My husband has decided to keep a pet caterpillar. It is disconcerting to see it sleeping under his nose as we have a conversation. When we kiss, it wriggles and prickles in discomfort. A top lip is not the best home for a caterpillar. One day, it may move on, find an appropriate place to live, crawl under a damp cabbage leaf. Or perhaps it will spin itself a silky cocoon, grow beautiful wings and flutter away.
Looking out of the window on a damp grey day, I noticed something black and white, curled and hidden, under the bushy overgrown shrub which adorns our front lawn. At first, I thought it was my cat tucked up in her favourite sleeping place but, looking more carefully, I realised this animal was too big for her. Fat spots of rain began to fall, turning the scene outside to blurred watercolours. The black and white bundle snuggled closer into the hedge. A shiny nose cautiously stretched out from the shelter of the untidy branches sniffing the air, and a bright pink tongue tasted the raindrops. Some farm dog, I supposed, settled down for a cheeky rest from work. Still, it wasn’t usual for a dog to use my shrub for a bed.
“There’s a dog asleep on our front garden.” I told my husband.
He came to take a look.
“Poor thing,” he said, “better check it’s all right.”
“I was just about to.” I said.
On opening the front door, the dog jumped up from its resting place, tail wagging and tongue lolling happily in greeting. It seemed pleased to see me. Normally, I’m a bit wary of farm dogs as they can be temperamental and, once or twice, I’ve had a nasty nip. This pretty tri-coloured collie seemed friendly, however. It looked at me with forlorn eyes. I put my hand out slowly. At this encouragement, the dog bounded over, nuzzling and licking my hand. On closer inspection I found she was a female, small and slender; a friendly, sweet-natured animal.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, “Run along home.”
She eyed me expectantly and sat down on the gravel. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“Are you lost?” I stroked her glossy head. She rolled onto her side revealing her pink tummy, showing she was no threat. I noticed an old faded collar but no tag.
“Well, you must belong to somebody.”
I thought she may be glad of a drink so I went around the back of the house to collect a bowl of water. She followed me to the side gate and waited patiently there until I returned. When she saw me, she gamboled ecstatically around my legs. I put the bowl down and she lapped gratefully.
“You were a thirsty girl,” I said, “but now you’d better make your way home. You can’t stay here, I’m afraid, I’ve got three dogs of my own and that is quite enough for anybody!”
I patted on the head and went inside. I hoped she would head off once alone.
Every half hour or so, my husband or I looked out of the window to check whether the dog had moved on but, each time, there she was, snuggled under the bush trying to keep dry. The rain fell in an unrelenting downpour. After three hours, I decided she definitely wasn’t intending to leave.
“What should we do?” I asked my husband. He agreed the dog would have left for home by now if she was going to.
So, unlike the rain, I gave in and went to the side gate to let her into the back garden. My concern was rewarded as she danced around me, wagging her happy tail, thrilled to see me again.
I towelled off her wet hair and feet and let her into the conservatory, then fed her a bowl of kibble. She ate hungrily and settled in the large dog basket belonging to my labrador.
“You can stay in here while I make some phone calls.” I told her.
My three dogs knew something was up. They weren’t usually shut out of the conservatory and there was a whiff of strange dog in the air. They sniffed with curiosity at my legs, snuffling and whimpering. I lifted the receiver and rang the vet. No one had reported a dog missing but they would keep my details in case somebody came in. I should bring her in to check for a microchip. Then I rang every vet in the area. It was the same story with all of them.
“Any luck?” my husband asked.
“No one’s reported a dog missing anywhere.” I explained, “The vet told me to inform the dog warden.”
We looked at each other sadly. it seemed a shame to put such a lovely dog in a cage while she waited for her owner to find her. It was with some reluctance, therefore, that I picked up the phone. Surprisingly, they seemed unconcerned. The service was overstretched, it would be a while before the warden would be able to collect the dog, would we be happy to keep her until he got in touch? I agreed, of course.
“We have to keep her until the warden has time to come and get her.” I explained to my husband, “He’s out at the moment and will ring us back when he can.”
“If she’s going to be staying with us, she’ll have to meet our boys,” my husband said, “If they don’t get on, she’ll have to live in the barn.”
“I’m sure they’ll get on.” I didn’t like to think of her out there on her own.
We decided it would be best if the dogs got to know each other in the garden where there was plenty of space. Luckily, the rain had finally stopped. A pale sun struggled to smile through the clouds. Rather than terrifying the new dog by sending out the boys in a rowdy pack, we introduced her to one dog at a time. First, Sammy, our aged collie cross, quiet and gentle. Next Iolo, our gangly labrador, barely taking any notice. Finally Monty, our yappy terrier, noisy but playful. The dogs did us proud. Their manners were impeccable. The little female collie liked them immediately and soon all four dogs were playing on the grass. I breathed a sigh of relief. It may take us a while to find the owner but at least she could enjoy living with us while we did.
Then I remembered my cats. Would she be a chaser? My dogs and cats were best buddies; friends since puppy and kitten days. This dog may never have lived with cats before. It wasn’t long until we discovered the answer. Kipper, our ginger boy and keen hunter, came ambling around the corner of the house right into the middle of the action. He confidently walked up the new dog. She sniffed him with caution. Kipper rubbed himself against her legs then sidled off. She didn’t follow or chase him. Phew! Later in the day, the other two cats appeared, feisty Mags and grumpy Maude. The new dog didn’t bat an eyelid and the cats were unphased. All remained peaceful.
Over the next few days, the female collie settled into our routines and became part of the family. She behaved perfectly in the house and was a clean, tidy creature. We hardly knew she was there. I took her to see the vet and discovered she had no microchip. I drove her around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors and calling in at farms. Nobody recognised her or knew anyone looking for a lost dog. Next, I took photographs and made posters to put up on telegraph poles, fence posts, in shops, at the vets, in the library, everywhere I could think of. No luck. I posted photographs and information on local social media sites. No luck. The dog warden didn’t ring. We began to think the new dog may be with us forever. Some of us may even have hoped it. We were growing fond of her calm, sweet nature.
“We can’t call you the new dog all the time,” I told her, “What’s your name?”
Over the next few hours, we experimented calling out different names and watching for a response. She didn’t seem too bothered with any of them until finally I called out, “Lucy!” she stopped in her tracks, pricked up her ears in apparent recognition and came running over. From then on, that’s what we called her.
Two weeks later, two weeks of looking after Lucy with no sign of an owner, we started to reconcile ourselves to life with four dogs. She was no trouble. When you had three, an extra one made no difference. Lucy fitted in. She was at home with us; part of the family. We all rubbed along happily together. We played in the garden. We went on walks. At night, she curled up on the floor with her doggy mates while we watched TV.
One day, two and a half weeks after Lucy had tucked herself under the bush on our front lawn, the phone rang.
“Hello,” said a lady, “I think you might have my dog.”
The lady described Lucy perfectly, down to her faded collar. She explained that she had been away, that Lucy was one of four outdoor farm dogs, that her husband had been feeding the dogs and hadn’t noticed one was missing every night. It wasn’t until she got back with her children that they realised the dog was gone. She’d spent the last week searching everywhere, finally getting my number from the vet.
“Can I come and collect her?” she asked.
My heart sank a little, “Of course.”
It was a shock when giving directions to find that Lucy had travelled six miles, crossing a busy main road, to get to our house. The lady thought she had probably been frightened by a bad storm, running in blind panic.
We said a sad farewell to Lucy while we waited for her owner to show up. Half an hour later, a land rover pulled onto the drive. A lady got out and I brought Lucy to her. The dog was very pleased to see her owner. She jumped straight into the car.
“She loves a ride.” the lady said, “Thank you so much for having her all this time.”
