A fictional story inspired by a true story
“Ruth, your garden is turning into an eyesore.” he said. Hands placed on his hips, looking at me like a man prepared to not only give a multitude of advice on how a garden should be kept, but in his busybody way, come right in and sort it out.
So I have a lot of bird feeders! What does it matter how many? Or that I have a few bits of rubbish standing in a corner, an overgrown bush, here and there. I’m an old woman. At eighty two, I’m entitled to be a little untidy. I told Eddy, he should respect his neighbours, keep his eyes on his own patch, and stop looking over the fence. He doesn’t understand.
He’s young, he hasn’t lived my life. If only he knew how many years I’ve dreamed of having a garden of my own. I have good reason for feeding the birds, but he doesn’t know about that either, where it began, why I can’t stop. Hate and disappointment are my main reasons. I know it sounds strange. But when you know a person, when you’ve heard of what they’ve gone through, it all makes more sense. And once you understand – judgement has no place. I need those bird feeders, to keep me right. To hold my mind in balance.
It was reflections that first stirred hate in me… my own reflections. They always let me down. Even as a girl, I never appeared how I expected to look. A mirror or a photograph showed me another version of who I thought I was. What I felt on the inside, fiercely disagreed with the outside. My thoughts were of a pretty girl, but mirrors proved me wrong. I wasn’t pretty at all. My features were plain, no-one looked at me once, let alone twice. If I could have got away with it, I would have gladly smashed all the mirrors in the house, to never look at my reflection again.
Mother knew of my despair, but she didn’t understand and wouldn’t hear me talk of it. My negative view of myself was unacceptable. She pulled me in front of her dressing table mirror and firmly asked, “Look my darling Ruth, you are who you are. You may not be a princess, but why say you’re ugly?”
“Because I am!” I cried, “I look like a boy.”
“Never! You’re a girl, do you hear me? Nobody would think you’re a boy. None of my babies are ugly, not one! Precious jewels, all seven of you. I don’t wish to hear another word about ugly, or looking like a boy.”
She bought me ribbons for my hair. Beautiful soft cotton ribbons, the colour of red wine. She insisted with ribbons as pretty as those, there would be no excuse to feel unattractive. Once again she drew me in front of the mirror. Embarrassed, I watched her tie those ribbons in two ridiculous bunches on my shoulder length mousey brown hair. She did her motherly best to persuade me they looked good. She forced the answer from me, the one she wanted to hear… I was pretty. I agreed, but only to make her feel better. But I saw a girl who looked like a boy… in ribbons.
I remember catching my reflection in a small stream while on a country walk. My unremarkable face looking back at me from those gentle ripples of water. It wasn’t what I wanted to see. I was twelve years old and still hadn’t blossomed into the girl I imagined myself to be. At school, the pretty smart girls emotionally skinned me alive, for failing to be as they were. They made me feel I was a disappointment, even at failing to being their friend.
It seemed to me attractive girls always got what they wanted. I wished for boys to pull my hair, and follow me home after school, even if it was just to annoy me. They never did. And when we stood in a circle to play Farmer’s In His Den, every girl in the school was chosen as the farmers wife, but not me. Even my two sisters, who weren’t great beauties, even they got their chance to stand in the centre of that circle, knowing they were pretty enough not to be excluded.
I decided there had to be a change. There was no point in trying to behave like a girl, if I was going to be rejected for failing. So I reinvented myself. My appearance remained a girl, of course. I still wore dresses, skirts and ribbons hanging from my hair, but I sought to destroy everything that ridiculed me for not owning a pleasing appearance. I became like a boy, the worst kind of boy.
I discovered being a girl who behaved as a cruel boy was a frightening sight for smart girls. Anyone in the school playground so much as looked at me in the wrong way, I’d be after them. Pulling hair, biting skin, punching, kicking, or demanding they hand over the packed lunch their loving mothers had made for them. In no time at all, I’d become the school bully. I was hated by almost everyone. But strangely, I loved they way they despised me. They hated me for my alarming personality, and that was something I’d chosen to be. I didn’t have to think about how I’d missed out on good looks. I was frightening, which gave me power over emotion… something pretty girls didn’t have much of.
