Chapter 13 – The First Cut
Blood. That was the first thing Sebastian could smell as he entered the butcher’s shop. Blood and raw meat. And behind it, the sharp edge of decay. He screwed up his nose in distaste and tried breathing through his shirt. It didn’t help. This, he suspected, was why people got their meat from the supermarket, where the airtight packaging kept the odours contained. Did any normal people go to an actual butcher’s anymore? Or was this simply another dying relic of the Victorian era, like the post offices and steam engines?
It even looked Victorian. The floor was tiled in a chessboard of terracotta and black, giving way to white tiles on the walls. Instead of the usual glass display cabinets, there was a single counter, the top of thick wood, the front white. Around the store were a number of wooden barrows, each filled with cuts of beef, pork, lamb, sausages, bacon, pies and other meat-inspired items. Hanging from the black beams that ran across the ceiling were vicious-looking hooks from which dangled an assortment of dead animals, whole or in bits. Some of these Sebastian recognised – chickens, pheasants, a leg of pork – but others were unknown to him, such as the smaller birds, of which there were many varieties, and the larger cuts of meat. From somewhere a chill breeze was blowing around the room, though he couldn’t quite work out the source. Maybe it was from the back room, which was hidden from view by a curtain of coloured chains that hung in the doorway.
‘Hello?’ called Virginia, who had accompanied Sebastian to the shop and did not seem at all fazed by the smell. ‘Mac?’
For a moment, her voice elicited no response, then the curtain burst apart and the butcher’s considerable bulk strode into the room. He had seemed big to Sebastian in the dark last night, but here, in his own territory, in the light from the large shop window, he was enormous, his bald head glinting with imagined menace, his black beard bristling with much the same.
‘Alright,’ he mumbled, his eyes flicking from Virginia to Sebastian. ‘Come to learn about butchering, is it?’ His voice sounded cautious, even shy, at odds with his intimidating presence.
‘That’s right,’ said Virginia. ‘Well, Sebastian here has anyway. I don’t think you two have been properly introduced, have you?’ The two men shrugged. ‘Mac, this is Sebastian.’ She gestured to him with both hands, then swung them the other way. ‘Sebastian, this is Mac. His real name’s Victor, but all his friends here call him Mac, don’t they?’
‘’S right,’ he said, an almost imperceptible nod accompanying his words. He made no move to offer his hand for Sebastian to shake, so that appeared to be that.
‘Good.’ Virginia, who had brought a cloth-covered basket with her, dumped it down by the ancient till and pulled an old envelope from it, the plastic window in it crackling as she straightened it out. It was covered in the same, unintelligible scrawl as the note Sebastian had found on his first morning here. With a shock, he realised that was three days ago already. The time seemed to be picking up at last! ‘This here is a list of the various cuts I’d like. If you could get them all bagged up for me as usual, that’d be great. I’ll pick them up early Thursday before I leave for market, okay?’
Again the slight nod.
‘Excellent.’ She looked to Sebastian then back to the butcher. ‘Right, well, I can see you two chatterboxes are going to get on like a couple of canaries, so I’ll leave you to it. Hope you have fun.’ And with that she turned on her booted heel and marched out of the shop. The door slammed shut behind her and silence descended. The two men stood unmoving, neither looking at each other. Sebastian raised his eyebrows at the awkward tension. Mac let out a long, low breath into his beard.
‘Well,’ said Sebastian at last, ‘I guess, um…’
‘Er, yeah,’ said Mac, thumbing towards the curtained doorway, ‘We should probably…’
‘Sure,’ said Sebastian, clapping his hands together in readiness. ‘Right…’ Another awkward pause was this time broken by the butcher striding back through the chain curtain. Sebastian followed.
It was like walking into a different world, or rather a different time. Gone was all trace of the Victorian era, the ornate ceramic tiles and woodwork. In its place was the clinical glare of stainless steal, bright white plastic and space age equipment. Most of it was alien to Sebastian, though he recognised the meat slicer from his local supermarket, and the largest item, taking up half the room, definitely looked like a white shipping container with a couple of refrigeration units attached to it, rattling noisily. The only similarities between this area and the one he had just left, were the hooks in the ceiling, though there were all empty, and the smell. If anything, the it was even stronger and the edge of decay more cutting.
‘What is that awful smell?’ he asked, looking around.
Mac sniffed at the air, as though he hadn’t realised there was any smell, then nodded. ‘Deer. Been hanging for a week or so.’ He stomped over to a large door set into what looked like a white shipping container, and yanked down the lever. As the door opened a fresh wave of the smell washed over Sebastian, the stench of decay almost overpowering.
He tried breathing through his T-shirt again, with the same effect as before, and peered into the container. Inside, harsh light had burst to life, revealing two rows of carcasses hanging from the ceiling. Down each wall stood stainless steel shelves, all loaded with what Sebastian tried to think of as simply “animal products”. He looked at the dangling carcasses and noticed only one of them still looked like a real animal.
‘Is that it?’ he said, pointing with his free hand, the other still holding his T-shirt over his nose.
The butcher peered inside. ‘That’s the one,’ he said, his breath clouding in the refrigerated air. He reached in and stroked the creature’s fur. ‘Good meat on that.’
‘Did someone shoot it? Or was it knocked down by a car or something?’
‘Shot,’ said Mac. ‘Up in the woods.’
Sebastian nodded. ‘Did you shoot it?’
The butcher looked surprised. ‘Me? No, I don’t shoot. Never touch a gun, me.’ He glared at Sebastian, as though daring him to suggest otherwise. ‘The vicar shot it.’
‘The vicar?’ Sebastian let go of the T-shirt, stunned. ‘But he’s… he’s a vicar!’
‘Vicar’s is people too,’ said Mac, shifting the deer out of the way to lift down another carcass. ‘Some of them, anyways.’
Sebastian stepped back to watch as the huge man hefted the carcass onto his shoulder. It must have weighed as much as Sebastian, but Mac performed the movement with no sign of effort. He stepped out of the fridge, pulling the door closed behind him and walked across to a large stainless steal workbench.
‘I shot a two pence piece yesterday,’ said Sebastian, in an attempt to make conversation. ‘Twice. It was perched on a tree branch over twenty metres away.’
Mac dumped the carcass onto the workbench and turned to Sebastian, eyeing him as if trying to work something out. ‘Ain’t much eating on a coin,’ he said at last and, although his mouth was hidden by the thick beard, there was a hint of a sparkle in his eyes – the suggestion of a smile.
Sebastian grinned up at him. ‘I shot a few plastic bottles as well,’ he said.
The carcass turned out to be that of a pig, one of three that the Symeses had taken to the abattoir the previous week. Two of these, together with a lamb, were to be butchered today and this was apparently why Sebastian was here.
Mac hung the first pig from the ceiling hooks, one attached to each leg, then drew a massive cleaver from its place on the wall. Sebastian eyed it nervously, certain it was the one he’d seen in the butcher’s hand on his first morning in Steepleford, and jumped backwards as Mac slammed the blade between the pigs hind legs, driving it down through the spine. He twisted it free, the metal glinting at he raised it above his head before slamming it down again.
‘Want to give it a go?’ asked the butcher, pulling the cleaver free again and holding it out to Sebastian.
He shook his head. ‘No, you’re alright, thanks,’ he said. ‘You seem to have it all under control.’
The butcher shrugged his vast shoulders and sliced down into the carcass again. After a few more cuts, including a swift slice with another wickedly-sharp knife to remove the head, the pig hung in two halves, swinging slightly in the breeze from the cooling fans.
‘Butcher’s perks,’ said Mac, holding up the pig’s head by and ear. ‘Beautiful bit of meat, that.’
Sebastian eyed it with distaste. There were still a number of hairs around its mouth, the teeth barred. ‘If you say so,’ he said. ‘I won’t be coming to dinner, though, if it’s all the same to you.’
Mac only grunted in response as he placed the head to one side. Grunted, and frowned. Then, with practised ease, he hefted one half of the pig off its hook and laid it across the workbench, business-like. Sebastian guessed he wasn’t much for small talk – so much for breaking the ice!
Thankfully, the next thirty minutes were so focussed on butchering – what Sebastian began to think of as turning pig into pork – that there was little need for any other conversation. Beginning with slicing off the back leg, which then stopped looking like a leg and looked like a nice, big ham, they separated the first half into its general cuts – hand, shoulder, loin and belly. Then came the fiddly work of dicing up the shoulder meat, separating the chops, most of which Mac did as Sebastian was nervous of that massive cleaver, and boning the leg. The meat was cold, awkward and felt unpleasant, even through his last pair of washing up gloves, though it was nowhere near as bad as the hideous things he’d had to do with the chicken yesterday.
‘Something up?’ asked Mac, eyeing Sebastian as he drew a blade across the ribs of the other half, marking the line he was going to saw along. ‘Look like you’re going to be sick.’
Sebastian shook his head to dispel the image of the wobbly chicken innards. ‘No. It’s nothing. Just… just thinking about yesterday.’
The butcher straightened up, laying his knife on the workbench and turning to Sebastian. ‘Ah,’ he said, as he’d expected something. ‘I wondered when you might bring that up?’
‘Really?’ Sebastian was confused. How did Mac hear about the chicken slaughter? He guessed Neil, or maybe Virginia, had said something. Why not? Everyone else seemed to know what he was doing this week. ‘Well, yeah… it wasn’t great.’
Mac nodded, his beard accentuating the gravity of the gesture. ‘You’re right. It wasn’t. Only, I’ve always struggled with… you know, with that sort of thing.’
‘But look at you!’ said Sebastian, his voice mirroring the incredulity on his face. ‘You’re a butcher, for goodness’ sake.’
‘That don’t make any difference. In fact, it’s been this way ever since I was a young apprentice up in London. Worst days of my life.’ Mac turned away and Sebastian was alarmed to hear a note of emotion in the large man’s voice. ‘All coz of Maggie Arnold,’ he said. ‘It’s her fault.’
‘Um…’ Sebastian’s mind was racing, desperately trying to work out what this had to do with Mac not wanting to kill a chicken. Or was it the bit with the guts he didn’t like? He gave up. ‘Why’s that?’
The butcher reached down to fiddle with his black and white striped apron. ‘She went off with my friend, didn’t she? My best friend.’ He fixed Sebastian with a piercing stare. ‘I was trying to build up the confidence to do it, was all.’
Sebastian’s mouth hung open for several seconds at this curious admission before he finally found something to say. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘What’s this got to do with killing chickens?’
‘Killing chickens?’ It was Mac’s turn to look confused. ‘What’re you talking about?’
‘What was..? That is what I was talking about. I had kill a chicken yesterday and then gut it, and I was just remembering how disgusting it was. What were you talking about?’
The tops of the butcher’s cheeks were just visible above the dark line of his beard, and Sebastian watched as the colour flooded into them. Mac turned away, snatching the saw from its hook on the wall. He handed it to Sebastian and, as though the last few minutes had never happened, told him to have a go at cutting through the carcass on his own.
Deciding it was best to play along, especially with a man who was four times his size and very well armed, Sebastian set about the work again, his mind whirring. Mac had to be talking about their night time encounter by the village store, but how did his comments fit in? What was all that about Megan or whatever it was – the girl from London? And what was he trying to built up the confidence for? Sebastian had already worked out he couldn’t be spying last night. Mac wasn’t the opportunist peeper Sebastian had been, as he must have already been there before the light came on. So why was he there? What had he been doing?
‘Easy, lad!’ yelled Mac, snatching the saw from his grip. ‘You nearly had your hand off!’
Sebastian, who had probably not been paying quite as much attention as he should have been, blinked at the sight of the sawn-through ribs and the ragged edges of the flesh beneath. And the patch of yellow. ‘Is that..?’ he began, pulling his hand out from beneath the carcass. There was a long tear across the back of the glove, where the saw had bitten through. Sebastian yanked it off, feeling sick at the thought of what he would see. But his hand okay. There was only a single, tiny cut to show for his lapse.
‘One more push and you’re hand would’ve looked like that,’ Mac pointed to the severed rips and ripped up flesh, ‘only smaller. Remember – saw for bones, knife for meat. And concentrate!’
‘Thanks,’ said Sebastian, looking up at the butcher with a wave of gratitude. ‘You saved my… my hand.’ He held it up for inspection, in case there was any confusion over with part of his body had been in jeopardy.
Mac shrugged, but the eye-twinkle was back. ‘It’s only the left one.’
At last, they had finished the dangerous knife and saw work, with the carcass reduced to various recognisable cuts – chops, ham, roasting joints and the like – and a mound of diced pork. There was also a pile of ‘bits’, such as the skin from the shoulders and the strange plastic-line membrane from inside the ribcage. Sebastian eyed the pile suspiciously, hoping the ‘bits’ weren’t going to become ingredients in anything he’d ever eaten.
‘Right,’ said Mac, consulting Virginia’s scribbled list. ‘Let’s get this lot back in the fridge for now, and we’ll get to work on one of the lambs.’
Sebastian was surprised to find that butchering a lamb was almost exactly the same as butchering in a pig. The layout was the same, the cuts were made in the same places, and the stack of meat they were left with at the end were mostly the same. The only real differences were the colour of the flesh and the size of the carcass.
‘Not bad,’ said Mac, washing his hands in one of the three large sinks. ‘We’ll grab us something to eat before we start off on the sausages.’
‘We’ve still got to make sausages?’ said Sebastian, whose arms were aching from the morning’s work.
‘Won’t make themselves, will they?’
The two men headed back through the bead curtain, where Mac lifted the cloth cover from the basket Virginia had left. Leaning forwards to have a look, Sebastian made out the shapes of lunch – sandwiches, apples, a jar of something that was undoubtedly homemade. Mac rang up ‘No Sale’ on the till and drew out a fiver.
‘Would you grab us a couple of drinks from the shop?’ he asked, holding out the money. ‘I’m rather partial to a cola.’
Sebastian took the money.
‘Sure,’ he said, and set off, wondering why the butcher didn’t keep a supply of cans in his ridiculously massive fridge. Health and safety stuff, maybe? Or perhaps he just liked going up to the shop whenever he was thirsty?
As he rounded the bend past the hairdresser, Sebastian’s eyes were drawn to his hiding place of the night before. He hadn’t really noticed the building on the far side of the village store on his previous visits, which wasn’t surprising. It was just a normal house. A normal house for the country, he corrected himself. You wouldn’t find anything like this in the city. It looked as though it was made out of thick, black timbers, the spaces between filled with smooth, white plaster. Where Sebastian had been hiding, there was a window with a diamond pattern of lead across its small panes, and he hoped no one had been peering out at him, while he’d been peeping in at Emma.
On the other side, between the village store and the hairdresser, was a narrow alleyway that Sebastian also hadn’t noticed before. Had he been paying any attention when walking around this place? He stopped by the alley and looked down, surprised to see it led to a garden that stretched away behind the shop. This must have been where Mac had been hiding, though why he had been down there was a mystery. What was it the butcher had said about that girl in London? She’d destroyed his confidence, or something, running off with Mac’s best mate. What could he have needed to build up confidence for down this alley?
He shook his head at the weirdness of country people and headed into the shop.
‘Afternoon.’ Sebastian’s eyes were still adjusting from the bright sunlight to the gloomy interior of the shop, but he recognised the voice.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Standfield,’ he said, spotting her mounting the ladder, two bags of flour clutched in one arm.
‘Good is it?’ she said, not looking round. ‘We’ll see about that. How was yesterday’s slaughter?’
‘As awful as expected. But I did it, though.’ He pulled open the fridge that stood against the left wall and brought out a couple of cans. ‘I took your advice,’ he said, turning back to the shopkeeper, who was lifting the second bag onto a shelf. ‘I imagined it was someone else I was killing.’
Mrs Standfield swivelled round on the ladder to look at him. ‘Works well, doesn’t it? Best way to get your confidence up for the kill. And how’s Victor?’
This last question was said is such an airily off-hand manner that it took Sebastian a moment to register what she was asking. That, and he had to work out who Victor was. And then everything became clear.
It was as if a key had been turned inside his head, unlocking the mystery that had eluded him and allowing the obvious – now glaringly obvious – conclusion to present itself. He understood what the butcher had been trying to explain about his confidence. And he knew what he had been doing skulking around in the dark last night.
‘Oh, Victor’s just great,’ he said.