Devon Prize (2017/2018) - Dylan Thomas, Gregory Jones and the Oort Cloud by Janet McCann

by Janet McCann

At lunchtime, Father takes a bite of his ham sandwich and says, all in a rush, ‘There’s a pig with two heads down at the farm. Born yesterday. They’ve even given it a name ‒ Dylan Thomas, for goodness sake! It’s spectacular! Two wet noses, two lolling tongues, and four pale pink eyes squinting through long white eyelashes. And it squeals like anything! Imagine that! But it won’t live long. No more than a few days at most.’ And then Father laughs a little too loudly as he cuts another slice of ham, and stares directly at me, and then at Frankie, as if to say ‘You’re not brave enough to take a look. You’re just little girls!’
‘Let’s go!’ I say, pulling at Frankie’s hand to hurry her along. Last year, when we were not even nine years old, we saw a lamb with five legs down at Mr Morris’s farm; and double-yolk duck eggs are three a penny. But a new pig with two heads is extra-special, isn’t it? So we grab our duffle coats and our boots and our matching bobble hats and new red mittens, and then Frankie and I plod through the snowdrifts down the lane to Duncan’s Gate on our way to the farm where the two-headed piglet struggles to breathe. It has snowed heavily again in the night, and all the edges of our world are smudged and blurred. Brand-new bird prints wander hither and thither among the hedgerows, and a fox or perhaps even a badger has scuffled beneath the holly trees, digging through the snow. There are crows too, and a handful of magpies, clattering their noisy black wings against the soft white ground.  
It isn’t far to Duncan’s Gate, but it takes longer than usual because of the new snowfall. When we get there, we stop to catch our breath and shake the aches out of our legs. Ahead of us, there are trees on either side ‒ oak and ash and hazel, and alder where the lane slopes down towards the frozen brook. Frankie pulls her hat tight over her hair to cover up her pink ears and looks up at the silver sky and says, ‘Bridget?’
‘Mmm?’ I say. 
‘I wonder why it’s called Duncan’s Gate. Who’s Duncan? I don’t know anyone called Duncan, do you? And why does he have a gate?’ 
I stand still next to her and look up too, and think about this. Then I explain, ‘It’s like the Oort cloud, I expect.’
‘The Oort cloud.’ I’ve been reading about this in my library book. First of all, and obviously, I love the sound of it and the way it is spelled and the shape of my mouth as I say it. And after I’ve said the word ‒ Oort ooort oooort ‒ I can easily imagine icy comets flashing through the mysterious blankness of space far beyond the moon. I remember that the Oort cloud is named after a dead man from a flat country across the sea somewhere, so I tell Frankie all that I know about Oort and his cloud, and how certain things ‒ clouds, gates, even two-headed piglets ‒ can be named after men. But I can see that Frankie isn’t really listening and doesn’t care at all about Mr Oort, since she is humming tunelessly and swinging on the bottom rung of the gate. Then, still humming, she takes off her mittens, balances them on the stump of an ancient hazel tree, and pokes about in her coat pocket. 
‘You want an aniseed ball?’ she asks, pulling out a small white paper bag and holding it open. I peer inside. Without asking, I take two flying saucers, a pale pink one and a yellow one, and I put them in my pocket for later. Frankie chooses a black jack. She peels its sticky wrapper away and squashes the sweet against the roof of her mouth with her tongue and starts humming again.
Beyond Duncan’s Gate, the snow piles up against the side of the lane, burying it almost entirely. A little further on, the trees crowd tightly together, linking their branches over the lane. It’s darker there, and quiet.
‘What’s that?’ I look ahead, where the snow is deepest and glowing almost blue within the shadow of the trees.
‘What?’ Frankie squeaks. Her breath hazes the air around her pale face.
‘In the snow. See? There.’ 
I start to climb over Duncan’s Gate. Frankie pulls at the edge of my coat, as if to say ‘No, don’t’, but I carry on climbing and drop down neatly onto the far side. I push my glasses back up the bridge of my nose and tuck a strand of hair into my bobble hat and hold out my hand. Cautious Frankie looks behind her, then she climbs carefully and slowly over the gate and catches hold of my hand again, and together and in silence we trudge forwards. The new snow creaks beneath our boots. Overhead, the branches rustle slightly. Somewhere a jay cries ‘kraih kraih’. Behind us, a solitary woodpigeon stirs in the ivy on an alder tree. Then silence again, as if a breath is being held.
