Hunted by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
Hunted

(Dorothy Davies)


Hunted

 

A Taste of Hunter’s Meat

 

David Turnbull

 

Me and Henry were sitting on the lip of a bomb crater, tossing stones into the muddy brown water pooled in its belly. Henry was munching on a sausage roll his mum had wrapped in waxed paper.

“Want a bite?” he asked.

“What’s in it?”

Henry chuckled. “Don’t play dumb, Ron. You know exactly what’s in it. That old tart we found in that garden on Turpin Lane.”

I shook my head.

“I’ll pass.”

Henry held out the sausage roll.

“Go on. You know you want to.”

He was right. The curiosity had been nagging at me for days. A wicked little thrill buzzed through me as I closed my hand around the sausage roll. What did the meat inside it actually taste like? How would it feel to swallow it down?

I thought of the woman we’d found in the garden of the burning house, all bomb black and blistered, skirts up to her knickers. That made me hesitate. It was one thing folk buying produce from Henry’s parents’ shop. They were mostly oblivious to what they were eating. But if you knew. For example, if you knew the meat in a sausage roll came from an old tart you found in a garden in Turpin Lane. If you knew that and you still ate it. That was different. That made you a cannibal.

“Why does your old man call it hunter’s meat?” I asked.

“He reckons what we’re doing is like hunters in the old days. We’re bringing meat back to the village so the tribe can survive the winter.”

“It’s still summer.”

“I think he’s using winter as a metaphor for the war,” said Henry.

“Go on.” He’d noticed my pained procrastination. “Every hunter deserves a taste of the meat he brought home.”

Here goes nothing, I thought, squeezing my eyes shut and chomping down.

The pastry was flaky. The ‘meat’ succulent and well-seasoned. I didn’t gag as I had been worried I might. I enjoyed it so much I was taking a second bite before I even realised.

“Finish it,” said Henry. “Then we can go a get a whole one from my mum for you to eat later.”

 

***

 

That night we were out on the streets long before the all clear sounded. The sky was dark and moonless. We could still hear the drone of German bombers prowling above. There came a distant thump and roar. The ground juddered as another bomb hit the docks.

Like scavenging rats, we moved swiftly through the gloom, weaving around heaps of rubble and clambering over fallen masonry. Swirls smoke drifted about us like ghostly dancers. It made our eyes stream. We had to cover our faces with neckerchiefs to stop us from coughing up our guts.

But we were quick and proficient. We’d done this so often now we had it down to a tee. The trick was to find a corpse that wasn’t buried under too much rubble. That way we could be off with it without getting nobbled by the wardens.

The kid we came across wasn’t much older than us. Fourteen or fifteen, I’d say. He was sprawled on his back amongst the shattered glass and splintered wood of a blown-out window frame. Blood was oozing sluggishly from a big gash on his head. He hadn’t been long dead.

Blimey O’Reilly,” said Smiffy, once we’d brushed the dust from his face. “He looks the spit of Nora Wilson’s cousin.”

I leaned closer for a better look. “He is Nora Wilson’s cousin!”

Blimey O’Reilly,” said Smiffy again.

We should leave him,” said Del. “See if we can find a different one.”

Meat is meat,” insisted Henry. “Cousin or no bleedin’ cousin. Let’s get him in the wheelbarrow and scarper before we’re rumbled.”

No sooner had we gotten the wheelbarrow into the back room of Henry’s dad’s shop than the siren wailed for the all clear. We lifted the cadaver onto the slab and began to strip it naked. There was big bin where we put all the shoes and clothes so they could be donated to the Salvation Army.

Henry’s dad appeared, tying the strings around his striped butcher’s apron.

What have you got for me tonight, lads?” he asked.

Young ‘un, mister Dunn.’ I said.

He came and pinched the kid’s cold flesh between his finger and thumb.

A bit scrawny but I reckon he’ll mince up nicely.”

Henry brought him a candle and some matches. Once the candle was lit, he began burning away all the hairs on the kid’s body. The air hung heavy with the acrid reek of the singeing. It was ten time worse that the smoke we’d encountered outside.

While he was using the hot candle wax to pluck up all the residual bristles Smiffy and Del went to the outside tap and filled up a couple of buckets of soapy water. Henry’s dad fetched his bone saw. I turned to one side. By then we’d brought Henry’s dad dozens of corpses but the removal of the head was the bit that always sickened me. The sound of the saw’s teeth grinding against the neck bones gave me the chills.

Give us an ‘and, Ron,” said Henry, when the job was done.

When I turned, the kid’s severed head was already sitting upright on one of Mr Dunn’s chopping blocks. Henry popped open the mouth and I crammed it full of little silver ball bearings to give it more weight. Mr Dunn wrapped the head up in brown paper and tied it with string. Then Henry dropped it into a sack. The first chance we got we’d toss it into the canal. There had to be at least thirty heads down there by then, gathering silt amongst the rusted bicycle frames and other junk.

