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‘What the hell are those?’
Kate spoke before she’d even taken off her coat; she’d just dumped her bag on the desk and walked straight to the window, the same routine she followed every day. She stood with one hand on her top button staring at the wide stone sill, the place she usually scattered lunch crumbs and biscuits for the pigeons.
‘Building preservation. The bird shit was eroding the stone.’ Across their facing desks Mike was already half a coffee down and had pastry flakes hanging like confetti in his beard. Kate looked at him and huffed a sigh, before pushing up the heavy sash window and reaching out a finger to touch one of the long, grey steel spikes that now sprouted like a vicious, fungal growth along the length of the sill. Hundreds of them, regular and military. Sharp. She sucked the tip of her finger where a tiny drop of blood was blooming and slammed the window down hard, noting with a wince the sudden flurry of wings on the street below in response to the sound.
‘Bloody hell. I go away for a few days and come back to what? When did they do this?’
‘All the buildings are getting them. Keeps the pests away. They came on Thursday.’ Mike folded the last half of his croissant and shoved it into his mouth. ‘How was the course?’
Kate watched him carefully brush the crumbs off his shirt and tie, out of his neat beard, and then clean his hands with a wet-wipe. He gave the desk a quick wipe over and began typing.
‘Fine,’ she replied. ‘The usual accept there’s an issue, stay calm, smile and listen, prepare to compromise. The same as last year.’
She stood and looked out into a cool blue sky and felt empty. The windowsill was silent, the usual cooing and flapping nothing more than a distant echo. She turned away to the coat hook and fussed with her buttons, trying to clear a sudden surge of tears with rapid blinking. In her coat pocket there was a folded sheet of kitchen roll with a few crusts of toast stuck together with a smudge of butter. The remnants of Steve’s breakfast. If she hadn’t scooped them up to feed the birds they’d still be lying on the plate by the sink when she got home.
She flicked the switch on the kettle and tried to smile when Mike held out his cup and said ‘If you’re brewing…’, letting the roar of boiling water drown out the running commentary on his inbox while her own PC loaded. When she finally sat at her desk opposite him, she turned automatically for a glimpse of the pigeons. She’d worked at the housing association for long enough to recognise some of them, the regulars. There was White-throat and Chequers, Snow-bird and Hopper. Somewhere near the pavement below she thought she saw a swirl of wings, but it could have been litter. When she opened up her inbox there were three messages from home already.
The builders have cancelled for next week. Going to be another month now. Twats.
Where are my trainers? Need to go to the gym later…
Get milk on your way home, we’ve run out.
She sighed again and answered them all in one reply. Bollocks. No idea. OK. She didn’t add a kiss, they’d stopped doing that months ago. When she looked up from her screen Mike was staring at her.
‘Cheer up, it might never happen.’
‘What makes you think I’m not cheerful?’
‘You keep sighing.’
‘Sighing is good for you, Mike. In fact, you’d die if you didn’t sigh.’
‘Riiight.’ His raised eyebrows told her she was at it again. He paused, patiently, and let her continue.
‘Seriously. It’s a reflex in the lungs, like a pacemaker. Everyone does it, about twelve times an hour. Without a variety of breathing rhythms, we’d die.’
‘Fascinating. Did you hear that, Viv? Kate reckons her sighing is all that’s keeping her alive.’ His eyes flicked back to the computer screen.
Viv dropped her large handbag onto her own desk with a thud and sighed herself. She had a sheen of sweat breaking through her makeup and as usual began the day with an apology.
‘Sorry. Tram was late. And Tony’s never bloody ready on time.’
‘Do you want a cuppa?’ Kate asked, as eager as Mike to end the conversation. She turned away from them both, busying herself with teabags and sugar to avoid the risk of Viv catching her eye, seeing the something behind the sigh she’d been trying to hide for the last few months and asking her about it.
‘Yes please, love. Three sugars.’
‘I thought it was two?’
‘That was yesterday. I need three today. I’ve had a bloody awful night with my hip…’
The kettle drowned out the rest of the story.
At lunchtime Kate waited for Mike to go to the staff toilet and then slipped out. She thought she heard Viv call out as the door swung shut, but winced and kept going.
As she walked through reception she heard a woman complaining about the wait, her baby griping in the buggy beside her. There was a holdall and three carrier bags overflowing with clothes and toys on the row of stained bench seats behind her. She heard the receptionist sigh and tell her in a practised tone to please sit, they’d be with her as soon as they could.
The woman turned back to her child and muttered, loud enough for the whole room to hear, an obscenity Kate hadn’t heard for weeks.
