Art was enjoying his first visit to England immensely. Under the nefarious influence of a mythical Britain that existed only in his head, he had become dangerously unhinged before he even got off the boat, and when he finally set his foot upon English soil, he came alarmingly close to unloading in his pants. In his mystical heart he believed Britain – the Britain in his head, at least – to be the undisputed King of nations, the Lion of Judah, the Holy Grail, and the anointed Island of the Gods. It was Albion, it was Avalon. It was mythical Atlantis. And here he stood, Art Simpson, with his feet kissing the very soil of this fabled Blessed Isle, as visions of gods and demons exploded all around him. This is the sacred soil of Britain, he thought to himself. This is the soil that was sanctified by the Gods. This is the soil that saw the rise and fall of Rome, the soil that sprang King Arthur from its womb and became the final destination for the holy cup of Christ.
He still found it hard to believe that he was here, in this land that he had been so ensorcelled by, for as long as he could remember. It is a rare thing, he reflected, for an Irishman to be an arrant Anglophile. But he thought it was a perfectly reasonable infatuation.
After all, this tiny island was the straw that broke the back of Caesar.
This was the island that reduced the French and Spanish fleet to soggy matchwood at the Battle of Trafalgar, and annihilated the entire French war host at Waterloo, forcing the usurper Bonaparte to run off home clutching his bottom and crying for his mama.
This was Blighty.
Now that he knew he wasn’t going to shit himself, he thought he could deal with the hallucinations. Even so, he thought it would be best if he found somewhere to sit down and get his head together, so he grabbed Morganna and whisked her out into the streets of Portsmouth, in search of a proper English pint.
He was particularly taken with the pubs in England, and the dazzling array of beers on offer in these fine establishments, not to mention the fruity bosoms bursting from the bodices of plump and earthy serving wenches wherever he looked. You could get a creamy little buzz on with a pint or two of pale ale, which had a modest volume of about 4.3%, or hammer yourself rotten with Old Thumper, which was up around the 6% mark. Alternatively you could head straight for oblivion, via one of the many 10 or 11% beers brewed in sheds all over the country. You could have porter for the iron that was in it and bitter to prove to the chaps that you were no uphill gardener. It was totally different to bars in the States where the same insipid barely alcoholic piss-water that Americans took for beer was all he'd ever known.
The English, by contrast, knew what pubs were for. In England the pub was the focal point of the community, where you could find a job, a wife, a whore or a hitman, or buy and sell black-market goods and omnifarious substances of an illicit or contraband nature. But mostly the English went to the pub to drink and vomit and fight and fuck and sing and smash glasses into each other’s faces. They knew how to get drunk, did the English, which as a gentleman of Irish extraction, with the blood of ten thousand drunkards and tosspots thundering through his veins, he admired unreservedly. Yes, he thought to himself as he propped up the bar in the Dwarf’s Head, I’m certainly liking England. And while he waited for Nancy, the big bottomed peasant girl who worked behind the bar - and sometimes behind the rhododendron bush out the back of the pub - to serve up some decent head on his Old Thumper, he thought: I am liking England indeed. I am liking it very motherfucking much.
The clock on the wall said ten to two, and he remembered with sudden alarm that he had arranged to meet Morganna at half past one, by the Buttercross in the high street, and accompany her to the cemetery at St. Cross to lay flowers on Salome’s grave. He grabbed his morning coat and quaffed the remains of his pint, spilling most of it down his shirt and trousers, gave the foam round his mouth a cursory wipe with his sleeve and headed - somewhat messily – into the street.
“Watch it, kid!” he yelled, as a scruffily clad street urchin missed bowling him off the pavement by a whisker, in his eagerness to evade the cosh waving shopkeeper he had just robbed, who was bounding gamely up the road in hot pursuit, all twenty eight stone of him, hyperventilating madly, as the morbidly obese are prone to do. His purple face was a rictus of exertion; his belly and buttocks swung like sacks of heavy ballast as he tried to heft them up the road.
“Up yours, mister!” yelled the kid, flicking him the finger, as he deftly veered away from Art and headed into the mouth of a grimy alleyway twenty yards up the road.
“I’ll have you, you thieving little bastard!” yelled the fat shopkeeper as he laboured for breath, “so help me I will. I’ll see you in the workhouse, you larcenous little reprobate! If I see you in my shop again I’ll beat the living daylights out of you, d’you hear me? Come back here, you little hooligan!” But he stopped when he reached Art, and bent over with his hands on his knees as he struggled to get his breath back.
