Here the men are different. Of course they are. They could not be the same as us. I knew that this would be so. Though, when I first arrived, I had not expected them to be like this. Of how they do things, of how they carry out tasks, it is not my place to say “this is right” or “that is wrong.” I cannot be of their ways. Who can inhabit another? But I can see them. I watch who they are. And I wonder if they ever watch me.
I understand their language well, but I still hear it translated into my own. This way I can hear more of it. Sometimes they think me slow, or unable to comprehend them, or unwilling to talk. This is because, in my head, the translation is happening. To me, it is like a taste being identified, and it must be broken into its tangs and aromas before it can be named. If they could taste the same taste, that would slow their impatience, their ever-growing impatience. Their wish for quickness, it hides something else. And I am sorry for them that it is so. They turn away, choking on their irritation, as the words drip, like milk through a strainer, into my mind.
In any case, I cannot answer them quickly, because their words sound, always, so stilted and so angry. In my head I must slow the rhythm of their speech. “Sta-Cca-To,” my piano teacher would say to me, in that sunny room overlooking the town, as she tapped on the music stand with her pen.
At home I had learnt to slaughter and cut in our own particular way. While I was being taught this by my father, who had slaughtered and cut for his whole life, I did not know it was a method. Neither did he. We were butchers. No one else we knew was a butcher. No else had been a butcher. We were the butchers. We killed in the old ways and I learnt how to cut what my father had killed. Then, some years back, a new way of killing became compulsory. New regulations. My father, without comment, changed to the new way. He had to. Within a month, the new way was the only way.
That name, “Accles and Shelvoke,” it heralded the new method, trying to be loud enough to interrupt our speech. The words were printed on the box that the killing machine came in. Those words were also held under the palm of my father’s hand, with only “elvoke” or “lvoke” in sight as he killed. Neither of us ever uttered those words, “Accles and Shelvoke.” How could we? There was no shape on our tongues for those words.
But I was glad to see my old friends “Accles and Shelvoke” on my first day in this place. They comforted me. Here, they like things to be new. They buy replacement equipment each year. More elaborate one year, simpler the next. Each time, it seems, believing that it will be an improvement. The tools of the profession, bought from the A&S catalogue. They turn the pages at break time, and one man will assert that this one is the one to have. Another will not contradict him, but will wait until the first man’s words have faded, and then will say that he would have that one, and only that one, that they should, for certain, buy that one.
My father missed the old ways, when the warmth of a life was served into his powerful hands just before that life was ended. By the time I was thirteen he would let me hold the heads back. The softness of the skin frightened me. The neck would tremble, as if the whole animal were asking for mercy. My childish fingers would slip into the warm mucus of the mouth. Sometimes I thought there was a kind of pleasure running through the veins of the animal as it shivered and coughed.
I could tell that the introduction of the new way was as a mourning in my father. But he could not say so. The new guns looked out of place in his hands. His large fingers, dry-skinned and red-knuckled, clutched the polished metal with hatred. He knew he had to master this alien object, even though the strength of his forearms and the gait of his rounded shoulders were no longer needed. Even though his hands looked as if they were holding the thin handlebar of a child’s bicycle.
So “Accles and Shelvoke” were waiting here for me on that first day. On the morning of that first day the men pointed and spoke loudly when they wanted to tell me something. They directed me as if we were in an old movie, exaggerating their waving of arms, their pointing, until they gave up on me. Annoyance. Irritation. Frustration. They exploded into these so quickly. However, by the afternoon of that first day they came to see that I understood them well enough. I had studied their language before arriving here. Though not their accents. Not their mutters. To me, they sounded as if they spoke on an old telephone, long distance. Over time the distances became shorter. But still I translated them across my borders and into myself.
I like to work. I begin early in the morning, when my body is alive and fresh. Seeing these men around me, the men from here, I think their bodies are the reverse of mine. In the mornings they yawn and stretch. Their arms and legs seem stiff and cold. It is when they leave the factory that there is life in them. They go to drink late in bars and they drink hard, as if they wished a small suicide on themselves each evening. In the mornings they are slow because of the drink and the late nights. Mr. Quinn, the owner, has a brother who works here. He is a drinker, and not a good butcher. He is kept working here only because he is of the family. One morning, two weeks after I arrived, he came into the chill room while I was cutting. I knew he was still drunk from the night before. The meat, the skin, the blood, the shit, I know these all so well that any smell that does not belong here is like an alarm to me. And, in any case, alcohol is not difficult to recognize. In this place of death alcohol on a man’s breath smells like the rotting of a human. From Mr. Quinn’s brother that day the odor of alcohol was rising out of his stomach and through his mouth. He leaned over me, and the beer smell was all around me, like a little cloud. Mr. Quinn’s brother looked over at his friend who was cutting at the next bench. “You’re a fucking idiot, so you are.” That is what he said. He said it about me, but he was looking at his friend. He was looking at his friend because he hoped to confuse me, to leave me unsure if he meant that it was me who was to be known as the fucking idiot. But I was clear. It was me he meant. His head was shaking with drunken laughter, hanging loose in front of me. I had to do something. If I did nothing this would be the beginning. If I let him abuse me they would all then call me a fucking idiot. I had seen how they liked to have a name for everyone, and how they had been searching for a thing to name me with. I lifted a clump of his gray hair and quickly waved the blade through it. Then I took his hand and opened it. I put the hair into his palm and closed his fingers over it. His friend laughed. He called the others. And so they all laughed at Mr. Quinn’s brother. “Scalped,” they shouted. After this he left me in peace.
