The market stank of blood and bleach, the lights were fluorescent and flickering, the tiles brown and grouted with grime, but as I came upon the dangling pheasants, I was home.
We moved to a fishing village when I was about ten years old, much against my will, and a middle-aged couple agreed to babysit my sister and I while my mother worked. Mr and Mrs were soon Aunt and Uncle, honorary but binding just the same. Uncle Jim was and is a hunting/shooting/fishing practical man, and I had been raised only in towns until the latest move to the country. It was a shock to all our systems, but a good one.
We went out in a boat once to check the creels for lobsters and season the vessel, and I remember the blue of the sky, the salt tang of the ocean, and the coastline shrinking from sight as water flooded my trainered feet and I bailed us out with a beaker. The ribs of the boat were dry and narrowed from a winter on shore, and required time at sea to swell them for a neater, watertight fit. Logical, but terrifying for a child who had recently watched ‘Jaws’.
The lobsters were speckled a deep navy blue, and rattled about the bucket, climbing each other to wave their claws at us. We made it back to the harbour without incident, but my dreams were of drowning that night. The lobsters went with their bucket to my Aunt Jean’s kitchen, and I escaped into the vegetable garden, smelled fresh turned earth and parsley, and peered in the shed.
Weathered brown wood loomed at the top of the garden path. In south west Scotland, the flat areas are mainly fields or beach. The garden sloped up to a summit of shed and the earwiggy logpile Papa sawed for the fire inside. The door was always locked, the small window grey with cobwebs and snail trails. I’d stand on my tiptoes and peer in. Deep with shadows, I could never see more than the outlines of mysterious tools and items within.
Then one day I saw inside.
I can only compare it to the old tale of Bluebeard and the blood-stained key and his many headless wives. Past the workbench and coffee jars of screws, pins and nails, beside the wooden handled spades and fork, dangled blood spattered birds. Bunches of them, open beaked and broken necked, heavy in death. Partridge, pheasants, and grouse, dark red dribbles on their ugly grey legs, eyelids rolled up, some half open, bald and pink. I was horrified, sickened… but fascinated too. These birds were so secretive, so dainty as they scurried about the fields behind my Uncle’s house. Aside from the occasional tattered mat of roadkill, I’d never seen them up close.
Fingering feathers, I noticed movement beneath a dappled beige breast. The beak was yellow, dirty, and half open in silent squawk. Its eye was dull and dusty. The bird was unquestionably dead.
It was maggots.
My uncle explained the birds had to hang till the meat was tender, and the flesh loosed its grip on the fatal pellets. Sometimes, creatures squirmed in their wake. Just a wee bit of protein, nothing that would harm you, all adding to the flavour.
My Uncle Jim and Aunt Jean are rare cooks, and twenty years later I still yearn for their soup, stews, and fire toasted bread. I’m also vegetarian.
published 17 December 2011