Authors: Chris Simms
Chris Simms has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in the United Kingdom in 2004 by Hutchinson
All my thanks to Chops for continuing to put up with the man in the attic.
As the door opens and you
hear above the electric fan a kind of
one-word wail, I am the one
who sounds loudest in my head.
Song of the Battery Hen
(Used with kind permission from Enitharmon Press.)
With a sound of two twigs snapping, the chicken's legs broke in his hand. The bird transformed from a hanging bundle of limp feathers to a screeching mess and his fingers instantly uncurled. It dropped fifteen feet to the sand-covered ground where it began flapping round in tight circles like a clockwork toy gone wrong.
'Grab 'em when I lift 'em upwards!' shouted the man in shit-splattered overalls, standing on a narrow ledge on the lorry's side. 'If you don't,' he carried on with a note of triumph, 'they swing back and that happens.' He nodded towards the ground but his eyes remained locked on the younger worker.
'Yeah, sorry,' the teenager replied, disgustedly peeling silver scales of chicken skin from the palms of his hands.
Despite his heavy build, the man clambered nimbly along the stack of cages welded to the lorry's rear until he was directly above the stricken bird. With its ruined legs splayed uselessly off to one side it continued its futile revolutions, the repeated cries from its open beak merging into something that resembled a scream.
He dropped from the side of the vehicle and landed with both boots on the bird's outstretched head and neck. A thick squirt of blood shot out from under one heel and all movement immediately stopped. The only thing to disturb the silence that followed was a pigeon cooing gently from amongst a copse of beech trees nearby. The man stepped back, revealing a pulp of bone mashed into the loose sand. Then, relishing the appalled attention of the audience watching from the shed above, he swung back a stubby leg and booted the carcass high into the air. A handful of reddish coloured feathers detached themselves, one catching in the current of air blowing from the extractor fan mounted on the shed's side. The feather tumbled away, up into the clear blue sky.
With arms that seemed a little too long for his body, he climbed back up the wall of cages, each one bristling with beady eyes, jagged beaks and shivering combs.
'It's simple - keep 'em hanging upside down and they don't move,' said the man, reaching into another cage and dragging two squawking birds out by the legs. Once their heads were hanging downwards in the open air they immediately went still and he lifted their passive forms to the open door. This time the youth successfully grabbed the legs, and before they could start swinging back, he whipped them inside the shed.
'You'll be doing four in each hand by lunch - now out the way,' said the man perched on the lorry's ledge, another brace of birds already dangling from his arm. Though no one said anything, something about the over-enthusiastic way the older man gave out directions reminded everyone of the playground: a schoolboy, prematurely invested with authority by his teacher.
The youth got off his knees and, with a bird in each hand, turned round. Immediately in front of him inside the shed was a tier of empty cages, six high. It stretched away in both directions, the dimness inside making it impossible to see right to either end. The walkway he was standing on was made of rippled concrete and barely wider than his shoulders.
Coating it was a mishmash of shell fragments, feathers and dried yolk. He had to struggle round the person next to him, banging one of the chickens against the wall. Once past, he set off into the shed's depths.
Away from the fresh air at the open door the temperature suddenly picked up and the sharp smell of ammonia dramatically increased. His way was lit by a string of naked bulbs dangling at ten metre intervals from a black cable running just above his head. A thick sandy coloured dust clung to everything. Even the top of the cable was covered in it like powdery snow on a telephone line. The bulbs themselves were almost completely obscured - only the bottom third of each was exposed, and the yellowish light they gave out made him squint. In the gloom above, the residue had formed into web-like loops, which curled from the roof, the occasional strand brushing the top of his head. It seemed like a living thing, a kind of airborne mould that made the very air thick and heavy. He imagined that, if he stood still long enough, the spores would settle on him, and eventually he too would become wrapped in its cloying shroud.
To his right the small conveyor belts running along in front of each cage clanked and whined, the moving surface transporting pellets to scores of cages that would soon be stuffed full of birds. Set into the ceiling above him was the occasional fan, blades lazily revolving. Their motion served only to circulate the warm air, carrying the dust into every crevice and onto every available surface.
He walked to the first gap in the steep row of cages, turned right and then immediately left into one of the central aisles. In the gloom ahead of him a dark form crouched. As he walked up to the person he had to step over a lump on the ground. Looking down he saw the tips of feathers and was shocked to realise it was a dead bird. From the layer of powder almost engulfing it he guessed it had been lying there for quite some time. Now in front of the person, he held the two birds out.
'Cheers,' said the woman emotionlessly, taking them from him and shoving them upside down into the open doorway of the nearest cage. The birds began clucking in protest, and one started flapping its wings. 'Get in,' she said aggressively through clenched teeth, forcing them forward with the flat of her hand. Inside what was little more than a hamster's cage, two other birds were already jostling for a firm footing on the wire mesh floor. He watched as one wing fluttered at the side of the door. With a final shove she got them inside, breaking several feathers in the process.
Swinging the wire door shut she announced, 'Home sweet home.'
Out in the bright sunlight the rust-coloured feather rose upward through the air, carried on the light breeze blowing between the two elongated buildings. It drifted along for a while and then gradually began to lose height. Finally it settled on the ground, just in front of a weathered pair of brogues. The leather creaked slightly and a thin, angular hand picked it up.
'Who,' said the man, gently rolling the shaft of the feather between a skeletal finger and thumb, 'is the man giving instructions?'
'That's Rubble,' replied the farm owner. 'I don't need guard dogs or anything with Rubble living here. He's my walking, talking Rottweiler.' He spoke a little too fast, trying to impress.
'Where did he get a name like that?' Other hand running through a wiry beard that was shot through with flecks of grey.
'Oh, it's short for Roy Bull. Rubble just seems to fit him better somehow.'
'And he lives here, on the farm?'
'Yeah, in a caravan at the bottom of the lane down there.' He pointed to the copse of beech trees, where an occasional glimpse of white showed between the gently shifting leaves. 'He's just a child really - in terms of IQ. But he certainly likes killing things-chickens, foxes, rats, mink. Even cats, some villagers believe. And if I hadn’t pulled him off the animal liberation woman last year, he’d have probably done her too.’
‘Oh God, yeah - they’re a bloody menace. It’s their fault we’ve got the mink problem around here - after they broke open the fur farm down the valley. They used the track last year to get on to the farm and firebomb one of my lorries. Rubble got the woman though and they haven’t visited again. Even so, I now have security cameras on the doorway at the main entrance and at the top end of the sheds. They’re connected to a monitor in Rubble’s caravan, he keeps an eye on it and patrols the place at night, hoping some of them try and come back.’
‘A useful employee to have.’
‘Yup – security guard, chicken culler, carcass disposer. All the really grim stuff no one else wants to do. Saves me a fortune – not that he knows it.’ The man laughed harshly and extended a hand towards some steps. ‘Come on. I’ll show you how we produce forty-thousand eggs every day.’
They climbed the metal stairway and the farm owner opened the door at the top. Immediately in front of them was another door and on the floor before it a tray holding a large foam doormat. The farm owner pointed at a thick plastic poster on the wall that read,
Anti-contamination procedures in operation
. He looked down at the tray. ‘That’s soaked in disinfectant. If salmonella or coccidiosis got in here it would sweep through the shed like wild fire.’ They both stepped onto the map and then went through the next door. The visitor was instantly struck by the combination of heat, smell and noise. Sounds of machinery and below that, a continual low rumble. He was reminded of being on holiday; alighting from the coolness of an aircraft and stepping into the unfamiliar temperatures and scents of a foreign land. In front of him was a row of four very narrow chipboard doors.
Along the end wall were stacks of cardboard egg trays, each one large enough to hold several dozen eggs. Propped against the wall next to them was a short handled shovel, the blade caked in a clay-like substance. Looking down at the layer of broken shells littering the floor the visitor realised that, as with most factories, the sheer volume of what was produced inside meant it became a worthless commodity to the employees.
‘I call this area the foyer,’ said the farm owner. ‘Each of these doors leads to an aisle, I’ll warn you now, they’re very narrow. Shall we go through for the main performance?’ He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and raised it to his face.
‘After you,’ said the visitor, holding one hand before him. The farmer opened one of the central doors and stepped through. Stooping down and taking a deep breath, the visitor followed. Behind the sound of the clanking conveyor belts at his side he could hear the massed brood of thousands and thousands of chickens. He looked at the cages rearing above his head on either side. Inside the cages nearest him, the birds tried to shrink away from the bars, but the presence of their cage-mates behind only allowed them to retreat a couple of centimetres. The low guttural sound coming from the backs of their throats became more agitated, and the visitor was reminded of the disapproving tones of old women gossiping.
The cages were stacked with an incredible density. Barely an inch was wasted between each tier, and the bottom cages stopped about a half-a-foot above the concrete floor. Aware of the dust-covered bulb hanging just inches above his head, the visitor stepped forwards and the birds in the next cage shrank back. Sensing their discomfort he felt obliged to step away – but that just took him closer to other cages. Space was something the sheds had not been designed to offer.
With his handkerchief covering his nose and mouth, the farm owner raised his voice so he could be heard over the din. Pointing to the front of the cages he said, ‘This conveyor belt carries the food pellets. They’re shaped like grain so the birds can easily peck at them.’ He pointed to a shallow trough below it. ‘ When they lay an egg, it rolls over the wire, out the gap and into here. There aren’t many eggs now because the collectors come round mid morning.’
‘How much food do the birds eat?’
‘All they want. The conveyor belts turn at regular intervals. They never get fat, and if you under feed them egg production goes down. In practice its about one hundred grams per bird, per day. Those bulk bins at the end of each shed? They hold a couple of tons of pellets – enough to keep the birds going for a few weeks.’
The visitor peered into the cage at eye level before him. The chickens inside certainly didn’t look fat: in fact they seemed the opposite. But perhaps that was due to their lack of feathers. Skinny exposed necks, pink and scabby backs partially covered by feathers that had been stripped of almost all their filaments. The spines that were left behind brought images to his mind of the narrow tree stumps jutting out of the ground in the desolated battle fields of World War One. He noticed most of their feet were gnarled and twisted, the claws over grown and yellow.
‘Why are their feet like that?’ he asked.
‘Standing on the wire mesh,’ said the farm owner matter-of-factly. ‘It’s a problem you can’t avoid. If they don’t stand on wire where would all the shit go?’ He pointed to the manure deflector that formed a sloping roof over the cage immediately below. The visitor saw it was covered in a good inch of thick, gritty droppings. It was the same stuff coating the shovel in the foyer. If it got any higher, the stinking layer would start poking through the cage floor of the birds above. ‘Remind me to tell Rubble to shift that lot,’ said the owner.