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Hen Circle - Short Story by Augustus Sleeveen

The hen circle graces Francois’ Five Star restaurant at two pm, grey sweatpants and hoodies taking their places among suits and ties. Nobody tells them about the dress code or the specials. The street outside seems to darken as they take their seats.

Tabby starts. “Okay, now that we’re all here, does anyone have anything they’d like us to address?”

Phyl sticks her hand up, avoiding the passing CEO of fourteen cigarette companies by mere inches. He scurries away like a crab, his head bowed low. Tabby nods.

“What can we do, Phyl?” she asks.

Phyl throws her hands up. “It’s not that he’s a bad person–” she begins.

Tabby shakes her head and waves her hands like she’s brushing off a chugger. “Please Phyl, no justifications here.”

Phyl nods. “You’re right, sorry. It’s this new intern at work. I often find him staring at me; it’s very distracting. I’ve spoken to HR but to no avail. He has one of those vape things too. I don’t know what’s in them and I don’t need to be breathing it in.”

Phyl stops, realising her voice has risen. There is momentary disapproval. Tabby sits back and conducts it with her knife and fork. The table breaks into finger clicks, the least intrusive approval. “Okay, thank you, Phyl,” says Tabby. “Does anyone have a solution?”

Linda’s hand shoots up, just ahead of her smirk. “I have photos,” she says, as though describing that her roses have really sprung up this year. She looks around the room, but rolls her eyes back to her empty glass when the oohs and ahhs never come. Her breath comes out in frustration; Tabby is waiting for more, as usual. Linda bites her lip. “The office manager was at a party on Friday. I don’t think his family would like his new boyfriend.”

Suppressed giggles follow. Tabby marvels. “How did you get them?” she asks.

Linda leans in, her stage whisper breaking the fourth wall: “Let’s just say I caught my intern snapping an upskirt in the office. He’s a good photographer.”

After the next barrage of snide laughter subsides, Tabby calls over an elderly waiter. “Excuse me, but could you bring the jug, please?”

He looks as though he might be sick, which she ignores, but he nods.

Once he’s gone, Tabby leans in, putting both hands on the table. “Okay, who brought the hat this week?”

Mildred’s shaking hand is barely shoulder-high. “Oh don’t be shy,” says Paula, thumping her on the shoulder.

Mildred withdraws and winces; Paula plays a lot of golf. Mildred licks her dry lips, praying the moisture would help her nerves.

“Please Tabby,” she whispers, “it’s too soon.”

“Nonsense!” Tabby shows her teeth. “England was weeks ago. You’ll have another when he gets those little blue pills.” She winks.

They all laugh, none of them finding it funny. Mildred nods, holding in tears. She passes the hat to her left.

As one, the ladies reach into their sweat pants and handbags and begin rummaging around as though digging through a filthy toilet for a contact lens. Their hands come up for air, clutching in two fingers limp, wool things, painted in dark red chunks. They hold them in their laps, the blood on the fresher ones dripping between their expensive shoes, staining the carpet dark brown in the same place from meetings gone by. As they pass the hat around, each of them put a tampon into it as though collecting dead rats. Each looks sicker than the last, except Tabby. She looks over her shoulder.

“Ah! The jug!”

Sure enough, the older waiter has returned. He bangs the jug onto the table, the only man who can, and flees to the kitchen without looking up. Each of them leans in, placing one hand on the jug, pushing it into the centre of the table together.

Once more they pass the hat. As it stops, each hen retrieves a tampon, before putting it into the drink. Fleshy chunks and cotton pieces sink to the bottom of the water, which by now resembles strawberry cordial.

Tabby puts her hands out, as though instructing a foreigner on letting stout settle. “Patience, sisters,” she says, “We will all get a turn. You all know what must pay for action.”

They all know; they’ve heard it enough. Mildred knows better than anyone; hadn’t they buried her husband without too many questions?

Five more minutes pass. All of the issues are trivial, but they drag on. Paula gives an impassioned speech about the golfer who cut her off in the car park the week before. Maeve talks about how nobody showed up for the picnic last month for far too long, and then tells everyone she doesn’t really mind and tries not to cry, but she never begs. And all the while evil fleshy clumps fizzle and sputter around the jug like flares. It’s turned a very deep shade of red by this point, like good tea, and the liquid has stuck the chunks together. Tabby sits back.

“Okay,” she says, “who wants to go first?”

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