As soon as I opened the door to the art school studio I could smell it – fish. That morning I was the first in the room where I and my fellow art students laboured with varying degrees of talent and application. I dropped my bag on the paint-splattered floor. Perhaps last night someone had brought in some fish and chips, fallen asleep over it with his face landing right in the crumple of newspaper covered in tomato ketchup – like Pete a few weeks ago.
I crossed the room – something dangling above my eye line made me look up. Hanging on a string from the industrial studio lamps were three large mackerels, blood dripping onto the floor. The door was flung open and Rory, my frazzled–haired friend struggled in, looking as though he had slept in a dustbin. I had come in earlier than usual because he and I were supposed to work on a stage project together – today was plainly not the day. He stood staring at the mackerels with bleary eyes. ‘Woaah – I think I’m going to throw up,’ he groaned. He didn’t get a chance to turn and leave the room. Mick Brown, our life drawing teacher was behind him and pushed him further into the room.
There was a sly smile on Mick Brown’s haggard face. He said nothing as the other six students filed in, all with the same reaction of revulsion at the stinking mackerels.
‘That,’ Mick said, pointing at the dangling fish, ‘is what you’ll draw today. And no one leaves the room until they’ve done twenty sketches.’

Penny Moxley-Ferris, apparently the daughter of an admiral, always in court shoes and in a crisp shirt which she wore with the collar turned up, emulating Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn, was the first to succumb, dashing to the ladies across the corridor. Her retching could be heard up and down the third floor of the building.
‘She’s probably pregnant,’ Rory mumbled next to me, ‘from her ding-dong with Matt.’ Mister Matthews, our painting teacher with a shock of russet hair and a boyish smile, had been conducting a not so secret affair with Penny.

This was London in the decade of free love when art school teachers in particular suddenly grew their hair long and wore the same clothes as their students in an effort to pose as ‘friends’. Some were friends a little too much. Three of my female classmates were frequently sharing a bed with ‘friendly’ male lecturers in mad romantic entanglements, playing cat-and-mouse games with the teacher’s wives – all were destined to end in heartbreak for the girl student, at times in divorce for the teacher. I was happily living with my boyfriend of twenty three and could not see myself sharing a bed with an old man of thirty five.

Mick Brown, or Mick-the-Stick as we called him on account of his extreme thinness, was a brilliant, inventive teacher who had taught me to see rather than just look at what I was trying to draw. He always dressed in what looked like greasy black flak jackets and black drain pipe trousers. Dark shadows under his large, mournful eyes matched his clothes. He rode an old bicycle which resembled him in every way on which he had once managed to move the contents of his entire flat from one end of London to the other.

‘Draw them before they rot.’ With a malevolent grin Mick spurred us on from time to time or stood in our way when one of us tried to leave the room.

Around four in the afternoon he finally relented and, all of us green-faced, struggled to the college canteen and demanded the strongest coffee they could make – ‘three spoons of Nescafé at least,’ I instructed the canteen lady. None of us could eat anything. I went to sit nearest the door, not far from the toilets, just in case…

The next morning when we arrived in our studio we found Mick-the-Stick crouching over our drawings which he had spread out on the floor. The mackerels were still hanging, though one of them had lost a flank, exposing the bones. The turquoise sheen of their silver and black striped bodies had become dull and wrinkled.
‘No good,’ the hunched black figure on the floor sighed, ‘no good at all. You’ll have to start again.’ Before we could flee Mick got up and stood in front of the door. ‘This time you’ll do twenty sketches in an hour and I’ll let you go.’ Looking at our faces he grinned.’ It’s for your own good and you know it, so get cracking. Charcoal only.’

For the whole hour Mick moved from one corner of the room to the other, wrapped in the smoke of his pungent French cigarettes,coughing his heart out as usual.

We drew as if chased by wolves – between Mick’s bouts of coughing all one could hear in the room was the scratching and squealing of pieces of charcoal. I was attacking one sheet of paper after another. As I worked I became more and more reckless, scraping holes and tearing the paper in an attempt to make my drawing as black as possible – my fish hung as ghosts with the faintest of sheens in an otherwise black space. I completely forgot about the stench.

‘Time,’ Mick called.
It was only when I threw my charcoal stumps on the floor that I became aware of the appalling stink of the fish again – I rushed out and was sick in the toilets.
When I came out Mick had opened all the studio and corridor windows and the mackerels had gone. My fellow students were half hanging out of the windows, finally breathing fresh air. ‘Thank you,’ Mick said. ‘These are the best drawings I’ve seen this year, last year, any year. I’ll hang on to them. They’ll go into your degree show. Wait here. I’ll just put these away.’ He vanished into the lecturers’ office.
We burst into laughter. My friend Rory lay down on the floor. ‘I’ll sleep here,’ he growled,’ haven’t slept all night. I had to help my brother make a film.’

