Horse’s Mouth (1000 words)

‘Any sign of civilisation, Benson?’

‘It seems not, Sir.’

Alfred scowled out at the miserable grey drizzle. Typical misfortune. First the car spluttered out its death throes in the middle of the wilderness. Then slogging through an ankle-deep mire to this crumbling barn with its leaky roof, already drenched to the bone. Darkness falling. The rain showed no signs of abating. And now his stomach was rumbling. Marvellous.

Beside him, Benson rummaged through their travel bags. He paused.

‘Pardon me, Sir, but…this article appears to have found its way into our luggage.’

He held up a fox-fur coat. Alfred scoffed. ‘Very funny, Benson. That’s brand new!’

Benson’s arched eyebrow was the only crack in his deadpan mask of politeness. ‘Hm. I assumed it’d gotten into your wardrobe by mistake, Sir…or else been maliciously placed there by your enemies.’

Alfred flushed. ‘I’ll have you know that I bought this in Cannes!’

Benson’s face was blank beneath his bowler. ‘…And wore it, Sir?’

‘Every night at the casino! As I passed by, all eyes turned.’

‘And I daresay, quite a few stomachs.’ Benson refolded a pair of trousers and tucked them away with meticulous care. ‘I can only hope the poor animal died a peaceful death, Sir.’ He paused again. ‘You’ll pardon me for mentioning it, Sir, but…’ he lifted out a straw boater with the delicately strained grimace of someone handling a bag of dog faeces. ‘I can only assume a tradesman left this behind.’

Alfred snatched it from Benson and jammed it on his head. ‘This is known among the fashionable elite as a 42nd Street Skimmer, Benson. I told the boys at Bates it was essential, and they delivered the goods.’

Benson’s eyebrows rose. ‘So no mention was made of a carnival, or…fancy dress occasion, Sir?’

Alfred rolled his eyes. ‘Benson, it’s perfectly good headwear!’

Benson sighed. ‘Gentlemen do not wear straw hats in the metropolis, Sir.’

‘Nonsense, Benson!’ Alfred trudged to the entrance, gazing out into the miserable haze. ‘Stiff upper lip, then? Carry on regardless?’

‘Indeed, Sir.’

‘Come, Benson!’ Alfred strained his eyes, squinting into the gloomy distance. ‘I think…yes! I see a light!’

‘It’s merely the rain playing tricks, Sir.’

‘Pish-posh. I’d bet my hat that’s a cottage, well supplied with tea, ham sandwiches and a roaring fire.’

Benson turned his head, eyed the boater with a spark of barely-suppressed glee. ‘Bet your hat, Sir?’

‘Not really, Benson!’ Alfred jammed the hat down firmly, hoping to prevent the wind – or overeager valets – whisking it away. ‘It’s rather essential in the current conditions.’

Benson inclined his head; water poured off his bowler in a graceful waterfall. ‘That, I am willing to concede, Sir.’

‘A truce, then!’ Alfred grinned, scrambling over a drystone wall towards the hoped-for light. ‘Between you and my hat, at least until we can get out of this bally rain.’

Benson vaulted the wall with his usual grace as Alfred surveyed the boggy field he was sinking to the knees into. A twisted tree close by, with a rather menacing brown horse sheltering beneath it. Alfred shivered with apprehension – one thing to admire the equine species hurtling around a track when yours truly safely placed bets behind a sturdy fence, quite another for a face-to-face encounter in a dark muddy field.

‘We will walk past him, Sir,’ Benson soothed. ‘He will not bother us.’

‘I don’t know, Benson. He looks rather…morose.’

‘I am sure that he is simply wet and cold, much like ourselves, Sir.’

The horse barely looked up as they picked their way through the mud to the middle of the field. It was only as they drew level with the tree that the creature caught an unfamiliar whiff and trotted over sharply. Alfred screwed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the inevitable trampling.

‘…Benson?’

‘He is not threatening us, Sir.’

A reassuring touch to his arm encouraged him to open his eyes, but then a blast of warm, horsy breath on his face, and the lids were firmly shut once more. ‘What does the dashed beast want, then?’

‘I think he may be a trifle hungry, Sir. Perhaps we could- oh dear.’

Alfred paled. ‘What?’ Benson’s voice had risen a few octaves – Benson scarcely ever pronounced the words ‘oh dear’ without good cause. At the same moment, Alfred became aware of the cold patter of rain on his all-too-bare head. ‘Benson?’

