The Box of Delights Writing Competition - Alex Burgar: Rejuvenation
Alex Burgar | 27 March 2017

I lay my hands on the sides of the box, drumming my fingers softly, making the crisp brown paper rustle. It brings back so many memories. I was young at the time, barely a teenager, but I didn't pretend I didn't know what was going on. Our farm was lucky. We didn't find out about the disease for a while, so we got to hold on to our flock, to our livelihood, for a few more precious weeks. Or maybe we were unlucky. We had to endure so much more waiting, watching it close in on us, infecting surrounding farms, sinking its claws into them and gripping on like a parasite. We watched as the men in their white suits, stained a faint grey by the smoke - or maybe it was a stain of death - reached the farms, heard the shots, felt the heartache. I felt my bedroom fill with that acrid smoke and choked on the stench of charred flesh, on the smell of death and my own tears.


Mary gives me the boxes out of kindness, I know, but I wish she wouldn't, sometimes. It brings back too many painful memories. Every year, on the anniversary of our farm's diagnosis, I find a box on my doorstep, wrapped in parcel paper, and full of comforts, and yet I can't help but think of it.


I watched the foot and mouth report as usual. It was nearby. I could almost feel it. And then, when it got nearer, I could hear it. I could hear the shots as the culling began. Suddenly, I didn't need to watch the report. And when I couldn't hear it anymore, I could see the white-suited men driving away, wheels sprayed with disinfectant, and when I couldn't see it anymore, I could smell it. Toxic smoke wafted over the farm, smothering us, and I was helping Dad with the sheep when we found the telltale lesions on its gums. An innocent ewe, lithe, wiry with youth and yet it seemed to be the very incarnation of death.


The vet came, the diagnosis was made, the men arrived, and that was that. By sundown, the pyre was burning. It was all so painfully fast. I walked through it in a haze. And our farm was left in ruin in a matter of hours.


Ten years ago today, all that happened, and Mary brings me boxes of delights every year, leaving them on my doorstep in silent solidarity. And so I tear off the parcel paper, tears rolling down my cheeks like the smoke rolled over our farm, and discover a single delight. The note tells me something I should have forced myself to do long ago. Attached is a cheque.


Giddy, I scramble for my phone, calling Mary as if I'm not wholly myself, crumpling the note between my fingers, watching the letters twist with it, the letters that tell me to buy a new flock.


I'm bringing life back to the farm.

James Routledge 2016