By Alan McCormick.
Suffocating heat, perched on my green high back nursing home chair, a municipal execution chair marked by mediocre geriatric styling, the indent of my presence on its plastic seat shrinking with my body and with time. Escape is through my window, to the grass clipped to a regulation No.3 back and sides, the flowers choked and collared with brown council labels, the stunted trees staked and padlocked to the ground. But the birds don’t care, the messy pinching pigeons sprawling out their thick feathers and dropping slowly onto the barren beds; the small birds, finches and sparrows, with their tawny flutter and nervous flitting between the skeletal branches; sing song harpies, their synthesised cooing and high-pitched peels climbing from here to the graveyard and beyond.
So different from the ugly squawking and unimaginably bright colours of the birds back in Africa, I feed them with scraps, seeds and stale chunks of bread like an infamous Sunday Mail rodent lady. Once the pigeons and scavenging seagulls have fought and shrieked and taken their pickings the smaller birds arrive onto my windowsill, poised and pretty, still-framed on the edge of time. I watch and wait for one more Spring when the first migrating swallow with its long tail feathers will arrive from the East and dart across the sky like a small boy’s perfect paper plane gliding on a gust of wind.
I am out there early morning, the hard frosted ground unfamiliar and bony cold through my slippers, the trickling purple veins across my legs standing out like tributaries on the moon. An oncoming milk float makes its steady procession up the hill, the rattle of bottles, the drone hum of its old school Singer engine spinning and whirring, making me drift.
‘If I held you in my arms and kissed you now I’d die happy’ are the words I hold inside. To wish him not to go; but I hunker down, wait under the sheets and steal a last kiss before the sun goes down. I live in Mombasa in a large white house above the sea. I have a driver, I have a cleaner, I have a husband, I have a lover. With Henry my dear love now, he holds me and I am gone, his breath against my neck, his hand between my legs.
I first saw Henry at a dance at the swimming club. He and his family had just arrived from England and yet he seemed at home already. Dancing with different women, so light on his feet and sure in his lead, he kept his gaze directly on each one as he moved them around the floor. His wife stayed at a table, head down, nursing a drink, but I couldn’t keep my eyes away. At the bar at the back of the room he asked me my name and what I did. No one asked women what they did back then and I wasn’t sure what to say but I regretted that he didn’t ask me to dance.
We liked to escape to a secret hotel by the Indian Ocean run by Chantelle, a friend of mine. She understood and said nothing. We parted again after a few nights, each parting accepted, those were the times for acceptance, but each time was a heavy stone against my chest, making it hard to breathe or swallow.
Later that summer on the cruise ship on leave to England I got to dance with David, my husband, but thought only of my lover, the endless grey banks of waves shifting through the ballroom window, my cheeks slapped with a flush of wine. Back in our cabin, seagulls covered our route though the porthole window, turning in the sky, dropping, flicking off the top of the ocean and rising again, then gone.
Henry wrote letters, collected, piled and ribboned together in an old biscuit tin secreted at the back of my cupboard, musty clothes, the ink fading on papers yellowing at the edges. His hands were delicate, his pen sure and swooping, making patterns with letters and words that made me cry, laugh and want to read again and again.
I wipe away the ice dust and sit on the nursing home bench, and the first morning light comes on in a house opposite, in a frosted small window upstairs, probably the bathroom, and a moment later in a bedroom. The yellow streetlight above hums for a moment before it’s snuffed out.
It is very cold. My head swoons, my heart bleeds and trickles before momentarily faltering, a weak rush into my mouth, my lips cracked, untouched. I run Vaseline on my rough lips with my fingers; a pale luminous pink where once was blood and red, the waxy exotic caress of lipstick.
Over a low walled fence a small boy is staring at me; in a grey blazer with a faint yellow trim along its collar and around the blue crest of his cap.
‘Are you all right?’ he asks.
‘I’m fine, dear. I came out to feed the birds.’
‘But there aren’t any. And it’s freezing!’
‘Is it? I’m fine though. Are you going to school?’
‘No. My Mum has to finish some important work and then take me to Penny, who gives me breakfast and then drives me to school.’
‘It sounds rather complicated.’
He stares at me not sure how to reply.
‘She must be very busy,’ I add.
The boy runs away; the peak of his cap skirting the top of the wall and into his house.
I never had children. David, my husband, and I never wanted any but Henry had three. I know that’s what made it harder for him then for me; that and his wife finding out and threatening me and then threatening to kill herself.
Not nice to be labelled a slut, not nice to be one either I suppose. David said his mother and mine were the same. Three fine tarts in a row he called us: Tit, Thrush and Songbird; even as a child I wanted to be Songbird.
Henry’s wife shared her matrimonial grief indiscriminately but placed the martyr’s poison well. Soon I was shunned at the club, by many of my friends and my husband’s family; but never by my husband.
Eventually Henry’s wife did take some pills. I am not heartless but I believe that she only took them to get him back. And so Henry went back to look after his children and I never saw him again.
David and I left Kenya for good. The last long boat journey home, no dances this time, long quiet times on the deck, husband and wife in seats side by side, sharing a view of the rolling ocean, clinking tumblers of whisky and ice that I grew to like, and my liver grew to like more, devouring, intoxicating, numbing.
I feel as if my legs don’t belong, aren’t connecting, and in my line of sight the grey nursing home seems to be resting on it side like a stricken tanker. How I come to be lying on the grass is anyone’s guess, thin icy blades cutting through the gaps of my stiff fingers, my face scratched and pricked against the doormat roughness, a small sip of rain.
When we first arrived in England and I realised there was no going back, I lay in my bed for ages, feeling the drudge beat of the washing machine from below, the heavy pallor of grey English skies suffocating against my window pane. I miss him, the sound of his voice, the words meant only for me, his touch meant only for me.
Up above the sky fills with white, soft cotton threads falling, tickling my lips; thrilling.
‘Jennifer, Jennifer, what are you doing? Roy, come and help, Jennifer’s fallen over again.’
Young Mary, I like her. She always means well; far too good for Roy. She’s made her bed with him I can tell. If I could speak in a way she might listen I’d tell her not to settle for second best.
‘He’s no good.’
‘Who’s no good, Jennifer?’
Mary laughs. Better to laugh.
‘Roy, Jennifer’s saying you’re no good again.’
I feel his strong arms around my waist pulling me up.
‘You’re as light as a bird,’ he says. He means it too.
‘Then she should be able to fly,’ says Mary.
If my wings weren’t frozen then I might.
And then I’m back on the wheelchair rolling back towards the home for the final time. I see a small swallow standing on my windowsill. A blast of hot air as we go inside, I hope he’s still there when they drop me back in my chair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan McCormick’s fiction and his illustrated writing with Jonny Voss has appeared widely in print and on on the net at 3:AM, Dead Drunk Dublin and Nthposition. See more of Alan and Jonny’s illustrated work at Scumsters. Dogsbodies & Scumsters, a collection of Alan’s stories and his illustrated work with Jonny, is out now on Roast Books. His story, ‘The Runner’, will be in the Liars’ League anthology, London Lies, published by Arachne Press in September.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 5th, 2012.