Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone
I was born crying on an early day of frost in October 1965 and the first words that my mother ever said to me were “skin and bone”. The nurse who had placed me in her arms gently chided her, “Oh really, Mrs Lone, he’s perfectly healthy.”
“Well, he is breathing,” said my mother, with a reluctant nod. “I suppose that’s a start…”
She told this story repeatedly throughout my childhood. I’m not entirely sure why. But I know the thought that lay behind those words. After nine and a half months of pregnancy and thirty-six hours of labour, it wasn’t me that she wanted to see at all. It was her best friend Margaret’s baby, born nine months before me. Margaret had a swimming pool in her garden and the best extension on our cul-de-sac. Everything she wore, drove in or commented upon was discussed jealously in our home. When Margaret gave birth to Mark, he was commonly described as a “belting, strapping little thing”, and that is exactly how he was to grow up. Mark House, with his fair hair and his wide shoulders and his handsome smile that triggered a hundred coos from a hundred envious mothers as he was paraded around the Tonbridge Sainsbury’s in his John Lewis pushchair. Mark, with his football playing and his athletics medals and his fighting.
To my mother’s endlessly replaying disappointment, it was clear that I would never be Mark, even as a newborn. I
instinctively turned my head when someone peered down at me with their huge grown-up face, and I cried and cried and didn’t stop crying for three weeks following my birth. Doctor Feiglen assured my parents that there was nothing wrong with me, insisting to my sceptical mother that I was “just a bit colicky”. Nevertheless, my wailing continued. It did so until the day I was taken on my first visit to my great-aunt Dorothy’s peculiar old cottage deep in the Sussex Downs. Dorothy had spent the morning baking loaves and the moment the first warm, woody wafts of the bread leaked from her oven and stroked my nose, I finally stopped bawling and broke out into a gigglish grin.
And so it began. As a little boy, I was only happy when I was eating, cooking or shopping for food. When my mother was in one of her rare good moods, she’d spoil me – sometimes to the point of nausea. My most wonderful memory of her, in that period, was the evening she arrived home early from work and confessed that, as a young girl, she had loved Peach Melba Angel Delight. We drove to the shop and bought packets and packets and packets of it, then made it up in huge serving bowls, sprinkled with hundreds and thousands and Jelly Tots and glacé cherries. We gorged until she was sick. Her vomit, as I held her hand in the bathroom, smelled of the acid-sweet Martini she’d been drinking all afternoon. That night, she insisted that I go to bed with her and hug her until she fell asleep. I lay there, rigid, with my arm around her waist, until I heard her snoring, at which point I climbed over my similarly comatose father and hurried to my room.
But those were the rare times, and they grew ever more infrequent as I became older. From toddler-hood and towards double figures, I remained skin and bone, pale and nervous and rarely far from tears. I learned to do my crying in private, during the long grind of the chores which my mother – exhausted from her work as the manager of a large team of social workers – would
set me on. I found it particularly hard to hold myself firm during the last twenty minutes or so of every day, when she would conduct her brief tour of the rooms I’d been working on. The bony pad of her finger would be pressed along fridge tops and down toilet bowls and my punishment for its gathering any grime would begin with me having to suck that finger clean.
For the aspiring bullies of suburban Tonbridge, I was a mobile amusement park. I was regularly hounded by a pack of boys that lived up our cul-de-sac, led by Mark House. And at school? Well, there’s someone like me at every school. Do you remember me? I was the one with his back to the playground’s chainlink fence at break-time. I was the one whose dirty coat the popular boys would dare the skipping girls to touch. I was the one whose hair was a greasy thatch because I couldn’t stand to look in the mirror and because Mum never had time. I was the one full of tears and piss who could crumble under the force of an unsympathetic comment.
The only times I felt truly safe were when I was in my favourite place with my favourite person – the kitchen of Dor Cottage with my Great-aunt Dorothy. She was a retired cookery teacher who had long since left her small school in the nearby village of Herstmonceux. Having lost her girls for ever, she had taken to lecturing me instead. I loved her lessons. I loved the food we cooked together. And, more than anything, I loved being in her kitchen. Never before or since have I felt so powerfully that I was in an enchanted bubble, floating above the jags and bumps of real life.
