Jessica E. Wragg

The Chill Room

I can see the airs of my own breath as they spirals upwards, past my nose and in front of my face, towards the white plastic ceiling. I have never really, looked up before. In fact, to me the chill room, twenty feet by twenty feet, has no ceiling at all, but opens upwards towards the sky where the meat hangs down and the clouds sail past like twigs caught in a stream. But the ceiling is pristine; glossy white. The rails that spent their time hanging from wall to wall are five inches below it, and except for the odd stray trotter, nothing has touched the above. The opaque cream fat on the rumps of beef have started to peel away as they dry, crumbling to reveal a layer of purple meat below. As the generator whirrs thoughtlessly in the background I think of being younger; PVA glue on my fingers. Sticking drawings of bones and skulls and hearts and lungs in bright greens and blues to a board in my room, the glue would cover my fingers. I spent hours picking the dried glue off my shiny, white skin in long, thin strands, until all that was left was that beneath my nails that I couldn’t quite reach. It would stay there for days sometimes, until the cycle repeated itself and the new glue peeled off the old.

I’ve found that it is much easier for vegetarians to explain why they don’t eat meat than it is for you and me to explain why we do. A vegan companion once asked me if it mattered to me if these things used to be animals. Well yes, of course it matters, but the point is that they’re not anymore. They are upside down carcasses, loins hung from railings on thick metal hooks, headless and featherless chickens in boxes, stacked to my right and ready to be de-boned. I had discovered, a few years ago, that pushing down on the back of a chicken sent a squeaking noise out through its cavity. I would press my palm into the backbone, squealing with delight at the sound until its bones gave in and the back snapped. Then, with a swift move of the knife the breasts and the legs would be removed, and the hollow yellow carcass tossed into the top of a large blue bin.

The meat fridge is an odd place to find sanctuary. Loins of beef hang in rows like soldiers, burgundy and black, dry and mouldy. There are always appreciative coos and aahs when they see a girl with a loin of beef on her shoulder, her fingers wrapped around the bones for grip. I heard a remark once that this wasn’t a job for a woman. I kept it with me ever since, strived to be better, showed off my knowledge, used my knife as an extension of my arm, lifted things that I knew I couldn’t, did things that I did not know how.

In the summer, we came inside to cool off, put our hot faces against cry-vacked bags of chicken leg and pork schnitzel. In the past winters, we came inside to warm up.

At seven years old, my grandfather gave to me a book on human anatomy. I spent hours studying our bodies through colourful and childish illustrations, tracing them, cutting them out, learning everything by name. It is the same child that obsesses over this room.

I feel more alive here than I have ever felt. Surrounded by dead things, parts of things; ribs, legs, spines, shoulders, necks. It is here that I find myself looking at everything, ignoring nothing. Legs of pork, some salted, some not, are stacked on the shelving unit behind the deafening generator. The grey blush of their meat is pale in comparison to others, with soft lines of muscle hidden beneath thick and fatty skin. A bone, marrow exposed, in the centre of it all like earth in the universe; in a fleshy, delicate system.

Beef, when dried, grows a heavy green mould on the outside and the meat blackens. This is called ageing, and as the osmosis begins and the water from the fresh meat evaporates, the proteins break down and the meat darkens. This increases the tenderness and flavour, and the fat yellows like old teeth. There is beauty to be found in it, the grass having done its job; beauty to be found also in the maroon of lamb meat, of finding ribs that will allow the scraping of the meat away easily. I find myself appreciating skin, and the silver membranes between muscles that glint in the spotlights of the butchery, and hearts, livers, kidneys which were plucked from the body of a living thing. I suppose to find beauty in raw meat is to find beauty in the body, in the creation of it all.

And then, there are the parts that disgust me, that tighten my throat and twist my stomach – the grey tongues of oxen, pickled and left wrapped in their juices in plastic crates. They are thick set and stubborn to move, made of all muscle but cold and wet and rough. Uncovered by parting the tissues with a sharp knife; broken bones and bruised hind legs of cattle and lambs, swollen beneath the fat of the meat from a boot or a kick or a stomp.

