Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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By Traditional Means

by Mike Driver


Dale Webster woke to the sound of a scream that seemed to echo and reverberate in his sleep before pursuing him into the waking realm. He sat bolt upright, the strains of the cry still echoing in his ears.

He pushed the layers of sheets and heavy bedspread from his body and lay panting on the double bed.

Alarmed, he suddenly realised he wasn't in his own bed or even in his own room. Where was his single light Egyptian cotton sheet? Where was his Moroccan blind that admitted the reassuring amber glow of the streetlamp outside his flat? This room was pitch black. It smelt strangely musky and Dale, his mind strangely dulled and addled, struggled to reconcile these unfamiliar surroundings with the normal city lit haze of his apartment.

His hand scrambled for the compact Westclox that always resided on his bedside cabinet, his thick fingers stumbled on a lace doily he did not own, before he found the reassuring plastic case of the alarm, pulled it towards him and pushed the button to illuminate the clock face. He squinted myopically at the whitish green display; the numerals declared the time to be three a.m. Then the shrill scream came again.

This time Dale was able to place the sound.

His heart sank. The events of the last two days flooded back to him and he fell back into the pillow with a heavy sigh; now he remembered.

Three a.m. and the cockerel cried again.

####

Only the day before Dale had been in the work's canteen when suddenly he spied a new poster pinned next to the servery hatch. It was headed "By Traditional Means" and depicted a bountiful cornucopia of fresh fruit, country vegetables and cooked and plated meats of various sizes and hues all photographed to glistening, mouth watering perfection.

"What the hell's that about?" asked Dale, indicating the advertisement with one stubby but perfectly manicured finger.

He was sat in his usual seat in the dining area, beneath a large picture of a stubbed out cigarette set in a red, crossed circle bearing the legend "No Smoking". Across from him sat his best friend, Maureen, and next to her sat Sue, a pale washed out blonde girl who was new in estate management.

Maureen pouted and blew a delicate smoke ring into the air before turning to answer him.

"You mean to tell me that you, a senior buyer in this Supermarket conglomerate, don't know about our latest and greatest marketing initiative," she said raising one quizzical eyebrow.

"Trust me love if it's not on e-mail these days I don't see it," replied Dale.

"It's the latest thing," interjected Sue.

Dale and Maureen regarded her coldly and Sue realised it didn't look good to appear enthusiastic about Company initiatives to her new friends.

"It's… er… well I saw it on TV last night," she stumbled.

"It's on TV!" exclaimed Dale. "They tell me nothing in this place."

"Came from the top," said Maureen, tapping the side of her nose. "Old man Atkinson himself."

"I thought he was dead?" said Dale.

"Not him, besides he's in rehab, the other one, the younger one. "Farmer Atkinson," said Maureen, her fingers tracing quotation marks in the air.

Sue watched the exchange with interest trying to figure out whether she had any part in the conversation that was taking place. She hoped not; secretly she found it all very confusing. Maureen and Dale had their own private cruel names for everyone. She wondered, in moments of uncertainty, if they might have one for her. She hoped not. It was so hard to make friends in a new job; especially interesting ones

For Sue there was no doubt that Dale and Maureen were the most interesting people she had met so far, possibly ever. Maureen was so sophisticated and regal, you could tell this from the way she held her cigarette; wrist cocked at ninety degrees, chin tilted upwards, kissing smoke rings into the air, she looked just like a movie star. Sue had tried the same look in her bedroom mirror at home but on her it just looked phoney. Then there was Dale. Sue secretly thought Dale was gorgeous, he wasn't as tall or as slim as the men she usually fancied but he was so witty and sophisticated. He dressed beautifully in his Gucci loafers and Hugo Boss suit, his hair always immaculate and he always seemed to be wearing just the right amount of cologne.

"Shit," exclaimed Dale, jolting Sue from her reverie. "Gotta go. I'm late. Give us a drag before I go.

Maureen dutifully handed over the cigarette.

Dale inhaled deeply and let the smoke go with ragged sigh.

See you later, love," he said to Maureen.

"Bye… er, you," he added as an after thought to Sue.

Dale's portly rear disappeared through the doorway.

Sue took her opportunity and leaned closer to Maureen asking in a slightly hesitant voice if Dale was single.

