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The code phrase wasn’t working. I tried to read the barman’s expression, suddenly wondering if I’d got the wrong pub.
“We only do those cocktails on the list,” he said, tapping the drinks menu for emphasis.
As instructed, I’d asked for a “Muddy heifer”, but there was no acknowledgement in the young man’s face. I sensed a nearby couple listening as they waited to be served.
“I’ll just have a G and T then,” I improvised, buying time to think.
“Can I see some ID?”
“Really?” At forty-two, it was years since I’d been asked for ID.
He held out his hand, waiting, so I pulled out my driving licence. Before I could joke about being old enough to be his mother, he took it and stalked off into the back. Two minutes later, he brought it back.
“Take a seat, I’ll bring it over.” He nodded towards an empty table in the corner.
I sat down to wait for a drink I didn’t want, wondering if I should cut my losses and leave. Perhaps I hadn’t walked far enough. I was checking the map on my phone when I sensed someone approach.
“Evening,” said a deep voice.
Its owner was a stocky man of about sixty; bald head, white beard and a navy blazer over a cream polo neck. He looked like Captain Birdseye.
“Hello,” I answered, confused. I rarely attract strange men and certainly not that quickly.
“You’re not a regular,” he stated, sitting down without asking.
“No.” Like a Satnav encountering a diversion, my mind was rapidly recalculating my options for evasive manoeuvres and a swift departure.
“Just passing through?”
“Um, no. A friend recommended this bar.”
“Who’s your friend?”
I shrugged. “Just an acquaintance.”
“Maybe I know them.” The man sat back with folded arms, waiting.
Perhaps it was the authoritative look in his eye or his sheer bulk, but I felt compelled to elaborate.
“Gareth Dowdswell?” I mumbled.
He gave a faint nod. “I hear you like your specialist cocktails.”
My mental Satnav paused. I shrugged again, trying to portray nonchalance.
He leant forward and planted his elbows on the table, looking at me intently.
“Do you know, it takes a lot of time to scrape all the meat off a pig’s head?” he asked.
My pulse quickened. This was the coded reply I’d expected from the barman.
“Not if you boil it first,” I recited. My confidence renewed somewhat, I smiled and added: “I hope that’s not a chat-up line.”
He stared at me, unsmiling, just long enough for me to regret an attempt at humour. Then he got to his feet.
“Come on,” he ordered.
“But I’ve got a G and T coming.” I motioned to the bar.
“No, you haven’t. Let’s go.”
The Captain led the way towards the back of the bar and out through a door marked “Toilets”. He strode past the lavatories and punched numbers into a security panel beside an unmarked door further along. After a few more twists and turns we descended a staircase and ended up in a little vestibule area. He hauled open a heavy metal door and waved me in. As soon as I stepped over the threshold, a strong aroma engulfed me.
“Oh, my goodness!” I gasped, eyes wide with recognition and surprise. The smell instantly transported me back in time. It had been five years since my olfactory nerve had detected that particular combination of molecules; five years since the government had banned the sale or consumption of all meat.
I could smell bacon.
Ahead of me was a cavernous basement with open brickwork and arches running its full length. It reminded me of student days dancing in The Cavern Club in Liverpool. Strings of white fairy lights ran along each arch and uplighters gave the space a subdued glow.
In the central area, where a dance floor might have been, people sat eating at rows of picnic tables. The place was busy and the air was thick with the smell of cooked meat and the murmur of conversation.
The Captain motioned for me to follow as he wove between the tables, heading towards the bar at the far end. He waved a hand in the air and attracted a blonde, middle-aged woman wearing a hideous pink and green floral apron. She came over and plopped a notepad on the bar before raising her eyebrows at the Captain expectantly.
“Joyce, we’ve got a new member,” he explained. “This is Elizabeth.”
I realised now why the barman had taken my driving licence and felt slightly disappointed that it wasn’t due to my youthful looks.
Joyce smiled. “Welcome, Elizabeth.” She looked at the Captain. “Have you explained the rules, Mike?”
“Not yet.” He looked back at me. “The first rule of Meat Club is: you do not talk about Meat Club.”