Suddenly Frankie starts to cry and tries to bury her head in my coat. I hold her tightly, but I can’t help staring. And what I see are four small stiff fingers and the tip of a thumb, as pale as new porcelain, poking through the snow. There’s no question about it. There they are.
‘I want to go home!’ sobs Frankie. 
I’m scared too, but it’s no good telling Frankie this because I’m supposed to be the brave one: ‘fearless Bridget’, Father calls me, when he’s feeling cheerful. 
‘We need to see who it is, Frankie. We can’t just leave them here. We’ll dig them out.’
‘But I want to go home!’ Frankie wails.
I pull a stick of brittle hazel out of the hedge on the far side of the lane and creep carefully forward, crunching over the snow towards the fingers.
‘There aren’t any footprints, Bridget,’ Frankie whispers. ‘Why aren’t there any footprints?’
‘Shut up! I’m going to dig around the edges.’
I scrape some of the snow away, and then I gasp and fall backwards and sit down with a bump. 
‘Oh!’ I lift my hand up to cover my mouth.
Frankie creeps up behind me, and sits down too. And now we can both see, as sure as eggs is eggs, that between each of the fingers there is webbing, just like the webbing between the toes of the ducks down at the farm where the two-headed pig awaits us. The webbing is frozen ‒ almost transparent in the dim light under the trees. 
‘What is it?’ whispers Frankie. I prod at one of the fingers with my stick. 
‘Don’t do that!’ hisses Frankie.
‘I think it’s dead. Look. It’s not moving at all.’ I give it another poke, to prove my point.
‘Of course it’s dead!’ Frankie dries her tears on the back of her bare hand, then, bold as brass, she takes hold of my stick and pokes around the fingers a bit more.
‘Perhaps it’s an alien! From space! Perhaps from the Oort cloud!’ I clutch at my chest and look skywards again, and now I notice little triangular clouds gathering above the mountains to the west. 
‘We should dig down further,’ says Frankie, brandishing the stick. 
‘No! Don’t!’ I stand up and hurriedly brush the snow from my trousers. ‘We need to go home, Frankie. Now! Come on!’
I hastily stuff my mittens into my pockets, Frankie tosses the stick aside, and together we turn away; away from the gloomy trees and the nervous jay, away from the solitary woodpigeon that sleeps in the ivy that strangles the alder, and away, as quickly as possible, from whatever might be buried in the snow. We clamber back over Duncan’s Gate, up the lane and in through the kitchen door. Gasping for breath, we shout for Father, and he leaps up from the chair by the fire, and throws on his coat and stumbles on his thin legs through the snowdrifts and past the frozen fingers without even stopping, down to Mr Morris’s farm, where there is not just a two-headed piglet but a telephone too, and he phones Sergeant Matthews in the town, and up Sergeant Matthews comes in the cab of Mr Morris’s tractor, because there’s no way a car could get so far up the lane in all that snow. 
In the fading blue light at the end of the afternoon, the sky clears, the crows and the magpies clatter away to the spinney for the night’s roost, no doubt the badgers and the foxes find their way home, and the world outside gleams in snow light. Frankie and I sit on my bed in the attic. We wrap ourselves in my blanket, shivering together, and we listen to the tractor as it clunks clumsily down the lane, carrying the frozen creature away. 
