Advent Stories #20

MANNERS

The rain sounds different out here. Deep countryside. Kingfishers and toads. Dad told me I woke up to green so often that my eyes changed colour from brown to reflect it. He shared his love of nature with me, his practical knowledge. He was in the Scouts when he was a boy. I never went; I was far too shy, but I knew the Scout Promise off by heart. It’s common sense, really. Thoughtfulness and consideration. On my honour, I promise that I will do my best… I could identify all the birds, trees and flowers by the time I was five. I knew my knots and could tie them blindfold. I used to catch small animals – newts and snakes and frogs – and keep them in jars with punctured lids overnight while I studied and sketched them. In the morning I’d let them go. Sometimes we’d take long walks and there’d be something dead in the road. Later, when I went walking on my own and I saw an animal that had collided with a car, I’d place it in a bag (I always took a couple out with me) and take it home to study what it looked like internally.

Mum died when she gave birth to me. Her name was Julia. There’s one photograph of her and Dad (Gordon) on their wedding day. She’s leaning in to kiss him. She looks mousey. He’s a bald eagle. He’s holding an umbrella – August wedding; it pissed down – and she’s got flowers in her hair. Confetti frozen around them. He always told me I was in that shot too. She was pregnant with me six months when they had the ceremony. I keep it, carefully folded, in my wallet. I don’t take it out that often any more. It’s been unfolded so often it’s beginning to separate along the pleats.

When Dad died he left me the house. I say ‘house’. It’s more like a couple of connecting sheds at the edge of a long, thin field that ends at the motorway, which is like a thick, black underscore. Dad lived here rent-free, employed as a handiman by the farmer who owned the land. The farmer died about five years ago when the farm caught fire. There were rumours that it was a botched insurance scam, or that he’d committed suicide. Nobody came to demolish what was left of the building. You can still smell the smoke soaked into the walls of the place. Every so often, especially during nights when the storms come, you can hear bits of it collapsing. The main roof is gone now. Vandals have done for all the windows. Sometimes there are torchlights. Kids mucking about, scaring each other, drinking, taking drugs, having sex. I go in after them in the mornings to see if they left anything valuable behind: wallets, iPhones, but there’s never anything worth having.

You’ll not see me in town, much. I’m not a people person. I’m a book person. I read a lot, although I never enjoyed my school days and I left as soon as I was able, failing every exam they threw at me, if I was even around to take them. Like Dad I thought I’d end up labouring around the farm: what’s the point of knowing about isoscles triangles when you’re knee-deep in pig shit? The farmer was a decent guy to us, even if he did resemble a sad bloodhound, and I was sorry about what happened to him. I never thought about taking my own life. But I wonder about it. Everybody does, I reckon. People who commit suicide, is it on their minds from an early age, or is it something creeps up on you? You think about how it might go, how you’d decide to do it, and what would be the least horrible way. Could I take a bottle full of painkillers? Could I jump from a skyscraper? Could I step out in front of a lorry on the motorway? I’d be more scared of getting it wrong than right. And what if you changed your mind?

I spend a lot of time in the woods here. Food is a problem. I don’t have any money to buy stuff from the shops, and I’m a good lad. I promised I’d never thieve, so I’m our harvesting whenever I can. Nuts, berries, fruit, mushrooms. I lay traps and sometimes catch rabbits. By the pond I can sometimes collect a frog or two. I check the motorway every morning for fresh roadkill and it’s here that I find the bulk of my meals. I’ve bagged magpies, rats, pheasants, squirrels, badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, a swan and, one time, in winter, a deer. I had to borrow a book from the library on how to skin and gut it. I portioned it and kept it in plastic bags outside in the cold, in a tin bath covered with tarp. It kept me going till Spring. Sometimes I wish I’d been born in Canada, or Australia. I’ve never tried crocodile, or bear, or ostrich. Exotica, I think they call it.

I don’t eat anything if it looks as though it died from something other than a car’s bumper. If it’s fresh and not flat, it goes in the pan. The only downside is that you’ve got to cook it pretty well – no pink meat here – because of the likelihood of trichinosis. Fox is probably my favourite. It’s not very fatty, so you need to cook it quick on a barbecue. It’s dense meat, but pretty soft, with a salty, kind of earthy taste. Rat is a bit like pork in flavour, but I only tried it once because there’s the risk of Weil’s disease. Owl’s okay, badger’s bad and hedgehog’s horrid, but you can use their spines as toothpicks. I’ll try anything. I had dog once. A Golden Retriever. I think it was an unwanted pet dumped in the countryside that wandered on to the road. I had it in a stew with some beans and potatoes. It tasted like lamb.

I’m not sure how I made the leap to eating what I was studying, but it seemed the natural progression. Granted, it sounds a bit grim, but it’s the ultimate free-range, organic diet. It won’t be pumped full of hormones, or tense and knotty because it’s been trapped in a pen. My way, you can taste the surroundings in what’s on your plate. You can taste the good soil and the moist fields and the fresh air. You can detect the night on your palate. I’d rather have a toad stir-fry than a chicken injected with steroids to the point of deformity, crushed up against hundreds of others in a shit-spattered battery farm.

When it’s dark, because I don’t have any electricity, I sit and read with a candle while a failing wind-up radio plays old American songs from the wartime years; the only station I can find. I like listening to that stuff. I imagine my mother might have enjoyed it as well. She looks like someone who would sway to Johnny Mercer or The Ink Spots or Irving Berlin, her voice fading in and out as she sang a bar or two. Be Careful, it’s My Heart. The news comes on and I fade out. Never anything good. Never something I want to hear.

I continue to draw the animals I’ve eaten. I’m a decent drawer, somehow, despite Dad never having any talent in that area. Maybe Mum had a knack. Or maybe it skipped a generation. I often think about who my forebears were; I never knew my grandparents, but I know their names were Bert and Olive on my mum’s side and Norman and Iris on my dad’s side. There are four names you don’t hear much nowadays. Everybody dies and sometimes their names die with them. Could Norman ever be a popular name again? Was it ever?

*

I get down to the road around five in the morning and climb over the fence. I wait on my side of the crash barrier, listening for traffic. There are no motorway lights on this stretch. It’s usually quiet for another half hour bar the odd car, or an HGV. Now’s the time to go looking for roadkill; most of the animals I’ve found are nocturnal and it’s usually too early in the day, or too cold, for them to have been worried by rats or birds or for the flies to have filled their moistest parts with eggs. I find a jay, which is interesting; I’ve never had one of those before, and a pheasant with just its head crushed. That’s promising because sometimes, if they’ve been run over, you can taste the rubber off the tyres. I put what’s edible in a bag. About half a mile further south, I see something that gives me pause, something grey near the middle of the road, moving slightly. I hurry along the hard shoulder. Sometimes you can miss out on a decent dinner because the animal is merely stunned. One time about three years ago I saw a foal lying still at the side of the road with a broken jaw, its tongue hanging from between its teeth, fat and purple like a partially-inflated balloon. When I was about ten feet away, it jerked upright and escaped. It must have starved. Had I been a bit quicker I could have saved it some agony and made my belly a happy place for weeks.

It’s a wolf.

I stand over it. This one won’t be running away. It’s been hit so hard that the flesh has been substantially parted; most of its insides are now outside. I can’t quite understand how it can still be moving, but it is, and it is obviously in considerable pain. Its eyes bulge, its jaws stretched in either a scream that is silent or beyond the frequency human ears can detect. I can’t pick it up like this. There’s nothing to bludgeon it with so I pull my knife from my back pocket and kneel down alongside. Where the legs meets the body I sever an artery and wait for it to bleed out. It’s frustrating; usually I can get a decent boudin noir out of an animal, but I don’t want to risk distressing it further by carrying it home alive because the suffering can transfer to the meat, making it pale and sweaty. I sling it over my shoulder when the twitching has stopped and trudge back to the shed.

I put the jay and the pheasant in my makeshift pantry for later and get on with the wolf. I strip it and skin it and gut it – well, those that are left – and joint it. I get a big pot on the gas stove and add onions, wild garlic, carrots, rosemary and potatoes. I get the meat in the pot and brown it all over. I pour in plenty of water. My stomach is rumbling. Give it a stir. I wish I had some stock, or a drop of red wine.

I pick up my sketch book and begin to draw the wolf. I’m wondering about the skin, whether it could be put to good use – Dad always hated waste – and wondering what its name might have been, when there’s a knock on the door of the shed. Nobody ever comes down here, not even the farmer when he was alive and it’s his gaff, really. A voice, male, deep and purposeful – like Dad’s – asking to talk to me. I open the door and there are six or seven policemen standing behind a man in plain clothes. Big eyes. He’s an owl. I remember my manners. Dad brought me up to be polite. I invite them in.

The man in plain clothes gestures at the sketchbook. ‘It’s a good likeness,’ he says. ‘Just like on the posters.’

The pot has started to bubble on the stove and two of the policemen see what’s on the chopping board and leave without saying anything, the rude swines. I start to pick up the clothes from the floor, and I ask if anybody is hungry.

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