"Eternally," replied Maureen taking a sophisticated drag on her recently returned cigarette.

"Do think he might go out with me?"

Maureen appraised Sue, smiled a crooked smile and snorted inelegantly through both nostrils. "Love, you really did crawl out of a haystack didn't you. She tapped a long filter of ash onto the floor.

"Believe me love, you're not his type. No, not his type at all," she added with another smirk.

Crestfallen Sue let the matter drop.

####

Dale stared at the dog-patterned wallpaper.

He was counting Airedales while David Cartwright, who, much to Dale's constant astonishment and annoyance, was his immediate superior, talked to the piece of paper on his desk.

Dale wasn't listening. He could hear Cartwright's bass voice rumbling in the background like a distant train but none of the words broke through into Dale's world.

Seventy-eight, counted Dale to himself.

"…the Falmers at Pepperidge Farm," concluded Cartwright.

Dale caught the last few words.

"Come again," he said.

"I said that's why were sending you to Pepperidge Farm."

"Why am I going to a farm?"

"Mr Webster have you been listening to a single word I've said?"

"Yes I have," lied Dale indignantly. "It's just that I sort of lost the flow of what you were saying."

Cartwright's nails cut half-moons in his palm.

"Well let me put it in a nutshell for you," he said, inflecting his voice with an icy calm. "You are going to Pepperidge Farm. You will stay with the Falmers. You will observe the traditional way in which they prepare and cure cooked meats. You will hand-write a shelf edge label describing in detail the traditional methods they use. You will summarise the products particular superior qualities and provide evidence supporting our advertising promise that every item of fresh produce in our stores has been prepared by traditional means. And you will be back here in the office for nine am Monday morning. Is all of that clear?"

"Yes, "said Dale. "As crystal, but why….. "

"Webster, pick up your train ticket from travel and just go. Tonight."

####

Dale found himself on the 18:15 out of Kings Cross, herded into an economy carriage with the smells of body odour and diesel fumes high in his nostrils. In the rack above his head sat the small suitcase filled with the hurried selection of clothes he had assembled from his flat.

It was early evening but still the day was bathed in bright sunshine as the train departed London, but the pleasant evening warmth did little to permeate Dale's mood. Instead Dale turned his body in the seat and stared grumpily out of the window as the steady procession of urban sprawl and hypermarkets gave way to endless green fields and wooded copses. His suit jacket hung from a retractable hook on the carriage wall beside his head and in the large carriage window he was nothing more than a pristine white Oxford shirt and a ghosted reflection imprinted on the rolling countryside.

The train drew further North and light grey clouds massed overhead darkening the sky, imperceptibly Dale's features began to form on the glass pane before him.

Dale had never been found of his looks.

His disliked his snub nose and the characterless way it sat in the centre of his square dull face. He thought his eyes rather small and he had begun to take on the same jowly porcine look of his father.

Find some positives quick, he told himself; he had clear blue eyes, a fine complexion and so long as his hair was kept short he could pass for fair, avoiding the embarrassing carrot coloured corkscrew curls he had sported as a child.

His image firmed in the window as the sky became black and a light rain began to fall. Dale sighed at the cruelty of genetic make-up; German-Irish could be a winning combination but not with the disadvantages of both races.

It was still raining as he stepped from the train and hailed a cab. He told the driver to take him to the pig farm and slumped in the back staring dissolutely out of the window at the merging tracks of raindrops. By the time he was delivered to the farm gate at the head of the track distant thunder rumbled across the purple hills and a flurry of bolt-sized raindrops had began to strike the ground with ferocious intent.

Dale began to trudge towards the lighted windows of the farmhouse ahead.

####

"Tom come quick. It's the Pig Man," said a small woman, almost shrieking with alarm, as the wind plucked at the lace collar of her night-dress and made her unkempt reddish hair flick and dance across her forehead.

"Charming," thought Dale.

He stood illuminated in the rectangular doorframe, a short stranger cloaked in shadows whilst the mousy woman before him appeared unsure what to do next.

With a fluttering of one hand Barbara Willaker gestured to her husband to come closer.

Dale waited patiently, the rain continued to pour down on him and he felt more than a little ridiculous with his small suitcase at his feet and a ridiculously tight lightweight waterproof cutting off the circulation in his wrists.

