Thursday, 4 June 2015

Badger Stew

Badger Stew

Beyond the locks, where the willows droop into a gulley of black mud and leaf mould, is the stream, and beyond its makeshift oak-trunk bridge, is the container. Seven old tyres balance against its flaked, once-green rusty walls, its doors secured with an old Yale padlock and a dirt encrusted choke chain. Only his three-legged lurcher knows how long he's lived there, collecting dead wood to fuel his pot-bellied burner where, if the weather is icy, he boils purified water collected from the cut in a family-sized lifesaver bottle.

His wrinkled, sun-browned face, shiny and dark as a newly opened horse chestnut from years of living through all seasons outdoors, sits on a neck as thick as a tree trunk. His stocky, short torso clad in clothing from the army surplus: an olive green t-shirt; a German parka, the small flag-patches on its arms coloured black; perhaps with dirt, perhaps with a marker pen: nobody knows but him. His torn combat trousers in ambiguous print, unidentifiable perhaps even to experts in military designs, their muddied bottoms drooping into mud-encrusted para boots.

Hidden from view in undergrowth bordering the towpath, he draws back elastic, his slanted eyes steady as a feline on the prowl, fixed on an unsuspecting brown duck playing bottoms up in the water. Ping. He misses. The duck paddles to where his stone cast rings in the surface, checking for food. Three more tries and she's down, squawking, flapping and flopping; gone. He reaches for his hook-ended stick and snags her by the neck, tail feathers dripping. Skimming brown across shimmering, dawn water, mist clinging to her limp body.

His fire is ready as he sits on a log to pluck feathers into an old potato sack. An entire duvet he's made during this savage existence: ducks, swans, coots, geese. His container's floor carpeted in the skins of deer, squirrels, rabbits and in the doorway, a badger skin. All have filled his cooking pot; all have been caught, trapped, sling-shot by him, save the badger, which he witnessed being crushed by a careless driver one icy night. Not the most delicious of stews, its meat as musky as its scent; but it had filled his belly and his dog's for a fortnight, preserved by the frosty, midwinter air. With calloused hands, their tough skin engrained with filth, he slits the naked duck open, throwing its innards into the bushes for foxes to find. His dog will share his duck. Of all the creatures of this world he inhabits, the fox is King and his vixen Queen. Their lair carved in hard earth beneath his container, he hears them scurrying deep below. In the winter months, they screech and howl in mating and in spring, he watches as the young emerge to begin their lessons in foraging. The foxes will never be harmed on his watch. This family, his downstairs neighbours whom he feeds and nurtures will outlive all others. Never will a fox skin adorn his metal walls, nor keep him warm.

Peeling the skin from the duck, he scrapes off its fat with uncut, unbitten fingernails, letting it drop into the pot resting over the fire. It sizzles as it hits the cast iron vessel and he adds first pieces of skin, then the entire duck, minus its head, which his dog grabs and chews, devouring even the beak with contented crunches. With his sharpened penknife, he slices onion to the pot, then the stems, leaves and buds of wild garlic, stirring with a hand carved wooden utensil. Unpeeled potato pieces are followed by water, also inhabited now by sprigs of thyme. Amongst runner beans, cabbages, wode, calendula, leeks and slug-eaten lettuces, tomatoes climb, in yellow, orange, red and green, fixed with hooks and wire up the corrugated walls of the rusting, green container. The ripest fall easily into his hand and he squeezes them straight into his cooking pot, gelatinous seeds sliding between his fingers and oozing into boiling liquid below. His stew smells good. Fat hen is his spice, growing wild by the banks of the cut, and he rips buds and leaves from above the full, simmering cauldron, his hands and the wild herbs growing moist in the steam.

Then, carried across the cut's brown soup of sludge and shit comes the open strum of a single guitar. Notes bend as machine heads are gently adjusted into tune, followed by a series of melancholy chords, joined by a lone, hoarse voice.

