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17 May 2024

Stupid Vegetarian Chicken by Eve Newstead

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. In this short story, Eve Newstead intertwines themes of family, care, love, childhood, self harm, and body image to capture a tender moment.

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024. Read the full guidelines and submit your work here.

 


 

The day his sister came home from hospital, Mam made a vegetarian chicken pie which ended up being eaten by three carnivores. She cooked with the radio on like normal. Only Zach knew that she didn’t actually want the radio on now. Zach could tell that listening to Elaine Paige’s special on Olivier winners whilst she was rolling out pastry for a girl that was now scared of pastry – and so terrified of food in face that she had turned a knife to her own body – was the reason Mam’s spine was coiled like a rung-out dish cloth. The more her hands worked the pastry the more it split and the smaller and tighter the kitchen became around her. Zach managed to squeeze in for some orange juice. 

‘I’m using veggie chicken for the pie,‘ Mam said. 

She didn’t tell him off for filling a pint glass with the expensive Tropicana. Her apron was tied with a knot, not a bow, and sagged from her at a funny angle. It matched the worry pulling down her jaw. 

‘That way we’re all eating the same thing and there’s no big deal,’ she added, in a very big deal voice. ‘So it sets a precedent. Start as we mean to go on, eh?’

Often Mam talked to Zach when she was really talking to herself, or to some other imagined person. God maybe? But she was an atheist. Anyway, it definitely wasn’t to him — a ten-year-old boy who regularly communicated through the regurgitation of apt(ish) quotes from Spiderman. 

‘So don’t whinge about the chicken,’ she said (this was to him). ‘Or chkn. Right?’ 

‘How do you make a vegetarian chicken?’

‘I don’t know pet,’ she said. ‘Soy? Mushrooms? Egg?’

‘Egg?’

Folding, then unfolding her arms, she gave him a look of adult exasperation because he was raising questions she couldn’t help thinking about, like how you make vegetarian chicken from an egg.  

‘Go and wash yourself,’ she said. 

‘I’m not a piece of furniture.’ 

He regretted saying that. If he could’ve shot out a web and snatched the words back he would have. Mam was on her last tether with him as it was. Her day had been all about cleaning. The house had been scrubbed, sorted and sighed at. She’d cleaned every piece of furniture. Then every inch of floor. Then underneath the pots and other bits and bobs that usually never moved. Throughout this process, she’d f’ed about the amount of dog fur. Worried she might start plucking the hairs straight from Godfrey’s body, Zach had broken the no upstairs rule and hidden the old boy in his room. Later, when he’d come down to ask Mam if she’d like to have a break and a biscuit from the biscuit tin he’d nearly emptied, she’d pointed at his boots and yelled mud! the way a person being strangled would scream no!  

She spent the most time cleaning Isla’s room. Even though a week earlier Zach had heard her scrubbing the carpet in there for so long she’d ended up in tears. Dad had had to finish the job. As a method of distraction, he’d sent Mam out for a drive, but she’d only driven to Matalan and bought bits for the room — a lamp, a pillow, and a rug that looked like it came from an exotic market. This was placed over the stain on the carpet where Zach had seen his sister splayed like a dropped dolly. 

A car door went outside. Then another. 

‘Come!’ Mam yelled at him, yanking the apron off over her head. 

The pair of them stood in the hall in a way that they had never ever stood before to greet anyone, especially not his sister; all Morticia and Pudsey smiles like the plan was to eat Isla for dinner. 

‘I need a wee.’

‘Stay there,’ Mam hissed. 

Her tone glued his socks to the rug. 

The door swung open followed by Dad’s arm, then Isla, then Dad. Zach felt Mam’s hand on his back, then he was pushed towards them. Isla looked hungover; she was wearing a hoody and joggers, and her hair was greasy. He imagined her going to the fridge to eat cheese slices straight from the packet and drink orange juice straight from the carton. But then he looked properly. Above the heavy circles, her eyes weren’t sparkly with memories of the night before, they were black; devouring like wet sand. 

Mam had pushed Zach close enough to smell his sister. She smelled funny; off. Different to their hallway and their sofa cushions and their parents, and to him. He tried to only use his mouth to breathe. He spoke on an exhale. 

‘How do you make a vegetarian chicken?’

‘Is that a joke?’ his sister said, but laughed anyway. 

Mam and Dad made sounds like laughing too. But when Isla had forced out the laugh from her chest she’d accidentally pushed out some tears from her eyes too. So Zach didn’t laugh. Zach turned and ran up the stairs, got into bed with his face in his pillow and breathed in home as hard as he could. Outside, the seagulls screeched at the setting sun. 

Sometime later Mam dropped off a bowl of pie and mash. She asked him if he was okay and he didn’t reply. For a while, whenever she or Dad had asked him that, he’d told them he was upset about Isla’s dressing gown. It was pink and fluffy like a labradoodle and it was her favourite thing in the world. But it was ruined. Google said that much blood wouldn’t wash out. So Mam let Zach choose a new dressing gown. This one was darker, stain-proof, the colour of the North Sea in a storm. There wasn’t much Zach and his sister both liked anymore, but they both still thought storms were cool. The new dressing gown was hung ready on the back of her bedroom door. After that, whenever anyone asked Zach if he was okay, he had nothing to say. 

He tried to eat the pie in bed with a comic but it made him feel sick. It was harder to swallow than when he normally ate pie. Probably it was that stupid vegetarian chicken. When pushed down on with his fork it didn’t shred but turned to a mush, which floated in the gravy like a gob he’d spat into a puddle. He put it under his bed out of sight with the other things he didn’t want to look at. 

