The butcher’s shop was broad and clean on the High Street. It was fun to go there as a child. I loved to see the meat laid out in banks and patterns like the start of a board-game, and like every shop I knew back then, the butcher’s had a smell of its own; crisp and familiar as the bell above the door.

It made sense to find scents of bread in the bakery. The grocer’s reeked of cabbage and soil, but the butcher’s smelled only of butcher. I rarely paused to wonder where that smell came from, but I knew it wasn’t meat. The butcher smell hummed in the air like an electric flytrap; a whined reminder of something else.

My mother would ask for chops and rolled shoulder, and I’d smile at the men and goggle at the wads of square sausage and sliced haggis laid out for display. One of the butchers slipped me a twenty pence piece from the till one morning. He was a small man and always smiling, and he kept an orgy of naked women on his forearms, bleached and blue as if they’d been drawn on cheap paper. He loved to run his dogs, and it was reckoned that most of the hares in that shop window had come from farms around the town. I wonder now if he ever had the pleasure of selling them back to the farmers he’d robbed, and I think he was the kind of man that would’ve been tickled by that. Years later, I heard that he drank one night and rolled his car on ice above Colvend. And that was the end of him; a graceful glide into the root of a roadside tree.

I saw my first cow killed on Saturday. Down she went, and then a stench so powerfully familiar that I reeled away from it. Because here is the butcher’s smell traced back to source; not meat, but a moment written in scent so rich and wild that it could wake you in the night, like peat smoke or the shock of broken stone. It’s ox-blood and fresh death; a sticky baste of joint fluid and eyes drying; not meat, but killing as it always has been. And I can forgive myself for failing to recognise that smell because cows are one of two things to a child – alive or beef. It’s hard to imagine a space between those states, but believe me when I say there is a third way in the lolling, unstrung tongue which is neither living nor cold as the clots begin to wobble.

Feeling curious in the aftermath of that killing, I leaned headfirst into the drum where her lungs had hung. I drew that butcher’s smell into my nose and exploded at the recollection of blue tattoos and the heavy gold chain around his neck; and his Rangers hat which he wore to work in the coldstore where steam rose from his breath like hot liver and the bunchy clumps of kidney fat all strapped in slatted ribs like the staves of a busted barrel. Having seen what can happen when you fall to your knees, I fought to stay upright.

I went back to explore the carcass on Sunday, but the smell had gone. The body was steady and stiff with the cool, sober odour of beef; something you might serve to guests or children. But the recollection of an old scent can fairly set you going. And I have my hands full, packing and slicing joints into bags and wraps of paper. There is no time for me dwell upon the memory of a man who has been dead for two decades. But he swarms around me, and I can’t remember his name.

One thought on “Beef

  1. Christopher Land

    Yes it is odd how the memory works, i remember my grandma’s having this strange homely ( to me) smell that i found nowhere else. A smell i associated with her and the house, until after she died and my father bought the house and the smell was no longer there. I remember asking about it and was told it was from the broth that she made for the dogs on the range. I loved the smell and have never smelt it since, it has become part of my youth, gone forever. It is 45 years since she died but that smell is one of the strongest memories i have of her.

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