Through the white noise in her ears, Olivia hears no voices. Reyhope Colliery and its sounds, those she thought she’d heard for the last time five years ago, are reduced to silent movements in her periphery. Bodies making room for her. No need to stop walking until The Bull, where she hesitates at the door. There are eyes on her back. She’s drawing more attention than necessary. She shoves the door open.

The conversations between the locals at the bar drop away, heads turning to her. Olivia takes off her headphones.

“Now then, stranger. You better be here for that.” 

Behind the bar, Snowy nods up to the hill. The farm. The source of the yellow smoke smell she had tried not to notice.

“I’ll do what I can,” she says.

He hands her a key from his pocket.

“Fix your uncle’s shit and the room’s on the house.”

Olivia glances at the locals, these people who had watched her grow up. They look older now, but not frail — all shoulders and set faces. Waiting people, neither patient nor impatient, waiting for her to speak.

She heads to the stairs.

“Liv,” Snowy says. “We’re sorry about your old fella.”

black and white, blurry photo of Maxine Peake looking up at the sky with her hands in the air

In her room, Olivia closes the curtains, takes out her laptop, and gets to work.

It’s hard not to think about him when she has to repeat it all again. His name and date of birth and date of death. Harder still when she has to talk about the farm. Yes, she was born there. Yes, she lived there — until she didn’t.

Yes, she knows it has been left to her uncle, but there is a clause in the will that states he must keep everything exactly as it was, and now he’s burning — 

A license, then. A scrapyard is not — 

If it is no longer a farm, then — 

Promises aren’t covered under law. 

It comes again in the silent aftermath of the call. A faint breath after her own. She turns the white noise back on. It used to be music, back then, but she hasn’t been able to listen to music since he died. A strange thing. A small affect, a tarnish on an otherwise clear surface. She thinks of the spoons her father kept in the big chest, the hours he would spend polishing them. Good quality silver, Olivia. It needs tending like the rest. 

Has he burnt them now, her uncle? Are they laid amongst the ash, waiting to be gathered up with whatever else remains of value?

It comes again in the silent aftermath of the call. A faint breath after her own.

She sleeps and dreams of smoke. 

And then she wakes and tastes it. Thick, cloying, like melted pennies in her throat. She coughs, and the breath she takes after, echoes. She pats the bed for her headphones. She doesn’t find them. She stands and untangles the duvet. 

No sign. 

Her watch flashes — phone out of range. 

Her laptop is not on the desk. 

“Liv.” A voice on the other side of the door.

She doesn’t respond. The breathing in her ear shudders.

Snowy pushes open the door and walks in, face grave.

“Where’s my stuff?”

“You don’t need all that. You know what you need to do.”

“I’m sorry. It belongs to him now, not me. There’s nothing I can —”

“It belongs to neither of you,” he snaps, then softens. “It’s got its own laws up there, Liv. You know that.”

A hint of a voice in the breath, ragged.

“He’s rounded the animals up in the pasture. They’re coming for them tomorrow.”

An image of the sheep and beast comes unbidden. The van that will drag its exhaust back down the lane, laden with the soon-to-be-dead. The needless dead. Like the car that had carried her father.

“I need my headphones.”

“No. You have to listen.”

“I did.” Her anger takes her by surprise. “For eighteen years, I did. You saw what it did to him.”

“It was the keeping it asleep that did your Da in.” Snowy moves forward, grips her shoulder. “You’ve gotta wake it up.”

black and white photo of a woman walking through a forest

Olivia turns from him to the window. It’s open. The farm stands behind a haze of yellow smoke, the house that had encased her nightmares as a child dwarfed by a mountain of burning scrap. Black metal and flame.

The wood behind is only just visible. 

One long, single silhouette, tinged yellow.

Yellow, like unpolished spoons. 

The slick yellow coats of newborn lambs. 

The yellow eyes behind closed lids, and the soft mutterings of sleep.

There’s no other option. 

The only witness is the Ram. The Swaledale amongst the Texels; not a tup, but a ram, its horns curled around its face like ancient roots. He watches her lift the latch of the paddock gate, the others waiting for his instruction. The Ram has been here longer than any of them. 

He follows behind her as she climbs up the pasture to the foot of the wood, then he stands, silhouetted against the yellow smoke, and lets her go.

It’s a slow walk. Past the brick ruins of the outpost, to the downward slope where the mine subsided and the earth is spongy underfoot. She hears the give of it around her boot.

Light steps now. The sleep is deep. Olivia feels herself caught in it, like wading through a downward current.

She stumbles and there is a flutter below – inside somehow, like an itch under the skin. The tips of the wings of a yellow canary. 

Hands and knees now, crawling down.

Down to the bottom where the ground is at its thinnest. She lowers herself onto her belly. She closes her eyes, cheek sinking against the grass.

Deep in the gaps below, is a stirring. 

“He’s gone,” Olivia whispers. She swallows the catch in her throat. “But I’m here.”

Something rises up, a cheek on the other side of a door. A bleary yellow eye, opening. 

Suddenly, Olivia’s voice is steady.

“You’re burning again,” she says.

And a steady voice returns. 

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