Keeley Mansfield gained an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University in 2005, following which she took a long, unintended break from writing. She recommenced in 2013, and has since appeared on a number of longlists and shortlists, including the Bristol, Bath, Bridport and Fish Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes. Her work has been featured in several journals, including The Incubator and The Bohemyth. Originally from East London, she has lived in Dublin since 2004.
A Balcony of Birds
My father once cut a live robin in half. No, not in half; that makes it sound like a magic trick. It was a decapitation. I was playing nearby, and saw the robin's head in the dirt, my father never missing a beat as he prepared the ground for cabbages. The head was quickly buried with the next flurry of earth, but I couldn't see the rest of the bird - the wings, the red breast. When my father reached for his long-cold mug of tea, I knelt and pushed my fingers into the soil to find the body; with one calloused hand, he flung me back onto the grass. He gulped the last of his tea, turned his back, and began to whistle.
The city birds circle my apartment's tiny balcony. Magpies hack out their consonants, and an unseen wood pigeon delivers its baritone accusation. My left ear sings its own tune, a two-tone siren like a distant ambulance. The sun sends long, wavering shadows from the railings across my bare legs, reminding me that I should get dressed to meet Fiona. Let someone into your heart, my mother once said, and they'll break it for you. I've been enjoying the anonymity of city life, the freedom to sit alone and listen to the buildings settle around me. She's beautiful though, Fiona. Tiny, darting, bright-eyed. I focus on the birdsong and count the beats of silence between the notes. Ten more and I'll go inside. Ten more notes, ten more beats.
We meet outside the Museum of Natural History. She's late, and showers me with apologies and gauzy blue fabric as she bustles around me to kiss both my cheeks. She announces that she needs coffee, and leads me down to the Museum cafe. Her hand is small and warm; I don't want to let it go, but I don't know how to hold it either, whether to apply pressure, or simply rest my fingers against hers and let her decide what to do with them.
"I've been thinking about my answer to that question you asked last week," I say. "It took me ages to choose, but I think I'd have an entire madeira cake soaked in egg custard."
"What question was that?" She has released my hand and is busy with paper cups and the coffee urn.
"You asked me what my death row dinner would be. You said yours would be unlimited french fries with Big Mac secret sauce. And I reminded you they couldn't be unlimited, because at some point you'd be taken away and murdered."
Fiona laughs. She has a laugh like a dented bell. "Bless your memory, Ava - I'd forgotten all about that!"
It stings that she discarded it so easily. This is how idle conversation works, of course; I'm out of practice. Fiona pays for the drinks at the till and hands me a cup.
"You're an odd duck, Ava. We've worked together for ages and I really only know your name…and your weird food cravings."
"I've only been here a month, so it's hardly ages. And there's nothing weird about cake and custard." I must sound angry, and burn my lip on the coffee in a rush to hide my mouth. Fiona doesn't seem to notice; she's already skipping back up to the main hall.
We stand at the entrance for a while and sip, watching parents herding their children towards the exhibits.
"So what brought you to Ireland?"
"You should be a comedian. Come on, you know what I mean."
"I just fancied somewhere new. Found a flat, found a job...and here I am." I do a jazz hands gesture and spill coffee on my boot.
"What about your family? Have they visited yet?"
"My father's in hospital." I'm aware of sounding more pleased about this than I should, so I stare at my feet. The coffee splash is drying into an O shape.
"It's tough to see them fade. My daddy had cancer when I was eight. It was so hard seeing him lose his strength."
When I was eight, my father was burying the robin's head beneath a row of Brassica oleracea. I picture him buried in the ground beside the robin, instead of lying in bed, glowering at the IV drip and the catheter. Or perhaps he's already home, thinking about what he'll do to me when he finds me. Fiona picks some lint off my collar, and I flinch.
"Sorry, was that a bit motherly of me?"
"My mother's dead," I say, and it's as though I've spoken the final line of a play. Curtain down. Fiona clears her throat and turns to watch the children darting between the dinosaurs.
"I'm not very good at this, am I?" I drain the last of my coffee and crush my cup.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't be daft!" She laughs that mad off-key thunk of a laugh. I like it.
"Okay," I say, "well how about this? I saw on the news recently, the Parisian Museum of Natural History has just unveiled a restored Archaeopteryx!" I'd kept that nugget of information safe for just such an awkward lapse in conversation. I'd even practiced the pronounciation.
"I have no idea what that is. Do we have one here?"
"I don’t know. I don't think so."
Fiona finishes her coffee, and crushes her cup like I did; she has to use both hands.
"Well, that's our mission for this afternoon then, to find one."
I am unprepared for the voices echoing through the museum, all tuning forks and tin baths. A peculiar smell pervades the room, slightly sweet, a suggestion of the pickle jar. The smell mingles with the reek of the living, a heady mixture of perfumes, body odour, and briefly, sharply, a soiled nappy. Fiona leads me up to the first floor and steers me through the displays, showing me a lion with a balding nose, an owl posed with a mouse in its claws, skinny foals, scowling monkeys, dinosaur bones. No Archaeopteryx, but that's okay, we agree, there's still plenty to see. She shows me the display she loved best as a child, the Arctic foxes with their snowy fur and perfect snouts. I am in awe of the building, of the exhibits, and of her. I'm heady with it, I sway a little. I'm not accustomed to elation.
I leave Fiona at the armadillos and sit on a green banquette. I watch a man lift up his daughter to show her a monstrous, stubble-headed vulture.
"He'd eat you for breakfast!" he tells the girl and chomps loudly at her neck, before setting her down and chasing her through the room, their laughter bouncing off the glass. I try to imagine what my father might make of this dead zoo. He would find the worn exhibits unsatisfactory, and the smaller specimens offensive. Squirrels are vermin to him, rats filthy, cats greedy little streaks of piss. He reserved the most aggression for birds. On three occasions I saw him destroy the nests of starlings that had settled in our garden's oak tree. When the chicks fell from the broken nests, my father stamped on them. My mother would pull me away from the kitchen window but she was always too late.
"Let her watch," he'd tell her at the dinner table, heaping his plate with mash. "She needs to understand."
The many glass eyes and open mouths of the museum begin to bother me, and I focus on the orange floor tiles, obscured intermittently by trainers, pumps and hiking boots. When I raise my head again, I notice the balcony, three sides of which are populated entirely by cases of birds. I stand and approach the stairs, but a museum guard near the opossums points to a small sign on the wall: No one permitted further due to restoration work.
I wander around until I find Fiona beside a grubby-looking zebra. She's scrolling through her phone.
"Ava! Did you know part of the museum stairwell collapsed a few years ago? Says here, ten people were crushed beneath the limestone."
I have a sudden image of my mother crumpled on the bedroom floor after being cut down from the ceiling beams. My father was whistling as he walked down the stairs behind the coroner. Too quiet for the coroner to hear, but just loud enough for me. I wanted those stairs to collapse and crush them both.
Fiona is patting my arm. "It's okay," she says, "no one died."
I reach for Fiona's hand and lead her back through the room.
I feign interest in a diorama of wild dogs until the museum guard moves into the corridor, then I creep up the stairs to the balcony, pulling Fiona up behind me. I can feel her shivering; whether she's excited or scared, I can't tell, but she doesn't pull away, doesn't make a sound. The specimens are much older up here, some threadbare and desperately sad. I move quickly past the peacock with his iridescent train, knowing he's visible from the lower level. Further along, I peer over the rail and see the visitors gradually thinning out. Families will be returning home for their tea, the children need to be bathed and fed, perhaps there are dogs to be walked. I have a firm grip on Fiona's hand and I'm dragging her a little, but she doesn't struggle. Chaffinch, goldfinch, canary. Blue tit, blackbird, thrush. At the end of the longest case are two robins. The female is posed on a flowerpot, while the male stands below her with his head cocked and his wings spread wide. I break the thin glass with one strike of my fist, pull out the female and drop her into my jacket pocket.
We are back down the stairs and studying a giraffe when the museum guard runs back into the room, a feeble alarm clanging somewhere in the distance. The robin is insubstantial but I feel as though I carry a pocket full of bricks. Fiona is barely breathing - I hope she faints so I can carry her out. I feel sure she will be lighter than the bird. She inclines her head towards the exit, and we walk steadily with the other visitors, most of whom are convinced it's a fire drill. Someone calls for us all to stay where we are, but we keep moving. Once we are through the main gates and around the corner, we begin to run. I can hear a strange huh-huh-huh in time with my steps. The sound of my own laughter.
Back on my own balcony, we examine the robin. She is very old, and there is a bald patch exposing the delicate cast upon which the skin and feathers have been mounted. Fiona hasn’t said a word since we left the Museum. She keeps peering at me as though I’m one of the exhibits, human skin stretched over a rusting cage. Hollow in the centre. The sun is setting but the city birds are still engaged in joyous uproar. A starling lands on the rail, its body flickering like static; it hops closer and snatches a crumb from the table. Two weeks before my mother died, my father had beaten me around the head for leaving bread out for the sparrows.
"I can explain everything," I tell Fiona. "Please. Let me explain."
She nods, takes the robin from me and strokes it, sending dust motes into the air. Her hand is blooming from the strength of my grip. My ear sings its two-tone tune, and as Fiona settles the robin in her lap, I begin to whistle quietly along.
'Cruelty' in The Bohemyth
'A Message' in The Incubator