Chapter 11 – The Vegetarian Option
People often assumed that Sebastian was a vegetarian, possibly even a vegan, though he could never work out why. He wasn’t especially thin or pasty or ill-looking, three symptoms which he associated with the “leaf munchers”, and, if anything, he would rather eat meat than anything else. And yet, on those rare occasions when he was invited to a friend’s house for dinner, his hosts would invariably present him with nut cutlets, veggie burgers, salads and other drab, meat-less excuses for food. Any suggestion from Sebastian that he was not, in fact, vegetarian would be swept aside as though it was just his little joke.
At such times, Sebastian would chew on the tasteless mouthfuls, and think back with longing to the meals his mother used to make, every one of which had meat as the main attraction. He could even recall the occasional Sunday roast that included several different meats, though the mainstay was usually a chicken.
He had helped her once, as she prepared the Sunday bird, and had been surprised to find there was a plastic bag hidden inside the chicken, like the hidden prize in a macabre treasure hunt. His mother had pulled it out to reveal a number of brown and purple items just visible through the blood-stained bag.
‘Eurgh!’ he’d said, with feeling. ‘What’re those… things?’
His mother had smiled as she took up a knife from the draining board. ‘They’re the chicken’s giblets,’ she said, slipping the blade through the plastic. ‘Heart, liver, gizzard and neck.’ She tipped up the bag, the gruesome contents flopping out into a bowl. Sebastian pulled a face at the alien shaped meat. ‘It might not look like much,’ his mother said, ‘but it makes the best gravy!’
After that day, Sebastian had never touched gravy again. Nor had he ever bought a chicken to roast in the five years he’d lived in the flat – all thanks to the grotesque bag of innards hidden in that chicken.
That experience, however, had been nothing compared with drawing the “evil chicken” as he still couldn’t help thinking of it. Evil in life, evil in death – he wished he’d never laid eyes on the wretched bird. It didn’t even have the decency to keep its guts in a nice, handy plastic bag, but just left them lolloping around inside its body with no thought for the person who had to take them out.
And now that person turned out to be him.
‘Do I really need to do this?’ These were his first words as he emerged from the stairwell after his shower.
Virginia looked up from the table, where she had arranged the weapons for this latest crusade. ‘Well, the poor chicken’s not going to draw itself, now, is it?’
‘I guess that’s a yes,’ said Sebastian. As he headed to join Virginia in the kitchen, he glanced across at Neil, slumped in his usual place in the lounge, paper spread in front of him like a shield. ‘Not doing yours, Neil?’
‘I don’t keep a dog and bark myself!’ came the reply, and a dishcloth flew past Sebastian’s face, landing with damp slapping sound on the back of Neil’s head. He chuckled away to himself, making no attempt to remove the cloth.
‘Ignore him,’ said Virginia, turning her attention to the two plucked chickens that lay, breast upwards, on the table. ‘Let’s get cracking, shall we. Won’t take fifteen minutes.’
Sebastian, pulling on a new pair of yellow gloves, edged round the table to stand in front of his chicken ‘I’ve heard that before.’
The next thirty minutes were some of the least pleasant of his life so far, even out-grossing the murder he had committed that morning, though he managed not to throw up during the drawing session. Most of the time was taken up with Virginia’s encouragements, cajoling and, at times, parade ground style commands – military in their delivery, if not their content.
The process began with cutting the gizzard away from the skin of the neck, which Virginia demonstrated after nipping off her bird’s head, with a swift chop from the heel of her knife.
‘I didn’t realise gizzards actually existed,’ said Sebastian, trying not to look at what his gloved hands were doing. ‘I thought they were just something pirates talked about in books. What do they do?’
‘They go around stealing treasure,’ called Neil from behind the armchair, still wearing the dishcloth, ‘and then burying it again on desert islands.’
‘Gizzards,’ said Virginia, rolling her eyes, ‘are where chicken’s crush up their food. It’s a bit like us with our teeth, only the gizzard is just a muscle which the chicken fill with stones, that act like teeth.’
