She Sings as She Flies

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

Who is the man with the white plastic bag? He puts the white plastic bag behind the baked bean cans in the cupboard. Broccoli and Stilton soup cans; peeled plum tomatoes cans; dusty cans; unused cans; charity cans, all of them; food bank cans; Oxfam cans; Oxtail cans. Oxtail’s just gravy, isn’t it? So close to gravy. Dip chips in it.

The Cuckoo. Pretty bird. Warbles. Never calls cuckoo. Fourth day of July.

He is in the house again with the plastic bag. He reminds me of the bailiff that time. When the bailiffs came. They bang, bang, banged, until the door almost fell down. Off the hinges. Scared. I was. Oh, I was.

Pretty bird. Like me.

He has hair like Marc Bolan, but no glitter. No Gary Glitter. Plastic bag, but not guitar. Twice a week. Every week.

Rock Hudson. Rick Harrison, my husband. One name brings me back to the other. Both ghosts. Rick Harrison in the armchair, drooling. No, not drooling. Don’t be mean. But close to it. Almost gone now, forever. The Marc man with the plastic bag slaps him sometimes. Backhand across the chops. Oxtail soup on a pork chop.

Rick in his red jumper. It used to break my heart, when I was young. Always in red jumper. So proud of it. Imagined him picking it out at Debenhams, imagined him sizing it up, looking at himself in the mirror. He didn’t know about clothes. His mother bought his for him until he was seventeen, eighteen. Longer than most lads. They get their own ideas at a certain age, dress like their idols, dress not like their dad, but not Rick Harrison, Rock Hudson. My rock. No, no. He never thought much about clothes. That’s why it was moving. The bold colour, unlike him. Proud of how he looked. Proud of how he came across for once, once. Not a handsome man.

Not pretty bird. Not like me.

Warble. Warble. Warble.

One thing that’s been a puzzle. Since time.

A man’s love for, for his woman,

And her sweet love for her man.

Fifty-two years of marriage. Fifty-two weeks in a year. Fifty-two times fifty-two. Answers on a postcard. Answers please. Too tired to work it out. There’s a hollow in the centre of my mind, where all the useful things used to be.

Help me out of it.

Help me out of my dark hollow. Help me out of my dark holler.

Two men, Marc Bolan man and his friend. Sat across from each other now, passing plastic bags and money. Friend has scar from corner of right eye down to right corner of upper lip. He looks contorted, a stitch-them-up puppet doll. He comes sometimes, not all the time, just sometimes, with other bags and money.

Why are they in my house? Why are they?

Thirty-seven years I’ve been here and he never came in before last year. Neither of them. Scarface or Marc.

Gonna build me. A log cabin.

Log cabin to live in. Put another log on the fire. Gas bar fire.

Gas bar fire.

That reminds me of something.

Or does it?

It’s in the holler.

The hollow-holler.

Can’t find it.

Fifty-two times fifty-two.

Backhander across the chops.

Gas bar fire.

There it is.

Council windows, council bedding. Remember, before your job, Rick? Fairground on the common. What is it about Chasteborough? Things always going wrong. No fairground. Not after a while. Trouble in mind. Too much trouble in mind. Yes fairground. For a while.

Dodgem cars and electric lights, blaring blue lights. Roaring red lights. Metal surface like stainless steel cutlery in the sink. Hurts eyes. That woman. Banjo woman.

Oh, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird
Lord, she warbles as she flies.

Singing it in your face. Every verse.

Blending into something. Blending into Sweet Gene Vincent. Blending into bdum-bdum-bass. From the speakers below the spinning Constable rip-offs decorating. One-armed man pulling the switch on the merry-go-round. Was he really one-armed? The ride goes faster… Rain in hair… Little droplets on kiss curl…

Gas bar fire?

Oh yes, afterwards. Our first love in front of gas bar fire in mother’s council house. She never bought like us. Right-to-buy… a gift and Mrs Thatcher will bring the wrapping paper… The heat made me feel nauseous. The first time is the price we pay for all the better times. Is it worth it? Tot it up for yourself. Every kiss.

