Chapter 10 – Murder Most Fowl
He took the hill at a run, an egg box clutched in each hand, his mind rattling around in his skull as it tried to process what he was being asked to do. Except for a few spiders, which obviously didn’t count as real lifeforms, Sebastian had never killed anything in his life. Sure, as a child, he’d had a couple of pets that died – a hamster and a guinea pig – but he hadn’t actually killed them himself. The guinea pig had died of old age, as far as he could be recall, while the hamster had escaped and hidden itself in one of his father’s shoes, where it met its unfortunate demise as he got himself ready for work the next day. And now, out of nowhere, he was expected to terminate the life of a hen.
It didn’t matter that it was the ‘evil chicken’, the psychotic bird that had had terrorized him on each of his three forays into the enclosure to collect eggs; it was still a living, breathing creature. More than that, this was an animal that had looked him in the eye, that had tackled him man-to-bird, it was a respected foe. And while Sebastian might have been happy to take it out in the heat of battle, he felt stunned, sickened even, by the idea of murdering it in cold blood.
He had to talk with Emma. She would understand. She would help him solve this tragedy. And so he hurried up the hill to see her.
As he approached the crossroads, he saw the butcher emerge from his shop, his massive shoulders brushing the doorframe as he squeezed through. He was carrying a blackboard with chalk writing across it, but Sebastian didn’t notice what the sign said, but, as he caught the butcher’s eye, the man grunted at him, so he fixed his gaze back on the road and scurried around the corner towards the shop.
The bell announced his arrival in the usual fashion, but unlike the previous times, it was not Emma he found standing behind the counter, but her mother.
‘Oh,’ said Sebastian, taken aback, ‘Er… Hi. I mean, good morning, Mrs Standfield. Is, er… is Emma round.’ He peered around the shopkeeper but the door to the living area was closed.
‘She’s out,’ came the curt response. ‘I take it you’ve come to deliver those eggs.’ She held out a hand towards the boxes and Sebastian handed them over. Mrs Standfield placed them on the counter and opened them, examining the contents, before nodding what Sebastian presumed was her approval. ‘So what exactly did you want my daughter for, young man?’
‘I… well, it’s just I was hoping for a quick chat, that’s all.’ Sebastian tried to gather his thoughts, aware he was sounding like some kind of stalker, or a teenager with a crush, which is pretty much the same thing. ‘It was about a chicken.’
‘A chicken?’ said Mrs Standfield, in much the way Lady Bracknell is portrayed as saying, ‘A handbag?’
Sebastian soldiered on. ‘Yes, that’s right, a chicken. Only, apparently I’m supposed to be killing one later. An actual, live chicken.’
The shopkeeper picked up the two egg boxes and lifted the flap in the counter. As she approached Sebastian she paused. ‘And you want Emma to help you?’
‘Not help as such,’ he said, stepping aside so she could get past him to the shop window. ‘It was more for support. You know, moral support.’
‘For you,’ she asked, ‘or the chicken?’
Sebastian was surprised. Was that a joke? From the dour Mrs Standfield? He turned to see, but she was bending over, placing the eggs in the window with her back to him. ‘It’s just…’ he began, ‘I’ve never killed anything before.’
‘Well, Emma’s out doing the Monday morning deliveries, isn’t she.’ The shopkeeper delivered this pronouncement, as though this was obvious and Sebastian should really have thought about that before he came in demanding to see her daughter. ‘As for the killing,’ she said, standing up and smoothing the folds of her dress. She turned to face Sebastian, smiling at him in a way that was more disconcerting than anything else, ‘first, you have to accept that the bird’s got to be killed, then get it over with as quickly as possible. A good, clean death is as much as any of us can wish for.’
Sebastian opened his mouth. Then he closed it again, while he thought of something to say. ‘I can think of a few other things I’d wish for first,’ he said at last, ‘but thanks for the… er…’
‘Moral support?’ she suggested, heading back to the counter.
‘Quite.’ Sebastian turned to leave.
