Meat

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A young man watches a documentary about himself with his family, but, without his realising, the camera has intruded and exposed some secrets which he would rather keep concealed. Despite the title of the documentary, he is revealed to be far from being an 'ordinary man'.

Submitted: September 14, 2012

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Submitted: September 14, 2012

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They were after explanation, it seemed. His mother said that she had a right to explanation. Without her there would have been no film at all, she said. He could not think about what would be without her. It hurt his head to think about what would be without her. So he thought about explanation instead. Explanation, he thought, explanation is difficult. Only those, he thought, who refuse to offer explanations, who consider themselves above explanations, the parents and the priests and the politicians, only they think that explanation is easy. And he was only a butcher. Butchers are not above explanation. But they are, he hoped, perhaps, beneath explanation.

But he was becoming repetitive.

The video was in the machine. Tristan watched as his uncle pressed play. The image was vague and the words appeared through a haze. His father laughed.

“An ordinary man, son? What do you make of the title? An ordinary man? They could have done better, couldn’t they, found themselves someone a bit more…”

“Graham,” snapped Tristan’s mother. She smiled at her son. “Explain what’s happening as we go, son,” she said. She called herself encouraging.

The tape was only beginning, and the picture sharpened. A line, horizontal, penned the screen’s bottom third separately. But, line or no line, there he was, clear in his whites. He was proudly whistling as he hacked at the head of a pig. The camera asked him what his views on butchering were. He smiled. His teeth, unfixed, looked shocking. Why had someone not noticed the lump ofgreen in his teeth? His mother’s job, it was.

“Oh, don’t you look handsome? My boy on the TV.”

He shrugged his mother’s hand off his shoulder. It made him feel uncomfortable. Everyone’s eyes on him, and no one looking in his direction. He felt unreal. Yet there he was, over there, on the screen. It isn’t natural to see yourself somewhere else, he thought, or would have thought if he had been able to think while looking at himself.

His father slurped tea noisily. A butcher before the boy, a more ordinary man than his son, he should have been asked to take part. Still, there was no going back now. He would have liked to look at himself, see how he looked to the customers, but there we are. It was his age, he expected. He was too old to be ordinary.

Tristan watched the man on the screen. He was working with his hands now. Is that blood under my nails? It must be? What else would be under a butcher’s nails? He looked at his hands now. Salmon pink with pearly crescents.

Look at them all, his family, staring at the screen; did their staring make the Tristan on the screen the principal Tristan, Tristan number 1, Tristan numero uno? He smiled. Well, the tape was only forty minutes. Then he would be Tristan numero uno again. Enough of this numero… He didn’t know what two was in… He didn’t know what the language was either.

On the screen his bloodied hands petted the pig. His mother was fluttering, but carried on her smiling. Tristan felt the tremble of her disgust. She had told him to be a butcher, she had told him to follow his father, she had made me go along with them, and here she was hating it. Here she was fluttering. On the screen he smiled. He smiled back at himself. The teeth were dirty, but he was an ordinary man. I have much nicer teeth than him, anyway. Nothing to worry about when you’re the one with the clean fingernails and the nice teeth. But the man on the screen was smiling away, like a child who has got away with it.

“Explain it, Tristan. I don’t know what’s happening.”

“Then listen to the TV, you stupid woman.” Tristan’s father did not want explanation.

“I’d rather Tristan gave the commentary.”

“He is, you soft cow. That’s him speaking on the screen. He’s the one we can’t hear because his mother won’t shut up.”

“I know it’s him. I know that. But it doesn’t feel like him.”

Tristan looked at the man on the screen, fine-slicing ham. He looked like me, I sound like myself, but he wasn’t quite the same as the young man watching the set. He had been borrowed from another time. It was a cruelty to drag back a past.

The TV suddenly blared: broken volume setting, the decibels jumping mischievously about as they liked. Tristan’s father hit it, but the shrill cries continued. The figures on the set did not look like they were shouting, but their voices bellowed out:

“NOW, TRISTAN, MANY PEOPLE AT HOME MAY BE WONDERING WHY ANYONE WOULD WANT TO BECOME A BUTCHER. IT'S NOT A PROFESION THAT HAS A LOT OF GLAMOUR ABOUT IT. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY YOU LOVE BEING A BUTCHER?”

Tristan – don’t say that you love it. Tell them that you hate the bloody fingernails and the smears on your clothes and the gristle caught in your hatted hair. Tell them that you hate it because otherwise they’ll look for more explanation.

“I DON'T KNOW REALLY. I LOVE IT BECAUSE IT'S CREATIVE...”

“CREATIVE? SOME WOULD SAY THAT IT'S QUITE THE OPPOSITE, THAT IT'S DESTRUCTIVE.”

