WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Cage of Feathers

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by Jessica Scott

Peter, my husband, lay there in the bed, unconscious and grey with tubes hanging from him. His limbs sprawled outwards as if he had made invisible roots that were stretching him through the cold floor, layers of foundational concrete and into the earth below.

As I held his hand, he stirred, confused. He smiled, as if I was a nightingale, bringing the sound of the world into his confines.

‘Annabella,’ he whispered so quietly. A ghost of a voice. He was just hanging on.

I was new in town and reckless, but he gave off waves of calm peacefulness, as he slid past me in the door after my unsuccessful interview for office assistant. His hair was blond and it curled into a slight quiff. He had soft features. Not sharp like mine. I wanted something of what he had. I was informed he got the job, but a month after, I saw him in the shop I now worked in. He was behind another man and I didn’t see him till he was close to my counter.

‘Could you copy that?’ he asked. It was his CV. ‘Three copies. That should do, I think. I don’t have a printer at home, you see.’

My supervisor wasn’t around.

‘Who do you think I am, your office slave?’ I was so bitter and it was the first thing that came out of my mouth. He irritated me, but I wanted to take it back.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

I was reluctant to tell him. I didn’t know why he wanted to know it, but I did anyway. ‘Annabella,’ I said.

‘I’m Peter,’ he replied. ‘I dropped that job.’

I was silent for a while as I focused on his order.

‘Did you hear me?’ he said.

‘Of course I did. So what? I can’t have the job just because you dropped it, can I?’ I hissed at him.

‘Don’t snap my face off, I’m only trying to be kind,’ he said.

‘Well, don’t.’

He looked behind, so he could check out if there was a queue forming. There wasn’t. It was a dead mid-week afternoon. In any other circumstance he would be my dream man, but I didn’t want to get attached.

‘Annabella, you’re so beautiful,’ he sighed. ‘You know, your uniform hardly gives your figure justice.’

‘Who’s fault is that?’ I said. I blamed him for the uniform, for not getting the job I wanted.

‘I’m trying to give you a compliment,’ he said, smiling.

Somehow his smile reached down inside me and I realised how silly I was being.

‘I know. I feel like I’m wearing a sack.’ I didn’t know what I was saying. It wasn’t like me at all. Or it was like me, but I had tried to be cold and indifferent since my last bombsite of a relationship.

‘You don’t realise the power you’ve had over me. I’ve been thinking about you over the past month.’

I didn’t want to be admired, but I liked the compliment, even if it was cheesy. He made me promise that I would come with him to see a film.

I kissed his forehead. He didn’t have enough strength to reach his lips to mine, so I lowered my head for him and let his lips brush my cheek. He wasn’t like the man I had come to love and yet he was the same.

He kissed me and I felt as exhilarated as a returning homing pigeon. His eyes were searchlights in the dark. He had found me. I had found him. It didn’t matter which, but I was home. This strange man with his familiar ways was more home to me than my wings taking flight into the empty sky, the endless road and the eternal, restless drive to get away, to move on. I was always moving on. I never wanted to be caged, but I let him put his arms protectively around me. It was lovely in the cold dark night to have him there instead of the chilly car seat hugging me and the wheel at my hands.

He gently toyed with my engagement ring. He used to do that when there was something on his mind. Even after we were married, it was still the engagement ring.

I never meant myself to be his, but I let him slip the ring onto my finger like the ring onto a bird’s leg. I pushed the ring onto his finger. It gave resistance at the joint, as if his body was rejecting me. I wanted him so much I hardly noticed.

There were no bridesmaids to throw the flowers to. On my side of the family, I had my dad, and a few distant cousins. I never told Peter that I didn’t much care for them, but he had at least thirty on his side, and I was glad then that they had come to bulk out the numbers.

I wasn’t sure if my dad was even going to arrive. I had written a letter to him. I still remember what I’d said.

Dad,

I am marrying a man called Peter Hill. He’s a good man and would never hurt me. Not like John. I want you to come to the wedding and this time, give me away... properly. Don’t get drunk. His family are respectable people. If you don’t come, my day will be a disaster and I don’t know who else can give me away.

If it all goes to plan, it’s going to be a lovely wedding day. I have a stunning sequinned dress. It sparkles like there are diamonds on it. It’s puffy. Wear something smart, please.

