Bird Tables

March 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

He’d say she brought it on herself.

Always on at him to get a hobby, she was. Said he’d be bored when he retired, sitting around, nothing to do and cluttering up the place. Said he should get an allotment but he didn’t fancy that. Oh, sure, he’d mow the lawn of a Sunday, or trim the hedge, maybe, but all those potatoes and onions, all your brassicas and beans, he’ll leave those to the others. She was on about him joining a club next, the bowls team or a walking club. Bloody stupid idea, if you asked him, and he told her as much; said the only reason to go for a walk was to get away from other people, not to meet up with the buggers.

He’s had an idea all along though. Wasn’t going to tell her, mind, not until he needs to. She’d only have gone on at him, what about this and have you thought of that? How’s a man supposed to think about anything with her always in his ear, that’s what he wants to know. That’s what he wanted to say, and all, but of course he never did, just went out to his shed after dinner and got on with his plans.

Animals, they’re his thing. She knew that. She knows that. Cockatiels to cockerpoos, terrapins to terriers. He’s no idea what she was thinking, saying he’d be bored. Sometimes he thinks she’d rather there were fewer animals. Sometimes he sees her at the kitchen sink, looking down the garden, and he wonders whether she’s angry about the goats on the back lawn, or because she can’t see them for the stick insects on the windowsill. Or whether she’s just mardy like his friend Bill says women get after a time.

She liked the first dog well enough, and even the second, but now she says four is too many, and must they have so many cats, not to mention the hamsters and the rabbits and that bloody scary lizard thing? She’s no idea that it’s all part of his plan.

He’s out in the shed most evenings now, sawing and hammering, staining and varnishing. He’s building bird tables to suit all styles and tastes, a range any homeowner would be proud of. Suitable for all, from tit to hawk. But that’s not all. He’s drawn up plans for dog kennels, rabbit cages, aviaries, apiaries, terrariums, vivariums, aquariums. He’ll make the lot and he’ll flog them all. She’ll see. She’ll see soon enough.

For now, though, the bird tables stand at the edge of the front garden, sited to catch the eye of any passing trade. She’s been tutting and saying they ruin the view, there’s that many of them it’s like living in a fortress. He tells her not to be so bloody daft, they’ll be gone in a week, just you watch.

The woman sits in the wing-backed chair by the bay window, stroking her tired old cat; she’s thinking about how it was when the man was still at work all the time, and It was just her and this first cat. At home, at peace.

Ambush at Westfield Lane

March 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

All of these things they talk about in films, the things they say fear smells like – none of it’s true.

What fear smells like is this: tall leylandii to the left of the path, behind a fence patchily creosoted last year. A rose hedge, outside the big house set back from the lane, whose perfume-sweet blooms are already undercut with a note of decay. Freshly mown grass and dog shit. The summer evening air itself.

The ginnel leads from the village – the old village, that is – through to the new housing estate, which must have stood for twenty years now but which must perpetually be defined as new, with its neat verges and cul-de-sacs. A bench sits at the village end, and as the lane narrows to a path, a wooden structure forces anyone on a bicycle to dismount and feed it under the low barrier before pedalling on and out into the full glare of the estate houses.

She could walk round by the road, past the bungalows and the bus stop at the front, but it’s the long way round, and she won’t do that. Perhaps a part of her, a hidden quiet part, secretly relishes the thrill of it. The fear of it.

It’s not as if anything actually happens. She’s never been fired at by pea shooters, wrestled off her bicycle, made to – no, not that. None of that. The worst it might be, really, is the ratatat of name calling, the pointing and jeering, a sudden lunge that could cause her to wobble, to lose her balance.

The boys – it is always boys, save for an occasional cawing girlfriend – will be at the bench on the corner, or waiting at the barrier, where the path bends out of sight; either way, by the time she sees them, it will be too late. There will be no way of being nonchalant. No way to turn on her heel, to walk away as if she’d forgotten something. She will be caught in plain sight, unarmed. She knows all the things people say to do – just ignore it, don’t rise to it, have some retort ready – but there’s none of that. There isn’t time. Each time, every time, she is afraid.

She is a clever girl, she knows that. She knows that in class, her hand is up fastest; she’s always ready with an answer. She knows that she doesn’t struggle like these boys do. She is never to be found outside the headmistress’s office on a Monday afternoon or a Thursday morning, blank-faced and remorseless. But that is not enough. That counts for nothing, not here, not in an ambush situation. Here, now, for this moment, it is about living on your wits. It is about being prepared for combat, from the mortar shelling of stolen eggs hurled across the road to the sniper spitting great gobbets of drool from an overhead branch. It is about being vigilant.

She must always be prepared, our heroine, and yet it seems she never is. Like as not, they aren’t even there, but nevertheless she will edge along the ginnel, heart pounding, attentive to every sound.

