Fiction

The secret life of veal

SHE STRUCK ME as attractive in a certain way, the way the head of a well-made axe can be attractive, hard angles matched to a purpose. She talked about modelling, though she never called herself a model. She said her name was Destiny, though when I finally saw her student card it said Carmel and had a picture of someone less harsh who she had once been or at least resembled. She told lies, but I knew she would, and I told plenty myself.

I met her at an art exhibition in a condemned house in New Farm, near the park. I had seen something about it on a flyer on a power pole and my run of luck had been predictably terrible, so I thought I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was recently single and had come to accept that I deserved every bit of it, with the exception of the irritating behaviour of my parents, who never stopped making comfort food, who kept Norah Jones on repeat and who told each other, more often than they needed to, that her music ‘transcends generations'. My mother's phrase, and our first fight after I moved back in with them.

The art-student crowd – they're not fussy. That's what I was thinking. I might score some time with some vis-arts emo whose self-loathing was getting in the way of better judgement, and my mother could meet her over breakfast and that would somehow amount to a justifiable slap in the face for remaining my ex's friend on Facebook.

‘Did you see what Maddie was saying on Twitter?' my mother had said the previous night, before she could suck it back in.

No. No, fuck you, no. I didn't see what Maddie was saying on Twitter. Didn't see or care, though of course I cared. Maddie could be so clever in a neatly streamlined 140-characters-or-fewer way that regularly left my mother marvelling. Marvelling at how smart Maddie was, marvelling that she'd stuck with me all those unrewarding months.

When it was over, my mother said it would be wrong to take sides. She gave me a house key and my old room back, and sent Maddie texts saying things like ‘hope yr ok' and ‘u gave it yr best'. I wanted her to take sides. I wanted her to take mine.

I had a point to prove, and only reckless coupling for shallow reasons would prove it. Even if I wasn't entirely sure what the point was.

The house where they held the exhibition was an old Queenslander that had risen from its stumps at the back, as if it knew its time was up and needed to break free before the movers came to take it off on a huge truck to one of those sad boneyards where unwanted timber houses go. There was a bedroom at the rear, suspended above the sinking stumps and inhabited in a very temporary way by a backpacker known only as ‘the German'. He paid no rent but put in twenty dollars a week towards utilities, on the condition that he never use the landline. Which was fine, since he could siphon an unknown neighbour's wireless broadband with ease and have long insincere conversations with his girlfriend in Dresden on Skype.

Destiny had dropped her boyfriend that night, when he failed to pull his weight blowing up balloons for her ‘installation', which was a room full of balloons. That had sent the relationship to the brink when the room had been filled only thigh-high, and then he pushed it over the edge by pulling out his mobile and ordering a meat-based pizza.

I tried not to salivate as Destiny described it to me. It had arrived on a Vespa – family size, meatballs, prosciutto, several kinds of sausage – and she recounted each ingredient as though it was a personal slight.

‘I'm a very active vegan,' she said, with a hint of an American accent that I didn't quite believe. ‘I have almost four hundred followers on Twitter. That's how Twitter can work for a vegan, if you have the heart for it.'

I told her I was one too, explaining that my belt was a very convincing leather-look synthetic polymer, and describing some fights I had never had with my parents when I supposedly renounced meat in a particularly sanctimonious manner at the age of twelve. Meat. I wanted to eat that pizza. I wanted to eat meat in an instant, powerful and caveman-like way. Prosciutto, meatballs, sausage: I was sure I could still smell them.

‘If I could change only one thing,' she said, ‘it would be veal. Veal is appalling. Veal is holding babies in a trap and feeding them milk and then eating their poor little muscles that have never become anything.'

She was like an actress playing an actress, and that was enough for me. An actress from the golden age of Hollywood, when women were admittedly bustier than she was, but wry and archly manipulative. They had wiles in those days, which people don't so much now. She smoked too, like a lot if not all of the original Hollywood stars, though I had to admit she smoked less like Rita Hayworth – who had a famous upward exhale, displayed to good effect in Gilda – and more like an old man forcing sludge out of his lungs at dawn.

My mother would hate her, just enough. I could see the text to Maddie: ‘omg u shd c what the cat dragged in'.

I first saw Destiny as she disdainfully appraised another artist's installation, which featured a genuinely sleeping friend in a cocoon macraméd out of shredded Woolies shopping bags.

‘Some things,' she said with no particular feeling, ‘don't mean shit.'

