By Max Blagg
The boy hopped a turnstile at the edge of a field that skirted the river, quickening his pace as he passed opposite the worn brick chimney of the tanning factory across the water in Bolham Butts. There was always something vaguely rude in that appellation, Bolham Butts, and the factory itself was tinged with a raw and sinister quality, the dilapidated Victorian buildings, great piles of skins curing in the yard, infested with rats and giving off a powerful odor of putrefaction. A slimy, brownish purple liquid constantly leached into the river at that point and it was said that eels of enormous size congregated there, coiling and writhing in the murky depths. The ghosts of all the animals murdered for their skins might easily reshape themselves from the dark and oily smoke that wafted from the chimney and on windy days spread its rancid stench across the countryside. My imagination worked in concert with the fetor and the swift movement of the river to produce a tangible sense of danger. Bolham Butts. A boy might disappear down there.
Hurrying past, I realized with a start that my terrier, Fritz, was not at my heel. Looking back I discerned his small white shape about a quarter of a mile behind. I knew that if he had found a hole that harbored a rat or a rabbit it would be difficult to persuade him to leave until he had evicted and destroyed the occupants, but I had no wish to dawdle in the vicinity of Bolham Butts...
"Here Fritzie here boy, heel, come on now don't make me come and get you, let's get going, come on, come on boy..."
When I reached him he was scratching furiously at the entrance to a drainage pipe that had been buried a foot or so beneath the surface of the field, to carry away the runoff from the spring rains. Without thinking I started to dig with my trusty ratting spade as the dog stood expectantly by. The damp, loamy earth fell away beneath the steel and I removed one section of pipe and went on to the next.
I was digging out a Nazi parachutist who had hidden here. He must be caught and killed. Absorbed in my task I did not realize until I looked back along the shallow trench that I had unearthed almost twenty feet of ceramic drainpipe. The dog was growling steadily, totally focused on the last section of the tunnel, when suddenly a rabbit bolted from it.
Fritz seized the animal immediately, scarcely moving from his spot. Although it had probably already succumbed from sheer terror, I removed it from the dog's jaws, held it by the hind legs and delivered the rabbit punch that I had seen and felt my brother Jake practice so often, a quick shot across the back of the neck with the edge of the hand.
The animal twitched briefly and was still, and I stuffed it poacher style into the torn lining of my jacket. I could feel its body still warm against my back as we left the ruined ditch and walked homeward in the fading Spring light, up through the fields, across the huge yard of the drycleaning plant where two of my sisters worked, past the new houses on the edge of this council estate, and finally home to 62 Trinity Road, a semi-detached much like the others ranged in rows as far as the Great North Road, where the houses gave way again to rolling fields and woods.
I tossed the corpse onto a shelf in the old washhouse, which still contained a galvanized tub for washing, only used now to drown the occasional batch of kittens, since my mum had gone electric. The rabbit lay there among plumbing tools and rusty bike parts, and I was suddenly engaged by its glazed and staring eye. Sentiments of the deepest remorse welled up within me. I could clearly visualize the harmless creature crouching terrified in the pipe, listening to the growling dog, the urgent human voice, the spade ripping away the earth around its hiding place. More than anything I wished it back into the fields, alive and happy, frolicking with its family. The awful realization struck me; it had a family. It had a mother, it might even have been a mother, like my mother. I burst into tears, bawling and blubbering, wishing that I could somehow reverse the fatal sequence of events, turn back the clock, and promising God that from now on I would kill only rats.
But remorse is a fleeting thing for young hunter-gatherers, and a short while later I watched, dry-eyed as my mother removed the rabbit's skin, "tekkin' off 'is overcoat," as she described it, beginning at the hind legs and peeling it over the creature's head with a sound like cellophane tearing. Then it was chopped into bite-size chunks and added to the stock already simmering on the stove. Carrots, onions, and chunks of turnip followed, then diced celery, potatoes, rosemary from the garden, and soon the marvelous aroma of rabbit stew would call us to the table.
Each day brought a different and most excellent dish, all manner of meat and vegetables, served up on steaming platters, ragouts and fricassees, sweetbreads, kidneys, organs of every stripe, mounds of sausage, pork chops as thick as phone books, flank steak, skirt, and the juicy rump, codfish and hake and haddock fresh from the docks at Grimsby, everything in fact a working class gourmet might require, with one exception, no mutton, lamb, nor any part of any sheep.
My brother Rodney, or Sir Rodney as he insisted I address him, was at this time employed as a stockboy on a local farm. This farm had its own abbattoir, and occasionally he would take me down there and let me observe the awful carnage. Sheep went blandly to their doom, but pigs, much smarter animals, did not go gentle, screaming all the way to the steel bolt that would stun them until their throats were cut. While engaged in this slaughter the killers would sometimes find, on eviscerating the carcass, a baby lamb or piglet still alive within its mother's steaming entrails, looking up at them through a curtain of blood so cute and helpless. More than once my brother brought home one of these irresistible little creatures, and my mother would swaddle it and nurse it, bottle feeding it every four hours, even getting up in the middle of the night to minister to its needs.
Lambs grow rapidly, and soon the animal would be too large for the house, which in any case also accomodated several sheep-killing dogs. Tethered in the back garden, it quickly stripped clean large areas of vegetation. At this point I would be pressed into service, compelled to walk a very stubborn and stupid young sheep on a leash down to the local playing fields, where it could graze among the footballers and the junior teds hanging around the playground swings.
I had not at this time read about Gerard de Nerval walking his lobster in the Bois de Boulogne, but even if I had was much too young to be a surrealist. It is a rancid memory, dragging that sheep around the perimeter of the soccer field while boys my own age made vulgar remarks concerning the nature of our relationship. But eventually the sheep attained his maturity and was simply too much even for our zoo-like premises. One day a van arrived, the sheep was loaded in, and off he went. But what was his destination? A green field down by Bolham Butts, or a return to the slaughterhouse from whence he had been so recently delivered? My mother, if she knew the sheep's fate, never revealed it, but she also never took the risk of eating by accident an animal she had raised herself.