Strange birds

by Edward Mc Whinney

crow

by h.koppdelaney via flickr

The cloud cleared and the sun broke through. Exotic birds with warm colours, probably from Africa, landed on the back wall, as light as air and yet strong enough to cross deserts and oceans. I’m no ornithologist but I’d say they belong to the tit family. One thing you don’t expect is a vulture to alight on the shed, so when I saw one standing there staring in at me, I knew I was hallucinating.

The truth is I had been called to the office for a meeting concerning my future as doorman. Panic. I tried everything imaginable to deal with it, running around grasping at any distraction. I listened to music. I watched a horror film for ninety seconds. I read an interview with a famous grunge singer. He described how once at a party in his mansion, he walked through a room full of guests and jumped out the window. I read poems by decadent Beats and French surrealists whose theme was the stupidity of the world. When nothing worked I hopped in the car and began to drive around town seeking insulation upon rubber tyres and in the steady drone of the engine. My hands felt at ease on the steering wheel as I rolled past a world of people and buildings full of people. Every face seemed familiar, even the dogs outside the shops and children shouting out their own special existence. A tower of plastic and glass loomed up. The plastic and glass was held together by metal and aluminium rivets and stanchions.

I drove down to the beach, a strong wind and beautiful white horses along the shore. I paused at the edge of the sea, then suddenly I began to walk quickly into the vast open space where the receding tide had been. The wet sand squelched under my shoes. I hoped the wind would blow more than cobwebs out of my hair, that I could turn soon and see a toxic cloud of fumes evaporating into the atmosphere, back along in a space I had just left. There was a cruise liner leaving port. I heard the boom of its siren and the band playing Anchors Aweigh. Tiny people waved from the decks. My head remained where it has always been, despite the efforts of the wind and how I imagined it rolling down the strand with its troubles, bouncing along like a tumbling tumbleweed. I sat on the pier and assumed the pose of a man cut off from all known connections to society. I leaned my head in my hand and stared down into the water at a crab scuttling along underneath the stanchion. I watched the herring gulls dive bombing into the brine, then slowly lifted my eyes towards the horizon.

When I got home my grandfather and grandmother were once more sitting on the divan in the bay window of the second floor room with bright sunlight playing kindly on them. He was wearing a cap and a heavy overcoat. His beard was white and long. His hands were resting on a stick. She was wearing a heavy dress over her corpulent figure. Her hair was parted in the middle and tied back behind. They were both looking intently at someone or something, not the camera, his expression full of enquiry and hers swaddled in a soft, pleasant smile. Her hands were held together on her lap as she leaned in naturally against him. They are both long gone but how beautiful a couple they were, how vibrant and real.

As soon as they faded into the light I took their place on the divan in the bay window. When I was a child my grandfather pointed to the factory stacks across the water, saying that they resembled standing cigarettes, ten Sweet Afton. Nothing much has changed. I saw a gassy haze hanging over the marina, masts of ships floating above the docks, fours and eights rowing up river. The cigarette burns in the fabric of the divan were there before my time, though I admit to smoking while reading science fiction comics. When I want to get to sleep, I top the fag and read fiction whose narrators speak in a reflective tone, making me doze off between the lines, drawn into descriptions of dilapidated mansions in remote parts of Ireland or England, or anywhere in old Europe for that matter, drawn to the life styles of decrepit eccentrics, existence absorbed by some useless past-time that somehow mirrors the lives of people who consider their occupations more purposeful; walking the mall in leather-soled shoes, silk socks, designer shirt, tie neatly knotted, three piece suit, a supplier of some useful commodity like gas that puts neon in the lighting system, without which our world would be a darker place or the inventor of some electronic device to improve the lives of the lame. Not to mention the doorman in his uniform. Sometimes my inattentive reading habit fuses with hallucinations such as when I saw a tall, beautiful girl standing by the window with a look of horror on her slender, pale face. Her dangling hands were hidden by shadows though she was holding something in that cold grasp. Could it be a dagger dripping blood ? Her long, black dress swept to the floor, a flower-shaped bodice, also black, hanging loosely to her breast. There was an old map of Europe behind her in the room that had once been used as a schoolroom before my grandparent’s time and in which it is said a murder happened. According to my grandfather, a woman killed her lover while he was sleeping on the couch. She ran the blade of his own fishing knife through his heart. Of all the apparitions that have come to me in the house, this was one I wanted to reach out and take hold of, to feel as real flesh and blood. Nothing happened for as soon as I moved more than an eye, she, like the others blended with the light leaving only the racket of birds in the dawn and the sun again like an old man putting a match to the stove.

