Robertson’s Dairy was published in Visible Ink 25 On the Ledge of the World
While Mylie was in labour we sat in the canteen in a gloomy, humid silence.
Robertson stood near the food counter watching, making sure we ate.
It was Mylie’s first baby, and every one of us felt sick with grief, knowing what was coming, each lost in our own memories of the babies that have been taken from us.
There wasn’t too much noise yet. But it wasn’t the screams of pain that we braced ourselves for; they’re short and easy to recover from in comparison to the screams that come after. It was those screams that held us in silence.
The only noise was the TV. The new advert sprang to life with its innocent jingle. Robertson jumped on the remote, and shut off the set. Most of us have seen it already. Happy Mums, Happy Milk went the childish melody. I looked at Joan, and the older woman raised her eyebrows.
Robertson scanned for signs of mutiny among our organic bean salad, but everyone was eating; chewing slowly and methodically. I know what Robertson thinks. We all do. We don’t deserve any more than this; it’s our own fault. If we weren’t in here all we’d be doing was watching TV and shopping for things we don’t need. We don’t know how to think. I heard her talking to Salim in the canteen once—‘If it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t have their sweet milk. Look at them, looking at me with their cow eyes!’
We knew when Mylie’s baby was born because her cries died away and we were able to imagine her clasping the tiny creature to her breast. When the baby suckles at the breast it releases a flood of love that washes through the mother’s body. We heard the silence and remembered, briefly, the spiritual sedation. We appeared to relax but we were waiting for the real storm. On the fourth day Mylie’s milk came in. Then they took the baby away and hooked her up to the pump, and we heard her screams begin. We stopped at our tasks: I watched a ribbon of carrot peel off, fall from my fingers into the sink before me. Opposite me, Joan stopped twining wool and stared through her fingers, down past her lap, into her baby boy’s eyes; Sheryl, across the room cleaning the kitchen benches, stood quite still with the scrubbing brush in her hand, and thought about her three daughters. They would almost be old enough to begin working themselves now. Not here. Daughters are raised on different farms.
They’re bringing the girls in younger and younger; every morning we can see the girls from David’s Biodynamics taking their exercise behind the north fields, walking their sullen track; tiny bodies laden, bulbous, with hopeless life. I look out for ones with glossy black hair but they’re too far away to tell.
We were the first organic dairy. The first to sell fresh too. Sheryl says we should think ourselves lucky. She says she’s been in places a lot worse than this but I don’t see how.
There are hundreds of dairies now but some are awful—scores of women in long, low buildings with no windows. They sleep in dormitories and are hooked up 24 hours a day. They don’t have TV or books, and every half an hour the comforting hum of the breast pumps begin, and the reassuring suckling starts again. These dairies are financed by the supermarkets. The milk’s cheap. Frozen or ultra-heat treated. There is no vitamins or nutrients left in it by then but that’s all the poor people buy; hoping for a chance at health or intellect like the Superiors.
Flloyds are the biggest. The women there smash windows and cut themselves with chunks of glass. They get infected bedsores which need to be treated with antibiotics and we know what that does to the milk, so in the end it’s no different from the cow’s milk we drank when I was a kid.
When Mylie was allowed to return to the communal areas we clustered around her, holding her weak body upright with our hands.
‘A boy,’ was all she said, and the tears spilled down her face again. Then we all clucked like hens—a fence of bodies, we carried her to a chair and she sank her body down tentatively. And we fell silent again, remembering. Boys were worse. Though we hated to think of the pain of our daughters, we could at least re-create their pretty faces, imagine them growing, surviving. Our boys are spared the years of pain, but right now, I knew, Mylie’s son was alone: a tiny baby, ridiculous defenseless life, being shipped to the continent for food.
‘He was so beautiful,’ she whispered.
‘They all are,’ said Bess.
‘Don’t grieve,’ said Joan. ‘If you lose your milk you’re as good as dead.’ Some of us had heard Joan say this before but no-one wanted to ask if she had seen it happen; we supposed by the heavy ridge of her brow that she had.
I imagined Mylie’s son in a tiny cardboard crib—little more than a packing crate, alone save for the labourer hired to feed him. He, and the other little boys, screaming, fed watery formula to keep them weak and pale. In a restaurant on the continent, he would be eaten by a Superior. She would dab at her feathery lips with a linen napkin and declare him delicious, coldly imitating a woman with a soul. The man she was courting for a business partnership would say how nicely the meat went with the wine and with the two of them comfortingly aligned by their culture he would decide to invest.
No-one dared to tell Mylie about Nate. Her husband was murdered the morning her milk came in; something must have gone wrong—he was virile, square-jawed. Slaughtered is the word they use here. It makes it sound like a war-torn country somewhere far away, where people are stories and platitudes and oh, that’s awful while Superiors peel vegetables and set the table, like the evening news at the beginning of the century.
We’ll tell her soon, when she is stronger—if she doesn’t figure it out before. She’ll notice soon enough though—when he’s not there at lunch or dinner, or the next evening visit. She’ll notice the whispers and the way everyone looks at her.
As we filed out into the yard for exercise I wanted to go to Mylie and put my arms around her and hold her so she could feel the warmth of my body on hers. But she would’ve known then. I stopped staring at her. She looked so pretty, her eyes looked amber out there in the sun, and she was smiling as though she was free, as though she could remember the way things used to be, but I’m sure she couldn’t really.
After lunch and exercise we returned to our rooms. My room is green, which is supposed to be relaxing. I have a TV and a bookcase, but they aren’t my books. Robertson comes to hook me up and stands for a few minutes, watching the milk drip into the glass bottle.
‘Tch, tch. This one’s still a bit lazy, isn’t it, Daisy?’ she says. She speaks as though I’m a child, but she’s not looking at me. Robertson is a beautiful, supple blonde, with smooth skin. She talks to some of the older women like Sheryl and Joan who’ve been here since the dairy began. Joan says Robertson is at least fifty, but it’s hard to believe. If she is, there’s no doubt she drinks the milk.
She sets the suction higher on the cup attached to my right breast. Sheryl says there are places where they kill you for less.
While I am milked I nap. I can sleep now, but it wasn’t always so easy. When I first came I sobbed for Joe. Shortly after, my first child was born and they took her from me. I screamed until my throat bled. At night I longed for death, escape, something I couldn’t express, and dug my nails deep into my skin. But in the mornings, when the quiet hum of the machine began and I felt the gentle pull on my breasts, I bathed in the drowsy hormones and remembered the moments of my life in still pictures. My tiny daughter, newborn and sucking at my skin, her eyes shut tight, her warm skin melting into mine before they took her from me. And later, three boys. Blonde angels with tiny pink rosebud mouths.
Marianne was taken last week. She wasn’t old; she said she’d given birth to nineteen children: ten girls and nine boys, but I don’t know if she can really have kept count. And they say we don’t work. They didn’t stun her at least, but gave her an injection in her bed. They say this is humane. A van came and took her away and not one of us mentioned what would become of her.
They say it doesn’t matter because we’re dumb. They say we’re different. I don’t know if we are or not.
The jingle for the old ad was Superior milk for superior minds. I try to imagine the 22-year-old genius that came up with that. It makes you long for the surrealism of last century. I wonder if he was brought up on Robertson’s milk. Probably. It’s a class thing now.
I hear Nate thrashed and bellowed as they had put his head in the restraint and stunned him. He remained unconscious until they slit his throat and bled him, but the man behind him regained consciousness on the production line. He bellowed as they strung him up. It took more than ten minutes for him to bleed to death.
This makes the meat tender.
I think about Joe; they haven’t let me see him for months. I try to imagine Nate sliced into steaks and sealed in a polystyrene tray and feel nausea wave upward from my stomach.
The masseurs are here, and after them will come the nutritionists. Happy Mums, Happy Milk. At night I curl my arms around my pillow and stroke an escaped feather – it is as soft and downy as hair..
My daughter will feel this loss: the dislocation, the dismemberment as her child is taken from her. My sons: deep frozen, a patty, throats slit. Would you like fries with that? They don’t let us see the ads for that.
© Tanya Davies 2013
Robertson’s Dairy was published in Visible Ink 25 On the Ledge of the World