The synthetic packet of eight cooked chicken pieces stared at him illogically. “There are more chicken pieces if I want them, but less if I don’t,” Jack was thinking to himself, facing into the fridge. He wasn’t good at thinking.
“Bitch,” he muttered, “Bitch.”
The Bitch was thinking at least I left some chicken pieces; they should calm him down, like a comforter, a drum stick as a comforter; she half wanted to laugh at the picture of Jack with a drumstick sticking out of his mouth. The other half of her wanted to jam the drumstick into his gullet so he choked to death and collapsed blue and dead on the kitchen floor. Her kitchen floor was black and white tiles. Her name was really Janine, not Bitch, but you can forget these things.
Janine had once been in a relationship with Jack, but now in marriage, she just did what was required like a lobotomised dog. He ordered things, their time, their money, and applied punishments like shouting, conjugal rights, and putting her in her place. She took it; she even occasionally cracked; the crazy Bitch she was, was dead, as broken inside as their old microwave. She thought it was love, but knew she was okay when he went out at night. He normally did not bother her when he came in. It was prudent to be asleep.
Her day was a routine, get up, bring Jack a cup of tea, iron his shirt, get herself ready, leave ten minutes after him, arrive in time for work.
At work she said, “I do what is said, no more, no less.” She is a local government administration assistant. A Bitch does not care; caring is a shared experience. She finds the form B and checks the form B fee against the form A payment. If it does not match, she takes the form B and puts it in a manilla envelope. The job is part of a make work scheme and is double checked by a computer when the payments are paid. The bitch works in the corner rotting like a forgotten apple core in an old photo. She was not desperate; desperation still smacks of hope, and she did not need to be smacked.
Is the city a way of life? If it was, perhaps it is not something you would admit to. Looking in, you could see there were some blanks in her mind. She was on the sonic train, the Bitch. It rattled. It was still crowded, but not jammed, for they were in zone thirteen, the thirteenth circle and heading further: The heat, the lurching train, the arhythmic clattering, the taste of loud, mechanical metal. All this insistence met by dozens of blank minds. Eyes not quite dead in their suspended animation. For once the Bitch was not heading home, the rhythmic thrusting of her seat was putting her in heat and she was heading out.
The Bitch did not think of him as a lover; perhaps this was because she was more a person who did things. As there wasn’t really any love involved, perhaps that was for the best. He was not an attractive man, but cheerful. He had worked in the chip shop near the estate where she had grown up, but now was mostly on the sick. He had skin the colour of a Sicilian Waiter, exotic-like, she lumbered in anticipation.
Ahmed Karim was originally Turkish, but was now mostly fat. His technique was faded macho, but at least he made the pretence she was attractive, rather than as if he was raping a farm animal; this approach was normal sex to the Bitch; King Kebab was special. He was so special he even met her at the station. Under the strip lights was a balding wrinkly man perched in a blue jacket, like a weather balloon on a two legged stand. He was smoking a particularly rank smoke bomb of a kelp cigarette, and just inside the no smoking zone. The Bitch only saw her lothario, her King Kebab.
King Kebab smiled and turned towards the exit; it is not that his wife expected him to be faithful, if he could manage it, but there is the risk that the Bitch might have wanted to rub herself against him in public. In this zone the women mostly walked behind their men and they didn’t touch. He forgot that she had not been fifteen for over a decade and a half. Although, if you judged her tired face, he was no longer a dirty man giving out free sausage where he shouldn’t.
“Not much time,” was all she said.
The King Kebab Palace was not far; they went arm in arm. The family was out visiting his wife’s cousins. They entered the lift; there was litter and a scent of piss; they kissed. Ahmed grasped a buttock romantically. As the lift rose, so did the heart beat; King Kebab’s trousers gained another bulge.
They floated into the flat like warthogs; two glasses, a jug of water, and half a bottle of raki were on the lamp table by the sofa. Don Juan Kebab King turned on the lamp and poured two rakis. The Bitch turned down the lamp in an orange glow, then simultaneously drew him to the sofa, rubbed herself against him, sat down, and took her knickers off.
