16 The stag beetle
Elisha skipped from one pink paving stone to the next until she got a stitch in her left side. Slowing down, she continued to avoid the cracks, paused to watch a ladybird crawl up a blade of grass over someone’s wall.
The smells in the avenue changed with the seasons. In summer, some lovely jasmine or honeysuckle fragrance would make her want to inhale deeply but it competed with the putrid stink of drying dog shit on concrete, which made her pinch her nostrils together with one hand.
The newsagents was on the corner of Sparrow Road, in a tiny parade of odd shops – an old-fashioned hair salon with yellowy windows where old ladies probably requested blue rinses and perms, a wool shop displaying inelegantly arranged, outmoded fashions, a sub-post office with half-empty shelves of over-priced stationery and cheap, plastic toys. With very little effort, you could imagine them in the 40s or 50s – at least her aunt used to say that some of the clothes in the wool shop looked like they’d been there since the war.
She had enough money to get an ice cream as well and had gone over in her head what there was to choose from but she couldn’t remember if the shop stocked Walls or Lyons Maid. She was veering towards a rum and raisin choc ice – something like that. Having something with rum in it was naughtier and so more of a treat. It automatically tasted nicer than just any old fruit or chocolate flavour.
Pausing outside the shop, Toby’s – they all had names like that, normally men’s names. The post office was Bob’s, the hair salon Marc’s Hair Fashions – she saw Veronica and Josie with a boy she didn’t recognise. The girls were sitting on charcoal-grey pavement bollards and the boy standing between them with a long twig. All concentrated on the ground, where the boy was prodding at something with the stick.
Not really wanting to, but too curious not to, Elisha sidled over to them, her left hand in her shorts pocket, rolling the coins around. When she got closer, she saw to her disgust that they were tormenting a big stag beetle that was stranded on its back, waving its six legs in the air in distress.
‘Leave it alone!’ she called before she had time to think.
The boy glanced up at her and sneered scornfully, ‘Who says?’
‘We know her,’ piped up Josie, though her tone was also derisory.
‘It’s Elsie Goodman from school,’ Veronica added, deliberately getting the name wrong and making Josie snigger.
‘Elsie! She sounds like someone’s great grandma,’ exclaimed the horrible boy, delightedly.
Enraged and embarrassed, Elisha strode into their midst, reached down and picked the stag beetle up, much more easily than she could have hoped, thumb and forefinger on either side of its body, like her dad had shown her many times.
‘Oy!’ the boy objected, too late, his thin lips stretching and parting to reveal a mouthful of uneven teeth.
The beetle’s three captors were rather astonished that someone, a girl at that, would dare to just pick it up like that, heedless of pincers, unsqueamish about creepy-crawlies.
Elisha darted away from them, careful with the beetle, whose legs were still waving in insect panic. She released it into someone’s front flowerbed, watching it scuttle between antirrhinums in myriad colours, under pink hydrangea bushes into deep cover.
‘Stag beetles are getting rare. We should try to protect them.’
‘You’re so boring,’ retorted Josie, following Veronica’s petulant dismissive turn on her heel, as they walked away.
‘Hey, wait for me,’ called the boy, picking his Chopper up from where it had lain sprawled in an abandoned way, taking up the whole width of pavement. He scurried after the girls, wheeling the bike alongside.
Although she felt proud to have saved the beetle, the encounter with the trio had ruined her day somehow. She wished she were out with her friends somewhere and didn’t have to go home to the tenseness in the house. At the moment it felt a bit like waiting to go in at the dentist.
She didn’t even buy an ice cream in the end but walked home a different way, feeling a bit depressed. On this journey, she passed items of clothing, some on the pavement, others strewn across the grass verge – socks, boxer shorts, shirt – as if someone had performed an impromptu strip while walking back from the station the night before. Normally, she would have been intrigued by this, might have constructed a whole story around it, but now she barely gave the clothes a second glance, let alone much thought. She was wishing she’d had a clever comeback for Josie and Veronica – she could have called Veronica ‘Verucca’, as she and her friends often did to each other behind her back. Luke used to call Josephine ‘Poison Fiend’. At least thinking about this took her mind off her dad losing his job and all the other stuff.
When she neared home, she hesitated at the drive. Her dad was crouched down looking at the wounded car door, frowning deeply. ‘Uh oh,’ she thought and wondered if she could sneak by on the other side of the car without him seeing her. Probably not but worth a try.
Tucking the magazine under her arm, she bent down and edged towards the front door, hidden by the car. But parents seemed to have extra senses whenever you didn’t want them to.
‘Elisha,’ her dad called.
Mid-creep, she released her held breath, straightened up slowly and rather sheepishly. ‘Yes.’ She raised her eyebrows, acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be crawling along on the other side of the car from him.
The corners of his mouth twitched like he was restraining a smile but then he switched his face to a stern expression. ‘Have you seen what you’ve done to my car, young lady?’
There was the ‘young lady’ thing again – still, at least it wasn’t ‘little madam’. She was solemn and contrite. ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. It was an accident. The bike fell on it. I’ll really be more careful in the future. It’s just that sometimes I can’t park it. I think it’s safe and then it topples, all of a sudden. I am sorry.’ He let her babble run out. The magazine cover had got stuck to her arm. She peeled it away, frowning at the colourful imprint it left behind, and waited for him to speak.
‘All right. It’s okay, darling. I know you didn’t mean it. Anyway, it was already dented there.’
She ran round the car to hug him, looking past the hairs on his arm at the car door. Now she came to think of it, it was unlikely that her little bike could have caused such a lot of damage.
That night she dreamt of the well – she was coming home from somewhere and there it stood, right where her house had been – it was huge. Awestruck, she stared up at it. The red bucket was in the drive, bigger than her dad’s car, rocking slightly back and forth like there was something inside it trying to get out. She began to get a little apprehensive. Whatever was inside was big and heavy enough to make the massive bucket rock. Maybe it would tip it over. Something appeared over the rim – it looked like a big black claw. She woke up, shivering with fright.