Moving past the boxes of chicken, pushing aside a piglet hanging limp from a hook, I take a sharp knife to the pig hanging upside down from the ceiling, ribs exposed, kidneys attached. It has been cut clean down the middle, with the head removed, and still might be taller than I am when stretched out. On the fourth bone from the shoulder, holding my knife in a fist, I cut through the soft cartilage that connects the spinal column, separating the loin and the belly. With a great heave, I lift it onto my shoulder and grip the ribs for support. My fingers sink into the cold, wet muscle, and I begin my way up the stairs to the real world. My breath is faster now, spiraling upwards in clouds towards the ceiling, upwards towards the sky.

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Grapefruit.

I am lying on your table; all chrome, steel, polished metal. My back is cold, slipping downstairs in my hospital gown of turquoise polyester; like a child in their mother’s clothing. Your eyes are cased behind thick lenses, magnified, large and questioning. Thick rimmed glasses. All the while I am watching your hands.

They are soft and ageing badly, tanned on the back and pale palms with yellow cuticles. You’re patting my forehead beneath the hair that I did not push away.

It is a strong blade, a sharp one. Cutting slowly you slice me in two, straight down the middle, and open me up like a grapefruit. I am glistening; my pink, red, purple innards looking upwards towards the ceiling of styrofoam squares and oddly placed light bulbs. I blink madly in the false light.

My middle is off-centre, my legs splayed outwards like the thrown down toys of a child, my stomach is a round thing. Peel back my skin – the shrill sound of cutting echoing back and forth against the plexiglass. I watch, you reach inside. Past the wet warmth of my liver and stomach, which spit like a spoon bursting the sweet flesh of an orange; bitter rind and sweet insides. You are smiling behind the cotton face mask, I am waiting for you to lick the juice from your chin.

Not so much

Not so much going, but fleeing.

Arms, wild and frantic; hands,
gripped around my wrist;
tongue, a thick muscle, vibrating
from your screams above the
crackling and spitting and hissing
of the flame.

Not so much quiet, but silence.

Your vacant suit, hanging limp
from the wardrobe, clinging
to the wire hanger; all frayed
cotton and your gold and green
cuff links still attached. You looked
smarter in the box.

Not so much smell, but a fragrance.

Your pillow, like hair and sleep
and drool. Unwashed pajamas and
crumbs from our breakfast.
A plate on the table, and your half
finished can on the floor.
Your side; covers thrown back.

Not so much shouting, more shrieking.

Lit up in orange, your hair went
first. I laughed when I saw you, bald
and pale. They did their best,
made you up well – the burns are
noticeable, only to me. You couldn’t
stand the pain of it.

Not so much lonely, but alone.

Soft lines of our floorboards,
waiting for their creak; caramel and
chocolates, ten cups of tea, the
pleasure of dinner alone. My food,
not yours. A terrible longing;
no one to sleep with.

Not so much forgetting, more ignoring.

Taking down your photos, waiting
for you coming home. The six o’clock
bus, heels on the pavement, the
phone with your mother. Your key,
the click of a door, a gush of cold air.
Waiting for nothing.

Not so much broken, more cracked.

 

Your Vase on my Mantlepiece

Thin like toothpicks
Thick like fists

You came from fire,
“Time are changing.”
A baby, staring up at a cotton
canopy, the centre of everything,
the beginning
of nothing. The ceaseless
stars of lightbulbs, leaves
of stitching and wood and

unforgiving photographs.
You smashed pottery on the ground,
smiling as it fell
to pieces before it landed.
You ground it by hand like
spices in a pestle. To dust.
It was so easy.

You never mentioned it again.
You would do the same
with wood if you could but
you say you can’t because of
splinters.

After 10 years of waiting
you scatter it like ashes and
make me pick it up again
piece by piece until I have
something that looks like
it could have been
might have been a vase.

The colour red, a kiss on
my hair; two cups of tea, a new
pair of jeans, a terrible
homesickness;
finding someone with my
birthday; scraping hair from
my carpet, wood
like chocolate, smooth lines
straight lines, blood from a
cut; letterpress greeting
cards, my new
winter coat.

Your vase on my mantelpiece.
I take it down during storms.

Soup

The mincemeat was missing. Sarah searched through her bag with an outstretched hand, feeling around in the pockets, the corners, the bottom for the thing. She pulled out her scuffed leather diary, gym trainers and sanitary towels to no avail. The mincemeat had gone, along with her purse, but in that moment all that seemed to matter was the former.

