Saturday Mornings With the Meat Cutter
Some of the more fascinating aspects of life here in north London are best stumbled upon spontaneously. Some sights are so incongruous as to make one stop and stare. And wonder.
Walking Leo at 5:15 in the morning on a Saturday in the quiet little neighborhood of Winchmore Hill, I was wandering the seemingly always damp street that leads to town, the shops all closed, traffic non-existent, the glow of the street lamps, reflecting off the wet sidewalk, comforting and warm.
Then I noticed a bright light coming through a store front. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was the little butcher shop that I’d stopped in periodically, to inspect their fresh meat. The butcher knew me by sight, and he’d met Leo, but we’d not gone past a rudimentary exchange of pleasantries, just enough for him to catalog me, accurately, as a Yank.
He was an affable chap who often appeared bored when I would stroll in, foot traffic being sporadic at best for his location about 100 yards from the Green at the center of the small downtown area. His meat had always looked fresh and enticing, yet I’d not yet purchased any. He’d not even given a perfunctory effort at promoting his product to me, which I took as an invitation to return.
So, as I stood transfixed in front of his window staring at his now empty display case, bathed in the surgery-room bright light from his ceiling fixture, I noticed him notice me and he waved in recognition. I waved back. Leo was below the level of the window and out of sight, but the meat cutter’s eyes flashed on the leash tethered to my right hand and then gestured toward the door as he weaved around the counter. He unlocked the glass door and let me and Leo in.
He was a big man in all respects. His huge round head, cleanly shaven and glistening in the bright fluorescent light seemed to rest comfortably on his shoulders without benefit of a neck. From those sloping yet still broad shoulders sprouted two arms that, though definition-free, nonetheless looked like ham hocks rescued from somewhere in the back of his shop that he’d had attached and were formidable enough to almost disguise the huge scarred hands dangling at the end that appeared almost gruesome. His soiled smock spoke of butchery and carnage and failed conspicuously to hide his enormous belly. He clopped around in what appeared to be army boots. His blushed cheeks spoke of a road map to, or from, Ireland.
“Mornin’ mate. Would ya like a cup of coffee?”
He went back behind the glass-encased meat counter and poured us both a steaming cup of coffee. He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Anything in it?”
“Black is fine.” And it was. A rich, delicious brew in a mug emblazoned with ‘Man-U Sucks’ on it. I warmed my cold hands by wrapping them around the steaming mug.
“Cold this morning, ‘idn’t it, mate?”
“Quite. I’m not used to the chill factor here in London yet.”
He reached down and stroked Leo’s neck and scratched behind his ears. Leo sat obediently, tongue extended, breathing lightly and enjoying the attention.
The butcher straightened and extended his hand. “Russell.”
“Lenny,” I said, shaking his scratchy, rough-hewn paw. “And this here is Leo.”
He grinned and moved back around behind the display case. “I got a lil somethin’ for the laddy.”
From over his shoulder he said, “What is he, part Staffordshire bull terrier and, hmm….maybe Dachshund?”
“Very good. You know your dogs.”
He leaned down out of sight behind the counter then rose back up.
“Indeed mate, I do.”
When he returned, he was carrying a few small pieces of what looked like grilled flank steak.
“Had me some steak and eggs fer breakfast. Leo might enjoy my nasty bits.”
And Leo did, politely and carefully removing the strips of beef from Russell’s hand, having been trained not to nip the fingers that feed him.
When the last piece was gone, Leo gave a quick lick of gratitude to Russell’s fingers and sat back obediently, his tongue snaking out and around his muzzle, rewarding himself with a final, residual taste of the beef.
Russell gestured toward a small white round metal table with two matching chairs and we sat with our coffee.
“Where in the states you from mate?”
I grinned. “That obvious, huh?”
“Yes, indeed. And you’ll develop the same ear. For example, where do you think I’m from?”
“Here, I assume.”
He grinned. “Careful Lenny. Many a Scotsman will send you scampering to the dentist if you miscalculate like that. I’m from Turnberry; southwest Scotland.”
“Sure, where the British Open is held every few years or so.”
He nodded. “Indeed. Grand old fun to play that course, though expensive as hell. Again, mate. Where you from? I got two brothers in the states. One in San Fran, one in Manhattan.”
I stared at him. “What a small fucking world. I am from San Francisco, and I have lived in New York, in Greenwich Village.”
His head bobbed enthusiastically. “It’s not just the internet that makes the globe smaller, is it? Just two blokes talkin’ in a meat shop in London and, wham-bam, we got somethin’ in common. No machine will ever replace conversation.”
