Sometimes the work you do gets into your bones.
There is a smell here – metallic or concrete. Like biting your teeth into a solid brick of ice or maybe a slate tile. Probably the smell of chilled blood, although there are only a few spots visible on the floor.
Mick has closely cropped grey hair, a blue striped apron and a tattoo that looks self-inflicted. Without a flicker of hesitation he places his hand on my shoulder and pinches into the skin of my neck, near the top vertebrae. He looks at me steadily for a moment, as if the act were self-explanatory.
“This bit of cartilage here is where you put the S-hook. Dig it under properly and it’ll easy hold a carcass heavier’an yours.”
Thankfully he decides not to demonstrate on me further and flicks the hook into the newly delivered lamb that’s draped over the bench, right above the gaping hole where its head used to be. The point sinks through the waxy fat, into the cartilage and clank onto the rail with the others. He indicates with his head and I push them along the screeching rail into the cool room. The carcasses concertina, a gruesome set of vertical blinds.
I stop inside for a moment, as if I’m interrupting. The cool room is dimly lit and solemn, lined with hanging densities: forequarters, racks of cutlets, loin, boxes of shanks, bleeding slabs of cryovaced topside. The pigs hang taller than humans with broken off feet and a cross section of insides. The hooks stretch that thick skin, which still bristles like a bad shave. The cold seems to be emanating from their bodies and the room hums quietly.
Mick is waiting for me with a knife. With an air of casual professionalism, he takes my wrist and raises my arm to a right angle:
“When yer breaking down a body ya gotta know the tricks. Count four ribs up-” (he digs his fingers into my side and walks his fingers up my ribs) “and slice around and there’s a soft point in the spine, here.”
He turns to the pig he has strung up from the rail.
“Now you see ‘im, now ya don’t.”
In seconds the carcass in front of him is quartered, broken up with swift sliding motion. Its stubby limbs are still recognisable – fighting back – but its extinct eyes are glassy, almost artificial. Then the band-saw rattles through bone like butter, then it’s peel back the skin, let the knife slice itself silent and swift till the animal’s crumpled husk is a heap on the floor. Then the lumps of fat and jelly come off and into one box; chunks of bloodless flesh (cut against the grain) in another; inches of the animal’s dimensions stripped from existence. Now turn the knife backhand and follow the contour of bone with the flat edge, letting the hungry blade clean the meat off in sheets.
The big cuts hang from hooks – the first from the rail and then successively from the previous hook so they hang down in a cluster.
“That’s what we call Christmas tree-ing.”
Mick chuckles and then his face falls still. He takes a bucket of offcuts and starts feeding them into the mincer, whistling to himself as if I’m not there. If he doesn’t have anything funny to say, he’s not saying anything at all.
All the butchers are comfortable with themselves. More than that: they are never uncomfortable with any sort of person, in silence or conversation. They watch customers with a strange direct gaze, offer up advice and recipes or just raise their eyebrows and wait. They are morose and playful and unusually calm, never surprised but always interested – filling the time with perpetual rising and falling waves of jokes and carnivorous laughter.
The shop is also a pleasant place to be – a long way from the mechanised horror of a factory slaughterhouse: there’s fresh fruit and vegetables, tins and jars from Italy and Lebanon, the smell of herbs, of pies baking in the oven, the ceaseless babble of the radio. Even the raw meat is appetising once it’s trussed or butterflied or drizzled in olive oil and there’s a constant battle between my queasy disgust and rising hunger.
The whole experience of working here is conflicting. The animals are dead but the fact of their existence is more real than you might think. I can feel their anonymous presences as they move through the shop – arriving fresh out of their skins, broken into pieces and arranged in tasteful displays. The solid fibre of their bodies in my hands, under my fingernails. The knife is alive and so sharp it cuts through my skin without me even noticing and soon I’m bleeding with them. But there’s something honest about the work too, something calm and serious – I suppose if you’re going to eat meat, you should probably face what that really means and maybe that’s where a butcher’s self-assurance comes from. It certainly feels like a privilege being behind the counter, looking down at the wealthy couples innocently perusing the modest portions of meat, knowing with certainty what they refuse to acknowledge.
I tell Mick I’m thinking about the apprenticeship.
“Don’t be fucking stupid.”
He snorts but doesn’t turn around. He stops still for a moment, as if he’s thinking.
“You’ve been good mate, but this ain’t for you.”
He was right, I only lasted a couple more weeks. I still think about it because it was the first real job I had – the first that was about more than the wage, more than just getting through the hours. The daily grind was like some old, unofficial ritual that made ordinary work respectable and made me respect ordinary blood and bones, both the animals’ and my own. But towards the end I started feeling strange. My hands were always greasy. At night I’d scrub like Lady Macbeth but I could never get the four kinds of animal fat from between my fingers. In conversation with people I’d sometimes catch the sickening smell of raw mince on their breath. Every time I was in a public bathroom I’d notice blood in the sink. Then one day I caught sight of a hard grey piece of metal underneath the cupboard by my bed. I still don’t know exactly what it was or how it got there but when I pulled it out and held it in my hand I was sure the unsettling S shaped implement was a butcher’s hook.