By Matt Hutchinson
‘Come on Ellen, down we go.’ Claire ushered the child forward into the underpass. The storm glowered and threw down slabs of rain, which slapped off the concrete with a sodden fury. Ellen, dressed in her ladybird-spotted mac and fox hat, jumped down the steps, feet together, pink wellies shooting up spray as she cackled in glee. ‘Hold onto the rail, sweetie,’ Claire said, more in hope than expectation.
‘Fox, mummy,’ Ellen said.
‘Yes, love, that’s right.’ Ellen wore the hat everywhere. It was shaped like a real fox’s head, complete with furry ears and snout.
Claire struggled down the steps with the shopping and the scooter Ellen had insisted they bring but hadn’t ridden. She felt a tug and looked back in time to see the thin plastic bag snag and tear. Out tumbled the aubergines she’d come all this way to get. Can’t have a vegetable curry without sticking a couple of aubergines in, Phil had said, wouldn’t be right. She’d wanted to tell him where she’d rather he stuck his aubergines but, as usual, had just nodded and written aubergines on her list. They bounced down the steps and landed in a puddle at the bottom. Ellen picked one up and held it out.
‘What’s it called, mummy?’
‘Aubergine, love. Remember?’
‘Ogre bean,’ said Ellen and turned away satisfied. Claire crouched to pick up the rest of her shopping, stuffing it in pockets as best she could. The air was thicker in the underpass and she felt dizzy as she stood up. After taking a moment to let her head clear she took off her damp hat and used it as a makeshift bag for the final few bits. Something shuffled at the far end of the tunnel. She half expected to see a homeless person, surrounded by old sleeping bags and cardboard; or maybe a couple of teenagers bunking off, Damn hoodies, Claire – ruining this town for the likes of us. It was neither.
‘Fox,’ she said in surprise.
People had warned Claire about the trials of parenthood. The sleeplessness, the heart-stopping terror of having a newborn snuffling (or, worse still, not snuffling) at the foot of your bed; she’d even coped with the indignity of leaking breasts. What nobody had told her was that, as a parent, she’d be unable to say the name of an animal without immediately imitating its noise. Look, Ellen, doggy – woof woof!; it had become second nature. The thing was, she wasn’t entirely sure what noise a fox made.
Claire noticed it was holding one paw curled up off the concrete. Was it lame? She knew enough to understand a wounded animal was a dangerous one. It had never occurred to her that foxes were something you could be scared of though. Lions, tigers and crocodiles – they were scary, of course, but she was unlikely to encounter any of these on a day to day basis. Cows too; that dumb-eyed solemnity wasn’t fooling her. She wouldn’t set foot in any field containing cows, much to Phil’s amusement – Silly mummy, scared of a dozy old cow. Geese even – all that hissing and flapping about you like footballers surrounding a referee. Faced with a real live fox, however, Claire felt on edge. She drew Ellen closer. They were wild animals after all and this one was injured. Did you know, Phil had said over porridge last week, a leopard escaped recently from the zoo in Durban. They set eleven traps for it round the city and caught eleven leopards. Not one was the escapee! Live like foxes in the suburbs over there they do, nicking stuff from bins, eating pets and so on.
Yes, dear, she’d said, half listening as she packed Ellen’s lunchbox for nursery and began thinking about dinner.
‘Hello, Mr. Fox,’ Ellen said. ‘Want some raisins?’ She dipped into a spotted pocket and brought out a few of the shrivelled things, scattering them on the floor where they lay like rabbit droppings.
‘Ellen, no!’ Claire pulled her hand away but it was too late – the fox had begun his approach. He was definitely limping. She backed away with Ellen towards the mouth of the underpass. Water cascaded over the edge in sheets, forming a rising pool round the exit. It was wet feet and a soaking or the fox. Claire felt the beginnings of a headache.
‘Can we take it home, mummy? Pleeeease?’
‘No, sweetie, we can’t. You’ve got a hamster already.’
‘Hampsters are boring.’ Ellen said. ‘I wanna fox.’
‘Well you can’t have one.’ Claire expected waterworks to rival the downpour outside but Ellen just shrugged.
‘Can we live here then?’ The fox gave the raisins one last sniff and turned a lazy circle before settling down on the concrete, rather closer than Claire would have liked, wrapping his tail around his feet.
‘Mummy, mummy, mummy – can we?’
That was the other thing about being a mother – somehow along the way she’d stopped being anything else. She used to have a career, a social life, a name – even Phil called her mummy now. Christ, even her own mother called her mummy in front of Ellen. Of course she loved being a mum but was that all she was? Claire could remember her grandmother receiving letters addressed to Mrs. John Eldridge; women used to get swallowed up by their husbands, she’d been consumed by motherhood. A slow ache spread from the back of her skull, passing over her scalp like a shadow. If only she could sit down for a minute. She leaned against the wall and slid down it into a half crouch. Patting the concrete floor to check it was dry she lowered herself onto it. Ellen skipped over and plonked herself in her lap.