“From your lips to god’s ears. Any other family besides your two brothers, Russell?”
His nodded. “Indeed. Got a sister still in Turnberry and her three grown girls, all in their early 20s and on their own. No daddy in the picture, so I take my ‘uncle’ role very seriously; visit ‘em at least twice a year.”
“I have a bunch of nieces and nephews myself back in California. Both of my parents have been dead for years, though. Got two brothers and three sisters.”
“Sorry about your folks. What are you, Irish?”
“Scots-Irish, actually, or so I’m told.”
“No wonder we’re mates.” He got up and went back around the glass case and returned shortly with a couple more pieces of steak for Leo, and in his left hand he carried the coffee pot. He refilled our mugs and laid his hand out toward Leo, who lipped the meat cleanly from Russell’s palm.
“Had me a German shepherd for about 12 years. Six months ago, some drunk sod sped right past this window here, on a Saturday mornin’ no less, and ran Boris over. Killed him dead.” It was obvious the wound was still very fresh.
“I’m sorry, Russell. Really. Very sorry.”
He shook his head sadly. “Can’t find it in me yet to replace him. The shop is a lot quieter without him. Fuck. Life is, really.”
He rose again and retrieved from behind the counter a shiny silver flask. He hefted it toward me. “Bushmills. Mixes quite well in with my coffee.”
I held my mug out. “Mixes quite well with just about anything, you ask me. Certainly can’t let a man drink alone.” He grinned and poured a generous shot into my mug.
“Are your parents still in Scotland, Russell?”
He sat back down and absently scratched Leo’s head. He was quiet for a moment.
“Another thing we got in common. Mum and daddy died when I was 15. Train wreck right here in London, visiting my grandparents. My two brothers, who are twins and 10 years older than me, raised me from there.”
“How old are you now?”
I shook my head in amazement. “Me too. And the world shrinks just a bit more. Cheers.” I raised my mug to touch his.
“Do you ever visit your brothers in the states?”
“Haven’t for a few years. Can’t really get away for that long with the shop here. Just got the one lad to help me, three or four days a week. He fills in on the weekends when I go to Scotland. Last time in America was eleven years ago, when all three of us met in Las Vegas. We celebrated their 50th birthday, and my 40th. Not sure Vegas will ever be the same.”
I laughed. “So, you didn’t get together last year for your 50th and their 60th?”
He shook his head sadly. “They wanted me to. But Boris was recent dead. Didn’t have it in me to celebrate.”
“I understand that. When did you come to London? Been here long?”
He seemed relieved with the change of subject. “I was 30 when I came over here. Initially, it was a lass to draw me here. Didn’t work out, and I stuck it out. Had a little stake, doubled it on a football bet, against Man-U.” He pointed to my mug. “That’s my favorite mug. ‘Manu-U Sucks’, indeed. At least they did that day, and I bought this shop two weeks later. “
“That’s a great story.”
“’Tis indeed. This place gives me a good enough living. I stay above in the second floor. Own the building, so no monthlies. You must live nearby.”
I nodded. I picked up the coffee pot he’d left on the little table and filled our mugs, watching the steam curl up out of the porcelain cups. Russell automatically splashed more Bushmills into each one.
“A mere stone’s throw away, two doors down on Barber Close.”
“It’s a good neighborhood, idn’t it?”
I nodded vigorously. “I love it here. And the pub down the block is almost perfect. Hundreds of years old, charming, all wood and stone interior, serves my brand of gin. I felt at home the first time I went in.”
“Ah, yes. ‘The Bile Rises’ is one of my favorites as well, and not just because it’s steps away. You’re spot on about the charm. Everything looks and feels like it must have back in 1800 or whenever it opened.”
He grinned. “Of course. Old Nigel is the best bartender within walking distance, you ask me. A bloody good bloke with a heavy pouring hand. Those are hard to find over here. The measured pours from those upside down bottles would last about 30 seconds in Scotland.”
“We hate that in the states as well. It’s like this instant replay to help officials in a sporting event. Removes the human element.”
“Indeed it does, mate. Football over here just started to do that as well. Most folks I talk to are torn, you know. Between getting the calls right, and making things too robotic. I say fuck the damn cameras.”
“So, Nigel sounds like a bloke I need to cozy up to. My gin gets rationed to me in ridiculously small portions. I thought it was a joke at first, having the Yank on.”
“It’s actually the law. Not sure how enforced, or even enforceable, it is, however. Nigel is probably not that unique. Have you tried to tip yet?”