“Munce is the name,” the fat man declared, offering Art a meaty hand, “Edward Munce. Munce the Butcher. Ed, to my friends.”
“How do you do, Mr Munce,” replied Art, shaking the proffered hand, “I’m Art. Art Simpson.”
“Please, call me Ed.”
“Right. I can’t say I’ve seen you around these parts before, Art. You’re not… well… from here, are you?”
“I can’t claim that pleasure, no. I live in the States, in New York City. I’m vacationing here with my wife. She grew up here, lived here for most of her life. She came to New York quite recently, after the death of a friend. Perhaps you know her. Her father is high up in the church here; the Archbishop, actually. Morganna is her name. We live at Dwarf House, over on Milton Street.”
The butcher’s face split into a wide and knowing grin.
“Morganna,” he exclaimed, fondly, “little Morganna. Yes indeed, I know her. Know her indeed, I do. Oh yes, I know Morganna, known her most of her life, as it happens. That’s one of the great benefits to being the local butcher; you get to know everyone, and everyone knows you. Everybody needs meat, after all. Everyone needs meat.”
His face took on a dreamy, reminiscent expression.
“She used to come into my shop every morning, on her way to school,” said Munce, “Our Lady of the Perpetual Govinda it was, that was the school she went to, up on St. Catherine’s Hill. It’s still there, that school. Although God only knows the kind of pilfering little toe rags they’re overrun with now. I shudder to think. She liked my pies, you see. She was mad for my meat pies. Sometimes she’d bunk off school in the afternoon to hang around outside the front of the shop. I’m a soft touch, really, I always have been, and she always knew how to wheedle a free meat pie out of me. I make the finest pies in the kingdom, if I do say so myself, and it’s all down to my special ingredient.”
“Really?” Art was hearing things about his wife that he’d never have credited in this conversation, and if he was brutally honest with himself, Morganna having a miscreant meat pie proclivity was something he had not seen coming. He tried to imagine her fat. Fat, and sweating. Fat and sweating and naked. Fat and sweating and naked and stuffing her face full of meat pie. And then belching, loudly and wantonly in full public view, tiny morsels of meat spraying from her mouth all over everywhere, like some pox riddled tramp from the slums. He found the thought unsettling and repulsive; although he also felt the vague stirrings of an erection. What the hell is the matter with me, he wondered.
“Oh yes, really,” continued Munce, who hadn’t missed a beat, and was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss. “In fact come to think of it, it was around the time she was hanging around for meat pies that I invented my special ingredient…”
“Muncemeat, yes. Muncemeat, my special and secret ingredient. There’s no meat like Muncemeat, no sir, and no meat pie like a Muncemeat pie. Munce’s Marvellous Muncemeat pies. They’ve changed the face of meat eating, as sure as eggs are eggs, you can take that to the bank, yes indeed.”
Art was beginning to think that he’d unwittingly stumbled into some kind of off colour shlick flick for meat fetishists. He was beginning to feel quite unwell, and wanted nothing more than to walk somewhere leafy and quiet and throw up into the bushes, yet in spite of an earnest desire to embroil himself no further in conversation with this unrelenting meat worrier, and the common sense and willpower that was normally his to command, he found himself entirely unable to refrain from asking the apparently innocuous question:
“And what, exactly is Muncemeat, Ed?”
Edward Munce puffed out his chest and took a deep breath. He looked like a man poised to deliver information so powerful that it had the potential to either transport humanity through a huge evolutionary leap, ushering in a golden age of enlightenment, in which all wars had ceased because mankind had finally realised that they were one single consciousness appearing as many; or send it hurtling back into the dark ages, where humankind would spend the next billion years learning how to dig ants out of their hills with pointy sticks.