Whatever you do, don’t mention John to Peter. Everyone else knows not to. Peter would only get upset. It’s at All Saints’ Church, Dovecote Road, on Thursday 5th June at 2.00 P.M.

P.S. Don’t drink the free beer at the end. I have asked Cousin Callum to make sure you don’t. I’m telling you so don’t pick a fight with him, if he tries to pull you away from the booze.

Don’t ruin my day. Mum wouldn’t... if she was here.

My dad behaved. Everything was better than had I hoped for. The confetti rained on Peter and I. Peter looked so happy. The flash of the camera was like lightening, threatening. The thunder of wings suddenly exploded from a basket and everyone stared.

A cousin’s child shouted, ‘look Mummy!’ Five beautiful white doves were flying in the air.

I looked at Peter, smiling in surprise. He knew that I would love them. He was just so wonderful...

‘We didn’t even get round to having children,’ said Peter. Behind those words was the secret void he would never allude to. I had told him I didn’t want it. A child like ours was too painful to go through again. I had told him not yet, every time he asked, but inside, hanging like stalactites were the words, ‘not ever,’ that could at any moment drop and pierce the heart of our marriage.

It lay on the hospital table. I had insisted on seeing it. Peter sat, lifeless, not even daring to look at it. I stared, shocked, scared. I hadn’t wanted it, but now that it was here, born dead, I- I... It was like a wrinkled baby bird, longing even from the womb to be free, independent, to live.

I pushed the bed table close to him. The food lay untouched, but Peter needed to eat. On the plate, egg splattered like shrapnel. Among it, soldiers lay, lined up like buttered corpses, already gone to battle. A cup of muddy brown tea was placed beside it.

I was making an omelette. Peter was still at work. I was hungry. The yellow yolks slopped into the bowl. I was cracking open the last shell and it opened onto a sea of blood. Not like the little red spots that I occasionally found. This was worse. The whole of the yoke and the liquid around was crimson. My hands shook. I dropped it all into the bowl. It oozed into the bowl like a dead body that had been through a blender, condensed and concentrated.

I felt sick. I ran upstairs and curled in my bed, waiting for Peter to come. The disturbing image lay with me, unfolding profoundly in my head. It had been alive once. It had been alive. It was dead like—like—my baby.

Peter’s key sounded in the door. ‘Anabella?’ he shouted.

‘I’m up here,’ I said, trying not to make my voice sound weak. I brushed away a few escaped tears.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. I didn’t hear any more of him for a while. Perhaps he had seen the cause. Then he came up.

‘It’s gone,’ he said. I fell into his arms, thankful that I had him.

Doctor Phillips popped his head round the door and said, ‘Mrs Hill, nice to see you.’

I was still surprised by the doctor’s manner of talk, though I had grown to know him well. Nice? Why would it be nice? My husband’s in hospital and he says nice. I try to keep calm. I know it wasn’t intentional, but his words and his grating voice still manage to get under my skin.

‘I suppose you know that visiting hours are over?’ the doctor continued. ‘Mrs Hill? Why are you looking at me like that?’

I must have given him a glare.

‘Doctor,’ Peter pleaded. ‘Can’t she stay a little longer?’

‘Well.’ He looked between us, seeing the fourth dimension of our marriage: an invisible string tied between our pumping, living hearts. ‘Well, I suppose another half an hour won’t hurt. Just don’t let the nurses cotton on. Wait a minute, let me look at your charts. I need to check on any new developments while I’ve been away. I took the wife to Spain—Huhum,’ he cleared his throat, sensing it was not a good time to be telling us of his holidays while Peter was lying on the hospital bed. ‘Any worse?’ he asked Peter.

‘Worse than what?’ Peter said, bitterly. I gazed at Peter in surprise. He had suppressed his true feelings from me for as long as he could. Oh Peter, I thought, why didn’t you tell me?

‘Oh Peter, why didn’t you tell me? You should get it checked,’ I said.

‘But it’s embarrassing. I didn’t want to worry you,’ said Peter.

‘It’s natural. You shouldn’t be embarrassed. I was wondering why you were avoiding the bedroom lately. You could have told me. It might need checking, just in case.’

‘But it’s nothing,’ he insisted.

‘How do you know? It could be cancer or something,’ I said.

‘It’s not cancer.’

