Chicken a bawl
We used to keep chickens in the backyard. They came to us by way of My Uncle Sam’s Ford Cortina; yellow exterior, black roof and two furry dice hanging from the rear view mirror. Class. We, that is my mother’s extended family and me, all lived in a four-bedroom house on Comerford Road in Brockley. We called it ‘Yard’ and round Yard every room was a bedroom, except for the bathroom, kitchen and My Nana’s prized front room.
The chickens, as new additions to the house, were kept in style. As Uncle Henry did the one-foot skank across the red paisley carpet in black socked feet, John Holt sung out, ‘You’ll never find, it would take the rest of all time.’ Whilst my grandad, Big Daddy filled the frying pan with bacon, tomatoes and onions, Uncle Sam busied himself in the backyard. Two big speaker boxes, the type that shook when the bass line came in, became two chicken coops. The black woofers were torn out and the gutted brown boxes were filled with tweeting yellow feathers. Big Daddy and I loved the chickens, but the rest of the family were not so keen. De Old Gal said,
‘Dis place come like one blasted farm. Puss, dog and fowl a run ‘bout. Pure nastiness. Unnu no know say a London we deh, not out inna de blasted bush. Chuh!’
I stood barefoot on red tiles under a hot sun and held yellow chicks in my hands that were fluffy balls of Easter. I played with the crosshatch wire of the coops and smelled the sawdust as the chicks tweeted and scratched hungrily at the floor. Little specks of wooden dust flew out and into my hair, much to the annoyance of my mum, who called me inside to pull my plaits loose. She sat me down hard on a big creaky chair and covered me with a towel as big as a sheet, then she pushed a ripe mango into my hands to, ‘Keep me in one place,’ as she stood behind me, fingers twisting and untwining the ribbons, bows and plaits in my hair. The wide toothed orange comb tried in vain to chase out the dust as black kinky hair snapped in anger. My legs swung back and forth as I sat enjoying the sweet taste of the mango, but as soon as I got to the seed, which try as I might, I could suck no kind of flavour from, my little body twisted and squirmed against each tug and scold as my mother tamed my angry dry hair from plaits to three shiny puffs of fluffy black cotton candy tied with bright red bows.
The Easter balls became funny looking scrawny things when they went through adolescence. My Nana called the streetwise white chickens they became, broilers. Through fear, I no longer pushed my fingers into either coop to stroke the feathers, but still I listened in shock when she asked Big Daddy,
‘A who a go pluck dis whole heap a chicken dem?’
‘Me, Me will pluck dem!’
When the day came I watched them as they watched me. Beady glassed eyed birds staring me out. Uncle Henry approached one coop gingerly. The latch went down and jutting heads bobbed into a frenzy, the door tore open with force and the chickens flew out into Uncle Henry’s face. A flurry of white wings and pink claws, these disciples of Bruce Lee went dragon style on Big Daddy who chased them around the garden with a dusty looking machete and a yell of ‘Blasted and nuisance!’ Warm arms pulled me back into the house, my eyes too young to bear witness to headless chickens running around in the back garden.
I later stood in flip flopped feet in the backyard as the green hose rushed water over red tiles and pushed dark blood into the drain. White feathers blew around in the air like snow into neighbour’s gardens, gutters and trees. A complaint from a neighbour meant the remaining coop had to go. Not even a freshly plucked broiling fowl, and a carrier bag of Big Daddy’s home-grown marrow could make the man from the council change his mind.
The chickens from the back yard left us in Uncle Sam’s Ford Cortina. I stood barefoot on hot pavement slabs waving them goodbye. The yellow exterior and black roof of the Cortina held inside a flurry of white feathers trapped inside a coop. Unseen and unheard behind blacked-out windows. The booming bassline of ‘I want a love I can feel’ shook black fumes out of the exhaust pipe as the car danced along the asphalt and then disappeared from sight.
My Nana was sweet, a small woman with an afro of curly perm that was sometimes three colours till Auntie Joy could get out the black dye. She used to wear polyester fire hazard garments that did not flatter her at all. But then she founds the joys of leisurewear and was transformed, brightly coloured t-shirts tucked into jogging bottoms with the elasticated drawstring waist tied in a bow, the outfit topped off with white trainers and a strand of pearls.
My Nana had two great loves, God and her front room. Once a week, she would get up on her tip toe, stretch her arm up and run her right hand along the top of the door frame of the front room to find the key. Once held in her hand she’d gently jiggle the key in the lock and push the glossy white door open.
To be let into the front room was a privilege. The décor changed over the years from velvet flock and furry white rugs to Anaglypta water coloured walls and shag carpeting. As the front room was show room of the house, I was only allowed in once I’d reached an age of sensibility and could be trusted, as My Nana put it,
‘To not mash up me somethin’ dem.’ We would go in with Mr Sheen, Zoflora, hot water in a plastic bowl, yellow cloths and handtowels. She would gently take down the ornaments from the mantelpiece, whilst flicking the duster and spraying the mantel with polish as she hummed a hymn to herself, it was usually How great thou art, while I sat dipping the objects into the bowl of disinfect and water.
Sometimes De Old Gal, my great grandmother, would join us as she only lived in the room next door. She would usually talk about some relative who’d brought shame on the family.
