from Telling Stories
I was the one who discovered the bird in the wall. It was rare for me to know things first, before my parents and Max, so when I first heard it I stopped and listened carefully to make sure I understood the situation exactly.
It was in one of the walls of the dining room, right next to my father’s place at the head of the table. It made a fluttery banging sound like a heartbeat within the wall. Because of this fluttering, and the way it seemed to move up and down, I knew it was a bird and not a mouse. I could hear its claws making a dry scratching sound.
I was nine years old, I remember because Max had just started college. Mum and Dad have a photo of him from that year, all knees in an oversized uniform, but I don’t remember him looking that young. Although he no longer attended my primary school I still felt his presence. New teachers said to me at the beginning of the year, ‘You’re Max’s sister,’ as if I were being weighed up against him as well as against my classmates. We walked to school separately now, and the absence of him and his group of friends three disdainful steps in front of me was not as liberating as I had imagined it would be.
College finished later than primary school so I was always the first one home. The first thing I did when I arrived was to change out of my school clothes and put on a suit, a man’s suit that I had concocted out of various hand-me-downs and dress-up clothes. The shirt was an old one of Dad’s and the trousers had been Max’s. There was a leather belt, cracked, which was far too big for me. Mum had poked an extra hole in it so the buckle was in the right place but this created a long tail that wrapped halfway round my body and frequently came loose. I had no suitable shoes but that was all right because the trousers were too long for me anyway and pooled around my feet. I would pull my hair back in a tight ponytail and practice stern male expressions in the mirror. Lastly I would go into my parents’ room to get one of Dad’s ties.
There were one or two ties which I was allowed to use for dress-ups. Dad had taught me how to tie a perfect Windsor knot, although I often wore the tie looser to create the effect of having just come home from work and handed a glass of whiskey by my adoring wife.
While in my parents’ room I would often play at making myself faint. Their bedroom was ideal for this because of the large mirror that hung on the wall facing the bed.
It’s surprisingly easy to make yourself faint. I can’t remember how I discovered the method, whether it was by accident or someone told me. I would simply stand on the edge of the bed, facing myself in the mirror, and take deep quick breaths in and out until my face turned red and my ears started to ring. Then I would hold my nose tight shut and blow out through it as hard as I could. I suppose the idea with the mirror was to watch myself falling backwards in a swoon, but I only ever caught a glimpse of my red and staring face before dark spots came rushing in from the edges of my vision and my reflected image disappeared.
The best part of fainting was waking up again. It was as if my brain had been reset, like an electric alarm clock flashing zeros. I would come to, with nothing in my line of vision but the ceiling, and for a moment or two I wouldn’t know who I was.
After I discovered the bird in the wall I went to tell Mum and Max. I didn’t understand at first that it wasn’t a new and interesting adventure that would be over in an afternoon; I thought we would rescue the bird immediately and place it back in its nest with its grateful mother. So Mum’s distress came as a shock.
We stood around the wall. The bird had seemed to grow more frantic at the sound of our voices. Mum clasped and re-clasped her hands in front of her. Max put his ear to the wall.
‘How are we going to get it out?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think we’ll be able to without cutting a hole in the wall,’ said Max. ‘It can’t seem to fly very high, it’s probably a baby.’
‘Dad can cut it out,’ I said, thinking of my father’s toolkit, which I loved. He had a corner of the garage fitted with a workbench, the wall hung with polished spanners placed equidistant from each other in order of size. The toolkit was large and heavy and made of metal. Inside it was divided into numerous compartments, each the perfect size and shape for the tool it contained.
I became very good at fixing things as a child. This was because everything my father ever gave me broke.
‘Wait until your father gets home,’ said Mum, ‘we’ll see what he thinks.’
Thinking back now, I don’t know whether Mum’s fear of birds stems from this incident or from her own childhood. I only know that the sound of the bird in the wall terrified her, made her flinch away as if from something disgusting.
While I waited for Dad to get home I stayed with the bird. I brought in some pillows to make a nest for myself and sat next to the wall, singing lullabies and telling stories to it. Eventually it grew quieter and then stayed still altogether.
