“You want your usual?”
“Has she been in yet?” Russell Grimley was on edge. Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.
“Marika? No. She don’t come in this early. You want your usual?”
Russell gave a single eyebrow response. Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive. “And coffee.” Sol completed his order for him. “I’ll get it for you.”
Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery.
He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana. Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode. However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore. Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?
“Does it hurt?” Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off. Russell yelped.
“When did you first notice this?” The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.
“A couple of nights ago.”
“It was the pain, you felt?”
“No. It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that. I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something. Then, last night, worse.”
“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long. In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics. Any allergies?”
Mr. Greybasin, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely. At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.
“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr. Cringey…”
“It says here you are Cringey. Are you not Cringey? You seem to have the same complaint?”
“Never mind. Cringey will suffice. Can we do something? This is getting worse!”
Worse? Much worse. The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback. At work, his specially made jackets and his built-up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.
Mr Greybasin turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.
“Your case is most interesting. Most int-er-est-ing. Yes. The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome. Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”
“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae. There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”
“What are you saying – I’m like the Elephant Man? Can’t you do anything?”
“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”
In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable. His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts at sleeping, as had always been his custom, on his back. What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability. Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.
“You don’t look well, Russell! Why are you walking so odd? Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”
Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him. And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony. One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.
Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back. His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street. Unconsciousness, sweeping over him in a merciful grey veil, was his saviour at last.
In time he must wake, Russell told himself:whilst wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment. Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones. Was he awake after all? Was he drugged?
Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again. He tried turning his head to one side. Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense. He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realized, being Sol Abrahams’ nose! So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognize Sol, a moment more to see that the café proprietor, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him. There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!
Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk. “Let’s get this straight.” He said. “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”
“Yes. Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.” Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult. “I panicked!”
“You panicked? Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window? And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”
“These?” Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders. They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.
“Don’t!” Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created. “Don’t flap those things in here!”
“I didn’t think! I mean, when did I learn to fly like that? I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all. It all seemed so natural. Will he be all right?”
“I won’t lie to you. It was a heart attack. He’s doing OK. But what the hell do I do with you? Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again. So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”
“You could call my doctor. He’s been following my case.”
Mr Greybasin’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided. Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes. Eventually Mr Grebasin looked up.
“There can be no doubt about it.” He said. “You are a bird.”
“Is it curable?” Russell asked.
The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage. His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration.
His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition: “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”
Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide. The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss the smirk upon her face, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.
Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties. She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge. Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks. And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped. Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait? No, there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent. In May, they ceased altogether.
“It’s a miracle!” Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage. “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last. I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. 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