You know how bearing grudges is bad for you? Does you more damage than the person you're bearing the grudge against? At least that's what the average adult would have you believe? Well, Miss Raynham bears grudges. She's bearing one this morning. Against me. I think it may have something to do with the “or else” situation in the playground on Friday - you know, when I ran and I didn't stop? Today is pay-back time. So far this bright Monday morning my forgiving form teacher has jabbed chalk in my neck for not knowing the capital city of Ghana (as my English teacher, I'm not sure this is any of her business but, for the record, the answer's Accra and the languages they speak there are English, Akan, Ga and Ewe); yelled at me for fiddling with my bag (I was only checking on the coat); and scrawled “untidy” over my English homework. I wouldn't have minded the “untidy” (to be honest I did write the poem in rather a rush, under the bedclothes, at about midnight, when I remembered) except that you should see Miss Raynham's writing. It's the sort of mess two drunk spiders might make if they decided to dance on a piece of paper after climbing out of an inkpot. Anyhow, none of this would matter if it wasn't for the moment just before the bell when Miss Raynham says:
“One minute, class. The Mayfield work. Despite my announcement before break that Catherine was in the Art Room eagerly awaiting all outstanding pieces of work for the triptych, it appears that some of you have still not delivered. I don't think you have to be Einstein to understand that Catherine cannot glue work to a board if she does not have work to glue.” Miss Raynham pauses. “Tell me you understand that,” she scans the room, “Robert?”
“Yes, Miss Raynham.”
“So you have handed in yow work?”
“Would that be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, Robert?”
“I’ll have to hurry you, Robert.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
“Yes. Miss Raynham.”
“Oh. The boy speaks. Now Robert, is your failure to deliver the work due to your general failure to do anything I ask of you at the moment or is it just bone idleness?”
“Bone idleness, Miss Raynham.”
“So it's certainly not that you simply haven't finished the work, Robert?”
“Put simply, Einstein, is your Mayfield work finished or not?”
“Er…no,” I say. “Not yet.”
“Thank you. Robert. Now. Have you any idea why every other child on the project has managed to finish work and you haven't?”
I don't have a reply for that. Not one that would make any sense to Miss Raynham anyway. This gives Niker his opportunity: “Because you can't finish what you haven't started, Miss Raynham.”
The class titters.
“I don't remember asking for your opinion, Jonathan Niker,” says Miss Raynham swiftly. and I think for a moment that I'm off the hook. But then she turns, with a kind of inevitability, to me and says, “I trust Mr Niker's assertion is incorrect?”
“Yes! No! I mean…”
“You mean?” continues Miss Raynham relentlessly.
“I have started.”
“No, not started…made…”
“Made? What exactly have you made, Robert?”
“Something,” Miss Raynham repeats. “You have made something.”
“Robert's Elder's been ill.” says Kate.
“Yes,” says Miss Raynham. “I should think she has. Well, Robert, perhaps you'd like to take the little something you've made down to the Art Room. And, Robert, may I suggest You do it right now!”
The bell goes.
I pick up my bag. I only have one option - to throw myself on Catherine's mercy. Catherine's a storyteller, she will understand, she will know, won't she, that the coat of feathers cannot be glued to a piece of plyboard?
“I said, are you all right?”
“What?” It's Kate asking. “Yes. I'm fine.”
“Wesley says something's going on.”
“Says Niker hasn't been the same since you two went to Chance House.”
“Oh? He seems much the same to me.”
“And he says that you haven't been the same either.”
“Leave me alone, Kate.” I'm astonished to hear this remark come out of my mouth. It's not so very long ago that, if Kate had merely glanced in my direction I could have lived off the experience for a week. And if, in that same not so very long ago, she had come this close and breathed this concern about me, I might have burst from joy. So maybe I have changed. Maybe I am just exhausted. Yes, I think that could be it. Now I think about it, my legs are poles of lead. As I clank my way to the Art Room, I want to shut my eyes. To sleep. But there's no chance of that. My restless brain has my eyelids stitched open.