‘I left my gloves behind, on that tree stump. Father will be cross with me,’ whispers Frankie as she leans against me. 
x x x
Well now. Of course the thing in the snow was not an alien, even though, looking back on it, I almost wished it were so. Wouldn’t that have been a splendid thing, to be the first to unearth a creature ‒ even a dead one, even one with just a single head ‒ from Mars or Jupiter or even as far away as Pluto or Oort’s cloud? In fact, we soon found out that it was little Gregory Jones, whose family lived on the other side of our mountain. The previous day, the very day upon which the two-headed pig was born, Gregory had taken it into his six-year-old head to put on his raggedy cardigan and his wellington boots and plod uphill from the farm where he lived, up and up to the top. Perhaps he was chasing a fox cub, or looking for grouse, or perhaps he just wondered what was up in the sky, because maybe he saw lights there. And then, at the top, he must have got confused, with a mist curling in, or a swirl of silent snow building up, and so he walked through the dark heather and the dead bracken and down down down into the wrong valley. Darkness crept upon him and snow eddied around him. Then, tired out, he sat down for a rest. In silence, the snow settled, and eventually Gregory stopped shivering and stopped caring, and the gentle snowfall covered his body, leaving just a bunch of fingers and half a thumb sticking upwards, as if getting ready to conduct an orchestra or wave to a passing train. And yes, we also learned that little Gregory Jones did indeed have webbed fingers. He was born that way. 
x x x
In the evening, before supper, Frankie’s abandoned mittens are entirely forgotten as we sit at the table with Father and explain, several times over, how we found Gregory and his fingers, and how he was stuck solid. And how we weren’t scared at all. And then, after supper, Father opens another bottle of beer for himself and talks about how, when the tractor came, he and the sergeant and Mr Morris had to dig like the Furies to get Gregory out, but be careful not to crack his skull or a shin bone or a shoulder blade. Like the rest of him, the little boy’s face was frozen white and stiff, and a shimmering of ice coated every eyelash and every hair of his head. 
‘But he was smiling,’ Father says. ‘Smiling, I tell you. It looked as if he was happy.’ He pauses and takes another gulp of beer. ‘‒which is a good thing, I suppose.’ He scratches the greying stubble on his chin, then lowers his head and stares at his cracked hands.
‘Did he have webbed toes, too?’ asks Frankie, climbing onto Father’s knee. Father has a Mars Bar. He cuts a small slice of it with his knife and gives the slice to Frankie, who takes it and smiles up at him as she loops her arms around his neck.
‘He had his boots on, silly,’ Father laughs. ‘We couldn’t see his feet.’ 
‘Poor Gregory,’ Frank mumbles.
At bedtime, we leave Father asleep in the chair by the fire and go upstairs. After I’ve turned out the bedroom light, Frankie whispers from the other side of the room. ‘Can I sleep with you tonight, Bridget? Just for tonight? Pleeeaase, Bridget.’
‘Hop in, then,’ I say, squeezing over. 
‘I can’t wait to tell everyone,’ whispers Frankie, rubbing her cold feet against mine. ‘It’s even better than a pig with two heads, isn’t it? I bet no one else has ever seen a dead boy! Or even anyone at all ‒ alive or dead ‒ with webbed fingers, and probably toes too!’
I wait until Frankie starts snuffling like a hibernating dormouse. She flaps her feet once or twice ‒ perhaps she is imagining what it would be like to have duck feet ‒ and then she lies still. For a while I listen to her rhythmic breathing, in and out, in and out, in and out. And, as I listen to her, and feel her little chest rising and falling against my back in that comforting way, I decide that in the morning, for certain, we will walk together through the snow to the farm, and visit the piglet with two heads.
‘Poor Gregory,’ I sigh. I try to imagine what it’s like to fly into space, and even though I’m not an American ‒ not even a man ‒ I am sure it will be possible one day. After all, we’re already nine, Frankie and me: ‘Two peas in a pod, you two!’ Father likes to say, when he is feeling kind. I remember that I never ate the two flying saucers that Frankie gave me, and that they must still be in the pocket of my duffle coat. Then I see those flying saucers ‒ pale pink and yellow ‒ spinning away from the Earth, faster and faster, until the yellow one swells into the face of an alien boy; not frozen in snow like Gregory’s, but alive and breathing gently ‒ in and out, in and out, in and out ‒ and smiling with those unnaturally enormous eyes, and beckoning me to follow. So I pick up Frankie’s new red mittens and a bag full of black jacks and a lolling two-headed piglet called Dylan Thomas, I tuck Dylan Thomas under my arm to stop him squealing, and I soar away into the shimmering Oort cloud where it’s hot and cold all at the same time. 
x x x

We never did find out who Duncan was. As for that piglet, it died in the night, so we never got to see it after all.