A small boy is feeding a whole white loaf to the pigeons in the road, three slices at a time. The bread is airy, softly imprinted by his fingers. The weight of the polythene bag swings in front, almost pulling him off the curb, headfirst. His mother let him carry the bread all the way from the corner shop: a treat for him, more than the birds. She stands behind him now, slouched into one leg. His red anorak shines in the Saturday sun. There are no ducks in walking distance from the flat and they can’t afford the bus, but he likes the scatty city birds with their knobbly peach legs. Except the ones with missing feet. The starlings join them now, oily slick. The boy’s blonde hair curls at the back. She’s started wetting it in the morning to make the coils last longer. He wriggles away, no mummy. He needs a haircut anyway. It’s packed in town: rowdy shoppers, football in the air. Cops everywhere. She blows her cigarette smoke away from him.
The boy is only three, an August baby. She needs to get his uniform sorted for September. Some of the shops are stocking up already: smart little mannequins in royal blue, cherry red, ghost white. Other shops shout You are the Best Dad Ever, Love You Daddy, Papa, D-A-D. It’s tomorrow. She tries not to look, thank god he can’t read yet. One in a Million, Father’s Day Beers. The last one’s accurate at least. Or would be with White Lightening, Scotch, Strongbow. The boy doesn’t ask about dads, seems not to know. She’s worried school will change all that. They’re better off without him though, surely. Didn’t she do without. There is an ache where her wisdom tooth used to be, radiating through her skull: left cheekbone, jaw, ear. Football fans are squeezing between the usual shoppers, violating the weekend code. It’s Russia vs. Germany tomorrow in the Euro at Old Trafford; the England Scotland match later at Wembley. He’s probably down there, living it large. She’s been following it on TV, on and off. Football’s Coming Home. England flags flap from car windows, red beating on white.
The traffic lights change at the corner of her eye: a bus is coming. She leans forward, grasps the boy’s shoulder, holds him steady. The pigeons rise: a cloud of lilac smoke as the bus hisses past, heat on their legs. He shakes her off, the birds settling back to the road, squabbling. He likes the way they fight, wants to know which is the strongest: the one that can lift a whole slice to the sky, victorious. He wants an England top. Three lions on his shirt. His mother thinks maybe the market. She is thirsty, lonely. She checks her bag, shifts her weight to the other leg. Her jeans are too tight, squeezing flesh out at the waist. They need to get going. She needs a night out. The bread-bag is empty now so she touches his arm gently: let’s go. No mummy. He wants to stay, starts shaking out the crumbs. No. She’s hot, sanitary towel sticking at the groin. She clenches her hands into fists, to hide the chipped crimson nail polish. A busker belts out Don’t Look Back in Anger: Union-Jacks-Mad-Fer-It-Chips-Britpop everywhere. A few people are running, pushing. Maybe she can go back to college once he starts school.
She might ask her sister to come round and sit for a couple of hours later so she can go out for a bit, sort herself out. Maybe she’ll ring one of the girls from the café where she used to work. She thinks of the stone floor, the cool white lilies that smelt like horses, the peace of the morning jobs: neatly folding napkins onto white plates, the sound of silver knives and miniature pots of jam on porcelain, the berry promise of the gleaming jars, neat bandages of napkin in careful lines, ready for the scones that would come out of the oven later, packed with steam. The boy is on the edge of the road again, scrutinising the birds. M & S looms brown above them. She spits on a scraggy bit of tissue from her pocket, moves forward to wipe his face. He squirms away, no mum. He has his dad’s sparkling eyes.
Come on, we’re going. She’s losing it. No mummy! He kicks at her shin. She grabs his wrist, fuck’s sake, can’t you do as you’re told just for once, we didn’t have to come here you know, feels a heavy tap on her shoulder from behind, interfering. She lets go, spins towards the flash of fluorescent, sick of the harassment. She doesn’t see cops hassling the Marks and Sparksies mums with their tapered jeans and tucked-in pastel shirts. The busker has stopped singing. The boy is writhing on the floor screaming now, don’t want to go, tears and snot streaming into his mouth. Suddenly, as she glares up at the policewoman, she realises everything is different. The woman’s face is white, shaken. Buildings are emptying into the street, people crowding the pavements. Move back now, everyone back. A navy and white striped cordon snakes in front of her. She has been pushed away from the curb, pedestrians between her and the boy. She forces her way back through, looks wildly for him, where is he. She spots his red coat; still on the floor, oblivious; hauls him up and pulls him through the crowd, feet dragging. She picks him up, too big for this now, clamps him to her chest, wraps his bare legs around her waist, surges forwards. It might not be a hoax this time. They have to get away.
They are united, thrown to the floor together, when the blast hits. She clings to him, her life, her funny, beautiful boy: curls over him, making a cave of her body. He is a tight, warm ball under her, as glass blasts above, pelting down on her back. The concrete shakes. Head down, she protects him from spaghetti wires, flying bits of plastic, metal, wood. The air is split by sirens and screaming. When she finally looks up, she sees two men pulling an old woman up next to her, a poppy of blood flushing in white hair. The woman is staring, floppy, flanked by strangers, scarlet starting to trickle down her forehead. A security guard clasps a screeching baby. Another man is staggering towards her. She clambers up, ash falling like feathers in her hair, heaves the boy onto her back, stumbles forwards. The floor crunches diamond under her boots. Litter knee-deep. She doesn’t know where they are going, only that she needs to get him out. They falter past the Body Shop, a haze of white musk and hemp; push through the swirl of shredded hearts and flowers from Hallmark’s dancing with turquoise scraps of holiday brochures.
The boy is silent now, on his mother’s back as she drives forwards, the strength of the world in her limbs. They stop only once, on the way past a woman in a dirty primrose top. The woman is howling, clawing at the debris. She flips a small white body onto its back. It is a child mannequin, thrown by the explosion, long socks and cardigan shredded. The boy’s mother cannot help this other woman: can only pause, hold her cheeks hard, tell her keep going, I know you’ll find her. Then, she slogs the boy onto her back, sets off again through the rubble. The newspapers would show a gigantic cloud of smoke, billowing above the city. A miracle no-one was killed. Running mothers, shoppers, football fans. Grieving firefighters. And one lone red postbox, scratched but unbroken, shining through the dust.
Rachel Bower is an award-winning poet and short story writer from Bradford. She is the author of two poetry collections and a non-fiction book on literary letters. Her poems and stories have been widely published in literary magazines, including The London Magazine, The White Review, Magma and Stand. Rachel won The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2019/20 and the W&A Short Story Competition 2020, and she is currently editing a poetry anthology with Simon Armitage. Rachel’s work is represented by Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown.
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