I explain to the receptionist that you can't serve Southern-fried forearms when the person to be cooked is an amputee. She doesn't seem overly concerned with this minor detail and keeps telling me that due to unprecedented demand, stocks have dwindled and as such customers have to manage until the deficit is replenished with new produce. Twenty years, a loyal customer, and they send me half a person. I ask for a refund and she states refunds are not part of their policy.
"There is the option of returning the goods and exchange it for a midget, "the woman says over the phone, each word pulled from her mouth like chewing gum, "You'll have all four limbs, just smaller portions."
"I have a party of four turning up tonight expecting Southern-fried clergy. Do you have any idea what this will do to my reputation if I serve midget? Was he even a member of the church?"
I hear the receptionist tapping at the keyboard.
"No, but I do have an African American Evangelist with a club foot."
I ask if the deformity is limited to one leg, and she taps a little more before replying with, "Ah… Looking at his records, I can't actually sell you him because he has an artificial hip. It's now company policy not to supply produce containing plastic in case we have another incident like in Basingstoke."
Curiosity grabs me, so I have to ask, "What happened in Basingstoke?"
"A client was cooking roast pelvis when her oven exploded, covering her and four elderly ladies in molten plastic. The lawsuit is still ongoing."
I ask if she has any ministers, choirboys, maybe even a bell ringer, and she says, "The religious faction has been a popular choice since it was revealed people with a tendency to follow Christ need less tenderising."
I looked at the clock: 3pm. Five hours until my first guest arrives. "Fine, I'll settle for the amputee this time," I say, "but I think as a gesture of goodwill, my account should be refunded for the missing arms." And with that I hang up the phone and retreat into the kitchen.
To make the coating, I add 6tbsp of plain flour into bowl along with celery salt, cayenne pepper, ground black pepper and paprika. A prepared marinade of buttermilk, coriander, garlic, shallots and chilli is used to soak both legs, which I had cut into medallions three inches thick. Approximately thirty minutes before my guests arrive I'll preheat the oven to 200C/400F, dip the legs in the spiced flour, place them in a frying pan until golden brown and then bake in the oven for twenty-five minutes. For appetisers, I remove the man's testicles readying for barbecuing with the giblets. The penis is frozen for use in a coq au vin I have planned for a dinner sometime next week. I melt a little butter, add onions, garlic and the man's liver and fry until softened. I then place the mix in the processor, blend until smooth, and transfer the pâté into small ramekins before chilling in the refrigerator. The remaining body parts, brain, heart, rump and kidneys I remove, place into plastic bags and store in my freezer. The carcass is then sent through an industrial meat grinder that I purchased from a butcher that had run into financial difficulties. The resulting mince I feed to my sweet little dachshund, Dahmer, over a period of seven to eight days.
The dinner theme tonight is Tarts and Vicars. The subject has been well considered. Those of us with a proclivity for human flesh know that women with immoral leaning run the risk of carrying potentially life threatening diseases. For that reason, we have agreed that no whores, prostitutes or smack-heads will be served on the menu tonight for fear it will spoil the meat. Any whiff of sulphur, sign of tallow or chalky taste, could ruin my reputation. Only men of the cloth will find their way onto the plates, righteous and tender. In keeping with the theme, I have encouraged the women attending to dress provocatively, and all men, piously.