“Yeah, I learned that one early on. Don’t understand why it’s discouraged. I still leave something, though. And I get a smile and thanks each time. I’m used to it. It’s an ingrained aspect of my drinking, always has been. No need to excise the practice now.”
“Yeah Lenny, but it may gain you little or nothing. I bring Nigel a bottle every couple of months. He seems to understand the exchange and how it should work. You might want to try that.”
“It might bring some good will, which I’ve never put a price tag on. I’ll have a go at Nigel. Hell, I’ll do just about anything to get an honest cocktail. But, that aside, the cold Guinness is not a bad substitute.”
He grinned broadly. “Liquid gold, idn’t it mate?”
“Indeed,” I said, and Russell laughed.
It turned out Saturday was Russell’s only early morning at the shop. It was his busiest day and he’d gotten into the habit, even when he’d been out late the night before pub-wandering, of getting a jump on things at dawn on Saturday mornings. It made things go a lot smoother until his boy Alex came in at noon to help with the rest of the day.
The following Saturday, as I was walking Leo at dawn, I strolled by his well-lit shop and he again waved me in. He greeted Leo with a still steaming piece of tri-tip and handed me the ‘Man-U Sucks’ mug, already filled with coffee. We were developing a little tradition apparently, and I was all too eager to participate.
I lived alone, in a four-room second-floor flat that afforded both Leo and me freedom from each other if desired. The tiny kitchen was stultifying, but I nonetheless found the wherewithal to consistently produce tasty meals on the small gas stove, while using the noisy little microwave for assistance. Garlic, butter, onions and olive oil elevated almost anything, I’d discovered, and I was having some fun experimenting, boldly facing the challenge that the little hovel-kitchen laid at my feet. My only limit appeared to be my imagination, and given that I loved to eat, the challenge itself was almost always as compelling as the final result. My second favorite aspect about cooking, other than eating the end result, was enjoying the whole process. Russell was the first local I’d met that appeared to be possible friendship material.
That morning, as Russell and I kibitzed over his delicious coffee, I realized that, without his Boris, this gentle, kind-hearted meat cutter was lonely and borderline depressed. He’d scooped up Leo and laid him in his lap at the table, and then got a dreamy look on his face as Leo dozed off in that ultimate animal gesture of trust.
There was a huge bronze-framed picture of Russell and Boris standing next to each other, perched right above where the little table was situated. I’d not noticed it last Saturday.
Boris stood regally, staring defiantly into the camera. Russell looked almost apologetic, as if pondering whether his rather lumpy physique warranted side-by-side status with the proud, muscular, thick-coated Boris.
Russell saw me eyeing the photo and said, “That was taken four days before he died. I just can’t take the bastard down.”
“Why should you? It’s a great picture.”
He shook his head sadly. “You know that fucking sod that killed him got off with only a fucking fine? No jail time whatsoever.”
“That is so damn wrong.”
“Indeed. I ever bump into him, he’s a goner, that’s all there is to it.”
I nodded. And hoped he was merely exercising some bravado. He did not seem to be a man capable of murder or even violence. In fact, for a man who wielded sharp knives six days a week, he was a pacifist by all appearances.
“Thought about a replacement for Boris, Russell?”
He stroked the sleeping Leo in his lap. “As a matter of fact, mate, I have.”
“No time like the present.”
“I got only one real question. Should I stay with a shepherd, or change breeds?”
I thought about that. His pragmatism had startled me. He didn’t seem to be an analytical thinker, but he was clearly no dummy. He didn’t seem to possess the instinct or compulsion for stealth or deception, either. But he was shrewd, and could read people.
“You really want my opinion?”
“Of course, mate.”
“I’d get a dog that looks like Boris, and I would name him Boris. An homage, if you will. I think it will ease the transition. Just look at it as reincarnation. He came back as himself. It was Nietzsche who wrote about that, I believe.”
“Don’t know him, but I like your idea. I’m closed Sundays. The Battersea Rescue Shelter is open on Sunday. Want to go with me to check it out?”
I laughed. “That’s the same place I got Leo. I didn’t see any German shepherds, Russell. Finding one there will be a long shot.”
“Maybe, but I’ll feel better if I at least give it a look see.”
“Okay, I’m in.”
“Meet me out front tomorrow at eleven.”