I liked that thought. I wondered if the artist's friend had been woken by her voice, but Destiny was already on her way out of the room and I found myself following her.

‘Oh, did you think I was talking to you?' she said. I could make out a hint of an unkind smile. ‘I was just talking.' It was almost dark in the hallway that ran down the middle of the house, some dim light sneaking in and making shadows in the grooves between the wall's vertical boards. ‘I might talk to you,' she said. ‘If you'll annoy me less than these people.'

I expected – knew, even – that I would annoy her just as much, given time, but for then I kept following. We went to the bathroom, where she walked up to the ice-filled bath, took the best bottle of someone else's wine that she could find and poured us each a plastic cupful.

‘We did this with a grant, you know,' she said, looking at the fairy lights wrapped around the shower rose and flashing like a Christmas tree. ‘From Arts Queensland. It'll all have to mean something when we acquit it, I suppose.' She drank a mouthful of the wine, and looked down into the bath, at the Vodka Cruisers and six-packs of beer, their cardboard packaging soft under the ice and coming apart. ‘I loathe my boyfriend,' she said to the bath. ‘My now ex-boyfriend. I loathe his hedonistic empty-headed conservatism.'

He was three ways bad, all in the one taut sentence, with more to follow. She told me about him there in the bathroom – his stupid remarks about not liking the taste of the red balloons, the offensive dead-animal pizza.

‘You make it sound like road kill,' I said to her and she said, ‘All his pizzas are about killing.'

And that led her on to veal and her grand plan for liberating veal, for busting into the feedlot and setting all the wobbly little calves free so that they could muscle up and not be eaten. ‘You can be my lieutenant,' she said, and I imagined us going into battle together, and the sexually charged two-person victory party that would inevitably follow.

She was smoking by the time we got to veal, and further into someone else's wine. We were in the backyard, in a square of veranda light, with her artist friends around us in the dark, all talking about the shortcomings of the art of others, and people they shouldn't have slept with, and cafés they hated working at and the pretentiousness of the customers. Someone was filming much of it, and I wasn't certain whether they were being postmodern or just irritating.

My new great ambition, I realised, was to be the next person Destiny regretted sleeping with, to take my place in this life she obviously loathed, and to be one of its more loathsome parts. I was quite confident I could do that. I loathed myself exactly the right amount.

‘We've got disaster written all over us,' I said to her. ‘I'm in.'

She took my phone and put her number in it, spelling D-E-S-T-I-N-Y aloud as she did so.

‘Saturday, early, your car,' she said. ‘I'll text you the address.'

 

I HAD A week to plan, to veganise as much as I could. I googled veal; I bought a hideous belt that only a vegan could love; I attempted unsuccessfully to track Destiny down on Twitter, in the hope of picking up some of the nuances of her anti-carnivore rage. I practised eating vegetables. Didn't like it much.

I burned CDs of vegan music for the car, or at least music by vegans. At first I thought that'd mean a dangerous amount of Coldplay, on the strength of Gwyneth Paltrow's assiduous compliance with a macrobiotic diet. Which was quite like vegan, surely, or close enough. But then Wikipedia saved me with a list of vegan musos, and I had The Church (Steve Kilbey), The Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), Michael Franti, Kisschasy, Jonathan Richman for retro cool, Moby for highway driving, some Fiona Apple for when I wanted to look clever, Radiohead for when I wanted to look that kind of clever and k.d. lang for closing music, though I wasn't sure if it was just lesbian closing music. We'd park somewhere at sunset, calves gambolling across the paddocks, and I'd crank up ‘Constant Craving': welcome to the victory party.

By Saturday, I had two CDs chock-full of vegans, without a Bryan Adams or Shania Twain track in sight. Not just vegan music, but discerning vegan music. The music of a vegan you would probably want to have sex with.

I borrowed – or in fact, took – my father's new car since, unlike mine, its upholstery wasn't tainted by years of delicious flame-grilled burger smell from a life of miserable broken-hearted car meals. I left him my keys and a note telling him I was sure my car would do, for a Saturday.

Destiny was standing in front of the rather grand house at Indooroopilly when I arrived. She looked not so much like a resident and more like someone who had just stepped off a bus.

‘Bye,' she shouted back to no one at all as she got in the car.

The stereo was playing the Indigo Girls' ‘Closer to Fine'. Destiny checked her nails, first on her left hand, then on the right. The Indigo Girls played with an energy that belied the lack of quality haem iron in their diet.

