The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan
An extract from the beginning of the novel.
The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.
Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’ George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.
Up on the hillside the girls were playing houses, marking out rooms on the ground with lines of cut grass left by the big mower. Janey and I used to do that, when she wasn’t playing football. But she had left me behind and gone to Big School. I felt Bully’s arm round my neck and remembered that I mustn’t call it Big School.
He let me go and got a tea-towel out of his bag to use as a tiny tablecloth, like we were going to have a nice time. It had a scene of Dartmoor on it and I knew it was the one our neighbour Irma used to keep pinned to the wall. She was my nan’s best friend, until Bully and his dad moved in with her. I hadn’t been inside her kitchen for a while. I looked at the ponies and pixies and remembered what my nan said, that there ought to be a chain gang and a view of the prison.
‘Right then, Nanny’s boy,’ said Bully. He took my lunchbox and sniffed my sausage sarnies. ‘Mmm. Here…’ pushing a packet of sandwiches in my face ‘…you have some proper food for a change.’
‘What is it?’
He knows I can’t eat cheese. It makes me ill. OK. I’m not allergic – I won’t stop breathing: I will maybe get a bad headache and throw up. It won’t kill me. Only – last time he was punching me, Bully kept saying it was wrong to be intolerant, so I’m not using that word again.
‘Get it ett,’ he said and dug his dirty fingernails into my nan’s homemade bread. Nan had slicked up the sandwich with mayonnaise and ketchup, the way I like it. He chewed with his gob open so I could see the mess, pink and brown, going round in his food-mixer mouth. He ripped open a packet of crisps. I love crisps but I knew he wouldn’t give me any. Eating them, he made as much noise as a giant crunching bones. My tummy rumbled.
‘What sort of cheese is it?’ I said, opening one of the sandwiches and peering inside. ‘Because I can eat sheep’s cheese. Or goat’s cheese. In moderation.’
‘“In moderation!”’ he said, exploding wet crumbs. ‘You are asking for it, Harry Potter.’
I’ve only got the haircut (thanks, Nan!) not the glasses or the magical powers. Sometimes though I shut my eyes and wish. I wish Bully would just disappear. I dream of him and his dad leaving. I want to believe that good things are possible. Some day I will find out that life is only pretending to be shit: here is your wonderful surprise.
Even saying the word ‘shit’ in my mind made me feel uneasy. Nan wouldn’t like it.
‘I don’t want to do the test tomorrow,’ said Bully. ‘Are you ready?’
We have been doing SATs all week. Science next. Stuff like Interdependence and Adaptation. Even though I like science, I’m scared I’ll get it all wrong.
How can you feel sick and hungry at the same time? I wished I was a Producer, like a tree, so I could feed on sunshine, air and water. But I am a Consumer. I have to eat. I wished I could eat grass. What do you always find at the start of a food chain or web? A green plant. A cow eats grass and out comes milk. But leopards and lions don’t try to suck on a cow or a goat. They just eat them up. That is an Irreversible Change.
‘I said,’ said Bully, ‘what did you get for that third question in Maths…?’
Nan says bad things come in threes. First Janey’s dad died. Then Irma’s dog. And then Irma got a boyfriend. But even though that’s bad, it’s not like someone dying.
It was going to be a long hungry afternoon. Unless, maybe, if I wished hard enough – this time the cheese wouldn’t do me any harm. I took a nibble – and felt the inside of my mouth sting.
The Chicken Soup Murder is a coming of age novel in which a young boy seeks to bring a murderer to justice, while learning about grieving and the meaning of family.
Maria Donovan is an award-winning writer based in the UK. Her debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, was a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize and is published by Seren Books. Find out more at www.mariadonovan.com