‘Can we, mummy? Can we live here?’
‘How would we live here, sweetie?’ The pain settled behind her eyes. Ellen thought for a minute, face screwed into something like one of the forgotten raisins.
‘We got water to drink an’ wash in,’ she began, counting the benefits off on tiny fingers. ‘We got ogre beans.’
‘They won’t last long,’ Claire said. ‘What would we do then?’
‘We’d make frens with the fox an’ he’d go out an’ catch us things to eat.’ Ellen paused to consider. ‘Sausages an’ stuff.’
Claire smiled. ‘What about daddy?’
‘Daddy can’t catch sausages – he’s busy at work…or grumpy.’
‘Wouldn’t daddy be grumpier without us?’
Ellen thought for a moment. ‘Prolly not.’
‘Poor old daddy!’
‘We’d learn to be foxes an’ run an’ roll about in leafs.’
Claire stroked Ellen’s furry ears. Such a small head, so many jumbled thoughts. When was the last time she’d had such fanciful ideas herself? Ellen picked a dry leaf from the floor and began to pick at the crackly brown skin, stripping it away bit by bit.
‘Wrap your tail round me,’ she said.
‘Your tail – like Mr. Fox.’
Claire curled an arm around Ellen’s ribcage and felt the beating of her little heart through the thin mac.
Claire rested her cheek on Ellen’s head, sinking into the soft, damp fur. Ellen nuzzled into the hollow of her mother’s neck. It was as though they were one and the same, no line to show where Claire stopped and Ellen began. The thought gave Claire a warmth beyond the reality of the cold, damp concrete and she closed her eyes for a second and let tiredness overtake her. Ellen poked a hand into the crook of her arm. Except…that couldn’t be Ellen, she was still picking at her leaf. Claire looked down. The fox had thrust his snout between her elbow and body. She stiffened and moved to get up but her legs ignored her. She tried to clear her head. The fox closed its eyes and was breathing gently.
‘Ellen,’ Claire said. ‘I need you to get up – slowly.’ She expected Ellen to jump and squeal when she saw the fox but she just grinned.
‘Fox,’ she whispered.
‘Fox,’ Claire murmured back. She should be moving, taking her child away from this wild creature but the air was so thick and everything moved like porridge. Besides, there was something comforting about the fox. She wondered what it would be like to be Mrs. Fox, rather than Mrs. Philip Abbot (or just mummy). She didn’t suppose it was much different – it probably involved less aubergine shopping but just as much staying at home while daddy went out and did the interesting stuff. She closed her eyes and let the sound of rain echoing down the tunnel fill her head. She pictured herself walking out of the underpass with Ellen into a bright new world, one of fields and sunshine but also of long winters curled up in a snug den, waiting for spring. They’d poke their snouts out into crisp, clean air, full of new possibilities and stretch themselves on the grass in the strengthening sun.
‘Yip,’ said Ellen the fox cub.
‘Yap,’ said Claire.
Did you know there’s a type of fish that eats the tongues of bigger fish, then takes their place as a means of getting food, said Phil, half a world away. The sound of a stream soon drowned his noise.
Ellen got up and trotted off into a hedgerow, yipping in excitement. Birds filled the spring fields with song and a cool breeze cleansed Claire’s winter-fogged soul. She followed Ellen to the edge of a stream where they both stopped to drink. The water was icy and they drank in short, fast gulps then lay down and turned their faces to the sun. Claire closed her eyes. The warmth slowly sank through to her bones, driving out the last ghosts of winter. Ellen padded over and curled up in the hollow of her side.
A weight settled on her hip. She opened her eyes and saw Mr. Fox. He rubbed his cheek on her flank, then yawned and took a lazy bite out of her flesh. It didn’t hurt – if anything the sensation was strangely familiar – but there was suddenly less of Claire than there had been. Mr. Fox grinned at her, blood matting the white fur under his chin. He took another mouthful. Ellen yapped and took a bite herself, leaving a tiny jagged hole in her mother’s side. Claire tried to kick them off but her legs wouldn’t move. Blood seeped from her wounds taking precious warmth with it. She closed her eyes as they grabbed at her flesh, first one side then the other. She twisted her body but whichever way she went there were teeth. A shadow passed across the sun and the chill returned. Claire shivered. She felt a gentler tug on her paw then a hand on her cheek. She opened her eyes and looked up into the face of an old woman, headscarf wrapped tight under her chin. The patter and spatter of the stream had faded.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I said are you alright.’
Claire looked down. Ellen was curled up against her side – she yipped softly in her sleep. The fox was nowhere to be seen.
