A scarecrow wind scythed over Pinged and Llandyry and swept away towards the old washeries, over the acres of sad earth. Here they planted the vegetables in rows so straight they grew in serried ranks, a turnip army ready to march on Llanelli.
That wind. It was a dead wind. A grey wind. A wounding wind sharp enough to flail the skin off your hands. Take off your very face if you weren’t careful. Leave you looking like a swede. Really.
With the sea ready to claim the flat lands of the east, eager to inundate Lincolnshire and leave the Wash awash, some agents, working for powers such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s had bought up substantial tracts of land around the Gwendraeth rivers, and along the banks of other estuaries. The markets needed their vegetables. The housewife and househusband must be served. Here, in the grey loams of the Cydweli Flats, they grew the produce they desired, to be plastic-wrapped for their fresh marriages.
They grubbed up acres of sea lavender and purslane, or otherwise blitzed the saltmarshes with selective herbicides, followed by a campaign of dumping lorry loads of nitrates on the razed earth, before finally turning the soil over with ruthless machines designed to work under big skies. Then, and only then were the marshes ready for planting.
That wind. It keened over the fields of cauliflowers, sprouts and potatoes and, because this was bleak midwinter, it seemed to blow in straight from Russia, hauling chill from the Urals and rendering the Carmarthenshire earth as hard as permafrost. In the middle distance, over toward Trimsaran and Crwbin, the only remaining stand of blackthorn hereabouts – now that so many hedges had been razed or uprooted – cowered under the effect of the wind, hunchbacked by the insistent, persistent onslaught.
As the vegetable pickers drudged through the hours of backbreak work the wind seemed to mourn those who had died in the area: Victorian dockers of mangolds, coracle men with a flair for catching sewin and cockle pickers made tubercular by the gouts of rain, the endless seeping drizzle.
Today’s employers didn’t give the men any protective clothing, so they made do, with sou’westers and a lot of assorted rubber wear. One man even wore flippers, and not for a laugh, either. On waterlogged days the veg fields could turn into quagmires, suck at your boots like jellyfish.
Lennie Evans, one of the young men cutting turnips for a pound-an-hour-less-than-minimum-wage was thinking with every cut green head that he shouldn’t be doing this. He really shouldn’t be a human robot standing under sheeting rain. He had four A-levels and three fifths of a degree in medicine and the last time he’d spent this much time slicing he’d been removing a spleen with a threadwire saw in an anatomy practical. His tutor’d said his handiwork was good enough to let him practice on a live patient if he liked. But Doctor Friss was only joking. Or half-joking at least.
But things had come to a pretty underpass. His life had been completely turned around as a consequence of a foolish mistake when he spent a night, just a single night with a woman who got pregnant and it was only then that she told him that her father happened to be someone you really shouldn’t mess with, which was shorthand for a dastardly criminal in the Barry Island mafia who had a penchant for designer knives and trying out carving lessons on gripped human flesh. It all led to Len having to leave town and what was worse his parents having to leave town and change identities to boot. After all, this was a very well connected sociopathic gangster who really could hunt you down wherever you were cowering. But these root veg and beet fields were off his radar. Nobody in his right mind would want to live out here.
So Len was a former medical student now plucking veg from hard ground for the daily Waitrose run, in the company of half a dozen drifters and grifters. Malc the Alc, a Scot with a leathery face, whose name said it all. The Dutchman Gerbrand, never said boo to a goose but worked like a Trojan. Dave Pearce, another drop-out who’d been doing philosophy and did seem wise for his years. Then there was Mark, a sullen junkie whose life was divided equally between work and junk and Tommy, who had a wife and seven kids somewhere in the Midlands. And finally Trinder, a total malcontent they’d all be glad to get shot of, as he moaned more than the wind.
They all had their work cut out. Twenty thousand root vegetables, padlocked under frost-ice, which had to be wrested from the ground, trimmed, washed and then shrink-wrapped at the farm before a driver would collect them to take them down to a central distribution centre somewhere near Magor on the M4.
Twenty thousand vegetables. Not that Len had time to ponder too much about numbers. He had other things to worry about. Such as the near-dead man they’d found in one of the old aircraft hangars just a few hours ago.
