Birdie

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.”

“Birdie!  Married?”

“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

When a House is not a Home

It is no secret that property in UK is hard to come by, so when a Development Company announces a new private estate on our little corner of the sinking ship we feel compelled to take a look.   

One way to fill in that empty space on a Saturday?  Well, maybe. 

In moderate rain we queue obediently for our view of the ‘Show Home’.  The line is so long we do wonder if we have mistakenly joined the queue for the Tutankhamen exhibition, or maybe a football match no-one told us about.  And as it turns out Tutankhamen was not a bad analogy really:  if a sarcophagus can be maneuvered through a twenty-seven inch door the poor kid would have felt quite at home here.Image

 For the Show Home, something the construction company reluctantly admit you need if you haven’t built any actual houses yet, is a masterpiece of marketing science which is designed in every detail to give the prospective house owner an illusion of the opulence, of the modernity, even a little grandeur he will enjoy if only he can really buy furniture this small. 

We are inside, out of the rain.  We follow the soggy rift valley created by the tramping of a hundred feet through quality carpet.  To the left of the hallway (“excuse me – no, it’s OK – you go round that side and I’ll just put my arm under there…) is the Dining Room.  It is no accident it contains just a narrow table, six chairs, and no sideboard – there is no room for one.  Nevertheless it is perfectly accessible to dinner guests of waist size below 34 inches; and the table is the perfect size for a coffin.

To the right (“Sorry! Look I’ll just go back in and you come through?  You first.  Mind the table?”) is a sitting room or lounge:  a lounge looking spacious only because the suite with which it is furnished is minute.  A settee that looks in need of a square meal, two easy chairs modeled for that same 34 inch model guest.  Those with tape measures and keen eyes may descry the narrowness of the doors, the most observant may notice that this room (like all the rooms), is painted in very light colors with mirrors strategically placed to reflect light from tiny windows.   There are other touches of cunning; a Lilliputian standard lamp, a bookshelf for eight books (two more would intrude upon the headroom above the settee), a small flat-screen TV on the wall.

This a tale which repeats itself throughout our tour.  Two bedrooms each with four-foot double beds also contain full sets of fitted wardrobes, and though there is barely crawling room on either side of the beds these might be thought quite habitable if the designers had not started the roof early.  As it is, the further wall finishes (and the sloping roof starts) four feet from the floor.  The bed head is wedged into this reduced space so the only way to climb in would be to start at the foot of the bed and slide up.  Any couple wanting a little recreation in this bed would first be advised to buy helmets and be sure to remind themselves that whatever they did in the morning, they should sit up slowly.  When I comment upon the size of the beds a fellow viewer taps his nose knowingly.

“Could you get anything bigger up those stairs?”

We view the third bedroom, reassured in this case that such issues do not arise because this bedroom is too small for furniture.   Even the bunk bed the ‘house dressers’ have managed to fit in spreads across part of the doorway.  Does the door shut?  We decide not to try.

Bathrooms?  Yes, there were three.  An en-suite to the ‘master bedroom’ which we missed, frankly – it was presumably behind one of the doors we imagined to be wardrobes – a family bathroom, functional and all right for small families, and a downstairs bathroom.  Persons with larger waist dimensions might be advised to use the upstairs facilities, though, to avoid the humiliation of being stuck in an under-stairs cupboard.

We are directed to exit through a galley kitchen beneath the accusing stainless stare of an extremely dominant oven and its underling, a rather apologetic fridge.  Emerging into open air with that elation one feels when leaving Ryanair after a traumatic flight we find ourselves following a roped walkway to the Sales Area.

An indifferent sales girl puts down her mobile ‘phone for long enough to advise us of our choice’s high standards of insulation, superior build, and economical use of energy (hardly surprising when in so small a space the temperature would be significantly raised by lighting a match).   We are buying no mere house, she says mechanically:  no, we are moving up to our Dream Home.

How much is our Dream Home?   

Apparently we must look at options.  Do we want to consider Economy Pack One, Popular Pack Two, or Luxury Pack Three?

No, I won’t bore you.  Suffice it to say that to gain a fuel-efficient heating system, a fitted kitchen (including that formidable dominatrix of a cooker) and a security alarm we need Pack Three.  Economy Pack One, as far as we can ascertain, comprises a lorry and three pallet-loads of bricks.

Pack Three, then – is how much?

Apparently we have to consider options.  Do we want their specially-tailored Home Buyer Finance Scheme?  The Bank Endorsed Easy-Plan  fixed term…..

No; just the price.

One Hundred and Sixty Thousand.

When we have regained our feet we do go so far as to ask where our particular property would be.

A disinterested nod towards the wall, whereon a large white map is pinned.  “There.”

This map is very white – so white that barely a mark or a line exists.  There are outlines for plots, but they are neither  numbered nor identified.  There is a space where a street will run, and nothing else.  Already disillusioned we have not far to travel to reach this point.  

We are there to buy a house – a house which does not yet exist.  Not a brick has been laid.   Until we have been stitched up / exchanged contracts we are not entitled to know upon which plot our house will stand, or even when it will be completed.  We are being invited to pay one hundred and sixty thousand pounds for an unspecified patch of mud before the developers will even consider building a house upon it.  Would we like to see the end of the site where our house will be?  We thank the salesgirl, but the Livingstone spirit has been exhausted for today. 

Back at our home of twenty years now, the final decision over a glass of whiskey is easy.

We have a daytime television show in Britain called ‘Escape to the Country’ in which a hirsute presenter takes well-heeled couples on a tour of their chosen county in search of a home.

The demands and stipulations of these house-hunters follow a pattern:  a house with ‘features’, sanitation (what is the collective noun for bathrooms?) and a couple of acres upon which to raise alpaca, ostriches, horses, or goats.   They might also express a need to be near the coast, to have a mooring for their narrowboat, maybe some rocks to indulge their past-time of base jumping.  Almost invariably one of the partners will declare their intention to ‘work from home’ – usually in the area of holistic medicine or counselling.

Mostly their price range follows a pattern, too.  Upwards of half a million quid.  The show rarely patronizes buyers on a tighter budget, relying upon the glamor of those upmarket homes it chooses to parade before our bedazzled eyes:  how long will it be, we wonder, before we, too, can afford to live like this?

No, I’m not jealous.  Well, okay, maybe a little; enough to be forgiven the quiet snigger of a country boy born and raised who knows how deep are the cracks in the country idyll.  Tractors at dawn, that refreshing odor of silage, the respectful language of a neighbor who lets his cows graze among the ‘townie’s’ carefully nurtured hollyhocks; sins all of which pale into insignificance the first time they encounter a combine harvester head-on in a narrow country lane.     

But theirs is a different reality – as far apart from the rest of us as a colony on Mars.  Searching for our new home we travel in a world where TV cameras durst not go, even were they able to fit.  For most of us, purchasing a ‘Dream Home’ will mean a lifetime of debt and placing ourselves at the tender mercies of the great house-building corporations. Desperate as we are we will accept almost anything.  An advantage which has not escaped the big constructors, who predate upon our situation at every turn.

Some stats:

British average living space per family is the smallest in the western world.   The average new home, at 76 square metres and 4.8 rooms, is 80% smaller than its Danish equivalent.  In Holland the difference is 53%.  Comparisons with USA and Australia do not bear thinking about – 214 and 203 square metres respectively.     Crowding impacts on health, on relationships and on social activity at every level – the cost to the National Health Service of overcrowding is estimated at £1.8 billion.  And despite loud protestation to the contrary, the issue is not price or availability of land – estimates for the cost of increasing minimum house dimensions to a more reasonable model are really quite low – negligible in terms of profit.

Yet for mainly political reasons we allow very profitable property companies to dominate the market and exploit the use of land to extremes.  Driven by dire warnings of housing shortage we seem willing to accept wildly inflated prices for dolls houses – the slums of tomorrow – in spite of evidence which warns us to avoid.   The Great British Housing Crisis is not today:   it is of a day yet to come.

 

Contemplation

I have a nightmare in which a little girl runs towards me with arms outstretched crying “Daddy!  Daddy!”

“I’m sorry, sweet child.  Should I know you from somewhere?”

Where’s a lawyer when you need one?  There should be an app for that.

As ‘Father’s Day’ recedes into a past littered with ‘Card Days’ I find myself looking over a difficult fence – you know, the one with ‘Beware, Live Children’ written on it – and wondering at the whole business that has become ‘Parenting’.

You see, when I grew up we didn’t have ‘Parenting’.  The average family in the average street had a mother, a father and a couple of kids, and they all rubbed together in their different ways and an instinctive, unwritten thing called social structure held it in shape. 

If the husband at number forty-two had an uncertain temper it was accepted, or if the mother at number twelve had a ‘drink problem’ it was tolerated.  Both were known, both were ‘talked about’ and if anything went seriously wrong the street was first to know and first to act.  Acceptance and ostracism were controls.  If Mum was too drunk to let you in when you came back from school there was always ‘Auntie’ Beth next door to go to while Mum sobered up.  Only rarely did a major issue require intervention of the law, usually a fatherly visit from the local constable, who was a figure of fear and awe, at least where I was concerned.  Family counseling, parenting classes, child psychology, all these peripherals were just that, where they existed at all.  Peripheral.   Where you didn’t know how, or you didn’t do as you should, the street taught you with a subtlety only social structure can apply.

I paint a rosy picture, don’t I?  And yes, I admit it had its failings sometimes, but before you level the accusation of rose-tinted nostalgia, look around at what you have now.  Is it so much better?  Is it in any way better?

Where school authority once stopped at the school gate it now hangs over every parent’s life, from the vital choice of the ‘right’ school to the constant demands for extra participation.  Where ‘Social Services’ was once a rather dubious little lady who prowled about for six weeks after your child was born it now marches in armed battalions down the street.  The street where no-one talks, where there are no kangaroo courts at the corner co-op anymore, and the child of the drunk lady at number twelve has no idea who lives at number thirteen.  And the police won’t visit until that child is sixteen and getting into fights, unless Mum is also going strong on the cannabis, in which case they will come at six a.m. with guns to batter down the door.

Patch upon patch.  The industry of ‘care’ feeds upon itself, and can write out a new job description to rob us of a little more self-determination every day if it is permitted.  Our leaks are constantly being plugged by another patch, until it is becoming difficult to find any virgin skin to stick one onto.  Producing these patches has become a flourishing business with its own ethics, edicts and examples to draw from.  The media is its engine, and isolation provides the fuel.

 

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Producing a ‘finished child’ is a fairly thankless business – there are so many social ills and diseases to fall foul of.  We can teach them right from wrong, but the world about them has become such an insistent role model it is hard for them to do other than conform.  When I see my sons now, I see how the noble qualities I hoped for have become subsumed by wants and needs that are baseless, and how little part the future plays in their thoughts.  In fact, I wonder if they consider the future at all – how can you set store upon a world everyone tells them is plunging towards its doom?

But I have no right to hope.  They are people too.  In the end, they will be what they will be.  I can’t tell them now – I can’t say it loudly enough to be heard.   Only people can heal people.  Society’s troubles came from within, and no amount of patching will ever make it whole again.