While all this was going on, Smiffy and Del had been washing the cadaver, cleaning away the blood and grime and stray curls of burned pubic hair, then scrubbing it thoroughly with a scouring brush. Mr Dunn took a rope and tied it around the corpse’s ankles. Then he hefted up onto the gurney to let it bleed out from the neck.

Line up, lads,” he said, standing back, hands on hips, to look at the freshly scrubbed pink body. “Time to settle up.” The four of us lined up before him. We were grinning from ear to ear as he dropped a thruppenny bit into each of our palms.

 

***

 

According to Henry it all started by a complete fluke.

One night he and his parents had been to the Empire to see the latest George Formby flick. They were walking back, chuckling about George’s antics, when up ahead this drunk old geezer got hit on the bonce from a dislodged brick which fell from a bombed-out terrace house.

Their butcher shop was nearby. So, they helped him to his feet and took him there and sat him in a chair behind the counter. Henry went to fetch him glass of water, while Mrs Dunn tended to the huge bump that was swelling up something rotten on his forehead.

Just when it seemed as if he was going to be right as rain, he lets out a groan, clutches his chest and pegs it from a heart attack right there in the chair. He slumps to left and Mr Dunn has to grab him so as to stop him collapsing onto the floor.

“Well, this is inconvenient,” complains Henry’s dad.

“Should I go find a copper?” asks Henry.

Before Henry’s dad can reply, Henry’s mum pipes up.

“We’re low on stock,” she goes. “Not many pig carcasses getting delivered to Smithfield. It would be a shame to let all this meat go to waste.”

“We couldn’t,” goes Henry’s dad.

“Who’s to stop us?” goes Henry’s mum. “Who’s to know?”

They all looked at each other and, the way Henry put it, they agreed the whole thing without actually uttering another word.

“Go fetch my bone saw,” goes Henry’s dad.

Henry fetches the bone saw.

I suppose from then on the Dunns became what could be called profiteers. The war presented them with an opportunity and they enthusiastically seized it. The rationale of rationing is what Mr Dunn started calling it. If you can supply more of something that is in short supply, then it stands to reason that you’re going to come out on top.

Word got out that you got more meat for your ration coupons at Dunn’s the Butcher. There was plenty of mince to be had. As well as liver, kidney, heart and tripe. So fresh it was almost steaming. People queued along the street.

By the time Henry had enlisted our support in retrieving cadavers, the Dunns had branched out and acquired a pie and mash shop that everyone thought would be closed for the duration. It was like Sweeny bleedin’ Todd all over again.

If the authorities had gotten wind of any of it the Dunns would have been for the hangman’s noose. The rest of us would likely have gone down for life. But Mr Dunn had taken precautions. He had the local beat bobby in his pocket. A pound of mince and a rack of ribs every Friday was enough to keep him from asking questions and poking his nose where it wasn’t welcome.

As a backup measure, Mr Dunn had also enlisted the support of our neighbourhood gangsters. I say gangsters. But they weren’t gangsters like you used to see in the Jimmy Cagney or Edward G Robinson flicks. They were just half a dozen sixteen year olds from the tenements who weren’t quite old enough to be conscripted. If the real hard men had still been around, they’d have been slapped into place pronto. But with no one to maintain that sort of pecking order, they kind of ruled the roost.

Henry said they knew exactly where his dad sourced his meat supplies and that their cut for protection was a big pot of hands and feet that Henry’s mum would boil up for them with carrots and onions, just like pig’s trotters. Henry said that they boasted that they were getting practice in for when they got called up. They said they couldn’t wait for the day they got to chop off some Nazi hands and gnaw on them for supper.

 

***

 

A couple of days after we’d found Nora Wilson’s cousin, we saw Nora stuffing her face in the pie and mash shop. “Your old ma makes delicious pies,” she said to Henry, talking over a mouth crammed with meat and pastry.

“You look like you’re enjoying it,” said Del.

“I always eat loads when I’m upset,” said Nora.

“What’s upset you?” I asked, acting all innocent.

“My cousin William ‘s been missing since the last air raid,” she said, shovelling more of the meaty pie into her mouth.

“He may be much closer than you think,” said Henry, turning and winking at us.

“It does feel like that,” sighed Nora, wiping away some gravy dribbling down her chin.

“Blimey O’Reilly,” said Smiffy. “Careful some of ‘im doesn’t spill on your blouse.”

Nora swallowed down the content of her mouth.

“What that supposed to mean?” she asked.

Smiffy blushed and gave her a panicky response. “I meant ‘it’. Don’t let some of ‘it’ spill on your blouse. The gravy. Careful none of the gravy spills on your blouse.”

“Where did you last see him?” I asked her, swiftly changing the subject.

Nora shrugged. “He came for dinner at my mum’s. We had sausages from Henry’s dad’s shop.” She mopped up the gravy on her plate with a slice of bread.  “This is so bloody good I might order a second helping.”

The way she said it reminded me of that first time I had partaken in hunter’s ‘meat’. I wondered who had been in the sausages Nora and her mum had eaten with her poor departed cousin. I wondered if the sausages were still in his system when Henry’s dad did the butchering of his headless corpse.