After a while I heard a new sound, and stopped singing to listen. It was a cheeping noise, louder than the small cheeps the bird had previously made, and it was coming from high up near the ceiling.
For a moment I thought that the bird had managed to fly up to the roof and get free. But then the fluttering noise started again near my head, twice as urgent, and I realised what had happened — the mother bird had flown to the top of the roof and was calling her baby.
I started to cry. The mother was calling frantically and the baby was fluttering around in response, trying to reach her but unable to get free. I could hear its wings beating rapidly against the wall.
By the time Dad arrived we were all in a state. He got home each day at six o’clock exactly, after finishing work at five and going down to the club for a drink or two. I liked to bury my face in his jacket after he had hung it up on the hook; it smelt sweet and smoky and the material was rough against my face.
‘What’s going on here?’ said Dad. I checked his face to judge his mood; tension was written in his eyebrows.
Max told the story, although I tried to interject. ‘We’ll have to cut a hole in the wall to get it out,’ he said. ‘It would probably best to make the hole on the outside of the house rather than through the dining room wall.’
‘I’m not cutting a hole in the side of my own house.’ Dad folded his arms. ‘What kind of idiot do you take me for?’
‘But Dad—’ Max and I said.
‘Oh, George,’ said Mum, ‘we can’t leave it to die in there. Isn’t there anything you can do?’
‘It’s not going to die,’ said Dad. ‘It’ll manage to get out sooner or later.’
‘But it’s only a baby!’ I yelled.
Dad’s voice went very quiet. ‘Don’t you scream at me.’
I turned around and marched out of the room. I heard Mum behind me saying firmly, ‘Leave her, George, she’ll calm down.’ I shut my bedroom door behind me — careful not to slam it, I knew I shouldn’t push my luck — and lay down on my bed.
He had lied. He didn’t think it would be able to get out on its own, he just didn’t want to ruin his wall. Grownups lied all the time, as if because we were children we couldn’t tell the difference. I had tested this theory several years ago: adults told us that drinking meths would make you go blind, so I went to the laundry cupboard, took a drink from the meths bottle, and sat on the laundry floor waiting for my vision to go dark.
At dinner that night we could hear the bird banging repeatedly against the wall. It interrupted Mum saying grace. She said grace before every meal. Sometimes I would open my eyes to watch her; she always had hers tightly closed, her hands clasped loosely together. She prayed differently than everybody else I knew. She prayed as if she were talking directly to God, as if she held him between the palms of her hands and was whispering secrets to him. It was as if Dad and Max and I didn’t exist.
Mum was always like that. God was her best friend and closest ally; he got the first of her attention. I wasn’t very interested in religion, and neither was Max. Dad upheld its principles as strictly as he upheld any rules, but even he was more interested in being the God of our household than he was in the God of the church. But Mum loved Jesus — really loved him. Her Jesus was the perfect man: he was kind and compassionate and gentle and wise. She made me think of him as handsome.
We all pretended everything was normal while the sound of the bird got louder and louder.
‘How has Max been doing at school?’ said Dad.
‘Very well,’ said Mum, putting down her fork. ‘Of course there aren’t many tests this early in the year but he’s been getting good marks for his homework, haven’t you Max?’
‘I got ten out of ten in my science quiz yesterday,’ said Max.
‘Well, you can’t ask for more than that, can you?’ Dad had a malicious glint in his eye this evening. It made me nervous. ‘What about Clare?’
‘Oh, you know Clare,’ said Mum. ‘Always has her mind on other things. Do you know, the other day I found her trying to put some plates away in her wardrobe?’
Dad and Max laughed.
‘Max was the last boy in his class to finish the cross-country race,’ I said. I had heard one of Max’s friends joking about this after school.
‘Is that right,’ said Dad. Max stopped laughing abruptly.
I reached for my glass of milk. As I picked it up it knocked against the rim of my plate and slipped out of my grasp.
