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USCHI GATWARD

 

 

 

Uschi Gatward 

Uschi Gatward was born in East London and lives there now. She has been shortlisted for the Asham Award and the Bristol Short Story Prize. Her story 'Pink Lemonade' is in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (vol 6), published 2013. Her work has recently been featured online at Litro and performed at Liars’ League (London and New York City), and is forthcoming in Structo issue twelve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bird

 

 

 

     “Caz.”

     She can never, ever wake up in her own time. He’s nudging her now, shaking her shoulder, and some displaced pain, some icy chip of something, is rattling in her head.

     “Hhhhm.” It’s more a swatting away.                                           

     She did sleep a little—an hour or two maybe. He slept on the coach to the airport, on the plane, and nearly all the way from Gatwick to Brighton. She’d fought sleep, succumbing some time after Crawley and waking up just after they’d missed their stop. 

     “Caz, I think there’s a bird in the room.”

     She feels like digging her nails into his arm, giving him a Chinese burn.          

     “Must be outside. Go to sleep.”

     “Listen.”

     She drags herself up out of half sleep. Her whole body aches with the effort. The room is looking cold and grey and the sheets are dirty and freezing. A huge pile of presents lies in the middle of the floor.

     “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.” She pulls the pillow around her ears. 

     He pulls it back. “Listen.”                                                      

     She hears a muffled flurry and then a slight thump. She knows this sound. The last time the landlord had done the gas safety inspections, the gasman had pulled a dead pigeon out of the chimney. “Wanna look?” “Eucch, no.” He’d chuckled, an older man.

     “Oh god.”

     “What?”

     “It’s a pigeon down the chimney.”

     “What can we do?”

     “Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

     An hour later she wakes again to the sound of scuffling behind the gas fire. The windows are rattling and the top of her head’s cold. She remembers the bird.

     She gets out of bed, pulls on a jumper and goes into the kitchen. The sky is white. In the fortnight since they’ve been gone the weather’s turned and the leaves have started to fall. Her bouquet’s on the worktop, sitting in green water in a jam jar. It’s going mouldy and starting to smell sweet and rotten. Even the ribbon is mouldy. His buttonhole too—they’d meant to hang it upside down, dry it out, but they’d forgotten in the hurry.

     She takes sliced bread from the freezer compartment and makes toast and black coffee. When she brings the tray into the studio room he’s awake again, all eyelashes and languor. He eats the toast.

     “Is it still in there?”

     She looks at him. “Yes.”

     “Will it be able to get out?”

     “No. I’m going to have a shower.”

     She closes her eyes and lifts up her head in the shower, washing the grime of the sheets, and the coach and the plane and the airport and the coach and the sand and the suntan oil off her.

     After lunch they unpack their cases and take the washing down to the laundrette and, while they’re there, ask about dry-cleaning prices. They pick up juice, milk, bread, a chicken, and vegetables. They spend the afternoon sorting through a carrier bag of cards, reading out messages to each other, pulling out money and vouchers and laying them in separate piles on the carpet. Caz notes down on a pad of paper who gave what.

     They go to the bank and pay in all the money bar a few notes, into Caz’s account. They pay the invoices that have arrived while they’ve been away.

     The presents are still heaped in the middle of the floor, silver and white and blue. Caz hoovers around them.

     They cook a nice dinner of chicken and vegetables, carry it through to the studio room, turn the lights on, and sit down on the sofa to eat it. He opens one of the bottles of wine left over from the wedding.

     As soon as they put the first forkful to their mouths there’s a tap from behind the gas fire. Tap, tap, tap. A pause. They listen. Then more insistently, assertively: TAP, TAP, TAP. 

     He puts down his fork. “It’s almost as if it knows we’re here.”

     Tap, tap, tap.

     She is silent. She realizes, and maybe he does too, that it does know they are there. That from its dark prison it can see the chinks of electric light through the joins in the boarded-up fireplace, and through the gaps where the fire’s plumbed in. That it can see an escape route. That it can hear them talking.

