Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Write about a character who always feels the need to keep hidden who they truly are.
His Seventh Birthday
By Emma Downey
Ronan peered out at the coast rushing past the train window, the tide was steadily rolling in. He remembered a time before that, when the water had been his home. A time, when he had been a creature who moved through it, as if liquid himself, swooping down between the waves and coming to shore to play in the sunshine. Back then, he had been with his family, a herd of gentle sea creatures, graceful in the ocean and clumsy but winsome on land. They would come and find him again, he knew that. And it would happen soon, he would be seven that year, a magical number, he reminded himself. He pictured the number, in his head, seven, his eyes remained fixed on the waves rolling onto the shore in regular, familiar strokes.
He was a mystery, this little boy, fearful yet independent and stubborn, thought Fiona, his case worker. She was sitting across from Ronan in the carriage, looking at him absorbed in the view from the window. He was a bright child she sensed, he said almost nothing but his eyes flickered with an intensity that suggested a lively mind. She had written the words ‘uncommunicative’ and ‘withdrawn’ on his file, he was what they used to call an elective mute. The wild children, who threw violent tantrums, could be easier to deal with than this little boy. That day the two were taking the train to a new care home for Ronan. She hoped he would settle better there. If it didn’t, she thought anxiously, she had no idea what to try next.
‘It’s nice to take the train isn’t it?’
‘I always loved it, especially the coastal lines, the views are lovely.’
‘We may even see the seals soon. I used to ride this train when I was a little girl and we always looked out for the seals. Later on in the year you can see them with their babies.’
Ronan knew. He knew the cove where the seals liked to gather.
‘They are special creatures, so much like humans I always think.’
Ronan knew all about the seals. He had studied a book about sea mammals in the library in his old school. It had been his favourite book. Mrs Carrington, his old teacher had read them a story about selkies, the magical sea creatures, seals who could transform into people when they took off their beautiful grey cloaks, which they did sometimes when they came ashore to play in the sunshine. Sometimes a selkie gets separated from their kind, she said, but they always find their cloak and their way back to the sea in the end. Ronan knew he was like that too, away from his family. He missed his sister most of all. They used to spend all their time playing, diving and tumbling in the water and swimming off for adventures. He missed her but he knew that before long they would come and bring him back to his home.
‘Your new home will be by the coast too. You’ll have lots of time to learn all about the beach and the wildlife. I could be perfect for a curious boy like you.’
Fiona smiled a hopeful, almost desperate smile and she spoke with a strained melody. Her eyes were made larger by her glasses. She wore a green jumper with large polka dots on it. Everything Fiona had was bright, patterned or oversized yet there was a sadness to her that the bright colours didn’t hide.
‘Oh and you have a birthday coming up, don’t you?’
He was busy studying the clouds over the water.
‘Seven, isn’t it? So grown up.’
Seven, the magic number for selkies. That’s when he would return to the sea he reminded himself.
The twenty-first of June, the longest day of the year. What a lovely day to have a birthday.’
The twenty-first of June is a special day, the day the selkies can come onto the land. On the islands, in the old days, a woman who couldn’t have a baby used to wade into the sea on that night and if seven of her tears hit the water she could expect her own selkie child. He remembered that from the teacher’s story book. His family would surely find him that night, his seventh birthday on the longest day of the year. He wouldn’t be alone in the world then, he would have a family and a home. He would play with his sister, laughing and gambolling through the surging waters.
It was gentle out and the sun was still getting higher, it caught on the sinewy ripples of the sea. Ronan looked down at it over the grey rocks. Fiona had reminded him that the seal cove was coming up.
He remembered those rocks, he had been there with his family or maybe just with his sister. He could remember her laughing and chiding him to keep up with her. The train whisked through a tunnel and round the twists and turns of the costal route. He remembered being all alone on the beach too, where they had found him. It had been nearly night or nearly day, he wasn’t sure, the sky had been misty with dim streaks of yellowy light. The air had smelled cold and of salt, with that tang of fish that catches in the nose. Ronan had been without his magical cloak. He must have lost it on the shore, it was nowhere in sight. He’d been cold without it and smaller, thin limbed and shivering. He’d sat on the smooth flat stones on the shore, pushed his hand down to rake through the smaller stones below. There’d been a cold biting wind, stinging his ears and nose. The waves had surged in with loud crashes and a high misty spray before they’d heaved out again. He’d thought he would go back there, back into the waves he’d come out of. Maybe he had been running towards them. But then, he was gone from beach and wrapped in the woollen blanket that claimed him for the human world. He’d been put in a car, a seat belt fastened and he was taken to the care home in the city. A special children’s home he was told, until they found a long-term solution.
