Birdie

3,698 words – approx. 12 minutes

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Birdie Williams won his nickname in the rushed last week of a summer that had never gathered any momentum. Days worthy of the season had been sporadic that year, and no sooner had a promising stretch been put together than a sudden bank of bulging grey clouds appeared and kept everyone indoors, their endless games of Mario Kart made monotonous by lack of alternative and punctuated by the crack and roll of thunder.

But late August brought with it days of unbroken golden sun, and with the new school year looming ever-larger on the horizon, the children of Kendrick Road were determined to make the most of the weather’s newfound benevolence. At 12, Sean wasn’t quite the youngest of the group, but Patrick made it clear that his involvement in their ragged games of football or cricket was due to his older brother, not any acceptance that Sean could lay personal claim to. Within the boundaries of Ma Williams’ orders – “If you’re going outside, take your brother now” – Patrick would do little to hide his reluctance, often waiting until the last minute to call “Going!” leaving Sean to stampede breathlessly downstairs and pull on his trainers (formerly Patrick’s) in a desperate hurry. Whether or not they were late, Patrick would always apologise to the others as Sean pulled the back gate to.

The football had been rougher than usual that afternoon, given added intensity by the return of Stig, out in the backs for the first time since he and Frankie had fought. Frankie had been trying to shed the diminutive, feminine end to his name all summer, with relative success – but for some reason Stig, always liable to needle, had insisted on including the now-unwanted suffix in almost everything he said to Frankie, and this had provoked a predictable response.

“Just stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“You know.”

“What, calling you Frankie?”

“For God’s sake.”

“But that’s your name, Frankie.”

“I said stop it.” He shoved Stig back a couple of steps, not hard, but enough to prompt Patrick to step in as peacemaker.

“Come on now guys, no more of that.” As the tallest of the boys, Patrick had an automatic authority, and he stood now between Stig and Frankie, arms outstretched and showing each of them an open palm. Calm provisionally restored, he ordered them to shake on it. Stig’s eyes glittered as their hands met.

“Sorry Frankie.”

And he was off, backing wildly down the alley, hands raised to protect or placate, shrieking that it was an accident – a claim that would have been more believable had he not simultaneously been wearing a sly, slit-mouthed grin. Now that the honour of the handshake had been betrayed, there was nothing more to be done; Patrick just watched as Frankie charged after Stig. They were evenly matched for pace, but the headstart meant Stig reached his house first. Frankie landed one or two weak blows to Stig’s shoulder as he struggled with the latch, but then he slipped inside and Patrick turned back to the remaining players to announce kick-off.

These spats happened now and again; they rarely lasted long. The backs were too cramped to hold a grudge, and the boys’ lives too intertwined for factions to form. An enemy could be invited round for tea at any moment by an oblivious parent; his father might be asked to repaint the front porch; or his mother might start staying over at weekends and making toast in the morning, hair in rollers and nightgown floating over her skin. Things also rarely escalated to anything more than a pulled punch: the omnipresent threat of parental involvement still carried force.

In spite of all this, the sudden reappearance of Stig sent a pleasant frisson through them at the possibility of a confrontation. He jogged up the hill, his head bowed in penance. He wasn’t making an entrance. Frankie was kicking the ball against the wall as he neared. The watching boys held their breath – but there was no need. Frankie flicked his eyebrows up towards Stig.

“Alright.”

“Alright.”

The immediate danger was over, but the build-up of pressure was not entirely released, and in a lightly charged atmosphere it was to no-one’s particular surprise when Sean found himself knocked sprawling by an onrushing Porky. When he gingerly sat up, his hand was bleeding where it had scraped along the roughly pebbled ground to break his fall.

“Foul! Stop!”

“No way!” called Porky, making an unlikely slalom past the now-still defenders and shooting past Rob in goal. He knew it wouldn’t count, but there was still a joy to be had in scoring, and his wheeling, exaggerated celebration, complete with dampened roar, wasn’t entirely manufactured.

The boys were clustered around Sean, who was trying hard not to cry.

“Gross!”

“Aw, he’s bleeding everywhere!”

“You alright Sean?”

Porky jogged over to them, breathing hard and carrying the ball under his arm. “Sorry man.” He held out his hand with a smile.

“Watch it, you’ll get blood all over you!” warned Frankie. Then, interest now lost as the injury had proven itself to be non-serious, he announced, “Free kick to us.”

“That was never a free kick! Shoulder barge!”

“Shoulder barge,” snorted Frankie. “You call that a shoulder barge?” He heaved himself into Porky in a histrionic re-enactment.

“Hang on, hang on,” called Patrick over the tumult, then spoke directly to Sean. “You should go in and get cleaned up.” Sean hated when Patrick addressed him like that, ordering him around, acting like he was his dad. But his hand was studded with bits of gravel and coated in a bloody sheen, so he could do little but agree. “No foul, drop ball!” shouted Patrick magnanimously as his brother walked away. Sean opened the gate to the sound of a mild dispute over whether a shot had crossed the border of the alley and garage ramp that marked the post, or gone in. Stig’s vigorous appeals that it was actually ‘post and in’ were too subtle to be accepted, and the matter was eventually settled by the award of a penalty. On a long, narrow pitch without goal frames, touchlines, or a referee, consensus was vital to the entire setup. This didn’t just apply to fouls and goalposts: the position of crossbars was relative to the goalkeeper’s jumping height (so if Little Rob was in goal it’d be no more than five foot, but nearer six and a half if it was Patrick), and goals deemed to have been scored inside ‘the area’ – an undemarcated box extending roughly two meters from the goal line – were only valid if headed, or scored following a rebound from the keeper.

It also applied to the collective abrogation of responsibility if the ball happened to hit a window, or ricochet into the garden, of a known enemy. Most of the street tolerated these incidents, and turned a blind eye to the risk to the double glazing and Sean’s surprisingly adept forays onto their property as he found unlikely footholds and monkeyed his way over their walls. But if the wrong window was hit, or garden breached, the players would scatter behind gates and the backs would yawn empty. They knew which were those houses as well as they knew their own names.

Sean hadn’t been inside long when Patrick joined him, under the guise of checking on his younger brother; Ma Williams would give him a beating if she knew his appearance was because the ball was now nestled in the garden of number twenty-three. The cut had bled badly, but it was small, and in the end it only needed a good rinse under the tap and a plaster.

“You’re in early,” said Ma Williams.

Patrick didn’t answer her. “How’re you doing?”

“Alright,” Sean mumbled.

“Hey Ma.” Patrick grabbed a biscuit from the tin and tossed it into his mouth, daring her to challenge him. “Can I go to the park tomorrow with everyone?” It would be another year before Patrick felt emboldened enough to cross town without seeking permission. “Porky – I mean, Jack – is bringing a softball kit, well his brother is.”

“Isn’t his brother a bit old to be playing with you boys?”

Patrick shrugged.

“Well, as long as you take your brother.”

“Aw ma!”

“If you’re old enough to play with them, so’s he.”

Patrick knew better than to challenge this illogic directly. “But he’s hurt himself!”

“It’s only a scratch!” broke in Sean.

“Yeah? Then why were you near enough crying out there?”

Ma Williams looked from one furious boy to the other, drawing out the moment of judgement unbearably. Neither of them spoke – the interruption and insult had cancelled each other out, but any further submission would be looked on unfavourably as lip.

“Take your brother,” she decided eventually. Patrick looked stricken, but said nothing. “Now away with you, I’m putting tea on. And no more biscuits!”

*

The next morning Sean was up and dressed before Patrick came down for breakfast; there was no way he was going to risk a last-minute scramble once Patrick was ready to go. But Patrick’s opposition to Sean’s involvement had softened overnight, or at least he had given it up as a lost cause, so at 11am they left the house, slathered in suncream on Ma Williams’ orders and topped by baseball caps bought the previous summer.

“He’s got mitts and everything, ‘pparently.”

“Mitts?”

“You know, gloves. Like for baseball. It’s the same thing, didn’t you know that?”

“Yeah,” said Sean, with force.

Sean had to hurry to keep up with Patrick, who was taking long strides, just natural enough that his brother couldn’t complain. He was panting by the time they reached the park, and could only watch as Patrick easily increased his pace and loped off ahead to the trees where Porky was already setting up. When Sean eventually got to them, Porky’s brother Marshall was explaining the pitch layout to Patrick.

“First base and third are at 45 degrees from home.” He was big – there was a definite family resemblance – but more solid than Porky, like a boulder. Patrick carried the square plastic mat in roughly the direction of first base.

“Here?”

“Bit to the left.”

Patrick paused and assessed the angles. “Looks right to me.”

“Nah, to the left.”

Sean watched his brother back down and lay the rest of the mats under Marshall’s instruction. More boys had arrived now, in shorts and t-shirts that would soon be unrepentantly damp with sweat – a football shirt was the closest anyone would ever get to a proper kit, but even these were rare and regarded as a slightly embarrassing commitment. Marshall greeted the new arrivals with hugging handshakes, while Patrick darted around them like a boxer, looking for a way in. “Do you play much softball mate?” he asked Marshall at a break in conversation. His voice was self-consciously adult.