‘Really?’ Sebastian looked down at the saggy, pink pouch with a frown. It didn’t look like much of a muscle.
‘Here, look.’ Virginia took her knife and cut into the gizzard of her bird, then pushed a few grains of half-chewed corn out through the hole. ‘Clever, eh?’ Sebastian pulled an involuntary face that didn’t suggest he found it that clever. Disgusting, yes, but not clever.
Next, they removed the legs, pulling out the tendons with far more effort than Sebastian had expected, before opening up the bird’s cavity, which Sebastian couldn’t help thinking of as “making an incision”, as though he was a coroner performing an autopsy.
It certainly smelled like it, or as he imagined it might, thought he’d never actually been in a morgue. He hoped he never would either after this – the smell was dreadful, something like a mixture of sewer and citrus, and he had to take small gulps of air over his shoulder in an effort to avoid it.
‘You need to slip your hand in,’ said Virginia, as she did so, showing no sign of even noticing the odour of inside a chicken, ‘keeping your fingers up, away from the intestines.’ Sebastian pulled another face, even more sick-looking than the last. ‘Then, after pushing through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, keep sliding your hand up the inside of the ribs til you feel the heart.’
‘The heart?’ Sebastian’s voice was little more than a croak, and he took a deep breath to clear his head, regretting it as he caught a fresh waft from one of the chickens. Virginia’s, he reckoned, since she was the one with her arm inside it. She was saying something, tapping the bird’s chest, but he wasn’t really listening. He was thinking back to that bag again and wishing he wasn’t here. He looked up at Neil again, still sitting in his chair, rustling the paper.
‘Fancy a go?’ he asked in the same croaky voice.
‘Me?’ said Neil, half-turning. ‘Can’t. Hands are too big.’ he raised one so Sebastian could get a good look. It certainly was a large hard, much broader than his own. ‘If I tried to get inside one of them chicken’s with this hulking fist, I’d end up ripping it in half.’ He turned fully now, eyes meeting Sebastian’s. ‘Still, I reckon you’ll be fine with those dainty little mitts of yours. I see you’ve got your trusty gloves on again!’
‘Of course I have!’ he said. ‘These are a new pair.’ He held them up for Neil to see, noticing for the first time the red-brown streaks marring the bright yellow rubber. ‘Eurgh! These’ll be going straight in the bin when we’re done.’
‘How many of those things have you got?’ asked Neil.
‘Nowhere near enough.’
‘Any chance of us finishing this some time today?’ said Virginia, her hand still deep inside the chicken. ‘Right. Once you’ve got your fingers around the heart, you can pull everything straight out.’ She demonstrated and Sebastian found himself having to swallow hard at the sight of the innards. Everything was bright and glistening, a mass of greys, purples, pinks and reds, flopping in a wobbly mass onto the chopping board. ‘I’ll save the liver. Neil goes crazy for them on a thick slice of toast.’
Without warning, Sebastian started to giggle, growing into unstoppable, slightly manic laughter. He pointed at the pile of organs and, between breaths, managed to say, ‘Why is… it so c-…colourful?’ He felt a tear forming in his eye and wiped it away. ‘It was such… such a dull-looking… chicken.’ At last his laughter began to fade.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Virginia, sounding so concerned that it started him off all over again. Even Neil had swivelled round to see what was going on.
‘The lad’s lost it!’ he said, shaking his head at the sight. ‘Can’t believe we broke him so soon. Give him a slap, Virg.’
Virginia looked torn for a moment, half-raising one ooze-covered hand, but Sebastian held up a gloved one in response, gathering himself together.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just nerves – tension at everything that’s happened.’ He looked down at the waiting-to-be-drawn chicken and corrected himself: ‘Happening.’
‘Well?’ said Virginia, as Sebastian continued to stare at the bird. ‘The sooner you get stuck in, the sooner it’ll be over and I can get it ready for dinner. You’ve smeared blood under your eye, by the way.’
