Fall in Massachusetts. It inspires the mind with enigmatic visions of primeval forests raging and ablaze, drenched in a thousand shades of golden brown as nature’s Chronos shifts from exuberant to dormant in the blinking of an eye.
Autumn in England, however, does not. And as October’s grey dusk light draped itself across the contours of this sleepy English coastal village, a school bus hissed and squealed to an abrupt halt at the top of Shadycombe Road and scraped its battered doors apart. The obligatory rabble of screeching children alighted amidst a torrent of bickering taunts and frantic arm gestures, and then subdivided like the segments of a dismembered earthworm as they trickled and meandered their separate paths down the hill.
A young boy aged nine peeled away from the seething mass and continued on his way home alone. His grey flannel trousers were tired and worn, and the emblem on his blazer melted into a grimy haze of remnant school dinners and tuck-shop quarries, as yet unwashed from its awkward drape. His tie was pulled to one side, concealed beneath the frayed, white collar of his untucked shirt, and the striped school cap lay sideways across his head, releasing sporadic, curly locks of his unkempt hair.
He trundled along, all feet and knees, the classic paradigm of developing youth as bone, sinew and muscle compete for adolescent growth spurts in their quest for maturity, consistent only in their portrayal of ungainly disequilibrium. This untimely and lethargic gait, coupled with a pair of oversized second-hand shoes, compelled him to drag his heels across the concrete and occasionally knock his knees together, while a school bag thumped and bounced across his back. It gave him the demeanour of a clumsy circus freak with every bumbling step. But in an instant of fleeting grace, he suddenly swung the brown satchel from his shoulder and caught it effortlessly in his arms. He broke into a rapid trot and sidestepped his way down the pavement, skipping and accelerating as he went, tossing the bag in the air and catching it repeatedly as if it were passing through numerous pairs of imaginary hands.
“Bird catches the ball on his own twenty-two and sells the dummy, then turns on the pace and steps past two tackles,” he shrieked in an exaggerated whisper.
“What a find this young man is, Bill… so much talent… so much flair… just what England needs right now…” The commentary continued as he tucked the satchel beneath his right arm and sped down the street, immersed in his rugby game – weaving and dodging, turning and tearing, stepping, sliding and ripping up the turf of this whimsical arena.
“Over the half-way… hands off a tackle… steps off his left… then his right… just the fullback to beat now… show of the ball… that blistering pace again – and he scores in the corner! What unbelievable skill from the young winger!” he yelped, racing across the street and placing his bag down on the opposite side.
A sneer crept across his lips as he threw the satchel back across his shoulder and held his arms aloft, twisting left and then right as if acknowledging the cheers from his imaginary crowd.
“Bird… Bird… Bird…” His name rang out from the stands like the incessant chant of some rhythmic revolution, and he stood in his stadium and revelled in it – absorbed and savoured the praise with the grace and virtue of a true, untainted athlete. Worthy, yet somehow unassuming.
Then spots of rain dabbed against the concrete walkway and the haze of England’s all-too-familiar drizzle nestled along the brim of his cap and gently dampened the lapels of his blazer.
“Weather’s a-comin’ in, boy, best be getting on home now,” he muttered to himself as he turned up the collars of his jacket, hunched his shoulders in and dug the heels of his shoes into the ground, as if intent on carving out a path in the pavement, or at least destroying his shoes whilst trying.
He walked along a row of nondescript tenement houses, all steeped in the familiar ambiguity of 1970s sameness, and turned into a pathway in the middle of the block. All that seemed to separate these invariable dwellings were the pale shades of exterior paint colour charts, now tired and worn from underfunded council-estate maintenance programmes that had about as much individuality as the post-war modernist mass-housing drive that had put them there in the first place. Row upon row of unoriginal functionality that crammed the masses into archetypal boxes emblazoned with the slogan ‘Two up, two down and a roof over your head’, as if to imply, ‘You should be so lucky, mate!’
Aaahh, home sweet home, he thought to himself somewhat sarcastically as he glanced at the flowerbed of weeds and overgrown lawn sprawling away to the battered fence that divided their meagre segment of garden from that of the neighbours.
Look at this mess, he thought. What would my father say?
Bird (as he was affectionately known to his family and friends) had been fatherless for a little over three years now, but even when he had been around, his dad had never been much of a gardener. Staring at the ill-kept lawn suddenly sparked that last unsavoury memory of him, and the boy seemed to shudder at the thought. All those sombre, grey strangers that barked at him in their austere compassionate tones about how his father would not be coming home any time soon. How they had locked him up and thrown away the key, and Bird would be well advised to use the situation to his advantage – to see how not to live his life and to choose a different path. And he remembered his father’s expression as they led him away in disgrace on that fateful day, how he had caught Bird’s eye and smiled a wink at him across the courtroom, mouthing the word ‘bollocks’ as he went.
His father had always told him of the ills of society, a ghastly machine of conformity that crushed the spirits of the free and forced the intuitive into conventional stables of everyday monotony. He warned him of its power and oppression and the need to evade its consuming grasp. He advised him to steer well clear – to avoid the damn thing at all costs – to live under the radar and not to believe the hype – to make his own path – to follow the dreams in his heart, even when society scorned him. Yes, he constantly warned his son of this social nemesis and always referred to it as ‘bollocks’, seemingly unrepentant and somewhat self-righteous, even as it dragged him down to the gallows.
Yet, in spite of this blatant disregard for the system and the heinous crime for which his father had just been convicted, society still went through the motions of outreach support and enacted the compassionate façade of counselling for the innocent victim, who in this case happened to be Bird.
“At least he’s young enough not to notice the gap in his life. He has time to forget the past and build a positive future,” the social worker had explained to his mother on one of her court-ordered home visits. “The younger they are, the better chance they have,” she had said, sympathetically. “It’s up to you to make sure he has the opportunity to do something different and not follow the same path as his father – you know, make a useful contribution to society. It’s very important at this stage – young boys are heavily influenced by their fathers and it is crucial that he does not see him as some kind of hero. Crime never really pays, you do understand that, don’t you?”
And whilst she had smiled and nodded profusely, Bird’s mother had her own set of issues in dealing with this crap hand of cards that life had obnoxiously thrown at her. Issues that she chose never to face, but rather to drown in a sea of hard liquor and remorse. Smoothing the ride for her innocent child as well had proven to be something of a juggling act that fast became difficult to perform.
“Hi, Mum, I’m back!” Bird called, pushing open the door and collecting the meagre offering of junk mail that lay on the doormat inside. He always liked to forcefully announce his arrival home, as his mother had something of a nervous disposition and in her state it was never a good idea to startle her. She was usually three sheets to the wind by half past four in the afternoon, and in a drunken stupor with her mind on other things, surprises were not well handled.
Bird never quite knew what kind of reception would be in store for him. Sometimes there was intoxicated hysteria, sometimes cold and quiet despair; occasionally there was euphoric nostalgia; but mostly he was met with a glazed stare and incoherent anguish. Today, though, all was silent.
In the lounge, a soft melody strummed from the record player in the corner and a song suddenly jumped into life. He peered around the door, half expecting to see her dancing, but the room was bare.
“Mum?” he called again towards the kitchen, but no one answered.
Maybe she’s passed out upstairs…
He put down his bag and the sorry excuse for mail he’d retrieved and stomped his way up the faded stairwell and along the short landing to her room. Again, there was no sign, not even the usual sprawl of yesterday’s laundry scattered across the bed. The house was pretty much vacant. He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and went back down to the kitchen to fetch himself a sandwich and a glass of milk – after all, England’s blistering new talent had to keep his energy up.
There was no surprise in this scenario for Bird; he often came home to a house with no life, just a note on the kitchen table to say she was down the pub and would be back soon, that there was dinner in the fridge and tea in the pot, which he could fix for himself. So he wasn’t surprised to see the paper underneath an overflowing ashtray on the kitchen table, and casually went about his business. He could still hear the record player in the lounge scratching out a vinyl tune, but he couldn’t make out the song. He whistled along anyway as he laid out two slices of white bread and reached inside the stark fridge for butter, jam and the remnants of yesterday’s milk.
Through the kitchen window, he could see the iridescent sheen of a blackbird sitting on the back fence preening itself in the fading light, while sparrows and white-eyes flicked through the hedgerow and a robin darted in and out of view. In the sky beyond, the ever-present seagulls twisted and soared, and a magpie, hidden from view, screeched out its raucous call.
That was why they called him Bird. His fascination with avian life and his uncanny ability to pick out their intricate nuances, varied calls and individual habits at such a young age had everyone convinced that one day he might just evolve wings of his own and drift away from humanity to live among them forever. And even he had secretly wished for the impossible, but always consoled himself with the fact that he’d have to be human to fulfil that dream of one day playing for England and scoring the winning try in the corner at Twickenham. That was the one and only thing mankind had over birds in his opinion – the ability to play rugby.
Bird’s appreciation of the coastal avifauna of southern England had been nurtured and sculpted over his short years with the help of his mother’s cousin, Alfred Weiss, who lived by himself in the woods at the end of a beaten path and was hailed as one of Britain’s leading ornithologists. Bird spent most weekends with Alfred and absorbed his eccentric enthusiasm like a sponge, feeding off the barrage of scientific information that seemed to flow effortlessly from every breath he exhaled. And whilst the paternal skills of a quirky mad scientist will always leave a lot to be desired, Alfred was inadvertently bumbling his way into the vacant, fatherless chasm now available for rent inside the boy’s soul.
Bird replaced the whistle with a distorted hum as he bit into his sandwich and sat himself down at the kitchen table to read his mother’s note. He wondered where she would be this time – the King’s Arms, the Queen Vic, the Ferryboat Inn? Which of these fine establishments would she have chosen to grace today? Whichever had the most accessible line of credit to exploit – that was his guess. He skimmed through the note, half anticipating the familiar flow of words without actually reading them; it was only when he got to the end that a bewildered frown crumpled the skin between his eyebrows, forcing him to put down the sandwich, swallow hard and start reading from the beginning again, this time scrutinising each and every word on the page.
My dearest Bird,
I hope that one day you may be able to forgive me. I know this is hard to understand but I can’t go on anymore. I don’t think this is good for either of us and you deserve a chance to spread your wings and soar like an eagle. I have to go away for a while to sort some things out and I can’t say when I will be back. You know what to do and you know where to go. There is some money under the ashtray which is all I can spare right now. I am so sorry my boy but I think we both know that this is for the best. No matter what happens, you must know that I will always love you.
He placed the note down on the table, unsure whether to laugh out loud or scream hysterically; then he snatched it up again and read the words one more time, just to be sure that it said what he thought it said. It did. He reached under the ashtray and pulled out a ten-pound note, unfolding and inspecting it as if there might be some clue hidden there, a trace of sanity to make sense of this bizarre situation. There wasn’t.
“She’s gone,” he whispered to himself. “She’s really gone.”
He got up slowly from the table and wandered towards the lounge, his mind skipping through an embellished symphony of synaptic ballads in a desperate quest for answers among its young and limited archive. There were few there to be found, but the words “You know what to do and you know where to go” seemed to guide him through a mechanical stagger, focussing his attention on a telephone in the far corner of the room. He turned the volume down on the record player in an attempt to make space in his head, then fixed a glazed stare on the phone, realising that making the call would mean closure and his mother would not come bursting out of a closet screaming “Surprise!” with a bottle of wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a smile across her lips as she squashed his cheeks together and told him how much she loved him.
But no one was there. He was alone in the murky lounge, now silent and somewhat unfamiliar as he gazed at paltry artefacts scattered about the room that had once symbolised a family’s unity. It was getting dark outside, and the stillness of the room began to disturb him. A voice in his head was telling him to put the lights on, but the switch was across on the other side and the phone was right there. He needed to make that call before it was too late – before desperate realisation of the magnitude of this event sent him diving for cover in the familiar refuge underneath his bed and held him there for the rest of the night, quaking and alone. An unfamiliar wave of anxiety suddenly rippled across his skin and hunched up in between his shoulders with an abrupt shiver, throwing him off balance for a second, but he gathered himself and drew a deep breath.
He picked up the receiver and started dialling a four-digit number that by now was as familiar as the lines on his own face. Each number clicked mechanically in the earpiece as the rotary-dial phone wound its way back to zero, and then there was a pause as the call routed itself through an analogue switchboard, connected and whistled with the familiar staccato ring tone.
“Hello?” came a voice on the other end.
“Hello, Alfred, it’s me.”
“Ah, hello Bird, everything all right?”
“I don’t think so, not really all right this time, Alfred.” He trembled. “This time I think she’s gone, I really think she’s gone.”
On the other end of the phone, there was a pause as Alfred weighed this situation for a moment, thinking only of his own consequences. He didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to have predicted that this day would come, and secretly he’d been both dreading and preparing for it for the last three years. He shook his head and sighed as a thousand thoughts crashed through his mind, then suddenly remembered the boy and how he must be feeling. Bird was in need of help, and now that he came to think of it, everything else was superfluous to that fact.
“OK, son.” His elusive paternal instinct was now guiding him. “You just hang on there and I’ll be over shortly, you hear? Everything’s gonna be all right, Bird, you’ll see. Everything’s gonna be just fine, son. Don’t you worry about anything, you hear?” But there was no sound at the other end of the line.
To Bird, Alfred’s words barely registered. He gazed around the room, drifting in and out of the situation, still searching for a sign that would tell him that actually, it wasn’t really happening – still staring into the dark corners to see if she was there, hoping to catch the glow of her cigarette.
“Bird?” Alfred called again, jolting him into the present.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Bird? Is anyone else there with you? Bird?” Alfred kept using his name, clearly trying to keep his attention.
“Yes, I’m sure I’m OK. No one else is here, I’m all alone. I’ll just wait for you here… just like you said… I’ll wait here… but, Alfred…”
“Don’t be long.”
Alfred must have felt the pain in his voice, because he loosened up his tone.
“I’ll be there in a flash, boy, before you can even say jack diddly. Now go and put the kettle on, ’cos I have a feeling I’ll be needing a cup o’ tea when I get there. I shan’t be long, Bird, do you hear me? I shan’t be long.” And then the phone went dead in his hands.
“Jack diddly,” Bird uttered in soliloquy as he placed the receiver back in its cradle.
Outside, evening was rapidly drawing in. A street lamp rained down a dull, yellow glow that partially illuminated the dark room, streaming light through the window but casting black shadows in its corners. Bird turned slowly back to the record player and reached for the volume, now desperate to drown out the silence of despair and postpone the inevitable feeling of abandonment that lurked somewhere in the depths of his soul. These next few minutes waiting for Alfred would be long and painful and he’d need something to take his mind off the circumstance. In the absence of television, the record player was his only available option, and he cranked the volume as high as it could go.
The boy slowly sank down into the couch and buried his head in his hands. The acoustic melody of bittersweet guitar riffs wafted aimlessly around before the striking harmony of a male-voice requiem broke away in a delicate paradox of haunting prose.
But the darkness would not be his friend.
And the silence would remain inside him until the bitter end.