Fingers dug deep into my shoulder as morning crept into the room. The air stank of horse sweat, hay and hate. I tried to turn away from the foul-smelling breath.
“Get up! Now!”
My bladder was full, but I wanted to hold off the usual battle of wills.
The hand gripped tighter. An involuntary cry as the fingernails bit into my skin.
“No. I’m tired.”
He yanked my arm. I hit the floor hard on my hip and slid over the linoleum against the ever-damp wall. I rubbed my bruises and clenched my jaw.
“Billy needs you at Thornington farm. Take Eddie.”
“But I’m playing football today.” I watched him closely, looking for the telltale signs that things would get rough.
His eyes narrowed. His fist turned white as he put the knuckle into his mouth and bit down. I scrambled to my feet ready to dodge the belt he was struggling to unbuckle. The hot piss ran inside the front of my pyjamas down my leg and dribbled over my bare foot onto the floor.
Dad looked at the puddle. “You dirty little shit.” He slapped me on the side of my head. “Billy, needs you. Make sure you do as he tells you.” He fastened his belt.
“They picked me for the school team. I promised I would play.”
“And I promised Billy, you would help him.” He thumped me again around my ear and pointed at the door. “Leslie! Do you want me to get the whip?”
The ever present shiny black leather hunting whip hung from a nail in the front porch. My leg muscles trembled as I rubbed my sore hip.
My younger brother was fast asleep in the other bed. No sense, no feeling. Father's pride and joy.
Dad shook his arm and gently ruffled his spikey hair. “Hi, sleepyhead, wake up.” He gave a warm smile as Eddie opened his eyes, then turned, glared at me, strode out and slammed the door. I peeled off my wet pyjamas and smeared spittle onto the red bumps on my hip.
I checked the time on the mantelpiece clock and sprinted outside to the washhouse to check on my bike. The tyres were hard, and the brakes held tight as I rocked the bike. All was okay, so I took out my hanky, polished the frame, the seat and mudguards and gave a flick at the front and back spokes.
I twisted the handlebars in the manner of controlling a wild horse, eager to be on the move. Balancing on the spot on the road, I waited for Eddie. He sauntered out eating a piece of toast and tucking in his long-sleeved shirt. Hair uncombed long socks and short trousers hanging down.
“Come on. Get a move on. We can’t be late.”
He picked up his bike and twisted his face as he felt the flat tyre.
My only concern was being late, so I moved off, but turned back, Eddie would tell his beloved dad and the result would be more pain.
“Come on. Don’t be mean.” He stuffed the toast into his mouth chewing open mouthed.
“Promise to stop telling lies. You keep stealing biscuits and sweeties and blame me.”
As he bent down and dragged up one of his long socks he mumbled. “Yeah, okay.”
His promises were short and would disappear as soon as we turned the corner.
He climbed onto the crossbar, and I pedalled off.
Eddie pushed his face close into mine. “You never want to take me with you.”
I rose on the pedals and looked over of his messy brown hair.
We set off down the road between the row of granite stone farm cottages, and the closed doors of the blacksmith’s shop. Past the chestnut tree-lined driveway, that led to the Big House, where in the Autumn, I searched among the fallen leaves for conkers.
The bike wheels rattled over the railway crossing, and as we went over the bridge, a frightened cock pheasant rose from the hedgerow. Angry wings fluttering, it screeched its outrage as it flew into the small copse beside the Beaumont River.
The extra weight of my brother and a head wind, forced me to stand up on the pedals. He peered at me but I avoided his eyes, gritted my teeth, and didn’t let him know how sore my back and legs were.
“You are weird, Les.” Eddie jumped off the bike. “Weird and skinny.”
I dropped my bike against the wall, clenched my fists to stop my body from trembling, and ran around to the farm gate looking for the farmer.
A fire was blazing under a black iron pot in the field behind the pigsties. Billy, the farmer, his apron stained dark with blood, stood beside a large wooden mallet and his pocket watch in his hand. He tapped the glass with his fingernail shook his head and slid the time piece into his waistcoat pocket.
Two farmhands brought out a sow, so fat it struggled to walk, it lurched and lumbered towards Billy.
“Come over here, Les. Next to me.” He was sharpening a knife with a small steel hanging from his belt. “Your dad wants you to see how we turn this animal into the food you eat.”
Billy put a large stainless-steel bucket into my hand, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and picked up the wooden mallet with his thin brown arms. “You stand there, and mind you catch all the blood.”
