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Women of Flesh by Sophie Gregory - Twist in Time Literary Magazine
“And nothing can we call our own but deathAnd that small model of the barren earthWhich serves as paste and cover to our bones.For God’s sake, let us sit upon the groundAnd tell sad stories of the death of kings.”– William Shakespeare​​ The metallic tearing of the breakfast tin didn’t irritate Paul as much as it used to. The contents were not what anyone would call food, just mulch providing necessary minerals. The taste was inoffensive but the texture was grotesque, like wet bread and phlegm. The kitchen was bleak, the furniture paled by the incessant sunlight and the room plagued by the sterilising mist, shushed from the ceiling every fifteen minutes. As he upturned the tin into his open mouth Paul realised that Frances was speaking, he tuned in. ​“-need to stop scratching that. They’ll think you’re trying to get rid of this new one. It’s bad enough that you needed a replacement. I still don’t understand-” “Why don’t you eat something? You look like shit.” He switched off again. While she gesticulated he examined his wife; a once pretty woman with grey skin and flat hair. The Government Issue meal tins had drained her complexion to a non-colour. Blushing had become a lost art. ​“Not sure what time I’ll finish later.” He continued to scratch the inside of his thigh. * Frances had used Paul’s water allowance and began reading the sprawling of her brown hairs on the wall like tea leaves; a pig snout and a scythe-like shape which mutated into a single shapely breast. She wiped the hairs away, letting them float and sway down to the carpet. Her own breasts disappointed her, flat and grey. She tried to remember feeling heat in her groin, the girlhood desire to rub herself, pillow clamped between her legs. A muscle in her thigh twitched. How much information did the implants transmit? ​She nagged her husband for sport, trying to illicit a violent reaction. A black eye and a split lip would prove she still had life inside her, thick and red. Husband. A bitter laugh clacked from her lips, the word no longer meant what it used to. She took her usual spot on the production line and struggled to yank the lever more and more with every meal tin she missed. Did the other women bother to think, or did their brains resemble the mulch mix that came vomiting out of the pipes? Toes curling in her shoes, her thoughts turned, as they usually did, to the Women of Flesh. Paul was like a toddler who thinks nobody’s seen him shitting in the corner. She knew about his escapades to Four and was envious of the women, not because they held Paul’s attentions, not even because they possessed meat tolerance, but because they knew excitement, they had reason to smile. All she had was nameless Jane across the conveyor with gunge in her hair. The crashing of steel shutters warranted a sluggish glance from the women and squints at the mild inconvenience of the light pouring in. A square of marching men, five by five, beat the floor with their black boots led by a Messenger dressed in blood red. “Ms Maria O’Brian. Breach: Regulation 6.F: The Forbidden Acts.” The guards marched in unison toward the whimpering Maria until she hopped up sobbing and began to follow. * Paul boarded the 8.55 and sat next to a nondescript citizen. White stickers had been clumsily plastered over the rail map and black screens concealed abandoned platforms from view.​ He stayed on to Four. The sky never fell into complete darkness but the light of the early sun seemed more watchful. The train sent a strange, unidentifiable odour swirling about him. The barren ground above was littered with cracks of varying sizes, the larger ones could swallow a body effortlessly. Clouds of rusty dirt rose in his wake. There was one building in sight, only the top of it visible above a red brick wall. The broken glass set into the top glittered in the blinding sun. The wall was surrounded by two fences crowned with elegant spirals of razor-wire. Mirabal Prison should have been a vision of aggression, intimidation, yet every time he was enchanted. Inside the building the vigilant eyes of the sun could not judge him. The guard’s rosy pallor made him perspire. She had a roundness that is impossible for citizens to achieve. “One pork J, medium slice, one girl.” ​She raised her eyebrows at him and gestured for him to continue. He sighed. “Please.” “459: Diana.” She winked, stamped his visitor’s badge. Diana wasn’t his favourite, she was fair-skinned and not as hairy as the others but she was a marked improvement on what he’d left at home. The woman stationed outside cell 459 reached up and held onto the door frame, blocking his path and forcing him to smell her intoxicating body odour. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, she knew her power. Each consumption room had a different access point so he felt for the small lever behind the toilet and pulled it upwards. * At six o’clock the machinery shuts down, food paste left exposed on conveyor belts. The polite applause of footsteps ricocheted from the high ceiling as the women exited the factory floor in silence. ​The white hot sun assaulted Frances’s scalp and drops of boiling condensation fell from the replacement o-zone. She passed brown and brittle gardens and imagined them a deep forest green. She longed to brush soft petals across her lips. The front door was open. She closed her eyes and wished to be greeted by an axe-murderer wielding something dangerous, but instead she found Paul as she had expected him, elbows on the table suffering through a dinner tin. “You’re home early.” He spoke with his mouth full. “I’m home on time.” She went upstairs to put on her nightclothes and inspected herself in the bathroom mirror; an animated corpse stared back. Eyes