I have a big map to look at for geography so I am doing my homework at the table downstairs. There is more space there than on the desk in my room.
As I am used to the various noises in the house, I ignore the sound and get on with studying the map.
Actually that doesn’t sound like any of the usual noises the house makes. Although I go back to my homework, I am more alert to my surroundings.
There it is again! This time I can tell it came from the fireplace. Yes, we still have an open fire although we only light it occasionally. Dad says ‘high days and holidays’. I look across to the fire and can see there is a collection of sticks in the grate. Where have they come from? I don’t remember them being there last night — not that I was taking any notice. While I am thinking about it, ‘kplufk’, another stick drops down the chimney onto the pile.
Intrigued I give up on the map and go outside to see if I can see what is throwing sticks down our chimney.
I don’t have long to wait until I see what I think is a crow perched on the chimney pot with a stick in its beak. The bird briefly disappears from view returning without the stick.
Now that I know the source of the noise, I can get back to my homework. I want to finish it before we have our evening meal. That way I will have the rest of the evening free to do some on-line reading.
I mention the crow and the pile of sticks in the fireplace to Dad as we are eating.
“It will be building a nest in the chimney. Bugger!” he says, which gets the response I have come to expect from Mum.
“Language, Timothy,” she smirks. Dad’s name isn’t Timothy, so where she gets that from, I don’t know. Strange creatures, parents.
“It probably wasn’t a crow,” Dad continues, lapsing into teaching mode. “More likely a jackdaw. They are notorious for building nests in chimneys. Same family as the crow but a bit smaller. Also they have two-tone plumage. Was yours grey around the neck?”
“Yes, I think so,” I reply. “Although it was hard to tell with it being against the light, up on the chimney pot.”
“We’ll have to get the rods and brushes out and dislodge it,” Dad says. “We’ll probably need to do it more than once before they get the hint and move elsewhere. We’ll have a go at the weekend.”
We? I guess I am being volunteered — again!
After the meal, I make an excuse of more homework and go upstairs to my room. My on-line reading will be much more interesting than the soaps the ’rents will be watching on telly. Even homework would be more interesting in that I might learn something. Having said that I don’t think Dad actually watches either. I think he just zones out.
I suppose I should mention what I am reading. Between us, Tony and I have found a couple of websites with stories aimed a gay teens, although we think a lot of older guys like to visit too as they seem to be the ones posting most of the forum comments. Maybe being older they are more relaxed about leaving feedback. I’m not sure I’m ready to put my name up there. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, there is no sense that the oldies are trying to groom the younger readers and sometimes they are able to offer useful advice.
One of the best sites doesn’t just have stories; it also has advice for gay teens on matters ranging from sexual health to abusive relationships. Definitely expands on what we learnt in sex-ed.
At the moment I am on the last two parts of a big series . The stories are what Grandad would describe as a ‘good yarn’, although I am not sure I would want the ’rents or him and definitely not Grandma reading them. Some are pretty explicit. I have noticed some ‘teaching points’ though, should Tony and I want to try… er, let’s just say go further than we go at the moment. A lot further.
The earliest stories are about one family and those around them, but then another character comes to the fore. He is not necessarily the central character, but things happen when he is around, sort of like a catalyst. Including supernatural stuff like ghosts. Especially when the action takes place in a fictional kingdom in Eastern Europe.
I spent too long reading last night. I’m not really concentrating in today’s lessons. Lack of sleep and my head still full of the story. Tony must have noticed.
“You weren’t with it in English, were you?” he comments at break.
Of course I have to admit to why and tell him what I am reading at the moment when he asks.
“Oh, I’ve read those stories. They get really interesting,” he says before that cute grin of his appears. “You’d better have your wits about you next period. We’ve got Mrs O’Reilly. Merkin will be on the prowl.”
Merkin is in her usual place on top of the cupboard behind the art teacher’s desk. The cat smiles at me as we enter the classroom. I’m not sure that I find that smile comforting!
