A new girl started in our class today. Mrs Jones got her to stand up and tell us about herself. She’s called Safa. She’s come from somewhere called Syria which she said is a very, very long way away. She said she liked Harry Potter and custard cream biscuits. She didn’t mention animals at all so I put my hand up and asked her if she had any pets.
I don’t have any pets. Mom says I can’t because of the carpet. The carpet is also the reason we can’t wear shoes in the flat, can’t take food or drink in the living room and definitely can’t ride bikes indoors. The carpet is king in our house. I made up an excellent joke about it and told my mom.
‘What’s the most boring pet in the world?’
She didn’t laugh though. She just went on about expense and money and me not understanding.
Anyway the new girl, Safa, said she didn’t have any pets either now, but her family had owned lots of sheep in Syria and had to leave them all behind. Josh Barker shouted out: ‘Didn’t they fit in your suitcases?’ and everyone laughed, except Safa.
Later on Mrs Jones said we were going to be doing something very exciting this term: a project all about local history. I didn’t think this would be that exciting. Not as exciting for example as a project about the most amazing animals in the world would be, but I didn’t say anything. Mrs Jones looked at me though and said:
I should probably tell you right now – Bentley’s my name, though everyone thinks it’s weird:
‘Bentley?’ They say, ‘Bentley? What’s your first name?’ And I say:
‘That is my first name.’
And they say:
‘No one has Bentley as a first name. What’s your surname?’ And I say:
‘Adam’ And then they always say:
‘Are you pulling my leg?!’
But I’m not. My name is Bentley Adam. If I’m jumping around my bedroom my mom always shouts ‘Gently Bentley!’ And then she gives a little laugh. Even she thinks my name’s funny.
Anyway Mrs Jones said: ‘Bentley, your partner is Safa. This will be Safa’s first project with us! You can help her learn all about Balsall Heath.’ Safa wears glasses and looks properly brainy. I wasn’t sure she’d need my help. I think Mrs Jones just didn’t want me being Dev’s partner again. Not after the incident on the school trip with the emu.
First good thing about Safa though was that she didn’t ask me about my name. Maybe Bentley is a normal name in Syria.
I taught Safa all about the history of Balsall Heath, I told her when Zaffs was redecorated and Perio’s Chicken opened and the time that Lidl shut its doors for a whole year. She said:
‘Can you tell me something? What does Balsall mean?’
‘What does what mean?’ I said.
‘Balsall. Balsall Heath?’
I was trying to teach her important facts and she asked this! I shrugged
‘And what is ‘Heath?’ I see this word all the time on buses. Kings Heath. Balsall Heath. Druids Heath. Small Heath. Short Heath. What is heath?’
I said ‘I don’t know. It’s not anything. Balsall Heath is just the name of where we live.’
And then Safa laughed like I’d said something funny and said: ‘But Bentley, every name means something.’
I stopped off at the city farm after school. It’s only down the road and I like to say hello everyday – particularly to Rolf the goat and Algernon the alpaca who are my favourites. I thought about what Safa said so I asked them if their names meant anything but I didn’t get much of an answer from either of them. They just chomped on the grass I held out and let me stroke them.
I love my mom, but I like going to the farm before I go home after school. It’s peaceful. Algernon and Rolf don’t shout, or get upset or always seem sad
Today the whole class visited Balsall Heath library. It’s a very old building. It says 1895 above the door because that’s the year it was born. That means the library has been there for 123 years. Mrs Jones told us to try and imagine what Balsall Heath was like all that time ago and then draw a picture. Mine looked more or less like it does today with the library and the swimming baths but there were no cars only horses and carriages. Harry Jeffs drew dinosaurs all standing outside the library. As if there were dinosaurs 123 years ago. As if they could read.
Safa found a massive pile of books about local history and she was looking through those before she started her picture.
I said: ‘Where did you find those? How did you know where to look?’
And she said ‘I come to the library every day. I know where all the books are.’
I didn’t believe her. There are way too many books in the library for anyone to know them all. I said ‘Oh yeah, I suppose you’ve read them all as well.’
She shook her head: ‘No, of course not. Not yet.’
Mom and me went to the market in town like we do every Saturday. Mom was looking after Kayleigh from next door as well. Kayleigh’s two and still in a pushchair. She liked all the men shouting about the price of bananas. She’d shout ‘Nana! Nana!’ back at them even when it wasn’t bananas they were selling which even made Mom smile. I pushed Kayleigh on the walk home and made car noises to make her laugh. Then we heard a real rumbling and a massive lorry started heading down the road. I held onto the pushchair really tight because it felt as if it was being sucked behind the lorry. Kayleigh was laughing though and shouting: ‘Baa Baa’. That was when I noticed the lorry was completely filled with sheep. Like they were all going on a big sheep day trip. I liked that idea. Sheep at the seaside or at Drayton Manor on the rides. I started laughing at the picture I had in my head of two sheep sat at the front of a roller coaster freaking out and I said:
‘Where are all the sheep going Mom?’
‘Factory, I suppose.’ Said Mom.
‘Sheep don’t work in factories!’I said and Mom looked at me like she does when she thinks I’ve said something stupid deliberately, just to annoy her. I tried again:
‘What factory do you mean?’
‘You know, Bentley…’ and she pulled a funny face, like it was something she couldn’t say in front of Kayleigh.
I didn’t know though and I shook my head.
Mom sighed: ‘The factory that turns animals into meat.’
