For a while, before his death, Eric lived with the Stephenson family, who were my nearest neighbours when I lived in the Peak District. On a good day I could shout to the Stephensons from my yard, my voice carried downhill on the constant wind. When a northerly blew in, communication was possible in the opposite direction.
In the area where I lived, everybody knew the Stephensons. They were monumental masons, with a side-line in garden ornaments, house signs and always handy should you need a bit of polished granite for a cheese board. If ever anyone asked where I lived, I would tell them it was ‘that place just past Bill Stephenson’s’ and they always knew where I meant. When H.E. Bates wrote about the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May, he had the Stephensons in mind. Incredibly generous, they had an open-house affair most Sunday afternoons, where there was food aplenty, booze flowing, and an assortment of children and other slightly-domesticated animals wandering about. Their youngest son, Oliver, would tear around their paddock on a lawn tractor, narrowly missing the goat, the peahen, the geese and the latest batch of piglets. Nobody batted an eyelid.
They were the kind of family who didn’t worry about appearances or modern values. When their dog decided to move into the garden and stay there, they didn’t force her indoors but allowed her coat to mat and protect her from the weather. When their tom cat, Eric, produced yet another litter of kittens, they didn’t bother renaming her or having her spayed. She was just Eric, a black and white moggy, with a long history of unplanned pregnancies.
Eric disappeared one February. The weather was foul at the time, with heavy snowfall and drifting. Oliver knocked on my door and asked if I’d seen the cat. I hadn’t and that was about the extent of his search. A few hours later, the road up the hill was impassable and the dry stone walls had disappeared under the snow. We were cut off for several days.
By my house, the drifting was particularly bad; a T-junction on a narrow lane provided both a wind tunnel and a stone wall to stop the snow. It took months to clear. By Easter, the snow had receded, but even at the start of May there was still a ribbon of compacted ice along the verges. Two weeks later the sun finished its work, and there, lying on the verge, was Eric.
In the three months since Eric’s disappearance, it is fair to say that the Stephensons had recovered from their loss. When I told them that their cat was lying on the verge near my house, they weren’t bothered, and initially, if I’m honest, neither was I. I have never really been a cat person. My preference has always been for dogs, and at the time I had two border collies who occasionally worked a few sheep, and spent their days when I was off the farm chained in the yard, barking, sleeping and scrapping with each other. They were both good-natured dogs, brothers from the same litter. Flynn, a wanderer, was shy, but playful. Mac was the boss, always in control, handsome, confident and usually well behaved.
I say usually because collies are too smart to always behave well. They can be devious about getting what they want, and what they want isn’t always socially acceptable. At the end of May in this particular year, what Mac wanted was to roll on Eric’s decomposing corpse.
I would arrive home, unclip the dogs’ chains and before I could turn ‘round, Mac would have leapt the five-bar gate and anointed himself with Eau du Chat Mort. It didn’t bother the dog that his reward for this behaviour was to be scrubbed with a bucket of soapy water and then rinsed with a cold hose-pipe. To him, the smell was irresistible.
As the week went on, I began to get annoyed. The stench was revolting and every day it seemed to get worse. Oliver had the misfortune to pop round when I was holding Mac at arm’s length and trying to make him fragrant enough to be allowed inside the house. I was not in the best of tempers and suggested to the poor boy, who was aged about twelve at the time, that really he should remove Eric’s corpse.
Together we walked out of the gate and stood in the road, keeping our distance from the black and white smudge that lay amongst the grasses and buttercups. Oliver was a good kid and I already felt guilty for snapping at him. I’ll help, I said. Come round tomorrow and we’ll do it.
The following afternoon was perfect for late spring. The ash tree was just opening its leaves and the new grasses in the meadow changed their colours in the gentle breeze. I heard the whoop of lapwings and the joyful sound of skylarks. Cows relaxed, cudding in the sunshine, and ewes, scruffy with lifting fleeces, blarted for their lambs. In the midst of this rural idyll, lay a small patch of corruption – the rotting remains of Eric.
From the shed, I had taken two pitchforks, one long, one a bit shorter, a respirator and a dust mask. Two pairs of elbow-length, nitrile gloves and a doubled-up black bin bag completed the equipment. Oliver and I sat in the yard and discussed tactics. It was decided that – as the responsible adult – I should delegate wielding the pitchfork to Oliver, leaving me at the messy end to hold open the bin bag. I offered Oliver the respirator. He declined on account of the extra distance that seven feet of pitchfork would afford him. I thought he might change his mind as we got nearer, so being very mature about it, I had armed myself only with a short pitchfork and a dust mask. I can tell you now, as far as Personal Protective Equipment goes, we were seriously under-resourced.
What I expected is that the tines of the pitchfork could be slipped underneath the cat’s body to lift it from the ground. What I had not factored in, was the fact that the cat had been squashed into the verge by a weight of snow and ice for months. The distinction between cat and verge had blurred. When Oliver tried his first lift, there was a tearing sound. As first, I assumed this was grasses being ripped apart. I was wrong. It was Eric, who was tearing in two before my eyes.
Living cats are filled with organs, intestines, ribcages, blood vessels, things like that. Cats that have been dead for almost four months are filled with mozzarella – the stringy stuff that stretches and drips. Even at a pitchfork’s distance, Oliver was unable to hold onto the contents of his stomach.
Somehow we got most of Eric into the bin bag. One of her legs was stolen part way through by Oliver’s dog, Pip. I saw her running down the road with her prize – a black, white and mossy leg, clamped between her jaws, but there was no way I was going to fight the dog for it.
Sentimental people might suggest we should have buried the cat. We didn’t. We tied the top of the bin bag and dropped the vile package into the wheelie bin and then Oliver and I sat there in silence and tried to compose ourselves.
Moving Eric was one of the grisliest tasks I have ever undertaken, and yet for me, and indeed for Oliver, who, really, I shouldn’t have involved, it was over quickly. Once the bag was in the bin, the cat was forgotten. The story became an anecdote. No doubt Oliver is embellishing it in ways different to mine. Maybe in his version, it is me that vomits in the road. In his story, it may be my dog that runs away with Eric’s leg. But for me, at least, there was never any emotional attachment to the deceased and however disgusting moving Eric was, it is over. It is done with. And in that, I consider myself to be lucky.
Whenever I hear stories on the news where there are corpses found or the loaded word ‘remains’ is used, I cannot help but think about those who deal with the long dead as part of their job: the specialist cleaners who deal with fly-filled apartments where it took the smell to alert neighbours to a death. Or those individuals whose responsibility includes identifying people from their rotting body parts. And those recovery experts, who comb the sites of disasters, looking for bodies, to return them to those who loved them, so that they might lay them, finally, to rest.
I wonder if it gets easier. I wonder when the revulsion stops, if indeed it ever does and I wonder how these people maintain their respect, for I cannot allow myself to think that they don’t. And a very small part of me, a part that I am somewhat reluctant to admit exists, wonders if humans, too, turn into cheese.
For the record, please, I would like my body to be cremated.
Kate Woodward was born in 1961 in Lancashire. She has worked as an accountant, a farmer and a market trader. Now she writes. She has published short stories in The Ogham Stone, Brittle Star, online and on her own blog at spugletspeaks.co.uk