2011 Shortlist: Gladys and the Birds by Kate Baguley

This is a shortlisted story for the 2011 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
Credit: Lindsey Bieda

‘Come on, then. Let’s get you out of this chair, poppet.’

‘It was the zeppelin,’ I tell you. ‘It flew right overhead and everyone from the terraces ran out to wave as it passed. It had come all the way from Germany, and we were so very excited to see it.’

At least, that is what I want to tell you but it doesn’t come out like that. I hear myself mumbling about the birds on the ceiling and I wonder why I bother. I really want to tell you about the zeppelin because I can remember it as clearly as if it were a cliché. But I can’t because Mouth and Brain don’t work together like they used to. Mouth only talks about the birds. I don’t even like birds.

‘Put one arm into this sleeve for me.’

Thing is, that’s the problem. People listen to mouths too much. If they looked at eyes, or understood hands, or even thought for a minute, they would know that I don’t want to talk about the birds. I’m fed up of talking about the birds, and I know that the birds aren’t on the ceiling, or indeed even outside most of the time. I want to tell you about the zeppelin, or tell you that I’m tired, or hungry or that I don’t want you to talk to me about the birds, or bring food to tempt the birds to the patio window so that I can see the birds, or tape endless nature documentaries so that I can learn more facts about the birds. After their inexhaustible efforts, I’m probably about as knowledgeable as an ornithologist. To be quite honest, I’m surprised that they haven’t given me a pair of binoculars and stuck me at the top of a mountain. At least the Evening Chronicle would be interested. I’d probably end up talking to them about the birds as well, knowing my luck. If I were having a really good day, I might even be able to tell them to ‘go away’, although mouth doesn’t phrase it quite like that. Mouth is much more daring. See, there are some perks to living with Mouth.

‘And the other arm.’

The cruel irony, of course, is that when you get to my age, my ‘great’ age, as I’m sure they call it, one looks rather bird-like. The dentureless mouth and the sunken, beady, black eyes don’t do any favours, and the fleshless, stick-like limbs don’t help, either. I keep expecting them to put me on a perch and rename my room ‘The Aviary’. It wouldn’t surprise me, but then nothing really surprises me anymore.

‘Do you need to spend a penny? No? Are you sure you don’t?’

What gets me is that you think I don’t care anymore. You take my clothes off, and you watch me whilst I’m sitting on the commode. ‘It’s just a body,’ you say, but you don’t seem to realise that I might have more inhibitions than you. Just because I’m old and you think that I don’t care. It’s alright you for; it’s not your body. I forgive you, though. Or, at least, sometimes I forgive you. Sometimes I give you a good kick and then look as innocent as I can manage. Being twitchy isn’t always a bad thing.

‘Let’s get these socks on, then.’

I know far more about you than you think, you know. Just because I look like I’m away with the fairies doesn’t mean I’m not listening to every word you say. And just because I can’t answer you with Mouth doesn’t mean I’m not taking part in the conversation. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard everything you’ve told me about your young man and I’d think really carefully about what you’re going to do; the perfect man doesn’t always come along; sometimes you just have to settle for second best. I wouldn’t get rid of him just yet; it’s not all about looks, or what happens in the bedroom. But, then, you’re young and you don’t understand that one day you’ll be too old to enjoy anything other than a gentle peck on the cheek and a bit of a cuddle. It’s the talking that really matters, then. Until even that’s gone.

‘Just shuffle over to the left for me and we’ll put this cream on.’

The thing is, I’m not even sure that perfection exists. I mean, take my Doug. He wasn’t much of a looker, and he most certainly wasn’t winning the race in the personality department. But he turned up when he said he was going to, which is always something in a man, and he did what he was told. Reliable. And he wore sensible ties. ‘Never trust a man in a cravatte’ was what my mother always said. But then she had a thing about the French in general, so I’m not sure how much of that was seasoned advice and how much of it was a natural Victorian francophobia. He wasn’t fond of surprises, either, Doug, so you knew that you could serve the same pie three days in a row and he would enjoy the predictability of it. I think, these days, you’d refer to it as a marriage of convenience. And so I cut my losses and made do. The very end was the worst: I couldn’t stand him because he turned into one of those moaning invalids you avoid in hospital waiting rooms. And so, my dear, I have to say that I wouldn’t touch marriage with a barge-pole.