Tom Willaker's face appeared around the door his large potato nose preceding his ruddy cheeks and large frame into view. He smiled with a mouthful of pearly white dentures that appeared to belong to an even larger man and welcomed Dale heartily, pumping his hand for all it was worth.

"Welcome," he cried. "You're most welcome. Do cross our threshold."

His wife, a small pear-shaped woman with no make-up, smiled tightly and to Dale's rain bleary eyes her only distinguishing features were her shoulder length red hair and the small shy smile that flashed intermittently across her lips as she peered from behind the bulk of her husband.

Dale returned their smiles uncomfortably and not for the first time wished himself back in his safe warm London flat.

"Tha's soaked to the skin lad," said Tom Willaker, abruptly when Dale was inside and the door was closed behind him. "Get thi sen out of them wet things."

He began to pull at Dale's clothing.

Dale dumbfounded by what sounded like a foreign language and unable to comprehend what was being suggested pushed his hands away in alarm.

"Come on lad," said Tom, "No false modesty now. I'm sure you've got nothing that Barbara hasn't seen before." He appraised Dale like a show horse looking him up and down. "I'd lend thee some of my things but you're a bit short in the leg. Barbara," he bawled, even though she stood no more than two feet away. "Get the lad one of your housecoats."

"Oh where are my manners," he suddenly exclaimed. I'm Tom Willaker and this is my wife Barbara."

He grinned expansively as if that were all the explanation in the world that was required.

"Dale Webster," said Dale, relieved that he didn't have to ask them for their names. Typical Cartwright didn't even have the courtesy to tell him who was staying with. Just said they were some pig farmers, he couldn't remember the name of the farm. Luckily the taxi had known where to go.

"Webster," said Tom Willaker thoughtfully. "You know that's a grand name."

Dale acknowledged the compliment, not sure if he knew what it meant.

Then the housecoat arrived. Within minutes Dale found himself seated at a farmhouse kitchen table in his underwear, wearing a powder blue ladies housecoat, his hairy knees visible below the hem. He had a sandwich in his right hand that Tom described as containing blood pudding, and a glass of something that smelled like ether in his left hand.

Dale drank the ether and nibbled tentatively at the sandwich.

####

Dale awoke to sunlight streaming in through the lace curtains the following morning, his three a.m. awakening a lost memory, his head felt full of sawdust. He could hear Mrs Willaker calling up the stairs asking if he was decent and would he like a nice hot cup of tea.

He sat up in the double bed and looked around him. The bedroom was pure farmhouse chintz, from the doily draped side table to the hand quilted eiderdown coverlet. Porcelain figurines studied him with tiny dead black eyes from the mantelpiece above a boarded fireplace and the fringed pink lampshades on the sconces cast bordello shadows on the walls.

To his surprise Dale now found himself naked. It was never his practice to sleep naked. At the very least he always retained his boxer shorts. But all his clothes were neatly piled on the chair by a small mirrored walnut dressing table and he wore nothing save for a concerned frown and the last remnants of yesterday's cologne.

He wondered who might have undressed him. He doubted he had been in any condition himself. And he struggled with the distasteful prospect of either Mr or Mrs Willaker seeing him naked or more disturbingly, that at least one of them had helped him get that way.

Dale swung his small feet down to meet the floor, simultaneously draping the bedspread around his shoulders. He stood up found his suitcase and began to dress in chino's and a blue chambray shirt. He noticed as he did so something odd about the double bed he had slept in, something that did not look right. He stared at the pillows with their head shaped dents and the skewed eiderdown, something was out of kilter but he could not put his finger on anything specific.

Mr and Mrs Willaker were in the kitchen and while Dale sipped at an extraordinarily hot cup of tea Tom Willaker explained the workings of the farm and the itinerary for the day.

He told Dale that the farm had been in his family for centuries and that it had been passed from generation to generation, always to the eldest son. The Willaker's had always raised pigs and prided themselves on the quality of their cured meats; and then Dale found his mind drifting before the dull rural monotone of Willaker's voice and wondered once again why he was in this position at all.

####

They began with a tour of the farm.

"Come and see this," said Willaker, patting Dale's shoulder in a way that Dale regarded as over friendly and a further indication of Willaker's lack of concept of personal space.