The Art Room door is ajar. I brace myself before pushing it wide. But the room is empty. At the far end, the tables have been moved to make room for Catherine's panels. There are six panels, each only slightly smaller than a door. They lie on the floor in two hinged groups of three. I haven't thought at all about the work the others have been making and am drawn immediately by the form and colour of the first triptych. Three quarters complete, it's a paradise garden with Albert's path walking through it. The garden is made of leaf prints, hand prints and drawings of birds: sparrows, robins, a parrot, Mavis as an angel chicken. Written on Albert's paving stones are fragments of song, memories, statements about the future. “When I am eighty,” it says in Weasel's Writing, “I will still support Man U.” One stone says in wobbly old-person’s writing: I didn't deserve this life” underneath which someone else has graffitied, “Yes, you did.”
The second screen is much less finished. There are large white gaps where work should be. The colour of it is also quite different. Instead of the browns and greens of earth and garden, this triptych is the colour of fairy tales, gold and silver and electric blue. On the left-band panel is a picture of a prince with a gloved hand over his mouth. It's obviously the Silent Prince and the work is Niker's. The Prince has that exact and haunting beauty that all Niker's drawings have.
Around the Prince is a crowd of lesser people, their gifts of wisdom speech-bubbled over their heads: “Little piggies have big ears, that's what”; “If you can't do a good turn, don't do a bad one.” A painted parchment scroll flows like the path in the other triptych to join all three panels together. On the left-hand panel, someone, Catherine presumably, has written in copperplate: “The King and Queen had all but given up their quest to make the young Prince speak when. from the woods nearby, came one last adventurer. This young girl, having consulted her grandparents, told the Prince this story…”
On the central panel, in the same copperplate hand, the young girl's story is written. It is the Firebird story, and it is told, almost word for word, as Edith Sorrel told it. And as if this was not enough, above the story is a white gap the exact shape and size of the coat of feathers. It could not be more accurate if the coat was a jigsaw piece and this the puzzle from which it had been cut. My heart begins tom-tomming, just as it did when I ascended the steps to the top floor of Chance House. Part of me wants to lay the coat in this space, tom, tom, tom, part of me doesn't. All of me wants to read on.
“I have a question,” the young girl says on the central panel. “Now that the woman has found her coat of feathers again, what should she do?”
“Then the Silent Prince opened his mouth and he spoke.”
And there the story stops. The Scroll on the third panel is blank.
“Catherine!” I wheel around, but it is not Catherine. It is Kate.
“What happens?” I yell.
“In the story, Kate. What happens in the story? Does she go, does she fly away?Does she leave the boy?”
“What are you talking about, Robert?”
“The Firebird story, Kate! The Firebird story, what happens?”
Kate has now arrived beside me. She looks down at what's written. “That's it. That's as far as Catherine told it.”
“Catherine told it?”
“Yes, the last time we were at the Home. You know she did. You were there.”
“I wasn't there. I was with Mrs Sorrel. And she told it, too. The same story exactly, exactly the same!”
“Oh - right.”
“And Mrs Sorrel stopped in the same place. Didn't go on, didn't finish the story, didn't say what happens in the end.”
“I'm not sure the ending matters, does it? I mean isn't the point that the girl gets the Prince to speak?”
“No. No! That's not the point at all!”
“Oh - so what is the point?”
“The point is…is she going to die?”
“Is she going to die?”
“Who? What are you talking about? It's not even a story about dying.”
“It's not even a story.”
“OK. It's not even a story. In fact it's not a story. It's a flowerpot.”
“This isn't a joke, Kate.”
“I never said it was.”
“You think I'm mad, don't you?”
“I never said that either.”
“Mum said it. Robert is an obsessive. Robert's gone bonkers. Told Dad on the phone, yow son is bonkers. But you're a fair-minded sort of person, Kate. You'll need proof. Well, here it is.” I pull the Sainsbury's bag out of my backpack, unfold the coat of feathers and lay it in the space above the Firebird story It fits. Perfectly
“What on earth…oh,” Kate crouches down to look. “Where did you get this? It's amazing.”
“I made it.”
“Made it!” She can't help her hand reaching. She touches one of the pure white feathers, then goes deeper, burying her hand in the darker feathers. Amazing, she repeats. “Its as though it's, it's… it feels…”
“Alive,” I say
“Yes. That's it exactly. Like a real bird.” She looks up at me. “It's warm!”
“Yes, I know.” And I do know, though I've been trying not to notice. Trying to believe that the warmth is just the weight of feathers. And maybe it is just the weight of feathers, or the layering, or… But Kate feels it too. I crouch down beside her and put my hand next to hers. Touch her pale and slender lingers.
“I'm sorry,” I say then.
“What for?” She doesn't move her hand.
“Do you want to tell me what all this is about?” She smiles, hope and anxiety mixed, but the dimple comes anyway and of course I want to tell her everything. But I don't have the chance because Niker comes in. He looks at me, at Kate and at the coat of feathers and he says: “So that's your game.”
The words are simple but the venom is like a snake bite. I jump up, stand in front of the coat of feathers like I was standing guard.
“You've been planning this, haven't you? It's what you were doing in the toilets that day.”
“I don't know what you re talking about.”
“Oh, yes you do.”
“Trust me, Niker, I don't.”
“OK. Let me spell it out for you. I'm talking about that putrid pile of chicken shit.” He points past me to the coat of feathers.
I snatch up the coat, hold it to my breast. “This has nothing to do with you.”
“Glad to hear that, Norbert. Because I've been working long and hard on the Firebird coat. The coat that Catherine specifically asked me to make. The one that the editor of the local rag is interested in photographing, alongside its talented creator. And I am not looking to be upstaged at the last minute by some creep with a bunch of chicken feathers.”
“Pigeon,” I say. “Seagull.”
“Oh Jonathan, is it finished?” Catherine billows into the room with her long swirling skirts and a huge pot of glue.
“Yes,” Niker says. “It is.”
“Come on then. Let's see.”
From beneath his arm Niker takes a roll of paper which he unfurls to reveal a vivid painting in red and yellow and gold. It is the suit of golden feathers, the storybook Firebird coat, intricate and fabulous and, to my eyes, totally lifeless.
“Oh my,” says Catherine, “that is Completely wonderful. Look at the colour!”
“Thank you,” says Niker. “Thank you, fans.” He takes a bow.
“What happens next?” I ask Catherine.
“Next? I stick it to the board, I suppose.” Catherine waves the glue jovially
“No. In the Firebird story what happens…” I point to the third and final panel, “… there?”
“A good Scheherazade keeps the punters guessing.” Catherine taps the side of her nose. “All will be revealed at the Sharing.”
“No,” I say. “You don't understand. I need to know. Now. Does the woman fly away? Does she leave the boy?”
“Questions, questions.” Catherine smiles.
“Tell me!” I yell.
Catherine puts down the glue pot. “A story,” she says, “may end many ways.”
“But how does this one end?”
“Depends who's telling it,” she says. And, when she sees me about to protest, she adds seriously, “You need to listen to the storyteller as well as the story.”
“I don't understand.”
“This story comes from the Cree, from the Iroquois. But also from the lips of everyone who's ever told it and the ears of those who have heard.” She looks at me strangely. “Who's telling your story, Robert?”
“You mean I have to ask her?”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“No.” I reach for the Sainsbury’s bag, begin to fold away the coat of feathers.
“What's that?” Catherine asks.
“It's a pile of chicken shit,” says Niker.
“Let me see,” says Catherine.
“Show her,” says Kate.
“Please,” says Catherine and she comes forward and her hands reach too. So I let her touch. Watch the ripple of the feathers under her fingers.
“Did you make it?”
“Yes. But it's not finished.”
“It's quite extraordinary,” she says, “It seems…”
“Real,” says Kate.
“Yes,” says Catherine. “Almost.” Then she asks me: “Is it part of your story too?”
“Yes. Mine and Mrs Sorrel's.”
“Ah - so you're telling the story too?”
She nods and then returns her attention to the coat. “It's a quite exceptional piece of work. The quality of the stitching, the design, the whole look and feel of it.”
“In fact,” says Niker, “Robert is a genius.”
“Yes,” says Catherine, “Yes, I think so. Oh we must include this, don't you think Jonathan? Two suits of feathers, why not?”
“Because the story only has one,” Niker says.
“Ah, but whose story?” says Catherine.
“And it's a gold suit,” says Niker. “A suit of golden feathers.”
“But then you have to ask what's gold?” says Catherine. “What's golden? Except brilliant things, excellent things, precious things.”
“Right,” says Niker. “So I guess that excludes a pile of chicken feathers.”
“Come on, Jonathan,” says Catherine. “You've got a good eye. Look.”
“I'm looking,” says Niker. “It's filthy. It smells. It's made of dead things. I don't think it's going to pass Health and Safety. Let alone Matron.”