“Muncemeat,” declared the butcher, in tones of the utmost gravity, “is a mixture of the finest meats, carefully blended to provide the optimum masticatory experience. I take the choicest, rarest and most potent parts of your pig or your chicken or your cow or your beaver or whatever; the hooves, the sphincter, the testicles, the foreskin and so on, and mash it all up in an industrial blender. It goes in as recognisable bits of a carcass, but comes out as a wonderfully attractive and nutritious looking soft pink putty, which can be shaped into sausages and burgers, grill steaks and even boneless joints. In fact, Muncemeat has a consistency and texture both elastic and rubbery, making it the perfect shape shifter. You could make a perfectly serviceable hat stand out of it, if you so desired. Hell, you could build a shed out of it. In fact I see a time in the not too distant future, when there will be whole communities of living, breathing people made entirely out of Muncemeat. Very little people, quite probably, given the amount of bone needed to keep a body upright, but people, nonetheless. Muncemeat men, if you will. Or Mini Muncemeat men, if you want to be pedantic about it.”
He looked thrilled with himself.
By now it was radiantly clear to Art that Edward Munce was stark raving mad, and very likely a danger to himself and others. He supposed that spending all your days fiddling with the rubbery nether parts of dead animals would do that to you. It brought to mind this weird guy that had been in the same biology class at college, who liked to call himself “The Fist”; a fair indication of his proclivities, you might think; then again you might just take him for an asshole. He ended up getting a night job at the county morgue. It was a solitary position; it wasn’t like your charges were going to wander off. Well, as time went by and the weeks stretched into months and he searched for some diversion to alleviate the mind numbing boredom of those slow and lonely hours, he became quietly, but profoundly unhinged. He started to take the corpses out of the drawers and dress them up, and sit them around the room in chairs and imagine they were talking together. Then he brought in a bone china tea service, and a tin full of fairy cakes, scones, custard tarts and what have you. He would throw his dead companions a tea party, and then amuse himself by arranging them in sexually suggestive positions with each other, like dolls. He got a particular kick from placing the cadaver of a baby to its dead mother’s breast, as if it were feeding on her shrivelled blue teat. He managed to avoid being discovered in the pursuit of these sordid necrophilic sex games for quite some time, but he was like a drug addict; one time was too many and a hundred times wasn’t enough. The more he did it, the more he was compelled to do it. On the night of his birthday he took several litres of vodka into work with him, with the intention of throwing a dolls’ tea party to end them all. By midnight the dead were piled on top of each other in a grim diorama of sexual debasement, their faces desecrated with cheap make-up, their bodies clad in latex fetish gear, and The Fist had drunk so much vodka that he was unable to stay completely conscious; what slim grip on reality he may have earlier that night was now irretrievably lost. Unbelievably, the alcoholic delirium that had sent him in and out of consciousness began to have a more sinister side effect; in the blink of an eye he became even more deranged; pathologically determined to sate the abhorrent obsessions that had rotted his mind and turned him into a monster.
At around 5 am the supervisor showed up to make a random inspection of the premises; the atrocities that met his eyes caused him to feel violated, right down to his very core. But the sight of the suckling infant at it's mother's breast reduced him to the condition of a blubbering vegetable, from which he would never return. The last thing he knew before the darkness stole his sanity was the author of all this evil, hunched like a beast over the wrinkled corpse of an old lady, desperately masturbating into her anus.
As these memories passed through Art's mind, some black and infernal power in the bowels of his soul began to awaken from its slumber; a primordial aspect of his being that until this moment, he hadn't known was there. It was boundless and endless, terrifying and unspeakable, and it covered him with its fury. He suddenly understood that he wanted to kill the fat man.
“I’m out of here,” he told Munce, sharply and out of the blue, “I’ve got to meet Morganna and I’m late. And I don’t like you. I don’t like you one little bit.” He started to walk away, towards the Southgate Road and the hospital of St. Cross. “You’re a fucking menace,” he added, turning back to look Munce squarely in his piggy little eyes as he addressed him, “and if I ever see you again, I’m going to be taking some of that marvellous Muncemeat of yours and ramming it down your throat until you choke.” He continued to walk away, but then turned once more. “And you’d better stay the fuck away from my wife, because if I ever suspect that you’ve been near her, I’m going to come to your shop and saw off those big fat titties of yours with a blunt knife.”
And with that, Art Simpson turned his back on the butcher, and went to meet his wife.
He finally caught up with her in the cemetery, where she had tended to Salome’s gravestone with the devotion of a worshipper, and found her there kneeling, her head bowed in prayer or contemplation, whispering words that he couldn’t hear, and baring to the gods those things she held in her heart that he couldn’t hope to share. She looked up as he came to her, her eyes stained with tears and mascara, her skin like porcelain. She was perfect and looked as if she could break. She smiled at him, and wiped away an errant tear.