He led Dale to a breeze block pen, open to the sky, where an enormous ugly, wet nosed, coarse haired, white hog patterned with dark splotches of pigmentation turned about rooting and snuffling in the churned mud.

"That's Bailey, our stud pig," said Willaker proudly.

Dale studied the enormous creature, his eyes drawn embarrassingly to the creatures huge ball sack that skimmed inches above the churned earth.

"Bailey's reached the end of his working life," admitted Willaker. "Shame but when its time to go, its time to go. Replacements already on his way, made the call myself this morning. A young healthy stud, all fired up and primed for the sows. We don't believe in artificial semination here abouts," he looked at Dale and gave him a huge lascivious wink.

"What'll happen to him?" asked Dale.

"Bolt Gun," said Willaker matter of factly. "Then to slaughterhouse."

Dale didn't need or want to ask what a bolt gun might be, he had a fair idea and an even fairer idea what the slaughterhouse meant and he didn't want to witness either traditional aspect of farming.

Willaker led the way through the rest of the tour, into a large boarded and tarpaulin roofed wooden shed that housed two sows in separate straw lined pens, each with a litter of piglets struggling and squealing for succour.

Though the open frame windows Dale could see a rutted expanse of dark brown earth strewn with straw and what looked like corrugated air raid shelters, open at both ends, which housed the pigs in the yard. Beyond this stood a grey concrete blockhouse.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing at the blockhouse, eager to be away from the squealing, mewling piglets.

"Come see," invited Willaker.

The blockhouse had a cold grey concrete floor, with grooved channels cut into the cement in horizontal stripes. A green hose attached to a standpipe ran constantly in the corner and water flowed slowly down the channels and across smaller grooves in the uneven floor. At the far end of the room was a large blue punch-board. Hung on the board was an array of brutally straight edged knives and blades each looked wickedly sharp. At the head of the punch board in its centre on a nail hung a tubular two piece metal contraption, its short handle was heavily worn, the trigger shiny with use, without asking Dale knew it was the bolt gun.

"Slaughter room," said Willaker simply indicating with an open hand.

Beyond the sheds and slaughter room and across a muddy yard set before a copse of tree's and large chopping block were a further series of wooden sheds.

"Smoking rooms," said Willaker and began to explain about the quality of the oak chips that they used for the process but Dale was no longer listening. His mind was on the bolt gun and the fate of poor Bailey. He felt sick to the stomach and his guts continued to churn as Willaker droned on about smoke and oak chips and the correct way to hang curing meat. It was therefore with enormous relief that Dale found himself led him back to the farmhouse and asked if he'd like to wash up before lunch.

Dale excused himself, eating anything, especially pork was beyond him at that moment. He apologised profusely, protesting that he had a headache and climbed the narrow stairs to lie down for a while.

####

Dale had not intended to sleep but his restless nightmare and the cockerel crowing in the small hours of the previous night had sapped his energy and the soft comfort of the bed quickly caught up with him. He was snoring within thirty minutes.

It was early evening when he awoke and a few solitary stars shone in the black frame of night at the window when Dale was startled by a soft presence at his side and a feeling of warmth in his right arm.

Opening one eye he could see a fan of red hair on the pillow beside him. Confused he lifted the bed cover and to his astonishment found himself naked lying next to an equally naked Mrs Willaker. He hurriedly edged away from the pale plump figure snoring softly beside him, dropping awkwardly onto the floor and recovering his scattered clothing.

What the hell was happening, he wondered? Was he in the wrong room? Perhaps he had climbed into the wrong bed?. But the evil eyed porcelain figures told him this was the room he had been given. Perhaps she was mistaken, or drunk, or God forbid, perhaps she had intended this.

Then he recalled his sense of unease from the morning. Suddenly he could picture what was wrong with the image of the bed he held. There had been a dent in the second pillow. A head shaped dent. She had shared his bed that night as well? What kind of a freak house was this?

Suddenly his thoughts switched to Mr Willaker. Big, rural, threatening, Tom Willaker. He wouldn't stand for this. He was going to kill him.

Dale began to panic.

He slipped from the room and padded softly down stairs.

Tom Willaker was in the kitchen frying bacon in a heavy-bottomed black frying pan. He poked at it languidly with a fork as it spat and sizzled in the fat.

"Mr Willaker," announced Dale. " I'd like to thank you for your hospitality but I think its time I left."

