“And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
– William Shakespeare
The metallic tearing of the breakfast tin didn’t irritate Paul as much as it used to. The contents were not what anyone would call food, just mulch providing necessary minerals. The taste was inoffensive but the texture was grotesque, like wet bread and phlegm. The kitchen was bleak, the furniture paled by the incessant sunlight and the room plagued by the
“-need to stop scratching that. They’ll think you’re trying to get rid of this new one. It’s bad enough that you needed a replacement. I still don’t understand-”
“Why don’t you eat something? You look like shit.” He switched off again. While she gesticulated he examined his wife; a once pretty woman with grey skin and flat hair. The Government Issue meal tins had drained her complexion to a non-colour. Blushing had become a lost art.
“Not sure what time I’ll finish later.” He continued to scratch the inside of his thigh.
Frances had used Paul’s water allowance and began reading the sprawling of her brown hairs on the wall like tea leaves; a pig snout and a scythe-like shape which mutated into a single shapely breast. She wiped the hairs away, letting them float and sway down to the carpet. Her own breasts disappointed her, flat and grey. She tried to remember feeling
She nagged her husband for sport, trying to
Toes curling in her shoes, her thoughts turned, as they usually did, to the Women of Flesh. Paul was like a toddler who thinks nobody’s seen him shitting in the corner. She knew about his escapades to Four and was envious of the women, not because they held Paul’s attentions, not even because they possessed meat tolerance, but because they knew excitement, they had reason to smile. All she had was nameless Jane across the conveyor with gunge in her hair.
The crashing of steel shutters warranted a sluggish glance from the women and squints at the mild inconvenience of the light pouring in. A square of marching men, five by five, beat the floor with their black boots led by a Messenger dressed in blood red.
Paul boarded the 8.55 and sat next to a nondescript citizen. White stickers had been clumsily plastered over the rail map and black screens concealed abandoned platforms from view. He stayed on to Four.
The sky never fell into complete darkness but the light of the early sun seemed more watchful. The train sent a strange, unidentifiable odour swirling about him. The barren ground above was littered with cracks of varying sizes, the larger ones could swallow a body effortlessly. Clouds of rusty dirt rose in his wake. There was one building in sight, only the top of it visible above a red brick wall. The broken glass set into the top glittered in the blinding sun. The wall was surrounded by two fences crowned with elegant spirals of razor-wire. Mirabal Prison should have been a vision of aggression, intimidation, yet every time he was enchanted.
Inside the building the vigilant eyes of the sun could not judge him. The guard’s rosy pallor made him perspire. She had a roundness that is impossible for citizens to achieve.
“One pork J, medium slice, one girl.”
She raised her eyebrows at him and gestured for him to continue.
He sighed. “Please.”
“459: Diana.” She winked, stamped his visitor’s badge. Diana wasn’t his favourite, she was fair-skinned and not as hairy as the others but she was a marked improvement on what he’d left at home.
The woman stationed outside cell 459 reached up and held onto the door frame, blocking his path and forcing him to smell her intoxicating body odour. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, she knew her power. Each consumption room had a different access point so he felt for the small lever behind the toilet and pulled it upwards.
At six o’clock the machinery shuts down, food paste left exposed on conveyor belts. The polite applause of footsteps ricocheted from the high ceiling as the women exited the factory floor in silence.
The front door was open. She closed her eyes and wished to be greeted by an axe-murderer wielding something dangerous, but instead she found Paul as she had expected him, elbows on the table suffering through a dinner tin.
“You’re home early.”
He spoke with his mouth full. “I’m home on time.”
She went upstairs to put on her nightclothes and inspected herself in the bathroom mirror; an animated corpse stared back. Eyes closed, she fought to remember the rosy cheeks of girlhood and the deep chestnut curls that bounced about her forehead. She knew these images existed but a haze flitted behind her lids and she couldn’t make the colours form solid images.
Years ago something had drawn her in to Mirabal. She forgot every regulation and surrendered herself to the performance. Olive’s abundant flesh quivered with every movement and her eyes were a shade of brown that brought forgotten desires forth. She felt light-headed.
