October 31, 2020 § 1 Comment
Underneath the pile of newspapers, below the pizza menus, the taxi cab cards and the charity appeals, further down even than Linda’s postcard from her last summer holiday in Corsica, and certainly beneath the crumpled receipts kept from last Christmas in case the twins already had that video game or Darren’s wife wanted to return her sweater, underneath all that was Betty’s letter from Doctor Matthews, the one about the allergy.
Its proper name was curious, something like pitt-a-cross, but not that. Still, Betty remembered what Doctor Matthews had called it in his surgery. She recalled that clearly enough.
“Parrot fever, Mrs. Fuller. You probably have parrot fever. That would account for all the coughing and your aching joints.” He had taken off his glasses, had rubbed the bridge of his nose and, just for a second, Betty had though of Alan, her husband, and how he would make that same gesture when he helped the children with their homework, sitting at the dinning room table in the house in Scarsdale Avenue. And when was that? Thirty years ago, when she still had Alan and the children and the house in Scarsdale Avenue.
Three days later, when Betty’s daughter, Linda, arrived, she plumped her bag down on the kitchen table, causing a small wave of dust to puff up into the kitchen air. At the same time, a ripple of disgust crossed Linda’s otherwise soft face and Betty knew she had done the right thing to hide the letter. In any case, the Doctor himself had said how rare this pitt-a-cross thing was; if Betty had not mentioned keeping birds, he would have missed it, he’d said, the symptoms being like so many other things.
“Fatigue, aching joints, chills, weakness, coughing.” He’d put his glasses back on as he ran his finger down a list on his computer screen. “Yes, it all matches.” Betty could have kicked herself then, because now they would blame everything on the birds. If only she’s kept her mouth shut.
Linda took off her coat and drapped it across the table so that the collar covered the pile of papers.
“Was I expecting you?” Betty asked, as she reached to fill the kettle.
“No, but I was passing. I wondered how the cough was?”
“No trouble at all,” Betty said
Linda screwed up her eyes. “And the aching limbs?”
“No, nothing. All better,” said Betty, although she had to hold firm to the now full kettle, the muscles in her arm throbbing with the weight.
“I wish you’d go back to the Doctor, Mum.”
“It’s just a cold or age.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “The longest bloody cold in history,” she muttered.
“Do we always have to talk about this?” Betty said, her back to Linda as she dumped tea bags into the stained, brown teapot. “We go round and round.”
Linda held up her hands, as if in surrender. “Ok, ok. But you know what I think.”
“Yes, dear, I know what you think.”
Without doubt, the birds had become the wretched centre-piece to all their lives. Darren, her son, complained about the smell – “it’s like that solid, spiteful stink you get at the zoo” – while Linda was genuinely frightened.
“I hate the way they flap cross the room,” she’d said to Darren, with a shiver. “Even worse when their horrid hooked-feet comb the top of my head. It’s like a horror film.”
“Which would all be acceptable if the damn things weren’t killing her,” Darren had replied. “She can hardly catch her breath long enough to talk.”
And so the row went on, back and forth. What had they even talked about before the birds?
“Let’s sit outside,” said Linda. “It’s a nice day and I could do with a bit of sun.”
They set up the faded garden chairs, their backs to the bungalow. The aviary, the one Darren had built last summer to encourage Betty to keep the birds outside, stretched down the length of the garden so that while they drank their tea, or rather Betty did, Linda pretending because, these days, she really didn’t fancy anything that came out of the kitchen, they couldn’t fail to hear George Michael, a large parakeet, climbing up the wire mesh, his green and yellow wings spreading, flapping and hitting the cage wall, like a giant, garish moth banging against a lit window on a warm summer’s evening. Both women pretended to ignore him. After a couple of minutes, George Michael began crying out, a high, painful squawk. Betty got up and walked over to the cage.
“What’s up, George?” she said quietly, poking a piece of biscuit through the wire. In an instant, two other birds, a parrot, magnificent with a bold red head and mighty blue wings, and a sleek cockatoo, cool and white, launched themselves from their artificial bark perches and began scrapping, wings, beaks and screams streaming in all directions. Betty laughed and then, as her laugh erupted into her usual chest cough, she threw the rest of her biscuit into the cage and returned to her daughter.
When Alan had left Betty fifteen years ago, telling her that he no longer loved her, that he probably hadn’t loved her for 20 years and that now he had retired, he realised there was not a moment to waste, it would be true to say that Betty had been caught off-guard. She’d had a different retirement in mind, but then Alan had packed his bags and left her with a tiny part of his pension and a whole new future to construct. He’d said he was leaving to be on his own but of course, it was a lie. She’d seen him once with his new woman, years younger, with painted fingernails and a well-cut coat. Not that he had long to enjoy his second go-around. Alan was dead within three years, a heart attack on the golf course, as unoriginal, Betty had thought, as running away with a younger woman.
