You bluff. It was obvious. It was the only thing to do.
“I got lost, Harry,” she stuttered, facing him, her back to the dark buildings and machines. The smell was worse again. She could hear the sound of something mechanical working. “City folk. Don’t know north from south.”
“Lost?” he repeated, his voice full of disbelief.
“No sense of direction.”
“Yeah. And that pal of yours asking all them questions. Funny that, ain’t it?”
Sara, she thought. Who went off the road not long after the Blamires had packed up gardening at Priory House.
“I do security here off and on, Mrs Fenway. Got to report you being here. Ordinarily.”
He seemed bigger in the night. She wanted to be home, safe and warm in front of the fire. “Do what you must, Harry. If you don’t want people coming in you shouldn’t leave the gates open.”
He grinned. “We are the clever one now, aren’t we? Heard a noise. Went to look. Still, since you’re here…”
“I’ll be going…”
“No. You get the full tour. Just like Disneyland.”
With his big hand he turned her to face the plant. “You know what it is, don’t you? Rendering.”
“That mean no, do it? This is what you townies get us to do behind your backs. Sight unseen. All the dirty work. Not that I’m complaining. You see all them containers?”
There were rectangular shapes in the darkness, at the far corner of the compound.
“Carcasses. Cattle. Sheep. You name it. All the bits and pieces no-one else wants.”
He took her arm and they walked forward towards the giant machines that stood next to the trailers. She could see what they were now. Hoists and pulleys to lift the meat into the main building, a huge windowless wooden shed that stood two storeys in front of them, a rickety staircase running up the outside.
They reached the bottom of the wooden stairs and he leaned forward to touch a button. A dim yellow light came on over the steps. “Don’t suppose you want to look inside, missus. Men’s place, ain’t it? Men like me.”
Pompous moron, she thought. “I’m not squeamish,” she replied. After a while the smell just washed over you. If she’d come that far, she might as well see it through.
“Your choice,” Harry said, and waddled up the stairs, with the rolling gait of a badger.
She followed and they went into the interior of the rendering house. He punched the light switch and, just for a moment, she wondered whether to avert her eyes. But that was her imagination working. The vile smell apart, the interior of Paternoster Farm looked just like she imagined any industrial plant would. It was even easy to guess the purpose of some of the machinery. In the far corner was a grinder, some kind of giant mincing machine. It fed into automatic hoppers that were clearly destined for something more obscure, a huge ironclad vat that ran through both floors of the building, steam rising from its vents at the side. The clanking network of metallic beasts suddenly coughed and roared. She leapt in fright. The grinder disgorged something, dropped it into a hopper with a semi-liquid plash, and then, like the car on a ghoulish fairground ride, took it over to the vat. There, some kind of automatic door opened and consumed the load.
“Computers,” Harry grinned. “Wonderful thing, automation. Ten years ago there would have been a dozen men feeding this bloody great monster. Now they just load the hopper up and go off for a pint. Works twenty four hours a day, unmanned during the night. Which is why they need the likes of me to pop in from time to time.”
“Fascinating,” she said. “Can I have a lift home now?”
He moved beneath one of the dim, yellow bulbs and grinned at her. “Don’t you have no curiosity? Don’t you want to know what it all is?”
She sniffed. “It’s obvious, Harry. Meat.”
“Wrong. Meat’s all gone. You or me have eaten it, or else it’s off for dog food. You don’t think a scrap of what sells is thrown away now, do you?”
The thought had occurred to her, but it was not something she wanted to pursue. Equally, Harry seemed unlikely to let her go until he’d had his fun. “What then?”
“The bits that are left. After the knackers have taken off what they can get for pet food. After they’ve sold the hides for leather, the tallow to the drugs people to make that stuff you put on your pretty face. We get what’s still there. And that thing…” He pointed over to the grinder. “Minces it nice and fine. Then we stick it in that whopping great fat fryer there, extract what tallow there’s still left, and that big old thing squashes what’s left down into nice dry pancakes. Greaves they’re called. That’s what they used to feed to animals, when it was allowed. Now they just pay us to dump it.”
It all seemed so mechanical, so out of place in Sterning Wood. There was something she was missing, too. “Why are you telling me this?”
Harry Blamire looked deadly serious for a moment. “’Cos you ought to know. These things go on all the time and people like you just cover your eyes. You eat your burgers, you want your meat on the table. But you don’t want to know what it costs. You don’t want to look it in the face now, do you? Take a gander beneath the surface?”
Alison gave him an icy gaze. She’d had enough of Harry Blamire for one day. “Is that a specific point you’re making? Or a more general observation?”
He was laughing at her and he wanted her to know it. “You people. You come in here. Think you own it all. And you don’t own nothing. You don’t see nothing. Except what you’re not supposed to.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’d like to go now, Harry. Do I get a lift? Or do I walk?”
“Yeah,” he grunted. “Let me get my keys. Just making the point.”
He turned and walked over to a small enclosed office in the corner of the first floor. She followed him inside. The walls were covered with soft pornography. There was a grubby desk with a phone on it and an even scruffier sofa, with yellow foam poking out of the seams. He closed the door behind her and threw off his tatty tweed jacket.
“No rush is there? I can make you a cup of tea. Glass of whisky, if you want it. We could get right nice and cosy on the settee there.”
Alison glowered at him, wondering whether she could really believe her ears. “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t fancy a bit o’ rough, now and again?”
“No,” she said between clenched teeth. “And even if I did, I doubt it would be quite that rough.”
In two strides he was on her, gripping the arm she raised to strike him, forcing it behind her back. Harry was strong. She remembered the garden. His arms felt like steel. He undid the first two buttons on her jacket with his free hand, then gripped her hair, bent forward and kissed her neck savagely.
“Husband away now, ain’t he? I heard that happens a lot. You ever wonder what he’s up to?”
She tried to push him away. “He’ll be up to beating the living crap out of you. That’s once the police are done.”
“The police?” His eyes were bright, sparkling. “What you think they’re gonna say? You came in here willingly. I’ll tell ’em I’ve been shagging you for ages anyway. And it was just a tiff. You think they won’t believe me? You know anything about ‘reasonable doubt’?”
He tugged at the jacket violently and the buttons on the front tore. She tried to hug her one free arm to her breast. But he was too strong. She fell back towards the desk, felt its hard edge kick into the small of her back.
“And it’s a true. In a sense, anyway.”
“Harry,” she said, pleading now. “Just let go. Just walk away. And we’ll both forget this ever happened. Promise.”
“Promise?” He was laughing at her, and she didn’t understand why. “Like I said, you people know nothing. You daren’t even look under your own noses.”
He pulled himself to her. “You think I ain’t been there already? I don’t know your tricks? Those little sashes? That silk gag in your mouth?”
She could, she thought, distance herself from this scene, watch it as a disinterested observer, a sprite, a spirit, hovering in the corner of the room, observing two mannequins run through some mechanistic play they had been forced to perform by some hidden, inhuman puppet master.
She stared into his leering face, wide-eyed. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Burning Man, my girl. You think I never tasted your snatch that night? Did what I wanted while you was laying there, all white and dead to the world. With that husband of yours telling himself it was all right really, ’cos he wasn’t giving you what you wanted. And maybe old Harry and the Burning Man could do it. Huh?”
“What the hell…?”
“One more little service from the local yokel, all fine just so long as milady don’t see. And you know what I wonder?”
Her head was in a million places all at once. He tugged at the button of her jeans, she felt the zip being drawn down, his hand groping at her groin.
“I wonder what the real thing’s like. Dead good, I guess.”
He thrust a hard, calloused hand inside her knickers, pressing, pushing with fat, stiff fingers.
Something fell into her free hand as it searched in a frenzy across the surface of the desk. It was long, slim and metallic. She lashed out with it, out to his face, and she felt the calloused, disgusting fingers withdraw. Harry screamed. His meaty fingers covered his eyes, blood streaming between them. She looked at her hand. Tight in her grasp was a pair of scissors, the blades open. Automatically, without thinking, the silver flashed through the air, and Harry screamed again.
“Bitch! You cut me! You done it now.”
She pushed past him, made for the door, praying he hadn’t locked it. The handle turned, she rushed out onto the landing, and stumbled towards the stairs. Then he was on her again, like a dead weight, trying to roll her in the wrong direction, away from the steps, trying to trip her, force her to fall on the floor.
Alison stabbed backwards once more, felt the blade penetrate something soft and fleshy, no noise this time. Then she stumbled out of his grasp, out towards the clanking, hissing machines in the corner of the building. Harry Blamire was on his knees, between her and the stairs, his face in darkness, in the shade cast by the dim lighting.
“Let me go,” she said. “Get out of the way and let me go, Harry. Or I swear I’ll use this again. I swear!”
His face came up from his chest and the light caught it now. It was covered in blood and there were slashes across his cheeks, above his eyes. The gore dripped down into his grinning mouth. Behind her something was happening. The machines were starting to wake up, cogs and gears were creaking into life.
“I’ll have you, gel,” Harry Blamire croaked, then rose to his feet, like a runner coming off the blocks, started towards her, screaming something she couldn’t begin to decipher. “You can scrap as much as you like, but I’ll be in you afore long.”
She held the knife out in front of her face. It glinted in the harsh yellow light. And when he came to her she could see he was badly wounded, was stumbling, this was his last effort. She had fifteen years or more on Harry Blamire. She could defeat him. In one swift movement, she turned to the side, the blade swept through the air, through the passing, falling body. He screamed again, an animal noise, and toppled forward, falling into the iron skeleton of machines that were now in motion, alive, lights winking, innards growling.
The grinder opened, disgorged its load into the hopper, and the huge iron bucket lurched on its tracks, caught the stumbling man in the chest. He yelled, coughed blood into the darkness, and fell forward over the edge, into the wet, disgusting maw of the container.
She wanted to look away but it was impossible. She wanted to stop up her ears, but her hands refused to obey. Harry’s bloodied face appeared over the edge of the hopper. He looked stupid. Stupid and terrified.
“The switch, gel,” he yelled. “For Christ’s sake, the switch!”
She stared back at him, not moving. There was a big red button by the grinder marked “Emergency Stop”. Alison Fenway watched the hopper grumble across the iron track and carry its contents towards the rendering vat.
An arm came over the side. He could get out, she thought. He could do this under his own steam, without her help. She couldn’t move. The will had disappeared from her body.
The hopper lurched again and Harry fell back its maw. A whirring noise came from the vat. She walked towards the grinder to get a better view. A hatch was appearing in the side of the vast, digesting machine. It revealed an interior that looked like an image from hell, of bubbling fat, fumes, and the unmistakable reek she’d come to know, the stench of Paternoster Farm.
She tried once more. Her arm obeyed. Her hand came in front of her face. She looked at the bloodied blade, committed the sight of it to her memory, then launched it into the air. It span, a silver, flashing toy, then fell into the gaping, miasmic mouth of the vat. Harry was screaming again but something, some filter inside her, blocked out the noise, made it unreal, nothing but a background intrusion into a life that was already closing in on itself, confining its existence to one small, discrete set of emotions and experiences, because there was simply no other way to stay sane.
The hopper came to the end of the track and tipped its contents into the bubbling, boiling liquid interior. She watched as a single hand clung onto the lip and wondered, quite rationally, what was happening to the rest of Harry Blamire at that point, what state of chaos had consumed his skin, how quickly flesh would fall from bone. Then the hatch door closed, and so did Alison Fenway’s eyes. She was not certain, and she did not want to think about this point, but it was entirely possible that the metal door had severed Harry’s desperate hand as it sealed the vat once more.
Not looking at the hissing giant, Alison fastened her jeans, buttoned up her jacket. Then she walked calmly down the steps and stood by the base of the giant vat, listening. The sound of roaring covered everything. A ring of gigantic gas jets had fired up at the base of the metallic container, boiling the contents, starting the process of destruction. She looked at the intricacy of the machine. There was no way Harry could have escaped, even if it hadn’t been working. It was tight, enclosed. Until someone came in to remove the contents — what did he call them, greaves?— Harry would be left to his fate. And it was impossible to guess what would remain of him them.
She examined the gas burners more closely. They were on adjustable housings that bent them to the base of the vat. She walked over to the nearest and looked at the motors that moved the flame. It took two attempts, but soon she had mastered it. Alison slowly shifted one burner away from the gigantic metal beast and let the housing turn until it reached its horizontal limits. By that stage, the jet of fire was pointing directly at the wooden staircase. Flames were already beginning to lick the steps. They sang and they roared, alive and hungry.
Quite calm, she walked out of the rendering plant, out of Paternoster Farm, back into the night. Halfway through Sterning Wood there was a sound behind her, a deep, booming explosion. She looked back, and the sky was briefly golden with flame. Then she continued, not caring about the bats or the owls, the small, insignificant creatures of the night. Thinking of nothing but Harry Blamire and what he had said.
It took her an hour to get back to Priory House. She put everything she was wearing into a black bin liner, double bagged it inside two more, and deposited the lot in the outside rubbish store. Then she sat in the bath for an hour, shampooed her hair five times, cut her nails, scrubbed at them with a brush, cleaned her teeth, washed her face, over and over again.
When she fell asleep there was nothing of Harry Blamire or Paternoster Farm upon her, not a single atom, a vile, stray molecule. Only the words and the images inside her head.
Ten hours later Alison Fenway awoke and felt oddly rational, determined almost. There was a noise outside. She got up, pulled on a dressing gown, and looked out of the window at the green. Mitch Blamire was on the ancient tractor, pulling the even more ancient mowing machine. The grass was already bare and thin. He was driving round and round in a single, constant circle, over the bald, damp turf that now bore the brown, muddy marks of the vehicle’s tyres. Through the glass, damp with the breath she had exhaled during the night, came the sound of Mitch’s voice, a high-pitched, unintelligible keening.