She will not give in and take the long way round. She will roll that fear around her mind every day, even as she holsters her gun and strides off towards her friend’s house, thinking now about Smash Hits and film stars. People will never know the line she has walked. Not now, not ever.

The electric bird

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

The squeak can be heard at quite some distance – from as far as the park gate, at least. It cuts through the still autumn afternoon like a riled bird, getting louder and more insistent as the old man trundles into view. The bicycle on which he’s pedalling is a foldaway shopper, popular in the eighties. Big hinge in the middle. Small white tyres. Large cardboard box strapped to the luggage carrier over the rear wheel.

He is seemingly oblivious to the noise the bicycle makes. He has things to be getting on with. He leans the bike on its stand and begins to undo the complex web of bungee cords that hold the box in place.

A casual observer might look at this man, his flat cap and old blue car coat. They might note his slightly hunched posture, that corduroy trouser leg tucked into a grey sock. They might look at all that, and at the cardboard box, and they might come to the conclusion that here was a pigeon fancier, in the park today to release his birds. Or maybe not pigeons. Perhaps a hawk, some hooded fury out to swoop and lunge as he clicks and whistles, so that it races towards his outstretched gauntleted hand and the promise of easy meat.

Surely nobody would fly a hawk here. Not on a Sunday afternoon, not with people out strolling. Not with children around.

But wait.

He’s undone the last of the straps, looping them neatly back on themselves, and he’s folding back the flaps in order to lift something out. It is large, and it is delicate. Suppress a thought of pterodactyls as he reveals a gleaming skeleton – a helicopter. He places it on the grass whilst he rummages in the box for the controller.

Hear the thud of the rotors become a whine as the helicopter rises into the sky. Watch it gather speed, levitating against dazzling blue, and swooping towards those tallest trees still laden with red-yellow leaves. See people stop to stare, tracing the noise to this shimmering object, then to the old man below, with his face towards the afternoon sun and the darting machine. He is immobile, transfixed by the flutterings and thrusts of his homemade mechanical bird.

Gathering wood

February 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

She won’t listen.

She’s almost out the door before he’s got his shoes on, and halfway down the drive whilst he’s still wrestling with an inside-out coat sleeve.

Says she needs wood for the fire, says what’s left won’t last the evening, and it’s too cold to go without. It’s too late to put in an order with the log company now, not for delivery today, and she won’t let him drive to the garage, not just for a bag of kindling. She still thinks he’s fourteen, or seven, or ten, some age where the balance hasn’t yet tipped in his favour, out of her control.

She’s setting a fair pace, he’ll give her that much, tottering along on that seized-up foot. She won’t have a stick. Says mechanical aids are the beginning of the end. She won’t give in. Even that fall six months ago where she lay in the dark for hours, too proud to call for help. Two days to find her and she was in a state, a proper state. Up at the hospital, when they’d cleaned her up and straightened her out, a well-meaning woman came by full of leaflets and advice. Half an hour of recommendations, none of it taken. The walking stick the hospital gave her, he found it in the cupboard by the front door, in amongst the broken umbrellas and old tennis racquets. She wouldn’t even talk about it when he asked her.

She’s marching up the lane, eyes straight ahead, oblivious to that woman calling an out-of-control dog as it hurtles across the field. This man here with his bouncing labrador. The young man glances at the owner, who stares back as if trying to place him.

She’s in the woods now, stumbling over rocks and roots as she makes her way up the slope and into the thicket. Brambles snagging on her worn out trousers. There’s all sorts up in the woods. You’d be surprised. As soon find treasure as trash. Punctured deodorant cans scattered across discreet clearings; branches stacked to form makeshift shelters; an old mattress or two, obscured by leaf mulch. Drugs, too – he’s seen the headlights late at night, the faces that don’t quite fit a woodland meander. Barking dogs and raised voices. Tiny plastic bags discarded.

Not here, though. Not in this bit. He finds her sitting on a broad stump, catching her breath as she scans the ground, searching for likely kindling.

The black dog appears as she is bending down. It rears and snatches with bared teeth at the stick she has just picked up. She shakes the stick but the dog won’t let go. To the animal, this is a game. The woman’s sudden snarl suggests otherwise.

The young man pauses, hangs back, uncertain as to which might be the most vicious.

At sea

January 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s not the stopper train, this one, just the slow one. An hour to amble from city to city, always a window seat, always a view. Look down as you pull away from the station, see the garage where luxury cars are cut and shut like supermodels. Further down the line, the sloping fields freshly combed into immaculate green grooves, cleaved by a bristly ditch. Here, the artificial lake where men sit in tents, never closer than five metres apart, staring into the water in hope of an answer.