‘But you don’t know that. Just have it checked,’ I said. ‘For me?’

‘OK.’ He sounded defeated. ‘For you, but I bet it’s nothing.’

‘Would you like me to boost the painkillers?’ asked Doctor Phillips, placing the notes back onto the hook, on the end of the bed.

Peter nodded. The doctor gave him a higher dose and left us alone again.

Peter pointed to the Bible. I knew he wanted me to read it. I didn’t want to. I just wanted him forever. I know it was wrong, but I didn’t want God. Not if he was to take Peter’s place in my heart. God couldn’t take his form while Peter was slipping away.

I read, ‘... Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than any sparrows—’ I broke off. I couldn’t read anymore. I shut the heavy book, saddened, and stared at the golden words, ‘The Bible,’ against the blue cover.

‘Annabella, I need to know, do you believe in God?’

I knew he was going to say that. How did I know? He knew my answer. His lips curled down almost in pain for a moment, considering, praying.

‘Father, I know she doesn’t believe, but help her to have faith.’ I watched him from the ajar door. He didn’t know I was watching. It was like I was eavesdropping on a conversation.

‘Annabella needs you; she just doesn’t know it yet.’ Tears welled in his eyes and he choked on the words. ‘I pray that you will look after her... when I can’t...’ He stopped.

I stumbled around, announcing myself, when I would’ve rather gone over to him and comforted him. He coughed, stood up, removed his slippers and slid into the cold sheets. I switched off the bedside light and curled up next to him, silently. I kissed his face. His cheeks were wet, but he wouldn’t tell me. Not yet. But I knew something was wrong. It had to be.

‘Sing to me, Annabella,’ he said, all at once. I almost started crying. I had to be strong for him, I told myself. I held back the tears, but my heart was caught in my throat. How could I sing just like that? I waited a moment or two. My heart sank to my chest. I walked to the window and observed the ambulances outside coming to and fro.

Maybe I would fly away, when I needed space, but I was his. We were on our way back from a village church. It was Christmas Eve. My dad had died a year or two ago, which left us free to go to Peter’s family home tomorrow morning. The country houses were lit up like Christmas trees. I could see the tacky decorations covered a false gaiety, but I still looked on through the empty orange aura-filled windows. It was the same way that I looked down straight roads, with eagle’s eye, wondering where they led. It had taken me a long way off my original path, but I still needed more than life at a mere stop sign.

The night was opening up to me, telling me its secrets, but Peter’s mind was closed off in skull and caught up in following foggy country lanes.

‘I want to move,’ I blurted out. The headlights sought out a partridge walking in the road. The car didn’t stop. Peter was staring at me. I glanced at him. Why wasn’t he paying attention?

‘Peter!’ I screamed as he hit the bird with the bonnet. It leapt into the air, smacking into the screen in its futile escape of the wheels. It was thrown loose behind the car. He slammed the brakes on.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, a partridge dead on the road...

I came back to him. His eyes were an ocean, brimmed with a deep red. Until then, I hadn’t really noticed the spent tears. He wasn’t afraid of dying. It would be a release for him. And I knew as much that he had cried for me, the one left behind with years and years of loneliness. It hurt to look at those eyes. I stared at my lap and sang.

‘Moon River, wider than a mile,

I’m crossing you in style some day.

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,

wherever you’re going I’m going your way.

Two drifters off to see the world—’

I faltered as I turned to look down at his glazed eyes, his pale features freezing in my mind. I didn’t understand and then I was there above him, out of the seat, sobbing. How long had he been like that? Why hadn’t I looked at him?

He had taken his final breath and I didn’t know. I hadn’t known.

The nurses came in, their faces blurred by my tears. They pulled me away. I had to leave him for a moment. There was no hope for him. They were sorry. They left me alone to say goodbye, but it wasn’t him.

The road was ahead of me again. And I was alone. I couldn’t stay and wait till his family came. If I was with them, if I didn’t deny the pain, I think the grief would never stop. My tears blurred my vision. I wiped them away.

I lined up at the traffic lights. Where was I going? I had no idea.

I looked up to the ruby and pink ceiling of cloud and sky. Two small birds were flying, their wings touching for a moment. The first, unexpectedly, darted into the clouds, swifter than a single beat of my heart as if it had never been there at all. But the second bird pulled back, fluttered like a poppy in the wind and fell.

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