Chicken and the Road (First Draft)

Posted: November 15, 2010 in graffiti living

“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.” -Philip K Dick

Chicken and the Road

I woke when my head hit the glass. Not the persistent rattle like before – head lolled against the window, full weight pressed against the edge of my right ear – but hard enough to bruise. I’d had my head pressed against it so long that all I could feel was the throbbing of the glass against my ear as the coach moved down the motorway, against my ear like a conch shell but I didn’t hear the ocean. All I could hear was the road – different speeds produced their own vibration. I’d sleep and it was always the same dream of the road, dreams of where you are now, not where you are going. I’d jump back awake at sudden turns in the road.

The coach had stopped. People were talking up front as the driver got out of his seat and said, “This will only take a minute”. As he got off the coach he pressed the overhead button and the door closed behind him.

I scratched my left wrist until I made my eczema weep. Then I remembered the man sat next to me and stopped, the Japanese man with his daughter. She was a little too big to be carried but the coach was full when he got on, so he’d sat the whole time with the girl on his knee. My jeans had a hole at the knee. I sat up and searched around for my coat, the long black coat I bought in Paris. It must have slipped from my lap whilst I was asleep. I pulled it up from the floor, back over my legs, and clutched it in one hand to cover the knee with the hole.

At first all I could see out of the window was the little girl reflected in the glass, her round face and big brown eyes, wide open, eyes that knew more than they should just from looking, twin moons trying to make sense of the world. Then behind her I saw something heaped limp and bloody in the middle of the road.

The man spoke to me. “You can look out of the window all you like” he said, “The road isn’t going anywhere.”
“What’s happening?” I said. “Why have we stopped?”
The man looked down the aisle. He had a better view than I did from the window.
“It looks like a fox,” he said.
“Did we hit it?”
“I don’t know if we hit it first. All I know is we are the ones who stopped for it.”
“I hope it’s alright,” I said.
The little girl looked out of the window but covered her ears when he said that the fox was dead. He kissed the top of her head and she nestled back down into him. The first word on her lips was still daddy but she was aware there was a world.
“What’s the driver doing?” I said.
“He needs to move it out of the way”
“That’s horrible.”
“No, it shows that life is doing well round here.”
I can’t believe he said this. I don’t like seeing animals lying dead on the road, it reminds me that we are here.
The traffic had slowed right down but started to pass around us. Some gawked like tourists and wound down their windows as they passed. The driver ignored them and didn’t speak. He rolled up his white shirtsleeves and fastened them back, first one and then the other. He wiped the sweat from his balding grey head with the back of his hand and crouched down next to the fox. He held his right hand against its neck, fingers pressed into the blood-matted fur. Dark blood puddled on the road around it. He waited a slow heartbeat and then grabbed hold of its legs. I wasn’t sure whether it would move as one piece. He dragged the fox to the side of the road, blood smeared in a wet trail behind it. He did this and then walked back to the coach. I didn’t see him wipe his hands. He got on without a word, and when an old lady at the front asked if the fox was okay he just started driving again.

We drove along in silence for a while. The little girl curled up on her father and rested her head against his chest. I looked at her as a way of looking at him.
“She’s lovely,” I said. Meaning she is beautiful.
“What’s your name little girl?” I said. Her lips tightened.
“Anuki” the man said. He stroked his daughter’s hair as he said her name.
“She’s a quiet one.”
“It has been a long day for her. She has been in a very strange mood all day. She wanted to go on the coach.”
“And what is your name, little girl?” he said.
“Annabelle.” I said. “And you are?”
“Married.” he said.
I laughed at that. I’d got him to tell me he was married without even asking, but I could already tell. Someone had picked out that suit for him. He looked like he had spent several hours in a business meeting, rather than sat on a coach next to me.
“We are picking up her mother from the airport,” he said.
“Where’s she been?” I said.
”Nowhere. She is coming to visit us. And to take Anuki back home with her.”
“Where’s home?” I said.
“Tokyo” he said. He didn’t talk much about his country, and his face hardly moved when he spoke.
“I’m out here on business,” he said, “but I still have access rights to my daughter. Even when I am living out of hotel rooms.”
He said ‘access rights’ in front of his daughter. They must have been separated for a while, but still married. Which meant that his ex had picked out a suit for him and he was still wearing it, unless he had a lover. Either way they had Anuki between them.
“You have a beautiful country,” he said.
I wasn’t going to let him get away that easily. I asked what he did for a living.
“I’m a lawyer,” he said. I remembered a sign in the city that said ‘God Loves Solicitors’.
“It was also take your daughter to work day on Friday. We got to spend the weekend together.”
“How did that go?”
“She told the office that I like to sit at home in my underwear drinking whiskey in the early hours of the morning, listening to jazz records.”
“Is that what you do?”
“My daughter knows me very well,” he said.
“And what about you?” he asked
“I’m a painter. I’ve just sold one of my paintings.”
“What was it of?”
I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t of anything, that when you look at a painting you are really looking at is yourself. Every time you look you will see a different painting, as you are someone else and are also changed by looking.
“I have absolutely no idea,” I said. “It’s supposed to be abstract.”