I started to laugh, but stopped when I saw neither of them was smiling. Perhaps they weren’t Brad Pitt fans.
“No guests allowed unless approved in advance by management. If you bring anyone without permission, you’ll be expelled permanently and there may be further consequences.” He looked at me sternly.
“Okay.” I could tell he was not someone people liked to upset.
“Customers usually enter through the doorway at the back there,” he waved to a nearby corner. “It’s got security cameras and we use fingerprint ID for entry. You’ll need to register on your way out after you’ve eaten. You pay there too. Cash only.”
I nodded, taking it all in. It was beginning to feel as though I’d joined MI5.
“Okay, Mike, that’ll do. I’ll take it from here,” Joyce said.
The Captain gave her a single nod, turned and left.
“Right,” she continued. “We’re open every night from six, and there’s always bacon so you can have bacon sandwiches or an all-day cooked breakfast any night of the week. We have a reliable supply of bacon, thank goodness!” She laughed, her eyes flashing in delight. “We only have hot dinners on Sundays and Wednesdays. It’s a case of turn up and see what’s on the menu because it depends what meat we can get hold of. Lucky you’ve turned up on a Wednesday – tonight it’s shepherd’s pie. It’s best to get here early, ’cos once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“Okay,” I said, taking mental notes.
“So,” she raised her pencil expectantly. “What would you like?”
“Shepherd’s pie is tempting,” I mused. “But it’s got to be a bacon sandwich.”
Joyce smiled. “That’s what all first-timers go for. With a cup of tea?”
“Here, take this.” She handed me a little wooden pillar with the number seventeen painted on it. “We’ll bring it over. Find a seat anywhere. We all mix together here.”
I turned away and found a space at a nearby table beside a family of four who were just finishing their dinner.
Five minutes later, a waitress delivered a plate with a hot bacon sandwich, a mug of tea and a small stand of sauces. I looked at the food before me: the bread was freshly sliced and crusty, the bacon peeking out asymmetrically from its edges. The meat was dark pink, perfectly cooked with semi-crisp fat – not underdone, not overdone.
It was the smell that did it; I hadn’t anticipated its power. My resolve wavered. I recalled my boss’s instructions: “Locate them and find a way in. Get physical evidence.”
I wondered, briefly, if I could justify eating the sandwich on the grounds that I was verifying it was real meat. Reluctantly, I dismissed the idea. How could I arrest everyone here for illegal meat consumption if they’d seen me participate? It would completely undermine my authority and when the case went to court my testimony would be questionable to say the least. Plus, my boss would hit the roof.
The family next to me left, so I slipped a hand into my pocket and felt for my evidence bag.
Just at that moment, Joyce passed my table carrying two empty plates. She leaned towards me and gave a cautious smile.
“Everything alright, love?”
Acting on reflex, I pulled my hand from my pocket and found myself picking up the bacon sandwich and nodding in what I hoped was a convincing manner. “Yes, lovely thanks.”
“Good. Don’t let it go cold!” she smiled, before carrying on her way.
I can’t explain what happened next. I don’t remember making a conscious decision, but a second later I was biting, tasting, chewing… I gave an involuntary sigh of delight as I swallowed a mouthful of melting butter, crisp, salty bacon and fresh bread.
Once I’d started, I didn’t stop. There was no internal battle; there was no mental process at all. My evidence bag was forgotten and I was simply devouring. It was wonderful.
When I’d finished, the mental haze lifted. I looked at my empty plate: what had I done?
My phone beeped. I tapped the screen and noticed my mobile was still recording. There was a new text from my boss.
I wiped the bacon grease from my mouth and hands with a napkin while I thought.
All around me, diners were chatting and laughing as they ate their forbidden meals. They were talking to strangers and making new friends. It felt like a warm community; it felt like mealtimes from my childhood.
At last, I picked up my phone, stopped it recording and deleted the video of the past hour.
Then I typed a reply to my boss.
It was a duff lead. Looks like a hoax.
That done, I contemplated my empty plate, wondering if it was too greedy to order seconds.
About Jo Davies
Jo Davies is a British writer. Her work has appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review, Funny Pearls, Flashflood 2021 and elsewhere.