‘And the other way. You’re doing really well.’

Oh, for goodness sake, I’m off about the birds again. I’m dreading my birthday. ‘We’ll take her outside to hear the dawn chorus,’, they’ll say, ‘she’ll enjoy that.’. Well, I’m telling you now that I won’t. I really can’t think of anything worse than being dragged out of bed at some awful hour just to listen to something which has been there every other morning for the past hundred thousand years at least. What they forget, I think, is that I’ve heard it all before. I didn’t want to hear it then, either, but we didn’t get much choice when we were on nights.

‘Brilliant. Fantastic. Now, can you stand up for me?’

‘Canary girls’. That’s what they used to call us. We had some fun, though. It was me and Jessie Fothergill most nights, packing TNT into bombs until we turned completely yellow. I can’t remember laughing so much either before or after I spent those nights in the factory. She’d had polio as a child, Jessie. I imagine the teasing about her legs had hardened her up a bit, but she could do impressions as well as anyone on the stage ever could. Move over Ella Shields, that’s what I say. Apart from that wouldn’t be much use now. Not unless Jess is going to come back from the dead and surprise us all. She didn’t even make it to the end of the war, poor old girl. And then the factory seemed very quiet, and I couldn’t stand it anymore and they put me on days. But it was never the same.

‘And we’ll just turn you round and then you’ll be all tucked up in bed.’

Oh, for goodness sake, there’s a robin outside the window. I’ll never get to bed now. I’m not sure I’ll even get to bed tomorrow at this rate. The thing about having other people to do everything for you is that you can’t do anything at your own speed. I can’t even have a leisurely wee anymore. I have to do everything at their pace, which is usually double-time. I roll my eyes at the robin, but they seem to take this as a sign that I’m enjoying it. Sometimes I wonder which of us is supposed to have the neurological problems. Can’t they read expressions? I’m very kind to them; I don’t make a lot of fuss, and I only wait until I’ve only just been put into bed to wee when they’re really annoying me, but I just can’t cope with much more of this. I mean, I know a lot of it’s my fault – Mouth just won’t do as it’s told a lot of the time, and the rest of the time it won’t do anything at all – but I do wish they’d talk about something else. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

‘And one sock on… Oh, Gladdy, look at the robin! Isn’t his red breast lovely? Do you think he’ll sing for us?’

I think they think they’ve sussed me. They think it’s birds that interest me. And the thing is, there’s so much bird related this and that out there for them to interest me with. Just after Doug and I were married, and before he had to go back off to fight, our first dance as married couple was to ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, but that’s because he proposed in Berkley Square – not the Berkeley Square – but the sentiment’s the same – , not because we were passionate about nightingales. First and last romantic moment of my life, that was. I imagine that if you told them that your favourite song was ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, they’d assume that it was because you had a passion for chalk rock-faces not because it reminded you of a stolen kiss behind the cricket pavilion. They played that at his funeral because he was always whistling it. Not properly, sort of through his teeth. Quite frankly, the lack of whistling since he died has been utter bliss.

‘Bluebirds over there. Just you wait.’

She’s a sweetie, Gladys. Talking about her birds all the time. We have some fun, though. Always such a twinkle in her eye, and she listens ever so carefully, as though she understands every word you’re saying. I tell her all sorts of things. It’s nice to have someone to talk through your problems with. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. Sometimes I just have to look at her and I know the answer, or maybe it’s just because it helps to say things out loud? I’m not sure, but it really does help.

‘Look at him fly. He’s got big wings, that one.’