And so we headed south into central London, a byzantine drive that turned into a winding journey through one quaint, yet familiar-looking neighborhood after another, Russell expertly navigated the streets, while I sat, as I had done every single time I’d been in a car thus far in London, amazed and awed at what was required by drivers on this side of the pond. Most of the dynamics would never be tolerated in America. Streets considered two-way here would have made most Yanks nervous as a one-way thoroughfare. The unspoken, unwritten rules that apply in London would be akin to having to learn Greek to most instinctively non-trusting American drivers, making them blanch in outright fear at some of the universally accepted practices here. I’d been in London for three months, and had yet to take either of my acquaintances up on their offer of teaching me to navigate London streets from both the wrong side of the car, and the street. I was in no hurry to partake in what looked like an inevitably fatal endeavor for me.
Successfully driving in London seemed to involve, at least for this American, total suspension of the commonly observed and accepted American driving instinct of defensive cynicism. Brits, conversely, expected and relied on the kindheartedness of other drivers on a regular basis. Negotiating narrow two-way lanes with cars parked on both sides of the street, involved shrewd gaging, and an inherent understanding, of spacial relationships from a hundred yards away that would almost never be required or expected of the more selfish American driver. When an oncoming car is spotted approaching, both drivers are supposed to be able to immediately assess who should pull aside first, who even has the option or room to pull aside, and this is to be decided from often a hundred yards apart and almost instantaneously. And thus far, to my utter astonishment, not a single conflict has occurred or even a horn sounded. This almost unconscious human interaction, problem-solving…really, involves thousands of pounds of steel and happens seemingly every 30 seconds on any car trip. There is the requisite hand wave of thanks from the driver allowed to proceed first, but beyond that there is no overt recognition that a rather complex, unspoken human negotiation and subsequent car maneuver had just been executed almost flawlessly.
Throw in the almost constantly slick roadways, and the ubiquitous, steady, misty drizzle that justifies every cliché written about London weather, and the act of driving seems downright daunting.
The closeness with which cars pass on these streets brings the survival of both side mirrors almost constantly into play. Very close calls are barely commented upon, so accepted they are as part of the routine. Americans would require a minimum of three blood pressure pills and hourly stress-releasing Shiatsu massages to go to the market and back in London. And I cannot even comment, yet, on the ’turnarounds’ at intersections, simply because I still don’t understand them, but recognize the multiple decisions necessary by the multiple drivers involved to negotiate each one of them successfully.
Russell, his bulk squeezed into his black Mini Cooper, drove while holding a conversation with me, fiddling with the radio, lighting a cigarette every five minutes, and reaching back periodically to scratch Leo in the back seat.
I was convinced he was showing off, especially after I noticed him staring at the white knuckles of my left hand holding on to the door, and then laughing out loud.
As expected, the slim pickings of the Battersea Rescue Shelter offered up no Boris-like replacement. The staff seemed to remember Leo and a half dozen of them gathered around him, showering the little ham with attention. They all nodded approvingly at how he’d grown and how healthy he seemed.
On the equally harrowing, for me, return trip to Winchmore Hill, Russell decided to go through the same breeder where he had discovered Boris. He’d kept in touch with him over the years and knew the bloke was still in the business.
The following Saturday, before dawn and during a freezing, blowing rainstorm, Russell handed me my Man-U Sucks mug of strong brew as I entered his shop and closed my umbrella, while Leo shook himself off. Suddenly, from behind the glass case bounded a German shepherd puppy, maybe three months old. Leo sat and let the puppy leap and prance and sniff him, trying to appear indifferent and above it all, but given away ultimately by his thumping tail on the tile floor as the puppy nipped playfully at him. Then the puppy turned his attention to me, and I slipped him one of the small milk bone treats I gave to Leo. He crunched it up and lapped at my cheek with his tongue. I could feel the bits of dog bone still on his tongue as he licked me.
Once accepting the presence of another similarly-sized dog, Russell’s newest mate retreated back around the glass meat case, where we all heard him sloshing in his water bowl.
Russell was grinning from ear to ear. “Name’s Boris, of course. Nickname of B-2, for Boris the second. Hope these two get on with each other. Better to friend them up now, than when B-2’s gotten much bigger.”
I nodded. “He’s great, Russell. When did you get him?”
“Wednesday. My buddy delivered him here himself. He’s situated himself quite nicely, both here and upstairs. Mostly housebroken, with an occasional accident, but he seems to have taken a shine to the alley next door, which is perfect. I let him out the side door, he does his business, and comes right back in. He’s got no silly instinct to dash off like a madman. And he loves meat.”
“I’ll bet. You seem quite satisfied.”