We waved away the offer of money for Lucy’s care. We had enjoyed her company and were just glad that she’d been happy while waiting to find her true home.
Before the lady drove off, Lucy jumped out of the car and ran back to us to say a last goodbye. We gave the little collie, who had stayed with us for a short while but touched our hearts forever, a big fuss.
“Oh, by the way,” I asked, remembering just in time, “What’s her name?”
And they drove away.
“Nadolig Llawen!” the chubby chip shop lady called as Jon left the steamy atmosphere and went out into the crisp, wet darkness of a typical December in West Wales. He didn’t reply. Christmas was not on his agenda this year. Having lost his job and the love of his life, his Spotify had been playing Joni Mitchell’s River on repeat for the last fortnight.
Jon splashed through puddles slick with oily rainbows reflecting twinkling lights from the bedecked terraced houses. He arrived at his grey, unlit door and fumbled with his keys. There were advantages to adorning your home with glowing decorations, he thought as he struggled to find the lock. The door swung open and he entered his cold, bare hallway. Since losing his job, he had skimped on the heating. The last thing he needed was an enormous bill this quarter. Lying on the mat, Jon noticed four envelopes stamped with his muddy boot prints. He picked them up and put them in the bin. His mood was too low for jolly, holly seasonal messages.
Jon sat at the kitchen table munching salty, soggy chips and sipping a large glass of brandy. A steady rain pattered the skylight above. He pulled his jacket closer. This had to be the worst Christmas Eve ever. His friends would be out by now, doing the rounds of the village pubs, laughing, hugging, sharing bad festive jokes, gathering later at Twm’s house for the party, cheering and kissing at midnight to welcome in the big day. Jon shivered and pushed the thoughts from his head. He didn’t want to think about Twm. His tinkling laugh, like sleigh bells on a wintry night. His bright eyes, as dazzling as a string of fairy lights.
Jon’s mobile phone vibrated on the worktop. He glanced at the screen; a bad habit he was trying to resolve. He wanted to ignore the messages but read every one despite himself. WHERE R U? WE MISS U. FIND US IN THE 3 COMPASSES. ROB X. What was Rob thinking? He couldn’t go to the pub. Twm would be there. He could not face Twm yet. Not tonight. Not at Christmas, a time for being with loved ones. Twm had made it perfectly clear he didn’t love Jon. Better to forget Christmas this year. To hide away at home. To climb under the duvet and stay there until it was all over. He had his bottle of brandy, another couple of glasses should put him to sleep for a while.
The phone hummed again. Before Jon could stop himself, he looked at the screen. ARE YOU COMING TO THE PARTY LATER? YOU DON’T NEED TO STAY AWAY. I’VE GOT SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. TWM X. Jon shook his head in disbelief. How could Twm torture him like this? Surely, he understood how much hurt he’d caused? Three years they had been together. Three happy years, Jon thought they were. Running a business together and being in love wasn’t always easy. There had been stresses, disagreements and rows. Bound to be with a passionate man like Twm. His temper was fiery at times but it was his energy and life that had drawn Jon. Twm was the complete opposite of him. Jon’s quiet and thoughtful personality settled Twm down. Everyone said they complimented each other perfectly. The vegan café was becoming a success. The TripAdvisor reviews were fantastic. Everything had been going great. Or so Jon believed. But he’d been mistaken. Absolutely wrong. He’d made a fool of himself or Twm had made a fool of him.
Jon snuggled into the pillows and pulled the covers up over his head. The brandy had left a warm, soothing glow over his body and his lids were heavy. He closed his eyes and was soon deep in sleep. A glimmer of light played on the ceiling and a faint beat of disco music hung in the air. Jon stirred awake, rubbed his eyes and slowly sat up. He glanced at the alarm clock. Midnight. He’d been asleep for three hours or so. He scratched his head. For a moment, he couldn’t think where the light and sound were coming from, then he realised there must be a party going on across the street. He clambered out of bed to the window and pulled back the curtains.
