Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Killing of the Pig. A short story of life in a Northern England mining village in 1938

Robert Bell opened his eyes slowly and reached across behind him with a wide sweep of his arm. His large hand located the spot where Janie would normally have been, but today found only the cold imprint of her body in the cotton sheet. It was 8.00 am and she was already down in the kitchen scrubbing the wooden table and rinsing the suds off onto the cold stone slab floor. The soapy water trickled down the gutter in the middle of the room and through the small hole in the house wall, out into the drain. The soap suds rose back up though the grate as if they feared their ultimate destination, only to slip back again as a fresh pail of hot water sloshed its way across the table and down into the gutter.


Upstairs, the realization of what the preparation downstairs meant was slowly sinking in. Robert had gone to bed at 4.00am after coming home from night shift, and his tired eyes were begrudgingly allowing the thin morning light access. After a fitful sleep, he swung his large frame round to sit upright on the edge of the bed, his feet missing the hookie mat on the floor and landing instead on the cold linoleum with a thud. The chill made him shudder, further exacerbating his melancholy mood. The clatter of the Nettie man’s pails could be heard progressing down the Colliery Row as he moved from house to house emptying the contents of each toilet into his cart, further removing Robert’s chance of an extended sleep. Charlie Beatty was a jovial man with irrepressible and piercing blue eyes that beamed at you when he spoke. Unfortunately, the side effects of his odorous job made any dalliance for a social chat very short. Even after a good hot bath in front of his fire, the smell lingered, despite his good efforts to remove it. On this morning, his cheerful whistling and bustle of activity jarred at Robert’s nerves. He wanted to shout out the window to silence the cheerful nuisance, but all he could manage was a slow shake of the head as he turned away to search for his cuff buttons on the dresser table. If he had been more awake, he would have noticed the unshaven man in front of the dresser mirror. His handsome weather beaten face, brown as a piece of walnut and fissured with years of hard work, looked balefully at the reflection, his eyes neither seeing nor caring today.

The activity downstairs suddenly increased in both volume and intensity, as six of Bettie Pollard’s daughters arrived to lend a hand with the preparations. The sudden inrush of energy hit the Bell house like a tornado. Janie’s preparations had been deliberate and efficient, but had not generated much of a disturbance. Things changed rapidly as the Pollard girls descended.

Tommy Pollard was a small man in stature, weighing not more than 100lbs fully clothed and soaking wet. What he lacked in brawn was made up for in his ability to produce children. At the last count, there were 10 girls, ranging from 11 years to 20. All of them good looking and healthy specimens, and brimming full of energy. The local joke was that when Betty found out what was causing them, she made Tommy sleep in the coal shed .

Betty was a rotund, voluminous lady with rosy red cheeks and hair that refused to submit to any form of order. Wisps of long grey hair would be continually pulled off her broad face with hands that paid tribute to her endless struggle with the Pollard family life, and pinned back behind her ears. Within seconds, the strands of hair would be free again to roam at will across her animated features, only to be pulled back like recalcitrant children and scolded for their persistence. Tommy was oblivious to the chaos that unfolded in the house around him. His favorite position was sitting by the fire in a large rocking chair, propped up by pillows, sawing away at an old fiddle that his Grandfather had left him. The satisfaction he got from playing was inversely proportionate to his ability to play, a fact not lost on his children. Passers by would be forgiven for thinking that the noise emanating from the house was bubbling up from the torture chambers of hell, but it originated from a more homely source. Tommy was content with his lot. Some folks said that he had no choice, and there was some truth to this statement. He was effectively nullified in his own house, as any democratic vote was bound to fall in the females’ favor. Still, he had lots to be satisfied with, a doting and resourceful wife and a brigade of daughters to provide for his eternal comfort.

