I’ve always lived with Aunt and Uncle. They’re the only sisterfuckers I’ve ever had, and I’ve always lived with them. The house is cold and skinny and my bedroom is right at the top, on the fourth floor, in the space underneath the roof. If I stand in the middle I’m alright, but since I turned 11 a few years ago, I’ve had to bend my knees to stand in the spaces where the ceiling swoops down and the mice scuttle. I spend most of my time here in my bedroom when I’m not at School. I draw pictures or write things down. Downstairs, Aunt smokes from her hookah pipe and listens to sad love songs from the cassette with a large ‘S’ painted on it in blue nail varnish. Uncle is asleep. He wakes up when the sky gets dark, and washes his face till his eyes turn red and water drips from his long feathery hair. Then he comes downstairs and sits on the edge of the sofa, breathing heavily, making a noise like there’s something wet and green lodged in his throat. He waits for Aunt to bring him his special drink of chilled chicken’s blood and rose water, served in a tall glass covered in faded gold flowers. He gulps it, feathery head thrown back, then smacks the glass on the table, clears his throat, puts on his stinking leather jacket, and leaves for his shift at Paris Sweets and Restaurant, where he cooks and sweats in the small, dark kitchen all night, over pots that would crush him if they could. I don’t drink the chicken’s blood, but I do eat the flesh when Aunt cooks it. She cooks it in all sorts of ways, with butter and spices, turns it into this or that, a pastry or a soup or a jelly. Uncle doesn’t eat the flesh, Aunt says his throat closes up around food. It’s the chicken’s blood that keeps him going, that, and the smells of cooking, is all he needs. He’s not had any solid food for so long now that he looks grey. Or like he’s in constant pain. Even I could take him if I wanted to. Sometimes I do want to. I imagine him on the floor with me standing over him, the way Aunt stands over me sometimes, forehead covered in sweat, eyes bulging. Next to me and Aunt, he’s nothing. Me and Aunt are soft and round from the chickens we eat every day. We grow rounder all the time, around our chins and legs especially. I think we’re proud of it. Aunt’s proud of her chest, and she says her belly is something to show off, not hide. ‘We’re not hungry,’ Aunt says. That’s for sure. I eat so much I sometimes vomit in my mouth and then I swallow it back down. Aunt says my lower legs look like sisterfucking chicken drumsticks and when she hits me on the head or the back or the thigh or wherever it is, playfully or when she’s really lost it, she says she needs to go harder so I can feel it through the layers of fat on me. Even though Aunt says we should show off our bellies and our chins, I sometimes feel like we shouldn’t. Then I think I shouldn’t eat. But then I think, why not? And there’s never a good enough answer to that question, so I carry on. And Aunt makes all sorts of things out of chicken: curries, pâtés, pastries, kebabs, cakes, pies. Every dish begins with her killing a chicken with a knife, cutting its head off, draining its blood into a baby blue plastic tub for Uncle’s drink, and then pulling its body apart into little piles of dark red organs, white bubbles of fat, and plasticky parcels of meat. The muscles. The chicken’s breasts and thighs. Aunt scrapes the balls of fat and bits of gristle, pink and white and red strings of sinew, a sort of glue that holds all the different bits of the chicken together when it’s alive, off the chopping board, into a carrier bag lining the bin, where the bits all sort of speckle the inside, stick to the plastic and graze my hands every time I go to put something in the sisterfucking bin. The offal, the shiny maroon pile, she fries in butter and garlic till it turns from dark browns and reds to bruised greys and blues. To the pink meat, she might add chilli, salt, and yoghurt, then tuck it in the fridge next to milk bottles full of chicken blood. The milk bottles we get from the milkman, the chickens, because we have to have fresh blood for Uncle (or he’ll die), we get from The Chicken Man, and not the butchers like other people do. He usually comes on Sundays. The sisterfucker’s short, and wears a stained blue butcher’s jacket that comes down to his calves, and a knitted white skull cap that sits on his head like a cobweb. He parks his van in the curve of the cul-de-sac, surrounded by the tall houses on our street in a squashed half-moon. He beeps his horn a few times, then tumbles out and cracks the back of the van half open so you can see three rows of chickens, grey-faced and screaming in thin, wiry cages, their pointed faces stabbing out of the dark, the stench of their shit spreading across the street and reaching my eyes at the front door, making them water, so I rub them, and I stand and watch Aunt as she makes her way over to the van, touching her breasts to feel for her purse. ‘Oof! That’s the smell of real food,’ she says, scrunching up her nose and laughing. She winds a bright yellow scarf around her large head, and holds it in place by sliding some of the fabric between her pursed lips. She nods her head at The Chicken Man in greeting.