‘I am afraid that…he has eaten your hat, Sir.’

The blighter had, with no way of getting it back – once the boater vanished into the equine maw, even Benson seemed uneasy about trying to extract it. An alarming number of large chomping yellow teeth, the shredded remains of straw rapidly vanishing between them.

‘Come, Sir,’ Benson tugged on his arm, Alfred staring in dismay as the last scraps of the boater were devoured. ‘I believe you were right – there is a light after all.’

He squinted, and…Yes! There was a twinkling glow at the end of the field, shining like an warm welcoming beacon.

‘I did like that hat,’ Alfred sulked as Benson steered him towards the far gate. His hair was now soaked through. ‘And even if you didn’t, Benson, you have to admit it did a bally good job of keeping the rain off.’

As he approached the wall and prepared to throw a leg over it, he felt something settle on his head. The rain stopped.

‘You may borrow my bowler, Sir. We are nearly there.’

Benson’s bowler was far too big for him – his head not nearly the same measure as the brainy Bensonian cranium – but it kept the rain off as well as the boater. Of course, the top of Benson’s head was now as soaked as the rest of him, whilst Alfred’s own hair was still soggy underneath the bowler. But it was the thought that counted, and offered the young master a new reserve of comfort as they attacked the last hundred metres of mire together.

‘Thank you, Benson.’

He couldn’t make out Benson’s face out through the rain, but Alfred knew that he’d be allowing himself a small smile, most especially because he knew Alfred couldn’t see it. A valet has to keep up appearances after all.

‘Not at all, Sir.’

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Wingmates (1800 words)

“Kate, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Is that a dart gun!?”

“Your bloody menace is harassing my Stephanie.”

Josh wilted under Kate’s glare. “Will you relax? She’s an orphan eaglet, just like him. Give the kid a minute with her.”

“Why, so he can claw her eyes out?”

“He just wants to say ‘hi’. Trust me, we’d all know if he were spoiling for a fight.”

Kate grudgingly knew that was true: Archie was already much closer to Stephanie than usual, but his posture was deferential, his attitude more curious than aggressive. Josh squinted through binoculars. Whistled. “Smooth charmer, too. He’s got a present for her.”

Kate frowned, but sure enough Archie dropped a plump trout in front of the other juvenile’s tree. Stephanie eyed him cautiously, then flapped to earth and edged towards the newcomer’s offering. When she looked up warily, Archie shuffled another step away. He was still watching closely when she dug her claws into the fish, but as soon as she took her first bite he stretched his wings and flapped off.

“See?”

Josh’s face was as smug as Kate’s was stunned. “Archie’s a classy gent, Kate.”

She snorted. “What kind of name is Archie for an eagle?”

Josh rolled his eyes. “It’s short for Archibald. As in Archie Buchanan? First World War fighter pilot. Who names their eagle Stephanie, anyway?”

I think it’s pretty,” Kate muttered. Before her, Stephanie was digging into the trout with relish.

Archie was back the next day with another fish in his talons. By day four, Stephanie would leave her tree as soon as she saw him approach. They danced around each other at first, but Archie stayed longer every time. Eventually, Stephanie was so used to her frequent caller that she let him stand close by while she ate. Josh and Kate exchanged incredulous looks when Stephanie defied all kinds of eagle behavioural norms by pushing one of her visitor’s prizes back towards him, obviously willing to share. Even Archie looked unsure, but when he lowered his head to take a tentative bite, Stephanie piped cheerfully at him and returned to her meal with gusto.

Josh blinked. “You know you’re way too young to be this into her, right?”

Kate muttered darkly about men who spoke more kindly to birds than other people, but Josh decided he could take a lesson in chivalry. Even if it was being taught by a juvie bald eagle.

“At least he’s got taste — she’s a lovely bird.”

A long silence. Then Kate grinned. “Your aviator’s not too shabby either.”

*

It all changed on the crisp winter morning Archie appeared with something furry squirming in his talons.

“What the hell, ace? Steph doesn’t even like mice.”

“I think he wants to teach her to hunt.” Kate’s tone was curious.

Josh made a monumental effort not to scoff. “Don’t get your hopes up, okay? He’s a bald eagle, not a dolphin — they’re not really wired like that.”