“Aye, mi corazon, dime, pero dime dime di-i-i-i-i-meee”
Flamenco drifts on dawn air as he stirs, stirs, stirs his cast-iron cauldron, its inner grey enamel chipped and full, the edges splattered with the colours of his wild cuisine, his eyes so accustomed to the smoke now, which tangles through his rough-shorn hair, that they barely water. And he stretches his legs, his boots' soles warming in the fire's flame. He sits on one of three long, oak logs he's rolled into position around his firepit, a three-legged, three-horseshoed trivet in its heart, upon which stands his pot of stew, next to his cast-iron kettle, suspended from its handle on the hook of his kettle iron. He lines up four cups and into each places a teaspoonful of roasted and powdered dandelion root: his substitute for the coffee he would drink each morning with his wife. But that was many years ago now, and he yawns, stretching again, unable to recall even the outline of her face. As boiled water spits and fizzes from spout to fire, he whistles a bird call, loud and shrill before unhooking the kettle and pouring water into his enamelled tin cups, standing the kettle on a large, flat stone.

Now Jarad is coming, stooping under the tangled branches which surround the clearing, snapping twigs and nettles underfoot, brambles snagging his thick, rainbow-striped woollen jumper as he walks. From his boat he has brought a carton of longlife milk, a packet of ginger nuts, and their daily fix of sugar in a cylindrical, watertight container. Seeing Sean by the fire, Jarad smiles, waving a greeting.

“I smell you've caught a duck, my friend,” and Sean laughs his rasping, wheezy chuckle, picking up his utensil and giving the stew another stir, then collecting a little for Jarad to taste, as he does every morning.
“Cooked to perfection.” Jarad observes, his eyes, which change from green, to blue, to grey, depending on the weather, glinting with a mischievous smile.

The two men sit, face to face across the fire, clutching cups, stirring in milk and soft, dark sugar with brown-stained spoons. They sip their brews, staring into the flames.

It hasn't always been this way: this life hidden from view, out of reach- or seemingly so. He had children once. A flaxen-haired girl he named Starlight, pushed into the world through twenty four hours of his once-wife's labour, coated with vernix and blood and handed to him two days later accompanied by the saddest eyes he'd ever seen. He'd been at a squat party in Bristol and swore he had meant to be there for the birth.

“I was two weeks overdue! Two weeks! Two.Fucking.Weeks!” those broken-voiced words echoing still in the years collected inside him. His daughter would be in her thirties now, and his son? He had left whilst Angelica was pregnant, never to see her again. He doesn't even know what she named him, or if he really was the boy she had hoped for.

He sips from his tea now, his thoughts merging with Jarad's accounts of his daughter Rosie's difficulties at school. Occasional words he picks up: bullying; tears at bedtime; “they shout 'water Gypsy' at her to taunt her”.
But she is strong; proud of her ways and those of her people before her.

'They're only jealous of her freedom, Jarad. The world doesn't change in that way: there will always be the jealous ones, the violent ones, the indifferent ones and the ones who join us.'

And Jarad nods as he picks up his guitar and plays. A moment later, Phoebe brings Rosie, holding four balti dishes which clang together in time with Jarad's chords, and a handful of cutlery. Sean scoops a ladle full or two of stew into each bowl and they are passed around the circle of friends and family until everyone's lap is full. This daily ritual: sometimes porridge, sometimes cornflakes: but always something shared- serves to remind Sean that family is not always tied by blood; that in this life, you take to your heart those who accept you, share what you have until they are moved on by the absurd laws- sometimes of nature; sometimes of the heart, and here, on the cut, of the government- which force people to move on and on endlessly, even when they want to stay longer. He cherishes each moment.

It is Rosie who hears it first. Perhaps the souls of children are more open to the vibrations that most cannot detect. But after a while, all four of them stand, their empty bowls stacked in a pile so fast that Jarad's pings to the ground.

'Vehicles can't get down here.'

'They can if they belong to British waterways.'