‘Madam, if you continue to behave in an aggressive manner we will have you escorted from the premises.’
Kate scurried past, through the fog of desperation and frustration that drifted around the woman and child like cigarette smoke, and into the busy market street beyond. The charity shops and cafes were obscured by striped awnings and tables overflowing with homewares. Clothes on steel racks twisted and turned in the wind.
She shivered and pulled her coat tighter, glancing around for somewhere to sit. Pigeons strutted and limped between the shoppers, and she looked up to see three circling near the window of her office. She watched them until someone bumped into her and called her a bitch.
There were three people already sitting on the nearest bench, each separated by curved metal armrests. She stood nearby waiting for someone to get up and leave, shifting her weight from foot to foot, then reached into her pocket for the crusts and tipped them on to the cobblestones at her feet. Immediately the birds gathered, some eager to eat and others with puffed out chests, purring and courting the females. Last year she’d heard the scratch and scuttle of claws on the sloping roof above the staff toilet, and found that if she leaned out of the window she could see a nest. She’d checked every day after that, watched the tiny, monstrous chicks puff out and then smooth over into this year’s adults.
As they surged around her feet she thought about home, about the changes that had been made, were being made, the many little jobs he’d started since he moved in. Peeling wallpaper and broken tiles. She left lists for him, ideas and circled sections of the local newspaper. She thought about calling the builders when she went back up, about buying something special for dinner on her way home. She thought about anything other than the wary negotiations of his mood and the effort she put in to making him happy, the amount of times she failed. Once the builders started it might get better, spur him to action. He might enjoy the company, become brisk and make tea, clean up for when she got home.
She was just about to get up to go back inside and eat her lunch at the desk like she did every day, when a small boy ran straight in front of her, arms out and screeching with delight at the panic he caused. The pigeons flapped and rose in a clumsy cloud of fear, circling away, finding nowhere safe to rest. Kate looked around at all the windowsills along the street, saw each one glinting with the same barbs. She made no attempt not to scowl fiercely at the chuckling toddler. Wrapped her arms tight around herself and stalked back to the cuppa-soup fug of the office, to Mike’s latest opinions on the migrant crisis and Viv’s Daily Mail agreement that yes, it’s all someone else’s fault.
Back home, she sat in the driveway for almost three minutes before she could muster the energy to get out of the car and face whatever state the house was in.
Less than a year ago her house had been quiet, ordered. The garden had fallen away to fields and a small pond for the toads and frogs in spring had been surrounded by wildflowers. She hadn’t done much to the house in her years there, just kept it simple and tidy, with plenty of pot plants. When Steve had moved in conversation and wine replaced chores, and his hands pulled her away, into a lazy evening on the sofa or an early night. When she tactfully mentioned the slow build of stale cigarette smoke that seeped into the curtains and sofa, that she smelled in her own hair, on her own clothes, in the office, he turned wide, brown eyes on her and said ‘I need it babe, I need one vice. It helps me unwind.’
She let him work from home, let him turn her dining table into a desk to Skype call his clients. He was a counsellor. He needed quiet to let his patients spill their troubles into her lounge undisturbed. He needed her to support him. At the end of each day he would close the laptop as she cleared the coffee cups and plates from around him, and she would give him space to unwind, to brood and process the misery he had absorbed while she cooked dinner for them both, or went out again to shop. By early evening he would be smiling again, asking her about her day, although she had begun to be careful what she said for fear of his face falling into a frown.
The curtains were closed. Kate stepped over his gym bag and flicked on the kitchen light. Flies circled the bare bulb. He hadn’t done the dishes, or emptied the bin, despite her asking him twice to do so. She went to the sink before she’d even taken her coat off and turned the tap, filling the bowl with hot water and detergent and sliding plates and cups into the water until their contours could be seen breaching the bubbles at the surface. She took a damp cloth and wiped crumbs off the counter, all the time listening for a sound that might tell her where he was in the house, what mood he was in.
There was a pile of notepaper beside the laptop on the kitchen table, more cups and a half-eaten sandwich. She took the curling bread and opened the back door, stood in the garden and surveyed the piles of broken tiles and furniture that he’d left there since they’d first started the improvements, the plan to extend and add a proper office. Kate reached into the tallest shrub and spiked the half-sandwich into one of the branches, hoping the birds would see it and flock to eat. When she turned around to go back into the house he was standing in the doorway, holding a dead mouse by the tail.
‘Got the little bastard!’
‘Reset the traps, then used chocolate instead of cheese. One down…’ He tossed the limp body into the corner of the garden, where a pile of grass clippings and old shrub cuttings were rotting into slime.
Kate followed him into the house, angry at herself for not tripping the catches on the traps while he slept in late, as she’d done every day since he’d started his vendetta against the mice. He was already wrist-deep in the fridge, rummaging for snacks.
‘You need to wash your hands.’
He put back a yoghurt pot and sloped over to the sink, dipping his fingers in the steaming dishwater before drying them on the tea towel. She pulled out a dining chair and removed a stack of mail shots before slumping down and releasing the breath she’d been holding in a slow exhalation. When she looked up he was leaning back on the counter eating yoghurt with a fork.
‘What’s up with you?’
‘Nothing,’ she replied, letting her eyes drift over the notes on the table. The laptop hummed.
‘You’re doing it again.’
‘Sighing. Like it’s the end of the fucking world or something.’
‘I need to sigh, everyone needs to sigh.’
‘No, it’s just you. It’s your reaction to everything I do now.’
‘Steve, sighing is a natural function. If we didn’t sigh we’d die.’
‘Bullshit. Sighing is sarcasm without the effort of words. It’s showing you’re pissed off without having to say why.’
‘There’s a pacemaker inside us, Steve. It triggers about once every five minutes or so. It varies our breathing so we get the right amount of oxygen, so that our alveoli don’t collapse.’
‘And there you go again. Alveoli. There’s always a fact with you, isn’t there? A practicality to fill the void.’ He put the yogurt down behind him and the weight of the fork tipped it over.
Kate watched as the cool creamy liquid oozed out onto the worktop. Finally she summoned up the strength to speak calmly. ‘So you want to talk now? You’re ready?’
For the first time in months he held her gaze without looking away.
‘So talk to me. Tell me how work is going? Where are you at with the bathroom you insisted we renovate? Let’s talk, Steve.’
He flinched at every word and dropped his head. For a moment she almost reverted to her usual role, almost reached out and apologised for causing him any hurt. But as she looked at him still wearing the clothes he’d slept in the night before her heart rate increased. She felt the throb in her fingertip from the spike on her office windowsill and held in the sigh she was so desperate to release. Instead she looked beyond him at a spindly spider that hung in the corner of the room, watching it vibrate in its web.
When he looked at her she moved her gaze away quickly, knowing that if he saw the spider he’d swat it with a newspaper, suck it up with the hoover pipe. So she focussed on the floor and waited for him to stop sniffing, then asked as gently as she could, ‘Tell me what’s going on. It feels like you’re not really here anymore, like this is just a place to sleep and eat.’
In the silence that followed Kate heard a shout from the street, the fridge click and hum into life, something creak above her – maybe the wood of a floorboard expanding or contracting a tenth of a centimetre. She could feel something building, a moment about to happen that would change everything, strip her of any control. She sucked in a slow intake of air and spoke.
‘Is there someone else?’
‘Tell me about her.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Tell me everything. Tell me from the start. Her name.’
‘You know I can’t, it’s confidential.’
‘She’s one of my patients. Was one of my patients.’
‘I’ve lost my job.’ He gulped and she could tell he had tears in his eyes without looking at them. ‘She killed herself three months ago. She left a note…’
Kate concentrated hard on the tiles of the kitchen floor, the steady blue and cream checks, the lines that ran between them. She calculated in their symmetry and form the last few months, the slow slide from some shared goal, some notion of future into awkward silences and moods she couldn’t read. Eventually there were evenings when he would ask her not to speak at all, beg her to be quiet. He’d play loud music until she had to ask him to turn it down before her neighbours complained. She’d thought he was depressed. Picked up his shoes and tiptoed past his slumped form on the bed, past the heap of duvet that protected him from conversation. The few times they had sex he kept his eyes closed tight, stopped checking her reaction to the increase in rhythm, until his climax was fierce enough to bring him to tears. She’d watch him roll away and turn his back on her and she’d seal her own pain away to deal with later, once he was better. She’d lie in the dark trying to work out how to help him.
‘What did it say?’
‘She talked about me. Enough to get me suspended. There’s an inquiry.’
‘How did this even happen, Steve? I thought we had…’
‘She reminded me of you. That’s how it started. She was nineteen and had these cuts all along her arms.’
‘I was twenty-seven when we met. I never had cuts.’
‘Not externally. But I always thought that beneath it all you were hurting in some way.’
A woodlouse meandered across Kate’s field of vision. It blurred as he continued.
