‘Chicken Boy’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The seagull watches the children crawling up the abandoned quarry. If you held a lens up to the sun, you could burn their tiny bodies to cinders. One of the children stops. Shielding her eyes against the sun, she looks up. The seagull’s head tilts. Its beak opens impossibly wide. Uhhhhh, uhhhh owwwww. Its beak snaps shut.
‘It’s laughing at us. I hate it.’ David picks up a stone and chucks it at the seagull.
‘You have to throw it up higher if you want to hit it.’ Kate watches David’s stone vanish into nothingness at the bottom of the cliff.
David pulls down his hat. ‘I can’t get sunburnt. Mum says I’ve got beautiful skin.’
‘Maybe you’ve hit one of those old chutes.’ Kate looks down at the rusty equipment at the bottom of the quarry.
‘It’s too far down to see.’ Sophie peers over the side.
‘Mum says the sun here is strange,’ David says. ‘She doesn’t like this sun. It’s different to the sun back home.’
‘You haven’t told her we’re here, have you?’
‘No, she’d kill me.’
‘Are there two suns then? One sun that’s only for us and another one for the people on the other side of the world?’ Sophie dangles her legs over the edge of the cliff.
‘No, there’s just one; otherwise we’d all burn to death. There are other suns out there, but they’re for planets we can’t see.’ Kate draws a circle in the dirt.
‘David, if you had to choose, which would you rather be, a seagull or a person?’
‘What are the other choices?’
‘None. You can only pick one of them.’
Kate looks down. A white car parks on the roadside and a man gets out. She looks up at the sky. High above them, seagulls float like specks of white dust.
David is Kate’s best friend. David’s from overseas somewhere. Him and Kate both have blond hair and secretive natures. What do they talk about? Space travel, ghosts and interesting things. Sophie wants to play with them. She’s annoying. Kate and David go to his house after school. David’s mother is curled up on the sofa crying, with her hands over her ears. She hates the wind.
‘It’s terrible. That sound the wind is making. I can’t bear it. It’s not like the wind back home. It’s different. Why does it howl like this? How can you stand it?’
‘I love it.’ Kate waits to see what David will do about his mother.
David starts rocking on his feet. His father comes in and just stands there looking at David’s mother. David starts rocking faster. His father whacks him.
‘Stop it, just stop it.’
At Kate’s house, David pulls out the dress-up basket from under her bed. It’s filled with her mother’s old dresses. There are bits of jewellery with broken clasps as well as containers of crumbling eye shadow, shoes with worn down heels and tubes of broken lipsticks. Kate only ever plays dress-ups with David. It’s what he likes. Pulling on one of her mother’s dresses he poses in front of the mirror. He unrolls the broken lipstick and applies it to his lips.
‘Do I look like a girl? Mum says I’ve got beautiful skin.’
‘If your hair was long you would.’
They stomp around Kate’s bedroom in high-heeled shoes. Kate cannot see the point of this game. They take off their shoes and jump in the flax bushes behind Kate’s house. David is wearing a little hat with a veil attached. Kate pulls it off his head and they toss it to each other like a frisbee. They roll around on top of each other in their long dresses.
Kate feels David suddenly freeze underneath her. She looks over her shoulder. His father is standing motionless, watching them, his body coiled with rage.
‘Get that dress off.’
‘We were just playing. That’s all.’ Kate tries to unzip David’s dress, but her hands are shaking.
His father rips the dress off him. He grabs David around the back of his neck and hauls him down the path. David is banned from seeing her for a week. They are told never to play dress-ups again. Kate doesn’t mind, it was a boring game anyway.
David and Kate run along the beach. An old lady walking a dog stops them.
‘You adorable little dolls. You could marry each other when you grow up. You could kiss and make little babies.’ She pinches Kate’s cheek.
The old lady has one strange eye. It doesn’t go in the same direction as the other one. Her eyes are like a compass gone wrong. Kate is confused by which eye is her real one. It’s disorientating. How do you tell?