Gradually, she had thrown out their past: his football programmes, her dressmaking patterns. She had torn down the greenhouse and joined a computer class at the library. Even so, in the end, Darren and Linda had persuaded her that the semi in Scarsdale Avenue was too big and that she should buy a bungalow. Easier to maintain and no memories, they said, as if that was a good thing. They’d helped her to find this place, at the end of Moels Lane. The front faced the street and a road of similar bungalows, but Moels Lane was at the end of town, the back garden marking the beginnings of the green belt. The kitchen looked out across fields and nature, things for which Betty had never had much time. Still, she had made the move and in the process gained Clint, her first bird.
The seller, Mr. Gordon Jessop, was moving into a care home where pets were forbidden. Yet what was to be done with Clint Eastwood, the parrot, his companion of twenty years? It had not occurred to Betty to keep the bird until one day, when she dropped in to take some measurements, she found a sobbing Mr. Jessop, desperate about Clint. Having some personal knowledge of abandonment, Betty found herself nodding and saying, “I know” and then, one thing leading to another, discovering that she had agreed to keep Clint, at least for the time being.
“He’s a big bugger,” Darren had said on first meeting Clint. “Like an angel, but not in a good way. Not like a guardian angel.”
Betty had never particularly enjoyed animals before. There had been goldfish and hamsters and even a kitten, bought for the children, to teach them about responsibility and sharing, something or other. Betty had tolerated them, but when Nelson, the kitten, was run over by a neighbour outside the Scarsdale Avenue house, it had been Alan who’d cried. Betty had dug the hole at the bottom of the garden and found a shoebox, but she had not really minded.
With Clint Eastwood it was different. She would have imagined herself to be scared of such a creature, with his ominous wingspan that cast a shadow across the whole room and his bolt-hard beak, strong enough to break a finger, but strangely, she wasn’t. She liked watching the splash of blue-green as he made his short, arching flights, how his wings stretched and flashed as he preened himself. He screeched when he didn’t get his own way and tore up the arms of the sofa, but none of this upset Betty, not as it would have done in the house on Scarsdale Avenue.
And it was good to be needed again.
“He’s so clever and he makes me laugh,” she told her now grown up children who in turn, while disapproving to each other, accepted Clint as “a good thing” for their mother. When Betty bought two more birds, smaller parakeets she called Ant and Dec, they had bitten their tongues and admired the bold, green plumage.
“It’s probably fine,” they had said to each other. “The birds are company for Mum. As long as it doesn’t go beyond three.”
When Darren arrived, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his bald spot brown from spring gardening, he was followed through the kitchen door by a woman, large and flowing with great gusts of grey hair and a billow of beaded necklaces.
“Hi Mum,” said Darren, bending to kiss his mother, a move so unusual that they bumped noses before his lips skimmed her cheek.
“Mum, this is Issa.”
“Issa?” said Betty. “Is that a name?”
The woman laughed, a great booming sound.
“It’s my name,” she said. “Short for Clarissa, but really, who has the time?”
“Issa,” said Linda, “this is our mother.”
“May I call you Betty?” Issa asked, extending a chubby, capable hand.
“I’d rather Mrs. Fuller.
Betty felt her own small hand disappear into the fleshy wealth of Issa’s.
“For God’s sake, Mum,” said Darren.
“No, no. It’s fine,” said Issa, settling herself uninvited into one of the garden chairs. She crossed her legs like a man, wrapping several layers of skirt across her knees.
“Now, Mrs. Fuller, Darren and Linda have asked me to help them talk to you about something of great concern to you all.”
Betty looked at her children. “Who is this woman?”
Issa answered. “I’m a professional mediator,” she said, leaning forward. The shift in weight caused the cheap chair to wobble so that Issa instantly sat back again.
“Your children are very worried the birds. They tell me that they have tried to talk to you about this many times but that you are not hearing them.”
“I’m not getting rid of my birds,” said Betty, smiling like she had been taught to do as a child when politeness had been all.
“Mum, just listen to what Issa has to say,” said Linda.
“Who is she to tell me to get rid of my birds,” she said.
“Bloody hell, Mum,” said Darren, “that’s not what she’s saying.”
Issa raised a hand. “No, Darren, let your mother speak.”
“There’s nothing else to say,” said Betty. “Shall I make some more tea? How are the twins, Darren?”
“The twins miss their grandmother, but she won’t come to see them because she won’t leave her damn birds.”
“They could come here,” said Betty. “They love the birds.”
“No, Mum. They loved Clint, when they were eight, when it was just Clint. Now, they won’t to come to the house because it’s filthy, it stinks and their grandmother is a bonkers old lady who cares more for a bunch of vicious birds than she does for her own family.”
Betty looked passed Darren, to where George Michael was sitting on a branch of the artificial palm tree, just at the end of the cage, his hard black eyes watching, like CCTV cameras. Without the birds, the twins, now fourteen, would have found some other reason not to visit.
“Mrs. Fuller,” said Issa, “what I hear your children saying is that they miss their mother and that they would like her back.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Betty said, waving her hands in front of her face. “Look, Issa, I’m right here.”
“What I also hear them saying is that there is a real issue with your health.” Issa spread her hands across her pudding-knees. She went on but Betty had stopped listening. At the word “health” she had felt a coil of something in her chest, a bunch of phlegm that she had to keep at bay. These days she did cough more and her breath was more harrumphy than in her youth, but that was age, surely. Her back ached and her feet were sore. Would they put that down to the birds too? And yet, she could feel a big, hollow cough rising. If only she didn’t break out right here and now, in front of Darren and Linda and this Issa. If only she could catch her breath.
But it couldn’t be stopped. Issa paused, mid sentence, while Betty, in great, gusty, painful barks, cleared her chest. When she had finished, there was a second of silence before Betty said, “Shall I make that tea now?”
Issa smiled, as if at a small child. “What I see here, Mrs. F, is distraction and deflection. Tea instead of decisions.”
“If you think I’m touching anything that comes out of that shit-filled kitchen, you can think again.” Darren was shouting now, ignoring Issa’s appeals for calm. “You’re a crazy, stubborn old woman. Those birds have the run of this house. They’ve torn up anything nice you ever had. You let them poo anywhere.”
“I clean it up,” said Betty.
“No Mum,” said Linda, softly. “You think you do, but you don’t. And there are feathers and bird dust everywhere. It’s not healthy.”
“Healthy, healthy,” said Betty. “People are obsessed with being healthy these days. Don’t you agree, Issa?”
“Well, our health is the most important thing we have,” Issa said.
“Then why don’t you lose a bit of that weight, and Darren, perhaps you could cut out the beer. In fact, go away, all of you. I have nothing left to say. Unless you want to drink my tea and talk about something else, bugger off, the lot of you.”
Betty stood at the front door, watching the two cars turn and drive out of Moels Lane, passed the small front gardens and empty porches. She waved more out of habit than affection, although she knew that wasn’t fair. They were good children, her Linda, her Darren. Before they left, Betty had accused them of wanting her money, of being jealous of the cash she spent on her birds, of seeing profit for themselves in selling her boys and girls, but none of that was true. They were concerned, but their combination of worry and love wearied Betty. They had become a burden to her as she had to them. And, in the end, because she was old, Betty knew they would win and the birds would go. George Michael, Clint Eastwood, Cilla Black, little Ant and Dec, all of them, she would lose them all.
She looked down at her hands, at the grey dirt lodged round the edges of her fingernails, at the powdery dust that had settled in the crevices of her knuckles. If she spread her hands now, she knew that the joints in her wrist and thumb would cry out. From nowhere, she remembered how, as a girl, she could pinch the skin on the back of her hand and, instantly, it would smooth itself, leaving no imprint, no trace. Now, squeezing a pull of flesh between her forefinger and thumb and releasing it, she smiled to herself as the ridge seemed to sigh before slowly, so slowly, falling away to leave a red line, an echo of youth.
Closing the front door, Betty walked back through the bungalow. Cilla Black flew across her path, the draft from her yellow wings brushing like a buttercup across Betty’s face. In the kitchen, she slid open the glass doors and walked into the aviary. George Michael let out a cry and flew on to her shoulder, tickling her ear with his nut-hard beak.
“Issa,” she said out loud. “What kind of name is Issa? We wouldn’t call anyone Issa, would we George?”
There was bird shit on her shoe, on the tip of her worn trainer. She rubbed the toe against her other heel, transferring the problem from one foot to the other. Another of the parakeets, Barbara Windsor, flew down to drink from the cracked water trough. It was empty. Barbara swivelled her head to chastise Betty.
“Sorry, Barb,” she said. “I’ll fill it up now.”
When Linda arrived at her mother’s house two days later, armed with advice from Issa as to how to begin phase two of their campaign, she found the front door wide open. The house seemed cool and, though Linda shouted for her mother, she knew at once that the place was empty. And where were the birds? No screams or calls, no sound at all. Everything was open, every window, every door. The mesh side of the aviary had been cut through to create a large hole, an escape hatch.
“Mum,” shouted Linda, her voice pegged with tears.
A cry from the corner of the living room made Linda turn back to the house. She rushed into the room, knowing it wasn’t her mother but hoping nevertheless.
It was Clint. Standing on the back of the sofa, his eyes, as cool as his namesake, he spun his head in that way birds do, primeval and always frightening to Linda. Then, stretching out his glorious wings, tremendous against the fawn and dull whites of Betty’s living room, he took off, circling around Linda’s head one final time before gliding out through the large picture window, skimming across the lawn and then up and away, over the fields which ran behind the now empty bungalow and off, off to somewhere altogether different.