Miracle on Market Night

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A journey of the mind and body with a magical and unsettling twist...

Submitted: July 27, 2009

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Submitted: July 27, 2009

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Miracle On Market Night
 
The night it happened I took a short cut through the produce market, as I sometimes do if it’s very dark and cold outside. The market never changes. Some foods go in and out of fashion and certain species of fish, or breeds of sheep have become rarities, but the sounds and the smells remain the same. Hundreds of lorries make their way here from every direction across the city after dark. They release their hauls amid a frenzy of industrious noises – the automated reversing warnings, the “back-a-bit, back-a-bit” beckonings, the clatter of empty crates being thrown onto the stack, the jokes, the shouts, the rustling of paper and cellophane and the endless aggrieved clucking of fowl. Burly traders, rickety trestle tables, portable gas heaters, eccentric vegetables and well-travelled spices make their temporary homes among thrashing carp and arrested hens. Prices, weights and quantities are shouted out and chalked up while bloody-aproned men lay their catch to rest on icy gravestones.
The market is the one place that is at its busiest when the rest of the city is snoring or drunk or both. All the haggling and heaving reaches its crescendo sometime in the velvet-black small hours, so that the white van doors can be slammed shut and on the motorway before sunrise. A day’s work already done and another awaiting in the florescent world of customer service.
I generally avoid places that sell meat – or at least those aisles – because I cannot bear any sight of dead animal parts (packed row upon gruesome row, dismembered and shrink-wrapped, shiny and stodgy and pink and plucked). Meat, poultry or fish – it’s all the same to me. Even as a child when my mother used to go to the butcher I would wait outside on the pavement (well out of smelling distance) while she did the necessary. But the smooth bulge against the plastic skin of the carrier bag would haunt me at head height, all the way home, especially if bad-luck had it that one of those anti-asphyxiation holes accidentally revealed a bit of mottled, scarlet tongue or a squeaky piece of brown liver.
The produce market however, I can cope with under certain, studied conditions. The main reason being that I know the layout of the entire vast space with a surgeon’s accuracy. The possibility of my coming face to face with a dead-eyed conger eel or accidentally brushing into a swaying wall of open-mouthed waxy pigs is minutely slim. The circuitous route I take avoids the meat altogether and ploughs through the fruit and veg, slices straight across the dairy and poultry (still feathered and scratching) and finally it’s a starlight dash to the open sky, blinking out the fish stalls on the left hand side. The fish quarter is the only dead-animal part of the market which I cannot completely avoid on my home-time walk (the penance I pay for choosing a few minutes of warmth and colour) and despite my revulsion I don’t begrudge the fishermen (or the butchers) their trade. I know I’m on their turf and I’m grateful if they allow me to scurry through unchallenged. A secret vegetarian in their midst.
There is an integrity to the market that I admire. Its honesty stands at odds to those giant structures of polished marble and strip-lighting, where everything is pre-cut, packaged, pumped with water and preservatives and covered in smiley faces. These men (for they always are men) have no pretence inside them over the pieces of carcass they sell, the quantities of eyes, hearts, lungs and feet that are splayed out before them, unseeing, un-beating, un-breathing and unmoving. They have simply harvested their produce and offer it for sale. There are no uniforms, no perky green hats, bleeping electronic scanners, managerial notice-boards, tannoy announcements or artificial smells of freshly baked bread. It’s primal. An event like this could never have occurred in a supermarket.
 
