The harsh light of a June morning comes crashing through the shutters as she wrenches them open to expose me to daylight. 7am. “It’s my birthday,” I grunt, tired, reddened eyes squinting at this cruel torturer. “It’s my birthday, my head throbs and I don’t have work today!” “Yes, but I do,” she replies, “and I have something to give you.” At this point I perk up, stretch in bed and smile.
From under the bed she pulls a small, misshapen parcel that’s been carefully wrapped in brown paper. I finger it. The shape is unusual: angular, heavy and uncomfortable in my palm. I rip it open, intrigued. A matt-black metal band with a long, heavy screw attached. I’m bemused; what could it be? I’m not a fan of functional presents, I don’t make things, and I’m not practically minded. Another brown parcel is passed over the bed to me – it feels the same. It is the same. Now I have two harsh-looking metal rings complete with long, thin screws – they look like medieval torture implements. Shit, is this something kinky? I look at her blankly, she smiles, but says nothing, handing me a third brown package. This one is bigger: thin and flat. I rip it open, sweat starting to gather on my brow. What the fuck is going on? A wooden board, complete with screw holes – she’s going to screw me to the wooden restraint…
Then a fourth package. It is smaller, thin and flat – a photo. A pig – a huge, lumbering, pot-bellied pig. Am I entering some kind of parallel universe? What are these strange, seemingly discordant articles doing on my bed, on my birthday – has she gone mad? And now she’s leading me through our small flat, through the kitchen, out to the laundry room. Standing there, wrapped in soft white muslin, is something clearly corporeal, something that lived and breathed. There’s a hoof, a little black foot. I’m on my knees now; it’s all starting to make sense. Dear god, she’s bought me a ham: the finest, sweetest leg of Pata Negra jamon I’ve ever seen…she’s invested in ham. Joselito – the best. I can’t believe her creativity and intelligence – I’m speechless. It’s all crystal clear now, a ham stand for my beautiful ham.
What now, though; how to begin? She explains that we have six months before the ham will start to waste, but once opened and sliced into, that window of opportunity decreases to four weeks. We’re going away, I remind her, leaving in a week and travelling for two. We should wait, save the ham for our return, something to ease the post-holiday blues. That’s our plan as she leaves the house for work. We’re going to wait, wait until we’re tanned. Wait until we’re rested and ready to take the task in hand.
I’m afraid we don’t wait, we don’t do the sensible thing, and we attack it once the sun sets. By the time she returns, I’m sweaty with desire. I’ve been drinking, which makes matters worse – I have an intense craving for my ham. We both agree that life is short and anything could happen tomorrow, so probably best to start the ham tonight. We reassure ourselves that we’ll get through it quickly anyway, so no need to wait.
As I say, dear reader, I’m not good at making things. I don’t do DIY, so the job of constructing the wooden ham stand fills me with dread. I know she’ll be better at it, but no, I must be a man about this – I own a leg of ham which I’m about to cut up; I need to build the stand if I want this to feel right. Initially it looks fine: wooden base, wooden arm, nuts, bolts – I can do this. Sadly, it isn’t that simple. There’s an extra bag of metal. More screws and bolts and hinges and I’ve realised I don’t own a hammer or a screwdriver. It’s too late though, the ham is out of the bag, and I’ve resolved to eat it tonight; there will be no going back. I ask her to pass me a heavy metal ladle, my best hammering option in lieu of a hammer or screwdriver; if I can’t hammer the screw into the hole with a hammer, a ladle will have to do.
I start thrashing at the metal, willing it to push smoothly into the wood. It doesn’t; it buckles and falls to the floor. Once more, I’m banging, harder and harder with the back of my ladle; it starts its slow entry. Heartened, I smash manically at the screw, dreaming of ham, grunting and licking my lips like a madman. Then it comes, ripping through my consciousness, with a crunch and a tear – the arm of the stand has developed a deep, brutal crack. My sense of humour fails me. “Why did we attempt this without a hammer, why oh why have I ruined my ham stand? It’s my fucking birthday!” I’m in tears, big, salty, angry tears running down my puffy cheeks. I feel like a child unable to open his birthday present. It makes no sense; my ham sits there ready. Ready to feed us, ready to fulfill its pure, beautiful objective, and I’ve ballsed it up.
She suggests we sit down, have a drink, and forget about it. She says we can buy another stand. “It’s your birthday,” she says, “don’t ruin it.” Don’t ruin it? Don’t ruin it? Giving in would be ruining it – that’s all I’m sure of now. I’m going to eat my ham; I’m going to delight in its silky white fat.