But Kate was right. Archive landed with his usual grace, caught the waiting Stephanie’s eye and released his victim. Stephanie watched, confused. Archie snagged the mouse before it could escape, stared his companion down, then released his prey again. This time, Stephanie made a clumsy grab for it. Missed. Archie snatched up their snack, patiently released it again. Stephanie caught the pathetic creature on her third attempt, but didn’t seem to know what to do next. After some hesitation she offered it back, watching closely as Archie killed it with a single jab of his beak. He shuffled a few feet away, letting her edge closer to pick at it. When Josh glanced over, Kate was smiling warmly.

“Your Archie’s well ahead of the learning curve.”

“Oh please. Do you think I’d waste my time on anything less than the best?”

Archie’s little masterclass progressed well, Stephanie quickly learning to pursue their small prey as soon as it scurried towards her. In no time at all she’d catch Archie’s partially stunned victims on her second try, then her first. On the fifth day she finished off an unfortunate baby rabbit for herself, jabbing at it with her beak just like Archie had done. Kate threw her arms around Josh and whooped.

Before long they were soaring together, chasing and diving like a mated pair. They still ate together more often, and remained the only birds Josh had ever seen share their kills without squabbling.

“These kids are completely nuts,” he complained, watching Stephanie present a small salmon to Archie with what looked like bashful avian pride. “I’d write a paper on the childhood betrothal of bald eagles, but I don’t want all North America’s ornithologists thundering up here to gawk at them.”

Plenty of juveniles would construct twig nests long before they were mature enough to find real mates — playing house, researchers called it — but there was an unusual degree of gravitas to the way Steph and Archie went about it. When the lovebirds actually settled down in their junior eyrie-to-be, Josh just sighed.

“They can’t be thinking about — no! What am I saying? They literally can’t do that yet, they’re still juveniles. Ugh. Look at me talking like they’re gonna run away together if their parents don’t approve. Kate, the eagles are making me crazy.”

She squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. “It’s incredible. You sure you don’t wanna write your paper?”

“No way,” Josh grinned. “We’re not letting any nosy parkers cramp Archie’s style this year.”

*

The next time Kate yanked Josh bodily out of sleep, her eyes were red from crying. The storm howled above.

“We’ve lost her,” she sniffled. “There’s just…nothing.”

An unexpected late blizzard had devastated the area. He followed her out into the lab half-dressed. Some of their coworkers still awake; most looked away discreetly, trying to give them some privacy.

“…Maybe the storm’s just messing their beacons up?” an intern piped up hesitantly. Kate looked hopeful until Josh found Archie’s still-flickering light, frozen in place. He reached for the keys to his truck, but Kate’s hand closed over them.

“Don’t you dare.”

“We’ll lose them both. He’s not going to leave his girl.”

“If you go out and get yourself killed we’ll lose them both and you.” She shoved him backward sprawling into his chair. “You know I love him too.”

He nodded reluctantly as she hung up his keys.

For the next agonising two days they watched Archie’s heartbeat slow as the snow howled down. As soon as the tracks were declared passable Josh leapt to his feet, ready to fight Kate if he had to. Instead he found her waiting for him, field jacket already on and a bulging case of medical supplies in hand.

When they reached Archie’s flickering coordinates, they feared the worst. The eagles were a tattered mess of wings and bloody snow, Stephanie sprawled at impossible angles with her protector draped over her like a tragic Persian quilt.

“She hit the cables,” Kate whispered. Full-grown, their wingspan was a serious liability when they strayed fatally close to electrical wires. Josh flinched — a horrid way to go.

“And of course you stayed with her, you poor sap.”

He reached out gingerly to smoothe Archie’s icy head-feathers back, a last gracious dignity…and nearly jumped out of his skin when Stephanie lifted her head to snap feebly at him. He stared at Kate, beseeching. Kate peered closer, a slow dawning smile. The shock had fried Steph’s tag, but hadn’t take their brave girl out of the fight for good. Even better that her fearless defender had given everything to keep her still and warm against both injury and cruel wind.

With Archie still motionless and Stephanie’s wing broken in at least two places, they were more than justified in moving the birds. But Stephanie began keening unhappily as Kate slipped the travelling hood over her eyes. Her claws clenched unyielding over her mate’s, her undamaged wing beating miserably.

“Hey,” Josh crooned, wrapping his arms around her before she hurt herself. “Don’t freak out, honey. He’s still right here.”

“Still won’t budge an inch,” Kate murmured once the pair were safely in the truck. If Stephanie hadn’t been hooded there was no way they’d ever have been allowed close enough to swaddle the half-frozen male in warm towels and insulated blankets.

