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The Coop

287 Pages

Enter The Coop, a dark and misleading psychological thriller about the destruction of innocence.

A girl, apparently imprisoned in a room, is the thread of mystery running parallel to the tale of Thatchbury village.

Meet Howard and Lilly. They take you on a journey through Thatchbury where Mathew, the child from the coop, shoots Jodie Tiding, and so unravels the history of his loveless raising, her innocence and the dramatic events leading them to disaster.

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The Coop

The wind whistles beneath the gap at the bottom of the door; it was cold before, it’s even colder now. She grabs the sheet from where she threw it onto the surface of her cot; it’s damp, they hadn’t noticed. She still thinks of it as a sheet, silly really, by now it’s more of a rag, a large dirty duster; it wouldn’t serve for better purposes. She rolls it neatly, being sure to keep the damp edge to the outside; it would be no use to her at all if she were to let the dampness spread. Tonight may be one of those nights where it serves better as a blanket than a draft excluder. It had happened more than once; the damp had spread through, only realizing once she was lying beneath it. Still, she’d thought it better as a shroud than freeze in the icy air. She’d been wrong. Her ill thought actions resulted in a terrible chill, the sort she’d be best to avoid. Fondling the roll into a shape reminiscent of a tube, she pushes it up against the bottom of the door. She takes great precision in these things; the little things are important.

Smoothing out the flap of blanket she’s left for the floor, she curls up onto it, pulling her knees to her chest and snuggling back into the wad of the roll. She gets comfort in the space of the door. With the draft excluder acting in place of a cushion, the flap beneath her keeps the cold stone from burning her legs. It’s confined, warmer than the open airiness of the cot, which lies parallel, just beyond the small jut of wall.

The room is like a rectangle, long and thin, with the door boxed in slightly by an inner wall. To the bottom right of the room is a bucket and beneath that, a small hole, about 2’ x 2’. Laid out in this way, she imagines, for easy access from the door, it is a natural path, preventing any need to divert into the body of the room. She likes it this way, as she’s sure do they.

Chapter One

It is a damp spring morning; birds singing from the branches, rain drops balancing precariously from the leaves, the weight of the twittering forcing the branches to sway ever so slightly up and down, some drops falling full force onto the ground, others clinging on for the ride. The scent of the damp mossy ground seeped up Lilly’s nostrils, having crept in the open window. It wasn’t Lilly’s style to leave the bedroom window open but the previous night had been so clammy, she thought it best; either that or keep wakening through the night with the heat. She never did sleep well in hot conditions, or any conditions come to think of it, other than slightly cool, cool enough for an extra throw on the bed, that was about perfect.

The chattering of the early morning birds intermingled with the cooing of the doves; the sound was both rousing and uplifting. Add the smell of frying eggs and Lilly was out of that bed in a flash, pants and vest covered with a large sweater that lay strewn on the floor, and she pelted down stairs. Howard’s fried eggs were unbeatable, she’d tried to better them a few times herself but it was something about the maple syrup he added to the oil when he fried them that made hers fade in comparison; best leave these things to the experts. Her specialty was scrambled, his were always too sloppy. It’s all in the temperature to time equation, but she’s not telling him that. No sir, they both had their strengths and she was a firm believer in keeping it that way.

Glancing out the window she could see the porch table already set and Howard’s back facing her. He loved the spring mornings.

‘Why sit cooped up in this stuffy old box,’ he’d say, ‘when there’s a world of fresh air to enjoy.’ He was right, he was more than right, he was undeniably, positively correct, even down to the annoying bees that hovered over the maple syrup; every bit of it was magic. It had taken him some time to convince her of this of course, but now, well, now she loved it every bit as much as he did.

She gazed around the kitchen; that was another difference between them, somehow when he made breakfast he managed to leave the place quite untouched looking. She on the other hand, was very different, there would be milk splashed on the counter, drips of scramble on the hob, not to mention the eggshells and gloops of raw whites that hadn’t quite made it into the pot.

The kitchen was small, at least Howard called it small, she called it quaint. Either way, it did its job. There was a small table in the center big enough for three, four at a real squeeze; it functioned both as a dining table and a work top extension; the counters were slightly inadequate if you were up to making more than one thing at a time.

Outside the back door was the porch; Howard called it the veranda; it was the same thing. They had a tiny little two-seater patio set that used to be cream, but was now slightly rusty. It tarnished in the prevailing winds at night, those nights Howard would leave it out having sat up late watching the rain. He called her a ‘fair weather lover’; she wasn’t quite as into rainstorms and wind as he was. They may exhilarate Howard, but Lilly swore they gave her the cold. An unlucky coincidence of catching the flu a day or so after accepting an invitation to join him had convinced her of this unshakable belief.

