September 2019

Back to Issue 6

The Butcher’s Hook

By Mark Mulholland

It is the writer’s function to step back and survey the way of it, and the self within it, without the delusion that the writer is in any form distinct from it. Then can the meaningful be made. That is the labour. That’s what I believe. And that’s what I admitted. It didn’t work out.

            ‘To see the world differently,’ I began that day. And I paused there. ‘What do you think of that as an opening?’ I asked, releasing the ambition.

             There was no response.

             ‘Somehow clearly and completely,’ I continued, ‘weighing from distance and applying some measure that cuts through the crap, is not the common view. To watch the show from some remove and see players play. To stand back. To not fall in. To not follow the flock.’

              And I paused again and looked to her, and again there was no response.

              ‘But the common view is not the writer’s view. And it cannot be learned or created or transplanted or adopted, and it can be a heavy fleece to wear. But, anyroad, you either have it or you don’t. I have it. I may be nought, but I am, nonetheless, a writer.’

            ‘Yes,’ Mylass said. ‘You are nought. What do you know about anything?’

            ‘Who knows anything about anything, until it is given a go?’ I answered.

            ‘No use going getting your silly self worked up with tomfoolery and arty talk,’ she said. ‘A writer, is it? And what do you know about writing?’

            ‘Maybe I should cut the crap?’ I said. ‘It’s too . . . I’m not sure what. It draws too much attention. Better to use another word. How about nonsense or fog? Or noise? Noise could work. Yes, I’ll go for noise. Hey, that’s funny. Cut the crap, get it?’

            She didn’t.

            ‘And it may be too long a pitch,’ I continued, ‘rugged, choppy, clunky, and too long a gap between the lead and the punch. Still, it does carry something. It works. Do you agree?’

            She didn’t.

            ‘Anyroad,’ I went on, unable to stop, ‘who knows what’s out there? To go would be an adventure and a chance to see what others do, and how they do it. It would be a chance to learn and grow. It would be a chance to make it on my own, to craft my own way, to make my mark.’

            ‘And you’d throw this away for that? To make your own mark. Nobody cares about your mark.’

            ‘I have to try. If I don’t try, I’ll never know. I’ll only know that I wasn’t brave enough to leave the fenced field.’

            ‘Brave?’ she said. ‘There’s no bravery in tomfoolery. Don’t be giving yourself fancy notions and credit. The whole thing is selfish nonsense.’

            ‘You won’t come then?’

            ‘I wish to the Great Golden Grass Grower that you never found books. I wish to the Great Golden Grass Grower that you never did learn to read. It was reading that put these fancy notions into your head. We are not meant to read. And, certainly, we are not meant to write. Before the reading, the fenced field was good enough. Well, it will come to nothing. You mark my words, Curly Longcoat, it will come to nothing but the butcher’s hook.’

            I looked away. I had to. And once more I looked out past the rails, out past the security of the fenced field, out to adventure and possibility.

           ‘It’s the walking with and through and away,’ I said, ‘of gathering and giving measure to the whole, knowing the writer is part of. Then taking aim. That is the work. To view it sub specie aeternitatis as it were.’

            ‘Oh Great Golden Grass Grower above,’ she said with a look of horror, spooned through a thick syrup of disgust, rising in her once lovely face. ‘Just listen to yourself. Sub specie what? Total buffoonery. I’d get more sense from a mange mite. You’re just . . . .’ And she searched for some appropriate award. ‘You’re just an embarrassment.’

            And later the ewes gathered on the western rise of the fenced field and I could hear their laughter. So I knew I had to get out, that I had to make distance, that I had to get the wider view, and that I had to write it down.

            How did it begin? Well, it began in the normal way. I was born in a field, four spindly legs, a little tail, a cute face, so they say, a fluffy white coat with unusual curly long threads, but no different to any lamb a two-legged has ever seen or eaten. I never knew my dad. None of us did. But that was normal so no one thought about it. Well, I did. Mammy said I was a pretty boy, that I could make the county show, and maybe the national. And for a time I ran around the field like the other little sheep and drank Mammy’s warm milk. Life was good and I moved on to the eating of grass, but after a few months I was taken away, all us young ones were. We were loaded into a high truck with wooden walls with narrow slits, but as I reached the truck ramp I was lifted by a man who stood by the rail and watched and reached and carried me to the back of a red Volvo estate car that had a half-bale of hay scattered about it. Of course, I didn’t know then that it was a Volvo, or that the colour was red, or, indeed, that it was a man, all that knowledge came with the reading. All I knew was that I was put into a noisy moving box by a two-legged.

