Fred had cut the engine about five minutes ago. The light van rolled on silently from the brow of Harper Lane staying in the middle of the road as best Fred could judge from the occasional chink of moonlight in an otherwise dark cloudy night. The brakes went on and stillness heightened the tension that had been in the stale air ever since the doors had been slammed shut. Shut on Fred and Arthur and little Eugene, crouched low between the two of them and wedged behind the gear stick and in front of the van partition. A partition that separated a front-quarter of the cow hidden in the secret compartment under Arthur’s passenger seat while the rest of the animal was secreted under the false floor of the loadspace behind them.
The three waited. They had their story prepared, should some dark body walk – or more likely, stagger – past, full of ale from the Workpeople’s Arms, at the bottom of this last hill. They had been to Arthur Bell’s to fetch the rabbits for fattening up in the yard. The rabbits were real enough; anyone could take a look in the back and find seven hutches, each holding five young rabbits. Fred had just whispered that they were getting better at timing this run when, sooner than expected, a pin-prick of light glowed, down below, faint but visible, and moving in a vertical figure of eight. He released the hand brake and the van started its slow descent, now in total darkness, ever closer to the moving light.
Eugene was first to spot his Dad and poked his brother Fred in the ribs. The light was gone as Fred swung the van through the high wooden gates into the yard. The relief was palpable. Arthur was first to light his fag, taking a deep drag and leaning back on the side of the van. He was smiling to himself. He felt good and better still for having heard the solitary click that told the adventurers that their Dad had pulled the wooden gates together and dropped the iron latch into place. Each player knew his silent part. Fred stayed at the wheel to steer whilst Arthur and young Eugene pushed the van into the garage. Fred got out, walked round to the passenger side and hauled out the seat. Meanwhile, Arthur lifted up the compartment floor but as he was pulling the board out it slipped from his sweaty hand and clattered onto the yard. The three stood there, mesmerised by the bullet-ricocheting sound. A mistake. The first bad mistake of the night. But nothing happened; no response. The air was still and all was quiet. What seemed like an eternity passed until Arthur tugged Fred’s sleeve motioning him towards the open van door. Together they pulled out the front quarter and Eugene came across the yard to help by putting his arms below the fifteen stone mass of warm animal. The three moved slowly over to the making up room. They heaved the front quarter onto the cutting-up bench and returned to the garage. Dad had already taken out the rabbits and removed the false floor so the two elder sons could get at the second front quarter and again with Eugene’s help they carried it to the making-up room. Arthur closed the door, bolted it and stubbed out his fag with a heavy booted heel. The rest was easy. Fred would separate the two rear quarters but leave them in the van with the doors and windows wide open. The airflow would allow that thirty stone of back-end animal to set overnight.
Eugene ran into the big house. He had to get to bed and should have been there hours ago but he was a man now, big brother Fred had told him as much, and the sooner he learnt the business the better. He stopped in the outhouse to take off the heavy leather boots which, like all his stuff, was a hand-down from one of his elder brothers – Harold he thought. He struggled with the thick square leather laces that stubbornly resisted being pulled through the eight holes on either side of each boot. But the boots would not come off until they were undone and the stiff boot tongue pulled out. Eventually he did it and then peeled off the thick woollen socks, hand knitted by his Mam, who stood there small and quiet against the thick wooden door frame, watching him with an air of resigned calmness. She held a glass of milk poured from a jug in the pantry, where she had been listening for the creak of the heavy gates into the yard and the unmistakable rumble of the van tyres on the cobbled yard. They were back. Her boys were safe. Dad had pulled off another run. The risk worried her and that worry was etched on her small but pretty face. She put her left hand on the shoulder of her youngest son and led him across the outhouse floor, into the kitchen, and through to the big room. In the dim light she pointed to the door at the far end leading to the stairs. Eugene took the glass of milk, nodded to his Mam and walked towards the door. Not a word had been spoken.
