HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Douglas Bruton won The Neil Gunn Memorial prize 2015, the William Soutar Prize in 2014 and the University of Sunderland short story award 2016. Recently he has been published by Aesthetica, Fiction Attic Press and Brittle Star Magazine, as well as in The Eildon Tree, Pushing Out the Boat and Northwords Now.


He ate nothing else, just beef and maybe some vegetables. No chicken or goose, or pork or fish. Just beef. Agnes hated the smell, crinkled her nose and held her breath when she unpicked the greased string on the blood-marked paper parcels he brought home from the abbatoir where he worked. Every day a different cut, and a story of the cow and how it died, and Isaac made the noises too, like he was himself the stuck-stunned dying cow.
Agnes recalls when she was a girl in her father’s house. Remembers ribbons knotted in her hair – yellow and pale blue and white. And her mother hanging sheets on the line out back, hanging clouds is what it seemed like, pegging them down so they would not blow away in the straining wind. And Agnes recalls there were cows lazing in the field at the bottom of the yard. She climbed on the slat-wood fence some days and called them by name, and the sluggish cows came lumbering and loping to her call and ate grass and clover-heads from her hand. Agnes recognized them by the marks on their coats and she knew when one was gone and she cried then and said church-prayers for the losing of that cow.
Isaac came home smelling of dead meat now. The dog liked that, licked clean Isaac’s fingers and the steel-capped toes of his boots and the hems of his trousers. Even after Isaac showered, and put his thick arms around Agnes and nuzzled into her neck, even then the smell was there. Agnes retched, a little. Isaac did not notice.
Agnes masked the air in the house with lilacs and lilies and lavender. At least she tried to. There were cut glass vases in every room and painted tin jugs and preserve jars – all holding flowers.
Like a florist’s shop it is, he said.
And when the money would allow, she bought Isaac soap smelling of lemons and spices and flowers. The strongest she could find. She spent time in the shop, soap cakes pressed to her nose, breathing in the scent through the waxed paper until she was a little dizzy, and measuring what it could do against Isaac in her bed.
She inspected his fingernails before supper and the creases on his palms, and the small hollow behind each ear, rubbing scented cheap cologne into the skin. Into the pleated folds at the back of his neck, too.
Like a girl I smell, Isaac said.
But Agnes still breathed in dead cow. It was in his hair, his sweat, his kisses. Isaac’s tongue in her mouth was a meaty taste she afterwards rinsed away with a peppermint flavoured mouthwash, holding it in her cheeks till it stung and stung and then spat into the sink.
Great slabs of meat Isaac brought home sometimes. On celebration days specially, and Isaac as proud as any hunter ever was with his fresh kill. Steaks thick as the heels of his Saturday night boots, short loin and sirloin, and T-bone some days, and always so tender the meat melted in his mouth without Agnes had to cook it for long, and without Isaac had to chew it. A blessing in that of a sort, Agnes thought, for she had come to hate watching him chew, with his mouth open and the mashed up beef and vegetables showing so she could see. Even with her eyes closed, tight like she was in pain, and in the dark of almost sleep, and rosewater dripped on her pillow against the smell that slept too close beside her – so much rosewater it made her sneeze – even then, Agnes could still see Isaac chewing, and she heard in her head the smack of his tongue and his lips, and the smell of dead cow hung everywhere in the air.
It had not always been this way. Isaac had worked in the fields at first, a stick-switch in his hand, and a flower tucked behind one ear. He’d herded the cows into pens then, spoke to them cheerfully, softly, like they were being walked to a sweeter tasting grass. Agnes remembers the sound of those soft-spoken words. He’d done the same with her: Isaac wooing the cows, gently slapping their sides with his palm and whistling to them, snatches of songs he had sung as a child. He came home then, still smelling of cows, but something different in that smell, something living and something Agnes remembered from when she climbed a slat-wood fence and the cows in the field fed from her hand.
But there was more money in what he did now, that’s what he said, that and he did not have to buy his meat. The supervisor, a bloated giant of a man they called ‘Blunt’, turned a blind eye to what the men took home at the end of each shift.
Skirt steak sometimes, bound up with blue string that coloured the meat some and which she’d roast in the oven, the whole house as hot as armpits after. And Isaac next day took the leftover cooked meat cut and cold in his box to work, pressed between bread slaps spread with beef fat; or he fed it in bit-pieces to the dog when it sat patient at his feet, its pink fat tongue dripping wet onto the carpet.
And there were short ribs every Saturday and they were cooked on a griddle on the porch, covered with honey and barbecue sauce from a bottle. And ground chuck once a week that she moulded into meatloaf or burgers, or added red kidney beans and tinned tomatoes and hot chilli to, so hot that it burned her tongue and all she could taste was the burning. And brisket she slammed into the oven, and shank cut up for stews and casseroles and slow cooked all afternoon with pepper and nutmeg, everything cooked with the windows open and Agnes sitting on the porch smoking slim cigars and sipping whisky from the bottle and the dog keeping its distance from her. And leg or shin or shoulder. And every month a metal bucket, slopfull with blood, almost black, like treacle or crude and stiff to the spoon. Agnes made blood sausage for Isaac’s breakfast. Once she spat into the mixture and stirred it with an old stick fetched from the garden and he never knew.
Agnes learned a hundred different ways to cook beef, recipes gifted to her by Isaac’s mother and his grandmother, written on scraps of paper torn from the margins of books. And he likes it like this or like that, they told her. Never thinking to ask what she liked. Those recipes are pinned to the wall next to the stove, or used as bookmarks in the library books she borrows, or tucked into the back of her purse as reminders of the herbs and spices she needs to buy.
