Claire Fuller writes a lot of flash fiction and short stories. She has won the BBC Opening Lines competition and the Royal Academy/Pin Drop Prize. Her novels Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange are published by Penguin.
Baker, Emily and Me
Baker and I are crawling through the rain-soaked bushes. I bite my lip, but I can feel my excitement bubbling, low down inside of me. It wants to rise up and out, because today, we are going to save a chicken from the Snatchers. We are going to save a chicken and bring her home to live with us under the canopy. Baker said he needed my help, but if I came with him I had to be good. And when Baker says good, what he means is, keep still when he tells me, run when he tells me, and stay quiet when he tells me.
I am behind Baker on all fours. The back of his raincoat is ragged and his trousers are dirty. They are the only pair of trousers Baker owns. I can see the dark patch which the rain and mud have made on his bottom. And I can’t help it – a giggle escapes as a hiccup. Baker turns his head and snarls at me, like the dog we had, the one which drowned when the water came in our house. I have forgotten the dog’s name but I remember watching him from the attic. He was sucked out of the bedroom window like a dirty rug, and then he floated down the street, bumping into all the chairs and suitcases and people, which were swept away with him.
I clamp one of my muddy hands over my mouth to keep my laughing inside. Most times I’m good at running and keeping still and being quiet; sometimes I even stop breathing until the Snatchers have gone past. But it’s hard when the rain comes, drip, drip, drip, through the leaves onto the back of my neck.
Baker, Emily and Me – Claire Fuller 2
Usually, Baker makes me stay behind under the canopy while he goes out looking for food. He says that’s what girls do – stay at home to do the dusting and the hoovering. But I know he’s joking because we don’t have any tables or sideboards to dust, or any carpets to hoover. We just have a canopy hidden deep in the woods. Sometimes when Baker is away, I put new ferns down and moss, or I pretend to read the book we found, but the rain has stuck all the pages together, so I make up my own stories. But mostly, I lie on my back and turn my face up to the sky, open my mouth and let the rain come in. I have to keep my eyes shut though, so they won’t get wet, but I don’t tell Baker, because he says we must always keep our eyes open.
I’m excited about the chicken. I’m going to call her Emily and she will sleep next to me, and we will keep each other warm and her feathers will tickle me, but I won’t laugh unless Baker says it’s okay. I remember that chickens are girls, which means when she comes to live with us, we will be two girls and one boy and that will be more fun. Emily will lay brown eggs for us which I will collect and we will have eggs every morning for breakfast. My favourite is boiled egg, with buttery soldiers to dip in the middle. I try to remember what the yellow middle of an egg is called, but it’s too long since I heard anyone say the word and it has gone. Crouching in the bushes on the hill, behind Baker, I ask him which his favourite eggs are, but he shushes me and looks out through the leaves. Over his shoulder, through the bushes, I can see the road up to the Snatchers’ house. The forest is growing over it, so all that is left is a narrow strip of the black stone which roads were made from. There are large holes in it where the rain is eating it away. We are safe in the bushes because Baker says we’re camouflaged and even though we can see out, no one knows we’re there if we keep really still and quiet.
He says our canopy is camouflaged too, because it has a pattern of green and brown and it’s hidden in the woods. We have to do lots of tricks to make sure it’s not found by the Snatchers; like only lighting fires in the day time when the wind is blowing in a certain direction and always walking back to our camp on a different path. Once, in the night the Snatchers came close. I heard them calling for me. ‘Little girl, little girl,’ they said. ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’ And then I heard them laughing and crashing through the undergrowth; they weren’t quiet like Baker says we have to be. It sounded as though the Snatchers were chasing wild animals, except they couldn’t have been, because all the wild animals have been caught and eaten already. While we listened to the Snatchers getting further away, Baker held my hand in the dark, really tight so my fingers were all squeezed together and hurt, but I was quiet and afterwards he said I had been good.
Baker, Emily and Me – Claire Fuller 3
This morning, before we left, Baker told me the plan of how we would save Emily. He said the Snatchers have five chickens, so they won’t notice if we take one, but we have to be quick because if they see us they will be angry and they will chase us and when he says ‘run’, I have to run very fast. Baker said chickens have small brains and Emily will try to get away and I have to help him catch her. But I know that when Emily sees me, she will want to come to live with us under the canopy in the woods.
Baker pushes his hood back and the rain makes his hair into a flat point in the middle of his forehead. ‘Quiet,’ he says and crawls forward out of the bushes onto the old road. We stand up and it feels funny to have something hard and gritty under my boots. We keep to the edge of the road, and where it bends, we stop under a beech tree. With one arm, Baker pins me back against its trunk, green and slippery from the rain, while he cranes his head forward to look towards where the Snatchers live. Very slowly and quietly, like the deer which used to live in the forest, we walk up the hill.
I thought the Snatchers would live in a big house, a palace maybe, but their house is not like that; really it is a shed with windows. Except that instead of glass, bits of wood are nailed across the windows, as if the house has had its eyes glued shut. Everywhere around is thick, sucking mud. We take another two steps forward and then I see the chickens. They are some way from the house, walking around and pecking at the ground beside their own little shed, behind a wire fence. The chickens don’t seem to mind the rain. I count one white and three black chickens, but I know that Emily is brown like her eggs; in the pictures in my mind, Emily is always brown.
Baker and I creep closer, and then I see Emily coming around the hen house, plump and brown and happy to see me. ‘Emily,’ I say, but Baker puts his hand on my mouth and I can smell mud. We are both as still as tree trunks, while we watch the Snatchers’ house. It is all still; the only movement is the nodding of the chickens. Baker lets go of my mouth and now one of his hands is gripping my wet sleeve. His eyes are shining. My heart is beating but I’m not breathing. Baker’s lips make the word ‘Now’.
Baker, Emily and Me – Claire Fuller 4
We leap forwards like tigers. Baker’s hand is tight on my wrist, it hurts, my feet are sliding, my boots are skidding. I slip and there is sludge inside them; cold against my ankles. My hands are in the mud. Baker is pulling me, through the rain, getting in my eyes, running over my face, up the hill, to the chicken fence. It is as high as Baker’s chest; I don’t know how we’ll get over. He grabs me under my arms; swings me in a high arc through the rain and over the fence. I land in with the chickens. Baker jumps in after me. The birds flap and squawk. I see Emily, beating her wings, excited. The chickens run. Heads bobbing; wings in my face. We circle them with our open arms, but they skip past. ‘Emily,’ I shout, ‘Emily, it’s me. I’ve come to save you.’ But Emily is scared; we are too loud and too big for her.
‘Quiet!’ hisses Baker but I don’t know if he is talking to me or to Emily. Then he says, ‘Catch it! Catch it!’ He is covered in mud, even his face is brown with it. The birds escape as if they are slippery. Then Emily is pinned in a corner by Baker, his arms are out and his legs wide. Baker lunges, grabs; holds Emily against his chest with two big hands and I cheer. Emily struggles. I want to stroke her, to tell her that everything will be okay now; that we’ve come to save her, but Baker tucks Emily under one arm and he jumps the fence with the chicken. I put the tips of my boots in the wire’s spaces, hook my fingers in and try to climb, but tumble backwards. The fence is too high; too high for me. I cry. Through the wire, Baker whispers, ‘Get up, get up’. I stand and put a toe in a hole in the wire again and reach with an arm as far up as possible, but I can’t climb. Baker looks at me, he looks down at Emily and back at me. And then up to the house. I see his face change and I turn to look too. The front door of the little wooden house is opening and three Snatchers tumble out into the mud, shouting. They are running and pulling on their boots at the same time, slipping and yelling and sliding. I scrabble at the fence one more time. Snot is running from my nose. Baker looks again at me through the fence, at Emily and then at the Snatchers. He takes two steps backwards, away from me. My eyes are wide. Baker takes Emily’s head and neck in his hands, and twists.
Baker, Emily and Me – Claire Fuller 5
Her flapping and wriggling stops.
Baker half climbs the fence, leans over, grabs the back of my coat with his free arm and hoists me over the wire. ‘Run!’ Baker shouts and we slide down the hill through the brown puddles and onto the old road. Two of the Snatchers are behind us. My heat is still beating. I run as fast as I can so Baker will say I did well. My breath hurts. We disappear into the bushes, and the branches and leaves close behind us. I hear the Snatchers shouting and blundering, but we’re green and we’re brown. We are camouflaged. They can’t find us.
Baker and I come out from under the bushes and walk back to the canopy. We’re quiet. The rain keeps falling. Baker holds Emily under his arm, she is like a wet sock on a washing line. The rain mixes with my tears. Baker’s hand finds mine and squeezes it really tight.
Baker Emily and Me was the winner of the BBC Opening Lines competition and was first published by BBC Radio 4.