Shortly after the man moved in, he fixed a cupboard onto a corner of the living room wall. The boy watched as he placed a series of jars and small bottles onto the shelves and emptied bags of bits into the base; it had a lip at the front to prevent anything from falling out. It stank. The smell was different from the stinks around the house and it transpired it was the mix of ointments and devices needed to treat his dogs when they got injured. Somehow, somewhere, he had learnt how to stitch the torn skin when an animal had tried to get through barbed wire or had been caught on a thorn bush. The boy watched as he pressed his knee across the neck of a greyhound and, after sprinkling the wound with some powder, sewed the skin as a person would sew a child’s torn shirt.
The man’s brutal dominance of the household encompassed greater brutality toward his animals.
The contents of the cupboard filled the boy with curiosity but he dared not ask the man about the things in there.
One day, when the man took the woman out to the pub, that curiosity led the boy to stand on a chair and handle some of the bits spread across the cupboard floor. Two shiny needle sharp spikes caught his interest. Each had a tiny leather strap attached. A ten year old boy, filled with imagination as well as curiosity, has a need to find answers, but living under the cloud of violence the man had brought he had learned to hesitate before asking questions.
The man erected posts and wire netting to construct a fowl pen. Little huts were installed to house nest boxes and, when the site was completed; day old chicks were bought at the cattle market. The journey back with cardboard boxes filled with tiny, yellow chicks was made longer by the public houses unpassed, so on arrival some of the birds, along with the carrier were in poor shape. He was able to shake out of the boxes those chicks able to move and the rest were put into the oven alongside the fire to see if the warmth would revive them. The man was asleep and the oven was more than warm so it was the boy who heard the tapping of little claws as the birds suffered in the heating box. He opened the oven door as quietly as he could and lay the box containing dead and dying chicks onto the pegged rug. He looked at the man, open mouthed asleep across a couch, and was filled with hatred toward him.
Months after the coming of the man, the boy looked from a bedroom window to see who was making the noise outside. A group of men had gathered in the fowl pen, all looking downwards at something exciting on the floor. He knew it was exciting because of the course laughter and shouting that lasted for several minutes.
“A cruel bird, you’ve a cruel bird there,” he heard one man say when the noise subsided.
Then they all went out through the gate, the man along with them.
He went to see if he could find what it was that caused the excitement and found the woman shoving the torn carcass of a bloody feathered bird into a paper carrier bag. She ordered him away and went on clearing loose feathers from the ground. Before leaving she opened the door to let the hens out.
He waited, watching until the woman left the pen and went in to investigate. All the birds were strutting about but in one corner a new, small cage contained a new bird. It eyed him as he leaned forward to see it better. It made a quick movement forward that startled the boy and threw back its head to crow. He could see the blood stained feathers across its front.
The boy had overheard the man speaking about cock fighting and knew what had taken place. The bird he was looking at was small in comparison to the hens but its posture and gestures served to confirm his suspicions.
As soon as the coast was clear he checked the cupboard for the metal spikes and, sure enough, they were missing. The stench from the corner and the memory of the cruel laughter he had heard shortly before sent his heart beating with helpless anger.
The boy pursued the escape route that had served him throughout his childhood, he went to the local library and, in that quite, clean, safe place tried to distract his burning mind by reading whatever came to hand in the children’s section. This time it was not so easy. The harsh environment in which he lived left little room for escapism and the thought of an ongoing scene where the men would come again to enjoy more staged cruelty forced him to try and discover a way to prevent it.
Making his way home as tea-time approached he gave reign to his imagination and ideas changed to longings and longings to despair. What could a ten year old boy do to change the way the man lived? A life dominated by callous cruelty to all around him. The boy had watched on fearfully as the woman was degraded before her children, treated with contempt and beaten.
Very often the boy would be wakened by real cries from their room and sometimes by nightmares. That night it was a nightmare. It involved his imagined interruption of a cock fight and he lay awake, able to hear the snoring of the drunken man.
He was never sure if the idea came in a dream or whilst he was awake but its arrival set him to plan and practice.
Feeding the fowls was a job he had often done, now he insisted on doing it and they were happy to leave him to it. Sometimes the sparkly eyed cockerel was out in the pen and it would rush to scratch at his legs. Running and throwing itself up to fly the final few inches with legs outstretched and claws attempting to tear the flesh. The boy was always wary and moved the strong feeder bag into its path of attack. Gradually the fighting bird began to anticipate the little scraps he was given as a treat and so after a while an understanding was built between the two.
A losing cock was hardly ever given a further fight and usually had its neck wrung before the money it had lost its master changed hands. The man had told the boy this to discourage the relationship he had seen develop. He was concerned that the bird would go soft while still in its prime.
The boy knew he would have little time to execute his plan.
The bird quickly grew used to the boy lifting it from the ground, always holding itself ready to strike as he did so.
It was said afterwards that the screams from the man were heard as far as the local cattle market where staff assembled very early to await the arrival of stock from around the county.
Certainly, many doors were opened and people cautiously moved toward the source of the sound.
The boy had turned himself to stone inwardly and outwardly and as he saw the success of his scheme he was filled with satisfaction. He held the bird for a further few seconds against the man’s face even after seeing the eyeball slide onto the pillow. In fact he had already moved the striking claws over to the other side of the man’s face ensuring the remaining eye met with the same fate.
The man began striking out but then clutched his face. His screams and his intense suffering were prolonged because there was no telephone nearby and not one neighbour came to help the unpopular bully.
The boy took the bird back to its box, shut the door to the run and went back in to rinse the blood from his hands and the steel spurs. He placed them back into the cupboard before climbing the stairs to enjoy the spectacle there.
By the time an ambulance did arrive the man was kneeling in a corner of the bedroom, whimpering and holding on to blood soaked blankets.
The boy looked at his mother’s stunned face, “Will he have to have a white stick?”
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
My stepdad was cruel and got pleasure from his cruelty.
I was one of four brothers working in the pit in spite of the fact that Dad had been killed at Bestwood pit in 1940 leaving six children. A short piece of writing helped get me out of the pit after nine years working on the coal face. I have been Chair of Malvern Writers' Circle and have two of my books selling on Amazon and various other sites. Married at eighteen and widowed forty years later I came to Malvern and shortly after married a local woman who has made me the luckiest and happiest of men.