What happened next can be mostly left to the imagination. There was a certain amount of groping and grasping. After a while the trousers came off. His cock was fat, dark and oily, shyly jutting out, buttressing his fourth belly. Surprisingly, the Bitch got on top, that was not for long; a little irrational exuberance perhaps, then he got on top and managed to lay her in a tire rocking motion that was dynamic enough for a fat man to remind you that he was not as old as he looked.
The Bitch looked less fetid, less like a side of grey old dead bovine when she leaves; perhaps it is because someone had drawn a smile on this strange scarecrow; strange, because even her clothes are unmemorable. Ahmed sat on the sofa and drank both the rakis as though he deserved them. He wondered whether he should have used protection after she had gone. It had been a very long time and he used to, before. Originally it was because she had been under age; a good habit my friend; next time he would. You can’t trust a cheap woman not to get pregnant. She had been keen. It is easy to feel old, but better to feel a horny woman. He was King of Kebab. He looked down over his shirt curtained belly, at his trouserless legs; he still had his socks on. He could feel the sofa weave against his buttocks, coarse and sensual.
Jack was feeling stressed. A note saying the Bitch might be late was not helping. Her job was to provide him with food, not do overtime. The chicken drumsticks were nicer than her cooking. He ate three and felt better. Fuck her; who’d want to; miserable bitch. Good excuse for him to fuck off to The Railwayman in the English zone, and see how close he could get to Tracey, the blonde angel behind the bar; although he wouldn’t say no to Marta the Pollack either. Jeff and John will be there: You were on safe ground with those two; well, so long as you weren’t foreign looking. They always had good conversation; John would say, bacon sandwich and a pint of beer, that is British culture; Jeff would add, if you don’t like them, you should fuck off out of this district; we used to own this country. Truth like that made Jack feel better.
An hour and a half later, in The Railwayman, sitting at the bar were three men. Each had a glass in hand. They were making an overloud noise, perhaps a joke. Behind the bar, the barmaid lisped good naturedly in her sexiest east zone accent:
“I don’t know why you are looking at me, I like beer and a bacon sandwich, just not for breakfast.”
The man who should have chocked to death on a chicken drumstick says, “Bacon later perhaps.”
“English style,” says the older man, John.
“Socks on during match of the day,” whines Jeff.
“Only way for a Londoner to score during a West Ham game,” goes John.
Jack stops leering at Marta to laugh along. She is wiping the bar, oblivious or inured.
All this is forgotten, a couple of months pass, Christmas season has started. Sometimes a thing disappears because it is inconvenient, sometimes because it is trivial, other things are replaced, time is like that.
“So you are pregnant then,” muttered Jack, “I get to be a Dad.”
“Yes,” said the Bitch. She was strangely less happy than Jack was looking.
“Good one. Stay off the booze. I hope it’s a boy.”
Janine wondered if she was supposed to feel something and decided she was. Having a baby.
Over the following months Jack stopped being the man who should choke on a chicken bone. He was not nice as such, but was not in the way.
The Bitch started to visit the Church of Our Lady. You might know her, so where, that’ll be her secret. She was a regular for Friday evening mass. The Father even spoke to her on her way out. There were a few pub widows, some poor, the tired of a long week, those in need of comfort, those seeking light in the darkness, those seeking refuge, those seeking the solid touch of the pews and a blessing. They were those who had given up on understanding the logic of the world a long time ago; when the bell rang she felt tears welling in her eyes, that was enough to understand the mysteries.
Jack was contributing. He stayed less a round each week, so put a little cash aside. He didn’t like God, but would rather his wife hung around Catholics than trash; at least it didn’t cost money. In The Railwayman he told them ‘the wife was expecting’, they didn’t really know he had a wife. He could honestly say she had gone to mass.
“One of those,” John said, meaning primitive. “Not really a pub type.”
Jack nodded. He guessed he must have invited her once, although he couldn’t recall. Marta smiled at him, “Dad” she said. Tracey allowed her to give him a shot of Polish vodka distilled in Barking to celebrate. Jack felt happy, even though it was rough stuff.
