by Philippa East

Seven miles inland from the donkey rides and arcades, beyond the ridge of the wide north dyke, stood the weather-worn Jacks house. The house was served by a long narrow track, the kind that tractors rode up and down. On this morning, for the occasion, out along the track drove Mrs Jacks and Billy.

‘Hap birdy too-oo, hap birdy too-oo,’ sang Billy. He rubbed his palm against the window, fingers splayed. The tops were pink and shiny from where earlier she’d clipped his nails, parings bouncing into the sink. The car tyres rumbled over the dusty tarmac and the suspension squeaked with the pot-holes and furrows.

The fields on either side were brown and stubbled, now that the combines had been and gone. Up ahead, a shadow darted from the roadside vegetation. Mrs Jacks slowed to a crawl.

‘See the weasel, Billy.’

‘Weet, weet!’

The creature rippled across the road. When its furred tail had disappeared into the hedgerow, Mrs Jacks drove on.

They turned south onto the main road, the one that ran all the way into town. Not far along was Rosie’s Diner, next to the petrol station. There were red fence posts outside and a wooden cut-out cow kicked its hooves above the door. Mrs Jacks parked the car, and went around to get Billy and her walking stick out. The laces on his shoe had come undone; she bent down by the car seat. Her bunched knuckles tangled in the strings as his heavy hand patted her head.

‘Billy love Mamma,’ he mumbled.

All done up they headed across the car-park, Billy trailing through the sunshine. Between short breaths, something flurried in her like a sparrow.

Inside the cafe there weren’t many customers – just a fat man and his wife. As Mrs Jacks entered, they glanced up then quickly looked away again. She lifted her chin and led Billy to a table in the corner. She placed a paper napkin over a stain on the tablecloth and quietly folded her hands. Billy wagged his head and rocked from side to side in the shirt she’d ironed and the tie she’d knotted. That morning, while she dressed him, she’d noticed the grey in the hairs on his chest.

Soon a girl came out through the swing door at the back. Blonde curls jostled round her head.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m Meg. What can I get you?’

Mrs Jacks ran her eyes down the plastic menu. ‘We’ll have the hamburger special. And two lemonades.’

Billy gurned and twisted his fingers together. ‘Hap birdy! Hap birdy!’

‘It’s my son’s birthday,’ Mrs Jacks explained. ‘His name’s Billy.’

‘Is that so? And how old’s my Billy Boy?’

Billy’s mouth hung open.

‘Forty-eight,’ said Mrs Jacks. ‘Forty-eight years old.’

‘Isn’t he sweet? I’ve a baby cousin just the same.’ She grinned. ‘I could just eat you up!’

Meg scooped up the menus and went away, swinging her hips. Billy watched her go, twisting in his seat.

‘Sit properly, Billy,’ said Mrs Jacks.

From his table, the fat man smirked.

Soon Meg came back with the drinks on a tray.

‘Here you are.’ She set the glasses down and nodded at Billy. ‘I brought a straw for him.’

Mrs Jacks tucked a paper napkin under Billy’s chin and pushed the lemonade towards him. He mouthed at the straw and drooled round the glass.

‘Haven’t seen you two in here before, have I?’

‘We just come for his birthdays. Billy likes the cow on the front. And it’s quieter here than the places in town.’

‘The cow! Isn’t that adorable?’

Meg brought her face down close to Billy’s. He rolled his eyes and Mrs Jacks felt his legs jerk under the table.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘He’s not used to strangers.’

‘Bit shy, is he?’

‘He doesn’t mix well.’

‘Poor sweetheart.’

Billy made circles with his finger on the tablecloth. The hair on his head was thinning. Mrs Jacks reached over to touch his hand, to smooth her thumb over the soft skin. Billy went on with his doodles, sliding his hand away.

A little while later Meg came back with the hamburgers and another drink for Billy. Mrs Jacks cut his food into little pieces and slid the plate under his fingers. He pushed handfuls up against his lips and chewed them with his tongue; she transferred the fallen bits back to his plate. Outside, cars were zipping up and down the road, going to and from all sorts of places. She took a sip of lemonade and one of her pills, and tried to remember the last time she’d gone away anywhere. Not since Jim died. A long while ago then. She pressed a hand to her side where the shoots of pain swam.

Meg returned to clear the plates. Billy sucked his fingers, his mind who knew where. Mrs Jacks bent forwards and swiped down his shirt-front with a handful of napkins. As she did so, something caught her, drew her eye out beyond the petrol pumps, unfurling thoughts of the plants back home in the porch – unwatered, she realised now, for months.

‘Any desserts?’ said Meg. ‘We’ve apple pie with cream, or chocolate gateaux slice.’

Mrs Jacks ordered the chocolate cake for Billy.

The cake came with a candle in it. Mrs Jacks blew it out, while Billy grinned and bit his knuckles. He put out his tongue and mashed the chocolate icing with his thumbs. Meg watched him, smiling. Then she pointed with her chin across the car-park.

‘It opened a few months ago – I caught you looking. You like to grow things, then?’

‘I do,’ said Mrs Jacks. ‘I did… when my husband –…’

When Billy was young they’d managed, her and Jim. But steadily they’d all grown older, thickening and hardening, till in the end Jim had just given out. Now, with her own health wavering, it seemed barely anything of herself was left at all. The pain took so much and Billy took the rest.

‘Why don’t you two have a look round?’ said Meg.

Mrs Jacks steadied the plastic plate. ‘Billy has allergies. He couldn’t go in.’

‘Leave him here then. It’s quiet, I can watch him five minutes. He won’t come to any harm.’

Mrs Jacks felt the fluttering in her chest again: one wing fear, but the other longing. She bent her head, thinking of the cars going here and there, and the fat man and his wife – tourists no doubt – free to leave whenever they wanted. Meg circled a wet cloth over the tabletop. When Mrs Jacks looked up, Billy was still there, looking just the same.

She fumbled for her walking stick and stood up with her handbag. It was true, she’d hardly be five minutes. It would take Billy twice that to finish his cake.

‘Be good, then,’ she said to the top of his head. ‘I won’t be long.’

Meg slipped into the seat, settling opposite Billy as he champed a hunk of icing.

Outside, sunlight cascaded from the zenith, blurring the lines and edges of the forecourt. In its glare Mrs Jacks felt the giddiness of open space, the sense of border lines dissolving. Gripping her stick she pushed wide the door, tacked across the concrete expanse – a kite cut loose from its moorings – resisting the urge to look back.

The garden shop was cool, and still as a chapel, full of a rich peaty smell. The man at the till looked up as she came in, his face friendly, welcoming. On the threshold she hovered, unsure of herself; he waved an arm – an invitation. She stepped forward, shyly, and turned along the leafy aisles. Here were ferns and dragon palms and prayer plants. In their presence, Mrs Jacks felt an easing, a sense of possibility. Billy was safe, of course he was – what harm could come to him, eating cake just over the way? She slipped down the rows of twining leaves, touching a finger to the buds and fronds.

Near the cash desk, a sign announced: Peace lilies on special offer. She reached out.

‘Oh – one of those, please.’

The man on the till fetched it to the counter while she marshalled the coins from her purse.

‘Shall I bag it?’

Mrs Jacks shook her head. She lifted the plastic pot and cradled the lily under her arm, pressing her cheek to the cool leaves. A simple pleasure, and so small. Across the way, the cut-out cow frolicked on.

She only heard the noise when she stepped back out. She knew it well – that honking moan. Her heart spiked and her cheeks smarted. For a moment she stood stock-still, as if she’d lost all will to move. Then she chivvied herself forwards, back to the cafe, her stick pock-pocking on the tarmac.

And there, at the table, was Billy.

His mouth was wide, wailing like a foghorn. Meg stood next to him, grasping his shoulder. His eyes were screwed shut, his hand clutched and pinched at the space between his legs. The pudding plate was on the floor.

‘I don’t know what’s the matter – he keeps trying to get up!’ Meg’s voice skimmed the fringes of panic.

Mrs Jacks thrust the pot-plant into her hands and pushed past her to her son. The fat man leaned sideways in his seat.

‘Look at that,’ he said to his wife.

‘He’s my pride and joy,’ shrilled Mrs Jacks, ‘and no business of yours! Alright, Billy, Mamma’s here.’

Billy opened his eyes, wet with tears, and pitched himself towards her.

‘Shush now, Billy! It’s alright!’

Meg gripped the plant. ‘I’m sorry – I can’t think what’s upset him.’

‘It’s not your fault. He can’t ask.’ She heaved at his elbow to stand him upright. The effort took nearly all she had.

Billy’s wails grew louder. The fat man grimaced and shook his head.

‘Billy – stop it, that’s enough!’

‘Is he hurt?’ said Meg. ‘Did something hurt him?’

‘No, it’s not –’ He twisted in her grip. The cake fork clattered to the ground. ‘I said, Billy stop!’

The smack rang round the cafe walls.

There was silence.

Mrs Jacks lifted Billy – docile now – to his feet.

‘It isn’t anything,’ she said, in a slip-away voice. ‘He only wants the toilet.’

Meg stepped aside, and gestured towards the back. ‘I didn’t know,’ she said.

Mrs Jacks tugged Billy through, shame burning at her heart. She leant her stick against the wall and edged him into the narrow closet. The bird – trapped and wounded now – beat against the walls of her chest. She squeezed the door shut behind them and eased him onto the bowl, swallowing away the pain in her throat. She waited until the splashing of his water reduced to a trickle, then lifted him up and refastened his zip, and helped him wash his hands.

When they came back out, the fat man’s wife turned to look at them over her shoulder. Meg had gone; the lily was nowhere to be seen. Mrs Jacks put some money on the table, enough for all the food and drinks. Then she led Billy outside.

They made their way across the deserted car-park, back to the car.

‘Billy love Mamma,’ he stuttered as she loaded him in.

She put her stick on the back seat and folded herself behind the wheel. Her breathing snagged as she strapped herself in. She thought of Meg so young and cheerful and the man who’d smiled at her in the shop. Beside her, Billy rocked silently. She pictured the slow drive north and all the afternoon hours waiting for them, there at home beyond the ridge.

She turned on the ignition and put the car in gear. Slowly, she let go the handbrake.

In the rear-view mirror she caught the movement, something dashing, waving behind them.

‘Egg!’ cried Billy. ‘Egg!’

And then Meg was by the car, the lily in her arms. Mrs Jacks stopped. The girl made a sign to roll down the window.

‘Here! Your plant. I thought I’d missed you. And please – that man in there – don’t pay any heed.’ She turned aside, fishing in her pocket for pen and notepad. A square of scribbled paper was thrust into Mrs Jacks’ hand. ‘Listen – take this.’

Mrs Jacks didn’t understand.

‘My number,’ said Meg. ‘Another time – if you want me to help. Just now – I didn’t know, but I can learn what he means, my cousin was the same.’

Mrs Jacks took the paper, squeezed it tight. She fumbled for the words.

‘He is, though,’ she said. ‘– My pride and joy. Only sometimes…’

Meg nodded, her eyes bright. ‘He’s a nice boy. Really, I know.’

Mrs Jacks grasped the wheel, steadying her breath. Gently now, she turned the car homewards. The tracks to the north ran straight and true, the sun just rounding in the sky. The plant lay harmless between the seats as through the smudged rear windscreen, Billy waved to the dwindling diner; and bright in the mirror she made out the reflection – Meg by the roadside, waving back.

She had to choose, Mrs Jacks realised, to trust such kindness. For herself, for Billy, for all their time beyond. Then yes, she decided – I will, I’ll call.

And inside her chest the frantic bird fell still.

Philippa East works as a clinical psychologist and therapist. Her short stories have been published in various magazines including Brittle Star, Dream Catcher, and the Lampeter Review. She lives in Lincolnshire and is currently working on a novel.