Today, Mrs O’Reilly is assessing our current projects and telling us what she wants each of us to do next. She doesn’t tell us all to do the same thing. Apparently that way makes it harder to copy or pinch ideas from other students. She does make sure we cover all the skills required for the course.
Merkin is following along as the teacher makes her round of the classroom. The cat sits on my desk as the teacher comes to look at Tony’s and my work.
“Your draughtsmanship is getting quite good. You should be pleased with that,” Mrs O’Reilly says to me after looking my project. “And that’s another clever piece of photo-editing, Tony.” She writes something in her note book before continuing. “I think it is time you two swapped over. Tony I want you to do a pen and ink drawing. You can colour it with watercolours if you want. Perhaps something like a Canaletto. Eh?”
“Er. Yes Miss.” Tony doesn’t sound happy. His knows his drawing skills aren’t very good.
“And you,” the teacher says turning to me. I want you to do a photomontage with pictures you have taken yourself. You can demonstrate the techniques to each other, but you are not to do the other’s project. No giving each other ideas either. We will be able to tell, won’t we Merkin?”
The cat lets out a soft mew as if agreeing.
“Remember it is May Day next week,” Mrs O’Reilly says. “I’m suggesting that to everyone not as a theme but as a possible source of ideas.”
That’s a good suggestion. I might get some good photos. There are always some celebrations in the town. It’s an ancient tradition here. Things like choristers singing from the top of the church tower at dawn and Morris dancing in the square. Some people are daft enough to jump into the river from the bridge as the choir is singing.
But why is the cat looking across at our friend, Donny, with her best sinister grin?
We grab our usual table as lunch. The gang’s all there.
“What did the Wicked Witch say to you two?” Donny asks when we are all settled.
“That I should do a photomontage,” I reply.
“And I should do a pen and ink — like a Canaletto,” Tony grumbles.
Of course I have to wind him up.
“What’s a Canaletto? It sounds like something you get in Bruno’s restaurant.”
It’s not actually Bruno’s restaurant. His family run the Italian near the park.
“You’re thinking of cannelloni,” says Bruno when he stops laughing. “You know, filled pasta tubes.”
I wink at Bruno to show I know that and was joking.
“You silly chuff,” Tony says between giggles. “Canaletto was an eighteenth century Venetian artist noted for his draughtsmanship.”
“Even I knew that,” Donny chimes in. “Have any of you any ideas or subjects in mind yet?”
There are mumbled negatives around the table.
“Mrs O’Reilly did suggest we might pick up some ideas at the May Day celebrations,” Tony remarks.
“She said that to me too,” says Donny. “Except she called it ‘Beltane’ instead of May Day. Does that mean anything?”
Tony gets a pensive look but doesn’t say anything.
“You’ll have to do your homework on your own tonight,” Tony says as we leave the school after our last class. “The ’rents want me home. We’re going to a concert in Derby.”
“Er, okay. I’ve got a note of the other homework, but what was English?”
“I knew you weren’t awake! We have to read ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allen Poe and make notes on what we think it is about and what we think of it.”
“Shit! You know I hate that sort of thing.”
“Make a start on it and maybe we’ll have a chance to look at it over the weekend. It’s for discussion in class next week.” Tony starts to walk off in the direction of his house. I catch up with him. There is something I want to ask.
“Donny was asking about Beltane at lunch. You looked as though you know something about it but didn’t say anything.”
“It’s a pagan festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, it falls on May the first. I believe it involves dancing around a bonfire, invoking blessings for a good harvest.”
I knew Tony would know something about it. He is like a magpie collecting shiny interesting facts that might be useful someday.
“Why would Mrs O’Reilly mention it to Donny?”
“Probably just winding him up. We know she knows he calls her the Wicked Witch. If he finds out it’s a pagan ritual he might think it involves a sacrifice — he’ll be worried it’s him!
“And since we’re talking about Mrs O’Reilly’s projects, make sure you have a camera with you at all times. You never know when you will get a shot you can use.
“Must go. See you tomorrow,” Tony says as dashes off. I turn and go home.
