This fictional story was first published in The Times. The butcher’s shop is based on the famous Lidgates of Holland Park where I shopped for twenty five years until we moved out of the area.
Christmas Eve started early for Lawrence. Daisy, given special permission to club till midnight, arrived back at 2 am, slammed her bedroom door so hard that a picture, inadequately fixed to the landing wall crashed to the floor with much breaking glass.
Naturally Lawrence assumed there had been a burglary - Sarah, his wife, had taken to earplugs and a sleeping pill. Bravely, he arose from his bed with the nearest golf club to hand. By the time Daisy had, sullenly and sleepily, explained what had happened, Lawrence was so far awake that he descended the stairs in search of a nightcap where he saw a real burglar, or at least the hand of a real burglar, waving searchingly through the letter-box. He was about to smash it with the four iron when he identified it as belonging to his son Tom, officially spending the night with a friend. Soon it was 3am.
At 6.30am, the alarm, playing the National Anthem (he had never once found this funny) attempted to wake him. He had already pressed the quell button when he felt a push in his back firm enough to propel him half out of the bed.
‘Turkey,’ mumbled his wife.
Lawrence longed to believe that he was dreaming but, being by nature organised, he immediately recognised this as his first Christmas duty - that is, to collect the family turkey from the family butcher. Sarah has assured him that, as long as he arrived by 7am, he would be able to stride straight up to the counter and collect his box from this Holland Park butcher so fashionable that even royalty needed to take their turn.
‘Hurry,’ mumbled his wife, giving him the sort of shove usually reserved for post red wine snoring sessions.
He hurried. It was a dull day, he noticed from the bathroom window, but without rain. He put on his suit automatically before remembering that this was the first day of his Christmas break. The truth was that he felt more comfortable in his tailored suit than in his track-suit which seemed to liberate parts of his body that were better confined.
‘I’m off,’ he said. His wife made no answer. Without stopping for coffee, he set out for his car.
The queue was so unimaginably long that he actually wondered whether his eventful and mostly sleepless night had caused him to hallucinate. This was a queue not merely within a shop nor even on the pavement outside the shop but down one road and turning the corner onto another. There were represented the best tailors in town, more men in suits gathered together than Lawrence had seen during his whole career in the city.
‘Bloody hell!’ It seemed a small enough protest under the circumstances. Yet if he did what was sensible and returned to his comfortable bed, he could imagine the reception of justified vituperation. This was his contribution to a joyous family Noel, Sarah had informed him last night. She cooked the turkey. He fetched it. His part, she implied, was easy.
Parking the car, Lawrence set out for the tail of the queue. As he joined it, the man in front turned and gave him a brief look which only too easily translated as ‘Another sucker.’ Returning the look with a dignified shrug, Lawrence took up position. Soon he was joined by several men behind him to whom he delivered the same silent message as had welcomed him, ‘Another sucker.’ There were hardly any women in the line.
Yet there they stood, unrebellious, an army of docile husbands. Some, more prepared, had already the day’s newspapers which they folded and re-folded, as if they were waiting for a tube. One or two were already talking on their mobiles. They were like prison visitors, Lawrence thought, waiting passively for the gates to be unlocked. They shuffled forward but so slowly that it could hardly give cause for hope.
Lawrence had brought reading matter. He had taken it from the car and it turned out to be the car’s manual. It was almost interesting to discover secrets of his B.M.W. that he had never suspected. After a while he noticed that the man behind him was reading over his shoulder.
‘You’re fortunate to have a satellite navigator,’ he commented eventually. They began a desultory conversation about cars. Lawrence wondered whether it was just possible that this apparently pointless and demoralising start to the festive season was actually an original form of net-working. Perhaps his new friend, a little rakish looking in his double-breasted pin-striped suit, was the head of an investment bank or, better still, a city bank. He listened more closely.
‘My wife’s sent me here as revenge,’ the man half-smiled, half-grimaced. ‘‘She could perfectly well have ordered the turkey to be delivered three days ago. Since I took early retirement, she takes every opportunity to humiliate me. This morning’s show is a double whammy: gets me out of the bed at dawn, thus avoiding nooky requests - we live in Wimbledon, you know - and puts me on an icy pavement for several hours. I expect she’s crossing her legs I’ll get pneumonia and die.’
Most of this was more than Lawrence wanted to know about an unemployed man from Wimbledon but one piece of information caught his attention. ‘You mean these bloody fowl can be delivered?’
The man gave him the sympathetic sucker look. ‘Every wife knows that.’
Turning his back, Lawrence considered whether Sarah could really have planned this mission out of malice not necessity. It didn’t seem her style which was more confrontational than scheming. She attacked, he defended and then he did what she wanted or, if it was too late for that, proffered handsome apologies, He believed in peace in the home.
Lawrence looked down. A large rain drop had splashed on the pavement between his feet. He shivered and thrust the car manual in his jacket pocket. It was December. Why ever had he come out without an overcoat or umbrella? The reason, of course, was because he had expected to be five minutes, not, he looked at his watch, upwards of forty five minutes.
‘Damn and blast!’
The man in front, well covered in a mackintosh and leaning on an umbrella, turned round politely. ‘Sorry?’
‘What the hell’s going on!’ Lawrence found his voice contained a surprising degree of violence.
‘You mean the queue.’ The man gestured mildly at the hunched figures still ahead of them. ‘I suppose it’s good news for the butcher.’
Finding more expletives rising to is mouth, Lawrence opted for silence. ‘We forget to get the turkey delivered every year,’ the man was actually smiling.’ This is my fourth year on the streets.’
‘But why not get it from another butcher,’ Lawrence paused, searching for sanity, ‘from Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Somerfield?”
The smile broadened, ‘Well, you need the best for Christmas, don’t you? After all, it only comes once a year.’
While Lawrence was wondering whether a blow to the solar plexus was the best answer to this information, his newest friend had taken his arm and asked confidentially, ‘Mind if I ask a favour?’ He gave Lawrence no time to answer. ‘Need to put money in the meter. Eight thirty.’ Pointing to his watch, he broke ranks and marched to the corner. Lawrence saw him put up his umbrella as he turned it.
It was now drizzling, the sort of insidious rain that creeps down collars and into shoes. At least, thought Lawrence, I don’t have meter-feeding problems, as a local resident. A warm glow accompanied the thought that he was a local resident in such a prestigious and sought after area. By the time it faded, his friend had returned.
‘I remember the year it snowed,’ he boasted, half-holding the umbrella over Lawrence so that a cascade of drips hit the top of his head.
‘How far do you come from?’ asked Lawrence to put him in his place.
Lawrence was silenced. If men could come willingly from Romford then maybe there was something unique about this butcher whose named escaped him. He considered the nature of a turkey. It was a bird first and foremost, not a hunk of red meat, the sort of food that reminded men of their hunting genes - not venison, beef, nor boar. It was a pallid, feathered thing, traditionally tended by dull, over-weight women, not by any means the creature to fire up a man’s blood.
‘Do you like turkey?’ he asked the man in front.
‘Like…?’ He seemed completely nonplussed.
Lawrence pressed on, ‘I mean if I was queuing for a whole roasted pig or goat or cow, I would feel my time was not entirely wasted, but a turkey! The very word ‘turkey’ means a flop, a failure, a load of shit,’ continued Lawrence warming to his theme. He stepped outside the umbrella and gesticulated. ‘Why do you think addicts kick their habits ‘cold turkey’? Because that’s about as bad as it gets! So what are we suckers doing standing on a wet pavement…’ he looked dramatically at his watch, ‘waiting to be the lucky possessor of a futile feathered fowl? I say merde to all turkeys. I say the men of Holland Park should strike for their rights. No red meat, no queues!’
Lawrence might not have realised he was dancing about on the pavement shouting had he not seen the expression on his neighbour’s face: embarrassment, verging on fear. He had gone too far. A nasty memory of occasions when he had gone too far in the presence of his children surfaced. ‘Ha. Ha.’ he said. ‘Got carried away with my own joke.’
‘Ha. Ha.’ repeated the man politely before taking the excuse of a small shift forward to very firmly turn his back.
Lawrence realised he was wet, cold and now friendless. As if to light this very low moment indeed, he saw approaching down the line, a young women wearing a peaked cap and carrying what could only be paper cups of coffee. But would they run out before she reached him? Frantically, he waved his arm and, miraculously, there she was with one cup left. He reached out.
‘Three pounds,’ said the girl in the indifferent voice of the unwilling server.
‘Three pounds for a cup of coffee!’ Even in his present low state, he was scandalised.
The girl raised her eyes very slightly to the rainy skies. ‘Three pounds,’ she repeated. ‘Special delivery.
This was true, although as the nearest coffee shop was literally next door to the butcher, it could hardly count as a very special delivery. He put his hand in his pocket and soon met the seam. He had, as usual, turned out the contents of his pockets on the chest of drawers the night before and, in his hasty departure, failed to pick them up.’
‘Do you want it or not?”
He looked at the indifferent girl and realised that neither humour,’I want it very much,’ nor an appeal, ‘I’ll pay you later’ would work. He tapped the turned shoulder of the man in front of him, ‘I wonder if you could do me a favour?’ The man stared at him blankly. ‘Lend me the price of a cup of coffee.’
‘Can’t be done, old man. Only brought enough change for my meter. I’ve learnt to bring a thermos myself.’ He turned his back again and began a conversation with one of the few women on the block. They were animated and happy, Lawrence noted with rage. He was about to broach the man behind him when he realised the girl with the coffee was walking away and the man behind him drinking lustily.
‘All’s fair…’ he looked up for a moment.
Lawrence understood the reference. Images of the retreat from Moscow mixed with the desolate scene on the pavement. He saw himself falling on the cold wet stones and no-one bending to check whether he was alive or dead. On the contrary, intent on reaching their goal of the Christmas turkey, they would not even bother to walk around him, but tread over him, until he was smashed and unrecognisable.
‘I feel faint,’ said Lawrence, reeling a little.
‘Here, have a sip.’
‘Gratefully, Lawrence sipped from the cup belonging to his previously despised unemployed neighbour. It seems they were designated to be mates. Beggars can’t be choosers.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, handing back the cup.
‘Lawrence. Always known as Larry.’
‘Lawrence. Never known as Larry.’ They shook hands. Bonded, thought Lawrence, gloomily. We’re probably twins too.
‘Aha!’ said Larry, ‘A bit of an advance.’ He was right. The shuffle had turned into a regular three steps forward. ‘Nine o clock, I’d say. Thing about early retirement. You always know the time.’ He checked his watch. ‘Spot on. Hold the fort, will you, while I do a bit of feeding.’
In his absence Lawrence became more tranquil.The queue was now moving steadily forward so that he could actually see the butcher’s awning. He would be home by ten, he reckoned, time for a shower, a large breakfast, cooked by Sarah as a reward for his ordeal. Things were looking up.
Larry arrived back laughing to himself. ‘I can’t help enjoying another’s man’s misfortune. Human nature, I suppose.’
Lawrence raised his eyebrows which Larry took as encouragement. ‘B.M.W. Z 3. roadster W reg. I watched them affix the clamps. Used to have the same car myself once. Went last year. I felt happier than I have for months when they slapped the summons on the windscreen.’
‘What colour B.M.W.?’ asked Lawrence without much interest. He was outside these problems. He had residents parking.
‘Unusual colour. Burnished gold. Some such.’
Lawrence put a hand to his head. He stroked the wet hair, registering even in his state of sudden panic, that it was thin enough to feel his cranium. He pictured with sudden horrible clarity, the moment he had parked his car. It had been seven in the morning. He had been planning to pick up his turkey in a matter of minutes and speed away. He had not therefore parked on residential parking which was slightly further away from the butchers. He had parked on a yellow line.
‘It’s a bad thing about early retirement,’ continued Larry, still smiling, ‘You lose all sympathy for the other side.’
The words, ‘That was my car you saw clamped,’ died on his lips. Clenching his teeth, he moved a steady pace or two forward. This was a war of attrition. He would collect the benighted bird, stagger back with it to the house and let someone else deal with the car. Daisy, he thought, enjoying the idea of dragging his slothful daughter out of bed.
‘I suppose it wasn’t your car,’ asked Larry.
‘Oh no,’ replied Lawrence with a hollow laugh.
By nine forty five, with no further incidence, Lawrence found himself at long last entering the portals of the butcher. It was a modest shop with no obvious indication of the esteem in which it was held throughout the city. Or perhaps one should say, throughout the world, since on Lawrence’s entry he was aware of accents from many countries - all of them rich. Maybe the lack of vulgar Christmas decorations was some indication of a purveyor of meat that needed no welcoming facade. Certainly, there were a great many certificates and awards framed on the walls which Lawrence had time to study with interest. One in particular caught his eye; it showed a photograph of a turkey under which was written in fine-tuned calligraphy, Our turkeys are bred in great comfort and tranquillity on a dedicated farm in Wiltshire. They are fed with the best, hand-ground corn and may roam at will in the pleasant parklands…
Lawrence was just thinking that he wouldn’t mind swapping places with one of those tranquil turkeys, even if there was an oven at the end of it - after all, we all have to die - when a brusque yet modulated voice interrupted his thoughts.
‘Reference number, please.’
In front of him stood a white-coated man with the autocratic bearing of a surgeon - but then butchers are surgeons, he thought benevolently because, after all, he was at the head of the queue. And yet this talk of a reference number came as a surprise. Possibly, his usual quick-witted reaction had been dulled by the retreat from Moscow experience but he did not remember Sarah mentioning a reference number. He knew there was no slip of paper in his pockets because, apart from his car manual and his car keys, they were empty and moreover there was nothing of that nature in his brain.
‘Your reference number,’ repeated the surgeon with more urgency and the professional smile less in evidence.
Could he guess a number? (Larry, now being served by a second surgeon, was reeling off digits). One turkey was much like another, he assumed, particularly after their shared parkland experiences. But what if it had been already collected and he was exposed in front of all these suits, some of them surely heads of city banks?
‘I haven’t got a reference number,’ he stated boldly, with the look, he hoped of a prosperous (at very least employed) customer.
The surgeon gave him a look as if he had just announced his lack of heart and spleen. ‘Would you step over to the side, sir.’ Now he had become a police officer, gentle, before putting the boot in.
It struck him that no, he would not step aside. He had waited nearly three hours for a fowl living on the fat of the land and that was suffering enough.
‘I will not step aide!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve waited nearly three hours for one of your fucking spoilt turkeys and I want one now!’
The shop, previously a merry place of contented customers, became hushed. The surgeon became extremely grave. ‘If you would just step to one side, sir, I am sure we can accommodate you.’
‘I do not want accommodation…’ Out of the corner of his eye Lawrence saw Larry scurrying from the shop with a large box. The sight enraged him further. ‘I do not even want a fucking turkey if you really want to know. I prefer red meat like any true man. But my wife wants me to return with an idiotic object with wings and that, despite all the obstacles put in my way, is what I am trying to do!’
‘Quite, sir. Yes, sir. I quite understand sir.’
With satisfaction, Lawrence saw a whispering take place between the surgeon and his minions. Some-times it was necessary to make a fuss. Even to employ the F word. Ha! There was a box coming his way.
‘If you would care to sign here, sir.’
‘Certainly. And may I make a suggestion.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘It would be wise in future to inform your patrons that delivery or collection of turkeys several days prior to Christmas would avoid unnecessary, I repeat unnecessary, queuing.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ His manner was servile tradesman but his eyes had the look of a surgeon. Lawrence raised his own to follow the same line. There, in the same fine-tuned calligraphy hung a notice, Patrons are informed that delivery or collection of turkeys several days prior to Christmas will avoid unnecessary queuing.
Nevertheless, he left the shop with an air of quiet triumph. Despite the lack of a reference number, he had obtained his turkey, under whose vast weight he was now staggering. How ever many people had Sarah invited for Christmas lunch? He knew her family were notoriously greedy but this was ridiculous. He set the box on the pavement.
‘Need a lift?’ Larry leant out of his car window.
‘No thanks,’ He refused with pride. ‘I only live round the corner.’
This was true if you included a couple of streets and the length of a square. By the time Lawrence reached his fine house, his wet clothes were steaming with the heat of his body. Thankfully, he dumped the box at the top of the steps and rang the bell. The door was opened immediately and his wife, wound about in pashmina shot out.
‘Haven’t you got a key? And where ever have you parked the car? I suppose you’ve been having a good breakfast with one of your cronies. You knew I’ve got to pick up mummy. She gets in such a fuss if I’m late. Take the turkey to the kitchen.’ All this was delivered at such speed that Lawrence found no moment to interrupt, to wail, to berate the lack of reference number, to elicit well-earned sympathy…
‘So, give me the car keys. And tell Daisy and Tom if they’re not out of bed by the time I come back with mummy, I won’t give them their Christmas presents.’ She paused, her hand held out.