Outside, every Christmas light and street lamp had gone out. His terrace was silent and black, as if in a power cut, but his clock clearly shone the time. And the room still filled with twinkling light, getting brighter by the second. Jon rubbed his eyes again. This was a hangover of monumental proportions. He started towards the door to fetch a paracetamol but a blazing flash and a deafening bang stopped him. Jon steadied himself against the wall as a glamorous woman materialised in the middle of the room. She was dressed in figure-hugging pink satin with platinum blonde hair piled up in curls and a diamante tiara placed precariously on top.
“What the…” Jon stuttered.
“Do not be afraid. My name is Letitia Splenditia and I am your magical Fairy Drag Queen, Girl.” She sashayed forward, placing a shapely leg in thigh-high silver stiletto boots upon Jon’s bedroom chair, “I’ve been watching you and I know how sad you are tonight. Nobody should be sad at Christmas so I’m here to help.”
John stared aghast at the apparition that had appeared on his cream carpet, “How did you get in here?”
Letitia smiled, showing large white teeth in her lovely, perfectly made-up face, marred only slightly by a shadow of stubble, “Now, now, you don’t need to worry your pretty head with things like that, darling.” She pointed a glossy, manicured fingernail at Jon, “I’m going to mend your little broken heart.”
“That’s impossible.” Jon pouted and folded his arms.
“Oh Girl, never say impossible to a Fairy Drag Queen. I know how much you are hurting. That naughty Twm did a silly thing but you can find it in your heart to forgive him. He wants you to go to the party tonight. And so, you will.”
“A silly thing, that’s what you call it, is it? A fling with his ex? I call it unfaithfulness…disloyalty…betrayal…” Jon’s voice cracked.
“He made a mistake. He was stupid. He drank too much and allowed himself to be flattered by that sweet-talking charmer,” Letitia put her arms around Jon and squeezed him tight. He was engulfed in voluminous bosom and heady fragrance, “but he is sorry. He is heartbroken like you. This party is an attempt to make things better. To put things right. He is waiting for you to turn up.”
Jon shook his head, “Well, he’ll be disappointed then. Anyway, I don’t believe you.”
“Take a look at your phone, Girl. You’ll find many messages there.”
Jon took his mobile from the bedside cabinet. Sure enough, Twm had sent text after text, each one more pleading than the last. The final message read: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE COME. I MISS YOU. TWM X.
Jon sighed, “I don’t know…He’s hurt me so badly.”
“I know he has, darling. But you love him, don’t you?”
“Then I will sort everything. You shall go to the party!” Letitia squealed in delight.
“Oh yes, and just how can you do that? I’m a mess. I’ve let myself go these last few weeks. I look and smell awful…” Jon shuddered at his reflection in the mirror.
“Girl, I’m a magical Fairy Drag Queen, how can you even ask?” Letitia twirled her wand and, with another flash and bang, Jon was standing in a sharp suit, hair cut and styled to perfection, swathed in the fresh tang of citrus cologne and mint toothpaste.
“Your carriage awaits…” Letitia pointed to the window.
Under a single street lamp, Jon saw a taxi cab, clouds of exhaust fumes billowing. The driver leant against the bonnet, puffing on a quick cigarette.
“Go slay him, Girl!” Letitia winked, blew a kiss and disappeared.
Jon took a deep breath, appraised himself with pride in the mirror and skipped downstairs.
Twm’s house throbbed with loud music and lights pulsed in every window. Jon thanked the taxi driver and climbed out onto the shiny, wet pavement. With a pop, the cab disappeared. Jon pinched himself to check he was awake then darted inside the house, out of the rain. Everywhere he looked, people were dancing, cuddling or snogging in the warm radiance. Drink and food flowed in greedy Christmas excess. Jon searched each room for Twm but no one had seen him.
“That’s great.” Jon said to himself, “All this effort and he’s not even here.”
