Stumbling over the empty boot I almost tipped forward into the bundle of clothes. The clothes were still occupied. Ted Malt was right - an animal had crawled into the ditch to die. The sweet, stomach-wrenching stench of death rose up from the leaf litter. Screwing up my eyes I took in a quick gulp of air and pinched my nose tight.
The bumblebee’s sleepy hum coughed like a failing engine each time it ricocheted off the ceiling. Using the stiff bristles of the long handled broom I nudged the poor creature towards the open window and freedom.
‘Four and twenty blackbirds,’ Molly sang from the kitchen table.
Nana’s falsetto voice joined in the rhyme with her great-granddaughter, her pockmarked memory resurrecting the words on automatic pilot. Molly’s finger danced under the bold printed letters of the picture book where glossy black birds with golden beaks strained to fly free of their pastry cage. ‘Yuk, do people really bake birds in pies?’ she asked me, wrinkling her nose.
Molly’s eating habits were selective and chicken nuggets were her current favourite. But I knew she didn’t count chickens as birds. Outside on the patio a sprinkling of feathers caught my gaze, white thankfully, as if someone had plucked an angel. ‘People used to eat songbirds as a delicacy. Still do in some parts of the world.’ I answered my daughter’s question. ‘And they really did put live birds in pies just so they would fly out when the pastry was cut.’
Molly’s black eyes widened, she trusted me not to make stuff up, and then continued with her song, ‘When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.’
Most likely a cat had successfully jumped one of the plump pigeons. I hoped the carcass had been carried off as I dreaded Molly stumbling across bits and pieces of a half-chewed corpse.
Bird feeders hung listless from the arbour devoid of the usual feasting flurry of sparrows and finches. The seed speckled slabs of the patio were empty of ground gorging chaffinches and doves. The garden was deserted. Only the shrill staccato cry of a blackbird shrieked out a warning.
He was calling me. His fanned tail flicked forward with each trill as he perched on the branch below the blue tits’ nest box. ‘What’s all the fuss?’ I stood on the patio, hands on hips, and spoke aloud to the garden. Behind me the Hebe bush rustled. Turning I faced the sparrow hawk as it launched from ground level and shot straight up, a slate grey rocket firing into the cloudless sky. Its unfinished meal left abandoned. The heartless victim, a collared dove, lay on its back with stick legs pointing heavenward and chest cavity flirtatiously exposed.
‘Ugh, hope you’re going to clear that up,’ a male voice said from the kitchen steps.
The King was in his counting house
‘You’re home early.’
‘Pleased to see me?’ Derek’s mouth twitched into a grin I’d once thought sexy.
Nana’s chair by the window was empty. She always seemed to know when Derek was coming home. The door to Nana’s bedroom along the hall was already shut. Derek flopped down into her chair then dragged out the bundle of wool and needles from under his thighs.
‘Careful,’ I said in my scolding Molly tone, ‘you’ll pull out her stitches.’
‘As if it mattered,’ he growled letting the needle droop and watching the coils of woollen stitches unravel.
Nana sat by the window, knitting, all day. After supper she’d shuffle back to her chair and pull apart the day’s work. She was our very own Penelope patiently weaving Laertes’ shroud. I shared this image with Derek, but he didn’t get the reference, didn’t laugh at my classical humour. Nana was simply stuck in a loop. Some days I prayed Nana had just wandered off into the dusty corridors of her mind, that she’d catch hold of the trailing thread and find her way back.
Derek pulled me on to his lap. Unwashed fingers brushing tangled hair aside so he could kiss my neck. I tried hard not to flinch, but nor did I quiver at his touch. His other hand slipped up under my T-shirt to cup my breast. ‘Think you need to cut down on the snacking, Simone.’ His hot breath prickled on my skin as he squeezed too tight. ‘I’ve got to meet a guy about some work tonight, down the pub,’ continued Derek. ‘Come with me – we can have a night out.’
Pushing his hand away I glanced over to Molly. She was still reading at the table, raven black hair falling across her face. ‘I can’t. It’s too late to call a sitter for Molly.’
‘Your Nan’s not going anywhere.’
‘Nana can’t look after Molly, you know that.’
‘Then what’s the bloody point of her,’ said Derek roughly pushing me off his lap. ‘Tell me, Simone, what’s she doing here?’
‘This is her house remember. We are living with her.’
‘And it’d better be worth it,’ his voice slid lower to a hiss.
‘I’m Nana’s sole beneficiary. She’s promised the house to me when she’s gone.’
‘Yeah, but when will that be? She could go on for bleeding years in this state.’ He picked up one of the knitting needles and jabbed it down, hard, into the curved arm of Nana’s chair. ‘I’m going to take a shower then I need to get off to meet this bloke. Don’t wait up.’