There are hairs coming out of her chin. They hide from the old lady and watch her walk past. The dog doesn’t look right in the head either. It’s got a limp and is wearing a jacket with a Scottish design.
‘She’s got a weird eye. How are you supposed to tell which one is the one to look at? Before she goes out she should get a felt pen and put a circle around the eye that’s the real one. Then people would know.’
‘I think it’s called a lazy eye,’ David says. ‘My auntie back home knows someone with an eye like that.’
‘It’s called a lazy eye because they are too lazy to tell you which eye you should look at.’ Kate is still furious with the old lady.
‘Yeah, she’s so lazy she leaves it up to us to figure it out.’
‘What would you rather have David, a lazy eye or a limp?’
‘What are the other choices?’
‘I don’t know,’ David says.
‘I’d rather have a lazy eye. A limp means that you can’t run fast enough to get away from things. If I had a lazy eye I would just walk up to people and say, this is the eye you have to look at. This one here, and I’d point at it. If I couldn’t be bothered then I’d just draw a little arrow above my eyebrow, so they’d know.’
‘It would be strange.’
‘It’s better than all that mucking around trying to figure out which eye to look at and it would mean people would be grateful to you. They’d know where they stand. You can just get on with the conversation. I hate that lazy old woman with her lazy eye. If you ever try and kiss me, I’ll punch your head in.’
‘You have a freckle on your lip.’ David touches her face with his finger. He moves his face close to hers. She punches him in the face. He doesn’t cry, not like he does at school.
David’s teacher calls his parents. He is not like other boys and they need to do something about it, like put him into Boy Scouts, or something. His teacher blames it on his friendship with Kate. They’re too close and Kate is turning him into a girl. He should make friends with other boys. He is not allowed to play with her anymore. The summer is long and hot, and they are lonely without each other.
Kate decides she will toughen him up, to make him like a real boy. Then they’ll be allowed to be friends again. She shoves the dress-up box in the bottom of her closet. Lying in bed at night she starts compiling Feats of Strength. She sneaks over to his house when his parents are out and explains her plan.
‘These are the things you have to do, but don’t worry because I’m thinking of others. You’ve got to skateboard down the steepest street. I’ve done it myself. I smashed into a car and my leg swelled up, but it can be done. You also have to cut yourself with a knife and climb to the top of the quarry with me.’
A giant has stuck a knife into the hill and sliced out a chunk of it. What lies underneath is now exposed. Gorse bushes cling to its surface. Huge landslides of rocks have broken away from the cliff face and spilt out, pooling at the base. They are not allowed to play in the abandoned quarry. There used to be drilling, the rhythmic thud of the machinery and huge trucks that roared past carrying their loads of gravel. The ground shook under your feet. When it stopped there was nothing but the sound of the waves over the road.
‘I’ve been praying for this day, when it would all stop,’ a neighbour had said.
So far, David has failed every single one of her Feats of Strength. He refuses to get on her skateboard saying the wheels look wobbly.
‘They’re supposed to be,’ Kate tells him, but he stalks off home.
The next day in her bedroom she closes the curtains and passes him the knife. Sophie watches. David examines the blade carefully and points out a spot of rust on it.
‘I could die of tetanus.’ He hands the knife back to her. They are sitting on her bedroom floor. Lowering his back against the wall he stretches out his legs and feels around with his feet, for the dress-up box under her bed.
‘It’s gone,’ Kate says. She wipes the knife on her tee shirt. ‘I’ve got the rust off it now. Just try again. Watch me.’
She moves the blade up her arm and a thin line of blood appears. She wipes her finger on it, smearing the beads of blood.
‘No.’ David pushes the knife away.
Sophie cries. Kate decides that since Sophie’s so young she’ll let her off this once.
‘You don’t have to cut yourself,’ she tells her.
Sophie sticks the blade into her thin little wrist anyway. She looks up at Kate.
‘You can say no to people sometimes,’ Kate says.
