Ellie is not squeamish. No, she loves meat, and more than that, she loves the sheer theatre of this shop. She pushes open the door, the brass handle cold in her ungloved hand, and sniffs the familiar sawdust and freshly slaughtered meat, feels the extra chill on her skin. She greets Valerie, in her cubbyhole by the door. All day Valerie reaches out through the hole in her window for the customers’ handwritten bills, her scrubbed hands indifferent to the paper’s lacy decoration of bloody finger prints. She rarely smiles, but she raises a hand when Ellie walks past the cubbyhole onto the white tiled shop floor.
A pair of fifty-foot white marble counters run parallel away from her, one down each side of the vast shop floor. Behind them gleam white tiled walls, with - every twenty tiles or so - a decorated tile, a bull’s head, or a stout pig, outlined in blue. The counters’ curved glass fronts blaze under the rows of lights on the ceiling. Behind them stand the ranks of white-coated butchers, like a chorus wielding knives, choppers, string and pencils. They are all constantly in movement, raising an arm to chop through a bone, slicing through the soft flesh of a piece of flank, rolling a medallion of veal, gutting and trussing a chicken. They are engrossed in their roles, and she passes un-noticed between them.
Every Saturday at ten o’clock – just in time for the morning rush - she passes between the counters at the far end of the shop, and enters the back stage, the butchery where customers may not go. Butchers guard their secrets, and were the customers to see the layers of fat and gristle fringing the dumb waiter bringing their pies down from the ovens upstairs, or Ellie shoving her way through curtains of hanging carcasses, or Jen the sausage maker, fag in mouth, stamping the meat into the machine, perhaps they would not come from so far afield.
She is fourteen, though, and unbothered. She climbs the narrow stair beside the dumb waiter and sidles past the long pork pies, stacked like bullion, their treasure the golden yolks of the eggs buried inside, and goes into the tiny staff room. She opens the cupboard in the corner and rifles through the butchers’ coats hung on hooks within, looking for one that is not too big – she is still slight, and the butchers dwarf her – and not too blood-stained. It is a mystery to her when the coats are washed, all she knows is that she has never yet worn a clean one.
Apron on, she makes a cup of tea and sits by the window, looking out onto the high street below, watching to see if anyone she knows goes by. It’s hard to recognise people from the tops of their heads: partings, ears and hats look quite unfamiliar from up here.
At ten thirty, she heads back downstairs, passing a threesome of butchers on their way up for their break, and she’s on.
She is the lowest of the low here, below even the skinny, pale apprentice, yet to acquire his butcher’s muscles and ruddy cheeks. But she has an important job, and she thinks she is good at it. All day she will lug metal crates of sausages into the shop, back and arms screeching with the weight of a hundred pounds of meat. By afternoon, when the butchers have gone, sausages are all that Field’s sells, apart from the pies and cooked meats. And those sausages draw people all the way from London, or so they tell her when she calls out,
‘Can I help you Madam?’
‘Ten pounds of best chipolatas? Coming right up. Will there be anything else, Sir?’ raising her eyebrows high and smiling wide. She is good, and she knows it. By three o’clock, when it’s just her and Neil, the cooked meat man, she can see the customers hoping that she’ll be the one to serve them. They want to be part of the show.
They all play the game, asking her advice. ‘Tell me young lady, which pie do you recommend for my dinner tonight?’, asks a ruddy-faced man with moustaches. Or they whisper: ‘Just one thin slice of tongue, please, dear,’ and she replies in kind, matching her voice to theirs, leaning forward and showing the slice with a quiet smile to the old lady with the net bag who comes in at the same time every week, and asks without fail for that single slice.
In her first couple of weeks, Neil guarded the cooked meat slicing machine closely, but eventually he conceded its whirring blade and vicious spikes to her amid mutterings and unhelpful warnings, and from then on it was hers. And here was a new joy, the shing of the blade as it cut through the ham, back and forth, cutting leaves of beef and pork, turkey and tongue. Shing, shing, shing, slice after slice falls neatly onto the paper she holds beneath the blade. And best of all, her treat, a tiny crescent of tongue peeled away from the edge of the slice, deep crimson, speckled flesh, salty and soft on her own tongue as she slips it in unnoticed.
She has been working at Field’s for three months now, and she loves every minute of her day on the shop floor. The staff room, and her lunch break, is another matter though. She’s on the early break, sharing it with a scrum of butchers, Valerie, and the two young women from accounts and wholesale. She has no idea what they are talking about. She sits there – by the window if she can – hearing the familiar words, but mystified by the lives of these people who talk in code, ‘She never?’, ‘You mean, she …?’, ‘Bloody man, shafted me right and proper, he did, so I, well, you know …’. She can’t get a grip on their words, somehow.
Once she took a book in, but with the noise of the chatter she couldn’t concentrate, and anyway it felt wrong reading a paperback alone alongside the others’ sharing of their Woman’s Weeklies and Cosmopolitans. Each week, then, she sits listening to the gossip about people she’s never met and watches the world walk by outside the window.
So she is glad of the excuse today to grab her bag, heavy with her mother’s library books, and to run up the hill through the downpour, soaking her shoes in the puddles, bag banging on her hip, through the crowds of shoppers surging in and out of shop doors in their endless search for something, anything.
At the door of the library, she slows and in the moment that she pushes open the door, she leaves the people and the shops behind and steps into dry silence.
The noise and hustle and voices stop, and for the first time in her day, Ellie stands still.