My first guest is the rotund Reginald Hockley who is dressed in a cassock giving him the appearance of a bloated aubergine. A well-travelled man, Hockley has sampled food from all corners of the globe and only last year followed a gruelling native trail through the dense forests of Papua New Guinea, an undertaking that now boasts an absence of five Kombai tribesman and an extra six inches around his waist. My second guest is Lady Betwixt, heir to the Betwixt distillery who, if you believe in common rumour, knows more about flagellation than fermentation. It is alleged she became a keen purveyor of the flesh after she found her husband's dick in the housekeeper. She now sleeps next to it along with his testicles in a mason jar filled with vodka. The third, Graham Hartley, is a well-respected and proficient surgeon that over the past five years has kept us all in tits and arses, and has proved an invaluable source when it comes to demonstrating the correct modus operandi for the removal of vital organs and fine cuts. My final guest is the strangest of all the four. We know her only as, M. She refuses to engage in questions concerning her life or back history and rarely gives any opinion to anything, a non-committal attitude that has clearly driven a divide between her and Hartley who is always keen to pick the brains of his guests. M always dresses in black, has well groomed hair tied back into a bun that sits atop of her head like a coconut shy waiting to be knocked off at a carnival. When asked why she became a cannibal, she replied, "Population control". M has a peculiar smell too, like that of urine, fishy at times. Hartley believes she has chronic kidney disease, a sign being an ammonia type of odour on the breath. She would have never made it more than two dinners had she not introduced us to the business that supplies us our fare. Before then, acquiring meat was a risky pastime. It is true to say that most cannibals end up either serving time in prison, or on the mortuary table due to food poisoning. The Company, and that's all we know it by, negates the hassle and the danger. M has acquired a discount of 25%, which she lets us take advantage of from time to time. How she accrued this concession is as much a mystery as the contents of her braised roulade.
As my guests take their seats, and I present the first course of pâté, it is Hockley that speaks first.
"And who is joining us tonight?"
Hockley takes great pride in knowing the origins of the provisions, a time honoured screening process that has elevated his stomach to mythical proportion.
"A missionary," I tell him. "Came into a bit of trouble when visiting a village in Peru."
"Trouble?" asks Lady Betwixt adjusting her breasts that are almost pouring out of the corset she is wearing. "Please tell me it wasn't by infection? You know my tolerance toward contaminated meat. I can't have another episode like the one in Greece."
From what we understand, while holidaying in Greece a few years back, Lady Betwixt had hired two local men to "acquire" a young female. The Greek equivalent of Burke and Hare decided instead to get drunk on ouzo all afternoon and then steal a corpse from the local hospital. Unbeknownst to them the woman they stole had died due to complications of trichinosis. Hartley went to great detail about trichinosis, but all I remember from the conversation is that it's a parasite, a roundworm, and that the Trichinella larvae form cysts in meat. It sounds very grusome, but stomach acid can dissolve the cysts and release worms into the body which make their way to the small intestine and grow into adult worms and mate, which makes more larvae. The dead woman must have ate some bad meat, and as a result of eating the woman, Lady Betwixt spent a large proportion of the holiday discharging from both ends before undergoing treatment to purge her system of the parasite.
I assure her the flesh is fine, "The Peru incident happened ten years ago. He died of an embolism two weeks ago. I mention it because the menu stated Southern-fried forearms. Sadly, the missionary lost both his arms in a freak accident involving a cart and a village cow so I've opted for the leg instead. To make up for the shortage, I have barbecued testicles and giblets as a side dish."
Lady Betwixt seems relieved and begins spreading the missionary's liver onto a small piece of toast.
"The menu is not as original as I had hoped," says Hartley swilling a fine Rhône wine around his glass.
"And why is that?" I ask.
"In the Hebei province three years ago, a priest, who had been shot by a fellow seminarian due to evangelistic activities in the countryside, had been served up for myself and two other surgeons."
Hockley jumps in, "They were lovers?"
"Who? The surgeons?" asks Hartley.
"The priest and the seminarian. I assume evangelistic activities is maybe a euphemism."
Hockley stops swirling the glass, "Why are you always so keen to know the granular detail in everything that is presented to you? I have no idea if they were lovers. It was conveyed that the man was a parish priest at Beihezhuang and was running his ministry without official registration from the Bureau of Religious Affairs."
"So you agree there was an affair?" replies Hockley, smarmily.
"If we cannot speak civilly, then I think it's best we don't speak at all," replies Hartley.
Lady Betwixt chips in, "Gentleman, please. We are all adults here, and while I enjoy a little good-natured repartee, I am keen to know more about the priest. How was he served?"
Hartley throws a wary glance at Hockley before continuing, "Sweet and sour on a bed of Bok Choy."
"The Lord giveth and the Chinese take-away," quips Hockley. The remark even cracked a smile on M's strait-laced face.