Frantically, she retraced her steps back to the bus stop, scanning the floor with impatient, eager eyes for the bright supermarket carrier bag. If it had fallen, Sarah was certain that she would have heard the sound of plastic on gravel. She reached for her phone, but was was she to do? Call the bus company? Call the police? Call her mother?

In her head, she wondered if it was better to go back to Brixton and see if someone had found it, but she thought against it, bile rising in her throat at the thought of pushing through the bodies in her funeral suit, not that anyone would give up her ground beef, anyway. She was sure of it; there was nothing for her at home, nothing but the the dregs of a batch of vegetable soup in a dirty pan, still on the hob from yesterday afternoon.

She had spent too long boiling vegetables in salt water, peppering leeks, skimming the film from the top of the water every ten minutes, filling a kettle, trying to make nothing taste like something. She was sick of using the potato masher to cream the mush into a finer paste because her mother didn’t own a blender. Tired of the sickly taste of swede and carrot; wet in her mouth, the stench of cooking cabbage.  

She had bought the mincemeat at a supermarket next to the train station. It was swaddled in bland plastic casing, a pale and pallid pink the colour of too much fat, a limp and bloody piece of paper stuck to the bottom of the curled strings of meat like spaghetti or braided hair or tubes. It had been picked over by everyone’s hands but hers. A feeling had come over her not unlike that of a carnivore, and ashamed at the bloodlust she could not help but imagine the dark taste, chewing the inevitable gristle between her front teeth.

Even when the cashier scanned the barcode, Sarah did not take her hands away. She was ready, flushed of face and tense; ready to run if it proved that her maths was wrong and she did not have enough. The cashier, rough and dirty stubble beginning to appear on his thin face, illuminated by the strobe lights of the cigarette counter, seemed to anticipate Sarah’s move, and for a moment the two of them were locked in an awkward embrace via the packet of value mine until he let go at the sight of her purse. She emptied it into the palm of his hand and darted out of the doors.

She wanted something to chew. She wanted to feel textures and solids and fat and flesh and all that comes in between. She could not hear her mother, choking on the thin soup, slurping it from the spoon any more.

Avoiding the small Godly woman with a megaphone parked outside of the pharmacist, she bumped into a group of men dancing to accordion music, steaming cups of coffee on the floor by their feet. They laughed, and so did she, enamoured with the shrill shrieks of their instruments and the soft soles of their trainers bouncing on the floor. With a yank on her hand, they made her dance. She did it half-heartedly with embarrassment, swinging her handbag from side to side, whacking the hoards of passers by who were struggling to get away from the spectacle. She thought of the relief of it all, the preacher’s hands on hers, her uncle’s tears at the sight of the coffin, the pathetic flowers that lined an old and blurry photograph on a mount. She felt nothing but relief.

When she finally pulled away, Sarah stalked towards the bus stop, patting down flyaway hairs with the palms of her hands. The woman with the megaphone was louder now.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”

Sarah winced at the analogy, and sidled toward a group of commuters so that she could vanish amongst them. It was difficult not to make eye contact when she could not stop staring. She had put her hands over her ears to drown out the tinny voice.

`The vomit on her mother’s last day had looked just like the soup, plastered across the carpet of the bedroom floor, dripping down her chin, orange stains on her cream nightgown. She had done her very best to wipe it away, to clean up the stains, but there was very little she could have done.

The house was silent. Sarah turned on the kettle, found the last of the vegetables in the fridge and threw them into a pan. Salt, pepper, garlic. When they had boiled, she took the potato masher and did her very best. Her mother’s chair was empty, the cushions indented with the outline of her hips and legs. Sarah took the soup to it and sat down, her hands cupped around the curve of the bowl. After an hour of silence, she realised that she had let it go cold.

Destination – I forget, now.

We sit together in rigid seats, backs slumped, resting on each other’s spines for support. My leg across yours; my fat thigh spreading outwards, your hand on my nylon tights. We watch every single person who came up the stairs, neither of us mentions anything.

On the bus to Streatham Hill. Destination: Telford Avenue. Destination: Somewhere. Destination: I forget now.

Playing thumb wars with no space to manoeuvre, our grubby thumbs in a spiral, caressing the pads of our fingers, trying to squish the other’s appendages. Sometimes you win, most of the time, I win. I flatten your thumb under mine until it turns a yellowish white. You give in, mostly, and deny that I beat you.

