Some people’d say I was destined for all this killing when Uncle Frank came into my life but it goes back further than that. To when my brother was born.
Jon came out wailing like a banshee and didn’t stop for months. It were Mam’s fault, that. Her bad habits got him hooked on smack and coke before he was even born, poor bogger. She didn’t care much that he was screaming. She slept and slept after he was born, and let the nurses feed him from a bottle.
‘Your mam’s very tired,’ one of them told me.
I shrugged. Mam’d always slept a lot and I’d never thought much of it. I looked at the baby, his mouth open and tongue wriggling as he screamed. I noticed he used his whole body to cry with. Looking back now, I wonder why the nurses didn’t give him a bit of methadone or summat to help him out but they let him go cold turkey instead. What a way to come into the world. Never stood a chance, our Jon. I walked over to the cot and put my hand on his cheek. He tried to suck my thumb but the nurse told me not to let him cause of the germs, so I tickled his hand instead and he grabbed my finger, clung to it with his whole fist. Can’t imagine that no more, Jon’s hand fitting tight round my finger, but it used to. I fell in love.
‘In’t he clever already?’ I said to the nurse.
‘Don’t get carried away. All babies do that. It’s a reflex,’ she told me.
But I stood there, letting him squeeze my finger as if his life depended on it. I looked up at the nurse.
‘Is he brown cause my mam shoots brown?’ I asked her.
She clamped her hand over her mouth as if the bad words’d been summat she’d said. I didn’t have a clue what were up with her, didn’t understand what I’d said. It were just summat I’d heard in a row with a neighbour.
The lady next door, Mrs Ivanovich, was the only reason I wasn’t put into care. Mam’d left me at home when she went into labour and walked to the hospital, off her head. Mrs Ivanovich found me sitting in the garden at two in the morning and I ended up stopping at hers. She took me on a bus to visit when the baby’d come and the people at the hospital could tell she was a good sort, thought she’d keep an eye on me. They weren’t to know. Anyway, I was glad I was staying with her. I wanted to stay at her house for ever cause even if it were only next door, being at Mrs Ivanovich’s was more interesting than being stuck in our house.
She was foreign and everyone thought she was a bit of a nutter, avoided her. She came across like that cause she was old and had her ways, like how she kept butterflies. She had a cage in her back garden made out of a rabbit hutch, the wire replaced with this white gauzy stuff, same as she’d folded into a net on the end of a cane to catch them with. When we moved in I watched her through the hedge and saw how she struggled to get the butterflies out the net. Her fingers were all twisted and mangled.
‘Can I help?’ I asked. Not exactly out the kindness of my heart, but cause I was into the butterflies. She smiled and gestured at me to come into her garden. She showed me how to take the butterflies out the net without touching their wings.
‘You can damage the scales, you see, and then they have trouble flying properly. Aerodynamics,’ she told me.
She spoke English perfect, but was hard to understand down to her strong accent. It made that last word, aerodynamics, stretch and vibrate so’s I asked her to say it again. I looked at her, all snot and open mouth. She leaned over and whispered in my ear.
‘They’re covered in fairy dust. You brush it off and they can’t fly anymore. But I can’t say it too loud because butterflies don’t believe in fairies and if they heard me they’d never take off again,’ she said.
I wiped away the snot with the back of my hand and Mrs Ivanovich magicked up a tissue, showed me how to blow my nose.
Ever since then, she let me help her. She gave me the net so I could try and catch butterflies but I never did. I’d run till I fell over knackered, waving the net round and trampling down the tall weeds at the back of her garden, but I still didn’t catch one. I asked how come she got so many, when she had to use a stick to walk and couldn’t hardly move her hands. She said I needed to be more ‘stealthy’. That was the exact word she used, cause she wrote it down for me in this notebook thing what she let me keep. She wasn’t happy at all when she heard my mam wasn’t sending me to school, and started to teach me stuff her-sen.