closed, she fought to remember the rosy cheeks of girlhood and the deep chestnut curls that bounced about her forehead. She knew these images existed but a haze flitted behind her lids and she couldn’t make the colours form solid images. Years ago something had drawn her in to Mirabal. She forgot every regulation and surrendered herself to the performance. Olive’s abundant flesh quivered with every movement and her eyes were a shade of brown that brought forgotten desires forth. She felt light-headed. * There were no birds to cast fleeting shadows overhead, no children laughing and spraying each other with water pistols. All Paul could hear was blood, hot in his ears.An old telephone box stood alien against the bleak landscape. Its red triggered memories from the old world, fire hydrants in American films, post boxes, double decker buses. He could smell the pollution of an enormous city choking him with a lover’s gentleness. Protecting his hand inside his trouser pocket he opened the hot metal door. His thick pulse told him to turn around but he bent and rapped the boards with his knuckles. Hollow. He slid the planks across and descended into the stench of manure and the sweet tang of fresh grass. The darkness panicked him and he fell against the wall. Lights flickered on, ting ting-ting-ting. Paul stood nose to nose with an enormous creature that he vaguely recognised. Its breath was hot. Paul was dumbfounded but unafraid. He looked past the strange animal, intrigued by the unfamiliar machinery; lights blinked on and off and wire trailed from metal cabinets. His hands itched to feel the smooth surfaces like a Neanderthal before a fire. * Frances blinked the bright lights out of her eyes. On her back, the ground was exceptionally flat and cool. Shuffling hooves passed by, but she couldn’t turn her head. Her father’s voice was audible a few metres behind her. Attempting to roll her eyes back to see him she found herself standing, her back against a brick wall. Her father had his back to her, tending a strange animal. “Mind you don’t go near those lines Frannie.” He called, gesturing towards them.The scenery was strangely familiar, electrical wires criss-crossed along the concrete and little plastic dishes strewn about.She remembered his scientific ramblings more than the curl of his hair. He explained his work to her hundreds of times, he wanted the tunnel farms to continue but her memories were fragmented, too disjointed to recreate her father’s complex biological specimens. She had watched her father’s notebooks burn during the Cleanse, blackened feathers floating higher and higher, propelled by the ferocity of the flames. “It began with missing cats and empty hens eggs and ended with the infertility of the Earth.” He laughed, shook his head. “But it wasn’t the end was it, Frannie?” Pure white vegetables and albino grass filled the vegetable patch. A creature trotted by and clucked softly, its feathered rump as white as the snow from the old world. Vague shapes from her dream drifted in the place between sleep and wakefulness but they soon became unrecognisable. She moved mindlessly from the bed into the kitchen for the first meal tin of the day. She opened the cupboard labelled ‘1’, stared at the dead metal and closed the door again. Outside, three children walked slowly, but seemingly with purpose. They walked in line without acknowledging one another at all. Frances’s was the last generation to have been conceived naturally and she didn’t want children if it meant being harvested by the government. She stared, letting her eyes relax into a soft focus. Images swam in her vision, teasing her with tenuous memories. She tried to hold on to them but they were slashed away like smoke. Colour and motion intertwined with meaning in her mind; she could see words. Words she had not heard since she had played with the hybrids in the tunnel farms as a bright-eyed child. Her father uttered them sharply if one of the creatures wasn’t producing, or when some piece of equipment clattered down onto the tracks, irretrievable beyond the fluttering black screen. The words felt delicious, echoing in her mind. Paul’s empty meal tin irritated her. It had probably passed by on the conveyor belt behind her at the factory, stamped with the logo of the government; the letter N caged inside an imperfect circle. The constant mechanical buzzing and clanking of the factory haunted her like a dripping tap, she was agonised by the slop of mulch hitting the bottom of plastic buckets. Beads of sweat trickled down her brow and her breaths came quick and shallow. She slammed her fist down onto the open tin. Pain spiked up her arm and her eyes widened as she gazed at the gushing crescent slash along the heel of her hand. She dropped her arms by her sides and walked solemnly out of the front door into the night, trickling red drops of life into the barren dust. * Paul heard a noise. He turned off the light and knelt in the soil bed in the middle of the platform. There was no place to hide. Terrified in the vegetable patch, he awaited his exposure. But it didn’t come. He burrowed his hands in the soil and revelled in its coolness. Deciding, finally that the threat had passed he pushed himself up from the soil and brushed himself down. Ascending the ladder back up to the phone box he passed a dangling wire. He scratched at his inner thigh, catching something hard and flat. He made his way to work. Transcribing old radio programs for the Archive, creating these records of the old world once seemed so important to Paul but after seeing what he had it all seemed futile. A man wandered around the open plan office without purpose. Paul may have known him but it had become hard to tell one citizen from another, all grey faces blending into one generic servant of Nix and the Archive. The man stopped behind...