It was noisy, he had hated it there, the fights between the boys, the howling and night time bed wetting. Then there was the family, an emergency placement. The gleaming white house the big garden with the just cut grass. The family who lived there – mum, dad with a brother, sister and bounding dog like in the ‘learning to read books’ at school. Everything there was too bright and too fast. He didn’t like them peering into his face all the time. Or their endless questions either: ‘What would you like to do today Ronan?’ ‘What sort of games do you like to play Ronan?’ He had started hiding then, under beds and behind curtains, in the wooden shed or in the garden. He became expert at it. He could make his body flatter or tiny enough to slide into the most unexpected spots. It was very stressful they said. They really were sorry it didn’t work out they explained. He was a lovely boy, they were sure of that, it was a pity, if only they could get through to him. They would have to try something else next, Fiona had explained softly with that tentative smile of hers.
But he was going to be seven, the magic age and they would find him again. They would have his special mercury coloured cloak. They would wrap him in it and then he would have a tail and fins once again, for swimming and diving deep under the waves all the way to the peaceful ocean floor.
‘Keep your eyes peeled, the seal cove is coming up.’
They had been, if only the train would go slower. He could see the grey rocks, dark and slick with the spray. There they were, lying curved on the stones, silvery and flickering in the sunlight. They were peaceful at the water’s edge where their world gave way to the human world. There they were, already close to him, ready to take him back home again.
‘Did you see?’
He managed a small nod in response.
‘Not long before we get there, I think you’ll like it. Its smaller than the other home and there is a nice big garden for you to play in.’
Fiona and Ronan stepped off the train, he carried a small backpack and she had suitcase with the rest of his things. It was a small station and it didn’t take long for them to spot Sean. whom Fiona had explained would meet them.
‘Hello, Fiona. And you’re Ronan, is that right?’ Sean smiled at them both. He wore a knitted jumper in bright blue and green with a pair of jeans. He led them both to the car and drove them twenty minutes to the home.
‘I hope you’ll like it with us, Ronan. We’ll certainly do our best to make you feel at home anyway.’
Fiona and Sean were to have a meeting about him. He was to go to the garden with some other children. There were two older boys who eyed him with suspicion and called him new kid, their mouths twisting sourly. One had a cruel look on his puffy, red face. And there was Aoife, she was just a little taller than he but they were the same age. Her hair was chestnut coloured and she wore it pulled into an unbrushed ponytail. She had freckles and her grin showed that her front teeth were missing. The two boys went ahead and Aoife walked to the garden with Ronan. She liked climbing trees she said. She was better at it than those two boys even though they were older. Agile, was the word for what she was, Sean had said so, she grinned.
Ronan was going to have his own room. Sean explained, and his own space to put his things. They would go to the library every week and they liked to play down on the beach as much as possible.
‘It blows the cobwebs away,’ Sean said.
‘Do you think you might like it here Ronan?’ Fiona asked.
It was okay, he thought. It would do until he went home again.
Fiona was going to catch the train home but she would come and see him again in a few weeks, just like she had explained earlier.
They would eat in an hour. It was spaghetti and meatballs with plenty of grated cheese, Sean said patting his stomach. They ate all together in the dining room. Ronan could sit at a small table with Aoife tonight. In the meantime, he could have juice and some crackers as a snack in the playroom. He sat and watched the other children in the garden. They tumbled about shrieking and laughing. Every so often a woman, Emily, would intervene. She was small in stature and looked gentle yet she was decisive in her tone of voice and gesture. Despite their complaints the children seemed to trust her judgment of what was ‘too much’.
