Here's a wee short story to see out 2010. Thank you for reading and putting up with my endless blathering, and I wish you all a froody and fabulous New Year!
The Chicken Machine
By Jennifer Williams
The winter that the Chicken Machine told me what was what, we were visiting my cousin Michael. He was sick again.
They lived in a tiny seaside town and we normally went to visit them in the summer when the place was thrumming with holiday makers carting windbreaks down on to the sand, eating ice-creams and rattling buckets and spades. It was one of my favourite places, or at least the fun fair was. I spent most of those summer holidays hiding out in the amusements, or the slots as we called them, where I changed up all my pocket money into bags of smelly two and ten pence pieces. There were tuppeny pushdowns, with jerky outcrops of shiny plastic relentlessly pushing coins towards a gap they never quite reached; fruit machines lit up like Christmas trees; a teddy machine with a big silver claw that didn’t quite have the grip it promised; even the first video games like Space Invaders, Out Run and Wonderboy. And there was the Chicken Machine.
But December was very much out of season, and the fun fair and the slots were cold and dead when we arrived. I descended into a three day sulk in protest.
My cousin and I were both eight that year, but he looked half my age as he lay sunken into his bedclothes. His face was like a washcloth, crumpled and pale on his pillow. The room smelt of stale sweat and vomit, but my aunt chattered away like all was well. She was filled up with it; his symptoms, which doctor said what, the specialist they would see, the state of his bowels. There was a brittle cheerfulness to her that found no response in my mother, whose face was dark and full of worry when she looked at her tiny nephew.
“Lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea,” my Aunt continued brightly. My uncle stood in the corner without speaking, like a piece of furniture. He didn’t look at any of us. Michael coughed weakly and my Aunt picked up a bowl of potpourri from the window sill. My Aunt was very keen on potpourri and made her own, so that the entire house was dotted with different sized bowls and small fabric pouches full of dried flowers. The scent of lavender and musk was everywhere in that place, but it did a poor job of covering up the smell of sick that clawed at the back of my throat.
“Think I’d better go freshen this up,” said my Aunt, smiling.
It was considered unhealthy for me to hang around the house so I was turned out to wander the sea front. It seems strange to say that now, but even in those days, which were not so long ago, we found it much easier to take our eyes off our children.
I walked down to the fun fair. The wind coming in off the winter sea was a terrible fierce thing, slicing right through my hat and anorak, but the sky had been polished clean. It was a silver day, a gun metal grey afternoon. The slots had their shutters down and the neon sign had been turned off, but someone had left the Chicken Machine outside. That was strange.
The Chicken Machine was one of my favourite things about the amusements. It consisted of a tall glass box with a wooden frame, an idyllic countryside scene of rolling hills and farmhouses painted on the glass. Behind it sat the chicken on a mountain of plastic eggs. The chicken itself was a moth eaten, mildly alarming looking puppet thing with orange and yellow feathers and big cartoony glass eyes. When you put twenty pence into the slot it would turn around slowly whilst a jaunty tune played. The chicken would cluck a few times and then one of the two-tone plastic eggs would drop down into the hole by the slot. Simply by giving your cash, you had won a prize!
The contents of the eggs didn’t vary all that much. Usually it would be a garish plastic ring that I could pretend had magical powers for the morning, or a toy soldier. Once it had contained a tiny rubber crocodile, the greatest of all prizes and the one I still hoped might turn up again one day. Even I had to admit it was mostly rubbish though, and it drove my Dad crazy that I continued to waste my money on it, but really it was the anticipation of what the prize might be that kept me coming back for more. After all, you always need more rubber crocodiles in your life.
As I approached the Chicken Machine, I noticed that had also been left on, glowing softly like a lamp against the blue shutters. I turned and looked around. The promenade was almost deserted. A man was walking his dog down on the beach and some older kids were passing a can back and forth further up the road, but there was no one around me, and no one in the fair ground to explain why the machine hadn’t been taken inside for the winter, along with the Postman Pat ride I was too big for now.
Seizing the opportunity I shoved my hands deep into my pockets and came up with three twenty pence pieces. Normally I would ration these out for the other games in the arcade, but now the Chicken Machine was my only entertainment there was no need to do that. I savoured the brief thrill of a reckless attitude towards money and pushed the first coin in. Immediately the chicken lurched into life. Without the background cacophony of the other slot machines the music was shockingly loud, and I could hear the low screech of the chicken turning on its rusty spike. I took a couple of steps backwards, suddenly unaccountably guilty, and certain someone would now be approaching to tell me off. You don’t get to play with Chicken Machines in the winter, everyone knows that.
But no one came. The kids on the corner had disappeared, and the man with the dog didn’t even look over. The music stopped at the same moment I let out a sigh of relief, and an egg rattled into the hole, followed swiftly by two more. The sudden influx of eggs overloaded the hatch and they scattered onto the floor by my feet.
The bloody thing must be broken, I thought, that’s why they left it out, but inside I was jubilant. Three prizes for twenty pee? Even my dad couldn’t complain about that.
