First published in New Welsh Review, Autumn, 2008
She was sitting at the table staring at the pig’s head. Shutting the scullery door behind him he said:
‘Eye contact, is it?’
‘Well, it’s easier than making eye contact with you. It’d probably say more than you ever do, if I spoke to it. Pity I’ve got to chop it all up.’
He’d reached the far door and closed it by the time she’d finished talking. He’d fallen straight for that one. She’d always been too quick with words. You never got a straight answer either; everything hedged about, weighed down.
In the bathroom he stripped off his mud-crusted overalls, wound them into a ball and thrust them in the laundry basket. He scooped up cakes of dried clay from the floor, chucked them in the lavatory, raised the seat and peed on them as hard as he could, trying to break them up before flushing them away.
He filled the bath very full so that it reached the rim and sloshed waves over the side and onto the floor when he lowered his bulk into the water. On some days he’d hear Vera call out about turning the bathroom into a pond. Well, he’d soak some up with a towel. She’d complain of course, but it would be too late by then, she’d just have to mop the rest. Meanwhile, he was warm up to his neck and he closed his eyes and thought again about yesterday’s sale. He’d got what he wanted for the hoggetts, but only just. That young Davies, trying to do him down while buttering him up at the same time. He knew he was after the farm. No-one to leave it to, no-one to take it on. The ground walked by strangers.
The water began to cool and he heaved himself to sitting position, soaped his face with his hands, carefully avoiding the eyes, rubbed behind his ears, the back of his neck. He worked up a froth on his head and squeezed the flannel over it to rinse it off. Perfunctorily he massaged the left shoulder, but it felt chilled and ached so he slipped back down. The dirt would soak off the rest of his body; he moved his legs around a little, encouraging the grime to float away and with both hands shifted his stomach where it jutted out over his groin. He’d have to get out soon before the water turned cold.
And then when he’d pulled himself to kneeling so as not to slip like he’d done once, crashing back into the water and Vera running up the stairs to ask if it was all over the bathroom floor, he caught sight of his face in the chrome of the mixer tap. A great nose and tiny eyes and a few white hairs sticking up. That got him out.
Down in the kitchen his tea was laid out on the table.
‘I’ve had mine,’ she said. ‘Couldn’t wait any longer. I’ve got to get on with the brawn. I want it finished and out of the way by the time Brenda comes on Sunday.’
He switched on the television. Her objection to having one in the kitchen had vanished soon enough when she’d realised she could watch it herself during the day. That it helped drown out her nagging of an evening pleased him, though it hadn’t stopped her doing it.
It was a gardening programme that didn’t interest him at all, but he was content to eat and be vaguely aware of her activity at the sink where she was scrubbing the pig’s head.
After a bit she turned, and moving slowly because of her bad leg brought the wet pink head to the table on a wooden board. She reached down a bowl and a saucepan and with a sharp little knife poked each eye out into her hand and dropped it into the bowl. Then she cut off the ears, laying them to one side and prising open a slash at the top of the head, scooped out the brains.
‘You can give this to the dogs tomorrow.’
‘I said you can give these brains to the dogs tomorrow morning. Nobody else’ll eat them. You were never a one for brains.’
He watched while she placed the brainless head in the saucepan, poured water over it, sprinkled in bits and pieces from jars and padded into the pantry with it. He turned back to the television and closed his eyes.
On Saturday morning he did the accounts, ordered feed and fencing – Brian’d make the stakes – then sat down at the kitchen table to read the local paper, starting near the end at the farming pages. He’d have found some excuse to be there, even if it hadn’t been Saturday, he loved that smell of simmering pig so much. Sweetish, peppery, the room steamed up with it; he was a boy again, in the same kitchen, with his mother pottering at the stove, handing him bits of this and that. Vera was upstairs hoovering with a certain violence but he could ignore that, put the paper down in front of him and take himself back.
‘We’ll share the ears,’ his mother’d say. She cooked them in their own small pan separately from the head and the two of them would sit together eating from the same plate the thin crisp strips with potatoes and OK sauce.
‘Rationing doesn’t bother us,’ she’d tell him and he’d feel himself part of some special conspiracy with her. Afterwards, they’d sit together on the settee and listen to ITMA. She’d put her arm round him and he’d lean his head against her soft breast.
‘Can’t send pig’s ears to your father, can I, Owen? He’ll have to make do with tins over there.’ As a boy, while the years passed, the memory of his father became increasingly vague. After his father had gone to war, he’d stood in front of the sideboard staring up at the photograph of the stocky, moustachioed man, trying to recall his presence, his voice, his smell. Gradually, as he grew, looking up at the picture in the wooden frame turned to looking down upon it. When his father didn’t come back and then he heard that he wasn’t going to come back, it didn’t seem to make any difference to his daily life. He’d always helped his mother about the farm. She needed her ‘young man’ she told everyone.
Vera made a snack lunch as she often did on a Saturday.
‘You haven’t done a morning’s work so you can’t need a big dinner. I’ve had far too much to do and there’s plenty more that still needs doing. We should take more care over what we eat.’
‘That’s Brenda talking.’
‘Brenda’s right. She only says what everybody knows nowadays. Fat, salt, sugar, they’re all bad for you. Look at you! You must be several stone overweight, Owen. I know I’m weighty, too. You don’t have to tell me. It’ll do us good to have a salad.’
‘How can I eat a salad when that’s cooking?’
‘When that’s cooking? What are you talking about? Oh, I see, it’s making you think of meat, I suppose. Meat. That’s all men want. Meat. Brawn. I never was a one for brawn. Mother always said brawn’s men’s food. You’ll just have to wait until it’s ready tomorrow. Brenda’ll have something to say about it. She’ll not eat any.’
After the salad he switched on the television, forcing himself to watch the monotony of the pre-Big Match run-up. He knew she was ladling out the meat, the cheeks having floated off into the broth. She brought the board to the table again and began to peel the tongue and chop the still shapely snout. His mother had joked every time she’d pulled out a coarse hot hair from the skin: ‘Should’ve shaved him first!’ He’d always had the same image of a pig sitting up in the barber’s shop, a white napkin tied round its neck.
‘Look at all this fat! I’m glad Brenda’s not here. She used to make herself scarce on brawn days even when she was a little girl. Still, there’s marrow in the bones, isn’t there? Must be some goodness in it.’
Broth and bones were boiling on the stove, the smell of the stock becoming ever stronger. The windows steamed over completely. The commentator was getting excited, footballers raced around the screen, someone would score soon. Vera finished chopping, scraped the pieces into a bowl, went to the stove for the stock. Without moving his head, knowing her back was turned, he pulled out a lump of meat from the bowl, pressing it between his lips, licking his fingers and wiping them on his thigh beneath the table. He closed his eyes with the joy of it and heard the rising pitch of the commentator, the goal and the rush of the hot stock pouring onto the sweet pork.
On Sunday Brenda drew up in her Zafira at eleven on the dot. Vera rushed out as fast as she was able, painfully, it looked like wading he thought, calling out to him as she went.
‘They’re here! They’ve arrived, Owen. I’m going out to meet them. Are you coming? Well, I’m going anyway.’
Car doors slammed and the sound that wouldn’t cease the whole day began, the two women’s voices competing in information, opinions and decibels. They remained outside as he knew they would, discussing him among other things he supposed, but the little girl came running in, seeking him out.
‘Hello, my little one. Here I am! Sitting in the kitchen.’
She ran to him, stretching out her arms so that he’d swing her up onto his lap. There she clutched delightedly at his nose, pulling at his ears to steady herself as she pecked all over his face, a small dear bird.
‘Shall we go and look at the sheep, before the others come in?’
He lifted her down and took her little hot hand in his. They pulled on boots, her tiny pair always waiting in the scullery for her visits, and walked out across the yard. He helped her up the steps, keeping hold of her hand as long as he could, so that she’d not fall and to feel the warm life of her.
In the home field she let go and ran stumbling over tussocks but pulling herself up and running some more, pursuing sheep. They started up their noise at the sight of him, flocking over though confused by her rushes and falls. He called her to him and helped her stroke the knotted wool.
He’d keep a lamb for her. He’d keep one back at lambing. She’d love a lamb. It would be hers. She could name it, and they’d always go out together and look for it whenever she came.
‘Would you like a lamb for yourself?’
She looked up at him, not knowing what he meant. She hadn’t seen lambs yet.
‘A baby sheep. Would you like one?’
‘Baby seep! Baby seep!’
He swung her up into his arms and onto the aching shoulder where she crowed with pleasure, clamping her hands to his head, pushing thin stray hairs into his eyes. He’d heard Brenda shouting for them in the distance.
At dinner he made his announcement.
‘Amy wants a lamb. I’ll keep one back for her at lambing.’
‘Dad, why do you call her Amy? It’s Amelia. You know that perfectly well and yet you do it every time. Why?’