‘I…yes, I’m fine. We’re fine. I just…’
‘Shall I call an ambulance?’
‘No, thank you, we’re OK.’ Claire straightened herself and quietly said, ‘Ellen?’
The girl came to groggily and Claire shuffled them both to their feet.
‘Everything’s quite alright, thank you.’ She picked up her hat full of shopping and grabbed Ellen’s scooter. An aubergine fell from her coat pocket and rolled away into a drift of leaves. Claire ignored it. One foot had gone to sleep where it had been curled beneath her and she limped for the first few steps. Ellen followed behind in silence. Claire turned to look at the woman, who waved at them. On the concrete by her feet was a small pile of raisins. The rain appeared to have stopped and sunlight filled the end of the tunnel. They walked on.
‘Come on Ellen, up we go.’ Claire ushered the child forward.
– By Karen Quinn
I wondered if it was possible to fry an egg on the bonnet of a car. Morris was bathing on the driveway, his green frame steaming under the sun. I watched him for about five minutes. It was Ireland; the sun didn’t usually visit us. This was a one-time experiment, it was now or never. I turned to my younger brother, who was playing Boggle in spite of its missing letters.
‘Wanna fry an egg on Morris?’
We went to the kitchen. I remember Mammy sitting on the sway chair sleeping. We were expecting a new sister or brother that summer. Daddy told us boys to stop laughing at the way Mammy walked. To us, she looked like a penguin. We tip-toed past her and opened the fridge. My brother was too small to reach, but I got the egg because I had long legs. We then got two plates and a slice of bread before going outside.
According to Daddy, it was the shock of seeing an eggy Morris that caused Mammy to go into labour. With both our parents heading to hospital, me and my brother were told to ‘sit and pray to God that everything would work out alright’. The door slammed shut, keys were shuffled and Morris tooted and hummed lightly as he drove away. We were left alone to reflect. This was our prayer:
‘Dear God, look after Mammy and please let it be a boy. Also, could you please make sure that Daddy doesn’t have us for messing up Morris’ green paint with an egg? Thank you.’
One half of our prayer came true. Baby Anna saved us from the slap that night. According to Daddy she was a big girl who weighed in at about three bags of sugar. I climbed into the attic and took out my brother’s old baby sling, wrapping three bags of sugar inside the dusty fabric. I told Daddy to leave me be, this was me preparing to be the big brother, the family helper. Two of the bags fell to the floor and for some strange reason the top bag (representing my sisters head) ripped and the sugar poured out. Daddy laughed, saying he’d never forget my face. I brushed up the sugar and decided I was too young to carry around such a heavy baby. I probably could’ve handled two bags, but she was three.
A few days after Mammy and Anna came home. My younger brother was still mad at the fact Anna was a girl. I knew that because he looked at her like he looked at garden peas. He hated garden peas. Scowling with his arms crossed, he asked Mammy why she took the baby home. Mammy had this way about her when she smiled, you could see the happiness in her eyes. She knelt down to him, sparkling.
‘What would you like for dinner tonight?’ She said to him. ‘Your choice.’
‘Really? Can we have chicken curry?’
My brother had good taste in dinners.
That night was the best night of my life. Mammy made a tasty chicken curry and Daddy even brought us back a cone of sweets from the market. Anna was quiet, so Daddy turned the radio down low. Together he and Mammy danced in their bare feet on the tiles. We then watched Danger Mouse before going to bed, later than usual. Anna stirred once or twice in the night, I heard her whimper, but she was quiet otherwise. She was a very quiet baby.
For weeks afterwards our house was just as happy. Morris still wasn’t looking the best, but I heard that Daddy was planning to buy matching paint and tidy him up himself. Anna was now the weight of three and a half bags of sugar, and my brother had now accepted her as one of his own, including her in his games.
‘Anna! I, Dr Who, thought you were my friend. But you are a Dalek in disguise aren’t you?’
‘Exterminate you say? I was right. There’s only one thing left to do then…’
He pointed his finger at her bouncy chair.
She would then kick her feet. The bouncy chair would rock backwards and forwards with such a force that Daddy believed she would be a mighty footballer. I was looking forward to her being old enough to kick a ball. I told Mammy this and she said that at the rate Anna was growing she would be in the premiership by the end of the month. Mammy was very proud of Anna. She was proud of us boys too, but Anna was special. She would dance bare footed with her on the tiles, she would sing to her, she would blow raspberries on her cheeks. That night Mammy caught me watching her, so she placed a sleeping Anna into her bouncy chair and took my hand. I took off my shoes, but not my socks because the tiles were cold. I stood on her feet and together we circled the floor, dancing to the music on the radio. I went to bed then and Mammy put Anna into her cot. I fell asleep but woke up within a few hours with a fever. Mammy and Daddy took turns when tending to me, so Anna didn’t get the full attention that she would usually get at night. I heard her whimper, but Mammy hushed her from the doorway and didn’t actually go into her room.
