Cow Girl by Kirsty Eyre – extract

Cow Girl by Kirsty Eyre is published by Harper Collins on 3 September 2020. Cow Girl was the winner of the Unpublished Comedy Women in Writing Award 2019.

Today I have an extract from the book.

CHAPTER ONE

#SaveOurDairy

I crouch beneath the mottled underbelly of a cow, her speckled
udder dangling inches from my chin. It’s a wool-grey January
day. London’s Covent Garden is awash with farmers, its cobbles
splattered with dung and dusted with hay. The fifty-five-foot
Christmas tree has started to lean towards a Gourmet Sausage
van, which chugs and whirrs, the smell of Bratwurst and diesel
intermingling with the stench of manure. Stall after stall of
riding boots, fishing rods and artisan oatcakes line the edges
of the piazza, their wares fingered by tourists and farmers.
Five Holstein Friesians are penned outside Mulberry, a
cacophony of grunts echoing under the rafters of the Royal
Opera House arcade. Tongues lollop through the metal bars
against shop windows. A jet-black cow with white knee-sock
markings is being led over to the enclosure. Overwhelmed,
she backs into a stall of handmade jewellery, sending fake
pearls bouncing across cobbles.
I should be focused on the task at hand, but I’m both
desperate for the loo and wondering where on earth Dad is.
He was meant to be here two hours ago and the drive from
Derbyshire shouldn’t take this long.
A man in a #SaveOurDairy fleece stands at a table piled
high with cheese. ‘British dairy farming is on the brink of
collapse,’ he shouts through a megaphone. ‘Premier Milk is
to drop its “A” milk prices again, meaning a further drop in
profits.’ The megaphone whines with feedback. ‘Every week
another dairy farm closes. Support our dairy farmers!’
A pigeon struts underneath a show-caravan in pursuit of
a sandwich crust and I wonder if I can join it, the prospect
of lying under a Scenic Getaway Motorhome for the next
hour becoming more attractive by the minute. I hate dairy
farming events. It’s not just the slogan-chanting country folk
or the backlash from my vegan friends. It’s more that, having
grown up in the countryside, I’ve been subjected to enough
falconry displays, hound parades, jousting gerbils and country
cads to last a lifetime. Were it not for Dad, I certainly wouldn’t
be here right now, poised beneath a stranger’s cow.
‘Buy our “Milk for Farmers” branded milk!’ the #SaveOurDairy
man yells.
Bev and Kat approach in black leather jackets and a swirl
of winter scarves. Bev’s Mohican only serves to accentuate
their height difference. Today, it’s not its usual lurid pink, but
that sort of murky blue-green that bad tattoos go in the sun.
She runs her hand over it, and I worry for a moment that
she’s going to ask me whether I like it.
‘Bill!’ Kat’s Kiwi tones fill the piazza. It sounds more like
‘Bull’. ‘Did you want one?’ She waves a hot dog at me, mustard
dripping down her arm.
I gesture apathetically to the udders above me. ‘I’ve got my
hands full.’
‘Any news from your dad?’ Bev says, massaging her
Mohican.
I want to bite my fingernails, but I’ve been stroking a cow.
‘His phone is switched off.’
‘Three, two, one . . .’ The #SaveOurDairy man blasts his
horn, startling shoppers and tourists alike.
A giant digital display starts its three-minute countdown.
Gently, I clamp the base of diagonal teats between my thumb
and forefinger, squeeze firmly and pull down. A dribble of
milk plips into the bucket. Squeeze and pull down. Another
drip. I’ve clearly lost my touch, proving Dad’s ‘it’s like riding
a bike’ theory wrong. Squeeze and pull down. Another drip.
The latex gloves are three sizes too big and wrinkle like old
lady’s stockings. I should have brought some from the lab.
Where the fuck is Dad?
‘You’ve got this, Bill!’ Kat shouts aggressively.
Maria joins them from the refreshments queue. She’s head to-toe in active gear, in spite of her aversion to exercise. ‘Come
on, Bilbo! I thought you grew up on a farm?’
Marigold swings her bulky head round, all forelock and
attitude. Her nostrils flare, puffing out clouds of warm breath,
which spiral in the cold air. She holds my gaze through big,
watery eyes, before turning back to her hay net. The guy next
to me is having more joy with Daisy, milk spattering against
his pail. Four neat, pink teats. I should know what to do, but
I blocked that chapter out of my life thirteen years ago and
am too worried that Dad is in a pile-up on the M1 to retrieve
it from my memory bank.
Maria leans over the enclosure rope, her breath heavy with
free-range pulled pork and curried gherkins. ‘Pull your finger
out! I’ve got a tenner on you winning 7/1.’
Marigold swishes her tail and a matted dreadlock of hair,
manure and urine whips me across the cheek. It stings, like
lemon juice on a paper cut. And at that moment, I hear Dad’s
voice loud and clear. I’m seven again and he walks Roberta,
the most docile of the herd (long legs, and a black splodge
the shape of Australia on her left buttock) into the yard.
‘Bump the bag,’ he says, gesturing to her udder. Bump the bag,
of course.
Gently, I buffet my head against Marigold’s soft, warm
udder to simulate a calf feeding. Once. Twice. Three times,
before reaching for the teats and gripping the plastic bucket
between my ankles. I squeeze and pull down. A stream of
milk spirts out diagonally, first onto my shoe, and then into
my bucket. Squeeze and pull down. Left, right. Left, right. I’m
up and away, steady at first. Left, right. Until I find my groove.
A little bit faster. Left, right. I move in closer, head cocked to
one side, street entertainers and the Apple store rotated ninety
degrees. Faster. Left, right.
‘Mar-i-gold!’ Maria chants, her rose metallic Reeboks disappearing in and out of view behind Marigold’s undercarriage.
Left, right. Faster still, until I’m expressing like a steam
train, fingers like pistons, sequentially squeezing a powerful
jet of milk from each teat. Gentle but firm. Faster and faster
until it’s a blur, I’m a child again, and this is one big game.
Marigold chomps her way through her hay. I see Bev’s black
leather lace-up boots. Kat’s burgundy suede ankle boots.
‘Mar-i-gold! Mar-i-gold!’ the girls chant.
Feet I don’t recognize come into view. Suede loafers. Ankle
boots. Nike Air Max.
‘Mar-i-gold! Mar-i-gold!’ The chant carries.
Walking boots. Wedges. Garish pink Crocs.
‘Mar-i-gold! Mar-i-gold!’
Vans. More Nikes.
The crowd gets behind me. ‘Mar-i-gold! Mar-i-gold!’
I’m milking like my life depends on it. Like Dad’s life
depends on it. Which it does, in a fashion. Left, right. Why
isn’t he here yet?
‘Five, four, three . . .’ A voice booms over the megaphone.
‘Two, one.’
The horn blasts again, a man in wellingtons accosting the
girls with a book of raffle tickets. When I clamber out, there’s
still no sign of Dad. The bucket of frothy milk feels warm
against my chest. I’m just about to dip my finger in and taste
the cream, when two familiar figures emerge from an animal
trailer in his-and-hers Parsons-Bonneville Premier Vets polo
shirts and jodhpurs. Dread drifts into my stomach. There’s
only one thing worse than being stuck at a dairy farming
awareness campaign, and that’s being stuck at one with Lorna
and Guy, the darling couple of rural Derbyshire.
I duck back under Marigold, put down the bucket and take
an interest in the gluten-free beetroot muesli sample I got
given when I registered. In my peripheral vision, I see their
shiny riding boots marching towards me in synchronized
strides. They have the gait and precision of a pair of dressage
horses. She’s seen me. Lorna Parsons: my dad’s vet and mistress
of everything bovine. Lorna Parsons, who outed me to a
bunch of octogenarians at my grandma’s bridge club. Lorna
Parsons, who has known me since we were kids and has never
ceased to humiliate me. I try not to think the words ‘bull
sperm incident’ . . .
She approaches me, square shoulders, athletic frame,
mousy-blonde hair scraped into a ponytail, arms laden with
rosettes. The silvery-pink horseshoe-shaped scar on her forehead shimmers in the light. Heat rushes to my chest. I stand
up clumsily and only go and kick the bucket over, milk spewing
across the cobbles and crawling into the cracks.
‘Billie!’ Her owl eyes single me out.
‘Hi.’ I hold onto my empty bucket and look around for my
friends.
‘You remember Guy?’ She pulls her cap down over her
forehead.
Guy adjusts his Rolex watch and extends his hand. ‘Long
time, no see, Belinda.’
‘She prefers Billie,’ Lorna says, with an air of superciliousness reserved for both of us; Guy for not remembering, and
me for wanting to be called Billie. ‘Shame about your dad’s
migraine.’
‘Sorry?’ I say, digesting this news and wondering how she
got hold of it.
‘He rang from Leicester Forest services. Blinder of a headache. Poor thing had to stop driving,’ she says, the voice of
authority on my own dad. My flesh and blood. ‘I told him to
turn off his phone and try to have a sleep in the car before
he sets off again.’
I feel a mixture of panic and betrayal – Dad doesn’t get
migraines and why would he phone Lorna before me?
‘Does my grandma know?’ I say, knowing that Grandma
will be kicking herself for deciding to stay at the farm and sit
this one out whilst her son is ill on the edge of the M1.
‘I called her.’ She smiles. ‘She’s sending your uncle Peter to
pick up your dad.’
How come I didn’t know about any of this? Why is she
invading my family with her whiter-than-white do-gooding?
Standing there, all king-of-the-castle with that smug smile on
her face, with her equally smug boyfriend. I bet they have
horsy nicknames for each other. Boak. I’m mentally poking
her eyes out when the #SaveOurDairy man trudges over. He
assesses the contents of my bucket, pressing his glasses firmly
onto the bridge of his nose to stop them falling into the pitiful
few millilitres of remaining milk.Lorna flashes me a smile. ‘Never were much of a farm girl,
were you?’ She plucks a ‘Prize Loser’ rosette from the pile in
her arms and I’m reminded of the times she used to make me
play this horse-riding game on the bottom branch of the willow
tree at the farm – she, always the winner, and me, always the
loser, despite being three years her senior. She stands to face
me. Her teeth are coated in black streaks and her breath smells
of liquorice. My chest gets hotter as she fixes the rosette to my
jacket, all fingers and thumbs, the pin pricking my skin.
Maria bustles over, arms full of coffee and shopping. ‘I’ve
lost Bev and Kat,’ she says, fiddling with the hearing aid hidden
under her Sweaty Betty ski headband, her eyes travelling to
Lorna and Guy.
‘Maria, meet Lorna and Guy,’ I say, aware that country and
city life are about to collide. ‘Lorna’s my dad’s vet up in
Derbyshire.’ My hands sink deeper into my pockets. ‘Lorna
and Guy, this is Maria, my flatmate.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Lorna and Guy say in unison.
‘Hi!’ Maria takes a step forward, unsure whether to offer
them the hand with the skinny cappuccino or the arm full of
shopping.
The country–city collision intensifies when Bev and Kat
wander over, Kat’s eyes unable to leave the crotch bulge in
Guy’s jodhpurs, a look of horror etched on her face.
‘These are my friends, Bev and Kat.’ I yank Kat’s arm, trying
to break her gaze.
‘Hello.’ Guy offers them an assertive handshake, whilst
Lorna’s eyes drift down to my Converse and stay there a while.
‘We like to show our support at these events,’ Lorna says,
though I’m not sure to whom. ‘Were it not for dairy farmers
like Billie’s dad, we wouldn’t be in business.’ She looks up, her
large grey eyes level with mine. ‘How’s the PhD going?’
‘It isn’t,’ I say too quickly. ‘I’m still working on securing a
scholarship.’
‘You’ve been working on that a while now, right?’ she says.
‘Three years?’
Maria’s elbow digs into my ribcage, her eyes widening.
‘Two years,’ I say, one-upmanship suddenly vital.
‘It must be longer than that because you had to miss your
dad’s sixtieth for a career fair,’ Lorna says. ‘We threw him a
little party. You remember, Guy?’
‘Great canapés!’ Guy lights up his cigarette and blows smoke
into my face.
Guilt curdles in my gut. Why does she never cease to make
me feel inadequate, selfish and about three years old?
Her eyes run across the gold italic font of my ‘Prize Loser’
rosette. ‘We can’t tempt you back to the farm then?’
They all look to me, country folk and city girls. The roof
of my mouth starts to itch. Even when I press my tongue
against it, it won’t go away. The whole reason for fleeing the
country and coming to London was to get away from things
like this: the stench of fresh manure, the wax jackets, the
Lornas and Guys, ‘salt of the earth’ people driving 4×4 Porsches
while others are beaten by the crushing misery of the failing
dairy economy. Unleashing my inner city-girl was the best
thing I ever did, and now here I am, in London’s Covent
Garden, surrounded by dairy farmers; at the very crux of
everything I escaped from.
‘No,’ I say. ‘Definitely not.’

About the book

Billie fled her Yorkshire upbringing to pursue her dreams of finding a cure for the illness which killed her mother, yet when her father gets sick, she must return home to save the farm.

But the transition from city girl to country lass isn’t easy, not least because leaving London means leaving her relationship with Joely Chevalier, French pharmaceutical femme fatale, just as it was heating up. And when she gets to Yorkshire, Billie’s shocked to discover the family dairy farm is in dire straits.

Battling misogyny, homophobia and the economic turmoil of a dairy crisis, can Billie find a way to save the farm, save the cows and save herself?

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