It’s going to rain. I can feel it in my bones, and in the nooks behind my teeth, and in the frizz of my hair. It’s going to rain very soon.
I try to tell Gran, you know, how I’m scared of what the water will carry down with it, but she tells me to stop overreacting. So I tell her about the wasps – four of them today alone; two of them new dead and ground into the carpets where people don’t look how they tread. She points at the calendar on the wall, which isn’t even open to the right month, and tells me it’s the end of summer and the natural order of things.
It’s at the tip of my tongue, right there by the prickling rain feeling, to remind her that months don’t mean seasons anymore, not like when she was young. But I bite on the words. It’s my resolution to work on myself, to try and spot the kinks and shards of the worst family traits and straighten them out. Prodding people’s sore bits when we’re feeling sore ourselves is something all the women in my line do, same as we all have blue eyes and a dislike of coriander. We carry spite and stubbornness in our genes. If we had a coat of arms it’d be bloody fingers wiggling around some poor sap’s open wound.
I’m only round Gran’s as it is because Mam claimed she was done having my ‘judgemental eye’ on her ‘every move’ and couldn’t she even ‘sit for a rest after the day I’ve had without wondering if the bend of my knee offends you’. And then I realised I’d drawn my legs up under myself just like she had, and had my hands clasped under my thighs just like her, and when I jumped to change my position she chucked a cushion at my head and ordered me out like I was still eight years old and under her feet.
So here I am, as ordered – spotted a third dead pigeon on the way over and all, this one kicked to the wall with flight feathers split and bent – and now we’re drinking tea with slightly off milk, and gumming on soggy pink wafers, and I’m trying to tell Gran about the fucking weather. Only she’s not taking me seriously ‘cause no one takes what I say as solid, her least of all.
Where Mam pins me at eight years old and not a day over, at Gran’s I’m always trying to be me at fifteen. But what Gran always seems to be seeing is me at sixteen or after – too grown. Too lost. The me of my birthday when she brought me round a watch (pointless) and a card with a bit of cash in it, and gave me a hug and petted my hair and said, ‘Oh, now, sweet sixteen and never been kissed’. She looked so hopeful of me, like it was a good thing to be the school undesirable. So much so that I nearly tarted back at her, ‘Never been kissed? Don’t you know I let Jimmy Milver finger me out the back of the football club? We got the kissing out the way before I went down on him.’
But it would’ve been mostly a lie, and also who says that to their gran? So I held my tongue, which was worse, because she didn’t let go of me but she didn’t say much else either, and the silence stretched and she narrowed her eyes at me and wrinkled her nose a bit like I’d offended her. Just like that I went from Sweet Sixteen to Disappointment, and I’ve been trying to clear the look from her eye ever since.
This, today, probably isn’t helping. I should’ve just ignored Mam and gone to the pub. But if I go there I might see those uppity bitches, and I’m not mooded for their side-eyes and sniggers today. I’ve put up with them for over a decade, and it’s mostly water off the proverbial, but still. Some days, you know. Just some days. And also if I stay too long it’ll start raining and then I’ll end up stuck with the drunken idiots for the sake of the roof, and it’d end up rowdy and I’m trying not to do that anymore. With Gran, we’ll drive each other up the chimney fast enough that I won’t forget the time, and I should make it back before the sky cracks open.
‘Tell me about them doves, then,’ she says, abandoning her wasp theory for the time.
‘Pigeons, Gran,’ I say.
‘Same difference,’ she says and pours more weak tea into her mug which is, ironically, decorated with pictures of bloody pigeons. ‘All feathers, isn’t it.’
‘Yeah, Gran, but actually different…’ She shuts me up by deliberately smacking the spoon around the rim of her mug as she stirs her sugar in, and keeps doing it until I throw my hands up and collapse back into my chair.
‘Doves, then,’ she says. How haven’t us killed each other yet? It’s like we beg each other for a smack every single day. I take a deep breath and think the word pigeon loud like I can bounce it into her mind from mine and let her know that way that she hasn’t won.
‘They’re dying, is my point. All over the place. I’ve seen three in the last two days alone. Something’s bad in the air, Gran.’
‘It’ll be foxes, won’t it? Since they stopped the hunts…’
‘They haven’t been eaten, Gran. They’re just… dead. Like they fell. And then there was this sparrow…’
‘I like sparras,’ says Gran, to the pink wafer she’s just picked up. ‘Cheeky little things. Dead nimble.’
‘Yeah well,’ I say, ‘this one nimbled itself right into the window pane and broke its neck.’
‘At your mam’s?’
‘At work,’ while I was trying to hoover a little wasp body out of the crappy office carpet. The whole point of office carpets is they’re so shallow and shit that you can’t really tread anything into them unless it’s sticky. Turns out the innards of a wasp have stick. I was daydreaming idly, hoping the little bastard stung someone before it went, and then there was a thump and a shriek from Alice who was cleaning the window. ‘Proper cracked the glass. We had to write out a damage report.’
We only did that after we’d tried to save the bird. But if the strike hadn’t broken its neck, the fall three floors to the ground did. It was a soft little thing. Dead light, with that buff-coloured chest and speckles, and closed eyes, and a little beak that you wouldn’t think could damage glass but had. It was so light and warm we weren’t completely convinced it was dead. We put it under an ornamental bush and each said whatever passed for a prayer for us.
Gran finishes chewing her pink wafer.
‘When are you getting yourself a decent job?’
And that’s my cue. Helpful, Gran. Ta muchly. Here’s the usual…
‘You’re wasted in that place. Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong with a bit of manual labour but…’ Gran thinks jobs just fall out of the sky like dead pigeons, even if you’ve a record.
It’s not raining yet, but my teeth flat-out hurt now and through the window I can see a rusty light round the clouds, casting polluted shadows round the empty street. There’s a wind starting to sing and all. I gather my bits.
‘Cheers for the tea, Gran.’
‘Always welcome,’ she says. ‘You keep an eye out for them blackbirds.’
‘Pigeons.’ Couldn’t stop myself.
‘No,’ she says, ‘The black birds. Them rooks. They’ll be behind all this. Proper territorial.’
My Christ but she’s ticked all the Gran boxes tonight: job lecture, stale biscuits, bird racism. I kiss her warm old wrinkly cheek and give her a hug. She drops another pink wafer into my pocket for my mam and hustles me out the door.
We’ve not killed enough time. And I need a drink, a proper drink. Pub it is then, and hope it’s quiet.
I try to feed Mam’s wafer to a cat that’s loitering outside the bitshop before I go in to get some actual proper cigarettes and a lecture about my health from Elsie, who’s as bad as Gran for giving me crap about getting my life on track. I don’t even like smoking, I just want something that actually smells of fags to blow into the faces of those idiots who pose outside the pub with those bloody air-freshener pens, blowing cocktail smoke all out the place. This doesn’t go against my self-improvement plan because Gran never goes out so couldn’t possibly have this habit, and Mam’s one of the offending posers.
‘I thought you were staying at home today?’ I say, offering her a real cigarette. She looks mournfully at it and I can see her nearly breaking, but she sucks defiantly on her Sex on the Beach vape thing and huffs the smoke over her shoulder. The wind catches it, pulls it round behind her, back over the other shoulder and straight into my face. She doesn’t even try not laughing, so loud and cackling that the blokes huddled round the other heat-lamp stop talking to stare at her until she chokes to quiet. I wait her out.
‘Felt claustrophobic. Something in the air.’
‘Rain,’ I say. ‘It’s going to rain.’
‘Proper storm, it should be. I can tell by the state of your hair.’
I spot another little wasp body, folded almost in half, wings out and rigid. It’s in front of our heat-lamp, cooking slowly. I wonder if I should say anything to Mam about the birds and the rain, but she might still be too snipped with me. And she’d only point out obvious stuff anyway like, what are we just not going to breathe? But the clouds do look weird, with the yellows and the oranges, and the wind smells of burnt hair, mixed in with that wee-and-alcohol smell from the pub doorway. Good fresh storm, that’s what we need, but that’s not what’s coming.
The cat from the bitshop creeps past. Stops and looks at me, but I don’t have any more wafers and it’s got better, bloodier prey in mind. It scuttles straight past Mam, ignoring her clucking and whistling. Slinkies up a fence and crouch-hunts its way along the top heading towards… a blackbird! A proper blackbird, singing into the weather like it’s got something to say. It hasn’t seen the cat.
We quieten down and watch. Not for us to interrupt the way of things.
The blackbird’s carolling, shouting out a challenge to the world and not paying the slightest note to the cat, who’s a sort of wide tabby colour that blends right in with the fence. The cat bellies closer. The blackbird doesn’t even blink and the wind’s up so high now that we can’t hear a note of its song. Mam grips my forearm.
The wind drops.
A single clear note cheeps out.
