The date in my notebook says 11 March 1986. I would have been eight years old. There is a drawing of a bird that I must have copied from a book long since lost. It’s very detailed and I obviously took great care over it.
It’s a Cetti’s warbler, my notebook entry says. The Cetti’s warbler is a small bird that likes damp places and hides in bushes. I’ve coloured the head, back and wings brown. In neat handwriting I’ve written:
Found in the kitchen, a ribbon of guts hanging out, dead. Killed by Claire.
Claire was not a person but a cat. There’s no drawing of Claire in my notebook but she was a very feral looking moggie with striped fur who spent most of her days either hunting in the garden or else sitting on the back of the sofa in the sun lounge, blinking sleepily and without interest at anyone who walked by. I can’t remember why she was called Claire. The Cetti’s warbler was, as far as I know, the first of the murders committed by her in the house that we’d just moved into for what my mum said was a fresh start and what my dad said would be a good thing for everyone.
Outside my bedroom window was a view of a hill that the wind raked across, bending the trees into a permanent stoop so that they were like tired people climbing upwards but never getting anywhere. In the foreground was a telephone pole with a radial of taut wires fanning outwards to the houses on the steeply sloped cul-de-sac we lived on. On the first morning I woke up in the new house, I looked out of the window to find a chaffinch perched on one of the wires against a grey sky. The chaffinch has a deeper, more curved beak than the warbler, a less rounded tail, a song not quite as flute-like. I think of it being there whenever I imagine myself looking out of the window, a solitary chaffinch singing intermittently as if it’s aware that I’m watching it, or as if it’s waiting for me to answer its call.
My notebook gives the date of the second murder as 3 April 1986. It was a chaffinch, and I wondered if it was the one I’d seen outside my window.
Mum found me poking it with a pencil to see if it was still alive and told me crossly to leave it alone, then snapped at Claire who was rubbing herself against her ankles and kicked her away with the toe of her shoe. She went off to the kitchen and came back with a dustpan and a newspaper, which she used to scoop up the dead bird. She carried it out to the front of the house and dumped it, with the newspaper, unceremoniously into the bin. It was this that shocked me more than the death itself, the way she threw the bird away like it was a piece of rubbish, as if everything it had been didn’t matter anymore.
When Dad said not long after we’d moved that we were taking a drive out to Beachy Head I checked my atlas of birds and was thrilled to find that although few birds nested along the chalky cliffs of this part of England peregrine falcons had been known to nest there. We walked along the cliff path amidst dozens of other people who had come here like us to enjoy the view of the white cliffs in the sun. The sky was a clear, deep blue. The sea glittered like shattered glass. People were tiny dark marks on the grey stone beach below. I kept my eye on the sky but all I had seen so far were the hovering gulls, their black eyes looking down on us with contempt as if they were full of hatred for everything they saw.
I became aware after a while that I was alone and when I turned around I saw my parents a few hundred yards back down the slope. They were unmissable, my dad in a red T-shirt, tanned arms, tanned bald head, my mum in a long cream cardigan that hung low over her slender legs. They were standing facing each other. Something seemed to be wrong and people, as they walked by, turned to look at them. I started walking back downhill but stopped when I got within earshot and just stood there. They were shouting at each other.
I can only recall a fragment of what they actually said, but I remember how furious he was, and how cold and still she was. I knew the look. It was the precursor to a particular darkness that would come over her now and then, and as enraged as my dad was it was her that frightened me at these times because she seemed capable of anything.
‘I think it’d be better for all of us if I just ended it,’ she said.
My dad shook his head with disgust, and she made a sudden move to step past him as if she was going to make a run for the cliff edge. She looked like she meant it too. He grabbed her wrist, and swung her back around.
People had stopped to watch now, perhaps wondering whether they should try to intervene. Dad held onto her, refusing to let go as she twisted this way and that, trying to break free.
‘Get off me, you bastard,’ she shouted at him. ‘Just let me do it. You know you want me to. I know that’s why you brought me here.’
The sheer drop of the cliff was only a few metres away and it must have been quite an exciting scene to watch for the onlookers, but the fight seemed to finally go out of her and the two of them collapsed down onto the ground. They sat cross-legged on the grass, facing each other. He stared at her, stunned, still holding her by the wrist, probably too scared to let go.
Standing a short distance away, not far from the edge of the cliff myself, I trained my eye on the sky, looking out for the telltale glide or the blue-hued swoop of a peregrine falcon, but saw only the boots and trainers of the people passing on the cliff path.
My dad put his hand, closed in a fist, in front of my face.
‘Guess what?’ he said, then he turned his fist over and opened it.
On his palm were five or six lead-coloured balls that looked like ball bearings, but they were unusually grooved. As I watched, one of them started to change. It opened up and white legs emerged, then the thing began to walk across his hand. One by one the others did the same.
I touched one of them and it curled back up into a ball, then I put it on the open palm of my own hand, held it still, and watched it open up again. It walked across my hand with a ticklish sensation. We made a ramp with some books on the floor and rolled the woodlice down it. We built a whole assault course for woodlice that afternoon out of books, cups and anything else we could find and played for what feels like hours in my memory, my dad giving a running commentary, even Mum joining in, laughing hysterically, what feels like hours of happiness.