I used to love to sit with her in the garden, watching the butterflies stutter and hop between the plants and twigs she’d arranged in the cage. She showed me how to use a magnifying glass so’s it didn’t catch the sun and burn them, but helped me watch them dead close while they fed. Watch their bubble eyes and the suckers they pushed into the flowers so’s they could get out the juice. Aliens in the flowerbed, and fucked up scary ones at that. Mrs Ivanovich had stories about bigger monsters, though, from trips she’d took. She told me she’d worked all over, but was from Russia in the first place. Had come here for her husband’s job, then he’d gone and died on her. He’d left her with nowt cept savings back home what she wasn’t allowed to touch down to summat legal. Her eyes went all watery and red when she told me that. The Amazon basin was her favourite place, she’d said, and I imagined a massive sink full of the great big insects she described. She told me she used to be an entomologist, another word I made her write down, which was a kind of scientist who studied how insects worked. But it wasn’t till I went to stay with her I realised what this meant. When I found her killing jar.
It were the middle of summer, a good few weeks after Jon’d been born. Mrs Ivanovich was in the garden catching ‘specimens’, as she used to say, and told me to go inside in case I moved too sudden and scared the bugs away. I heard her swear, then she shouted in she needed her other net, and it were under the sink somewhere. I was searching for it when I caught a glint of summat shiny. Kids’ eyes are always turned by things what sparkle, especially them as belong to the sorts who’ve never had owt. I grabbed at the glittery thing and pulled it into the air where I could see it.
The glass was so thick its contents were magnified and distorted. At first glance I thought it were shredded newspaper inside. I looked closer and saw big blank eyes and furry bodies, washed out velvet wings. Moths. Dead ones, sitting on a layer of plaster. I screamed and dropped the jar. The glass was too heavy to shatter, but it cracked round the base and the top section fell on its side. I sat on the floor looking at what I’d done. There was this smell, not very strong, not nice but not rank, only just there so I could of believed I’d imagined it. Mrs Ivanovich walked in to see what was keeping me. She threw the backdoor wide open and grabbed me, pushed me outside. I saw her sprinkle summat what looked like salt all over what’d spilled.
Mrs Ivanovich made me go through the jitty and in through the front garden. It took her ages to unlock the door and, while she was doing it, Piercey came, his van throwing out a mangled Lara’s theme what made my mouth water for ice cream. Mrs Ivanovich went to the van and got me a ninety-nine with two flakes and that red sauce and everything. That was a big treat for me back then. She took me through to the living room and sat me down.
‘Kerrie-Ann, sweetheart, you have to stay in here now for the rest of the day. Those chemicals are strong and if you breathe them they could kill you,’ she told me. I crunched through the flake, making sure the crumbs dropped back onto the ice cream.
‘Is that why them moths was dead?’ I asked her through a mouthful of chocolate. She didn’t tell me not to talk with my mouth full like she usually did so I knew summat serious had happened.
She sighed. ‘How to explain to a five-year-old?’ she said, to her-sen, I think. She walked over and sat down next to me, put her hand on my arm. ‘Some things have to be sacrificed so you can do more or know more,’ she said. I nodded. ‘Those moths,’ she said. ‘If I can find out what goes on inside them, it helps everyone understand the world better. Like we wouldn’t know how to make helicopters if it wasn’t for dragonflies. And maybe I’ll realise something as important from the inside of a moth.’
‘The inside?’ I said.
Mrs Ivanovich walked over to the wall unit behind the telly. She pulled out a book and brought it over to me. It were full of dead butterflies and moths, and other insects too. Beetles, ants, teeny creatures called aphids. The little ones were stuck to card and glued down, but the bigger insects were skewered to the page with pins. Then she showed me a wooden box. There was a moth inside. She used a tiny knife and a magnifier to cut it into pieces and showed me its different parts. The heart, the air sacs, what she told me were called spiracles, the nerve cord running right down its back. The exoskeleton. That meant bones on the outside.
‘Do you understand now? Why some things have to die?’ she asked.
I nodded again but she must of been able to tell I didn’t cause she carried on talking.
‘Death is part of life, Kerrie-Ann. A very clever man told me that once. A shaman, which is kind of an Indian doctor.’
‘Did he wear feathers on his head?’ I asked her.
‘He wore feathers all over the place,’ she said. She stroked my hair and I snuggled up against her. I could feel her ribs dig through her jumper. ‘You’ve got to remember that,’ she said.
‘Death is part of life, not a bad thing. You must remember it and be strong because I’m going to die soon.’
I bit into my ice-cream and pain stabbed through my gum and jaw.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I turned over and over in my bed so’s the blankets wrapped me up like layers on a Swiss roll. I dreamed of dead butterflies, and beetles as big as me standing at the end of my bed, goggle eyed, rolling out their suckers into my stomach. I dreamed of Mrs Ivanovich, dead and in the bottom of a jar. I couldn’t get the smell from the kitchen out my nose.
