I crouch, trembling, on the hard earth beside the aviary, wishing the non-stop chirping of twenty-four budgies would drown out the sound of my mother’s screams. More effing and blinding from my step-father Tom, and then she’s yelling about me again; it’s “Amy this” and “Amy that”, and then she gabbles so fast I can’t tell if she’s scared or angry or both. One thing’s for sure; I’m staying out here. I’m just a kid, and it’s best not to get involved. I made up my mind on that a long time ago.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. A few drops of warm summer rain land on my arm. Dark spatters appear on the concrete path, making the air smell dusty. Tom’s sixty-a-day voice gets louder, and I hear what I never expected to hear. I want to rush in there, but my feet won’t move. My heart pounds and I can’t breathe properly. It scares me so much that I don’t hear the rest of the argument.
Gasping, I clutch the chicken-wire for support and focus on The-Cage-That-Tom-Built, its fluttering captives a living kaleidoscope of turquoise, blue, lime and yellow. It works. After a few minutes my breathing steadies. The grown-ups are talking at a normal pitch now. That’s good. No harm done, but for how long?
I make clicking noises at River, my own budgie, given to me because his grey-blue colouring matches my eyes, and because the grown-ups ignored the word “Puppy” on my birthday list. River ignores me and disappears into one of the nesting boxes.
I think back to the first time Tom had hit Mum, four years ago. “Leave him,” I’d pleaded. “We’ll manage, just you and me.”
“He’s not all bad, Amy,” she said. “And there’s his heart…”
His heart. How could I forget? If I’m stroppy at home, or there’s trouble at school, it’s always, “Amy, if he ends up in hospital it’ll be your fault.” He has to take several pretty pastel-coloured tablets every day, otherwise he collapses and we have to call a doctor.
“So his heart is keeping you a prisoner,” I told her, and before the red hand-print on my cheek had faded, I’d vowed never to interfere again.
A door slams, jolting me into the present. Footsteps and heavy breathing. Him. “Your mum wants you.” Tom jerks his head in the direction of the whitewashed bungalow.
“That’s a first.” I stand and brush dirt off my jeans.
“Don’t you start.” He flops onto the grey bench and lights up a Marlboro, his hands shaking. “Go to her.”
“The doctor said you should quit.”
“So he did. I have everything to live for, don’t I?”
“And you wouldn’t have so many wrinkles if you didn’t smoke so much,” I say. At this he sticks his tongue out, so I give him one of my faces. He usually laughs at my faces, but this time he looks away. He’s nicer when he laughs.
Mum’s in the defiantly cheerful kitchen, slumped in a chair. Shards of her favourite yellow rose mug lie scattered across the stripped pine dresser. The remaining slice of my chocolate skull birthday cake is undamaged on a plate on the granite worktop. Twelve little pink candles lie next to it. And Tom’s leather belt lies on the floor by the sink. “Did he…?”
“No. It was just a threat this time.” She pauses. “Just a threat.”
I go nearer, pretending I haven’t seen the angry pink weal just visible near the edge of her sleeve. I want to hug her, to tell her everything will be all right. I touch the edge of my cake, lick chocolate butter-icing from my finger, and then put my hands in my pockets. “He said you wanted to see me.”
She picks a long hair off my black ‘Go Veggie’ tee-shirt. “Your dad had fair hair too,” she mutters.
“You told me.”
“You get on all right with Tom, don’t you? Yet you’ve never called him ‘Dad’.” She sounds curious, interested in what I have to say. This is new.
“Yeah, well…” I stand there awkwardly. “I don’t want to tempt fate. Fathers don’t tend to stay around for long.”
“Tom thinks of you as his own daughter.”
“Do you?” I mumble, before I can stop myself. As soon as tongue transplants are available, I’ll put my name down.
Her eyes lose that glazed look. “You are my daughter, you little…” She slams her hand down on the table so hard it rattles the cutlery in the drawer. “Things have been difficult, that’s all.”