I get my other homework done then decide I had better make the effort and find the copy of ‘The Raven’ the teacher handed out. It’s a long poem. I should have guessed. I don’t like poetry, I don’t see the point. Tony says I need to look for the imagery and the concise use of language, meter and rhyme. Except some of the stuff we have to read doesn’t even rhyme.
Maybe it’s me but reading it through it looks wooden and awkward on the page. It does at least have a rhyme though. I make some notes but know I am missing the things the teacher will want us to have picked up on. I hope Tony will be able to help.
Dad catches me after supper and says we will do the chimney on Saturday morning.
“It will get us out of going shopping,” he says conspiratorially.
Of course I find time for more of the on-line story before bedtime. I make sure I stop earlier than last night though.
“How was the concert?” I ask Tony when we meet on Friday before school.
“Great!” he replies then blushes at his enthusiasm. “Well, the ’rents didn’t saying thing before, but it was actually the ballet…”
So that’s why he blushed. He’s expecting me to take the piss! I behave myself and let the opportunity pass. There is amusement in my voice though.
“Ballet? Since when have you been into ballet?”
“Last night!” he laughs. “I’m not really, but the ’rents thought it would be educational. It certainly was.”
“What did you see?”
“Debussy’s ‘Prelude de l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun’. I’ve heard the music before, but I couldn’t believe how erotic the dancing made it. They say Nijinsky ‘came’ on stage when he danced the first performance in eighteen ninety four. Caused a riot.”
Another magpie fact from my boyfriend.
“And last night, did you wet yourself watching?” I can’t resist asking.
“Nah! You might have done though. The dancer looked like an older version of Simon from the coffee shop.”
“Sure,” I mumble before changing the subject. “I think I’ve heard that piece. It can’t be more than ten minutes long though. What else did you see?”
“Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. Whenever I hear it, I’m always amazed how modern it sounds yet it’s over a hundred years old. But the visceral intensity of the music was heightened by the dancing depicting the celebration of spring and the ritual sacrifice.”
Something springs to mind but before I can put the thought into words the bell goes summoning us to lessons.
When the conversation at our lunch table falters, Tony asks me how I am getting on with ‘The Raven’.
“Not very well,” I reply. “I guess the repeated ‘ore’ rhymes: Lenore, nevermore, door, are supposed to reflect the ‘caw’, call of a raven.”
“That’s good,” Tony acknowledges. “What else have you got out of it?”
“Not much. The house must have high ceilings though.”
Paul and Mel have been listening to our conversation. Paul laughs.
“That’s what I thought too!”
Tony just rolls his eyes and asks how we come to that conclusion.
“That bit about the bird sitting on a bust of Pallas over the door,” I say.” The door will be about two metres, the bust: sixty centimetres. Allowing for the bird: three metres. Ten feet if you prefer.”
“Probably more than that,” Paul adds. “Ravens are really big birds. I saw them at the Tower when Dad dragged us there last October.”
“I guess you two are going to be engineers,” Mel observes.
In the morning, Dad is in the kitchen supping tea when I go down for breakfast. He is wearing his boiler suit. Mum calls it his romper suit after those things for babies.
“Didn’t you say Tony was coming over later this morning.” he says. “We’d best get on with it, if we’re going to get the chimney done before he arrives.”
“How long is it going to take?” I ask as I head towards the bread bin and the toaster.
“Not long if we don’t make too much mess. You’d best change into something scruffy after you’ve had your breakfast.”
At least he doesn’t make his usual joke about me being scruffy already. He does ask me to do a slice of toast for him though.
“Mm. It’s probably time you had a boiler suit,” Dad mumbles between bites of toast. “I’ll see if they have anything on the market on Thursday.”
When I have changed, Dad has me move the furniture out of the way while he goes and gets the rods and brushes out of the garage. He also comes back with some old sheets and some plastic we use to cover the furniture and the floor. We use duct tape to seal one piece of plastic over the fireplace opening to try and stop any soot we bring down from escaping into the room. Dad says it’ll get everywhere if we aren’t careful and is really difficult to clear up.