“Smart girl,” Josh nodded. “If I ever find a woman as keen on me, I’m going to cling onto her just like that.” Stephanie burbled in reply as Kate smiled, stroking her head.

“He’s quite something, isn’t he?”

“I told you months ago, Kate: our Archie’s got class.”

Thankfully, the centre’s on-site vet announced that Stephanie’s wing fractures were her worst injuries: even they were clean and easy to heal. Her mate had arrived “practically deep-frozen, honestly,” but all he really needed to recover was time, warmth and sympathy.

Josh grinned. “So what you’re saying is: we just give them food and shelter and then leave them to hang onto each other?”

The doctor nodded. Kate laughed. “That’s been our strategy for close to a year now.”

*

“You two are still completely nuts,” Josh groaned. “I should just write that damn paper. We could make a whole documentary about you and people would convince themselves it was all CGI. I’ve seen sock puppets behave more like proper regal eagles than you.”

Stephanie, having ripped apart Kate’s gift salmon, nudged a good portion of it towards her mate and loomed over him, almost menacing, until Archie nibbled at it.

“We oughta move you south to New York — I think the cold’s messing with your heads.”

“Says the man who regularly talks to bald eagles.” Kate joined him, watching Stephanie pick her way through her own share. From time to time, she peered over to make sure her mate was still resting quietly to one side.

Archie offered Stephanie a length of bright white twine as she finished her meal. She inspected it, clucked her approval, and laid it carefully with the twigs and other scraps they were gathering for their future nest.

“They really are odd,” Kate admitted fondly. Josh turned away, grinning.

“Josh! Josh, look!” A hand clutched his arm. He turned.

“I’m looking,” he assured her. “What am I looking — oh. Yeah, okay, now that’s flying.”

Archie had scrambled into flight, executing a playful spinning dive that had Stephanie chuffing reprovingly as she gave chase above the bare treetops.

It wasn’t just a courting ritual — it was the courting ritual. They soared into the clouds, Archie circling his mate as Stephanie called to him. They locked talons.

And dived.

The pair careened wildly towards the earth below, entwined in glorious free fall. They broke apart close enough to shiver the treetops, both screaming with joy. Kate gasped with relief. Josh grinned through his tears.

“Good for you, ace.”

© 2019 | Tom Burton

Through Innocent Eyes (1700 words)

‘Finished with the bloody book, have you?’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Thought you might read all night.’

‘Oh…I’m so sorry. Why d’you even care how long I read for?’

Danny’s father sniffs, a sarcastic little noise that’s been honed to be absolutely unbearable for Danny’s mother. Danny braces himself and, sure enough…

‘What the hell’s that noise supposed to mean?’

Danny rolls over to face the wall, his parents’ peevish whispers slicing through the silence. His face feels hot; they’ve been arguing all evening, he’s in the way just by being here. First his aunt Lucy didn’t have room for all three of them to stay, which meant they ended up booking into a hotel. Although pretty reasonable (to his mum) it’s still a sight more expensive than they should be spending (to his dad).

Things had gotten worse when they’d switched on the six o’clock news. A man with messy straw hair was waving at the screen, camera flashes dancing on the blue wall behind him. BRITAIN LEAVES THE EUROPEAN UNION, the headline blared at the bottom of the screen.

Mum had turned away with a snort. ‘About bloody time.’

Dad glared at her. ‘Don’t say that!’

‘We voted. To leave.’ Mum’s voice was sharp and cold. ‘Why can’t you just accept that?’ She’d stomped into the bathroom and slammed the door. Dad sighed at the ceiling, then continued unpacking his suitcase. ‘Bloody Boris…’

They’d eaten dinner in frosty silence, and Danny didn’t dare ask for dessert even though he’d have given all his piggy bank for an ice-cream sundae like the girl on the next table.

One…

Two….

Three…

No use. He’s still wide awake and jumping at every sound like a nervy kitten – the rumble of traffic on the street below, a distant wailing siren, a fly buzzing in the corner, the flick-flick of Mum’s book, a series of peevish coughs from Dad. The bedside light clicks off. Danny rolls onto his front and buries his face into his pillow, trying to make sure they can’t hear him crying. He sniffles accidentally a few times, but nobody reacts.

Then Dad speaks. Quieter. Harsher.

‘Do you see why I can’t trust you?’

