Authors: James Clammer
Christophe smiled and stood up. He had not guessed how I was feeling. He went to the little cooking area and made himself busy.
I stood up also. I needed to be on my feet. Those welded-together cafeteria tables felt like mantraps. You could not get out in a hurry if you wanted to. I still did not wish to disturb mother (Laura! I thought bitterly) as she trudged about the yard, but I wanted to be nearer to the peeling double doors, the doors that opened onto the street. Casually I strolled to the far end of the mechanic's shed, pretending to look at all the things that were lying around.
Check out the display, Christophe shouted from the little cooking area. It's at the end. Very interesting!
a display of some sort. I saw it now, tacked to the wall on the far side of the repair pit. It was not modern in any way, done on computers, it was pictures and boxes of text cut out and stuck onto black backing card, everything dog-eared, carried many times from place to place I imagined. The biggest line of text, the title, said, The Habitat and History of the Cruellne. Taking a mouthful of Coke from the dented can, I read a few lines. There was not much sense in it. It was about a creature that I felt certain could never have existed. Some sort of art project or elaborate joke, I supposed, made by adults who thought they were clever, wanting to see how many people they could fool.
When I next turned around, I saw that mother had come in from the glare of the yard. She was sitting at one of the cafeteria tables talking to Christophe. They were speaking very quietly, as if they did not want anyone else to overhear their conversation. Up I marched, demanding my hotdog. I knew I had to stop them. I would like ketchup
mustard, I said,
everything there is
Christophe smiled and went obediently back to the cooking area. Mother's face had a blank uncommunicative look. She had been so happy on the way to the train, so happy outside. What had gone wrong? But I did not have to ask the question, I knew it was because of Christophe, something he had said or done. We had been in the yard for almost two hours by that time. The sun had moved round and the Post Office tower was a silver beacon, signaling, trying to reach us.
Did you look at the display, mother said.
What did you think?
I said I did not know. I had not taken that much of an interest in it, my mind had been thinking about other things, about Christophe. I had dismissed it out of hand I realised.
The hotdogs arrived. One for me, one for Laura, one for little Samuel, Christophe said.
I looked for the sneer as he said my name but there was none. Fried onions were wedged into the buns, mustard and ketchup. Christophe tucked in, he had a proper appetite. Mother and I barely touched ours. Afterwards there were more soft drinks from the glass-fronted fridge, Coke again and Dr Pepper. When were we going to leave this wretched yard?
A creak and the snap of a door-lock in the derelict building opposite: something was happening. Christophe and mother both stood up and I heard mother let out a little gasp. I stood up too, I wanted to see what was going on but I could not, their bodies were in the way. Out I slid from the cafeteria table. Two people, a woman and a child, were walking towards us. The woman led the child by the hand. Only the child was not a child. It had two arms and two legs, and hands and a body like ours, but in the place where its mouth and nose should be there was a great bulbous beak. At first I thought it must be a mask but then I knew it could not be.
Mother's hands, when I looked, were clasped to her mouth, and silver tears were falling onto her cheeks.
Well done, Natalie, Christophe said to the woman.
Natalie smiled. She looked like a nice person, trustful. Christophe pinched her above the hip and she giggled. Together they re-crossed the yard, taking the hotdogs with them.
The cruellne hopped up onto one of the plastic seats around the cafeteria table. Its feet swung back and forth, too short to reach the floor, its pink tongue flicked deep inside the beak, crackling and hissing as it tried to make itself understood. At first I did not think we would be able to communicate with it. It was obvious it could not form its mouth into the same shapes we do or make the same sorts of noises. But mother did her best to make cruellne sounds, and the cruellne did its best to make human sounds, and after all the language was English, more or less. Slowly I picked it up too, it was not so difficult as you would think. They did not talk about anything other than themselves. The cruellne told her about its life, how once it had lived on mudflats and in squalid little shacks and eaten fish all year round, monkfish and mullet and sometimes eels, but that it was happy to live here now in safety with people to look after it. And mother talked about all the things that had happened to us, about the funeral and the people who had gone away and why we had given up on life although we did not want to. I do not think mother could have said any of that to another person, she could only say it in this strange Cruellne-English language. Once or twice I tried to join the conversation but mother laid a hand on my arm, motioned for me to be quiet. The cruellne ignored me, it was only interested in mother.
The most difficult thing to describe is the sense of happiness and calm that seemed to move inside her as they talked. I could feel it, it was almost like something you could pick up and roll around in the palm of your hand and then put away somewhere safe and secret, for when you needed it next. I knew that it could not be the first time she had spoken with a cruellne. When had she done it before? And would this time be the last? Occasionally I glanced over at Christophe and Natalie. They had finished the hotdogs and were lying in each other's arms, stretched out on the straw, the sun much less fierce now. Presently though they both stood up and wandered over, telling a shrill joke or two to let us know they were returning. Natalie said we could stroke the feathers on the top of the cruellne's head, it would like that, and when we did (me included this time) its pink tongue whirred with pleasure. Then Natalie took the cruellne by the hand and led it away across the yard, and mother and I watched as they disappeared into the derelict boarded-up building.
Christophe was all smiles. He said life was good and what could we do but agree? At the two peeling doors, the doors that led out onto the street, mother handed him a large brown envelope. He raised a finger, stepped back into the shade of the mechanic's shed, examined the contents. Yes life was good, but it was not good enough that he did not need to count the money. Satisfied, he bowed to us and waved, and we let ourselves out.
After that our life changed a lot. Mother got a new job and I went back to school. Soon I will be taking my exams. Only once afterwards did I ever ask mother about the cruellne. It was a funny question. I asked why she had not let me take part in the conversation, why it was only her that had been allowed to speak. She said it was complicated, to do with girls and boys and women and men. But if ever the time came when I got married, she would pass along the address of the mechanic's yard to my wife, to the mother of my children. But couldn't I go and see the cruellne on my own some time, I asked?
No, Samuel, she said, you do not understand, it's impossible.
Her answer made me angry, she was treating me like a child, like I understood nothing about sex.
For a long time I thought of going to London all by myself, of taking the Underground to G___, of finding those peeling double doors and knocking. But now I do not think I will. There are thousands of streets in London. It is a bad place to get lost in. Easier to climb the hill that lies behind our house and watch the sun setting. I do not need to memorise the colours any more though, I am happy to watch them change and let them go.
Thanks for buying this Galley Beggar ebook. We love you!