“Nah, this stuff was my dad’s. There’s only one sport I really like – chasing the egg.”

“What?”

“Rugby.”

“Oh right, yeah. Let me guess the position. Prop?”

“Ten points to Gryffindor,” said Marshall, his eyebrows raised a little in patronising surprise. If Sean had said that, he knew, Patrick would’ve teased him for being a geek, but the fact of Marshall’s age for now smothered his weirdness, even made it almost impressive.

“Tight side?” asked Patrick eagerly, recovered from his embarrassment moments before.

“Yeah.”

Patrick nodded and sucked his teeth thoughtfully. One of Marshall’s friends chucked a ball towards Sean. “Catch!” Sean flung his hands up, but too late – it sailed past him and trundled along the loose, scratchy surface. It stopped a few feet from a crowd of pigeons. The one closest to Sean cocked its head and peered at him, then continued undisturbed, strutting back and forth. Sean turned round to see the boy looking at him with the unmistakable sneer of the no longer spotty.

“Sean! Over here!” Frankie was the other side of the boy, and Sean felt a rush of something that he couldn’t put a name to, a form of relief. The ball was larger and harder than he expected, not like the tennis ball he had imagined, and he launched it with as much power as he could muster. It looped high over the boy, who ducked in mock terror. Grinning with triumph, Frankie held up the mitt, the ball nestled in its leathery palm.

“This is Frankie,” said Sean to the boy by way of introduction. Whether he didn’t hear or refused to lower himself to their level by entering conversation, the boy didn’t reply, and instead picked up a bat. Three times Marshall threw the ball to him from behind the pitcher’s strip; three times he swatted it lazily but with surprising power – he sent it twice through the air and once scampering over the grass. Sean watched with fearful admiration; how was he going to compete here? He started to make a claim for the next practice, his arm outstretched for the bat, but Marshall was gathering people in. There were about twenty altogether: half from the backs, and half Marshall and his friends.

“What’s his name?” Marshall asked Porky, looking towards Sean. Then he called: “Hey Sean, go get the balls, would you?” Dutifully Sean did, which meant he missed the introductions and teams, so had to ask for names again. Each team was split half-and-half between the age groups for fairness: the boy from earlier, whose name turned out to be Jordan, was on Sean’s team, as was Marshall, while the Kendrick Road contingent included Porky, a rarely-seen weedy boy called Daryl, and Stig, who had arrived late.

Jordan was the captain. It was never discussed, but there was never any doubt, and the rest of the boys immediately deferred to him. The first test of his leadership was losing the toss and being sent out to field. But so certain was his clapped-hand declaration that this was, in fact, an advantage – “It’s alright guys, we’ll get them out then all the pressure’s on them!” – that Sean, dispatched to the outfield, was brimming with confidence. Jordan was out deep too, and Sean was proud of being trusted alongside him. The third outfielder was Daryl. Sean considered him undoubtedly lesser than he and Jordan, so it was important he performed to both protect the pitiful thing and to help the team overcome this disadvantage. He cracked his knuckles against the mitt, which felt huge and flapping, and surely incapable of retaining any ball that happened to near it.

They had agreed on a loose batting order: to alternate between the older and younger boys. A red-haired older boy was up first, but connected badly. Bad connection or not, he had to run, and only just made it to first base before the ball thudded into the baseman’s mitt. Rob, up next, was more successful, but his hit still only scudded to Stig at short stop, who showed unexpectedly safe hands.

“Good fielding!” bellowed Jordan.

“Good stuff Marshall, great pitching!” chimed in Sean. But his voice was deep, foolish and unjustified. The silence afterwards felt accusatory. He was commentating, sounding young, and as a distraction he readied himself for the next ball, tamping down the heat flowering in his cheeks.

The next boy up wore glasses and a baggy t-shirt, and Sean directed a scornful snarl his way when he swung aimlessly at the first pitch. He left the second, but after some discussion it was adjudged a foul ball. The third, however, he struck cleanly, and it soared high over the infield.

“Catch it!” came the cry. For a moment Sean was distracted by the sight of the runners springing from their bases – then he saw the ball, coming almost directly towards him.

In the white roar of that moment he heard a shout, but the tight core of his attention was focused on the ball. He just had to get under it, then the mitt, no longer alien but a natural extension of his grasp, would suck it in. He was almost there, no, a bit back – no, a bit forward, that was it, here it came –

He didn’t understand what had happened at first, only the outcome: him, splayed on the rough ground, with Jordan spread next to him yelling to a motionless Daryl. “Get the ball! Get the ball!” Sean scrambled to where the ball lay, and picked it up with his bare right hand – but some connection between brain and arm malfunctioned, and he let go too late. It hit the earth just a few feet from where he stood.

