And for a time, it was enough.
For all the days of the summer she waited for his calls, for the
snatched hours, the fluttered, precarious meetings. He promised nothing, had
made his position clear from the start. She wordlessly stretched out in the
warmth, allowing what she had to be sufficient.
Then, one afternoon, under the low ceiling of her forest-facing room,
she watches him sleep. She notices the way that his hair falls back from his
brow, follows the rise and fall of his breath with her own. A pulse beats in
his eyelid. A foot twitches suddenly, and is still. She feels the warmth spread
to her very core, reaching deep into her entrails. And she feels them move in
It is just a flicker at first, a tremor, a barely discernable,
exploratory nudge. A moment passes, and when she exhales, she can feel them
inside her chest: tiny, determined, demanding. They are words, yes, she knows
this, but they have taken on shape and they want to fly; they are forcing their
way out, their wingbeats rhythmic and insistent:
‘I love you. I love you.
This cannot happen, this is not allowed; she lies motionless on the
bed, her lips clamped hard. She will not let them out. She will keep them
nested in her heart.
But already they are beating at her throat. Again she watches his
chest rise and, without will or volition, reaches out to trace his eyelid with
a soft touch. The wings are behind her mouth now, gathering force, the hard
edges of the beaks peremptory on the back of her teeth. She leans closer, her
voice a breath’s whisper, and lets the words escape: there is an imperceptible
disturbance of the air as they scatter, to fill every fold of abandoned
clothing, to lodge under fingernails and to settle in the dust of corners and
He stirs, a mere shiver of the skin, a tremor of the eyelids, and then
sinks once more to oblivion.
She finds herself drawn, over the days that follow, to forgotten
shelves and sleeping books. Her fingers turn page after page of the coloured
plates of Victorian ornithologists. She has no interest in the larger birds,
the eagles and seagulls, the pheasant or grouse. Instead, her eyes linger on
the wren and the goldcrest, the whitethroat and the warbler as they strut over
the pages with their unblinking gaze. These are the birds that exist half-seen
in the hedges that encircle her garden and border her walks. She leaves crumbs
on the grass, feeling her own birds stir, shift and nestle.
She has been to his house before, to evening parties with wine and
olives and discussions of schools and holidays and the financial situation. The
kitchen in daylight is bright, a jumble of everyday toys and books spilling
onto the floor as she sits and watches his wife. They are not more than
socially acquainted, but this morning there was a chance meeting outside of the
Post Office and an offer of coffee. So here she is in his kitchen, watching his
wife as she pours coffee into mugs and searches for the biscuit tin. But, while
they talk and laugh, discovering more than one interest in common, she is
studying the photographs on the walls: the wedding, the babies, the family
holidays. She thinks, I know that this is not enough.
And then her birds begin to stir. But she feels the drag of a damaged
wing, a falter in their song. She looks at her watch, gasps an excuse, and
takes them away.
Her feet lead her to the museum where she sits in front of the glass
case containing the collection of hummingbirds. The museum is quiet at this
time of day, the empty space muting the comments of the only other visitors,
who soon leave for the café and gift shop. They do not see her.
The hummingbirds are up on a gallery, a corridor with no exit reached
by slyly elaborate marble stairs. The bench which faces the display backs up to
the balustrade, and there is no way of sitting which avoids the bumps and curls
of the carved stone. The hummingbirds are no less uncomfortable, hooked onto
their foreign branches, so many together and all so still. Their feathers
remind her of silken brocade chairs, the colours of the once-shining threads
diminished by the passing of time; perhaps, hidden under the fold of a wing, on
the reverse of a feather, the hummingbirds keep secret remnants of ruby and
topaz, untouched by time or death.
Her birds fidget; they are confused: where is the movement, the
whirring, effortless hover? She calms them by thinking of the collector, now
reduced to dust and teeth, his grasping hands curled in fleshless
surrender. And then, just at the moment
when the agitation in her chest begins to settle, she seems to see a movement
from the carefully posed tableau behind the glass. It is hard to pin it down
exactly. When she looks directly at the area from which the movement appears to
originate, she sees nothing but a lifeless bird, its dulled feathers stretched
in a simulacrum of flight. She keeps her gaze in place, only for something to
shift on the other edge of her vision. And behind. And above.
Her first thought is that they have been mechanised, that there is a
timer switch setting off a few moments of tortured flapping and nodding. She
even searches for a penny slot. But this is no forced, metal-sprung action:
with infinite grace and unbearable lightness, the hummingbirds begin to dart
and hover, their passage fast and precise, their messages flashing out in a
semaphore of resurrected colour. From within, there is the soft noise of
chirruping. Her birds are happy, and they sit together and watch until, one by
one, the Calliope and the Berylline, the Ruby-throated and Violet-crowned,
Lucifer, Rufous and Magnificent return to their posts, settling, posing and
stiffening, their brilliance dying down once more to the sepia shades of
It is late in the summer when she goes to his home again, his family
having gone to the sea for an end of holiday treat. She watches him carefully,
collating his sentences as he loosens his tie and reaches for her hand. Since
the day that she watched him from the cover of trees as he left his office
together with the girl with the sweep of golden hair, she has been vigilant.
The evidence has mounted; she has been biding her time.
It is hot, and the air is heavy and presses down upon her head. She
lies on the unfamiliar bed, listening to the hiss and splash of the shower, and
wonders when the thunder will come. Is it her imagination, or is that the
opening rumble now, far, far away behind the hills, the black clouds
shouldering themselves upwards, readying themselves to make demands with
menaces? When he comes back into the room, drops of water still clinging to his
skin, she decides that she will, after all, make use of the shower.
The water is hot and efficient and she cannot discover how to change
the temperature, so she stands and feels each jet as it needles and burns
against her back and her scalp. When she can bear it no longer, she reaches for
a towel and steps out into a room which is indeed darkening with the
approaching storm. She walks carefully across the tiles and looks for her
reflection, but the mirror is clouded and can tell her nothing. The shelf below
the mirror holds pots and bottles of lotions and creams. She rubs the scent of
roses into her arms, dips a finger here, strokes serum into the length of her
When she comes back into the room, he is talking on his mobile and
gestures to her for silence. She edges past and he pulls her down: we don’t
want anyone to see you at the window, he mouths. As he drops his phone by the
side of the bed, a message flashes. It
is not from his wife.
The sky is black now, the weight of waiting stalling time before the
lightening rips its passage earthwards, thunder following with the split of an
axe in a gnarly, fibrous log. The electricity pricks at her scalp; he is
talking to her now, but the shapes from his lips make no sense.
The birds are coming again. She feels their strength as they rise in
her throat, tastes their bitterness and welcomes their rage. Talons hard as
tempered steel gouge at her vocal cords as each bird forces its passage out; her
windpipe knows the passing stroke of wings. Hooded, glancing eyes scan the room
They do not have to confer; they are experts in their field. And they
always start with the face.