Skinning Rabbits

Jack McCulla walked slowly down Bagnall Street feeling ashamed and angry with himself.   He had raised the darkie boy’s hopes and disappointed him immediately.   He’d wanted so much to be nice to him as well.   Ever since the boy had arrived, he had looked unhappy. 

No-one ever tried to involve him in anything.  It must be awful living in total silence. Jack couldn’t understand how anybody could bear it .  He’d tried stuffing cotton wool into his ears but even then he could still hear things like the chimes of the clock on the mantelpiece in his granny’s front room.  Westminster chimes, she’d called them.   And not being able to speak either must make the boy’s life an utter misery. So when Jack had come across a chart showing the hand movements for talking to deaf people, he had decided to try and learn the alphabet.  His uncle Harry had asked him what he was doing.

‘Wanna try an talk to that boy stayin at the Kellys’‘.

‘Ah, Theresa’s son.  She certainly put the cat among the pigeons when she turned up with him 

She didn’t bringer man wither

Oul Stephen would have le’im haveit with his shotgun if he’d banged on the door

But they all calmed down when she got married, and he came over one time when I was home on leave.   

Saw ‘im in Dunhill’s drinkin Stephen under the table

Nice fella but ah couldn’t unnerstan a word he was sayin‘.

Harry had tried to put on an accent but his efforts just made Jack laugh.

Jack admired his uncle.  Harry had joined the Royal Ulster Rifles when he was eighteen and had ended up in Korea the same year.  Jack knew from what his da had said that it had been a bad war and there were millions of Chinese soldiers trying to kill the British and Americans.  Trying to kill Harry.  His granny had fretted all the time that Harry was away.   He was home on leave once and they’d had a big party for him.   Da had caught Jack in the scullery drinking all the little left-overs from the empty Guinness bottles and everybody had laughed and called him a real McCabe.  So Da said.  But Jack knew that that had been in 1951 when he was only two, so he didn’t believe it.  He’d asked Harry once and he’d said no, it was later, when he’d come back from Cyprus where he was fighting somebody called AeokaGranny had been a McCabe to her own name before getting married.  Everybody always said that Jack took after her side of the family in the colour of his eyes and hair and his build.

Harry was always laughing and pulling people’s legs.  He was a great singer and he could play the spoons.  When he was in the army he had learned Irish dancing.  Jack had never heard of another Protestant who could do Irish dancing and he was proud of his uncle.  Harry always told him that the big rule in your life was to do what you wanted to do and not let anybody else do your thinking for you.  Jack’s da was like that too. When two Orangemen had come to the door to get him to put Jack in the Junior Lodge, Da had told them to bugger off.  J ack had never heard him talk like that before to anybody. Then his da had slammed the big door and said to Jack,

‘Don’t ever join the Orangemen or the Masons or ye’ll be shown the door‘.

He had looked very angry.  His da had been in the air-force during the war but when he came back to Portnamon before Jack was born he couldn’t get a job.  The Catholic firms wouldn’t give him work because he was a Prod and the Prods wouldn’t because he wasn’t in a Lodge.  So his da had to join up again and Jack had only seen him now and again when he was home on leave.  

He’d only come two years year ago and Jack was still getting to know him.  He had a job in the Creamery now where he drove a lorry.   He went round a lot of farms outside Portnamon collecting big churns of milk.  The Creamery had both Catholics and Protestants working for it.  But Jack knew that most firms were like Haughey’s Bakery, where they were all R.Cs, and Stanton‘s Mill where they were all Protestants.  And all the Orangemen went mad on the Twelfth of July and all the Nationalists on August the Fifteenth.  Jack didn’t understand what they all made such a fuss about.  Da said it was all to do with The Border.  He said they’d all fight with their own shadows and if the border wasn’t there they’d fight about something else.  And he said that Portnamon was falling to pieces because the Stormont government was Unionist and Portnamon was a Catholic town and they wanted to spend all the money looking after the Orangemen in County Antrim and posh places like Bangor and the Malone Road in Belfast.