That morning Daddy took my brother to school. I was sitting in the kitchen with a plate of dry toast that I couldn’t eat. I had seen Mammy check the baby monitor before she poured me a glass of milk. She kissed my burning head and then went upstairs to check on Anna.
She wasn’t up there for long.
Daddy would warn us about running down the stairs, so I remember wondering what he would’ve said to Mammy when she took three stairs at a time. Anna was in her arms, being very still and very quiet. Mammy paced the tiles, muttering words that I couldn’t understand. She then put Anna on the kitchen table in front of my toast. She grabbed the phone and began to dial, but her hands were shaking so she was missing the correct buttons. I could make out a few words then.
‘Baby. Hold on. Okay baby.’
She looked out the window.
‘Baby. I can see his house.’
I looked out of the window. The only house I could see was Dr. Foster’s and that was two fields away. She scooped Anna into her arms and ran outside. I noticed she forgot her shoes. I grabbed them and followed. She reached the end of our garden. The Farmer had put wire around his field to prevent his sheep from wandering. Mammy moaned and rocked from side to side before turning to me.
‘Take your sister.’
‘I can’t Mammy, I’ll drop her.’
She became even more desperate.
‘Take your sister now!’
I had read in the Boy’s Scouts Magazine that when you find yourself in a threatening situation, your body can become stronger. I didn’t really understand how that worked, if it was magic given to you by an angel, or God, or Superman. All I knew was, I had it. For that moment I was strong enough to carry Anna. I took her into my arms for the first time as her big brother. She didn’t feel right. Mammy climbed over the metal thread. I saw her blood rest on the wires like raindrops. She stretched over the fence.
‘Give me her’.
I did. Mammy ran. I discarded the shoes and climbed over the fence. I always thought I was faster than Mammy, but I found it very hard to catch up with her. The field was large and empty. We were running for a long time before we reached its end, and by then we were only half way there. I looked down at Mammy’s feet that danced on the kitchen tiles, they were torn. I cried when she mounted the wire fence again, but I managed to hand Anna over the barrier safely. This field was bigger than the last and I could see Mammy’s feet beginning to fail her. She fell to her knees, Anna slipping out of her arms onto the grass.
I saw red on a jagged stone as I passed. I stopped to get sick. When I looked up I couldn’t see Mammy anymore, so I bolted in the direction of Dr. Foster’s house. There she was at the end of the field, shrieking and cradling Anna. A woman was outside the house, hanging fresh linen on a washing line. Immediately she called inside for Dr. Foster, who emerged within seconds and jumped over the wire. I stopped running. The last thing I saw was the woman taking Anna inside the house. I remember feeling afraid for her, I didn’t know this woman. I didn’t know if she was able to carry Anna. After all, Anna was a big baby – she was the weight of three and a half bags of sugar.
I remember falling to my knees.
Mammy had this ability to smile with her eyes, but after Anna she seemed to forget how to do that. My brother didn’t understand, and cried a lot. One night Mammy made extra peas for dinner. My brother began to whine, telling everyone in the room about how much he hated peas. Without warning, Mammy stood up. The table went silent. She looked at all of us and smiled. For weeks afterwards, that smile gave me nightmares. It wasn’t friendly, or warm. It wasn’t how my Mammy smiled. She began to pile peas onto my brother’s plate, slamming the ladle onto the china harder with each spoonful. Daddy stood up to meet her eyes. Both of them said nothing, but Mammy retreated, her walk like an injured penguin, not one that us boys could laugh at anymore. She closed the door. We listened to the creak of the floorboards, then another door closed. She screamed upstairs.
‘Daddy’, I said.
‘No, stay here. You boys need to behave.’
Daddy left. My brother looked at me.
‘Eat your peas.’
Without any objection, he picked up his fork. I watched him eat. Mammy was sobbing and we could hear the hum of Daddy’s words to her echoing in the hallway. I stood up, told my brother to finish his dinner and went outside. A sorry looking Morris was lying idle on the driveway, the weather further chipping away at the offending egg stain. Daddy had brought home a tin of paint from work, but it had been forgotten about. The tin was sitting by the doorstep, so I picked it up along with a brush that had been tossed into the grass. I began to paint over the marks on Morris, to put an end to the trouble that I had started.
Karen Quinn is a playwright and prose writer. She completed her masters in Creative Writing at Queen’s University and is currently writing her first novel. Her play, “The Bull” toured from Belfast to Donegal after favourable reviews. She lives in Donegal (by the beach) with her dogs. Follow Karen on twitter @Monsoonstorm19