‘Yes, that’s too wild. One of you will get hurt.’
Then one of them would skulk off and sit down on a step while the others resumed their noisy game. After some minutes the woman would nod towards the child and they would scramble back to the game.
‘New kid,’ hissed one of the boys. It was the red, puffy faced one, that evening on the way into the dining room.
‘Squirt,’ whispered a girl, taller than Ronan with a long sandy hair. He hadn’t seen her before.
He sat and wound the spaghetti round his fork.
‘You eat slowly,’ Aoife said. She had eaten all of her meat balls and was polishing of the last of her spaghetti.
Ronan pushed a meatball towards her.
‘Thanks, I love meatballs.’
Ronan wouldn’t go to school because it was nearly the end of term, but a teacher came to see him, just to get a sense of ‘where he was’. She wanted him to do ‘a little test’, as she called it. But he didn’t pick up the pencil. He just sat in front of the table. The clock over the door ticked and he watched the hands move around the face.
‘We can try again in a few months,’ Sean said.
That night Ronan woke from a bad dream, in which it had been dark and someone was chasing him. It was cold and he was lying on wetness. He was on the beach again and someone would find him unless he got to the sea first and found his family. He flicked his tail and rolled off his belly onto his back, but he couldn’t hear the waves and the breeze was mild from an open window. He brought his hands to his face. Hands. He was a boy. He had wet himself and kicked off the covers. He saw the outline of the curtains and chest of drawers in the dim electric light. He knew where he was.
Sean had told him where he could find clean pyjamas and blankets if he had an accident. He could just leave the wet ones in a basket so he didn’t have to say anything if he didn’t want to. He got into clean pyjamas and wrapped himself in fresh sheets and managed to get back to sleep for a few hours before there was a knock at the door telling him to go to breakfast.
‘Squirt!’ said the red puffy faced boy and sandy haired girl. They pushed him in the hallway on his way to the dining room.
‘Ya need a haircut,’ one of them said stepping on the back of his shoes.
He sat with Aoife in the dining room at meal times and they would go to the garden together when it was quiet out there. He didn’t want to join in games or even watch a film in the evenings. He liked to go to his room. Sean showed him where there were some books and puzzles he might like to play with. Days passed like that. He did puzzles and drew pictures of himself with his family, but he hid the pictures under his mattress, no one could know his secret. It wouldn’t be long now. They would come on the night of his birthday.
One Saturday Sean and Emily took some of the children down to the beach. The home had a special minibus. They parked in a little car park and walked down the steps to the beach. Sean ran ahead with the older children.
‘Go easy lads,’ he shouted.
Emily walked with Ronan and Aoife down the uneven steps that wound down the hill. Ronan felt dizzy, his feet didn’t know what to expect as he zig zagged downwards. The water was sleek and calm that day and the sea wind was softer than usual. He breathed the salt, fish air, filling up his small lungs. This was his home.
‘Lovely, mild day for the sea,’ said Emily.
Sean appeared small down the other end of the beach, his red t-shirt standing out against the grey rocks. The children were charging over the dark rocks that stood on the sand marking the end of the cove. One of them had found a football and they had started a disorganised game. The ball flew over the rocks and Ronan could hear the kids calling and whooping to each other as they dashed. Sean was standing on the sand below shouting and waving his arms.
Aoife wanted to explore the little caves and Emily let them walk go together.
‘Hello!’ She shouted when she got inside. ‘Hello, hello hellllllooooooo.’ She laughed at the muffled echo. ‘Try it, it’s funny! Heeeelllllooooooooooo. Why do you never say anything Ronan?’
Ronan shook his head slightly. He looked out of the mouth of the cave. Some of the rock formations looked like seals. As though you might just, if you looked hard enough, catch one twitch its head or fins and flicker into life all of a sudden. Or they could stand up – a selkie man or woman. Selkie men, Ms Carrington had explained, had dark hair and blues eyes just like he did.
‘Last one paddling is a rotten egg,’ Aoife trilled, charging towards the shore. ‘Keep up Ronan!’
They pulled off their shoes and socks and walked along the waters edge, their feet sinking into the sand and the water swirling around their calves. Aoife giggled, she got some long stings of seaweed caught around her ankles.
