Bobby walked out of the house and down the road. Some of the birds were singing and some were not. He wondered why they didn’t sing, the starlings, the blackbirds and thought they might be unhappy. The idea of sad birds almost clouded his eyes but after ma, he had made a Bobby-promise not to make any more tears pop out of his eyes. They were cruel, hateful things, smudging everything, making buildings look like butter and the flowers like ruined photographs. No, no more tears for Bobby, even if his heart trembled and shook like the tracks when a train approached. Ma had always told him to stand behind the yellow lines when they’d gone on a trip and he’d always listened. Would he ever go on another trip now, without ma? He shook his head no, but in his heart, in that secret place where he made his dreams and sometimes fell in love with the pretty girl from the local shop that sold his pop, he wondered.
The door slammed shut and Bobby pulled the door knocker three times to make sure it was shut. Times were hard and that made thieves popular, ma’s friend, Mr. Epson, had said and ma had nodded in agreement. Bobby tried to imagine what a popular robber would look like, if his swag bag sparkled, if his eye mask was fashioned from gold, but his brain couldn’t quite put the picture together. Instead, the pictures shook in his head and vibrated, like ma’s old fashioned kettle that whistled when it came to the boil, and the image in his head came out jumbled. Bobby scratched his head in frustration; he hated it when his ideas and his mind didn’t link up and tumbled out like fractured jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Over the year’s mean people had called him all the names under the sun. When he was little, ma chased the bad people away and his heart swelled. But then, with time, ma grew little and he got big and sometimes, he knew, in the back of his broken mind, that he should have been the one to chase the meanies away and not ma. He had tried once or twice to shush the boys and girls, who said cruel words that made their lips curl and twist with spite and made them look like ugly goblins. But he said things backwards and blushed when he should have blustered and it always seemed to fall back to ma to defend him, as if he were the weak dragon and she was the wily queen. She always patted his hand and told him it didn’t matter and he wanted to believe her but something in him ached and made Bobby think she might have been telling ‘a white lie’ to save him from pain and embarrassment. It made him sad, so sad he almost screamed but then ma would tell him something, a fact-no two birdsong are alike; in that way they are like fingerprints for human beings-or say something that made such sense it made her seem like the wisest woman in the world. His favourite was, in times that she would call, ‘hot-headed situations’-‘Bobby, you know who says stupid things? Stupid people.’
As he walked up the small garden path, Bobby saw the flowers in the garden were starting to wilt. Ma, over the years, had written down instructions for him to water the flowers and take care of the plants and he knew the day was coming when he’d have to take charge and start looking after her favourite things. It wasn’t that he was lazy; no, Bobby was never lazy, and he had made sure of that. When he was a baby boy what he lacked in smarts he made up in sweat-his favourite teacher, Mr Collins had said, but something else. If he started to take care of the flowers, it was finally admitting that ma was gone. He knew she was gone, he knew it, but, sometimes he let himself be fooled that she was just in hospital; that she was just standing by a taxi rank and waiting to come home. He told himself at night that the creak in the floorboards was her getting up to make tea; that the noise from the radio he left on all night was ma gently talking in her sleep. If she was gone, then he was alone and being alone scared Bobby more than name calling and thunder storms and snakes put together. People were not meant to live in this world alone, he thought and couldn’t remember if that was what his ma had said or if that was an original thought straight out of his own brain box.
He opened the front gate-it squeaked and he had to drip-drop oil onto it soon, before it scared all the cats out of the neighbourhood and took a deep breath. In all the time he and ma had walked to the local shop to buy his favourite pop, Bobby had never thought about how far it actually was to get there. On sunny days it seemed as if they were there in a flash. On rainy days, he splashed in puddles and held the umbrella tightly to ma’s side to stop her from getting a chill and felt useful, like a prince in a tale defending his family-and the time still raced away. Once, there had been snow and that morning felt as if it had lasted forever, feeling the crunch-crunch of the snow, pitching a small snowball onto a wall. Some nights, as he waited to sleep, Bobby remembered that morning and a smile would creep onto his face and send him to sleep better than any bed time story.
