This edition of the magazine was initially born out of a desire to acknowledge the significance of the recent Rhys Davies Short Story Conference, here is Chrissie Gittens’ ‘Curlew’.
On my first day at Heap Bridge Primary School I was the only one who didn’t cry. We used wide notebooks with soft blue covers; there were three faint lines on each page for writing and a huge space for drawing. Next to the blackboard was a wooden chair with a thick twisted rope wound around its back. If a child was naughty he or she would be tied to the chair. Barry Smith was often tied to the chair.
On the rippled ridge at the bottom of the blackboard balanced a cardboard box of coloured chalks. At playtime my friends and I took the cherry red, the cornflower blue and the primrose yellow chalks and drew huge tiered birthday cakes – dripping turreted castles lit with a host of burning candles. We filled the board as high as we could reach then rubbed them out and started all over again.
In the second year we moved up to the next classroom along the corridor. The bell went for the afternoon and Mrs Kershaw appeared at the door. We all ran for our desks.
‘Good afternoon, children.’
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Kershaw.’
Mrs Kershaw was tall and wore pencil skirts and fitted jackets. She always renewed her lipstick for the afternoon so her mouth was crimson and glossy; it stood out from the rest of her face.
‘This afternoon, children, we’re going to start growing our peas. Who has remembered to bring in a jam jar?’ Everybody’s hand went up apart from Barry Smith’s.
‘Barry, I have a spare one you can borrow. In just a minute I’m going to give you all a piece of blotting paper and a dried pea. I soaked the peas last night to give them a head start.’ She held up and pea between her finger and thumb. ‘I want you to roll up the blotting paper and slot it into the jam jar like this.’ The rolled up blotting paper sprang out inside the jar making a lining. “Then I want you to push your pea between the glass and the blotting paper.”
We all rolled and slotted and slid our pea down the side of the jar.
‘We must remember to water them. The blotting paper mustn’t dry out,’ said Mrs Kershaw. ‘And I’m going to give you a sticker for you to write your names on.’
Every other day we queued up at the white Butler sink in the cloakroom to gently drip water onto our blotting paper; then Mrs Kershaw stood the jam jars in line along the window ledge to catch the sunlight.
Each morning when I arrived at school I went to check my jam jar. A shoot was growing upwards towards the sky. After two weeks the shoot shot out of the top of the jar. It was one of the longest on the ledge. Barry Smith’s had hardly grown at all.
On Friday Mrs Kershaw said, ‘We must all water our peas before the weekend. Line up at the door. And how are we going to wait in the cloakroom?’ We all put our fingers on our lips. She took down each jam jar and carefully placed them in our waiting hands.
The forty of us stood patiently in line. I ran my spare hand along the rows of pegs and drawstring shoe bags. I was near the back of the queue. Barry Smith was behind me and Cheryl Chadwick was in front. When Cheryl finally got to the sink she held her jam jar under the dripping tap and dribbled water onto the blotting paper; it changed from light to dark blue. Barry Smith pushed me. I pushed Cheryl. Cheryl dropped her jar. It bounced once then smashed. The pieces of glass ricocheted against the side of the sink. The shoot snapped off her pea and wedged itself in the plughole.
Mrs Kershaw bustled up to the sink.
‘What’s happened here?’
‘She pushed me,’ said Cheryl, pointing her finger at me. Mrs Kershaw gave a steely look. ‘Did you?’
‘Yes, but …’ She didn’t let me finish.
‘Well then you can give your pea to Cheryl.’
Barry and Cheryl’s jam jars remained on the ledge. Barry had written his name in red wax crayon. His letters slid down the label. Cheryl’s pencil name was neat and crisp. Day by day their shoots grew taller. Tendrils curled beside the lime green leaves.
Barry lived not far from me. We lived at the end of a terrace on Bury Old Road and he lived on the estate behind. Our Accrington red brick house had real leaded windows. Mum said you could tell they were real leaded windows because the diamond panes would catch the sunlight at different angles. The paintwork was yellow and there was a red peony in the garden which always had a mound of tealeaves underneath where Mum had emptied the pot.