I tell her all about my boyfriend. I’m not sure what to do, but then who is when men are involved? I’m not sure whether he’s a keeper, as they say, or whether to get rid now, before it’s too late. That’s the problem with being my age. The sort of gentleman who’s good at lasting relationships got married a long time ago, and the only ones left are the closet homosexuals and the dysfunctional ones. The current boyfriend – partner, I’m too old for a boyfriend – I tell Gladys, is older than me. Not too much older but older enough for you to notice it. I met him at the Bingo. I don’t usually go, I don’t even like the game, but there’s precious little else to do round here on your night off, and a couple of the other girls from work were going so, I thought, Gloria, you’ve nothing better to do with your time, girl, go and enjoy yourself. He’d been sitting by the bar all night, so it was no surprise that he knew I was drinking rum and blackcurrant. I was a bit surprised when he brought it over for me, though. I don’t usually get much attention that way. I don’t usually get that much attention from men at all. It is, as my sister always says to me, because Jamaican girls have too much personality for the average man to handle.

‘Flying together. Look. Look!’

And the next thing I know, he’s sitting with me and the other girls have moved up to make space for him. He’s not bad looking, I suppose, if you can get past the stomach and the balding head. He’s pleasant enough as well. By the end of the night, I’ve learnt quite a lot about him. He’s got a job, which is always a bonus, especially in the ‘current climate’ and he’s called Vic. Short for Victor. Short for anyone. In fact, short is the problem. I’m taller than most men, and I can see I’m quite a lot taller than he is, but then he is quite short. He is, he tells me, what you’d call a dwarf, which explains why he’s on the small side of small. It doesn’t bother me, really, and before I know it, we’re arranging to meet again. Not at the bingo hall, but somewhere different. We do get some looks, though, especially in shopping centres, or cinemas, when you’re out together. We meet at a pub. His local, he says. I wonder whether it’s a bit early to be meeting his friends – I’d only met the man once -, and I’m not sure that I really want to go, but beggars can’t be choosers, as my sister reminds me.

‘Birds. In the tree. On the fence.’

It’s alright for her. She’s a good three inches smaller than I am, which is why she got married a good thirty years earlier. Ten years for every inch. And counting. They haven’t exactly had a blissful marriage, but then who has? I expect you did, Gladys, didn’t you? Your Doug was devoted right up until the day he died. Anyway, back to my Vic. We met for a drink; and then again for another; and then he came round for a bit of dinner; and then I went to his. And then he stayed over at mine. And we just carried on like that for a bit. I found that I liked him – like him – quite a lot. He’s kind, and he makes me laugh. But then he’s rather lacking in other areas. Even at my age, you need the passion, and it’s just not there. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we have a good time, but there’s no spark. As soon as we’ve started, we’ve finished and he’s asleep

‘Have you ever seen such a lovely pair of dickie birds?’

And so I’m not sure what to do about it. Do I call it a day? Tell him that it’s not him; it’s me? Or do I carry on? It’s lonely by myself, I’m sure you understand, Gladdy, stuck in this room all day. If I stuck with him a bit longer, I expect that, eventually, he’d move in, and then I’d have someone there all the time to do the Sudoku and so on with. It’s no fun when you’re the only one left lying awake in the middle of the night with a snoring man you’re not quite sure about lying next to you. But then it’s no fun when there’s no-one to share the washing up with. You know, Gladdy, you’ve really helped me sort things out in my head; I think Vic and I do make a lovely pair of dickie birds, as you so nicely put it. I don’t know that I’m ever going to be quite as wise as you are, even if I get to twice your age. Anyway, there we are; you’re in bed now. All nicely tucked up. I’d better get on and put these clothes away, hadn’t I? I’ll see you in the morning, Gladdy, love. Sweet dreams.

‘Pair of love birds. Lovely pair of love birds.’

Kate Baguley

The not often spotted Kate Baguley, commonly known as Kate or Kitty, can generally be found in the small village of Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, where she was first sighted in the spring of 1992. Although comparatively little is known about this mysterious creature, she is thought to live in a small "pack" with her mother, father and younger sister. When not in her natural environment, she has been observed at University, where she is widely believed to be studying Primary Education, and at a block of retirement flats, where she is presumed to work. Research into Kate's general behaviour has concluded that her recreational activities include writing, knitting, and performing the bizarre and little understood art of painting-by-numbers. Worryingly, it appears that she has also recently developed a taste for "walking"—a pastime rarely seen in a homosapien so young—giving researchers no choice but to theorise that she is turning into her mother, an event for which there is, sadly, no remedy.

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