Mick reappeared. ‘Come on,’ he smiled, exposing his long, smoke-yellowed teeth. He led and we followed him to the park where we spent the rest of the day doing nothing at all and eating the cake he bought for us.

Two weeks later Mick-the-Stick arrived two hours late. We knew the look on his face – something else was coming.
‘I was arrested this morning. I went to Smithfield Market on my bike. They thought I’d stolen this.’ He lifted a large parcel. He peeled back the news paper – two bristly, pinkish ears, then a large snout and two half closed eyes with long white lashes emerged. ‘They didn’t have a bag so I just put it into my bike basket. I was cycling along and a policeman stopped me. He’d never seen a whole pig’s head. He arrested me. It was five in the morning, we had to wait until college opened so that they could confirm who I was and what I was doing with the pig’s head. And then there was all the paper work. But the sergeant gave me his morning newspaper to avoid more trouble on the way here.’
He looked utterly exhausted, thinner and his face seemed to have shrunk; his sharp cheek bones sat under the skin like polished stones. His eyes were blood-shot.

He set the pig’s head on a high stool. ‘One hour, twenty sketches?’ I asked. ‘No,’ Mick said, ‘take two.’ He paced around the studio filling it with smoke and his usual constant, deep cough.

When we hung our degree show Mick insisted on hanging the mackerel drawings as centre pieces.

A week later we all came into college to take down our work. The assessors had finished and would give us the results in due course.

We stood around expecting to see Mick. Our head of department, Mister Simons came in, white faced. ‘I have some bad news,’ he said.
‘Have we all failed,’ Rory moaned, ‘because of those bloody fish drawings?’ ‘No,’ Mister Simons shook his head,’ it’s Mick… he died this morning of lung cancer.’

After our head of department left we all sat down against the wall under the windows. No one spoke.
I got up, went over to where my work was still hanging. I took a pen and wrote on my fish drawing: To Mick-the-Stick. My fellow students rose and they too dedicated their fish drawings to Mick. We all took our work down – the drawings were the last to be packed into our art folders.

Atà Burchardt  2019

Twice-a-day Antoinette, the hen

There wasn’t a house without chickens during my mid-teens, outside the towns that is, in the Vosges mountains, the mirror image of the Black Forest on the French side of the Rhine. Between the two mountain ranges the Alsace lies trapped on a narrow strip, for centuries overrun by opposing armies. In the mustard light against a dark slate blue sky, a precursor to violent summer storms, I had a glorious view from the meadow next to our house standing in the shadow of two identical dark mountains; I could look down on the Ballon d’Alsace, a huge and glowing lump of a mountain some one hundred kilometres away. The only road through its dense forests became totally impassable in the winter because of meters of snow, effectively cutting the Alsace off from France for a couple of months, unless one wanted to take a detour via Switzerland and Germany or the Belgian border to the North. I imagined the other side of that monster of a mountain, the Alsace, land of plenty, the mellow light turning the lush vineyards to gold. Beyond them flowed the Rhine, already wide as it passed Strasbourg, and beyond that the dark, dark Black Forest stretching into Switzerland where people spoke my father’s language. That’s what the map of France showed anyway. I had, of course, never been there; our money situation did not allow holidays. So I was forever here, or so it seemed, at the edge of the dense forest with our rabbits, geese and chickens. From my problematic older sister and two much younger siblings not much conversation was to be had, my mother was struggling with the house and garden, none of which she, coming from a family with servants and in-house tutors, would ever master. So I wandered around, alone with my thoughts and racing imagination, in my pocket my pictures of the idyllic Southern French villages that I had painted in bright colours onto the virgin inside lid of empty Camembert cheese boxes. It was the only wooden surface available; at least it was a step in the right direction until my dream of painting on canvas could come true.

That last year, having passed my exams, as soon as school was out for summer I roamed the forest picking early blueberries and delivered my harvest to a market seller. By the second week of August I had amassed what seemed like a lot of money (around £10). I wanted to learn English – properly – and I knew that in London one could do so by being employed as au pair as my older sister had done. My father gave me the remaining £2 to buy my train ticket to England. As if on cue, as I stood in our living room with my cardboard suit case containing almost no clothes but two cheap volumes of Paul Eluard’s poems and an old box of pencils and paint, the radio started playing Elvis Presley’s It’s now or never. With my exam papers in my pocket I had no second thoughts about leaving the isolation of the harsh life in that mountain village or my family; neither offered me a future and even less hope. I jumped on a train for London, aged seventeen and ten days. Soon after my parents moved house, my mother must have thrown away all my painted cheese-lid masterpieces – I did not expect her to keep them. Under my empty bed she must have found a good dozen or more of my notebooks filled with my scribblings. Those too probably went onto the fire.