We all stared for a moment at the white puddle of milk spreading slowly between the plates.
Dad smacked his hand down on the table, making the cutlery jump. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he yelled.
I hated it when Dad yelled like that. It always came as such a shock, as if the sound jolted through my entire body and froze me where I stood.
Mum jumped up and went to the kitchen. I picked up the glass and put it aside. Milk slipped down its sides and pooled in a ring on the table. I lifted my plate and more milk rushed into the gap where it had been, heading for the edge of the table.
Mum dropped a handful of tea-towels on the puddle of milk, halting its progress, and began wiping it up.
The bird in the wall began to flutter again in the silence.
‘Can’t you get that bird to be quiet?’ snapped Dad to no one in particular.
‘George, I really think you should do something about that,’ said Mum. She scrubbed vigorously at the surface of the table. ‘It can’t just stay in there until it dies. You’ll have to get it out somehow.‘
Dad took hold of Mum’s arm. I could see her skin whitening around the edges of his fingertips, the marks spreading like the pool of milk. ‘Don’t you tell me what I have to do,’ he said. ‘I’m not cutting a hole in my own wall and that’s final.’
Mum yanked her arm out of his grasp, but she made no other sign that she had heard him. She picked up the pile of tea-towels and took them into the kitchen. Then she sat back down and started cutting her liver in silence.
Nobody spoke. Dad went back to his food with an air of unconcern.
‘May I be excused?’ said Max. He had finished everything on his plate and his knife and fork were laid neatly in its centre.
‘You may,’ said Dad. Max made sure to align his chair with the table before he escaped to his room.
Dad looked at my plate. ‘You’re not going anywhere until you’ve finished your food.’
I looked miserably at my liver. I didn’t see how I was going to be able to eat it. It sat like a grey lump on my plate. I had eaten all my vegetables, even the spinach, and my milk was gone. There was nothing left to take away the taste.
I cut a tiny piece of meat and put it in my mouth. It seemed to take forever to chew. I tried to swallow and almost gagged.
Dad looked at me stonily. ‘You’ll stay there until your plate is clean.’ He and Mum got up and Mum began clearing the table.
I stayed at the table until the dining room grew dark. Dad came in a couple of times to check on my progress. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me from the door with his arms folded.
The bird seemed to have calmed down — it was mostly still. Occasionally it would renew its efforts at flight but its movements seemed to be quieter and more despairing.
I cried a little, but I didn’t really have the energy for it. A lot of dinnertimes ended like this, with me sitting at the table, unable to leave or to look at my food. Max seemed to be able to eat anything, even if he didn’t like it. He pitied me in a disinterested sort of way for not being able to do the same.
It must have been close to nine o’clock when Mum came in to the dining room.
‘Two more bites,’ she said, ‘and then you can go to bed.’
She sat down at the table opposite me while I struggled to eat. The liver was completely cold and its fat was congealing. She watched me, but she didn’t say anything as I chewed and swallowed. When I was finished she took my plate without a word. I heard her in the kitchen scraping the rest of the meat into the rubbish bin.
Mum and Dad kept their alcohol in a cupboard over the fridge in the kitchen. Sometimes in the morning, when nobody was around, I would climb onto the bench next to the fridge and lean over to look into the cupboard. There were usually ten or fifteen bottles there at any one time: different kinds of whiskey, gin, dark rum, a half-full bottle of sticky strawberry liqueur that was never touched.
After the bird got trapped in the wall I added a new step to my morning routine: I would go into the dining room to see whether it had escaped. Sometimes I needed to tap on the wall to get it to start moving.
I was also supposed to make my bed every morning, and put away my nightie, and open my curtains to the correct place so that they bordered the window with exactly six inches on either side. Dad had given me a tape measure for this purpose. My room was at the front of the house, so each time he drove up after work he would make sure that they were even. This was supposed to be for the neighbours’ benefit, so that they would know we were a neat and tidy family. You could tell a lot about a family from their house, I knew. My best friend had three wooden ducks hanging in her hallway, spaced in a diagonal line as if they were flying. That meant that her parents voted Labour.
It was hot that summer, too hot to enjoy ourselves. We went to the beach or to play cricket on the weekends, but after school there was nothing to do. I would sit in my classroom all afternoon trying not to be noticed by the teacher, waiting restlessly to be released by the three o’clock bell; but the end of school brought little relief.
I used to practice balancing on the fence in front of the house. It was a high wooden fence, its posts sturdy but joined by boards less than a third the width of my feet. I was good at balancing; I’d been walking along this fence ever since I could remember. I liked standing on things: fences, chairs, benches — I preferred it to standing on the ground. I was better at fence-walking than any of the boys in my class.
I was wearing a modified version of my man’s suit. I had kept the shirt, which was thin, and the tie, but had exchanged the heavy trousers for some old shorts of Max’s. The shirt trailed down almost to my knees.
From up on the fence I could see along the street and into the neighbours’ gardens: the left-hand neighbour, whose garden was full of roses, and whose dog Dad had shot at with a slug gun when it kept peeing on our property; the right-hand neighbour, who was a madwoman.
I looked to see whether the opposite neighbour’s teenage children were smoking on their front steps again, and saw Max lying in the road.
I jumped down from the fence and went over to him. He was lying on his back in the exact middle of the street, parallel with the footpaths. Ours wasn’t a main road but it still got some traffic.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, leaning over him.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘You could get hit by a car.’
He didn’t reply, only stared past my head.
I lay down beside him. The road was gravelly and hard and the sky stretched over me, pale blue, bordered at the edges by the roofs of houses. We lay there, not speaking, side by side.
It felt like we spent a month with the bird scratching away in the wall at every mealtime, but it was probably more like a week until the cheeping and scratching stopped.
Dad was grimly pleased. Mum said it was for the best. Max had no comment; he had been spending more and more time in his room, doing homework.
Then it started to smell.
It was February and the weather was at its hottest. The bird’s body decomposed quickly inside the wall, emitting a sickly odour into the dining room. It became harder and harder to finish eating — not only from the smell but also the idea of the bird rotting in the wall. I felt like I wanted to gag. I had to choke down my food and follow it with large gulps of milk.
That Saturday Dad cut a hole in the side of the house. He didn’t tell anyone he was going to do it; I just found him on the side path with a tape measure, comparing the internal measurements of the house with the external to find the right place to cut.
Mum came to look, although she had been busy gardening; so did Max, although he had his schoolwork. We stood on the grass and watched the hole appear in the white weatherboards. Ordinarily I would have enjoyed this but the thought of the body inside the wall made me tense.
When it was finished Dad tried to reach into the wall, but he had made the hole too small. He tried to twist his hand around but it got jammed somewhere by his knuckles. He called Max over, but Max’s hand couldn’t fit either.
‘You’ll have to do it, Clare,’ said Dad, ‘your hand is the only one that will fit.’
A cold shiver went through me at the thought of putting my hand inside that hole. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘Don’t be a baby, Clare,’ said Max coldly.
‘Go on, dear,’ said Mum. She was trying to be kind but there was an undercurrent of anxiety in her voice.
‘I don’t want to do it,’ I said more firmly.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ snarled Dad.
I knew I would be in for it if I refused a third time. I went up to the wall and put my hand through the hole.
The air inside the wall was cold against my skin. Dad had made the hole about a foot above the ground, so I had to push my arm in up to the elbow and bend it down to find the bird. I could feel the rough splintery wood scraping against my fingers.
I don’t remember looking at anything; maybe I had my eyes closed. I reached down into the wall and my fingers brushed against the bird. It was cold. The feathers were soft but the body underneath was hard like wood.
On reflex, I pulled my fingers sharply away. I knew that I had to reach further down to take a proper grip on it. Touching it the second time was both worse and better because I knew what was coming.
I drew the bird out of the hole. I didn’t look at it; I couldn’t bear to look at it. I just dropped it on the grass and ran, out of the garden and down the street, trying to outrun the feathery shiver that covered my skin.