by Peter Burns
Rose and her boy been standing in line for two hours now, and young Billy hasn’t managed ten minutes without coughing. Not that anyone in that line would notice, their own lives being a world of constant wheezing and worry.
Reaching the front of the queue, Rose all but collapses at the sight of Mr Matthews before the scales. Christ, why did it have to be him today? He doesn’t look up, just holds out a hand while scribbling in his ledger. Rose places a soiled sack onto his clean skin. Even before it’s on the scales she can see his disgust: a slight downturn of the lips, a quick flick of his brow, like he’s weighing her up, deciding whether she and her family will do.
Mr Matthews lays the sack on the scales. Rose doesn’t blink, for fear of missing the tilt of it, doesn’t breathe, for fear of losing more than she already has. Billy coughs like he always does, dry and brittle.
Mr Matthews raises his eyes and she’s snared within one of his looks again.
‘One pound, twelve ounces,’ he says.
Then the whisperings come, like they do each week, as sure as the winds each winter.
‘She ain’t even got a full turn,’ that mangy Maude Brown says.
‘I’ll have to take the shortfall from your wages,’ says Mr Matthews.
Rose leans heavy on the edge of the desk; it’s the bones of her he’s stripping away.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Matthews. It’s me boy, Billy. His chest …’
‘Yes? Come on. Speak up or move aside.’
‘I opened me winda, Mr Matthews, so Billy could breathe, and the wind, it…’
Gasps from behind like a storm in reverse.
‘She opened her bleedin’ winda,’ big-mouth Bertha says.
Rose pulls Billy from the desk, the boy’s cough echoing around the yard. But it’s her that feels the sting of it, it’s her now being gutted and flayed.
Work at home, they said, safer than the factories. Rose knows the truth of that more than most; Charlie won’t work again.
Charlie’s in bed when they get home. Harry and little Lucy are routing around the floor, shifting through layers of coarse hair.
‘It’s like havin’ a carpet,’ Rose used to joke. ‘Like the ones in posh hotels.’
But carpets are made for comfort.
This stuff clings to the walls, covers the windows, coats their food and chokes the little faces of Rose’s blessed babies until they look and sound more animal than human.
At her desk, stomach rumbling, Rose opens a drawer and pulls out a knife; puts her hand to a sack. Billy coughs, climbing into bed beside Charlie. But there’s work ahead for her tonight, foul and messy at that. Rose reaches for the next rabbit skin to pluck, from up off a high shelf. Can’t be too careful now, not since finding little Lucy chewing on one fortnight last.
Peter Burns has had flash fiction published twice in FlashFlood Journal for UK’s National Flash Fiction Day, placed third in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly short story competition, and shortlisted and longlisted in various other competitions. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University.
Image detail from an engraving published in The Illustrated News depicting a rabbit auction at the Fish Markets in Melbourne, Victoria, 1872. State Library of Victoria IAN13/08/72/172.