‘Cold Bones’ by Barbara Jaques

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Cold Bones was often spoken of as a balmy place despite its name. However, aside from access to the ocean, it offered only that one stretched truth and the usual seaside fare. In the holiday months the town opened late. Shops sold toys for games on the sand, nets for rockpools, food for barbecuing. Wistful tourists gazed at the ocean, summoning poetic reflections of wind-whipped dunes and blackened sausages coated with salty sand. Others thought it’s freezing, and dinner is burnt. Whichever, Cold Bones was popular.

Queues were always long, so two visitors divided their barbecue errands. Lee bought meat while Alex bought beer, so it was Lee who first spotted rabbits dangling behind the butcher’s counter. As a boy, he would often see them hung this way, skinned and ready for the pot. But when his turn came, he directed the butcher to a pile of sirloin steak.

Waiting outside with a crateful of beer and a disposable barbecue, Alex was browsing the neighbouring pet store window. He too was pondering days gone by and rabbits, since there were several young ones in the window.

‘Must be where the butcher gets his,’ Lee laughed, seeing him. ‘Beef, tonight though, Alex.’ He held up the parcel of flesh.

‘It all comes from somewhere,’ came Alex’s wistful reply. His own lovely rabbit, Gentle Jimmy, had been a beauty. Gentle Jimmy, as it turned out, was never intended as a pet. Alex’s parents said he hadn’t read the note properly. Pet. Pot. Easily done. ‘Sign says it closes early,’ he said, ‘so the animals aren’t too stressed. Kind thought.’

They hurried away, excited at the prospect of a barbecue. There were no wives or kids to factor in, just themselves. No fizz to lug, or tubs of humous and tzatziki, bread, coke, crisps; no small coats to remember to pick up rather than leave on the wet sand all night. Just beer and meat and the sort of chat they enjoyed, about bicycles and manly things, such as who was the fastest cyclist downhill, uphill and around corners.

No sooner had the pair reached a sheltered dune and set down the barbecue, than they realised neither had matches.

‘There’s a general store opposite the butcher,’ Lee said, ‘I’ll run back.’

Alex said he would stay, saying he’d heard of beach barbecues in Cold Bones being hijacked by organised packs of children, adults worse for wear and bored of parenting. With Lee gone, Alex pulled a bottle of beer from its cardboard casing and used a second bottle to remove the cap. They had also forgotten an opener. Tonight, one would have to remain as it was, unopened; a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Lee was pleased to see the general store was emptier than earlier. He dashed in and gasped his request. It was while leaving with the matches that he happened to notice the butcher outside his shop handing a skinned rabbit to an old man, who then went inside the pet store. Thinking nothing of it, Lee rushed off, head filled with the ride analysis which lay ahead. Earlier, he’d been quite fast around one particularly sharp bend and wanted to talk about it.

When he arrived back, Alex was staring at the horizon. ‘Dreaming of home, already?’ Lee asked, stripping the barbecue of packaging, ‘Or admiring the sunset?’

‘I’m thinking about a cassette I need for my new bike.’ Alex said, dreamily, ‘It’s an awesome piece of kit.’

‘Oh yeah? The new new bike, or just the new bike?’

‘New new.’


The barbecue flared. Lee stood up, opened a beer, and the two men indulged themselves in uninterrupted talk of routes, brakes, bearings, cassettes and corners, waiting for lively flames to become quiet embers. By now, the last of the sun’s rays were sliding from sight, blue-grey sea darkened to slate, silvery highlights tinted gold with daylight’s farewell, poetic thoughts of interest to neither.


After a hard day riding and polishing bicycles, the men were once more at the butcher’s looking forward to another barbecue. Exactly as before, Alex bought beer and killed time browsing soon-to-be pet rabbits, while Lee again queued and pondered the deceased variety on their metal hooks. Once outside, Lee mentioned what he had seen the night before.

‘Maybe this really is how the butcher gets his rabbits,’ Alex said, only partly joking.

Lee laughed, ‘Maybe. I got the usual for tonight,’ he held up the bulging parcel, ‘but why don’t we have rabbit tomorrow?’

