It was a Sunday in late summer. The last of the visitors had left, the floor of the cowshed had been scrubbed, the chicks had been counted and locked in their coop, and the lights in the vivarium had been turned off. Another long week on Manor Farm was over.
On any other evening, the animals would have taken to their beds as soon as their chores were finished. But this was not any other evening. This evening, there was a fluttering and stirring across the farm as beast and fowl alike converged on the Big Barn. First came the sheep and alpacas, who jostled for the best spot at the beer troughs, while the rabbits bobbed between their hooves hoping to catch any splashed dregs. Then came the cows, among them Clive the Bullock and Marguerite the aged Holstein, who was looking for a bed of straw to settle upon after her long walk up from the large pasture. A dozen hens roosted in the eaves by the door, the pigeons lined up along the edge of the cash desk, and the geckos congregated on the vast east window. Cassie the mule came in, moving carefully so as not to step on a gang of rats. She was closely followed by Flaxen, the roe deer, and a gaggle of geese. One of the geese, Haw-Haw, was already deep in conversation with the farm’s stocky bull terriers, Dunning and Kruger, whose gold teeth flashed as they quit the dusk of the farmyard for the well-lit barn. A trio of magpies had perched, with characteristic aloofness, atop the postcard carousel, and a family of dormice had settled in the display of plush toys. The animals kept coming, score upon score, until every patch of floor, every inch of rafter, every tabletop, and every book display, was occupied by trotter, hoof, talon, paw and foot. Finally, the pigs swaggered in on their hind trotters, acting like they owned the place. And tonight, in a sense, one of them did.
His name was Buttercup, and he had just begun his sixth term as Manor Farm’s First Beast. He was a lean boar, with a firm gut, a charming grin and a youthful air, although the strain of running the farm for over five years had carved deep creases around his eyes. Buttercup was a canny steward who’d spent freely from Manor Farm’s coffers to bolster his popularity among every species.
The past season alone his Council of Animals had voted to repaint the grain store, fix the thermostat of the vivarium, and hire a dray of squirrels from a nearby wood to collect visitors’ litter and remove it to the quarry, a task formerly shared between the farm’s sheep and alpacas. And how was all this spending possible? Thanks, in large part, to the money that Dunning and Kruger made selling the windmill’s electricity to neighbouring farms and beyond. The First Beast knew that few on the farm understood how the windmill made so much money. And, in truth, he didn’t really understand it himself. But he also knew that as long as they had sufficient food in their troughs and bodies unbroken by physical toil, most of the animals, pigs included, were happy to leave such details to the dogs. Buttercup’s most impressive feat, however, and the reason for tonight’s gathering, was the reconstruction of the Big Barn itself, which had fallen into disrepair and disuse many years earlier.
In fact, the new Big Barn was no barn at all, but a brick, glass and steel building housing a purpose-built information centre and gift shop. Since the start of July, visitors to “the South of England’s Premium Petting Zoo” had trooped through the Big Barn’s newly opened doors to pick up maps in a variety of languages, swap cash for “Manor Pounds” and buy detailed scale models of the farm’s famous windmill. Although many of the animals resented the uncouth and handsy behaviour of the farm’s mostly-human sightseers, they only had to think of the plough-pulling, egg-laying, milk-pumping, meat-providing lives of their ancestors for that resentment to quickly vanish. Tonight was the Big Barn’s official opening, and Buttercup had let it be known that two surprise finishing touches would be unveiled; one on the western wall, and the other on the east window. Both were hidden behind tarpaulins and had been the subject of much-excited speculation among Manor Farm’s animals.
On this Sunday evening in late summer, the animals were pleased with Buttercup, and he was very pleased with himself. When he trotted into the Big Barn, accompanied by Cosmo the owl, his dependable Quartermaster, Buttercup was welcomed with the clatter of hooves and trotters, and the beating of wings.
Buttercup quieted the gathering with a swipe of his trotter: “Now’s not the time for speeches,” he said. “And yet, as we stand together beneath the beautiful vaulted roof of our new Big Barn, I see not just a building, but a symbol of everything we have achieved. Together. For today, on Manor Farm, rest days are no longer as rare as hens’ teeth. Today, on Manor Farm, our mule gives no more than seven rides a day, and never to a human child over ten years old. Today, on Manor Farm, we have abolished undignified costumes for all animals. Today, on Manor Farm, those animals that can work are justly rewarded, and those that cannot are cared for. Today, on Manor Farm, we summoned compassion and solidarity to help the animals of Shore Farm overthrow the tyrant Percy Cox!” Unsure whether to boo the tyrant or cheer his overthrow, the gathered animals settled for a kind of unruly lowing.
Excerpted with permission from Beasts of England, Adam Biles, Picador India.