“If it smells of anything,” I say, “it will be rose geranium. But don't worry, Niker. I'm not competing. You're welcome to the centre panel, centre stage and your picture in the paper for all I care. There's no way this coat of feathers is getting stuck down anywhere.”
“Hang on a minute,” says Catherine. “If you and Mrs Sorrel have made the work, if it's project work, then…”
“No,” I say, pushing the coat too quickly inside the Sainsbury's bag. “Sorry.” I can hear the need in my voice and so can Niker.
Unerringly he's on to it - on to me. “Come on Norbe, quality piece of work like that, work of genius. Should be seen. Am I right or am I right?”
“Sorry,” I say. I shouldn't have baited him. Why did I have to say that about “centre stage”, why did I have to let on that the one thing I want least in the world is for the coat of feathers to be stuck down? ‘I mean, it's not finished yet.”
“It's really only the back that needs some attention,” says Catherine.
“Yeah,” says Niker. “And that doesn't matter, ‘cos that's the bit that's gonna get glue on. Right?” He picks up the large pot of paste.
“No!” He's blocking my exit, standing between me and the door.
“What?” says Niker, advancing. “Let Norbert here hide his light under a bushel? Deny the world's media their next Leonardo? Come on Norbe, hand over the goods.”
“I don't think Robert needs to be forced,” says Catherine.
“Too right,” continues Niker, with menacing glee. “He's gonna share, isn't he? That's what these pieces of work are being made for, aren't they Catherine? For the Sharing.” He's brandishing the glue brush. “So I'd say Chicken Shit here is going to share.”
It's then that I decide to make a run for it. He's between me and the door so I scramble up on one of the tables, thinking I can get behind him that way. But, quick as a whip, he’s up too. He swaggers towards me, grinning from ear to ear. The truth is, he's bigger than me and he's faster than me. But I'm the one with something to lose. I have two choices, track backward until I hit the wall - or jump.
A huge pirouette in the air, right over the fairy-tale triptych to land, with a degree of grace, at Catherine's feet. She lets out a little gasp, and I stop to say “sorry”, which is a mistake. Because anywhere I can jump, Niker can jump too. And he does. Right on top of me. Catherine gasps again. Niker does not say “sorry”, he grabs for the
“Give it!” he says.
“I said give it, Feather Boy.”
Together we barge Catherine who says, quietly and ineffectually, “Stop it you two. Stop it at once.”
Niker’s pulling and I'm resisting. The plastic bag rips. And then he has his hand on the coat. He pulls that. He pulls Mrs Sorrel's coat of feathers. Then I find something. It's anger.
“Don't you dare,” I scream.
He laughs. Pulls harder. He hasn't got a proper grip. Or that's
what I think, not a grip on the whole coat, just a finger round one
of the feathers. One of the white ones, the pure white one I found
on the beach. The one I stitched on top of the grey Chance House
feather. And I know that my stitches are strong, he cannot dislodge
either of my feathers. He cannot. I think one tug may make the coat
mine again. I tug. But he’s caught the feather below now. Somehow
got both hands round it and I hear the snap.
He thinks he's got it now, but he hasn't. The quills are resisting him, bent but not broken. So he twists, he twists where the downy put of the flight is, and I should let go. I should just give the coat to him, but I can't and I won't, and so he twists and he twists and the flights break. The white seagull feather and the Chance House feather are both in his hands.
That's when I hit him. You know me well by now and I am not strong and I am not violent but I hit him like I was a rock and he was a piece of rubber. The more he bounces back the more I hit him. I hit his rubber head and his rubber neck and his rubber breast and his rubber arms and I kick his rubber legs. And I keep on hitting and kicking him until he doesn't bounce back any more. He just lies on the floor. Totally still.
There is blood coming from his nose. Or his forehead. Or maybe it's his eye. Somewhere in the room, someone is crying. It's Kate. There are tears streaming down her face. I look about me. The room is mayhem, chairs upturned, five or six of them all in the wrong places. The steel leg of one has gone through the central panel of the fairy-tale triptych. Someone must have thrown it there. I don't think it can have been me. But, from the look on Catherine's face, maybe it was. She's standing in the doorway with Miss Raynham. Both of them look too shocked to speak.
But Miss Raynham does speak. “Get an ambulance,” she says to Catherine. Then she strides across the room and picks me bodily off the floor. “Whatever explanation you have,” she says, “it's not going to be good enough.”
Then she takes away the coat of feathers.