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6 April 2022

Birds II

A new short story from the award-winning novelist Jon McGregor.

By Jon McGregor

When the birds started dying there were certain women who took it upon themselves to go about the place and gather them up.

The deaths came in great seasonal waves, the birds falling from the skies like autumn leaves, and although by then their numbers were too small to form anything like a drift or a clutter there was still a general sense of inconvenience.

Or distaste. It would be distaste.

The cause of the deaths was something atmospheric; something not properly understood until it was too late. By this point there were too many other demands for attention.

There were women who began pointedly gathering the bodies, announcing publicly their intention to do so, as if this would be a solution to the problem rather than a way of simply tidying it away.

The cause of the deaths having a strangely preservative effect, the bodies of the birds stiffening slowly, the feathers taking on a brittle gloss and the eyes a glassine glaze.

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Glassine. No. Come on.

***

When he meets Maggie the first time she has one of these birds stuffed downwards into the breast pocket of her shirt, and although he hadn’t intended on looking he can’t help that it caught his eye. The eyes drift downward of their own accord. They’re not intended to. Some control is called for. A man like Mickey would be inclined to leave them there, but Harvey has always prided himself on some measure of self-control. It simply isn’t appropriate to go about the place staring at a woman’s chest. No matter if that chest is drawing the eye downwards with the pure unexpectedness of a dead magpie’s glossy tail feathers.

Maggie, the woman says, tipping her head to one side as though she recognises him.

Harvey. He holds out his hand, although you weren’t supposed to do that any more. Or perhaps you were again, was it?

Yes, she says.

He was assuming the bird was dead. But possibly it was only stunned, and she was taking it to a vet. She had no time to stand here talking, in that case, although she was showing no signs of wanting to get away. Were there still vets, now? She had mentioned the weather, and the time of year, and now she’s telling him how good the coffee is here. It is, he agrees. Giorgio knows what he’s doing.

He has his own coffee right there on the table in front of him, with the newspaper. It’s his daily habit. She’s clutching hers in a takeaway cup. It’s good to have a daily routine. Takeaway. So she’s on her way somewhere. To the vets. There was some reason she’d stopped to introduce herself, was there? She’s showing no sign of explaining the dead bird, or even acknowledging it, from which he gathers that it’s not for him to address either. It’s just there. At eye level. At the level his eyes are not intended to be.

He asks if she’s local. She seems put out by the question. She works in the same studio as Giorgio’s friend, she says, the young woman who made the cups. Harvey nods thoughtfully, as though he knows what she’s talking about. Giorgio tells him things sometimes, and they don’t always stick. He nods and says of course, and she asks what he’s doing himself?

Retired, he says. Semi-retired. Because Mickey keeps dragging him back into things, he doesn’t add. But retired, essentially. He would have preferred her to look more surprised. She says, well OK, Harvey, it was good to see you. She says she has to get on.

Once she’s gone he’s left looking around him, like: excuse me, did anyone else notice the dead bird in that woman’s pocket there? Just me? Giorgio is too busy with the coffee machine. The other customers are hunched over their phones. Mickey the Hat is outside, talking to his dog.

***

The women coordinate their activities and intentions across a range of public forums, take the birds away and arrange them into artful displays: in shop windows, on garden walls, in the very trees from which they fall. Fine garden wire is required, and upholstery tacks, and glue. Great labour is expended on their creation. Tips are shared. It’s unclear whether the displays are intended as memorial, or warning, or a new form of superstition. Unclear in some cases whether there’s too much intention at all. The displays are quickly removed, on grounds of public health, but not before the pictures have been transmitted, and circulated widely. Transmitted. Downloaded. Uploaded. Posted.

***

Mickey, he says, later, as they’re walking across the park with that dog tripping in and out of their feet. Mickey, did you see that woman? With the bird, I mean. In her pocket? Mickey squints when he smokes, always has done, must be 40 years now and he’s still not got the hang of it, blowing the smoke into his own eyes and blinking the sting away, squinting through the bluey plume. You what now, he says; what’s that?

What was that. The feathers in the pocket. Where were they, now? Mickey calling the dog to come back, this dog, it’ll be the end of me, it’s all Linda’s doing, I knew she was never going to walk it, it’s all just a ruse to get me out of the house.

A ruse, is it, Mickey?

Yes, H. Is there an echo out here? A fucking ruse. Anyway, what. What were you saying? That weren’t a bird in her pocket, she was just pleased to see you. Pleased to see you. Wheezing his way into that laugh of his, like he’ll just go over and die right there.

That dog running in and out of the bushes, barking up at the trees. The dog remembers the birds that should still be here, even if everyone else has moved on. Some instinct in the genes, or the scent still lingering like a feather sliding down through the air. The dog going nuts over it, running stitches between Mick and the trees. Where did they go? Where did they go? They were here just now, just a minute before, what did you do with the birds, what did you do? Mick barely noticing the frenzy, still bent double and wheezing his way through that laugh.

***

The coffee shop was not their usual type of haunt, historically. He and Mickey. Mickey the Hat. Harvey the Goods. Nobody called him Harvey the Goods any more, despite Mick’s best efforts. Not that Harvey had ever encouraged it. It hardly rang of discretion. Times have changed. When younger they went for darkened places; pubs and bars, lowered blinds, etched glass, smoky corners with exit routes and clear sight of the doors. Pints and something stronger. The coffee shop is something else, is Harvey wanting to step away from all that: I’m retired now, I’m off out of here. Step blinking into the fucking light.

There’s a lot of light. It’s a small space, a single-storey timber-framed room bodged on to the front of a row of terraces, large windows on three sides, juts out into the street. The light comes in at various angles throughout the day and moves across the room. He can sit in the window and look out across the park. The light moving through the trees. The birds in the branches, the birds on the ground. The women moving about their business, gathering the birds. The walls are painted white. The window frames are painted white. The counter is painted white, and Giorgio serves the coffee in these very thin white cups that are so delicate he flinches whenever you pick one up. When the steam shoots up from the coffee machine it hangs in high luminous clouds overhead, shot through with sunlight. Ethereal would be a word for it. Mickey remarked on this the first time he came in.

Jesus, H. It’s like God’s fucking waiting room in here.

It’s well lit.

It’s not fucking natural. Jesus. Look at it. Angel Gabriel over there, writing down the names in his big fucking book.

Little piece of heaven.    

Not that Harvey says the words little piece of heaven out loud. Not until he gets back to his place that evening, when the phrase occurs to him as a way of both riffing off the point that Mick was making while also countering its implicit criticism with the point that he likes the little coffee shop, he likes it a lot, he finds it peaceful and quiet and calming at a time in his life when those things have become important to him. Familiar. Familiar is important. Little piece of heaven, he says to the counter top as he chops the vegetables. Little piece of heaven, he mutters again, savouring the sound of it, sweating the onions and reaching up for the extractor fan switch. Cooking his own dinner now these days. No more interruptions and questions. Taking his time. Slide open the doors to the little roof terrace and let the city noises pile softly in from a distance. The roof terrace being what had convinced him to take the apartment some time back, from a letting agent who ignored his questions about why no one any longer called them flats. That secure outdoor space, the height of it above the street, the volume of light those French doors brought in. The other apartments being empty most of the time, meaning nobody else knocking about the place. He doesn’t have visitors. Nobody knows where he lives. He has a well-equipped kitchen, a good stereo, a comfortable bed. He likes to come home and cook decent food and listen to jazz and have no one make sarcastic remarks about those choices. He likes to sit in the evening and write things down. Set the ideas in their rightful order before they drift out of place.

Times change. People adapt. Familiarity takes hold as soon as contempt. There is little alarm when the birds start falling from the sky. Those soft sudden thumps as a magpie or a starling hits the deck. There is some initial discussion on the news. A little conversation in the street. But soon people start to take offence when it’s mentioned. We’ve been over this already, this has been discussed. It’s not like there’s anything we can do. There’s no need to ram it down my throat. Why do they have go around making all this fuss. They in this case being the women insisting on the displays. The preserving of the birds and the display of the birds. The wearing of the birds about the person.

***

He’s heading out for his morning coffee when he sees the woman again. He almost doesn’t recognise her. She’s rolled her sleeves up and tied her hair back and is leaning at an unlikely angle across a crowded shop-window display. There is nothing protruding from her breast pocket this time. There is a glossy black bird being fixed to a pile of books beside an antique globe. Hanging overhead is a brass birdcage with an open door. The bird is being fixed to stand erect, poised, ready for flight. A crow, perhaps.

A raven. The woman with a coil of fine wire dangling from one finger, a row of dressmaker’s pins pinched between her lips.

From somewhere he remembers great flocks of these birds, settling on the beaches at dusk. Beech trees. Beech woods. Settling in the beech woods at dusk. That clattering racket they made. Someone explaining the word roost. And now only silence. Shop window displays. So quick to get used to the way things became.

Maggie’s having trouble with the bird standing up. It keeps leaning over to one side. He’s not sure where he knows her name from. She looks up but she doesn’t quite see him. He wonders if he could offer to help. It wasn’t always appreciated, these days. You could hold the door but you couldn’t carry the bags. Or it was perhaps the other way around. Mickey wouldn’t stop to consider. Mickey would just go straight ahead.

Once he’s inside the shop he has to peer over all the items in the window to talk, and Maggie is too preoccupied to really look his way.

I thought if you might I could help if you are, with the wire, with the bird. She stops moving. He can see her putting his words in the right order. They came out in a tangle. She turns but she doesn’t quite see him. She says they’re not actually open yet and she’s still getting ready. She says it with a question in her voice but he doesn’t know what she’s asking. He waits. She’s still leaning at a precarious angle, and the bird isn’t yet fixed into place. He thinks she must surely need some kind of assistance.

He asks if she’s collected many of these now, if the project is ongoing. If there’s been any problem with the authorities. She turns to him now, and steps out of the window. The expression on her face makes him think he’s got her name wrong. She tells him they’re not open yet.

At the park he wonders where he put down his newspaper. He was carrying it just now, he was sure. He checks his pockets and he looks round behind him. He was on his way somewhere and now he’s not sure. 

There’s a newsagent around here somewhere. Near the park. Or was that gone now? A coffee shop. He could do with a coffee. He hasn’t had one this morning. A sit down would be nice. There was a coffee shop around here somewhere. It wasn’t too far from the park.

In the third wave, some of the women took to wearing a bird about their person: stitched discreetly into the lining of a coat, or stuffed defiantly into the breast pocket of a shirt, tail-feathers erupting forth like a glossy corsage. The trend developed quickly, and the fine garden wire from the first and second waves was put to use mounting birds on shoulders and headpieces, and soon enough it was no surprise at all to come face to nonchalant face with a mounted starling or magpie while waiting in line.

There were prohibitions that soon came into effect. Laws were passed, arrests were made.

The atmospheric causes that afflicted the birds turned out to have a transmissible quality. The women with the birds begin to disappear from the streets.

And now there is no mention of it at all. Only the absence of birds in the sky, in the trees. Only the quiet at dusk. The rattle of a coffee cup placed down on its saucer. An outburst of steam in the room. The barking of a dog as it’s tied to a lamp post. The creak of the entering door. A woman steps forwards to greet him. The shock of tail-feathers catches his eye.

Jon McGregor’s most recent novel, “Lean Fall Stand”, is published by Fourth Estate

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special