The Birds, The Man
After the fire, we moved in with my sister. The two of us cramped into her attic room, the smoke still burned into everything we’d salvaged. Julia said that she would never smell anything else but the fumes; that the memory of it would never be erased. I told her to stop being melodramatic, but she was right. A year later and still it clings. Occasionally I apologise for stinking out my sister’s house; she shakes her head and tells me not to worry.
My sister is a good woman. There is no doubting that, but she wears her goodness like a starched uniform. It feels somehow professional, and it does not make her popular. Alex’s warmth and civility, her commitment to others’ happiness is commendable, but Julia has never quite trusted her. We are thankful, nothing more. Twice, three times a week, Julia and I go back home, watch the builders at work and are reminded of her goodness. If she were in the same situation, would we do the same? It’s not a question we ask, for which, again, we are thankful.
Alex rents a small house – she calls it a cottage – in the outer stretches of the city: not quite suburbia, but close enough to give Julia hives. There is a small garden where we smoke, a living room where we watch terrestrial television, a bathroom that isn't quite adequate. In the winter it is too hot inside; in the summer too bright from the sun. We have come to tolerate it. I wish we could say more than that. It would be good to tell Alex that we have loved staying with her, that her house feels like a home. Instead we pore over catalogues and brochures, argue over splashback colours and the shape of door handles; imagine packing our three suitcases and putting them in the back of a taxi.
For all Julia’s disdain for the cottage, it is close to her work. A rail link gets her to the office in a little over twelve minutes. I am not so fortunate. I kiss her goodbye as she sleeps, dress in the living room, leave the house without coffee or listening to the radio. It is some distance to the bus stop, a meander through the estate and then through the park. There are several possible routes, but I always follow the same directions. I read somewhere that this is not good for the brain: that a lack of variation can cause dementia later in life. Despite the risks, I stick to the same streets, the same pathway through the park. This is for two reasons: the birds and the man.
The birds. By a stand of trees, just after the football pitch, a pair of magpies skitter each morning. Not most days, or the majority of the time, each and every morning. Or at least whenever I walk through the park. They peck at the ground, preen, flap wings. They look like lovers pausing after taking a morning stroll. I often wonder what would happen if they were not there, or there were just the one. It has never happened. There is always the two of them. Always pecking at the ground, preening, flapping wings.
The man. On exiting the park, there is a small parade of shops, always closed. I take a right, then a left and on the corner the man waits: a bag on his shoulder, his eyes on the road. His clothes are licked with paint; rips in his boots expose steel toe caps. He wears a hooded sweatshirt in all weathers and puts up the hood when it gets cold. Like the birds, he was there on the first day I walked to the bus stop, and has been there every morning since: waiting, I assume, for his lift to arrive. I never see a car approach.
When I draw near, he turns away from me and looks into a privet hedge. Then as I am about to turn right, he says, “You got a spare cigarette?” He asks me and I ignore him. I estimate that this has happened in excess of 250 times. Exactly the same, each and every working day. He never asks me to my face, never asks sooner rather than later. I never respond, never even turn around. “You got a spare cigarette?” Silence, a pull on my cigarette, the turn onto Hardwick Street.
I told Julia about the birds and the man and she thought I was making too much out of it. Don’t be so melodramatic, she said, wagging a finger, it’s not every day, you just think it is. But she was wrong about that. I was fastidious in looking for them, every time they appeared a little victory. I didn’t tell Julia about it. It was between me and the birds and the man.
On Christmas Eve there was snow and the birds’ wings looked bluish against the unbroken settling. I stood and watched them for a time, glanced back at my lone footprints on the path. The house would be ready for the new year; it was good to see them that last, final time. I walked through the park and out the other side. I could see him standing there, waiting.
The man had his hood up, his sleeves pulled down over his hands. I walked past him. There was a crackly pause and then, finally, he asked me for a cigarette. I relaxed so much I stopped. I smiled and turned around.
‘Why don’t you buy your own?’ I said.
‘Every day, every single day, you ask me for a cigarette. Why don’t you just buy your own?’
‘I do what?’ he said. I put my hands deeper in my pockets.
‘You ask me for a cigarette.’
‘I do?’ he said. ‘Really?’
‘Every day,’ I said.
‘Really? I can't say as I've noticed that.’
‘You’ve not noticed that you ask me for a cigarette every time I walk past you?’
‘No. Never occurred to me.’
He smiled. He had chapped lips and needed a shave. His whiskers were grey and chestnut , slightly squirrelish.
‘Do I really?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well do you?’
‘Do I what?’
‘Have a spare cigarette?’ He smiled again. ‘After all, it is Christmas.’
I felt the packet and the lighter in my pocket. The cool steel of the Zippo, the bevelled edge of the pack of Winstons. A van turned the corner and beeped its horn. The cab door slid open and the man got inside. I took the pack from my pocket as the van lurched away. I shouted Merry Christmas to its exhaust pipe.
The birds were there in January. The man was there too. He asked me for a cigarette and I ignored him. They were there in February and March too. I don’t know who will disappear first: the birds, the man or me.