There was a bumble bee trapped between the curtain and the glass of the bay window. He tumbled upside down and knocked his black and yellow paunch against the glass wriggling and struggling like a philosopher performing a belly dance. What a funny little chap, his beautiful colours, his antics, his buzzing like a kind of laughter.

Sooner or later I would have to don the uniform and take my flesh and bones back into the world, out the open window, reeling and rolling towards my place of work. I saw myself drawing nearer and nearer, then at last the building. I stepped inside and a corridor opened into the never-ending process of doors leading to rooms like brightly lit aquariums. The workers floated around from rooms into corridors where sabre-sharp light from fluorescent strips caressed the jugular and made a barely perceptible buzzing. Natural light from a window at the end of a corridor seemed very distant. I was naked here without my uniform. Much to my surprise people took little notice of me. They were too busy. Some old timers paused to say hello, was I back? Sally and Celine, well now, there you are, exit doors don’t open as easily without you, then swam again into dense waters, aquatic, deep-sea lips pouting. I came upon an old doorman, about eighty years old, seated on a canvas stool in a closet scraping acid from a burnt-out battery. Sit there, he said. Sorry, mind the cup. I’ll take it up now. Inside a nearby room we could hear a lady visitor addressing the staff, her voice sawing through the air and vocal chords burning brain tissue while thumping out a rhythm that sent discord into the universe. Through a crack in the blind I observed a girl transfixed by this voice. Buzz, buzz.

My hand dangling over the side of the divan touched the floor. I felt around for the packet of cigarettes, eyes on the bee. A car with a souped up engine roared by, drawing my attention to the incessant hum of traffic. Hydraulic brakes rent the air, along with the shriek of a broken fan belt, a faulty sprocket and there was the gunshot backfire of a Harley Davidson. I breathed in like a goldfish wondering was it possible, after all these years, to learn a new way of living and never to wear that uniform again? My needs are simple. I hardly eat these days, a bit of bread dipped in gravy, a mackerel at Easter. Is it possible that this is the end of my old life? Should I kneel and perform some kind of ceremony, a combustion of the uniform, perhaps. At that moment I came eye to eye with a blackbird who had lit on the windowsill. I could see a tiny heartbeat visible through jet black plumage. It had a lovely yellow beak of course and from where I stood the eyes seemed of a purple hue like a doll’s trying to freak me with a message from some other world.

An elderly woman called Isabel, who looks frail and light as air but is tough as teak, comes to clean the house. She found a dead crow in the back yard. She refused to touch it on some kind of superstitious grounds. It’s only a crow, I said. Yes, she said, but I think there is some kind of crow feud going on. There was a lot of action over the trees yesterday evening. She blessed herself. It’ll rot there before I touch it. Her favourite story is about how she found her husband dead on a chair, slumped forward and the cigar between his fingers still smouldering. The crown of his head was warm like sun-kissed clay but already the cold had begun to settle in his forehead. They laid him out in a room off the street. I caught a glimpse of his face propped up in the coffin, out of the corner of my eye. There was a beak-like quality about the nose. Dark strands of hair through more abundant white offered the beautiful sheen of a magpie. I blessed myself out of respect and pretended to mumble a prayer before moving quickly on. His people sat around on chairs near the walls, pale warriors, death-pale were they all. A sudden death, the best death, one of his relatives from County Clare said. The room led into the bar where he had presided for thirty years before a picture of the Cliffs of Moher, the most looked at cliffs in the world, as he often boasted, over a million years old and an inch lost every thousand years. It was there he proposed to Isabel and then they danced on the flagstones made of Liscannor Rock with the shape of eels in them. He pointed to a section of floor around the darts board, the stone transported from distant Clare to this corner of Cork City. Fondly, he spoke of his home in The Burren which can be seen from outer space. There was a picture of Black Head lighthouse on the back bar mirror behind him. It was said that the devil appeared to the women in his village in the form of a goat. He was very black, with enormous head and horns. He stood on his hind legs. His eyes burned like red hot coals. The women, all wearing head scarves, knelt before him and leaned as one towards their master, some with mouths open wide, some with supplicant expressions, some wringing their hands, others with eyes turned towards the earth. No-one ever knew for sure what the Devil said to the women because from the forty or more of them gathered there in the old churchyard, forty different versions of his speech were sprung. It is said that as the Devil addressed his congregation, an enormous jackdaw crooned to the accompaniment of a concertina played by an unknown girl in a black shawl, seated on a stool.

A man with an American accent and no teeth came to collect the broken satellite box. I wondered what happened to his teeth. He was jovial and full of energy dancing around on skinny legs in stove pipe jeans, said he hailed originally from New Jersey. There it is, I said, under the television. We’ve been customers since forever. I have about twenty calls to make, he said, you wouldn’t believe how many of these things are being recalled. He looked at me. What do you do yourself? I’m a lepidopterist, I said, for no particular reason, yesterday it was just a plain old entomologist. What’s that? I collect butterflies, I said. Again this practical technician did not react, every man to his own. I had an aunt in New Jersey, he said, in the country, who used to do that. She also collected moths. It’s all part of the game, I said. I’d love to stand here all day talking about it, he said, I really would, but time and tide waits for no man. He stuck the black box under his arm and with a toothless grin made a quick exit.

I got the dead crow up on the coal shovel and flung him into the bushes at the back, struck by the intricacy of his creation.

That evening a sudden cloudburst broke the sky and lightning ripped through the heavens followed by a mighty thunderclap directly overhead. I stood in the window looking at the rain smashing into the yard. Big drops sploshed into mucky pools and plonked onto the rusty ash bins, old bits of board, ladders and tool boxes. They rattled against the steel bucket where it had fallen during the night. The yard exhaled breaths of raw, mouldy-moss as the garden beyond breathed a botanical smell of damp earth. I didn’t want to go to the office. I no longer wanted to engage with the structures, the inevitable cliquishness and nepotism. If only the girl in black were to appear now at the door, plumage as drenched as any other bird, standing there, black dress glistening with rain drops, hair mashed into her head, that look of anguish in her eyes. I could tell her how she reminded me of a nun I met on the train on the way home from work once, not too long ago. The colour of her garb was the colour of the soot from the tunnel from which a sooty mist seeped as we waited in the station. The flecks of cloud in the sky were the colour of my shirt, the grey, misty horizon over the river was the tweed in my sleeve. I began to talk to the nun and tried to express the feeling that everything was old and worn. Do you believe that anything can be new, I asked her, you know at our age, can we find anything different or original ? She looked at me quizzically and a little sadly. To someone somewhere a radio is something new, she said. You could see that her heart was in Venezuela or Colombia or some place building mud huts with the Indians. Her crucifix was the colour of a silver mist over the Orinoco.

The train moved out of the station and sleep came over me like a hand over a glove. The corridors were filled with sleeping gas. A tiny corner of love glimmered beyond where the pterodactyls prowl. They will protect you if you play ball. No protests or arguments now. They’ll give you just about enough cheese for your bread if you follow the rules and if you are really adept, a turkey at Christmas. If I could stop the motion of the planet, would it be like a train coming to a halt, that creaking and shuddering of steel and timber and glass. There would be an instant of calm before I found myself at last dwelling in a new way on this earth, learning new tricks, neither forsaken, nor handsome-rich in the cesspools, or overly grief-struck, or counting the years until all debts are cleared.

The dangling hand now touched the floor again and my eyes opened, this time to the sound of something missing, no auditory hallucination but a palpable absence, the buzzing of the trapped bumble bee no longer there as he had escaped in his yellow and black uniform and was careening once more back to the hive, to his colleagues and to the Queen. Never have I felt so strange.

 

 

Edward Mc Whinney lives in Cork, Ireland.