I forget that it’s a someone driving us where we are going, caged in behind thick Plexiglas yet so excited to see a familiar face. Once, when we were alone on the night bus, the voice spoke to us through his speakers, started a conversation about its favourite route, it’s favourite bus, it’s favourite wife. We spoke back to it; answered its questions when it asked us, apologised when we spoke over it. We both knew he couldn’t hear us, but that’s the thing with lonely people – they never do.

Somehow, we are in the station. Thick, sighing buses lined up like a conga, and the voices are now the men and women, wearily plodding down from their Plexiglas cages. The hiss of the doors on hydraulics as they open, the hiss of the doors on hydraulics as they close. The lights go off, and we are on the back seat.

The first thing to do, you say, is hide. You let your legs slide beneath the seat in front, and disappear downwards. You remind me of a razor clam; spending hours poking them in the supermarket until their glossy tongues retreated into their hideaway. I think I killed one once.

I do the same, and we are all shoulders, all double chins, folded up underneath the bus seats, dangerously close to chewing gum and empty bottles of Fanta.

I’m unnerved, because I know that if you wanted to, you could fall asleep, and we’d be trapped in the bus all night. I would not sleep; too antsy to move in case my hair caught in dirt, too awake to sleep because we are in fact, trapped on an empty bus.

Do you think they know? You ask, and I say: Why would they?

You shrug, as much as you can lying flat beneath the seats. I do the same. They are the men and women in fleece vests. They are the men and women who spoke to us through the megaphone. They are the men and women who forgot they had passengers. They are the men and women, who probably didn’t.

I don’t remember if we moved or not, now. Did we stay there all night? Destination: Telford Avenue. Destination: Somewhere. Destination: I forget, now.

The Magician

It was as though the magic had worn off, like the sheen of silver and trickles of gold had dulled into copper and brass. I began to hate you when you were around and wished that you would disappear.  My mother said that’s what happens to all couples, until the hating takes too much effort and the loving isn’t worth it. Then there is just fondness.

Someone, and I don’t remember who, asked me what it feels like, to love someone that way. I told them that it was like eating an orange; sweet, little bites with snaps of bitter peel, smelling you on my fingers for hours after you had gone. They told me I was being too arty. I thought the description was good.

Letting someone in takes time and we were not very good at it. We tried lying on our sides in a park in Brixton, in silence. Not a park as such, more a stretch of grass outside a housing estate, feeling the hum and rumble of the underground below us. I placed my palm on the earth and felt it twitch. The idea was there. We looked up at the sky but the brown brick got in the way, and then it began to rain. Only a little at first, but then a lot, and we couldn’t ignore it any longer and took refuge in a local café; the kind where locals sit outside and eyeball you not to come in. It wasn’t inviting, but it was warm, and that seemed to be all that mattered in the moment.

I think I much preferred you when I was 12. When we were children you took it upon yourself to learn magic tricks. You told me in Drama group that it was going to help you become famous, that your mother had bought you a kit from the back pages of the Argos catalogue. I had wondered at the time how, if it was so easy to buy magic at Argos, there weren’t more magicians we knew; our classmates and teachers. My parents had it drilled into me from a young age that magic does not exist and neither does God, so I told you not to be silly. Then, outside the Shalamar chicken shop at Easter half term you told me to pick and card and pulled the same one out from behind my ear and suddenly I believed in heaven and hell and all that’s in between. I asked if the card was lucky and you said: ‘No, Emily, I’ve been practising.’

A few months ago I found the magic kit in a suitcase behind the wardrobe that we share; sponge balls and metal cups and hoops with links in them. I left them out in hope, but you tidied them away; ‘God, where did you find these?’

Back in the café, whether you knew I was watching or not, you turned your empty cup upside down over a lump of grubby sugar and dragged it around in a snake on the table top. When you picked it up again, the sugar was still there, and you watched it for a little while, wondering why it hadn’t moved. I stole it from you, popped it into my mouth, crunched on it until the sweetness became too much and shook the nerves in my teeth. I looked up at you expecting to see your eyes. You were staring through me at the posters on the wall. Perhaps you had made me disappear.