Danny’s mum sighs. ‘For fuck’s sake.’ Danny doesn’t recognise the word, but Dad’s reaction tells him it’s wrong.

‘Don’t you dare use that language with him in the room.’

‘He’s asleep.’

‘D’you see why I can’t trust you?’ Dad asks again. ‘I’m just telling you what it feels like.’

‘When are you going to give me a break?’ Mum’s voice hitches. ‘When are you going to stop nagging me and accept what happened?’

‘It’s not as simple as that,’ Dad mutters.

No, Danny agrees. It isn’t. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that his coolest schoolmate isn’t around this week. Raja’s always up for playing Tire Swing or Knights and Dragons in the woods, and his sister makes wicked hand tattoos with her henna ink. Then Raja got surrounded at yesterday lunchbreak by Jake Smith’s gang, their pink sweaty faces jeering ‘Bugger off, Blackie’.

Just as Danny was passing. ‘Blackie’ was a horrible word. Dad said so. You don’t say that to nice people.

So Jake got a fresh row of teethmarks in his arm, Shaun’s glasses were broken, Gary’s sweater needed six stitches, Pete got kicked in the plums and Danny ended up in the headmaster’s office with scraped knuckles and a burning sense of righteousness. Not his fault. They shouldn’t have picked on his friend. But now Raja’s been taken out of school by his parents and Danny had to stay behind writing fifty lines of ‘I will not fight my classmates’…what’s fair about that?

Muffled sobs through the wall. At first Danny thinks it’s in the next room. Then he realised it’s coming from the bathroom. His mum. Whatever Dad was accusing her of, it’s obviously true. Otherwise she wouldn’t be crying. Anyhow, Dad is Danny’s hero. He has a special collection of Liverpool FC cards, and told that hulking ten-year-old Jake Smith he’d be ‘dead meat’ if he ever picked on Danny again. And he does such a good impression of Fred Flintstone. So it has to be his mum’s fault that things are like this: that his parents are fighting and Danny’s pillow is damp with his own secret tears. He likes Mum – he does – but it has to be someone’s fault that he feels this lousy, so it has to be hers.

*

The girl who got the ice-cream sundae next to Danny’s table is now at home in her bedroom, the name plate Lisa painted in curling rose petals on the door.

She hates it. Hates the argument going on downstairs. Hates that her dad didn’t make it tonight. Again.

Earlier tonight she played second violin in her School Orchestra (under-8 division) as part of a concert by seven- to twelve- year olds and attended by a crowd of parents whose enthusiasm ranged from politely lukewarm to alarmingly fervid. Lisa’s dad was meant to be there. He promised. He swore he would be there – that’s the phrase her mummy is now screaming into the telephone downstairs, words muffled by the plasterwork so Lisa can only hear her fury in the shape of them. Dad’s away a lot because work is important – whatever it is. But the understanding was that he’d see her tonight. He’d be there.

But he wasn’t.

When the lights came up onstage, Lisa was dazzled by them, and it was only when they had finished and the whole audience was lit up that she saw her mother a few rows back, with an empty chair beside her. Disappointment curled its claws into her; Dad wasn’t there. He’d missed it. Like he missed the sports day where she’d won the long jump and the nativity play where her brother Simon played Joseph.

‘Always the same reason,’ Mum muttered between clenched teeth as she swung the Mini out of the car park, not bearing to stay behind for coffee and unwanted sympathetic glances from other parents. Work. Always work.

‘But where is he?’ Lisa persisted.

‘He must’ve been delayed.’

‘But he said —’

‘HE MUST HAVE BEEN DELAYED,’ Mum had snapped. Then she was sorry for shouting, and as a treat she took Lisa and Simon out to a hotel for dinner. Lisa felt very special; they talked about the concert and the other musicians and how beautifully she’d played, about school and her friends, about everything except Dad. The absence of Dad.

Now she rolls out of bed and creeps to the landing in her nightie. She tries to hush even the feathery sound of breath through her nose. She’s very good at this: in ‘musical statues’ at Claire’s and Flora’s parties she was almost unbeatable. Her mother has stretched the telephone wire into the downstairs study, but Lisa can still hear her.

‘Well if you can’t make your own daughter a priority…’

What’s a priority? Lisa wonders. Why can’t she be one?

‘I don’t care, Eric. You stay out with your workmates and get drunk – don’t argue with me, I can tell you’ve had a few. You drone on at me about how your side won fair and square and that I should just get over it, then you go out for a piss-up with your work friends on your daughter’s special night and you let her down.’

Lisa huddles on the staircase, arms clasped around her knees. She feels rotten. Nothing’s fair. Her dad wasn’t here tonight. Her mum’s angry. Everything’s wrong.

‘I -listen, Eric. I don’t care. Either you make that sacrifice for your daughter, or you don’t. Either we can rely on you – this family can rely on you – or we can’t.’

Lisa knows what ‘rely’ means. It means you can trust someone. You know that they love you. She looks down at her nightie, with pale blue ponies on, and hates it for its childishness. She doesn’t feel seven years old; she feels much older, sadly pinned down by the gravity of real worries. Her parents don’t like each other. There was a time, there were lots of happy times (on the beach in Majorca, that holiday weekend in the Lake District, the Easter-egg hunt at Grandma’s) where they liked, loved each other.

But now they don’t.

Lisa creeps back along the landing, afraid of being overheard: her mum never misses anything. She climbs back into a bed that feels cold even as she wraps the blankets around herself. ‘Snug as a bug in a rug’ always used to cheer her up, but now seems useless and childish as everything else around her. The silly doll’s house with its residents of forever-frozen smiles. The Enid Blyton collector’s set in bright cheery colours on her bookshelf. She thinks again of the holiday in the Lake District only a year ago; how grown-up she felt to be drinking hot chocolate with her parents. Perhaps she should go knock on Simon’s door…no. He wouldn’t understand. This is for her to suffer alone, the awful fact that they cannot rely on Dad.

She stares up at the ceiling with its pale glow-in-the-dark stars Dad put up for her. Ten miles south Danny still isn’t asleep, although his own warring parents now are. The two children, who sat at neighbouring tables this evening, now stare up at different canopies of night: Danny’s bathed in the fuzzy orange glow of the street lamps outside, Lisa’s freckled by the pinpricks of white scattered across her ceiling.

When they meet in fifteen summers’ time, what happened tonight will echo down the years. Danny will have an instinctive distrust of women which he will never acknowledge, but which will cloud many of his interactions with them. Lisa will again unconsciously view men as deserters, betrayers, people who don’t show up when you need them. Their romance will be sharp, wild and, predictably, not last long. But it will produce a child called Chloe, whom Lisa loves with that wild abandon she applies to every emotional choice, and whom Danny sacrifices his chance to meet, choosing to flee instead and confirming Lisa’s low opinion of men.

All this is years away. Tonight, both seven-year-olds lie at the mercy of sleep.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Struggle (350 words)

THE Speaker. He would have to remember that.

‘You need to study harder,’ the tutor glares through half-moon spectacles.

‘I will,’ Ajani nods vigorously. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t instinctive.

When the militia swarmed into his village, their truck a satanic porcupine of brass and steel, empty black eyes spelling out their intentions as solemnly as a wedding vow, then it had been instinctive.

When his bus was halted at the border, when every third passenger was herded out at gunpoint, he had known to keep his hands clasped, his head bowed. Instinct.

When he arrived at the coast, the cold salt spray overwhelming, waves unfamiliar, he knew his destination like claws dug into his belly. Instinct.

When the boat foundered, he knew to cling to the driftwood, splinters pricking his fingertips. Knew to kick grasping hands away as their owners sank around him.

When coastguard backs were turned, a wall of bright orange torsos, he leapt from the holding pen.

Waiting at the roadside for the one truck in a thousand to slow, to stop, to offer him a lift to the camp at the edge of the sea.

Fashioning shelter from broken crates and sheets of corrugated iron. Eying the lorries as they pulled in and out, waiting in line to cross the black churning water.

Instinct when his time arrived, jumping aboard, curled between frozen boxes of shellfish, teeth clenched against the biting cold.

Instinct to ignore the chill, to stay hidden, half breathing, half dead, as the ferry swayed and passengers laughed high above.

Sitting warm in the classroom, the air stale and safe, birds trilling outside, a silver pen in his hand and echo-screams inside his head, he had no idea how he had managed the journey.

And still no idea of the official title of the House of Commons’ chair.

‘You need to study harder,’ the tutor sighs. ‘You need to put in some effort. Let’s try again.’ He shuffles his chair beside Ajani, leans over his scribbled notes. ‘Do you want to be in this country or not?’


© 2019 Tom Burton