It’s time I returned to the archives for another short story. Here’s a favorite…
Birdie? Yes, I knew Birdie.
The third house from the end, on our side of the street; that’s where Birdie lived, and had lived ever since I could remember. He was a part of my growing up, someone I either met, saw or heard every day from my first walk to school right up to the time when I moved to the city. Birdie was an institution, a fixture, a feature of the street. If you wanted to sell your house to someone, you told them about Birdie. He added color. When friends came to supper, they asked about him.
“How’s Birdie these days?”
“Oh, fine. Same as usual.”
Birdie played a piano accordion: not well, but enthusiastically. When you walked past, you’d suddenly find your steps being matched by a loud Souza march. Looking up, you’d see Birdie’s grinning face at his window and his fingers flying across the keys as he belted the music out of that old squeeze-box, completely unashamed of the odd missed note.
Most people who lived in our street had attitude where kids were concerned. I blame that on Baz. Baz was my mate, and we still communicated, if you know what I mean, right up to five years ago, although Baz had trouble with words of more than one syllable and he couldn’t spell even those. Text-speak came as a lifeline to Baz.
Baz’s problem was existence. His, I mean. If he didn’t turn up, everything went fine. When he did, nothing went fine. Baz could make a discussion out of ‘hello’. Baz could make an argument out of any discussion, and Baz’s arguments always ended up with Baz hitting someone. So most people in our street had attitudes where kids were concerned; because kids meant Baz, and Baz broke windows – and legs.
Now Birdie never shared those attitudes; somehow, when us kids went visiting Birdie, Baz would become as quiet as the mice we knew lived in Birdie’s kitchen, although they never came right out and admitted it.
Birdie loved kids – no, I don’t mean in some covert, perverse way – though if he had I don’t suppose we would have realized. He somehow knew what we were tuned into, he could read our needs and fulfill our dreams in his inimitably simple way. He was the one who discovered Baz’s love of magic, so he took a lot of trouble making boiled eggs appear behind Baz’s ears, and setting up the card tricks that always, always mystified my poor, really very susceptible friend. Mara, he understood her love of fairy cakes, so every time Mara and I popped in the door, there’d be a plate of cakes somewhere about the place.
Mara’s girth underwent subtle expansion with the years. Her parents could never figure out why, but I knew.
As for me, I was an absolute junky for science fiction – anything that could fly was a spaceship, and Captain Kirk was my all-time hero. The first time he found out, Birdie stopped playing his accordion (he was halfway through ‘Danny Boy’, just at the ‘it’s I’ll be here’ bit) and took me by the shoulder.
“Feel that?” His hand was gripping my collar bone.
“Nah.” I said; then: “Feel what?”
“The tingle, lad. The vibration.” And do you know, I thought I could, a bit. Birdie’d do that to you.
“Whoa! What’s that then, Birdie?”
“It’s the residual charge at the periphery of a force-field, lad! There’s a very powerful anti-matter disturbance.”
“Wha’ – in here?”
“Yes, son, in here. This house was built – wait for it – on the very edge of a time-space continuum! Aye!” Birdie struck a dramatic cord on his bass keys.
Humor him. “Aw! It’s close, is it?”
“Aye, very. In a different dimension, mind you, but close. No more than a couple of miles below us!”
“Why can’t we see it?”
“Because I keep it contained, lad: I have to! There’s a worm-hole leads directly from this room!”
In spite of myself, I felt I was seeing Birdie’s room for the first time. I looked everywhere, and a little, believing part of me wanted to see that worm-hole, even though I didn’t really know what it would look like. “What happens if you step on it?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d never do that! And neither must you. One touch and you’ll drop through into another universe! You’ll never be seen again!”
“That’s not safe!” Mara had been silent all this time, busy demolishing one of Birdie’s cakes, but one look at her told me Birdie had got her absolutely hooked. She was standing staring at us with her frosting-smeared mouth open, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“Oh, it’s all right, lass!” Birdie soothed. “I told ye, I’ve got it contained. That there table is right over the top of it.”
Saucer-eyed, Mara and I gazed at Birdie’s heavy old Victorian dining table. A massive mahogany construction of prodigious proportions, it had been in the centre of the room for as long as I could remember. In my recollection though, I had never before shown such interest in the stacks of wooden boxes jammed beneath it. Crawling examination of Birdie’s worm-hole was not an option.
