London's Smithfield Market used to be full of hurrying men in bloodstained white overalls. Some were doctors from nearby Barts Hospital; others were butchers and meat porters. Nowadays, far more of the doctors speeding through that beautiful wrought-iron structure are women, and the medical personnel wear scrubs in pleasing colours. Dissecting skills come in handy for cooks: no one was better at carving Sunday roasts and Christmas turkeys than my nurse-practitioner sister (a vegetarian). The turkeys came from Smithfield, bought at the auction on Christmas Eve. The local pubs open early in the mornings, so the meat workers can slake their thirst. Now that Smithfield has become glossier, the pubs are stuffed with people in suits, though the facts of animal dismemberment are pushed into the background. Modern hygiene laws require refrigeration. No more corpses on barrows.
Stephen's mother, Tote, his sister Vicky and I escorted him into Barts, where he was due to have his heart operation the following day. We looked out, from his ward, at the stained-glass windows of the Butchers' Hall opposite. Stephen reclined on his bed, splendid in newly purchased blue pyjamas. The ward sister suggested, first, that we might like to eat supper in the canteen. This looked a bit glum. So she told Stephen to get dressed again and shooed us into the street. As long as we brought him back by 10pm, we could go feast.
We considered St John in St John Street, around the corner. The old meat-smokery has become a chic restaurant specialising in bits of pig. Innards are key to its vision. Liver pate on toast. Tripe and chips. Meditating on blood and guts seemed appropriate, so in we went. The first person in a suit we encountered was Stephen's consultant, having a drink in the entrance corridor. This seemed a good sign. We ate in the bar, a cavernous, white-painted space. Tote peeped over the top of a towering steak and horseradish sandwich. Vicky and I stole her thick white crusts to mop up the excellent vinaigrette dousing our watercress salad. The game liver on toast was delicious. A pile of sourdough loaves next to our table looked mouth-watering. We tried the green walnuts. Not as early and young as that sounds, these seemed merely ripe, fresh, juicy. Tote and I tried to open them with our knife tips, immediately stabbed ourselves and spouted blood, which we staunched with paper napkins. The waiter rushed across with nutcrackers. Platters of roast suckling pig were borne past into the dining room. English cheeses came with exquisite fennel-scented wafers. Caragheen pudding, seaweed-mild, accompanied an egg-shaped lump of golden Jersey cream. We walked Stephen, in good heart, back to his bed in the calm hospital.