Once, Isaac left for a week. He said he was needed at the abbatoir up Barstow way. They was shorthanded, he told her. He’d be back as quick as lickety, he said. He packed his Saturday boots, and a shirt and a jacket, and a bottle of the cologne Agnes rubbed into his cheeks.
Wearing it, I’ll think of you, he said.
Agnes knew different, knew he was screwing a woman called Elsie, and Elsie cooking Isaac’s meals all that week. Good luck to her.
Agnes opened all the windows after he left, the doors, too, and she let the air play through the house, chasing the smell of Isaac away, the smell of dead cow. She ate chicken that first night, cooked in a light tarragon cream sauce, ate in silence, the dog shut in the yard with its slunk head pressed to the ground in a sulk at Isaac not coming home.
And the next night it was pork cut thin into strips and fried with mushrooms, and only a little garlic so she could still taste the pig. Then fish in butter that she picked up with her fingers and held on her tongue before chewing, and lamb on skewers with mint, and smoked turkey legs, and duck in Chinese spices. So much she ate in a week, and no beef.
Agnes was sick with all she ate, a little she was, but sicker yet when Isaac came back, smelling still of dead cow, and smelling of a woman called Elsie, too, something gamey and rank and sickly. Things were different after that.
In time Elsie became Ruth and then Marjory. And some weeks the dog went with Isaac. It was that easy. He pretended he was needed elsewhere, and Agnes pretended not to see, packed him a beef sandwich lunch for the journey and turned a deaf ear to the gossips, as much as she could.
A man is led by his stomach, said Isaac’s mother, for she’d got to hearing about her wayward son and she blamed the wife.
You can’t be cooking the beef right, said his grandmother.
They both blamed Agnes. And they put down on paper their most secret recipes, the ones they were famous for, the ones handed down through the family from mother to daughter, and now handed down to Agnes.
Cook that for him and he’ll come back to your bed, for sure he will, they told Agnes. But keep the doors locked and the curtains drawn when you’re cooking. Don’t want just anybody knowing what we know.
Agnes filed those recipes into the back of a Bible that they used to wedge open the porch door on hot days. Ain’t cooking beef, she said to herself. Not with him gone.
She took to climbing the slat-wood fence again, not the same that she climbed as a child – there was one at the bottom of their yard. And she called to different cows in a different field. They came the same as they did when she was a girl with ribbons in her hair and billowing clouds going nowhere at her back. It felt good. So good that she wished Isaac was really gone and not ever coming back.
In a library book she found instructions for the cooking of fish and lamb, and pork and fowl, recipes that pulled her in. And she tried them all and her favourites changed from week to week. She bought books, too, with the money she’d once spent on flowers and scented soap, keeping enough back for when Isaac came home between women. All those books were about cooking; new ways and old ways. Agnes scribbled comments in the white spaces of each page, descriptions of how things tasted, notes on small differences she added to the recipes, and short essays against the use of beef and against Isaac.
In the library one day she discovered a recipe book of poisons. All sorts. A whole witches’ brew. Made from plants and roots and rusted metal; tongues of frogs and the wings of wasps, too. ‘A charm against rats coming in from the field’, one said. ‘To keep the cockroach from your walls,’ said another. Agnes pored over these recipes with something like relish, the cover of the book felt hot in her grasp. She collected ingredients together and kept them in unlabelled glass jars in the dark under the house.
Then one day she put the dog out into the yard, locked all the doors, drew the curtains on the windows and slipped a recipe from out of the pages of the door-stop Bible, one of the secret recipes. Isaac had left Marjory by then and there was a new woman called Carrie now who had written her address on the cuff of his shirt one Saturday night.
Agnes sharpened the knife and cut the beef into neat cubes. And the squash and potatoes she cut the same, and onions into rough crescent moons, and the special mix of spices and herbs and sugar thrown into the pot with a little nut oil. She ticked the ingredients off on the slip of paper, turned the heat to low and covered the pot with a close-fitting lid.
In a separate bowl she crushed the heads of beetles and the bodies of spiders together with fresh harvested leaves of Oleander, and mushrooms that she’d picked using gloves and then dried on the roof of the porch out of reach of the dog. ‘To quicken the death of a horse,’ it said at the top of the page of the library book she followed. She added some of the gritty mixture to the beef and vegetables, stirred it in with a little extra sugar to cover any bitterness in the flavour.
Then suddenly Agnes noticed the Bible open on the kitchen table. And through a gap in the curtains the light entered the room and fell onto the yellow pages of The Book. Agnes did not need to read the list of thou shalt not’s, did not need to be told that what she was doing was wrong and against God – more against God that using the Bible as a doorstop. She sucked in air, her hand to her mouth in horror. She turned the stove off.
She tipped the mixture into an old tin can, unlocked the back door and carried the bitter stew out to the trash. Then she threw back the curtains in all the rooms and opened all the windows. She packed a suitcase with her dresses and shoes and underwear, and soap wrapped in waxed paper and bottles of cologne, and she departed without leaving a note.
Isaac came home same as any other workday, smelling of dead animal, but this day coming home to an empty house. He called Agnes’ name and was surprised there was no reply. He called again, using his best sing song voice, the one he had once used to woo cows into pens. Still there was nothing. Not even the dog came to sniff at his boots and his trousers and lick at his fingers.
Out back the day was dry and dusty and still. The dog had knocked the lid off the trash-can. It lay dead at the foot of the yard with a hundred and one flies fussing over it. There were cows standing in the field, looking lost or lonely, each of them chewing the cud and waiting in blind patience for a girl called Agnes to stand on the slat-wood fence, giving them names and calling them to her, and high up and far off unpegged clouds free-wheeled across the open blue sky.