Thump! The dull sound of the wooden mallet crunching on the skull of the animal echoed in my head and made me jump back. The pig’s knees buckled, and it crumpled down onto the turf at my feet. Billy’s eyes narrowed as he pulled the bone-handled knife out of his waistband. His eyes glazed over with a crazy penetrating stare as he stuck the point of the razor-sharp knife into the beast’s neck. A hot stream of blood shot out over my hands and feet. I froze, too scared to move forward with the bucket to capture the steaming liquid. The pig, only half stunned, came around, rose, shook its head, and gave a high-pitched squeal. I flinched, kicked over the empty bucket and stood shivering. The pig ran squealing across the field with the speed of a racehorse, leaving a wavy red trail of blood on the green grass.
Billy pushed his cap back and scratched his bald head. “That’s never happened before.”
The farm workers ran after the pig. This was next year’s bacon, roast pork, and potted meat, running away. Eddie took off running after everybody, flapping his arms up and down as though he was trying to fly after the escaping animal. The pig got dizzy, changed direction, ran straight towards Billy, screeched its outrage, staggered forward and fell dead at his feet.
Billy yanked the greasy peak of his cap and stared at the dead pig. “I mustn’t have hit it hard enough.” He rubbed his chin. “And no black puddings this year.” He glared at me because I had failed to catch the precious liquid that Mrs Billy would make into black puddings.
“Billy, don’t tell my dad I didn’t catch the blood.” I wiped my soiled hands with my handkerchief. Billy gave me a long stare and I could tell he had not forgiven me. He glanced away and shook his head.
“Let’s have this damn pig skinned. More wood on the fire, Les.”
My heart was thumping, as I shoved logs into the fire, avoiding his piercing blue eyes.
We bundled the pig into the pot until the bristles softened. Hauled it from the steaming pot and slapped it onto the wooden bench.
Billy scraped away the bristles leaving a smooth hot pink, gleaming skin, then strung the pig on the tripod. Billy sharpened his knife. With the skill of a qualified butcher, he slit its stomach open. The innards fell with a watery plop, plopping sound onto the grass. Billy laughed with a high pitch cackle as he took out the bladder and tossed it at my feet. He then wiped his bloody hand across my forehead and cheeks. “Now you can keep your dad happy. You can tell him I bloodied you today.”
“Yes. He will be pleased.” I put my head down. He knew I hated killing foxes.
Dad, was whipper-in, and groom, for The College Valley foxhounds. ‘Bloodied’ was an initiation ceremony. They smeared the blood of the dead fox on the face of an adolescent boy or girl witnessing their first fox killing.
Eddie went for the pump and string as I rinsed the bladder under the tap. Eddie pumped up the bladder with the bike pump. I tied off the neck and left it to dry in the sun. Pig’s bladders made great footballs. I helped to carry the carcass into the kitchen. Mrs Billy would do the curing and hanging over the next few days.
Billy brought out dark green Pale Ale bottles, Eddie, and I shared a small glass of the bitter tasting beer. Mrs Billy handed out chunky ham sandwiches to the men. Eddie, and I ate a scone with raspberry jam then we rode off towards home.
“Okay, Eddie, I will have a quick smoke, but don’t you dare tell Mam?”
As I bent down to get my cigarettes from my hiding place, in the dry-stone dyke, I saw Eddie take off like a startled hare.
“I’m telling Mam.” He yelled out over his shoulder. I ran after him and crash tackled him to the ground and straddled his chest with my knees on each of his arms.
“Get off me you fucking skinny shite.”
“Shitty little tattletale.” I punched his arm.
“Get off me! I fucken hate you, you fucken skinny shit.”
“What do you mean, you little fat fucker?”
“I don’t like you. Nobody likes you.”
I froze, more at the hate in his eyes than the words he was spraying out. Eddie freed himself and ran at full speed towards home. I walked back along the road to collect my bike, struggling to make sense of things. Why was there so much hate and pain in my life?
“Pick your feet up. Elbows off the table. Don’t look at me like that. Go outside.” All punctuated by slaps, thumps, and words so harsh they bit and stung deeper than the slaps. Every single day. I developed an instinctive duck and cringed whenever Dad, or Mam raised a hand higher than their waists.
As I rode along the road looking up at the sleepy white clouds floating across the bright blue sky, I felt a cold shiver. The look in Billy’s face when he cut the pig’s throat was the same out-of-control look that showed in Dad’s eyes when he was on the point of hitting me.