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Cusco told Lionel he’d killed chickens before. He told him you cut off the chicken’s head with a knife or an axe – “A small axe,” he’d said, when Lionel had laughed at the thought of Cusco trying to bring down an axe with enough accuracy to sever a chicken’s neck.
Lionel climbed out of the armchair for the first time since dinner, a spray of peanut shells falling from the creases in his trousers. He emptied his beer and began to ape Cusco’s skinny body. He picked up an empty Pringles tube to act as an axe and brought it up over his head, pretending to shake. When he brought it down on the imaginary bird, he overturned the ashtray on the arm of his chair and the grey dust floated down and stuck to the bacon fat on an abandoned dinner plate, streaked where he’d licked it clean.
[private]“Oi!” shouted Cusco, poking the air, “Oi. Oi. Just listen,” he said, but Lionel was repeating the mime, pretending to sharpen
the axe’s imaginary blade. “Oi, Li, right,” said Cusco, “Listen. Listen, right. Don’t bother. Don’t bother, right. Listen.” “Ssh…” said Lionel, pausing in his imaginary slaughter. “Shut up! Ewan!” he said, pointing upwards.
“Just let me tell you,” said Cusco, more quietly. “It’s because they don’t die if you break their necks – they just run around, like. So you have to cut their heads off. To sever the tubes to the brain.” He tapped the thin hair above his temple. “The tubes.”
Lionel leaned on the door, slightly breathless. He scratched his beard and pulled down his polo shirt, which had ridden up to expose the lower curve of his white belly.
“It’d die if you twisted its head. I killed a rabbit once,” he said, feeling proud, “it had myxomatosis …” He recalled its gummy
blue eyes, the ridiculously soft fur, its quivering, and its light, weary breathing. “I just pulled and twisted.”
“Chickens ain’t rabbits,” said Cusco. Lionel frowned and tried to remember if he’d seen a chicken being killed, even on telly, but he couldn’t. But he remembered the rabbit struggling in his hands after he’d broken its neck; throwing it into the undergrowth, not knowing if it was dead. He remembered walking home with his hands splayed open, so that he’d remember to wash them before he rubbed his face, or put his fingers in his mouth.
“Maybe we should just do it now?” said Lionel. “Get it over with.”
“What about the boy?” said Cusco.
Lionel frowned and lifted the empty Pringles tube up to his face and inhaled the air from the oniony interior. That morning Lionel had come down the narrow stairs heavily, wearing his underpants, holding an old t-shirt in front of his hard-on, because the kitchen window looked straight onto the lane. He sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the phone receiver, lying on its side. He rubbed his eyes and closed them for a second. The back door was open and a slight breeze dried the sweat on his back: it was pleasantly cool – a breeze that carried with it the smell of water on plants, earth and pollen.
He picked up the phone without opening his eyes. “Hello.”
“For Christ’s sake, Lionel!” said Anna. “I’ve been waiting for ten minutes. I was shouting for Cusco – he wouldn’t pick it up again.”
Lionel peered into the living room. “He’s buggered off.”
“Does he live there now?”
“No – I didn’t even know he’d stayed. I was in bed.”
“I was awake,” he said, “I was reading.”
“What were you reading?”
“On the Road.”
“You already read that. That’s what you always say you’re reading.”
“I’m reading it again.”
His wife paused. “Look, Ruby’s ill.”
“I don’t want a fight about it. She’s sick.”
“Don’t do this.”
“I’m not doing anything, Lionel. It’s a long drive and …”
“It’s not a long drive – it’s London.”
“Bishop’s Wood is not London. Your street doesn’t have streetlights.”
“You’re wrong. We Googled it.”
“You don’t have the internet, Lionel. And the point is, it’s an hour’s drive in good traffic.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” He stood up and walked around the kitchen table, underneath the long coiled wire of the phone. “We’re not meant to be those people. I’ve got everything ready.” He went to pick out a glass from the washing-up bowl, but there was a slug floating green and bloated on the surface of the dirty water.