     He says, “I wonder how long it’s been there.”

     “It could have been there for days.”

     “How long can they live like that?”

     “How should I know?”

     She pushes her food around and leaves most of it—a waste of a good chicken. Later, after washing up, they sit in the tiny kitchen to finish their wine, but the carcass in the lidless bin and the bones on the plates remind Caz of the pigeon.

     They sit up late in the kitchen. When they go to bed the room’s quiet but Caz wakes in the night and hears scrabbling. It’s quieter though, and then it stops. She strains her ears to hear: there is nothing. She wonders if that’s it. And then it starts again. She blocks up her ears with the pillow. She thinks she can hear it through the feathers of the pillow.

     The next day after a late brunch they decide to open the presents. There are bewilderingly many. They take turns. 

     Caz sets out the strategy. After each present they open they will make a note of the item and any distinguishing features (colour, pattern) and the giver (full name). The person who opens the present will be responsible for recording it. They will put the unwrapped presents in a clean storage box. They will not deviate from this plan.

      Silver tissue paper yields a boxed china cake stand, the type found in old-fashioned tea shops and flea markets (“Beautiful,” sighs Caz). There’s a tea set, an Indian tablecloth and napkins, a lead crystal vase, a bottle of port and a set of port glasses, a cocktail shaker, some doilies, a sushi set, a cheese bell, various items of cookware, including a blender and heart-shaped cookie cutters, some framed photographs of Brighton, and a lot of booze.

     There are more cards taped to the presents—thick, square, pastel-coloured envelopes which scatter sequins or glitter when they are opened. Some of the boxed presents have come detached from their cards (or never had cards?) And maybe some cards in the presents pile never had presents attached. The two of them scour the wrappings for a clue. In some cases they find a loose matching gift tag or a note written directly onto the wrapping. In the end they have three loose cards and two loose presents—the tea set and a bottle of Tuaca. The Tuaca has a gift tag but no signature. Neither of them recognizes the handwriting. They check it against the loose cards but it doesn’t match. The tea set has no gift tag.

     They dig out the guest list. They cross off all the people whose gifts could be identified. Then they divide the people remaining into two categories—people who might have given the tea set and people who might have given the Tuaca.

     They think they have identified the tea set giver. They make a few guesses about the Tuaca. This process, punctuated by sandwiches and tapping, takes all afternoon. It seems a shame to put all the shiny sequinned paper into the recycling, but they do this.

     Turning the lamp on provokes a long series of taps, so they turn it off again and sit in the gloom. This doesn’t stop the tapping but it becomes more intermittent.

     They can’t face another evening of listening to the bird dying. They go into town, to a vegetarian restaurant in the Lanes, to escape.

     They stay as late as they dare, eking out a slab of chocolate cake between them in tiny forkfuls. They smile at each other across the table, thinking of all the evenings spent in unwalled restaurants with plastic red-and-white check tablecloths, sharing out the last of the carafe as behind them the staff unobtrusively stacked chairs and wiped down the bar.

     Caz pulls out the wad of wedding money and fans it with her thumb.

     “Better get the bill.”

     It’s starting to spit with rain as they walk home.

     It’s cold in the studio room, but they daren’t put the fire on. The room is quiet and still. Caz rubs her hands and turns the small lamp on. They lie on the floor by the fire even though it’s unlit. 

     She rolls a cigarette. She’s rolling up the cocktails by the pool of the last evening, in the stars on the beach of the last night, scooping in the stray crabs they saw scuttle across wet dark sand in the moonlight.

     He’s watching her hands as she rolls, as she strikes a match that flares in the dark, the new gold ring that was his grandmother’s catching its light.

     “Can I have one?” He reaches out and touches her hair with his fingertips.

     She takes one more drag and blows out the smoke. “You can finish this one. I don’t want it.”