“I LOVE IT - BECAUSE IT'S WHAT MY FATHER DID AND IT MAKES HIM PROUD.”

“THAT'S A NICE MOTIVATION, BUT IS IT REALLY ALL THAT YOU ENJOY ABOUT YOUR JOB? IS THAT ENOUGH? TO KNOW THAT YOUR FATHER ENJOYED IT?”

“NOT. IT'S - I FIND IT DIFFICULT TO SAY.I'VE NEVER TOLD ANYONE.”

He’s blushing. He can’t speak. He’s looking at me. And I want to help myself but I can’t now. And the volume is so loud that there is no missing it.

“TRY, TRISTAN, TRY TO TELL US WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT IT.”

“You’ll have to have that volume fixed, Mark,” said Tristan’s Aunt Caroline, summoned for the screening. For a moment Tristan thought that she would speak over his confession, but his parents shushed her with aggressive hands.

“I LOVE,” the red-faced, red-smeared, red-nailed Tristan muttered (in a mutter magnified to ear-cracking heights), “THE SMELL.”

Only the sound of the knife chewing at the board.

“THE SMELL? THE SMELL OF WHAT?”

Would the presenter not leave him alone?

“OF DEATH, I SUPPOSE. I LIKE THE SMELL OF DEAD THINGS.”

The volume collapsed.

Tristan’s mother turned to her son. She looked pale. His father chuckled. “And to think they were looking for an ordinary man. Huh! What did they get? A bloody psycho.”

“Mark!” snapped Tristan’s mother.

The boy looked at himself. The face on the screen still smiled, my dirty teeth less obvious now, eyes drawn to the nose.

Aunt Caroline leant to whisper to her sister, though her voice was supervolumed like the TV: “That’s a bit weird, isn’t it, to like it for the smell?”

“Don’t be silly, Caroline. He means that he likes the smell of meat. We all like the smell of meat. Sunday roast – one of my favourite smells. That’s right, isn’t it Tristan?”

He nodded. He didn’t know quite what he was agreeing to, but he hoped it would shut Aunt Caroline up.

“But he said the smell of death.”

“Well, meat’s dead, isn’t it?” snapped the mother.

Tristan watched himself and knew that he was smelling, right then, and not smelling meat, but smelling something else. Something that made his stomach march. No empty cavity, his stomach, no forgotten place only felt at meals. His stomach spent its days growling, tugging at itself. The smell, that stench of the dead things that we should not eat, that hovers in the backspaces of a butcher’s, around the bins where old carcase is tossed, the smell that reminds us of our stomachs: how he loved that smell. Amidst all that tedious chopping and serving and smiling and slicing and hauling and plucking and charging, amidst all that, he found sensation in his overturning stomach. The cramps, the agonies, were the only thing that made this inherited job bearable. But he should never have told them my secret. Because it did not stop there.

Film images dissolving and fading and cutting into each other. Cutting with a sudden savagery which audiences have learned to tolerate. (How peculiar thatTristan's mothershould not findherself fluttering at these cuts.) Butcher shops dissolve; they close; butchers’ smiles fade; they are cast out to find other work, and few employers are looking for bloody fingernails.

But he had found work.

And the camera crew had found him again. His mother, unforgiving on the sofa, troubled by the atmosphere of perversions, smiled and relaxed. Her son, the nurse. She winked at her husband, who was less troubled by butchers enjoying the smell of their work. But Tristan suspected what he was about to do.

“So, Tristan, you’ve moved on from the butcher’s?”

“Yes. The shop closed.”

“Why was that?”

“Couldn’t compete.”

“With the supermarket? How do you feel about local firms put out of business by these national giants?”

Tristan watched himself flounder.

“I don’t know. I don’t mind. I’m happy in the new job.”

“And what’s that?”

Don’t tell her; I wouldn’t tell her; he’s going to tell her.

“I work in a nursing home. I care for the elderly. I watch out for them and help them with their bits and pieces. I take them to the toilet and feed them.”

A cut and he was in the home’s lounge, plumping cushions and handing out biscuits. The gravy greens of the armchairs disguised the decay. Faces were collapsing in on themselves as age etched lines in them. Tristan, there in the middle, subject of the camera’s slowly deepening concentration, looked as though he was doing nothing.

“What are you doing?” asked his mother. She glanced between her two boys. “Explain what’s happening. You’re just standing there.”

The camera crawled closer. It had pretended to be so far away, he remembered, but now he saw that it had been a snake, bellying closer without his even knowing.

It was unseeable, unless you could watch yourself, as he could, I can, recorded in magnification - surrounded by the old - and just slightly - his nostrils twitched.


© Copyright 2017 Theodore Maugh. All rights reserved.

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