Jordan made a furious noise and lunged for the ball, hurling it in a general forward direction. He waited until the damage was known (two runs, and the hitter on third) before rounding on Sean.

“What were you doing?” he wailed in disbelief. “I called it! I’d have caught it, and he’d be out!” Sean’s first reaction was a strange gratitude that Jordan had been covering him. But faced with such anger a defensiveness soon overcame this – why had Jordan been covering him at all?

“I didn’t hear you! I’d have got it if you hadn’t run into the back of me!”

Breath was coming hot and heavily from Jordan’s nostrils. He looked like a bull, his face tight with rage. But then his stomach for a fight seemed to reduce, and he finished, lamely: “Just listen next time.” Sean decided he could live with such a mild rebuke, and they returned to their positions, though not before uniting to berate Daryl for his woodenness. In response Daryl rubbed his nose on his arm.

There was little for Sean to do for the remainder of the innings, save a simple piece of fielding that earned a general “Well done, team” from Jordan. At two players down Patrick scooped the ball straight back to Marshall’s glove and that was that: three runs.

Sean was to be the second younger boy to bat – fourth overall – so when Jordan whacked the ball past everyone for a home run, he knew he would get a turn. He picked up the spare bat while Stig settled himself on the home plate, the worn rubber of the handle rough against his palms. He watched a dog pad along the little path behind the game, its long tongue unfurling. Then there was a tap-and-run from Stig, and a huge swing from Marshall that landed in no-man’s land, and he was up.

He hardly saw the first ball. It was pitched underarm but seemed to travel quickly, and his wild slash only swooshed through the air.

“Step back from the base, lead with your elbows!” shouted Jordan from behind him. Sean tried to do that, but it was hard to know what he meant, and the next swing also failed to connect. His face felt heated, and shame bloomed in his cheeks like a burst blood vessel.

One more and he’d be out. He opened and closed each hand in turn, letting his fingers settle one by one on the grip. He tensed his jaw, and watched as the pitcher swung his arm back, then forwards, then released the ball.

It happened so slowly, then all at once. There was a small explosion as bat and ball connected, and a fluttering flurry in Sean’s chest. He’d hit it, and hit it well. He dropped his bat. Head down, not caring where the ball had landed, not caring about anything beyond reaching that first base before the ball did, he charged forwards.

His lungs were heaving, but he had made it. He turned to see whether his teammates had advanced too – but rather than aiming for the bases, they were jogging towards the knot of people that had formed a foot or so from home base.

“I’m in, time out,” called Sean as he joined them, hands forming an awkward ‘T’. There was no need. No-one was concentrating on the game now; there was another, more immediate concern.

That concern, Sean saw sickly, was twitching and bloody on the ground, one marbled black eye flickering around the onlookers, and to the ball that lay next to it. A puff of purple ringed its neck, and every so often it emitted a strained squawk.

“Eurgh!” cried Stig, dancing backwards, hands covering his mouth in disgusted delight. “You gotta kill it!”

Sean reeled, and looked at the others for confirmation that this was a mad idea. But everyone was looking at him. “No way,” he appealed.

Patrick shrugged. “It’s hurt, we gotta kill it,” he mumbled.

“Here,” said Jordan, pressing a bat into Sean’s hands. “Use this.”

Frankie wasn’t meeting his eye. Stig was staring, wide-eyed and helpless. Marshall nodded at the bird, the poor, broken thing.

“Go on then.”

Overhead the sky was clear. Sean closed his eyes when he raised the bat, unable to believe what he was about to do, what he was doing, what he had done. Porky had produced a plastic bag from somewhere and scooped up what was left – Sean wouldn’t, at least, have to deal with that. He returned a little dazed to first base (no-one suggested replaying the pitch), but was out next ball when it rolled straight to second.

“No worries mate,” said Jordan, placing a conciliatory hand on Sean’s shoulder as he trotted back to the queue. They lost heavily in the end, not helped by Daryl misjudging a high ball against the sun that clattered into his face, sending his glasses flying and opening a cut on the bridge of his nose. But Sean knew – everyone knew – that that would soon be forgotten.

Jordan, inevitably, said it first. “See ya Birdie,” he called out, not unkindly, once it was clear that there was no appetite for a second game and players had begun to depart. Several others followed his lead.

“See ya,” Birdie called back, a little mechanically. And when Stig called him it the next day during a game of cricket in the backs, he didn’t protest. From then on his name was Birdie, and he learnt to hear it with something like pride.

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