Anuki pulled secret faces at herself in the window. All you could see was her looking out of the window or watching me, but one of her blank looks was like someone sticking their tongue out at you. I tried to speak to the man some more, but whenever I spoke Anuki would look bored or stare at my mouth, looking at me from a funny angle with her head against her father. When he started reading his newspaper, I picked up the paperback that I had forgotten about from down the side of my seat and pretended to read.

The newspaper was all in Japanese with few pictures. The delicate black script was like an exquisite work of art. The longer I stared at it the more I wanted to understand. He saw me looking.
“Do you read Japanese?” he said.
“Only in translation” I said and showed him the book I was reading. As it happened, it was by a Japanese author, a modern one who was well respected over here. But I wanted to know more about the newspaper.
“I assure you it is very boring,” he said.
“What about this bit here?” I said, touching the page he was on.
“And this?” I said, touching the other.
We stayed like this for a while, him asking questions about my book and me touching the pages of his newspaper and asking what they meant as I ran my hands over the print.
Eventually we decided to swap. I held the newspaper on my lap and watched him flick through the pages of my book.
“I’ve read this,” he said. “One time in Okinawa.”
He was on the back page before I’d even turned the first page of his newspaper.
“A lot has been lost in translation,” he said. “The ending is different. It is a tradition in Japanese stories that the dead must tell the truth.”
After a while we swapped back.
I put my head back against the glass. The window still rattled but it didn’t matter so much this time. It made me think of the philosopher’s tale about a man who when asked why he kept banging his head with a hammer said that it was because it felt so good when he stopped. Anuki settled down between her father and me, and I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember was as the man touched my arm.
“They’re making us get off the coach” he said.

I opened my eyes to his hand on my arm. People had stood up and were getting ready to leave. At first I didn’t understand what was happening, I thought that people’s souls had got up and were going to leave them behind.
“Why are they making us get off here?” I said.
“I don’t know,” the Japanese man said, “A guard stopped the coach and said that everybody had to leave their vehicles.”
I looked out of the window and strained to see down beyond the front of the coach. I expected to see a dead fox again but instead there was a roadblock.
I scratched my left wrist and made my eczema bleed again. My coat had fallen off of my legs again whilst I was asleep. I picked it up and stood with it folded over one arm, behind the Japanese man and his daughter.
As I stepped out into the aisle I noticed that I’d left on my seat the book that I’d been reading. It sat in my place, a cheap paperback. I wanted to go back and get it but there were too many people behind me waiting to get off and I didn’t want to lose my place next to the man. His daughter Anuki still hadn’t said a word to me. I wondered if they had talked to each other whilst I was asleep. I followed them off the coach. We knew very little about each other, having only said the things that strangers say when they are travelling together, but somewhere between where we had started and where we were now, I had started to feel connected to both of them.
I stepped from the coach into bright sunshine and had to shield my eyes with my hand. It was bright like being stood under the glare of a big bulb, but we were beneath open blue sky. People squinted at each other as if they were surprised to find out that they had been on the same coach. I wanted to paint what I saw, to break it down into lines and colour and graded perspective. The sky would be colder than the fields, which were wet with morning. Each blade of grass a single brush stroke, expertly done.
We weren’t on the motorway. It looked like we had been diverted on to a side road. To the right a typical English field – if there is such a thing – stretched as far as I could see. On the left hand side of the road there was a steep grassy embankment that led down into some woods. Several cars had stopped in front of the coach and there were several more behind us. There was no more traffic on the road coming or going in either direction, just our coach and the cars that had stopped here with us. It was like the traffic had been cut off at both ends and we had been singled out for special attention.
The roadblock consisted of two black vans parked across the road, and a fence in front of it. The black vans had tinted windows so I couldn’t see inside. The fence wasn’t really a fence. A thin metal grid that would be easy to move and set up. It was the suggestion of a fence that counted. Here is the line that you do not cross.
The men with guns were more persuasive. Uniformed guards manned the perimeter, two by two, whilst others ushered people out of their vehicles. I’d seen riot police before in the city, but nothing like this. They carried themselves with the authority of soldiers or an armed response unit, but they had no badges or symbols on their black fatigues by which to identify them. I do not know what they were guarding. All I know is that some of them held rifles with shoulder straps, and that the other ones with rolled up sleeves had machetes strapped to their belts.
A loudspeaker screeched and crackled into life.
“Listen very carefully,” it said. “There is no cause for alarm. This is a routine inspection. Step away from your vehicles and form an orderly queue on the road.”
Families lined up in front of their cars. The people we were with stood along the length of the coach, with the driver at the front. The Japanese man stood next to me with his arms around his daughter. Anuki held on to one of her father’s arms, but didn’t seem too interested in the guards. She looked over the road, down the embankment, into the woods.
“Have your ID cards ready for inspection. Please note the use of mobile phones is prohibited. Refrain from using your mobile phone at all times.”
Two guards made their way down the line. They stopped at each person in turn. One guard stood there rifle in hand, whilst the other took the person’s ID card and looked at it. In some cases the guard handed the ID card back to them and made them take a step backwards out of the queue. But for most of the people they inspected the card and then took it from them.
When they got to us, they dealt with the Japanese man first. The guard that spoke had short blonde hair. I was surprised by how young he looked.
“Can I have your ID card for inspection, sir?” he said.
The Japanese man gave it to him.
“What’s this about?” he said.
“Standard procedure, sir.”
The guard put the Japanese man’s ID card in his pocket.
“I’m going to need the little girl’s as well,” he said.
“She doesn’t have one, she’s just a child.”
“It’s your responsibility to make sure she has one,” he said. He moved on to me.
“Can I have your ID card for inspection, miss?” he said.
I handed him my ID.
“Why are you taking them from some and not from others?” I said.
“Standard procedure,” he said. He put my card in his pocket.
“Will I get it back?” I said.
He continued down the line.
When the guards had finished the inspection we were shuffled from the road and lined up on the embankment, ready to go down it. The four or five men who had been given their cards back were being escorted to the black vans. I did not want to draw attention to myself, but we were being led to the woods.
“They don’t look like terrorists,” I said.
A little boy sat alone crying on the road. He refused to join our group on the embankment. Two guards stood over him, a fat man and a woman with long brown hair tied up in a bun. They argued about what to do with him. The man waved his machete at the boy, but the woman grabbed his arm.
“That isn’t necessary,” she said. She knelt down next to the boy.
“What’s your name, honey?” she said.
He answered in a weak voice, but I couldn’t make out his name.
“Wipe your eyes,” she said. “This is just routine, it won’t take long.”
The woman stood up and pulled out a pistol. She shot the boy in the back of the head. We all jumped at the sound and then stood very still. He hunched forward like he was still crying but it was blood that came out of his face. The guards left him there and walked past us down the embankment.

The loudspeaker started up again.
“It is imperative that you do what we tell you. We have been authorised to use reasonable force if you do not comply. Stay calm, follow our instructions, co-operate and this will soon be over.”
There was nothing else we could do, nowhere for us to go. Armed guards stood around us, two by two.
“None of you have ID cards. You must proceed into the woods,” the loudspeaker said. “Form an orderly queue and move along.”
We were led at gunpoint down into the woods. The ground was damp and muddy. Either it had rained overnight or there was dew on the grass that had still not evaporated even though it was bright sunshine above the trees. Dirty puddled water gathered in pitted marks like an open wound. At the bottom of the embankment was a large muddy ditch, lined with dead leaves and wet grass.
We stood in single file. A few feet from the front of the queue, two guards stood by the ditch. It was the man and woman from before. The woman still had her pistol out, and the man had a machete strapped to his belt.
“First one, step forward,” the loudspeaker said. I couldn’t understand where it was coming from, but its sound was everywhere. As if its sound was amplified by the woods.
The young man at the front of the queue edged towards the two guards.
“You were first in line,” the loudspeaker said. “You are free to go. Proceed over the ditch but do not look back behind you.”
The man looked at the guards in turn and then jumped down into the ditch. It occurred to me then that it had been dug out deliberately. He was halfway across when he glanced over his shoulder.
A guard near the edge of the ditch aimed his rifle at him. The man tried to crawl out on the other side. He was shot in the back and fell back into the ditch.
“If you are free to go, do not look behind you,” the loudspeaker said. “Next one, step forward.”
An older man stepped forward. He was questioned by the guards. You couldn’t hear what was being said, as there was too much space between him and the rest of us, like a bank queue. He turned right round and looked directly at the rest of us, as if about to say something. The woman shot him in the side of the head. Two guards with rolled up sleeves came over, picked him up, and dumped his body in the ditch.
At this, a girl just behind me tried to break from the queue and run back up onto the road. The nearest guard shot her in the chest with his rifle. She rolled over on the grass with her eyes still open.
“You all have a chance to live,” the loudspeaker said. “Just follow our instructions. If you answer the guard’s question correctly, then you are free to go. Next one, step forward.”
So that’s how it was. Stick to the queue and end up in the ditch, or run and be shot by the guards. One by one, the ditch filled up with all of the people in front of us. Some went like placid cows. Others struggled. But nobody else tried to run. We all watched it happen, and waited for our turn.
The woman put a new clip in her pistol as she chatted with the man. “Next one, step forward.”
The Japanese man still had his arms around his daughter.
A guard cocked his rifle at the man and said, “Just her.”
The Japanese man wouldn’t stand back. I held onto his arm as his daughter stepped forward.
Anuki walked straight up to the two guards by the ditch. They questioned her and waited for her to speak. She looked up at them both in turn. The two guards glanced at each other and laughed. They waved for her to go. She ran over to the ditch, and had to crawl over the bodies to get to the other side. At first she couldn’t climb out again, but she managed. I watched her disappear as she made her way up the other side and out of the woods. She didn’t look back.
“Next one, step forward.”
The Japanese man went up to the guards. At least his daughter was safe and would not have to see this. He reached into his pocket. I thought he was going to attack them but he pulled out his wallet. Then I thought that maybe he had another ID card, but he pulled out a roll of banknotes. Money fell to the floor like dead leaves, as the woman kicked his legs from under him.
“We don’t want your money,” she shouted. “You think that’s what this is about?” The other guard snatched the Japanese man’s wallet from him and threw it into the ditch. He then turned back and attacked him with the machete. It was a long time before the other guards were allowed to come and throw him into the ditch.
I thought about what it would be next. They would only injure me, and I would fall into the ditch. I would wake up at night beneath other bodies. Bleeding badly and missing an arm or a hand, but still alive. There would be a light snow on the other bodies like in war films or in Auschwitz. I’d crawl out from underneath them and make my way onto the embankment. Among the dead, mobile phones would ring in the woods. I wouldn’t be able to find one in time to answer it. I’d use my cord necklace as a tourniquet to stop me bleeding, and stagger back onto the road. The coach would be gone, but the cars would still be there. I’d break into one of them, that has an empty baby carrier inside. I’d use tampons or disposable nappies to mop up the blood. The guards could come back at any minute. Not wanting to go back down among the dead to look for car keys, I’d stumble along on foot, back towards the city. But that’s not how it happened.
“Next one, step forward,” the loudspeaker said.
I walked up to the two guards, the fat man and skinny woman.
“Are you ready?” they said.
“You’re like Laurel and Hardy,” I said.
“Listen to me,” the man said. “We are not going to search you. We are not going to rape you. We are not going to take your money. We only want you to answer the question.”
“You have a choice,” the woman said. “Research shows that people would prefer to be shot rather than be mutilated.” She sounded so cheerful. “Studies also show that third parties react less to gunshot wounds than they do to mutilation, so it’s less disturbing for the others if you do as we tell you.”
“If you answer correctly, you are free to go,” the man said. “Answer incorrectly and you will be shot. But refuse to co-operate, and we will use the machete. Understood?”
I nodded. The woman smiled at me.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” she said.
“You’re joking,” I said.
“No, this is very serious. Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“Allow us to demonstrate,” the man said. The two guards spoke in turn like a double act.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he said.
“To get to the other side,” she said.
“That’s the answer that most people give,” he said.
“It’s the only answer they know,” she said. “Now my turn. Why did the chicken cross the road?”
”For its own foul reasons,” he said.
“And get this one. Why did the chicken cross the road?” she said.
”To prove he wasn’t chicken,” he said.
“Now that’s a nice answer,” she said. “We let the little girl go for that one.”
“Was that the right answer?” I said.
The woman smiled at me again. “It was for her,” she said.
“If I say that will you let me go?”
“No,” the man said.
“Why not?”
“You have to answer for yourself,” he said. “Now it’s your turn. Why did the chicken cross the road?”
They waited for me to answer.
”I don’t know,” I said.
“You’re holding up the line,” the man said.
“We’ll ask you one last time,” the woman said. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
”I don’t know,” I said.
The woman knocked me to the ground.
“You see how this works,” she said. “Death robs the chicken of the road and we keep on laughing.”
I held my arm up in defence as the man hit me with the machete.

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