Jack walked into Taylor‘s shop.  It was probably the only Protestant shop in Portnamon that was open today, apart from the pubs. Da said that Albert would sell his mother if somebody offered him a tanner.

‘A barra fruitannut, please‘.

He handed over the florin that had felt so heavy in his pocket.

‘Bad cess te ye, young Jack. Have ye nothin smaller than that? Yer da mussbe flush.  Yer takin half my change‘.

As Jack left the shop he heard somebody shouting his name.  His uncle Harry was crossing the road from Victoria Street, kicking up little puffs of bonfire ashes.  Despite the heat, he was wearing his old army greatcoat, and Jack knew what that meant. Harry had been out the Newtownedwards road after rabbits.  And unless he’d had a bad morning, there’d be at least two stuffed inside his coat.

‘Where were you this morning?  Thought ye said ye’d come out wimme?

‘Sorry Harry, ah forgot.  Ah was down the town doing the messages for Ma‘.

‘Well come an help me now.  You’re the expert skinner.  An niver forget who taughtya allya know‘.

As they walked up to his granny’s house, Jack thought about the first time Harry had taken him snaring, a year before.  They’d walked out the Nextownedwards road, passed the sub-station with its green railings and the white warning signs with red lightning flashes and the letters EBNI, and turned right after about a quarter of a mile into the Rathmore Road

Somebody had walked some cows along the road earlier and the discs of cow-clap were beginning to crust over in the heat.  When they were drier, stepping on them made them burst like a pimple, sending out a squirt of yellow liquid sh*t.   His uncle led the way into the drive leading to McMillan’s big house.  A light breeze was making the ash-trees shiver.  Somewhere in the distance a tractor was sput-sputting.  Harry ducked between two of the trees and they walked into the larger of McMillan’s two fields.  Little piles of fresh, shiny goat-pills lay here and there like blackcurrants.  As Harry headed up the slope towards the fairy ring of horse-chestnut trees, he kept glancing back at the house.  McMillan and his wife were solicitors and would be in their office in Court Hill, but they had a nanny who lived with them and Harry didn’t want to be spotted

He relaxed as they gained the cover of the trees.  The earth around the fairy ring was home to large numbers of rabbits, and Harry set snares regularly.  He often said that he was doing McMillan a favour by reducing the number of rabbits available for raiding the big vegetable patch immediately behind the house.  Harry had told Jack that when he’d come back from Korea you couldn’t get any rabbits because something called maxamatosis was killing them all off and you could find them all over the place with swollen bellies and gunge in their eyes.   He said the rabbits had suffered something awful and if he found them still alive he would break their necks with a stick to put them out of their misery.

Harry pulled six snares from his pockets and dropped them on the ground.  He’d shown Jack how to make them.  First he had used a hatchet to split a length of wood from a Portnamon Creamery butter-box to make the peg for the snare.  Opening his jack-knife, he cut a notch in one end of the wood.  He made a noose from steel wire about two feet long and knotted it around the notch with pliers.  Then he sharpened the other end of the peg to a point.  Jack had made one and Harry had said that it was very good.

Harry prised a big ducky out of the ground with his jack-knife.  He knelt beside the first rabbit-hole and drove a peg into the ground using the stone as a hammer. When he’d set the six snares at various points they went back the way they had come, with Harry saying that they would come back later in the day to see what they’d caught. Jack was thrilled.  Harry said that they were hunters.  And why pay Fallon the game dealer in Cathedral Yard two bob for a mangy rabbit when you could catch your own fresh ones? And there was nothing like a big bowl of rabbit stew to set a man up for a night on the drink.

While Jack had been mulling over all this, they had walked up the street and entered his granny’s house.  In the scullery, Harry opened his greatcoat.  He had sewn two big pockets inside it which were just like bags.  From them he produced three rabbits.  They had twisted mouths and dark blood around their necks where the wire had cut into the flesh.  Jack felt sorry for them, but Harry always said that it was better for them to die like that than get maxamatosis.  And he said that it was no worse than Big Frank Murphy next door smacking pigs over the head with a hammer or somebody pole-axing a cow.

