Lucy Balmer Hooft: Pig Beauty Prize

Lady Clarissa had sailed through the qualifying rounds. She had won her ‘Best in Breed’ competition easily and the judges’ decision had been unanimous, which did not often happen with Oxfords. The question of spots tended to divide opinion. These days it was fashionable for Oxford Sandies to have fewer spots – some had almost none at all. James thought this was nonsense. If you’re going to have a spotted pig it should have plenty of spots. He was particularly proud of Lady Clarissa’s spots: good colour, well spread and, most importantly, plenty of them. In the end, even Jeff Potts, famously anti-spot, had ranked her in first place. James thought it was probably her line that won them over – her profile swept in one sublimely uninterrupted arc from snout to tail, taking in chin, udders and belly in perfect geometry.

But ‘Best in Breed’ was really only the entry level for serious breeders. James had already collected twelve titles for three different breeds. Rita, his much beloved, although sadly now deceased, Tamworth, had won it three years running. The real prize that James coveted, the ultimate distinction in pig breeding, was the Pig Beauty Prize, or PBP for those in the know.

This was James’s fourth PBP contest. As he opened the trailer to give Lady Clarissa a final inspection and quick cuddle, the smell of the yard and the air freshener around the judges’ enclosure brought back the feeling of nervous anticipation from previous years. It was a mixed delight. He was happy to be back competing at top level, putting behind him the disappointments of the last two years. But he couldn’t help but feel that this time the stakes were much higher. Lady Clarissa was no ordinary pig. He had known when he first fished her out of the litter that this piglet was something special. He couldn’t quite silence the voice in the back of his mind telling him that if she didn’t take away the PBP crown, then no pig of his ever would.

As always, James was early. He liked to have time to make sure Lady C was settled and happily strutting in her pen, before joining the other breeders in the tent for tea and sandwiches. He followed the same routine at each event, stroking and combing her russet hairs while quietly humming a rousing tune to put them both in the right frame of mind. As he hummed, he glanced over at the competition. He always thought it important to assess animal and owner together, to really determine whether they were serious contenders. He had seen many beautiful beasts let down by overly pushy breeders, or by some who just weren’t serious enough about the prize.

In the pen next to Lady Clarissa was a Large White called Percy, owned by a shyish girl with wild hair and glasses. James wrote off the pair almost immediately. Too dull. The Large White might be the world’s favourite breed, with its picture-book perfect curly tail and human-like skin, but they were too bland to be prize winners. Percy’s owner looked typical of Large Whiters, no spark of originality to set them apart. They weren’t even in the running.

Next along was a Mangalitza, hairy and wild looking. James couldn’t understand how they ever made the grade to compete alongside classic breeds. Eastern European upstarts that had suddenly become popular amongst foodies. Something to do with Omega 3, James had read. He couldn’t think of anything more ridiculous than judging the beauty of a pig based on its nutritional similarity to a walnut. Its owner was similarly unimpressive, the type you would find in a farmer’s market selling ludicrously priced organic meat to city types, while peddling the rural idyll of a farm in Norfolk.

James picked out the two that were going to be Lady Clarissa’s toughest challengers. There was a Gloucestershire Old Spot called Maggie, a good solid meaty animal, deep body, large hams, with two large spots. Maggie’s spots made James a little nervous. He was worried that Lady C’s would look over-done by comparison, a touch too fancy-dress. The other potential rival for the judges’ favour was a Tamworth. The classic old English forest pig, slightly dished face, milky and docile. James hadn’t been able to bring himself to have another Tamworth after Rita’s sad demise, but they were still his favourite breed. Their rich golden red coat set them a class above all others. He went over to have a closer look at the hue and sheen of Guinevere’s pelt. He had to admit she was extremely fine, just the right shade of pinky copper, neither too ginger and brash nor too golden and watery. He just hoped the beauty of Lady Clarissa’s more subtle russet would not be lost. There was always a danger that Oxford Sandies could look like Tammies whose mothers had wandered off into the woods with a wild boar.

The owners of Maggie and Guinevere were both already in the lounge, so James hurried upstairs.

‘Hello there, you must be Mr. Gledfell with Lady Clarissa?’ The head judge thrust out a dimpled hand to greet James as he came in. He was a short man who wore his paunch with some pride, holding it at a salute as he strutted along behind. A good meaty breed, James thought to himself.

‘Yes indeed, I do hope I’m not late,’ James replied, knowing full well he was ten minutes early.

‘No, not at all. The others are all still settling in. Do help yourself to a cup of tea.’ He trailed off, waving James in the direction of a trestle table with a thermos flask and some rather sorry looking sandwiches.

