(from “For Laika”)
By the time I arrived, the rain had eased a little. The smell of hot meals mingled with the scent of animal and vegetable matter that had died long ago. But that mixture was the aroma of possibility. So much closer to eating than in the dank shadows of an office building or the dry waste of a dormant factory.
At the other end of the alley, a pair of sturdy boots extended up into a porter peeling potatoes. I would need to find something before those hard scuffed toes were aimed towards me. There were three doors between us. One was wedged open with a juicy bin half full of lunchtime spoils.
I knew dexterous retrieval was my only chance – any noise would have me herded back into the open streets. With the accompanying violence.
An accurate assessment of the contents was the only way to come away with anything of value – these visits couldn’t be wasted on a snout smeared with soup or cabbage. So I paced silently closer and sniffed carefully as I examined the bin’s appetising stuffing. I was sure that I could see a bone under a half eaten pancake so I decided that that would be my target.
As soon my extraction created any noise, I would be in danger so I focused on my goal. And made my move. My final slow step allowed me to reach the bin and I didn’t wait around to plan a detailed operation. With paws on the rim, I bit down through the pancake and grabbed whatever was beneath between eager teeth. The Potato One turned at the sound and shouted.
I was gone before he could stand.
I was far away before a cook could come out and slam the door.
I ran over slippery pavement as if it was a meadow of dancing dandelions, my toes barely touching the surface whose every groove and mound I knew so well. And when I was far enough, I took my treasure into a sheltered alcove to feed my groaning guts.
But it was not the calf’s foot I’d been hoping for. Not even some discarded remnants of a pig – any part – or a minced meat dumpling. It was an uncooked pirozhok, hard and old. Discarded as not even fit to boil – beyond resurrection. But it was all I had. So in a few seconds, it was gone. I didn’t taste the contents because my mouth was not where it was needed. I gulped it down so that my yearning stomach would have something to appease it. And then, after a breath, I turned back into the damp afternoon to see what I could find before the evening people added yet another obstacle to my exertions.
In the true dark of night, I eventually found something more to eat. It had been countless miles around the usual places and many layers of noise and voices between my pirozhok and the scraps of liver I devoured openly in the empty street. They were tired and dry but, in my mouth they were delicacies – fresh and juicy. And to dine in the peace of that deep, vacant part of night where there were no intrusions, no battles, no jostling or shunning made the few moments that it took to relegate the morsels to my gut all the sweeter. I could not savour them. Even then – in that silent void. They were too paltry and I was too ravenous. Hunger or impending intervention – or both – made eating and urgency constant partners in my daily existence. And hunger this time accelerated the meagre meal. But still I relished those few seconds, if such a thing is possible. And as an episode in a running, dodging, waiting and hiding existence, it was just possible. When I finished, my next mission began immediately. I had prowled the city streets long enough to know that if I was lucky, I would find some uneaten vegetables or dough trimmings before the sun came up.
But that was not what I found.
Or what found me.
The last part of the quiet of the night brought something that I could never have anticipated.
Something beyond my world.
Perhaps I would have stopped to let those morsels of liver linger on my tongue if I had known what was to come.
Julia took a cursory look through the window of the train. She’d made the journey many times before so there was nothing fresh in the landscape on the other side to capture her attention. The narrow London back gardens draped with laundry or blinking in the shadows of wintry neglect soon changed to wider open spaces and the cramped puzzle pieces of the city were replaced by blankets of countryside laced with dark bare trees. But Julia had seen it all before through summers and springs as well as in the times that the leaves blazed with defiant colour. There was nothing new to bring her gaze to focus on the quiet life passing by her window.
Things were no different when she arrived at Cobham and Stoke d’Abernon station. The railway buildings and surrounds were just as they had been when she had been seven and treated to a trip to Guildford with her mother; when she had been thirteen and sent to stay with relatives for the long, silent summer. When she had visited Douglas at university.
As she walked along the roads and lanes towards her house – her father’s house – she thought that that was comforting. If the place where she’d grown up had changed, she wondered, would her memories become vapours? Just pictures in her mind not anchored to the real world anymore?
Her father was home for lunch.
“I didn’t think you’d be here ‘till this evening!”
“Daddy, I told you. The 12:52. Douglas’ll be here later but he’ll stop in to his mother’s on the way.”
“Have you eaten? Here …” He pushed his plate of stew towards her. “I should have met you at the station …”
“No, Dad. It’s fine. I like the walk. …That’s yours. I had a sandwich on the train.”