     She lies on her back on the floor with her hands behind her head, looking up at the ceiling, seeing the starry sky.

     And then there’s a thud and a rattling that makes her jump as the pigeon hurls itself against the back of the fireplace. And then the tapping begins again. Caz counts more than thirty taps. Maybe it was the smoke that roused it. They get up off the floor.

     He says, “I suppose there’s nothing one can do?”

     “Short of ripping the fireplace out.”

     “Could we do that?” He starts feeling along the glued joins of the board.

     “No. Just come to bed.”

     The tapping stops once they turn the lamp out, but it’s soon replaced by scraping and flurrying that continues into the early hours—flurrying more and more frantic, and occasionally an echoing clang as the whole fireplace shakes. Perhaps it goes on all night. They fall asleep eventually from exhaustion, when it’s already starting to get light. She wakes a couple of hours later needing the loo and then lies awake for an hour or more looking at the wedding dress and suit still hanging up in their body bags on the wardrobe, and listening to the rain and the beating of wings.

     On the third morning they’re up early, feeling groggy and sandy-eyed, and she makes a breakfast of toast and raspberry jam. He has to go to work in the afternoon. As soon as they sit on the sofa to eat, it starts: five taps, louder than ever and more insistent. It sounds like a hammer. She imagines its beak all smashed and bloody. She pushes away the toast and jam. He can’t eat either. The tapping goes on. It sounds as though it’s trying to chip its way out.

     “Let’s rip out the fireplace,” she says.

     “Can we do that?”

     “I don’t know. Let’s give it a go.”

     He looks pleased at this, hopeful.

     “We need to turn off the gas at the mains and then get to where the fire’s plumbed in and work from there,” she says. “We need to pull the fire away from the wall without bursting the pipes.”

     “You turn the gas off and I’ll move the fire out.”

     “Be careful not to burst the pipes or we’ll have a leak.”

     She goes into the hallway to find the gas tap. “Don’t move until I say so.”  She turns it off at the emergency valve. “Ready.” She hears the casing of the fire judder out a few inches. “Be careful not to burst the pipes.”

     “Sweetie, I think this is going to be easier than we thought.”

     More scraping of metal.

     “Mind those pipes,” she calls, and then she hears him take a breath. “What?  What is it?”

     More scraping.

     “Caz—come in here a sec.”

     “What is it?” She moves to the doorway.

     “Caz, it’s a gull.”

     “What?”

     “I think so. Caz, come and see. Come and check.”

     She approaches, sees the letterbox-sized hole behind the fire, the flue, and inside it a face.

     “Oh no no no.”

     A clear yellow eye, a yellow beak, an unmistakeable profile. Just its face, with its eye looking at them. They look back.

     “Is there anything we can feed it?” he says doubtfully, peering through the letterbox.

     “We have to get it out.”

     He wrenches the gas fire out a little more. He can’t pull it right out because the pipes will burst. The letterbox hole is cut into a piece of metal sheeting, about ten inches square. This metal square is sealed with gaffer tape. “How are we going to do this?”

“We need something to catch it in, so we can get it downstairs. And you need to put something on in case it attacks you.”

     They settle on a cagoule, sunglasses and a pair of Marigold gloves for him, and the Indian tablecloth to catch the gull in. It watches them, calm now: no longer moving, no longer pecking.

     He kneels down by the fire. “The trouble is, we don’t know what state it’s in.”

     He peels away a strip of the gaffer tape. The gull jumps at the sound. She wanders back into the hallway. A wave of nausea hits her. She hears the ripping of another strip and then the metal sheet being pulled away from the cavity.

     Then, “Hello, sweetie. Alright, sweetie.”

     Metallic scuffling. It won’t stay in there, won’t let him free it properly. It’s trying to squeeze its way through that tiny gap. She imagines it pressing its flesh against the unfiled edges, beads of blood appearing on its feathered breast. He’s holding out the Indian tablecloth, trying to help it. Outside the room she moans and covers her face, a taste of pennies in her mouth. 

     “It’s no use flapping, sweetie.”

     She realizes he’s talking to her now, not the bird.

     A muscular flap and a clang of metal. She can see the blood in her mind. She can’t look. And then a flurry. 

     “Caz. Caz. Look”.

     She comes back to the doorway.

     And it’s on her desk. Dirty. Grey. Of course—it’s been in a chimney for forty-eight hours. Otherwise whole. No bleeding or visible damage. A seagull. Standing in the middle of her room. It looks at them both with its clear eye, stands its ground.

     “I need a box. The recycling box.” 

     She runs down the hall and he hears her empty it onto the floor, tin cans rolling away on the lino and bottles clinking.

     He leans over to catch the gull. It escapes, springs onto the television. He’s stalking it, menacing it with the box. It doesn’t mean to be trapped again.

     “I think you’ll have to grab it. Like a chicken.”

     He misses. It’s in the hallway. 

     “Or herd it out of doors.”

     He tries. It’s going the wrong way, to the flat upstairs. He grabs it. He’s got it. He runs down the stairs with it, shouting over his shoulder.

     “Out, out, out—open the doors, open the doors.”

     She runs ahead of him, opens the doors. And it’s out. He’s put it down outside, on the wet front steps. The rain’s starting again, very gently. The grey gull looks doddery, looking up, to left and right, in the bright morning air. Dazzled, it looks like it’s forgotten what the world is. It puts up its head to catch water.

     “Shall I get it some water?”

     He shakes his head. “No. No need.”

     “I’ll get it some water.”

     She runs inside and upstairs. When she comes down again with a bowl, her husband is on the other side of the road.

     She calls from the doorway. “Where’s the gull?”

     He points to the gate pillar of the house opposite.

     “Is that ours?” She’s incredulous.

     “It hopped up there.”

     “It can fly.”

     “I thought it was going to toddle under a car.”

     He shakes his head at the water she’s brought. “It had a good drink. From the gutter.”

     “Well—whatever happens now, it’s better off there than in the chimney”.

     She puts the bowl down in the front hall. She runs in to slip on her shoes and her cagoule from the coathooks in the hallway. When she comes outdoors again he nods at her, still hugging himself tight with his Marigolds, then nods upwards. The gull is on the roof of the house opposite, partly hidden by the guttering. She runs down the steps. He walks back across the road to her. It’s now raining, not hard, but quite steadily. 

     She shivers. “It’s amazing.” There’s rain on her face.

     “Come under the tree”.

     Under the wet conkers and shining leaves, they shelter a little from the rain. New, fresh rain. Clean rain. They watch the bird. 

     She peers out from the tree. “What’s it doing?”

     “It’s cleaning itself. Sorting out its feathers. I think it’s going to be alright.”

He sighs, a huge lungful. “I thought it was our sacrifice to the gods. Our payment for having such a nice honeymoon. Letting it die.”

     She’s never seen anything look less like it was going to die. 

     He’s huddled in his cagoule, holiday flip-flops on bare feet, hugging the tablecloth round his shoulders. “Imagine. If we’d left it there.”

     She nods. “I thought it was a pigeon.”

     “I wish we’d done that forty-eight hours ago.”

     “I didn’t know we could”.

     “A gull. Imagine if we’d let it die.” He shudders. “Poor gull.”

     New, fresh rain. She’s trembling a little in the cold. She realizes she’s still wearing her thin pyjamas. Her canvas shoes are getting wet through.

     The gull’s bathing in the rain, the guttering a birdbath. It stretches its wings twice, casting a flurry of raindops as it fluffs its feathers. She thinks she can see the plumage whitening.

 

  

©2014 Uschi Gatward

 

 

Author Links

 

"Francesca Niebla"--story by Uschi Gatward in Litro

Liars' League performance of "Cacti" by Uschi Gatward

Uschi Gatward blogging for Mslexia

 

 

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