Ashley Cracknell

Butcher

Ashley Cracknell

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Rottweiler-faced Butcher Campbell stood before the children, preaching about the best cuts of lamb. The children, aged between nine and ten years old, listened with the kind of open-mouthed concentration I could only dream of instilling during my lessons. What amazed me most was that Campbell held their attention even as the children passed around the lamb he had brought as a display model. The children took turns cuddling the animal, untangling matted patches of wool and scratching under the lamb’s chin. If Campbell’s talk of lamb casserole linked with the living animal they held, it never showed on the children’s faces.

     I had invited Campbell to talk to the children as part of a drive to get “closer to the source of our food.” At least that’s what I wrote in my proposal to the principal. Only a few of the children, I said, had “fullyorganiclocallysourced lunches,” the rest got by on white bread layered with processed meat and the occasional slice of cheese. Did we not have an obligation to improve the children’s health as well as their minds?

     I told the principal of my semi-rural upbringing. When I was their age, I often visited a farm where my closest friend lived. Not a working farm, but a large yard where his father repaired tractors for the livestock owning families nearby. My friend’s house sat at the centre of this yard, two storeys high and so much larger than my own home that I considered it a mansion. Sheep, cows and horses congregated in the surrounding fields. The earthy smell of shit always hung in the air with a stubborn refusal to disperse: even the wind only ever seemed to drive it into my nostrils, never away.

     These children of compact units and ageing flats would rarely, if ever, experience the joy of screaming their heads off as they ran from an enraged bull. They wouldn’t get to clamber over rusted gates or leap from rock to rock across swollen rivers. They would never feel the hum and bounce of a tractor during a joyride, and they would never learn what happened when their friend’s Rottweiler got loose amongst the sheep.

     I wanted my class to have at least a hint of that life. Most had never seen a lamb up close, much less cuddled or nursed one. Perhaps I had been too zealous in telling my childhood tales because the principal had denied my request to visit a working farm.

     Campbell’s presentation was a compromise, a visit to a park instead of a farm, and a chance for the children to learn that the slices of meat in their sandwiches were once creatures they could scratch behind the ear.

     Once I had reassured the parents that we would not be visiting an abattoir or anyplace where they would see uncouth animals behaving in a suggestive manner, New Age Mothers sprung up on social media to declare their passionate support for the project. There was some praise for myself as an educator, an innovator, an environmentalist even. I had been all too willing to accept that praise. I personally replied to each comment left on the school’s webpage, thanking the parents, commenting in turn on how I was inspired by their recent purchase of a dozen biodegradable shopping bags.

     Now, with Campbell before me, I wasn’t so sure the parents would approve. His sleeve tattoos gave him the profile of a paroled prisoner, and the thickness of his arms suggested nightclub bouncer rather than your friendly local butcher.

     ‘Where did you find this one?’

     Kasandra, the vegan mother chaperoning the excursion, tutted each time Campbell pointed at one of the lamb’s body parts and said ‘this is the chops’ or ‘this is the steak, who likes steak?’ in a voice as rough as a meat grinder.

     ‘He’s my local butcher.’

     ‘He’s certainly very animated.’ She rustled in her wicker bag and produced a glass container stuffed with baby cucumbers. ‘Looks like the sort of man you would see working in an abattoir, have you seen those kinds of videos?’

     ‘Not really my kind of entertainment,’ I said, not wishing to be drawn into an argument on the merits of certain lifestyles.

     Kasandra bit off a chunk of cucumber. ‘Really awful, you can’t even imagine.’

     It was past lunchtime, the children would be hungry. I wondered if their rumbling stomachs would help them make the connection between their new pet and the meals their parents would cook that evening. There must be one or two thinking that the lamb would go well in a vindaloo.

     ‘I went to one once, as part of a protest.’ Kasandra munched her cucumber as she spoke.

     ‘You were inside an abattoir?’

     She nodded. ‘Awful. After that day I didn’t eat meat again, didn’t let Maisy eat it either.’ She hugged her bag. ‘I used to wake up, dreaming I was covered in blood.’

     Maisy, Kasandra’s daughter, sat at the centre of the semi-circle of children. I wondered if I should tell Kasandra about the salami slices her daughter traded for in the playground during first break, or how she tried to exchange her chickpea salad for a chicken sandwich almost every lunchtime. Kasandra mistook my smile for encouragement.