"It isn't easy acquiring clergy these days," I say. "A few years ago I remember when we had a fine choice of any demographic; pious, politicians, pacifists, royalists, feminists…"
"Ah! The feminists. Always a little tough and bitter for my taste," replies Hockley.
"And now, we're reduced to amputees and midgets," I tell them.
Hartley adds, "People are living longer, medicine is getting better. At the hospital, we have seen a ten percent reduction in coronary bypasses in the last twelve months. I can't remember the last time I fitted a pacemaker."
"I cannot go back to the days of getting one's hands bloody," says Lady Betwixt.
"Too true," says Hockley. "I heard on the grapevine a German composer is facing a double life sentence because his hired killer made a deal with the police to avoid going to prison. Some people have no morals."
"I'm sure it won't be long before we are forced to eat cattle," says Hartley.
"Perish the thought!" replies Hockley.
After the pâté I open up a bottle of Mosel Riesling and serve the main and side dishes, and while the conversation veers toward more amiable subjects such as the global economical downturn, fractions within the government, the origins of Christianity and the extortionate cost of sex toys (it seems Lady Betwixt owns a fair few), I felt we were all concerned about the future of our dinner parties. With less natural death, the future was bleak for the humble cannibal.
The following month we attended Hartley's plush penthouse apartment located in the affluent area of St Johns. He has acquired, over many years behind the scalpel, the skills necessary to remove the tenderloin to make a kind of Chateaubriand, a process that involved removing the psoas major muscle, which he later moistened with a demi-glace and served with root vegetables. C'est très magnifique! Lady Betwixt served beef Wellington and poached meatballs in brandy at our next meeting, and regaled us with tales of her recent foray in archery, a leisurely activity that saw to it we had provisions for the evening, but no house cleaner. Hockley had a buffet style presentation where the finger food was literary that, and the sausage rolls were enough to make any man wince. Then it was M's turn.
We received M's invitation by letter. No postmark or stamp. Instructions were given to gather at an old abattoir in the middle of a small rural village outside of the city, promptly at eight. The invite also extended to another person, which we all assumed meant that we needed to bring some choice cuts ready for M to cook. Hockley had already ringed me to voice his disapproval the week before, believing that it wasn't fair for guests to provide the food. He had no qualms with bringing a bottle, but to use up his dwindling stock was an outrage. And while I agreed with his reasoning, I couldn't help feel that M had fallen on hard times and we should be as accommodating as possible. On every occasion M hosted a dinner party, we never attended the same residence. She had inferred long ago that she never could settle in one place long enough, and so we assumed that the places we visited were temporary accommodation, or a friend's place hired out for the evening. Her regular attire had me believing she was underprivileged, and could only afford the one outfit, the whiff of urine a consequence of the garments regular wear. I could not see, based on these deductions, how M could afford to pay for any food, this is why I believe The Company had endorsed the discount, presumably a gift for bringing in extra members. Commission, if you will.
I rang The Company enquiring about a body the day after receiving M's invitation. Dahmer and I had seen off most of my frozen reserves and save for an accountant's hand, I had little to provide the banquet. The receptionist gave me the customary pleasantries and a list of available produce that had come in that week: a cripple with lymphatic issues, a paratrooper whose chute had failed (only recommended for mincing), seven vagrants, two paedophiles, another midget and an alcoholic who had died of emphysema. I asked what was available from their existing stock, hoping there may have been an adolescent involved in a fatal car crash, or one who had committed suicide, the victim of unrequited love, but the receptionist informed me that due to the number of teenagers on prescribed anti-depressants, the death rate had plummeted. The Company had also noted, over the period of two years, that those who fed on the flesh of adolescents taking Prozac and Lithium experienced impotence, insomnia, abnormal ejaculation and hot flashes, which is why they have stopped stocking manic-depressives. They did have a circus clown that had been trampled on by an elephant. I gave her my account number and confirmed my address. If nothing else, the clown's flesh may help lighten the mood of the evening.