Playing for time, Lawrence put the keys in her hand and allowed her to push past him. Their fine house had cost so much that, unlike everyone else in the street, they did not have a second car. Not this year anyway. Maybe next year if he carried on getting up at six every morning and working till nine at a job he at best disliked and was barely able to keep under control, in an office filled with card sharpers and ill-educated louts. A blood red mist rose in front of his eyes. Did he deserve no thanks for using up his life in the service of his family? Did he deserve no thanks for spending hours on one of his few days out of the office when he might have been using his four iron as nature intended instead of queuing with the unemployed so that his wife could satisfy the unreasonable appetites of her unreasonably extended family? The red mist grew.
‘Where’s the car?’ asked Sarah, her voice tight and hard as if, thought Lawrence, she had earplugs in her mouth too. And everywhere else. He pictured the long nights of her back turned against his legitimate passions. No sex. No red meat. No joy. Just the underground before dawn. The underground at night. The red mist turned purple.
‘The car is clamped,’ he announced, his voice sounding both belligerent and tearful. ‘The car is clamped because I had to wait nearly three hours, with no breakfast, in the rain, to pick up a turkey.’ To his ears this sounded like an understatement. He bent and forced open the box at his feet. ‘As you are perfectly well aware I have never liked turkey.’ He stared down with righteous disgust at the pallid plucked trussed object. ‘In fact, I loathe turkeys!’
‘Lawrence!’ protested Sarah, taking a step backwards. ‘This is not a turkey, this is a family ritual.’
‘Then I loathe family rituals!’ Lawrence was aware he was shouting and enjoyed it. Above his head, a window opened and Daisy’s tousled head appeared. ‘Can you two stop rowing right outside my window. I was late back, you know.’
‘No!’ bellowed Lawrence. ‘I can’t stop rowing while a turkey lies between your mother and me!’
‘Then take it to the kitchen,’ said Sarah who was still keeping her cool. There was even a faint suggestion of a smile as if she enjoyed seeing a man making a fool of himself.
Lawrence bent again and, with some difficulty, extracted the bird from its confines. Imitating a weight lifter, he held it above his head, ‘Is this apology for a meal really worth a morning of hell?’ he demanded theatrically. With satisfaction, he saw Sarah’s face, shocked and aghast. Now he had got her attention.
But Lawrence…’ she paused.
‘Yes?’ he responded aggressively. His pectorals were beginning to protest.
Sarah opened her mouth. She, too, shouted. ‘What you’re holding isn’t a turkey. Not a turkey. It’s a goose, you silly idiot! A big goose, as fat and stupid as you!’
Afterwards when Lawrence replayed the scene in his head, he realised that Sarah would never have called him a fat and stupid goose. It was not her style. The voice had come from the purple mist, making him hear words in his own head as if they came from her. He had seen himself as a fat and stupid goose. The whole dreadful morning had finally convinced what he’d suspected for years.
‘I did not throw the goose at my wife, officer,’ he told the policeman when he was questioned after Sarah had been taken to hospital. ‘I just couldn’t hold it up anymore. Unfortunately, it rolled forward, caught my wife around ankle level, causing her to lose her balance and fall down the steps. It was a horrible, horrible accident.’
‘Then how come the bird was found on top of her? Indeed, according to a neighbour, she appeared to be clutching it as you might a rugger ball thrown about waist height. In my book, it sounds as if the weight of the goose used as a missile, pushed her backwards down the steps.’
‘The goose rolled, officer. It rolled after her and, by chance, landed on top of her. She may have grabbed hold of it for comfort.’
‘For comfort?’ The officer studied his notes. ‘This was not a frozen goose?’
‘Certainly not, officer. This was a fresh goose, bred in the pleasant pastures of Wiltshire.’
‘But it rolled.’
‘Yes, officer. My daughter, Daisy who was leaning out of her window at the time saw it all. Probably my son, Tom, heard it too. I had come home triumphant with this beautiful fresh goose. I lifted it in triumph above my head. Sadly, I didn’t know my own strength.’
‘Or lack of it.’ The officer was writing. He looked up once more. He frowned. He put the top on his biro. He had been convinced. ‘As you say, a horrible, horrible accident.’
After all, thought Lawrence, how could any-one believe a sane man would try to kill his wife with a goose.