‘Imagine. Her mother did throw pardner fi bring dat dutty gal here. She send big big invitation letter fi her fi come tru himmigration, honly fi her fi come wid empty bag.’ De Old Gal stated this as she pulled a fresh fruit from the pocket of her apron.
‘Not even a panty did inna de bag!’
De Old Gal had the knack, and my granny on the other side, my dad’s mum had it too, but try as I might I could never do it. So I lay on my belly with the bare soles of feet twitching in the sun and watched intently as De Old Gal’s fingers turned the pimply orange fruit and it danced a strip tease in her hand, skin removed from flesh in one seductive curl. Later she would add it to her collection of peel that she hung up to dry-out in the kitchen.
‘Why dis chile can’t keep shoes pan her foot? A mussy Sandie Shaw.’
‘Pickney, put something pan you foot and come, make we go put de the peas pan fire.’
I stood in bright yellow flip-flopped feet and watched dark red pea soup bubble and pop in a pot as big as a witch’s caldron. Small hands rubbed flour and water together to form dumplings for the pot. Sticks of dried thyme stuck up in the soup like autumn saplings and balls of white jumped around in the water. I dropped in another floury ball and My Nana hummed a hymn whilst shaping clouds in her hands.
The hot bricks warmed the skin of my back through the shirred pink gingham checked dress. I sat against the wall with the heat of the tiles against the back of my thighs as Pinkface lay herself across my legs. Her rounded belly full of kittens she stretched her body full length. Her paws battling some unknown presence. I jiggled my legs till she jumped off, hissed, spat and ran, crying off into the house.
‘Did you trouble my cat?’ Auntie Sharon stood in front of me, hands on hips in shiny trousers she’d seen on Top of the Pops. I shook my beaded head of plaits, click, click, click.
‘No.’ My little toes popped in and out of the holes of my pink jelly shoes. Magical Auntie Joy’s lighter had melted the broken bits back together. With hands smelling of toffee, I toyed with my sparkling ‘I am 6’ badge that she’d helped pin to my dress.
Auntie Sharon brought a basin filled with cold water and six big Snapper fish fresh from Billingsgate out to the back yard. She sat on the back steps in front of me and said I had to help. I touched a big fish that felt smooth when you stroked them one way and prickly the other.
‘Here.’ She passed me a butter knife, and held a fish up by its tail then with her own knife started to scrape it down the length of the body, tail to head and scales flew off.
‘You see. You do one too.’ I crouched over the basin, grabbed hold of fish by its tail and pushed down the knife. Scales and cold fishy water flew up into my face and open mouth.
‘Ugh.’ I spat out the taste, ‘I don’t want to do this!’ I wanted those fish to catch a bus back to Billingsgate or wherever they came from. My mum’s littlest sister continued to scrape, scales and fishy water flying everywhere. I stayed there sniffing, sobbing, scraping and spitting.
‘What are you crying about? Stop being a big baby! You’re only taking the scales off.’ I shook my beaded plaits, click, click, click, dropped the knife and ran crying into the house. I rushed into the warm arms of my mother who held me as I shook. My nose wrinkled against her neck my hot tears tiring my eyes as I looked to my mother for sympathy. Her eyes black and big just like mine, held an image of a little girl with fat cheeks and a runny nose. Her hands pushed me away and her voice became harsh,
‘Look at your dress! Why did you clean fish with that on?’ I shook my head quick, click, quick, click, can’t think, fish stink. ‘Why are you shaking your head like that? What’s wrong with you?’
‘Don’t shout at me Mum!’ Then came the orange comb, the yellow hair grease and the kiss of the teeth as I was taken to the big chair to be descaled. Afterwards I stood in the hall shivering, waiting for my turn as Big Daddy’s shirts were white mountain peaks in a tub of soapy water, my Mum and my Nana twisted and pulled the mountains from the soapy sea and put them in a yellow bowl, I watched as my Nana pulled the plug and the sea went down the drain.
Stripped of my dress, badge, beads and jelly shoes I stood naked and howling as my Mum placed me in the upstairs bathtub.
‘Close your eyes and close your mouth or I’ll send you to live with your grandmother.’ A flood of warm water came down over my afro to wash away the sticky scales, the fishy stink, and the salty tears, down the drain and out to the sea.
Cheryl Anderson is a writer living in Kent who was raised in London within a lively West Indian family. The area of South East London often serves as a backdrop for the stories she writes, there is undeniable influence from other cultures within that diverse community, but as a descendant of the Windrush generation her writing often reflects the hybrid culture that being a second-generation British born Caribbean represents.
She relished the realism expressed in the late Buchi Emecheta’s, Second Class Citizen (1974) the first novel written by a black British female author that she had ever read and it served as an inspiration. She wished to pursue writing, but life got in the way and it remained a hobby to be picked up and put down at various stages of her life.
After years of working in the public sector in various administrative roles, in 2013 she decided to return to study and develop her writing. Round Yard was her first competition entry in the life writing category of Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize 2016 for which she received a special commendation.
She is currently completing a BA in Humanities with Creative Writing at the Open University with the intention to go on to a MA in Creative Writing later this year.