Chop Chop By Antony Reid
Somewhere in the valleys, there is a butcher’s shop window with no meat in it. The bright light is on and the butcher stands at his chopping board, one hand on his cleaver and the other over his heart. Snow pats against the window emblazoned with his name.
Everyone will know of his failure.
He lifts his head and checks the clock next to the bright blue insect-o-cutor. Only another hour until opening time and still nothing chopped. He wonders whether he has been changed forever by the dream. His shaky hand lays down the cleaver and the kettle boils in the back room.
Good strong cuppa usually sorts things out. No problem too great that tea can’t solve it.
He doesn’t believe the voices blustering through his memory. They are just leaves, most of them dead. He knows that. Platitudes. Empty maxims to gloss over the horror of existence. Water off a duck’s back, all that, lad. Ye’ll worry yeself into early grave. Chop-chop. That meat won’t butcher itself.
The butcher dries his eyes, pours the kettle’s contents into his battered mug and watches the wounded tea bag leak brown blood into the water. He is reluctant to prod it further with the stained teaspoon for fear that it will cry out.
He wonders what is wrong with him. Maybe the dream was some kind of nervous breakdown? Why is he still so terrified? Grown men don’t react this way to nightmares.
He doesn’t want to think about the one thing he remembers from the dream. An abyss so horrible that it makes his brain recoil from the mere thought.
Milk goes in the tea, sugar after that and he clunks the spoon round the chipped and cracked porcelain like a robot.
And he definitely doesn’t want to look in the fridge.
He tries opening the heavy steel door, but his muscles are still cold and immobile, like the greasy metal latch.
He tried. He really did.
Outside, the snow gathers on the cobbled street, drifting against the doorway of the charity shop on the other side. The streetlight fades to red in anticipation of the sunrise, warning the butcher of the countdown to opening time. It would be the first time in thirty years he would have opened without meat displayed in the window. How they would talk about him. They snort at the empty display and the tears running down his face. Their mockery of his unbloodied cleaver is ruthless. He clutches his heart and this only inflames their hysterics.
The old red telephone rings and he drops his cleaver to the disinfected tiles with a clatter. Adrenaline clenches his jaw shut and fries his brain with misfiring neurons. There is no fight with or flight from this, though. He knows who it is and what he wants to say. He’s heard it all his life, even after his father died and he had to take over the shop. Every day for thirty years, from five in the morning until five in the afternoon, bouncing around the tiny rooms and dead fridges like echoes in a white and stainless steel canyon.
The racks are empty; the hooks, pristine and upturned, glinting in the fluorescent light from the tubes above. Everything was so still before the phone rang. Not a zap from the insect-o-cutor all morning. The butcher picks up his cleaver and wanders back to the shop’s window display to escape the brittle alarm of his father’s Bakelite phone. Damn thing’s so well made that he never had any need to replace it. Customers seem to like it, too.
Right now, he’s on the verge of putting his cleaver straight through it. At least it wouldn’t spatter like meat. Maybe for once, he could go home clean, instead of dyed pink with the remains of dead animals. Tainted with the stink of death. Consumption. Human decadence and hubris.
The smell never washes off, either. He used scalding water and coal tar soap when he was a kid, but the girls at school told him he smelled like a hogroast on a bonfire. When he hit eighteen, he gave up trying. The smell and pink taint even leaked into his dreams, leaving no corner of his being untouched.
He lifts his cleaver above his head and the phone stops. He lowers it again and looks through the window to see if anyone saw. Hearing footsteps, he opens the door, chiming the bell. There’s no-one in the high street. The light has fizzled out altogether now and snow is thick on the pavement. He closes the door with a shudder and rubs his thick arms through the clean white cotton of his shirt.
In the meatless window, the tiny plastic decorations on the empty windows resemble hedgerows around an evacuated settlement. He knows all too well what happened to the villagers.They were imprisoned. Used for meat.
Maybe that’s all he has ever been: meat chopping meat, partaking of a self-perpetuating system of sacrifice and cruelty. The pain in his chest grows sharper and his vision blurs. He looks at the perfect edge of his cleaver and wonders what they’ll use on him when he’s dead. Perhaps he could write a note and pin it to his chest.
USE THE CLEAVER. NO SCALPEL.
Would a coroner honour such a request? Do those aggrandised butchers have any honour?
He scans the plastic hedgerows for any surviving villagers, but none show up. They are all dead. Probably eaten by the pigs looming in the forest. As they lean against the plastic trees, they laugh and lick their bloody lips, lighting up cigarettes in the morning mist.
Somewhere in the valleys, a butcher’s window still has no meat in it for the first time in thirty years. And the butcher is not well. He leans against his spotless chopping board and sweats on to the cold steel, each drop almost hot enough to sizzle. These circumstances are unprecedented in this tiny, cobbled corner of the world. Reality itself threatens to tear asunder with each passing second.
In the back room, the Bakelite telephone rings again. He knows he has no choice. If there is to be meat in the window by opening time, he must answer it. If he is to see out the day, he must answer it. Must be a man. Man of the house now. Chop-chop.
The butcher storms to the back room and hovers his hand over the receiver. He picks it up, listens for a moment and slams it back down before scrambling to the fridge.
Somewhere, deep in the valleys, a sick butcher is wrenching at his own fridge with all his might. In the still, cold morning, the empty street reverberates his desperate struggle, but there is no-one to help him. An anguished scream drifts up the road to the church and its overcrowded graveyard, but it falls silently to the cobbles and tombstones with the snow, unheard. Silence cradles the street in its soft hands once more.
The butcher sits on the floor of his back room, his sweaty and bedraggled head hung between his knees. He is turned away from the open fridge, where his dream had become reality. No meat to chop. He knows that he did this. And now he can’t forgive himself.
The cleaver sings its song of reliable, razor sharp steel from the chopping board. The butcher listens closely to every word. The song is sung in a language like none he has ever heard, but he understands the meaning through the melody. It means something sad. Something he won’t be able to take back. Something deeply violent. Against himself. Against God.
Five minutes to opening time. The butcher rests his upturned arm against the board like a side of lamb, exposing the white, delicate skin covering his veins. He raises the cleaver above his head and clenches his teeth. It’s something he won’t be able to take back. And it’s the only thing that’s going to put meat in the fridge. Food on the table. Sacrifice. An honest day’s work. Just give ‘em what they want. Take the money. Job done. Ye can go home and sleep well. Chop-chop.
He’s about to chop when he hears a strange noise above his father’s voice: a snuffling sound, like a creature seeking out food. It’s coming from outside, right by the door. Shadows crowd the window, their thick, pink snouts – some moustachioed, some painted with lipstick – smearing against the glass. One of them scrapes at the pane with a trotter. Dressed in scarves and overcoats, they appear quite ludicrous. The butcher can’t help snickering to himself as he hides the cleaver in his apron and flips the sign on the door from CLOSED to OPEN. Gripping the riveted wood of the cleaver’s handle in one hand and unlatching the door with the other, the butcher knows what he must do to fill his window.
Somewhere in the valleys, something dreadful is happening.