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It lay broken on the soaking, dark grey floor of the back yard. The air smelled of blood and shit. Exhausted, Jim dropped his hammer into a bucket of cold water, shivered, spat, sat down and rolled and lit a cigarette, looking at the pig’s corpse as the late afternoon faded into evening.

Jim took his time finishing the cig, then flicked the doused end over the wall onto the lavvy roof, stood up slowly testing his knees with the palms of his hands, straightened, loaded the pig onto a wheelbarrow, its head lolling over the wheeled end, and backed out of the yard into the path that led to his brother’s house on the hill. Ali had all the knives and tools and space to butcher and cure the pig, but not the stomach to actually kill it, nor the means to get to Jim’s place to help shift the corpse. That’s what he said, anyway. Useless plamff had a car, didn’t he? Bought it for cash a few years ago from some character in Alness. No heater, the windows rattled and it wouldn’t stay in gear on an incline, but it did for Ali. Drove it everywhere. Loved it, his first and only car. Kept the tank filled and the oil topped up, the tyre pressure and treads checked, the lights working. Always drove under the speed limit and checked everyone wore their seat belts, even in the back. Mustn’t have it messed up, though, and never with a dead body, oh no. Thought the broken-down old heap was a luxury motor the way he went on about it. Fine for delivering phet, smack, hash and pills, collecting debts owed and taxiing strays and runaways around who couldn’t use the trains or the buses to get about without being huckled, but nothing that leaked. He wouldn’t let anyone ride in it if they had a cig or a coffee.


Still, it never got pulled over by the cops, didn’t attract any attention at all. Maybe that was the point. Going out on the road with your head up your arse – brake lights out, speeding, driving without due care – what could go spectacularly wrong?

Never mind.

It was a long way out to the house and it took Jim the best part of an hour to reach the place, with the weight of the pig and the wheelbarrow and through a constant steady rain which made the cobbled path more slippery and treacherous than usual.

It was nearly Christmas, and the family tradition at mealtimes, revived just between the brothers who remained, consisted of eating pork they’d reared, killed and prepared themselves. Brawn and sausages, bacon, chops, belly, ears for the dogs and cats. All of the pig was used, its guts and other inedible parts given to the next generation of pigs to fatten upon. This year’s pig was the biggest Jim had seen, and the most vicious. Twelve stone of fat, bristled flesh. Sharp-toothed, sly, clever, quick. The joke between the brothers was that if they’d put a bonnet and a tabard on the pig, it would have been Grandma Fi’s double in looks as well as temperament. In fact, ‘Fiona’ was Jim’s pet name for it, something he kept from other people, helping him no end in the killing right from when he’d tiptoed up behind the unsuspecting animal and hit it over the head the first time to when he’d finished it off while it gurgled, snorted and growled, his hands red raw from the effort and his shoulder muscles tense and cramping.

Jim wasn’t making much progress. The soreness in his hands made hard work of gripping the wheelbarrow’s cold metal handles and he felt light-headed and tired, not concentrating on the path or where he put his feet. Several times he slipped on the path, now grown more pitted and earthen than at the start. He was determined to get to his brother’s house, though, so bit his bottom lip to fight the pain in his hands and carried on pushing upwards, into the hill, pausing to spit a viscous white phlegm on the ground which made his lungs burn but the lightness in his head feel more bearable.

It was fully dark now, and Jim couldn’t see the path in front of him. He calculated that he was very near to his brother’s house, willing the place to appear soon, its outside light on, chimney smoke, the short downward track to the yard. His breath was white in the air and came out noisily, hacking and strange, like someone else was following closely behind him on a similar errand. He stopped, shivered and looked around. Just the wind, the dark sky, the stars, the wheelbarrow, the dead pig. He rubbed the palms of his hands together, wincing at the sting of the blisters, thinking how red and damaged they would be when he examined them later on, Ali popping open a bottle and making a joke of it all. He went on.

At last, below where he stood, there was his brother’s place. The outside light was on, illuminating shadows cast by the outbuildings. No smoke came from the chimney and Jim couldn’t tell whether anyone was at home or walking around. As he closed the distance, the atmosphere of stillness and utter quiet grew eerie, alien. Usually someone was about, Ali or a paying guest, at all hours, making a row or a racket. Not this time.