Harry tied the back legs of two of the rabbits with bits of string.  ‘Hangem up in the coal-hole, Jack.’ Jack pulled aside the strip of curtain that hung in the entrance to the space under the stairs.  He noticed that there wasn’t much coal left but the weather was hot and his uncle’s weren’t using the range. The rabbits were heavy but he managed to lift each of them in turn and hook the string over the big cup-hooks screwed to a wooden batten on the wall to the right.

‘Bring the hatchet.’

Harry had filled the kettle and put it on the cooker and lit the gas under it. He took off his coat and dropped it on the floor in the corner. He lifted his old pipe and a tin of War Horse plug tobacco off the shelf above the cooker.  He took his jack-knife out of his trouser pocket and sat down at the table. Opening the tin, he screwed a lump of tobacco out of it, pressing the point of the knife with his right thumb and twisting the tin.  He dropped the tobacco into his left hand and started to slice it with the knife.

‘Go on, Jack. You know what to do. You’re the expert.’

Jack leaned back into the coal-hole and picked up a copy of the Portnamon Telegraph from the top of a pile of old newspapers lying beside the coal.  He opened it at the middle pages and spread it out on the table.  He reached under the paper and pulled out the third rabbit, which he placed on top of the paper, which had an advert in a big square box which said ‘Dead Beasts Collected.’  He rummaged in the table drawer for the big bread-knife and used it to saw off the rabbit’s head.  He picked up the rabbit and watched as blood dropped onto the newspaper.  Later he would hang it outside the back door to drain completely.  Jack picked up the hatchet and, with two quick successive blows, chopped off the front feet.  One of the feet flew past Harry’s head and landed on the floor.  ‘Missed!’ Harry picked it up, dropped it on the table and stepped to the cooker to make the tea.

Jack took a short, sharp steak-knife from the drawer and cut the skin around the hock joints of the front legs.  He sliced the skin open from the leg joints down across the lower part of the body.  He cut off the tail, leaving an opening like the hole in a doughnut. Then he clawed the fingers of his right hand behind the skin there and pulled hard towards the front, gripping the centre of the body tightly with his left hand. With a slight tearing sound, the skin peeled off like a fur glove. He made a cut in the body from between the back legs to the lowest rib. He pulled out the red and blue slippery guts and the lungs.  There was an immediate unpleasant smell.  Harry got up again and opened the back door to let some air in.  Jack left the liver, kidneys and heart inside the carcass. Then he picked up the hatchet again and chopped off the back feet.

Good boy, Jack. Perfect’.

Jack loved his uncle saying that and blushed with pleasure.

‘Do ye know what oul Dr Mahon said the night you were born?

Jack had been told many times, but he loved to hear it repeated so he shook his head.

‘Well, ye were only just over four pound.  It’s a wonder ye lasted the night.  Anyway, Dr Mahon was always three-quarters cut on the whiskey.  He was a good doctor, but.  Maybe the best in Portnamon.  An before the free health he would niver turn anybody away even if they had no money.  Well, he was well on that night, and when yer ma said what is it, he said, ‘I’m not sure yet. It’s either a skinned rabbit or a boy’.  Harry grinned at Jack and reached over to tousle the boy’s hair.  ‘Yer a great wee soldier, Jack. We all thought ye’d niver make it, but ye come from good McCabe stock. And don’t ever forget it’.

Jack looked at Harry and sighed contentedly. He could see in his uncle his grandmother’s hair, eyes and double chin. He saw her full, kind lips. Harry started humming and Jack heard his grandmother crooning ‘The Spinning Wheel’.  He smiled.  He leaned back in his chair and Harry leaned back in his, the mangled rabbit spread out between them on the table.  Harry pulled on his pipe, and thin wisps of smoke seeped out of his mouth and slowly curled around the little room.

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