“Let me finish,” said Anna, “I’m still coming.”
“No, she’s going to stay with mum, but I’m bringing Ewan.”
He saw his son’s wan face looking fearfully into the cottage, staring mournfully at the curtain that served as the toilet door, pushing his fork gingerly into a saveloy until the red skin popped and he dropped it with a start. He saw the white light on Ewan’s pale skin, as he sat with his book at the living room window waiting for Anna to come and pick them up, looking up every time a car crawled down the lane.
Lionel bent and drank some water from the tap.
“Are you in the toilet?”
“No, I’m getting some water.”
“We’ll be there at four.”
“Can I speak to Ruby?”
“No, she’s already at mum’s.”
“Oh,” said Lionel. He picked the slug out of the water with a knife, but as he lifted it, it slipped off and fell to the floor.
“Is Cusco going to be there?”
“What if he is?” said Lionel, sitting down again.
“Well is he?”
“I don’t know – he doesn’t live here.”
Anna sighed. “I’ll see you at four.”
When Anna arrived, Cusco was in the lane, trying to hook an old firework shell out of the thatch with a long bamboo cane. Lionel was sitting on a painted wooden chair beside the door, with a cigarette, picking at the white-painted clay wall of the cottage.
Anna got out first, and opened the car door for Ewan, who slipped out, holding a thick hardback book with both hands. He was wearing a white linen shirt, which his small body was slightly lost in, khaki trousers and sandals. Despite the layers of pale tones, and his thin mousey hair, the skin of his feet beneath the straps still shone out particularly white, almost blue. Anna shaded her eyes with her hands and said, “It’s like Mexico.”
“Or … I don’t know – I just meant … You sitting on the lane. The wall and … I don’t know.”
Lionel didn’t understand what she meant, but he laughed to make her feel better. He stood up to embrace her. She managed to move her head in time for his lips to meet the skin just behind her ear.
“How are you?” she said, holding him back firmly, as if to get a better look at him.
“It’s a sunny day!” he said.
He turned to his son and kissed him, then wrapped himself around him. It was uncomfortable – he was wearing shorts and his bare knee was pushing down on some hard stones, and Ewan’s book was digging into his chest. But the boy gave way in his arms and smelled clean and sweet, and although Ruby would have made everything easier, made everyone more relaxed, he was glad that his son was there – very glad.
“You remember Cusco,” said Lionel, standing, keeping his hand on his son’s back.
“Yes,” said Ewan.
“Hi,” said Cusco, turning from his task.
“Hi Cusco,” said Anna. “You still in the village then?” It sounded crueller than intended.
“Yeah, at Mum’s. Does my laundry, so …” He looked down at the ground, his hand on his hip, the other still on the bamboo cane. “… can’t complain.” Anna nodded. “New car?” he said, squinting, then closing one eye.
“It is actually. Well, not new. New for me. It’s second-hand.”
“What is it, then?”
“Is it?” said Anna, turning and looking at it. “Well,” she said, “I suppose I’ll leave you boys to it.” She bent down and kissed Ewan, then pulled him close and whispered something in his ear. She looked over at Lionel and smiled as she stood up. He looked at the tiny scar where she used to wear a lip ring. He wanted to grab her and say, we still laugh, don’t we? We’re still great at being with each other, aren’t we? Even when we’re not together? But he said nothing. Just put his hand on Ewan’s back and watched her perform a laboured three-point turn in the narrow lane and drive away.
“Hey,” said Lionel, “me and Cusco thought we’d build a run for your chickens today. What do you think? I’ve put out a rug under the yew, so you can sit in the shade.” When they’d last visited Ruby had goaded Ewan into helping put up a rope swing and he’d got hives and thrown up from being in the sun too long.
“OK,” said Ewan. “Can I read my book?”
“You can do whatever you want,” said Lionel. “It’s your weekend.”
Cusco sat on the roll of chicken wire and Lionel leant against the warm green plastic of the water butt, holding a hammer, an unopened bag of wood staples by his feet. Cusco was rolling two cigarettes and Lionel was looking over at his son, reading his book, shaded by the yew. Ewan was briefly bothered by an insect, which he killed with a large bottle of aerosol insecticide that Lionel had bought him. His eye continued to twitch nervously for a few seconds, but then settled as he went on reading.
Cusco licked the edge of the Rizla. “He looks sick.”
“That’s what he looks like,” said Lionel.
“No, the chuck.”
Lionel looked over at the small chicken run they were planning on extending. There were two brown hens – Ruby’s and Ewan’s. One was pecking at the ground, the other was climbing slowly back into the hutch.
“What sort of sick?”
They opened the lid and watched the chicken try and scramble onto its roost. It moved crookedly across the hay, then slipped and remained on the base of the hutch, settling down noiselessly.
“Is it lice?” said Lionel.
“Look at its eye.”
Lionel knelt down. One of the chicken’s eyes was swollen and closed up – the size of a pea, and as shiny.
“Cancer,” said Cusco. “It’s a goner, mate.” He stood up, his thin shadow falling across the bird. “A goner.”
Lionel looked up at his son, beneath the yew, distorted by a shimmer of heat rising from an upturned wheelbarrow. “What if it dies?”
“Chickens die, mate,” said Cusco.
“What if it dies while Ewan’s here?”
“He’s gotta learn.” Cusco looked up at the boy. Ewan had settled back into reading again – a breeze lifted his soft fringe. “Maybe it’d be, I dunno, good for him.”
Lionel looked up out of the window. There was blue there; the dawn was coming. He took the tube of Pringles away from his face – it left a circle of fine crumbs on his beard.
“I don’t think he’d like it,” he said.
“You’re his dad. It’s not whether he’d like it – it’s whether it’s good for him.”
“How’s it good for him?”
“He’s a bit …” Cusco shrugged.
“A bit what?”
“Just a bit nancy.”
“Screw you.” said Lionel. He threw down the tube. It made a popping sound as it bounced off the thin rug.
He stumbled out of the back door, up into the garden. It was lighter than he’d expected – the high Leylandii hedge still black, but the long grass, the stout brick wall and the upturned wheelbarrow a verdant purple hue. He fell down onto the lawn and rolled on his back – the grass was wet and cold and smelled good. The sky was dark in the centre, and he could still see a few stars and the rhythmic blink, blink of a plane.
He’d only lived with them for four years, before Anna said she’d have to leave. He didn’t blame her. And he didn’t mind if his son was a nancy, or that Ruby was a tomboy, but he minded if it was his fault. If his son would have been braver, would have been stronger, if he’d held on. Hadn’t just let go. And now they were growing up back to front, weren’t they? He’d thought loving them and letting them see how much he loved them would be enough, but maybe it wasn’t. He never did anything: he never did anything about anything.
The birds were singing – so loud, he wondered how he didn’t wake when he slept with the window open. Was it only in summer that they were this loud, he thought, and closed his eyes.
When he woke it was hot. He sat forward and moved his tongue around to wet his mouth. He looked up at his son’s room. He imagined him under the yew tree, saw the soft fringe lifting, the white skin of his feet, the soft bow of his sad lips.
He rolled forward, went into the house and up the stairs. Ewan’s room was empty, the bed made.
He went back downstairs. Ewan had made himself breakfast: his plate sat neatly rinsed by the sink, with the rest of the washing up, also cleaned and dried. He turned into the living room – Cusco was asleep on the sofa and Ewan was sitting by the window, reading his book, the bright light making the down on his cheeks shine white. He looked up and smiled.
“We’ve got to sort out your chicken.”
“My chicken?” said Ewan.
“We’ve got to sort out your chicken. It’s ill.”