Difficult. Such a simple word. My science lessons at school are difficult, but that sort of difficult can be sorted out with help and hard work.
Mum had nearly died having me. Afterwards, her post-natal depression had been too much for my father. He left when I was a toddler. I never saw him again, and I was to blame, though Mum didn’t actually accuse me. But I knew, by the way she looked at me. I’ve always known.
And then Tom had come along to pick up the pieces. Only Mum’s continuing not-entirely-secret hope that my father would come back into our lives had been the cause of frequent rows. That’s apart from the arguments about my laziness and lack of motivation. The only time Mum smiled full-beam was when she was talking about Dad. Tom could never make her smile like that. Nor could I.
“Tom never hits me,” I say, watching her face. “He says I’m a good girl.” She doesn’t take the hint. She can’t say it. I’m just not good enough. Not for her. Apart from everything that’s happened, I think she’d have liked a more girly girl for a daughter.
“Why do you let him treat you like that?” I say.
She fiddles with her hair. “I’m not easy to love. I know that.”
I peer through the window, towards the end of the garden. “He’s always kind to his birds,” I say. “Gentle as a lamb with them, he is.” Sometimes I dream of leaving the door of the birdcage open, and letting the budgies fly away, but it’s always padlocked, unless Tom goes in to do the feed. He’s claustrophobic, so he doesn’t stay in there long. He prefers to admire them from outside, his feathered possessions.
Then I blurt it out. “Life’s too short to spend it in captivity! You wouldn’t need anti-depressants if‒‒”
The chair scrapes the floor as Mum stands. She raises her hand and I brace myself for the slap. It doesn’t come. She puts a hand to her mouth instead. “I’ve just remembered,” she says. “I have to go to town. Said I’d get the prescription for Mrs Matthews next door.”
I remember what Tom said. He frightens me sometimes. “I’ll come with you,” I say. “It’s not raining. Just a few spots.”
She agrees. “We’ll get your new school shoes at the same time. I’ll put a face on, and then we’ll go.”
“You look all right as you are, Mum.” Really she does. She’s one of those lucky women who can cry and not have blotchy puffy eyes. Her mascara always stays put. That’s another problem, the make-up. It’s always the full works, foundation, blusher, mascara, black eyeliner, and lippy. Other blokes can’t help but look at her. I’ve seen them, and so has Tom. That’s why he doesn’t like her going out much. But today they’ve had a row and so she’ll ignore him.
She goes to the bathroom, so I get my purse and wait outside in the garden. Tom’s in the birdcage, filling the food containers and chatting to the budgies. He has his back to me, so he doesn’t see me watching from behind a clump of scarlet hollyhocks. I creep closer – the birds are making too much noise for him to hear me – and stand there breathing in the delicious pet-shop smell of the millet. I get really close. A few minutes later Mum calls. “Amy, we’ll miss the bus if you don’t come here right now!” I back away quietly so I don’t have to say goodbye to Tom. Mum doesn’t bother to say goodbye either. I find her waiting on the pavement by the front door, in her little black skirt and the close-fitting green top which sets off her copper shoulder-length hair perfectly. Tom would be livid. I smile.
The town is crowded, but at least it’s sunny again. I try on about fifteen pairs of shoes before settling on the first pair I tried on, then I insist on hunting for a present for my best friend, Lisa, even though her birthday isn’t for another month. Mum seems in a daze.
“Let me buy you an ice-cream,” I say, but as usual, she declines the offer. She doesn’t have my high metabolism, and has to work hard at keeping her figure.
“We should get back,” Mum says, looking at her watch. There’s always trouble if the dinner’s not on the table in time. I can tell she’s scared, but I dither. I don’t want to go home yet. It’s nice to be away from him, just Mum and me together.
