It's spooky, this silent forest of flesh: Susan De Muth in bed with Derry Slattery

Susan de Muth
Tuesday 21 June 1994 23:02

Derry Slattery, 50, sells meat at Smithfield Market in London. He lives in Bedfordshire with his wife and Tara, a rottweiler.

WHEN I get to the market at 2.30am there are carcasses everywhere. It's quite spooky to walk in from the night and find this illuminated, silent forest of flesh hanging from meat hooks.

But I don't think of meat in any way other than a commodity. I once went to an abattoir owned by my old friend Mr Hackett and as the pigs went in they screamed like babies. That really did me in, and I keep that memory firmly outside my mind and my nightmares, too. I couldn't do this job if I didn't.

As the market gets going and the banter and bargaining starts, the night is saturated with pressure and excitement. After 30 years, during which I've worked as a cutter, a bumaree (freelance porter) and now in sales, I've come to associate night with these feelings more than anything else. I have no trouble reverting to sleeping at night as soon as I'm on holiday, however.

Even now I sometimes find it strange that while most of the nation is asleep, this small area is a hive of activity. And it's not only the business of buying and selling meat: we get coachloads of tourists trekking around, people who've come out of clubs, rent boys and girls high on drugs . . . and nuns trying to help them. You see it all at Smithfield, I can tell you.

A few months ago a photographer turned up with a naked man. He wanted the porters to hang the nude upside down from meat hooks while he took pictures. There's something about it being at night that makes people think different standards apply. The porters weren't impressed and started chucking fat at them.

By about 8am most of the trading is over and it's traditional to repair to the pub to wind down, tell stories and tease people like Billy, who was found out for stealing a fillet steak when he left his watch in the box by mistake. 'Where's your watch, Billy?' we ask him and, even though this happened 20 years ago, he still goes bright red.

I change and shower before leaving work, but my wife often complains that I smell of meat when I get in. I've noticed people holding their noses - they sometimes even faint - when they're walking round the market. Perhaps it's the smell that so excites Tara, the love of my life. She goes absolutely mad when I come home.

Unless I'm too wound up - in which case I'll cut the grass or play golf - I go to bed for the first time from 2 till 5pm. It doesn't bother me that I'm missing out on the day, but there's a sense of activity all around me that troubles my sleep. My dreams are often about work and having endless stocks of beef that I can't sell.

Tara lies on the end of the bed and won't let anyone near me, including my wife. Tara protects my sleep, but it's a shame other people aren't as considerate. My son woke me up yesterday just because he wanted to borrow a particular tie. I had my revenge by phoning him at 2.30 this morning - 'Oh, are you in your bed?' I asked, pretending to be surprised. 'Sorry.'

I get up between 5pm and 9pm to spend some time with my wife before returning to bed. Now there is a new terror to disturb my sleep - her cold hands and feet when she decides to join me. But my dreams become more enjoyable: the other night I got signed up for Arsenal. The contract was crystal clear in front of me. I was so choked when I woke to rediscover that I was unfit, 50, and about to go and sell bloody meat yet again.

Occasionally, when I rise at 1.15am, I have to put the light on to find some socks or pants. My wife complains and starts going on. 'I'm so sorry,' I say, 'that you have to stay in a lovely warm bed while I go to work.' Sometimes I resent this upside-down lifestyle, but it's a job and I'm glad of it.

(Photograph omitted)

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