‘Give me 10.’
‘I would give you 100, right here, right now.’
‘That so. Well, maybe later you can, but not right here janu.’
She feels around her breasts for some coins, and The Chicken Man watches her, before slowly turning to pull the birds from the hatches. ‘My birds,’ he calls them. ‘My girls.’ Aunt’s a big girl. Always has been, even before we started eating the chickens. She has bouncing breasts and lips stained purple with tobacco smoke. She wears a gold glittering thing in her left nostril and its tiny beads move every time she speaks. Her hair is curly when she combs it on Fridays, but usually it’s tied into a thick black plait that sits straight, right down her back, along her spine or the crease between the fat. Aunt and The Chicken Man have what she calls ‘a special deal’. He gives her cheap birds, and she cooks them for him when Uncle is at Paris. Twice a week, the Chicken Man arrives at our house sweating, red in the face, delighted with himself, the sisterfucker, hungry. He leaves grease stains on the shiny red settee and smokes thin, knobbly little cigarettes that he makes himself while Aunt barks at him from the kitchen where she prepares the birds. The birds would kill Uncle if he took a single bite out of them, I always think. I think how funny it is that they would kill Uncle, but we’d die if we didn’t eat them. How is it that he can’t eat the meat, but can drink the blood, and I’d be sick if I had to drink the blood, but I can eat the meat? The Chicken Man has both, the meat washed down with a couple of shot glasses of blood. He mixes it with some kind of clear spirit he carries in a small flask in the inside pocket of his jacket. His grunts of laughter and pleasure, sucking sounds from ripping chicken meat off bones, burping, licking, and farting, reach me in my room upstairs. When I am told to go downstairs and clear the table, there’s nothing left on the plates. Then he looks at me as if it’s the first time he’s seeing me, mouth slightly slack, eyes slightly glazed. He says, ‘Got a lot of meat on her, this one, bet she’s delicious! What do you say?’ The mad bastard. Aunt gets angry then and slams a plate of green chicken custard in front of him. Aunt really is a fantastic cook. She can make anything with chicken, things that are salty, or things that are sweet and hot. The Chicken Man eats everything she puts in front of him, the way he sees it, he’s doing us a favour by collecting the birds for us from The Factories (even if they are free), and then another favour by making sure none of our meat goes to waste by eating what Uncle can’t. ‘If Uncle, that poor sisterfucker, can’t eat it, it doesn’t look like you two little ladies are going to finish 10 chickens between you a week, what do you say?’ Aunt and I look like we eat 10 chickens each a week. But Aunt always giggles when he says this. ‘What do you say?’ ‘What do you say?’ This is something he says all the time, without expecting Aunt to say a thing. ‘These cigarettes are top class, what do you say?’ ‘This girl is a gone case, what do you say?’, he says every time he sees me, eyes shining. He brushes against me when I put dishes on the table in front of him. I feel something inside me shrink whenever he looks at me. ‘Number One, eh, what do you say? Number One isn’t it?’, he always says, looking at me and the plates of chicken, and licking his lips and looking at Aunt, as she feels around for the coins in her bra and hands a couple of silvers to him. She smiles, head cocked to one side. Then she slowly turns her back to him and approaches me with five screaming birds in each hand.
‘Where does he get the birds from?’ I ask, like always.
‘I told you, my pussy,’ she replies, also like always. I look at her. ‘Where do you think he gets them from? A farm of course.’ Then, getting pissed, ‘I swear to god, this one’s a real idiot. Poor fucker whoever ends up with her.’ She always says that.