“And just where have you been?” she chided him playfully, “You’re awfully late, you know. I was tempted to run off with one of the gravediggers.”
“I’m sorry honey, I lost track of time. And when I finally started making my way here I got caught up in the middle of a crime scene. Some juvenile delinquent from one of the estates had robbed the butcher, who then took it upon himself to give me a thorough grounding in the massive scientific leaps that have been made since the advent of reconstituted unspecified meat.”
“Ah, you’ve met Munce then.”
“Indeed, and he persuaded me that he was a very sick man. Did you know he intends to create men out of Muncemeat?”
She sniggered mischievously. “Yes, I did know that, as it happens. Around here, everybody knows that. They know it in the same way that they knew Black Mariah was a killer and eater of children, they know it in the same way that they knew I was a filthy little strumpet who’d fuck you for money. People get a feel for these things. People’s eccentricities stick out like a sore thumb, their closet perversions twice as much. A small town like this needs its share of weirdoes and bogeymen. It keeps people’s lives interesting, and gives them something to talk about, to fantasise about, even. It’s not every town that has a budding Victor Frankenstein selling you your sausages. He’s spooky, alright.” She gave a theatrical shudder. “And his wife’s a hunchback.” And she burst into fits of giggles.
“He told me that you were so enamoured of his meat pies that you hung around his shop making an exhibition of yourself when you should have been at school.”
“That’s not true!” she protested. When I was at school lots of the kids were going missing round here, and some of us thought that it was probably Munce, making Muncemeat out of them. I was curious, that’s all. And where were you, anyway?” she demanded, changing the subject completely, “I bet you were in the pub again, weren’t you?”
“No.” It was out of his mouth before he was even aware that he was lying to her. I mean, well… maybe one or two.”
“I don’t know what’s come over you since we came to England,” she said petulantly, pouting like a sulky teenager and poking out her tongue at him, “you never use to drink so much. I’m beginning to think you might be an alcoholic.”
He laughed at that.
“Well I’ve definitely developed a fondness for all the wonderful beer you can buy here,” he said. “I hardly ever drank at lunchtime before I came here.”
“It’s a slippery slope, you know.”
“So they say. At the rate I’m going I’ll be sat on a park bench in a dirty mac within a couple of weeks. Where I will scare the kids with my demented ranting and eye watering stench, and scare their mothers by leering at them and following them around asking them for spare change.”
“You’d be a natural.”
“And you, my girl,” he said, as he pulled her towards him, “are way too cheeky for your own good.”
“I can live with the risk.”
Arm in arm they left the graveyard and headed home through the water meadows, stopping only briefly at the Dwarf’s Head, to partake of some richly deserved liquid refreshment, and to pick up a couple of carafes of wine. After all, it had been another warm day.
In late November, Morganna discovered that she was pregnant, an event which caused them the most delirious joy, and they agreed – with a palpable sense of relief – that they should remain in England, and keep the house, at least until the child was born. So for the moment at least, all that remained for the happy couple was to dive into the spirit of the season; easily done in a close knit neighbourly community of the sort that existed between the regulars at the Dwarf’s Head, which had rapidly become a home away from home. The tail end of the year also saw Morganna reconciled with her father, when they came together for the first time in almost a decade on Christmas Day. It was an emotional reunion, filled with tears of sorrow for the years that had been lost, and tears of joy for those that had been regained. Morganna accompanied her father to the Christmas services in Winchester Cathedral, which affected her deeply and religiously; she was moving inexorably towards realisation of the infinite love of God. She also went with him to the orphanage at St. Cross, the very orphanage that she and Salome had targeted all those years ago, with the sole intention of recruiting vulnerable young girls into a life of prostitution. But this time she was there with a heart full of love, to distribute gifts of food and clothing to those that needed them most.
Morganna gave birth on July 1st, 1901; to a beautiful baby girl. They named her Bunny, which horrified the neighbours, who opined that naming a baby Bunny was tantamount to laying a curse on the poor little mite, but Morganna would not be dissuaded; in her heart she harboured the unassailable conviction that a name like Bunny would bring nothing but benefit to this girl who was divinity made flesh, and destined to be the most dazzling light of the roaring twenties.
In this particular matter, she showed incredible foresight.