19 // SNAKE

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When I was eight years old, my mother, Maggie Brogan, gave me a gift.

I found out later that it had actually belonged to Claire and she'd left it behind when her Dad had gained custody of her, but to me, it didn't matter that it was a second-hand gift. My Mum had given me a present. An actual present. It was the only one she ever gave to me.

It was a small, cream-coloured hardback book called Tropical Birds by Clive Roots. It was an ex-library book, the official stamp of Hackney Central Library just inside the front cover and a SOLD stamp underneath it in faded red. A clearly unloved book from the very few date stamps on the borrowing record, it had been sold for just twenty pence, whether to Claire or to someone else who then gifted it to her, I never knew. All I knew is that I loved it for two reasons.

The first reason was because when Mum had given it to me, she'd been sober. One brief, totally coherent conversation where she'd awarded me a ghost of a smile and touched my hair gently with one hand, the other one shaking as she held a half-smoked cigarette, the butt smudged with her trademark maraschino-red lipstick. She'd pushed the book across the kitchen table at me and I'd stared at it like it was the Holy Grail, maybe even like one those artefacts Ethan had said some people would wipe out a whole city just to get their hands on. It was blotted with dirty finger prints and a few of the pages were dog-eared, but I didn't care. She'd given it to me and for years afterwards, every time I looked at that book, I thought of that moment.

That one moment when she'd been my Mum and nothing else.

The other reason was because, after the monsters left, I would curl up on the pile of crumpled clothes at the bottom of my wardrobe, close the door, switch on the torch and look at the pictures of all the birds. From the bright blue and yellow macaw, to the sunburst orange crown of the cockatoo, from the rainbow-billed toucan, to the striking red of the scarlet ibis, I learnt everything I could about them. I drank in every single word until I could recite it off by heart. Memorised every picture like it was a photograph I had taken myself. Looking at the birds in all their wondrous colour calmed me, helped me forget.

No. Wait. Not forget. Push away. Push out.

I'd retreat into the wardrobe and push the other pictures outside, into the bedroom where they belonged. The snapshots of sweat-slick faces. Of hands much larger than my own. Of smiles and rage. Of monsters. Of Maggie.

No one knew about that book but her, and I think even she had forgotten about it.

I don't know how Ethan had known about the birds, I wasn't sure I even wanted to think about it, because if he knew about them, then the chances were that he knew about other shit too. The fact he had put the birds there, onto the wall of the room he had transformed for me, while the rest of the apartment still drowned in morose grey, made the tears stream down my face in a way they hadn't since I was little. I'd learned a long time ago that tears were pointless. They never changed a thing. They never helped. They never stopped the monsters. In fact, if anything, some monsters liked the tears. They wanted them. Lapped them up with forked tongues like they were a magical elixir.

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