“Mrs Tapstock made enough for last night and lunch today. But, to be honest, I can’t face it again,” her father shrugged. “I mean, it’s fine. But it’s just not …”
Julia smiled and hung up her coat and scarf on the pegs by the kitchen door. “What do you want then, you fussy old thing?” She grinned cheekily at her father’s boyish sulk.
“Oh, I don’t know … just an omelette perhaps? With cheese? And a little bit of ham? … A slice of toast?”
“Stop! Stop! You’ll be wanting a roast leg of lamb and some shepherd’s pie if I don’t stop you talking!”
Her father laughed.
Julia made her way around the kitchen with easy familiarity. She’d prepared enough omelettes there since she was twelve to be able to put another one together in her sleep.
“I’ve missed these,” her father said when she placed the crispy concoction in front of him.
Julia juggled the hot toast over to his plate and slid the butter closer. “I’m surprised you ever want to eat one after I almost drowned you in them before Mrs Tapstock started. It was the only thing I could make.”
Her father reached across and patted his daughter’s hand. “I ate them then and I didn’t even feel like eating. … You did well then.” He raised his voice back into the present, “So just watch me scoff it now that I’m hungry as a horse.”
By the time Douglas arrived, it was dark and Julia was washing up the supper dishes.
He slumped at the kitchen table, managing a grin for his father-in-law. “And before you ask, Julia, yes I did feed Cal and yes I left the food where Mrs Benton could easily find it.”
“Good,” said Julia, cutting some bread and cheese, “we’d certainly hear if he’d been crying all weekend.”
Douglas looked up with a tired smile. “He’s a dog. He whines. He doesn’t cry.”
Julia laid a plate of ham on the table and rested her hand on husband’s shoulder. “He could cry,” she muttered softly, abruptly adding with greater volume and clarity, “how’s your mother?”
“Fine … busy … she’s organising all the scenery and costumes for the nativity … some sewing and building thing next week to get it all done.”
“Ah, yes,” Julia’s father nodded. “Great community spirit, your mother. Always putting her skills to good use.”
Douglas breathed a heavy, tired breath. “Mm. … I think I might just head to bed. It’s been a long day.” He stood up from the table and kissed his wife’s cheek as he passed her.
Julia caught her father’s querying look as her husband’s footsteps made their way upstairs to her old bedroom “It’s good,” she reassured. “He’s got lots more tutoring work than last term and his research is going well. I think. … He just gets tired. ‘Specially at the end of the week.”
“Like his mother, I suppose. Putting his heart and soul into something. … He was a serious lad when I first met him and he’s the same today.” He stood up with finality. “Worse ways to be, though.” He looked pointedly at his daughter. “You’re happy, though? Being married …”
Julia smiled at her father. “I’m fine, Daddy. Everything’s fine. Don’t worry about me.”
They had something that smelled exceptional. Some real meat. Not just bones or an uneaten mouthful but a meal – a fresh meal such as I had never seen. It filled me before I could even bite it. It was all I could see. It was the only thing to me. I was moving towards it before I could think – no choice, no decision, just meat … and the deep, dark hunger I lived to ignore.
And then things went sideways. I was within walls. Under a low roof. The meat had disappeared before I could even hold its smell in my widened nostrils. And I was with others. Loper was there and Teeth. And three more I’d never seen. Teeth was already causing trouble. There was some blood – but that was to be expected. None of us were used to that small place. And the rumbling and rattling that made us fall and slide.
I could see how I was feeling in Loper’s eyes. This wasn’t where we should be. We needed to find our damp streets and rotting piles of rubbish. We needed places to run and places to hide. I called to the Meat Ones to let us go but nothing changed. We growled and jolted on.
Then the Rattler stopped and we jumped free.
But not free.
The space was bright and white and foreign. And still no sky. And people had dry feet and low, even voices. They didn’t pace past us but watched and talked and considered as if we were the contents of a lunchtime bin. After a while, the Clean Ones pointed and the Meat Ones put some back into the Rattler – all but for Loper and me and the small white.
And then we three had our meat.
More meat than we had eaten in our lives. More meat than in our dreams and all the dreams that we could ever have.
At first I thought they would take it away as the Meat Ones had, but Loper began to eat and so did I. And I felt a thickness in my gut that I had never felt. I felt sick and heavy and the saliva drowned my mouth and I was food. Only food. Meat and stomach and food.
And then there was water. Fresh and deep to swim the meat through me. I drunk and ate and ate.
And when there was almost nothing left, one touched my head and said “Little Curly” and there was warmth in that. And I didn’t know how that could be.