In the mornings — before school — there was always tea. China cups, whistling kettle, hot metal stove. Warm smell of butane, blackened matches, crunch of buttered things. Now there is only steam. It pools on every surface and spit-trickles down black windowpanes, shiny tears.
Steam is good for Robert’s lungs, Mama says. The bath is always full. There are bowls and buckets and herbs and strong-scented oils which sting the backs of my eyes and scrunch my nose. But Robert isn’t getting any better, and so we pray.
We kneel on soggy carpet, clutching slippery rosaries to our hearts and pray to the cracked porcelain coal-eyed figures on the fireplace who drip and drip and drip and I wonder if the prayers escape or float above our heads, trapped in the steam?
The air is cold. The morning moon hasn’t gone to bed as I walk to school. Tiptoe, tiptoe past the scabby, scruffy allotments, running my hand along the mouldy fence as dewy grass climbs my socks. Birds chatter in the mist, watched by a skinny cat with matted fur and sulphur-eyes. The hedgerows bristle with scritch-scratching feet and tiny claws; bulbs sleep soundly beneath the topsoil.
All of a sudden there comes a sing-song! A procession — toads tramping through a smashed hole in the splintery fence. I scoop one in my hands, cup him close and he croaks and chirrups and bulges. A rusted tin bucket — half full of rainwater— winks at me in the pale dawn and I plunge the toad inside. Then I go back for the rest.
I climb onto the rickety roof of a gardener’s shed and the wind wobbles and whips us. My bucket full of toads — ten, twelve, hundreds — standing on each other not knowing which way is up. I pick one. Drop him off the roof. Onto the paving slab path below. He hits the concrete with a wet slap! but his fat belly protects him and he gets up and tries to work his bandy-legs but I jump down and catch him and put him back in my bucket.
Last week a man came to our school assembly. He wore a priest’s collar and he carried a ladder over his shoulder.
He propped the ladder against a wall and walked under it, saying don’t be frightened of bad luck children, Jesus protects us.
How many times had the priest done this? Why did Jesus keep him safe while Robert fights for breath, pale and gasping and rattling. Mama and Papa holding his wet, useless limbs splayed between them?
I throw the toads into the air so they hit the ground from a much greater height. I retrieve the ones who’re still moving (the champions) and drop them again. Eventually they stop rolling onto their fat bellies and their legs stop kicking and they lie strewn like scattered soldiers and at last there is a stillness.
A fine rain hangs in the air like the breath of God. And I am thankful for the way it falls so softly on the toads, because I’d never want them to have to feel the terrible dryness of a morning.
RICK WHITE is a fiction writer from Manchester, UK whose work can be found in many fine lit journals including Trampset, Milk Candy Review, and Lunate. Rick’s debut collection Talking to Ghosts at Parties is available now via Storgy Books.