Killing Time

Jan Howcroft

I’m round the back at Earlham Road, throwing a tennis ball against the brickwork on the wall that has no windows, reciting names of vegetables. Mum’s just bought elastic off the market so I’d be in the wash house Chinese-skipping, if I could, but she’s scrubbing the wash house floor and doesn’t want me trailing muck. I need to wee.

By the outside toilet there’s a white hydrangea that’s taller than me; it rained last night so when I lift the latch and push the door, water trickles down my neck. I leave the door ajar.

The walls have been distempered but the damp’s come through and there are things you just don’t want to see like spiders in the corners and the empty husks of houseflies in the webs. Grey light enters through a tiny window level with the garden, high up on the right. Outside, you can see it just above the ground.

While I sit there on the wooden seat, I hear my father digging, his sharp blade cutting into the earth. He’s going to put potatoes in. The Izal roll is damp. When I’m done, I pull the metal chain and run.  

I go to see how many spuds my dad’s put in and if he needs my help. The forsythia’s out. There’s a robin on the handle of his spade, waiting for worms. Dad’s buried the potatoes and is making furrows with a stick for beans.

‘Ugh! What’s that,’ I say, pointing at a long brown object on the earth, about the size of my little finger.

‘Don’t know,’ he says. He picks it up and turns it over in his hand. It sticks to his skin. He drops it on the concrete slab and grinds it underfoot.

‘Don’t touch it,’ he says.

For a while I practise handstands on the grey-green garage door, but I can’t stay up for long so instead I balance on the wall outside the greenhouse. Inside are dad’s geranium cuttings. If Diana was here, we’d be running our obstacle course – flicking cardboard off a jam-jar to let the sixpence fall inside, or double-skipping on the driveway – but she’s in France. I’m going to see if I can climb the apple tree.

It’s getting cold but I’m hanging on till Dad’s gone in because I want to know what the weird thing is. I can see it from my tree branch lying in its slimy stain beside the gooseberry bush.

I don’t want to touch it so I get two twigs to prise the thing apart. It’s not easy because what was round is now flat but eventually, I succeed. Then I wish I hadn’t, because you can’t un-see a thing: that the wings are bruised and shredded; that someday soon it would have been a butterfly.

Jan Howcroft lives in Essex. She started writing when she retired. Since then, she has produced a wide variety of short stories and flash fiction and her work has been shortlisted in several national writing competitions.