Jon got better in the end, and Mam brought him home. I don’t know how long it took, it all feels like for ever when you’re little. It must of been a while, though, cause by the time they came back to the close nowt ever wiped the dopey smile off his face. It made me think they might of swapped the baby, and looking back I wonder if Mam’d started putting summat more interesting than sugar on his dummy. The good weather had gone on and on that year, an Indian summer they called it, but it wasn’t so sunny then, and there wasn’t many butterflies around. Mrs Ivanovich was cutting up ants, and it were delicate work so she needed my help more than ever. She swore loads as she tried to get her mangled hands round the tiny knife she used. She had a bath twice a day, and used to send me down the Co-op to get that Radox stuff for her and let me keep the change. Sometimes it took her all her time to stand up or sit down and I’d stay all day bringing her cups of tea. Mam never asked where I’d been. Mrs Ivanovich told me I was a good gell, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to cope with another winter, not with her sore old bones. I should of seen it coming.
It were her daughter what found her, one afternoon. She didn’t visit very often and I reckon her mam knew she was coming, set it up that way deliberate. All’s I knew was the woman coming out the front screaming, falling on her hands and knees with a screwed up face and shouting ‘Mam!’ using all the air in her lungs. By the time I got out the house, she was lying on the grass with her head in her hands and wouldn’t speak to me. I knew what’d happened. The smell was in the air, kind of nutty, almost not there. Mrs Ivanovich’s killing jar chemical.
When you’re young and don’t know no better, you’re fascinated by everything. Apart from insects, the only dead thing I’d ever seen was a bird I found in the hedge, a sparrow or summat. Its beak was jammed open with a bright red rowanberry in it. I knew them berries were poison cause we had a Rowan tree in our back garden and I’d been told never to touch them. I couldn’t work out if that was why the bird’d died, or if it’d choked. I couldn’t understand why God made owt so red and juicy when they’d kill you if you ate them. God was supposed to be good, but that was a mean trick. I’d never seen a dead person, though, not even someone pretending on the telly. Mam’d sold ourn in the middle of the night when I was three, and Mrs Ivanovich used to let me watch hers but was well strict about what kind of programmes.
I put my hand over my nose to try and block out the lethal fumes and walked through Mrs Ivanovich’s front door. Inside, the place had been set up like one huge killing jar. Bowls all over, on the shelves, the ’gram, everywhere, with that chemical shit inside. The fumes’d filled the room, then Mrs I’s lungs, then each one of the cells inside her. Pop. Pop-te-pop, pop, pop.
She was sat on the sofa with one eye open and one eye closed, like she was winking at me. The eye what was open freaked me out so I walked over and closed it. The skin on her eyelid felt like cold fish. With her eyes closed she looked better, like she was having a quick nap. I noticed she had summat in her arms then, was hugging it to her like a doll. I pulled it out from under her elbow. It were a butterfly in a smart glass case. Framed to go on the wall, like a picture. Not one like you’d see in the garden, with green-white leafy wings, or even them red velvety boggers you’d see if you waited long enough. This was shiny. Its wings were blue and black and looked like metal. A pin skewered through its body and held it fast against a bit of card and underneath there was some writing. I didn’t feel proud of me-sen but I couldn’t leave it there for Mrs Ivanovich’s daughter to find. She wouldn’t know what it were. Wouldn’t care. So I tucked it in the waistband of my skirt and pulled my T-shirt down over it, was careful how I walked.
I went through to the kitchen and kicked open the back door before the stuff got to me too. I went out and shoved my find under the hedge, where I could easily pick it up later. I had a thought then, and ran back into the kitchen. Under the sink was a big bottle, the leftover cyanide. I took it, though Christ knows what all I can of thought I’d need it for. I hid it in the same spot of privet as the dead butterfly. I heard noises in the house and backed away from the hedge quick as. I could see the butterfly cage from where I was stood and knew it wouldn’t take much of them gases to do for the delicate boggers. I walked over and looked at them one last time. Then I opened the cage and let them go.
There wasn’t many butterflies left in the cage, and a couple were dead already. But them as could fluttered straight off. They wouldn’t have long, I knew that. Summer was over.