The Birthday Cake
Harry was just eleven years old when his father set light to Paradise, the family’s parakeet. Harry had been tussling with his sister, Henrietta, and no amount of cajoling from their mother, Betty, would quiet them. So, in a sudden moment of frustration, not being allowed to read his newspaper in peace, Sid, the children’s father, leapt from the worn and threadbare rocking chair, opened the door to the bird cage, took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and set the innocent bird alight! After Paradise fell from his perch in flames, the house fell silent. Tears rolled freely from Henrietta’s eyes, flowing down her cheeks. Harry stood, mouth open, watching the bird turn to charcoal. Paradise was lost.
“Okay, that’ll teach you not to make so much noise when I’m trying to read the paper,” Frank growled.
The two children, just two weeks earlier, because of their constant squabbling, had been the cause of the pet rabbit, Floppy, losing one of his ears, cut off in a another fit of rage by their father. And a month ago, when the children fought over who was going to feed the goldfish, their father went to the bowl and speared the fish with a toothpick. “There, see this,” he said, holding up the fish flapping on the toothpick, “No one need feed the damn fish anymore,” and flushed it down the toilet.
The family only had the dog left. Bruiser, a miniature poodle, who seldom yapped in the house. In fact, he hadn’t been heard to yap in almost a year, not since Sid had branded him with the hot iron. Bruiser lived most of the time in a cupboard under the stairs, venturing out only at mealtimes to graze round the fidgeting feet of Harry and Henrietta. He hadn’t pee’d in the house since being kicked down the stairs at the age of two months. Bruiser trembled constantly, even when it wasn’t cold.
Betty was a small, timid, woman with rimmed spectacles, who looked twenty years older than her age, spent most of her days repairing, washing, drying, and ironing the family’s clothes. Sid wasn’t small and wore a constant ring of coal dust around his neck from working down the mine. The home was a terraced three-bedroom semi. It came built with an outside toilet; now used as a storeroom after the council improved the property five years ago.
Paradise had been dead almost a month come Harry’s twelfth birthday. His mother had made him a cake. Harry stood up and leaned over the table to blow out the upturned Sulphur matches his father had pushed into the cake. But in doing so, he knocked over Henrietta’s orange juice, which flooded across the table and onto the floor, where Bruiser was lapping it up.
Henrietta burst into tears and slapped Harry on the back. Harry blew out the matches in one go, then turned to face Henrietta and pushed her back in retaliation.
“Mummy, Harry punched me,” she cried.
Betty, sensing trouble, hurriedly ran around the table to console her daughter, mopping up what juice was left on the table. Sid was engrossed in the TV and hadn’t even stirred.
“Now let’s all sing Happy birthday to Harry,” she said, stroking her daughter’s hair.
“I’m not singing to him, look what he’s done to my dress, mummy,” she sulked, pointing to an orange stain.
“Now, don’t you worry, it will wash up like new, com’on now, let’s sing happy birthday,” she said, but only she sang.
Harry started yelling at Henrietta because she hadn’t sung his birthday song. Bruiser made for the cupboard.
“Betty — my mug of tea is cold,” Sid said.
“I’ll fill the kettle and make us a fresh brew,” she said.
“Mummy, Henrietta is taking all the icing.”
The two of them continued squabbling.
“Your father is trying to watch television, children.”
“But Henrietta threw some icing at me!”
“Henrietta, I’ve brought you up to be a lady and ladies don’t throw food across the table now, do they?”
“Harry spilt orange over me and you said nothing to him!” She protested.
“That was an accident, Henrietta, Harry didn’t mean to spill his orange.”
Harry thumbed his nose at his sister.
“Mummy now Harry’s making faces at me. Tell him not to.”
“No I’m not, you liar!”
Henrietta burst into a flood of tears, “I’m not, it’s the truth, mummy,” she wailed.
They hadn’t noticed their father had risen from the table. He was holding Bruiser by the neck at his shoulder height. “I’m trying to watch the television. Now, if there’s to be another sound, I’ll shoot the dog!”
Bruiser hung there from his hand like a shaggy mop waiting to be rinsed out and shook.
“But Henrietta started it. She took my icing!”
“You spilled orange juice over me!”
Father left the table and went to the yard. On the way he collected his shotgun, used on a Sunday for shooting pigeons. One shot rang out. The children jumped. Harry sobbed at the table. Henrietta sat poker faced. Mother held her head in her hands.
Father returned and locked the gun back into its case.
Betty told the children to go to their bedrooms. “Do not come down, do you both hear me. You’ll stay there until the morning, and you won’t come back down. Now off you go.”
The birthday half eaten cake was still sat in the middle of the table when the policeman came.
“Good evening, a shot was reported fired in your back yard by a neighbor.”
“Yes, it was my husband, he shot the children’s dog.”
“May I come in, please?”
“Yes, of course, the children are upstairs, they are in bed. In trouble I’m afraid.”
“Ah, yes, I have two children. I know the score.”
The policeman entered the room to find Sid sitting dead and neat at the table. He had a carving knife sticking out of his back.
He turned to the slight of a woman, who was looking calmly at her husband sitting at the table. His eyes still shocked open.
“I told him, if he killed another pet, I would kill him,” she explained. “He told me I shouldn’t threaten anyone unless I was prepared to carry it out,” she said. Relief flooding across her face.