He gets on at Wakefield. Nondescript, but not the sort you tend to see on a mid-morning train. Electrician’s trousers with reinforced knees and too many pockets, an old polo shirt with a trade counter’s logo. Mid fifties, maybe, with that speckled hair and those glasses whose arms fold in on themselves and into a pouch. No, you’d say he was more of a van man – nothing fancy, something small, with his name neatly signwritten on the side, and a mobile number that nobody ever notes down, because all his work’s domestic and it’s all word of mouth anyway – Pauline down the road, Mrs Thomas two streets up, the lads down the club.

But today he’s on the train.

He sits down heavily in a table seat, unfolds his paper, and begins to read. He’s leafing through the pages, top to bottom, occasionally pausing to read an article, with fingers poised  at the page corner. Galloping past the headlines about luscious lovelies and imagined outrages, the filler pieces detailing incredulous feats and mumbled apologies.

The train is now in a sort of void green space between stations. You’d struggle to name the suburb you’ve just slid through, high on your embankment whilst lives carry on below. House after house after house after house. These are gardeners and these have children – best move that trampoline, else the grass’ll turn yellow – and here, here at no. 42 they’re ever so proud of their new conservatory. They’ve invited half the street round for a look.

He is still reading, but now he’s past halfway. He carefully pulls out the staples and lifts the middle sheet away. One fold, two folds, three folds, and leggy celebs and government scandals become a little vessel adrift on the stained formica sea. And as he reads on, he lifts each page, so that soon the table is littered with a tiny armada, set fast against the chattering of the train over signals, past sidings.

He has timed this to perfection; it seems he’s done this before. As you pull into the terminal station, he pushes the final boat out, then folds his glasses, folding them again, zipping them into their pouch. And he is up, and he is off.


January 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

The man in the tracksuit has been staring through the window of the bed showroom for three quarters of an hour now.

Inside, there’s not much to see. Beds, obviously. Divans, single, double, king size, drawers underneath, velour headboards, brass bed ends, bunk beds, beds shaped like racing cars. No, not cots, sir, we don’t do those. Leave that to the specialists. Mattresses, pillows, all sorts of pillows, feather ones, foam ones, yes, memory foam, makes all the difference. Have you tried a mattress topper? Best night’s sleep you’ll have. People swear by them. Worth every penny.

The man is still staring through the window.

And how about quilts? Very personal choice, a quilt. Important to get it right. Of course duck down, that’s the Rolls Royce. It’s worth investing, like with your mattress. We spend a third of our lives in bed, you know – might as well be comfortable! You and your wife, for instance, one of you might like a firmer mattress and the other something softer – if you don’t want to be unintentionally rolling together, we’ve got ranges that cover that. Yes, sir, it’s pricey, but you’ve got to think of it in the long-term. Let me show you the options-

It’s hard to tell what the man outside is focusing on. One moment he’s following the salesman’s progress through the showroom, and the next, he’s staring at a spot in the middle distance, somewhere just above the pine cabin bed with built-in desk and drawers.

The couple with the salesman have noticed the figure outside now. The woman squeezes the man’s hand and nods towards the window whilst the salesman is lost in a soliloquy on under-bed storage. The man glances over; almost imperceptibly, his shoulders drop and his jaw clenches. He tries to focus on the salesman’s patter.

The man in the tracksuit does not adjust his stance.

There is no way out of this one, no buy now, pay in twelve months’ time. No interest free credit on a situation like this. The man in the tracksuit knows that all he has to do is bide his time. The couple in the showroom know that they are effectively trapped.

And meanwhile the salesman presses on, oblivious to every hint or cue, determined that this couple will leave his showroom this afternoon with a new bed, a new mattress, a fresh start. He tells people he’s in the business of dreams, and, really, who could argue with that?


January 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Only a child would really describe it as snowfall – a fine dusting of the sort that leaves the real world, the drab, damp, December world still visible in places. Not enough to close the schools, declare an impromptu day off, sledging parties on the hill whilst colleagues in Birmingham and London fill an ignored inbox with increasingly terse missives. No, today there’s no snow, not really. Nothing that might halt the procession of cars edging up the hill and into the town. See them turn left at the junction – heading for the city. Right at the junction, they’re heading for the big office just there. Or the railway station. Or the supermarket. Or the school. See how the cars veer off here, turn in there, peeling away as others join, all the while rolling slowly forward. Now, each car contains a boy, and each boy contains a world. See the cars pulling up outside the school, where the early ones are already scraping the fields clear of snow, revealing the grass as a drab green surprise against the dull morning. Snowballs arc across the footpath towards new arrivals, occasionally striking – but mostly falling short, unnoticed.

There are girls here, too, picking their way along the slippery pavement towards their school further along the road. They are precise as flamingos, all bony legs, tiny skirts and movement as one, shrieking and cawing at missiles and missteps. The snow still falling, too, on perfect hair and immaculate faces. Watch them as they pick their way along the street, these girls who are precise and composed, and these boys who veer at one another, colliding in a mess of bags and blazers. Marvel that they are the same somehow, these boys and these girls, passing and not passing.

