Under their wing By Deborah Hugill
“And this is your room.”
Evan pushes open the door to the spare bedroom. Lucy has made an effort to make the room seem inviting, he sees. Alexandra’s princess duvet cover on the bed, a few stuffed toys, a pile of books. She might not entirely approve of Evan’s decision, but she’d never take it out on the child.
“Come in. Make yourself at home.”
He smiles at her and she steps hesitantly into the room. He can’t help but feel sorry for her, this awkward, drab little girl. Difficult to believe that she is his niece, that his two confident, bright children are her cousins.
He watches as she sits tentatively on the bed and eyes the large pink bear resting on the pillow with suspicion. Can he see something of his brother in her? He thinks he can. Perhaps it’s the way her forehead squeezes into a slight frown as she runs a finger along the spine of one of the books. Craig was never one for schoolwork or reading; doubtless he’s passed this lack of application on to his daughter.
“We hope you’ll be happy here with us. It’ll be like a holiday, won’t it? Until Mummy and Daddy work things out.”
If that ever happens, he thinks, irritated all over again with his useless younger brother. No direct word from him in years and then an abrupt phone call late at night: “No job, marriage on the rocks, need some time to work things through, no place for a child, et cetera, et cetera.”
And so here she is, his niece, her anxious eyes scanning the room as if it’s a totally alien landscape. Perhaps it is, he thinks, feeling a pang for the child.
From what he gathers she’s only ever lived in rented rooms, a little bird trapped within the bars of different cages, frequent moves dictated by her father’s employment status and her mother’s mental health. The tatty nylon bag to which she’s still clinging seems to hold all she possesses and it’s little enough. He thinks of his two, their rooms crammed with the latest gadgetry, the most sought-after toys. It isn’t fair, he knows. Perhaps that’s what prompted him to agree to take her under their wing. Despite their estrangement, Craig is still his brother. And the father’s choices are not the fault of the child.
Lucy lays the table for tea, watching the girl out of the corner of her eye as she sits silently in front of the television.
“Do you like pesto, Ciara?” she asks, and sees the small frown form again. Probably lived off fast food all her life, she thinks irritably, and has to remind herself, again, that Ciara can’t be held responsible for her upbringing.
“I’m sure you’ll like it if you give it a try,” she says more gently, and the girl seems to relax a little. Perhaps it will do them all good to have her here for a bit, Lucy thinks. Evan has done the right thing, even though she’d been annoyed at not being properly consulted.
Ciara appears at her elbow, head cocked at an angle, her shiny dark eyes turned to Lucy. “Can I help?” she asks, in what is almost a whisper.
Lucy smiles and points her to the pile of cutlery. Ciara picks up each knife, fork and spoon with quick, jerky movements, like a bird gathering twigs. She seems uneasy, constantly on the alert. Still, it’s early days. Plenty of time for her to settle down, get used to them all, to the big house, the rambling garden.
“Call Alexandra and Simon, will you? Supper’s almost ready.”
She watches as Ciara makes her way out of the French doors to the garden. Framed in the dying evening light, the girl seems even more awkward, more misplaced than ever. I must get her some decent clothes, thinks Lucy. Those awful things make her look like a refugee, which, she concludes ruefully, is pretty much what she is. Some people really shouldn’t be allowed to have kids. The thought emerges before she has filtered it and she is momentarily appalled. She sounds like a Nazi, but honestly…Anyway, the child has found sanctuary here, if only for a while. Lucy likes the sound of that word in her head – sanctuary. A haven, a warm feathery nest.
“Can you pass the peas please?”
Simon addresses his new cousin and she obliges silently. Well, she’s not ‘new’ exactly but since he’s never met her before it seems that way to him. His parents haven’t either apparently, which is odd, he thinks. But then Dad and Uncle Craig have never been close. Simon’s only seen his uncle a couple of times before today and finds it hard to believe that they really are brothers. They’re not at all alike – one so dark, the other so fair.
If Simon had a brother, he wouldn’t fight with him; they’d be inseparable, two halves of one whole. They’d invent new worlds, go on quests and protect each other with their lives. But no, he has a sister. And now a female cousin. Life is unfair.