“You’ve never moved that table?” I challenged him. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see?”
“I daren’t, lad.”
“Scared you might fall in?”
“Scared what might come through from the other side, more like! I’ve heard noises, lad. I’ve heard them trying! In the night-time they come. Its a good job that table’s heavy as it is, mind. They’d be through!”
“What – aliens? Like, real aliens?”
“Must be, aye.”
Just then, Baz’s football thumped against the outside wall of the house, which was Baz’s usual way of announcing himself, and the spell was broken. By the time I came to remind myself of Birdie’s science fiction tale, it had reduced to a pleasing exercise of the imagination; no more or less than all his other tales.
I suppose our parents must have had ambivalent feelings about Birdie, even in those innocent, far-off days. They enjoyed deriding his rough, untutored music, or making social capital out of his eccentric dress (he never wore socks, for example), or his untidy home. When he ventured out into the street, which was rare, his loud, yellow check trousers prompted my Dad to call him Rupert, though I never found out why. His brown cardigan had leather patches on the elbows, and holes everywhere else.
Mrs. Purberry from number 42, ‘Dunborrowin’, pronounced her usual verdict upon anyone who lived alone: “What that man needs is a good woman.” Others were less kind, but suffered his proclivities because his love of us kids gave us somewhere to go on wet afternoons when our Mums needed a ‘bit of peace’, so no-one would ignore him if they met him in the street, and no-one could ignore that piano-accordion when he began to play.
These are old memories. As the years passed my friends and I grew out of that childhood wonderland at the third house from the end. I confess, with sadness, how readily Birdie was forgotten. Maybe others took our places to listen to Birdie’s playing, I can’t say for sure. I went to University, Mara went to Art College and Baz went to jail. The best part of twenty years passed before I chanced to ask my mother, on one of my occasional trips home from the City, about Birdie.
“Still wears those bloody awful trousers!” She said cheerfully. “And still playing that bloody awful squeeze-box of his.” Then she added darkly: “He’s married now, you know: or at least, he says he is.”
“Well, let’s put it this way. No-one in this street was invited to the wedding, if there was one. But if you’re visiting, prepare yourself. She’s a gorgeous girl! Middle eastern, I think. We all believe she’s a mail order bride.”
That was it! I set off as soon as I decently could for the third house from the end. The differences in the place were obvious; curtains in the windows, new paint, a gleaming blue car standing outside.
Birdie answered the door, looking a little older, maybe, but he had one of those faces that belied the years. “Why, if it isn’t… You took your time, lad. I thought we’d lost you! Come in, meet the wife!”
Admitted to that parlor where so many fantasies had been spawned, I absorbed the shock all grown-ups must accept when they return to the places they knew when they were young: how small it was, how unlike the room I remembered. The gargantuan table that had seemed so formidable was just a table, and it no longer dominated the centre of the room but was placed against the wall. There was no sign of the wooden boxes.
“No worm-hole, then, Birdie?”
Was there just a brief hesitation before he laughed at me? “Why no, we closed that up long ago!”
“I didn’t think you could.” I answered lamely, feeling foolish.
“Terrible things, those wormholes!”
“Yes.” I felt awkward, beginning to wish I hadn’t come.
“Here’s the wife! Let’s have some tea!”
As she floated in through the door from the kitchen, I could see why my mother had guessed Birdie’s wife was Eurasian, though I knew instantly she was not. Her skin was not quite olive in color, her height exceeded her husband’s, yet she was impossibly slender and elegant in build; almost wand-like. Her greeting was augmented by a slow smile and she extended a hand to me.
“You’re meant to place it on your cheek.” Birdie said. “That’s how we greet each other.”
So I took her two-fingered hand in mine and her warmth coursed through me; the same warmth, I was sure, that gave her a soft green glow in the twilight of the curtained room. “Hello.” I said, as soon as I trusted myself to speak. I raised those fingers to my cheek and the tingle, the vibration Birdie taught me to feel all those years ago flooded my being once more.
“So you did let someone through.” I said.
“You’re right. Just one.” Birdie said. “We can’t close worm-holes, but Araguaar can.”
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Photo Credit: Romberger Sound Productions on Pixabay