            The noisy moving box belonged to Jeff and Heather Godwin, of Godwin’s Country Farm. A human type person might immediately ask why country, surely all farms are in the country, wouldn’t Godwin’s Farm be enough? Well, not exactly. Godwin’s Country Farm is just a marketing tag as the farm isn’t in the country at all, but on the edge of a city and surrounded by housing estates and small industrial units. Even the farm title is pushing things. So the Country title helps to convince the doubters. And it works. But you can sell humans anything, especially when they want to believe it. Jeff and Heather were hippies at some point in their history, and the want has never left them. They’re big into growing food and pulling weeds and wearing loose fitting pants and doing things the long way ’round and all that. They have a small shop selling their farm-grown produce and they keep some animals as additional marketing and for some modest butchering. I say modest if looking on as a two-legged. As a woolly sheep, it is never modest when the abattoir truck calls and the roving finger lands on your back. But then, as I read in some story or another, we all see the world differently. Anyroad, the animals are kept to attract families to the farm so the children of the city can see real walking chewing drinking peeing foodstuff as Mammy and Daddy buy a few heads of cabbage in the shop, which, by the way, Jeff and Heather have titled The Country Store in big green letters above the door and they have it stamped, too, in a hand-made artisan kind of way, onto brown paper bags with cord handles just in case there are yet doubters who need that extra shove to believe. ‘Believe! Believe!’ we sheep would shout from the fenced field, but I’m not sure if it helped. There are a couple of pigs there too and chickens and ducks, the whole show is tickittyboo, just the way city folk like it. Mylass and I were there the longest. I mean, the longest of the animals, Jeff and Heather were there longer. Mylass joined me in the fenced field that first summer. Jeff plucked her too from a death ramp as he traded another bag of vegetables for livestock. He picked a fine girl, I’ll say that for him, he has a good eye for sheep. Mylass is as pretty a ewe as you’ll get. But she doesn’t understand me and all my arty talk. She loves being a sheep and doing sheep things, and that’s that. There’s nothing in the world she likes better than good grass, you’d want to see that pretty face of hers when she nuzzles into fresh pasture. But try talking to her about the carriage of the cosmos or how electricity works or what is gravity or that all is light or the nature and purpose of being and that pretty face becomes another thing altogether. We were blessed with four years of offspring. The youngest twins were still there when I left. The others were gone. Jeff took them away as they made weight. The twins, too, were soon to make weight. It is a heavy fleece to wear, that knowledge. Mylass knew it too, she just pretended not to, like she did every year. All ewes do that.

            There were two donkeys at Godwin’s, and an old mule, all three were refugees from some defunct animal-sanctuary, and they spent their days wandering the railway embankment that borders the eastern side of the farmstead. Sometimes the donkeys and the mule joined us in the fenced field. They were a quiet enough bunch and didn’t have much to say about anything, they kind of stuck to themselves. But they were damned good marketing. Jeff sold a ton of carrots to families for the kids to feed to the donkeys. That’s genius, when you think about it. Jeff sold his own produce to visitors, for them to give to his own animals. If you ask me, he deserves a medal just for having thought of it. And people loved it. They couldn’t buy enough of the stuff. It was a feel good all round and everyone went home a winner. But then, like I said, you can sell humans anything. ‘Hey,’ I would shout. ‘What about a few heads of lettuce in this direction?’ But they seldom heard me.

            It was the opening of The Country Store that brought things about. In the clearing of the outhouse for the new commercial enterprise Jeff moved some boxes into the small barn we sheep used for poor weather shelter. Among those boxes was a library of books that had been the property of the previous owner, a collection of books that Jeff and Heather had not got around to throwing out. Maybe they couldn’t. Or maybe they planned to read them sometime, the way people do. The previous owner was a Sarah Williams, and I know this because Sarah wrote her name and the year of purchase onto the first inside page of every book. And Sarah was a student of curiosity. The classic novels were there as well as texts on the arts and philosophy and science. I had already learned to read, I don’t know why but the thing came easy. Jeff had mounted a panel by the fenced field that had a map and an invented history of the farm and animals. Because the panel was sideways on, and in large print, it could be read by both the visitors on the outside of the field and the animals on the inside. That is, if animals could read. Heather had a habit of taking families and school groups to the field and reading aloud from the panel. I heard that speech so often that I knew it word for word. Then it was a matter of time spent looking at the panel and map and its large print and going over Heather’s speech. Somehow I learned to make out the words, and then the letters, and then it just made sense and I could do it. Then came the box of books and it was as if the gods had planned the whole thing.