James was pouring tea into a paper cup when he froze.

Across the room, the remaining breeders were gathered around a small blonde woman who was tossing her head back and laughing with slightly strained enthusiasm. She was showing off a perfect little ginger piglet who had stuck its head out of her handbag and was now being fed crumbs of soggy sandwich.

‘It couldn’t be,’ James thought, and for a moment tried to convince himself that he was mistaken. ‘What could she possibly be doing here of all places?’ But all hope vanished as her eyes met his and her forced laugh slipped into a grimace of a smile.

‘James,’ she called out, ‘how lovely to see you here! I had no idea you had qualified this year.’

‘Libby,’ James spluttered, ‘you’re here?’

It hadn’t come out at all as he had hoped. He had intended it to be a neutral statement of fact, something uncontentious to stall the conversation as his brain reeled from the shock of seeing her again. But he had been unable to prevent his discomfort from spilling out with his words.

‘Yes of course,’ Libby returned casually. ‘I’m with Guinevere. This is Nutsy,’ she said stroking the head of the ginger piglet, ‘the runt from Gwennie’s last litter. They just can’t bear to be apart, poor things so, I had to bring him along as support.’

Guinevere, Nutsy, the Tamworth, Libby, here competing against him. His brain could scarcely take it all in, let alone formulate a dignified reply. ‘You’re here,’ James managed finally, ‘competing?’

‘Yes. and it looks like it’s going to be a hot competition this year. I’ve just been talking to Leanna and-’

James was no longer listening. All he could hear were the increasingly irate voices in his head demanding to know how on earth she could be in possession of a prize-winning pig and how she could possibly be standing in front of him pretending that he was just another fellow pig breeder.

The room was suddenly unbearably hot and James felt beads of sweat begin to break across his forehead. No one seemed to notice as he lurched towards the exit.

Outside he breathed deeply until the oxygen remade contact with his brain. After all that had happened between them, James had dearly hoped never to cross paths with Libby for as long as he lived. He knew there was always a risk that they might run into each other – they had some mutual friends and his social circle was hardly extensive. He was often nervous entering a crowded cocktail party, scanning the room for her unnaturally blonde hair, her red lipstick, applied so exuberantly it looked as if she had just bitten the head off a mouse. But here, of all places, he had never even considered the risk.

She hated pigs, she had made that abundantly clear from the moment they met and had made him feel daft and sentimental for his attachment to them. It was only too typical of her to want to try and take this away from him too, to want to destroy the one area of his life she had not yet managed to crush. She knew how much the Pig Beauty Prize meant to him. He had even shared with her his hopes for Rita and how he genuinely thought that she had been unbeatable. Libby had ridiculed him at the time, hooting with derision that such a competition even existed. And now, here she was, swanning around the breeders’ lounge with a piglet in her handbag.

‘Excuse me? Mr. Gledfell?’ James felt a hand on his shoulder, ‘The judges are ready now.’

‘Ah yes, of course,’ James summoned all the dignity he could muster and walked back into the lounge, fixing his eyes on the ground to avoid having to see Libby’s teeth bared in peals of disingenuous laughter.

They entered the enclosure and each breeder led their pig outside to the show ring. Lady Clarissa, usually so perky, seemed rather dejected as she trotted through the course, looking up at James with concern in her eyes as he led her through the slalom. James tried to focus on Lady Clarissa’s movements, but could not help but notice Libby and Guinevere sweeping gracefully past, tails and snouts held high.

They lined up for the final examination, but for all his efforts, James could not convince Lady Clarissa to adopt her winning pose. ‘I’m sorry old girl,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘I know it is my fault, but there’s always next year.’

Libby stroked Guinevere with her red painted nails. Even James struggled to detect a lack of sincerity in her affection. She smiled at the judges who made noises of approval as they walked past.

The time taken by the judges for their decision was mercifully short. James watched Libby swelling with pride as they bent their heads together to confer. He knew that she was the only competitor who could not have cared less about the prize, but she was brimming with confidence that her final move in their long-standing bout would deliver the knock-out blow.

‘Another year of outstanding entries,’ the head judge smiled benevolently at the nervous competitors, ‘but with one clear winner in our minds’.

Libby looked straight at James, her fixed grin in place, ready to watch the final twist of the knife.

‘We are delighted to award this year’s Pig Beauty Prize to Leanna Stubbs with Percy, a real beauty of a Large White. Congratulations Percy!’

James smiled at Libby. ‘Commiserations eh? Never mind, there is always next year.’

Guinevere let out a high-pitched squeal as Libby’s nails sunk into her skin.

Lucy tweets @HooftLucy