He stood in the yard, parking the wheelbarrow under the front room window. The curtains were open and the room on the other side was dark. All Jim could see as he peered in, shielding his eyes, was the empty hearth. He went round to the back door and knocked, rang the bell, flapped the letter box, waited. No answer, so he tried a second time. Nothing. He pushed at the door with his shoulder, gripped and turned the knob. It was solid, locked. The letter box flap. Of course, ya donkey. He lifted it up and crouched, leaning forward to squint. The light in the hall was off. No music or voices or creaking.

Someone playing silly buggers? Ready to jump out and say, ‘Well, well, well, young Master McPhee. And what do we have here? You have been a naughty boy? It would be like old Zeb to do that, or cousin Ray, especially that fat bastard. But Zeb and Ray hadn’t been around for years because they weren’t welcome anymore after they beat up Ali’s ex-boyfriend. And it was definitely not like Ali, he wasn’t the playful type. Gone out visiting or stuck somewhere, delayed, taking a collection, on an errand? Could be. Unlikely, given that Ali knew weeks ago what Jim had planned for the pig, how it was going to work out, when to expect delivery, the lot.

Not impossible, though.  Especially if there was cash involved. Ali liked cash nearly as much as he loved his car.  Then he’d leave a note. Or maybe —

Ach. Fuck it.

There was a water butt by the door. Its top was held in place by a brick. Jim picked up the brick and broke the front room window, clearing the glass from the frame so he wouldn’t get cut. It sounded loud, louder than any sound of breaking glass he’d ever heard, so he paused, listening, expecting a tap on the shoulder, a breath on his neck, before he climbed through the gap into the dark.

On the wall nearest to him was a switch. He tried it and a dim glow came from the bare bulb hanging from far up in the centre of the ceiling. The mantelpiece: his reflection, startled, in the big mirror above; Christmas cards arranged in order of height, the clock Ali inherited stopped at noon or midnight. Down and to the right, the TV on its stand, rabbit-ear antennae. Behind it the huge plastic tree, sparsely decorated with baubles and tinsel and fake snow, a gauze-winged angel impaled. The sofa and armchairs arranged around the TV, yesterday’s paper on the floor next to the phone, an ashtray full of stubbed-out cigs and cherry pips on the arm of one of the chairs. Ali’s walking sticks leaning against the door leading to the kitchen and the stairs. Jim picked one of the sticks up, put the other one on the sofa, held it like a club and slapped the door open, standing back in case someone was waiting on the other side, went through. Kitchen first.

It was as empty as the front room. Plates and cutlery on the table, set for four, curtains open, no clutter. No bread in the toaster, the cooker switched off and the hob cold to the touch. No water in the kettle. The fridge contained a pint of milk, a wedge of cheese that had gone off and was greening at the corners, two bottles of cider and two sausages wrapped in greaseproof paper. No used glasses or cups, no crumbs, none of the usual dishes waiting to be washed and piled in the sink. Not even a drip from the taps.

By this time, Jim really needed a smoke so he put the walking stick down on the table, got out his tobacco pouch, lighter and rolling papers  and made himself a rollie blowing smoke all over the room. The hit of nicotine made him dizzy after all his exertions and he sat down heavily on one of the hard wooden chairs by the table, smoking and breathing until his head cleared and he felt like exploring the house more thoroughly. He was tempted to drink the cider in the fridge, could almost taste it ice-cold and strong filling him from the boots upwards. Instead, he finished the rollie, put it out on the table and flicked the butt away into a corner, got up, took the walking stick and made for the stairs.

He switched on the landing light and went up one flight. Bedroom on his right, no door. He looked in, unwilling to intrude. Ali’s last, eh, paying guest had been a big, anonymous, rough-looking bastard who acted like a Rottweiler with a sore cock. This time, the bed was unoccupied, thank fuck, and neatly made. He went in. A small room, this one. Apart from the bed, there was a three-mirrored dressing table with shallow drawers that contained a selection of perfumed silk scarves, bandages still in their wrappings, costume jewellery, paper clips and a New Testament, all belonging to his and Ali’s Mam who’d died last year. He backed out of the room and crept up the stairs to the next floor: the bathroom and his brother’s bedroom.

The bath was dusty with an inch-thick covering of grey fuzz. Two large black spiders faced off against each other, one under the taps and the other at the far end under the towel rail. The sink was clean and dry, no signs of hair or toothpaste or soap. The toilet seat was up. Reluctantly, Jim glanced downwards. No marks or splashes, nothing floating. In a pint glass by the sink there was a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, the glass spotted with old white stains and, inside the base, an accumulation of brown drips. He didn’t check the cabinet, knowing that he wouldn’t find anything there.

Ali’s bedroom: double bed stripped to the mattress, wardrobe and drawer unit: suits, ties, socks, trousers, underwear, shoes worn for best, dirty shot glasses, stack of frayed porn mags bursting out of an A4 envelope, empty whisky bottle, birthday cards, shop receipts, bank statements, bills, letters on foxed, thin paper, an old biscuit tin, a magnet, a cricket ball and a collection of dried-up, gnawed and splintered bookie-sized biros.

The clothes all looked as if they’d never been worn, and Jim could not remember ever seeing his brother in a suit apart from at their Mam’s funeral. Clatty, cheapo bastard didn’t change his outfit: black vest, check shirt, crinkly jeans, boots and an army parka. Mam always said he looked like a jaikey. Sometimes, for the butchering and other messy stuff, he’d wear an apron, an old stripey effort that was more blood than apron. Ali’s accessories consisted of a flat cap and woollen fingerless gloves he kept in the parka pocket in summer and never took off at any other time. And that was it.

The porn? Well, he expected as much. He didn’t look through it, not his business, and went on looking, rummaging for something more interesting. Birthday cards, receipts and bank statements and bills he didn’t look at. The letters were all dated to at least ten years previous and he couldn’t read the writing, all italic, spidery, blotched. Nothing to hold his attention.

He found a suitcase under the bed, a large ancient grey and red thing with latch fastenings, bowed outwards at the centre. Dragging it out, he could feel its weight, the resistance of the contents on the dusty hard plastic handle. The locks were broken, so it was easily opened. Inside he found a pair of silver candlesticks, a large white-metal cross, priest’s garb, a communion wine chalice, an embroidered altar cloth and three painted icon panels depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Anne and the Baby Jesus. He put it all back into the suitcase, picked it up and left the room, going downstairs again.

While in the lower part of the house, he checked the pantry and the utility room: spare house keys hung on a hook, cans of beans, a steam iron, a sack full of empty bottles. Electric cables twisted together in a shopping bag. Washing machine, a knackered hoover. The freezer.

The freezer body-sized, six feet long and four feet deep and wide. It was where they’d stored the pigs after butchering, the parts they were going to save or sell off.

How big was Ali? Five-six or-seven? Skinny with it. Not a peck on him, as Mam said. He’d fit easily. If someone had, you know, chopped him up first.

Get a grip. Too much TV. No psychos or cannibals round here. Well, not that many.

Open it.

He pushed up hard on the freezer’s lid, breaking the crust of ice formed around the seal. It gave with a cracking sound and from inside came a cloud of, what, steam, smoke, condensed frozen air?

Ah, fuck it.

He looked inside and, beneath a layer of bags of frozen peas, he found, not his brother’s dismembered remains but a lumpy black refuse bag tied at the top. Holding it by the ears, he carried it back into the kitchen and dumped it on the table where it subsided and rustled. Jim tore it open along one side revealing a nest of smaller semi-transparent sandwich bags containing rolls of bank notes held in place by rubber bands: what looked at first like tens, twenties, fifties all bundled together. Twelve bags in all, plus a large brown envelope sealed inside a document wallet. The envelope had his name on it, printed in big black capitals. Jim started with the sandwich bags, prising them apart.

Six bags had, fuck me, thirty thou in fifties.

Four bags contained twenty thou in twenties, and the tenner bundles came to another twenty thou. Seventy thousand beautiful pounds stacked before him on the kitchen table. And with only a dead pig for company.

And for a long, long time, all Jim did was stare at the money he’d found. Occasionally he’d pick up a note or two and rub them between his fingers, put them down on the table and smile as he rolled and lit a cigarette or drummed with his fists or blew kisses to an invisible audience.

Then he thought about the envelope. What was that all about?

He unbuttoned the document wallet, extracted the envelope and cut the gummed flap open with a steak knife he found in one of the drawers. Picked out what was inside.

It was a Christmas card. A fucking Christmas card. Not something he’d ever had from his brother before. On the cover was a cartoon of Santa Claus flying over rooftops in his sleigh throwing out brightly wrapped presents as he went. Inside, beneath a simple wish for ‘A Merry Christmas’, Ali had written just two words: ‘Be careful’. That was all.

What the fuck did that mean? Careful?

Plamff. What have you been up to? And where are you? Not a great time to go all Marie Celeste.

Enough of the woo-woo. Where next?

The pig shed. He’ll be in there, waiting for me. Big smiles, saying nothing, cleaning the old banger, knowing I’ll turn up like a mug with a wheelbarrow and a dead sow, hay and shite in my ears, all questions. Bastard.


The pig shed was a large wooden structure with a rusty corrugated iron roof where they did their butchering. It was also the only building with enough spare space to park a car. Usually padlocked, it stood apart from the main house by itself on the edge of a neighbour’s field. Jim stood up, looked once at the money and left it there on the table and hurried over to the shed.

The doors, mismatched, chipped and grimy, were wide open. Jim paused, wishing he’d brought a torch with him, or had a knife or a pickaxe handle or Ali’s walking stick, something to grip to chase away the fear of finding his brother hanging from a beam or in bloody bits scattered around the floor.

Someone could be waiting for him. Someone with a gun or an axe or a big dog. Ready to kill or maim him in some spectacular way or lock him in and burn the fucking place down. He kept going. Sniffed and spat, expecting to be knocked unconscious and left there to die.

Don’t be fucking daft.

He knew there was a light switch somewhere beside the entrance, but he’d forgotten exactly where it was. Besides, his eyes were adjusting to the dark and he could see as well as he needed: grey shapes of differently sized structures and implements.

He felt his way, touching the wall, keeping to the perimeter, feeling the handles of the knives and hammers his brother had installed there all in order.

He completed one circuit of the building, finding nothing unusual. The big table in the centre of the space still there, bare and flat, smooth stone with a channel cut along one side for blood and a trough underneath for guts and other stuff. The emptiness, the lack of habitation, got to him. And something else. Something missing.

The car. His brother’s car. The old banger. It was gone.

Jim could just make out the tyre marks where it had been driven away through the muck of the yard and up towards the road that ran between rows of tall lights turning from red to white as the sky darkened in the distance.

Hands in his pockets, he sauntered back to the house, ignoring the wheelbarrow. Let himself in and sat down on the sofa and rolled and lit the first of many cigarettes.

Okay. Drink the cider, cook and eat the sausages, have an early night, then butcher the pig and wait for Ali to show up?

Nah. Don’t be a mug.

Jim got up from the sofa, went outside and pushed the wheelbarrow and the pig through the front door and into the living room.

Lifting the pig from the front, ugh, manky fucking thing, under its oxters, he placed it onto Ali’s chair. It sat there, one intact dead eye watching him, brains, blood and bone angled outwards from one side of its head, the bulk of its corpse subsiding to the left so it looked almost relaxed, almost at home.

Jim took the wheelbarrow out of the house and left it in the yard upturned. He went back inside.

The suitcase and the money were in the kitchen. He replaced the contents of the suitcase with the cash, all of it, closed the case and took the candlesticks, cross, chalice, cloth, icons and priest’s garb into the living room where he arranged most of it under and around the pig’s feet, covering its body with the altar cloth and leaving the head poking out of the top edge.

He picked up the phone and sat with it in his lap on the sofa, called for a taxi. Twenty minutes.

He closed the curtains in all the downstairs rooms, switched off the lights, took the suitcase with the money outside to the yard, shut and locked the front door and waited, smoking a roll up, trying to ignore the smell of blood coming from his body.

© Garry Vass 2023  

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