I had always written furiously. No subject was too small or too insignificant and so I carried a cheap notebook made of ugly news print with me wherever I went, sometimes getting off my bike to sit on the grassy verge by the side of the road to write down a small story or idea for one. I could speak to no one about our dire family situation, not even to my only school friend. My writing was a way of having all the conversations I longed for and later I realised that no one around me at the time knew me at all. I didn’t learn of the disposal of my artistic and intellectual endeavours, such as they were, until I visited my parents two years later in a clean, first floor suburban apartment and not one chicken in sight.

But prior to leaving home the collection of small animals anchored me in reality more than people did – it was possible to give them love, they had to be fed, let out in the morning, locked in at night, eventually killed in gory team work by my mother and myself. Our skills were basic – chopping the heads off chickens was not so hard. Geese were muscular and heavy, they put up a fight and then suddenly, they laid their heads and their long white neck on the block, totally still, waiting for me to bring the axe down. Holding them between my knees I plucked the birds’ feathers and disembowelled them, my mother roasted them. Their innards were good for soups or made into a spreadable paté, the carcasses boiled endlessly to make stock. It was the natural order of things.

One spring night around 11pm, when I was still hunched over history home work on the kitchen table, a desperate screeching came from the chicken house. On opening the front door our dog shot out past me and pursued a shadow all the way through the village. It was a fox which, in a short couple of hours, had killed and carried away our chickens. We had forgotten to close the chicken house hatch and it wasn’t until the fox was confronted by our exceptionally ferocious cockerel that we were alerted. The next day we found most of the dead birds in a long line stretching to the forest’s edge. I don’t recall whether we attempted to eat any of them as there was always the fear of rabies with foxes. My parents were devastated – no eggs, no roasts for a good while to come. That Easter a man from the village came to take a rabbit. When I came home from school to put away my bike it hung, stripped naked, dripping blood onto the floor. It made a beautiful Sunday meal.

When the Easter school holidays started my mother dispatched me to the weekly market in town. With a flat cardboard box strapped to the rear of my bike I set off to pedal the 15kms, up and down three high, densely wooded mountains to buy some new chicklets. The trip took over an hour. I was used to it. Most years for the whole of June I would do the three hour round trip on my bike to my lycée in town to save the money usually spent on the monthly rail card so I could buy books. At times even in late autumn or even winter, when I missed the train which left from the next village five kilometres down from our mountain, I had no choice but to cycle to school along the main road in the dark and then home again, rain or shine, now and then briefly illuminated by a rare car or a truck thundering past as I struggled up the steep roads.

In the twice weekly market one could find anything and everything, from corsets and suspender belts to farm machinery and livestock, kittens, puppies, even the occasional lamb or kid goat. My mission was to acquire new born chicks to repopulate our chicken house. To buy fully grown chickens was beyond our means.

The broad woman, dressed in the usual black of old widows and farmers’ wives, after they reached the age of forty or so, dropped the yellow fluffy creatures into my box without much tenderness. Behind her stood a crate covered in chicken wire filled with the chattering pink-beaked goslings, hair sticking out as with new born babies. The woman followed my gaze. I opened my hand. There were just a few franks left. It was either the goslings or a new note book. She pointed at my money. ‘That’ll get you two goslings.’ Without waiting for my answer she reached into the crate, pulled out two of the tiny birds, dropped them on the top of the chicks and took all the money from my hand. I must have looked so dismayed to be left penniless that she turned and from the chicklets crate she picked another and dropped that into my box too. ‘There, you can have that one for free,’ and as I pushed my bike through the crowd, she called after me, ‘make sure you always give them plenty of water.’

The new addition was much smaller than all the rest. It later occurred to me that the wily farmer’s wife had perhaps not expected it to last the morning. To have dead merchandise was bad for business.

Before setting off for my long treck home my mothering instinct told me to remove the tiny creature to prevent it getting trampled by the goslings. I wrapped the warm, soft thing in my scarf and placed it in my shoulder bag and rehoused the goslings in the basket at the front of my bike. I set off for home to the soft chirping back and front of my new baby birds, up and down the mountains and that day the road didn’t seem so steep nor the ride so long. At the last bend before our house I covered the goslings in the front basket with my cardigan. It would be hard to explain to my parents that for the price of the goslings I could perhaps have bought another five or six chicks.

