so. He whispered softly in it’s ear.
It stared at Kizzy, it’s mouth opening and closing like a fish, but it’s breathing started to slow. Tentatively, she crept over and took it’s hand in hers. It couldn’t feel it’s hand anymore. It didn’t close it’s eyes like in the movies.
At home that night, they made love and fell asleep as close to each other as they could. Whilst they were out, the lint drawer in the dryer caught fire. The flames did not spread far, but the clothes inside were destroyed and the machine itself was written off. Kizzy wouldn’t find out until the morning, as she got up first to go to work. A little egg clung to the wall of her uterus, filled with the seed Martyn hadn’t wasted on daytime TV.