A Gift at Christmas
A cruel wind blew sleet into Michael's face as he walked from the Job Centre. It was mid December and still he had no work. It was six months since the engine component factory had moved to Korea and there was little left in the bank.
This year it was his son's first Christmas and maybe it was time to ask himself how far he would go to get money. Would he lie? Would he steal? Would he kill?
He passed a news-stand where there was simply a slot to receive coins. For a moment he thought to steal an evening paper, but dropped in forty pence that he could ill afford. Even as he did so he despised himself for his weakness - or was it honesty or cowardice? Perhaps he was simply too soft for hard times and the questions in his life were turning more and more to accusations.
As he glanced at the paper an advertisement caught his eye. "Casual labour required for the hand preparation and slaughter of premium live turkeys. Apply 6 am Celestial Farms, North Sidings Industrial Estate"
He felt a tightening in his gut. Here was a chance and a way ahead. He thought of the things that so many unknown and better men had had to face in war or other terror. He thought of the birth of his son and how the sight of blood and the horror of vicarious suffering had nearly made him bolt. Standing in the street broke and ashamed he knew that a certain moment had come to his life and that a truth about himself would live within him.
The next morning Michael stood in the yard at the Celestial Farms plant. A large man in a padded check shirt was standing by an old van.
"Transport to the farm - let's go" he shouted.
Michael got in. Several other workers were already there. The air smelled of stale drink, sweat and poultry. He sat down on a slatted bench next to a thin young woman with ragged hair tied back.
He tried a bright "Hello".
"No English" came a voice from the darkness "Assylum - that's the only word they teaches' em."
The van moved off and out onto the frosty Downs. Soon they arrived at the farm which was a series of pre-fabricated sheds. Check Shirt was shouting again - "No work no pay -Shift your lazy arse".
Michael followed the girl into the shed. Everyone took positions in front of metal frame devices that hung at shoulder height. At the other end of the shed a door slid open and a trailer filled with live turkeys was pushed in. The workers scrambled for the trailer and Michael watched a dirty faced man grab a bird and snap the neck. He hung the twitching carcass by its feet on the frame and plucked. Seconds later the product was tossed on a trestle table where Check Shirt was seated.
He wanted to run away, from the shed - from himself. The thin girl was wrestling with a large bird with her wiry pale arms. She placed it upside down in a tripod clamp and pulled its neck with a lever. Michael shuddered at the "Schhhnick" that separated bone and worlds.Then she plucked, the feathers falling with a mocking gentleness around her feet.
Michael felt himself pushed from behind.
"You fuckin' come to watch or what?" bellowed Check Shirt.
I'm sorry -I'm new" he said
Check Shirt pulled him roughly to the trailer.
"Grab one and fuckin' kill it you fuckin' idiot" he ordered.
Michael grabbed a bird that struggled and escaped. Check Shirt drew back his arm as if to punch. He grabbed another but revulsion translated itself into physical weakness. The neck was warm and living. It was like his baby son - -
"Kill the fuckin' thing!" screamed Check Shirt.
Just then the thin girl approached. As she walked she quickly killed the bird with the ease of a clown making shapes with balloons.For an instant she held his eyes then handed it to him. In silence she showed him how to hang the body and how to push the thumbs up through the breast feathers. Tough wing quills were pulled with pliers that she kept in her pocket.
As he finished each bird she gave him another, walking and killing, killing and walking. Michael surveyed the other workers: a large family of Roma gypsies, dark and loud. A Slav who drank some kind of alcohol from a bottle, the dirty faced man and the thin silent assylum girl who looked away, but was always at his side.
They worked on, he plucking and she killing for both of them.The floor became ankle deep in feathers, spattered here and there with blood if an artery burst in the snapping of the neck. Michael's hands blistered then bled, his own blood mixing with the turkey blood. When the last bird was done they queued at the table where Check Shirt handed out the money - £20 for the Slav, £19 for the assylum girl. Michael received £8.
She looked brazenly into his face and then at the money in his hand. She held out an open palm and he gave her £2. She nodded and almost smiled. He could smell her - maybe a trace of greasy hair, maybe a lttle sweat. He studied her face, enjoying her pale silent strength, the dirtiness they shared, the untidiness of their beating hearts.
"Tomorrow -Yes?" she said.
"Tomorrow -Yes." he replied quietly - as if it were adultery.
Once back at the Celestial Farms factory yard the girl walked staight to the gate where two men were waiting in a ragged Ford Granada. Michael watched her get in the back and the car drive away. The dirty faced man pushed past him.
"Bloody illegals - taking our work." he growled.
That night Michael returned to his home but hid the existence of the girl. What tenderness was left in his heart he shared secretly with his meagre pale partner who knew his shame.
The next days passed in the same way. His earnings grew. His hands still bled but gave up pain Each night he gave her what he felt he owed and each time she took it saying simply
"Tomorrow - Yes?"
In these words he was anchored to her and to his failure. Every morning he resolved that he would kill. But he did not.
Each night she walked without good - bye to the gate where the two men waited, smoking cigarettes, in the old battered car.
Two days remained and now there were many large stag birds. The girl had a bruise above her eye and moved more slowly. Michael caught himself in a convulsion of thought..What if she failed and could not kill?
Her thin pale arms fought to control a large bird. She made a quick plea with her eyes. He went to her, fighting back nausea and took the bird by the neck. He hated it for its life..this life of pulse and warmth that mocked and humiliated him. He looked back to her eyes and felt the neck break as he pulled and sawed the break into the spinal cord. The warm creature spasmed and fell limp.
He handed her the bird and went for another. She kept her gaze on the floor. Then he was killing again, killing,killing, plucking fast and killing again. Killing was no more than a word that had stood between him ....and someone else who he had yet to know. He glanced at the girl of whom he was now the equal but she kept her eyes to the floor. Whenever he needed the pliers for the wing quills she held them out as if she knew - as if she just knew.
When they queued for their money he received £28, she £26. He held out £2 to her although she had not killed. She took it. He smiled, accepting her dependance in exchange for his.
There was a sudden shout. One of the Roma men cursed at Check Shirt and a fight began. The crew quickly formed a circle cheering. Michael led her outside.
It was dusk. Against the darkness and cold indifference of the evening star, rooks in V formation called out their longing for the high empty trees. They stood close. He took in her high cheeks, her nose rather sharp, her lips a little thin, her grey green eyes beneath her bruised brow. He touched her cheek. She raised her hand quickly as if to push him away but slowed and placed her hand on his, pressing it closer. If ever he had wanted anything it was at that moment to kiss her - to kiss her hands - the lids of her closed eyes. For a second she turned her lips against his fingers in the merest kiss.
The crew began spilling from the shed and she stood back. Check Shirt had a bloody nose, the Roma man a missing tooth and the clan an extra £10. Market forces had had the last word.
She stayed beside him as they drove back to the factory. At the gates the two men waited in the Granada. As they stepped down from the van she started to walk away. Michael called at her back
"Tomorrow - Yes?"
She stopped but did not turn. He walked to her.
"Tomorrow - No" she said.
Beyond her the car door opened and a man stepped out. The girl tensed and began to walk away. Then she stopped, turned and held out the pliers. He reached out and she pushed them into his hand and walked to the car. The man slapped her face and let out a sharp unknown word as he shoved her in.
Michael watched it drive away until it was lost in the tangle of lights on the City ring road.
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