My mother took the chicks into our car-less garage where we kept our bikes, firewood and the hay for the rabbits. They would not be let out unless supervised. Buzzards could spy the tiniest birds from the top of the nearby mountain and frequently swooped down to cruise over our chicken compound. We had stretched chicken wire over the whole area to avoid the loss of our birds. Shortly before the fox raid a buzzard had landed on the wire and it collapsed under its weight, so we had to be vigilant.

I said nothing about the goslings; I’d have the whole afternoon to think about how I could justify my folly. Rolled in my cardigan, which had now had an acrid smell, I rushed to the bathroom, let a little water into the tub and set them into it. They dipped their pink beaks into the water, obviously thirsty after the long bike ride. They flapped and splashed with such joy that it brought tears to my eyes.

I went downstairs. My mother made me a glass of grenadine with lemon and a salami sandwich. As I sat at the kitchen table, recounting what I had seen in the market a small peeping sound came from my bag on the floor next to my chair. I had forgotten about the tiny chick. My mother looked at me. ‘What else did you buy?’

I opened the bag and brought out the tiny creature, not much larger than a walnut. My mother tut-tutted. ‘That one will not live, that’s why she gave it to you.’

‘I’ll just have to look after it then. But we’ll have to keep it away from the others or they’ll kill it.’

I sensed the moment for my confession had come. I knew that in the early evening when my father came home from work he liked to have a bath before dinner.

‘I have bought something else,’ I began. ‘Come, I’ll show you, but please don’t be angry.’ I expect my mother thought I might have bought something for myself. The reason my older sister was never sent on such errands was because she could never resist a new pair of stockings or stopping off for a drink in one of the town’s cafés, fishing for boyfriends, and on her return she would claim that she couldn’t find whatever she was meant to buy, but every time she came home with less money than she had gone out with.

On entering the bathroom my mother stood aghast at the two goslings standing happily in the bath tub among their floating poo.

None of our animals, with the exception of dogs and cats, were given names. We always knew what our rabbits, ducks, chickens and now geese were there for. Once an animal had a name it became impossible to eat it. When a bird reached its chicken menopause and stopped laying eggs, when a drake became too quarrelsome or a gander was too aggressive when competing with a dominant male they would land on Sunday’s dinner table as my parents’ budget did not stretch to the buying of meat from the butcher. But in the case of this tiny chicken – my mother promised to keep it a secret from my younger siblings – I made an exception: it was to be called Antoinette.

I kept Antoinette in a large crate in the garage, hunted for worms and grubs in our vegetable garden, orchard and potato field and fed her at every opportunity. She was still a lot smaller than the others when I first let it out into the chicken pen under my supervision. When all the other chicks had grown into glossy white adults my chicken’s plumage was a yellowish white and looked unkempt. She had the air of a worn-out housewife from the dirt-poor end of town with a tobacco habit.

Antoinette was promoted to the chicken house. But ‘she’, as I now called her, held her own in chicken society. Her stronger ‘siblings’ had begun to lay eggs, and so did she. When the hatch was opened at daylight Antoinette was the first to charge out. She would run to the gate of the compound, head down as if in a hundred meter sprint and perform an impatient dance. At first no one knew its meaning, except that the dance would suddenly stop and she laid a huge egg on the ground. Last thing in the evening, when all the other chickens were already settling on their perches in the dark interior of the chicken house she would run to the gate, do her dance and again lay a huge egg before finally running up the ladder and allowing us to close the hatch for the night. After seeing her performance for a few days I suddenly realised what she wanted – I had kept her so long in her separate crate in the garage smelling of wood resin and hay that this was her home. So I obliged. I let her out of the compound, she charged to the garage, trampled and kneaded the ground until I open the door. Then she rushed into the hay and laid her huge egg in seconds. A satisfied clucking followed, a bit of scratching and she ambled past me, with deliberation and pride, back through the open compound gate and up the ladder for the night, only to repeat her performance first thing in the morning before any other chicken had had a chance to open an eye.

She laid two, not one egg like all other chickens I’ve ever known. They were twice the size. Our neighbour Georgette, the farmer’s wife , could not believe those eggs came from a chicken, until I called her to watch Antoinette’s performance.

As for the geese, one a male the other female, both grew enormous. I dug a lake for them with my brother which the ducks and geese fought over. The goose too was laying eggs, huge ones – a single egg made an omelette for four people. Then she stopped laying and we thought she’d be next in line for the Christmas roast. One morning, after we had not seen her for days and believing her to be sick I crawled into her shack. In her nest in the far corner she had hidden twenty one eggs – she was broody. Seeing her size, we added chicken eggs and duck eggs and when they all hatched ducklings, goslings and chicklets all took the huge goose for their mother. And the next time the fox dug under the fence and got into the chicken compound and was about to take our chickens the gander fought it off long enough for us to rush out to the rescue.

And Antoinette? I thought about her when, as au pair, I nightly changed the drenched sheets of a three year-old bedwetting boy, when, until 4am, I served trays full of drinks to rock stars and the showbiz glitterati in a London nightclub to pay for four years of my art school, I remembered her fondly when I had reached the dizzy heights of Art Director to one of London’s most important magazine, I thought about her when art directing photoshoots for a French advertising agency, when I worked for publishers in Paris, when I sat in the sun of our Languedoc terrace after I had told a village woman about my bedraggled little hen.

I expect that after I had left for London she continued her frantic dance, morning and night. I doubt whether my younger sister or brother paid much attention to her. They had no idea that this little insignificant bird had a name. And I expect that before my parents moved from the remote French country side that time seemed to have forgotten to a centrally heated first floor apartment in the suburbs of a town, perhaps this unassuming bird was given or sold to the farmer next door, along with the rest of our animals. Or, perhaps, my family simply ate Antoinette for dinner.


Extract from LUNCH WITH NAT

© A.N. Burchardt 2004DSCN9187

It was a childish desire to communicate with the object of his desire. These little dreamy pauses he allowed himself didn’t last. Before long he began to feel silly, like a boy caught stealing the last strawberries from the bowl at the dead of night. But the following day again, in an almost unconscious act, his burly shape sat at the window, engrossed in this most delicate exercise of love’s expression.

His love and longing for her grew by the day; his first imaginary messages to her now became real. Almost absent-mindedly he scribbled them on scraps of paper, folded them with care. His house sat on a bridge over the canal which ran directly below his window. He waited until a soft whooshing announced an approaching open boat filled with sightseers. Leaning out of the window he let go of a handful of the tiny pieces of white paper which gently fluttered down onto unsuspecting passengers. One landed in the lap of a plump and perspiring American woman who picked it up and read: ‘You are beauty’. Another cut a white shape in a black hat wedged between the knees of a frail old man who read, perplexed: ‘With you on earth,  who needs dreams?’ And every day Nat left his chair by the desk when he knew that the boat trips were about to begin. Perhaps one day, by some miracle, his message would land in her lap.


Stateless in Vienna


© A.N. Burchardt

The train screeches to a halt a hundred yards before the frontier. In the compartment the air is still with fear. The refugees sit tightly packed, with not an inch to spare between them. All except Maria and the two nuns are wrapped in thick coats. It is summer but no matter how high the temperature soars, a coat is the most precious possession, a reliable fortress against the winter cold just a few weeks away. Baskets and bundles squat on laps. If exhaustion brings a moment’s sleep, an opportunist thief will strike. The hands grip too tightly, white knuckles showing, but all of them sit as if traveling to the weekly market. Each one knows that the other is on the run, but self respect demands restraint, or at least the pretense of it. The hope of crossing the border in one piece with a few meagre possessions recedes with each minute the train stands motionless. The two nuns clutch their wicker baskets. In their milky white faces bloodless lips quiver in prayer.

They sit there, Maria thinks, like chickens on their perch, knowing that any minute the fox will make his entrance. Britta stands, peering out of the window; her small hands are pressing hard onto the window pane. Anna lies sprawled across Maria’s lap, asleep. She has grown so long, so thin. Maria pulls her coat over the tiny girl, only her dark locks can be seen. The soldiers running wild over the border areas have never been known to harm a mother with a small child – not yet.

A bony silhouette blocks out the light from the door. Maria looks up. The fox is here.

A tall soldier in a loosely fitting uniform tears the door open. His peak cap is pulled low over a pair of squinting eyes. They dart from one huddled passenger to another, up to the bulging luggage rack, back down again.

‘Fra’, his gravel voice cuts into the oppressive silence. ‘Fra’.

He points at her, then to the luggage above her seat.

‘Uri! Uri!’ he grunts and she understands he is on the hunt for watches.

A second soldier pushes into the compartment and orders the two nuns out.

The squinting soldier stares at Maria, grabs her by the sleeve, forcing her to stand up. She can feel his bony hand gripping her arm as he drags her into the corridor. Anna clings to her dress under the coat. Behind her Britta is hammering on the window.

‘Mama, Mama, look.’ The girl turns but her mother is gone.

The soldiers are shoving the two nuns along the railway bank. A thick set soldier with bowed legs pushes the middle-aged nun. She falls to her knees. He holds the barrel of his machine gun under her chin, makes her get up again. On the train faces press against the windows to watch the spectacle. Some look away, afraid of the searching eyes of the uniformed men. Others strain, furtively. It could be their turn next.

Maria stands on the coarse gravel by the rail track, her light summer coat billows in the breeze. ‘The fox has picked me’, she whispers.