Dad came even later. Now Zach was lying flat on his back on the floor by the open window. The navy sky had almost muffled the day, but it was starless and the moon looked like it couldn’t be bothered. 

‘What you doing down there?’ Dad said, sitting next to him. 

Zach shrugged as much as a pancake could shrug. 

‘Come on,’ Dad said. ‘Let’s have a game of pass the pigs before kip.’ 

He held out his big Dad hands and Zach grabbed them, noticing that at the end of each of their twenty clasped fingers, the nail had been gnawed down to skin. Once pulled to cross-legged, Zach hid his hands inside his hoody pocket, only taking one out when he had to throw the pigs. The score reached 47 vs 56 and they’d only spoken of play; as though they were so engrossed, even though it was obviously a pity game. Pity pigs. At one point Dad got a double leaning jowler and barely changed his face, never mind offered the pigs any football manager style congrats or fist bumps. 

‘She smells funny,’ Zach said. 

‘What of?’ 

‘Morning.’ 

‘That’s nice isn’t it? Morning?’ 

‘Not before you’ve brushed your teeth it’s not.’ 

For the first time in months Dad did a laugh that came from somewhere below his throat. 

‘Don’t be telling her that,’ Dad said. ‘You know what she’s like with her hour-long showers and her endless bottles of room diffuser. Mrs save the planet.’ 

‘She does save it more than you’, Zach said, a bit shouty. ‘You drive lorries everywhere.’ 

Dad laughed again and, this time, shook the pigs before throwing. Even though Zach had taken Isla’s side, Dad looked pleased. This was an opportunity to ask him something proper. 

‘Are there cuts on her legs again?’ 

The image of her, the way Zach had found her, had never lost its blur. Her bedroom walls still swayed, the impact of Mam’s hand on his chest as she’d shoved him onto the landing still shook his legs, and there was still red smeared over everything he could see; like the blood had been spread directly onto his eyeballs. Because of that, he’d never figured out its source. 

Dad stared at the thrown pigs. They stared back. He mouthed, five, five, er, five, even though the score was obviously five and ten — a trotter and a snouter. Five. Erm. 

‘Fifteen,’ Zach said. 

Dad nodded. 

‘Bank,’ he declared, adding, ‘Not her legs. Why did you ask that?’ 

Zach thought about the marks he’d once seen on Isla’s thighs; the different colours and textures made her skin look like another planet’s terrain. His brain was muddled and he’d forgotten Mam and Dad didn’t know he’d seen her cuts and scars. Maybe they hadn’t even seen them. 

Luckily, he didn’t have to reply. Dad spoke again. 

‘Actually never mind. Don’t answer that,’ he said. ‘They’re on her arms.’ 

‘Did she try to die?’

Some things were so humongous they made Zach’s stomach feel hollow, boundless; like it was feeding on itself. Those things were: the multiverse, space in general, death in general, a heart beating and the sea (the deep bit).  

‘Your sister isn’t going to die,’ Dad said. 

This non-answer hung in the air between them. Zach wanted to punch it. 

‘She needs us around her,’ Dad said. ‘For lots of cuddles. Even if she does stink.’ 

It was Zach’s go. His pigs made bacon. But he was thinking too much to react. They just lied there touching for a while until he realised he’d lost. 

After the game they went together to knock on Isla’s bedroom door. Instead of what, she called out come in. When Dad opened it, they found her sitting on her bed looking at her new rug. She stood up quickly, probably trying to pretend she had been doing something less weird. 

She wasn’t wearing her new dressing gown. Maybe she didn’t like the colour. Her favourite was pink. Apparently feminists were reclaiming pink. Her nails were always pink and so was her pepper spray. One of her favourites was the ham pink of Godfrey’s tongue, another was the raspberry pink of the wool she’d chosen for knitting her cardigan. Zach had spent light years with Mam in Marksys thinking about which dressing gown she’d like and now felt like a turd for not just choosing pink. 

‘Are you okay?’ Isla said. 

It was the first time she had ever asked him that. Big sisters didn’t ask that. Just like earlier, tears came to her eyes. It was as though all her energy was being spent on jailing tears in, so if she sacrificed any energy to laugh or speak, the barrier would weaken and they would spring out. He watched them build up until her eyes couldn’t hold them anymore. One from the left leapt down past the nose she’d always hated, to the chin she was always pulling at in the mirror, complaining of its smallness. Then two tears from the right escaped in tandem. Isla caught them with her sleeve. Inside his hoody pocket, Zach wrapped each thumb into a closed fist and squeezed until the skin was hot. 

A loud gurgle leapt from Dad’s throat – the small man that lived inside his belly yelling out. Taking his cue, Zach stepped towards his sister. When nothing happened he took another step, then another, until her breath was stroking his forehead. She exhaled three times before he felt her arms wrap around him. He pulled out his hands and put them to her back, his fingers clinging to her hoody. It was thick and carried a disgusting amount of the poorly people smell. Behind them, the floor under Dad’s foot groaned.  

Zach clamped his mouth shut, held his breath and counted down from ten. Because ten was enough. It was obvious that ten was enough for Isla too — without actually moving, she was pulling away. He could feel it. The way a magnet rejects its opposite even when you force them to touch. Zach looked down. Memory made him see straight through the rug to the massive stain on the carpet underneath. It pulsed like a heart, pumping fresh blood outwards towards the walls of their home. 

It was so much blood. Maybe his sister was just too weak for anything more than ten seconds. He tightened his grip around her and held on for the both of them.

Eve Newstead is a writer from Newcastle Upon Tyne, with fiction twice-shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and published in Aayo Magazine. Typically, her writing explores northern identity, class, female mental health and sexual assault. Eve’s shortlisted piece is an extract from her first novel, for which she is seeking publication.
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