The months expanded and contracted into the past, winter, spring, framed the urban landscape with their moving shadows of day and night; a scattering of leaves appeared to cover the brown scaffolds. For the Bitch it had been a sober Christmas at the in-laws. Although she was trash, at least a grandchild was due to their middle son. They all got drunk and suggested he should have given her a seeing to earlier. The sight of leering Grandpa flushed red, with a green tissue crown, came back to her. Behind him was the plastic Christmas tree covered in red lights and silver tinsel. Perhaps she thought of it because he seemed cruel. She dismissed it as drink, while sitting in her pew, her womb heavy in her lap. She looked at the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus; she sat below the crucified Lord; and she felt calm. She did not wonder where the blood would drip.
Janine, the Bitch, did not get along with her family. She had been glad to leave. They had needed the space; it had been shared like a corridor. She tried to ring her mother, but the phone had been disconnected. Her mother, Rosa, was very noisy and did not trust quiet people. Janine was mostly a quiet person, so she sent Rosa a note on a compliment slip from work. Her mother, having had four kids of spread out ages, grew up quickly enough to have left out some things for doing later. The two bedroom flat had been full of screaming, temporary boyfriends, loud music, cheap booze, fast food, and swearing, and that was just her mother. Perhaps the Bitch had never been quite forgiven for getting a job and getting married; either that, or they had forgotten she existed. Janine just thought that is how things are when you grow up and move on; family life is just how things go. She hugged her belly momentarily, before moving on.
Late Saturday morning, the Bitch was scrubbing the bath. Jack had gone to watch his nephew play five-a-side with his brother. She had not really told him it was going to be a girl. He had better things to do than listen to doctors talk about women’s stuff. The doorbell rang. She answered it and Rosa came in stamping and taking up most of the air in a bonfire of having arrived. Her home cut and blonded hair looked as dead and dried out as her skinny cigarette ash face.
“Rosa will do. You’ll be calling me Grandma next. Jason tried that, cheeky bugger.”
The Bitch had not been aware she was an aunt. She said nothing, but put the kettle on.
“What’s the news with him?”
The Bitch felt she was drowning in a torrent of noise. Occasionally she would come up for a breath of air, her throat opening just a bit wider for hearing Jason’s love life, the problems with babies, how to fob off social workers on the new system, and which buildings on the estate had been condemned for toxicity due to rain water washing into rotted air valves. These went round at least a few times; much else passed her by. After an hour Rosa looked pleased she had done such a good job as Gran, lit another cigarette, and asked her how she was.
When Janine went to the hospital, it was the cool, sunny, first Saturday morning of June. It turned out this was a good day to have a baby. She didn’t panic. She went by road, what an occasion. The Afghan mini-cab driver seemed calm and even knew the best zoom lock for the maternity unit, although it was a bit difficult to understand what he was saying.
By the afternoon Jack, Rosa, and Jack’s brother, the self-styled Uncle Ted had turned up with a second hand teddy bear called Eddie. Janine took the pain relatively quietly. The nurse was there, and they all waited outside the door. Rosa went on about how much she screamed the first time as she did not like blood; she made more noise than Janine.
Janine was very tired when it was over; being over for her included the birth and everyone coming into the room.
Rosa said, “Beautiful baby, guess Jack’s not the Dad.”
Uncle Ted said, “Jesus, I can’t believe you were fucking an Indian, what a way to cheat.”
Jack had been silent and erupted with “BITCH, BITCH, BITCH, BITCH!”
Janine pulled the security cord button. She was not sure if it was directed at her or the baby, either way it was not good. Rosa got in front of the yelling Jack; his brother pulled him away. Security arrived and bundled them out.
A special social worker was assigned. Six hours later Jack was in front of the e-magistrate where Rosa said she was assaulted: There were no marks. He disowned the bitch.
Janine, the Mum, was kept for observation for two nights. Rosa talked down half the local council and got Jack thrown out of the flat. Jason came to collect Janine in the work van and took her home to her emptied flat. Jack had left only her red toothbrush, and that was on the floor. Jason changed the codes on the locks and left. She’d probably manage.
Janine was in an empty world with her baby, her baby, June Anna Karim Smith. After two days at home, she realised she knew what love is. Her baby, June, was normally calm; when it cried, she felt reassured it was not broken.