The steep staircase took a still excited young Eugene from a man’s secret world to his own private place through the door on the left and walked to the solitary window overlooking the Peacock Inn next door. Even after this special night, he could not resist, as he never could, looking down into the back yard of the pub and waiting for shadowy figures to emerge and make their way up the yard and through the gap in the wall behind, which led to the outside urinals. He knew this for sure because he had heard Arthur say to Fred as they butchered the beast that he had had to go up the Peacock yard last night as he was so desperate. He couldn’t even risk the short walk through the porched front door, out into the Market Square and through their own side gate. He’d had a bit too much to drink but a man’s got to build himself up for the secret run, hasn’t he?
Eugene took off his trench coat, hung it on the peg behind the door and removed the thick jersey that Mam had knitted him for Christmas last year. He folded it neatly on the chair which he could just make out in the faint moonlight that entered the bedroom through the window high above the Peacock’s back door. He had not risked pulling the cord to switch on his single electric light bulb, shielded heavily by a thick orange mantle. It was only last August, on the first day of the school holidays, that the van arrived and the tall thin man in a brown smock came in with wires bundled over his shoulder. Mam had been so excited, bustling from bedroom to bedroom, agreeing with Mr Electric just where each ceiling light could be located and where the dangling cords ought best to go. He watched hypnotically all day as the man used his ladder to connect his wiring to the new pole planted right outside the big gate on the causeway and began drilling under the eaves above the back outhouse. He followed Mr Electric’s every move as he drilled the hole, fished the wire through and fixed the cords and knobs. By five o’clock it was done and they all stood by for the big switch on. Mam fetched Arthur and Fred from the making-up room with Harold loping behind. Sister Edna ran up the stairs still with a butter knife in her right hand and Madge had changed from her factory uniform. Eugene could tell that Mr Electric was used to an audience. These first business people to get the new light were special and that made him special. He was bringing in a new, clean and brighter era to people who wanted to believe that, somehow, this war could be won.
But now the new electric wasn’t so special anymore and anyway there were still the foul smelling gas lights downstairs and in the yard, shed and shop. This was a total blackout night but he knew the room like the back of his hand. A hand that even at the age of thirteen was large and calloused from work in the shop and the big shed. He undid his thick leather belt, unbuttoned his black woollen trousers and placed them carefully over the back of the chair. Care was important here because along with the checked flannelette shirt, all his clothes were for school tomorrow. He climbed into the high standing bed still wearing vest, long underpants and under-socks. He shivered. The room was cold and the water bottle, that had earlier warmed his bed, had long since lost its heat. The night run had taken much longer than they had expected. He lay back and stared at the clouds as they floated past the window. He could not sleep. It all came flooding back.
What had surprised Eugene was that the main gate off Wood Lane was open. Although the sun had gone down there was enough light left to follow the red-shale drive down through the first field and around the sharp left-hand bend that he knew bordered the duck pond. Rising up the final two hundred yards or so to the farmhouse, they could just make out that the main yard gate was closed but Fred did not have to stop the van because Mr Bell was already swinging it open by pulling on the thick rope, waving them through and directing the van behind the crew yard. Arthur got out first and by the time Eugene had scrambled from his hidey-hole, his two brothers were talking in whispers to Mr Bell. He could hear nothing of what was said but noticed Fred point him out and saw the farmer nod. He followed the three men through the main cow house to a small brick building at the back that had no proper door, just an opening wide enough to lead in one animal. And an animal was in there. He could make it out by the light of an oil lamp hanging on the back wall which was casting shadows that flickered over the cow’s back haunches. These shadows were heightened by the draught from the three men entering. He could see that they had walked into a narrow passageway and now stood together facing the cow. He knew enough of this game by now to recognise a large and he supposed old and milked-out British Friesian. The black and white rump was all he needed to identity her. He walked round the side, through the open doorway and squeezed into the narrow alleyway so as to be next to Mr Bell. His hands trembled and he sensed his pulse racing. This was his first trip: he knew what was about to happen. Mr Bell signalled to him to stand beside Arthur. He then put his fingers to his lips and motioned to little Eugene to remain perfectly still.