‘And there was something similar in her eyes, like behind the iris. And she was so wounded.’
‘So you wanted to save her?’
‘It’s what I do. I try and save people.’
‘But you kill mice?’ She heard the venom in her words and it felt good.
‘Mice are not people, Kate. They’re vermin.’
She let out a breath, closed her eyes for second and let him continue, determined not to cry, not to rush at him and hit him around his head until he fell silent.
‘I guess I let her get under my skin. I let it go too far.’
‘Did you sleep with her?’
‘No. God no. I’ve never even been in the same room as her. But we developed a … a relationship.’
‘When did it start? This relationship. When did it become a relationship?’
‘Only a month or so before she, you know…’
‘No. Obviously something started before that. I knew she was transferring.’
‘And who said it first?’ Kate felt the barbs rising to protect her as she waited for an answer, imagined herself armoured with them.
‘She did. And I told her clearly that it was inappropriate. I told her it was transference.’
‘But you didn’t report it. You didn’t pass her on to a colleague?’
‘No. I couldn’t let her go. I needed her.’
‘Why? You had me!’
‘And your facts. And your plans. Christ, Kate, I needed to hear someone talk to me properly, someone to listen to me.’
‘I’ve been trying to talk to you for months, Steve. I’ve been trying to listen.’
‘But it’s the way you listen. You filter. You file. You don’t hear me. And you stopped talking to me a long time ago.’
‘Are you blaming me? Are you telling me it’s my fault you fell for this, this teenager?’
‘No. Maybe. I always hoped you’d confide in me, let me in. I used to think you needed me.’
‘What makes you think I don’t?’
‘I don’t know, I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you, or to ruin what we have. What we had.’
‘What did you think was going to happen?’
‘Nothing. I had no plans to leave you. It wasn’t like I was planning to elope or something. She was damaged, and she needed me, she needed someone to love her. So I did.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant. I meant what did you think would happen to us.’
‘I didn’t think. I tried not to. I felt like shit if I thought about it, if I thought about you.’
Kate stood up and began to wash the dishes, tried to lose herself in the cathartic pleasure of seeing the dirt slide off the china beneath the sponge, the bubbles slip down the clean plates as they stood in order on the drainer. She looked out of the window to see if the birds had found the half eaten sandwich but it drooped, untouched, from the spear of wood. Eventually she couldn’t bear his silence anymore.
‘What did you talk about?’
‘What stuff? Not what did she talk about, but what did you say?’
‘At first? Not much. She was the one who needed to speak. I just listened and … and absorbed.’
‘But there must have been an interchange, a dialogue. You had to give something back.’
‘Eventually. But it went beyond words. We’d sit, sometimes for a whole session, just looking at each other through the screen. Or not looking at each other. In silence.’
‘And that was enough?’
‘Yes and no. The silence gets too loud sometimes. Deafening.’
Kate could see him mirrored in the small window over the sink, the darkness outside a bruised backdrop to his reflection. She pulled the plug and let the choking sound of the water draining away fill the void their voices left in the room.
Holding the damp tea towel like a life ring she asked, ‘So why did she…?’
‘Because I told her it had to stop. Because I couldn’t talk to you anymore.’
Kate sighed without even realising, felt the double intake of breath, one inhalation followed by the life-saving second gasp that re-inflated her alveoli and kept her alive.
‘But I miss her. I love her. Not like I love you, but I do love her. And it’s my fault she’s gone.’
Kate heard his first sob breach the confines of his throat, but found herself walking away from him, forcing heavy feet to take her upstairs, over the carpet they planned to replace once the builders had been, into the bathroom where side by side they’d stood and hacked the tiles off the walls. Trying to make something new, trying to build something together.
She locked the door and sank to the ground. She could smell his piss in the carpet, and there were tiny shards of ceramics around the edge of the room. Holes in the wall gaped dark and ragged where the plaster had come away with the tile adhesive. There was a pair of his dirty underpants on the floor, where he’d cast them off for a shower. The pain in her chest swelled until she felt like she would choke, or vomit. She couldn’t cry, ground her teeth instead and listened to the mice scurry behind the walls, scratching for food, for a cable to chew or some insulation to shred to line their nests. They’d be breeding soon, maybe already had a litter or two stashed in the attic. She’d waited months to hear him confess, and wished he’d stayed silent.
She peeled a strip of wallpaper from the wall beside her, rolled it between her finger and thumb and imagined the bathroom finished. Pale cream tiles on the floor, soft white on the walls. A new bath to soak in after a sticky day in the office. It wasn’t that he’d fallen in love with someone else that hurt. It was the words she reminded me of you.
She waited until she heard the front door slam and went down. Cleaned up the yoghurt from the counter and tidied up the table. The notes were all about the inquest. Answers to questions that might be asked. A list of excuses on small yellow post-its. She screwed them up and dropped them in the bin.
Mike was eating cereal at his desk when she entered the office the next morning. He looked up, a few drops of milk caught in his beard. He reached for a paper napkin and wiped his mouth.
She ignored him and dropped her handbag on the desk, walked straight to the window.
The metal spikes branched out from the sill towards the weak morning sunlight. To the left of centre a pigeon struggled, impaled through the chest. Its wings were ragged from trying to fly away, from beating against the spears either side. It turned and twisted its head, beak wide and blood-foamed.
‘Shit! Mike, help me here.’ Kate eased the window open and the bird doubled its efforts to escape, claws gripping and pushing at the steel rods. She reached a hand forward to stroke its head, to calm it, but it twisted away as much as it could with three metal barbs embedded in the soft, plump bow of its breast. A gurgle of air escaped its beak. It sagged, exhausted.
‘Oh, Jesus. That is vile.’
Mike’s toothpaste breath and aftershave consumed Kate’s senses. He was pressed lightly against her, looking over her shoulder to watch the bird’s final moments.
‘Help me then, we’ve got to save it.’
‘How? I’m not touching it.’ She felt his weight shift as he moved away.
‘We need to get it off, get it to a vet or something.’
‘Vets don’t treat pigeons, Kate. Sky rats. It’s not like a puppy or something.’ She heard him put the kettle on as the bird tried once more to free itself.
‘It’s still alive! Call someone, or get me a towel or something. If I can just ease it off maybe I can…’
‘No, don’t do that.’ Viv was breathless, sweating. Kate hadn’t heard her come in. ‘You’ll kill it if you do that. The spikes are plugging the wounds. Take it off and it’ll bleed out. Poor sod.’
‘So what do I do?’
‘You’d have to cut to metal, take it in and let the surgeon remove the spikes.’
‘How do you know all this, Viv?’ said Mike. He scooped out his teabag and dropped it with a wet thud into the metal bin.
‘Saw it on Bizarre ER. There was this guy who’d fallen on some fencing, right? Well, they said if they lifted him off he’d bleed to death really quickly. It went in through his thigh and out of the top of his left bum cheek.’
‘So how did they do it?’ asked Kate.
‘Got the fire brigade, sedated him and sawed the fencing. He went in face down on the stretcher.’
‘I’m not calling the fire brigade for a bloody pigeon, Kate. Don’t even think it,’ Mike warned.
‘Well, do you have any bolt cutters? A tool box or something? There must be something.’
‘Do I look like the kind of man to carry bolt cutters? I work for a housing association, not a garage.’
‘You’ll have to kill it,’ Viv wheezed.
‘She’s right, Kate.’
‘Put the poor sod out of its misery,’ Viv added.
‘I can’t.’ Kate was shaking, her eyes flitting between the drooping bird and her colleagues as they watched her.
‘Well I’m not doing it.’ Mike sipped his tea, walked behind his desk and raised his eyebrows.
‘There must be some other way, I’m sure if we call the RSPCA or the RSPB or someone they’ll help.’
‘They won’t love, not for a pigeon. I hit a seagull once with my car and it was still alive. They told me to either drive over it again or carry on and forget about it. They’re not bothered about pests.’ Viv dropped into her office chair and began to root through her bag.
‘Oooh, not me. No. I can barely pop a zit without fainting.’
‘Wring its neck. One quick twist and it’s over with.’
‘Mike, I can’t…’
‘You’ll have to. It’s your responsibility.’
‘How is it?’
‘You were the one feeding them every day. It wouldn’t be there if you didn’t encourage it with your crumbs.’
‘Face it, Kate, you attract vermin.’
‘I didn’t know they were going to put spikes on the bloody window though, did I?’
Mike sat down at his desk and started typing. Viv was already sorting through the mail. Through the window Kate could hear the market vendors calling out in the street below, traffic slowing for the lights, the sudden rush of air being displaced by a dozen or more wings as a flock of pigeons took flight. She reached out and held the bird in her hands as best she could around the spikes. She thought it might be Chequers, but it was hard to tell when the feathers were so ruffled, so damp and torn. She felt it struggle between her fingers, a final attempt at freedom before it gave up. She slid her hands to its neck and twisted. Inhaled once, twice, and let out a long, slow, lifesaving breath.