“We’d best put these on as well,” Dad says as he hands me a dust mask.
Dad screws a steel worm attachment on the end of a rod, passes it through a hole in the plastic covering the fireplace and pushes it up the chimney. He screws additional rods to the first in succession as I pass them to him. When he has several rods up the chimney, he stops and tells me to have a go.
“See how you can feel the obstruction,” he says as I push the rods up. “That should be the nest. Twist the rods as if you were screwing them together and the worm will bite into the underside of the nest. If you then pull down it should start to break up the nest. Keep twisting the rods to make sure they don’t unscrew. That would be a disaster!”
When I pull on the rods a pile of sticks falls down the chimney. Of course there is soot as well. It takes several goes to clear the chimney. Dad makes me bring all rods down, unscrewing them one at a time, until we can replace the worm with a brush to shove up the flue. This brings down yet more soot and twigs. When he thinks the brush is clear of the chimney, Dad has me go outside to check. I can see it waving about above the pot.
We get the rods and brush out of the chimney and start clearing up the debris we have brought down. Although we are careful, our hands and faces get soot on them. Tony arrives as we are starting to roll up the dust sheets. He is wearing a white shirt.
“You’d best take that shirt off, if you’re going to give him a hug,” Dad says to Tony. “Or you’ll have paw prints all over it.” I don’t get a hug with or without his shirt. Pity. I think it would have been fun to put sooty hand prints on his torso then share a shower washing them off!
Tony makes himself useful by vacuuming round while Dad and I finish clearing the sheets and brushes away and go to clean up.
“Don’t forget to take a selfie,” Tony says as I head towards the stairs. “You covered in soot might be useful for your project!”
In the time Dad and I take for our showers, change and get back downstairs, Tony gets tea mashing and finds the biscuit tin.
“What’s this project?” Dad asks. “Something for school?”
I explain that Mrs O’Reilly wants me to do a photo project and that I have to take the pictures myself.
“So, are you two going out now to take pictures?”
“The light wasn’t very good when I was walking over. We’ll try later,” Tony replies to Dad then turns to me. “Do you want to look at ‘The Raven’ for English?”
“Isn’t that a poem by Poe?” Dad comments. “Also wrote ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’. I struggled with poetry. Found it easier if I read it out loud. Better still have someone read it to you.”
“Good idea, Dad. I bet there’s a reading on-line.”
“I heard it read by Christopher Lee once. Long time ago — before you were born.”
“Who was he?”
“Wasn’t he an actor in the Lord of The Rings films?” Tony queries.
“I don’t know about that,” Dad replies. “But I know he did a lot of horror movies ages ago, including adaptations of Poe’s stories. He played Dracula many times.”
Tony and I go up to my room and switch on my computer.
“You know we are lucky with our parents, don’t you?” Tony remarks while we wait for the machine to boot.
“You mean because they have never said anything against us?”
“That too. But I was meaning both our parents take an interest in what we are doing at school. Like your dad asking about your project for Mrs O’Reilly and the poem. My dad says a lot of parents can’t be bothered these days.”
We find several recordings of the poem. There is one with Christopher Lee, so we listen to that one. I see Dad’s point about it making more sense hearing it out loud.
When I (with Tony’s help) have finished making notes about the poem, we decide to walk through the park on our way into town.
“Keep your phone handy,” Tony reminds me. “You never know when something worth photographing might happen.”
There seems to be more rubbish lying around in the park than usual. Things like crisp packets, old papers and plastic drinks bottles. I take a few shots thinking I could possibly use my project to comment on the state of our town. They might contrast with any pictures I get on May Day.
Tony, being the Boy Scout that he is, produces a plastic carrier bag and starts collecting up some of the rubbish. I’ve got my own carrier that I had brought in case I bought anything in town. We have soon filled both bags.
“We can dump the bags in the two big steel wheelie bins near the buildings over there.” I point and start walking in the appropriate direction.
“Don’t do anything when we get there,” Tony says.