But now, on his own, he suddenly realised how long the street seemed, how wide and scary and gloomy it suddenly seemed. The buildings loomed over him like monsters and Bobby felt his hands begin to shake. This didn’t make sense. It wasn’t cold, so why did his hands shake? Things like this only happened when people threw bad words at him, or when memories from long ago, when Pa was still living in the corners of their life. Fear, his brain whispered, remembering the word and feeling the horrible sharp taste of each letter on his lips. He closed his eyes and started to turn away, his fingers back on the gate, his heart steadying. No, another part of his mind said clearly. It was his voice but there was ma’s strength in it, making it clear and whole. He forced himself to turn and face the street. He took a breath so gigantic that he wondered how there was any air left in the street.
He looked around, searching for something that could help him. In times of stress, think of what you love the best. That had been what Doctor Morrow had told him once, after Bobby had smashed up a classroom full of chairs. He hadn’t known quite why he had done it, although a part of him did but wouldn’t tell. It was anger, anger and rage at being the way he was, too big for his body and too small in mind. Anger and fear sat inside him like two hateful twins and sometimes they came out and upset the applecart. These were the times when Bobby went to pay a visit to Doc Morrow and he spoke to Bobby in a voice so calm and even, it sounded like honey in the air. Bobby sometimes wished Doc could marry ma and sometimes he saw the way the two looked at each other and thought they did too. But a gold wedding ring sat on his finger like a shield, deflecting the love from ma’s eyes and keeping them apart.
Think, think, think…
Bobby looked at a wall that was covered with graffiti. Football tags and people’s names and rude walls and parts of the body that Bobby recognised but did not understand, not really, and…and birds. In amongst all the bad pictures that ma had always tried to shield him from but never quite succeeded, there were a pair of birds flying inside the wall. They were thin looking things, all wings and no body, no shape, but to Bobby they looked like the prettiest pair of birds in the world. He kept his eyes on their wings, on their half-formed beaks and managed to edge further down the road to get a closer look. Nothing else mattered, not the looming buildings, not the dirty kerbs, just the pair of young, single coloured birds in flight. From far away, he heard the shuffle of his own feet moving, but everything else was tied to the birds. Finally, he was at the wall.
Luckily, the birds, which he had decided were rooks, sat in the centre of the wall, within reach. Bobby was six feet and two inches and had no trouble pushing up to touch them. For a long time, he laughed at being as tall as six pairs of feet and this had made ma laugh too, but she had made him concentrate on facts like that, too, because they were important. He knew his multiplication table, how much a pound weighed and understood shapes and sizes. Bobby had been taken out of school: he wasn’t kicked out but he was never invited back in, either. It felt, to Bobby, as if he’d just…fallen out one day and no-one ever asked him back. Ma had taught him plenty of things. There’s what you learn in school, she said and what you need to know in life. So, sure, Bobby didn’t know Pythagoras from Paris but he did know things. He knew how to fix a leaky bath, how much change came from a note and how to wire a plug in near darkness.
‘Ornithology,’ people called it, but bird-watching was what it was. Why did Bobby love it? No-one knew, not even ma. If he was ever asked, not that anyone would, he would tell them about a day; an ordinary day, not bad not one of the good, but a day with a clear sky that revealed a flock of seagulls that made it the best. Why didn’t everyone bird watch? It was free: everyone had the sky; everyone knew where to look for birds-straight up in the sky! People all over the world could hear them, see them, and follow them. If he met a man from Timbuktu, they would have that in common, at least.
Ma had once bought him a book with pictures and details and everything you needed to know about birds. It had cost her a lot of money, he knew that, and he hugged her so fiercely he thought they both might have popped right then and there. And if they had…that would have been okay. That birthday, the day of the bird book, had been the happiest day of his life. Ma had cooked his favourite meal and the two of them had washed the dishes together, the radio played in the background. The day had been dry and they’d walked around the park with their coats over their arms and no-one had said anything mean, as if they knew it was his birthday and deserved a day of peace. At night she had slipped the book over the table to him and he had opened it and then there had been the hug. He had gone to bed that night with an idea that his heart was a balloon and heavy with all the love he felt that day. One of those tears ran down the side of his face but it was this one time it was a thing of joy. The next day, when he woke, the tail of it had dried down the side of his cheek, leaving a scar of happiness, like a silver blade, across his skin.
Bobby put his fingertips against the wall and touched the wingtips of the birds. The brick was crumbly and uneven and felt almost like rough plumage. He smiled, imagining a bird with feathers flecked with stone: what a strange, fantastic creature it would be! He drew back his hand, surprised to find it clean and dry and stared hard at the wall. For a second, everything around it was gone and only the birds sat in the centre of the stone. It was like a dream but with his eyes wide open, and Bobby wondered if this was something like a small miracle. A smile, the first since ma had gone, began to creep onto the corners of his mouth. A car raced by, beeping its horn, bringing him back and wiping it from his face. The car raced on, a fat, spoiled face craning out and screaming something back at him, making all the dirty graffiti come back to the wall and buried the birds. Bobby walked on.
The local shop came into sight and Bobby saw just how many people seemed to pass through the small high street every day. There were plenty of folks that his ma had known but without her by his side, they fell back into being strangers. The boys and girls were out of school and moved so quickly, it was like they were already moving on before they’d even started. Bobby remembered not to follow the school kids too closely. Once, after a man had done a terrible thing, people had tried to say it was Bobby. Letters had come through the door and once, paint had splashed against the window of ma’s house. The poor girl’s father told the police what he had done after going to church and everything went back to normal, but ma didn’t speak to certain people after that day and she made Bobby remember them. He thought of those folks as the paint-splashers and gave them a wide birth whenever they appeared on the street.
Bobby had asked ma why the father had done what he did. Ma opened her mouth to speak but then closed it. Instead, she just gripped his hand and held it tightly. Somehow, he knew what it was she was trying to tell him, even without speaking. He wondered sometimes, if she had ‘telepathy,’ and tried to decide if it was something he would want or not. Sometimes he wondered what babies were thinking while they sat in their prams and he had the idea that to find out would be something like the most special feeling on earth. But then he saw adults, how creased their foreheads were, how ugly their eyes burned and he felt scared at even knowing the first thing about them. It was one of those things, like beauty and Elvis Presley, his ma would describe as, ‘both a blessing and a curse.’
Bobby walked up to the shop and drew in another gigantic suck of fresh air. Without ma by his side, his left arm actually felt weightless. If he looked away from the shop door, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see his left arm drift away into the air like a balloon. When he looked at the reflection in the glass door, for a moment he did; it was a pretty sight, the fingers still, the elbow crooked like a wing. Bobby almost smiled at the pretend sight of it, and then shook his head and stiffened. It was one of those times when he had to, ‘not have his head in the clouds’ but ‘keep his feet firmly on the ground’-ma. He blinked once and then plunged forward, using his floating left hand to grip the door handle; he tensed, making sure it was solid and not at risk of drifting away and then turned the door and stepped forward.
The bell rang and again, that sensation of weightlessness rode over him. Without ma at his side, he immediately veered a little to the side, almost brushing over a tin of beans. He righted himself and walked firmly down the aisle. He scooped the shopping list out of his pocket and again saw his hand was trembling. The paper started to go limp under his fingers, feeling like a dying fish in his palm and for a moment, Bobby thought he might scream or start pulling everything from the shelves until the whole shop, the whole mess, was on the floor and he’d either spend his whole day cleaning up and saying sorry for all the trouble he’d caused or just storm out, like the mean people who said the bad words about him, who sent ‘vile’ letters to ma, who hated him because he was different, who sent ma to heaven when he still wanted her to be on earth, leaning against his left arm and-
“Bobby?” The voice was quiet but not small and in a second drew him back from the rage that was pouring over him. He looked over and saw Jill, the shop assistant, who smiled at him and looked down to his list. It wasn’t a smile that you gave to someone you loved, but it wasn’t a fake smile either. It was a smile people offered up in the street to a stranger if they were happy that day, or wanting to do good things.
“Is that you’re ma’s shopping list?” She said and as she spoke her fingers kept moving until they touched the piece of paper. If they kept travelling forward, our fingers would touch and then I would be in love forever, Bobby thought and let the list slip out of his hand and into her fingers. Her nail polish was pale blue, but had a spidery webbed pattern inside it. It was meant to be a something else, he knew, but to Bobby, all he could see were the curves and ridges of bird’s feathers.