‘Oarweed,’ Emily said. She walked with them, a meter of so in from the tide line. ‘Oh, look what got washed in.’ She held up some long string seaweed, it was near black with little baubles strung along it. It stood out well against her pale t-shirt and jeans. ‘Bladderwrack. We could take it home and let it dry out if you like.’
Aoife was holding the end of it to inspect it.
‘You know, someone,’ Emily started, ‘my granny I think, told me that people used to dry it out because they thought it had magical properties. People would dry it out and give it to their loved ones – sailors or fishermen. They believed it would protect them, so they would come back home safe.’
‘Oh, they are like black beads. I’ll make us necklaces that will keep us safe and all together,’ said Aoife putting her arm around Emily’s waist.
‘That’s a nice a nice idea. But remember it’s just an old story, they aren’t really magic.’ Emily said, gently patting Aoife’s shoulder.
‘I know’ scoffed Aoife, tossing her ponytail in the wind.
Ronan liked to be there, just at the water’s edge where he could hear the gentle rushing. Just between his two worlds – the land and the sea where the selkies were. He went to sleep that night with the rhythm of the waves still humming in his ears and the sand still between his toes. They would come soon, his family, to take him back home.
Ronan heard that hissing voice again as he walked down the carpeted hallway to dining room for breakfast next morning.
It was the same older boy, with the red, puffy face, walking towards him with his twisted mouth sneer. He wore a red t-shirt, a few shades brighter than his face, it had a large emoji face printed on it. The two faces walking towards him felt menacing to Ronan but he didn’t turn back. He continued to walk towards the older boy.
‘No one wants you here, Squirt,’ he hissed again as Ronan got closer. The red-faced boy stood in front of him in the hallway. Then stepped aside as if to let him pass. But he slyly extended a foot to trip him.
Ronan slammed to the floor, landing in a funny position. His legs were twisted and his lip bled – he’d bitten it. He tasted the blood and the angry salty tears. His body was hot and ridged. He stood and lunged forward.
‘Baby, stupid baby,’ the boy snorted and shoved him back against a wall. Ronan begin to kick wildly, his small fists slamming against the older boy’s gut.
‘What are you doing you little shit’ The boy pushed his away and Ronan fell backwards again.
‘You two, freeze!’ Emily appeared in the hallway.
Both boys were to be spoken to separately. Ronan in the quiet room and the other boy in the playroom. Ronan climbed under a chair and wouldn’t come out. After an hour he let Emily clean his lip and she asked him to hold a cool bag to it.
‘Some of the other children told me they saw what happened, Ronan. It’s not okay to pick on people like he did, and we will speak to him about it, of course. But it’s never okay to hit people either. So in a day or two, the three of us will sit down and talk about what happened.’
Ronan didn’t leave his room, other than to visit the toilet, for days. His meals were left almost untouched and he wet the bed every night. Fiona came to see him. She said she heard it had gone well at first, then there had been a problem. But maybe it was a problem they could overcome? Her eyes looked even bigger behind the glasses and she wore and\ even brighter print shirt. She had another meeting with Sean that afternoon to talk about him.
The next day Sean came into Ronan’s room with a tray of lunch, it was chicken and rice. He sat on a chair in the corner and started talking about how, if Ronan wished, they could maybe decorate his room. He’d get to chose the colour paint of course. The offer was met with silence. He didn’t say it, but Ronan knew he wouldn’t be there much longer.
Sean was nice though. He said maybe Ronan could think it over, maybe in a few days he could give him and answer. He changed the subject then.
‘It’s your birthday tomorrow, Ronan ,isn’t it?’
Ronan sat on his bed and stared at him blankly. Yes, his birthday and the longest day of the year when the selkies can walk on land as men and women. It was his seventh birthday, a magic age. He was going back to the sea where there were no horrible red-faced boys.
Sean asked: ‘Would you like to have a little celebration?’
‘I’ll take that as a no,’ Sean said softly.
Then: ‘Well, how about a cake anyway? Aoife and I will bake it. Chocolate cake with vanilla butter cream – it’s our speciality. We can think of it as a Tuesday cake instead if you’d prefer.’