‘And one other thing,’ said Mrs Standfield, as his he turned the door handle. ‘I find it helps to imagine it’s someone I don’t like, instead of a bird I’m holding. Always helps to add a bit of potency as you’re breaking the wretched fowl’s neck!’
Sebastian hurried from the shop and, for the second time, he was sure he heard the tinkle of laughter behind the voice of the dancing bell.
‘There’s really nothing to it,’ said Neil, walking across the poultry field towards Sebastian, who was standing in the covered area that jutted out from the side of the goat shed. In one large hand, he was holding a hen – not the ‘evil’ one – upside down by its feet, and while the bird did not seem to be fazed by this, Sebastian felt like he was going to be sick.
The sky was overcast, and a gentle breeze added an extra layer of coolness to the morning, rustling the leaves in the trees above, but Sebastian could still feel the sweat trickling down his back and when he wiped the back of his gloved hand across his forehead and it came away damp. ‘Goodness, lad, you’re white as a sheet. You feeling okay?’
‘It’s just nerves, I think,’ he said, fanning his face with a hand. ‘It’s just, I’ve never killed anything before.’
‘So you’ve told me… about twenty times.’ Neil smiled, but it made no difference to Sebastian’s feeling of anxiety.
‘It’s not just that though,’ he said. ‘I’ve not even seen a chicken being killed before. I saw a cat get run over once and that was bad enough.’
‘I thought you didn’t like cats.’
‘I don’t, but it was still horrific. I remember watching it feebly trying to scrabble to the pavement with its back legs all mashed up.’ He shook his head, in an attempt to dispel the mental image.
‘Well, this’ll be nothing like that,’ said Neil, placing his free hand on Sebastian’s shoulder. ‘We have a much swifter way to dispatch them than running them over with a car! It’ll be quick and painless… for you as well as the chickens.’
‘I suppose they do have to die, do they?’ asked Sebastian, remembering Mrs Standfield’s comment about accepting that the chicken had to be killed.
Neil turned and gestured around the smallholding with the dangling chicken. ‘Take a look around,’ he said. Sebastian did so, taking in the various breeds of poultry scratching and, lazing nearby, the goats peering at him from the entrance to their shed, the masked horses standing motionless in the next field and the pigs milling about in the dirt beyond. ‘The fact is, none of these creatures would be here if we didn’t kill them and eat them. The same is true for all such farm animals. This is their purpose, it’s why we breed them and raise them. They exist only as part of our food chain, and in order to fulfil their reason for living, we have to kill them. It’s as simple as that. Except for the horses, of course. And the dogs. We don’t eat them… unless of course we’re really hungry!’
Sebastian smiled at this and nodded his understanding, though he still felt anxious at the thought of the chicken, still hanging in Neil’s grip and peering around without concern, being killed at any moment. And indeed, it seemed that moment had arrived.
‘Right then,’ said Neil, all business-like. ‘This is how it’s going to be done. I’m going to take hold of the chicken’s neck, with the skin that join’s my thumb and index finger,’ he held up his free hand, the two digits in question forming an L-shape, ‘in the ridge between the skull and the top vertebra, and my other finger’s around the underside of its beak.’ He demonstrated, wrapping his hand around the chicken’s neck, its comb pressed against his palm, its head hidden in his grip. Sebastian bent closer to look as Neil continued. ‘With the other hand, make sure you’ve got a firm hold on the legs. Then you simply twist the bird’s head backwards, rolling your knuckle towards it’s neck, while pulling downwards firmly. It’ll resist for a moment, but keep going and you’ll feel the break.’
Sebastian looked up. ‘The break?’
‘Like this.’ With a swift, practised motion Neil jerked down on the chicken’s head. Almost immediately the bird began flapping wildly, catching Sebastian on the cheek. He leapt backwards, tripping over his own foot and landed heavily on the floor, his eyes locked on the chicken’s violent death throws. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Neil. ‘It’s just nerves, is all. It’s quite dead.’ To demonstrate, he released the head, letting it flop around as the creature writhed, beating at the air. The eyes were closed, the neck clearly broken.