Perhaps though, this bird-like girl will be more adventurous than she looks, braver than his wimp of a sister with her pink, fluffy clothes and boring painted dolls.
“Do you want to see our treehouse after tea?” he asks Ciara, noting the small crease that grows between her brows as she considers the question.
“What’s a treehouse?” she asks at last, with what seems like interest.
“It’s a house in a tree, of course, stupid!” his sister mutters into her pasta bake. Their mother glares at her but says nothing.
Simon ignores them both.
“It’s like a little hut but it’s up in the branches of the big oak tree at the end of the garden. You get up there by ladder. It’s really high up. Dad built it.”
Evan smiles modestly.
“It’s not very fancy but your Dad and I had one when we were children. We loved it so I thought I’d build one for these two.”
Simon tries to imagine Dad and Uncle Craig playing together in their childhood treehouse. It’s difficult, but perhaps they were happier in each other’s company when they were young, perched up in the tree, two fledglings finding their wings.
Alexandra pushes peas round her plate sulkily. She glances at Ciara. Why is she here? Why are Mummy and Daddy making such a fuss about her? She isn’t pretty and her clothes are horrible. She doesn’t seem to be interested in Barbies either, or unicorns. Alexandra tried to be nice, to show her Clementine and all her other dolls, but she just looked blank.
And she never says anything; Alexandra and her friends hardly ever stop talking. Mummy says they’re louder than the jackdaws which flock in the trees at the bottom of the garden. The birds chatter so loudly sometimes that Alexandra has to go indoors to get away from them. But this boring cousin of hers barely speaks; mind you, she’s too busy shovelling pasta into her mouth at the moment. You’d think she’d never seen food before. Greedy.
Alexandra decides she doesn’t like Ciara and that she never will. She’s not one of us. Mummy says that sometimes about people who live on the other side of town, who don’t have houses as big as this one and travel on buses. Alexandra hadn’t really understood what she meant until now. But Ciara doesn’t fit here; this isn’t her home. The sooner she leaves, the better.
And now Simon’s trying to make friends with Ciara, to get her on his side. It’s pathetic. He thinks Alexandra’s too scared to go up in the treehouse. Just because she doesn’t want to play his stupid games. She’ll show him.
She scowls down at her plate again and kicks the table leg, her feathers well and truly ruffled.
The towels are thick and white and fluffy and the whole bathroom smells of flowers, rather than the mould that Ciara’s used to. She washes her hands slowly under the hot tap, enjoying the scent of the soap. It’s so clean here, so warm, so different to home. Not that she really knows what home is, let alone where it is.
Tea – they call it supper here, apparently – was good, and there was plenty of it. Nobody shouted, or swore, or drank too much. Nobody cried. It all feels a bit unreal, as if everyone’s acting. Pretending that they like her. Apart from Alexandra, of course; she definitely doesn’t want Ciara here. She doesn’t want anyone to have what she has. She doesn’t want to share.
Ciara thinks about what she had read before tea – supper – when she was in her room “settling in”. She had curled up on the bed and opened the book on the top of the pile - “A Guide to British Birds”. It seemed to be written for children but still some of the words were too long for her to understand. She had liked the pictures though. There aren’t a lot of birds where she lives. The streets are too bleak and there are no trees. Perhaps she’ll see more here, down at the bottom of this huge garden. Perhaps she’ll sit in the treehouse, surrounded by birds, flapping and cawing around her, like that lady in Mary Poppins.
She’d flicked through the pages of the book, recognising a few birds, a blackbird, a robin. Then one word caught her eye and she frowned in concentration as she read it aloud. Her mother’s pet name for her, the one she called her when she wasn’t drinking, when her voice was soft with kindness rather than vodka.
Ciara, drying her hands on the warm towel, remembers what she read beneath that name, what the Mummy and Daddy birds do, what the baby does when it hatches. And she smiles to herself. Because she doesn’t want to share either.
She opens the door and calls to her cousins.
“I’m ready. Let’s go and play in the treehouse.”