Whitechapel Bedroom

In the sweaty cold of the duvet, once plump and ripe hanging limp from the bed like a loose limb, Helen lay silently. She pushed the pillows up to the wall, trying to give them lift. It reminded her of the time she worked in a butchery, stringing up white, lifeless chickens. She would pull the string tight underneath the breasts, lift them up until they were round and succulent, securing it around the legs with a tight knot. She had amused herself by pressing down a palm on the birds’ carcass – when the soft bones gave way and air rushed through the cavity, it would squeak like a mouse. Alone, downstairs in the chill of the cold room, she would push and push at the chickens until most of their backs broke under the weight of her hand. No one noticed, though, she tied the string even tighter.

She desperately didn’t want to be hot. With the window wide open, reaching out into the night air of the city, she had tried to sleep swaddled in the bedsheets. She wanted to be cool, to feel fresh, not sweaty and sticky in the summer. Once inside the bedsheets, strategically tucked away, she couldn’t move to close it. She lay awake for hours waiting for the wind to drop.

Down the street in the middle of the night, a few Asian men began to shout and yell. They said ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ and ‘shit’. They shouted it loud into the London of three in the morning to no one. And then, when they realised that no one cared enough to stop them, they got into their car and revved the engine until it felt like the ground was shaking and let go of the accelerator and sped off. She had imagined their bodies slamming back against the leather seats with the force of speed. They came round and did it again, twice, whilst she listened, and then they left.

When Helen woke in the morning and swung her legs over the side of the mattress onto the floor, she remembered the night before. She had spilled sunflower seeds all over the carpet and she had not cleaned them up. In a fit of boredom, Helen had waited to see if they might grow into anything, remembering the story that her mother told her years ago about watermelons. Never eat the seeds, because a tree will grow inside you. Helen was always very careful to pick them out after that. If she ever did, by accident, swallow one whole she would feel it in her stomach when she lay in bed. It stretched her abdomen, and she would dream of bushes sprouting from her belly and large watermelons weighing down the branches until they got too big and fell to the floor.

The duvet warmed up a little, she shrank underneath it. The weather was gloomy. Whitechapel felt grey. The hospital stood proud against a backdrop of the old buildings, helicopter pad glowing thoughtlessly in the daybreak.

By the Legs

They had it by the legs – by the scrawny yellow feet, dusky brown now in the overhead streetlights. They dangled it in and out of the car beam, casting shadows across the wet tarmac. I watched them closely from the taxi rank; the thing kept bending its back almost in two, folding itself over in an attempt to nip at their fingers, beating two bare wings in protest of the treatment. I hoped that they would not see me staring; I hoped that I was not too drunk to look away quickly when they turned around. I hoped that I could keep on watching them dangle the tiny bird in front of their Ford Fiestas, whilst I waited barefoot in the 3am night time with my shoes on the floor to my side and the gravel beneath my toes almost cutting into my skin but not quite.

Over an oppressive and smothering baseline, which felt like the hot breath of someone close to you, I could hear you laughing to yourself. I watched, as you twisted and turned amongst thousands, millions of tiny hands casting quick, nimble shadows across the damp floor, grasping at the thick air for a touch. Your head rose and fell like a Pinnochio doll on strings too small. Strings kept you upright. The sweat on my upper lip tasted like cranberry. I smelled of gin. You spilled it on me with your puppet hands, lazy and numb. I thought about the time they anaesthetised you at the hospital, pulled out your teeth. The ice fell on my skin, found a balance for a second, and slipped away.

I asked if you were okay. I asked you in sign language, from the little I had learnt in school, hoping that I might communicate with you better. Your neck looked thin when you nodded.

You said something and I didn’t know what. I couldn’t tell so I moved closer and through the hands, stroking my arms and waist and clutching at my bag. I asked you to say it again.

Do I love you? You said.

The bird was tiring, tiring of hanging upside down by the legs, tiring of pecking, bending it’s back in a way that didn’t feel right. Tiring of being bounced up and down by the thick fist of a teenage boy fresh from driving school. It’s movement slowed, it’s wings collapsed. When they realised it was dead, the boys tossed it to the floor. They got into the car, positioned it correctly; a little to the right so the beams shone over my bare legs.

I swear I heard the crunch of tiny bones as the car spun away, out of the car park and on to the main road.

 

a space for writing…

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Over the next year, I’ll be using this website to document my writing – short stories, poetry and excerpts from longer pieces. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing.