written and spoken by James Claffey
When she calls me from the front door to come to my tea her raspy voice carries over the rooftops to the narrow lane where Tommy and I are searching for bird’s nests. We are looking for eggs because three weeks into the summer holidays we are bored with the same thing every day—games of three-and-in with the Noonan twins, and trips to the old quarry to swing over the water in the inner tube that hangs from a high tree branch. It’s not that we are missing being at school, but we need to stay busy, to keep moving, so that we “Expand our horizons,” as Mam likes to remind me.
There’s a small nest in the crook of the sycamore we’ve climbed; with twigs and bits of thread woven together, and when I reach out to touch it, a small furred chick pokes a head out. Eyes dark as velvet, it calls sharply, “Tik-tik-tik,” and my finger touches its head. Mam’s cashmere cardigan, the one she got for Christmas from the Old Man, that’s what it feels like.
Fragile, all feathers and bones, the chick is alone. “Maybe it’s an orphan?” I hiss at Tommy, who straddles the branch opposite the one I’m on. “It’s like a peach,” he says, cupping it in both hands. “Put it back!” I say, worried that the mother will return and reject her offspring, because that’s what my RSPB Field Guide to Birds says happens when people disturb nests. Tommy doesn’t do well with reasons and ignores me. I aim a kick at him from across the tree-trunk and he loses his balance slightly. “Fuck off!” he yells, and grabs for the trunk with both hands. The chick falls to the ground, almost floating down.
“It’s dead,” I say, cradling the tiny body in my hand. It looks like it’s only sleeping, and it’s warm, too. “It’s all your fault for kicking me,” Tommy says, climbing down behind me. “Maybe it’s stunned?” He reaches for it, but I won’t let him have it. Instead, I put it in the pocket of my pants and run down the lane to where Mam waits at the front door. “Get in out of that. Your tea is on the table,” she says. In the kitchen, cigarette butts stick out of the dead potted plant on the window ledge. The smell goes up my nostrils and makes me want to puke. Mam smokes forty a day and her fingers are orange like carrots.
The dead bird is safe and I spread salad cream on my sardines to take away the fishy taste. I bet the chick would have liked a sardine from me, instead of death. “What have you been up to?” Mam asks. “Nothing.” I mumble through a mouthful of toast and sardines, the oily skin weird on my tongue. I’m blushing. I know I am. When I tell a lie, my face reddens. Mam says I’m just like the Old Man when it comes to deception. She clicks at me and takes a sup of her tea. Maybe the chick’s mother is back at the nest with a worm for it to eat? I bet the mother bird loved the furry thing. The Old Man says that one of the keys to happiness is love. The sardines and toast choke me, and the dead chick stays warm inside my pants’ pocket.