By Jack Probert
A tiny black speck uprooted itself from the newspaper, sprouted six small legs and began to creep quietly across the page as the evening sun slipped in through the window, trickling over the floor, spreading through the front room and into the small, square kitchen where Tommy sat at the very head of the table, watching the ladybird make its progress along the paper, scuttling determinedly towards the top of the page.
“What’s the point,” she interrupted, flicking the other side, “if you can’t read?”
The little ladybird flew off and landed on the cold linoleum floor beside his feet as they strained to touch the ground; immediately, it scurried off towards the safety of the cupboards by the garden window as Tommy shook and rustled his paper in indignation: it wasn’t about reading. Anyone with half a brain could tell that: it was about the action, the intent – it was about being a Proper Gentleman.
“A gentleman? You?” A laugh like broken glass hit the room. “Don’t be ridiculous: just eat your dinner like the rest of us, and stop playing around –”
“– Amelia, dear. Please.”
Four chairs sat around the kitchen table; only three were filled.
“What?” She punctured a sickly stub of rank, rationed cabbage with her fork, chewing as she spoke. “I’m just observing – you can’t get angry with me for that: aren’t I supposed to stay alert? – stay vigilant, stay safe?”
“Well, you’re being a little too alert for my liking, darling. Behave and eat your dinner.”
Amelia sagged back into her chair, arms tightly folded. Even she knew when it was best not to argue about things, so she sat and pressed into the mashed potato, leaving the thin marks of her fork, its tines ever so slightly bent from the pressure she exerted on it.
“There’s a good girl – sitting quietly like your brother.”
They still slept in the same room, not that there was another choice. In the dim light of the single filament bulb, they laid on their beds, each one boxed in by the other, and pretended that everything was fine. Tommy read about pirates, cowboys, knights and all sorts of exciting things that made Amelia’s stomach turn as she looked out the window at the night sky: slowly, each lonely, glassy star came glimmering out of the treacle-dark, glinting in the very corners of their single, squat window.
“Do you think they’re coming tonight?”
Tommy shrugged: who knew? They could come at any time. Besides, they would hear them overhead when they did: a low, throbbing buzz – that came first, soft and gentle. And then the sirens.
“I suppose they won’t – they’ve come for the last three days.” Amelia squirmed under the covers as she pulled the duvet over her head. She yawned, her eyes watering. “They’ll be too tired. I know I am.”
They sat in silence as the brassy clatter of the clock striking nine sounded. Outside, the night was still and cool, and the window reflected Amelia’s sharp nose and empty eyes, vacant. She shifted, turning in her bed to reach out to the floor below – she had her mask, her book, her shoes – everything was in its place, ready to go.
The rotting frame of the window quivered in the wind; Tommy’s bed groaned as he turned over on his side to face the blank wall with the peeling corner by the door that they had put up together just last year–
– it had been Autumn, and the cold air had just begun to creep into the room between the bricks as the trees outside shed their golden leaves.
“No, no. No, not like that –” a firm hand had gripped his arm as he lathered the paper on – “more – more like this.” He had demonstrated with a thick, strong stroke of the brush. “Up and down, see?”
Laughter – laughter from the bed behind them: Amelia cradled and smiling, inspecting the glittering speck of silver on Mama’s finger, her eyes widening as she took it in, poised to snatch it and keep it for herself. In the amber shadow of the setting sun, her features softened, revealing a face as light and fragile as the oak leaves on the pavement outside.
“They’re your responsibility soon enough –” the gruff hands had snapped him back to the wall – “When I’m gone, that is: you’ll be the man of the house – you’ll have to be man enough for all of us, eh?” Tommy had smiled and grasped the brush in his fatty child’s fingers before dipping it in the pot and splattering small gobs of paste all over the bare floorboards –
Looking away from the stain by the door, he turned back to his knights and cowboys and pirates; he let the wallpaper peel from the corner in silence as Amelia tossed around in her sheets.
It was almost time.
The door crept open, and there she was, her bare porcelain hands clinging to the frame as she stood in her nightgown, alone – a world away across the threshold.
“It’s time to go – come on: get your things. Lights out.”
And with that, the slow grumbling overhead began again.
Image: Free-Photos via Pixabay