She joins the queue at the returns desk of the library – she cannot go in until she has passed through this wood-panelled gateway. She looks at the woman in front of her, at the rain that has settled on the plastic scarf tied tight, squashing her white permed hair. She observes the woman’s grey wool coat, gloves stuffed into the pockets where they stretch over her hips. Her legs are twisted and bowed like the legs on a Victorian chest of drawers. She watches as the woman hands over a pile of romances, ‘The Miller’s Daughter’, ‘A Twist of Fate’, ‘Love Came Softly’, in return for a clutch of cardboard library cards.
All this is done in silence.
Everyone moves slowly and with deliberation.
No one looks anyone in the eye.
The only sounds are the slide of the books as the librarian opens them, the riffle of the cards, and the chunk as the colleague behind her stamps books for release. Slide, riffle, chunk. Slide, riffle, chunk.
Now it’s Ellie’s turn and she leans on the wooden counter as the librarian places her mother’s books on the desk in front of her. The librarian runs her fingers over the narrow wooden boxes of cards till she finds her mother’s, pulls out the tickets and inserts them in the fronts of the books. She hands Ellie the cards. She says nothing, but smiles faintly as Ellie takes the cards and enters the library.
Rows of strip lights hang from the high ceilings, in room after room. There are windows but they are set above her head and vertical blinds allow in only a faint light from outside. Ellie wonders which way to go – is she allowed in all these rooms? She heads straight on, passing between ranks of shelves. Their labels flicker in the corner of her eye as she goes: 621 Applied Physics; 622 Mining and related occupations; 623 Military and nautical engineering; 624 Civil engineering; 625 Engineering of railroads, roads.
She turns away from such solidity and into a long room where there are chairs. Here the labels are simple: A covers a whole block of shelves, and B does too, leaping onto a new block, where half way along, C begins. She turns round and behind her there are X,Y and Z, filling a single shelf between them. A whole room of faded spines, of unlabelled mystery. This must be fiction. She grabs a book from B and heads for a chair. She’s been on her feet all morning and really needs to sit down or she’ll never survive the afternoon and all those trays of sausages.
The cover of the book gives nothing away – black lines, a triangle, the words ‘Concrete Island’. She picked it completely at random – how do you know which to read among all these rows and rows of spines? How can you tell if it will taste of beef or tongue? If it will fill the hole you have today? The paper is thick under her fingers, and its grey, cut edges have the faint stickiness of a much-read book
She begins to read: ‘Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.’ And she is there in Robert’s car as it smashes through the crash barrier and comes to rest on a traffic island between three motorways, hidden from all potential rescuers. She keeps reading.
Outside, a car horn sounds. A bus’s brakes hiss. The rain splatters on the windows.
The old woman with the legs appears from behind a shelf, pulling her shopping trolley. She walks along to the end, and she too sits down, three books on her lap. She opens one and begins to read, but within minutes she is asleep.
A couple appear, with a baby in its pram. They talk urgently in hushed voices for a minute, and the man leaves, looking at his watch.
Behind her, a young woman takes book after book from the shelf, replacing them with a soft but solid thunk after reading the first page of each. It’s so quiet in here that Ellie can hear the glide of each book’s plastic cover being pushed back into place. The young woman moves quickly along the shelves, her shoes almost silent on the carpet. When she reaches the end of the shelf, she continues her search on the other side, and all Ellie can see of her are her purple Adidas trainers and the hems of her jeans, moving steadily away.
Ellie looks along the rows of shelves and sees pairs and pairs of feet below them, the only sign that the library is full of people.
Ellie has never before realised quite how huge the library is. It’s full of space. The books are crammed into their shelves, but between each shelf there is emptiness, filled with thin fluorescent light and the dry smell of much fingered paper. The stories are well contained within the tight-packed covers as though they might arc across the spaces, from book to book, were they left open, let loose for a minute.
There are other people reading and she looks closely at their faces. The young man in the corner, the middle-aged woman along the aisle from her, their faces give nothing away of the stories in the books they read. Centre-stage here is inside the books, inside the readers’ heads. They are in other worlds. The people outside have no idea of the dramas unfolding here in the dry empty space of the library.
She is suddenly starving.
She cannot eat here, so she puts the book from B in her bag and walks out of the room.
As an afterthought, she walks back to the table where she sat. She pulls out her lunchbox, takes out the orange her mother gave her this morning, and places it in the centre of the table.
It is the only rounded shape, the only living thing, in that room of lines – and it seems to glow in its bleached light cage of books, shelves, and strip lights.
The shop is busy that afternoon, the cold weather sending people out late to buy the comfort of sausages for their Saturday suppers. The old lady with the net bag comes in, and Ellie shows her the thin slice of tongue, the thinnest she can cut, almost translucent as it lies on the paper on her outstretched hand.
‘I’ll just put that in a bag for you,’ she says, and she reaches below the counter. She opens the book she took from the Bs, her meat-sticky fingers feeling for the first page and releasing a faint dry tang from the paper. She holds it taut. From the counter-top she takes the pie knife and pushes it in towards the spine. With a flick of her wrist, she twists the blade, and runs it down the inside of the page, careful not to pinch or tear the paper. She pulls the neatly filleted page from the book, slides it in beside the slice of tongue and hands the bag to the old lady.
The second page goes to a bustling plump woman in a hand-crocheted hat, along with two steak and kidney pies.
She gives the third and fourth to a family of four, wrapping them round their pound-and-a-half of sausages. They move off to pay. She looks up at the queue, smiles widely, and sings out,
‘Who’s next please?’
Quote from Concrete Island, by JG Ballard.
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