‘Thought you might be up to two today, given the work you put in yesterday,’ he said, nodding to the eggs on her plate. He picked up his knife and fork and tucked in; he’d been waiting for her. She loved that about him; never one to eat on his own or leave you eating on your own, for that matter.

‘Food’s as much about the social interaction as it is about survival,’ he’d say, ‘too much talking to be done to be eating alone.’

He hated it, eating alone, said he couldn’t enjoy it the same, that the taste kind of went if there was no one to share it with; did enough eating alone in his day to know the difference.

She slid into her seat and caught the last few whiffs of steam rising from the plate; it had been there well over five minutes by now, so there couldn’t be much excess heat left in it. She glanced at Howard’s plate; he was having pancakes today. She wasn’t keen on pancakes so early in the morning so he’d done her the usual egg (in this case two) with a slice of fresh cut wheaten. Not toasted, but soft and moist enough to soak up the yoke, that’s just how she likes it.

She bakes her own wheaten bread, once, maybe twice a week; doesn’t like buying it, not for consumer reasons, simply because there’s something wholesome about tucking into your own produce. She can feel the good it’s doing from the second it hits her tongue. Howard believes the same, says anything you can make yourself you ought, and by that he’s not just talking about food; he’s a master with his hands.

The porch, veranda, whichever you prefer to call it, backs onto the meadow leading up to the wood. When Howard built it there was nothing but wild grass and flowers for as far as the eye could see, with the exception of a trimmed patch directly outside the back door. As far as a garden, they had a meadow. There was tranquility in the wildness, the natural hum from the varying hoverflies and bees became a form of therapy to them both, lovely it was, until their continual intrusion at meal times became tiresome. As much as there’s beauty in sitting elbow deep in wild grass, the insects’ lack of table manners finally wore a little thin, and therefore the construction of a porch seemed altogether necessary; it was the best idea Howard ever had. After assembling the veranda, as he referred to it, he moved on to fencing them in a garden.

‘How’s about a wee vegetable patch? Think we could master rearing some young Lilly?’ He’d joked, knowing fine well she’d love nothing more than nurturing her own ingredients. ‘You’re a fine wee cook, and what does a cook need? Plenty of fresh pickings.’

She’d never mentioned it, or even hinted for that matter, at least not consciously, but he just seemed to know. Boots and gloves on and she was out there digging up the meadow beside him; Howard and Lilly, a pair to be reckoned with, she thought.

He leaned back in his chair and lifted his legs onto the railings, rocking slightly as he pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. He had an art for doing this that Lilly found amusing; he’d place his hand perfectly at the center of the packet outside his pocket, and flick. Simple, or at least he made it appear so, and there, voila, a cigarette poking out of the top just waiting to be plucked. This was another of Howard’s tricks that she’d attempted, again, much to her disappointment. She put it down to having small hands, not enough strength in the finger tendons; that must be it. Whatever the reason, his achieving it never failed to impress her.

‘I should be finished up around lunchtime today. You fancy meeting me at the lake, just jump on in there, see if it’s ready for the season?’ He laughed slightly, the smoke from his cigarette blending with the early morning haze.

‘What is it Mrs Harper has you doing this time?’ she said, failing to answer. Quite frankly, she thought it was too early for the season, the lake would be more cold than cleansing, but she would agree to it anyway, so long as Howard ‘jumped on in there’ before her.

‘Fixing her up some more kitchen units, last bunch are filled to near bursting. I tell you Lilly, that woman’s got some capacity for food in that kitchen.’

‘Got some capacity for food in general,’ she giggled. ‘Sorry,’ she added, biting her lip to keep her from smiling too much. ‘Really though, you must thank her for those potato cakes yesterday.’

Mrs Harper was a generous woman, in all proportions, both physically and socially. She baked batches of things most days for Howard to bring home. Each day he’d stroll in with something different, and Lilly eagerly awaited the surprise. One day it would be brownies, the next scones − he’d never come home empty handed. Mrs Harper saw it as a fitting thank you for a day’s hard work. It wasn’t as though she didn’t pay him. That she did, and quite handsomely too, but she saw a big difference between financial compensation and a good will gesture − it’s just her way.

‘Money’s a means to an end Howard, always has been and always will be. But baking, well, see it as my appreciation wrapped in greaseproof,’ she explained to Howard’s astonished expression the first time he worked for her all those years ago. Needless to say, she’s been his favorite client ever since.