One afternoon when I was walking home from school I could hear footsteps behind me. I turned round – it was Barry Smith. He started chasing me. I ran past the electricity generating station and turned the corner up the hill. Barry overtook me on the bend. Ahead were two men and a woman walking alongside each other, blocking the pavement. Barry saw his chance. He stood beside them so that to get by I had to run into the road. I ran around him. I could hear the screeching of car brakes. A green Ford Popular stopped inches from my coat. The leather seats folded forwards and the driver and passengers lunged towards the windscreen. I could see the driver’s round spectacles tipped sideways on his face. He shook his finger at me. I stood, locked to the spot, with my hand over my mouth. As they drove on the three elderly lady passengers stared at me and shook their heads.
By now Barry was a running dot on the horizon. I walked further up the hill, past my house and climbed over the stile onto the fields. The fields rose into Bluebell Hill then stretched down the valley to factories exhaling smoke and steam, and to the string of houses where Mrs Kershaw lived. In the far distance was the spur of Holcombe Hill with its sturdy black square tower. Along the fence by the path sheep’s wool hung at intervals, snagged on the barbed wire. Mum’s favourite grass glittered in the wind; she called it ‘silver spoons’.
I couldn’t go home. I knew I’d done something wrong – I felt guilty and scared. I stroked the grey grass, pulled out a strand and ran the seed head between my finger and thumbs. The shower of seeds billowed out then blew back onto my navy coat.
I left the path and wandered over the marshy area behind the hill where the marigolds grew. The dark grey of the horizon was spreading overhead. The heels of my shoes lodged in the squelchy ground and flipped back onto me feet. On a raised area of dry ground between the tussocks of bog grass I could see a small clearing. There was a rough nest made of spiky grass. In it lay four olive green eggs with charcoal freckles. I was dazzled. I could hear the triple scream of a curlew overhead. She circled until I walked back to the path.
Feeling dabs of rain on the back of my neck I pulled up my collar. I climbed down the ladder of stone steps and back onto the road. The road was clear and I ran across to my house and round to the back. Mum saw me though the window and opened the door.
‘Where’ve you been?’ she asked.
‘Over the fields.’
A man was standing in front of the blue kitchinette. I didn’t know who he was. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then I recognized him – his round spectacles, his high forehead.
‘I’ll go now,’ he said. ‘I just wanted to let you know.’ Mum ushered him out of the door. When she turned to me I could see her face was pale with worry.
‘I didn’t know what had happened to you!’ she said.
‘How did he know where I lived?’
‘He lives down Sussex Avenue. He’s seen you playing in the garden.’
‘I didn’t know what to do, ‘ I said.
Mum put her arms around me. I sobbed onto her elbow.
‘It’s all right, love. It was an accident. As long as you’re all right.’
My brother, Warren, opened the back door. His knees were scabbed where he’d fallen off his bike.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Mum.
Mum had a black notebook which she wrote in if we’d been naughty. She showed it to Dad when he got home from work. If he thought Warren needed to be punished he would take him upstairs and hit him with the strap. I was never hit. When I heard Warren’s cries I curled up on the floor of the living room and clenched all my muscles.
I told Dad about finding the curlew’s eggs. He said that if a nest was disturbed too much then the mother wouldn’t return. I went back to the fields a few times and searched through the bog grass. I couldn’t be sure I ever found the spot where I’d seen the nest, but I never saw the eggs again.
Chrissie Gittins writes poetry, poetry for children, short fiction and radio drama. Her poetry collections are Armature (Arc) and I’ll Dress One Night as You (Salt); her short story collection is Family Connections (Salt). Chrissie’s three children’s poetry collections are all PBS Choices and she is represented on the Poetry Archive. Her new pamphlet collection Professor Heger’s Daughter will be published by Paekakariki Press this November, printed in traditional letterpress. ‘Curlew’ is the first piece in a series of 22 linked short stories, yet to be published, entitled Stepping in the Dark. www.chrissiegittins.co.uk
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis