Chicken & Hen

(Excerpt published with the permission of Ponies + Horses Books)

EriskayWhen I was ten years old, my mum ran out to where I was riding my bike determinedly around the gardens in front of the house, her face flushed, her blue, paint-splotched smock flapping as she ran. My mum wasn’t prone to loping across communal gardens in full sight of all the watchful neighbours, so I knew this must be something significant. As I screeched to a stop, she handed me an 8 by 10 photo of a small boy, with rumpled chestnut hair, a tentative smile and huge, brown, hopeful puppy eyes.

“This is your new brother,” she said.

I dropped my bike and grabbed the photo, staring at the wee face.

“Is he really ours? To keep?”

She nodded, eyes brimming, and hugged me, both of us still staring at the photo.

“He’s called Brian.”

She had just got the call—we had been approved to adopt this tiny, timid-looking toddler. I couldn’t quite believe my luck. There I was, thinking that it’d be a good afternoon if I got to sneak across Hyndland Road to Chisholm’s to get a few Cola Cubes or maybe a Tunnock’s Teacake and here I was getting a wee brother. I was thrilled, but I was also taken by surprise. I had had no idea that my mum and dad had snuck out sibling-shopping on the sly, without mentioning what they were up to.

“Are you sure?” I pleaded. “Are you really sure this time?”

I’d taken it badly when the adoption of our last soon-to-be-new brother, Paddy, had fallen through two years earlier. And I’d found the process of being observed by social workers—as I attempted to appear wise, benevolent and older sisterly—stressful. I was already an older sister and up till then I had assumed that my duties revolved around attempting to persuade my wee sister to drink paint instead of milk, giving her regular bats round the head with a tennis racquet and issuing the very occasional invitation to dance to KC and the Sunshine Band with me and my best friend, Briony, when she least expected it. But what if there was more to it? What if there was some official Big Sister Checklist and I flunked it? The adoption home study visits felt like an audition for the part. And I was very poor at auditions. The combination of a crow-like croak and terminal stage fright had seen me denied even the role of Third Camel in the Notre Dame Primary musical last year and I’d been demoted to stagehand for this year’s pop concert before I even opened my mouth. The social worker sessions made me anxious. And when I was anxious, I talked. A lot. About weird things.

I usually loved being the centre of attention—when there weren’t camels or high-pitched musical numbers involved. Answering questions about myself was one of my all-time favourite activities. But these weren’t questions or tests I could prepare for. My parents had told me just to be “myself,” but did that really mean I should tell them about my plans to become the patron saint of cats, or that I was pretty sure I would eventually meet a talking horse or about the fortune I extracted from my siblings courtesy of the rigged one-armed bandit slot machine I made from a shoebox, a pencil and three thread bobbins?

During the home studies, I was acutely aware that my mum had been shuffled out of the room as Mel, the unsmiling social worker, asked careful questions, managing to remain expressionless throughout, regardless of how outlandish my answers got. Nobody ever told me if I’d got the questions right. What was the right answer to “Tell me about playtime,” anyway? Maybe I shouldn’t have answered “making cats dance” when Mel asked me what were my household chores. Maybe Orla had told him about the paint. Maybe my answers had taken Paddy away. This time around—having apparently passed the home study last time, despite my pronouncements—my parents had decided to keep this one under wraps until much later in the process, until Brian was a sure thing.

“We’re definitely getting this one. You’ll meet him on Saturday.”

I looked at the tiny boy in the photograph with his huge, almost worried eyes and loved him immediately.

“It’s still a secret, don’t tell anyone yet,” my mum called after me as I pedalled away, bellowing, “I’m getting a new wee brother! I’m getting a new wee brother!”

*

My older sister Ciara died of leukemia when she was four, changing the family balance forever. Despite being so young when she died, I grew up acutely aware of her absence. A sadness sat at the table, with its empty seat where Ciara should have been. Our dynamics were forced to adjust. I became the middle of three. Mark became the eldest. Orla moved into a room of her own. My dad turned to Scotch. For a long time my mum lost God. Six years after Ciara died, my parents decided that we should adopt.

*

Orla had gone through several particularly demonic early years, so once my parents explained to me that adoption offered the option to acquire kids past the age when they were likely to bite you whenever you fell asleep, I immediately started campaigning to adopt any future siblings. Brian was almost three and so hopefully beyond the stage where he’d be likely to wreak vengeance on older siblings with his milk teeth.

In the years since she’d stopped gnawing my extremities, Orla had evolved into a studious child who dipped into random volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun by the age of five, while I—two years older—was still hooked on stories about magic trees, flatulent giants and anything that featured a talking animal. My older brother Mark was the precise number of years older that meant wee sisters weren’t of much interest, so our contact was kept to a bare minimum, although he did sometimes appear with an unexpected present of a 45″ single of something awesome like Survivor or Bucks Fizz for me and Briony to dance to. Mark and Orla went to the private, academic school in the city centre, while I went to the not particularly academic, nun-run one round the corner. A brand new brother, who I could go to school with and teach about important things like the possible whereabouts of talking horses and how much cats loved me, was just what I needed. I couldn’t wait to have a new sibling.

To read the rest of Chicken and Hen:

Chicken and Hen is available as a Kindle e-book or as a paperback on Amazon. The PDF e-book is available from P+H Books.

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