To say that Emily was ravenous after the three-mile Sunday walk to The Fox & Hounds at Kirk Shefford would have been a gross understatement.
She hadn’t reckoned on David being such a slow walker, and so Emily’s nerves were teetering on the edge as the pub’s manager umm’d and ahh’d about whether the chef would agree to fit in a late food order.
David’s foppish charm offensive, and the promise of a considerable tip, worked.
And it was a good thing it did too, because Emily - who was drawing alarmed looks from customers and staff by prowling the upmarket Victorian pub’s stony vestibule like a caged animal - didn’t think that she’d be able to contain her rage if David had come back from the bar with bad news.
A table was cleared for them by the roaring hearth, and the ever-agreeable David was patience personified as the girl of about seventeen fumbled with her notebook and mistook their orders several times.
Emily, on the other hand, was ready to snap at her, and felt a momentary longing to gnaw at the hip bones and ribs protruding through the slender waitress’s skin-tight black uniform when the girl leant across her to lay bread and butter on the table.
What the hell was that about? Emily pondered briefly, before shrugging, grabbing all the bread, and tearing at it voraciously when David made the mistake of handing it to her. David knew by now not to protest.
Emily loved her black Labrador, Humphrey, perhaps more than anything on earth.
She would do anything for Humphrey. Spend her last pound on vet bills, give him her blanket if they were freezing in the streets or throw herself into the path of a rabid pack of dogs to protect him. But Emily now eyed Humphrey with something approaching hatred, as he simpered up at her from a sitting position to beg for a morsel of crusty warm bread.
The dog eventually got the picture, averted his gaze, and sulkily slumped down on the flagstones, burying his snout between his paws with a pitiful sigh.
Emily avoided looking in David’s direction as she slathered the last of the creamy butter onto the remaining chunk of bread, knowing that catching even the slightest hint of that patronising, avuncular smile he’d give her when she was hangry would make her want to scream. Or worse.
Emily sometimes wondered why the poor sod put up with her.
With her pretty yet unremarkable face, blue-green eyes, slightly crooked nose, light chestnut brown hair that cascaded pleasingly over the shoulders and a well-proportioned body, Emily was honest enough to acknowledge that she was reasonably attractive in a conventional sort of way. But beautiful? No, not what she - nor her mother, rather pointedly - would call beautiful. Certainly not beautiful enough to inspire poetry in a man.
And yet such was his puzzling infatuation with Emily that, if David were the sort, he would most certainly have sent her cringeworthy sonnets on an almost daily basis. But as David was a moderately successful property lawyer with a complete disinterest in literature or art, he showered her with expensive gifts and - more importantly - meals instead.
David liked a rational explanation for anything but even he hadn’t been able to properly process nor articulate why he’d so fallen for her when a genuinely baffled Emily asked him. It was ‘a magnetic pull’ was the best he could come up with.
He hadn’t even minded as much as he probably should have done when she’d had to apologetically rub antiseptic cream into the scratches she’d scored into his back a few nights ago after they’d been out for sushi that had left her feeling famished.
Perhaps he was just one of those men that enjoyed physical and mental pain? Emily didn’t like to dwell on it too much or ask.
She turned her head to avoid a scene, blocked David out, and stared longingly towards the swinging kitchen door and the mouth-watering aromas it wafted into her hungry upturned nostrils.
Emily used to be proud of her refined palate and ability to scrutinise the nuances of flavour.
But, lately, all she craved was the opportunity to sink her teeth into great chunks of unadulterated meat – the very smell of it had been sending her into near-frenzy. It took all the inner strength she had not to stuff her mouth with great handfuls of the raw offcuts she fed Humphrey with, even though she knew that eating it could potentially kill a human.
The perfumes of cooked beef, lamb, pork, venison and chicken were now frantically dancing with heavy feet and flailing arms in the cortex of her brain, and she gripped both sides of the wooden chair with whitening knuckles to stop herself from charging into the kitchen and ripping into hot flesh direct from the ovens and pans.
Emily knew from long experience that it was time to resort to the meditative coping mechanism against insatiable hunger she’d mastered in childhood.
The last thing she heard before zoning out into her familiar trance was tutting and loudly whispered admonishment from the neighbouring table as Emily’s entire body went stiff upright in the chair and her eyes rolled back heavily until you could only see the whites of them.
This was her safe space, where the hunger couldn’t get to her. A place of relative calm devoid of the desire to lash out at everything and everyone. Somewhere she could reflect in peace.
Emily didn’t subscribe to the idea of so-called ‘hangriness’ being a subject for comedy.
Social media posts like ‘Gurl, I was so damned hungry I bit my man’s head off’ or stand-up routines about the topic made her squirm uncomfortably and scratch at the smooth skin at the nape of her neck until it was sore.
They came too close to the truth. Emily’s truth.
Doctors had found nothing wrong with Emily when they explored her extreme hunger pangs or eating habits, even praising her as a picture of physical health. Trying to keep to the portions and eating strategies the nutritionist designed for her, meanwhile, was beyond futile.
A therapist had once asked Emily whether she felt relief or other emotions when she ate after a long period of hunger: ‘I imagine it like the euphoric cleansing pagan worshippers in unknown ancient times must have experienced when they were expunged of their sins.
‘There’s this tremendous iridescent force that’s neither liquid nor light but almost a combination of both rushing around furiously in sacred caverns beneath the earth that the pagans keep contained with enormous boulders.
‘When it’s time for the ritual, white-robed acolytes lift these boulders with giant wooden levers, and this unfathomable energy bursts out like a mighty river rupturing a dam, surging through everyone, purging their souls.’
Emily caught the therapist smirking at this description out of the corner of her eye, so swore to never see one again.
When her stomach was full - or at least near to being so - Emily was relatively normal; whatever ‘normal’ means.
She’d laugh in the right bits in comedies or cry at romantic tragedies. She loved animals, and her heart ached for people who’d been dealt an unfair hand.
But then there was her hangriness.
‘Hangriness’. It seemed like such a stupid term for something that had been at the source of so much conflict and unhappiness in her life.
Boyfriends had broken up with Emily because they couldn’t cope with her moods when she was hangry.
She hadn’t spoken to her parents or brother since Christmas Day two years ago when she’d physically picked up the beautifully laid dining table and thrown it against the wall because the dinner would be delayed by a further hour.
Only last week, she’d fallen out with her closest group of friends after getting into a blazing row with them and storming off on her own because they’d wanted to carry on to a nightclub when all she wanted to do was smash into a greasy triple cheeseburger from the kebab shop.
Thinking back to childhood, teachers would unfairly punish her for what they thought was her daydreaming or looking out through window into the middle distance, while what she was really doing was trying to contain her prodigious hunger.
Her trance now transported the grown-up Emily to her old wooden school desk, and she smiled as she looked out from the Georgian sash window at the green, undulating sunlit hills surrounding her school and trees coming joyfully into spring. She couldn’t resist a delighted squeal as a deer came into sight a hundred yards away or so and started casually grazing beneath a clump of beech trees.
Emily was bathing in the relaxing visual balm of this idyllic scene when murky dusk descended without warning. The deer anxiously lifted its head in alarm at something it must have heard or scented. For the first time ever, Emily felt a sense of unease in her self-constructed sanctuary of the mind.
A rising panic began forming in her throat as a vast, doglike shape ominously emerged from a copse beyond and started swiftly stealthing its way towards the deer.
Emily was sure the deer must have sensed this threatening presence and willed it to run, but the deer just stood there, motionless, rooted to the spot.
Emily managed to struggle her legs free from the constraints of the child-sized desk and tripped her way to the sash window. Having desperately tried and failed to wrench open the window by its looped brass pull lifts, she banged and banged on the glass, screaming ‘Run, run!’ until tears streamed down her face and her voice went hoarse.
The deer couldn’t hear her; or, if it did, was too paralysed by fear to escape. The wolf - for she could clearly see it was a wolf now, colossal and menacing - quickened its approach with murderous intent.
Emily resignedly sunk to her haunches with her hands over her tear-soaked eyes.
Something deep within Emily impelled her to look again, just at the moment the wolf lunged at the deer’s throat – and her eyes fixed on the kill with fascinated, guilty horror. The wolf sensed that she was watching, and held Emily with a stare.
There was a window and a hundred yards between them, and yet a transfixed Emily could hear the wolf’s rapacious growl and snarling. And, as it tore greedily at the flesh with sharpened, blood-stained teeth powered by fervid jaws, Emily began to taste the deer’s raw flesh, as though she was devouring it with her own mouth – far from being disgusted, she craved more.
Just as she was reaching fever pitch, near to that purged sensation she had described to the therapist when all else became as nothing in the face of that unfathomable force’s inexorable power, everything began to shake violently around her – the room, the window, the foundations of the building. The entire landscape she could see from the juddering window shook too; and the green hills began to split like a giant opening zip in the wolf’s direction.
The wolf coolly rose to its feet and motioned to leave.
‘No, don’t go!’ Emily begged in her unsated hunger, even as the walls and ceiling fell in all around her.
The wolf looked back at Emily once more with an almost human knowing grin, licked its lips, and strolled out of sight.
David was shaking her by the shoulder; and as she came to, she was surrounded on all sides by faces with contrastingly angry and concerned expressions.
‘Emily, they’re saying we have to leave.’
‘You’re scaring the other customers,’ the manager interjected.
‘They think you’re off your face, Em.’
‘But I’m not.’
‘I know you’re not. I’ve tried explaining how you are when you’re hungry, but they’re not having it. We’ve got to go.’
‘But I haven’t bloody eaten yet,’ Emily protested belligerently, the unfamiliar faces retreating as she rose unsteadily to her feet.
‘Please leave now, or I’ll be forced to call the police.’ The manager was enjoying his public showing of authority.
‘But I haven’t had my lunch!’ Emily cried out, making a desperate break for the kitchen.
Several arms grabbed Emily’s shoulders, some more forcibly than others – she shook like a rugby player freeing themselves from a tackle, and was surprised by her own strength as two men were sent sprawling.
Humphrey barked and bared his teeth uncharacteristically, and David had to pull at the lead with all his might to stop the dog from biting his beloved owner’s assailants.
‘Right, that’s it, I’m calling the police,’ declared the red-faced manager as he peeled himself off the flagstone floor.
‘No, no, don’t do that, we’re going. Come on, Em, we need to leave. We’ll get a taxi to a Chinese.’ Her adrenaline having subsided, Emily relented, and allowed David to guide her to the door.
The manager - in an act of secret spite - deliberately didn’t tell them they wouldn’t get a taxi around here for love nor money at this time on a Sunday, especially with a dog in tow.
The perfect pearly coolness of the crisp early-spring afternoon - when budding trees, tidy farms devoid of motion and even the red kites hovering above them against the stark blue sky seemed like life-affirming painted scenery - had given way to unmistakable late-winter and a chill that quickly bit through to the bone.
Emily had become at peace with the dark lately, happily getting out of bed in the dead of night to walk around her village in pitch darkness, down by the supposedly haunted ruined castle razed to the ground by Yorkist forces, or along the old railway path canopied by lichen-covered dark alder trees.
And now she and Humphrey, stimulated by the prospect of gorging themselves at home, were racing through the moonlit fields, leaving David so far behind in their wake that Emily could hear only the merest echo of his pleading shouts to slow down.
They’d be home in no time, she thought, and I’ll be rid of this bout of hanger before anything really bad happens.
And then she and Humphrey simultaneously stopped in their tracks at the sound of a rustle and the unmistakable clod of a deer’s hooves from beyond the severely trimmed hedgerow. The deer stopped, but not before inadvertently giving away its position with the flash of its eyes reflecting in the moonlight.
Humphrey took after it; and, rather than chastise him, Emily followed him in hot pursuit of the deer.
The deer was injured - Emily could smell its blood in her flaring nostrils - and yet it was building a considerable lead on them both with its long, bounding stride. Emily thought what a fine figure the deer struck silhouetted against the moon when it stopped at the apex of a steeply inclining field of sugarbeet, probably in expectation that its pursuers would give up.
Humphrey was beginning to lag, but Emily’s adrenaline was pumping, and she doubled her determination to reach her prey.
The top of the sugarbeet field provided a great vantage point, and Emily watched from there as the deer bent its path back in the direction of Kirk Shefford and the tenebrous figure of David she could just about make out below. He’s about to get a fright, she thought to herself with more than a hint of grinning schadenfreude.
Suitably rested, for she knew that this was going to be a battle of stamina, Emily set off again on the deer’s trail.
There was a piercing yelp from behind when she was about halfway down the slope. She turned, worried that Humphrey had hurt himself; but the dog nearly leapt out of his own skin when he saw her, yowling incessantly as he bolted away back over the hill out of sight. A puzzled Emily shrugged, and gambled that he’d find his way home.
Emily was surprised with the tempo of her pursuit. She’d never considered herself to be a long-distance runner, but this felt easy somehow.
She momentarily shook herself out of tunnel vision, looked down to where she expected her feet to be, and screamed in horror at the sight of four black, doglike sharp-clawed legs moving smoothly beneath her like pistons powering a steam engine.
Except what emanated from her body wasn’t a scream, but a dreadful howl that resonated far across the fields and sent black waves of squawking crows fleeing from their communal nests in terror.
Emily’s face was buried too deep in the guts of her prey to notice that dawn had broken and there was a frantic commotion going on all around her. That paganistic feeling of sacred total elation was getting close, she could feel it.
Emily disregarded what must have been a warning shot with total disdain, and continued devouring her feast.
She’d barely heard the second shot before she was throwing her head back and letting out a blood-curdling howl in anguish at a sensation like a white-hot poker being thrust through her hindquarters.
She clamped her eyes shut and gritted her teeth as the third bullet buried itself in her bristling neck.
She opened her eyes one last time to look at the deer for deathly comradeship.
Only, what she saw wasn’t the deer, but what was left of David’s torn face gawping back at her.