They had gone there to eat lunch, in what passed for warmth, even though it was like cold storage in there. They didn’t get as far as unwrapping the sandwiches.
He was dangling. The man hung in the air, his arms suspended by two lengths of rope, each as thick as naval hawser and he’d been there long enough for his hands to whiten through lack of blood flow. They looked like two white tulips, limp, slowly desiccating.
But he was alive.
The man’s voice was dry, desperate, sparking tinily like radio static. In a strained voice, but in a curious accent, the man offered Len and his mates a small fortune if they could just cut him free and get him to a hospital. He gargled out a figure of twenty thousand pounds and they knew they could probably get him to go higher. Bidding for your own life – it was always a buyer’s market.
It was hard for them to place the accent even thought the pain-wracked face suggested he was Romanian or Bulgarian, one of the new wave of immigrants anyway. He was weak, had lost a perilous lot of blood. The ground beneath him was like a sticky blotched carpet and Lennie was horrified to see some of the red stuff adhering to his wellingtons.
They took their positions to help.
The trouble is something awful happened as they were cutting him loose when the dour Dutch boy Gerbrand’s turnip-knife slipped, went in without fuss or ado between the man’s ribs and he just seemed to deflate before them, the air leaving his body as a cold mist around the mouth, matching the bated breath of the onlookers and the bystanders in the dumb show in the cold aluminium shed, watching the man leave this life without so much as a by-your-leave or proper whimper.
They had come into the hangar as free men. Now they were burdened by what they knew, witnesses or in some cases accomplices to a death, a manslaughter and the slaughtered man lay there on the ground in front of them, his eyes glazing like mackerel.
So what happened next happened to all of them: they were all so totally, overwhelmingly implicated. Trinder said they were up shit creek without a paddle, and he had a point for once.
They knew they had to get rid of the body. No doubt about that but the soil outside was completely frozen. You’d need jackhammers, or the sort of trenching drills they use when setting telegraph poles. All they had were spades and it would take them until February to cut a hole big enough for the body.
It was Len who had the idea…
The beet boiler, set up in one corner of the hangar, was a large aluminium box, big enough to accommodate a car the size of a Mini set on a plinth of old railway sleepers. The conveyor belt rattled the beets along from the processing lines, looking like misshapen bowling balls, and they would drop into the scalding water to be boiled until they were soft.
‘What if we drop him in there for an hour or so? There won’t be much left of him by tea-time?’ suggested Lennie, pragmatically.
They conferred and after ten minutes of ghoulish debate Malc the Alc strode over to the far wall and threw the electricity switch and started to boil the water. While that happened the men stripped the clothes from the corpse – he looked far more of a corpse with every passing moment, as the death mask set rigid. They placed the clothes in a barrel which was used for burning palette tags and set them on fire, stoking the flames with anything burnable they could find in the shed, so they added piles of wrapping paper, stuff that advertised “Two for One Deals”, “Finest Quality”, “Shop Early For Christmas.”
By the time they’d done that the water was beginning to steam and so they put the body on the conveyor and it started trundling him along, lifting him slowly toward the lip of the tank. There was something, well, sacred looking about him, the rope burns like stigmata, the flaccid belly innocent as a baby’s, the sense of life being unutterably over for the stranger heading for the boil.
Lenny then had his second brainwave of the day; one that would ensure their secret was safe, that there would be no weak link in the chain.
Next to the beat-up old kettle in the far corner of the hangar there were seven mugs, one for each of the gang. Lenny’s proclaimed ‘Welcome to LA’ in day-glo letters while there were four that were giveaways from doctors’ surgeries brandishing logos for ‘Xanthal,’ ‘Nembutose’ and Rantiril, ‘The laxative for the discerning bowel.’ Lenny always laughed when he saw that, never grew tired of its hopelessness. Then there was a plain green mug that belonged to Ger and a chipped enamel one that Malc was strangely protective of until they found out that his mother used to keep her teeth in it and thus had sentimental value. He put them on all a makeshift tray made from a cardboard box and carried them over to the crew.
He placed the tray and the mugs on the floor in a manner which was nothing less than ceremonial. The others watched him like hawks, nervous and attentive at one and the same time.