‘So, the lake at lunch?’ he asked again.

‘Okay, just don’t be thinking I’ll be dipping more than a toe unless it’s warm.’

‘Tepid,’ he smirked.

‘Warm.’

With that she mopped up the last drip of yoke that was gelling slightly on the edge of the plate, munched it down and began stacking the plates for her run at the breakfast dishes. It was one of their house rules− whoever doesn’t cook, washes. They thought it was more than fair all round, one slaves over the stove, the other slaves over the sink, and given that they both did their share of the cooking, the roles were switched regularly enough to keep things interesting.

Doing the dishes was grand; Lilly actually quite liked it. The therapy of seeing such instant results brought great satisfaction, but that wasn’t always the case, it could also be a bit of a chore. If Howard wasn’t on top of things the gas would run out halfway through and the rest would have to be rinsed using water boiled in a kettle over the fire. In winter this was all well and good, but come this time of year they didn’t light the fire. Sometimes she'd just rinse them off in cold water and be done with it. She swears Howard does it to. If not, she doesn't care; what he doesn't know won't hurt him. Anyway, she’s sure he must do it every now and then when she’s not looking. This wasn’t the case today; the water ran hot without a problem and their little stack of dishes was done in minutes.

Outside, the haze was beginning to lift and the trees of the wood were breaking through in the distance. This meant one thing, as it did every morning − time to water her vegetables before the sun broke through. It wasn’t always the most appropriate time in her schedule to be doing this, but she thoroughly believed it was essential to their development.

‘They need their nourishment before the sun comes and burns it all away’ she told Howard when he queried her one morning last year as to why she was gardening in her pants. It happened to have been a particularly clammy morning and she was lacking in any form of cover up at all, so it was logical that he was at first quite alarmed to peer out and see her slight frame tip-toeing amongst the greens in nothing more than a mismatching vest and pants, watering can in one hand and pickings in the other. He hasn’t passed comment since; he is in fact very accepting of most things. It would make for a rather difficult life with Lilly if he weren’t. On the gardening in pants matter, he may not have been quite so liberal had they neighbors; Lilly herself may not have been quite so daring if that were the case, although thinking on it at the time, he imagined she wouldn’t have considered it and just stepped on out there anyway. She believes in freedom of the person. Lilly was a soul unrestrained.

The house is set in one of the many meadows beyond the village; their particular one about a mile or so out, give or take a little. Each meadow has one dwelling positioned somewhere within its boundaries, passed down from generation to generation since the days when people were self sufficient and farmed their land accordingly. Howard got theirs with the passing of his elder brother; he was young, only forty-two. Before that it was their father’s, his grandmother’s before that (she was an only child) and so it goes on, all the way back to the day it was first theirs. Of all the meadows, they consider theirs one of the best, it could just be personal bias, we all fall victim to that every now and then.

‘Lucky bugger,’ Howard said to himself the first time he stood on the land as its owner. His land. It gave a whole new meaning to his childhood home, to the river that flowed through the bottom of it, to the wood that encroached on its edge. He smiled − he’s smiled every day since.

Howard was still sitting on the porch when Lilly crept down the steps with her watering can and out onto the moist earth of the vegetable patch; there was a stony path down the center leading to their back gate but she tended to avoid stepping on it for the sake of her feet.

‘Your boots are at the door there you know?’ He was sure she did, he’d pointed it out a few times before but no harm in a little reminder.

‘I’m well aware thank you,’ she replied, refraining from looking at him as she pranced amongst her veg. ‘You know I don’t want to live… ’

‘I know, live life protecting yourself from the world’s sensations,’ he interrupted.

‘Look at you,’ she said, arms flailing by her sides ‘sitting there with big heavy boots on. When was the last time you felt the dirt between your toes?’

‘That’s why shoes were invented, so I don’t have to wash my feet every time I want to go inside,’ he smiled, pulling himself to his feet. ‘And in case you’ve forgotten, I’ll be feeling it between my toes this afternoon, dirt from the bottom of the river, as will you Lilly Lou.’ He had to add the last bit; a little jibe is healthy.

She cocked her head and smirked at him, she knew rightly he wanted a response. ‘Oh yes, forgot about that, but you need to be doing it more often. Tell you what −since you’ll be finished at Mrs Harpers today you can join me tomorrow morning for my meadow walk – barefoot!’

With that she turned her back and walked away from him, ignoring all forms of his grunting protest. He was hilarious, all this disgruntlement coming from the man who sits out in the bitter cold of winter and watches rainstorms.

Once Howard got inside she knew it would be more or less ten minutes before he’d pop his head around the door and say goodbye. She’s not quite sure what he does in that time; washes himself up after breakfast, prances around pluffing things, perhaps so that they’re ready for later, she’s not too sure. Whatever it is, it always takes him about the same length of time each day and then he’d be off.

He has a great way of life, making his own hours, picking his own projects. It all came very naturally to him, finding his calling in life − he picked up a saw and a few nails and that was the end of it, search over, a trade just landed on his lap, literally. Twelve years old he was, playing in the old outhouse, now his workshop, but at the time it was nothing more than a messy old junk room used to store things his mother didn’t want kicking about the house. He began making his brothers and himself a go-kart using broken and spare parts; wheels from their old tricycles, a lawnmower engine tweaked any way he could to get it to tick over, wired up to the gearing system he’d created. It took him a few days to stop it spitting back at him every time he put it into second gear. Seven miles per hour it did, once he got it going, quite an achievement for an old junky engine and a few spare parts, but he got there in the end and that was that, the beginning of a lifelong love affair.

Things had never been simple for Howard, not when it came to schooling; learning just didn’t come easily to him, not like it did to the other kids in the village. He’d sit there all day listening, it all seemed straightforward enough, in his head that is, things just got muddled somewhere between there and his hand. There was that and reading. Some days he could read, some days he couldn’t. God, the frustration drove him mad, the teacher could see it when the pupils laid their books out in class. The majority looked crisp and fresh. Howard’s, on the other hand, was battered and ragged-edged, no doubt from hurling it at numerous inanimate objects, mainly walls. He struggled on like this until he was fourteen, and by then they realized he wasn’t cut out for academia, he was by no means slow, just not that way inclined. He was finally withdrawn from school with a little help from Mr Stark, who guaranteed him an apprenticeship in his carpentry shop. It took a little convincing, but eventually the school board agreed it would be ‘for the child’s greater benefit to be trained elsewhere’.

By this time Howard and Eddie − Mr Stark − had formed a close bond, a bit like that of father and son, but with a touch of brotherly antics. Howard’s yearning to learn had drawn him to Eddie’s place for guidance on more than the odd occasion. He’d trudge in and out of there every few days, hands in his pockets, oil up to his elbows.

‘I’ve built a frame around Aunt Suzie’s old wheelchair Mr Stark, but I just can’t get the wood to skim the left wheel properly; you know what I should do?’ he’d asked the first time he wandered in off the dirt road leading up to Eddie’s farm. This wasn’t Eddie’s place of work, it was his home, but they were already acquainted, given that Eddie and his father went back as far as their schooling days. Looking every bit the part, oil smeared across his face, cuts up his forearms from catching on the chain, he’d stand day after day, patiently watching as Eddie worked. He’d throw him the odd mistake or scrappy bit of wood to work on at home, and by the following weekend you’d be sure Howard would run on up there with something he’d made from it. Over the months they got talking and bit by bit the picture slowly formed. Eddie finally visited Howard’s parents and put it to them that he was looking for an apprentice. In actual fact he wasn’t, but he was doing well enough and could afford a light extra wage if it meant ‘helping nurture a real talent’, as he put it. That and helping a boy he could see was struggling, but he didn’t want to say something so blatant, he thought it best to keep that thought to himself. Howard’s mother burst into tears while his father held them back; Eddie was assured he’d done the right thing, turns out they just didn’t know where to turn.

‘What do you do when your boy can’t handle schooling Starkie?’ his father had said, patting his old friend on the back. ‘The weight you’ve lifted, you’ll never know.’ That was it; he had found his calling in life.

It was great when Howard left for work. Lilly would pull on her clothes, excluding shoes of course, and head out the back gate into the meadow. At first she’d hated it when Howard left her, everything was strange and quiet, the place seemed to echo even in the tiniest of spaces, but one thing always comforted her − the life out there, beyond the confines of the house, outside the closed doors and shutters of the early morning windows. Nature was alive and she wanted to be part of it.

‘Ginger’ she called, ‘Ginger, here girl.’

It was the first thing that came into her mind, Ginger, when she saw her a few years back, tugging wildly at the bed sheets hanging over the drying line that stretched out from the side of the house. Of course, as soon as she saw Lilly she scarpered as fast as her four legs could carry her, but things have come on a long way since then. Howard was far from pleased with her new companion; he’d wanted chickens for laying.

