As usual the train arrived twenty minutes early, but I had already missed the opening ceremony. The station was a boisterous profusion of noise and colour. Down platform three marched the Band of the Queen’s Own Gay Gordons, immaculately turned out in their famous ceremonial lime green leotards with mink stoles and tiaras, strumming the prelude from Bach’s English Suite Number One in A on their ukuleles. On the opposite platform a circus performance was in full swing, with jugglers, acrobats and clowns.
Lions leapt through flaming hoops to the order of swarthy men in red uniforms, uttering guttural commands in a language I didn’t recognise. A troupe of elephants bedecked in gold and purple sashes with glittering diamante straps and head feathers serenely trumpeted a Magnificat Antiphon from fourteenth century Spain. Fifty feet above the platform, and without a safety net, a group of American trapeze artists were in the middle of their act, their guide dogs waiting patiently below. The artists gyrated and tumbled in mid-air, cannoning off each other like billiard balls intent on disobeying Newton’s laws, describing incandescent arcs in the air. These sightless aeronauts defied gravity and landed safely on the platform. The crowd, a living creature, breathed and held its breath in unison with the daredevil performance above, gasping in terror as one artist flew into the void, only to roar with relief as she rebounded off a colleague and spiralled up to regain the safety of the platform. She bowed and curtseyed, and then lit the fuse of a small cannon situated on the platform. Everything stopped. Silence! Hearts in mouths, a fizz and a bang, followed by a thrill of delight as the explosion released a cloud of lotus and jasmine petals which floated gently down, settling on the heads of the crowd.
A woman dressed in the manner of an Odalisque carrying a boa constrictor was waving wildly at me, gesticulating vigorously with her wrist on the opposite platform. She was screaming at me as loud as she could, but the din made it impossible for me to hear what she was saying. Behind her a small group of circus performers, a clown, Pierrot and Columbine eyed me up shiftily.
A passing bishop grasped my arm firmly and took me to one side. ‘It’s alright,’ he said. ‘She’s reminding you of the time; you mustn’t forget the time. You know why you are here, don’t you? You must go soon; go now, quickly before it’s too late!’
With heaviness I made my way towards the exit. It was good to be back in Barnsley. Little had changed since my last visit, but once outside the railway station the town appeared deserted. There was no traffic, and the only sign of life was a disconsolate pack of dogs foraging for food on the other side of the Square. It was hot. The sun streamed across the empty piazza throwing long melancholy shadows across the flags. In the distance, shimmering in the haze of a summer afternoon, the majestic ochre dome of the cathedral towered over the townscape. The beauty of Brunelleschi’s long-forgotten Yorkshire masterpiece was bewitching. Somewhere in the distance a train whistled; its smoke curled over the roof of the arcade whose dazzling white marble columns contrasted starkly with the undulating black arches receding into the distance. I longed to be in the cool of the arcade but I was hungry and there was no sign of a restaurant.
There was no sound; everything had fallen still. The late afternoon light filled the square with an unnatural radiance. I began to feel uneasy. What was the woman with the boa constrictor trying to tell me? Somehow I knew that she was trying to warn me. How did the bishop know why was I here? Fear dwelt in the pit of my stomach; something terrible was about to happen.
A crescent moon sagged in the darkening eastern sky as I headed back towards the arcade, and a group of people emerged from the shadowy cloisters. It was the saltimbanques I had seen in the station. There was a Harlequin and a dusty Pierrot, and clinging to his arm a Columbine so fat that it seemed that one push would make her roll like a ball across the piazza. Behind them staggered a one-legged Pantaloon on crutches clutching an empty bottle of gin, and an elderly weeping clown, his tears forming pink and white rivulets in the crags and cracks of his melting face.
‘Do you know if there’s a restaurant near here?’ I addressed the Harlequin.
‘There’s no point speaking to him,’ said Columbine, scratching her arse. ‘He’s deaf.’
‘Oh.’ I said. ‘Well can you tell me if there’s a restaurant nearby?’
‘Yes,’ she sniggered. There was a pause; I waited. The drunken Pantaloon swayed and smirked at her. She winked back. The sobbing continued.
‘Well, can you tell me?’ I repeated my request, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in their presence.
‘Well? Well what?’ leered Columbine.
‘I asked if you knew of any restaurants nearby.’
‘Yes!’ She shouted back impatiently. ‘I already told you.’ She fiddled about with her capacious bra trying to reorganise her breasts. The elderly clown continued sobbing to himself.
‘Tell ‘im…tell that useless shit to shut the fuck up.’ barked the Pantaloon. In desperation I continued.
‘Well, if you know where the restaurant is, would you please tell me?’
‘Oh I am sorry.’ She said in mock contrition. ‘I just thought you wanted to know whether I knew that there was a restaurant near here. You didn’t actually ask me to tell you where it is. If you want food, the Dining Room is right here.’ she pointed back into the darkness of the arcade.
They followed me into the arcade and I approached a reinforced door with a small plate glass window. Just above the door was a closed circuit television camera, and on the lintel an intercom. She pressed the button and almost immediately a voice replied.
‘We’ve got another one for you,’ replied the Columbine yawning.