Destiny unzipped the bag she'd dropped at her feet and said, ‘You're right to use bolt cutters, yeah?'

‘Yes,' I said, meaning no and that's altogether too hardcore and did you notice that's the Indigo Girls and at least one of them is vegan and you probably want to have sex with me now?

I had seen bolt cutters in movies, wielded by bad tough men. I didn't know there would be bolt cutters.

‘Have you ever had coffee at Extract, on Adelaide Street?' she said after a while, making it sound unlike a question. ‘I recommended it to Lily Allen when she was in town.'

That actress voice was back, as if she were playing a jaded southern belle. She left a pause there for me, which I thought I was to fill with some observation about her being Lily Allen's friend.

‘I don't play much Lily Allen,' I said. ‘I don't mind her forthrightness, but I think she eats meat.'

I turned the stereo up a notch, then down, to draw attention to the music of Conor Oberst. Please note the cerebral alt-folk vibe, I was willing her, and the complete absence of animal products.

‘It's not as if we're close,' she said. ‘It was on Twitter. She did ask, though. She didn't reply. Not that I noticed.' I asked her how many people followed Lily Allen on Twitter and she said, ‘About a million and a half.'

We drove in silence for a while. I worked on vegan thoughts, but none would come.

‘My uncle has a lazy eye too,' she said. She was looking at me, watching me, and turned half sideways in her seat. ‘A slightly buggy, lazy kind of eye. He's got one of them too, so I shouldn't worry. Have you ever watched any of the films of Marty Feldman?'

‘I don't think so,' I said, suddenly aware of my eyes, pushing out of their sockets like a pair of fists. Which they weren't. Just plain weren't. No fists, no pushing. I had a tendency, perhaps, to look a little more surprised than I was, but symmetrically, damnit. And only slightly. My eyes felt like big balls of dense jelly in my head, lids holding them in like seatbelts. She had found me a new way to be ugly, and I already had more than enough of those.

‘Doesn't matter,' she said, still looking at me closely, and not in a friendly way. ‘My father made us watch them. It's a kind of abuse.' She laughed. ‘It's not abuse. There was no abuse in my family.'

We headed west out of the city, and then north, past the half-empty dams and through towns selling pies and dry hopeless land.

‘I can draw a perfect circle in real life,' she said, and I wondered if there were other places to draw circles. ‘By hand.' It was added as a kind of correction.

She made the shape of a circle in the air in front of her. It may have been perfect.

‘My mother has always wanted me to be someone else,' I told her. ‘And I tried, but I could never work out who else to be.'

‘That's completely pathetic,' she said. ‘Not just pathetic, but completely. I'd like to write it down. Do you have a pen?'

I didn't, so she reached for her phone and spelt it out aloud, letter by letter, as she typed it, vegan music drifting meaninglessly by, not in the same country as sex.

She navigated us through the Brisbane Valley using a map she'd printed out, first along the highway and then down country roads, past dry bush with empty bathtubs and burnt-out cars, past lush horse studs with pokerwork signage. We left the bitumen and moved onto a graded surface, and then something less kempt and more like a track.

‘I'm sure we're closing in,' she said, as a tyre blew and my father's car, which had never before left the city, fishtailed in the dirt, throwing up dust and rocks and splinters of tree branches.

We came to a stop at the edge of the cleared surface, in the ruts that some large wheels had made when the ground had once been wet. The dust cloud we had thrown up blew by us.

‘Your music is sometimes irritating,' she said, and turned it off.

I meant to shut the door when I got out, but it slipped from my hand and slammed instead. I went to open it, to explain, and then didn't. She was staring straight ahead, waiting for the car problem to be fixed.

The tyre had shredded and left chunks of rubber back along the road. The day was hot now, and close to silent in this lost bit of country. I was wrecking my father's car, veal would stay veal and I was not even going to have sex.

I found the spare and lifted it out of the boot. I made sense of the jack and pristine toolkit, as much as I could. I fitted the heavy iron wrench to a wheel nut and pulled back on the long handle. Nothing. No movement at all. I pulled harder, jerked at it. Something clicked in my neck, but the nut didn't shift.

I repositioned the wrench and stepped on it. I put my hands on top of the car and lifted all my weight onto the wrench and stood there, several centimetres above the ground.