But now it is the end of my time here, I think. I have witnessed enough of how they live and work. There is nothing more for me to know. Two years have passed and their anger is all that I see. Every week they have less patience. They have less work too, but they do not seem to notice this. Today I saw Mr. Quinn’s brother reach the edge of his anger. When he had finished the two of us stood face to face and neither of us could see what could come after this. So it is time for me to go home.
This morning is always pig-killing. This afternoon is always cleaning. Tomorrow is sheep-killing. It is the same each week. Tuesday, pigs. Wednesday, lambs. Just after we had opened the gates this morning a young farmer came. He is one of those who are the amateur farmers. I like them. They are unlike any farmers I know at home. They wear farming, as if it were a jacket. It never truly fits their shoulders. They farm not because they have to but because they think it is good for them, or for their children, or for society. They believe in the soil and in hard work and they add farming to their office jobs. In this factory, we can recognize them from afar. They drive their jeeps like they would drive a car, and they are always a little frightened of their animals. When they leave off their animals for slaughter they stare at the killing equipment.
This type of farmer, I think, looks at us and he sees men of a different kind to himself. Some of them, before they will talk to me, will broaden their shoulders and deepen their voices. This one who came today, he is a quiet man. He is not so swaggering as some of the others. I saw him through the barriers. I was moving pigs into line. I must not leave the pens once I enter them, so I could not help him. His trailer was too clean. He thinks that a real farmer will clean his trailer each time it is used. But a real farmer will not be concerned with the outside of his trailer, knowing that the inside is all that matters. The lambs in the trailer were as anxious as the man who had raised them. Perhaps they know he is an amateur.
Today was the wrong day for bringing lambs. I would have liked to tell him it was the wrong day. He wandered around, looking for Mr. Quinn. But Mr. Quinn was not in his office. I could hear Mr. Quinn’s brother talking in the hanging room. I saw the young, pretend farmer maneuver his trailer, very slowly, towards the grass paddock where we sometimes keep extra sheep on a Wednesday morning. The trailer went from side to side, as it does when reversed by an inexperienced driver. He let the lambs out into the paddock. This was a big mistake. He shut the gate and went back to the office once more to see if Mr. Quinn was there.
The pigs moved into line and I closed the barrier behind them. They began to squeal and push, but they could not go backwards now. The shrieking of pigs is not a noise I hear anymore. So in the background it was easy for me to recognize Mr. Quinn’s brother’s voice. It was loud. I knew he was shouting at the sheep farmer. The wrong animals, here on the wrong day, and the lambs will have to be kept until tomorrow morning. Then, at the start of tomorrow’s shift, Mr. Quinn’s brother will have to take all the workers from the pens and the chill rooms and the freezer rooms and they will have to herd these half-sized sheep into the killing pens. Some of the lambs will run the wrong way, and one of the men will have to run after them. His white apron will flap. Those men who smoke will go red in the face. Thinking of all of this makes Mr. Quinn’s brother angry. His feels his dignity become a small thing. He hates to think of having to ask all the men to help. He hates to think of them complaining, as if it were his fault that the lambs are to be herded. Mr. Quinn’s brother can also tell that this man, the man who has made a mistake, has another job, a job in an office somewhere, and that he is playing at farming. And so Mr. Quinn’s brother despises this pretend farmer. He thinks that this man is making a joke of Mr. Quinn’s brother’s job.
I stood outside Mr. Quinn’s office. I rubbed my hands on my apron and took off my white hat. Inside Mr. Quinn’s brother was screaming at the pretend farmer. Through the door I could only see Mr. Quinn’s brother. He was leaning over the desk. He held the large desk diary in one hand. His other hand went from his cap to his glasses to the desk. Behind his glasses his eyes were opened wide. He breathed hard between sentences. There was spittle on the sides of his mouth. The sheep man’s hands came into sight from behind the door. He held them up, palms outwards. He was saying that he was sorry. Someone called Derek had told him it would be ok to leave in lambs on a Tuesday morning. Mr. Quinn’s brother said fuck Derek and what the fuck would Derek know he doesn’t fucking work here anyway. The farmer said he was sorry, and that he didn’t know this about Derek. He offered to take his lambs away. Mr. Quinn’s brother asked him how the fuck can you take them away now. He looked out of the window at the lambs in the corner of the paddock. “Fuck you,” Mr. Quinn’s brother said to the farmer. “Fuck you and your lambs.” He came around the desk with the diary still in his hand. He pushed the spine of the diary closer and closer to the farmer’s chest. “I’ll kill your fucking lambs for you. If I could, I’d kill you first.” Mr. Quinn’s brother paused. The farmer said nothing. He could not get past the door. Mr. Quinn’s brother’s left fist began to appear by his side. Mr. Quinn’s brother looked down at his own fist. He drew it back, very slowly. Then he saw me. He stopped. He looked at the farmer. He pointed at me and he said to the sheep man: “If I ever see you here again I’ll get that fucking half-wit there to cut you in two. Now fuck off.” The sheep man came out from behind the door. He was walking sideways, looking at Mr. Quinn’s brother. Then he saw me. My bloody apron and my bloody hands.
Mr. Quinn’s brother watched him go past me. Then he turned to the window to see the young farmer get into his jeep. He looked at me again and his face seemed old. His mouth moved but the words took some seconds to come out of it. “Go fucking home.”