‘Amy suits her.’ Amelia, he thought with disgust. Stupid fancy name. In his mind she was always ‘the child’. ‘She likes ‘Amy’.’
‘Of course she doesn’t! Anyway, what were you on about?’
‘I said she’d like a lamb.’
‘What would I do with a lamb? Where would I keep it? We’ve only got a small garden and it’s all planted. You can’t keep a lamb indoors. Not like a kitten. Not that I want to be bothered with one of them.’
‘I’ll keep a lamb for her here. She can look after it when she comes.’
‘Dad, you’re so sentimental. I won’t have her grow up into farming. We all know what sort of a life that is, don’t we, Mum, hard work, mud and government interference. Better out of it, like me. Amelia’s a town child now; I’m not having her get soft about sheep. Isn’t it time you gave up, Dad?’
He didn’t reply. And Vera, who’d only not spoken because she was busy loading the table with dishes and placing small pieces of food on the child’s highchair tray, struck up a conversation about someone he neither knew nor cared to know.
The dish of unmoulded brawn had been pushed towards his place. Its gelatinous, meaty paleness made him salivate and he cut himself a large piece, adding a spoonful of mustard and a pool of brown sauce on the side of the plate. They were talking so much that it looked as if he’d avoided the usual adverse remarks, and he broke off a corner of his piece and put it onto the child’s tray. She picked it up and squeezed it between two fingers and thumb so that it oozed like paste, then thrust all her fingers into her mouth and sucked. He watched her face.
He gave her another chunk which she ate this time without squeezing. And then another. ‘Brawn,’ he said quietly. ‘Do you like brawn?’
‘Bawn!’ He cut a new slice for her, put it on her tray and this time she picked up the lot with both hands and rammed it into her mouth.
‘What is Amelia doing? Owen, what have you given her?’
‘For godssake, Dad. Amelia, what are you eating? Here, spit it out! What is this?’ Brenda came up behind the child and tried to gouge the stuff out of her mouth.
‘Bawn! More bawn! My bawn!’ the child cried out, reddening with rage and half choking.
‘You’ve been giving her brawn. That’s what you’ve been doing. I take my eyes off her for one minute and you give her that filthy stuff.’
‘Look how he eats it, Brenda, smothering it with mustard and sauce. You can’t be getting any of the taste of it, can you, Owen? Why did I bother to go to all that trouble chopping and cooking? It took me days. This is the last time I’ll make brawn, mark my words.’
He’d have got up and gone out if it had been just the two women but he couldn’t bear to leave the child.
‘There, there,’ he murmured to soothe her screaming. She picked up a piece of tomato and threw it on the floor but he left it, turned back to his meal, drank the beer Vera’d opened for him and shut out the racket of acrid voices and gradually subsiding cries.
In bed that night he’d stopped reading in the middle of an article on Suffolks in Farmer’s Weekly. Vera’s magazine had fallen from her hands and she’d begun to snore. He looked at their two sets of legs stretched under the duvet, the double bulk of their bodies. His shoulder was worse and he knew that in a couple of hours he’d be waking up and stumbling to the bathroom. During the night Vera would moan as she heaved her haunches into a more comfortable position.
His mother had died in this bed. He’d not been there, had been lambing, had saved one of two lambs but not the ewe. They’d come to tell him, but it was too late and in any case there was no stopping at that point. He’d sobbed at her funeral and missed her badly for weeks after. Within a year he’d married Vera, unable to resist her teasing pertness. Had they been happy, once? He couldn’t remember.
Now, he thought of the effort he’d have to make rolling over and out of bed later in the night. He thought of his stomach, barely covered by water in the bath, his face distorted, pig-like in the tap’s mirror.
But he wasn’t ready to give up yet. There was the child. So much to show her. So much for her to love, just as he’d done. They could walk the ground together, he’d point things out to her, tell her about them. As she grew older she could help him a bit, with the dogs, the sheep. His life wasn’t over yet. Brenda and Vera could criticize till kingdom come; he would shut them out of his head. No, nothing mattered except the child.
The sense of certainty made him decide to get up now rather than wait until his bladder drove him. Feeling peckish, he went down to the kitchen, took the brawn out of the fridge, gathered mustard and brown sauce and sat at the table with it. Thus it was, that when quite suddenly his heart gave out, his mind was not confused. He felt the child’s fingers flutter in his hand, on his face, his head. Nothing mattered except the child. Everything else was just flesh floating off the bones.
© Alix Nathan 2013-2014