Becoming the school bully had a few disadvantages. I may have been clever at manipulating and scaring pretty girls, but I had no idea how to get away with evil deeds and not be caught. When a pretty girl was found crying in the playground, five pretty ones would run to her side, then more, and more. Ten pretty girls, gathered around the tearful one. Ten pairs of glaring eyes, all accusing me, but not one girl dared to speak to me.
My offensive behaviour often found me standing in front of the overbearing headmistress with my palm outstretched waiting to receive lashings from a cane. Miss Fellows had a very sharp swipe, never leaving any evidence, apart from the memory of pain. But on one of those occasions I decided I’d had enough of punishment. After all, it wasn’t my fault I failed at being physically adorable, and it seemed to me I was receiving an unreasonable hiding, for being unattractive.
Just before the cane slashed across my perspiring skin I made a sudden wild dash for the door. Flew through the hallway, and ran down the flight stairs at such a speed I tripped and rolled down the last four steps. Fear and adrenalin were so great, I didn’t feel a thing. Miss Fellows filled the halls with rage, she howled like a banshee, demanding my return. I laughed… I’d lost all care. I was running for freedom, nothing could stop me.
I sprung out through the main entrance like a frightened squirrel, sprinted across the playground, ripped open those iron gates as if they had been made of cardboard and ran so fast my soles barely touched the ground. I didn’t stop until pavements and people disappeared and I stood in open country, surrounded by sheep, cows, and deep rolling hills. The confines of the school gates long gone, Miss Fellows still echoing in my ears. But no accusations, no disapproval or stinging canes. What freedom! What peace I found there!
It wasn’t the first time I’d gone to that rural spot. It was a favourite place for me and my sisters, somewhere tranquil, away from our overfull household. A place where we could talk about anything we wished, as loud as we wanted. No ears to overhear our conversation. Sometimes our brothers joined us, we played cowboys and indians, or war games, losing ourselves in the bliss of make-believe. Occasionally we built a fire near the edge of the woods, seated in a circle we’d tell ghost stories and learned how to inhale Woodbines. We scared ourselves stupid, seeing shapes moving in dark trees, convincing us those creepy tales we’d told had talked up spirits and devils coming directly for us.
The day I ran from school, it felt very different in that place. Out in the open, on my own, with nothing to distract me from the disturbing events of the morning. I sulked for a while. Going over many times what I’d done. Remembering Miss Fellows calling me a vile child. And how that pretty girl in the playground had boasted of her Sunday lunch with an ample serving of roast lamb. Then making everyone twice as jealous in telling them just how many sweets her generous uncle Tim lavished on her.
We all knew her uncle got what he wanted on the black market. He wasn’t a man to confront over anything. He had contacts, dark mysterious contacts, the rationing of war didn’t seem to affect him. I didn’t understand it at that age, but I knew he was a man to be feared. And while everyone else in the town ate beetroot and salad sandwiches instead of ham or chicken between their bread, those who didn’t deserve to be privileged were feeding their faces, fattening their bodies, boasting to the skinny and deprived.
She had to suffer. I had to make her feel pain. I stabbed her with a pencil I’d stolen from the classroom. I sharpened it to a perfect weapon. She opened her mouth, bragging spilling out, I stabbed her arm, loaded with anger. Lead from the pencil snapped off, embedded into her skin. A tiny trickle of blood appeared, she screamed as if I’d staked her heart. I suppose in a way, I had. Instantly, I was the wicked child forcing an innocent pencil to inflict wounds.
I spent some time in that country air, throwing stones at innocent trees. Singing songs to myself, trying to erase Miss Fellows voice from ringing in my head. Watching those little stones bouncing off the robust tree trunks was strangely satisfying. It was as if the trees had become the people I lathed, I was giving them the stoning they deserved. But soon my arm hurt from the force of anger, I gave up and wandered off to find our hiding place. The special place my sisters and I created to keep secret things, those things we didn’t want anyone at home to know about. We dug a hole under a prickly holly tree, lined it with stones to form a box, covering with more stones and earth, leaving a little piece of red string sticking out of the ground, to mark where it was.
