I nudge my thumb down the cervical vertebrae until I feel the cut. Then I push in, grab, and twist. The break is a dull knuckle crack. I slice the skin through the cutter and chuck the neck in one direction, the chicken in another.
George comes by, humming and frowning under his blue hygiene hat. ‘Jesus,’ he says, queuing up another carcass-laden trolley behind the one I’m working on. ‘They’re piling up.’ I make my lips thin, nod – just once, like I’ve learnt to – and scan for Janina, who’s left me with this mountain of bleach-stenched poultry. George follows my gaze. ‘Oh, you got her today,’ he says. ‘Good luck.’
The place is a fanfare of chickens. They hang from the ceiling, waving their pale plucked wings at the rows of meshy hats below. They stink their meaty too-clean smell; ooze the odd bit of errant giblet; chug their way through the marinading machine; flap their empty neck skin as I toss them into the trolley to my left. I’m not complaining. I’ve earned this job. I need it.
They’ve given me tags here, too. Just temporary plastic ones. I hooked them inside my locker when I put on the white overalls. I’m to bring the tags with me for each shift and show them to the security guy at the boom gate.
Janina shuffles back from the other side of the factory, pale and cheekless. I think she’s gotten thinner since last week; since yesterday, even. But I take care not to look too closely. Her blonde hair stalks me. Her young eyes reproach me. And her perfume is too sweet. So I grunt when she stands at the trolley beside me, takes up a bird and jabs her thumb into its neck. We’ve got a stack to get through today, and more flailing along the ceiling, waiting for the de-necking before they go for the leg-tucking and the marinade. Two weeks on the job has taught me that while the factory’s moving, there’s no time for thinking, for fixing, for finding one’s place in the world. And I’m glad. I need a distraction.
At smoko time, I squeeze past the table of polystyrene cups and spilt Blend 43. I go back to my locker, peel off the overalls, pluck out the tags and head outside. It amuses me how flimsy they are: fat soft plastic pockets and my face dot-matrixed across cardboard. I remember the sheen of the blue photo ID I got when I started at the hospital. Those tags were cause for celebration – oh my god, I made it – and I loved the way they clicked me through doors. Wearing those tags, I learnt to see a boy with a smashed femur over here, and think ahead to my glass of shiraz over there, and know the two weren’t connected. To calmly tell a hairdresser that I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the vertigo and tingling might be caused by a clot in her brain – yes, what you’d call a stroke – and I’d need to run some tests. To pad soothingly out the door.
But those tags displayed my old face. This new one is a thin smudge. It knows better. Knows to smile anonymously at the guard, nod ‘smoko time, yes’, wave with the back of my hand when he says, ‘so it’s just ten minutes, yeah?’, and wander with my head down along the nature strip, staying empty.
When I go back through the gates, Janina is leaning on a wall, her chin tipped towards the sun, an almost-smile on her mouth. She runs pink fingernails down her skinny jeans and doesn’t open her eyes when one of the supervisors calls her. ‘Mmmmmm,’ she says. ‘Yeah?’ The supervisor shakes his salt-and-pepper head and waves everyone inside. George comes out from behind the giant cactus, stubs out a cigarette and smiles. I try to smile back, but my mouth won’t do it. I go back to the chickens.
Another two trolleys have queued up since we went on break. Janina doesn’t even look past the first bird: just picks it up, thumb, twist, cut. Slop. We ignore each other, listen to everyone around us: the little Italian ladies at the stuffing station, chatting brightly, and the group of guys lugging crates into the cool room, shouting jokes and punting chickens when the boss isn’t looking. But even without glancing at her, I can see the signs – the unsteady gait, pain-induced pauses, the way the tip of the ulna makes a tent of her flesh. Still, I don’t see why I should mention it. I’m not that face anymore.
It’s not so bad, this job, once you get into the rhythm of it. The carcasses slide down the pile. I am a clearing machine; I feel the goosebumps on the chicken flesh and soft cold meat through my gloves. Janina and I are getting through it; we’re going to make it to lunch. I’ve got my Mum-packed sandwiches, and it’s sunny out. Tonight there’ll be TV and toast.
The clock is inching towards twelve when Janina stops. The back of her neck has that pastry look. She sways and falls forward into her trolley, sending chickens avalanching onto the concrete floor. She catches her chin on the slicer on the way down, and the blood slimes across the chicken pile. It’s only a small cut, I should kneel down, clear the area, check her breathing.
But I can’t. I can’t.
That other face – my old face – was in love with flesh and bone. Just the mastery of it: standing back when a big trauma came in, and ticking off the list. Airway? Breathing? Circulation? Disability, exposure? What have I missed? The movement, the uncertain rush of it, the smell of alcohol swabs and blood. The faint snap of a scalpel on flesh, the scuddery resistance of a tube snaking into the lungs. Even the paperwork: certification of death, the organ donor process. Something to be done.
The day it happened, I was still wearing my tags.
It had been a long day, an early start, and I was on my way to dinner. It was at that great new place round the back of Smith Street that Stephanie had been raving about. ‘The paella,’ she’d been saying. ‘It has to be tasted!’ And at the last minute, I remembered it was Steph’s birthday soon, so I stopped at the florist. There was nowhere to park, and the place was packed, so it took longer than it should have. But they had this great bouquet of natives, with a fat red protea at the centre, and grevilleas, just like Mum had in her garden. The florist wrapped them in deep purple and I walked out with my nose in them. They had a wonderful fresh tang.
