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BOOK OUTTAKE 2: Billy Flexitarian

October 6, 2019

1984 was a tough year for Billy and his family. Billy's mother had recently died and his father was struggling to cope. Their village in the frozen north of England was remote and economically stricken. The region's primary mode of employment – the meat mines – had been broken in two by the government's political brinksmanship. They had no money. Things were desperate. Life was grim.

Billy's father knew how cruel the world could be, and he wanted to toughen Billy up to protect him. A meat miner by trade, like his father before him, Billy's dad knew that a life of meat mining also awaited Billy. To prepare him, every afternoon, he sent Billy into the woods with a pickaxe, and told him not to come back until he'd chipped enough lamb from the frozen ground to feed everybody.

But the drudgery of meat mining didn't appeal to Billy. Billy's soul was too sensitive for such brutal, thankless toil. He was desperate to find a way out.

And then one day, on the way to the chemist to buy some bandages for his bleeding hands, Billy saw an advert in a shop window. "THERE IS ANOTHER WAY" it read. "FLEXITARIAN CLASSES, WEDNESDAY, 7PM, CHURCH HALL".

Billy's heart exploded with possibility. He'd heard of flexitarianism, of course, because his father always shouted angrily at the TV whenever it was mentioned. But Billy was curious. All his life, he'd felt like a piece of him was missing. Maybe, just maybe, flexitarianism would be the thing to fill it.

On Wednesday evening, Billy snuck out of his house and crept to the church hall, where he encountered a veritable wonderland. Not only was the flexitarian class practical and helpful, but everyone there was just like him. He was surrounded by conscientious, thoughtful, happy people all doing their best to find their own way through life. It felt like coming home.

When the class finished, Billy skipped back to his house with a song in his heart and a recipe card in his hand. He slept soundly that night; his head swimming with dreams of the flexitarian ideal.

But the next morning, before the sun had even risen, Billy awoke to find his father furiously towering above him.

"What is this?" muttered his father, barely able to contain his rage. He was clutching Billy's recipe card.

"Father, father, I can explain", began Billy.

"Roasted Ratatouille With Smoked Cheese Polenta?" his father growled, reading from the card with disgust in his voice. "Grilled Avocado Buddha Bowl? What is this, son? Explain yourself".

Billy took a deep breath. He didn't want the news to come out like this, but now he had no choice.

"Dad, I'm a ... I'm a flexitarian".

Billy's father combusted with fury. "You're a WHAT?" he roared, yanking Billy out of bed and pinning him to the wall.

"Do you know what I do for a living?" he screamed at Billy.

"You're a meat miner, father", cowered Billy.

"A meat miner, just like my father and his father, and his father before him. For fifteen generations, meat mining has fed this family. And now you ... you want to give up meat entirely?"

Billy tried to explain that flexitarianism didn't involve giving up meat per se, just marginally cutting down on your overall meat intake, but this only made his father angrier.

"You're just a vegetarian with no courage in your convictions!" he bellowed.

Billy winced, bravely pointing out that flexitarianism was actually more of a lifestyle choice than a dietary restriction, and one that came with innumerable benefits. But, again, this just made Billy's father angrier.

"In this family we eat meat three times a day, seven days a week!" he screamed. "We've done it for hundreds of years, and we've all died on the stroke of our thirty fifth birthday! This is tradition! TRADITION!"

Billy squirmed free and ran away. He felt trapped; trapped between the expectations of his family and the yearning in his heart. He thought of his father, about how miserable and unsatisfied he had always been, and he knew he couldn't end up like that.

So, fraught with desperation, Billy tried to keep everyone happy. In the afternoons he'd go to the woods and mine for meat, but at night he'd sneak out and learn how to master his passion for flexitarianism.

Week after week he toiled away, digging up meat and learning how to make tuna-stuffed Belgian endives. The workload almost killed him – at one point he fell asleep during the assembly of a black bean and pumpkin chilli and nearly cut his arm off – but it was not without its benefits.

He became friends with his teacher, for instance; an unfulfilled housewife who could live vicariously through Billy's ambition. He also assisted in the difficult coming out of a young man who claimed to be flexitarian as a flimsy cover for his obvious veganism. Finally, Billy had found his true calling.

And then one day, in the middle of a flexitarianism class, the door to the church hall burst open. It was Billy's father, drunk and glowering and stinking of bacon.

Billy was shocked. "Father!" he whimpered. "How did you...?"

"How did I find you?" Billy's father roared. "By following a trail of goat's cheese from your bedroom window!"

Billy checked his pocket. Indeed, the lump of chévre he'd brought to accompany tonight's warm aubergine salad must have slipped through a hole in his pocket on the way to the hall.

"You don't get cheese from a goat, Billy," his father said, his eyes filling with tears. "It's weird. It's like getting yoghurt from a rat".

"Father, please," Billy wept. "I know that you're a meat miner, and I know that meat mining has paid for my upbringing, and I'll always be grateful to you for that. But please don't make me follow in your footsteps. Please let me do this. Father, please, just let me follow my heart".

Billy's father was furious. Yes, it was true that he had also harboured dreams of becoming a flexitarian as a child, but his father had knocked it out of him, and he could see now that it was for the best. Now he had to do the same to his son.

He charged at Billy, fists raised high in the air. "THIS IS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, SON!" he yelled. But in his haste, Billy's father slipped on a dish that had been left on the floor. He landed hard on his back. The crash sent a tasting spoon spiralling high into the air, and Billy's father was too groggy to stop it from dropping straight into his mouth.

Billy's father sat up straight. He pulled the spoon from his mouth. "What is this?" he asked.

Billy stepped forward, tentatively. "It's... it's an anti-inflammatory smoothie bowl made with beetroot, chia seeds and turmeric," he said. "Please don't be angry with me".

"Did you make this?" Billy's father asked.

Billy gulped. "I did," he shamefully admitted.

Billy's father broke into a huge grin. "Billy!" he shouted. "It's delicious! Billy, you have a rare and beautiful talent. You are a flexitarian. Oh son, how I love you".

Billy rushed to his father and hugged him tight, as the rest of the class stood up and cheered. Billy's father made a solemn vow that, by hook or by crook, he would somehow pay for Billy to travel to London and train under one of the city's many celebrated flexitarian chefs. This was a dream that could no longer be denied.

Just then, a stranger came running into the hall. "Put the television on!" he shouted excitedly. "Do it now!"

Billy's teacher rushed over to the small black and white television in the corner of the hall and switched it on. As the set flickered into life, she saw a newsreader announce that the world's biggest quinoa mine was about to open next to Billy's village, and it paid twice as much as the dirty old meat mine. Everyone cheered again, and they all lived happily ever after, eating slightly less meat than they used to.  

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