She tries to step backwards, to make herself small. Her scarf is pulled low, half hiding her face behind the tiny child she holds up in front of her. The soldiers’ boots crunch nearer on the rough stones. They draw level with Maria. The taller soldier approaches; his squinting eyes scrutinize Maria. He lifts her scarf. The sleeve of his jacket rides up. On his arm a row of wrist watches glint in the sunlight. The nuns stand like birds on the uneven ground, bony feet in thin canvas shoes and brown stockings. They tremble, huddling close, frozen by fear.

A rusted bed stands on a patch of grass by the wheat field that stretches along the railway line. The stocky soldier waves his machine gun towards the bed. Sweat beads run down his face; he catches them with his thick and pallid tongue. Maria casts her eyes to the ground to escape the squinting gaze, lifting the little girl even higher in front of her face. The cross-eyed soldier turns his back to her. His body is well shaped and strong. He looks as though he has been hungry for a long time. His spine is visible under his uniform jacket; vertebrae form a reptilian line. The signs of a long war are showing, not only on the conquered, but also on the conquerors.

Reichstag Russian grafiti

He stands with his feet apart; Maria can see a pistol stuffed into his dust-covered boot. He watches as his comrade orders the nuns onto the bed. Its dirty mattress must have been blue as the sky once. As the young nun climbs onto it he turns to Maria again; with his eyes fixed on her, he butts the nun between the shoulder blades with his gun.

Both nuns now stand on the sprung bed, wobbling, trying to keep their balance. The stocky soldier licks his lips. His watery blue eyes are bulging with sly mischief.

Maria gazes at the bed, puzzled. How did it come to stand by the railway track? Apart from a small wooden shack here are no buildings; as far as the eye can see nothing but undulating fields. The bed stands there, a purposeful presence, now witnessing the sordid scene. A resourceful refugee must have dragged it to the railway line, stretched out on it during the short summer nights, waiting for a train to pass, slow enough to jump on unseen.

The squinter continues to stare in Maria’s direction. His cap shields his eyes and she can’t see what he is looking at. The other soldier lifts the old nun’s habit with the end of the gun barrel, speaking in lurid tones to his comrade. The guttural sounds of a language Maria cannot distinguish ring out in laughter as the old nun’s baggy cotton drawers emerge. Her loose brown stockings are held up by a pair of jam-jar rings which glow in bright orange. The stocky soldier roars something to his comrade who in turn begins to lift the young nun’s robe with the end of his gun. She offers no resistance as a pair of thick woollen socks and trembling white legs are exposed.

Maria stands stock still. Britta and her luggage have remained on the train. If the train leaves without her, many swift hands will dispose of her possessions within minutes. Britta will be handed to the next station master, one of many children tossed around a country consumed by war.


In the draught of the railway bank Anna begins to whimper.

‘Shush,’  whispers  Maria and bends over her daughter to escape the soldiers  eyes.  And still, the squinter does not let Maria out of his sight. His rough hand caresses the quivering thighs of the young nun and he orders her to bounce up and down on the bed. Maria lowers her head. The creaking rhythm of the bed springs reminds her of a couple in the throes of love making. When she looks up, the young soldier smiles at her. The fox knows, she thinks.

The train driver leans out of his window, throwing up his hands. The stocky soldier waves his machine gun and fires into the air, ordering him to leave.  Slowly the train begins to move, setting the edge of the wheat field in motion.

A compartment window opens. Two bundles and a basket are thrown onto the stony bank next to Maria, spilling water bottles, bread and apples onto the ground. Maria sees two thin legs emerge from the window. A busty woman with a straw hat and an elderly man are dangling Maria’s daughter Britta from the train window.

‘Catch her, quick, catch her.’ Their calls are breathless from the strain. The squinter looks up and sprints alongside the moving train. Britta is hanging by one coat sleeve from the window. She drops into his arms, brings the soldier down with her, falls on top of him and struggles free. She stands over him and pounds the man’s face with tiny fists, kicking her red shoes into his side.  He sits up, taking the blows, staring, as she reaches out and punches him in the face. Blood splatters onto his jacket and still he does nothing to quash the child’s furious assault. She stops at the sight of the blood, stands face to face with the sitting soldier, then turns, runs to Maria and disappears in the folds of her mother’s coat. The dazed soldier tugs at his uniform jacket. With his dirty sleeve he wipes the blood from his face and gets to his feet. He picks up his rifle and without a look at Maria, returns to the entertainment in progress.

Anna watches the nuns with an angry frown as they bounce in front of the two laughing soldier. Then she lets out an ear-shattering cry. Maria takes a few strides forward, plants herself in front of the squinting soldier, hoists Anna up and holds the child’s crying face close to his. And the man lowers his gaze. At that moment Anna knows that as long as tears roll, they will be safe.