“I am mate. Rejuvenated, even. Thanks for your suggestion.”
“Least I could do. Leo needed a playmate, anyway. I’m sure they’ll get along.”
Russell sat next to me and drank his coffee. B-2’s energetic presence seemed to have tamped down his desire to further augment his coffee with Irish whiskey. Leo warily watched the corner of the case behind which Boris had disappeared, and from which the puppy now suddenly came racing around, nails clicking on the tile floor in a vain, desperate and futile attempt for purchase. He went skidding sideways into the legs of Russell’s chair, who then reached down and pulled the bundle of energy onto his lap. Leo sat and watched placidly.
My little hound seemed quite comfortable in his shroud of aristocratic reserve.
Russell was grinning and scratching B-2 behind his sharply pointed ears. It was the happiest I had seen my new friend since I’d known him.
The shelf life of happiness however, a concept I had pondered since very early in my life, never lacked an expiration date.
Three months later, when Boris was discovered in the alley outside Russell’s shop with his throat slashed and his body pushed up against the trash bin, Russell was inconsolable.
The police could discern no clues other than a vague boot print in some soggy leaves that lead nowhere. Boris had been let out to pee and was gone about 10 minutes before Russell had wandered out looking for him.
His anguished howl, torn loose from his suddenly sick intestines, had brought Alex on the quick run. Both men stood and stared down at the slain dog.
Russell finally bent over and picked him up. It was not the first time animal blood had coated his no-longer-white butcher’s apron. In fact, it was not the first time a cherished pet’s blood had soaked into the canvas.
B-2 was buried out behind the shop in the small garden next to his namesake. The two graves took up most of the space back there, and in the days following B-2’s murder, Russell found himself standing in the cramped space next to the two headstones, unsure as to how he’d gotten back there.
I’d taken to coming in every morning for a while, and Leo’s presence seemed to momentarily give Russell cause for a grin. But it would vanish quickly.
Six months after the tragic death of his second dog, Russell put a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window. I discovered it early one Saturday morning and stood outside in the freezing, pelting rain, staring at it in shock.
When I went in, he did not have my coffee waiting for me. He was already seated; his own coffee mug in front of him, and the tell-tale small silver flask of Bushmills sat defiantly on the table, uncapped. He gestured with his hand toward the counter.
“Help yourself to coffee, mate.”
I nodded and did. When I sat down opposite him, I could tell he was upset about something.
“So, you’re selling the business, huh?”
He nodded. “That I am mate. I mean, bloody hell, the memories here have all turned to shit.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“I’m going back to Scotland. They don’t kill dogs in Scotland.”
“You don’t really know that.”
“Yeah? Well, fuck it. What I do know is that they do kill ‘em here.”
I remained silent. What the hell was there to say? I’d run out of consoling words shortly after Boris was killed.
“You going to live with your sister?”
He nodded, pouring more coffee, and then Bushmills, into his mug. He proffered the flask and I shook my head.
“At first, I am. She says there’s a butcher shop within a half mile or so of her place. Maybe I can hook up there somehow. Won’t need money for a while, though. Should make a tidy profit from this place, compared to the pittance I spent to get it.”
“What kind of place does your sister have?” I almost asked if she had a dog, but stopped myself.
“A nice one, actually. A cottage, three bedrooms, a nice back yard with a vegetable garden and lots of flowers. Only a couple of blocks from the small downtown area. Not unlike the ‘Hill’ here.” He eyed me speculatively and then continued. “She’s got four dogs, all Scottish Terriers.”
“Scotties are a very hardy breed. Tough little dogs. Obviously you must be okay with that.”
“Sure mate. Not ready to have my own dog yet, maybe never again. But somebody else’s will do nicely.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Russell. You’re a big part of my life here in London. Leo’s gonna miss the protein, as well.”
“You’ll have to find your way to Scotland then, mate. Even with me comin’ aboard, she’s still got the extra bedroom. You could bring Leo, of course.”
“I might just do that. Haven’t visited the homeland yet. Anybody showed an interest in the store?”
“Sign just went up last night. In fact, it was my sis’s idea. She didn’t have to push much. Feel like I’ve had a foot out of this country since B-2, anyway. This place…hell, this city, is haunted for me now. It’s taken two parents; two dogs. Shit. I feel like I might be next. Time to start over and no better place than Scotland.”
When I’d left the states, I’d had many of the same sentiments about America. It had died for me.
I reached across the table, picked up the flask and poured some into my mug.
“See you in Scotland,” I said, winking at him.