By: Jessica E. Wragg
I can see the airs of my own breath as it spirals upwards, past my nose and in front of my face, towards the white plastic ceiling. I have never really, looked up before. In fact, to me the chill room, twenty feet by twenty feet, has no ceiling at all, but opens upwards towards the sky where the meat hangs down and the clouds sail past like twigs caught in a stream. But the ceiling is pristine; glossy white. The rails that spent their time hanging from wall to wall are five inches below it, and except for the odd stray trotter, nothing has touched the above. The opaque cream fat on the rumps of beef have started to peel away as they dry, crumbling to reveal a layer of purple meat below. As the generator whirrs thoughtlessly in the background I think of being younger; PVA glue on my fingers. Sticking drawings of bones and skulls and hearts and lungs in bright greens and blues to a board in my room, the glue would cover my fingers. I spent hours picking the dried glue off my shiny, white skin in long, thin strands, until all that was left was that beneath my nails that I couldn’t quite reach. It would stay there for days sometimes, until the cycle repeated itself and the new glue peeled off the old.
I’ve found that it is much easier for vegetarians to explain why they don’t eat meat than it is for you and me to explain why we do. A vegan companion once asked me if it mattered to me if these things used to be animals. Well yes, of course it matters, but the point is that they’re not anymore. They are upside down carcasses, loins hung from railings on thick metal hooks, headless and featherless chickens in boxes, stacked to my right and ready to be de-boned. I had discovered, a few years ago, that pushing down on the back of a chicken sent a squeaking noise out through its cavity. I would press my palm into the backbone, squealing with delight at the sound until its bones gave in and the back snapped. Then, with a swift move of the knife the breasts and the legs would be removed, and the hollow yellow carcass tossed into the top of a large blue bin.
The meat fridge is an odd place to find sanctuary. Loins of beef hang in rows like soldiers, burgundy and black, dry and mouldy. There are always appreciative coos and aahs when they see a girl with a loin of beef on her shoulder, her fingers wrapped around the bones for grip. I heard a remark once that this wasn’t a job for a woman. I kept it with me ever since, strived to be better, showed off my knowledge, used my knife as an extension of my arm, lifted things that I knew I couldn’t, did things that I did not know how.
In the summer, we came inside to cool off, put our hot faces against cry-vacked bags of chicken leg and pork schnitzel. In the past winters, we came in the previous sentence you use ‘come’ inside to warm up.
At seven years old, my grandfather gave to me a book on human anatomy. I spent hours studying our bodies through colourful and childish illustrations, tracing them, cutting them out, learning everything by name. It is the same child that obsesses over this room.
I feel more alive here than I have ever felt. Surrounded by dead things, parts of things; ribs, legs, spines, shoulders, necks. It is here that I find myself looking at everything, ignoring nothing. Legs of pork, some salted, some not, are stacked on the shelving unit behind the deafening generator. The grey blush of their meat is pale in comparison to others, with soft lines of muscle hidden beneath thick and fatty skin. A bone, marrow exposed, in the centre of it all like earth in the universe; in a fleshy, delicate system.
Beef, when dried, grows a heavy green mould on the outside and the meat blackens. This is called ageing, and as the osmosis begins and the water from the fresh meat evaporates, the proteins break down and the meat darkens. This increases the tenderness and flavour, and the fat yellows like old teeth. There is beauty to be found in it, the grass having done its job; beauty to be found also in the maroon of lamb meat, of finding ribs that will allow the scraping of the meat away easily. I find myself appreciating skin, and the silver membranes between muscles that glint in the spotlights of the butchery, and hearts, livers, kidneys which were plucked from the body of a living thing. I suppose to find beauty in raw meat is to find beauty in the body, in the creation of it all.
And then, there are the parts that disgust me, that tighten my throat and twist my stomach – the grey tongues of oxen, pickled and left wrapped in their juices in plastic crates. They are thick set and stubborn to move, made of all muscle but cold and wet and rough. Uncovered by parting the tissues with a sharp knife; broken bones and bruised hind legs of cattle and lambs, swollen beneath the fat of the meat from a boot or a kick or a stomp.
Moving past the boxes of chicken, pushing aside a piglet hanging limp from a hook, I take a sharp knife to the pig hanging upside down from the ceiling, ribs exposed, kidneys attached. It has been cut clean down the middle, with the head removed, and still might be taller than I am when stretched out. On the fourth bone from the shoulder, holding my knife in a fist, I cut through the soft cartilage that connects the spinal column, separating the loin and the belly. With a great heave, I lift it onto my shoulder and grip the ribs for support. My fingers sink into the cold, wet muscle, and I begin my way up the stairs to the real world. My breath is faster now, spiralling upwards in clouds towards the ceiling, upwards towards the sky.
Jessica E. Wragg is a fiction writer studying her MA in Creative Writing. A butcher since the age of 16, she’s now 23, and divides her time between dedicating stories to people, advising London on how to cook their steak and searching for the best gin and tonic in the city. Currently it’s at Maltby Street market. Subject to change.