Troubled schoolchild Finn plays truant and whiles away the time at home - but something is stalking him from the barley field out back; by Charlie Taylor.
Finn was in the kitchen. He watched all of this from the window, first closing his left eye, then his right, then both. His imagination lingered in the field and from the recesses of his mind sprang to life Cowboys and Indians, then Commandos on daytime raids and then adventures in Africa. He was alone in the two up, two down, cottage in rural Lancashire, but his imagination knew no limits.
He poured himself a cupful of Tizer; fizzy, red pop barely masked the tea-stained inside of his cup. What did he care? He had drunk out of worse. An old tin can that had not very long before held maggots for his fishing expedition was fine for a slurp or two of Sarsaparilla last week on the banks of Ormerod's Pond.
Frankie, his fishing mate and best friend, had asked if they'd both get poisoned.
"No way," Finn had assured him. "Maggots are clean as long as they're not feeding on rotten meat. Some fishermen warm them up in their mouths before putting them on the hook."
"Oh bleugh," said Frankie and spat the drink out onto the grass. "You're a right dirty bugger." And he had slapped Finn on the side of his head so hard that it had rung for hours afterwards.
Finn rubbed his ear in memory of the slap and lifted the cup to his lips, enjoying the feeling of the fizz speckling his nose. One bubble leapt higher than the others, straight into his eye. He blinked and, as he did, caught a glimpse of a patch of barley moving contrary to the way the wind was blowing, at odds with the gentle undulations that were soothing to watch and almost predictable as they passed from left to right. And then it was gone.
Finn finished his drink and thought of lunch. A Weston's Wagon Wheel and maybe a packet of crisps, he decided. And some more Tizer, even if, or more likely because, it made him burp.
He raided the biscuit tin and hunted out a packet of crisps from the scullery. Yum, he thought even as he prepared his excuses for when his mother got home from work.
"I thought you were too unwell to go to school?" she would probably say. "And here you've been scoffing biscuits and crisps and drinking pop. You're a cheat and a liar, that's what you are, Finn Gasko. Just like your father. And you'll end up the same way as him, no doubt, unless you mend your ways."
He would deny it of course. "Must've been a tummy bug made me ill," he'd say. "I started feeling better around lunch time."
And she would give him an old fashioned, disbelieving look, the sort she had previously and justifiably reserved for her husband before he 'went away'. But if she ever discovered Finn had smeared his face with her talcum powder from the bathroom cupboard before moaning and groaning from his bed, she would make his life more than a misery.
"Whatever you do in this life," his dad had told him just before he went away, "never, ever confess. Even if they catch you with your hand in the till, deny it. Deny it until they begin to distrust the evidence of their own eyes."
Fat lot of good denying it did him, Finn thought as he untwisted the little blue packet of salt and sprinkled it into his bag of crisps. He looked through the kitchen window again as his grubby hand clenched the bag shut and shook it to spread the salt around inside the packet.
The barley moved against the wind as he studied it, this time in a sort of line, for about the length of the back garden fence where it met the barley, and about the width of Butcher's Lane away from it. The sort of line a big animal might make if it was crawling through the field. Finn put his left hand down on the edge of the Belfast sink and leaned towards the window. With his right hand, still clasping the bag of crisps, he rubbed at the glass in an attempt to clean it but succeeded only in smearing it more.
"That's odd," he said.
But the barley undulated in a perfectly natural way as he watched it for what seemed a very long time but which was, in reality, less than a minute. Finn gave up watching, turned and sat down at the battered old kitchen table, munching his snacks, slurping at his pop and reading his Eagle comic. He used to think of his dad as Dan Dare, the post-war superhero battling with Mekon of Mekonta and invariably coming out on top. But that comparison didn't seem quite so attractive after he'd been led away in handcuffs by two plain clothes policemen.
Where was the bravery in his dad passing Finn a parcel as the policemen forced their way in through the front door? Why did he have to rely on his son to save him? Surely it should have been the other way round? But Finn had stuffed the parcel into his school duffel bag and stood with it swinging gently from his hands as the detectives searched the terraced cottage from top to toe. And, later, he had hidden the parcel underneath the rough wooden seat of the privy midden in the back garden. If they find it there, he thought as he hung head first, holding his breath, over the hole full of excrement, tying the parcel on with string, they're welcome to it.
But how was he to know that the night soil shifters would find the parcel the following week and never say a word about it to anybody? It was his dad's fault, wasn't it, not his?
"All that money!" his dad had sobbed when they let him out on bail. "Gone. And me facing a five stretch."
"I'm sorry, dad," Finn had said "but I didn't know what to do with it and mum was out and you'd gone off with the policemen and..."
His dad sat down wearily. He pulled Finn to him in a rare show of emotion. "That's alright, son. You weren't to know." And he ruffled Finn's hair, putting his brave, Dan Dare face on again. "But I hope you washed your hands afterwards!"
They had both laughed.