'I thought they'd closed off that gate,'

Jarad's eyes are pierced with worry now and he brushes past nettles and brambles without care if he's stung or cut, towards the ever-approaching chug chug chug of a heavy diesel engine and the gunshot sounds of snapped sticks and branches.

They are here.

An irate, officious-looking man approaches, dressed in a suit and fluorescent yellow jacket, a yellow hard hat on his potato-like head. He is red-faced and pockmarked, his angular jawline which could have been handsome were it not for his malice, set in an expression of impending doom. He has a clipboard in his hand and is followed by a worried-looking young man in work boots and jeans under the same style of jacket and hat.

The first man's voice is robotic and abrasive. He takes a sheet from his clipboard and flourishes it menacingly.

“I'm serving you with a notice of enforcement. I see you're still here in your illegal dwelling. Well it's going today. Clear out your rubbish, you hedge vermin. Better move sharpish if you want to get down the housing department, eh?”

“Leave him be, you beaurocratic jobsworth,” shouts Jarad, grabbing the paper from the bailiff's hand. “What do you people get out of this, eh? Eh? Leave us alone. Your vehicle is damaging the woods.”

They can all see it now: a towering, yellow bulldozer with a crane attached, crashing haphazardly through the tranquillity of the woodland, crushing rabbit warrens and toppling small trees in its wake.

Rosie begins collecting stones, hurling them in handfuls at the bulldozer, her piercing screams sending birds scattering from the treetops.

“Take her home, darling. Move on fast and leave me a pukkering cosh as you go,” shouts Jarad over the cacophony of the bulldozer; but Rosie won't be stopped, her stones now raining down on the two men, who shield their faces with their sleeves as they hurl abuse back. Phoebe takes out her phone and starts to film the bailiffs as they continue to invade the small family's peace with racist abuse.

“You dirty little pikey brat: what the fuck do you think you're doing you filthy gyppo scum!”

“Stop, Rosie: there'll only be more trouble if you hurt them. Stop, my child.”

Rosie turns to face Phoebe and screams a no, her face contorted in eleven year old fury.

“They're trying to take Uncle Sean's home away and I'm going to stop them.”
Phoebe tries to put her arm around her daughter, to shield her from words she was never meant to hear. But Rosie shrugs her off and heads for the container, fast as a ferret, Sean's lurcher barking behind her as she turns her attention from growling at the bailiffs.

And Rosie's scaling the container like a spider, her years of tree climbing paying off as she reaches the top and stands, holding her arms to the wood's canopy and screaming like a warrior.

“Get that child down!”
The head bailiff is shouting at Jarad, gesticulating wildly. He obviously expected to find no one here but Sean at this early hour.

“Get her DOWN!”

But Rosie has other ideas. She has heard many a tale around the campfire of bailiffs and evictions and she's brought the chain and padlock Sean uses to secure his door, and she's fastening it around her ankle and locking it onto the container's heavy iron fittings as the bulldozer crushes over the camp fire, buckling metal and driving logs into the earth, shuddering to a halt just inches from her.

“LEAVE US ALONE!” Her almost-adult voice drawing the attention of the growing crowd of boaters who have come to see what's happening. And one by one at first, and then en masse, they climb the container to join her; young, old, children and parents, single boaters and lone pensioners.

“Pulled his boat right out of the cut, they did”

“Lucky I'd sold it first- there was nothing they could do.”

“They're trying to turn the canals into a theme park for the rich.”


And it's working. For now, it's working. And as the bargees chant, the bailiffs make a hasty retreat, the lurcher tearing at the trousers as they scramble into the bulldozer, which reverses back over the desecrated countryside. For now.

They all know they'll be back with the police.

Sean will collect what he needs of his belongings and sit on the stern of Moonlight as Jarad and his family head for new places. Away from the school where Rosie never went that morning; away from the container and the family of foxes. Jarad will weld Sean's trivet, but his cooking pot is rent in two by the bulldozer.

And as the boat cuts its path through the water, the rising sun shimmers daggers of yellow and gold in the trails it leaves behind.

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