There were no birds to cast fleeting shadows overhead, no children laughing and spraying each other with water pistols. All Paul could hear was blood, hot in his ears.An old telephone box stood alien against the bleak landscape. Its red triggered memories from the old world, fire hydrants in American films, post boxes, double decker buses. He could smell the pollution of an enormous city choking him with a lover’s gentleness. Protecting his hand inside his trouser pocket he opened the hot metal door. His thick pulse told him to turn around but he bent and rapped the boards with his knuckles. Hollow. He slid the planks across and descended into the stench of manure and the sweet tang of fresh grass. The darkness panicked him and he fell against the wall.
Lights flickered on, ting ting-ting-ting. Paul stood nose to nose with an enormous creature that he vaguely recognised. Its breath was hot. Paul was dumbfounded but unafraid. He looked past the strange animal, intrigued by the unfamiliar machinery; lights blinked on and off and wire trailed from metal cabinets. His hands itched to feel the smooth surfaces like a Neanderthal before a fire.
Frances blinked the bright lights out of her eyes. On her back, the ground was exceptionally flat and cool. Shuffling hooves passed by, but she couldn’t turn her head. Her father’s voice was audible a few metres behind her. Attempting to roll her eyes back to see him she found herself standing, her back against a brick wall. Her father had his back to her, tending a strange animal.
“Mind you don’t go near those lines Frannie.” He called, gesturing towards them.The scenery was strangely familiar, electrical wires criss-crossed along the concrete and little plastic dishes strewn about.She remembered his scientific ramblings more than the curl of his hair. He explained his work to her hundreds of times, he wanted the tunnel farms to continue but her memories were fragmented, too disjointed to recreate her father’s complex biological specimens. She had watched her father’s notebooks burn during the Cleanse, blackened feathers floating higher and higher, propelled by the ferocity of the flames.
“It began with missing cats and empty hens eggs and ended with the infertility of the Earth.” He laughed, shook his head. “But it wasn’t the end was it, Frannie?”
Pure white vegetables and albino grass filled the vegetable patch. A creature trotted by and clucked softly, its feathered rump as white as the snow from the old world.
Vague shapes from her dream drifted in the place between sleep and wakefulness but they soon became unrecognisable. She moved mindlessly from the bed into the kitchen for the first meal tin of the day. She opened the cupboard labelled ‘1’, stared at the dead metal and closed the door again.
Outside, three children walked slowly, but seemingly with purpose. They walked in line without acknowledging one another at all. Frances’s was the last generation to have been conceived naturally and she didn’t want children if it meant being harvested by the government.
She stared, letting her eyes relax into a soft focus. Images swam in her vision, teasing her with tenuous memories. She tried to hold on to them but they were slashed away like smoke. Colour and motion intertwined with meaning in her mind; she could see words. Words she had not heard since she had played with the hybrids in the tunnel farms as a bright-eyed child. Her father uttered them sharply if one of the creatures wasn’t producing, or when some piece of equipment clattered down onto the tracks, irretrievable beyond the fluttering black screen. The words felt delicious, echoing in her mind.
Paul’s empty meal tin irritated her. It had probably passed by on the conveyor belt behind her at the factory, stamped with the logo of the government; the letter N caged inside an imperfect circle. The constant mechanical buzzing and clanking of the factory haunted her like a dripping tap, she was agonised by the slop of mulch hitting the bottom of plastic buckets.
Beads of sweat trickled down her brow and her breaths came quick and shallow. She slammed her fist down onto the open tin. Pain spiked up her arm and her eyes widened as she gazed at the gushing crescent slash along the heel of her hand. She dropped her arms by her sides and walked solemnly out of the front door into the night, trickling red drops of life into the barren dust.
Paul heard a noise. He turned off the light and knelt in the soil bed in the middle of the platform. There was no place to hide. Terrified in the vegetable patch, he awaited his exposure. But it didn’t come. He burrowed his hands in the soil and revelled in its coolness.
Deciding, finally that the threat had passed he pushed himself up from the soil and brushed himself down. Ascending the ladder back up to the phone box he passed a dangling wire. He scratched at his inner thigh, catching something hard and flat. He made his way to work.
Transcribing old radio programs for the Archive, creating these records of the old world once seemed so important to Paul but after seeing what he had it all seemed futile.
