Friday, November 09, 2007


The world tumbles into focus. It's the smell that hits me first; hot, carnivorous breath mingling with piss and wood chip. At least this should be quick. Low bass growls, something from a childhood nightmare. If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise. Disappointingly my life isn't flashing before my eyes. All I can think of is whether or not I'm covered by my life insurance.

Jam is staring down at a tangled mass of severed cartilage and crushed bone and exposed organs. His boss tumbles in, a fat man with a red, angry face, yelling.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no" (takes a breath) "No! Leave Boz to do the cutting, I need you out front. Now!"
Jam looks over at Boz, a misshapen lump of a man, who shrugs at Jam.

"And for god's sake talk to the customers" (shouting again) "Make them feel welcome, give them a reason to come back. They don't come in for a mumbling imbecile to hand them their chops. Now go, quick, quick!"

Jam had never wanted to be a butcher. It wasn't what you would call a vocation. His Mother had told him in no uncertain terms to get a job or get out, put his name forward for the apprenticeship and gratefully accepted his placement for him. He had been working there for thirteen weeks and two days on the day of the accident. Thirteen weeks and two days of cutting and chopping and carving, of hosing down walls and sweeping blood into the gutter, of scraping congealed flesh from under his fingernails and never being entirely free of that smell, of raw meat and
disinfectant. Of prime cut death. Working there had almost turned him vegetarian. Anyway, he'd stopped eating sausages after the first week.

So on that day, the day of the accident, Jam was not entirely unhappy to get away from the blood and mess out back and serve customers in the gleaming sterility of the shop, its sparkling stainless steel surfaces offering no allusion to the horror that lay only a room away. It wasn't like Boz was much of a conversationalist.

The bell rings out and in comes Mrs Parsley, an overweight, morose woman with a blue rinse and a wispy moustache, a friend of Jam's mother.

"Young James", she twitters by way of a greeting, "and how are we today?"

"We're very well, Mrs Parsley. What can I get you today?"

"Let. Me. See." She stoops her bulk down to examine the cabinet at eye level, an old cat greedily eyeing a goldfish bowl. "A half dozen of your pork and leek and a quarter pound of ham please James. And how's your mother?"

"Fine" says Jam, wrapping the sausages. "She's fine. We're down to the last slice of ham here, I'll cut some fresh." Turns his back on her and switches on the machine. Secures the leg joint. "A quarter pound you said?" Turns back to see Mrs Parsley pale, jaw slack.

"James", she is trying to say, but the word gets caught somewhere and so she points instead. Jam looks down to see the tip of his finger, nail still attached, sitting on top of the slices of ham. Fresh, warm, thick blood is trickling down his wrist to his elbow and beginning to pool on the floor. Jam drops the ham.
"Hang on a second", he's managing to say calmly and holding his hand tight to his chest he sticks his head around the door at the back "Boz, would you mind coming to serve a minute please. I think I might need to go to hospital."

Leaving casualty four hours later, a large bandage wrapped around his entire hand, already beginning to unravel and grey around the edges. Pausing for a breath as he gets out of the sliding doors at the front, a man in a cheap blue grey suit, slicked hair, a clip board, approaches him.

"Injured at work?" and before Jam can nod a crisp business card is thrust towards his unbandaged hand. Jam glances down; the motto 'No Win, No Fee' embossed on the front of the card. "Not now, I'm a sensitive guy, I know what it's like, wait till you get home, till you're recovered, give me a call, you know it makes sense". Before Jam can say a word the man is gone, shaking the hand of the next person to walk through the sliding doors of the hospital exit.

His mother is waiting for him on the doorstep as he gets home "And what time do you call this? Worried sick I was. Sick." On and on and on she goes until Jam is so hopelessly lost in her moaning that the only thing left to do is go to bed. Stretched out on his bed with his bandaged hand slung awkwardly across the headboard he remembers the card. It can't hurt, he thinks.

Eight hundred quid he got that first time. Eight hundred English pounds for the tip of his little finger. It seemed a fair exchange. Jam never went back to the butcher's. Instead he used the money from his finger to put down two months rent on a bed-sit at the opposite end of town to his mother's and took a job at a local chip shop. It wasn't great work but he was just happy to be away from home.
A couple of months past and the rent was due again. He'd begun to hate his new job was just as much as his last one.

One quiet Monday evening Jam found himself standing watch over the deserted shop. He'd not served a customer for hours and he amused himself by dropping individual potatoes into the electric peeler, the rumbler the manager had called it, at the rear of the shop. He watched with detached amusement as the noisy machine chewed up the spuds and spewed out jagged, thick cut chips into the tray at the bottom. The smell of hot fat and boiling oil and vinegar was everywhere. Spilt salt grains crunched and slid under his boots. He bit his lip and watched the door for customers. He dropped another spud and then forced his hand into the machine.

Splashing deep red paint onto the walls of his new two-bedroom apartment, Jam tries not to look at the stumpy mess of his left hand. The last few months have been good for Jam, its important he remembers that. He recites a few of his favourite personal mantras he's learnt from endless hours of daytime TV. You get what you give. Speculate to accumulate. No pain, no gain. He gets on with his painting, breathing deep through his nose, chewing on the side of his tongue.
Lately Jam has been seeing accidents waiting to happen everywhere he goes. An exposed bit of scaffold; just the right height for a nasty gash on the head or even a gauged eye. A cracked paving stone; nicely positioned to trip and crack a knee cap or skull. Exposed wiring, loose tiles, serrated edges. A few weeks earlier he'd let a bus run over his foot, crushing four toes. The hospital said he'd probably always walk with a limp. He was waiting on that claim to pay for a new fitted kitchen.

As the fresh paint begins to dry and crack, Jam sits flicking the channels on his new plasma screen television while picking at dried paint residue and discharge from his mutilated hand. He closes his eyes and opens them an hour later. He gets up and goes to the refrigerator and takes out some lamb to defrost for tea. He sits back down. He picks at his hand again and watches some more television. He doesn't know what time it is when he stops flicking the channels half way through When Animals Go Wild. He doesn't move while he watches a man explain how he survived a shark attack and needed one hundred and twenty four stitches. He's not thinking anything while a disfigured man explains how he was mauled by a grizzly bear. When the programme finishes he goes back to the kitchen, puts the lamb in the fridge and orders a pizza. He watches some more television.

When he enters City Zoo two days later Jam is wondering whether Bears hunt sheep in the wild. Oh well, meat's meat he thinks as he feels the lamb inside his sock and under the sole of his shoe mince and squelch between his mangled toes. As he limps towards a sign, ignoring pelicans, ignoring penguins, he is slightly disappointed to discover that the zoo houses only brown, not grizzly, bears. Oh well, a bear's a bear he thinks. Ignoring limas, ignoring lamas, he is marginally surprised and pleased to find the bear enclosure deserted and easily accessible. As he slides under the barrier and dangles his leg over the edge of the pit he almost smiles, noticing a large, faded sign: Attention! Please DO NOT feed the bears. As his shoe slips off and falls into the pen with a soft splat, gaining the attention of a flash of matted brown fur, revealing the clumped blood and flesh stuck to his sock. As he feels it mince and squelch between his toes, as he thinks a bear's a bear, as he thinks meat's meat. As he feels himself losing his grip, slipping down the embankment, toppling into the pit, his life refusing to flash before his eyes, hearing his ankle snap under the force of the fall. At least this should be quick he thinks, as the world tumbles into focus.

Lee Mess

No comments: