The prompt words this week:
mistake :: baggage :: curlew :: tear :: shatter
The Uncrowned King
Whoever found the curlew would be crowned King of the Slob, and Da had been limbering up for weeks, getting himself in prime hunting fettle. Me and Jimmy had been spending every evening after I came home from school gluing feathers to our paper headbands, which Mam had measured out just right for us, like crowns. Camouflage, she called them.
Now it was the night before, and Jimmy and me were nearly sick with the excitement.
‘It’ll be us, this year. I can feel it,’ Da said, striding around the kitchen table with his legs spread wide, body low to the ground. ‘The Flahertys, lads. This year. Kings of the Slob!’
‘King of all the eejits, more like,’ said Mam, stepping over him to dump a load of warmed plates on the table.
‘That’s what you say, Mary,’ said Da, in a dark and shivery voice, turning on Mam with his hands outstretched. ‘But it’d be a mistake, me dear. A big mistake!’
‘Phelim!’ she shrieked, flicking the tea-towel at him. ‘Will you ever cop on to yourself!’ But she was laughing, too, so me and Jimmy knew everything was grand.
‘I won’t!’ he roared, grabbing Mam up into his arms. She shrieked as Da tickled her, and Jimmy started clapping, like a baby. He slithered down off his stool and ran to them, but Mam swung back her hand just then to clatter Da around the head, and she knocked Jimmy down instead.
There was a second when nobody moved or said anything, and then Jimmy’s little wail – like a newborn lamb – rose up from under the table.
‘Holy Mother of God,’ said Mam, dropping to her knees.
‘Is the child all right?’ asked Da, holding onto the sink to keep himself on his feet. ‘Oh, sweet Jesus,’ he muttered, half to himself. From beneath the table I could hear Mam’s gentle whisperings, and Jimmy’s sobs, easing until they were barely there at all.
‘Come on, now,’ she said, straightening up, a red-faced Jimmy in her arms. His whole body was juddering and he had one fat fist shoved into his gob. Mam wiped a tear from his cheek. I wondered if I was the only one who noticed his curlew-hunting crown was shattered, though – it hung down at the back like a broken washing line, trailing feathers and bits of glue and Sellotape.
‘Me poor little man,’ said Da, and Jimmy started sobbing again. He threw himself forward, reaching out, and Da plucked him from Mam’s arms. The crown fell apart then, tumbling down in pieces all over the floor and Mam’s clean tablecloth.
‘Ah, will you look,’ said Mam, flapping at the shards of hat with her tea-towel. ‘There it is, gone.’
‘No matter,’ said Da, smoothing Jimmy’s sweaty hair, fine and blonde, back from his sticky face. Jimmy blinked, his bottom lip puckering out like the bowl of a spoon. ‘Sure there’ll always be next year. Won’t there, Joe?’ Da looked at me. The band of my own curlew-hunting crown felt hot against my head, and a stray piece of feather was digging into my skin. I felt like I’d swallowed something that was too big, something that was struggling as it went down into my stomach. Something with claws, and a long beak.
‘Answer your daddy, Joseph!’ said Mam, scooping up bits of feather with her hand. She frowned down the table at me. ‘You can hardly expect to go hunting the curlew without Jimmy, now, can you?’
I slid my crown off and put it on the table, and before anyone could say anything I ran out the back door and off down the lane. Redmond, the farmer, kept cows in the far field, and they seemed to understand most things.
I came back when I was ready, muck to my ears, and Jimmy was sitting on the kitchen table playing with Mam. She was clapping, and he was giggling, and he was wearing the crown I’d left behind like it was his birthright, and not one bit of bother on him, none at all.
Note for the curious: The ‘Slob’, or Sloblands, is the name given to an area of marshy land not far from where I grew up; it is now a bird sanctuary, where curlews are encouraged to breed and nest. I’ve invented the ‘King of the Slob’ and the curlew hunting, and – because curlews are endangered in the British Isles – I really don’t recommend hunting them for real!