‘Oh.’ I said and then I did feel stupid. The sheep weren’t going to Drayton Manor they were going to be killed. Obviously. It’s not as if I didn’t know where meat came from. It was just…I could hear the sheep bleating like there were having a chat. I started to get a weird feeling inside, like I wanted to run or shout or hit someone, but before I could do any of those things there was a crash and screech and everything went mad. A cyclist skidded across the road, a car crashed into a lamppost, the lorry swerved and tipped completely on its side and then, just a trickle at first, but then more and more sheep started pouring out the back of the lorry onto the road.
People got out of their cars and came out of the factories. The cyclist and the lorry driver were shouting at each other. There were sheep everywhere. Kayleigh was laughing and saying ‘Baa baa’ over and over again. Mom was taking photos on her phone.
Most of the sheep stayed together and flocked around the lorry. A few scarpered. I spotted one though, stood perfectly still, off on his own watching it all. I know sheep aren’t supposed to be very clever but this one was different, he looked intelligent, like he was working something out, watching all the commotion and weighing it up. He turned and looked straight at me. I don’t know how long we looked at each other, but I had the funny feeling that we were both thinking the same thing. We both came to the same conclusion at the same time. He blinked once and then bang he was off like someone had fired a gun at the start of a race. A second later I was off too, chasing after him. I could make out my mom’s voice in the distance calling ‘Bentley!’ and Kayleigh’s saying ‘Baa Baa’ but the loudest voice was the one inside my head screaming: ‘Run!’
It felt like we ran for miles. Drivers beeped their horns when they saw us – a skinny boy chasing a sheep round the streets of Highgate. And then I turned a corner and he vanished. I tried retracing my steps but there was no sign of him. I strained my ears for bleating, or cars beeping or people shouting, but nothing, just wind and cars and litter, just another ordinary day. I walked along the edge of the bypass, traffic flying past, calling out: ‘Come on boy. I’ll look after you.’ I was tired. I’d run miles and for nothing. I’d lost him. Soon someone else would find him and take him back to the lorry and then the factory and then…I started to cry. I sat by the road and the tears kept coming and my sleeve got wet because I didn’t have a tissue and that’s when I heard it. A low whistling sound coming from behind the bushes. I started walking towards it, back though all the branches and the litter to a little clearing hidden behind the road and there in the middle was my sheep. And crouching right next to him, stoking his head, was Safa.
‘You found him.’ I said.
‘It’s a her not a him’ She said.
‘They were going to kill her but the lorry crashed and she escaped. I’m going to look after her.’
She carried on stroking the sheep’s head as it ate grass.
‘She’s called Amani’ She said.
‘How do you know?’
‘She looks like my sheep back home. My favourite one. She was very special.’
‘Why did you leave her behind?’
Safa said nothing. She started whistling the strange tune again and I lay back on the grass next to Amani and closed my eyes.
I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up it was dark but Safa and Amani were still with me.
‘Many sheep used to graze here.’ Said Safa.
I rubbed my eyes. ‘What? When?’
‘In the past. Before all this.’ She waved her arm at the backs of the shops. ‘You said Heath doesn’t mean anything, but it does. It means an open place, a shared place, not owned by one man. Once the people round here shared the heath, they brought their animals down here to graze.’
‘I can’t imagine it.’ I said.
Safa shrugged: ‘Places change. Sometimes slow. Sometimes quick. Sometimes you wake up and everything is different. Everything is gone.’
She stood up then. ‘They are looking for us. I heard sirens while you were sleeping. I heard helicopters. We need to go home.’
‘I won’t leave Amani.’
Safa smiled. ‘Then let’s bring her with us’.
We handed in our local history project today. Safa did most of the work. She found out loads about Balsall Heath. Some things haven’t changed. Mom’s always telling me how dangerous the road is, but it turns out it was always like that. It used to be so muddy that horses and carriages would get totally stuck. I drew some excellent horses and also some sheep grazing at the side of the road, Safa did most of the writing.
Mom was waiting for me after school. She hugged me again, almost as tightly as she did last night when the police brought me home. I keep saying sorry for running off and she keeps hugging me. When she finally let go there was a woman standing next to us looking very serious:
‘Are you the boy who kept Safa out last night?’
I swallowed and nodded my head.
‘Thank you for looking after her.’ She said. I wondered if I should tell her that I spent most of the time asleep but then Mom interrupted.
‘You must be Safa’s mom. I’m sorry about Bentley. He’s animal mad. He gets carried away.’
‘Well, Safa is the same.’
We started walking home together. Amani’s been given a home in the city farm. Safa and I can visit her whenever we want.
Mom said ‘I was thinking, Ben,’ Mom always calls me Bentley when I’m in trouble and Ben when I’m not. ‘Maybe we could get a little pet.’
I looked at her face to check her expression. ‘Are you joking?’
She shook her head.
‘What about the carpet?’
‘I suppose it’s possible that there are more important things in life than the carpet.’
‘Really? So I can get a dog?’
‘Wellllll…’ she said slowly ‘I was thinking more of a…’
‘A cat!’ I said
‘No more of a…’
‘A rabbit!’ I try
‘Not exactly a rabbit, more of a…’
‘Well not quite, maybe a…’
‘What Mom? What? What pet can I have?’
‘A stick insect.’
‘A stick insect?’ I said and stopped walking.
‘Yeah. For starters. See how you get on.’
I gave mom a big hug and then I ran after Safa:
‘What’s a good name for a stick insect?’
Catherine O’Flynn 2018