I arrive at the disused abattoir a little later than expected. The only light on offer came from the moon, its charity dusting the adjoining pastures in an atomic hue before throwing a black veil over the two rectangular outbuildings. Three cars appear at rest in the loading area, the ticking of the cooling engines sounding like rump frying in a skillet – Lady Betwixt's Land Rover, Hartley's Mercedes S Class, and Hockley's Jaguar XK120, a fine car that seems to lose all its appeal with its rotund master at the wheel. The lairage, the first of the large shelter-like buildings fashioned from sheets of corrugated steel, seems the only construction with an obvious entrance. Inside, large pens have survived the extradition by what appears to be tenacity and heavy duty mounting plates, something my feet seem only happy to stumble over whenever they drift from the main passageway. From afar, I make out a series of curved corals that lead toward another building, which I assume will be the slaughterhouse. I throw my voice to all four walls of the lairage and await a reply other than that of my own echo. The howling of a disoriented wind squeezing through the rafters assures me that the world is still functioning beyond this place where time seems as much a casualty as the many cattle that have passed through its doors. The small cooler bag that holds the clown's gizzards, neck, most of his organs and calf muscle weighs heavy in my hand, and as I take every cautionary step toward my dinning guests, I feel a sense of absurdity toward the scene. As I rest for a moment before a pig scalder my mood is again sobered by the history of the surroundings, and the horror that lies within.
Inside the large round drum is the unmistakable body of Reginald Hockley. Like the dead pig that would have been dragged to the scalder, his skin is completed removed along with his hair. What is strange, more so than seeing Hockley's head bear a striking resemblance to that of an open pomegranate, is that I don't scream. I find the image of the fat man alluring. I can only assume I have become desensitised by years of extraction, peeling, boiling, basting, carving and chopping of humans. I even feel my hand extend and the index finger outstretch to sweep up the remnants of congealed blood smeared across his skull. I don't because I am distracted by a cry like that of an animal caught in a trap. Through the smog of night air, I hasten my pace toward the sound and into an area where steel hooks hang from gantries. There, skewered by a thick silver hook and hanging upside down with her throat cut, is Lady Betwixt. Thick syrupy blood pools below her head and the sound of life spilling from her throat reminds me of bathwater draining from a plughole. Gravity has forced her breasts to fall out of her low cut blouse, and in dim shade that contains but a whisper of light her nipples are black in colour and her breasts grey. I place my palm in the pool and it warms me. I look to Lady Betwixt and tell her she has the most beautiful blood I have ever seen. She gurgles her thanks. The tiled floor taps out footsteps that remind me this isn't over, and that there is still Hartley and M to find. I look around for a weapon and remove one of the S-shaped hooks lined up next to the inverted Lady Betwixt. I enter a third area with large steel tables and loading trays and containers. Shadows huddle in the corners like mischievous children, and what little light collapses from the glass roof above me, enables a quick navigation through the narrow passageways. I have arrived in the cutting room it seems, and while I am no Sherlock Holmes, it doesn't take a detective to figure out one of the containers holds either M or Hartley. Neither am I surprised when I find it is the latter of two. In a strange turn of events, Hartley has been masterfully cut up into prime cuts, and I believe, had he been alert to observe the work, would have been suitably impressed.
As I remove his forearm and hold it against my face to feel the warmth of his skin, I reflect on the moment when M had allowed us a glimpse into her life. It was a rare occurrence, which is why it probably sticks out more than any other conversation spoken at either of our dining tables. We were all eating bœuf à la bourguignonne mete out by the hand of Hartley, and M without prompt tells us all that, "There were tribes in Australia that would eat parts of their enemies to gain power; the brain was consumed for knowledge, the heart for courage, legs for speed and the tongue for bravery. If transubstantiation is the embodiment of cannibalism, even Christ is prepared to offer Himself and his abilities to us all. For years, I believed the powers of all those I had eaten would fill the emptiness within me, that the wit of the comedian would replace my solemnity, the grace of the ballet dancer my clumsy feet, the benevolence of the Samaritan, my apathy toward humankind. And there lies the dilemma; even with a thousand lives packed inside, can one be satisfied knowing there are a billion more lives to be had?" It appears M had earned her discount from the Company many times, and as I glanced upon the pale shadow cleaver above my shadow head, and breathed in the ammonia smell Hartley had diagnosed as kidney disease, I wondered what trait M will take from me. I guess I will never know.