By then, of course, I was late. I hadn’t had the Audi for long, and it was fantastic to drive – ducking smoothly in and out of traffic, feeling the car lean into the corners. One arm out the window, warm air rushing along my skin, everything moving.
It was a moment’s breath. A heartbeat.
A blackout would be a blessing. But it’s always there, unfolding in slow-mo. The impossible slide up my bonnet; the crunch of bone on toughened glass; the balletic flip up, so high; the fall.
My foot trembling on the brake, my heart beating on my tongue.
My hand pausing on the door handle. Mouth in a long O.
The word punctured me like the first in a line of sutures.
‘No. No.’ Everyone stopped. The road was empty, except for her. A man was drifting out of his car, looking around, blinking.
‘You.’ I pointed. ‘Move your car, over here.’ He paused. ‘Now.’
A woman stood on the corner, holding a mobile phone.
‘You.’ I pointed. ‘Ring triple-O.’
I walked five, six, seven paces, to the very edge of the road. I tried to make an inventory of her injuries, but I was distracted by her hair. It fanned out across the bitumen, clumped together at the base of her neck by a seeping line of blood. I couldn’t smell it yet, but the prick of it was in my nostrils.
I knelt in front of her, seeing features, but no face.
‘Can you hear me?’
Airway. Breathing. Circulation.
I fumbled and shook. Her face was wet and her chest wheezed when I breathed in to her.
It was terrible CPR.
When the ambos came I sat staring at my shoes, which were scuffed from the road, and smudged with blood. They moved her and her hair looped back, revealing little silver studs. The kind you get from the chemist when you’ve just had your ears done.
Someone had put a blanket around my shoulders, and was asking me if I could get up and walk to the other ambulance. He handed me a wad of saline-sopped gauze for my face, and it came away covered in semi-clotted blood. Hers. He noticed my lanyard.
‘Good thing you were here.’
I nodded. Thumbed my shiny tag face.
‘Did you see the driver? Car flew right through the bloody crossing.’
‘No, I …’ My chest caved. I dropped the tags.
‘I. I was driving.’
He nodded, curt, and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Anything else you need?’
I shook my head, clenching the stringy gauze in my fist. ‘I’m not injured.’ He stepped back. We both knew there was nothing they’d be able to do to save her. Pupil dilation – brain herniation – she’d have a few hours, a day, at least. And then the organ donor discussion.
I noticed the police car parked behind mine. The officer writing down the number plate, inspecting the windscreen damage. Cracks like glittering fireworks in the sun. Behind the glass the driver’s seat hunched darkly. The airbag hadn’t even gone off. The flowers would be waiting. I watched the pedestrian lights cycle from red to green – who was pressing the button? – but no-one crossed. I didn’t cry until the ambo came back, and asked me if there was someone I could call. I nodded, yes. ‘Mum’.
I howled into the receiver. A passer-by had to tell her where I was. She told me to wait there – just like she had when I’d missed the bus, coming home from the movies. ‘Just wait, love,’ she’d said. ‘I’ll come.’
I wanted to dissolve into her. I wanted to die. I wanted to breathe. She made me a cup of tea, opened my kitchen blinds so the light flooded in. I stared over her head into the too-green plane tree outside, and had flashes of how it would be: police, the courts, then jail. I knew it the same way I’d put together tremor, vertigo and incontinence that same morning, and ordered an MRI. A depressed skull fracture, causing a massive intracranial haemorrhage, leading to an inexorable rise in intracranial pressure, and eventually, death. According to the newspapers, she wanted to be a chef.
The girl I killed.
Janina’s sitting up now; George has brought some crates for her to lean against, and the first aid kit. The red plastic has started to bubble and there’s a piece of dusty gauze sticking out of the box. I hold my stomach and run to the toilet. Saliva drips into the bowl and my pulse thrums along my scalp. I hear someone come in, and see Janina’s shoes in the stall next to me. Her socks bunch at the base of her jeans, and a bruise grasps her ankle. I get out of the stall and wait for her by the sink. Her eyes are the colour of river silt and her mouth is a lipsticked line. She drags her hair into a ponytail and I notice another bruise on her wrist. I take a breath.
‘You’re not well.’
She stops, but doesn’t turn.
‘Have you been to see a doctor?’
Janina sighs, pushing out her lips. ‘I’m fine.’
I move half a step closer. My throat feels like it’s full of Clag. ‘Are you in pain anywhere, or … ?’
She drops her arms to her sides, splaying her fingers. ‘What?’ She turns to me. ‘What’s your fucking issue?’ I close my eyes and the memory grips me: the slowing pulse of shiny blood over Joanne’s snapped ulna, the scrape of road under her curved fingers. I push air through my teeth. ‘I’m a … I’m a …’ but I can’t say it. ‘I just. Want to help.’
Janina snorts. ‘I nicked some dodgy chickens from the cool room last week, and I’ve been chucking up ever since.’
I open my mouth.
‘Whatever you’ve got to say, don’t.’ She turns back to the mirror, teasing strands of hair out around her face. ‘I’m not even sick.’ She eyes me sideways, puckers and puts on more lipstick. ‘And I definitely don’t need some stuck-up bitch sticking her fucking nose in.’ Her perfume settles on me as she walks out.
Outside, I can hear the faint chug of the birds being carried along the ceiling. All those blue-gloved hands, grabbing, processing. Faces breathing into the bleached air. I remember the card I started, the one that was buried in the bottom of my box of personal effects when I went to prison, and is now stashed under my bed. Tucked next to my hospital tags. Dear Mr and Mrs … I wish … and then a fattening dot where my pen sat, slowly leaking across the cardboard.