The cat leaps elegant and accurate; the blackbird lifts off as though pulled up by a string, blink, blink and we’ll miss it. The blokes behind us shout and one of them yelps, echoing the bird, and a full pint smashes to the ground spraying glass at our ankles. Mam jumps and jabs me with her nails, so I jump and squawk too, and our heat lamp turns itself off, and the men scatter from the dead pigeon that’s landed smack in the middle of their table, sending everything flying. It all happens far faster than can be told.
One of the men takes off ‘round the corner still yelling. The others stand about laughing awkwardly. They’re in their evening-out clothes, you know, pressed jeans and a nice shirt each, except now half of them are covered in beer and the others have a bit of blood from the pigeon and they all look a bit ill. Mam reaches past me to turn our lamp back on, but also to get a good look at the state of them. I can’t see the cat or the black bird anywhere.
‘You want to get the landlord, loves,’ says Mam, because she can’t mind her own business, which is a thing I’m pleased to say I’ve managed to control about myself. ‘Get that lot cleared up.’ One of them nods and goes in, because she’s using her Mam voice which cannot be denied. She turns back to me. ‘And you want to light another one of those,’ she says. ‘You’ve gone all sick white. You could do with the hit. You all right?’
I shake my head and my skin feels loose around my skull, though my brain feels tight in it. The little dead wasp is floating in a puddle of spilled beer.
‘We need to not be out here when it rains, Mam,’ I say.
She looks at me dubiously.
‘Well yeah, obviously. I’d like to think I taught you some common sense.’
‘Yeah, but – have you not noticed, round town, all the dead birds? Where are they coming from?’
‘It was those little ASBO shits,’ says one of the blokes from behind me. ‘Nothing better to do than chuck roadkill at people.’ I turn around, and it’s the one who did the chasing. He’s back, and he’s barely out of breath, and he looks pissed off but also pretty proud of himself in a way that’s a bit … familiar … Oh. Oh God. He looks at me a bit closer even as I’m trying to edge behind Mam. ‘Holly? Almost didn’t recognise you!’
I don’t really like cigarettes, but with a drink as weak as the one I have in my hand, I take up chain smoking just to get through that conversation. I need something between my fingers and something in my mouth. Mostly to get past the memory of, well, our mouths, and the rising fucking rage ’cause he’s stood there chatting away like we’re old mates, like he doesn’t remember a thing. And Jesus, to be caught out barely washed from work, having a drink with my Mam of all people. Holly No-mates, nothing changes. I can’t decide whether I want to put my cigarette on my arm or in his eye.
‘I thought you’d be off somewhere,’ he says. ‘Always thought you’d be out of this place as soon as you could go.’
‘Well,’ I say, and trail off, because that’s all I’ve got without shouting. He’s already mentioned his posh flat in Edinburgh and his business partners and his wife, and I won’t give him the satisfaction of confirming that no, I didn’t bloody get anywhere in life, no thanks to him and his lying gob.
‘Joanne and them lot are inside,’ he says. ‘Do you see them much?’
He’s taking the piss. He must be.
‘No,’ I say, laying the sarcasm on heavy. ‘We didn’t keep in touch.’
‘Wouldn’t think it’d be so difficult, small town like this.’ He’s smirking. ‘I couldn’t stay here, meself. It’s no life, everyone knowing everyone’s business. Can’t get away with anything.’
‘Anything like what?’ I’m asking because I want to know how far he’d push this.
‘Well, you know,’ he says. And winks.
I’m seeing red and the clouds have weighted to a grey-red heft and my ire’s up and it’s all pressing down and I need to get out of here before I lose it, I do, I do. But the rain – the rain is coming. I could kiss the landlady when she suddenly barrels out the door and starts giving out about the glass on the street and the pigeon on the table and demanding to know what happened. Himself can’t keep out of that particular explanation, and as soon as his back’s turned, Mam takes the opportunity to yank me inside the pub and sit me at a corner table. There’s a wasp on one of the seats, all curled up, and Joanne and the coven are over the other side of the room. I keep my stare on the wasp until Mam brings a good strong something back from the bar for me.
‘Wasn’t that Jimmy Milver?’ she says, once I’ve had a good swig of it. ‘Year above you?’
‘Yeh,’ I say, and keep knocking back the drink which isn’t going down fast enough because my throat’s all closed up from trying not to cry.
‘God, but hasn’t he grown up well,’ she says.
‘He’s losing his hair,’ I say. ‘And he’s put on weight.’ He hasn’t, the fucker.