I scooped the eggs up off the ground and when I was back on my feet I noticed that the Chicken Machine had turned itself off again, and now stood as cold and dark as the rest of the arcade.
“Totally broken,” I muttered, and sat on the concrete path looking out to sea, ready to open my bounty. The first egg was constructed of two rounded pieces of plastic, one pale green and the other pale yellow. I turned it over in my fingers, enjoying the moment of not knowing for a little longer. It didn’t rattle like they normally did. Eventually I took it between my thumb and forefinger and pinched hard, causing the two pieces to pop apart. A gritty white powder burst forth, covering my hands and gathering in the crotch of my jeans. It was so unexpected that I think I cried out a little.
I looked at my hands, and then inside the remains of the egg. The white substance, which felt a little like sand, was gathered up into little mounds inside. There was so much of it.
In an act of breathless eight year old stupidity, I touched the end of my tongue to the rough grains and grimaced.
The machine really was broken then. In my confused mind, I imagined all the toys and trinkets inside the eggs growing so old they turned to dust and salt. It seemed to me with my child’s perception of time that it was quite possible for such a thing to happen, during the endless weeks between summer and winter.
I put the egg pieces on the ground and brushed the salt off my trousers. The second egg was pale pink on one end, and pale blue on the other, and this time it did rattle in a dry, bristly sort of way. My mind was briefly filled with images of dried spiders and earwigs but I popped it open anyway.
A handful of small dried brown things fell out, accompanied by a powerful waft of flowery scent that flew right up my nose and tickled it. Peering at the pieces a little closer I saw that they were made up of leaves and petals, even a tiny slice of hard orange, and a small pine cone. Potpourri, exactly like my Aunt made. It made me feel uneasy for some reason so I threw it down onto the ground and slapped my hands together, trying to get the whispery dead feel of it off my fingers.
I paused before opening the third egg. It felt heavier than the others, more solid even. One side of the plastic casing was white and the other was orange. The man on the beach was nearly out of sight by now, the tiny bounding shape of his dog close to the surf, and above the December sea there were darker clouds coming in. A winter storm, maybe. I should get back indoors soon.
Without another thought I snapped open the last egg, and immediately shot up in disgust, scraping my jacket against the wall behind me. My hands were wet with crimson fluid, shockingly bright in the middle of that grey day. I rubbed them fiercely against the bricks making a low, sick sound in the back of my throat. The blood was warm.
The empty shells by my feet were slick and red.
When I’d got my head together a bit I ran across the road and down to the sea, and washed my hands in the salty water. Waves came in and soaked my trainers and the bottoms of my jeans but I didn’t stop until my hands were clean and numb.
Back in the house I couldn’t stop thinking about the Chicken Machine. The salt, the leaves, the blood. They sat in my mind like flares, or flags, bright and impossible to ignore. Like a warning.
In the evening my mother and I went up to Michael’s room to sit with him while he had his dinner. My Aunt had made casserole for us, but my cousin had a special restricted diet. With a calm expression she spooned thin milky gruel into his slack mouth, while Michael made the occasional weak protest. We sat in uncomfortable wooden chairs next to his bed and my mother spoke to Michael in a low voice, talking of small things; what was on the telly, his favourite football team, the weather. And as I watched his lips turn down with each spoonful of food, I saw the eggs again. The salt, the blood and the lavender. And suddenly I knew.
Without announcing my intentions, I stood up and took the bowl from my Aunt, too quickly for her to stop me. I tipped it up to my lips and took a big gulp, ignoring the fact that it was a little too hot, and immediately spat it back out again.
“Salt,” I said.
“Ben, what on earth...?” My mother was on her feet, her face tight with embarrassment.
“Taste it, Mum.”
I passed her the bowl, and finally my Aunt reacted by taking a swipe at it but my Mother already had it in her hands. She must have seen something in my face because instead of telling me off, my Mother bent her head to the bowl and took a sip. Her face screwed up in distaste and confusion.
“Martha?” she said to my Aunt, who was now standing very still, the spoon still clutched in one fist. “There’s so much salt in this Martha, so much...”
“There’s more,” I said, and with the knowledge dropped chilly and intact straight into my brain, I knelt down on the floor and reached under the bed. The washing bowl was exactly where I had known it would be. Inside it was a number of syringes, mostly clean but a few still sticky in places. There were bloody tissues in there too.
My Mother pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes as wide and white as eggs.
“Martha, what have you been doing?”
We never went back to Michael’s house, not on holiday anyway. There were questions and hospitals and police involved, and my Aunt didn’t see Michael for a very long time. His body, they said, had been badly damaged on the inside thanks to months of salt poisoning and he might not ever be completely better. My uncle took on care of him, once it was proven he’d had nothing to do with the salt, and moved far away from the seaside down with its slots and funfair.
I went back there to look for the Chicken Machine but it was gone, a small square of cleaner pavement where it had once stood. And perhaps that was for the best. I’d lost my fascination with rubber crocodiles anyway.
Gone but never forgotten
1 month ago