Ronan’s eyes flickered, he almost nodded his head.
‘We’ll have it in the kitchen when they others are busy, okay?’
Ronan hadn’t been sleeping well. He had bad dreams about the big red-faced boy coming after him. But that night, he drifted off while a little light stubbornly crept in from the crack in the curtains. The evenings were still getting longer, Emily had explained earlier. He dreamed of plunging deep into the ocean, of dropping to the sea bed and then soaring to the water’s surface. And of his sister’s laughing face and dark, mischievous eyes.
Emily asked if he’d like to take a book to read in his room that day. She said she’d come in later and maybe they could play a boardgame? Ronan had nodded. Emily was nice.
In the evening Aoife knocked on his door.
‘Sean says if you don’t come in the next two minutes, he’s going to eat all the Tuesday cake. But we can’t let him, it’s the best cake we ever made!’ She chuckled and pulled Ronan by the arm.
Ronan went with her to the kitchen. Sean and Emily sat at the table. The cake had pale icing spread in a lop-sided swirl over the top and oozing out of the middle. There were coloured sprinkles and seven candles on top.
‘What’s a Tuesday cake without candles?’ Sean smiled gently.
Aoife sat down and pointed to a chair Ronan was to sit in. Emily pulled a violin out of a case and started to play ‘Happy Birthday’ slowly and quietly. All four sat in silence for a few seconds when she finished.
‘Have you another tune for us Emily?’ Sean said.
‘Yes, I do’
The light was getting lower in the kitchen. Tiny orange flames danced, reflected on the melting icing. Emily began to play a slow melody, it was almost sad but then it lifted and become a merrier, lighter piece.
‘That’s a very old song,’ Emily started. ‘It’s about the sailors looking forward to being home again.’
‘That was lovely Emily, I think it went down well too,’ Sean said softly.
Aoife nodded her head in agreement.
‘Can we cut the cake now’
‘Yes!’ Emily grinned.
‘Will you blow out the candles and make a wish, Ronan?’
Ronan closed his eyes and thought of his wish. He pictured his selkie family on the shore but their picture became fainter and foggier, then it drifted away slowly from his mind’s eye, leaving only the sound of the waves. He would have to think of another wish. He wished instead, that Aoife could be his sister and that they could stay together.
‘Come on Ronan!’ Aoife squealed.
He took a big breath and blew out the candles, all of them in one go. The others clapped their hands.
Sean handed Ronan a plate with a wedge of cake on it. No one had made him a cake before. In the last home birthday cakes had been last minute supermarket affair – dry and tummy ache sweet. This, however, was everything you could wish for in a birthday cake – rich and chocolatey with creamy filling.
‘Was that a smile Ronan?’ Emily said softly.
‘It was!’ said Aoife triumphantly. ‘Sean and me make the best cakes in town.’
‘We’ll go into business together, will we?’
‘Nah! You’d eat all the cakes before we could sell them.’
‘Aoife, you’re a cheeky monkey! Who could manage another little bit of cake? I bet Ronan could!’
It was getting late but the two children were allowed out into the garden to run off the sugar before bed. They’d want to scrub their teeth well later on, they were told. Aoife scrambled up a tree pulling Ronan up after her.
‘You’re much better at climbing now than when you got here,’ she said.
Sean stood a few meters away, whistling the tune Emily had played. The children perched on branches of the old ash tree. In the low light they could see fantastical shapes in the leaf canopy above. Aoife said she could see a crocodile and a mermaid.
‘Why do you never talk Ronan?’ she asked again.
‘Sometimes I do.’
‘Well, why don’t you tell me something now, then?’
‘Do you know the story about the selkies?’
‘Selkies can be seals in the water and then sometimes they can be people on the land too. They have these magical cloaks that they can take off when they want to be humans, but if they lose the cloak, they can’t be seals until they get it back again. But usually, in the stories, they find their cloaks and then they go back to their selkie family in the water.’
‘Wow, imagine being able to live underwater and then be a person on the land whenever you like.’
‘Yeah, that would be great except it’s not real. Just a story. But I can tell you another story if you like?’