I’m about to start on a plateful of sliced rump and salad potatoes when the telephone bleats. I’ve never been able to ignore a ringing telephone. It’s the height of bad manners.
“Miss Jasmine Thurrock?” the voice suggests youth and a shallow masculinity. No one I would know, certainly. I almost hang up, but then politeness gets the better of me again. I am convinced to give the caller a moment longer.
“Miss Thurrock, I’m calling from MEat Yourself. About your fortnightly order.”
“Oh. Well. Is there a problem?”
“I’m afraid so.” The young man sounds pained, and I picture him wincing at his desk in a small office somewhere at the back of a faceless building on the outskirts of Slough. In my mind, he is working late, a desk lamp trained on a computer screen or perhaps a file of paper. His tie is loose, shirt ruffled. It has not been a good day.
“Out with it, then.” Young men like to be prodded, I find.
“Our stocks have become contaminated. Saboteurs infiltrated the lab last night and destroyed almost all of our tissue samples. We can no longer supply you with cultured rump steaks. Do you have much product left?”
I reflect on the plate in front of me, now seeming to hold something of a feast rather than a light snack. “Just some cold cuts.”
“I’m sorry. The company does not have the capital to take new samples and start cultures again, so we will be closing business. I’ve been instructed to thank you for your business over the years and to remind you that, despite any temptation, you should not be consuming meat or animal produce from any source, once supplies of your own product have been exhausted. Once again, Miss Thurrock, I am sorry.”
I thank the young man for his deliverance of bad news and hang up. MEat Yourself are — were — the last autocannibalism company in England. There is no-one else to turn to. But veganism is for the young. I’m too old to change.
I spear a slice of myself with the fork tines.
I start small of course, rounding up all the spiders and woodlice I can find around the house and surreptitiously unearthing worms in the garden, to gather enough to make an insectoid mash that I mix with onion and fry in a little butter, as I would a me-burger. Inevitably, it tastes disgusting, and I throw it out for the birds.
Mouse traps are next, but, once I catch one, I see the folly of trying to salvage anything from the brutalized scrag of bone and hair that constitutes such a creature.
I recall that, as a millennial child and before the Act was passed, there was a time when Father would bring home portions of animals that, while no longer farmed, can still be found in the wilded countryside. I imagine that there must be people willing to poach these animals, but I have no way of making contact with such individuals and quail at the risks involved. One of the perils of an almost solitary life.
No, obtaining such meat myself is out of the question.
There must be other sources.
I spend a pleasant afternoon collecting a mix of yew leaves and seeds from the old churchyard up the lane. In the evening, I dry them before milling all into a fine powder.
The cold cuts are almost gone.
Taylor Braithwaite calls with a bottle of pastis that we mix with water and sip from my best crystal. Usually, she would bring a little of herself to add to the salad I prepare, but with the collapse of MEat Yourself, she’s as lost as I am.
“It won’t do.” She gulps the pastis and fiddles with her necklace, her agitation clear. “Veganism isn’t for me, ethics or no. We’ve a long tradition of meat. My parents were among the first autocannibals, you know. Back when the cost was phenomenal.”
I do know, because I’ve heard this many times before. Turning over sterile earth yet again will achieve nothing.
“Have you looked for alternatives?” I pass her the fruit platter.
“I’ve made discreet enquiries, but I’ve lost many of my contacts over the years. And one has to be careful.”
“I imagine that other sources pale next to one’s own cuts, anyway.”
She nods disconsolately and I pass her the coffee.
“Probably so. I guess we’ll never know.” She sips with tears in her eyes.
Taylor has been in the bathroom for a long time, so I think I’m good to go. I’ve already sharpened Father’s hatchet, its purpose transformed from the ornamental to the practical. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I have time to experiment. No-one is likely to come calling. Taylor is the only person I’ve seen in months.
When I open the door, she is sprawled face down across the tiles. I turn her head towards me and place a hand mirror at her mouth. It mists slightly: she is alive.
I decide to continue anyway.
It’s not the same, but close. Taylor is tough and dry, not succulent like my own cultured flesh, but I’ve missed it so much it is still wonderful. I’ll try to make it last, though of course it won’t. All too soon the freezer will be empty again.
This morning I registered with Old Friends. When the young man on the telephone asked me what kind of befriender I was looking for, I specified someone younger but preferably not too active. Plump, ideally. A person who enjoys sitting for a good natter over a pot of a coffee.
I’m too old to change, and I find rump is by far the best cut.
Rob Francis is an academic ecologist and writer based in London. He started writing short fantasy and horror in 2014, mainly on the train to work and in the early hours of the morning. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines such as Metaphorosis, SQ Mag, Syntax & Salt and Grievous Angel. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, most recently Tales of Blood and Squalor by Dark Cloud Press and Reading 5X5 by Metaphorosis Books. He lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco.