The Dig by Cynan Jones

Hardcover, 176 pages
Publisher: Granta (January 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler

“A novel about a badger (believe it or not) and about human capacities to be kind or terrible; The Dig is also about the torments of thought and the beauty of place – a book that is amazingly alive.” —Barbara Epler

The Dig follows two men: Daniel, a sheep farmer, and the unnamed “big man”, who raises and brutalises badgers for sport. Set in rural Wales, it conjures a sense of place and landscape, of connection with the land and stark contrasts between life and death. Following in the footsteps of Hardy, Jones’ is a bleak evocation of the relentless difficulties of country life, its harshness and its violence.

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They had been through much together, being with animals. Working as a team was a thing in itself most couples do not face constantly, but given working with animals1, the small pressures were insistent and regular.

She seemed to suffer more under the smaller problems than the larger, and it always surprised him when she drew on wells of strength to face the bigger crises.

They had both grown up on farms and knew what to expect, but often it was the modernisation which wearied them. The paperwork and cataloguing and form-filling their parents had never had to face, and which confused and sometimes swamped them. Every time an animal was moved it had to be noted, a vaccination given they had to record it. It made sense, perhaps, on the big wide farms the other side of the border, with their managers and offices and employees. But the weight of paper was crippling to a small farm, and neither of them was built for it, so it was a great burden.

They wondered constantly how to improve the return on the farm, thought wildly of turning the outbuildings into accommodation for holidaymakers. But the idea of having these people come into their lives for weeks at a time, of clean, expensive cars on the yard, a ruddy, loud-voiced family all in pristine country gear. He had nothing against these people but they were different and it was impossible to imagine them here, at least yet.

They thought about going organic, but by the time they looked into it with conviction organic lamb was fetching only a fraction more than non-organic, despite the finalised organic products selling for far more in the supermarkets. The stress and extra controls were not worth it. So they resolved to follow the principles they believed in and ignore the rest, and sold what they could locally through the slaughterhouse.

They looked into direct sales, into doing the butchery themselves, but a licensed vet had to be present when you slaughtered an animal and their fees for this were prohibitive and the cost of setting up a hygienic place for the butchery was out of reach; ultimately, the animals had to go through the slaughterhouse, and they were at the mercy of the market price.

Sales of the fleeces worked at a loss, the shearers and transport coming to more than the cheque for the wool; rearing the stock cattle more or less covered its costs. He thought of running a shoot on the farm, but the landscape wasn’t challenging enough on one level or expansive enough on another to bring in the rich guns. They thought of specialising in rare breeds, of working to grants2, even of alternative livestock like buffalo, or vicuna, whose fleeces were selling for hundreds. But ultimately, in their bones, they were sheep farmers, both of them, and they had gone into it knowing they would never be anything else. They had buried themselves in each other and the small, modest, ticking-over thing they had created, and that was enough while they could manage it.

He could not see this now, through the blur of the work. He could see it now only as a machine that he had to keep running, or it would seize up, and he was throwing himself at it relentlessly as if he was no more conscious than a part of the device.

I’ll miss a watch, he thought. She won’t know this one time. It’s quieter now. We’ve done the glut and it was quieter tonight, just the one lamb. He accepted the facts he put to himself. I have to be okay for a while longer so I’ll miss just this one. She needn’t know.

He blindly set the alarm for eight o’clock, drunk with tiredness. For a moment he thought he could feel the clock ticking, as if he felt right through it. The lamb’s heart beating in his hands. Her body under his touch. It’s time and touch, he thought. It’s these two things. It’s because we are aware of them. The draw to go upstairs and climb in next to her warm body was unbearable, but he knew he would not do it. He thought of the way he could feel right through her skin. I wonder if that’s why we get so desperate in everything. It’s like we’re touching something we weren’t ever meant to feel.

He put the clock down on the table and lay down on the sofa and pulled the spare duvet around himself. It was the longest they had been apart. She had gone once before for 10 days to help when her father had been ill but this was the only other time and he could not accept that it was permanent and that it was three weeks since she’d died.

She went down to the horse to check on it and curry it and in her head there was a strange wistfulness that she did not have a horse of her own and had not ridden for years.

It was a beautiful day, but cold, one of those false starts of spring.

They were looking after the horse for a friend who was having a rough time and going through a divorce and had nowhere to paddock the horse and the horse had just arrived and had hardly made a dent in grazing the field.

The horse was a placid horse but horses are great, instinctive animals and the mare seemed to have sensed the disquiet in her owner and was recently uncharacteristic.

It was towards sundown but there was an hour of light left, especially on such a clear day, and when she got into the field the horse was watering at the pond.

Most horses locally were cobs, but this was a hunter and was higher and more gymnastic.

She walked to the horse, calling it, and began to pat its flank and the horse shook the water from its head and walked up from the pond with her.

Beyond the pond, over the trees, the rooks were circling into a ministry and she watched them as they called and circled and she curried the horse. The horse seemed annoyed and took a few steps away and she followed it but stopped and looked for a while at the farm a few hundred yards off and thought of what was inside her. She felt a great feeling of wealth and happiness go richly and simply through her. And then the horse kicked her.

That was her. She had no thought, and was just dimly aware of the world shutting off before her.

Her brain was dead by the time he got to her and really it was just her body systematically following that he watched.

He carried her the 400 yards to the house but then turned and lay her down in the barn. He thought she would be furious if he brought her bleeding into the house.

When the doctor came, her head was haemorrhaged into aubergine. The hoof had struck her with the force of a bowling ball travelling at 80 miles per hour and the right side of her cranium was crushed. An X-ray would have looked like broken plasterboard.

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[1] There are more than 11 million sheep in Wales. Sheep farming accounts for more than 20 per cent of Welsh agriculture. 
[2] Welsh sheep farmers are losing more and more money each year as a result of tightening profit margins. EU support for rural Wales runs into the hundreds of millions of euros every year.

  • The Dig