‘No chance of chickens now that you’ve encouraged that furry vixen,’ he’d grunted, once Lilly finally contained herself, having hurriedly explained how she’d finally managed to stroke her. This wouldn’t have been such an achievement had it happened quickly, but she had been working up to this moment over the past six months.

‘Who wants that when you can befriend a real wild animal; you should see, it’s wonderful. Howard, you have to try and meet her, it’d be so great if she weren’t scared of us,’ she gasped, still buzzing from the entire experience.

Nowadays Ginger, and any cubs she may happen to have, will trot freely behind Lilly on her morning walks.

The ground is moist beneath her feet, the tall spears of grass and wild flowers grazing her knees and thighs as she breaks her own path through the garden they create for her.

The odd time, more like once or twice, she has come across something sinister; the wild boys of the village had tried their hand at badger hunting a while back, but Howard wasn’t having any of it. As soon as one of them stepped a foot onto his land he’d lifted the rifle and shot at him. Had he wanted to hit him he could have, but this was nothing more than a scare tactic. Needless to say they didn’t try it again and as word got round, the other land owners did the same; putting an end to any more attempts at that unpleasant sport.

No − Ginger had no doubt been the culprit responsible for the remains of anything Lilly stumbled across, but you can usually tell, they’ll be discarded near the den. Out of respect, Lilly doesn’t venture that way too often. The odd time she’s neared the den by sheer accident, aimlessly wandering around with no particular destination in mind, but she thinks it’s only fair they avoid each other’s living space and, true to form, they haven’t lost too many bed sheets in recent years, apart from the odd one she’s left dumped in the meadow for Ginger to find. Again, what Howard doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

The swell in the river lay just to the left of the village, on their side. It was a good ten minute stroll from their house and much the same from Mrs Harper’s, so Lilly didn’t feel any kind of injustice having to trek the distance just to find herself frozen in still bitter waters. Howard had to do much the same. It had been a ritual for years that together they would brave the first dip of the season. Howard tended to make it earlier rather than later, mainly because he wouldn’t like to look back come autumn and think he’d missed a single opportunity to enjoy it.

The sun was high in the sky and Lilly could feel the perspiration on her skin from its heat. She knew better than to think this may have taken the chill off the water. She’d been fooled into that once before and jumped straight in imagining it would be luke warm and a comfort to her in the heat of the sun. Wrong. The shock almost choked her, she had to gasp for every breath, fighting against the sub-zero temperatures; it was both unpleasant and scaring. Since then she’s mastered the toe test, and it hasn’t failed her yet.

Approaching, she could hear frolicking in the water, the laughter and splashing of some of the village youngsters ricocheted off the surrounding trees that shaded the right hand side of the swell. Then she caught a glimpse of Howard, already standing at the water’s edge, stripped to his swim shorts raring to go.

‘There you are Lou, dying to get in here, come on,’ he hollered as he caught sight of her. ‘I’ve done the toe test, it’s great. Think I nailed it to the day this time,’ he smiled, already proud of himself.

‘Great!’ Lilly called back, knowing there was a vast difference between their temperature thresholds. What he may call acceptable, she most certainly may not.

Standing on the edge she dipped her toe, it was acceptable but only just.

‘So, whatcha say?’ he asked, grinning from ear to ear.

‘Okay, let’s go for it.’ With that, she pulled her dress over her head, tossing it to the side as she leapt up over the grassy rocks toward the high point they favored as a jump spot. There were a few spots surrounding the edges of the swell but this one brought you down near the cove where it tends to be slightly warmer; every degree counts in Lilly’s opinion.

‘One, two, three…’ Holding hands they both leapt off the edge.

‘Wow!’ gasped Howard, surfacing just seconds before Lilly.

‘Gets better every year’

‘No, you just get more sentimental every year, that’s all,’ she spluttered, water running down her face, into her mouth.

They floated and splashed around for a little while before deciding enough was enough; it wasn’t high season yet and it wouldn’t take much to catch a chill. They didn’t bring towels, no one using the swell did; it was more a dive in and shake off kind of scenario. A quick squeeze of the hair and discreet redressing left you wandering back home with your wets in your hand.

‘I’ve got a few last minute things to wrap up and then I’ll be home,’ sighed Howard, catching his breath. It had been a long winter, and he was out of practice.

‘Don’t worry. I’ve plenty to do. If I see you before dinner it’ll be a bonus,’ she smiled, already running through the list of things she had to buy in Thatchburys, the local corner shop.