Choosing not to mention Gentle Jimmy or how sad this made him feel, Alex agreed it would be interesting and changed the subject. There was a seat post he’d like to buy for his old new bike, and he would show Lee once they were on the beach.


The next day was another repeat. Cycling, polishing, queueing. True to his word, Lee purchased a rabbit. Joining Alex by the pet store, he held up the carcass as if displaying the future to the youngsters in the window. Tiny twitching faces turned towards it.

‘They’re looking,’ Alex muttered.

Lee lowered his hand. ‘Now I feel bad.’ He smiled, regardless.

Just then, the pet store door opened. The old man Lee recognised from the night before reached out and snatched the rabbit, before retreating and quickly locking up.

The men were speechless. For a moment, all they could do was stare into the shadowy interior of the shop. Alex rapped lightly on the door, then a little harder. No one came.

‘I’m sorting this,’ Lee announced, indicating the butcher’s shop. ‘And if he doesn’t know what’s happened then I’ll buy another.’

‘Leave it, Lee. There’s a massive queue.’ Alex was doubting their culinary choice. Gentle Jimmy had come to him in a dream, wearing a tiny cycling helmet.

‘It’s fine. I’m not queuing. I’m going for it. Being bold, like I was on the bend.’

‘I’ll wait here and watch the baby rabbits,’ Alex said, ‘they’re so sweet.’ Lee threw him a look as if to say grown men should find only bicycles sweet.

A few moments later, Lee had the butcher’s attention, ‘Hey, any idea why your mate next door took my rabbit?’

The butcher reached up, unhooked another, and tossed it to him. ‘On the house.’


It was delicious, and the two men felt satisfactorily primeval eating it, Alex ignoring thoughts of the past. And so, yet again, the following evening saw a repeat purchase from the butcher’s shop.

‘Give this one to the guy next door,’ the butcher said, handing Lee a second rabbit. ‘Cheers.’

‘Two?’ Alex asked, as Lee emerged with the brace.

‘One for him.’

They both stared at the pet store.

‘Let’s take a look inside tomorrow,’ Alex said, ‘check him out; see if he’s feeding the animals with rabbit or eating it himself. Maybe he really is breeding them for the butcher and getting one back, oven-ready.’ Alex gently knocked on the glass door as he spoke, ‘And I want to get a few photos. My kids would love the little ones.’

At this, Lee rolled his eyes.

The door opened, a hand reached out, and the rabbit was gone.


The morning was busy. Despite declining weather, Cold Bones main street bustled with life. Everything was open, including the pet store, and rather than the old-fashioned interior expected, the men found themselves entering a fresh modern space. People roamed the narrow aisles, clustering around cages.

A fresh-faced girl in a green uniform was chatting with children. A grey chinchilla, casually munching on pellets of its own brown dung, was proving a hit. When she noticed Alex and Lee, she left them all to their giggles. ‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ she said.

‘Is the old fella around?’ Alex asked. She looked puzzled. ‘Here in the evenings,’ he added.

‘Oh him. He doesn’t work here, I’m afraid. I think he used to, but that was ages ago. He lives back there. Just fiddles about with his rabbits.’

‘You keep dogs or cats? Ferrets maybe?’ Lee said. ‘Only we wondered why the rabbits. For food? Just curious.’ The assistant glanced towards the window and formed a look of disgust.

Alex clarified, ‘Not those! God no! From next door. The butcher.’

She shrugged and scooped up a stray hissing cockroach from the floor, ‘He’s vegetarian, if that helps. Or vegan. Something, anyway.’

The men thanked her and left. Outside, Lee said he was suspicious of a veggie accepting a daily delivery of meat.

‘Perhaps he lives with someone.’

‘I think she would have said. Maybe the rabbits really are going from the pet store to the butcher. Then the old guy pays for his newspapers with the one he gets back, or something like that. A barter system.’

‘Vaguely possible, I suppose. Let’s come back later and take another look. I’ll tell the kids we’ve become undercover detectives. They’ll laugh.’

Lee smiled. The holiday had barely begun and already they were having a ball.