She squeezes past me with the chickens, all real mad bastards, lunging and flapping to escape. ‘Close the sisterfucking front door!’ She shouts. And then she lets the birds fall to the ground, scramble around, all of them with patchy white-grey feathers covering their thin shoulders and leaky eyes. Aunt grabs a sharp little knife from the table, and pinching a chicken at random, pulls its wings up into the air till the weight of its body exposes the creamy sinew attaching wing to body, then she slashes it with the knife so that it can’t fly away. As I watch she says, ‘What are you looking at? Sisterfucking grab them and bring them to me.’ And so I grab at the one she’s just slashed and chuck it in the back garden, and grab another and pass it to Aunt. I like the feeling of their ribs and chest heaving in my hands, even though I’m scared of them and they’re all mad bastards and look like they would claw my eyes out if their own weren’t so watery and filled with pus. This is how we spend Sunday mornings, me grabbing and passing chickens to Aunt, and Aunt slashing the skin under the chicken’s wings, not enough to cut them off completely, but just enough to stop the mad bastards from flying away, though it has happened before, that Aunt gets excited and cuts too hard, and severs the wing completely, and that kills the chicken there and then, but we just carry on, bending to wipe its acidic shit off the floor before it hardens on the linoleum, slitting the throats of two or three more chickens, chucking their hard, pointy legs out into the yard for the other chickens to fight over, then collecting blood from the dripping necks of the ones we’ve killed in a pink plastic tub in the sink, then slopping it into old milk bottles and storing it in the fridge. I didn’t used to think chickens could fly, because I never saw one fly. When I was younger I asked Aunt if chickens fly, and she used the knife to cut my plait off my head and threw it on the floor where the chickens pecked at it and covered it in their shit, so I cried and cried then eventually threw it in the bin where it gradually disappeared under little red and pink and white and purple mounds of fat and gristle and skin and feathers. Aunt told me she cut their wings whether they could fly or not, so whether or not they could fly was irrelevant. I think this means they can fly, or that Aunt is scared of them flying. Aunt has her ways of doing things. The house always smells like chicken or chicken’s blood, or cigarettes and the soft smells of sweat and spices. The sweat and the spices are from Uncle’s leather jacket. And I always think those smells for him are like food for us. He eats the smells and drinks the blood. His jacket hangs stinking on the wall when he isn’t wearing it. When he wears it, it’s because he’s going to work, at Paris, Paris Sweets and Restaurant, where he cooks but never eats, because he lives off the smell of cooking and a pint of chicken blood a day. ‘He needs the drink to keep it up, that man needs chicken’s blood to help him fucking sit up, he’s all dry and empty inside. Asthma, you see, that’s what his problem is, he’s dry as chapatti flour inside. Doesn’t produce blood of his own no more, the chicken’s blood’s all he’s got in all that dry old body of his. Gives him some strength, the strength to wipe his own arse at least. He’s dry as chapatti flour inside, dry as ashes, with all that coughing and wheezing he does, dried in the nuts as well thank fuck! He can’t get even get it up most weeks without a cup or two of that blood thank god, thank god I’ve been spared his smelly sticky sickly spill between my legs.’ Aunt thinks of me as her sister sometimes, she says, and then she tells me things she forgets later on, when she gets mad angry and bashes my face against the metal pole that runs along the stairs, or, if she can’t grab me quickly enough, chases me up to my room and holds a pair of scissors, or a length of metal rope we use to hang net curtains, or a rolling pin, or whatever it is she has to hand, and beats me with it till I can’t breathe. Always I think, ‘She’s gonna kill me, she’s gonna kill me, she’s gonna kill me.’ But I never die. I just cry for a bit, wipe my tears and carry on like before, never remembering not to chew loudly, or not to ask stupid questions, always lazy, always forgetful, sometimes still pissing myself. Aunt says I’m shameless and even a good beating can’t teach me anything but I don’t agree. The beatings do teach me some things. I feel calm and empty after them, I don’t like to write or draw then. I just sit in a ball under the covers and sort of sleep. Aunt listens to the radio, or her favourite cassette, and she delicately guts and cleans the chicken meat, cutting the innards, and separating them into piles of white, and brown, and pink. Milk bottles filled with blood stand in the sink. The chickens fight each other in the garden, peck at the legs of the dead, strewn across the slabs. The chickens talk to each other about their fear of Aunt’s blade, their hopes