I knew what I wanted, the little Y shaped twig, the catapult. I filled my pockets with pebbles, made my way back to the big strong trees. My intention – to continue the stoning. But on the way my eye was drawn to a smaller tree in the middle of the field, full with black crows. What a noise they made! Instantly my hand went in my pocket for one of those pebbles, I took a good shot at the rowdy birds. The first one pinged lightly off a branch, a few birds fluttered away. But my second shot was marvellous, a loud crack sounded as it hit a branch, and all at once the crows lifted off like a large dark spirit across the blue sky, a mass evacuation. I was amazed at my strength to frighten.
Instead of returning to inflict a stoning on the big old trees, I went looking for birds, hoping to maintain my catapult thrill. I fired random hit and miss shots, a few birds fluttered from their resting place. And then I came across a lone bird, a Song Thrush perched on tall overgrown bush, sweetly singing it’s heart out.
I paused for a moment, stunned by the beauty of it’s song. Such a joyful sound pouring out from a tiny creature. It seemed odd, in a world where there was so much suffering, where people blew each other to pieces, sacrificed lives for what seemed a futile battle, where loss and grief became part of everyday life, that a bird could sound… so happy. “Songs keep us going.” my mother had told me, “They give hope.” I wondered if the Song Thrush sang because it was happy, or in hope because it knew suffering?
My anger continued, smouldering on what had happened in the playground. That pretty boasting girl was still very much on my mind. Somehow, her presence appeared in the bird. The two felt the same to me. Joy and songs, didn’t make much sense any more. Insanely, I was jealous, of a little bird. I reached for a pebble, pulled on that catapult as hard as I could and fired towards the bush. I expected to hear a snap or a sharp rustle of leaves. I heard nothing, not a thing. Instead of a bird taking flight, I saw it fall through the branches. I shouted “I got it – I got it!” I couldn’t believe it, one random shot, I’d hit my target perfectly.
Excited, I ran over to where it fell. I couldn’t see it, until I looked to the left of the bush where a bunch of heather with delicate white flowers grew. In between the heather lay the Song Thrush, face down in the grass. I flipped it over with the end of my catapult and found it wasn’t dead, not completely. It’s body shook in spasms, eyes staring blankly. I stepped back, horror rushing through me. What was I thinking, shooting birds? I felt sick, weak at the knees. The hate inside, was hating me. I found no excuse, no reason for an innocent bird to die. It’s blood was on my head.
I threw my catapult to the ground and instinctively ran, but this time my running was an overwhelming repulsion, shear dread at what I’d done. I couldn’t have stayed a moment longer. Could not bare to look at what my hands were capable of. I wanted to rush to the safety of my mother, tell her how evil I was. But she was too far. I wished to cry out for God’s forgiveness. I couldn’t. Not until I’d confessed to the priest, and how was I going to face that? How could I confess cold blooded cruelty? Even if it was just one small bird, what did that say of the decrepit state of my mind? My poor heart, it pounded heavy as I bolted up the steep roads heading for home.
Arriving at our back yard I bashed open the wooden gate, instead of finding my diligent mother sweeping the path or taking washing off the line, there was a gathering of family. Aunts, uncles and cousins, extended family I hadn’t seen for some time. They were laughing and joking, getting ready to position themselves for a group photograph. My father looking into his Box Brownie telling everyone to practice saying cheese.
My sister May ran to me and whispered “Where did you go? You’ve been gone for hours!” I wanted to whisper – our special place, but I couldn’t, because… I’d ruined it. It would never be special again. My mother called out, “Come on Ruth, you’re late, get in line!” She held out her large loving arms and I ran to her like a lost lamb, turned to face the camera and dutifully smiled. At least, I thought I’d smiled.
I still have the picture… everyone grinning widely, except me. My face like ice, pale and flat. An expression showing the mocking of birds was a tough lesson. Every time I’ve been tempted to hate, each time I’ve wanted to be cruel, to get revenge, or even just resent my own face, I look at that photograph and remind myself of what it becomes.
The bird feeders are staying. Who knows, I may even buy another. I don’t care how Eddy feels, my junk-yard garden is okay by my standards. He’s never going to look after the wildlife, he has enough cats to kill a tree full of innocent birds. The responsibility is mine. Someone needs to care for our feathered friends.