“It’s quiet, so I thought maybe I could help,” she went on. In her other hand, she was already holding a basket-a basket Bobby had forgotten to claim-and dropped the first item into it. The way she moved was graceful and again thoughts of birds filled his mind; the way they soared into the sky and cut through the air.
“Thank you…thank you for helping me,” Bobby said, as another can dropped from her fingers. “I forgot the basket…”
“You must have a lot on your mind,” she said, looking away from the aisle and right into his eyes. It was the first time a woman had ever looked straight at him and not looked away straight after. Her eyes were blue and matched her nail polish. Was that deliberate? Bobby didn’t know.
“My boss would give me hell, but we’re so quiet in this hour, I don’t think he’ll complain.” The basket was almost full now and Bobby wondered where the time had gone. The relief Bobby felt for it to be over was fighting with something else, the feeling that he never wanted this moment to be over. He thought about the morning when it snowed and pushed these few minutes alongside it as his best time. The two of them walked to the counter. He watched the numbers as they appeared on the screen and when it was over he gave her the note, the correct note, and carefully waited for the change. As the coins dropped into his hand, the tip of her nail brushed against his palm.
“If you’d like, Bobby,” she said, as he carefully packed the items into two bags; heavy items on the bottom, eggs always last-ma. He looked up and saw her face crease a little, not knowing whether to speak or not. “I could hold onto the list and leave it behind the till, for when you visit each week. How does that sound?”
“That’s good…” Bobby said, feeling his cheeks flush. There’s was something else, something more, that his mind was trying to push out of his mouth and it was almost there. “Kind of you.”
“Well, you’re welcome,” she said and smiled a beaming smile that made Bobby take a step back. He was glad he had two heavy bags to carry; otherwise, he may have fallen back far enough to knock over the cake stand behind him.
“Goodbye,” she said, still smiling.
“Bye,” Bobby said.
Bobby adjusted the bags around his fingers until all the weight was settled across his hand. A car blared past, beeping its horn. An ugly young man screamed something over the din of the music. Bobby looked back to the shop and suddenly thought how far away Jill seemed now he was back on the street. The buildings still loomed, grim and casting log shadows. There were good people and there were bad people, Bobby’s mind whispered and he realised that was his own thought, his own decision. There were folks like his ma, Jill and then those cruel people, full of noise and hate. Bobby walked on, the shopping heavy but not a burden. As he came to the graffiti wall, the two birds shone in the heart of the stone. Another thought rolled into his mind, alongside the previous one: so many beautiful things, so many ugly things. He kept his eye on the birds, careful not to bump into anyone as he looked back, until the wall was out of sight. He pushed the gate that squeaked and then studied the flowers, identifying which needed water first of all.
Bobby packed away the shopping, with the radio on, until both plastic bags were empty. He went to the drawer in the kitchen and found ma’s notes. Clutching them, he wandered the rooms until he found the oil can. That task achieved, he next filled a jug of water and left both items by the front door. Last of all, he opened the door and propped it open with his spare coat, the thick one he wore in winter, so the door wouldn’t close while he was busy with his chores.
He oiled the gate first; wiping his hands and making sure his nails did not get too dirty. After the first job was done, he hunkered down and poured water into the soil, careful not to flood the roots, ma’s voice a constant in his ear. Never telling him, but just guiding him in the right direction, so the mistakes he made were small and things he could learn from. He crouched on his haunches and thought about the graffiti birds sprayed on the wall. Around town, there was a lot of graffiti; old folks complained about it, which made it more popular with the kids. Bobby looked at his watch and read the time. He had a lot of the day left before it got dark. He could walk around town; searching out more graffiti birds until he found his very own flock. A flock of beautiful birds only he would know about. It was something he had never done before, had never even thought about before, but now…now he could, if he wanted to. It wasn’t raining, the sky was clear and the sense of the shopkeeper Jill’s nail in his palm burned and bloomed in his heart, giving him the strength to do anything. Somewhere inside Bobby, his ma guided his eyes out to the gate and the world outside their home. She was telling him to be careful but she wasn’t stopping him. Bobby looked up from the flowers to the sky. Overhead, a pair of starlings soared.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER.