– Arthur Schopenhauer
13th May 20–
Went in for our meat license today. Never been so excited. Two years since I last ate meat and I still hate the substitutes.
People say they can’t taste the difference, but I’m a gourmand. My palate’s hypersensitive. Once, I could taste a leaf of sage in a drum of oxtail soup. Now everything’s bean. Bean, bean, bean.
Last time I ate meat was pre-pandemic, before the culls. I could tell you everything about it. Veal angelica, it was called: these veal medallions stuffed with asparagus and provolone cheese. Delicious.
Di says I think in food. Says I remember our wedding not cause of the dancing or the booze or the pigeons and rice, but cause we ate pork goulash with herb dumplings.
She’s wrong. I remember our wedding cause we ate a duck, apricot, and pine nut pastilla. There was pork, we had a whole hog roast for the guests at the service. But I only ate the crackling. After, I cut off the ears and fed them to our Golden Retriever, Bella.
If I think in food, then Di thinks in arguments. She remembers our wedding day because of the row we had with her mother. Di’s Mum is a vegan and was astounded we’d not given any option but the duck or the hog. She boycotted the dinner and still Di blames me, but I have no regrets. I wasn’t going to cater for a radical minority.
Anyway, the meat license. I booked our test a couple weeks ago, before the M.L.A was swamped. We were the first applicants in the county cause our tenant, Marsha, tipped us off. She was part of a government pilot scheme for the license. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to know this. The first trials of the license were controversial, and the participants signed N.D.A’s and whatever. But I caught her red-handed.
Marsha rents the top floor of our townhouse in Marrow. The house sits off the high-street, near the old butchers. It’s a mid-century, gothic conversion with an emblem of the masons embedded in sandstone above the front door. Di, Flora, and I live on the bottom two floors. Often, Marsha’s letters get lost in the family’s post, so I must ascend the stairs to Marsha’s flat and deliver it personally. That day, I was delivering a summons when I noticed this overwhelming pong of iron flowing down the staircase. It was impossible to disguise: the smell of meat, something freshly butchered. On top of that were the first notes of fried garlic. Jesus, I thought, my tenant’s a criminal! She’s buying off the black market.
I sprinted up the staircase with Marsha’s letter then drummed on the door.
‘Marsha.’ I said. ‘We need to talk.’
Behind the door, which was covered by a fresh coat of glossy red paint, I heard this clattering of metal pans and the hurried slamming of drawers.
‘Marsha.’ I said. ‘I’m like a wolf.’
For too long the noise continued; I added to it with my punching the wood. I called her name again. Eventually the door opened.
Marsha is a student of sports science with a knot of thick, gingerish hair she arranges over her head like a fox-pelt turban. Her features are pale, her chin like the bulb of a spring onion which sits beneath these lips like two deshelled langoustines. That day she wore a black cardigan over a white crop-top, and jeans, which were spattered with blood.
I made no fuss about it. Simply I said.
‘That’s something I’ve not smelled in a while. Pork?’
Marsha’s feet were bare. She scratched the Achilles heel of her right foot with the mauve-painted toenail of her left before replying.
She avoided my eyes.
‘Don’t lie to me.’ I said. ‘It says in the tenancy agreement, criminal offences are grounds for eviction.’
‘I’m not a criminal.’ She protested. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t explain.’
Edging my boot over the copper base of the doorframe, I said. ‘Marsha. You are covered in blood. If I convince myself that you are not cooking contraband, then I might believe you are cooking a person. So, what is it? Are you a cannibal now?’
My foot inched forward. Marsha leant on the door frame, apparently considering closing it. Then she fell back.
‘Ugh, Mr Hamm.’ She said. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. I just didn’t know if I could make the rent—and I had to supplement my loan somehow.’
‘Supplement? What are you selling?’
Marsha’s gaze curled round my flank cautiously.
‘Can Flora hear me?’ She asked.
Flora is my daughter. Marsha nannies her. Flora looks much like her mother, with almost opaque blonde hair she wears in pigtails, and blue-pale skin.
‘Would it be better if I came in?’ I asked.
Marsha stepped aside. I entered the joint kitchen and living room. A frying pan lay on the hob covered by a towel. The walls were wet with grease and the ventilator above the hob was making a low roar. Marsha trotted past me to a window. She opened it. Then she made us tea. The letter in my hand was now creased and unreadable.
As she delivered my tea, Marsha began. ‘I reckon I should be honest. But you can’t tell a soul.’
She paused, inhaled, then confessed.
‘The government are planning to lift the meat ban.’
My heart shot into my throat. I stumbled to a parched leather settee organised before a glass coffee table in the centre of the room. Marsha sat on the kitchen counter. She continued.
‘Within a year, we will be able to eat meat again. But there’s a caveat. Since animal exploitation caused the pandemic, the government will not permit a return to factory farming. They’ve realised veganism is an overwhelming societal good. I mean, there’s less carbon in the air now, you can drink from the rivers, all the land freed for housing—’
I took a sip of my tea. She’d added oat milk.
‘But,’ Marsha continued. ‘The government acknowledge that a total ban on meat consumption limits our individual freedoms. Therefore, meat is going to return as a luxury good. You will have to own a license to buy it. Licenses will be one to a household. Once the test is passed, you will be permitted two packages of meat a month. That’s how I got this…’
Marsha hopped down from the counter and paced back to the frying pan. The tea-towel laid over the pan was decorated with illustrations of farmyard animals. Marsha flicked away the towel, revealing a cutlet of red meat laid flat in a pool of oil. A light dusting of salt covered it and ovals of garlic were stuffed in incisions along the slab.
Slowly, Marsha moved toward me with the pan. By then, I had come down from the sofa, fallen to my knees, and was edging over the carpet, sweating. Lowering my nose to the approaching pan, I inhaled.
How could I describe the smell? I swear, almost arousing, like Di’s perfume… something I’d miss if it ever vanished.
Gradually, I noticed the sheen, the gnarled edge of the cut and the islands of blood in oily lakes. I reached out a finger to touch it, then Marsha swung the pan away.
‘You can’t taste it. I’m involved in all sorts of blood tests to see whether it affects me, whether it’s good to eat. If you tried some and got ill, the trial might collapse altogether.’
I cupped my hands, begging.
‘Not possible.’ She replied, proudly. ‘You’ll have to wait til the test is approved.’
Marsha fished some cutlery from a drawer beside the oven. As I crouched on the floor, my knee knocked the table, spilling my tea over the glass. Marsha then cut herself a cube of meat, impaled it on the fork, and observed it in the sunlight falling in through the window.
‘And what is the test?’ I asked.
‘That, again.’ She began. ‘Is classified. You’ll hear rumours, but not from me. All you need to know is, everybody in the house must pass. Even Flora.’
Marsha plucked the meat from the fork with her lips. She swallowed.
As I considered the prospect of a return to normality, Marsha noticed an itching at the door. It was Bella. Striding through the flat, leaving the cut of meat unattended, there was a small scratch of locks sounding before a ratatata of toenails on the wooden floor. Bella, her coat shedding visibly in the sunlight, trotted in and began eagerly sniffing the kitchen. Her black nose pressed to the floor, she traced a smell she found overwhelmingly tempting, then, when she had discovered it, sat at Marsha’s feet. Marsha wielded the pan still, and ate the meat blue.
‘Down.’ She said to the dog.
She barrelled on the floor.
‘Good girl.’ Marsha said. She offered some meat.
‘But you said—’ I cried.
Marsha stamped her foot. ‘Seriously, Mr Hamm. Would you betray those eyes?’ Bella then edged her nose to the meat and sniffed in three loud bursts. Marsha pushed the meat toward her before the dog turned her head sharply, tucked her tail under her belly, and hurried to me. She whined, pressing her head to my chest. Marsha giggled.
‘See! We’ve all adapted to veganism. It isn’t so bad. Even the dogs prefer it.’
I cradled Bella’s jowls in my hand. Her eyes turned up to me. Various muscles in the eyebrows twitched, as if trying to communicate a concern. Then, her worries forgotten, she edged her muzzle into my fist and lapped at my palm.
So, we booked our test. They were being run from the old shopping malls in the city. In the morning, Di, Flora, and I got in the car. Flora waved from the backseats at Bella, who barked from the window as our car disappeared up the road.
When we were on the motorway, Diana said. ‘You know, must we all do it? Flora too?’
Flora held her iPad on her knees and flicked at the screen with her thumb.
‘Of course.’ I said honestly. ‘That’s the nature of the test.’
‘But,’ Di’s fingers shivered in her lap. ‘What if it’s too much? She’s five.’
‘They wouldn’t make it too intense for a five-year-old, Di. I’m sure it’s a couple of questions to check we’re responsible consumers. Forget it.’
Di paused, then muttered. ‘I’ve heard rumours.’
‘You mean conspiracies?’ I corrected her.
We merged with an exit. When I glanced at Di, she was flicking through her phone.
‘I wish you’d stay off Facebook.’ I said. ‘Seriously. The algorithm feeds you nonsense. Just relax. By the end of the day, we’ll be tucking into our first roast in yonks.’
We arrived at the shopping centre a little after nine. The shopping centre is a glass cuboid running four kilometres through the city-centre. Nowadays, the buildings are occupied by government offices. As we walked down the paved alleys to the centre’s west wing, we held hands tight. Around us, old abattoir workers and butchers collected their furlough. Depressed and bitter, they enforced an unnatural silence on the hall, a silence only broken by the odd pigeon clapping its wings across the marble concourse. They built their nests in the nooks between steel girders.
After a period of walking, the silence was disrupted by protesters.
News reports had tipped people taking the test that some opposition was likely. These reports generally said that vegans, wishing to maintain the status quo, would oppose the reintroduction of meat vocally. At the entrance to the department of the M.L.A, a line of hairy men in birdwatching gear and Aztec ponchos hurled slogans at us:
Meat is murder. Eat Beans, Not Beings. I Don’t Eat My Friends.
They were held back by a police cordon and private hire security.
The interior of the M.L.A was drab. A white desk at the end of a short, wide room, was orbited by a set of itchy, fabric covered chairs. A young couple sat waiting awkwardly. On the television above the desk, government adverts promoting the thousand-year fish ban played repeatedly.
At the desk I filled out our family’s details whilst eyed by a wolfish M.L.A employee. His hair was bright red and slicked back by grease. On his finger was a thick blood blister looking like a ring. Introducing himself as Ronald, he explained he would be our examiner. He asked us to follow him through a thin dark corridor to an airconditioned room. It was empty but for a grey industrial carpet. We waited with Ronald beside us til three youngish people in yellow aprons – two women, one man – entered.
‘These are your guides.’ Ronald said.
One of the women, a thin, blonde girl with a brown clipboard and zebra-pattern scrunchy in her hair, then stepped forward.
‘Mr and Mrs Hamm. I would like to ask your consent to take Flora for her test.’
She bowed to Flora and smiled. Flora stepped forward gingerly.
‘Do you consent?’ The woman repeated.
I noticed Di shaking. Gripping Flora’s hand, she jerked her backward.
‘Does she have to do it alone?’ Di pleaded.
The three aproned kids looked toward Ronald, who surveyed Flora slow before answering. ‘Since her size likely forbids her from carrying out the demands of the test… no. But she must watch.’
Di turned to me. Flora, looking bored at the floor, then mussed her fringe.
‘You want to take her?’ I said.
Ronald repeated to the girl with the zebra scrunchie.
‘The little girl must watch.’
Then he pointed at a boy whose head was partially shaved. Jabbing a finger my way, he said. ‘Take him through. The girls can follow.’
I followed the boy with the shaved head through another corridor. The walls of the corridor were covered in a slip-shod soundproofing fabric. Soon we emerged into another sterile room where iPads on podiums stood in columns. The boy directed me to one of the screens, then pressed an arrow indicating play.
A video began. Against a backdrop of crudely drawn animals, an animated man with eyes which blinked too slow recited a monologue. It went:
‘Welcome to the Meat Licensing Association. Today’s test will return you your freedom to consume meat. We know you’re hungry to take the test, so we’ll try make it quick.’
The animation smiled. He had CGI canines.
‘Have you ever heard of Roger Fisher?’ He asked.
A small pause followed in which the animated man, whom I now noticed wore a butcher’s cap, allowed for my answer. I mouthed, no.
‘Good. Then you’ll know Roger Fisher, in the 1981 ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, proposed what has been described as the most effective nuclear deterrent imagined. Fisher proposed that the U.S President, before she was allowed to launch a nuclear warhead, should first be presented with a butcher knife. This butcher knife would then be used to kill a volunteer who, at their behest, had the launch codes implanted beside their heart. If the president carried out the act, it would prove they understood the consequences of their actions. It forces us to ask the question: once someone is faced with the prospect of killing, can they follow through? Could they follow through a million times over?
Pre-pandemic, many of us were alienated from the consequences of the food we consumed. We did not understand, for example, that seventy-five per cent of epidemic events were linked to animal exploitation. We did not understand that, due to poor farming practice, eighty-six per cent of Britain’s rivers were dangerously polluted. We did not understand that animal farming produced a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s as much as every vehicle on Earth.
Perhaps most heinously, we did not understand the pain involved in meat consumption. With every slice of bacon you ever ate, a pig had to die, and a person had to kill it. Did you know, due to the traumatic nature of their work, there was a high prevalence of depression amongst slaughterhouse workers?’
Again a pause elapsed. Now I turned my head over my shoulder, to the boy who had led me here. He was doodling on his clipboard with a biro, his tongue stuck out a corner of his mouth. Then the animation interrupted.
‘Of course you did. As high as fifty per cent! That’s why, here at the Meat Licensing Association, we’re addressing the balance. The test today is inspired by Roger Fisher’s deterrent and aims to reconnect you with the processes that once delivered you your favourite foods. Using an animal of relative intelligence, The Test will reconnect you to the consequences of your consumption. Sound good?’
The animated man’s forearm performed a thumbs-up gesture. I looked back to the boy. Then the animation said,
‘Great. Please notify your guide. They will take you to the next stage.’
Before my attention was quite finished with the animation, my guide placed his hand on my shoulder and said. ‘Any questions?’
‘Uh,’ I began. ‘I’m not quite sure I understand—’
‘It’s self-evident,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’
Together we passed into a large blue-grey room with walls as high as an aircraft hangar. Someway ahead, in the centre of the room, was a sheet of white tarpaulin. Stood erect in the middle of the tarpaulin was a metal pole with a small steel loop at the top. Through the loop was fed a chain, which lead to a collar. The collar was attached to a Golden Retriever, an optimistic looking thing with a deep white coat turned slightly blonde along the spine. Her tail made a faint hushing against the plastic laid out under her, which accelerated upon her seeing myself and the boy. For a moment she sat politely, awaiting our approach. Then she barked pleasantly twice. Soon her bum had risen and she was pattering over the tarp toward us. The chain yanked at her neck and she sat down again.
When I turned to face the boy, he had produced a long, curved, cimeter knife. It’s handle was a deep red and made of textured plastic. He held it at his side as nonchalantly as his clipboard.
‘Did you bring a change of clothes?’ he asked.
‘I – uh. No. I didn’t think –’
‘I can fetch you an apron.’ He said, matter-of-factly.
Walking to a corner of the room. The boy knelt at a wooden trunk. In the trunk was a long white overcoat. Leaving the knife on the trunk, he returned to me with the overcoat open. Feeding my arms through the coat, he offered the instructions precisely.
‘We don’t care how you kill it, but we recommend cutting the throat.’
I fingered the buttons of the coat thoughtlessly.
‘Uh.’ I began. ‘The, um. The video said that a, uh, animal of relative intelligence—’
‘Oh, yes.’ The boy smiled. ‘Slightly stupider, actually. Than pigs, at least. But a happy medium between the pigs and cows you’ll enjoy.’
‘And I just?’
‘Slit it’s throat. I’ll be watching.’
Again the boy returned to the trunk, where he took the knife in his fist. Returning to me, he offered it with an outstretched arm, the blade facing down. After, he pressed his forehead in a nodding motion toward the dog, who lay there belly-up, whining slightly. Automatically, I began edging toward the plastic. As I approached, the dog’s ears twitched. She sat up straight, her tail wagging hard, her gums smiling.
I kept the blade held at the small of my back whilst approaching. With my free hand, I beckoned the dog closer. I tried imagining all the food I’d once loved: sausages, lasagne, prosciutto, pork medallions. The dog now shuffled forward, the chain chiming. Her eyebrows ticked whilst she read my face. Then her nose jumped sideways and her snout tilted up; her mouth closed and she gulped. Think she smelt the metal of the blade.
Grabbing her by the collar, I tried turning the body over, but the back legs kicked furiously. First she barked and whined, then she howled as my weight crushed, first, her legs, then her ribs. I flipped her. Swinging the blade out, I made a brief attempt to point the spike at the trachea before forcing my weight on the handle. A yip sounded as the blade slipped in, but her crying didn’t stop for a minute. Eventually she was silenced by the blood that choked her. Her brown eye looked around frantically as I held her head in the expanding puddle of blood. She was searching to understand the betrayal. Then she died.
I dropped the knife on the tarpaulin, then turned to the boy. He indicated a bucket in which I could wash my hands, then asked me to remove the coat and lay it over the trunk. After, I followed him through a series of corridors which lead back to the waiting room.
I sat alone in the room for thirty minutes. During that time, the couple we had shared the room with earlier also returned. They clasped each other tight, the male partner rubbing his girlfriend’s back tenderly, repeating. ‘You did so well, so, so well.’
At the desk they collected their first package, what looked like the rib of a cow, vacuum-sealed. When their guide pushed the package onto the counter, the girlfriend wept intensely. It was then I noticed a clump of bloody poodle fur hanging from her hair. An invigilator soon arrived and signed their license.
‘Pin it on the fridge.’ He smiled.
Di and Flora then returned. By then, having worried so long, I knew the outcome. No way would Di have carried it out. She never cared for food, like me.
When they entered the room, Di’s face was decorated in a pattern like cowhide. They were mascara streaks smudged in patches from below her eyes to the tip of her chin. Flora looked anxious, though not due to any reason she understood. All Flora had seen was a dog on a leash and Mummy crying horribly. Thank God.
Di approached me, spat on her fingers, and rubbed my cheeks.
‘Christ,’ she said. ‘You did it. You actually did it.’
Flora looked up at me, puzzled.
‘You stink of iron.’ She continued. ‘Your cheeks, your hair.’
I reached my fingers to my head. They came away bloody.
Soon Ronald stepped out from behind Di and Flora, consulting his clipboard. He spoke frankly.
‘I’m sorry to inform you, your application has been denied. Mr Hamm, your performance has been noted and can be cited if your place of residence changes. Mrs Hamm, you are welcome back at any time to re-take the examination.’
Flora gestured for Di to pick her up. Di stooped and obliged. Ronald hesitated before continuing.
‘However, Mr Hamm. Since you took the trouble today, we won’t let you go home empty handed.’
My eyebrows jerked with surprise. Di turned to me, then clenched her lips tight. Flora lay over her shoulder, exhausted. A reward, just for trying? I’d never been so thrilled in all my life! All I wanted was a taste of the foods I once loved, and Christ, I’d earned it, whatever it was.
Ronald placed his clipboard on the front desk, then moved to an adjoining room. Returning, he held a package of deep red meat in a clear plastic wrap. Handing it to me, I took into my arms like a newborn. Hugged it. Then I peered down into the packaging, questioning the cut. A whole lamb shoulder, or maybe pork belly… I smiled gratefully, then thanked the examiner.
His chin dipping, Ronald began to smile. Running a flat hand through his stuck-back hair, he chuckled and spoke.
‘You didn’t think we’d let her go to waste, did you?’