Within a few minutes, Janie’s calm and firm guidance had channeled the Pollard tornado into a model of efficiency and industry. Beth Pollard, the youngest of the brood had taken Skipper, the aging Collie, out to the back yard to prevent him from being crushed in the scrimmage. Alice and Anne, the twins, were collecting all the jars for the potted meat preparations, and were scouring them with hot soapy water, splashing each other in the process. Lisa, the eldest, and by far the most level headed and attractive of the bunch, surveyed the scene from the security of the living room, as she ironed a pile of clothes from the recent wash. After each garment was finished, she gently placed the iron back on the fire place to heat up, and folded the garments into neat piles and placed them on top of the kitchen range to remove any dampness still in the fabric. She loved her father dearly, but she had a soft spot for Robert who had always treated her with a little more affection not often transferred to the eldest of the brood. Her position in the house was no accident. She knew that Robert would be coming down the stairs soon and through into the living room, and wanted to be the recipient of his warm and affectionate smile. She knew him well enough to know that he would not be his usual self. They shared a love of nature, of all things that grow, and of all things that breathe. She knew that today would last an eternity for Robert, and wanted to be able to comfort him with her presence.

Her other two sisters, Isabella and Molly were helping Janie collect the pans that would be used to collect the blood from the newly killed animal, and were unaware of their elder sister’s watch on the stairwell.

The Bell boys were all at work down the mine. Adam, Robert Jr. and Walter had left the house at 4.00am, just as Robert was returning, and wouldn’t be home until 4.00 that afternoon, ready in time to help with the evening’s proceedings. Their sister Heather had gone to spend a few weeks with Aunt Mollie, whose husband and daughter had died from tuberculosis only weeks before. Lisa and Heather were close friends, and much sought after by the local boys. As striking a pair of beauties would be hard to find, yet here they both were in this small mining village, loving and returning that love, each in their own way. Today, Lisa would not have to share that love, if only he would come down stairs.

Robert couldn’t delay the day any further. Janie had already been up twice to offer a few sharp but firm words of advice. On seeing his first attempt at getting dressed, she remarked “Robert, ye’ve got yer byuts on the wrang feet”. As she left the room, Robert muttered under his breath, “Aye woman, they shud be on yours”, but this remark failed to elicit any response as Janie bustled down the stairs to take control of her energetic army of helpers.

Out in the allotment , the sun was shining, and the warmth was generating steam from the compost heap in the corner of the garden. The air was filled with the sound of bird song, like an orchestra warming up for a performance. The chickens were still in their cages, as Robert had not yet arrived to release them from their heavily protected environment. Seeing the results of one fox attack had been enough for him to stomach. Colditz would have been easier to get in or out of. Bessie lay half in and half out of her sty, with her head resting on her front trotters, surveying her estate through half closed eyes. She was anticipating all the snout scratching and ear tugging that usually accompanied her morning feed. Yesterday, she had received more than her usual attention, as Robert struggled to come to terms with his impending loss and his guilt. For now, all was calm and tranquil and the day looked full of promise.

Just as the kettle started singing, Robert appeared round the bottom of the stairs into the living room. He paused momentarily as if he had forgotten something, then he lifted his gaze across the room towards the fireplace.

Lisa was lifting the kettle off the hob and was startled by his sudden appearance. She put the kettle back on the hob, and it started to sing again, only this time it sounded like an air raid siren. Swiftly, she removed it and placed it on the hearth after pouring the contents into the brown glazed teapot perched on the boiler top. She picked up the teapot and walked past Robert to the table, and proceeded to pour out a cup for him. He took it from her silently, caught her eye briefly, then turned away to stare out of the window. Janie came into the room with the Pollard brood behind her like a mother hen and her chicks. She poured out her own tea and looking first at Lisa, she took her hand and pressed it saying, “It’s his aan fault Lisa. He shuldn’t hev mollycoddled that gizzie like it was one of his ain. He’s got nae yin te blame cept himsel’. As for ye Robert Bell, ye’d best be getting alang oot the hoose an’ oot the way afore ye hev us all greetin like bairns . Them Chickens ’ll be eaten the planks o’ wood aff the flair if ye divven’t let them oot”. Robert finished his tea, picked up his cap and maneuvered through the Pollard throng and out towards the back kitchen. Janie reached across and touched Lisa’s sleeve gently and said, “Hadaway oot with him lass and mek sure he dissn’t hang ‘issel, or dee something stupid like lettin’ the gizzie oot the sty. There’ll be hell on here the neet if we divvent have owt to lay doon.” The two of them opened the back door and closed it behind them quietly, as they headed off towards the allotment in silence.

Laying down was the local euphemism for the process of stunning, blooding and butchering the pig. The word “Pig” was taboo, a custom of unknown origin handed down to the mining villages along the coast by the fisherman who had left the sea for more constant work down the mines. Uttering the word ”Pig” down a mine would empty it faster than a gas explosion. They were referred to as “those things” or “gizzies”. Even pork or porker was frowned upon. Most of the miners had gizzies, and they took turns in laying them down in order to have a continual supply of pork products, especially in the winter. It was a communal affair, with a communal share of the bounty. Everyone in the street got something. Choice cuts for the participants and relatives, down to a few links of sausage or blood pudding for the widow at the end of the street. The laying down usually followed a precise pattern which had been established for centuries. Tommy Pollard had inherited his position as executioner from his father. Eddie, unlike his son, had been a sturdy specimen, all brawn and plenty brain to boot. Apart from his unusual side line, he was a strong union man with intimidating eyes that squeezed you when he looked at you and left no misunderstanding about who ruled the roost on his patch. He was frightened of neither man nor beast. His considerable reputation came in handy when his laying down service was required. Folks used to say that the animals used to just lie down and roll over and await the final blow, knowing that a struggle would just prolong the agony.

Not so with Tommy. The tools of the trade, left to him by Eddie, were as numerous as they were deadly. Lethal knives of all lengths were slotted into two large leather belts that Tommy wore slung diagonally across his chest, on top of a large blood stained leather apron. Sharpening steels hung from loops on the belts and jangled against each other like wind chimes. His appearance, reminiscent of a Mexican Bandito was not altogether unplanned. His small moustache which grew down the side of his mouth gave his thin face a decidedly unhappy expression, which was transformed into an evil, “don’t mess with me” sort of leer, as soon as he put on his armaments. His thin bandy legs took on an extra bow, and at full stretch, he was barely able to clear the floor with the weight of his weaponry.

With a little help from his daughter Bonnie, who at 5’ 11” and 180lb was more suited to the job than her father, he made his way from his backyard gate across the road to the Bell household, a distance of 200yds. Puffing with the exertion, he opened the back kitchen door, and was greeted by the rest of his girls who had just finished all their preparations. A large pot of boiling water bubbled away on the stove for scalding the skin, making the removal of the hair much easier. The noise and heat inside was sufficient to force Tommy outside for some fresh air. He decided to head straight for the allotment and wait for the arrival of the helpers, rather than suffer the pandemonium in the kitchen.

On his way over, he met Robert and Lisa on their way back from the allotment. Lisa had silently stood by while Robert made his last call on Bessie, and watched with sadness as he scratched her snout and pulled her ears gently for the last time. He had raised her from birth. She had been his constant companion in the allotment as he tended his garden. She made no criticism, offered no well meaning advice, and made no demands other than a well aimed snout between his legs to let him know he was falling short on the ear scratching business. She was always pleased to see him, especially when he arrived with the black bucket full of kitchen scraps.

Theirs was an uncomplicated relationship, devoid of responsibilities, yet full of understanding.

At length, Lisa tugged on Robert’s sleeve to let him know she was still there. He turned towards her, wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve and stepped out through the gate. Robert started to laugh. “ You must think aam a right ninny getting soppy aboot a gizzie”, he said as they walked back towards the house. Lisa shook her head, but was unable to tell Robert that she understood how he felt. Instead, she laughed too, and poked him in the ribs with her slender finger and said, ”Aye, a right big Ninny”.

“She’s aall yours, Tommy. Just mek it as clean as ye can, bonny lad. Aa hope ye divven’t mind if a divven’t watch. She’s been a ..”, Robert started to explain, but caught a vacant look from Tommy who wasn’t listening or caring, so he cut the comments short as they passed. “Come on Lisa, we’d better get back. The lads ‘ll be home for tha tea soon, and aa promised Janie a hand.”

Back in the house, the lads had indeed arrived home from work, and they were taking turns to get a hot bath in front of the fire. Janie had ushered the girls out of the living room to help her make the sandwiches, enough for her own brood and all the helpers who were due to arrive at any minute. Laying down was hungry work. She sent Robert up to the club to get some beer for the festivities, and accompanied by Lisa and the twins, he set off down the lane to the working men’s club at Lynemouth. If he timed it right, it would all be over by the time he got back.