My dawdling means we miss the bus, so we walk the three miles back to our village, with Mum complaining all the way. “Why did you have to wear your heels?” I grumble back, though I’m not cross with her really. As we get nearer home, I realise that I’m as jittery as she is. We reach the corner of our road, and I race ahead. Mum can’t run, not in those stupid shoes, and when I reach the bungalow she’s still tottering along in the distance.
She arrives as I run screaming down the path. “Something’s wrong with Tom! He’s in the aviary – he’s not moving!”
She opens her mouth but no sound comes out. She doesn’t even cry. I don’t realise I’m crying until my chin feels wet.
My Aunt Clare comes to collect me, so I don’t have to watch the body being taken away.
I hear the grown-ups talking about it, even though they whisper when I’m around. They say he must have thought he couldn’t get out, and then panicked. They found scratch marks on his hands, and broken fingernails where he was clawing at the door. Nobody heard him calling. Old Mrs Matthews next door is deaf as a doorknob, anyway. By the time we found him he’d had a massive heart attack. Nothing anyone could do for him.
“Thing is, the padlock was undone,” Aunt Clare says, “so why didn’t he open the door and walk out?”
“Maybe he got confused,” Mum says, in a daze. “He used to hook the door shut when he was inside, to stop the wind blowing it open. It must have jammed, somehow.”
“Surprised he didn’t kick his way out.” Aunt Clare again. She has an opinion on everything. “He was strong enough.”
I’m not surprised. He really did love those birds. He couldn’t bear the thought of them escaping.
We have visits from the police and relatives. Our days are filled with official forms, funeral arrangements, and questions. The verdict is Death by Natural Causes.
A few weeks later we give River and the rest of the budgies away to a local breeder, as we can’t bear to look at the birds any more. We have the birdcage pulled down. I watch as a man with an eagle tattooed on his neck fills a skip with broken wood and wire netting. Mum appears next to me.
“I haven’t been able to tell you,” she says, “what with everyone coming and going…”
“Tell me what?”
“Just before we went into town that day, when…” she hesitates. “I’d told Tom about a letter I received from your father that morning.”
“I heard. It was hard not to.”
“I was moaning about you a bit. Sorry.” Her voice has a new warmth to it. “He wants us to meet.”
“I heard that bit too, and I heard Tom threaten to kill you. I was scared he really would, one day. And then we’d never be a proper family. Back with Dad, I mean.”
“He wouldn’t have killed me. It was all bluster with him, even though he liked to lash out at times.” Mum bites her lip. “I’d have asked him for a divorce, but…”
She continues explaining it to me, and I hear snatches of it, but my mind is racing. Tom’s threat had been just that – a threat. I needn’t have… panicked.
“For years I tried to make it work,” she says, “because I thought you’d be happier. You and Tom got along so well.” Her eyes water. “I think the shock may have killed him.”
Hesitantly, I put my arms around her, and rest my head on her shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself, Mum.” To my surprise she doesn’t stiffen, but hugs me back. I start sobbing, but it’s not just because I miss Tom.
“Maybe his own temper killed him in the end,” Mum says.
I want to believe that. “Will you and Dad get back together?”
“I don’t know. So much has happened. He wants us to do things together, you know, like a family. I’d like that, and it would be good for you to see him again.” She kisses me on the forehead. “You’re a good girl, Amy. I’m pleased with the way you’ve… coped.” We smile at each other warily. She strolls back up the path, and before opening the front door, glances back at me. Her face is that of someone who’s suddenly found freedom but is a bit scared of it. She seems younger. I smile again to reassure her, and she goes indoors.
I feel a surge of excitement. She said I’m a good girl, and she is pleased with me. She may even like me… For the first time, I have hope for the days to come, which almost eclipses the tight little knot of panic which has been with me for so long. My fingers close around something hard in my pocket. I take it out, look down at it. I don’t know why I kept it these last few weeks, but I do know it’s time for looking forward, not back. I toss it into the air. It sparkles prettily as it catches the sun. Then it clatters down to the bottom of the skip, and the little key is lost forever.
Bec Lewis asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work