I hold onto it, not wanting to let it go.
An entry for 20 May 1986 says I disturbed Claire with a mouse in the kitchen. I have a clear memory of this. When I walked in she looked up at me, the mouse completely still on the lino in front of her. I stepped forwards to get a closer look, not sure what it was at first, then wanting to see if it was still alive. It was very small and dark, wet-looking as if Claire had been licking it. Claire regarded me suspiciously, then seemed to yawn and in a sudden, startling movement the mouse was gone, or almost gone. She held it in her mouth for a moment, the tail dangling out, then swallowed it, fur and all. I stood there watching her lick her whiskers.
When I walked into the living room moments later and found my mum with her head in her hands sobbing to herself in the quiet of the late morning I just thought she had somehow seen what I had just seen and I stood there watching her, stunned that it would affect her so dramatically, and wanting to walk across and comfort her somehow. But not knowing how, I turned and walked out of the room.
Holes started to appear on the back lawn.
We waited up one night in the sun lounge with the lights turned off, our faces pressed to the window, Dad telling me to keep quiet and not move too much or I’d frighten it away.
Not long afterwards it appeared, a snuffling creature that looked grey in the moonlight, not quite dog. It started to root around in the grass with its snout. Then two more appeared, smaller. We watched them together digging up the grass and eating the slow-worms they found. I wanted to get Mum but she had a migraine, Dad said, and needed to sleep.
I heard muffled voices coming from their bedroom. One of them was crying, or they both were, then Dad came out into the sun lounge where I was playing with the woodlice and said get your shoes on, let’s go down to the beach. It was cold, the sky grey, but the tide was out and we roamed over the slippery rocks inspecting the rock pools, turning over stones and watching the crabs scuttle and float, the transparent prawns lurching away to safety.
When we got back, the house was in darkness.
‘Terri?’ Dad called out. He was anxious, and his anxiety infected me.
I trailed him from one room to another, turning the lights on. He was pale and looked ill, rings showing under his eyes, his face drawn.
We couldn’t find her anywhere.
In the end, we sat out in the sun lounge, still in our coats, not saying anything. The light spilled out a little onto the grass and I wondered if we were waiting for the badgers to come. Then he got up all of a sudden and pulled across the patio doors. I felt the cold air come in as I watched him walk out into the dark garden. He walked up the slight slope, saying ‘Terri?’ and then I saw her outline in the dark, a seated figure by the flower beds where, during the day, the lavender she grew was crawling with bees.
The blackbird was in distress, its beak open, wings spread untidily on the grass. A few feathers were lying not far away and I guessed Claire was behind it. I picked it carefully up and put it into a shoebox.
I watched it dying all afternoon. I tried to coax it to eat a worm and to drink from a bottle cap of water, but it wasn’t interested. Its feathers weren’t completely black. They were iridescent and had a bluish tint in the afternoon light. I encouraged it quietly to breathe, to hold its wings properly, but it stared as if stunned at nothing. When I touched it, it didn’t move. There was just that small, black eye, staring blankly at the sides of the shoebox.
Mum came in at some point and sat down on the bed.
She put her arm around me and held me against her chest. She started to cry. ‘It’s going to be hard sometimes, but we need to stick together,’ she said. Her voice was throaty and raw.
‘Dad’s not coming home tonight.’
‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’
I stared at the blackbird in the box. Its eyes had closed and it hadn’t moved for some time. I wondered if it had finally died, its tiny heart giving up. But it opened its eyes again and stared with that stunned look at the cardboard sides of the shoebox.
‘Claire will get it if you keep it like that,’ Mum said before she left, her voice still raw.
Fallow deer, brought over by the Normans, are the Walt Disney ones with the white spots on their fawn coats and spectacular antlers. Red deer, native to our isles, are the less pretty of the two with their ruddy coat and clumsier looking body, something gormless and cartoonish about their features. But it was red deer I was drawn to more than fallow when I was younger, sensing, even at that age, the allure of the overlooked.
Dad came to pick me up in the morning not long after I’d woken up. I looked out the window and saw him waiting in the car. He was staring forwards, perhaps at the road or a parked car. It was a view of him I’d never seen before. He seemed disconnected from us, alone with himself, and I had a sense perhaps for the first time that he had a life distinct from ours. It frightened me, made me nervous about going out there to meet him.
When I checked on the blackbird before I left, it was the same, breathing weakly, wings limp in the box like an old rag, a startled look still in its eyes, the worm dried up into a crispy curl, untouched. It was a hot day; I didn’t put the lid on. I closed the door to stop Claire getting in, then said goodbye to Mum.
He drove to Richmond Park where we parked the car and walked across the grass to a herd of deer lying down in the sun. They were fallow deer, Dad said. He told me how you could tell them apart from the red deer. There were a few children going close to a buck with dangerous-looking antlers. They had carrots and were reaching out and skipping back when the buck moved towards them.
We watched for a while, then walked over to a different herd of deer lying down in the grass a few hundred metres away. These were red deer. Less handsome than their cousins, they drew less of a crowd. There were no children with carrots here. It was just us and I felt nervous again all of a sudden as if he was going to say something.
Afterwards we walked across to the café and he bought me an ice cream. The unsettling look that had come into his eyes went away. I told him about the blackbird and he said I should try to give it some cornflakes. He’d heard they liked cornflakes. He didn’t know why.
We drove back in the sunshine, listening to the radio, but at the house he turned the engine off and just sat there in silence. He was like a different person again, the man inside the man who I didn’t know and who was going to tell me he didn’t love us.
‘Are you coming in?’
‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘I wish I could, I want you to know that, but it’s best for all of us if I don’t.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m staying with a friend.’
‘Can I come with you?’
As I was walking away from the car, he wound down the window and called across to me, telling me to remember the cornflakes.
Mum opened the door, standing tall and upright, her mouth firm and unsmiling, as she stared across at Dad in the car, then she closed the door.
‘Shoes off,’ she said.
I had seen already that my bedroom door was open and she must have seen the horror on my face.
‘Don’t worry, I put the lid on the box to stop Claire getting it,’ she said.
My bedroom, with the sun on it all afternoon, was stifling, and when I lifted the lid off the box the blackbird was lying inertly on its side. It had suffocated.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, kneeling down with me to look at the dead bird, and she was crying, the mask she’d worn at the door for my dad’s benefit gone.
I hated her at that moment and blamed her for turning my dad into a different person. It was her stupidity, I thought, the stupidity that had led her to put the lid on the box, that had done it.
I took the box up to the end of the garden and dug a small grave with the trowel, just as Dad had shown me how. A chaffinch started singing and I looked up to see it perched on one of the newly budded shiny-skinned branches of the birch tree, watching me out of a cautious eye. Behind me, in the house, Mum was sitting on the floor of her bedroom, looking through photographs, sniffing and wiping her eyes. She had glanced up as I passed, and the sight had horrified me in a way I didn’t understand.
I set the blackbird down in its hole and covered it with earth, patting it down hard with the back of the trowel, as Dad had shown me, to stop the badgers or Claire getting it, then I went back inside and sat down on the thick carpet of the sun lounge, which had become dusty, and played with the woodlice, staying as far away from Mum as I could. Every now and then I glanced outside to the end of the small garden where I’d buried the blackbird, keeping an eye out for Claire. I had decided that if she appeared I would run quickly out and throw something at her, probably a stone.
I put the woodlice in my hand where they curled up into dark silvery balls on my palm and settled in the grooves of skin and between my fingers.
The phone rang at some point and I heard Mum answer it.
‘What do you want?’ I heard her ask, then ‘Oh, really?’ Her voice sounded forced. She probably wasn’t saying what she wanted to say at all, and after that initial exchange her voice became quiet and didn’t carry out to the back room where I was sitting with woodlice crawling through the carpet. I probably felt more alone at that moment than at any time in my life before or since, but then she called me into the living room.
‘It’s Dad,’ she told me.
‘I heard about the blackbird,’ he said. ‘What did you do with it?’
‘Did you do it properly?’
‘Have you got a pencil there and some paper?’
He gave me his new telephone number and I wrote it down.
‘You can call me any time you like,’ he said.
I went back out to the sun lounge with the paper folded up in my pocket. I took it out and unfolded it, stared at the numbers, saying them over and over in my head until I knew them without having to look, then I folded the paper up again so small I couldn’t fold the paper anymore.
When I looked up, the sun had nearly gone down, and the garden was almost completely in shadow. My eye was caught by a strange movement under the rose bush where I’d buried the blackbird. The earth seemed to move and as I watched, something dark appeared. I thought at first, with a twist in my stomach, that a rat had found the blackbird and was eating it, but then more of its body emerged, and I saw that it wasn’t a rat at all but the blackbird itself. It shook off the loose soil, ruffing up its feathers, then opened its wings and flew away. I watched it fly off over the back hedge into a blue band of sky.
When it was gone I walked out through the afternoon shadows to where I’d buried it. Not far away, Claire crept out of a bush, stopped still, and stared at me.
Making an angry, staticky buzz a bumblebee bumps repeatedly against the window, looking for a way out. It scares my children who are too young to know any better. My son, six, tells me to kill it with a shoe, but I show them how to trap the bee with a glass and a piece of card. Inside the glass the bee buzzes against the sides frantically for a moment and then settles, almost calm at the bottom.
‘You see, he knows we want to save him,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t want to hurt us.’
I’ve got no way of knowing if this is really true of course, but it’s what I want to believe, and what I want my children to believe. I walk the bee, inside the glass, out into the garden, lift the card away, then tilt the glass and we all watch it fly away into one of those clear blue skies that often remind me of that time.
James Hatton has had short stories published in Popshot, Litro, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, A Million Ways, and Flash: The International Flash Fiction Magazine. He is the editor of The Bangkok Literary Review, a journal of contemporary Thai art and literature. He likes swimming in the sea and loves beautifully typeset books.