Its low, guttural kraaa pierced the air and echoed into nothingness.
Powdered whiteness bleached the horizon.
A silver sun hung low in the sky.
Something glinted on the ground, discarded in the snow.
The chill of a wing’s breath swooped past.
A trace of something lingered on the breeze.
Chapter One - Claws
She could still feel the retching stench of his presence. Soap suds were melting away around her, softly.
The cold water shivered into her.
His darkness had breathed into the room and the ash-treacle-bitter foulness of him enveloped her small, white form.
He had reached down and seared her skin with his touch. She looked down and tucked her chin onto her knees.
Of course, the picture she presented to the world was a mask. What choice did she have?
Outside, the view was hazy through the spray. Splashes of green and grey. The odd moment of purple or yellow.
Her heart was beginning to beat with that familiar anxiety. Inside, she knew she just had to get through it. Again. Deep breaths.
There was a straggly set of daffodils squatting in a white china vase downstairs. The formica gleamed. A scent of polish lingering in the air. It was a house that looked like one of those dream homes you saw on pictures. But this wasn’t what anyone could call a home. Wasn’t home meant to mean something warm and inviting? Safe and cosy. Hearth and heart. Home, sweet home.
This house was a dream that never was. More like a pristine laboratory of hate.
The daffodils caught the sunlight in a cheery yellowness. She bowed down and smelled them. Strangely chemical rather than floral.
“You ready, then?” he asked.
She looked up, nodded.
The man wore a long black coat and a long, stern face. He had slightly raised eyebrows, as if questioning.
Her mother’s brother.
She couldn’t bring herself to call him uncle – that would have been as much a lie as calling this house a home.
She collected her things and walked through the door he held open for her. The cold rain lingered on her cheeks and clung to her eyelashes. Her soft hair began to feel damp.
Joe had been in her life for the last seven years. He turned up when she was five. She remembered how it happened.
It was bath time. School was still a novelty in those days and it had been a day of painting and sunshine. Mam was sloshing the water around and the warm water felt delicious.
The doorbell rang. Mam hurriedly gathered her up out of the bath and wrapped a rough, peach towel around her. She gave her a little kiss and said she would be back in a minute. Won’t be long, pet.
Then, a gasp which became a kind of squeal. Like an animal, but Mam.
She peeked her head around the banisters and looked down. A man was standing in the doorway. Mam was clasping her hands to her mouth, though it was hard to tell if it was shock or joy or something else.
The man came inside and tentatively held Mam with both hands around her arms. There was murmuring – she couldn’t hear what was being said... then another exclamation.
“Gracie, come and meet your uncle!” her mother called.
Still wrapped in the rough, peach towel, Gracie toddled down the stairs. She eyed the man.
He looked at her. She was about as sweet and precious and lovely as an angel. Her blond curls were damp about the neck.
“Give your Uncle Joe a kiss, pet”.
He swooped her up, a tiny towelled-up bundle, and his raspy, scratchy stubble itched her skin.
She smelt like lemons.
Gracie had never heard of an uncle before. But then again, you don’t know everything when you’re five.
She looked at her mother and saw something different in her eyes. They were shining like glass. They looked a bit like the eyes of her baby doll Victoria – you couldn’t tell if they were happy or scared, but you could make believe any story you wanted and it would fit.
So she decided her mother’s eyes must be happy.
It turned out that Joe had been away travelling and they hadn’t seen each other for years. Her mother even remembered the exact date he had set off. Twenty-third of March, 1940. Gracie wasn’t even born then.
She didn’t remember much about her first few years. There was the agonising morning when she knelt down onto the grass and the grass bit her. The pain was more horrible than anything you could imagine. The grown-ups said something about a wasp, but Gracie didn’t know the word, and frankly didn’t really care. She just wanted her knee to stop being red and angry and sore.
The other memory she had from those days was a happy, sun-filled afternoon when she sat on a doorstep with her mother and they blew bubbles together. The oily spheres had a life of their own, spiralling upwards, gleaming with a thousand rainbows. Nothing in the world could be more magical. She loved watching them float into the air, then disappear in a puff of invisibleness.
She felt safe and warm and happy. The sound of her mother’s laughter was a tinkling comfort, and cuddling up in the sunshine felt just perfect.
The years went by and there were more memories. Mostly everything seemed a bit beige or grey, but there were flashes of colour. She thought of roses. White roses.