that when it happens it’ll be quick. I watch them and think I can understand what they’re saying. Something about a factory, something about the wood, something about wires digging into their feet. They turn the dead legs, the legs that are left on the slabs in front of them, if they’re not carried off by the rats, they turn them, and show each other the scars in the flesh. They talk to each other like Aunt talks to me sometimes, when she says she thinks of me as a sister. Sometimes, Aunt tells me, when they were first wed Uncle would drink her blood. He liked to watch himself get red and slick with it, then he’d go down on her and lick her dry she said. Now he only drinks chicken’s blood the sisterfucker. He has watery little eyes, and black flickery hair, and never ever speaks to me or Aunt. Aunt is scary because she randomly gets angry and beats me up. But at least I know that when she’s looking at me, eyes narrowed, head shaking, all she’s thinking is: ‘A real poor sisterfucker whoever ends up with you’, because that’s what she says. But Uncle never says anything. He breathes noisily, like there’s something wet and green stuck in his throat. He’s got hairy hands, and pink skin. And I never see him touch anything but that chicken blood before leaving for Paris. At Paris, the main room is covered in a dark red damask wallpaper, and dim, cosy lights made out of paper semi-circles are attached to the wall. Ten little round tables covered in white cloths are set out, five a side, which leaves a gap just wide enough for the skinny old waiter to walk through to the back where a counter displaying sweets sits in a beautiful glass tank. In it are gem-like barfis, gulab jamuns, fancy scrolls of orange jalebi and bricks of gajar halva. Curious white people walk over to it with wrinkled faces, and nervously giggle over them. ‘Boss,’ the owner of Paris, sits next to the counter and below a huge black and white print of the Eiffel Tower covered in flowery writing. He mutters an encouraging ‘very good’, or ‘first class’ to whatever item customers pick out, staring all the while at the long, bare legs, and soft, yielding breasts of the white women. Downstairs, the kitchen is lit by a single, bare bulb that hangs from the ceiling. The space is too small for the five men who are jammed inside. They listen to songs about men leaving the village, about a mother with a quivering chin as she waves goodbye, or the shade of the mango tree in the summer and the shape of the woman who sleeps beneath it. The walls are wet with steam and the smell of cardamom mingles with sweat and cigarette smoke and spices. Uncle is quiet, but purposeful in this environment. The other men are bigger than him, and around them he looks even more lost and fragile than he does in the house, or on the street. He stays in the kitchen till every last customer leaves, and then comes home early in the morning, and the chickens in the back garden begin to wake up, ruffling their feathers, pecking at each other, Uncle brings rounds of naan and greasy foil boxes of coloured pilau rice home with him, and leaves them in a bag on the kitchen floor. I eat the naan, if they’re still soft, with some jam or butter, standing over the sink, looking into the garden at the huddle of chickens who sit on the grey slabs like sunken clouds, leaking into one another, shivering in the cold. I wash my mouth out with water, run my finger along my teeth, and leave for School. Aunt says School is only compulsory for girls who don’t bleed. When I do, she’ll tell the School I’m sick and can’t attend any more, and then Uncle will find me a Man to live with and I’ll become an Aunt myself if I find a ‘little chick’ to look after, like Aunt and Uncle found me. Aunt said she found me in the bins behind the community hall. That’s where a lot of girls are found. Crying and puking. She said I was covered in shit and shivering, so she picked me up and took me home and fed me sugared water on a little cloth rag that I grabbed and sucked on till I could walk and talk. She told the Authorities and they gave her 50 quid a week for taking me in, she says. Money that stopped a few years ago, she says, pointedly. She doesn’t get the point of School she says, given that I can walk and talk just fine, I can read things the Authorities send to the house, and translate for her when a man or a woman from the Authorities comes knocking on the door, and ask questions about this or that, like, ‘Where’s your Uncle?’ In those situations, I have to say ‘he’s gone out’, never ever that he’s asleep, never that he’s in the loo, or that he’s at Paris, Aunt says. He is never out, he is always asleep. But I can’t say that for some reason, that’s not good. Uncle’s are supposed to be out, not sleeping. If I slip up, it means I’m creating problems for Aunt. So I just do what Aunt says. Aunt doesn’t like to see me reading or writing in the house. So I do it in my room, or I just do it when I’m at School. School is three rooms at the back of a tall red building that looks like it used to be a church, but is now used for weddings and occasionally cooking classes and activities for Uncles who don’t go to work. I have to walk for 40 minutes to get there and sometimes still get sisterfucking lost. I walk through four or five streets, and then some woods, and then an underpass that runs under the main roads. It’s a route I know, but sometimes I get confused in the woods because the trees all look the same. And then I sit there, wherever I am, and cry until someone approaches that I can tag along with, which is what usually happens after a few minutes. And then I pinch my wet nose on the sleeve of my jumper, and turn it up so that the snot is contained within a sort of pocket. I wear the School colours of purple and grey, a scratchy purple jumper with a yellow line around the V of the neck, over a grey shirt and pinafore dress with glossy plastic buttons all down the front. Sometimes, if she’s awake, or in a good mood, Aunt pulls and scrapes my hair back, slicks it down with oil, and ties it into a thick plait that glistens all down my back and sits in a puddle in the back of my seat. I don’t think it’s the best style to wear my hair given the way it highlights my chins. Without the feathering of hair around my face my chins are fully exposed, wobbling, instead of blending into my neck and chest the way that they do when my hair is down. At School, I sit next to Selma. She has flaky skin and cracks around her powdery mouth. Occasionally, she turns to me and says ‘What’s she on about?’, nodding her head towards Mrs McCain, our sisterfucking gremlin of a teacher. I say, ‘Nonsense, probably, knowing her stupid bitch’. At lunch I eat lukewarm peas and machine-diced carrots with fish fingers and beans. For dessert I have a jam and cornflake tart. The pale blue plates look like little moons on the red and yellow circular tables in the hall. They’re like planets I think, or like egg yolks and blood. And the plates, are they moons or eggs? All sticky and soft, or all talcum powder and stone? I touch my plate, its edges are covered in sticky fingerprints of jam. I eat slowly, and listen to the blah blah blah of conversations happening around me. They say bleeding hurts. But they also say that it’s the cut that heals itself. It can’t kill you. Cuts always heal themselves. Usually what happens with cuts is they sort of go all jammy and itchy before new skin is made to cover up the hole, it starts with a yellow filmy layer, which keeps growing on top of itself, pulling at the good skin all around the hole, and then the yellow stuff dries up and hardens until the hole is patched, then there’s a sort of ring around it, around the new skin there’s an outline, and this new bit of skin doesn’t have the same lines or texture as the old skin. And I think, is that what will happen down there when I bleed? I think about a chicken’s neck congealing like that, healing, creating layers of new skin and bone, and muscle and gristle, and feathers and leaky eyes, till the mad bastard can squawk again, run on its severed legs, flap its almost severed wings. Things are like that I think, they need time. Just a bit of time, and things grow, change, bleed, heal. But maybe cut wings can’t heal, maybe the cut is too sisterfucking sly, under the wing, invisible to the eye. Maybe it heals but heals as a knot, tying the chicken to the ground. These are the things I think about when I get lost on the way to School. The other thing I always think about is the Man. Maybe Aunt and Uncle have already picked the Man for me. I think about that a lot. And I wonder then if I’ll buy a chicken for this Man, and who will cook it. A thing has started with me recently, where if I touch the space between my legs, I can feel feathers. Or not feathers, because feathers makes it sound like it’s soft. It’s sort of like little spikes poking through my skin, but they’re hard at the bottom and then softer at the top. I can feel them underneath my arms too. Spiky, sharp little points that break my skin. I can’t see anything in the day, but at night, when the mice scuttle around on the floor, and the Chicken Man is downstairs with Aunt, I touch myself between my legs to feel calm. I feel the feathers down there and I smell The Chicken Man’s smell: chicken shit and sweat and cigarettes. If I stop breathing, I can hear the sounds of moaning coming from somewhere inside me, or, I think, holding my breath, is it coming from downstairs? I’m not sure because I’m too scared to check. Then, I feel that space between my legs under the sheets, and I can feel spikes, I can see them almost, bony feathers just breaking the skin, and yes, I can see them, pushing from inside me, into the darkness of the air above my sheets, and out, up over the bed, like strange flowers, stretching towards the grey light of the moon. In the morning, I have found feathers in the sheets, and then, looking between my legs, I see I’m as bald as a stinking plucked chicken. Or as bald as the men who hit Uncle once. Big, angry, pink men with bald heads, or heads covered in a short blonde fuzz, followed Uncle down the street once. When he turned back to look at them, they punched him and punched him till he bled from his temple and the side of his mouth. Since then, he leaves Paris only when the streets are properly quiet, just before dawn, and walks home with quick little steps, gripping a blade in his pocket. Then he stays sleeping all day in his room until it’s time for his next shift. His skin is grey and his eyes are small and watery. He has an oniony metallic smell that hangs around the landing after he’s come in. It’s a bit like blood which makes sense because he loves blood. Loved drinking Aunt’s blood one time, she said. At one time in their relationship that’s what he’d do, drink her blood. In the end he must have drank her dry, and that’s why now, she serves him chicken’s blood, mixed with rose water, in a tall glass covered in faded gold flowers. I hardly ever sit in the same room as him. When he walks into the room downstairs sometimes, and I haven’t been paying attention, just been lost in my own head thinking about this or that, and not realised the sound of his breathing wasn’t my breathing but his breathing then I realise too late, only after he’s walked in, being in the same room as him makes me want to be sick. I can feel him looking at me, and I think, maybe he wants to say something, but no, he never talks, what he wants is to drink my sisterfucking blood I think. That’s it. And I stare and stare at my feet. And I think, if I don’t make a noise or say anything, he’ll go soon. When I hear him come home in the morning, the slam of the door, and then the rattle of his breath, I wait for him to go up to his room, then I sneak into the kitchen to eat the juicy tubes of kebab meat he’s bought home, wrapped in foil parcels. I look out of the window above the sink, into the back garden, at the birds all sitting together, the floor around them littered with chicken feet and bits of corn. I think about chucking them a bit of naan or kebab, but before I know it, I’ve eaten it all while I’ve been thinking and it’s gone. Today, I feel something warm between my legs and I think I’m pissing myself again. I run up the stairs, feeling a sharp pain now, not piss, not like piss usually feels. Breathing heavily, still chewing on the kebab meat, mouth open, I lock myself in the bathroom, pull down my trousers, and see something pushing against my knickers. I can’t breathe. I pull my knickers down and feathers burst around my legs. White and long, like flat, white fingers clawing at me, tickling me, sisterfucking clawing at me till I bleed. Because there it is, a stain, a blood stain in my knickers and on the floor. And I don’t know what to do, but I wipe the floor with some paper, shove some tissue paper into my undies, and pray and keep thinking I hope no one can smell the blood on me I hope no one can smell the blood on me please I pray that no one can smell the blood on me that no one can smell it that no one can smell it that no one can smell it that no one can smell it. I put on my uniform and walk until I reach the woods, thinking I’ll go to School anyway, but then the ache in my stomach means I have to stop. So I sit down and sort of lean forward a bit, making noises, moaning. And when I look up, my hands have disappeared under feathers, long white feathers. And my clothes fall off my body. My neck is covered with soft white feathers, and it blends into my chest, into the little boobies that were just starting to form out of the fat on my body. All of me is tight, compact, held together by sinews and stickiness, all pink and white strings. I stretch my wings and try to jump into the air, but nothing happens. I dive my face into the ground, pecking at nothing. My neck jerks forward, and then back again, and then forward. I stay in the woods until it gets dark, and I cry, but make no sound and can’t crumple my face or anything. Only my cloudy eyes water, and I know I’m crying because I can feel it all tight in my heart. If Aunt sees me, she will cut my head off. She will slice chunks off me, and put some in the bin, and some in a pie. Uncle will drink my blood mixed with rose water, out of a tall glass covered in faded gold flowers. I don’t move. I stay here, in the woods, and keep away from the other sisterfucking birds who squawk and fly up into the air and back onto the ground and look at me like they want to kill me too. The first night is hard because I’ve never been a chicken before. Or maybe, I’ve always been a chicken. But I can’t think too much, my brain is shrinking. I feel things still. But they’re sharp and flat. I’m hungry. I’m scared. I’m sleepy. Images flash into my head: legs strewn across the garden floor, the smell of meat, still warm after death. The Chicken Man appears in my head again and again. ‘What do you say?’ He says, again and again and again. ‘What do you say?’ It’s dark. I’m tired and I stop crying. I close my leaking eyes, and then I feel sort of calm and empty and lay there quietly.