Authors: Polly Samson
In memory of my father, Lance Samson
Lucifer flew well for her in the fading light, falling through the sky when she summoned him and away again towards a great bruising sunset. She was alone on the ridge at first: just her, the bird and the wide-open view. It was one of those nervy summer days of sudden strong winds that fretted the hawk’s feathers as he stared at her from his perch on her gauntlet.
She was wearing a long red shirt over jeans and sandals, her hair was breaking free of its band. A leather pouch hung from her belt and a whistle from a cord around her neck. The hawk braced his feet on her wrist, making a leather tassel swing from the gauntlet. She felt the breath of his feathers on her face as he departed and she watched him go with the wind right under his wings, scattering crows like drops shaken from an umbrella.
Julia was trying her best to get it right for the bird, the morsels were small to keep him active. A shaming twenty-six ounces he’d weighed on the scales that morning. She called him with the whistle, two sharp bursts and there he was: a dark Cupid’s bow firing straight at her from the heavens.
She continued along the ridge, Lucifer steady on her arm, his manic eyes never leaving her face until she gave the signal. She sent him reeling to and fro and neither of them knew that this was to be their last dance.
The evening started to chill. She’d almost forgotten that Julian was supposed to be meeting her there or perhaps she’d just given up hope. He was panting when he arrived, still red in the face from the run up the hill, his bike and its useless tyre abandoned. He had the air of a boy who’d crossed three continents to see her, his sweatshirt knotted round his waist. Impossibly young, with hair falling over his eyes, and an uncertain lope, one leg of his jeans still tucked into a sock. He didn’t dare kiss her, he said, with the hawk glaring at him like that from the end of her wrist.
The hawk shrugged his shoulders and she sent him flying. They kissed and when Julian stopped to glance nervously at the sky she took off her gauntlet and pushed his hand inside. She urged the hawk with her whistle, moving Julian’s arm up and down, the gauntlet’s tassel dancing, but Lucifer only soared higher, the wind whispering murder into his ear and deafening him to her call. Julia ran cursing, Julian lolloping beside her. She grabbed back the gauntlet as the hawk fell to his kill. Julian’s hands were warm on her waist and it seemed to them both that the scream of the rabbit went on for ever.
It was almost midnight when she got back to Wychwood. She’d have stayed at Julian’s digs until morning if it hadn’t been for Lucifer, bloody bird.
She parked the car in the lane, coaxed him from his crate and clipped him on. Lucifer shook out his feathers, a little irked that
had carelessly creased his cape.
Fallen twigs cracked underfoot as she cut through the copse, the bird a resentful weight on her arm, the accusatory glitter of his eyes the only brightness beneath the trees. The darkness dropped, the branches stilled: Wychwood stood alone in the clearing, as unexpected as a Grimm Brothers’ cottage with its wonky black boards and crooked windows. At once she could see a light was on, though was certain she’d switched everything off.
Her face owlish white, Julia slipped through the back gate, whispering to Lucifer as she transferred him to his post in the shed, and on alone up the path. Heart beating, a skittering loose stone at the steps, she pushed the door open with her foot and straight into the kitchen. A gasp, mostly relief: Chris, her husband, streaky hair flat to his head, his giant grey trainers kicked halfway across the floor, chinkering his spoon in a cup.
She took half a pace back. ‘Why the look of surprise?’ he said. ‘I live here too, you know.’ Maggie, his lurcher, quivered in disgust beside him, her nose pressed to his knee.
‘So here I am. Ho-ome.’ He made a mockery of the word, bristling with it, pointing his spoon at her.
‘I wasn’t expecting you.’ She hung the leather gauntlet on its hook, brain racing for an alibi and stalling. ‘You gave me a fright. You could’ve been anybody.’
He cursed her for the welcome, baring teeth older than his mouth: Nescafé and tobacco.
‘What did you do, did you leave Lucifer in the boot while you . . .?’
‘I couldn’t get the car to start.’
He snatched the leather pouch from her and threw the leftover bits of meat to his dog, then pulled it inside out. ‘If you don’t clean it out there’ll be maggots again.’
He had eighteen floors in Dagenham to paint, that’s what he’d told her. One hundred and eighty offices, little hutches, all rollered the same drab grey that was spattered over the overalls from which his torso was hatching. He was supposed to be away until Christmas, by which time Julia had promised herself to be gone. His overalls fell open to a Ramones T-shirt so faded you’d have to already know the name of the band and down to a belt with a large metal buckle. He unloaded his pockets over the kitchen counter: tobacco, Murray Mints, rolling papers, dope tin, change clattering. His hair was dotted with the same grey paint, like flies had been laying eggs in it.
‘It’s great you’re so pleased to see me,’ he said. ‘A real treat.’
‘Likewise,’ she said but as he turned she caught a glimpse of an earlier version of Chris, a sudden trick like a hologram strung between them, something about the crease of his forehead and his overhung brows, a glint in amber eyes. His overalls had been unbuttoned just this way the first time she set eyes on him, in the playground as it happened – where he was part of a team painting the Nissen huts that would become the new classrooms. His hair was streaked in spikes of peroxide and ash. They all called him Sting. The girls of the fifth form took to gathering around the huts at break when he slunk over to talk to them, his chest golden brown.
She’d lain in bed after the first night with him, her hairbrush pushed under the door so the sound of it opening would wake her should her father come stumbling in. Through the floor the noise of the bar had been an unwelcome soundtrack as she thought of Chris’s tiger’s eyes, of how he could skin up a joint with one hand, leaving the other free to stoke her into a stoned frenzy.
Now he was wiping her kiss from his cheek as if she’d stung him, coffee sloshed all over the counter.
‘Lucifer killed a rabbit tonight.’ She was trying to act normal, unzipping his holdall and subjecting the contents to strict apartheid before the washing machine: a pile each of whites (so-called) and coloureds (balled-up pants, sweatshirts and socks stiff with rigor mortis).
‘I don’t suppose you brought it home,’ he said. ‘The rabbit?’ His lip curled. ‘No, of course you wouldn’t, would you.’
‘It was bad enough fighting Lucifer off it.’ She shuddered at both the memory and the smell of him. ‘Your clothes are rank.’
‘Some of us have to work for a living.’ He glared at her and checked the freezer, pulling out a metal tray of frozen little pink corpses, banging it on to the counter so they bounced free of the frost. Had she filled in the chart? What had Lucifer weighed in at that day? The day after that? How many hours had she flown him? How many kills?
‘He’s your bird,’ she said eventually, wishing the sick feeling in her stomach away. ‘You’re lucky I make time to fly him at all.’
From the corner of her eye she saw him select a couple of stiff baby mice and place them on a dish. When thawed their defeated heads would hang as he took them from puddles of spreading pink to pull them apart with his fingers. His jaw was tight. ‘At least one of us earns proper money.’
He was wiping his hands on the seat of his overalls: ‘So, when were you planning to tell me about wonder boy?’ He crashed the metal tray back into the freezer and came towards her rising out of his overalls. His arms were muscular for someone so skinny, something she’d once found attractive.
Her hands flew to protect herself. ‘Stop it, Chris.’ But she stood her ground, rocking back on her heels in front of the washing machine and holding her breath as he kicked himself free and roared into her face: ‘I suppose you’ve been flying my bird with him, haven’t you?’
She turned her head, afraid that she might laugh. He cared more about the hawk’s fidelity than her own.
‘Did you?’ He grabbed her shoulders. ‘You’ve been gone this long. Did you let him fly my bird?’ His face was a roaring hole, his breath rotten.
She shook her head and he flung her from his grip.
His jaw was so tight the skin was stretched white on the bone. A sudden realisation followed by a jolt of terror sent her shooting to the bathroom where she slammed and locked the door.
Had he already checked and found her Dutch cap missing from its plastic clam in the cabinet? She pulled down her jeans and squatted over the pan. He was yelling from the kitchen about how she’d been seen with the ‘little college boy’, ranting on about money and MOTs and all the things that couldn’t possibly be wrong with her car. Her body was flooding with shame at the names he was calling her. She hooked out the Dutch cap and ran it under the tap.
The instant she emerged he sprang at her, yelling, ‘Liar!’ Grabbing her by the hair, he wrenched back her head. ‘You let lover boy fly my bird.’ He continued yanking, making her eyes smart. ‘Don’t believe you haven’t been seen. And you’re a fucking cradle snatcher, a fucking joke.’ He twisted his handful of her hair until her face was pressed hard against his chest. She could smell his sweat and the turps he used for washing his brushes. She could hear his heart pounding.
‘Let me go.’ She managed to knee him, though she missed his balls. She heard more than felt the searing at the back of her scalp as she broke free, leaving him with a fistful of her hair.
He stared at it in surprise for a moment, then sprang at her as she tried to drag the door open, pulling her away and wrestling her to the floor.
He had her pinned face down in the scattered clothes. ‘Don’t leave me.’ His anger turned to raw pleading. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.