The next door's dog barked and Finn shook his head to clear away the memory of his father. It barked again, furious at something. Finn rolled his eyes and echoed his mother every time she heard the animal kicking up a fuss. "Damned dog!" And then the barking suddenly stopped. "Thank God for that," he said and got up to search out another Wagon Wheel. He felt anxious and irritated with his dad, with his mum, with Frankie... with the world.
He looked out of the kitchen window again, still intrigued by the movement of the barley, but there was nothing unusual this time. He went through to the parlour and switched on the wireless. The Light Programme. Worker's Playtime. He switched it off again. He was getting bored as well as irritable and wished, after all, that he'd gone to school. He couldn't even remember why he'd decided to play wag that day. It just seemed a good idea at the time and he knew Frankie would be jealous.
"That's a funny name you've got," Frankie had said to him on Finn's first day at his new school. "Finn Gasko?"
"My dad's side is Dutch and my mother's side is Scottish," Finn had explained.
"You're a mongrel then," Frankie had decided.
Just like that damned dog next door, Finn thought. Funny that it's gone quiet. Once it got to barking it usually carried on for hours. He looked out of the kitchen window again. He stared at the barley.
Number 7 Butcher's Lane was a cramped, old farm labourer's cottage and Finn hated it. It stood in a row of six, all odd numbered. The front door opened directly onto the lane, on the other side of which was more farmland, this time given over to cabbages. The rear garden was about 40 yards long, as narrow as the width of the tiny cottage and fenced with wooden palings on both sides and at the rear, where it bordered the barley field. On the left when looking out of the kitchen window and halfway down the garden was a brick structure, 6 feet high by 3 feet square. The privy midden or outside toilet. It was primitive and the source of deep shame to Finn who refused to let Frankie use it whenever he came around to play.
"Go pee in the field," he'd told Frankie. "The toilet's upstairs," he lied, "and mum won't let anybody but family go up there."
"Weirdos!" was Frankie's response, which was quite understandable. So he peed in the field at the back. Finn could see the space Frankie had made in the crop as he'd trampled it down when relieving himself. It was close to where he'd seen that odd movement in the barley.
Finn felt a Tizer inspired burp coming on. He held onto to it as long as he could before, as his dad used to say, letting rip. The rasping, guttural noise filled the kitchen, bouncing off the old lath and plaster walls and the flagstone floors and, to Finn's surprise, he thought he heard it echo outside in the garden, but deeper and... it sounded almost like a snarl.
"Blimey," he muttered, "Frankie would've been proud of that one."
Finn and Frankie had been best friends since Christmastime. They went fishing together, played football together, rooted around in the hedgerows for birds' eggs which they blew and kept in cardboard boxes lined with cotton wool. And they played soldier games in the fields bordering Butcher's Lane. One of them would slink off into a crop-filled expanse, then lie down, waiting in ambush for the other to pass nearby before leaping up and shooting him with a pretend Tommy gun. Or he would act the deadly sniper calling out as the imaginary bullet smacked into the victims' ribcage.
"Got you that time, Finn," Frankie shouted yesterday after tea from his sniper's nest in the copse between the sprouts and the cabbages.
"You never," Finn shouted back. "I was running too fast... and I saw you before you shot."
The argument led to yet another fight, Frankie, as usual, winning by getting his friend down on the ground and twisting his arm up his back till it felt like his shoulder was on fire.
"Bet you've dislocated my shoulder," Finn said through his tears. "I hate you. I hate everything."
"That'll teach you not to cheat," Frankie had said, walking away, game over.
"I don't know why you're friends with him, Finn's mother had said on more than one occasion. "All you do is fight and it's always you that ends up getting hurt."
"He's my best friend," Finn said by way of unsatisfactory and pointless explanation.
"Your only friend, you mean. You're dafter than your dad," she said. "And that takes some doing."
She meant it, too. She'd taken him along to a new doctor shortly after his dad went away. Doctor Rollins had talked with Finn for a long time but unlike his usual doctor hadn't listened even once to his chest through a stethoscope. All he'd done was ask questions: How long had he been having nightmares? Had he fainted during school assembly just the three times or was it more? Did he miss his old school and friends? How were the pains in his legs? Did he know where his father had gone to when he went away? Did he ever feel violent? Did he hear voices?
Finn thought he was an odd sort of doctor but answered his questions anyway. He said to his mother afterwards: "He didn't seem to know very much about me at all. I had to explain everything to him. He didn't even know that dad was in prison. Which is daft because everybody else knows that. Frankie says he's a gaolbird."
"Frankie's no right to say things like that."
"He's my best friend, mum." He couldn't understand why his mother had started to cry.
Finn rubbed his left shoulder where it still hurt and looked out of the kitchen window again. Nothing. He wandered around the two downstairs rooms, tracing patterns in the dust on the heavy brown wood sideboard, switching the radio on and off again before the thing had even warmed up its valves. He threw himself down on the green cut moquette sofa and stared at the ceiling. He was bored to tears.
"What are you going to be when you grow up?" his Aunty Jean had asked him at the weekend.
"A big liar like his father," his mother had replied on his behalf.
"Hush Annie, don't say things like that about the boy."