The stocky soldier roughly pushes the nuns off the bed. He barks something at the squinter, makes a resigned gesture with his machine gun. Game over.

The young nun looks at Maria and smiles, a pure, forgiving smile. She follows the older nun as they stumble ahead of the soldiers to the wooden shack where a jeep is parked. The squinter turns and walks backwards, pointing his gun at the young woman and child. Under Maria’s coat Britta stirs like a frightened bird. Anna continues her piercing screams.

The nuns have reached the shack and disappear behind it, followed by the soldiers. Anna stops crying abruptly. Her tear-glazed eyes do not blink as she waits.

In the distance the train whistles, triumphant from the other side of the border. The song of a lark rises and still Maria dares not raise her head. The wheat field rustles in the breeze.

In the silence gun shots crack the air.


By the shack Maria sees the soldiers bend down. The stocky one fumbles with the flies of his trousers, steps to the edge of the field and relieves himself in full view of Maria, then climbs into the driver’s seat. As his comrade turns the jeep, the young soldier gives a small, melancholy wave with his gun. He leaps onto the passenger seat and they speed past Maria and disappear in a cloud of dust.

Anna is breathing like a hunted animal. Maria walks along the dry path to the shack. Britta trails behind, picking poppies on the edge of the path.

Behind the shack two black forms lie spread on the ground, flightless crows fallen to earth. It smells of grass and blood and flowers, but mostly of warm blood.

Maria begins a slow walk back to the bed. There is no hurry now. She sets Anna down. By the rail track red apples lie among the grey stones. Together they pick up the nuns’ baskets, the food, the water and neatly lay the precious booty out on the bed. On the dirty mattress Maria beds Anna down on her coat. She will make use of the bed tonight. Perhaps a freight train will slow down, allow her to jump on board to cross the border unseen.

Britta sits, legs dangling from the edge of the grubby mattress, counting her poppies. She sighs and puts down the scarlet flowers, made limp by her hot fist.

‘Look, Mama.’ Her fingers begin to undo the white buttons of her blue cardigan. She pulls out what looks like a crumpled brown woollen sock, lays it out on her lap, folds out two arms, two legs, a pointed face with two black buttons for eyes.

Her bottom lip curls and she presses the brown bundle to her chest.

‘I’ve saved my teddy.’



The Post-Modern Chicken or La Poule Existentialiste

A Christmas roast story

‘Try and eat meat once a week,’ said my doctor, looking over the rim of his spectacles. I’d had an exhausting year and was a little underweight. He on the other hand appeared to have consumed more than his fair share of animal fats. Still, trusting that ‘Doctors know best’ I wandered the shops dripping with Christmas goodies, foie gras and fine French chocolates. I picked a top quality chicken fed on choice grains, reared in the great outdoors – a happy chicken in politically correct jargon.

As the oven heated and the stuffing soaked up the brandy, I was peeling the ornate gold sticker off the plump chicken’s breast when the label headline caught my eye.
‘TASTE ME,’ it invited me. ‘I’m one of the unmistakable St.Sever farm chickens.’
I felt strangely embarrassed to be thus addressed by this headless and very recently deceased chicken. I knew that guilt came too late. Instead of casting my eyes to the ceiling to whistle a jolly Christmas tune as a cowardly diversion I felt duty-bound to read the two paragraphs of this very personal heart to heart between the late chicken and myself. After all, I would soon be the beneficiary of the exalted lifestyle of this former bird.

‘I am the little sister of the famous Farmhouse Capon,’ it went on (those who don’t know what a capon is will be spared the sordid detail).
‘At St. Sever I have had the privilege,’ it chirped, ‘of being raised in ‘totale liberté’ for at least 98 days.’
I wondered how many chicken years might represent one human year, but sweeping Higher Maths aside, three months and eight days seemed a little on the short side.
‘I was fed on the golden mais of the Landes,’ it expounded, ‘before being carefully refined with skimmed milk. My tender flesh oozes flavour and finesse. I promise to offer you a maximum in eating pleasure.’
Was this the vanity of a brainless, not to say headless bird speaking which, when alive referred to itself as Moi in Miss Piggy style? Or had an evil spin doctor infiltrated the chicken coops of rural France? Without a moment’s pause to commemorate the departed, the cooking instructions ruthlessly kicked me back into reality and rattled out the ice cold orders.
‘Melt 50g of butter, turn the bird till golden on all sides. Roast at 250 degrees for an hour. Serve with lemon juice and glazed carrots.’
I wrestled with my conscience. Drawn into so intimated a conversation by a bird wishing to assert it’s posthumous identity, I was now told to subject that very same creature, so eager to please with its bodily refinements, to deadly temperatures. The simple flick of an oven switch would turn me into an accessory to murder.

