Sandra Ireland’s debut novel, Beneath the Skin, could be described as Stockbridge Gothic. Set in a St Stephen Street taxidermy studio, it tells the story of a group of characters brought together by their respective attempts to escape from pasts that continually threaten to resurface and disrupt the present. In this extract, Walt, the new assistant, ponders the taxidermist’s craft.
He trudged down the stairs to the basement, butterflies dancing in his belly. It wasn’t the work that made him uneasy – though it wasn’t exactly enjoyable – but the atmosphere of the place. He felt claustrophobic, shut in with all those dead animals. The air was cold and heavy, a constant pressure on his neck and shoulders, prickling his skin.
Thankfully, his new boss didn’t seem to care if he went missing from time to time, so frequent fag breaks, a chance to come up for air, helped him get through it. He’d draw out each cigarette for as long as possible, his skin crawling at the thought of once again descending the stone steps into the basement.
He shook his head, told himself to get on with it. He’d been lucky to get this job; it meant cash in hand and a place to stay. He took a deep, final breath of the outside air and stepped back inside.
Later on, while preparing to finish up for the day, he decided to ask Alys about the mess. It was a taxidermist’s job to preserve, he thought, so why all the scraps?
‘I do a bit of butchery on the bodies,’ she said. ‘I eat them.’
His stomach went cold. ‘You eat them?’
‘It would be a waste not to, wouldn’t it?’ She was working on a gerbil, leaning over her workbench with the lamp pulled down. She was lost in her own little bubble of light, leaning in, her nose inches from the scalpel. Even from several feet away, Walt could smell the blood. He could detect it, these days, unfailing as a mother scenting her newborn. He watched her for a moment, mesmerised by the deft, restless action: little feathery shaving strokes, shucking off the skin to reveal a poor, pink mouseshaped blob. The sort of thing cats leave behind.
He said it again. ‘You eat them.’
‘Yes. Well, not these, obviously!’ She held the remains up to the light, flesh the colour of a bruise, glistening. ‘How lovely it is . . . When you cut into an animal, the colours . . . Purple, silver. Beautiful.’
He had felt that he was intruding, that she was speaking as a lover might.
‘Our best bits are beneath the skin.’ It was no more than a whisper, but that whisper cut through him like that icy blade, and his own skin shrank in on itself, the hair on the back of his neck bristling. The cold spot in his belly began to swell and he clapped a hand to his mouth.
She put down the corpse and giggled like a child, picking up the bloodied skin to fit it over two fingers like a glove puppet. Affecting a high, silly voice, she made it dance after him.
‘Hello, Mr Walt! We’re having pheasant for tea. Will you join us?’
Walt was already heading for the door. The curtain wrapped itself around his face and he fought it. Sand was choking him, getting into his eyes, his nose. Blackness closed in on him, but he could still smell blood. He could still hear Alys laughing.
About the author
Based in Carnoustie, Sandra Ireland was awarded the 2013 Carnegie-Cameron scholarship to study for an MLitt in Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee. Beneath the Skin is published by Polygon, £9.99