Cycle, polish, queue. This time, it was Alex who joined the line of hungry customers while Lee waited outside with the beer and barbecue. The weather was damp, saturating drizzle filling the air. Once more feeling guilty about Gentle Jimmy, Alex ordered sausages. The butcher weighed up a dozen and wrapped them in paper. Alex paid and made to leave.

‘Just a sec,’ the butcher said. ‘Knock on next door and give him this will you, mate? You are with that other Lycra lover, yeah? No offence.’

He handed Alex a rabbit, not skinned but furry. Alex noted with alarm that it did not bear the brindle coat of a wild animal. Instead, it was jet black with a white stripe on its nose. Wild black rabbits existed, he knew, for he’d seen them as a boy; escaped pets gone feral and urgently breeding. Carrying the rabbit outside, he looked to Lee, who was equally surprised.

‘For him?’ Lee asked, nodding towards the pet store door, fist poised ready to knock. Before he could, the door opened, a hand reached out, and took the rabbit.


The next day was the same as all the others, but by the time the two men were ready to shop for the barbecue, they were more distracted by rabbits than bicycle-chat and beer.

‘That really is quite weird,’ Lee said, inspecting the pet store window display, ahead of joining the butcher’s queue.

Alex stared. There, sitting amongst the younger animals, was an adult black rabbit with a white stripe on its nose, looking relaxed and at home. ‘Like the one from yesterday. But not dead, obviously,’ he said.

Soon after, having bought six pork chops, they gave the old man another rabbit from the butcher, this time pure white with a single pale-grey paw.


The following day, wrapped against worsening weather and planning to eat dinner in a warm pub, curiosity brought the two men to the pet store window. There, staring back at them, was a white rabbit with one pale-grey paw.

‘It’s got to be some kind of joke. Maybe we’re on one of those TV shows.’

‘Go and get another rabbit, Alex,’ Lee said. ‘Don’t buy anything. We can still eat at the pub. Just go in and offer to take one to the pet store.’

‘Why me?’

‘Why not?’

With a sigh, Alex did as Lee asked, but soon reappeared empty handed. ‘He says the old guy doesn’t want any more.’

They turned at the sound of bleating. The infamous Cold Bones annual sheep race was on, main street filling with animals and excited punters. Jostled, Alex accidentally bumped the pet store door. The door opened and a hand reached out.

‘Maybe the butcher was wrong?’ Alex whispered, staring at the bony old fingers.

With no rabbit to give, Lee took the hand and shook it. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said.

The old man peered at him, suspiciously. Then he began pulling, ‘Come in away from the hullabaloo, gentlemen.’ His expression brightened. ‘In my day we were content rolling cheese. It stopped when some idiot sent three tons of ripe camembert into Ye Olde Fishy Shoppe.’ Now grinning widely, the old man pinched his nose. ‘But it all stinks. Now we have sheep poo everywhere. Dirty buggers, they are. Arrogant too.’

Lee pulled back, ‘We’d love to, but–’

The grip tightened. ‘Spare this old man a minute of your time. I need some muscle, and him next door, well, he’s a useless lump, as useless as a side of beef. Important night, tonight, and I don’t mean all that nonsense out there. If you’re willing?’

Curious, Alex and Lee followed him through the dimly lit shop and into the rooms behind. A dining table displayed an array of probes, clips, and electrical bits and pieces. It looked temptingly complicated.

‘Come on. In here,’ the old man encouraged, heading deeper inside. At the back of the house, he stopped. ‘My utility room. Washing machine, dryer… you know… boots, coats and so on.’

‘Everything you need,’ Alex said.

‘Exactly that.’ Smiling warmly, the old man lifted the lid on a large chest freezer. Inside, neatly laid out, was the frozen body of a middle-aged woman. ‘Meet Edith. Edith,’ he said, softening his tone, ‘these nice young men are going to help us.’ He looked up with glassy eyes. ‘Not sure what she’ll think about having an old man for a husband, but twenty-five years ago I said I would find a way and I have. If you could take one end each, please, that would be marvellous.’

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