‘That’s what you say Kate, but how come we always have to do what you want all the time?’ David takes the knife off Sophie.
‘Give it back. It’s mine.’ Kate grabs it off him.
‘You’re so gonna die of tetanus, like a dog, Sophie. You’ll foam at the mouth and someone’ll come along with a big gun. Then they’ll shoot you dead,’ David shudders.
‘I don’t wanna die,’ Sophie wails.
‘He’s talking bullshit. I know all about this stuff. He means rabies anyway. Can you see any foam coming out of my mouth?’ Kate bares her teeth at Sophie.
David turns his head away.
‘Are you ever scared of your father, Kate?’
‘Of course not. We get on really well and he can beat up anyone. Just tell me a name and I’ll tell you if he can beat them up. Go on. Are you scared of yours?’
‘No.’ He pulls his legs up to his chest and starts rocking.
They meet at the quarry in the late afternoon. They squeeze their bodies around the huge pieces of rusting machinery. There are long metal chutes with ladders that run along the sides of them. Like enormous grey snakes they sit with their metallic mouths gaping open, in front of hills of gravel. There is a steel wheel, as big as the ones in a fairground. It has serrated edges that you could hang on to, if you were to climb it. This would be a good test. Kate looks up at it, calculating.
There is a boarded-up building at the entrance to the quarry. The three of them stare at the lopsided sign with respect. Administration Office. The building is surrounded by a wire-netting fence with holes in it. Kate pulls Sophie through a gap in the fence. David is reluctant.
‘If you don’t come with us I won’t be your friend anymore,’ Kate tells him.
They climb into the building through a window. Inside, the orange curtains are drawn. It smells funny. Kate opens the metal filing cabinets and pulls out manila folders. David and Sophie crane over Kate’s shoulder as she reads out incomprehensible words on yellowing paper. Stock, Inventory and Wages.
‘What does it mean?’ Sophie makes a grab for the sheet.
‘It means things that only I know about, but I am not going to tell you.’ Kate slams the drawer shut. She folds up the piece of paper and puts it in her pocket.
‘Why can’t I see what’s in it?’ David asks.
Kate stands with her back against the cabinet. There might be money left in one of the drawers and she wants to keep it for herself.
It is so exciting that they all have an overwhelming desire to shit. There’s an old toilet that doesn’t flush. It stinks. The toilet bowl is yellow, and it’s stuffed with toilet paper. Kate tries to flush it, but no water comes out. They wipe their bottoms with the inventory lists and spit on their hands to clean them. In another room there’s an old mattress. They practise their forward rolls on it.
One day they are late in leaving. They hear car engines and suddenly the door is smashed open. The room fills with teenagers. They’re the older brothers of some kids in the street. The situation is awkward. The mentally ill girl is with them. Her name is Louise. It’s a stupid name. Kate is glad her parents didn’t name her Louise.
David shrieks. He sounds girlish. Kate kicks him violently. Sophie holds on to her hand. There are six teenage boys, plus Louise, who doesn’t count. They put their cans of beer down. The boys are strangely polite.
‘So, how are you?’ Jayden asks, as he rolls a joint.
Louise comes across the room and sits next to Kate, putting her face up real close.
‘I love him. We’re going to get married.’
‘Him.’ She points at Jayden.
Jayden rolls his eyes and looks at Kate. She doesn’t have an opinion. He is only a few years older than her, but he’s already been kicked out of school. He asks Kate to go to a dance with him. His friend is going to sneak him into his school ball. Louise screams.
‘That one,’ Jayden says, pointing at a fat boy with ginger hair.
‘Yeah.’ The fat ginger haired boy raises his can.
‘I don’t want to go with you,’ Kate says.
Jayden shrugs and points at Sophie, ‘What about her then?’
‘She’s only nine.’
‘Okay, but she’s alright though.’
‘She’s too young.’ Kate glares at him.