Sebastian own eyes were wide open and he hardly blinked as he stared at the flapping bird. It seemed to take an eternity before the wings began to still. In truth, it couldn’t have been much more than sixty seconds, but it was the longest minute of his life. So far, at least. He still had his own chicken to kill.
‘Easy, see,’ said Neil, as Sebastian clambered to his feet. ‘Pass me a piece of that baler twine, would you? The orange string, there.’ Sebastian did so, moving as if in a trance, and watched, numbed, as Neil tied a slip knot with one hand and looped it round the chicken’s feet before attaching the other end to a handy nail, sticking out of one of the beams. ‘Good weight on that bird,’ he said, feeling the chicken’s breast. It let out another couple of lazy flaps, then hung still again, twisting slightly in the breeze. Neil stooped to pick up a small cardboard box. ‘Right. Ready for yours, then?’
Sebastian shook his head, and leant against the wooden post that held up the roof. ‘Not really,’ he said, staring at the box. ‘I don’t feel so good.’
‘What’s up? You saw what I did, right? Nothing to it, lad.’ Neil began to open the flaps of the cardboard box, but Sebastian put a hand on it.
‘Just… just give me a moment.’
Neil sighed. ‘Okay, but we can’t wait long or it’ll be misery plucking this thing.’ He jabbed a thumb at the dangling chicken, which let out a last, feeble flap.
Sebastian wandered off across the field towards the river. They had known, of course, he is friends from the office. He could remember someone mentioning it at his birthday celebration, an offhand comment dropped into a barrage of abuse about things that proved he wasn’t a real man.
‘Bastards!’ he muttered. ‘Sending me off here without any information, with no real clue what I was going to end up doing. What’ll be next? Gunning down a horse, perhaps, or hunting wild boar with spears?’ He looked at his watch, which said it was ten-fifteen already. Sebastian imagined Brillig, Mops and the others all gathered at their desks, sipping coffee and chatting away about nothing in particular. No doubt DeVere and Little Pete were busy taking bets on when Sebastian would be home. He wondered whether murdering this chicken was in the book, and what sort of odds they’d placed on him not doing it, on him “chickening out”. ‘Bastards!’ he said again. ‘I’ll show them!’ And he turned back to where Neil was watching him, still holding the cardboard box under one arm.
‘I’m ready,’ Sebastian called, startling the goats. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
The next few minutes seemed to pass like a kind of dream, and not one of the good ones either. But despite the other-worldliness, every second was etched into Sebastian’s mind as though carved into granite, lodged with crystal clarity in his memory.
Neil opened the box, slipping in a hand to take hold of the chicken’s legs, before drawing it out upside down, like a conjurer pulling out a rabbit out of an empty hat. The difference, though, was that they did it by magic, while Sebastian had seen the “evil chicken” being shoved into this box back at the farmhouse. As Neil held it out for him to take, the bird fixed one eye on Sebastian’s face as though it knew what was coming.
‘That’s it,’ said Neil. ‘Slip your index finger between the legs so you can get a firm grip with your thumb and third finger.’
Sebastian did so and, as Neil relinquished his hold, he was surprised at how heavy the chicken was. He began to comment on this, but found his mouth was too dry to speak. All his excess body fluid seemed to be used up in the sweat that was still running down his back and prickling his face.
‘Stop looking at me,’ he croaked at the bird.
Neil stepped round to get a better look at the chicken. ‘Now, remember what I said. Palm down, base of the skull nestled between thumb and index finger. That’s right. Now, wrap the other fingers under the beak. Not too hard – just enough to hold it in place.’ Neil bent down to check, then straightened up, taking a step backwards. ‘When you’re ready, just hold the legs still, while you twist and pull downwards on the head. You’ll feel it come away from the neck.’
Sebastian looked down and was relieved he could no longer see the beady eye peering at him. But his relief was barely a flash. It was time. There was no going back now. He was going to have to kill this creature, this bird that had done nothing to him. Alright, it had spooked him a few times, but that was hardly reason enough to end its life.
Again he had a flash of his friends, all busy gossiping away back at in London, and at the thought he felt the anger rising up in him. This was all their fault! This, right now – this ordeal he was going through, this chicken murder – was all because of them.
And he remembered Mrs Standfield’s creepy rather words about imagining it was someone else, and not the bird, whose neck you were breaking.
He took a deep breath and pulled. Hard. Hard enough that, when he met the resistance of whatever was keeping the chicken’s skull attached to its spine, he felt it rip away – a clean break. Then he felt the bird’s head dropping from his hand on the ground and realised he had pulled it right off. The flapping had began and the creature writhed around, the legs tugging to be free from his grip, the neck twitched from side to side like a crazed serpent, blood spraying across his boots and up his trousers.
Sebastian stared at it in horror.
‘It’s alright, lad,’ said Neil. ‘It’s done. It’s dead. Get away, Tank!’ This last comment was directed at the dog that had sprung to life and was busily licking at the blood on the ground. ‘Go on, get away!’ Tank ignored him and set about chewing on the chicken’s head.
Sebastian did not move, but continued staring, open-mouthed, as the headless bird’s flapping began to slow and still. He still didn’t move as Neil tied a length of baler twine around its feet and teased it from his grip. He just stood and stared at the blood that had spattered across his trousers and boots. So much blood.
And then he vomited on the dog.
‘Well, that wasn’t entirely unexpected,’ said Neil, chuckling from somewhere behind him. ‘Feeling any better.’
Sebastian turned round, bleary-eyed. ‘A bit.’ He looked back round at Tank, who hadn’t reacted at all, but continued chewing on the chicken head as sick dripped off his coat. ‘Sorry about your dog.’
‘Ah, he won’t mind any. I’ll take him for a dip in the river in a bit. But first, we’ve got to get these girls plucked.’
‘But I need a shower,’ said Sebastian, gesturing to the general mess of his clothes and noticing for the first time he had blood on his right glove and his sleeve, and on the small patch of skin that lay between them. ‘I’m a mess!’
Neil shook his head. ‘All in good time, lad. But if we let these birds get cold, the job’s gonna take twice as long. Come on. Won’t take fifteen minutes.’
It took forty.
Most of this was taken up with Neil trying to correct Sebastian’s technique of pulling out two or three feathers at a time.
‘But it feels like I’m hurting it,’ Sebastian kept explaining, a feeling that was heightened at one point, when the bird twitched suddenly mid-pluck. To Neil’s great amusement Sebastian screamed when this happened and jumped back into a stack of hay bales.
Neil’s assurance that, ‘When you get into your stride, it’s actually quite therapeutic’, never quite matched up with Sebastian’s experience. As far as he was concerned, the whole ordeal was nothing short of horrific.
‘That was nothing short of horrific,’ said Sebastian, as the two men entered the farmhouse, each holding a naked chicken, their hair and clothes covered in small feathers.
‘You got the job done though, eh?’ said Virginia, who was drying up at the sink.
Neil dumped his chicken on the table, so Sebastian did the same. ‘I pulled its head off by mistake,’ he told her, ‘And I was sick on your dog.’
Virginia tried to look understanding. Tried. And failed. Instead she burst out laughing and had to cover her face with the drying up cloth. ‘Sorry, love,’ she said, as her giggles subsided. ‘Why don’t you go get yourself cleaned up and bring me those clothes? Then we’ll get these birds drawn and ready for the oven.’
Sebastian made to move towards the stairs, then stopped. ‘Drawn?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’
A large hand landed on his shoulder. ‘It means you’ve still got to get the guts out, lad.’
‘The guts?’ Sebastian turned to face him, looking as though he was about to be sick again.
‘Uh oh!’ said Neil, with a chuckle. ‘Let’s get the poor dog out the way!’