‘A thin blade does less damage.’
The guts rolled onto the marble slab. It looked like damage to me.
‘What do you do with that?’
I nodded at the little twist of innards.
‘Chuck ‘em in the bucket.’
‘Then what happens to them?’
He shrugged. I realised, bit by bit, that everyone at the processing plant only knew their part of the whole. I stood beside Mike all day – watching at first and then taking a turn with the blade. I learned that it was important to judge the depth carefully – split the intestines and you’d ruined the fish. Ruined was his word. When he spoke I felt a softening in my jaw – an urge to press my lips to his soft, mobile mouth.
We went to the pub straight from work and he bought me a half because I wouldn’t get paid until Friday and even then it wouldn’t be the full rate.
‘It’s training rates for the first four weeks, Matt. It takes a good while to hit level one.’
Mike told me he was level four now. And he told me the best thing about getting more competent wasn’t the few pence per hour more in your pay but that you could distance your mind from the actions of your hands. The slice and drop of guts was just a back-drop for him now. His mind was in the Sierra Nevada. His mind was on a horse on the edge of a canyon watching a big bird in the sky.
‘What sort of bird is it, Mike?’
He shrugged again. I was sure he knew and wouldn’t tell me. It seemed like a strange place to draw the line.
Mike’s flat overlooked the car park of the Sunblest bakery. I watched teams of men loading vans in the dawn light. Something bad was happening in Mike’s dream and he spoke some tangled words. I made us both instant coffee when he woke. He didn’t speak much – rolled a fag and told me to borrow one of his t-shirts.
I should have said no the next night. I should not have told him my plan for the weekend – to walk the canal towpath to the place where peregrines were nesting. But I did. I walked with Mike on my favourite route out of town to the place where I was safest – the edge of the quarry. I showed him the peregrine stooping. I talked like a child – on and on – and he laughed and kissed me.
Then there was the food I cooked him, the clothes we swapped from back to back, the memories I shared. Every week I flung open a new door to Mike. Standing beside him at work I felt lit up on every side. And catching his eye I felt seen like never before. I got faster with my blade but I still marvelled at his blurred hands – the slap of fish after fish on his slab. He could gut a fish faster than any man on that line.
One weekend, on the canal, we saw a boy catch a fish. I saw it thrashing in a net at his boots. I felt sick suddenly, seeing the struggle of the animal to live. It was nothing like the ones we processed. They had long since stopped being creatures in my mind. I stopped to watch.
‘Shit, Mike, look.’
He was smoking. I watched him blowing a stream of blue, steady from his beautiful mouth.
‘No, I mean, it’s really suffering.’
Mike was grinding out his cigarette on the curved edge of the railway bridge. We walked to the field again but we didn’t see the peregrines.
The next day Mike wasn’t at work. I texted him on my break but there was no reply. I asked Maxine, Gut Room Supervisor, if he’d phoned in sick. I saw shock, then pity, a kind pity but pity nonetheless, rushing over her face.
‘He’s left, Matt. Gave his notice last week.’
I cut myself worse that day than I ever have in my life. The pulse and hum of blood leaving my hand wasn’t pain for several seconds – long enough for a small stream to form and s steady drip to start falling onto my left boot. Then it was pain. Everything white. Everything burning. Everything cold. The Sierra Nevada was a film show rolling over the white walls of the gutting room.