‘I love him. So you can’t have him.’ Louise punches Kate weakly. She is aiming for Kate’s head but misses. Louise places her arm around Kate’s shoulder. She is drinking a can of beer and she breathes on Kate with her sloppy lips. Kate can see Louise’s fat stomach under her tee shirt. She has ugly hair.
‘I don’t want him anyway.’ Kate pushes her off.
Louise crawls across the room on her hands and knees. She puts her head on Jayden’s knees. She looks up at him like a dog would.
‘I’m taking them up to the top of the quarry tomorrow,’ Kate tells Jayden.
‘What, even him?’ Jayden points his cigarette at David.
‘I could get up there. It would be real easy.’ Jayden drags on his cigarette.
‘We might be buried alive any minute. Like those avalanches in Switzerland where people die because they get suffocated by snow, except we’d be killed by piles of stones.’
‘I’ve never touched snow.’
‘Neither have I.’
‘Yeah, but I could climb up that cliff no sweat. You should go home now.’
Jayden picks up a can of beer. He signals to the other boys. They all stand up. He looks at Louise and she jumps to her feet. Kate thinks of a pregnant cat she saw once. It was very young. Its teats swung from side to side, but it moved along the gutter with surprising speed. Jayden opens the door of the room with the mattress. He walks through. The other boys pick up their cans and follow him. They take Louise in with them.
‘Just go home,’ he calls out.
Jayden shuts the door.
They are halfway up the cliff face.
‘Can we go back down yet? I want to wee.’ David clutches the front of his shorts.
‘Wait until we get up to that big bit at the top. You can go behind a rock or something. You’re not trying to chicken out, are you? If you are then we can’t be friends. You have to pass this test.’
‘But there’s nothing to hold on to. The rocks could come down and bury us alive. If Mum finds out I’m here she’ll kill me. What about my skin. Can’t we just stop for a minute?’ David looks up as some of the stones fall on him.
‘If you make it to the top I’ll play dress-ups with you, when we go home.’
‘I can’t,’ he says.
Kate can see he is tempted.
‘You have to do what she says.’ Sophie hauls herself up on her stomach.
‘Why do we always have to do what Kate says?’
‘Because I know things that you don’t.’ Kate can feel bits of the cliff underneath her crumbling. She claws on to a piece of rock jutting out to the side of her.
‘I can’t go any further.’ David lies on the rock shelf.
‘Grab hold of the bottom bits of the gorse bushes, where there aren’t any prickles. Are you tough or not?’ Kate reaches through the branches and pulls herself further up.
The three of them crawl their way to the top of the cliff face. There is no wind and the air feels heavy. Their clothes are sticking to their bodies with sweat. They lie down and look over the side of the cliff. From up here you can see out over the top of the quarry to the sea.
‘I would like to know the exact day I’m going to die.’
‘Why?’ David lies next to her running his fingers through the dust.
‘So that I can do everything I want to before then, that’s all.’
‘This is a strange day,’ David says.
‘It feels like we are in ancient Egypt with the pyramids and everything. Do you think it really matters what time period we are in?’ Kate pushes a rock over the edge of the cliff.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Did I pass the test?’ Sophie is lying on her back. Her dress is covered in dust.
‘And you have too, David, finally.’
As they stand up to go, a man appears. He looks like he is from Egypt, like he has just built an ancient pyramid or something. He has shiny black hair and a beard. He sits on the edge of the cliff with them. He looks out at the view.
‘I watched you climbing up here. You kids are brave.’
‘Yeah, we made it to the top, even him.’ Kate looks over at David who is lying on his back staring up at the sky.
‘I don’t know how to get back down. Can you show me?’ The man is polite.
‘He looks like he’s from Egypt,’ Kate whispers to David who looks at him without interest. He is listless in the heat.
‘You come with me,’ the man says to Kate. ‘Those two can find their own way down.’
Kate feels tough, like she knows everything. She’s had enough of David’s constant whining. He doesn’t even appreciate the Feats of Strength she has designed for him. He just wants to wear dresses and he doesn’t care enough about their friendship not to. She is fed up with him and his beautiful skin. She is also sick of Sophie and her babyish crying.
She walks with the man. She tells him about how difficult it was to climb up the cliff. Jayden would have done it easily, but these two have slowed her down. The man says he feels tired and he sits down on a boulder. She crouches down beside him and fiddles with the hem of her tee shirt. It’s so quiet up here. She looks out over the cliff. She is glad to be free of David and Sophie. They can fall off the edge of the cliff and die, she doesn’t care anymore.
‘You can take off your pants.’
‘No, I can’t.’ There is a buzzing in her head.
‘Do you think it is rude to take them off? It would only be for a few minutes.’
‘It is rude.’ Her voice sounds weak, even to her.
Kate looks over the edge of the cliff. She can see David and Sophie crawling down the cliff face together. David is helping Sophie. Kate is so scared she can’t breathe. A feeling of paralysis comes over her. The man is moving towards her. It was his car that she saw earlier. The colour of the cars is always white. These are the cars that wait.
Everything is holding its breath. The man, the quarry, the sea, the sky, the sun, the rocks, the rusting equipment and the abandoned building. She runs. Her shoes are ripped off her feet by the sharp rocks, but she leaves them behind. She runs in bare feet under the sun, two suns, it doesn’t matter how many suns there are. It feels like there are millions of suns for such terror and heat. The man is behind her. He is calling out.
‘It isn’t rude, you know!’
Her feet are bleeding. When she reaches the bottom of the cliff she turns and looks back with burning eyes. The quarry wobbles. The man has vanished, and his white car has gone. She hears the voices of David and Sophie. They are waiting with some boys who are hanging around at the bottom of the quarry. They all come over. David keeps on staring at her and asking what’s wrong.
‘Why are you looking so scared?’ he asks.
‘I’m not. Nothing happened at all.’
‘Your face is white.’
‘You don’t know anything. Stop wearing dresses. Everyone thinks you’re crazy.’ She shoves him away.
The boys crowd around her. ‘What dresses?’
‘Long pink ones, and lady’s shoes. I’ve seen him. He wears lipstick too, like a girl. I know these things and you can ask me because I’ll tell you the truth.’
Kate does not see David for a few weeks. When they do meet he has changed in some subtle way. He sneers at her. His skin looks sallow. They ignore each other, while their mothers make tense conversation.
‘David’s joined Sea Scouts. He loves it. He’s made friends with some boys now. You enjoy it, don’t you?’
‘It’s fun.’ David starts rocking.
‘Stop that,’ his mother puts a hand on his shoulder.
‘Do you wear a bikini?’ Kate whispers. ‘In your Sea Scouts.’
‘What was that you just said, Kate?’ her mother is looking at her.
‘Nothing. I was just asking about the uniforms.’ She smirks at him.
‘That man in the quarry, he wasn’t from Egypt.’ David looks at her with hatred in his eyes.
It is a couple of weeks later when the neighbourhood kids bang on her door. There is excitement in their eyes.
‘David’s in your chicken coop.’
They carry long sticks and stab at each other with them. Their pockets are stuffed with stones. Some of the kids have made pouches out of their tee shirts by holding the front edge up to their chests. The stones rattle as they move through the flax bushes.
‘We can go and get more if we run out,’ one boy says to his friend, who pokes him in the bum with his stick.
Their chicken coop is a ramshackle structure made of wire netting and wooden boards. The neighbours are always complaining. It’s an eyesore. When her father gets drunk he opens the door to the chicken coop and leads all the chickens down the hill and into their house. The chickens run around their living room squawking. There is chicken shit all over the sofas.
‘You can’t do this,’ her mother shouts, as she tries to chase them outside.
‘They’re my only friends,’ her father says, before he passes out in his chair, his hand clasped around the thin neck of a chicken.
They look down at the chicken coop. David is inside it, lying curled up in a ball with his hands over his ears. The chickens are pecking in the dirt around him. He has closed the door of the chicken coop, it’s just him and the chickens. The children remove the stones from their pockets. They release the bottom of their tee shirts and more stones fall to the ground. They sort them into piles. Picking up a stone each, they take aim.
Nick throws the first stone. It hits the tin roof of the chicken house. The chickens rise up, squawking in panic. As each child throws a stone, the sound reverberates. The chickens fly against the wire netting, again and again. Kate can see David’s legs moving as each stone hits the roof of the chicken coop. He keeps screaming. The children laugh. When they run out of stones they throw the sticks they have been carrying. Kate watches the sticks spin through the air and land on the roof. Some miss and dent the wire netting walls of the chicken coop.
Kate tells them to watch out that they don’t break the wire netting and hit the chickens. Her father will get really mad if anything happens to his chickens. David keeps screaming. The cacophony of noise is terrible; the chickens are beating their wings against the wire netting, the stones are hitting the tin roof, and the boy is screaming. He no longer looks human.
They’ve used up all their stones. Nick tells one of the younger kids to go down the beach and get more. The boy is reluctant.
‘It’s too hot.’
‘We’re running out of stuff to chuck.’
‘Do you reckon he might die, or something?’ One of the boys pauses before throwing his last stone. He throws it. Boom. It hits the loose bit of tin on the roof.
‘We need to get closer, so we can see him properly,’ Nick is snapping the stalks of the flax bush off.
‘Do you think he’s wearing girl’s undies?’ one of the younger boys asks. He has copied Nick and broken another stalk off. They start sword fighting.
‘Maybe.’ Kate twists the leaf of flax bush.
‘He’s gone mad. What’s gonna happen to him?’
‘He’ll be taken away to a mental asylum,’ Kate says. The boys cheer. They all race down the hill to get a closer look.
When they get close to the chicken coop Kate draws back. The boys peer through the wire netting at David. He’s not moving. Some of the stones have fallen through the broken bit of the roof and lie scattered around him. One of the chickens has blood on its white feathers. If it dies, then she’s going to be in big trouble. David turns on his side, away from them. He does not open his eyes, even when they chuck dirt at him through the gaps in the wire netting.
Everyone is bored. One of the boys kicks the chicken coop. The chicken’s wings start flapping and they make groaning sounds in their beaks. Kate tells him to stop scaring the chickens.
‘He doesn’t do anything.’
The boys press their faces against the chicken coop. They poke their fingers through the holes in the wire netting and wiggle them. They heave their bodies against the walls, as if the chicken coop itself must come down.
‘If my father finds out what you’ve done to his chickens, you’ll be in big trouble. He’s coming home soon, and he’ll beat you up,’ Kate tells the boys.
‘David, are you dead?’ She crouches down outside the chicken coop and talks through the wire netting to him. David doesn’t answer.
She snaps off the thinnest stalk she can find from the flax bush. She pushes it through the wire netting, manoeuvring it so that it’s close to his body. She pokes him, but David doesn’t respond. She tries to flip the waistband of his shorts. That would be funny. He kicks his leg out, breaking the stick. The chickens run to the other side of the coop.
‘You can’t live in a chicken coop forever, you know. They’re only for chickens, not human beings.’
‘I hate you,’ David says. ‘You’re a monster.’
‘I don’t care.’
The chickens are calmer now, buk, buk, buk. Kate listens to them. They slowly lift their alien feet and scratch in the dirt. Kate looks at the hills around them. She notices the softness of the light, as it catches the edges of the flax leaves. The wind moves through the valley. She feels it on her skin. It is exquisite. The grass is breathing. Everything is alive. She watches the boy’s shirts flapping against their bodies as they run down the hill.
She can see David’s father in the distance, calling out for him, but he’s a long way off. Her hair is blowing into her eyes. She looks up at the clouds moving slowly over the sun. From a great height she sees the tiny chicken coop. She watches the boy breathing in and out.