The Barn Owls

 

I’m watching a hidden camera — the view, a barn owl’s nest. Only the mum’s done a runner. The chicks hatch from their eggs, looking cute and fluffy, the next thing you know, the chicks eat each other. First a peck here and a peck there, no real menace, then things get real ugly and it’s two against one, before long the weakest of the barn owl chicks is ripped to shreds and swallowed by the others. It happens, abandoned chicks eat each other in order to survive.

Gracie is crying. She wants to know what they did that for? Why the big chicks ate the little chicks? I tell her to quit blubbering. If she wakes up Mum early I’ll be the one in trouble not her.

‘Why did the big chicks eat the little chick?’ Gracie wails.

‘Because they’re hungry stupid.’

Gracie wipes her nose along her sleeve, leaving a slug trail.

‘If you’re… hungry… Dinah… will you… eat me?’

‘Stop crying or I will.’

‘You won’t or I’ll tell Mum.’

I’m thinking, I’m hungry but not that hungry. Gracie stops crying. I make us a peanut butter sandwich with crackers cos there’s no bread. We watch some cartoon. Gracie hums along to the theme tune.

‘What have I told you about eating crackers on the settee?’

‘Mum!’ Gracie jumps up.

‘Careful Gracie, watch the cigarette.’

Mum picks my blazer up from the couch and shakes off the crumbs.

‘Look at the state — you can’t go to school looking like a rat’s arse.’

Gracie pulls at Mum’s leg, ‘Look Mum I got a sticker.’

‘Did you honey?’

She points proudly to the sticker on her school polo shirt.

‘Look it says good work — it’s strawberry, smell.

Mum kneels down, ‘wow it does smell like strawberries.’

 

I sweep the crumbs from the back of the settee with my hand and empty them into the kitchen bin. It stinks of rotten cabbages. I hold my breath and let the lid drop. When I come back Mum is nipping the end of her cigarette with her fingers to save for later. I fold my arms and stare at the half smoked cigarette in disgust.

‘You dare madam.’ Mum says, ‘don’t look at me like that, you’re not my flaming mother.’ She puts the butt on the mantelpiece.

‘You smell like an ashtray.’ I say.

‘You should take up smoking Dinah, stop you being such a bitch.’ Mum takes her make-up bag from the side table and plucks her eyebrows in the mirror. I keep on staring at the half smoked cigarette.

‘It’s not harming anyone — ow!’

‘Why do you do it Mum if it hurts?’ Gracie cries. She bounces up and down on the settee and it breaks my concentration.

‘Ow — it doesn’t hurt that bad, like a bird getting its feathers — ow, ow, ow!’

I give up on my stare protest, ‘Mum there’s no milk.’

Mum ties her hair up into a bun with pins.

‘Gracie hairspray.’

Gracie jumps up and runs to the bedroom.

‘How can we be out of milk again?’ Mum says with a pin in her mouth.

‘I didn’t drink it.’

‘Well who did?’

Gracie comes back with the hairspray.

‘Can I have some sweets?’ Gracie grabs Mum’s hand, ‘Please, pretty please with cherries on top.’

‘Fetch my purse, hurry up.’

Gracie grabs mum’s purse from the sideboard and empties it out onto the carpet.

‘Jamie Oliver says the hospital beds are full of children with rotten teeth.’ I give Mum the evils behind her back.

Mum stands on tiptoe so that she can see in the mirror better.

‘If there’s no money for milk you’ll just have to drink council pop, that won’t rot your teeth will it smart arse.’ Mum pulls a face in the mirror. She puts on her lipstick and pouts her lips together.

Gracie imitates the pouting sound.

‘How much Gracie?’ Mum asks.

I groan loudly.

‘Sixty-six pounds.’ Gracie says.

‘Did you hear that Dinah we’re filthy rich.’ Mum shakes the can of hairspray.

‘Does that mean I can have some sweets?’ Gracie asks.

I bend down to count the money myself. ‘You can’t —’

‘Dinah don’t!’

 

Six pound coins, one fifty pence, and three tens. Mum rummages through the change and takes out the silver.

‘Eighty pence. You can have that, I need the rest.’

‘But Mum.’

‘What?’

‘You said you’ll give up.’

‘I will. I will.’

Mum sprays some perfume on her wrists and neck, the smell is sickly and makes me feel dizzy.

‘Dinah you know the drill, and don’t let Gracie wet the bed.’

‘Mum, Mum — Dinah let me watch some chicks eat each other.’ Gracie pulls a face, ‘It was horrible.’

‘Mrs Quinn rang.’ I say.

‘Bloody cow.’

‘She said to ring her back.’

‘I have to go.’

 

I put a movie on the DVD player for Gracie and remember that her bed needs stripping from last night. Mum says we can’t afford pyjama pants even though she can always find money for vodka and cigarettes. The urine has soaked through the sheet to the mattress. I turn it over so Gracie is sleeping on the drier side. The puddle stains look like the patterns Gracie makes on her Spirograph.

 

Later we walk across the estate to the corner shop. They usually have reduced milk at the end of the day. Gracie is tired cos its way past her bed time. It has been raining and steam is rising up from the pavement.

‘Remember you said, you promised.’

Gracie has been going on about her sweets since we left the flat.

‘We need milk too.’ I’m thinking if Gracie doesn’t quit whining —

Gracie splashes in a puddle, the water soaks the bottom of my trousers.

‘You did that on purpose, no sweets.’

Gracie starts to cry, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’

A dishevelled looking man approaches as we near the shop entrance. He stops in front of me, swaying slightly, ‘Whats sa matter?’

He looks as if he has been drinking. He smells rank like he has been soaked in booze or something. I try moving out of his way but he is blocking us.

‘Dinah says I can’t have any sweets and she promised.’ Gracie pipes up. I kick her.

‘Ow!’

‘Dinah let the bairn have her sweets.’ He digs in his pockets for change, pulls out a handful and offers it to me.

I stare at the money in his hand, ‘I can’t take that.’

‘Sures ya can.’

The shop door swings open. The owner is swinging a baseball bat.

‘Hey what have I told you — move away dirty old man — I’m phoning the police — move.’

I snatch the money out of the drunk guy’s hand and run into the shop with Gracie. The shop bell rings behind us as I shut the door.

‘Dinah I’m scared was that the Bogey Man?’

I look at the money in my hand, there’s like eight pounds.

‘No just some crazy guy.’

‘Is the shopkeeper going to beat up the crazy guy?’

I take a look out of the window, my heart thumping, the crazy guy is lying on the ground and the shopkeeper is kicking him.

‘No, no he’s just warning him.’

‘I want to go home Dinah.’

The shopkeeper looks up and sees me watching. I quickly move away from the window.

The shop bell rings. I flinch.

The shopkeeper wipes his sweaty face with the back of his hand and puts down the bat. His shirt has come free, he unfastens his belt and tucks it back into his trousers.

‘Bloody drunks round here, scaring off the customers.’

He looks at me — as if expecting a thank you or something.

I’m thinking, What the hell? I didn’t ask him to beat that guy up.

My throat is dry and my heart is racing. I stare down at my shoes. The shopkeeper looks at me with contempt.

‘Do you know what men like that do to little girls?’

I keep staring down at my shoes.

‘Didn’t your mother tell you not to talk to strangers?’

The shopkeeper tightens his belt, then walks down the aisle straightening some tins on the top shelves.

I can hardly breathe. ‘Gracie go choose your sweets.’

‘Dinah,’ Gracie whispers, ‘I think I’ve had an accident.’

I look down at the shop floor and see a puddle.

‘Don’t worry,’ I show Gracie the handful of change, ‘Look I’ve got plenty, choose whatever you want.’

Gracie walks off slowly to the sweet aisle and starts to run her hands over the sweets.

‘No touching the merchandise!’ The shopkeeper’s voice booms from the back of the store.

I look up and see a security camera. He is watching us.

 

I open the door of the milk chiller. I keep thinking what happened here is all my fault. I pick up a blue top and go and find Gracie.

‘Dinah I can’t decide.’

‘Hurry up Gracie, please.’

‘Can I have Maltesers?’

‘Yes anything, just be quick.’

I take the milk and chocolate to the counter and wait to be served. No-one shows up. I think about leaving.

‘Your sister’s made a mess on my floor.’

He lifts up the counter flap and stands behind the till.

I stare at the counter top.

‘Well, what have you to say, who is going to clean up the stinking mess?’

‘It was an accident, she’s only six, the crazy guy scared her.’ I push the milk across the counter together with the chocolate.

‘I saw you take his money.’

My mouth goes dry.

‘I hear what goes on with you white girls.’

I shout, ‘you shouldn’t have hurt him like that!’

The shop keeper rings the milk and chocolate through the till.

‘How old are you?’

I feel sick, ‘How much?’

He looks at me as if trying to guess my age. ‘Fourteen, fifteen, old enough.’

My hands are sweaty. I hand him the money and wait for my change.

He holds it out for me — I try to take it but he grabs my hand.

‘Your mum can’t leave you looking after your sister all night — it’s breaking the law. I’ve been watching. I know. I could go to the police.’

My stomach lurches and the blood is pounding in my ears. I yank my hand away.

‘Come on Gracie.’

I take her arm and hurry out of the shop.

‘Wait,’ the shopkeeper calls, ‘wait we could work something out, wait take the milk.’

 

We run to the end of the street. Gracie is crying again. I stop running and dry Gracie’s tears.

‘Why do you have to cry so much Gracie?’

‘Does that mean I can’t have the Maltesers?’

‘Just shut up.’

It is closing time at the Black Horse and a throng of people spill out onto the pavement, lighting their cigarettes, voices loud, thickened by alcohol.

 

I’m jumpy as anything. I’m thinking, how come the shopkeeper knows so much? That Mum works nightshift. That she leaves us by ourselves. We turn the corner and reach the landings to our flat. I see a shadow move as I turn the key in the lock.

My blood runs cold.

 

‘You forgot your milk. I had to find out where you live — your mam shouldn’t leave you alone at night, it’s not safe, anything could happen.’

I grab the milk and slam the door in his face. I press my back into the solidness of the wood, my legs shaking, my heart pounding.

‘Dinah I’m scared.’ Gracie whispers.

‘Let me in or I’ll phone the police right now.’

I slowly open the door. Gracie looks at me scared, ‘Is this worse than Mrs Quinn?’

 

I give Gracie the glass of milk and help her into her pyjamas.

‘Why do I have to drink milk?’

‘I’ve told you before — it helps keep you strong.’

She falls asleep as soon as her head touches the pillow. She looks so peaceful. She’s no bother at all.

 

The milk carton is sweating on the table. My hands shake badly as I drink the milk straight from the plastic.

‘I’ve seen you come into the shop, always buying the milk, always with your little sister.’

The shopkeeper takes the milk from me and drinks.

I see my reflection in the TV screen. I see the shopkeeper’s reflection.

He picks up the remote and switches on the TV. The barn owl’s nest.

‘What rubbish is this?’

He sets the carton down on the table. Beads of water form rivulets on the bottle’s plastic surface.

In the nest, there is only one barn owl chick left.

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