The cow would be accustomed to Mr Bell, and probably others, coming into the passageway. She would be fed twice a day by forking hay over the three-foot or so wall into her standing area so she was accepting the handful from Arthur with the resigned solemnity common to all milk beast. Fred had the cattle killer pointed with its bell end on the upper forehead and Eugene could see clearly the word “Top” pointing upwards between the cow’s horns. The Friesian chewed nonchalantly. Fred drew the mallet from down at his side and struck the free end of the rod, hard. There was a muffled thud and the cow dropped to its haunches. Arthur leaped over the low wall, drew a sharp knife and cut the windpipe from top right to bottom left in a single slashing movement. Blood poured from a crumpled neck straight onto the shed floor. It poured and poured. Eugene felt himself shaking but he didn’t know why. The big Friesian’s head lay to one side, still solemn and eyes still open. Eugene wrapped the blanket ever more tightly round his body, sleep just would not come.
Jolted by the cold tingling of his toes Eugene was reviewing in his head what brother Fred had said as they worked together in the making-up room yesterday. The bit about the old days and granddad using his strongest man to wield the huge poll-hammer to hit the head of the 1,000 lb bull in just the right spot, “If tha misses the spot, tha’s left with a raging bull seeing thee as its target”. Nowadays Fred was saying, we use the captive bolt humane killer (the stunner) with its loaded blank cartridge. It takes little strength to hit the firing pin; getting the position of the bell-end on the sweet spot is much more important than the blow. “Think of a line tha’s drawn from left eye to right ear and right eye to left ear. Where lines cross, that’s thee sweet spot”. The blank cartridge explodes and that explosion drives the killing rod straight into the animal’s brain. “It’s a stunner Eugene, a stunner. Tha just needs thee knife to finish job off”. Eugene was falling into a deep, blood-squelching sleep and in an ever further part of his bedroom he could still hear brother Fred saying that a Greener Humane Killer was a standard tool for horse dealers and vets and, as they still had a few animals of their own down Common Road field, why shouldn’t he carry a Greener, nothing unusual in that.
For a fen tiger to be pounced upon by a Chinese dragon would require a leap of 8,800 miles and an even greater leap of the imagination. Yet it has happened.
George was reading the long letter from a lost sister four years his junior. It was written in an affectionate tone as if he were the sweetheart rather than his namesake George, whom she had married three years before, at the tender and virginal age of twenty-one. They always started with “My dearest brother over the seas” and ended with “xxx”. She already had a daughter and was seven months pregnant with her next child. There might be no electricity on that farm in the valley but sparks had come from somewhere, he was thinking, and he was thinking about the woman he had left behind and he was thinking about the baby she held on that railway station in Lincolnshire, as through watery eyes he watched the platform disappear in ever-darkening steam and smoke.
The Territorial Army was fair enough: hundreds of thousands of others would be first. They would take the front lines. Yet as the Cambridgeshires boarded ship, the secondary role was obscure, at least to him it was. It was not obscure now. This sweat-bath called Adam Park, with its taut tough grass, encircling Banyan trees and four-square colonial houses standing universally proud, white and forbidding, was where the 1st Battalion was going to hold its position, stand this foreign ground against the Japanese 41st regiment. The bush telegraph seeped into the tents telling of 25,000 Japanese men swarming over the Strait of Johore, surprising 80,000 of our boys, all facing south – the wrong way. But fen tigers never retreat and George’s head shattered like a coconut hit by a wooden mallet as the single Japanese bullet hit the centre of his temple. The order to surrender this Singapore post came just ten minutes later.
Eugene was in the kitchen when the telegram came. Simple in language and matter-of-fact in tone “George Whitby missing in the invasion of Singapore, feared dead, deepest sympathy extended”. Mam was staring at the wall with the picture of the Monarch of the Glen stag. Her face held no expression; tears rolled down her small beautiful cheeks. One of her thirteen had gone. Gone, in a place she had never even heard of and for a reason she could not understand. Butchery to butchery.
He was half sitting, half lying, on the diagonal in the corner of a two-seater settee. It did not look very comfortable; it wasn’t very comfortable, but with his left leg stretched out on the settee, the right leg braced on the floor and his back pressed against the cushion, it took pressure off. Being alone like this for hours on end and being lonely (he learnt years ago that they were not the same thing), together with the pain up his backside, took over his mind. He knew it did. Yet, staring out of the plate glass window to the super-modern conservatory and the nothingness beyond, what else was left? His sergeant wouldn’t have stood for it “Eugi – get off your arse, shake yoursen man”.
She was so beautiful. Her face was sort of round like a mantel clock that had been gently flattened at each side and when he first saw it, he instinctively knew that the time was right, that she was leading him through it, that she was talking to him with those sparkling eyes. She must be Burmese and she was entering him.
The ache in his groin came gently, peacefully and with low intensity like the drip, drip, drip of water from one teak tree leaf to another as the first rain of a gathering tropical storm descended. He was thinking that the ache seemed to grow and become deeper as two new things happened; the inside of a sort of tent came creeping into focus and she was holding his hand and talking excitedly in short staccato sound bites. This was his world of no idea. No idea where he was, how he got here, what was wrong with him, who she was, or, what she was saying. But, as the long sticky days passed, so this ache stayed for longer and longer, leaving less and less space to work out the where, why and who of the smiling eyes and soothing hands.
It was a bang on the door that brought him back to the present. The thing was, he could not just leap off the settee, walk with military urgency out of the room and down the hall, unlock the outside door and fling it open. He wished to bloody hell he could. What he did do was curse under his breath – “qui kaung, qui kaung” – push his old body from the settee onto his right leg and wince as the obstruction up his backside made itself felt. He could walk, he would get there if that damn left hip didn’t give way and why do they have to be so impatient? Bang, bang, bang went the door and poor old Eugene, tottering and leaning to the left, made his slow progress as if the only purpose of this lonely day was to stop the flowers being taken back to the depot. The flowers for Dorothy’s grave.
The now worldly but chastened Eugene met his Dorothy in March 1950 by pure chance. Well not quite. Sister Edna had just about dragged him to the Drill Hall up Main Street on that bitter cold and windy Saturday night. In the big bedroom upstairs, having pushed some of the beds to the wall, he had tried to follow her steps to the lindy hop and the mambo. Then, late one afternoon as they held hands and she swung her flowing dress to the imaginary rhythm, he had he thought mastered a few of these steps. But that was then and now was now and he was tired after a full day on the van with brother Fred delivering the meat orders and collecting the money. And he still had no modern clothes to wear. It could only be his demob suit hanging behind the door of the little bedroom overlooking the Peacock, which he had returned to two years ago .Although still smart, it was hardly a Scully embroidered red retro western shirt sported apparently by the lad sister Edna had fancied at the dance last Saturday, or the micro suede zip-out bomber jacket of his mate. Then again, his demob double-breasted dark grey suit with matching waistcoat was a marker. It told those locals where he had been. More importantly, what he had been through. Anyway if he was going, that is what it would have to be. No way was he wasting his dad’s wages on this modern fad stuff.
It was a set-up. No sooner had they hung up their coats than sister Edna dashed to the far end of the hall and was now bounding back over the wooden floor, dragging behind her a seemingly reluctant young girl “my best friend Dorothy from the factory”. He looked at the flush-faced Dorothy. Her face was not round like a mantel clock and flattened at the sides: she was not Chit and she was not having Chit’s baby.
The ache was back but in the pit of his stomach. He sat down on one of the bench seats lining the Drill Hall, lit a fag and made small talk with sister Edna and this Dorothy. About the factory work, about the butchery work but he wasn’t here. He was on the jetty at Collyer Quay and he was crying.