Matches

the seventh boy, my fairy child; the one I had pinned my hopes onto, came awkwardly into our world. By hook or by crook, nothing was going to stop him coming along with us, although at first, I was not too sure how to receive him.

By this time we had dumped the removal van. Sleeping in the cab every night was just not sustainable, it was too cold, too cramped and even though the boys were fine without washing or changing their clothes, I needed some facilities. In addition, I realised that we were not going to need our possessions where we were heading; the circus did not have room for furniture or bicycles, fridges or TVs.

On the outskirts of the Austrian town of Lienz, we came across a used car dealer and traded our removal van with everything in it for a camper. It was old but it was serviceable; big enough for six boys and me and I knew that the further into Central Europe we travelled, the greater the need would be for easy repair should it break down. The salesman gave us a bag of essentials before we left: spanners, jacks and everything I would need for fixing it on the road.

As we swapped vans, the boys had with them one rucksack each and I decided to take nothing. This was after all, a new life for me; a new beginning.

Thirty miles out of  Lienz and I stopped the van. Ben had been complaining about a squeak in the suspension at the back and I thought I should at least check it out before it got any worse. Parking in a lay-by, I started my inspection at the rear. Yes, there was a strange mewling sound coming from the back storage box and it continued even when the engine was switched off. Looking inside, I found a small black bird wrapped in an oily cloth – all legs and beak; bright blue eyes. His squealing rose to a shriek as he was subjected to the light of the open door. The boys crowded round to get a look at him. He was scared and ducked down into the corner as best he could.

“Let’s keep him,” they shouted, “he’s so lovely!”

A crow, I thought, a baby crow, trapped in the back of a camper van, completely helpless and oh, so slightly vicious. I was half afraid, half saddened. He frightened me when we unwrapped him and he flapped his wings to escape but I knew that I could not just leave him on the side of the road to die. He could not fly, could not fend for himself. Every time he tried to flap, he toppled onto his beak and collapsed in a pile of twiggy feathers. Once a bird has been separated from its parents, I thought, it would have no chance of survival. And besides, the boys would not let me leave without him.

“He’s just like us!” they cried in glee.

I was not sure what they meant by that but understood soon enough.

We brought him into the front to sit between the boys and as we trundled the back roads along the Drava river to the East, they fed him scraps; a bit of chicken here, scrambled egg there and I watched, fascinated, as he started to grow. His spindly legs were all at once longer, paler; knee caps protruding in an odd way as he sat smiling between my two youngest sons, tucking them up underneath his chin. His beady blue eyes became softer and more human-like. He began to feed himself, each long, shiny primary feather taking on the appearance of fingers with which he started to pick things up to examine them or scratch his back; I turned around once and could have sworn he was sucking his feathered thumb as he leaned back listening to the boys’ chatter.

We needed to call him something. A great discussion commenced. Many names were suggested: Blackie, Midnight, Kelpie, Corvus but finally we all settled on Matches.

Ben had seen in the newspaper a few years back an article about a man who had been sent mad by crows. He had watched them set light to his neighbour’s car with a box of matches. Looking back at our new companion, who was examining a spanner he was deftly holding between finger and thumb, I understood exactly how they might have done it, though nobody would have believed it. The man had finally gone mad when he witnessed the same gang of crows brick up a sheep in the walls of his house and the fire brigade had refused to investigate.

So Matches it was.

By the time we reached Klagenfurt to stop for the night, Matches was more boy than bird. His tail was now just a stump, the feathers on his shoulders and back looked more like thick black hair and he panted through his beak with his long tongue hanging out to the side as if in anticipation of a juicy morsel or a good joke. Having witnessed his full transformation through the rear view mirror as I drove, there was no way now I could ever give him up and besides, I thought, he will more then likely out of all my sons, become the star attraction of the Show.