There was nothing pleasant about any of the next couple of minutes; no redeeming features whatsoever, unless one counted the fact that it was eventually over. And for Sebastian that was a major bonus. That, and the fact he still wasn’t sick. Not even when he was tugging on the chicken’s innards and, with a loud belching sound, they surged out up his arm, part of the long, grey intestines slipping into the top of his glove. Virginia stepped in to whip out the liver, before consigning the rest of the innards to a bag.
‘You can give those to the pigs in the morning,’ she said, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. ‘Nice and clean,’ she added, bending to peer inside the chicken. ‘Good work.’ She went to pat him on the shoulder, but thought better of it; she was still holding the liver in her hand.
‘So, we’re done here, yes?’ asked Sebastian, his voice draped with pleading. ‘Can I go back upstairs and wash again?’
Virginia nodded. ‘Of course, dear.’
‘Don’t be too long, though,’ said Neil, folding up his paper and tossing it onto the coffee table. ‘I’ve got a little treat for you when you’re done. A real treat,’ he added, seeing the look of suspicion on Sebastian’s face. ‘Trust me.’
There was a loud crack as the rifle fired followed by the sound of the lead shot punching into wood.
Neil turned, pointing to where the pellet had struck. ‘That tree!’
‘Oh, right,’ said Sebastian, as though some deep truth was suddenly dawning on him. ‘I thought you meant… some other tree. Over there.’ He flapped a hand, ungloved, to indicate the wooded area in general. He was enjoying himself, the last few hours of his life if not exactly forgotten, at least ignored for the moment as Neil took him out on this little treat. They’d travelled down to the smallholding on the quad bike, an experience that was not improving with experience and were now leaning against its trailer, facing the tree-covered hill, each clutching a .22 air rifle.
‘Well, since you didn’t manage to hit any of the trees “over there”,’ Neil mimicked the hand flapping, ‘it makes no odds which one you thought I meant. Now see if you can hit that one.’ He pointed again to the target.
Sebastian broke the barrel of the air rifle, with some difficulty, slipped in a pellet and snapped it shut. ‘Here goes,’ he said, jamming the stock into his right shoulder, as Neil had taught him, and peering down the length of the barrel. He pulled the trigger and felt the rifle jerk backwards against his shoulder with a bang. Somewhere, a few fallen leaves jumped as the pellet buried itself among them.
‘You can see the tree, yes?’ asked Neil, jabbing his own gun towards it. ‘It’s that big one, just there, about twenty yards away.’
Sebastian lowered the weapon. ‘Well, it’s alright for you,’ he said. ‘No doubt you come out here popping off a few rounds each day, catching – what? – rabbits and foxes and stuff. The only time I ever fired a gun was at a stag do. We went paintballing and I shot the father of the bride in the backside. And it was a far wider target than that scrawny tree over there. And besides,’ he pointed to Neil’s rifle, ‘you’ve got that telescope… thing on top. All I’ve just got is this little notch here,’ he indicated the rear sight, ‘and a sticky-up bit at the other end. That’s hardly fair!’
‘Okay then.’ Neil held out his air rifle to Sebastian. ‘Give this one a go.’
Sebastian swapped the weapon with his own, reloaded it and placed the stock in his shoulder, his eye against the telescopic sights.
‘Remember which tree you’re aiming for?’ asked Neil.
‘Yes, thanks,’ said Sebastian, his voice slightly muffled as the rifle pressed into his cheek.
‘Oh! Make sure your eye isn’t-’
The rifle fired and something hit Sebastian so hard in the face it jerked his head backwards, making him stagger to the side. He yelled in pain, clamping a hand over his right eye.
‘- touching the scope,’ Neil finished. ‘Else it’ll kick back into your face, like that. That’s got to smart a bit.’
Sebastian glared at him with his uncovered eye. ‘Smart? A bit? It feels like someone’s punched me in the face.’
Neil nodded, evidently trying his best not to grin. ‘Yeah. It’ll most likely black up like it, too. Still,’ he held out an arm towards the tree, ‘you did manage to hit the tree, well, graze it, at least.’ He cleared his throat, half-masking a chuckle. ‘So, you want another go at it, or shall we have a crack at something a bit more… challenging?’