“Those big ash trees behind the buildings. They are a rookery, remember. You can see the nests in winter when there aren’t any leaves on the trees.”
For once, I immediately see what he is suggesting.
“Got you! If you bang the lids on the bins hard enough, the noise should disturb them and I might get a shot or two with them in the air.”
When I have my phone at the ready, Tony lifts the lids on the bins and slams them down hard. Success. There is a clamour as the rooks take to the air and circle around, looking for the possible threat. I take a quick series of shots, panning with the flock until the birds all fly off or return to the trees.
“You should be able to make something out of those,” says Tony when we look through the pictures later.
I get a lot of reading done over the weekend. I’m now on the last and longest story and things are getting further into the supernatural. Tony must have meant interesting in inverted commas, when he described them. At lunch on Monday, he asks where I am in the stories and what I think of them.
“I’m still enjoying them but there’s a lot of supernatural stuff. I’m sure I am missing a lot of implied detail around religion and the mythology of the Kingdom.”
“They do get metaphysical in places, don’t they?”
I should have known Tony would have a word for it.
Mrs O’Reilly is supervising in the canteen today, making sure we stack our empty plates properly when we return them to the counter.
“Ah, boys. Don’t forget it’s May Day tomorrow,” she states. “Dawn is at a quarter to five, so set your alarms.”
Argh! I’d forgotten it was that early when I agreed it would be good for taking photos. While I am processing the thought, I overhear the teacher talking to the person behind us.
“Donny! May Day tomorrow. I’m sure your sisters will make sure you are up on time.”
The ’rents gave each other funny looks when I said I would be getting up in time to photograph the dawn celebrations. However, I do manage to drag myself out of bed and down to the river bridge near the church in time. Just in time. I don’t have time to look for Tony in the crowd.
I quickly get some photos of the buildings outlined against the brightening sky and of the sunrise itself. Although the choir is singing from the church tower, I can’t really hear them in the street below. I can’t see them either. They are too high up. What I can see are several mad fools getting ready to jump into the river. I get myself to the riverbank where I hope I will get good shots of the people as they jump in.
There are too many jumping for me to waste time trying to see if I recognise anyone. I’m concentrating on getting the shots.
When the jumpers have stopped, I climb back onto the bridge. Tony is there waiting for me.
“I saw you go down to the bank. Did you get any good shots?” he asks.
“I don’t know, but I think so.”
We decide to walk to the town square to see what is happening there. The Morris dancers are in action. Bells rattling, hankies waving and sticks clashing.
“Anything like ‘Rite of Spring’?” I ask, remembering Tony’s visit to the ballet. He laughs.
“Nothing like. Although there are probably some similar sentiments in there somewhere!”
We take a few photos but soon decide there is something essential we both have to do before school — Breakfast!
Mum and Dad are in the kitchen when I get home. Dad is grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I guess he won the bet as to whether I would actually get up in time to see the dawn.
“Get any good shots,” he asks.
“I hope so. I haven’t looked yet.”
“What did you take?” asks Mum as she puts a mug of tea and a plate of toast in front of me.
“Some shots of the dawn. Some of the people jumping off the bridge — why do people want to do that? — and some of the Morris dancers in the…”
“No, mister,” Mum interrupts, wagging her finger at Dad. “Don’t you dare come out with that Morris dancing joke!” Dad just grins and starts to sup his tea.
“The one about circumcision?” I ask as innocently as I can.
Dad does the nose trick: tea everywhere. Got him!
It’s Thursday and I still haven’t got an idea of what I am going to do for Mrs O’Reilly. I haven’t even looked at the pictures I took on May Day. I’ll have to do it in class. She’ll want to she the pictures anyway and maybe she’ll drop a hint to prompt an idea.
I did remember to re-read ‘The Raven’ and my notes last night. We have English class before Art.
I like to think that I make a constructive effort in the English class. The teacher seems pleased with my contribution. After consideration of the poem he broadens the discussion to ravens more generally.