The shops had long closed; shopping for an alternative was out, and anyway, the evil deed had been done. I braced myself – chicken for Christmas it would be.

I did not read the chicken’s broadcast to my husband. He grew up in the city and could never make the leap of conscience (or lack of it) from a living creature to what lies on his plate. Although I grew up in the country surrounded by animals which we inevitably ate in the end, being personally addressed by a dead bird had so far only been the stuff of my worst nightmares.

I watched the chicken brown in my new self-cleaning oven. Was I dreaming or did I see an advertisement for a self-basting chicken somewhere? Perhaps the next logical step was a self-stuffing bird, or a chicken that obligingly wrings its own neck moments before you push it into the oven – suicide on demand, so to speak – to guarantee absolute freshness.

We sat by the open fire after our Christmas meal. Over a game of chess I reflected on how far we could venture with language when it comes to food. As the flicker from the flames danced about the room I could swear that above the angel gracing the top of our Christmas tree the satisfied face of the chicken’s ghost beamed down at me and I heard a cute Shirley Temple voice squeaking: ‘So glad you enjoyed eating me. We aim to pleeeease. Have a nice dayeee.’ And with a balletic flapping of its tiny wings the apparition vanished.



 He was an ordinary man – beige shoes, terylene trousers, sweat-inducing poly-something shirts, usually in insipid pale blue under the checked acrylic V-neck jumpers his wife brought home from M&S. His only adventure with colour was a thin stripe of red at the top edge of his beige socks. His light brown hair teetered perilously close to a comb-over, his glasses bordered on the horn-rimmed. He had always worn a tie to work, but lately had abandoned it without quite slipping into the open-neck shirt mode, so that the absence of a tie simply left a void, a blank, as if he had simply forgotten to finish dressing. The bow tie had appealed, of the clip-on variety that he had worn for the wedding of his only son Lawrence. It was dark blue with tiny white spots, falling short of a true polka dot. But when he looked into the mirror he couldn’t muster the debonair smile of an Alan Whicker, nor raise the rakish cad-like sneer of Terry Thomas. The optimism of the dickie bow was so eye-catching that his face could not keep up with it; in fact, he could not see his face at all, so he laid the bow tie to rest in its red Marks and Spencer box and forgot about it.

Muriel now sat, the little red box in her lap. It glared too brightly on her black dress. After the funeral she had roamed around the house, picking up objects at random, as if to test if they were real. She stood in front of her wardrobe but felt revulsion at the floral patterns of every single one of her outfits. Everything was too bright, too gay, stung her eyes with indecent ferocity.

‘For heaven’s sake, Mum,’ her son Lawrence said, when he came to the house weeks later, ‘you can’t spend the rest of your life in black.’

But colours were now as offensive as food for which she had also lost her appetite. Anything brown or beige on her plate was tolerable – porridge, toast, potatoes, Uncle Ben’s rice and Heinz cream of mushroom soup. But carrots and tomatoes and even tinned peas screamed at her and she tossed them into the bin. Had she been able to watch black and white television she would have done so. She sat alone at night with the TV sound switch on mute, just to get the illusion that something was moving in the house. She had turned her armchair to the side, so she wasn’t following a programme at all, but simply got some comfort from the flicker of the images in the corner of her eye.

The day after the funeral she had opened his clothes cupboard and nearly fainted. A pungent scent escaped from it, a mixture of smells she had never noticed while he was alive – Old Spice Aftershave she had foisted on him, thought now she could not recall whether he had ever used it, Imperial Leather soap, the scent of wool that had once been wet, the acrid smell of the log fire, caught somewhere in the synthetic fibres of his jumper imbued with his perspiration – talcum powder, what was that doing there? – and a trace of pipe tobacco which he only ever sucked on during summer Sundays, after lunch in the presence of rare visitors when they sat in the garden. She suddenly found the mixture of odours left behind by the man who was no more unbearable.

The next day she summoned Lawrence and asked him to take all his father’s clothes to the nearby charity shop. The only items she had kept, hidden from her son, was a pair of tan brogues, a tweed jacket, and the bow tie. None of these he had worn more than twice.

The following week she bought a pair of rust- red corduroy trousers. These were the clothes she had wanted him to wear, the style she now wanted to remember him by. She locked the new cords in with the jacket and brogues, to season as salmon does in a smoke house.

She brought the little red box with the bow tie to her nose, inhaled. It didn’t even smell of him, he had not worn it often enough, but somehow the butterfly shape of it sitting on the satin lining of the box, smiling back at her, was everything he could have been.

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