I’d been to the theatre to see The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. After the post-performance discussion had occupied its favoured territory for long enough (which was the real impetus behind our little theatre-going quartet) we pulled on our coats and dispersed into the slate and sequined night. Rows of up-lit shops stuffed with featureless, grey-limbed mannequins in designer clothes, lined the streets I took towards home. Banks and churches lurched at every corner. The bronze exaggeration of a military hero held his breath in a perpetual pre-charge pause at the centre of the lawned square. A lonely politician looked down, his carved-out eyes assessing the cycle of the squirming city. These mute monuments were simply obstacles to be walked around, convenient rendez-vous points or, in special cases, something to be scaled or adorned with a traffic cone.
I thought of the demonstration 6 years earlier, when thousands of people stampeded these roads in protest at the planned conflict with a country thousands of miles away. For those few hot hours on an April Wednesday, none of the rules applied. I sat on my lunch hour, watching from my first floor window as the bodies below multiplied. Before I knew it I had jumped on my bike and wheeled into the beating heart of it. (Fuck it, why not?) Everyone was smiling. People talked to each other. There was none of the automatic pigeon-holing of strangers, mental biting and sniping of bitter creatures turning on one another. There was a crackle in the air. Just like when you’re a kid and school is inexplicably and triumphantly closed for the day – everyone races to the park or the street to make use of those sacred unscheduled minutes before normality reaches in (like the giant lottery hand) and gathers everyone up. I felt an amoebic, pulsating life-form in the pit of my stomach, something awakening there and trembling for breath. Just for an instant, I believed that anything could happen…
But that energy drained away so quickly, like blood from an abattoir floor. Now, a battered bed-sheet with slogans written on it and a few pictures were all that remained, still pinned to a makeshift board in the centre of town where a couple of curmudgeonly radicals retained a 9-5 vigil. They did it out of stubbornness rather than hope, but I still tooted them supportively when I drove past.
A group of squaddies fell out of a club and sing-songed their way past me. “Why don’t you come and party with us darlin?”
“nnngnggng nfff” I gesticulated, my tongue firmly planted on the roof of my mouth. They shrank away. Nothing scared grown men more than the shock of accidentally propositioning a deaf girl. (I’m not actually deaf, but my sister is, and so I’ve seen how it works.) I rounded a corner past a newspaper stand where yesterday’s headlines were straining to escape from under their wire fence. 14 terror suspects had been arrested for unknown activities and held in police stations across the country. A Chief Executive had been paid £15million after his company folded, and an eco-toff had launched his new catamaran on a trans-pacific expedition to highlight the amount of waste plastic in the ocean. Why didn’t he just go off and clear up the mess, instead of blogging about it from his latest play-boy adventure masquerade?
Then I saw the lights burning in the giant warehouse on the other side of the road and I knew that tonight was a market night for me. I desperately needed a hit of humanity before I flicked out my lamp and let my consciousness quietly leave me. As I stepped off the kerb, my mind located the approaching noises of a thumping stereo and a straining engine. I continued on my path without turning my head, getting a thrill from the metallic-edged wind as it bit at my heels and then faded out into a long sour note behind me.
I surveyed the market. Nothing seemed different from usual. There was no indication of the miracle lurking at the bottom of a barrel, sucking in the scarce air and waiting for its opportunity. Of course, I had no idea what was coming either, just as the men inside – slicing and gouging – had no idea.
I stepped through the house-high doors and into the warm rush of wood, pears and fresh coriander. Making my way through sacks of potatoes and stacks of tomatoes I could feel my mind slowing down and my brow un-furrowing. I took a deep lungful of earthy air and slowly twisted my way through the man-made valleys of vegetation, and into the yellowy whites of milk and cheese. The smell of cow was acrid and grassy but not altogether unpleasant. There were no plastic bunches of grapes or luminous sprigs for decoration, just veined and crusty hulks resting alongside snowy soft rounds and darkly disguised leaf-green shapes. Finally the ocean of lactic life-forms subsided, washed up on a gravely beach of grit and feathers. The air became raucous with clucking and scratching and the sound of beaks butting metal bars. Crate upon crate of chimney pot-red birds stared dumbly out at their fate. Their round little eyes flickered and then lazed back again, as if constantly being woken from a dream. The smell of fear and chicken-shit is a potent one, and here it was in bucket loads – for all the world to inhale.
A group of overalled men stood talking, hands thrust into bottle-green pockets, caps on heads, eyes on the floor, tutting away in a chorus of sympathy with their short-lived victims. Their head-shaking and mutual commiserations did the nightly rounds. Chickens weren’t profitable any more. Prices were impossible. The supermarkets had a stranglehold. The Poultry Men.
The Poultry-Men, the Veg Men, the Dairymen, the Meat Men and the Fish Men. None of them stray onto another’s turf. The Veg Men are thick-armed, woolly and colourful. Mostly white, but with lively sections of blacks and Asians – and even a few women. They talk loudly and survey each other’s produce appreciatively, rocking back on their heels with their heads thrown back in laughter. They are the largest clan. The Dairymen are split, rival football teams on opposite sides of a city. They are the milk producers (suicidal) and the cheese producers (living the dream). The Milk Men gather in small huddles, wearing baggy-bottomed blue boiler suits in which even the elastic has given up the fight. Their hair is lank and greasy from never breathing fresh air or seeing sunlight and their numbers seem to dwindle in tandem with the price of a pint (or is it a litre now?). By nature loners and as pale as their wares, their conversation has been sucked dry of topics other than Brussels, Quotas, and the Big Three. The Cheese Men though, have mutated in recent years. They broke away from the Milk Men, (the old guard, the dying breed) and formed a radical – and highly successful – splinter group, based on back-to-basics traditional techniques. These individuals are mostly purveyors of organic and artisan goods and have no physical traits that link them. Some are floppy and foppy, dressed in jeans and corduroy, others are robust, rotund and ruddy, in tartan or tweed. And although modest in number, their ever increasing presence is keenly felt as they gather together in animated discussion each night, Kings in waiting.
The Meat Men – from the glimpses I have had – seem to come in two varieties: Worker and Boss. They all wear white coats but the Worker Meat Men are unmistakeably stained: brown and red, all down their fronts. The Boss Men carry clipboards, wear glasses and stride up and down the aisles with an unmistakeable air of authority. You can even see their smart suit collars peeking out from under their easily divested coats. They lean into stalls occasionally and interrogate the Worker Man behind the high counter. Boss Man listens, Worker Man talks. Eventually Boss Man gives one sharp nod and briskly continues on his way. They are at the top of the food chain. The Fish Men are the most unusual. They can be from any part of the world – Cornish, Scottish, Chinese, Jewish, Caribbean, Hawaiian, Dutch and Greek all have their place. They wear short sleeves, body-warmers, caps and gloves and their cultural variety is matched only by that of the creatures they sell.
I left the thousand bobbing hen heads behind me and continued along the gangway between a tessellating egg mountain (white and green) and the first of the sea-life stalls. The metallic chill hit my nostrils and the back of my throat as sharply as if the stainless steel table itself had been suddenly pressed against my cheek. Sidelong, I saw mussels and shellfish, then giant crustaceans – some scraping away impotently at a bare patch of ice, just like those unfortunates in giant French hyper-markets. I’d once seen a lobster make a dash for it in one of those places, off the table he went, and scuttled across the polished floor. The Fishmonger couldn’t have been less worried about his rebellious product. He finished wrapping up the Red Mullet he was dealing with, slapped on a sticker and wished his customer a pleasant afternoon. Then he slipped out from behind his counter, cornered the creature, and grabbed him with one expertly trained hand. Soon enough the lobster was back in his icy chamber, no doubt dulled and comatose by the extra-high pile of ice the seller had lumped around him.
I tried to concentrate on the second egg mountain (large and brown) now inhabiting my left field of vision. I liked the warm smoothness of the eggs and the perfection of their shape, but something about seeing them in these numbers made me feel queasy. Maybe it was simply the repetitiveness of them, like when you stare at a patterned floor for too long and suddenly it spawns extra layers that reach up and grab you. Or perhaps it was the octopus tentacles on the opposite side that did it, bright pink and suckered and bunched up like bananas. Either way, my market walk was coming to its end.
I had only the carp to go. Just as I turned into the last aisle, I heard a strange throaty gurgling sound, welling up from one of the barrels ahead of me. I stopped. My eyes flicked from side to side like a rabbit assessing danger. Boxes being ripped open, ice being shovelled, the clunk and swoosh of metal containers being emptied, and one more sound – the repetitive dull thwack of fish-head on rubber. That was all.
I carried on walking, and became aware of my heart beating and the blood rushing up my spinal column into the back of my skull. Thwack. Then the noise again:
“GuuuurrrhglllCCCHHHH!” I swivelled to my right and found myself staring at a large plastic barrel full of flapping, wriggling carp. Their swollen pink lips opened and closed and their glistening, muddy coloured scales gave the impression of a billion brown and grey tiddly-winks being churned up by a child’s hand. I saw softly bulbous creamy coloured bellies, and the paper thin, rusty V-shaped tails, powerful in their delicacy. Suddenly the mass was heaving and erupting as I stood over it, unable to move. A large head powered out of the centre of the barrel, fleshy lips wide open;
“Listen!” came a guttural voice. I leapt backwards but the fish jumped clean out of the barrel and slapped into my face, its smooth, slimy cheekbone connecting with my own, the dorsal fins grasping madly, trying to catch hold of my nose or mouth., I caught the fish on reflex as it slithered down my front – I held it out at arm’s length and it fixed me with its shiny eyes, the whites around them seeming freakishly human;
“The end is nigh. Everyone will be accountable”
I screamed and shuddered, dropped the fish and ran with thundering shoes away from the stall. Again I heard the unearthly voice of aquatic vocal chords as it continued to shout its desperate warnings. Behind me the commotion began to swell; men shouting and shrieking, boxes tumbling over and the sound of stampeding feet on concrete. I pushed my way past the last of the counters, the tremor of the event flowing quickly behind me, catching me up. Startled faces questioned as I fled past, then turned back to the epicentre. 
I bolted to a side door, scrambled through and ran on into the quiet streets, my head rushing and my heart exploding, as I heard the words over and over again in my mind. 


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