White coat doffed, Borset leads me past the meat to a plain back room. He brews me tea from a bag, and almost tears the white deal cupboard from the wall in his search for a saucer. He drinks his from a mug which declares him the World’s Greatest something. The precise field of his pre-eminence is obscured by a fat pinkie. He asks me how Lulu is, shyly laying down this conversational token like a child’s last penny at a Skee Ball stand. I feel he is on the verge of addressing me as Squire. My small rush of affection is stemmed, however, by a glimpse of his shirtcuff’s underside. It is streaked with blood.
My stomach tilts. It is as if I have just realised that Deanna Durbin’s lollipop is in fact an eyeball on a stick. I am conscious suddenly of the stench of fresh death. Even as I answer his query, I am trying to breathe into only the topmost vault of lung. My voice comes out as a herniated gurgle. I sound like the Queen Mother. Is it my imagination, or does he reverently sit a little straighter?
“I’ve been sad too,” he replies. He wants to elaborate, but his small purse of words is evidently emptied. He sees now that I am staring at his cuff, but his moon face is a stranger to the blush of shame. He picks at the stiffening gore with a distant thumbnail. World’s Greatest Murderer, I decide.
“You know the animals we eat,” he begins.
I cut him off. “Please do not include me in your troupe of savages.”
“It’s because their meat has names,” he persists. “Cow is beef. Calf is veal. Deer is venison. Dog and horse are just dog and horse.”
My brain lights up. Could I convert the world simply through proper labelling? Let no-one cloak their savagery in euphemism, and the world might recoil from the brute fact of it.
“This is something you could do,” he says. I am astonished at the accuracy with which he seems to have read my thoughts. But no. His telepathic ineptitude is matched only by his cruelty.
“Come up with a word for horsemeat,” he says, “and I could have three shops by Easter.” He seems not to notice me clawing at the air. “I’ve thought of rallop,” he goes on. “From ride and gallop. Rallop.” He repeats it with such relish it seems his mouth is already brimming with foal.
“Anyway, you’re the wordsmith,” he continues, tranquilly gathering the sherds of my crockery from the grey marmoleum. “I’m sure you could do better.”
He does not sound at all sure. I add that dubiety to his swelling debit list and leave with a cold farewell.
I lunched with Ms Durbin once, in Winnipeg. We bonded over her Lancastrian heritage and a shared distaste for the Renoir family. I was kind about Can’t Help Singing (perhaps a little too kind: I was lush with eggnog), and she thanked me oddly as she left for “making an old man happy.”
Her feet were enormous. Looking back now, I begin to doubt that it was her.