The bumblebee had followed me back into the kitchen. Returning in its confused daze to continue with the head banging. Derek snatched up the broom and jabbed the handle up, like a spear, with violent precision. Molly squealed as orange-yellow gunk splattered the white plaster. Derek, unbothered about the resulting stain or the extinction of life, tossed his weapon towards me. I caught it.
Later that evening, as Molly helped Nana wind up her wool, I shovelled the half eaten dove from the patio into a plastic bag. The birds were silent, lost within the foliage of the covering trees. I guessed the hawk could still be hunting since its last meal had been rudely interrupted.
At breakfast I plaited Molly’s hair while she sucked up a bowl of honey-bleached cereal swollen by sugary milk. The other side of the kitchen door, through the grubby glass, my blackbird watched us. His shiny head cocked to one side. An ebony eye, a perfect orb, observed me from its gold-rimmed socket. Feathers all neatly aligned oily-black with a polished sheen, as if dipped in liquid midnight. Orange beak glinted like an unsheathed stiletto blade. This was a fertile male confidently strutting in his breeding plumage. Between broods he must now be posing for a new mate. The bird had already successfully fledged several offspring, continuing to feed them under the Hebe bushes or bringing the caramel and toffee spotted babies onto the step, until they finally braved the garden fence for pastures new. He was clearly ready to breed all over again. My blackbird was a good father, an ideal mate.
The blackbird knew exactly where to stand on the step so the arc of the door swept past him without ruffling his perfect feathers. The creaking door announced my presence scaring the patio birds to flight. With a sharp clap the sumo waddling wood pigeons heaved their torsos to the boundary trees, while a twittering bundle of sparrows sped to a nearby bush. Tossing out raisins, his favourite treat, I spoke softly to the blackbird. I used his secret name; whispered so not even Molly could hear me.
‘You love that bleeding bird more than me.’ Derek grabbed my waist. Stale perfume, not mine, clung to his skin. Once upon a time he would have showered as soon as he got home, cleansing himself of the other woman’s scent, washing away his sins before lying beside me. Last night he’d simply slipped into bed and enfolded me in her sickly stink.
He already knew the answer to his question so I didn’t bother to respond. The blackbird hopped across the step to scoop up the remaining raisins. Derek shoved at the door swinging it backwards. The wind caught the door slamming it against the red brick wall of the house.
I squealed in panic but the bird was alert and flitted safely out of danger. An angry trilling chirp trailed in his wake as he skimmed over the boundary fence towards the ditch.
Derek had already pulled away from me as I cried out, ‘Careful! You could’ve hurt him.’
Molly’s father blinked at me, then slipping on his sunglasses he said, ‘That guy wants to meet up again tonight. You know the bloke from the pub. Has some work for me. Don’t wait up.’
Carpentry was Derek’s trade. Even when busy on a job he was always sniffing out the next one. Most of his business contracts were thrashed out down the pub, a good hunting ground, but I knew his prey wasn’t work. His eyes darted to the clock, not at me, as he tossed out the lie.
Nana’s needles clicked together as she wound the wool, back and forth. Milky blue eyes watched Derek’s leather-clad back as he left the house, cracked lips counted out the stitches, moving in a silent rhythm that kept pace with the twisting needles.
The next morning I woke alone. Derek’s side of the bed was becalmed, the sheets smooth and cool.
Each day I slipped home from the office over my lunch-break to ensure Nana got something to eat. Two slices of bread were sitting in the toaster, cold and brown, where Nana had forgotten to collect and butter them. A mug full of stale tea squatted on the table beside her armchair. The same mug of tea I gave her just before I took Molly to school. The knitting had evolved to slump like a woolly flag across her lap.
‘He knocked for you,’ Nana’s words crackled, dusty from lack of use.
‘Who? Did someone come to the door?’
‘You know,’ she added a tut as a stitch escaped, ‘your friend.’
There was no point in continuing this conversation as this ‘friend’ could have called months ago, yesterday or never at all. ‘I’ll make you a sandwich and a nice cup of tea.’ My thoughts were already drifting elsewhere. To Molly and new school shoes. To Molly’s lying father.
The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
‘That’ll be your friend,’ said Nana.
The doorbell rang.
The man on the doorstep was a head taller than me. Black, tightly curled hair framed his face. Straight, sharp nose balanced above a determined mouth. His tan was natural; an attribute of a life lived outdoors. He carried a jacket over his shoulder and I glimpsed the promise of muscle beneath the white shirt. I could smell warm earth, a hint of dew on morning grass, and sunshine on bare skin. A cliché stood before me – tall, dark and very handsome. But this man was not a stranger. There was a glint, a confident look that I recognised.
Nana had recognised him too.
This was my fantasy made flesh. My wish had been granted. Here was a good father for my family.
I said his secret name – at first in my head and then out loud. The man’s lips parted, languid like the day unfolding, into a smile. He didn’t speak; just watched me with dark, knowing eyes.
Sing a song of sixpence
Derek didn’t come home. I called his mobile but couldn’t be bothered to leave a message. Somehow I’d always expected him to abandon us. He never called, not even to speak with Molly.
I welcomed in my visitor, took him into our home. Molly soon became enthralled with this new man in our lives. She read fairytales and sang silly nursery rhymes as he cooked for us all, coaxing Molly to eat even the most exotic of dishes. Molly had a new favourite: spaghetti, coated in a thick creamy sauce, which she sucked up like a baby bird relishing its first worm. Even Nana resumed humming as she knitted, her fingers twirling back and forth. The woollen squares grew each day, put down peacefully at night, no longer picked apart and regurgitated.
Each night he unpeeled my clothes, stripping me down to bare honesty, stroking calm fingers across waiting skin. I squealed and giggled in his expert hands. After making love he rarely slept at my side, instead sitting by the open window. Sleep came easily to me as my guard kept watch.
One August morning my love stepped out onto the bedroom’s balcony. I stretched across the bed and mentally traced the muscles of his back with invisible fingers. He began to sing - a proud song of defiance, of conquest and possession. His voice resonated over the pristine lawns and hedgerows of suburbia, staking out his territory.
Late afternoon I painted with Molly in the kitchen, Nana sat in her armchair knitting and humming, and as my love slept upstairs another visitor called.
‘Ted Malt,’ said the man. He held out a fat hand with yellow stained fingers. ‘Our house backs onto yours, other side of the ditch.’
I had no choice but to shake his hand and offer my name in return. I tried focusing on his mouth as he talked, but felt his eyes dip to my cleavage, scouting between my breasts.
‘Think something’s crawled into the ditch – some animal, a fox or maybe a cat. We can’t face that end of the garden cos of the smell. Since it’s your responsibility,’ he paused to tug at the belt slipping under his gut, ‘the ditch. Thought you should know. So you can sort it out.’
Ted Malt winked and then departed, wheezing as he walked. Leaving me to investigate the contents of the boundary ditch.
A pocket full of rye
The ditch marked the boundary between the two houses. A tall fence enclosed a wildlife haven; where the access was via a drainage tunnel or the wooden door at the bottom of Nana’s garden. The door opened easily, as if the hinges had recently been oiled.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
Rainwater had pooled on Derek’s leather jacket. I tugged on the collar, braced myself, ready to turn the body over.
Derek had been dead for many weeks. Maybe he’d died on that very first night, the night he didn’t come home. The night I didn’t wait up.
His face was blackened by dirt and decay. Both eyes gouged, pierced by a sharp thin object. I couldn’t tell if the attack came before or after death or whether the weapon used had been natural or man-made. A blackbird’s beak was a killing tool, designed for stabbing into the earth.
Nobody had missed this man. No colleague had asked after Derek or fretted from his absence. Death took him quietly and nobody cared.
I called on Ted Malt to tell him he was right about the smell. ‘A fox,’ I said, ‘not pretty, but I’ll clear it up.’ I acknowledged the state of the ditch with its overgrown brambles and rotting rubbish. And then apologised in advance for the racket I was about to make with the petrol chainsaw. He offered to help, but the sudden appearance of his wife at the door swiftly changed his mind. ‘I can manage,’ I said, smiling sweetly.
Nana handed me a pile of tough, black bin bags from under the sink. The chainsaw was still in its box, another of Derek’s unused toys. Ridiculously heavy, I could only lift it for several minutes at a time. I dug out a pair of gardening gloves from the shed and trudged out to clear up the mess in the ditch.
Autumn winds called my lover away. He had to leave us, but I knew he would return in the spring. When the frosts have melted and the worms start their ascent through the warming earth, he’d come back to us.
I spoke his secret name as he rubbed his nose against my neck. His tongue tickled and I tried only to laugh. The taste of him was already fading when I heard his triumphant trill echo back across the garden.
Molly gathered up the pile of pastel blue knitted garments that Nana had finished sewing, a teetering tower of woollen cardigans, hats and bootees all small enough to dress up Molly’s dolls and teddies.
Nana slapped Molly away from the treasure. ‘No! They’re not for you to play with.’ Her hand pressed against my belly. Nana said calmly, ‘He’s a good father, Simone. He’ll return in time.’
Nana was back in residence behind her eyes. She had followed the thread back to us. For several days she paced the house without the comfort of her daily work, but I quickly sourced a replacement needle and normal service was resumed. Nana was very particular about the size and weight of her knitting needles. Needles usually come as a pair, but I couldn’t possibly return the one I found beside Derek’s body. The grey metal had rusted out in the summer rain, clotting over the congealed, black blood.
The fluffed up garden fledglings had grown into spiky, nagging adults. The brood survivors still called for their daily rations, but they’d become wary diners, heads bobbing and twitching, scanning for aerial attack. From the boundary fence the sparrow hawk surveyed the empty, swinging bird feeders.
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