A man wandered around the open plan office without purpose. Paul may have known him but it had become hard to tell one citizen from another, all grey faces blending into one generic servant of Nix and the Archive. The man stopped behind Paul’s chair. The wandering man said nothing but his stare prickled the back of Paul’s neck. As the footsteps retreated he chanced a surreptitious glimpse. Wire trailed from his briefcase.
Paul felt as though his eyes may exit their sockets with the strain of his silence. He turned back to his computer screen but his throat was closing up; crumbs of dark soil ran a trail from his desk to the door. He calmly collected his papers and placed them with great care inside his briefcase, clicked it shut and straightened it on his desk. He left the way he had entered, tracing his own incriminating path.
Nix’s guards took no notice of Frances outside the Palace. She filled her lungs until she thought they would split and screamed. Not a meaningless sound but a word, sailing on the tide of her profane shriek.
It was the word fuck.
She bent with the force of it, as though she was racing down a ski slope preparing for the jump. It was the longest, loudest noise she had ever made. She cackled and flung out profanities like Frisbees in the summer. The guards had not understood her first outburst as a defilement of regulation, but her words were now clear as unending day. In uncanny togetherness they clamped her arms and dragged her kicking and swearing to the Justice Chamber.
Nix sat on the throne, his elbow resting weightlessly on the arm of his chair, his chin propped on his costume-jewelled hand. His youth startled her and her giggles fell to a nervous simmer.
The throne was made of crudely welded steel and covered in a mustard yellow cloth. Nix seemed amused by her outburst. He closed his eyes and sighed, the burden of justice weighing heavily on his shoulders.
“Do you, the Jury, find…” He gestured impatiently to Frances.
“Yes, Frances to be guilty of a violation of Regulation 2.E?”
“Aye.” Came the strong unanimous cry of the men at the side of the room.She hung her head and grinned.
“I’m glad to see you’re already feeling remorseful. Enjoy life long confinement and may your gene pool never continue.”
Lightning pangs of hunger struck deep in her gut. She sagged in the grip of Nix’s guards, letting out breathy giggles, giddy with the disruption of routine. As she was handed over to the prison officer at Mirabal she fell to the ground, smiling, like she’d just finished a marathon, her time wasn’t great but she made it.
The officer helped her to her feet, an arm under her elbow to support her weakened frame and she whispered, “Come on, let’s get you sorted.” There was a tender sadness in her voice that her stern face did not betray.
She woke up in a Consumption Room with Diana swaying, mid-performance. The room smelt of bleach and cooked meat. She lay in the shadows on a plush velvety surface, tassels tickling the space between her fingers. The only remnants of the beef joint were the strings that had held it together, snipped during the performance like the unclasping of a bra. Diana lifted her silk dressing gown from the silvery puddle it had formed on the floor next to her podium. She approached Frances, who watched Diana dreamily, and leaned over to a shelf above her head.
“You’ll have to grow into it.” Holding a pile of loosely folding clothes, she watched this frail bird of a woman lose consciousness.
Frances awoke, after what felt like a single moment, on a cell bunk with a familiar smell wafting towards her. The aroma brought vivid memories of soft fibrous meat rolling over her tongue. Her father had been dead for years and she began to wonder who ran the tunnel farm in his absence.
She scoffed the plate in front of her.
Paul walked up the driveway, only half of his perspiration caused by the heat; the front door was ajar. Inside a floorboard creaked. He pawed at his eyes and succeeded only in blurring his vision further. As he passed the stairs he became tangled in
He stopped dead at the threshold of the kitchen. His brain flitted between two things, attempting to process them both at once; there was blood on the table and something was moving inside his pocket.
He must be hallucinating. He carefully unbuttoned his trousers and lowered them to the ground. Nothing seemed to be moving but he stepped out of them and laid them on the table opposite the blood.
A noise he hadn’t heard in decades came peeping out of his trousers on the kitchen table. He stepped forward and turned his pockets inside out. A little ball of fluff came tumbling out and hopped upright onto its twiggy legs. It looked like a chick but there was no beak or wings and each of its feet had five prongs. It bumbled around the table top and trotted through the pool of blood. It was endearing in its innocence and Paul choked down a sob. Paul picked up the tiny creature and cupped it in the palm of his hand.