The door opened automatically and I found myself pressed into a small, intimate room heavily draped in red velvet. Underfoot my feet sunk into the rich pile of an expensive carpet. The walls were covered with photographs of the Romanovs, pictures of Nicholas the Second’s coronation in the Kremlin, and dozens of portraits of the children. Here and there burnished icons repeated the glow of a dozen candles, the only source of light in the room. In the centre was an immaculate dinner table set for a single person, but there was a peculiar smell. The room stank of unwashed men’s bodies, stale cigarette smoke and disinfectant. The circus troupe left by a small curtain at the back. A heavy silence descended. No movement, no sound.
‘Hello! Is there anyone in?’ I shouted. The drapes deadened my voice, making it sound hollow and lifeless.
‘Hello?’ This time the curtain drew back and two identical waiters dressed in white tuxedos and dark glasses appeared. Both had brilliantined black hair plastered down and ruler-straight central partings.
‘I’m hungry.’ I said. ‘You are open?’
‘Yes,’ they replied as one. ‘We have been waiting for you.’
‘But I have no reservation.’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said one.
‘You are expected. Everyone is so pleased that you decided to return that as soon as we heard you were in town we made sure that everything was ready,’ said the other.
‘But I don’t think I’ve ever been to this restaurant before.’ I replied.
‘Of course.’ added the first waiter, or was it the second. It was hard to tell. They were so alike.
‘Please be seated,’ said the second.
‘And we’ll bring you the menu,’ said the first, drawing back the chair for me to sit down. The other left through the curtain and returned almost immediately with the menu.
‘Please take your time,’ he said. ‘We are here only to serve you.’
I studied the menu as the waiters watched solicitously, one either side of the curtain. In hushed tones they continued a conversation that my arrival must have interrupted.
‘My dear Claude, I am sorry to have to disagree with you, but you are quite wrong. Steak Tartare is by far and away the best way to enjoy a good steak, I heard Professor Jerkov giving a paper on the subject last year at the conference.’
‘How can you say that, Ivan? Why, only yesterday you were admiring Dr. Sherman’s Steak Diane.’
‘But that’s only because I admire his technical ability.’ I looked up and caught Claude’s eye.
‘Excuse me, I’m awfully sorry to trouble you, but I’m a vegetarian.’
‘Yes, we know,’ said Ivan looking at Claude and gesturing to him with his head to the curtain behind. ‘So tell me, why don’t you eat meat?’
‘Several reasons I suppose. There are the effects of intensive farming on animal welfare, and the business of the world shortage of food. You could feed six people with the grain it takes to feed one cow. Then there’s the environmental cost. Cows burping and farting methane into the atmosphere contribute to global warming. Most of all I suppose it’s an aesthetic thing. I just don’t like the texture and taste of meat. I never have, not since I was eight years old’
‘Well I’ve never heard of anything so dangerous or stupid before. You must be mad.’ Ivan’s voice was raised. ‘How can you possibly live like that? Human beings are carnivores, born meat eaters. Meat is necessary to preserve a healthy metabolism.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ added Claude. ‘And it’s an insult to our values and way of life. If this subversive idea caught on it would erode the cultural and moral fabric of our society. No. We cannot tolerate such seditious beliefs. Ivan, we must act.’ He pressed a button on the wall, and from deep inside the building a gong sounded, not any gong but the deep sonorous chime of a Balinese gong.
At first nothing happened, so I waited, breath held, uncertain what was going on. Then after a few seconds I gradually became aware of a murmuring and shuffling of feet as a group of shadowy figures appeared through the curtain. It was the saltimbanques, carrying a variety of rubber tubes, kidney dishes, a big glass syringe with a valve at the end, large stainless steel clamps, and a bell jar filled with a thick brown liquid. I decided to ignore my hunger and escape while I could. I stood up but before I could move, I was flattened back into my chair by the clowns. The one-legged pantaloon moved with amazing alacrity, grasped me from behind and forced my head back with his crutch, which he held across my throat. The Clown, still sobbing piteously, tied me to the chair with a piece of rope. Claude and Ivan looked on in triumph. The grinning Harlequin gripped my head, and Columbine brought forward the jar of brown fluid.
‘Please let me go!’ I shouted. ‘What are you going to do to me?’
‘Tonight you will eat meat.’ said Ivan as he connected the syringe to the jar with a tube.
‘What’s in that thing?’ I struggled desperately to break free.
‘Meat! Best Yorkshire beef, lamb and pork. It won’t harm you. It’s good for you. It will make you feel better.’ said Ivan.
‘But I don’t feel ill. Why do you want to force me to eat something that it’s against my principles to eat?’ I asked. ‘What difference does it make to you or anyone else if I choose not to eat meat?’
‘ Difference? What difference? Why that’s precisely the point.’ retorted Claude. ‘Come on! Let him have it, Ivan!’
Pantaloon forced my head back, almost breaking my neck with his crutch; the grinning Harlequin pinched my nose. I struggled for breath and fought as hard as I could, but it was useless. They had me, and as I gasped and gulped for air, the syringe was in my mouth and the sickly thick pulp coursed down my gullet.
Copyright Philip Thomas, 2008