     ‘I’m alright now. Still, I can never look at meat the same way.’ She screwed the lid back on her jar and dropped it in her bag. If that was the case, I had to wonder what she was doing here. Perhaps the abattoir had made more of an impression than she was willing to admit. Did she yearn to see more animal blood and only fooled herself into thinking she had seen too much?

     Campbell rambled on about grass-fed this and stall raised that. His voice was the thump of a cleaver on a chopping board. All the movements of his meaty arms were rough as if he was trying to push his way through a crowd. I suspected the man hadn’t always been a butcher, though he had likely been in a similar profession prior to opening his shop in my suburb.

     Finally, apparently at the end of his speech, Campbell handed the lamb to one of the children in the front row. Some children applauded, others watched as he rummaged in his rucksack until he produced a set of shears with edges that looked capable of slicing individual atoms.

     Kasandra stepped forward, ‘He’s not going to give us a demonstration, is he?’ She looked from me to Campbell. ‘You said this would be a safe talk?’ She marched forward. I put out an arm to stop her.

     ‘It’s fine. He’s just showing the children the tools, their imagination will do the rest.’

     She stepped back and, with a nervous laugh, said, ‘I suppose seeing that sort of thing might turn them off meat forever.’ Her smile held no sincerity. From biting cucumbers, she turned to bite her nails.

     I stepped forward, eager to see Campbell shear the animal. Perhaps his hand would slip. Never in my life, even on the days when I had visited my friend’s country manor, had I seen an animal killed before my eyes. There had been the day when my friend’s Rottweiler escaped its kennel, freed to roam the paddocks as if returned to its primordial state as a hunter. The day when the dog attacked a sheep. There had been the yew’s bleating cries as we carried it across the fields back to the yard. There had been the stains on the dog’s muzzle and the bloody patch on the jacket of my friend’s father. Since that day, I had only seen neatly packaged chops, only smelt the sanitised smell of the supermarket fridges, never the musk and stink of an animal’s fear.

     Campbell sat down, cross-legged like the children. He motioned for the child holding the lamb to hand it over. Glancing at the shears, the girl was slow to relinquish the soft bundle to the man with a guard dog’s face. Maybe the link had finally formed between dinner and pet. If so, then the first part of my plan was a success and the principal could be pleased that the children had learned something.

     ‘He won’t hurt it?’ Kasandra didn’t look away, even as she bit her nails.

     ‘Now kids,’ Campbell said in a voice as thick as his arms, ‘I want you all to have something to remember the day by. I know how much you all love the wee lamb here but after today you won’t get to see him again.’ He ran his hand from the top of the lamb’s head down to its rear. The children awed and cooed.  

     ‘But you’ll remember what we learned, isn’t that right?’

     The children nodded. Campbell lifted the shears. The animal squirmed, only settling when Campbell scratched behind its ears. Kasandra flinched at the definitive snap of metal. The butcher cut away tiny pieces of the lamb’s coat and handed them to the children until each child had a souvenir of the day. ‘Won’t that be dirty?’ Kasandra asked. A child handed her a piece of wool and she rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger with an expression that suggested she may as well be holding dog shit.

     I wondered what impression might have been made on the children. Would the connection between lamb and food stick as they walked down the supermarket aisles with their parents? Without the lamb in their laps, some of the children were becoming restless. Their eyes darted to the nearby playground where some college-aged boys had arrived with a basketball. I was just a couple of years older than the children when I saw the sheep writhing in the paddock as the dog clamped down on its left hind leg. My friend’s father had to shoot the dog with a pellet gun to get it off. The real shots came later, out the back of the shed, but we weren’t privy to those. Once we had lifted the sheep into the shed, my father’s friend had rushed us out. I tried lingering in the doorway and glancing through the side window but my friend’s father always seemed to be blocking the view.

     Campbell stood up and thanked everyone. The children applauded before the butcher started to pack away his utensils.

     ‘All right children, line up.’ I said.

     Kasandra led the children back to the bus. They said goodbye to Campbell and reached out to pet the lamb one final time.

