“The Birds are Dead”

I was seven years old a latch-key kid in half-mast trousers, and this was the day I went to hell. I’d been to school and got into trouble, hauled out of assembly for adapting the Lord’s prayer – Our Father who farts in heaven, and Mr McDonald had me by the scruff of the neck and half-dragged half-carried me back to the classroom where I was made to face the wall the rest of the day and miss my dinner, and even when I asked to use the toilet I was refused so shat my pants. In that undignified protest I stole my chance during afternoon break and walked with small steps out the classroom and out of school. My mum was at work and dad was absent, ran out on us the year before so that was ok, I’d join the older kids who truanted.
So I wheeled my bike from the shed and rode it, pants full of drying cack, to Peacock Farm. On the way I saw Julie Parry coming back and she stopped, using her shoes as brakes. “The birds are dead,” she said.
At Peacock Farm there was a barn we made a den of, and Gilbert and the others, some eight years older than me, caught two baby sparrows, put them in a wooden box and overnight underneath lit a candle to keep them warm. But starved of food they perished and it was up to Julie to eulogise.
When I got there most of the boys had gone, only Gilbert remained, and we scooped the baby birds one each and performed a burial then lit cigarettes he’d stolen from the village shop.
“What’s that stink?” he said as we sat to smoke, “Have you shit yourself?”
“No,” I lied.
“You have, you dirty little git,” he said, grabbing my throat and adding that people who shit themselves are destined for hell and no wonder my dad ran out on us. Reminded horribly of what Mr McDonald had said about those who take the Lord’s name in vain, I was now convinced it was true – I was going to hell. That night if I slept I’d wake up dead like the birds. I couldn’t go home. So when it was dusk and even Gilbert had pedalled off I stayed in the barn, eyes wide open, refusing to go to sleep, listening to the peacocks that were living there cry.
At home, my mother had returned from work to find it empty; the latch-key kid nowhere to be seen. At first she reflected this was normal, the boy would often go roaming and come back with an empty belly, but as time ticked on she got worried then desperate then definite that terrible things were happening to her boy, the distant peacocks’ cries were his. Then there was a visit from Mr McDonald who told her the boy had been in trouble for blasphemy and had walked out of school uninvited, and that was the nail in his coffin as far as she could see. With profuse apologies to the teacher on her son’s behalf, she deftly employed the neighbours to go in search, heading automatically and hopefully for the cries.
Back in the barn the boy sat, smelling himself, shifting uncomfortably as the cack in his pants hardened and went sharp, trying to stay awake. For hours seeming like days, until he heard voices and spied through a crack in the wood some shards of light from torches. And that was how he was found.
Safely delivered to his mother, he cried into her breast, saying he was sorry he killed the birds and took the Lord’s name in vain and made his dad go missing, but he cacked his pants because Mr McDonald wouldn’t excuse him so couldn’t come home.
When all was said and done, the woman was glad to have her latch-key kid back in her arms and cleaned him up and let him sleep with her that night, to reassure him it wasn’t his fault there was a space in her bed, as far as she was concerned his dad was dead. If anyone was going to hell it was him or Mr McDonald and tomorrow the latch-key kid would go to school accompanied by a note saying stiffly that in future if her boy wanted to use the toilet he should be granted permission and there was no arguing.
And thus I finally slept, safe in the knowledge that while there’d be no tomorrow for the sparrows or my dad, there would be a tomorrow for me.

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