Blood-orange-purple-black inside her eyelids as she ran away blindly from a boy who had tried to thrust a dead blackbird down the back of her blouse. His cackling was like something from a storybook. Her heart had never been tested like this. It felt as if it had gone on fire. She ran and ran and ran. She thinks she screamed, but she can’t be sure. A private, empty scream that nobody heard.
For the rest of her life, the flutter of a bird’s wings would cause a swelling of nausea in her stomach.
She didn’t mind birds at a distance. Could almost sense their beauty. At a distance. But even a dead bird lying in the lane would grip her with its cold claws and threaten to stifle her.
And today, she strangely felt the same. Uncle Joe had come into their life and it was as if something was clawing at her heart.
Chapter Two - Tears
Everything took on a routine. Uncle Joe more or less moved in. But there were times when he would disappear for what seemed like weeks. Her mother always sighed and looked forlornly out of the window. Gracie always sighed with relief. When he came back it was as if a little bit of life drained away from them both.
At first, her mother would smile at him when he came through the door. A tentative approach, a stroke, a kiss. He would barely look at her, pushing past and muttering about supper.
She began to act as if she didn’t know what to do or say.
He would smell of ash and dirt and a dark, treacly bitterness Gracie couldn’t identify. He would always come up to her and bury his head into her neck. Kiss her with his prickly face and look at her with his hooded eyes.
It was like being watched by a gleaming ball bearing. Cold steel.
Ice staring at her small hands, her tiny shoulders, her dark eyelashes. Her almond milkiness. The trails of blondness bubbling over her shoulders. The perfect little nose and the rosebud mouth. Her scent... her freshly bathed lemon scent.
Her mother would look on and the sparkle of her eyes gradually lost their sheen. The tortoiseshell green that glowed and shone when Uncle Joe first arrived became a watery shadow. The light faded into nothingness.
Sometimes Gracie heard her mother sob with wretched, fuggy-throated gulps. She would emerge later with a face riven with lines. Blotched, red, mottled and old.
She seemed to be getting thinner, too.
Sometimes she’d spend ages layering clothing to cover up the latest blue-purple bruises. Blouses and cardigans and high-necked dresses. Scarves came in useful. On days when her face wore black shiny memories of the previous night, she would stay at home and cry some more.
All the while, she would look at Gracie with the wisp of an apology around her lips and in her lifeless eyes. But she said nothing. May Close. North Shields. Tyneside. With Uncle Joe. This was now their life.
Gracie pondered on what was happening. Friends at school with brothers and sisters sometimes fought them, sometimes hated them, but always seemed to love them, really.
Gracie had often wished she could have a little brother or sister of her own, but it never happened. She had never had a Da. Not like some of the children at school who had once had a Da but lost him when he died in the War or anything. She had just never had one.
So the chance of having a little brother or sister was about as likely as getting good at spelling.
She didn’t know much about it, but when she visited her friends, it seemed as if brothers and sisters teamed up together. Played together, laughed together. Had jolly good fun together.
Her mother didn’t seem to have much fun with Uncle Joe. They never played or laughed. He hurt her and he made her cry. Then he’d pretend he hadn’t and he’d come up to Gracie and grasp her and breathe her in with a fierce tension she hated.
He usually disappeared again then for a while.
One day, her mother took her out onto the back doorstep. She had brought a bowl of soap and water. She began blowing bubbles.
Gracie was almost eleven now. Bubbles felt a bit like a little girl’s game, but she humoured her mother. It was the first time they had sat down together for as long as Gracie could remember.
It was a cloudy day, so the colours weren’t as bright and beautiful as they could be, but the reflections of their pebbledash house rose high into the sky and merged with the whiteness of the sky.
“Gracie, pet, what do you think about us having a little baby?”
Gracie looked at her mother. There was a wise curiosity in her eyes.
“So we could have our very own baby Victoria, only real?” she asked.
“Mam’s got a baby growing inside her tummy, pet. In a couple of months, we’ll meet it.”
Gracie wasn’t sure what to make of this. It reminded her of a terrible time a few years ago – before Uncle Joe appeared. She had been woken up in the night by the sounds of her mother crying with desperate, animal yelps.
She had tiptoed downstairs. Her mother was weeping uncontrollable, jagged tears.
She pulled Gracie to her tighter than you can imagine, stroking her hair and clasping her as if she couldn’t bear to let her go.
Gracie looked up at her, and with a tiny finger, traced a tear running down her mother’s cheek.
“Oh my darling, my darling, my pet,” she said, rocking the little girl backwards and forwards.
“Violet’s lost her little one”, she said, crying and crying.
It was some time before Gracie properly worked out what was wrong. Violet – Mrs Sherwood from number 16, was expecting a little brother or sister for Catherine and Michael and Mark. But something bad happened and now the baby was in heaven. Gracie didn’t even think it had been born or anything.
She looked at her mother now. She was blowing bubbles, and there was the faintest trace of a smile in her eyes.
“Are you going to be happy now, Mam?” Gracie asked. “I don’t know about that, pet, but let’s wait and see.”
Chapter Three - Shadows
Billie next door was Gracie’s special friend. A few years older than her, he’d never minded the fact she was just a girl.
Ever since they were little, he’d wanted to look after her. He remembered the time when she was three and he was five. He’d invented an adventure game for them. He knocked on her door, and waited.
Gracie had scuttled across the floor to say hello. In May Close, everyone used to leave their front doors open when the weather was alright. A small cul de sac, but everyone knew everyone and that was no bad thing. The husbands who’d survived the war did their best to help out with widowed neighbours, when they needed a bit of carpentry or plumbing. Billie was lucky – his Da was big and strong and had one of those smiley faces you couldn’t help but like.
His Da was always round the other houses, helping out and laughing and being strong and big for everyone.
“You coming out?”, asked Billie.
“Mam says it’s ok”, said Gracie.
“Come on then.”
He’d often delight her with new and exciting games. Life was like one long happy playtime, with different adventures tumbling into one another. Billie Harper was the best thing in the whole wide world, and she adored him.
Yellow sunshine flowed everywhere. Twinkled through the trees and bounced off the grey stone walls of the houses. Sprigs of daffodils clumped together in the front yards and along the road. Pockets of dazzling brightness nestled in the grass and the dirt.
He took her hand and they pottered off down the lane, oblivious to the click of a camera behind them. Her in a smock dress, him striding manfully by her side.
Gracie looked at Billie and thought nothing in the world could make her feel like bursting with smiles more than her big friend.
They walked into the woodland behind the Close and he led her into a dappled area with dark green trees all around. In the distance was her favourite bit – a small pond which caught the light on a good day and danced with glitter. It was like that today – dashes and darts of sparkles jostling for attention.
“Right, we’re playing dragons and princesses today. I’m the scary dragon and you’re the princess and I’m really your friend but you don’t know it yet because I’m being all scary and frightening and stuff.”
“What’s my name?”
“What do you want your name to be? You can pick anything you want. I’m going to be The Dragon.”
“Alright then. I’ll be The Princess. The bravest princess ever and ever!”
He began to chase her through the trees, roaring convincingly. Billie had obviously put some thought into his dramatic portrayal. He let her run off a little to give her some space, then rushed at her, fast.
“Stop, Princess, stop!”
She squealed and ran, skipping over the gnarled roots and uncurling ferns. Jumped over shadows and aimed for the bright bits. Princesses in storybooks always expected princes to come along and rescue them, but not this Princess. She was concentrating on toddling as fast as her little chubby legs would carry her.
Then, silence. She realised The Dragon had somehow disappeared. She looked around nervously.
She asked quietly.
“Where are you?”
Silence. The wind rustled the leaves in the trees softly, purple and yellow crocuses nodded gently in the breeze. Little midges buzzed around, their tiny wings diffusing light in a mish-mash of haziness.
The pond seemed to be very far away – all she could see was the silhouette of the familiar great big tree that Billie and his brothers would climb up to launch themselves into the water in the Summer.
“Billie, are you hiding? Are we playing hide and seek?”
She looked around her, peering around tree trunks and squinting into the distance.
Then she saw it. A black shadow. And out of the shadow, a beak, gleaming like polished, sooted metal. An eye, fixed on her. Claws gripping a branch, their pointed ends like pins and needles. A wing, raised slightly in anticipation.
Her heart began to beat so fast she could hear it.
The shadow shifted and the leaves parted slightly. A lone sunbeam filtered onto the shape, revealing the nightmare blackness within.
The beak parted slowly. The talons tightened their grip, glinting in the sun. Feathers made of blackened iron lined up like armour.
And the eye was looking at her. Intently. With a hunger that she couldn’t understand.
Paralysed, Gracie could do nothing. She tried to scream, but her throat was suffocating.
“Billie!”, she tried to shout, “Billie”.