Dor was the subject of an eccentric and rather eerie family legend. I listened to Dorothy recount it as she worked at the table, the flames from the fire burning in her eyes – which were long and lipped with so many folds and bags they seemed like knots in an ancient oak. As she spoke, I could sense something like fear in her, and something like awe as well. It made her
stories wonderfully beguiling. It made me love her even more.
“Have I ever told you, Kill, that this place has been in the family since 1676 and it can never be sold?” she asked. “It was built for Mary Dor, your great, great, great –well, a lot of ‘greats’, believe you me. Mary was the cook for Thomas Lennard, who lived up at the castle. He was the first earl of Sussex.” And then she whispered, as if it was all still too dangerous to say, “What a rogue he was! He loved gambling and cricket and eating, of course. Eating more than anything. He loved Mary’s food. Declared she was the greatest cook in England. That’s why he built this place for her, so near the castle. But it all went wrong, Kill. They began talking about her, down in the village. Saying her broths were so delicious that there must be some sort of devilry involved in it all. They said her recipes could turn anyone who tasted them mad with uncanny desires. The earl didn’t listen, not even when his courtiers started whispering. He was too batty about her cooking to care. But then something happened. Something to do with his pretty wife, Anne. Well, you’re too young to hear about that part. But anyhow, it was all blamed on poor Mary and they had her burned as a witch. It’s still there, in the elm forest – the place where they got her. There’s a stone post, about as high as my knee, with strange runes carved all over it. I’ll show it to you one day. The tourists who go past that thing, eating their ice creams and walking their dogs, they’ve got no idea what happened there. No idea about any of it. Anyway,” she turned away and said, more quietly still, “just promise to remember what I said. This place cannot leave the family. Under no account. Not ever.”
My mother always insisted that Dorothy was crazy, and that the stories about our witch ancestor were ridiculous. And, as in most things, I agreed with Mum. But in a vague and quiet place, I couldn’t deny my fears. Even as a very young boy I could sometimes detect an atmosphere of brooding or crowding – a sense
of misalignment – in the cottage. And my great-aunt believed the stories, I could tell.
The only room in which you could really feel anything of the power of the building’s age was the kitchen. The rest of the cottage was scrupulously neat and dusted. The chairs in the lounge were arranged so that they were all the same distance from the small fire. Pictures on the walls were of hay bales, oast houses and apple orchards. In the bathroom, Dorothy’s toothbrush had its own plastic case that sat on the third shelf of the cupboard, next to her unopened packages of Pears soap. The waste bins sat in the dead centre of these sort-of oversized home-knitted doilies. This barren, nursemaid tidiness only heightened the sensation you felt when you first stepped down into the kitchen – shock melting quickly into staggered enchantment. You felt as if you were travelling back in time. Suddenly, you were in a place of stone and wood and raw flames; amongst layers of history that had been built up by cooks stretching back for generations until it was this mad, tumbling mess of excitement. Hundreds of pots, jars and weird implements gave it a feeling of a madman’s hoard or a wizard’s bazaar. Every space on every wall was used. There were cupboards of all sizes, each of which looked as if it had been hastily built when the last one had become full.
On one wall there were rows and rows of prongs, spines, blades, strainers, peelers, crushers and corers – the fierce weapons of flavour; on another there were shelves stretching right up to the ceiling, whose contents became more dusty and exotic as you increased in altitude. There were glass jars of pickled ephemera, pots of dried goods, bottles of oddly glistening powder. I remember one container in particular that seemed to have some sort of primitive hand in it. It hung in this golden liquid, its reptilian knuckle resting against the brown-stained glass as if it was trying to see out. Although a modern
gas oven had been installed, Dorothy still used the range, a fantastic iron contraption of doors and chimneys with a thick window through which you could see the flames.
Whilst the décor in all the other rooms was like a thin, fragile skin on the surface of the cottage, in the kitchen you felt as if you were really in amongst the building’s guts; in the workings of its exposed, throbbing heart. When, with a little groan, Aunt Dorothy took the long step down into the room, even she seemed to change, the dark, yellowing shades of age rebounding off the walls onto her face and erasing her paleness, making her seem more alive.
It was on a magical November night in the kitchen, when I was eleven, that Dorothy told me a story that would change me for the rest of my life.
She was roasting beef. She had just lifted the part-cooked meat from the oven and was basting it in its tray, and I could hear the bubbling spray of the liquid and smell its rich, oaken, dark-honey fragrance. When the kitchen at Dor was being worked like this – as if its fires were fuelling a powerful engine rather than a simple range – a kind of spell would come over us. As the scents and the sounds and the heat and the steam built up in that small room, it began to feel as if we’d been transported to a different place; as if all the many sensory detonations of cooking had connected us to something timeless; had tuned us into all the countless happy hours that had been spent there by cooks past.
As she spoke, my wonderful aunty would often disappear into a fascinating monologue, during which her eyes would barely graze over me. I’d sit at the end of the kitchen table, as comforted as it was possible to be by the warmth and safety and the words that sang impatiently from her mouth; the renegade knowledge about food from distant ages and cultures, mixed with stubborn opinion on matters of knotty culinary lore. On
that night, I was in my usual place – at the table, facing the range. I can still recall the precise distance between my little feet and the cobbled floor and the quality of the light – golden-brown and secretive – and how the fire threw out a thick pillow of warmth whose limit came abruptly at the always-freezing, always-sinister stairs at the back of the room.
“Did I ever tell you, hundreds of years ago, your descendants used to be employed as spitjacks?” she said, spooning the juices back over the richly sweating beef. “Do you know what spitjacks are, Kill? Well, I’ll tell you. They used to work by the fire in the kitchens of knights and kings and so on, turning the spits of meat. That all stopped in the 1500s when some bright spark invented a contraption out of wheels and pulleys which meant the work could be carried out by dogs – dogs that had been bred specially for the job. It was that hard, they had to take it in turns to work – one day on, one day off. Have you heard the phrase ‘every dog has its day’? Well, that comes from turnspit dogs.
“Oh, but they were terribly ugly things – all bony with crooked legs and sad eyes. They had an awful time of it. They had to work right next to the fire, and you can only imagine the beating they must’ve got if they got tired. But,” she stopped basting for a moment, her eyes glistening, her spoon raised in the air, “their job could not have been more important. England, back then, was a roast country. On the continent, where the sun was hot, meat would rot in the heat almost straight away. That’s why your Italians and your French had to invent all those sauces to mask the smell and why the Spanish cured their pork. None of this was necessary in old England. Here, the rivers would freeze in September and thousands of peasants would have their hearts stopped by the frost every winter. For most of the year, the whole country was one great big living fridge. Can you imagine? All we needed to do to create the most wonderful food was to put an iron pole through a lamb or a pig or a cow and
turn it in front of a flame. But that meat was valuable. It had to be done with care, slowly and for hours and hours. And that was the job of the turnspit dogs, those poor little creatures.”
I think she meant it to be a kind of horror story, something grim to boggle the eyes of a young boy. But that’s not the way I heard it. When Dorothy described those dogs, what I heard was a description of myself. Ugly, bony, crooked legs, sad eyes. Every word she said lit a bulb in my head, and when her tale was over, what I saw in the accumulated light was me.
“Oh, but they were such a special, special breed,” she said. “They had to be small enough to fit in the wheel, strong enough to walk it and loyal enough not to eat the meat. They were noble dogs, strong in mind and body. They might have looked a bit unusual, but on the inside – I’m telling you, Kill – they were magnificent. No, I’ve always thought highly of those turnspit dogs, even though they did our forefathers out of a job. I mean, how could you not? They were so loyal! They were heroes. Heroes of the kitchen.”
I moved my arm down by my thigh and pushed my hand into a small fist. I didn’t know those concepts could go together. Boniness and strength? Ugliness and loyalty? I hadn’t known it was possible.
I was only ever talkative when I was with my aunt Dorothy ,and yet that night, as I pushed my knife through the tenderly roasted silverside, I was silent. Dorothy, with her usual sensitivity, seemed to understand that behind my expression of rough-browed concentration something more important than beef was being chewed over. For once she fell quiet and we went about eating our meal listening only to the music of satisfied cutlery.
I don’t think I met her eye at all until – honey-sweetened cocoa drunk – it was finally time for bed. I pushed my chair out, and just before looking to the floor to check how far my feet had
to drop, I glanced up, seeking from her a final reassurance.
“Ni’night, Kill,” she said, elbows deep in washing-up. “Do you want me to tuck you in?”
“Good boy.” She turned to look at me again. “You sure you’re all right, Kill? Nothing you want to talk about?”
I found myself looking at the latest scar from home, up by my left elbow. “I think I’ll just go to bed now.”
Outside the warm oasis of the kitchen, Dor could be a rather different place. Although most of the days there were soft, bright and charmed, you always had the sense that this bliss was being conferred on you. It was almost as if you were living inside the thoughts and moods of something else; something that was benevolent only because it had decided to be. At dusk, the walls seemed to embrace the end of the day all too greedily, sucking in more night than their due until the weight of the darkness was such that you’d begin to feel its pressure, pushing you out of the rooms. And of all the hostile, watching spaces that came alive in the ancient building after sundown, those old buckled stairs were the worst. Daylight always vanquished the cottage’s strangeness, but even on the sunniest afternoons, a certain trace seemed to linger over those sixteen steps.
I’d feel it as my foot hit the first one. It was as if there was something gathering in the air behind me, something that wanted to push me forward, to make me run, and that was a trick; I knew it was a trick, because the moment I started running, the fear would erupt into the back of my neck, like a great hand trying to grab me, and I’d go faster and faster and I’d get more and more scared and run all the way along the corridor and into my bed with the covers all over me, trying not to let my aunty hear me whimper.
But not tonight. Having taken my fortifying glance at Dorothy, I stood, puffed out my ribby chest and walked those
stairs without stopping. One step, two steps, three steps, four. I could feel the fear behind me, bending out of the growling air. I refused to rush. Everyone knew that turnspit dogs weren’t afraid of the dark.
When I reached my room and closed the door, I heard a fly buzzing around the light. As soon as I saw its darting motion, it came for me, buzzing in and out, infuriatingly close to my skin. I flapped it away again and again, but still it came. It wasn’t quite a phobia, my aversion to flies. I’d feel a sense of panic and revulsion at their presence, but also a kind of murderous fury. It was as if there were something personal in their tormenting; as if their sole, born purpose was to pester me.
That night, though, was different. That fly was a test. I turned off the main light, switched on the wobbly old bedside lamp with the green velvet-tasselled shade and removed all my clothes, carefully folding them in a neat pile on the chest of drawers. Then I lay on top of the woollen blanket, rested my arms by the sides of my body and waited.
It didn’t take long. I flinched at the sensation of the fly’s legs on my stomach and the grotesque understanding, in its hesitant movements, of the small living thing making judgements and decisions. It took off once more and passed my eyes and I could see that it was sleek and nimble with a silvery body and large red eyes – of the type that I had only ever seen at Dor Cottage.
It landed on my cheek. My hands shook as it walked to the edge of my mouth. I thought about the turnspit dogs that had once worked away downstairs in the kitchen. I thought about Mary Dor and her fraught and magical recipes. I thought about gravy and Eton Mess and Toulouse sausages and fingers of melted cheese-on-toast, made with parmesan and three-year Cheddar and sprinkled with nutmeg and fresh cracked pepper and tangy Worcester sauce.
It lifted off again and came down at the corner of my eye. I
lay there as the fuzzy lump on the border of my vision licked and drank. I willed the strength to come, opening my mouth wide to breathe deeply. In and out went the cold, thick air.
In, hold, and out.
In, hold, and out.
The fly whipped away and landed, again, on the edge of my lip. I felt the woollen blanket beneath my damp palms and imagined a lake of melted chocolate and tall flowers with caramel petals and marzipan trees and clouds of still-warm vanilla marshmallows.
Not a movement.
Not a single movement.
The fly crawled, with delicate little pricks on my skin, into my mouth. It buzzed, just once, and walked in further. A muscle in my lip contracted involuntarily and then I closed my tongue over it. The insect was pulled in. I felt its twitching incredulity as it was sucked down into my throat.
Coughing and retching, I sat up and ran to the bathroom to wash my mouth out. When I was done, I caught my reflection in the mirror above the sink. For the first time in my life, I studied my face in detail. I had done it. I would be different from now on. They could hurt me as much as they wanted. They could beat me or pity me or act as if I wasn’t there. None of it would matter. I might have looked weak and repulsive but I had strength and loyalty. I was a creature of the kitchen; a controlled, ferocious beast.
I was a turnspit dog.