Lionel went forward and took Ewan by the wrist. “Come on,” he said. He pulled him to his feet and kicked Cusco in the
leg. Cusco swore and curled up.
“Come on,” said Lionel. “You need to help. The chicken.”
Cusco grumbled and moved off the sofa.
They went into the garden and Lionel opened the coop. They looked down at the birds. Lionel realised he was still holding Ewan’s wrist tightly and let it go. He put his hand gently on his shoulder.
“What’s wrong with her?” said Ewan.
“Cancer,” said Cusco.
“We don’t know it’s cancer,” said Lionel.
“It’s a goner,” said Cusco.
“What are we going to do?” said Ewan.
“We’ve got to sort it out, Ewan,” said Lionel.
“Kill it,” said Cusco.
Ewan looked up at Cusco and back at Lionel. Lionel looked down at his son, at his blue eyes – he was scared the boy might cry. “We’ve just got to get it over with,” he said.
Lionel picked up the chicken. It didn’t struggle. It barely moved, except to tilt its head a little, as if it had heard its name being called. He looked around for something to lay it on. There was only the upturned wheelbarrow, so he knelt down beside it, and laid the chicken on its side.
“The axe,” he said to Cusco. “In the woodpile.”
“I ain’t doing it,” said Cusco.
“You’ve done it before,” said Lionel. “Come on, this wheelbarrow’s hot. Come on!”
Cusco looked confused, but he turned and went to the woodpile. Lionel and Ewan watched him struggling to pull the little wood axe out of a log.
Cusco turned and shouted, “Should we do it on a log?”
“Just hurry up,” said Lionel, afraid that Ewan might run away, afraid that the chicken might die before they killed it, afraid that he would lose his nerve and let go of the chicken in front of his son.
Cusco ran back towards them and gave the axe to Ewan. The boy took it and held it with two hands, away from his body.
“Don’t give it to Ewan!” shouted Lionel. The chicken suddenly came to life and almost struggled free. Lionel pulled it back by its legs, holding them down with one hand, the head with the other. He could feel the shiny pea-sized tumour rubbing against the palm of his hand, and the hard beak nibbling desperately at his tight-packed fingers.
“Do it yourself!”
“He can do it,” said Cusco.
Lionel looked up at Ewan. He was shaking – he’s going to cry, thought Lionel. He’s going to cry and that’s all right, he thought. “Ewan, you don’t have to do it. Don’t worry. Cusco, come and take the chicken.”
“I ain’t touching it – it’s minging.”
“Ewan, just let me …” and then Ewan launched himself forward and brought the axe down hard – it hit the metal wheelbarrow with a crack, metallic and hollow, like gunshot. A streak of hot blood sprayed up Lionel’s face. He screamed and struggled backwards. His son brought up the axe again.
“Ewan!” shouted Lionel and let go altogether as the boy began to strike at the bird again and again – bang, bang, bang. Feathers began to fall down around him; and blood – he could smell it and taste it in his mouth. He tried to scramble to his feet, to avoid the axe, and then it stopped.
Cusco was crouched on the ground with his arms over his head. He emitted a light, high whine. The bird on the wheelbarrow was unrecognisable – a mess of feather, flesh and bone, except for its yellow beak, which was still hideously intact, the sharp tongue protruding slightly. Ewan stood in front of the wheelbarrow, the axe still held in both hands, breathing heavily. His pale shirt was covered in blood – it was on the axe as well, sprayed up his arms. It was in his soft hair and on his face. He looked up at his father and smiled comfortingly.
“Do you think I hurt it?” he said.
Lionel looked down at the chicken and slowly shook his head.
Blood, which had pooled at the sharp edge of the blade, began to drip onto the steel of the wheelbarrow, and then they heard shouting.
“Lionel! Lionel! Ewan!”
Anna was in the house. Ewan and Lionel turned and they stared at the open back door together, knowing she would come.[/private]