Walter, Robert Jr. and Adam took turns to ladle the hot water out of the boiler into the tin bath on the floor. It was only a generation away that never washed their backs for fear it would make them weak. Robert’s dad had a back that shone like burnished lead from all of the coal dust ingrained into the skin. No ingrained backs for these boys. They were scrubbed and clean, dried and changed, and out of the living room into the back kitchen to chat with the Pollard girls. Janie raised her eyes in mock despair, and said,” Youse ‘ll all need to keep yer minds on the job at hand if we want to be finished this side of Christmas”. At that moment, Bettie Pollard arrived with about half a dozen of the neighbors, all talking at each other in that excited tone reserved for the “laying doon” day.

Back at the allotment, Bessie was face first into the black bucket when Tommy jangled into view round the sty corner. She lifted her head out of the bucket and glanced sideways at the comical figure approaching the gate. Not liking the apparition, she started to run round the allotment, working herself into a belligerent frenzy. Tommy stopped short, looked over his shoulder to check for reinforcements, and wiped his already perspiring brow with the corner of his flannel shirt. Things were not looking good.

As the procession made its way from the house to the allotment, the noise and excitement grew, causing Bessie’s stampede to gain momentum. By the time the crowd had gathered at the gate, she was running at full tilt, and as the gate was opened, she barreled past Albert Reed, knocking him backwards into Tommy, who fell back in a jangling bundle against the wall. “Stop her someone” Tommy cried from underneath his weaponry, “afore she gets te Ashington. Them buggers ‘ll have hor strung up and into sausage cases afore ye can wipe yer nose,” a reference to a missing pig and the subsequent selling of fresh pork at the miners welfare at Ashington, six months ago. Walter and Adam had brought a couple of ropes, and deftly passed the noose over Bessie’s huge head. As the ropes tightened, the force of the 300lb pig pulled both boys off their feet and started to drag them down the allotment path through the clarts . Bessie wasn’t going without a fight, and before she could be restrained enough for Tommy to do his stuff, she had trampled Albert Reed’s prize leeks, collapsed Jimmy Stobbart’s pea frame and pulled the boys through several piles of horse muck, completely reversing their clean status of just a few minutes earlier.

The job having been completed, they wheeled the cart back to the house with the serene Bessie stretched out on the wooden slats, their antics of the day already starting to form into local legend. That evening, over the rest of the sandwiches and the beer Robert had brought back from the club, the story took shape over many recalled antics. Tommy, devoid of his Bandito regalia, sat in the corner of the room sawing away at his fiddle. The girls were busy in the kitchen stuffing sausage cases, and the rest of the meat was being portioned out for everyone to take home that evening. Robert sat quietly by the fire, grateful that he was being left alone to think his own thoughts. Lisa, content that Robert had survived the day, was enjoying the company of Robert Jr. and Adam, who were competing for her attention. Walter sat in the corner with Albert Reed and his daughter Isobel, trying to placate him for the loss of his prize leeks, and Janie, who had finished her work in the kitchen and was drying her hands on her Pinny , cast her eyes over the room, content that the day was now over.

8 comments:

  1. Dear Wally, what a beautifully written story. I do feel for Bessie and I know I would think twice if I actually had to kill my dinner. I would definitely become too attached and have to turn vegetarian! xx

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  2. Hi Christina, Robert is/was my Grandfather and he was a big softie. He once took a turnip from a farmers field and was so upset he had done it, he took it back the next morning and re planted it.

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  3. Crikey.there not much I won't eat but reading that brings the origin of what we eat into perspective.
    On holiday in Ireland once chef went fishing and put the haul in a plastic bag next to me as I sat on the rocks.the bag started to move,chef had to come over and wack the fish on the head.
    Needless to say when he cooked it later I couldn't bring myself to eat it.

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  4. What a lovely story, I do not think I could kill for my supper, certainly not one of my own animals as I love them all too much. I would not be a successful farmer that is for sure... But then I have never been really hungry xx

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  5. brilliant......I am quite transported.......I too feel I would not do well if I had to bring up the bacon first!! Will stick to honing my jam making skills I think.....

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  6. My mother in law used to tell us about the days when she would lie in her bed with her hands over her ears so she couldn't hear the noise as they killed the pigs or lambs on her farm.
    I'd struggle to kill my dinner too, although there's nothing like a bacon buttie!

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  7. Can you still eat a pig if it dies from natural causes?
    David

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  8. Dead animals of this ilk are regularly put in our food chain. This pig died of a "natural" severe blow to the solar plexus.

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