Geronimo, Billy Jenkins!

By Pam Keevil

Published on 10th December 2017

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Winter was over. I knew because grandad had exchanged his wellington boots for a battered pair of shoes. It also meant he would be in his shed. Only Billy Jenkins was scarier than Grandad’s shed. Billy might be smaller than me but he never came alone. There were always one or two friends to join in throwing the stones that whizzed past my ear or chipped the back of my head. Even worse were the names that made the other kids snicker; Four Eyes, Scrag End, Beanpole.
Billy said if I told anyone he’d get his brother to sit on me. His brother was old, nearly grown up and he’d been in prison. I heard mum saying it was a surprise there wasn’t steam coming off their house, everything was so hot. I didn’t understand what she meant. Their house was the same as ours and it was so cold in my bedroom in winter ice formed on the inside of the windows.
‘Go on out’ Gran said as she thrust a warm lemon curd tart in my hands. ‘Grandad’ll be in for his tea soon but he’s got something to show you.’
The door of the shed was propped open by an upended bucket. I walked slowly forward, nibbling on the sweet pastry. Grandad was busy inside. I stepped forward and poked my head round the door, ready to spring back in case he was sharpening the assortment of saws and knives that would cut my fingers off if I went near them. His back was turned towards me and he was bending down stirring some evil smelling mixture in his one man crusade against the slugs and snails.
‘Come in my boy’ he said.
It looked safe enough. I stepped into the gloom, ignoring the curtains of black cobwebs hanging from the rafters and smothering the glass. Then I saw it, perched between the tins of paint on the top shelf. A head swivelled round and pale eyes blinked at me. It was an owl.
The bird looked down at me. Was it hungry and did it attack small boys?  I wanted to run and hide my face in grandma’s apron, like the time I fell in the stinging nettles at the back of the shed. I stayed where I was, safe behind granddad’s back until curiosity trumped fear.’Why is there an owl in your shed?’
Grandad poured the liquid into a watering can and lifted it up. ‘Found him last night as I was taking Flossie for a walk. Must have been hit by a car. Wing’s a bit damaged but I reckon it’ll be fine after a bit of rest and plenty of food.’
‘You feed it?’
Grandad turned to face me. He bent closer. ‘It likes a live mouse. I catches one and…’he snapped his fingers in front of my face. ‘One big gulp and it’s gone.’
I felt my lip quiver. ‘Poor mouse.’
Grandad tilted his head on one side, like a blackbird detecting a worm. He winked and tweaked my nose between a thumb and fore finger which ponged of peppermints and rotten leaves. ‘Got you.’ He threw back his head and laughed, showing the gold back tooth which he said was the only way he’d take his wealth to the grave. ‘I feed it on a bit of Flossie’s dog food.’
He eased past me and went out, leaving the door open. I followed, looking back all the time in case the owl escaped. ‘Why haven’t you closed the door? It might fly away.’
Grandad began watering the featherlike tops of the rows of carrots. ‘It’ll stay until its better. Then…Geronimo. Off it’ll go back to the woods. All living things know when it’s time to stand on their own two feet or fly on their own two wings’ he chuckled at his joke.
‘Ger…geroni…What was that word?’
‘Geronimo, little owl’ Grandad shouted at the top of his voice. He flung one arm in the air as if launching a ball into space.
‘Is that a magic word?’
Grandad bent down and pulled me closer. He fixed his eyes on my face as if he could read my mind. ‘There are times you have to be really brave, like the owl. He don’t want to stay with me. He wants to be free but the world’s a scary place. So I reckon when he’s ready I might have to give him some encouragement.’ He stood up and straightened his back. ‘Now run along. You keeps me from my work. Go and pester your Gran.’
I did and was rewarded with a large slice of cherry cake.
The next day as I walked the last hundred metres to school, I spotted Billy and his two mates waiting behind the school fence, hidden form the eyes of the teacher on duty. They pointed.’Here he comes, the little squirt. What’s he going to want today? A punch? A kick? Or perhaps he’s got something nice in his packed lunch? I’m feeling a bit peckish.’
That was it. I put my head down and ran towards them, my arms flailing and screaming at the top of my voice ‘Geronimo, Billy Jenkins!’
I ran, expecting the top of my head to connect with a soft stomach or a hard fist. It didn’t matter. I ran on, still screaming. Nothing happened. I stopped when I reached the fence. I looked up. Billy and his gang were nowhere to be seen. My arms flopped to my side but I still ran the rest of the way to school, expecting to be pounced on and beaten even harder.
Billy Jenkins and his gang never came near me again.
Grandad made a big cage for the owl to keep it safe from the foxes. He said it’s wing was too badly damaged for it to fly again.
I think if I hadn’t used up all the magic, perhaps we’d both have escaped.

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