This story is by Helen Smith and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Jack stood in the middle of his room, a huge grin on his face. On his bed, his skateboard and two large cardboard boxes stuffed with clothes and treasured possessions.
‘I know you, young man,’ she said. ‘Your head’s full of girls and beer. Don’t forget to study while you’re there too.’
Jack shrugged and grinned some more. ‘Come on, Mum. Seriously, what else would you expect?’
Sarah leaned against the door frame and shook her head slowly. She tried hard to look disapproving but her mouth softened into a smile. What indeed? Her bright, beautiful, happy boy. All grown up.
A beat, a fleeting moment; a bird’s wing in flight.
She swung the door open. The room was empty. Empty of Jack. Empty of his bags. Empty of the noisy, messy life that had filled it for nineteen years. Years gone too quickly. Closing the door on the silence, she went to her own room and stared through the window onto a garden that had wanted attention for a number of weeks since. She barely registered the overgrown plants, the weeds and the aviary with its gate flung wide, its former occupants long gone. Small birds flitted, flapped and flustered through the hedge, fat collared doves weighed down the branches of the plum tree and starlings sat on the shed roof hurling chacker-chacker insults at next-door’s cat, yet she saw only the jackdaws strutting insolently across the lawn.
Every night, she had the same dream. She stood in her bedroom, engulfed by a mass of black and silver wings that beat around her so thickly she could barely see across the room. Flinging the window open, the wings poured out in a thick, liquid stream, leaving her standing alone and afraid in a room that was no longer hers. The same dream, over and over. Two jackdaws stood on her front path shouting ‘jack-jack’ at each other the morning he left; a warning, but she had ignored it.
Steven should not have come today. He had no right to stand beside her saying goodbye to Jack. She resented his presence and had avoided speaking to him. It had been his choice to walk out on them, to replace them with a new family. Sarah had hugged her resentment to herself for ten angry years. She had allowed her son to become her world, always knowing that one day, she would be left alone in this house, its silence ringing in her ears.
A knock on the back door. She turned her head towards the sound but remained where she was. The knock repeated, louder. And again. Eventually, from sheer force of habit, she walked mechanically downstairs. Only friends knocked at the back door and she had made it clear she needed some time alone. A young man, older than Jack, in his mid-twenties perhaps, stood at the door. Good looking. She had seen him once before, talking to Jack in the street. His name was Charlie, Jack said. He was quite different from his usual friends, who still played at being skater boys, prized their unkempt hair, sported bum fluff round their chins and wore jeans that hung off their backsides. Charlie wore a black suit with a grey scarf draped around his neck. A Mallen streak ran through his glossy black hair making him look older than he probably was. Pale brown eyes glittered under heavy eyebrows and the shadow of a beard darkened his skin. He had a look of the city about him. Sharp. A sharp business man. He held a large cardboard box.
Sarah looked at him through the glass door, but made no move to open it. For a few moments he held her gaze, then reaching forward, he opened the door, strutted past her into the lounge and placed the box carefully on the coffee table. He settled on the sofa with an air of confidence, looking Sarah up and down as she slowly followed him into the room.
He glanced up with suddenly cautious eyes.
‘Why are you here?
‘Is Jack in? I’ve got some of his stuff. I should have brought it round before now, but I’ve been busy.’
Some of his stuff? Sarah looked at him blankly, wondering who this person could be, who did not know Jack was gone, but who had his stuff?
‘He’s not here.’
‘When’ll he be back?’
‘Christmas,’ she told him. ‘Not before Christmas.’ Yes, maybe he would be home for Christmas. Her stomach hurt. ‘How do you know Jack?’ She found it difficult to imagine that her son and this self-assured young man were friends.
He watched her keenly. ‘We go way back, me and Jack.’
‘Do you?’ It was less a question, more an accusation.
‘Anyway, I’ll just leave it here, shall I?’
‘What’s in it?’
As she reached for it, Charlie sprang forward, tilting his head, fixing his needle-point gaze on her. A flutter of fear ran through Sarah, as she saw the unspoken threat. He snatched off the lid and a clattering train of jackdaws burst from the box; bird after bird after bird, they came, calling ‘jack-jack’. Sarah cried out and flung herself backward, her arms wrapped around her head. Fighting her way through the wings, beaks and sharp claws that filled the air, she threw open the window and flattened herself against the wall as they streamed through the opening.
Sarah stood in the doorway, holding two cups of coffee. Charlie sat on the sofa and the box, its lid firmly in place, was on the table.
‘…the birds,’ she began.
He smiled at her curiously.
‘Birds? Ah, coffee. Thanks.’ He took a cup from her.
‘The box -’, she said uncertainly. ‘what’s in it?’
He shrugged. ‘Just stuff. Thought I’d better bring it over in case he needed it.’
Didn’t he know? She wanted to ask, but the words formed and died on her lips. He reached for the lid and she felt a quiver of fear. Was it the kind of stuff that came in cellophane packets, or wrapped in silver paper? Was that what he had given Jack that morning in the street, half-hidden by parked cars? Jack had looked sheepish when she asked. Had he been into something far more sinister than smoking weed and the occasional alcoholic binge? She put her hand on Charlie’s and pressed the lid back down.
‘It’s ok. It’s Jack’s stuff. I’ll just put it in his room.’
He shook off her hand and lifted the lid. There were no cellophane packets inside. There were books and toys; books and toys from Jack’s childhood, his old favourites. Things long since gone.
‘Where did you get these?’
‘I told you, Jack-’
‘No! These were gone. Where did you get them?’ She had thrown this stuff away. She remembered throwing it away when Jack was younger. She stood up, leaning over him with her finger jabbing in his face.
‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’
Sarah opened her eyes and gazed blankly around her, trying to remember what she’d been doing. Charlie and the box were gone. She had no recollection of him leaving, but he had left behind him a feeling of unease and there were bird droppings and feathers scattered across the lounge. She had a pain in the pit of her stomach that had nothing to do with her body, and everything to do with overwhelming grief. She needed to lie down, pull covers over her head, keep the birds away.
The bedroom door opened and Steven walked through, a thin smile on his face that didn’t reach his eyes.
‘What… Why are you here?’
‘I didn’t think you should be alone.’
She compressed her mouth. ‘How did you get in?’
‘The back door was unlocked. I knocked but you didn’t answer.’ He shook his head slightly and reached out for her hand. ‘Come on, this won’t help.’
It was only then she realised she was not in her room at all, but Jack’s. She let Steven lead her into her bedroom.
‘Let’s get you out of this stuff and into something a bit more comfortable.’
Sarah stood, unresisting, as he stripped her of her beautiful, hateful funeral clothes. It had been years since he had seen her undressed, but it hardly mattered. She felt numb. He found her some leggings which she pulled on, and a sweater which he tugged over her head, directing her arms, child-like, into the sleeves. He smoothed her hair with his hands and pulled her close against him. She let her head rest on his shoulder. It felt like the first time.
‘There was a chap at the service today, said he was a friend of Jack’s,’ Steven paused a moment. ‘Sharp looking. I didn’t recognise him. He gave me a box of stuff he said belonged to Jack. I’ve left it downstairs on the coffee table.’