© Simon Totten
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The Funny Farm
‘I’m telling you… it’s true,’ insisted Marianne Groebe.
‘Nahhhh …you’re having a laugh,’ smiled Arthur Skelton, ‘You’re kidding me right?’ he asked, the smile disappearing slowly from his face as Marianne's expression told him otherwise.
‘All right then, I’ll prove it… turn the lights off… I’ll show you if you don’t believe me,’ said Marianne, adjusting her rounded silver frame glasses.
Arthur dragged his wellies through a mess of straw and muck on the floor, fumbled for the light switch and flicked it off. In the gloom he raised his eyebrows and dropped his jaw. His weathered, craggy features had seen a thing or two in his time, but this?
‘Jeezus… yeah…you’re right….’ he said, peering through the wire mesh of a hutch.
Marianne was grinning from ear to ear, pride sparkling in her eyes.
‘How did you do that?’ asked Arthur, not for the first time, astounded by her.
She had far exceeded his expectations since she’d arrived from New Zealand, as a scientific researcher with a very impressive CV. They’d slowly developed a special bond, a professional rapport. Over the last nine months they’d modernised, upgraded and restructured every aspect of his farm and quadrupled his profits in the process. But it was more than that, much more. Arthur was, without question, under her spell. She was the answer to all his prayers and he simply had to find a way to tell her.
‘I told you already...’ she replied, opening the door and pulling a plump white rabbit from it. Its skin and eyes glowing lime green in the darkness. She pursed her lips, while tickling behind its floppy ears.
‘It’s not magic or anything. It’s all done with TransGenix. We identify genes, extract them, then transfer them. We took the part of the DNA of the Jellyfish gene that fluoresces and put it into the rabbit.’
‘But why on earth would you want to do that?’ he asked, shaking his head.
‘Well…I’m just doing what you asked me to - turning pioneering techniques in genetic engineering into practical experiments….’
‘Well, yeah but… Is it complicated?’
‘Not really,’ said Marianne, purring as she stroked the rabbit’s thick fur. For a scientist she was a bit touchy feely with animals but he found it very endearing and trusted her implicitly.
‘In fact it’s quite easy,’ she continued. ‘You can order pretty much anything on the internet these days and I just injected it. Simple,’ she said, with the cutest of smiles that won Arthur over every time. He held the door open for her and walked with her across the farm courtyard away from the horse stables and pig pens.
‘Arrgh…. This place always hums to high heaven. Usually fresh horse dung, cow pats or pig’s plop but always some kind of shit. But I have to ask… what in hell is that goddamn unholy stink?’
‘Oh…’ laughed Marianne. ‘I know what you’re thinking… it’s more like an industrial chemical plant right? But go with it, change can be scary. It takes a bit of getting used to. It doesn’t smell like a farm anymore, but I think you’ll agree it’s worth it. All I can smell is money. That ‘unholy stink,’ as you so eloquently put it, is Bernard.’
‘Bernard? Who the fuck’s he?’
Marianne giggled. ‘You met him already.... surely you remember Bernard?’
Arthur stopped, pulled the braces of his trousers straighter over his shoulders, tipped his cap, scratched his head and looked her in the eye.
‘Bernard’s the drone, remember? It flies over all your crops, four hours a day spraying the new miracle grow pesticide. Bernard you see… cuts your labour costs and time to zero and increases your productivity by 400%. Impressive eh?’
‘Yeah… of course,’ said Arthur. ‘I just forgot you give them all names, that’s all.'
‘How could you possibly forget your cows are called Tabatha, Bluebell and Fifi-Trixibell?’
Arthur nodded in shame. The glass panes from the greenhouses sparkled in the sun.
‘My prize leeks, tomatoes and cabbages are getting bigger every year,’ he said, proudly. ‘I won last year’s local harvest festival show you know?’
‘Really?’ mocked Marianne.
Sprawling golden acres of wheat and barley shimmered in the haze beyond. The farm could be a cruel lonely environment and for the first time, since Arthur’s wife Gail died three years ago, the faint semblance of happiness was stirring inside him.
He gazed at Marianne, admiring her lithe body. The shapely buttocks in tight jeans, slender long legs, curves to die for, breasts not too big… not too small… drooling at the thought of her naked skin, warm and smooth, against his in bed.
He climbed the farm house’s worn stone steps leading to the kitchen, holding the door open for her.
‘You’re such a gent Arthur,’ she said, breezing past him, the scent of her perfume shining a light into the darkest recesses of his heart.
‘Listen…’ said Arthur, placing his hand on her shoulder, but longing to let it stray elsewhere. ‘I’ve got a long night ahead of me…I’m going to make Spaghetti Bolognese for dinner, would you like some?’
‘Perfect.’ replied Marianne.
‘Everything’s ready. Just need to work my culinary magic on it… so won’t be long. While I fix us a meal you relax, take the weight off your feet with a glass of wine. There’s a nice bottle of red in the cupboard. Will you do the honours?’
‘Wow… Arthur Skelton you really know how to treat a lady don’t you? You’ll be sweeping me off my feet next?’ she joked.
Arthur glared at her. It was as if she had ESP or something.
‘Christ…excuse me,’ said Arthur, stifling a gaping yawn. ‘So sorry… you must think I’m rude. I can’t seem to keep up these days. Must be feeling my age.’
‘Nonsense you don’t look a day over...’ said Marianne stopping. They both giggled nervously. At the back of Arthur’s mind was a nagging doubt that her flirting was nothing more than friendly banter and the twenty year age gap between them would be too big to bridge.
‘Anyway it’s no wonder…You’ve got a lot going on here, it’s a busy time of year.. you must be exhausted,’ she said, reassuringly.
‘Yes I think so... but I've still got loads to do though. At a guess I’d say there are twice the number of pregnant sheep than ever before.’
‘I did say didn’t I? With the new fertility drugs and modern selective breeding programme you can fine tune your livestock numbers. You have maximum control of it. This way, with your capacity and facilities, you treble your money.’
‘Yeah but it’s all too much for one man to manage. Ged Farrington from the farm down the road usually comes over to help but his wife’s not well, so he can’t make it. Reckon I’ll be up all night with that lot.’
‘Well… how about I give you a hand?’ asked Marianne.
‘No… I couldn’t possibly. I’d feel like I was taking advantage.’
‘No… not at all… really…’ said Marianne, sipping from her wine glass. ‘I’d love to. I’m very experienced you know.’
‘Well… if you’re sure…?’
‘It’d be a pleasure and a privilege Mr Skelton, anything I can do to help,’ she said.
‘Great… but let’s eat first,’ said Arthur. ‘I’m starving…’
While the mushrooms, onion and mince meat sizzled in the pan, Arthur turned up 'Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini' by Rachmaninov to flavour the mood. He threw in a can of tinned tomatoes to the mix in the pan. After stirring and lowering the heat on the oven he made his way into the sitting room to find Marianne lying on the sofa.
She always lit up a room. She had it all, looks, figure, infectious enthusiasm, sharp wit and intelligence. Falling in love with her wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal with New Zealand Farming Association but that was exactly what had happened. He couldn't keep his feelings bottled up inside him any longer. What the hell right? Life was for living. They'd make a great team. His mind was made up he was going to pop the question - tonight.
During the meal Arthur was constantly on edge. Marianne was one of those people who liked to talk and eat at the same time. ‘Pass the salt?’ ‘Fancy a top up?’ What do you think?’ Her expertise with dinner table small talk, constantly interrupted his train of thought until finally, a golden silence presented a gilt edged opportunity.
‘Marianne… I err…I’ve got something really important to ask you…’ he said hesitating. ‘It’s a bit delicate…’
‘Come on Arthur… spit it out… I won’t bite.’ said Marianne.
‘Well… .I don’t quite know where to start…’ he hesitated, feeling more like a lovesick schoolboy than a mature 45-year-old.
‘The thing is….you’ve done so much to help me. For the first time in years…’ said Arthur, wanting more than anything to get it off his chest, get down on one knee and ask her to marry him.‘The bank manager’s off my back …Since you came along everything works like a dream. It’s been amazing. How can I ever thank you?’
‘Well… really… there’s no need Mr Skelton,’ she said.
‘Please… please call me Arthur,’ he insisted.
‘It should be me that’s thanking you for the opportunity to put all my research into practice. It’s been thrilling to see it all unfold at first hand.’
‘Those bulls…’ he said. Honestly …I don’t know how you did it… they’re monsters. Weigh a bleedin' tonne they do. I make a killing on beef sales now. Through the roof they are and it’s all down to you.’
‘Well… I can’t take much of the credit for that I’m afraid. It’s the drug that regulates the growth of muscle gene, it works wonders. It does exactly what it says on the tin.’
‘Oh nonsense… you re something else, Marianne,’ he said, moving closer to her.
‘Well thank you…’ she said. ‘Good to know I haven’t been a complete waste of time and space.’
‘What? Don't be ridiculous, you’re a Godsend…you’ve sprinkled your fairy dust everywhere. Take those chickens for example. Who’d a thought they’d be as big as that. Like baby dinosaurs they are and as fat as my old lady, god rest her soul. And the time and money we save not having to pluck em well it’s a life saver,’ said Arthur breaking a long, awkward silence.
‘Trust me, rearing chickens without the feather gene will be a cash cow for a very long time. Same with the others…like the Super salmon that grow ten times faster than before.'
‘Bloody hell…. it’s just non-stop genius all the way with you isn’t it?’
During a lull at the end of the meal, Arthur sensed his moment. Just as the words formed in his head, Marianne stood up abruptly, scraping her chair on the floor.
‘That was delicious. Thank you. I should have known you’d be a wonderful cook. You’re a man of many talents Arthur Skelton,’ she said, busying herself, clearing the table.
Before he could say anything else, she’d finished and was already standing next to the door, waiting for him to go outside. His big moment had come and gone.
They made their way outside, anxious to make a start on lambing. The sheep had already been rounded up into the new warehouse by Rex the robot sheepdog, in preparation for lambing.
‘I can’t wait to get this finished. At least I’ll be able to rest when it’s all over,’ said Arthur. ‘You sure you’ve done this before?’ he asked.
‘Can a duck swim? An eagle fly? Does pig shit stink? Don’t worry, I’ve been lambing since I was a kid on my dad’s farm, in New Zealand. I used to do it all the time back in the day, long before I went to Uni.’
‘Ok then…. you take those ones in there,’ said Arthur, pointing to his right and opening the sheep pen nearest to him. And I’ll do this lot…’
Half an hour later Marianne had set about the job with a quiet, professional efficiency.
‘Ah look…’ she said, pointing out a frisky new born. Its little tail tinkling, its bambi legs straining to get close to its mother. ‘Why are they so cute and cuddly, do you think?’ I just want to pick them up and smother them don’t you?’
‘Well…not really,’ said Arthur, ‘All I see is chops, mint burgers, roasts and big fat pound signs.’
‘You’re a heartless man… Arthur,’ said Marianne.
If only she knew the truth, he thought, taking yet another bulging mass of wool into his strong hands.
Marianne gasped, obviously struggling.
‘You ok?’ he asked. ‘What’s up?’
‘Mmm… I dunno… this one’s just not happening for some reason. I don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. What do you think? Can you help me?’
‘Sure no problem,’ said Arthur, dropping the hose pipe he was using to clean up a new born.
Standing over the troublesome sheep that was bleating in distress, he pulled it onto its back, pressing his fingers firmly into its bulging stomach.
‘Wow… … this one’s full as a gun… it’s more than ready. Might need a bit of old fashioned welly though.’
While Marianne held it down on the ground, Arthur fetched a machine. ‘This’ll do the trick… always does in the end.’ Skilfully, he guided it inside the sheep and twisted the end of the machine like a cork screw.
‘Christ… this is an awkward bugger,’ he said, sweat dripping from his brow.
Arthur looked around. Mothers everywhere were licking their new borns clean. He stood back admiring Marianne, bathed in perspiration and up to her elbows in bloody afterbirths. She’d had her hands up as many sheeps’ backsides as he had. She was a natural and he could confidently add useful, practical farming skills to her long list of admirable qualities.
‘That’s it…. it’s coming,’ said Marianne. The front part of a lamb’s head appeared at the messy entrance of the womb. Arthur kept twisting, until all of it was visible.
‘Here we go… at last,’ he said, manoeuvring it gently and expertly with his hands until it fell into Marianne’s lap.
‘At last… signed, sealed and delivered,’ he gasped. ‘How many’s that? I lost count now. Not many left now I reckon. Almost there I’d say.’
It was then he felt an overwhelming, exhilarating elation. Something just clicked inside him. He got down on one knee. ‘Marianne Groebe… will you do me the very great honour… of…’
‘FFfuck….’ screamed Marianne.
‘Oh no..’ said Arthur. ‘It’s ok… forget it… I’m sorry I must have got the wrong end of the stick…’
Marianne glared at him wide-eyed and pale, as if the lamb had, before her very eyes, died in her arms.
Arthur looked down into her lap. There, in the globby mess of blood and afterbirth a dollop of flesh and bone squirted from the sheep’s rear end and slopped onto the ground. Staring up at him was the face of a baboon with curved, monstrous teeth and an alligator’s tail.