I stepped down, and stamped on it. Then stamped on it hard, and the heel cracked off my boot and a pain shot up my ankle and I fell over. The wrench slid off the nut and fell onto the dirt.

Was there any prospect of sympathy sex? Was it all I had left?

I stood up again, a limp now built into my shoe asymmetry. I opened the car door just as Destiny was lighting a cigarette. I wanted to tell her not to. I wanted to tell her the day had gone to shit in more ways than I could count. I wanted her to like me, or something.

‘What?' she said, indignant just for the hell of it. ‘You're not going to tell me there's no smoking in the car now?' She drew on the cigarette, glared and opened her window several centimetres, as if it was a compromise. ‘Some people are actually allergic to new-car smell,' she said, because I was in the wrong again and the day was shit in an extra way that I hadn't bargained on. ‘It makes them sick. They can't buy new cars.'

I had never owned new-car smell. I had borrowed it, and then covered the car with red dust, shredded a tyre and scraped the passenger side against roadside bushes.

‘I read it on the internet,' she said, less robustly.

I had stared her down by accident. With the pain in my foot and the private tallying of the ways the day had gone to shit and my simple inability to muster a reply, I was accidentally coming across in a masculine, no-nonsense kind of way.

‘Well, at least it comes from an incredibly reliable source,' I said to her. ‘The same site where you found out Jeff Goldblum's dead, right?'

That made her laugh, which was an improvement, though not in itself a reason to turn the sound system back on and cue k.d. lang.

A truck appeared around the bend ahead of us. An empty cattle truck, coming our way. It clattered and rattled, all of its parts that were normally separated by cattle thrown against each other with every bump in the road. Dust blew out beside and behind it in a pink cloud. I stood up and shut the car door, tried to make some kind of signal that non-emergency assistance was needed.

With a rush of air from the brakes and more clattering, the truck stopped some distance in front of us. The door opened and the driver climbed down. He wore an old checked shirt with the sleeves torn off, shorts that had done a lot of miles and boots that looked like the kind with steel caps. He was fiercely stocky and fortyish, or younger and weather-beaten, and he walked as if he habitually sat on a haemorrhoid cushion.

‘You'd be a bit off the beaten track then, wouldn't you?' he said when he got closer.

‘We heard there was a winery out this way.' Even as I was saying it, I knew I could have done with a better lie.

‘Winery?' he said, and laughed, as if I'd said milliner, or American Nails franchise. He was looking at me as though I had no penis at all. ‘Winery. You and your lady up for a nice chardie from these parts, are you?' He smelt of cows, and therefore cow shit. ‘Tyre blowing chunks, then?' he said, nodding in the direction of the problem.

‘Yeah.' That kept it laconic, and as manly as possible.

‘Righto.'

He walked past me, picked up the wrench as if it was no heavier than an Allen key, and hoicked off the first of the wheel nuts with a flick of his wrist.

‘What's this?' he said, picking up the broken heel of my boot. ‘Take a bite out of your shoe, did it?' He flicked off another nut. ‘You might want to slip the jack under and think about cranking it up a bit.'

I was as manly as an orchid to him. He had the last two nuts off before I'd found the hole for the jack handle, so he took that job over as well and had the tyre changed in minutes. Destiny sat in the car and continued to smoke.

‘Good luck with the wineries,' he said, handing me the jack.

‘Yeah, no worries,' I said back to him, though it sounded stupid. ‘Thanks for that.'

He was already on the way to his truck, and he waved without turning. He climbed aboard, gunned the engine into life and gave a couple of painfully loud blasts of the horn as he passed us, sitting far above us in his air-conditioned cab, lost behind the dark window tint.

I opened the car door.

‘Maybe you could stub that out for me on the road,' Destiny said, handing me her cigarette butt. ‘If you think you can do it without getting hurt.'

 

AGAINST MY BETTER judgement, we drove on. Destiny still had her map, and said we were close, and that the cattle truck proved it. We took a left after a dry creek bed, then a right, and all of a sudden the rank smell of a thousand cattle held at close quarters came in through both open windows.

We passed the entrance to the feedlot without slowing down. There were men in the yard, all like the truckie and able to snap me like a pencil, and No Trespassing signs in the sternest possible font.

‘Shit,' she said.

We took the next left down a rutted lane and pulled over under a tree. I wondered exactly how heroic I needed to be for a sexual outcome. Those men would hurt me badly even if I squealed and said it was all her idea.

‘Right,' she said, and handed me the bolt cutters.