Mam coughs, delicately. ‘Didn’t you and him…? At the football club?’
I choke on my drink.
She shrugs. ‘It was years ago, pet. Can’t I ask now?’
Fuck the birds, fuck the wasps, fuck Mam, and fuck Jimmy Milver (except I most definitely did not). ‘What did you hear?’
‘You know… you…’ she makes her mouth into a quick O, like she’s blowing a smoke ring, and then flicks her fingers out into the air, talking Italian.
‘Oh God,’ I drop my head into my arms so Mam can’t see me giving thanks that she didn’t say anything to 15-year-old me who right now, this very moment, even across all the years, has dissolved into a molten bubbly blood pot of humiliation. ‘Oh God!’
‘Now Hols,’ She pats me on the head until I look up. ‘I thought you were a bit young, to be honest, but you seemed ok. And I always said I wasn’t going to be a mother like your Gran was. I let you have your freedom, you know, so you didn’t turn out like…’ she looks herself up and down, and so do I, both of us studying her, sat there in her comfy jumper and jeans, drink in one hand, smile on her face. She looks happy enough. Content, even, like the world doesn’t owe her anything and she wasn’t asking anyway. She looks just fine. ‘I figured it’d be worse if I said anything. Should I have said something? Should I still not be saying anything?’
God, that’s a clamour in the head: all the things that might have been different if people had spoken up, or not, or asked me, or not. All the things. My whole life. Or one small thing. I have to know:
‘Did you tell Gran?’
‘Christ no!’ Probably if someone took a picture of us now we’d look like a woman looking horrified at her own reflection. ‘I mean, can you even imagine that conversation? Her correcting me every couple of minutes to make sure I was being anatomically correct…’ I’m about one more sentence away from throwing up on the table. ‘Anyway, if you didn’t even want to tell me, I wouldn’t say anything to her, would I? Can’t speak for the other crones though – or those little bitches that dumped you.’ She looks a bit hurt and I’m feeling too fragile to poke at her.
‘There wasn’t anything to tell. Just a bit of kissing. But that bastard…’
She doesn’t make me say it.
‘But it wasn’t just him, was it? I think I get it now.’
Over Mam’s shoulder I see Joanne and them have gathered round the bar. They’ve clocked that I’m here. They look a bit worse for the wear, and Joanne waggles her fingers at me like we’re old friends. Which we were, once upon a time, but not once I’d laid that scar on her, that scar across her hand that I can see from here and I’m still not sorry for it. Mum turns round and sees the wave. She snarls. I swear she snarls. Turns back to me.
‘Another?’ Raises her eyebrow.
‘Don’t do anything, Mam.’
‘I’ll do nothing but get you a drink. I swear.’
The first roll of thunder shakes through us.
‘We should go home,’ I say.
‘What’s the rush now?’ she says. ‘You want to run into Jimmy again that soon? You want to go out in that storm?’
‘I wish I’d been the one to throw that bloody pigeon at him.’
‘Me too,’ she says.
The rain starts, wind-chucked like a bucketful of water against the glass of the pub window, and overhead the thunk of the first bird coming down. I don’t want to look out into the wild and see them falling, poor flying things that don’t deserve to be brought low. This place. It doesn’t let you go, does it?
Mam looks anxious, at me, at the weather, waiting for me to move the conversation on. I look her dead in the eye and raise my near-empty glass in a toast, then very deliberately switch my glass to my other hand so I’m not such a mirror image. She clocks the move and switches hands herself, takes a sip a bit clumsily and grins at me. She nods at the landlady and points at the pack of cigarettes on the table between us. The landlady shrugs so Mam lights up.
The pub door swings open, shut, open, shut, a draft of wet wind sweeping through each time as people rush to the cold comfort and shelter of the pub. Already there’s faces bruised from fallen birds and cries of dismay, and tomorrow the papers will wonder what happened and no one will remember, not properly. Underfoot, stumbling and in the way of the pushing people, comes the bitshop cat, black feather stuck to one ear like a trophy. Blackbird peaceful asleep in its mouth.
Françoise Harvey grew up on the Isle of Man, but now lives in North East England, where she works as a production editor and is active in the local music scene. Her stories have appeared in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt, ed. Nicholas Royle), The Lonely Crowd, Bare Fiction, Synaesthesia Magazine and Litro. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Bristol and Bridport Prizes, and received a Northern Writers’ Award for children’s fiction in 2017. Twitter: @franswarz Sporadically updated blog: bookwormsandcoffeemonsters.com