Picture This


1. Butcher Boyz

A beam traverses the roof space, pulling the light down towards the scene below; at first it appears innocuous, a tableaux  of thirteen working men caught in the execution of their duty, have rearranged themselves into something less relaxed, more stilted, more defensive it seems. Directly ahead, centred both vertically and horizontally, a high-collared, be-suited youth stands astride a clean chalk line of unspoken demarcation – he holds a bulky folded document, a plan of attack, the logistics of death; an older man in similar garb, stands isolated towards the rear, drifting in the direction of the darkened exit point, upstage left. The remaining men wear butchers’ aprons and  are tooled up with a menacing array of cutting implements: cleavers, filleting knives, stilettos, scalpels with which to slice and slash, hack and amputate, dismember and dissect. A backstreet gang of serial slaughterers, poorly paid assassins, proper butcher boys, they stand defiantly with hands on haunches, or folded resolutely, impatient to get on. The foreground is splattered with darkened patches, which clot the sawdust, underlining the perfection of the killing floor. Two wooden barrows – one facing towards the front, the other the rear – overflow with severed limbs; the whitened flesh of the pile of corpses, reflects the brightness from the skylight almost directly overhead, dazzling the viewers eyes to darkness.

Excerpt from The Spooky Perambulator 


The narrator describes the scene almost as if he or she is an alien. Almost. Peel back the veil of seeming neutrality, the attempt to describe without becoming involved, and the truth is revealed in the dark diction employed in a matter of fact way.  Towards the end of the first sentence we stumble across the phrase ‘execution of their duty’, the negative significance of which is amplified by the list employed to describe how the thirteen working men actually execute their duty – they have become ‘something less relaxed, more stilted, more defensive’, perhaps in deference to the intruding lens, or perhaps in reaction to having been caught in the act. There definitely is something unnatural here – whether it is the act or the intrusion is unclear.

And  note that there are thirteen ‘working men’; but for the fact that the narrator is describing an actual photograph, we may dismiss this as a clumsy play on the negative reputation of the number thirteen the origin of which has been linked to the Christian Last Supper where Christ sat down with his twelve disciples, with Judas Iscariot the betrayer being the last one (therefore the thirteenth) to take his seat. In fact this was not the first case of an unlucky thirteenth guest at a dinner party. In ancient Norse lore, evil was introduced to the world by the trickster God Loki, a gatecrasher at a feast in Valhalla which already had twelve quests; in contrast, thirteen was viewed as a lucky number by the Ancient Egyptians.

It may well be that the preeminence of the number twelve – the number of the twelve main gods in Greek mythology, the number of Odin’s sons in Norse mythology, the number of of Christ’s discipiles in Christinaity, the number of Imans in the Islam religion, the twelve gateways to heaven in the Book of Revelations, and in folklore and mythology the twelve entrances to the underworld, the months of the year – brought about the inferiority complex suffered by the number thirteen. Indeed, the rise of twelve to its predominant numerological aspect may well have initiated the fall of thirteen, mirroring the fall of Lucifer from Heaven – Lucifer’s self belief in his superiority to God resulted in his being cast down and thirteen’s disrespect in being one more than the perfect number revealing it as the imperfect, flawed, corrupt anti-perfect number.

Thirteen also stands against twelve in the world of witchcraft and magick. Traditionally the number of witches in a coven is thirteen; but for how long this tradition has been running, and when and why it was established is open to debate. In her 1973 An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente identifies thirteen as the number of witches needed to form a coven, “ideally they should consist of six men, six women and a leader.” She argues that the number thirteen “has long been regarded as having peculiar magical properties[…] reflected in the cult group of twelve people and a leader.” The evidence she provides includes: “in astrology […] we have the sun and the twelve signs of the zodiac; thirteen lunar months “an older time measure than the twelve calendar months we know have”; thirteen full-moon Esbats to each year, as celebrated by witches”; the Danish hero Hrolf, “followed by his twelve berserks”; In Arthurian legend, Arthur’s Round Table consisted of the king and twelve of his principle knights; and the “Thirteen Treasures of Britain, which Merlin the wizard took with him when he vanished from among men”.

Anyhow, this digression on the number thirteen may well be better placed in a separate discussion of its own, and so it shall be, but for now back to the narrative. The “bulky document” held by the youth in the suit is described as “a plan of attack, the logistics of death“; no figurative language here, this is more of the matter of fact description included to apply a subtle influence designed to deceive. A hint at the staged element of the photograph is made by the theatrical stage direction ‘ the darkened exit point, upstage left’. This also suggests movement as the older man is said to be ‘drifting’ already, perhaps in his thoughts, planning and preparing, wanting to get out before the action begins – the teller, not the doer, the director of this dark tableau.

The actors, the doers, are easily identified by the costume which they all wear: the ‘butcher’s aprons’. Without the source photograph to check, this detail may seem to be an over-dramatisation – the assumption made from the text alone would be that the group were not butchers – indeed the author goes to some lengths to hide this fact from us.

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