"It's the truth, Jean. Want to know what he said last Thursday? He got back late from playing out with that Frankie Tait. God knows what they'd been up to but he came back covered in mud and nettle stings..."
"We were playing, that's all, mum," Finn tried to explain.
"...And what did he tell me? Me worried sick that he'd been hurt or lost or..."
"We were just playing in the fields, mum," Finn said, the tears forming.
"I'll tell you what he told me. He said some big boys had threatened him and stolen his spending money and that's why he was late. That's what you told me, wasn't it Finn?"
He didn't answer. Tears rolled down his cheeks and his shoulders heaved.
"I'm, telling you, Jean, he's just like his father. He's a liar!"
"Oh, Annie, don't," her sister had said. She'd put her arm around her nephew and pulled him close. "He's a child, Annie. He's frightened. His imagination gets the better of him."
Finn heard a noise at the back door and got up off the sofa. "Hello!" he called. There was no answer but the latch rattled slightly as the door moved like when a storm pushed and pulled at it. But there was no storm. "Hello!" he called again. The door stopped rattling as Finn approached it. He heard a snuffling, heavy breathing sort of noise at the point where the door met its frame. He thought again of the movement in the barley field.
"Who's there?" he shouted.
A low, very low growling was the response. Finn leaned forward, took hold of the door latch in one hand and with the other very deliberately turned the key in the lock. The deadbolt in the old mortice lock scraped and squealed, as if crying out for oil, and snapped into its slot in the strike plate. There was a sudden blow against the door which held tight. Finn jumped backwards, a cold sweat beginning to stand out on his face.
"Bloody hell!" he muttered, backing further away as the low growling raised in pitch and in volume. The door was struck again, this time with an accompanying sound of splintering wood. Then, silence. Finn's heart thudded in his chest. He had reached the doorway between the kitchen and the lounge when the tiger reared up outside the kitchen window, huge pads on the sill, staring inside, searching. Finn froze on the spot, one hand resting against the doorway frame. If he hadn't held on tightly, he was sure he would have fainted, just like in school assembly. The animal's pale yellow eyes stared at him, the small, black, round pupils dilating as it stared and stared. It lifted one huge paw and, claws extended, gently tapped at the glass. Its gaze didn't shift from Finn. It tapped the glass again, this time more firmly. It scratched at the glass, it pushed at the glass, it lifted its paw high and it struck the glass. Finn wheeled around, dashed into the lounge and slammed the door shut behind him. As he pushed the sofa up against the door and piled chairs and the radio and the coal scuttle and anything else he could move on top of it, the sounds from the kitchen were of shattering glass and splintering wood and the awful, awful sound of a tiger's full-throated roar.
Finn had nowhere to hide. The stairs to the two bedrooms led off the scullery. The lounge was a self-contained box with only the front door providing an escape route. But then what?
The door to the kitchen shuddered under a blow. One of the tiger's claws penetrated the wood. Finn backed further and further away towards the front door.
"Hobson's choice!" as his Aunty Jean might say. "Devil and deep blue!" his mother might add.
Finn made a quick calculation. He could get out of the front door and across the road into the field of cabbages before the tiger fought his way through into the lounge and then out onto Butcher's Lane. And even if the tiger decided to go back out through the kitchen window, Finn could still get into the field before the beast worked his way around to the front of the terraced cottages. He would lie low and wait. Wait for help. It was his only chance.
Crash! The lounge door started to come away from its frame. Finn made up his mind. He threw open the front door and dashed across the lane, slamming the door closed behind him. As he did so he heard a roar, almost of rage, from the back of the cottage.
"Run, run, run Finn," he sobbed. And he ran between rows of full grown cabbages, the thick, loamy soil clinging to his shoes, slowing him down. "Don't look back whatever you do." Hysteria gripped him. His legs were turning to jelly. If only he could make the hedges on the far side of the field... before the tiger hunted him down.
"Hello, Finn," said the avuncular Dr Rollins. "I'm surprised to see you again quite so soon."
Finn sat in front of the doctor's desk, picking at a scratch on his knee caused when he had thrown himself down to hide in the field of cabbages. He had lain as quiet as a mouse, all the while hearing the snuffling and low grumbling of a tiger stalking prey. He had pressed his face into the soil, convinced that at any moment the tiger would find him and...
"Your mother was worried sick about you. All that damage to the house and you missing. I'm told the police found you in a field when it was dark."
"The tiger," Finn said in a small voice. "The tiger was trying to..."
"A tiger, you say? A tiger caused all that damage, not an axe? The policeman said the doors were full of axe marks and there was an axe still embedded in the door frame."
"A tiger. There was a tiger. There was! There was a tiger in the house and it tried to..."
"Yes, your mother told me what you'd said about a tiger but you can tell me the truth, you know, Finn. Nothing will happen to you if you do. It's quite natural for you to be angry given all the things that have happened to you but, come along now, there was no tiger, was there?"
And as he sobbed and tried with every ounce of sincerity he could muster to convince the doctor he really was telling the truth, he heard his father's voice: "Whatever you do in this life, son..."