            But my new abilities didn’t go down well with the others. From then on I was different, a marked sheep, as if I carried some threat, and I was somehow outside the flock. I remember one wet and windy day when I passed the ewes who had gathered on the eastern fall of the fenced field. They had assembled in a circle with their heads together so I was presented with a ring of woolly backsides. ‘To know too that this huge stage presenteth nought but shows,’ I called to them through the gale. But they ignored me. And the next morning the gathered were hopping with excitement as I approached them.

           ‘So, our woolly scholar,’ they asked me, the question loud and thrown, ‘what do you think is the meaning of life?’

            ‘It is designed to be beyond us,’ I said. ‘That’s the thing of it. It cannot be given. It cannot be learned of. It can only be learned through.’

            ‘Through what?’ they asked.

            ‘Thinking,’ I told them.

            And this brought relief, and great guffaws of laughter.

           ‘But, perhaps . . .’ I continued, looking down and working the thought through, ‘perhaps the purpose is to find purpose, to take a journey, to build connection, to build reason, and so add to the light.’ But when I looked up, they were gone.

            And once I read books I wanted to write, but that was tricky. We sheep are not anatomically designed for the holding of quill or pencil or pen; we are not best endowed for the delicate glide of scoring parchment or paper. But I learned. I had to. I had to make my own mark.

            I started with thoughts, a succession of notes scribbled into a long ledger that I found with some pens the boxes. They were not stories as such, just the bones of ideas, like a set of designs with no land yet to build on.

            ‘If I could just write a good start,’ I said to Mylass one day, as we pulled at fresh pasture. ‘The start of a story is everything. It sets the whole thing up. It sets the tone and gives the reader both a door in and a handrail to hold onto.’

            She shook her head as she swallowed another mouthful of green herb.

            ‘Do you have to do that?’ I asked her.

            ‘What?’ she asked.

            ‘Dismiss it so? Why not give it a chance?’

            ‘Don’t be blaming us for you making a fool of yourself,’ she answered, and I caught immediately the us and knew that they had already cast me as one of them, whoever them were. ‘Thinking you can go off and be a writer,’ and she shook her head again and I caught the sneer roll across that once beautiful mouth. ‘And why do you need to go? Isn’t here good enough?’

            I wanted to ask her why they were all so vexed. I wanted to ask why they couldn’t give it value. But I didn’t.

            ‘Don’t you have everything a woolly sheep could need?’ she said. ‘We have grass aplenty, and feed too, and fresh water. And them fine ewes an’ all.’

            I looked about.

            ‘Oh yes,’ she continued. ‘The girls don’t mind you bothering them. All we have to do is to get on with what we do, what we were made to do, and everyone, Jeff, Heather, and all the visitors will be happy. Everyone except you. Why can’t you climb down from your high and fancy notions and just get on with being a woolly sheep?’ And she delivered that last line from behind boiling eyes and I felt the hot breeze of scorn.

            ‘I need to be out from the fenced field,’ I told her. ‘To write is to view a thing separate. I need the distance.’

            ‘The distance of a fool, Curly Longcoat, that’s what. And who’ll listen to you out there? And where will you get fresh grass or feed or water? And who will cut your coat for summer? No one out there will think it worthy. You’ll get all the distance you want, but you’ll end up on the streets where there’s no grass, no feed, no water, no Jeff and Hannah, and no fine ewes to bother. And no fence to keep the dogs off. Have you thought of that? Have you?’

            ‘Nothing of value is won easy,’ I defended. ‘Nothing of value is won without sacrifice.’

            ‘Sacrifice? Tomfoolery more like it.’

            ‘I wonder is it genetic or gathered?’ I asked her. ‘Is it given or grabbed?’

            ‘Is what genetic or gathered?’

            ‘A disposition to negativity.’ I shouldn’t have said it. I shouldn’t have needed to. But I did. ‘Oh, and something else,’ I added. ‘There’s no Great Golden Grass Grower up there. Just a fiery ball of hydrogen gas.’

            ‘You need help,’ she said, as she walked away from me.

            ‘So how is the masterpiece coming along?’ I was asked from the gathered, one sunny day. ‘Are we expecting another Animal Farm or a Speakston?’

            ‘Shakespeare, you mean,’ I answered. I had told them of stories I read from the box of books. ‘No, it will be nothing like those.’

            ‘And have we a title yet?’ they asked through contained laughter.

            ‘I’m thinking of calling it The Writer.’ And they let the laughter out.

            I stood there on the western rise of the fenced field and looked down to see Jeff leading the donkeys and mule to a new water butt he had installed below the embankment. The donkeys took to the butt without hesitation, but no encouragement from Jeff could persuade the mule to drink from the new equipment. ‘Well,’ I said to the assembled, ‘you can take a mule to water.’ But this got no response other than shaking heads.

            ‘So, Curly,’ I was asked another day as they pulled grass. ‘Tell us how you make a story?’ And they knew I’d answer. They knew I was compelled even though I knew I was casting only to haul ridicule.

            ‘Well it all begins with the start,’ I told them. ‘It’s vital to begin with some difficulty, a complication of sorts, some sort of a hook.’

            ‘A butcher’s hook is what he’s heading for,’ Mylass said, and they all laughed.

            But compulsion is, well, compulsion. So I continued. ‘Then the writer develops the thing out. That’s the story. The writer leads from the complication, threads the thing out, raising the work up and dropping the work down, introducing challenges and obstacles throughout, but always moving the story forward. Keeping it simple yet lifting the writing here and there, hinting at some higher motive and insight. Poetic almost, these insights, but without breaking into pure poetry, that doesn’t work. Better just a hint. Humour is essential too. The higher notes won’t work unless you have brought the thing down and relaxed the journey with the odd funny line. Also, it is useful to sprinkle literary references across the work, a word or two from Shakespeare or one of the old poets, or a phrase in Latin, or some appropriate quote of substance. That suggests education and literary knowledge, though it risks a kind of showing off. But a little works, but only a little, any more is obvious and annoying. The same goes for a short and shy reference that gives a nod to the epics of ancient Greece or Rome. This adds weight to legitimacy and learning, but can be overdone by dropping some clever intellectual reference to Homer or Virgil or some other marvel of antiquity. And that it isn’t clever at all. Subtlety is the key here, and this comes with an inconspicuous and modest delivery. The same applies to a brief allusion to some overture, or concerto, or symphony, or operatic wonder. Then there’s the line of sentimentality. The story must grab the reader emotionally. But overdo this and cross the line, and it will be lost in mush. The same is true of the line incredulity, the world of make believe. Overdo this and cross the line, or be inconsistent, or be downright silly, or be ungrounded even if it is make-believe grounded, or add too much, and it is lost. I can write a story where a village boy grows a woolly fleece in winter and that will work. But if I have the winter woolly boy turn into a giraffe come summer and a bluefin tuna on a full moon, well, that’d be just too much. I have to stick to the world of the woolly winter coat. And then there is the resolution, some conclusion that wraps the whole thing up, some finality that has the characters to the end or, at least, further along that road that the initial complication threw them onto. That is the making of stories.’ I paused to let that settle with them. ‘But good writing, purity, is something else. Knowing what words work and building rhythm. And magic and beauty, that which frees the soul from the work. Pure writing belongs to truth. But this cannot be defined. For what is truth?’

            I looked up to a flock of blank faces.

            ‘But above all else,’ I continued, looking down so my thoughts could fall clean, ‘a story should have a carrier, the who or what that holds the tale. To some, this is voice or tone or character or moral, but it is more that this. A story should have its own self.’

            I looked up again, but the blank faces had angered into impatience.

            ‘And to be great,’ I went on, for the flow had gathered me, ‘a story must lead somewhere. It must shine, it must give light. It must be light.’

            And when I looked up, they had turned and gone.

            It was a wet day when the truck with the wooden sides of long narrow slits called, and we thought we were finished. But the driver was just visiting to chat with Jeff and to pick up some vegetables. That evening the ewes were silent, each one considering what had called that day to the farm.

            ‘Do you really think you can make it out there?’ one of the ewes asked as the dark closed around us. ‘That you can be a writer?’

            ‘Aut viam inveniam aut faciam,’ I said to her. ‘I will either find a way or make one.’

            ‘And what will you write?’ she asked.

            ‘I’ll write about our place in the world, about what we believe, what we do, and who we are.’

            ‘We sheep, you mean?’ she asked.

            ‘Us beings,’ I said.

            And she nodded as if she were contemplating the proposal.

            ‘There is a painting in a great Paris gallery,’ I told her. ‘It is by Eugene Delacroix and it is of a barricade during the revolution of 1830. It is Liberty Leading the People and it is part document, part symbol. It is part real and part allegorical. And it is romantic and notional, and that’s okay. Mostly it is pointing the way. The goddess stands amongst the fighting and the fallen, holding both flag and musket. But also in Paris there is another painting by Ernest Meissonier. It is The Barricade, Rue de la Mortellerie June 1848. Here there is no romanticism or symbol or pretension or pointing. It is a scene observed and delivered. Each stroke is fact and true. And the horror is laid bare. There is no goddess, only the fallen, only the buckled bodies, only the broken barricade. A writer has to choose if he is Delacroix or Meissonier. But, sometimes, and just sometimes, to deliver one, the writer must borrow the brush and palette of the other.’

            I paused to let her settle with that.

            ‘If I should get to Paris,’ I told her. ‘I will visit those works.’

            ‘Do they let sheep into galleries to see paintings?’ she asked

            ‘All the time,’ I told her.

            She offered no response but a shake of her head and I knew that in the morning her consideration and concern would be forgotten. That’s how sheep survive the trauma of being livestock.

            I saw Mylass on the low ground next to the embankment and I went to her.

            ‘One day that truck will take us,’ I said in the near dark. ‘Our time and use will end. They’ll think us old and a new cute ewe and a young ram will take our place. Stay here and the truck will call, but out there we have a chance to make our own way.’

            But the look she gave killed any way making.

            ‘Pale grew thy cheek and cold,’ I said to her.

            ‘You’re full of it, Curly Longcoat,’ she said. ‘Give it up.’

            But I continued, It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.’

             And Mylass gave me that look again.

            ‘Theodore Roosevelt,’ I offered.

            ‘Roosevelt my hairy ass,’ she said, and she walked away.

            I didn’t wait for morning. And I didn’t say goodbye. I left in the night and exited the field where the fence along the embankment had been pulled loose by the mule. My only regret was that I couldn’t take the books. I did, however, take the long ledger. And in matters of adventure there is luck, both good and bad. You meet with chance and find favour, and all things are possible. You meet with chance and find no favour, and you are mutton stew. The next morning I waited in the doorway of the village bookshop with a lifetime of hope scribbled into the long ledger. At eight hours and thirty the owner arrived, a walking stick in one hand and a set of keys in the other. I offered the long ledger. He took it. I had met with chance, and I had found favour.

            And now, one year later, I sit at a table in that village bookstore. Outside there is a large poster with my woolly photograph on it. Book launch tonight, it says. Anovine literary arrival: The Butcher’s Hook, a collection of stories by Curly Long coat. A queue has formed down the length of the High Street and around by the church yard. The shop is bursting with staff and agents and press and publishing people chatting and laughing and nodding to each other and putting their best literary foot forward whilst drinking wine and eating small cheese blocks arranged on wooden pins. In the background there is music at mid-volume as some unseen sound system shuffles through popular classics and smooths the gaps as it appears when conversation dips and almost disappears when the banter picks up again. The shop window is decorated with my book, and as I sit there among the chatter I look out across the display and into the village. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending rises through a lull in the bookshop babble and the music takes me to some private wild-flowered forest clearing of poking pale blue and spindly yellow and tall white and flimsy pink through untamed wavy green by a quiet cool clear beck, but as I imagine this I see a truck pass on the High Street, a truck with wooden sides and long narrow slits. And through one of those slits I see the face of Mylass as she looks to the poster on the bookshop wall. And in that sweet face I see nothing but the same confusion I saw when we spoke about writing in the fenced field. Oh, my lovely girl. And I think of my words to her in the pasture. It’s the writer’s function to step back and survey the way of it, and the self within it, without the delusion that the writer is in any form distinct from it. Then can the meaningful be made. That is the labour.I shiver as an abrupt chill bursts from some internal cavern and expands within me, unsettles me, and I have to gather my thoughts by force.

            A glass is rung with the edge of the hors d’oeuvres platter fork and a call made to bring the gathering to attention. A flock of two-legged is encouraged to a bunch and they shuffle forward to face me, huddled and expectant. I tell the eager faces of the death ramp. I tell of the fenced field, of the thinking and of the learning, of the box of books, of the writing, and of the building of story.

            ‘And the thing is,’ I say to them, ‘a good start and you are away and off. It sets the whole thing up. It sets the work and the writer on a sure path.’

            Suddenly her voice comes again to me. We are not meant to read. And certainly, we are not meant to write. Before the reading, the fenced field was good enough.

            I drop her rejection, but like rainfall on a woolly fleece, some of it catches and holds. So I shake my head clear, and then I begin to read. ‘To see the world differently . . .’