News Comment

Saturday 20 September 2014

The fruits of the season by Leo Cullen

Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00

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Darkness had fallen across the hills and valleys when the Dealer pulled into his yard in the Ford van. A heavy, slightly suffocating, smell was coming from the huddle of 40 silent turkeys trussed on the floor behind him. They had been sitting there, anchoring one another, light glinting from small eyes every time the headlights of a car passed. At the kitchen window, the Dealer's wife saw the van slump into the yard and called to the children at homework on the big table, "Help your father carry those turkeys down to the coal shed".

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He came into the kitchen, walked over to the cooking range, his hands out for heat.

"You're grey in the face," she said. "Your dinner is in the oven. The children will get the turkeys into the coalhouse."

"No we'll leave them in the van; I don't want rats getting at them. I'll do it first thing in the morning and I've left the windows open a bit so they can breathe."

"Your tyres will go down."

"If I put them in the coalhouse I'll have to let them loose to protect themselves and then I'll have to go catching them again tomorrow."

"Is there a whole army of rats out there?"

"Ah, do as I say."

"As you say. As long as the rats don't jump in the windows." She gave a little laugh which he tried not to interpret as sarcasm.

Later on he spoke to the children: "Have you ever seen the kick of a turkey? I've seen a kick of a turkey poleaxe a rat once. A rat hasn't a chance against a standing turkey."

Early morning: Light from the windows of the house barely penetrates into the darkness of the yard. The Dealer has been lifting the turkeys from the van and setting them down on the coalhouse floor. One carried in each hand, he lifts them by the feet, the heads dangling. He attempts to hold them high so that they don't hit the ground. But it's a long journey, across the frosted yard and down a gravel slope to the backyard, and they are heavy – 20 pounders pulling on each of his arms – and beaks and wattles rub along the ground. With each turkey that he lifts out a little more space appears of the van's floor, while on the coalhouse floor the growing flock look around at one another in the naked glare of a light bulb hanging from the rafters and shake frost and gravel from their foreheads.

Like figures that were there all the time and only now have taken form out of the gloom, the pluckers walk across the yard towards the coalhouse. They are Corby who is the Dealer's workman, fat old John Flynn and tiny Mrs Flynn from a nearby council house, capable Mrs Clancy from the village.

Mrs Flynn heads towards a low stool just inside and to the left of the double doors. She sits in the same spot as last year, nearest the door and as far away from her husband as possible. Not much bigger than a dwarf is Mrs Flynn, but hardy, wiry, with strong long-fingered hands, and a weather-beaten face streaked with white wrinkle lines. Next to her and further in from the doors, on an upturned bucket with a sack across it for padding, sits Mrs Clancy. John Flynn – Slim Flynn is his nickname – fits himself into an old rocking chair with its rocker missing. He is furthest from the door and so furthest from the daylight. Corby doesn't sit with the other three but on a chair to the right-hand side of the doors. Anthracite piled against the wall on that side of the house is falling about the legs of his chair and he shovels it back up onto the pile. He and Mrs Flynn are the ones who kill the turkeys. "Now, in the name of God," he says. He hands a cigarette to Angela Clancy and with a quick light of the cigarettes, the work begins.

Corby learned the knack the first year he came to work for the Dealer – found the exact spot in the neck where to apply the broom handle: a quick twist and pull of the neck against the handle, all in the same movement ... snap goes the spinal chord, and the wing flapping begins. "That's the first one for the dinner table," he says, "who'd like to pluck this lady? You, Mrs Clancy. Let her flap away there until the first kicks is out of her."

Mrs Flynn doesn't need the broom handle. She's been killing chickens all her life. To her, turkeys are no different. Just a lot bigger, but no need to pull any harder, it's the same spot on the neck where the life is cut off. The same quick turn of the wrist. Mrs Flynn drops the turkey to the ground at her feet. In its death throes, it sweeps the dust of the floor with wide arcs of its wings. She looks at her husband in the corner: "You, take it and pluck."

"Now boys and girls, remember what you learned," Corby says, fitting the neck of a second turkey beneath the broom handle. "Pluck as quick as you can while they're hot, before the blood stops flowing. And breast first, because the skin of the breast is the first to harden." He plucks the short feathers on the breast, resisting the urge to pull on the big quill feathers. Cigarette smoke goes into his eyes. John Flynn grunts, lifts himself, carries the now lifeless turkey at his wife's feet back to his lair in the rocking chair. Mrs Flynn kills a turkey for herself. "Remember what the Missus told us last year," she says. "Ye'll leave spears on the breast if ye don't pluck while they're hot, and nobody going into a butcher's shop nowadays likes the sight of spears." They all settle down to work.

Morning passes and the pluckers grow itchy and irritable from turkey lice that crawl around the backs of their ears and into their hair. The Dealer joins the work party for a while; then, knocking feathers from his lips, his hair and clothes, he goes and makes some phone calls. Soon he'll head off to butcher shops with the first load of 20 or so finished birds. Then he'll drive to farmers' places and pick up another load of live ones. One day, his wife will tell him that the time has come for him to be good to himself. And on the way home with his load he'll stop at shops and not quite knowing what being good to himself means, he'll select the items that will be good to his family. Oranges, nuts, dates, plum puddings: the turkey companions – the other fruits of the season.

Sunday Independent

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