I pick up the cracked wooden stand and sit it upright. The crack is significant, but the arm is still attached to the base. The screw sticks out at a dangerous angle, but the two pieces of wood are connected and might hold the ham. I decide to risk it. The whole thing might fall apart, but I’m too far gone, the ham is out of the bag and tonight is our night. I pick up the pig leg, hold it high in front of me and breathe in the warm, earthy, barnyardy scent – death doesn’t smell better than this. The flat is warm and the fat is soft; high-toned grease slides between my fingers in thrilling waves. I arrange the thin end of the leg into the metal ring at the top and start screwing in the bolt. At the other end there’s a sharp metal spike and with this I pierce the fat end of the leg. The screwing motion is hard. There’s a lot of bone and tough skin at the top but it seems to be gripping now, the whole structure wobbles and is deeply flawed, but as I stand back, I can see this should just about work.
I’ve been to Madrid and I’ve seen them slice. Those men are kings. They slide a thin blade under the folds of sweet fat and dark flesh, slice translucent wafers onto cool white plates. It’s never a rushed affair. It’s meaningful and measured; they have the grace of ballet dancers, but a machismo that would charm Hemingway. I grab my knife and size up the job in hand. I can see what needs to be done, but I’m not sure that I can do it. The knife is long and sharp and bends to the touch. I start at the corner and cut deep into the fatty edge. The knife sinks and slides in one clean, sensual motion, cleaving acorn-enriched fat and dark meat in one fell swoop. A chunk of priceless meat hits the floor, but the knife slides on, straight into my prostrate thumb.
I look down and the first thing that scares me is the nutty pig oil that is soaking into the cream rug, yellow oil that spreads quickly. My terrified gaze moves on to my thumb which is now running deep incarnadine. It starts to throb, the oil fuses with my plasma and everything stings like you couldn’t possibly imagine. Plasters slide off miserably, so eventually, after more tears of frustration and pain, the bleeding is steeped using a wet sock. Before I can take up the knife once more, she’s moved forward in a silent motion and stands there exuding a sweet yet sharp, steely determination, edging the blade towards her in calm, soft motions that encourage slice after filigree slice to fall into place. I feel bitter adoration for her; she’s done all of this so much better than I have.
Later we’re sitting at the table in silence; we’ve eaten a kilo of ham. We’ve fed each other, we’ve eaten with our mouths open, licked lips, but our eyes haven’t met. It’s been an intense, exhausting experience. She knows I feel fat, but small: ripened by my corruption, yet diminished somehow too. My mouth stings from the hot, salty meat and my gums are bathed in oil and wine. The ham sits alone on the worktop; neither of us can take our eyes off its little black foot. We wrap it back into its clean linen sack, and store it somewhere away from the light.
Then we’re away. We have a fantastic holiday; we worship the languid afternoons that Provence in high summer brings. We laugh heartily and drink deep of cold pink wine. There is nothing that we cannot do on those long, hot afternoons. Thoughts of London seem far away, but I’m fairly sure that not a day passes when one of us isn’t drawn to thoughts of our ham, sitting alone in the flat, waiting for us, like we await it. Each time we’re offered inferior charcuterie, we accept politely, but our eyes meet with a twinkle, a cruel smile threatens our mouths – a little shared moment, the insiders’ joke…what they don’t know won’t hurt them.
Gatwick is as grey and soulless as an airport in summer could possibly be, but we don’t care. We gambol along the strip-lit corridors and fly through passport control. The whole journey has been sweet and calm. We’ve been sitting there above the clouds, silent and autonomous, but both eager for the next stage of this shared narrative to reveal itself. It feels close and stormy as we make the journey home from the tube station. It’s been windy too; the steps down to our basement flat are covered in the wiry detritus that the city has thrown up. We open the door into the darkness of the empty flat and we’re faced with a wall of warm, dead air. A faint, familiar smell meets us: a savoury musk. We struggle with bags and post in the darkness, reaching for the light switch. The bulb comes on in a flicker, then all at once, bright and oppressive.
Two pairs of eyes dart in one motion over to the ham stand. The clean white linen bag is no longer clean; nicotine yellow patches of that righteous oil have spread out across the muslin, meeting across the middle. It looks shocking – a neglected, undressed wound. Neither of us knows what to do; we’re stunned. I approach the stand, slowly; my stomach is suddenly churning. It’s that feeling when you know something really terrible is about to be unveiled, but there’s nothing, nothing that can be done. I unwrap the straw and start to slide the meat from its muslin sock; the smell is different: familiar, but changed, like a man returning from his mistress. Little green blooms. Larger now as the thicker end slips out, thick blossoms of green that hide in the warm, wet corners of this pig’s leg. Bacteria have sunk into its fatty creases and dark petals of mould have opened up like flowers in the warm summer sun. No true beauty without decay. I sink to the floor and tears fill my eyes again.
Illustrations (c) Sarah Starck