1. This bird has flown
"YOU'RE BORED," she said.
“You always drink too much when you’re bored.”
She was right. He took another mouthful of whisky and wondered why he was bored. Then he wondered what bored meant. A desire for desires. He remembered the quote, but couldn’t place it.
He looked at her, and she smiled at him. He leaned over and touched her arm, smiling too. Her skin was cool.
He set the whisky on the table and looked at the golden liquid in the square glass with rounded corners. It was a single malt. He had added water to take the heat out of the first sip. No ice. It was the way he liked it.
Leaning back into the soft-leather of the sofa, he closed his eyes. He could smell the leather and the whisky and behind them, her perfume. Flowers and spice.
The doorbell rang.
He got to his feet and crossed the room. When he opened the door there was nobody there. He looked up and down the corridor outside the apartment.
At the far end of the corridor, to the left, a bird was standing on the polished floor. It looked at him with one bright black eye.
“She did it,” it said.
The apartment was on the edge of the financial district. It was expensive, but that was okay. He had a good job in advertising, and Anna was a freelance graphic designer. Her work had poise and she was always busy. Money was no problem.
On the day the bird came, Anna followed Sasha to the door. While he was still thinking about what the bird had said and wondering whether it had actually said it, she stepped around him and walked down the corridor. She knelt down and held out a hand. The bird twisted its head one way and then another and then it hopped towards her.
“It’s a mynah bird,” she said.
“I know. We can’t keep it.”
“It belongs to somebody.”
They were back in the living room. The bird was balanced on Anna’s right hand and was looking at him. It made him uncomfortable.
“It’s going to crap all over the carpet,” he said.
Anna had designed the apartment. It was mostly white; Gustavian-style. Shortly after they had moved in, she had returned from a flea market with an old birdcage, which she also painted white. It was rectangular with three domes that created a series of intricate arches inside the cage. She had stood it on a table near a window and placed a white orchid inside it.
Now, she opened the little gate at the front, took the orchid out and put the bird inside.
“We can’t keep it,” he said.
Anna said nothing and went to the kitchen to get some fruit.
He knew that if he pressed the point, she would say that it was too late now to go searching for the bird’s owner and that, since it would have to stay with them overnight, there was no harm in making the poor thing comfortable.
She returned from the kitchen with slices of nectarine and a ramekin dish half full of water. The bird pecked at the fruit once or twice. It didn’t seem to be hungry and after a while it closed its eyes.
“We’ll make some enquiries tomorrow,” she said.
That night he lay awake. Anna slept almost silently, but he lay awake for hours. It was the strangest thing, but he was acutely aware of the bird on the other side of the bedroom wall.
He had come across only one mynah bird before. It was years ago. The bird had lived in a cage on the counter of a local hardware store: a novelty to amuse customers. Its cage stank of stale fruit and the bird squawked loudly every time somebody entered the shop.
But this bird hadn’t made a sound since it spoke to him in the corridor. Not one sound.
It was light when he woke. Anna had some work on the other side of town and she had left early without rousing him. In the living room, the bird’s eyes were still closed, although Sasha noticed that the nectarine had been replaced by slices of banana.
He had arranged to work at home that morning and he sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and thinking about the bird.
The apartment block was less than a year old and air conditioned. That meant that the windows in the corridor were sealed shut. The bird could not have come up in the lift without human help. How would it have pressed the buttons? A heavy fire door blocked the entrance to the stairwell. The bird had to belong to a neighbour.
There were eight apartments on that floor. He had once met a young man coming out of a door opposite theirs, but he had seemed flustered and too busy to do more than nod at Sasha’s hello. He was the only person Sasha had met in the entire block.
After the second cup of coffee, he decided to post a note under the door of each apartment on their floor. He typed the note on his computer’s keyboard.
“Found in the corridor, one bird. For info call at flat 208.”
Ten minutes later he was back in the flat ready to start the day’s work.
If the bird had died overnight, it could not have been quieter.
Sasha was looking over the work of a copywriter employed by his ad agency. The guy was good. His writing had a natural rhythm and pace. It was a pleasure to read. Sasha wasn’t really editing – that wasn’t his job – but he kept going over the piece again and again nevertheless. There was something wrong. He just couldn’t work out what it was.
He looked at the bird in its white cage. It was awake and looking at him with one eye, as birds do.
The doorbell rang and the bird made a scuffling sound on the bottom of the cage with its claws.
Sasha got up and went to the door. He opened it to find a short, middle-aged woman in the corridor. One of her eyes was lower in her face than the other, as if she had been painted by a Cubist still learning his craft.
“It’s about the bird,” she said.
Ah, Sasha replied, opening the door slightly as if to invite the woman in, and then deciding against it and filling the gap with his slim frame.
“It’s mine,” the woman said.
Her long face looked too big for her body and her left shoulder dropped below the level of her right shoulder. She was wearing a floral tabard over a blue, spotted dress. The hem of the dress was uneven where the stitching had come adrift. She wore flat heeled, sensible shoes that hadn’t been polished in a while.
“It’s mine,” the woman said again. Her voice was toneless, odd.
“Can you describe it?”
“I don’t have to, it’s my bird. You have to give it back to me.”
“Which flat do you live in?” Sasha asked.
“You’ll be sorry if you don’t give me the bird,” the woman said.
Sasha felt something rise in him. This didn’t feel right. He remembered that he hadn’t told Anna about the note he had slipped under the doors of the neighbouring flats.
The woman in front of him was shabby and misshapen. She didn’t look like someone who would live in an expensive modern apartment on the edge of the financial district. She might have been a cleaner, he thought. Had she just threatened him?
“Look ,” he began.
The woman glared at him, raised her right arm and poked his left arm hard. Her black eyebrows beetled into a frown. She might actually have snarled.
Startled, Sasha stepped back and shut the door quickly.
Ouch, he said to himself. That hurt.
He expected her to bang on the door. Then he listened for sounds of her moving away. There was silence. Was she still standing outside, glaring?
He looked over at the bird. It was on the bottom of the cage, looking back. Sasha’s arm was sore where the woman had jabbed at it – with what? Not just a finger, surely.
Oh, come on, he said to himself. This is ridiculous. He yanked the door open, but there was nobody there. The woman had gone.
Anna dabbed arnica on Sasha’s bruised arm. She was annoyed that Sasha had gone looking for the bird’s owner without consulting her. But she decided she was just tired and said nothing.
After the strange woman’s disappearance, Sasha had wandered up and down the corridor looking at the doors of neighbouring flats. They were all the same.
He returned to his work, but if anything it was more of a struggle than before. Something wasn’t right with the copy he was reading. It was like listening to somebody whistling an operatic aria brilliantly, but with one phrase just slightly off key.
He set the work aside. In the kitchen, he began to chop chicken breast and vegetables for a stir fry. He put on some music and thought about the bird. “She did it,” it had said. What was that about?
He cut up some fruit and put it in the bird’s cage. It watched without fear as he took the ramekin dish, filled it with water and put it back again.
By the time Anna got back, Sasha was his old self again. He told the story of the attack by the strange woman with what he hoped was humour. He had expected Anna to find it funny, but she didn’t.
“Why didn’t you give her the bird?” she asked.
“It might not have been hers.”
“She said it was.”
Sasha thought for a while.
“I didn’t believe her,” he said.
They ate and watched TV then, both of them curled up on a sofa, Anna’s head on Sasha’s shoulder.
Why would anyone lie about owning a mynah bird, he thought. It was stupid. Why would anybody poke him in the arm moments after meeting him for the first time?
Anna breathed softly. She had fallen asleep.
The next day, it was Anna’s turn to work at home. Sasha left late, just before ten in the morning, to avoid the rush hour. Anna was already at her laptop, which she had brought into the living room, when he said goodbye.
The bird seemed happier. It hopped around on the cage floor, cocking its head on one side and then the other, looking at Anna and Sasha with what seemed to be interest as they moved about. Anna looked at it and smiled.
I hope she’s not growing fond of it, Sasha thought.
He kissed Anna on the cheek and headed out into the city.
He hated being cooped up at home. The apartment was large, it was wonderful – but he was an outdoors type at heart, and he enjoyed being with people. After a couple of days at home, he began to go stir crazy. At the office, he decided to hand the copy he was having trouble with to one of his colleagues.
“There’s something wrong with it, he said. “I don’t know what it is.”
His colleague read through it quickly.
“Looks okay to me,” he said.
“You deal with it then,” said Sasha. “It might just be me.”
There were a couple of internal meetings and a snatched lunch with an old friend. The agency Sasha worked at was successful and had a business model that worked – so long as nobody got too creative. It was a paradox: a creative business in which creativity was curtailed to ensure the business’s survival.
It was like a toy train set, Sasha thought. It went round and round and round, until somebody decided to improve on the layout. Then the train would run off the rails.
He finished at six and dropped into a favourite downtown bar, waiting for the rush hour to die back. Sasha hated the rush hour as much as he enjoyed being around people. Another paradox.
He chatted to the bar staff and sipped a perfect Manhattan from a Martini glass. There was a cherry at the bottom of the glass, dead centre. It had a curious, organic look to it, like an eye. He drained the glass, swallowed the cherry and headed home.
After working steadily at her laptop for an hour or so, Anna realised she was still tired and got up to make some coffee.
She switched on the radio, which was tuned to a jazz channel. The smooth sound of Everything Happens to Me by Charlie Parker filled the room.
She smiled. That’s a little how she felt these days: everything happens to me. And then she remembered Charlie Parker’s nickname. “Bird”.
She walked back into the living room with her coffee. The bird watched her, its yellow beak slightly open and pointing in her direction.
There was a knock at the door. Anna hesitated. She had assumed that Sasha had brought yesterday’s attack on himself, which was why she had not been amused. He could be provocative even when silent. It was something about the way he stood, the way his face looked.
At the same time, she didn’t want to get into an argument with anybody right now. She had work to do.
She put her cup down. Then she remembered there was a security peephole in the door and, for the first time since they moved in, she slid the cover to one side and looked through it.
Outside there was a tall man with grey hair. He was wearing a dark three piece suit and a tie. He looked respectable: a city gent.
Anna opened the door.
“Good morning,” the man said. He smiled. His teeth were white and even, and his voice was soft and low. He wore a red silk tie with a diamond tie pin showing just above the v of his waistcoat.
“It’s about the bird,” he said.
“Oh,” Anna replied. “Is it yours?”
“No,” the man said. “Not mine. But I do know quite a lot about birds, especially pet birds – which I’m assuming it is. I’m an aviculturalist as well as an economist. Or at least I was: the city doesn’t leave much time for hobbies.”
He held out his hand. “Dr Stapleton,” he said. “Andrew Stapleton.”
Anna shook his hand. It was an involuntary movement; a subconscious response to Dr Stapleton’s outstretched hand. His hand was dry and his grip was firm but gentle. His eyes were a very light green.
“I got your note and wondered if I could help in any way,” Dr Stapleton said. He smiled again.
“I don’t see what …” Anna began.
The man interrupted her, raising one hand. “Perhaps I could identify it for you. That might help you trace its owner.”
“It’s a my…” Anna stopped herself. How would they know who the real owner was if she gave away the bird’s identity?
But he’s already said it’s not his bird, she thought. She felt dizzy.
The man spoke again. “Is it alright? It may be sick,” he said. “I think I should look at it, don’t you?”
There was something in the man’s voice, even in his handshake, that was compelling.
“I can help you,” he said. “Come.”
He invited himself into Anna’s flat with all the authority of a medical doctor inviting a patient into his surgery.
Before she knew it, he was inside the living room with his hands clasped behind his back peering at the bird in its cage.
She closed the door quietly. She was feeling unwell now and she was irritated and, for reasons she couldn’t identify, just a little bit scared.
“Ah,” the man was saying. “Gracula religiosa intermedia. The greater Indian hill mynah – once a staple of pet shops, although there is a ban on imports these days. They can be trained to talk, you know.”
“Yes,” Anna said. Who was this man?
“The trouble with this little fellow, Dr Stapleton said, is that he’s not very well. See how he breathes with his beak open. I expect he’s been very quiet, hasn’t he?”
“Yes,” Anna said again.
“He’s got a distended belly too. It’s a condition known as hemochromatosis. Iron collects in and enlarges the liver, the heart too sometimes. Fluid is produced that gets in the air sacs and makes breathing difficult.”
He raised himself from the cage and smiled again at Anna.
“If you were to lay this poor little chap on his side,” Dr Stapleton said, “he would drown in his own fluid.”
Anna’s head began to swim. The man’s voice became distant. She was dimly aware that he was offering to take the bird away and dispose of it, humanely.
“Bird’s bones are hollow,” he was saying. “You can break their necks easier than snapping a matchstick. It even makes the same sound …”Then Anna did something she had never done in her life before. She fainted.
She was just coming round when she heard Sasha’s key in the door. She hauled herself on to the sofa and looked at the bird. The man had gone. The bird was still in its cage.
Had she dreamed it? She didn’t think so.
But the man had gone. Surely, any reasonable human being would have checked that she was okay, would have phoned for an ambulance or something.
No, Dr Stapleton had obviously decided not to get involved. He must have looked at her on the floor, decided it was time to leave and walked straight across the room and out of the door. What a weird thing to have done, she thought.
Sasha came in.
“Hi honey, I’m home,” he said loudly. It was the title of a 1990s sitcom, and the first thing Sasha said every day when he got back from work. Actually, although Anna didn’t know this, he said it even when he knew she wasn’t going to be there.
He kissed her on the cheek.“You okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Okay, just tired.”
It was then she knew that she wasn’t going to tell Sasha about Dr Stapleton’s visit, or her fainting fit.
She didn’t yet know why. Rationally, she told herself that no harm had been done, and that – given his speedy departure – she would probably never see Dr Stapleton again.
Sasha poured himself a whisky.
“I think I’ll sleep in the spare room tonight, Sasha,” she said. “I really am very tired, and it’s a big day tomorrow.”
“Okay,” he said. He sipped his whisky and closed his eyes, not thinking for a moment to ask her why it was a big day.
Before she went to bed, Anna had a long hot bath. Then she packed a small day sack. She took a hat box from the top shelf of the wardrobe, took the hat out and put it back on the shelf.
She slept deeply and silently until just before dawn. Then she rose, put on her jeans, socks and trainers, pulled on a t-shirt and sweater and put on the short blue duffel coat that Sasha said made her look like a schoolgirl.
She used a kitchen knife to cut x shapes into the lid of the hat box, and then she pushed them through to make holes.
She took the box into the living room and set it on the table next to the cage with the lid off.
“Come on little fellow,” she whispered.
The bird barely moved as she picked it up and placed it carefully in the hat box. Then, holding the box between her left arm and her body with her day sack over her right shoulder, she let herself out of the flat and into the corridor.
Outside the air was cool and refreshing. Anna used to run at this time of the morning and she remembered the cool air on her skin and the endorphin rush she got towards the end of the route.
She walked that route now, along silent urban streets and squares lined with tall residential buildings. The sky was lightening from indigo to a dark blue. Anna picked up the pace.
About a quarter of a mile away, there was a linear park through which a canal ran. It was a pretty park, very well maintained, with a café where she would sometimes sip green tea on the way home from work.
Behind the café, there was a brick wall against which someone had trained figs in espaliered rows. She didn’t know whether the figs were edible – perhaps it was too far north. But that’s where she was going to let the bird out of the box.
She put the hat box on the ground, lifted the lid and looked at the bird. It looked back at her, its beak open slightly.
She picked it up and put it on the ground.
“Birds should not be caged,” she said softly. “Go have some fun.”
The bird hopped a few feet, and turned over a leaf with its beak. It hopped a few more times and then flew off into the trees.
Anna dropped the hat box into a waste paper basket, and walked on through the park as dawn broke.