‘Like what?’ asked Sebastian, a hand still gripping his face. He could feel his eye watering as it throbbed painfully.
‘There’s usually some rabbits scattered across the fields,’ Neil began, but Sebastian interrupted him.
‘No more killing. Not today. Please.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Neil, allowing a chuckle to escape at last. ‘You’d probably end up shooting one of the horses any way. Even if we weren’t in their field. We’ll just do a little more target practice, then. See if we can get sharpen up your skills.’
‘My skills!’ Sebastian let out a harsh laugh at the idea. ‘I’m not sure I’ve demonstrated any skills since I got here. I couldn’t even put a tent up. Damn, my eye hurts!’
‘Sit down a mo,’ said Neil, taking the rifle from Sebastian and guiding him towards the quad bike seat. ‘Let’s have a look.’ Sebastian clamped his hand harder against his face, a small protest escaping his lips, but Neil eased the hand away without effort.
‘Help!’ Sebastian wailed as his right eye was exposed, his vision blurred. ‘I’ve gone blind!’
Neil grinned, but Sebastian’s didn’t see. ‘Don’t talk such rot, lad. It’s just watering is all. No doubt you’ve got a tissue hidden about your person some place. Give it a wipe and good blink and it’ll be sorted in no time.’
As expected, Sebastian produced a sheaf of tissues and dabbed at his eye, wincing as he did so. Neil wandered off to set up a few targets and, by the time he returned, Sebastian’s sight was back to normal, though his eye was still sore.
Neil peered at it. ‘You’ll live,’ he declared. ‘Looks like it caught you between your nose and eye. Sensitive, but pretty tough! So which one you want?’ He presented the two rifles and, without hesitation, Sebastian grabbed the one without the telescopic sights. ‘Fine choice. Let’s go shoot some stuff!’
It was quarter to six when they bowled into the farmhouse, air rifles in hand, voices raised like schoolboys in the playground.
‘It’s beginner’s luck, is all,’ said Neil, kicking off his boots on the doormat.
Sebastian leant against the wall as he eased his off, placing them carefully by the shoe rack. ‘Call whatever you like, it still means that I won. And you lost. Making you the loser.’
‘I was going easy on you, after your attempts at hitting that tree.’
‘Anything else you want to add to keep proving my point?’ asked Sebastian, handing over the gun. ‘And let’s not forget you had the one with the half-binoculars on the top.’
Neil tutted. ‘It’s called a scope, as well you know. How’s that eye doing by the way?’
‘Listen to you two,’ said Virginia, as they bundled into the kitchen. ‘You’re like a couple of drunk teenagers. How did it go with the shooting?’
Neil shrugged and went to store the guns in their cabinet in the lounge. ‘So-so.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ said Sebastian. ‘After all, it wasn’t you that won. Guess what.’ Virginia shrugged. ‘I hit a two pence piece at thirty yards. Two pence.’ He held up his hand, thumb and forefinger forming a circle roughly the relevant size. ‘At thirty yards.’
Virginia looked impressed. ‘Not bad.’
‘Lucky shot,’ mumbled Neil, striding back into the kitchen.
‘I hit it twice.’
‘Two lucky shots!’
‘Which made me the winner.’ Sebastian folded his arms, a broad smile nailed to his face.
‘Is that why he punched you?’ asked Virginia, gesturing towards Sebastian’s face with her eyebrows.
Sebastian touched his swollen eye and winced. ‘Is it that obvious? It was that wretched eyeglass attached to his rifle. Kicked back into my eye when I was shooting at a tree.’
‘Missing a tree, more like,’ said Neil. He sniffed at the air in the kitchen. ‘Something smells nice, and I don’t reckon it’s either of us two. Well, not me anyways. And it doesn’t smell like a tart’s handbag, neither, so it probably isn’t him.’
‘That,’ said Virginia, turning to open the oven, ‘is dinner. Why don’t you two grab a seat for a bit, while I get it finished up and ready. You must be worn out after all your excitement!’
