Authors: Rosie Harris
With extra money in his pocket, Michael Quinn spent even more time out drinking. Always worried about what mood he would be in when he came home, Annie tried to make sure that Vera and Eddy, as well as little Benny, were safely in bed.
Lying upstairs in the dark, afraid to light a candle in case it might enrage their father, Vera would listen in dismay as the rows went on in the room below. More often than not there would be the sounds of a scuffle, of furniture overturning, or a hastily suppressed scream from her mother.
Sometimes the noise would waken Benny, so Vera would tiptoe to his cot and try to quieten him before their father heard him crying. Quite often the only way she could comfort him was to take him back into her own bed.
Frequently she found Eddy crouched on the landing, listening to what was going on downstairs. She would warn him that if he went down and tried to interfere their mam would only get more of a beating.
‘I’d sooner he was hitting me than her.’
‘Don’t tempt him. He’d half kill you.’
‘Would he, though? He’d be afraid of what his mates down the pub would say if I turned up for work covered in bruises.’
Vera shook her head. ‘He’d tell some cock and bull story about what you’d done so that you’d end up being the one in the wrong. If that happened your boss might sack you and then Mam would be worse off for money than ever.’
‘I sometimes wonder if we ought to go to the police and report him,’ Eddy said gloomily.
‘It wouldn’t do any good if we did, because Mam would deny it,’ Vera pointed out. ‘You know what she’s like about keeping things like that secret.’
‘Yes, but she couldn’t, could she. They’d see the bruises!’
Vera shook her head emphatically. ‘No they wouldn’t. He never hits her where it shows.’
‘Her arms are covered in bruises.’
‘Yes, and she keeps them hidden. She always wears her sleeves down to cover them.’
‘I bet she’s got bruises all over her body as well. I know for a fact that he punches her in the ribs because I’ve seen him do it.’
‘You are probably right, but no one can see the marks, can they, and the last thing she is going to do is show them to anyone.’
‘I’ll tell you something else, Vee,’ Eddy said worriedly. ‘He’s started betting, on the dogs.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, and he’s had some good wins. I heard some of the chaps at Sunbury’s talking about it. One of them uses the same runner as him. Do you think we ought to tell Mam?’
‘What good would that do? Only give her more to worry about, since it’s illegal.’
Two weeks before Christmas 1922, Michael Quinn broke his silence and spoke to his eldest son. It was the first time he’d done so since Eddy had started work eighteen months earlier.
‘I got something for you today,’ he told Eddy as they were sitting having their evening meal.
Eddy looked at him startled, wondering if he really was speaking to him.
‘I’ve bought you a chicken. A big black and white one. It’s outside in the backyard inside a wooden crate.’
Vera watched Eddy’s reaction nervously. She was so afraid that he was going to refuse the gift and upset their dad that she felt sick.
‘You can feed it on some of the bread scraps you bring home from Sunbury’s or we can buy it some corn,’ she said quickly. ‘You never know, it may lay some eggs for us.’
Their father laughed snidely. ‘So he hasn’t told you that he’s handed in his notice at Sunbury’s.’
Annie looked shocked. ‘Eddy is leaving Sunbury’s?’
‘Probably just as well before they sacked him. The boss there thinks he’s too puny for a job like that.’
‘Oh Eddy! If you’ve handed in your notice then you won’t get any dole money!’ Annie said, dismayed.
‘Don’t worry, Mam, I’ve got another job. Apprentice engineer at Cammell Laird’s, the same as Charlie had.’
‘You won’t hold that down for long,’ his father sneered. ‘That’s man’s work.’
Again he laughed loudly. Vera kicked Eddy under the table, and signalled to him with her eyes, not to answer back as it would only rile their dad even more.
She exchanged looks with her mam and saw that she, too, was bemused by what was happening.
‘Go on then, take young Benny out to see the bloody chicken and mind you don’t let it peck him.’
The chicken was plump, with glossy feathers and sharp beady eyes. It cocked its head on one side as Eddy held out a handful of crumbs, but kept its distance.
Benny was enchanted. He crouched down at the side of the crate, poking his little fingers through the slats, trying to touch the hen and chattering to it excitedly.
Eddy dropped the crumbs he was holding onto the floor of the crate and Benny clapped his hands in delight when the hen quickly, and hungrily, pecked them up.
‘It may be your pet, but I think Benny’s going to be the one who gets the most fun out of it,’ Vera smiled. ‘We must stop him putting his hand inside the crate, though, in case it pecks him; he certainly won’t like that!’
‘Give it a couple of days and I’ll have it tame enough to eat out of our hands,’ Eddy assured her.
For the next few nights, the moment he got in from work, the first thing Eddy did was to go out into the poky backyard to make sure that the chicken was all right.
‘It’s not right keeping it shut up in that crate all the time,’ he told Vera worriedly. ‘It should have a proper run so that it can move around.’
‘If you let it out in the yard then a cat, or a dog, will have it,’ she pointed out. ‘The best thing you can do is tame it so that it likes living like that.’
Reluctantly Eddy agreed with her. From then on he spent every spare minute he had talking to it, stroking its glossy black and white feathers and calming it, until finally it boldly took crumbs from his hand.
Benny wanted to try and do the same so Eddy took him outside and gave him a piece of bread to hold out for the hen. The rest of the family, even their father, watched to see what would happen. After one or two delicate pecks, the hen finally took the lump of bread and they all told Benny how clever he was.
For one wild moment Eddy thought they’d achieved a breakthrough, and that, at long last, they were once again a proper family. Was it his imagination or had their dad changed back into the kindly, happy man he’d known and loved when he’d been Benny’s age? Perhaps he was over whatever it was that had been troubling him since he’d come home from the army, he thought hopefully.
His dad still seemed to be in the same benign mood when he came home from work the next night. He even accompanied him and Benny into the yard with some food for the chicken, and stood there watching them feed it.
Even though he changed into a newly laundered white shirt and his smart navy blue suit and went off out to the pub as usual immediately afterwards, Eddy still felt things were improving. He had settled into his new job and his dad had at last stopped telling him that he would never be as good as Charlie. It would soon be Christmas, so he hoped they could put all their troubles behind them and start the new year with a clean slate.
Two days before Christmas, Eddy felt he had never worked so hard in his life. He was so tired that he’d almost nodded off on the boat coming home from Birkenhead. As soon as he’d finished his evening meal he went upstairs for a nap, and the minute he lay down he drifted into a deep sleep.
He thought he was still dreaming when he felt someone hauling him out of bed by one leg. Still drowsy, he crashed heavily onto the floor. Blinking awake he saw that his father was standing over him, a look of rage contorting his face.
‘What the hell do you bloody well think you are playing at, whacker,’ his father snarled, viciously jabbing him in the ribs with the toe of his boot.
Bewildered, Eddy shook his head to try and clear his mind as the fumes of beer and tobacco, that were coming from his dad, almost choked him.
‘What d’yer mean? What have I done wrong?’ he stuttered.
‘You may well ask,’ his father snarled. ‘I bought you a chicken as a present and you’ve bloody well neglected it. You’ve cleared off to bed and left it without food or water. Is that the thanks I get?’
Eddy struggled to his feet and began pulling on his boots. ‘Sorry!’ he mumbled. ‘I was so tired I couldn’t stay awake. I’ll see to it now.’
‘Don’t worry, Eddy, I’ll do it,’ Vera told him, as she appeared in the doorway.
Michael Quinn swung round and pushed her away from Eddy’s bedroom door. ‘Keep out of this,’ he thundered. ‘It’s got nothing at all to do with you. Mind your own bloody business. Stay indoors with your mother and young Benny while I sort this out. Understand?’
Not waiting for Eddy to finish dressing he grabbed him by the arm and roughly dragged him down the stairs. Opening the door into the yard Michael thrust him out into the cold, frosty night leaving the door wide open. Eddy shook his arm away. ‘I’ll have to go back inside, I haven’t got any bread,’ he protested.
‘You won’t need bread, whacker! Now, lift that bloody chicken out of the crate. Go on, do as I tell you!’ Michael Quinn roared as Eddy hesitated.
Shivering, partly with the cold, partly with apprehension, Eddy did as his father ordered. The light from the open doorway streamed across the backyard. The chicken struggled for a moment then settled against Eddy’s chest, its bright eyes eager as if it was expecting to be fed.