     I lingered behind, glancing from Campbell to the lamb. ‘Thank you.’ I reached out and scratched the lamb behind each ear in turn. This close I could smell its spring freshness. It showed no fear, tilting its head up so I could scratch underneath its chin as well.

     The butcher grunted. ‘Good for them to learn about the process.’

     I nodded. ‘That’s what it’s all about. Getting the children closer to the source of their food. It’s a shame they can’t see the next step in the process.’

     ‘A bit young for that, don’t you think?’ Campbell placed the lamb back in its cage. It shuffled around in search of a comfortable spot.

     I shrugged. ‘They have to learn sometime, don’t you think? Kasandra was just saying how she visited an abattoir once, broke in, most likely. Have you seen those kind of videos?’

     Campbell shook his head. He went on loading up his truck. I poked a finger through the cage to scratch the lamb under the chin.

     ‘Do butchers usually own livestock?’

     ‘A lot of farmers are letting them go cheap these days. This one is a rescue really.’ The big man finished loading up his truck. I retracted my finger from the cage to allow him to lift the lamb into the front passenger seat. He even strapped it in with a seatbelt, so it sat there like a baby in a car seat.

     ‘How much for the lamb?’

     Campbell scratched his sleeve tattoos. ‘Why don’t you come down to the shop later? I’ve got a good per kilo price on backstrap at the moment.’

     ‘No,’ I said, pointing to the cage, ‘how much for this lamb?’

     ‘That one? Well, it’s not for sale, planning on rearing that one myself. For the wool. Might expand into a side business if it all goes well. Ethically sourced wool.’

     ‘Ethically sourced.’

     I thought of my new cleaver at home, sharp and heavy enough to make any butcher jealous. I had watched enough videos to have an idea of how to carry out the task, though without a bolt gun I would have to settle for a knife across the throat. The idea always made me dizzy. I wondered had my friend’s father felt at the end of the barrel when he shot the sheep, then the dog. Either type of gun seemed too impersonal, clinical even. I wanted intimacy.

     Campbell was nodding, he seemed to be back in presentation mode. ‘That’s right, big market for that sort of thing. It’s an industry I know well.’

     ‘I’m sure it is. Tell me, have you worked in other areas of the industry? I hear a lot of abattoir workers are former prisoners. That’s how they get their kicks after they are released.’

     ‘Is that so?’ Campbell closed the passenger door. I followed him round to the other side of the car.

     ‘You never know who is living in your community,’ I said. ‘A lot of people mightn’t be keen on buying from that kind of person.’

     Campbell looked from me to the lamb. ‘Maybe you should be heading back to school. You might be able to get something in the canteen.’

     ‘You won’t deny it then?’

     Campbell sat down, pulled on his seatbelt and started the truck. ‘I’m a butcher by trade, always have been. I’ve seen plenty of carcasses, I like to know where my meat comes from. You, on the other hand, might be better off sticking to the local supermarket.’

     He slammed the door before I could get the threat out. Once again I was back on my friend’s farm as his father closed the shed door, closed me off from the sights and smells of the sheep’s final moments. The videos just aren’t the same, no matter how grizzly the footage. They do not live up to the moment I have created in my mind. How often have I breathed deeply of imagined smells? How often have I pictured myself holding an animal’s soft throat?  Enough times that this butcher could read it on my face? I could go to a farmer as Campbell had done but they might wonder why a city-dwelling teacher with no backyard wanted a sheep. Too many questions. But I could at least find out where he had bought his lamb. He owed me that much for not cutting further into the meat of his history.

     I tapped on the car window. Campbell wouldn’t face me. He started the car and rolled it forward. I hopped out of the way before the wheels rolled over my feet. The truck sped off, leaving me with the taste of dust and fumes.

     I ran spittle around my dry mouth. Kasandra waved to me from the bus. They were ready to go.

     ‘I think that was very worthwhile, even if I don’t agree with him,’ she said when I took my seat on the bus.

     Staring out the window, I said yes, it was good for the children to get closer to the source of their food. 


Ashley Cracknell


Ashley Cracknell is from Kilkeel, Northern Ireland. Now living in Australia, his short fiction and poetry featured in the 2017 and 2018 University of Sydney Student Anthologies. He has also dabbled in editing, for ARNA, and audiobook narration.