The dew soaked through my trainers and the bottom of my jeans as I looked round nervously, waiting for an angry farmer to appear, shouting and brandishing a gun.
Stuart surged purposefully ahead. To this day I don’t know what his purpose was that morning. He often moved in mysterious ways. I imagine his intention would have been to humiliate me in some way though.
I had woken to see his face inches from mine, hissing, “Wake up, dickhead, get dressed.” Resignedly, I pulled on yesterday’s jumper and jeans, the breathing of the other boys filling the room. The light breaking through the windows dimly lit their sleeping faces.
Stuart beckoned me impatiently to the door. He eased it open and we slipped through. He paused outside the teachers’ room. A deep snoring rumble came through the door. Stuart grinned. He mouthed “Mountshaw” and made the wanker sign.
Outside, I had the feeling of being the only people on Earth awake at that moment. Stuart led us out of the sleeping village, up towards the farm, past the silent farmhouse and grazing sheep, which raised their heads briefly as we passed then bent again to the grass.
“Interesting fact about sheep: they will follow the sheep in front of them even if it means heading into danger or certain death.” Mountshaw had told us at this spot yesterday. “But,” he added, “they have an amazing tolerance for pain. It makes them seem less vulnerable to predators, which... Stuart, come to the front now please, this is not the time for chatting up the ladies.”
Stuart had crept round behind Iris Gregory and Katie Wharton. From my place at the front of the group I couldn’t hear, but by the look on Katie’s face I guessed he’d been singing his favourite song for them. “Who let the dogs out, who, who, who, who?”, barking the “who, who, who, who”. He never got tired of it, even had it as his ringtone, setting it off whenever he saw Iris and Katie together in the playground, woofing loudly as Katie’s eyes fill with tears and Iris shouts at him to leave them alone. Me watching from the other side of the playground but doing nothing.
I was always weak. I think that’s why I followed him so unquestioningly that morning, simply carried along by his will. If I’m honest, there could have been an element of wanting to be accepted by him too. Why, I do not know.
By the time we’d reached the top field I was definitely asking myself what I was doing there though. Looking back down the hill, the farmhouse and tractors now like toys in the distance, I imagine walking back across that expanse of space alone.
Behind me, Stuart jumps from the top of the stile and heads into the field, not looking back. Reluctantly, I clamber over and trudge after him.
The now-familiar smell of cow dung fills my nose. There’s maybe thirty of them, black and white, heads all lowered to the grass. I recall Mountshaw walking back to the hostel with me yesterday, relating endless facts; that cows have just the one stomach with four sections, not four stomachs; that they can climb up stairs but not down again; that one cow can produce ten tonnes of manure a year; and a funny story about how his sister got chased by a herd when she was walking their dog Alfie (“a yappy bugger”) across a field on a family holiday.
I catch up with Stuart where he has stopped a few feet away from one cow, which looks up at him, chewing thoughtfully. Stuart glares at it. “Stupid animal,” he spits.
Is this why we’re here? To bully a cow? I stare at it. A pure black and white, its sleek ears flicking gently, its glossy black nose flaring slightly. It doesn’t look stupid. In fact, I can see a peaceful wisdom in its deep, dark eyes, a placid contentedness. “It’s beautiful,” I say before I can stop myself.
Stuart shakes his head and looks at me in disgust. “You really are gay,” he tells me, as if calling a cow beautiful were the final proof.
It’s then that I hear it, quietly at first. The cow hears it too, lifts its head and listens. Stuart takes the phone out of his pocket and it is suddenly very loud in the quiet morning. “Who let the dogs out, who, who, who, who? Who let the dogs out, who, who, who, who?” The cow takes a step towards us and snorts. I take a step back.
Stuart laughs and taunts the cow with the phone. “Woof, woof, woof,” he yaps at it, dancing from foot to foot. The cow snorts again and pushes its head at him. I look round and see the other cows have stopped chewing the grass and are looking up. Some start to lumber towards us.
I pull at Stuart’s sleeve but he shakes me off. I try to speak but my throat has tightened. The herd begin to low, a rising crescendo that fills my head.
Stuart turns at the noise and I see his face change; the smirk gone, his eyes wide. Then the cow butts him from behind, he staggers, then we're both running.
The stile looks a mile away as Stuart streaks past me. Suddenly I can’t breathe, my head swims and my heart is about to explode. I instinctively feel for my inhaler but it’s too late. I turn as the cows bear down on me, heads bobbing rhythmically, a solid wave of black and white.
I have time to imagine the news being broken to Mum, after her warnings of allergies, accidents and germs, that I died in a cow stampede, but then the first animals are upon me and sweeping past me, the wave parting around me, the ground shaking beneath my feet.
I turn and watch as Stuart nears the stile, the cows gaining on him. He twists to look, his feet go from under him and he pitches back and is gone in the mass of bodies. I hear a brief high, girlish scream, then just the phone still spewing out its tune before it too is cut off.
After a moment the cows lift their heads and wander away, spreading out across the field, sparing me barely a glance as they return to grazing.
Stuart doesn’t move as I approach but I can see his chest rising and falling. His face, glistening with a slimy film of saliva, wears a look of disbelief.
“You okay?” I venture.
He blinks and slowly focuses on me. “Yeah,” he says.
“Do you want… can I…. help you up?” I cautiously offer my hand. He looks at it for a moment then grabs it and I pull him to his feet. He takes a step and winces. “Are you hurt?” I ask but he doesn’t reply. He looks round at the herd in the field, now apparently oblivious of us. He frowns as if trying to work something out.
“We need to get back,” I say.
He nods thoughtfully. “Yeah, come on.”
Our progress is slow, Stuart taking small, stiff-legged steps, refusing all help over the stiles, which he negotiates with grim determination.
As we pass the farmhouse, he stops and turns to me. My face hurts with the effort not to smile. “Don’t. Tell. Anyone,” he says, punctuating each word with a poke to my chest. “Yeah?” It’s more plea than threat.
I don’t tell anyone. Not out of any fear of him or respect for his dignity, but because I want to keep the memory of that morning for me. Recalling his expression of terror, I experience not a sense of triumph or superiority, just a satisfaction in the knowledge that he could feel fear. Like Iris and Katie. Like me.
Mountshaw greets me with relief and Stuart with annoyance. Stuart gives him a story about we’d gone out to view early morning farm life for the class project. He didn’t answer his phone because he’d put it on silent so as to not upset the animals. I back him up and lie inventively, if not convincingly. Mountshaw gives us both a long look then gives up. Just another adolescent mystery to puzzle over on the long journey home.
A few weeks went by, Stuart’s limp disappeared and he went back to being a prick again. And for all I know, he’s still a prick today. But for those few weeks, the traces of anxiety and uncertainty lingered in his eyes and I like to imagine that he feels a shiver of fear whenever he sees a cow, just as I can’t help but smile whenever I see those beautiful animals.