Of the fathers

First prize at Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2013.

They said the sky could drive you mad. Wide open, flooding light, far as far to see. But I think he was born crazy. They said on a full moon you could see them standing on the banks, feet in the black earth, hurling rocks at each other across the drainage dykes. Silly untrue stories about villagers with too many features in common in too small a gene pool. He didn’t wait for any moon to throw his stones. Sitting up in one of the trees along our lane.

            ‘Get down with you,’ mum would shout over and over.

            He didn’t care.

            I was no trouble at all. Maybe a bit, getting the teasel burrs out of my hair after a run through the meadow with Zoe. That was just to feel the warmth of her nearby with a brush, brush, brush.

            ‘You’ll be a fine lass of a girl any day now,’ she’d sigh picking through the bristles, plucking out the purple flower pieces. ‘So don’t go hanging by the gate on your own.’

            ‘Like you did mum?’ I’d ask and she’d give me a half-slap in fun and I saw the sparkle in her eye.

            Then my brother  would poke his nose in. Something slimy in his mind, blown in from the wilds. Blown in on a wind straight from the east. Straight from Russia they said, straight from the Urals, they said. I’d no idea what they were and the name played in my thoughts. In winter the wind blew the snow in flurries. In summer it blew whatever it found. Days of wind, months of stinging air across the beet fields. Calmed when the elms broke the flow, all dead now and stumps falling in to lie with the ancient bog oaks. He wasn’t calm. As though the wind stirred him up. Rushing, pushing, shouting, pinching, biting.

            I left his evil words and deeds to sit alone in my room. A tiny box with a view to die for, as many had, out in the dykes and flat, flat mud stretching to the Ship of the Fens. It didn’t need a full moon to light that Cathedral in my mind. It hovered above the mist on a chill November day, almost from outer-space. I’d been there once. Taken to walk the aisles and see our village’s kneeler on the pews. Hand stitched with an emblem. A bird I think. All those kneelers from all those villages. I thought they looked unused. Then all those statues, heads hacked off, in the Lady Chapel. Who had done such a thing? Hack off heads? Someone talked about the reformation, didn’t make sense, too dangerous. I hoped they weren’t coming back – the head hackers that is.

            He’s shouting too loud for me not to hear, screaming at mum for what she can’t give – dad. Not even a chance to find the man that had given her the once over, perhaps by the gate on a different night by a different moon. Or maybe somewhere nearer to home.

            ‘Looks of the grandfather,’ the old woman would say in the ramshackle post office, come shop, come gossip house. A building of pale brick in a village of pale brick. I used to believe they’d started off red, ordinary bricks, that paled once they’d had the blood drained out of them.

            The post-mistress cackled away while anyone who chose to listen would nod and reply: ‘No good’ll come of it.’

            School wasn’t so easy. Not the work, only the walk. I was happy, singing, catching the grass stalks from along the lanes, chewing the ends while I listened to the whoop of the curlew, the rattle of the occasional corn bunting or the nearby familiar robin. Such space, flat fields for ever.  Hedges ripped out by one financial plan or another. All fine in summer. Not fine when it turned to winter; when he turned. I’d shiver, pull my coat round me tight, wondering who might be there in the winter gloom, wondering what happened if you stayed alone at one of the gates.

            It wasn’t long at school before they told me. I couldn’t believe it. Does anyone believe it when they hear it for the first time?

            ‘What? In there? In my …’ I said looking down at my skinny body. ‘There’s no room in there.’

            ‘He’ll make room.’ An older Zoe told me. ‘He’ll push and push. It’ll hurt. There’ll be blood.’


            ‘You’ll have to get used to it. That’s what mum said.’

            He didn’t believe it either, or didn’t say he did. Maybe I should have taken more notice of the look. The gates seemed to grow a little larger, a little darker. Shadows on the school walk. There were stories. One girl shrieked all the way home. Someone came to our house, official. Mum begged them to let it pass, one more chance. She won them over.

            After that mum was shouting at him more than ever. Some blows. No peace in the house. No cat or dog. We would have had one but mum didn’t trust him. Not when she’d caught him with the poker and the mouse. Red hot. Squealing like … well like what you’d imagine. Sometimes I think I can still hear it.

            It was no surprise when he hit her with the same poker and pushed her down the stairs. I heard the thumps as she seemed to hit each step. No screams after the first thump. The blood soon matted in her hair after she reached the bottom. Still.

            ‘Mum,’ I cried.

            He’d gone. She didn’t answer. I sat on the last step. The night came with the cry of the owls hunting by cold moonlight. Their cries clear and sharp cutting the wide skies. The morning came with songbirds and the light. I thought it was the wrong time of year. Why were they singing now? Autumn had passed. Spring a long time away. I shivered.

            It was the postman who found us. Front door still open wide. He saw me in my nightdress, bloodied and tearful, with my bare feet almost blue. He went for help although I thought other ideas passed though his brain before he went. I thought the postman was the type to hang around gates.

            They didn’t find my brother. I told them he’d run. They only gave half a search, half a heart for half a search. I guess they knew he’d come back on his own. And they were right. More noise and bites as they tried to hold him down.

            I was taken to a home. Not homely. Brown carpet and pictures not quite right.

            They made me see a therapist.

            ‘What shall we talk about?’ she said.

            ‘Dunno,’ I said trying to keep the fens out of my voice.

            ‘What was it like growing up in your home?’


            ‘What was it like being an only child?’