The Butchers

 

Late one July morning, Mei Lin stood in the line inside the Harrington’s, the local butchers. Sen, brought along to push the second wheeled grocery cart required for the fortnight grocery run, clutched at her mother’s skirt, peering uncertainly at the whole lamb carcass and row of unplucked chickens hanging just behind the counter.

After waiting quietly for the better part of a half hour, Mei Lin raised her voice above the din of orders. “Haff poun of chickin mince and lamb back strap thank you, sir.” Her still-strong accent cut through the bustle of the busy shop like scythe splitting melon, dulled the cheery neighbourhood chatter to silence.

“Well Mr. Harrington, you gonna let that fuckin chink lady buy up a piece of England?”

The shop was so crowded that Mei Lin had no idea which of the neighbourhood women had spoken, but the chorus of support assured her the voice was that of local consensus. Mei Lin stood still for a while, eyes forward on the ox-tail cuttings laid out behind the streaked glass of the butcher shop, aware of the warm cuddle of her daughter’s head against the small of her back. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck bristling with static. Mei Lin had long felt the trouble brewing. The atmosphere in North London had been taut for bursting for some months, thanks largely to the mobilisation of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Anti-Immigration Union Movement. The Leung’s front door had been graffitied twice with enormous painted yellow letters: WE DON’T WANT YOU’RE KIND HEAR.

The first time the graffiti appeared, Lee had joked about starting a conversation on the door: painting What ‘kind’ would that be then? in neat white writing underneath the slur. Mei Lin hadn’t thought that very funny. Sometimes she thought it was a kind of affectation, the way her husband remained so cheery no matter what they faced. When the graffiti returned, her husband had corrected the spelling mistakes in red paint and left the graffiti there for a week, despite her pleas. Last night she’d awoken to the sound of shattering glass downstairs as the loungeroom window of their small terrace house caved in to a brick. In the morning, Mei Lin had found Lee hurriedly re-painting the front door burgundy before his shift started down at the station.

Mei Lin stared across at butcher Harrington. He was crouched over the mincer, head bowed to the chicken breast he was feeding through the machine. The man had always been friendly to her. He was curious about China, and knew more about the Dalai and the uprisings than any Londoner she had so far met. Last week, he’d surprised her by asking why Mao wouldn’t just leave Tibet alone, let the poor farmers tend to their land in peace. They’d talked for almost an hour, a bored Sen impatiently tugging on her hand for the thirty minutes. But now the butcher refused to look up at her, feigning concentration. Mei Lin wasn’t fooled though: she could see the tensed veins in the back of his neck. She grabbed Sen’s hand and pushed past the other waiting customers and out of the shop. Heat rose up in her cheeks as she strode away down the road.

“Mama, Scottie’s chasing after us.”

“Wha yu say?” Mei Lin questioned Sen, lost in thought.

“Scottie Mama. Scottie Harrington. Coming down the road.”
The butcher’s youngest son, who was widely tipped to take over the shop now that arthritis was near costing Mr Harrington his trade, caught up step with them. He scanned the street for observers, then shoved a paper-wrapped package into grocery cart.

“Sorry ‘bout that Mrs. Leung. Business and all. It’s the usual in that there package. Fix me up later. Only not in the shop Mrs Leung. You understand. Some of them women there, they got old men in the Teddies. It’s not just the niggers that lot have got it in for now. They’ll smash up shops for selling to Chinamen, Japs and all. You call me on the phone. We can arrange something.”

Mei Lin felt a weakening in her bones, like the marrow of them had been sucked through a straw leaving her whole skeleton brittle and hollow. Wrong things were coming. The woman had felt it for months, but now she knew for sure.  She stared at the pig-bloodied back of Scottie’s white shirt as he moved quickly away down the street.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Author: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and slam poetry champion of Afro-Caribbean heritage. She is the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is on Parole (Picaro Press, 2009) and Nothing Here Needs Fixing (Picaro Press, 2013). Foreign Soil, Maxine's first collection of fiction, won the 2013 Victorian Premier's Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and will be published by Hachette Australia in May 2014.

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