I could see the feedlot goons taking them from me, clipping off a digit or two and laughing. Tossing me into a mincer, feeding me to pigs. I had watched too many of the wrong movies.

‘We need evidence,' she said, and took a Handycam from her bag. ‘This has to go on YouTube. We'll pixelate your head, or something, if it ends up in the shot. You go first.'

I stepped out into the rank cow smell and pushed through the bushes, towards the mooing. After a few metres I could see clear ground ahead, and cattle, and then I made out the wire strands of the fence.

‘Cut it,' she said. ‘Cut it.' And I did, and then she said, ‘It might have been electric. Was it electric?'

The cattle watched idly as, successfully unelectrocuted, I cut the middle strand of wire, and then the bottom one. They were crowded into the paddock, with the feedlot buildings beyond them. Any grass had long ago been chewed away, and they were standing in dust and generations of shit.

‘Okay,' she said. ‘Now we set them free.'

She videoed me approaching the cows, bolt cutters in hand, limping on my broken shoe and waving my arms like a silent-movie fool, a Keystone Kop, miming some kind of urgency around the theme of departure. The cattle backed away, closer to the buildings.

‘You stupid fucks,' Destiny said, one hand waving at them, the other filming. ‘That's certain death.'

We chased around for twenty minutes and the cattle kept backing away, did whatever they could to steer clear of us. If we herded one up and chased it to the hole, it veered off at the last and jogged back to the others.

‘Fuckers,' Destiny shouted, then grabbed at a tail and fell in shit. Actually, several shits. One mid-thigh, one on her front, one on her left ear and strands of hair. ‘Fuck you!' she screamed at the perplexed cow. ‘You totally fucking deserve to die.'

It chewed on something, perhaps a memory of past cud. It blinked.

She slapped its face and said, ‘Don't look at me that way.'

We heard a motorbike engine up near the buildings, and ran.

‘You have to give me your shirt,' she said once we were back at the car. ‘Don't argue. Just give it.'

I stayed on the other side of the car, discreetly pumping my bare muscles in the hope that they could look half-respectable, while she swore and moaned and dry retched and used her own ruined shirt to wipe shit from her hair and jeans before throwing it under a bush.

‘You can turn around now,' she said. She looked good in my shirt, albeit pale and queasy and angry, and with a chunk of her hair stiff with drying shit and standing out from her head like a blade.

‘Well, there goes the last of the new-car smell,' I said as we got in, and she said, ‘Fuck you.'

 

WE DROVE OFF with the windows down but the smell of the byre was inescapable and not improved even by the best vegan music in the world.

‘I thought you didn't wear animal products,' I said, and she said, ‘Jesus Christ. I'm only just not screaming.'

There was a McDonald's on the edge of the first town we came to and she said, ‘Pull in. There'll be a tap. They have to have an outside tap to maintain their shrubs.'

I did as I was told, and parked in a corner away from the drive-through. She found the tap and went down on her knees to wash her hair and her jeans, and shriek at the neat tan bark, at the horror of it all. Shit ran from her hands. Shriek, scream.

She came back to the car drenched, my baggy shirt stuck to her lean body. I filmed her with the Handycam, and she gave me the finger.

‘Fuck it,' she said when she was no more than a metre away. ‘I'd kill for a burger. I want to eat animals and smoke more to keep my weight right.'

She found new ways to be vile at every turn. My parents would hate her, if they ever got the chance.

‘You know that was my art?' She was pointing at the Handycam, and I was watching her through it, still filming. ‘You know that, don't you?' she said, and it was plain that I didn't. ‘That the balloon story was all bullshit and my art was about pretending to be a vegan and seducing some poor fool with that horrible story about veal. Which still icks me, by the way. We shot the whole thing. My friend had that camera. It's already on YouTube. That's the art. You being a tool. A totally dick-led tool. You realise you're the proof that the worst things said about men are true? That you'll agree to anything if there might be sex at the end of it?'

I told her I had a voucher that would get us two steaks for the price of one at the Indooroopilly Hotel and she said, ‘Take me there. Stat.' She got in the car, wound down the window, lit another cigarette and said, ‘I think I'm going to have sex with you after all.'

And I said, ‘Yes, at my house. And then you'll meet my mother. You can smoke and wear my clothes and still smell faintly of shit, right in her pristine kitchen. I'll make her cook Wiener schnitzel, and that's when you can tell her all about veal.'

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