“Only one child at a time in the shop please” the old lady standing at the counter shouted.
I look round and there was no other child but me. The bell clanged loudly as I let the door snap shut behind me.
She stood there with her thin lips set in a straight line; there were smaller thinner lines running from her nose towards her lips. Her dark red lipstick seeped into these lines and crept its way up to her nostrils. She must be a witch, I was sure of it.
She watched me closely, her head bobbed and dipped with the small eyes following me as I moved around the sweet shop floor. The tiles beneath my feet were shiny black and white squares. I hopped and shuffled making sure I never stood on a line; I hated being on a line. My plastic sandals squeaked; my wet socks were now peeking out of the sharp plastic slats that made up a design on the cheap shoes. The sandals were brown. I hated them and the dirty puddle water made bubbles appear as I pressed down on them.
“Don’t touch the glass with your dirty fingers!” the witch screamed at me; her shrill voice made the budgie in the corner come to life; it immediately copied her squeaking voice and its wings flapped in time to its squawking.
“Shut it bird!” she screamed and banged the cage.
The cage swung and seed scattered like dark confetti onto the toffee slabs below. I looked closer at the seed and wondered if the witch would clean it or just leave it there on the sticky sweet and pretend it was toffee with nuts. This made me hate her more.
“Do you have money to buy anything or are you going to just skip over my floor making it dirty with your wet shoes?” her lips moved quickly as she leaned over the counter to breathe on me. She smelt of piss and bleach.
“I have money.” I kept my hand in my pocket, my chin was upturned and my eyes looked straight into the witch’s face.
I turned and stepped to the far side of the shop; I let my eyes scan the trays of red, yellow and orange clear toffee bars. They looked like bright coloured glass slabs, all laid out like a solid stained glass window.
The jars on the shelves were all uniform and shiny. Coloured balls of stripy toffee, paper wrapped mints, big green ‘plooms’ and coconut mushrooms, all lined up in a row.
I really wanted the sweets. I stared at the sweets. I loved the green plooms. They were sour and sweet and made a funny sensation at the side of my ear and the back of my tongue.
“How much is the budgie?” I looked at the bird behind her head.
The cage was big and bright; the bird hopped from claw to claw, nervously as the witch tapped the cage and smiled.
“Who told you it was for sale?”
“My mammy said you didn’t want it now.” I kept her gaze.
“She’s right. It has to go. It smells too much,” the witch face spoke. I thought that was really funny as she smelled more than Mrs Cochrane’s cat. “Half a crown – and the cage is a bob.” Her arms folded quickly over her thin bony chest. “Do you have that much money?” She leaned over and the smell guffed into my throat. I tasted the sweat and piss now.
“I have it all here; can I have the bird now?” I took all the money out of my pocket and laid it all out onto the glass topped counter. I had saved for four months for this.
The noise of the money clinking on the glass startled the witch.
“Don’t you want to spend the cash on sweets? Why do you want the bird?”
Her face looked pinched as she looked again at the bird. It moved up and down on its perch.
“I like it,” I smiled.
“It bites, you know,” she added.
“I don’t care. My dog bites.” I kept my chin up.
“Why do you think it bites you, then?” she sneered.
“I never said it bit me. I just said it bites,” I answered quickly.
She leaned over the counter, swiped all the money into her palm and counted it.. I watched her. The bird watched her.
Finally, she stood on a stool and unhooked the cage from the ceiling. My hands stretched out to grasp the big cage. I was now worried I could not manage it. She held it to me and I spread my feet apart to get some balance as I realised the weight was more than I could take. I was not going to let her know it bothered me.
The big cage was pressed against my body. I got hold of the door handle and pulled with all my might. The witch sniggered behind me as I struggled to get the door wide open. The rain had stopped; the sunshine blinded me for a second as my pupils adjusted to the light. The bird bobbed about nervously as it felt the wind and sun blow through its feathers. I sat on the pavement with the cage; I opened the door and put my small grubby hand into the cage.
“Come on, wee bird, you can fly away now if you want.” I tried to coax it to the door of the cage. The bird pecked at me, but not too sore – just scared pecks.
My dog was tied to a lamppost outside the shop. I went over and untied the dog. He came over to sniff at the bird. I finally got the bird into my hand and slowly guided it out of the cage. People in the street started watching me as they walked up the main road. The witch was now in her window, behind the Gold Chocolate advert, big thick gold streamers falling from a cardboard Italian balcony onto a box of Terry’s All Gold. Her face was stuck between the fat gold plastic strips. The sun glinting off the shards of shiny plastic was making her face light up and shine. I could feel her watching me holding the blue budgie in my dirty hands.
I lifted up the budgie and threw it into the air; it flapped its wings and flew into the grey sky. I watched it soar above the black tenements; it swung round the chimney tops and hovered for a minute.
The dog barked and jumped. I clapped loudly and smiled as it flew round and round. People watched me as they passed. The budgie was flying towards me, its wings were stretched to the limit. I thought it was going to fly into my head; I ducked and grabbed my head as I went down. There was no noise.
I lifted my head and looked at the cage and there, sitting on the perch with the door open, was the budgie.
“Don’t you want to go? Don’t you want to be free?”
The bird looks the other way and pecks its wee mirror.
I lift the cage, grab the dog’s leash and head for home.
Once it stays in my house for a few weeks, it will want to be free.
If I could fly I would not stop. Over the chimneys, I would keep going on and on and on. Then I would maybe come back for a wee while and see my dog.
Sometimes it’s hard to go.
© Janey Godley, August 2004