I was born on a dark Monday in a land where an unknowable ocean tried to seduce a knowable shore with long caresses and whispers. The pretty shore wasn’t brought up that way though and cried foul. The unknowable ocean claimed it was an insane current that had made him do it, that his head had been turned by a spicy, intoxicating loose-hipped trade-wind. A seachiatrist attested to temporary insandity and eventually the charges were dropped.
Ruling aside – we, the guardians of the shore, didn’t much hold with the insandity defence and we still didn’t trust the sea. Soon after that therefore a long pier was constructed so we could keep an eye on the randy unknowable ocean, and on that pier they decided they may as well erect a new shellfish-processing plant because the old one was broken. This was the shellfish-processing plant that would mark my days and haunt my nights forever.
It happened one night on a Brownie camp-out and sausage-sizzle. We set up our tents on the windy marran grass on the machair just beyond the beach. Picture us, dear reader! See us as we sit round the camp-fire singing “Ging Gang Gooli“, and giggling through “O, ye cannie get to heaven in a girl guide’s bra ‘cos a girl guides bra don’t stretch that far“; all, rosy-cheeked and brown-bobble-hatted, woggles askew, faces smeared with ketchup, cinders and roasted marshmallow but our eyes clear and shining, our young hearts filled with wonder at the stars above and the excitement of a great adventure.
Lying in our tents later that night, transfixing daddy-long-legses with torchlight on the canvas, we laughed and shrieked at Anna’s impressive farts -better than any boy’s – until one by one everyone drifted off to Nod but me. Not nearly ready to sleep, I grabbed my torch and stole out of the tent, hopping in my sleeping-bag over the black dunes and down to the dark shore.
I heard the sea lapping at the beach and sat on the still-warm sand, hugging my knees, thrilling at how the dark brought the world back to sounds and senses and primal things. Brown Owl had told us not to leave our tents and, with a shadow crossing her face, had warned us on no account to wander out near the shellfish processing plant. I remembered her kindly face and thought of how disappointed she would be at my disobedience. But I was determined to see for myself what went on at the end of the pier. I rose and hopped ridiculously up a dune and on to the wooden pier. What work did the processors do in the middle of the night out there? I hopped on.
Creak, complained the wooden boards under my bouncing sleeping-bag. As I approached the building, I could hear voices inside, and made my way towards a window with a lobster pot underneath the sill. Several valiant hop attempts later I was up on the lobster pot and looking right into a long, starkly lit room with great steel tables, at the end of which were massive sinks filled with ice. About half a dozen people stood around in yellow wellies with white smocks and shower caps on, and great yellow rubber gloves that made their hands look grotesquely big and clowny.
Suddenly, the doors at the sea-end of the building were flung open and some men wheeled in a huge metal cart. All conversation stopped. I watched as each processor reached down into his or her smock pocket and draw out a long sharp knive, cruelly curved at the end into a hook, the whole blade like the unspeakable smirk of some devilish slasher-movie fiend. There was a moment of silence as the cart tipped and then a clattering as hungreds and hundreds of pale clams were tipped into the first ice-sink.
And that was when the screaming began. The screaming of molluscs as all hope for them faded. Mummy molluscs, Daddy molluscs and baby molluscs huddling together in terror Knowing that this was the end of their lives. I saw the processor at the first table grab a clam.
The screaming grew louder. I watched in horror as the evil hooked knife glinted in the processor’s hand and he pried the helpless clam’s shell open. Rooted to my lobster-pot I gazed at the pale and shining being inside and time slowed down as I watched the man bring his knife nearer and nearer the tiny animal. Then, for the briefest of moments I saw a tiny mouth open and two tiny red-rimmed eyes flick wide open as the most hideous, heart-breaking wail I have ever heard hit my ears… The screaming….The screaming…
Recoiling in horror I jerked suddenly and my lobster pot toppled sending me sprawling on the damp boardwalk beneath. The screaming!…The screaming!… In a half-seeing panic I tried to get up and hopped a few feet before falling on my face again, gashing my cheek on the rough wood. I had to get away! I lurched and one part hopped to two parts waddled my way back to the shore, my eyes hot and wet with what they’d witnessed and in my ears the terrible screaming, the abominable squelch as the knife sliced through living tissue.
By the time I reached the end of the pier and hurled myself down the dune, I was bleeding and snot-smeared with fear and grief. I vomited then, and every hole in my head seemed at that moment to be leaking me out, leaking out something vital, something I’d never get back. Too afraid to go back to my tent and risk my heaving sobs being heard, I flung myself down on the beach and, pulling my wooly brownie hat down over my ears, I pressed the palms my hands as hard as I could into them. I must have lain like that for an hour or more until, finally exhausted, I fell asleep.
The light was grey when I awoke, bruised from my many falls on the pier, my cheek sticky with blood and my face covered in sand. But what I remember most of all was the stillness of the air that cold morning. And the silence, the silence of the clams…
The waves lapping gently around the bottom of my sleeping bag seemed to rebuke me and all people. Who raped who? they seemed to whisper, solemnly disregarding grammatical concerns. Who raped who?
“Oh, shut up!” I said, but to this day I have never again eaten pork.