‘Grab it round the neck with both hands,’ his father ordered.
‘What for? I might hurt it if I do that.’
‘Do as you’re bloody well told before I grab you round the soddin’ neck.’
Gingerly, still cradling the chicken in one arm, Eddy placed both his hands on its neck as he’d been ordered to do.
‘Not like that, you bloody idiot. Hold your hands so that you can twist them one against the other. Go on. Now, twist! As hard as you can.’
Bile rose up in Eddy’s mouth as he realised what his father was telling him to do.
‘I can’t do that … it will kill it,’ he gasped.
‘Of course it bloody well will. Best thing that can happen to it if you can’t be bothered to feed it, though, isn’t it!’
He suddenly moved closer, his large calloused hands closing over Eddy’s, forcing the boy to twist one hand against the other. There was a panicked squawk from the chicken as it tried desperately to break free, but Michael Quinn increased the pressure of his own hands over those of Eddy’s. When he released his grasp the chicken was limp.
Tears blinded Eddy’s eyes as he held the lifeless body, and white feathers drifted down onto the yard like a sprinkling of snow.
Before he knew what was happening, his father had taken a penknife from his pocket and slit the chicken’s throat. As hot blood gushed out over his hands Eddy dropped the bird in horror. Picking it up, his father tied its legs together and suspended it upside down from the edge of the crate. ‘No point in wasting it! We’ll have it for our Christmas dinner,’ he said complacently as he turned on his heel and went indoors.
Vera was quite sure that none of them would ever forget Christmas 1922. Except perhaps little Benny who, since he had had only just turned three, had very little idea about what was going on.
The tension as they sat down to eat their Christmas dinner was palpable. Their father was the only one who seemed relaxed enough to pick up his knife and fork and attack the food on his plate with relish.
Vera had helped her mother to do the cooking, although neither of them had any stomach for what should have been the most enjoyable meal of the year. The beautiful black and white chicken that Michael Quinn had told Eddy he had bought for him as a pet, lay in a big serving dish that occupied the centre of the table. It was surrounded by roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots and parsnips. There was another dish full of boiled potatoes and a smaller one with peas in it.
A mouth-watering feast, better than anything they had sat down to all year, but none of them had any appetite for it. Each of them knew, though, that if they refused to eat what was put on their plates it would incur Michael’s wrath, and they dare not even think about the consequences if that happened.
The moment they were all seated, Michael picked up the carving knife and fork and signalled to his wife to place the loaded serving dish in front of him.
‘Nice looking bird,’ he commented, as he pierced the crisp, brown outer skin with the fork, and plunged the knife into the crevice where one of the legs joined the carcass.
He licked his lips as juices spurted out. Calmly, he severed one plump leg and laid it on his own plate. He selected a generous helping of the vegetables that surrounded it on the serving dish and arranged them on his own plate. Carving off a thick slice of creamy breast meat he laid that on top. Reaching out, he picked up the gravy jug and lavishly covered the food on his plate.
‘Any of the rest of you want any?’ he asked staring at each of them in turn.
The silence seemed to amuse him.
‘How about you, Edmund, since you did all the hard work fattening this bird up?’
Eddy looked away, covering his mouth with his hand as his stomach churned.
His father shrugged ‘Please yourself.’
He sliced off another thick piece of breast and put it straight into his mouth. Chewing noisily, he replaced the carving knife and fork onto the platter and pushed it towards Annie.
‘Yer mam’ll cut you some if you want it, after she’s helped herself and put some out for our Vera and young Benny, of course.’
No one moved or spoke as he tucked into his own huge serving with enthusiasm.
‘Get on with it, woman, before it bloody well gets cold and is ruined,’ he instructed. ‘Dish some out to all of them, Eddy as well.’
He continued to devour his own meal, but watched closely to see that his wife did as he’d ordered.
As she was about to pass a plateful to Eddy, he held her arm and scrutinised what was on the plate.
‘That won’t do at all!’ He shook his head firmly. ‘That’s not a decent meal for a lad! No wonder he looks more like a scrawny eleven-year-old than fifteen. Anyway, since he was the one who spent so much of his spare time with the bird he deserves a king-size share of it. Give it here, woman!’