Sunshine beamed through the window and transformed the blood into a glistening ruby pool. He imagined Rose licking the blood from her finger, a single drop landing on her chest. He closed his eyes tight, enjoying the image. He wiped his finger through the liquid on the table and brought it to his lips, sniffing the iron. He bit the inside of his cheek until his teeth met. His own warm blood ran into the gulley below his tongue.
He fell asleep on the sofa while the beakless chick pottered around on his stomach. The Women of Flesh painted his dreams red and purple.
“Leave.” The young ruler watched the guard exit the room. The
He stimulated the groin and watched the penis slowly harden. He caressed the firmness, pulling first gently up and down, gradually tightening his grip, quickening his pace.
Nix’s hair was plastered to his scalp with sweat, drops flinging themselves from his nose and landing around the
Lust stirred in his gut and he felt the familiar primal urge within his core. He grasped at her flat breast, pulling it around as though he were angry with it. He pinched her nipple until it was almost pink. His fingers glistened when he took them out of her. He licked the translucent liquid and pulled at his soft stubborn penis until he felt bruised. An animal, he was ready to rip the flesh from her bones with his teeth but instead he let the sweat dry on his neck and deposited the seed inside her.
Paul was followed all the way to the looming doors of Mirabal. He placed his money on the low table and ticked the boxes marked, ‘One of each’, ‘2 women’ and, ‘Wafer thin’. That was worth at least two hours.
“You’ll be seeing Rose and one of our new girls.” The officer waggled her eyebrows and buzzed him through.
“You look pale.” The guard looked mildly disgusted. “Enjoy.” She uttered flatly and closed the door. The two women were already waiting on their podiums, silk robes flowing over their bodies like water. Four hunks of meat sat on a metal trolley behind them. The bruised purple of the venison stirred his loins.
He pointed to the glistening mauve flesh.The meat was sliced, and it fell into Rose’s plump fingers. She dangled the first piece above her open mouth, flicking its edge with her large pink tongue. The other woman took a slice and began to feed Rose, he watched as the meat was masticated by this whole world of a woman. The new girl was inconsequential and he felt he’d been cheated. But he soon forgot her, panting like a dog at the smell of the cooked flesh merging with the pungent odour of the women, wishing he could pull it apart and feel the grain of it on his tongue.
“Look at me, bitch.” Rose barked and chuckled at the base of her throat. “There’s a good boy.” Her tone slick with praise and animal fat, she winked at the new girl. Paul’s heart thrummed with hatred. Grease dripped from her chin and onto her large, swinging breasts. He clawed at his inner thigh, his itch intensified by the heat.
Forty standard issue boots pounded the linoleum of E Wing corridor. Their march was measured, confident. The men in the prison had become mice who had so often escaped with the cheese they had forgotten the risk of the trap. This time the hammer caught their tails and they were stuck fast. Paul did not run.
The movement of time became sluggish, a gloop of ticking seconds dripping from the ceiling. Grey faces streamed into the room.
He tore at the itch in his thigh frantically, could no longer stand to be watched from the inside. Gravity pulled a line of blood from his flesh and he grabbed the meat knife from the trolley. Frances watched her husband destroy himself. The guards waited, indifferent.
Chunks of flesh slapped to the ground as he tried to remove the implant. He laughed maniacally, he had it. It didn’t matter that the guards would take him away in moments, he had won. He was free. Wiping the red sticky liquid from the piece of metal in his hand his expression grew vacant. He placed the small round coin on the trolley and put his hands on the back of his head, waiting for Nix’s guards to handcuff him.
He hadn’t seen a one pence piece in decades, the Queen stared stoically past him. The metal was cold and heavy on his wrists. As he turned towards the guard he
Sophie Gregory studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester and since then her work has been featured in Mythic Picnic and shortlisted by Waterstones Brighton and Ad Hoc fiction. She is currently living in Brighton and working on a novel based on Women of Flesh in the cracks of time between her full-time job, zero waste Etsy shop and perfecting the art of Tai Chi.