See this boy here and this girl here, for instance. See them on the corner of a street opposite his school. Note the hoods of their coats pulled up, pulled close, and know that it is not to keep out the weather but rather, to keep out the world, the slow-moving traffic, the ricocheting boys and the flamingo girls. See that their hoods allow them a private space in which to intersect, here on this busy street, for a few long moments, before he makes his way to his school and she makes her way to her school.

Within half an hour the emerging sun will have melted the last of the snow, and all the people will be where they should be, save for one young boy, running up the school drive clutching a broken bag full of books, late as usual.



The end is just the start

February 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

On mornings like this it’s a struggle to get out of the door: the warmth of the duvet, the extra hour’s sleep he could borrow from the night. His wife soft and pliant before she dons her armour.

He’s not given himself chance to give in, though. It’s the only way.

His sleepy legs are carrying him down the field and the steam of his breath hangs in the crisp air. The ground is dusted with a cold hard sugar-frost. He is the only thing moving through this scene.

He wouldn’t have seen it if he didn’t have to stop at the field bottom to lift the twine noose and move the rusting gate aside. The heron is, despite its size, barely visible in the beck, that flash of orange at its beak punctuating plumage as grey as the morning. It might perhaps pivot on those great hinged legs as it darts and forages for food, but mostly it will stand and it will wait, one leg tucked away for later, one leg planted firm amongst the rocks and silt.

The silence is fractured by a car on the bridge above, but a moment later it’s gone and all that’s left is a splash as the heron, wings spreading, lifts itself from the water and pulls up into the sky.

Always alone. Always rooting in these slow wet places, almost out of sight.

When he gets back to the house, an hour and seven miles later, the children will be up and his wife will be pulling the first load of washing out of the machine. The heron will be long gone, off to another quiet creek where it will wait, steadfast, for its next chance.

The melancholy fishmonger

February 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s been a long day.

The two little girls playing up at his counter whilst their dad looks for parmesan – well, it’s the last thing the fishmonger needs.

People asking for this, asking for that, can you fillet it, can you bone it, can you skin it, was it sustainably sourced, did any dolphins suffer? Are they Indonesian prawns or Singaporean prawns?

How the chuff should he know?

Bloody celebrity chefs giving people ideas, that’s what it is. Gordon this and Jamie that. One week they all want sea bass, the next week hake. He’s three beautiful trout been sat on that ice most of the afternoon and nobody’s given them a second glance. It’s all about what’s fashionable, see?

He’s been in fishmongering forever. There’s a skill there and there’s not many still have it. It takes time. Time and effort. Bloody supermarket thinks they can put some trainee on with him, some young oaf handling the mackerel like it’s cans of soup or packets of biscuits. No sensitivity. No respect.

The two girls are giggling and pointing at the trout, and it’s more than he can bear when one of them puts her hand over the counter to prod the glistening skin with an outstretched finger.

In a weary voice he says, “Please don’t touch the fish.” As if he were a zookeeper, warning people away from lions.

And the little girl begins to shriek. Seems the trout has a tiny trickle of blood emerging from an eye.

The father leads the girls away as the fishmonger rearranges his trout. Truth be told, he’d rather nobody bought them. They don’t bloody deserve them. Bloody customers.

Some days he feels like weeping too.

A man and a child and a woman

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

They are perfectly framed in the window: an adult and a child walking across the top of a snow-covered field. What, an hour ago, was a white view bisected by the ungiving black of the wall, is now dark grey, the sky matching the land.

If they were to look down they might see a yellow square of light in the dark building at the bottom of the field; at that distance they’d be unlikely to spot the figure framed in that square. They’d be too busy thinking about how the snow is coming down heavier now, that they’d best be getting back before it gets dark. The snow creaking like floorboards underfoot, the man urging the child on with promises of treats for dinner – or perhaps the child stumbling through the snow that an hour ago seemed so inviting, the blank sheet on which the afternoon’s story could be written, but which is now too insistent. A sibling, say, who doesn’t know when to stop. A nagging doubt.

The woman in the kitchen might be thinking her own thoughts about the scene, about how patterns must begin in order to repeat themselves. She might think about her own father, wondering where he might be, or she might try to imagine that walk, that adult, that child, herself in that snowy field with the lights of home in sight.

Perhaps she would shrug these thoughts aside as one dismisses an ill-judged arm on one’s shoulder. She might wrap herself up in the evening, remind herself that the path’s still to be swept free of snow, that she’s some meat to set stewing.

If she glanced up again she’d see the figures at the window’s right hand side. A moment later they’ll be hidden from view.