“Where did you say you’ve been?” My mother’s voice expressed fear, concern, anger and disbelief in just about equal proportions. The question was being addressed to my 10-year-old sister who, being older than me by a little more than three years, was (I figured) better able to withstand the rigors of such an inquisition.
With the benefit of hindsight, I have come to believe that the local abattoir was a preposterous place for anyone to be, let alone for a couple of impressionable children. However, as a seven-year-old boy, hindsight was not my strong suit, so I was probably as open to experience then as at any time before or since.
The car stopped and our neighbour – the man whose baby son my doting sister regularly took for walks in his buggy – got out to do some business. My sister and I followed him out of the car, neither of us knowing what sort of business it might be. We may have suspected that there would be animals involved, but I am quite sure that neither of us could have imagined just how involved the animals would be.
We went to where our businessman-neighbour stood talking with another man who also seemed to be quite busy and important. He was probably the foreman of the abattoir. Whatever a foreman might be, it was becoming more apparent by the second what an abattoir was.
I absorbed the scene as any innocent and perceptive child might, my senses bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells. Animals – or what was left of them – were hanging from almost every available hanging-place. However these poor creatures had managed to sustain such horrific injuries, it became clear to me that help was not at hand. This was a chilling place of no return – utterly devoid of compassion.
A sinking and terrifying feeling accompanied the realisation that (like myself) these animals had arrived at this awful place in a state of perfect health. They had managed to fall into such a wretched state of disrepair at some point during their visit and I very much hoped that I might not succumb to a similar fate.
The floor was awash with blood, guts and everything else which might normally be considered to be the contents of an animal. The air was thick with distress and saturated with the unforgettable, God-awful stench of slaughter.
I gathered that the hanging animals were expected to be dead at this stage, but here and there, a cow’s ear still twitched as the poor creature hung upside-down with its throat cut, belly ripped open and guts spilling out.
This was unimaginable suffering on an industrial scale. Never before nor since have I witnessed a scene of such carnage.
The foreman felt obliged to demonstrate for us just how the animals were killed. He fired a bullet into the skull of the sheep he had been in the process of dis-embowelling on our arrival. I am pretty sure I wasn’t thinking ‘Well thank you Mr. Foreman for that helpful and illuminating demonstration; it will doubtless prove to be an invaluable experience from which I can hope to derive incalculable benefit in the years to come.’ No, I probably wondered if I was really standing no more than three feet away from an agent of the devil himself. Shouldn’t there be a law against this sort of thing?
Those poor, dumb, pathetic creatures – they hadn’t stood a chance – on some level, they had even trusted humans and the result was unimaginably cruel. How could human beings participate in such an unspeakable act of betrayal? Yes, that was it. Amongst all of the other smells ravaging my sensibilities that day was the stench of treachery.
Whoever I might previously have been, it is fair to say that, from that day forward, my sense of how life was had changed forever.
My consciousness had been violently stretched to encompass the grotesque reality of the unfathomable cruelty and suffering of sentient creatures. Scenes of horror such as might not have been witnessed on a battlefield were indelibly etched on my 7-year-old psyche. What next?
Soon afterwards, I began to write horror stories at school. My teacher was profoundly impressed by the graphic descriptions of horror emanating from what he must have assumed to be an extremely vivid and fertile imagination.
Would that it were just a figment of some bad dream.
Many years later, I would revisit those same memories to acknowledge that perhaps I had been affected much more by the experience than I had understood or would have cared to admit.
‘What an evolutionary abomination us human beings are’ I have often pondered.
God, help us all.