Oh, sweet Rick. Making it to management was the limit of your world, the hard-line between life unfulfilled and life complete and tied with a bow. Mrs Thatcher’s bow.

Pearl necklace, dressing up as Mummy. Navy-and-maroon striped tie on dark green background, dressing up as Mr Montgomery, ‘Tampa’ Montgomery because he was going to buy a retirement flat in Florida, Mr Montgomery 40-year lifer. What’s the difference, he said, between Miami and Miami Beach? One has a beach, not both. Was he right? Maybe there’s a travel show, package holiday show, on BBC Two… Answers on a postcard…

“Much smaller package than usual?”

Scarface. Paul Muni. Al Pacino.

Marc Bolan says

“One of the boys got taken in. They picked him up at the station. Trouble with running county.”

Runs for the county cricket team.

Marc always lets himself in with a key. Did Barry give it to him? Why would Barry give it to him?

Whatever happened to Barry, anyway? Seems a bit of a silly oversight, not keeping track of what’s happened to your own son…

But he seemed to get away from us all somehow, somewhere, along the way… Away from himself, even… Boring boy with his funny cigarettes…

Jack O’Diamonds. Jack O’Diamonds. I know you of old.

Jack O’Lantern. Jack O’Ninetails. Jack O’Ninelives. Jack O’Frost. Jack Frost.

She loves the summer sunshine, she hates the wind and rain,

And everytime she singeth “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo”,

Then the springtime comes again.

Scarface has left a hole in the wall. He punched it and Marc had to push him out. Out the front door. It was blowing in the wind. It was letting the wind in again. It was letting Jack Frost in. Nipping at heels.

Past nips at heels and so does the future. Funny how future is always behind you too. Funny how time goes. Looping round, bringing itself with itself. Briny smell of the sea. Rainclouds. Kiss curl. Falling in on itself.

She sung in the community arts centre once. Shirl Collins. She sung Cuckoo, but not same as banjo woman sung it. Not like Coo Coo.

I was only a girl. Oh, I was a pretty bird.

All the boys wanted her, me. All the boys wanted me. I had lots of dates. Lots of suitors. I was courted with the best of them. I wasn’t courted with green knees on my jeans or on his either. Greensleeves, was my heart’s delight. Sign of a real goer, a pair of Greensleeves. Grass stains. Henry the Eighth rolling his eye. “She’s the one for me.” On the common, by the war memorial. Cenotaph. Isn’t it so very common to be going around with grass stains? “His mother doesn’t have a washing machine, that one, only goes to laundromat every fourth Tuesday… Dirty bugger…”

It is the fourth of July today, isn’t it? Why so chilly, then? Why did the wind come in like that?

Fourth of July. Freedom day. For country. Countries always freer than people.

Always seems to be a big wind blowing these days. Hear it screaming down the street at night. All the bins going doolally. All the bins falling and the foxes feasting. Foxes feasting on an open binbag. Sing that one, Bing! Bing it, bin it, sing it!

I remember… Oh, I remember… I remember the future…

Marc Bolan will come back in.

He has a pretty bird. Pretty with too much make-up. Bronze skin but not real. He watches for her from the upstairs window. Spots her coming, then sneaks down and lets her in, all quiet like, round the back, so no-one suspects. That’s what he says. So no-one suspects.

She’s not the only one. Sometimes there’s young people, so late at night that they’re like shadows, dark-grey against black and gold, because my eyes get worse at night…

He waits for her.

Gonna build me.

Log cabin.

On a mountain, so high.

See my honey babe.

As she goes.

Walking by.

More and more bags. I know there’s more. I can only find them behind the cans. I don’t know where else. Can’t go upstairs… I tried to open the bag but my fingers can’t… You know how it is… My fingers rattle and weigh a ton on my hands…

Once Marc Bolan fed Rick baked beans from a red plate. Red plate for red jumper. He was so kind, letting him go at his own pace, slow spoonfuls… Spilling on his chest, mopping him up… Baby’s bib… He was so steady once… ready steady go… bob haircuts, Cathy… a steady hand on the tiller… can keep you on course sometimes… when the boat is getting to too much rocking… you need a little something to keep you steady…

None of the young people or the men are here when the nurses come… but they make food for us and never find behind the cans… seems silly… they must be distracted… I think they’re distracted… they’re on their phones a lot… garbled nonsense conversations… people don’t talk well now…

Bed springs squeaking. Upstairs. Headboard banging on wall.

Dust on dust.

That’s all it comes down to.

That’s all that it is.

Love and death and work. Three constants in life.

I wish Richard joined the union, like Barbara’s husband. He waved signs and shouted and he seemed to know everything. Always gave a helping hand, a bit of advice. You could ask him anything about anything. He won because he never took their games seriously. They can’t win when you don’t take them as serious as they take themselves. Rick couldn’t stand him. He should’ve. He would’ve been better for Rick than Tampa Montgomery.

See my honey babe.

Yeah, sure.

I see her all right. I do.

Wondering why you treat me this way.

Backhander across the chops. Why does he do it to Rick? Because Rick sometimes comes to and tries to argue, although I can’t make sense of what he’s saying… words are like noises to me so often now… just noises… he might as well be Chinese, my own husband…

Only a line here or there.

Oh, the cuckoo.

Warbles as she flies.

Wordless tune.

Aren’t the birds lucky, that way? Pure talk.

Like I can now for a few minutes. Few minutes only.

Once I lay in a field. They used to take us all out, all the street. We’d go out together. The coach would be hot. The sun would beat on us through the windows. I’d be sweaty in my dress. I’d perfume, perfume, perfume. The perfume smelt like lavender and apples. Simple scents. Simple scents, gone now. Gone the way of most simple things. Marjorie would bring her accordion and play it as the coach went down the A-roads and B-roads, out towards the first stop, the thatched pub. The pub for the men. Women, too. They’d get a little something small while the men would fill up on shandy. Shady on a summer’s day. That’s tradition, that is. Good old tradition.

She loves the summer sunshine, she hates the wind and rain,

And everytime she singeth “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo”,

Then the springtime comes again.

Sing-song, sing-old. First it was the old songs, the parlour songs, that’s what father called them. Front parlour songs. You could hear the slow, tentative piano, jangling and out-of-tune, even when there was no piano. Then it became Beatles over the years. Old ‘uns died out. Marjorie died out. Yesterday, all my troubles… I’ve just seen a face… We all live in a…

Then rounders and hide-and-seek and campfire. Sausages burnt to a crisp. Tiny Sammy sick for weeks because his was the only one that wasn’t, it was underdone, still pink in the middle. Still pink all over. God, weren’t we all in the pink then? Isn’t joy horrible? Teases at you. Pricks at you. Forevermore. Forevermore no letting go.

Give it a backhander across the chops.

Get out of here, joy. There’s no-one that wants to see you. There’s no-one that wants you round here. Stop bothering us.

That’s why God made television and then made more and more channels. To keep us steady. Not so joyful. Too many evenings spent in front of that one. Too much choice.

Those days were the days I was proud to get grass-stains. Different kind. A good game of rounders and I was the best at the bat. There you go, I’ve caught you out. Runs for the county team.

Better than Spain. Does everyone still go there? Costa Del Sol. Bump into a neighbour from twenty years ago, what a nightmare, who could live with it? Always seemed to happen. Who would bother? Run screaming from the resort. Make it your last resort. Ha-ha!

I played cards in Old England. Played cards in Spain.

There seemed to be a whole circle of men in the living room once, playing cards, after we were put to bed… arguing and laughing and numbers being called out… get out your six-guns, pardner… swing saloon doors opening and closing in the wind… Henry Fonda… Clint… then it just became like a sea of noise to me and I’m not really sure, not sure of anything…

Two kinds of old. Two kinds of old. That’s what I always told myself as I got old.

One: They are like children. You can’t believe they ever did anything. Can’t believe they ever had to do anything hard, even though they did. They certainly did. But it seems so impossible to imagine. Babies in the crib. From cradle to grave.

Two: They wear it all and you can see it, everyone can see it, at all times.

I wanted to be two. I wanted to be two. That makes it all worth it. But my God, I believe I’ve become one.

Not such a pretty bird.

But warbling as I fly.

All year round, not just fourth of July.

Scarface is back. He has Marc Bolan’s hair in his hand. Hard. The robot voice music has stopped for once. Not that I notice it now, mostly. Just a sea of noise… doesn’t split my head wide anymore…

Ouch. That must hurt. That must sting.

I’ve known you from old,

Now you’ve robbed my poor pockets,

Of my silver and my gold

Where is Barry? On the Isle of Barry?

Is that real? The Isle of Barry?

Have I made it up?

Frog march into the kitchen.

Barry Island.

Island. Robinson Crusoe. Me. Holler Robinson.


Bring back marching.

Imagine Marc Bolan on national service. They said it would straighten you out, but you met men it just turned worse. Like prison. Who’s in the jailhouse now? Who else is in the jailhouse now?

Banging in the kitchen. Bang, bang, banging. Like the time the bailiffs came round. Almost took the door off the hinges. Carried out television, amongst other bits and pieces. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Someone saying something, but it’s one of those times. No words.

Just warble.

Wasn’t I a pretty bird?

Banging’s stopped, shouting’s stopped.

Where’s Marc Bolan?

Oh, there’s Scarface. He’s looking at me and Rick. He’s looking at me and my sweetheart, innocent Rick. Foreman Rick. Personnel Management Rick. Warehouse Manager Rick. Shaking his head. Tears in his eyes. Why tears in his eyes?

He’s gone now. Don’t slam the front door! So you’re the next one to try and take it off its hinges, eh?

It’s always winter now. Always. Always wind a-blowing. February rain. March winds. April showers. Sweet May flowers. Thatched roof.

The past and the future have come together. It can’t move on.

That’s why wind a-blowing.

I wish I could make it spring. I wish I could open my mouth and sing. I wish I could stop the wind and make it summertime. Back in the fields. Anyone for a game?

Anyone for a game?

I’ve played cards

No, not cards.

In old England.

Rounders. Accordion music. Yesterday, all my troubles…

In old England.

Oh, make it stop. The whirl. The whirl in the dark hollow-holler. Hollering.


Where is Marc?

Twentieth-century, twenty-first century boy.

I’m not the cuckoo. I am the cuckoo. I CAN warble.

I’m doing it now.

It sounds like a scream, but it’s a warble. Promise. Best this old timer can manage.

Bring me back my red jumper Rick and I’ll bury my face in it. Silly lad. In him.

Fourth day of July.

Oh, hasn’t she been such a pretty bird, all her livelong days?

Do I wear it well? Am I one or two? From cradle to grave.

Remember what they were talking about on the six o’clock news, that time? Before the bailiffs took the television…

This is the Cuckoo’s nest.

Let it be Spring again. Let it be Spring. Spring. Spring. Sprung. Let it be spring.

I’m warbling.

Listen. Listen. From the mountain.

As you go passing by.

Get me out.

About Billy Stanton

Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, The Rumen, Literally Stories, Rural Fiction Magazine, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His latest films "Noli: This City Doesn't Gleam" and "Furry in Chasteborough/The Additional Bank Holiday" are currently on the festival circuit. His blog is:

Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, The Rumen, Literally Stories, Rural Fiction Magazine, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His latest films "Noli: This City Doesn't Gleam" and "Furry in Chasteborough/The Additional Bank Holiday" are currently on the festival circuit. His blog is:

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