Some consider the raven to be a bird of ill-omen, and yet in Celtic lore the raven was seen as associated with guardians. Maybe this is the origin of the prophecy that the kingdom will fall if the ravens leave the Tower of London. Then, in Norse mythology, Odin, the chief god was accompanied by a pair of ravens named for thought and memory. I wonder if the sinister side of the bird’s reputation is due to a reaction by the early church in Scandinavia and Celtic lands to its position in the pagan religions. Tony says he had the same thought when I mention it at break.
Since it was a nice day, Tony and I had gone out into the school yard at break time. On our way back into school we see Merkin guarding a mouse. I hope the poor thing is dead and she is not just playing with it.
Once in Mrs O’Reilly’s classroom, I start loading up my pictures on computer. As I look through the ones of people jumping into the river, I realise the person in the sharpest one looks like Donny. I nudge Tony and ask him if he agrees.
“Definitely. But why is he covered in what appear to be sooty hand prints?”
“I don’t know, but I guess washing them off is a good reason for jumping in the river. Good enough for Donny, anyway.”
Donny is too far away to ask him without attracting the unwanted attention of the teacher. Except we get her attention anyway when she comes up behind me and looks over my shoulder.
“Ah yes,” she says. “That’s Donny isn’t it? His sisters took him to their Beltane celebrations.”
How does she know that?
“Nice clear picture,” Mrs O’Reilly continues. “What else have you got?”
I change the view to thumbnails so she can see most of the pictures I have taken.
“Those look interesting.” She points to the sequence with the rooks. I enlarge the one that thought the best.
“You did well to capture the rooks in flight like that. How did you do it?”
I tell her about Tony banging the bin lids in the park to get the birds in the air.
“Remember the rules I gave you last week. Did Tony give you the idea?”
“No, Miss,” Tony answers for me. “Although I did point out the bins were near the rookery, he had the idea.”
“I’ll accept that,” the teacher says to me. “You can use those shots.”
Tony asks the question I was thinking of.
“You seem to know about Beltane, Miss. Why is Donny covered in sooty handprints in the photo we were looking at earlier?”
“The hand prints are made with ash from the fire.” Mrs O’Reilly seems amused. “I believe they are symbolic of a more ancient rite.”
I don’t know if she was going to say more on the subject, but we are interrupted by Merkin meowing at our feet. We look down. She has brought a large and very dead black bird with her. The teacher picks it up and lays it, with its wings out, on my desk. The cat jumps up and sits proudly next to the bird.
“Really, Merkin. A crow?” Mrs O’Reilly queries. “Did it try to take your mouse?”
The cat does inscrutable for a moment then uses a paw to nudge the bird in my direction.
“Looks like she has presented it to you. Perhaps you can use it in your project,” the teacher remarks before moving on to talk to other pupils.
Mrs O’Reilly didn’t give me a specific instruction; nevertheless, for some reason the outstretched wings put me in mind of the birdman race in the story I’m reading. I have an idea of what I am going to do for my project.
At the end of the lesson, boy-scout Tony produces a bag to put the crow in for me to take it home.
“What do you think Mrs O’Reilly meant about the hand prints on Donny being symbolic of some ancient rite?” I ask Tony after school.
“I don’t know. But she was specific about using ash from the fire. It could be the old rite involved immolation.”
“Yeah, right.” I’ll look it up when I get home.
Now I have the idea for my project, it doesn’t take me long to put it together. I blend a photo of the crow’s wings with the picture of Donny jumping from the bridge. I find a picture I took one day we met Grandad and Grandma up in the Peak District and use that for the background. The rooks I use as an intermediate layer. After adding some touches to disguise Donny a bit, I’m all done. I think Mrs O’Reilly will like it.
Tony will be impressed that I haven’t had to ask him to help me with editing everything together. But then I have watched him at work on his photographs often enough.
I have just finished up, when Dad comes in from work. He tells me he looked on the market for a boiler suit for me. But they didn’t have any my size. Thank goodness. Tony would pick up on Mum calling it my romper suit and I would never hear the end of it.
Copyright © Pedro July 2022
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