And although her voice was laced with irony, they scurried off into the lounge, Sebastian dropping into the sofa and Neil slumping into his armchair, where they spent the next twenty-five minutes tackling the crossword. It was the easy one, but in that time they only managed to answer eight. And two of those they weren’t that confident about.
‘Of course it’s “Suzuki”,’ said Neil, jabbing his pen at the page, ‘because forty-six down, “given shoes” has to be “shod”.’
‘Yes, but it could be “Subaru”. That’s a make of car as well.’ He leant over to peep at the puzzle. ‘What’s thirty-nine down? That’ll help.’
‘“Concretion of nacre”. Thirteen letters.’
‘What?’ Sebastian frowned in incredulity. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? What paper is this?’
‘Are you two coming in here or am I slaving away at this stove for nothing?’
They both turned to see Virginia in the kitchen, enveloped in swirls of steam and she carried a large dish to the table.
‘Coming, dear,’ said Neil, tossing the paper onto the coffee table with a sigh. ‘We can finish that later.’
Sebastian pushed himself up out of the sofa. ‘You mean we can start it later – there’s still over forty clues to get through.’
They took their places at the table, Sebastian at one end, Neil at the other, Virginia’s chair sitting empty between them.
Sebastian looked thoughtful, still lost in the crossword. ‘I’ve never even heard of nacre,’ he said. ‘Have you?’
‘Nope,’ said Neil, snatching up the carving knife in his fist, and resting it on the table, pointing at the ceiling. ‘It’s a new one on me.’
Virginia, who had been fiddling around by the stove, turned round, holding a carving board in oven-gloved hands. ‘Nacre?’ she said. ‘That’s mother of pearl, isn’t it?’
Neil and Sebastian stared at her, both adding up the letters in their heads. Neil got there first. ‘How in blue blazes did you know that?’
‘Oh, I came across it in a magazine. Surprising the things you can pick up.’ She dumped the board on the table in front of Neil, revealing the once evil chicken, its skin now crispy and brown, the meat beneath no doubt cooked to perfection.
‘Well, I guess it was “Subaru” after all,’ said Neil. ‘Leg or breast?’ He pointed to the two areas in question with the carving knife, and looked up at Sebastian. ‘You alright, lad?’
Sebastian was staring at the chicken, his mouth open, breathing loudly, his face drained of its colour. He looked as though he was going to be sick again, but then he blinked, swallowed and his eyes flicked up to his hosts.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘I just don’t think I can do it.’
‘Do what?’ asked Virginia.
‘Eat it. The chicken. Only… just this morning, it was sitting on the roof of its house and running around the place – it even jumped on my head! And now… and now it’s dead, and I did it.’ He jabbed a finger into his chest, as though clearing up any doubt as to who he felt was to blame. ‘I killed it. And then I pulled out its feathers and its… inside bits. But I can’t eat it, I just can’t.’
He looked from Neil to Virginia and back again, the silence stretching out between them.
‘Well,’ said Neil, breaking it at last. ‘Luckily for you, there’s plenty of vegetables.’ He swept the knife in front of him, indicating the steaming bowls of potatoes, kale, carrots and other non-chicken items. ‘Help yourself to whatever you fancy. It’s all good stuff – I grew most them in the patch out front. And if you change your mind…’ He left the sentence hanging as he began carving the chicken for himself and Virginia, who had returned to the stove.
‘Thanks,’ said Sebastian, spooning vegetables onto his plate. ‘I really am sorry about the chicken.’
Neil paused in the act of cutting off a leg, and pointed at Sebastian with the carving knife. ‘You know what, though? The moment I caught sight of you, standing on the pavement out front of Barnstaple station, I marked you down as a veggie. Funny thing, eh?’
‘Not really,’ said Sebastian. ‘It’s a common enough mistake, for some reason.’
Virginia returned from the stove, carrying a small ceramic jug and offered it to Sebastian. ‘Here you go,’ she said. ‘Lovely bit of gravy, to go with all that veg.’