“Jon, is that you mate?” Rob came bowling out of the downstairs loo, followed by an attractive dark-haired woman Jon recognised as a nurse from the hospital where Rob portered, “Brilliant you turned up! Are you looking for Twm?”
“Yeah but it seems he’s cleared off.” Jon shrugged.
“He’s in the garden. Been there hours in the freezing, bloody rain. Tried to get him in but he said he’s in no mood for a party.” Rob shook his head as the dark-haired woman pulled him back towards the loo, “Sorry mate, things to do. Good luck!”
Outside, the rain fell heavier than ever. Twm hunched on a bench, a coat pulled up around his ears, his normally soft, curly hair plastered to his skull and dripping.
“What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death.” Jon said.
Twm looked up, “Jon, you came after all.”
“Looks like I did. In the nick of time. Come on, let’s go in and get a drink. Warm you up. It’s Christmas.”
“One moment.” Twm looked serious, “Please sit down. I want to tell you something.”
“It’s wet and cold.” Jon shuddered.
Twm took Jon’s hand, “That doesn’t matter. You’re here. I’m here. We’re together again. Please sit.”
Jon sat on the sopping seat. Water seeped into his smart new trousers.
“You look beautiful.” Twm smiled sadly, “You always do. I’m so sorry I hurt you, Jon. I was a drunken fool. I behaved appallingly. I…I don’t deserve your forgiveness but…I really want it because…I love you so much and I don’t think I can carry on without you. Nothing is the same. I’ve been so miserable…I shut up the café…I haven’t seen anyone until tonight. I only agreed to the party because I…I hoped you’d show up and maybe it would be all right again. Things are bad, Jon. They’re really bad without you.”
Jon held both of Twm’s hands, “I know Twm. I’ve been miserable too. Things are bad without you.”
Twm looked into Jon’s eyes. Jon thought Twm’s eyes were dazzling, bright as a string of fairy lights, though a little fogged with tears.
“Can you ever forgive me?” Twm bit his lip with anxiety.
“I think so…” Jon said, “I’m going to try.”
Twm smiled, “Thank you. That’s the best Christmas present I could wish for.”
Jon pulled Twm closer and kissed him tenderly on his cold lips, “Now let’s go inside, you idiot, before we die out here in this rain!”
Twm laughed, like sleigh bells on a wintry night, “Yes, let’s.”
Jon heard the faint sound of disco music and caught a whiff of heady fragrance on the wind.
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog.
Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.
Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.
Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.
Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.
Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.
“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.
“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.
“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.” He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”
She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.
Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.
Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.
A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.
“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.
Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.
“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.
“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.
Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.
“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”
She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.
As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.
“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”
“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”
From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.
“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.
“Daughter…” Nat repeated.
“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”
“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.
Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”
He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.
“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”
“An angel.” he said.
“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”
“An angel…” he said again.
“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.
“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”
She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.
“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.
“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”
Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.
“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”
She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.
“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”
When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.
“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”
Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.
The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.
Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.
Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.
“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”
There was a brisk knock at the door.
“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”
Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.
Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.
“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”
“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”
“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.
“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.
“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”
“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.
I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”
“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.
“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”
We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.
“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.
By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.
With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.
“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.
“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.
He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.
“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”
“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”
“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”
“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”
“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”
“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”
“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”
The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.
Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”
On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.
“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.
“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”
“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.
Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.
“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”
“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.
“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.
“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”
She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”
“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.
Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.
“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”
I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped. Emily stirred beside me.
“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.
I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.
“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”
“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.
We lay together as the scurrying began again.
“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”
After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.
“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”
“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”
It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.
I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.
Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.
“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.
“I thought that could be your job.” I said.
“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”
“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”
Emily laughed for the first time in days.
Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.
“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.
She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.
On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.
“I love you.” she whispered.
Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.
“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”
“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”
“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.
After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.
“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”
Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.
“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”
“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.
Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.
“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.
She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.
“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”
“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.
I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.
“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.
Phil bent down and picked up Princess.
“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”
Emily nodded and began to sob again.
I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.
Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.
“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”
“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.
“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”
Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”
“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.
“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.
“And what? Tell me, Phil.”
“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”
“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.
“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.
“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”
“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”
“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.
“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”
“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”
“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”
“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.
“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.
“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”
Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.
“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.
“What about school?”
“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”
“Maybe.” Phil said.
“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”
“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.
That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.
When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.
“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.
“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”
“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”
“How was she when you left?”
“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”
“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”
“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”
“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”
I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”
“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”
The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.
On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.
I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.
It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.
“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”
The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.
“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”
“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.
I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”
“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”
“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”
“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”
A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”
“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.
The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.
After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.
When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.
“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”
“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”
“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”
“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.
“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat. They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”
“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”
“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”
“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”
“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.
Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”
“Go now, Phil.”
“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.
He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.
After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.
Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.
In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.
“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.
I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”
Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.
In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.
This is my microfiction story Oxford Summer as featured in The Simple Things magazine in June 2018.
The long, hot summer before you left, days stretched like elastic; tense with waiting. Too tired to move, we lay naked on the floor; limbs outstretched, fingertips touching. Mouths parched, the awkward words stuck in our throats. Your bedsit tidied into neat boxes, there was nothing to drink. And I hated the tap water, stale on my tongue. We stole powdered milk; mixed it with guilt in the tiny kitchen. Barely palatable, we gulped it down along with our foreboding.
The last goodbye arrived; a hurried kiss under burning sun, engine running. And I noticed your hands were shaking.
Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.
Rest in peace, Samwise.
I wanted to share part of a letter from the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) to his 24-year-old son, Nicholas. This letter speaks to my heart. It is a long extract but worth reading. The final lines are a lesson for us all and a statement to live by.
“Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.
“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.
After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”
She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”
“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.
“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.
“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.
“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”
“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.
She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”
The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.
“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”
“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”
She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.
“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.
“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”
“I know, Mum.”
I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.
Somehow, I managed to lose this post from my page after putting it up earlier today, which means I’ve also lost comments from my readers. Sorry about that – I’m still not an expert at blogging – but here it is again!
Walking down the street in my local town, happy in the company of my daughter just returned from university for the summer, we spotted a baby crow precariously hopping about on the edge of the pavement. Our hearts jumped into our throats as it skittered into the path of an oncoming builder’s van. Helpless at the side of the road, we watched it miraculously dodge vehicle after vehicle. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, we saw a lorry run over the wobbly creature.
“That’s it.” I said sadly, only to see it emerge unharmed the other side.
We tried hopelessly to cross the road to rescue the bird but the normally quiet street had an unexpected rush of traffic. Finally, a car hit the little thing and catapulted it back onto the pavement. My daughter rushed forward and scooped it up. She held it gently in her hands where it looked about, dazed and confused, but seemingly unhurt.
“We can’t leave it here.” she said.
For a few seconds, we stood uncertain where to go, passers-by looking at us as if we were mad. Then, I had a brainwave.
“We’ll take it to the churchyard, it’s only around the corner, perhaps its parents will find it there.”
My daughter looked doubtful.
“It’ll be safe,” I said, “It’s quiet and there are lots of bushes to hide in.”
We made our way to the churchyard; the baby crow apparently happy in my daughter’s grasp. In a shady corner of the cemetery, close to a protective hedge, we deposited the little bird. It sat on the grass, still a bit dazed. Crows cawed noisily in the trees above and flapped from rooftop to chimney pot.
“Maybe that’s its parents.” I said.
“Mmmm, maybe…” my daughter replied.
There were chores to do in town, so with a backward glance and a quiet good luck, we left the baby crow.
Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the cemetery. Our chores completed, we had both looked at each other and said, “Do you think we better check it’s all right?”
The baby crow squatted on the grass, a few hops away from where we’d placed it, pathetic and vulnerable.
My daughter looked at me pleadingly, “It’s going to die, Mum. It’s too young to look after itself, probably fell out of the nest. We have to take it home.”
“It might manage…” I said, unconvinced, “They advise you to leave baby birds.”
“Mum, we’ve already moved it because it got hit by a car. Now we have to look after it.”
I sighed. I had known the moment we rescued the bird that it would end up coming home with us.
“You stay here and hold it while I pop in the pet shop to see if they have a spare box.”
The lady in the pet shop was very kind, finding me an empty dog biscuit box and filling it with straw for the crow to sit on.
When I returned, my daughter was sitting on a bench, with the crow quite comfortable in one hand, expertly thumbing through internet information with the other. She had found out what to feed baby crows and how to care for them.
“They tame very easily and are pretty much impossible to release into the wild once rescued.” she added.
“Great…” I said. I didn’t really want to add a pet crow to our menagerie.
The baby bird flapped anxiously when we put it in the box but settled once the lid was firmly closed. I drove the car round to the churchyard so that we didn’t bump the box too much. We went to collect my son from his piano lesson.
“We rescued a baby crow. It got hit by a car. It’s OK, just dazed…” my daughter told him excitedly when he climbed into the back of the car, “It’s in a box in the boot. We’re taking it home.”
“Great!” my son said. Crows are one of his favourite birds.
All the way home, my daughter and son provided crow facts.
“Ring your father and tell him to get the spare chicken coop ready in the barn for our new visitor.” I said.
My husband had made the coop comfortable, so we transferred the baby crow straight into its new home as soon as we got back. It sat on the floor, purple-black feathers a bit crumpled and piercing blue eyes surveying us with interest. We gave it some water and left it to calm down and settle in. Birds are highly sensitive and can die easily from stress.
A couple of hours later, I took the crow its first meal – tinned dog food. I had brought up a baby bird once before, so I knew that a good way to feed it was to use a cocktail stick. The crow snapped its beak hungrily at the smelly meat and was soon gobbling it up. After its meal, it helped itself to water from the pot we had given it and gave itself a good preen. This little crow was a fledgling, far more developed than Chickpea had been, but still not quite ready to manage alone. It stretched and beat its wings to exercise them and hopped about clumsily. It jumped onto its perch and wobbled there for a while. I estimated it would need another week or two to learn how to use those wings properly and fly.
The next two weeks involved regular feeding of dog food, grains and peas. There was also exercise time; the baby crow learning to hop from my arm up to the top of the coop. A few times, I took the crow into the paddock to encourage it to fly, hoping it would join the cackling crow family that roosted amongst the trees, but it gripped my arm tightly refusing to leave me or climbed onto my shoulder. I wanted to be able to successfully release the crow back into the wild but it looked more and more like the bird was becoming tame. It called for me whenever it heard me outside the barn and when I came in, it fluffed up hoping for a scratch.
The crow was growing bigger and stronger. It no longer wobbled and could fly with confidence from perch to perch. Its feathers were beautiful and sleek. Its eyes still a piercing blue. We had decided it was a jackdaw because of the eye colour and size. Although all adolescent crows have blue eyes, our crow would keep this colour. Jackdaws have pale blue eyes; bright eyes to frighten off competitors.
My dilemma was how we were going to continue to look after this lovely bird. It was able to feed itself happily from a dish and would catch live insects it found on its travels around the barn. However, it wouldn’t leave me or fly away. My nephew came to the rescue. An avid bird lover and keeper of many different species in large cages and aviaries, he agreed to take the young crow.
We were sad to see it go after two weeks under our care and attention but we knew we had found the ideal solution. We would be able to visit whenever we liked and the crow would be able to live amongst other birds in a more natural environment.
One week later, I am happy to say that the crow is settled and enjoying its new home. It roosts every night on a perch with its bird buddies. I feel privileged to have had another close encounter with a wild animal but I hope I’m not needed as a chick mother again any time soon.