Willaker turned to face him. "So soon, I thought you were staying till Monday. Mrs Willaker will be most disappointed."

Dale thought of the naked figure in the bed. "I'm sure she will," he mumbled nervously beneath his breath.

"Don't go now," said Mr Willaker with rousing bonhomie. "Have some supper with us. I can call a taxi for you but it'll take an age to get here. Sit down. Have some food."

"Really I'm not hungry. I still feel a little unwell and I really don't want to be any trouble."

"Sit down, I insist," said Willaker, indicating a chair.

Reluctantly Dale took a seat.

Tom Willaker shut off the flame beneath the pan and began to fork large pounds of pale pink bacon on to a plate. He lifted the loaded plate to his nose and inhaled deeply. Thin rivulets of blood ran from the barely cooked meat.

"Smell that," he said. "Beautiful. You can't beat freshly cooked bacon straight from pig to plate. Bailey, we owe you one."

"B-b-bailey," stammered Dale. "That's Bailey."

"Of course," said Willaker.

"I really am going to be sick," said Dale putting his hand to his mouth. "I'm sorry Mr Willaker but I really need to go right now. I'm going to start walking so perhaps you could ask the taxi to set off and meet me part way, the taxi driver can bring the rest of my things."

"Very well," Said Tom. "If that's what you wish I'll just call Barbara she'll want to wish you well for your journey."

"No. Really, there's no need."

"Oh but there is," said Tom a strange cast to his expression. "And she has a little gift for you."

Dale watched Willaker's odd expression as he placed the plate full of bacon on the table before him them his world went black.

It felt to Dale as if a thick warm misshapen sack had been pulled over his head. The material slid greasily over his face and felt as if it were smothering him. Then there was a flash of light then another as his eyes aligned with two ragged holes that had been cut in the mask. Dale grasped at the thing on his head and then sharply pulled his hands away in revulsion and disgust at the warm fine haired flesh he had touched.

The fleshy pigs head sat askew over his head, pressing against his nose and mouth, he could feel the blood trickling against his cheeks, he struggled again to remove it, then he froze.

Filling his frame of vision was the grinning face of Tom Willaker and in his hand he held the bolt gun.

"Mr Willaker! It wasn't what…"

Barbara's high-pitched shriek of excitement drowned the percussive rasp of the gas canister as it forced the bolt home. Then there was only brief silence as a fine miasma of blood lingered in the air before the sound of Dale's foot beating a spasmodic tattoo upon the stone tiled floor rattled through the room.

####

At Pepperidge Farm, twenty miles away, they waited and waited and waited for the arrival of the man from the supermarket chain. He never made an appearance and not for the first time the Falmers tutted and shrugged at the lack of manners shown by big corporations.

####

At the Willaker's farm there were celebrations. The legend of the Pig Man and the outrageous good fortune that his appearance brought had been handed down for generations in Tom's family but he had never expected such good fortune to strike twice in his lifetime. First there had been that machinery parts salesman, Bailey and now this one.

As tradition required the guest had been invited over the threshold and offered the best of the household. Tom had been liberal with everything they had to offer, including his wife, because he knew that you tampered with tradition at your own risk and everything had to be done in time honoured fashion.

Tom was very careful to follow the proscribed method. He even fed Dale's reproductive organs to Webster, the new stud pig, himself, so that the Pig Man's virility would pass straight to his namesake. But somewhere, somehow he had made a mistake. Even now as Dale Webster's flanks hung glistening and dripping above small brightly burning bonfires of oak chips, lightly smoking to the colour of burnished leather, Tom could kick himself.

Webster, the pig, wasn't taking to the sows.

Tom had tried everything. Lord knows how he had tried. But nothing he did could tempt Webster to even take an interest. It was like he didn't want to know about the opposite sex. For the life of him Tom Willaker could not figure out why. It didn't seem right, after all, he had done everything he should by traditional means.

THE END


© 2007 Mike Driver

Bio: Mike lives in Yorkshire with his wife and children. His latest work can be found in the recent Winter edition of Shimmer and in forthcoming issues of The Harrow, Black Ink Horror and Murky Depths as well as the anthology Strange Stories of Sand and Sea available in 2007 from Fine Tooth Press. His story BANG! appeared in the October 2006 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Mike Driver

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