Then he picked up the first of the mugs, his own, and took it over to the boiler. He stood there for a few seconds, a priest taking stock before the sacrament, before he turned the little brass tap that allowed you to take a sample of the liquids therein. He filled his mug an eighth full and did the same with all the others.
The men looked on horrified, their faces whitewashed with horror, as if they were wearing masks in a Noh play.
Lenny handed out the mugs and then took the first supremely significant drink, downing it in one and doing his level best to make it look as if he were doing nothing more than drinking Vimto. The others held their cups as if they contained rattlesnake juice, or the blood of the unborn, or a pint of the Devil’s own piss but one by one they drank the contents down, knowing there was some well nigh unbelievable logic in this demonic communion. Draughts to salve their conscience? Maybe not. Drinks to bind them together forever, in a pact of silence as tight as tensile steel? Perhaps.
They stood there dumb and transfixed by the moment, the taste hard to get rid of, as it was more than just taste. It was a memory they couldn’t excise, a portent of what prison food would taste like if they weren’t careful, now that they’d entered fatefully into in a pact of silence, like so many Trappist monks.
And that might have been that. Seven workers had been bound together by an impossible guilty secret, a stain on their collective souls as bright as beetroot. Except there was a scurry in the corner of the hangar, where an outsize rat, big as a small domestic cat, slinked behind some old silage sacks. A metallic glint attracted Lennie’s attention and when he looked more closely he saw a chain and that chain connected to an attaché case, like the sort of thing you’d see attached to the wrist of a diamond mule in a Bond movie. He picked up the case and put it on a straw bale to take a better look.
‘You’d better put it back where you found it.’ It was Gerbrand, whose voice was unfamiliar to them all, and gained some authority from that fact. Trinder said whatever it was it belonged to someone else and they were all going to die painful deaths, which wasn’t useful.
But curiosity needs to kill the cat.
Lennie picked up a sharp-edged tool from a pile of metal detritus and snapped open the lock with surprising ease.
They’d all seen scenes like this one in films, where the lid of a case opens up to reveal tightly-packed blocks of currency. Michael Caine’s usually somewhere about, or George Clooney and there’s a soundtrack that’s a shimmer of violins.
They looked at it aghast before feeling the need to count it and when they unpeeled one of the blocks and found it was a major amount of money in itself, fifty pounds short of fifty thousand pounds and that fifty was probably a miscount so they realized that they had stumbled upon an honest to goodness fortune even though there was probably little that was honest behind it. Then the Dutch boy spoke again and this time his voice had the timbre of the oracle at Delphi.
‘I saw a helicopter.’
They waited for amplification, which came very slowly, phrase by phrase.
‘It came in off the sea and landed just outside this place.’
Another pause, a long one.
‘Then I saw a man with a chain attached to his wrist coming out of the helicopter and the chain was attached to the case.’
‘This case?’ asked Lennie, his voice a little high-pitched, a bit heliumed-up with anxiety.
‘Yes. This case. This case was attached to his wrist by a length of chain. He then came out of here without it.’
Another pause, painfully long. Their eyes egged him on to continue.
‘And then he ran to the helicopter, jumped on board and it took off again in the direction of the sea.’
The information bludgeoned them into silence. It was a while before they could breathe properly, let alone speak.
Lennie was the one to sum it up, the scale of their dilemma.
‘So there’ll be someone coming to pick it up. Maybe the dead guy was the one who came to pick it up and they tried to find out where it was hidden.’
‘They?’ queried Malc the Alc.
‘It would take more than one person to hang a man from ropes in the air, Malcolm. That’s self-evident.’ Lennie was taking charge, minute by minute.
Malc looked crestfallen, his eyes puppy eyes, maybe for the first time in his life.
‘So they’ll be back…’
‘Or maybe they haven’t gone away. Maybe they’re watching this place, waiting for Mr Dead’s accomplice to show up,’ offered Trinder almost chirpily. No wonder they all loathed him.
‘Is it time for us to start shitting ourselves?’ suggested Dave Pearce, at his helpful best. You could just tell he was a philosophy graduate. The way he cut to the heart of the matter. Made you think.
‘I think we should take a vote,’ offered Lennie, adding that by his reckoning each one of them would have at least four hundred thousand pounds before apologizing that he wasn’t that good at maths. But he was near the mark, he maintained.
‘Anyway,’ he added, ‘there’s a lot of money there, and so there’s a lot of money divided by six.’
‘They’ll slit out throats,’ said Gebrand, who was getting almost chatty.
‘If they can find us,’ said Malc.
‘Oh, they’ll find us all right,’ chipped in Mark who was already imagining grade A smack that he wouldn’t have to buy off the skanky dealers he normally visited in their rat holes. Opiates had made him depressive. It figures.
When it came down to it they voted to take the money and run. Or rather, hide.
And for four long days nothing happened. In fact by the fourth day most of them had started to dream about what they’d end up doing when they weren’t on the veg and their thoughts turned positively tropical, with sun-kissed beaches and pina coladas and lots of lying around and not a Brussels fucking sprout within a million miles. In their dreamy reveries they drank a lot and stayed warm all day and never had to bend over with a knife in their hands to cut a stubborn stalk ever again.
They thought these thoughts in silence, in a nervous stubborn silence, which weighed down on them as if they had breeze blocks on their shoulders.
Then on the fifth day, when they were all strung out in a long line picking cauli, they heard the drone of a far-off helicopter which then grew louder as it buzzed in low over St Ishmaels and Salmon Scar. Within minutes it was right overhead, which made them all nervous beyond, so it was with a huge sigh of relief that they watched it pass over and keep heading east although it didn’t pass far enough east, but rather veered and banked and abruptly landed on the old earthwork known as the Bank O’ Lords.
The doors of the helicopter opened and a dozen men in black silk suits, each man wearing a black balaclava mask, ran out. The swords they carried, or rather the scimitars they carried, glistened in the late afternoon sun. The men didn’t stop to appreciate the exotic spectacle, tearing the hell away across the vegetable rows, stumbling over the cut stalks which acted like trip wires, like stumbling blocks. Lennie saw the Dutch boy get beheaded even as he managed to reach a little boat tied up on the biggest creek feeding into the Gwendraeth Fawr. He saw a severed hand lying on a bed of sea purslane, the fingers clenching and unclenching uselessly before turning rigid. He saw smears of red against the purplish greens of the marsh grasses, like a painting of butchery.
Lennie managed to get its outboard engine racing and he had the forethought to leave his jacket draped over the back of the boat when he slid into the water, watching the craft head straight out to sea. And by some miracle, some ridiculous miracle, the men didn’t actually see him slink into the muddy water, and by the time they saw the boat and ran back to the chopper to send it skywards to chase after the boat, Lennie had managed to crawl his way into the buckthorn growth, which was a place that tore at your skin, a terrible place of savage thorns which could spear your eyeballs. But just as he felt the threat of the sharp-spined plants so too did he feel their protective safety as he pushed himself further in, knowing there were bloody acres of the stuff. Unless they had thermal imaging equipment he was safe, and the good thing was that the buckthorn groves – if you could call them that – abutted the dried up concrete culvert where they’d left the case. The whole thing almost made a religious man of him, but not quite.
Lennie still thinks of that day, not that often it has to be said because who would want to cultivate the stuff of nightmares, truth be told? To remember drinking a man’s vital juices mixed with beetroot. To recall a severed hand, palping the very moments of death.
It’s a warm wind that blows over the beach on Antigua and the birds are more colourful than any postage stamp. Sometimes, when he dozes like this, even as the afternoon sun turns from satsuma slowly through to pearl, the men in their bandanas run in from dark corners, across the Gwendraeth marshlands and Cydweli Flats. They give chase, vibrant with imprecations and alive with their lunging sabres and he hears that scarecrow wind as it shivers the leaves. He may then shudder himself awake, or choose to fall into deeper sleep and leave them far behind.
One thing’s for certain in his Caribbean home. He will never ever eat a root vegetable again in his life and the very words Brussels sprouts give him the hives.
For him, now, life is all papaya and he likes it that way.
Yes, all papaya and ghost crabs nibbling the flesh of his heels as he paddles in the waves: a shirr of blue water as it laps against his toes.
Yes, life is good now.
As the sun settles into the sea. And as the day’s heat, blow-lamped over the mangrove line, must now surely dissipate, allowing the cooling zephyr of the night to blow right on through.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis