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Fiction

The Obscure Bird

“The obscure bird clamour’d the live-long night.”

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth

It was late. Gwen spent ten minutes helping Andrew tidy up the kitchen and then put her arms out for a hug and said she was going up to bed.

“I won’t be long,” Andrew said as he released her with a kiss.

Gwen smiled.

“Of course not,” she said.

It was a ritual. She knew it would be at least an hour, probably two, maybe more, before he joined her.

Outside, an owl hooted.

Andrew’s eyes were dark behind the round lenses of his glasses, unfathomable.

He turned to the sink as she walked towards the door to the hall, where she stopped and looked back at him. With his hands resting on the edge of the basin he appeared to be staring out of the window into the garden, which was cloaked in darkness. She watched him for a moment before turning to go.

Gwen lay in bed thinking about Andrew, worrying. She remembered one night earlier in the week when she had got up to go to the bathroom. Andrew’s side of the bed had been empty, cold. She had presumed him to be in his study, or downstairs, but when she had chanced to look out of the bathroom window she had seen him standing in the middle of the lawn, his pale round face upturned, staring at the mature trees at the end of the garden. As she lay in bed she remembered thinking that the right thing to do would be to go down and speak to him, perhaps gently guide him back into the house as you would a sleepwalker, but she had done neither. She had returned to bed instead and fallen back to sleep. When Gwen had woken in the morning, Andrew had been beside her as normal.

She heard him climbing the stairs and reached for the switch to turn her bedside light off. Lying in the darkness, she heard his carefully weighted footsteps approach their bedroom door, stop for a moment and then continue past. She heard him stop outside the baby’s room, where he would be listening for the sound of Henry’s breathing, and then continue on down the landing to his own study at the rear of the house. She heard the door click shut and imagined him sitting at his desk, raising the lid of the laptop and then staring alternately at the screen and out of the window. She had stood at his open door one night, watching him divert his attention from one to the other and back again, until he had caught sight of her reflection in the window and spun around on his chair, blushing. She had allowed her eyes to drop to his computer screen but instead of the lurid insult of pornography she had seen nothing more unsavoury than the boxy iconography common to social networking sites.

“You know, you really should get more sleep,” Gwen murmured in the morning as Andrew brought her a cup of tea.

“I know, but . . . you know,” he said.

“What?”

“The professorship thing. I might not get it anyway, but I certainly won’t if I don’t get these papers done.”

“Mmm.”

In the bathroom, Duffy the cat lay on her back on the bath mat. Legs extended at either end of her glossy black body, she looked like a giant skate egg case. Gwen tickled her tummy and Duffy’s head darted forward to nibble at her wrist.

Gwen checked in the baby’s room and then went downstairs. A floorboard creaked as she entered the kitchen. Andrew had paused in the act of emptying the dishwasher and was staring out of the window at the garden. She went up behind him and threaded her arms under his and held him tightly around the chest, resting her chin on his shoulder.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Gwen said.

Andrew’s head swivelled around on his neck.

“About Henry,” she said, pulling back.

“Oh,” he said. “No. I know.”

They disengaged and Gwen watched Andrew’s back as he continued to empty the dishwasher. His shoulders were tense, hunched up. When he had finished, he closed the door of the machine with a quiet snap.

“It’s all going to go, you know. All that,” he said, looking out of the window again. “Not our trees obviously, but everything beyond, in the old railway cutting.”

He turned to look at her. She didn’t know what to say.

“I mean, I know it’s a good thing,” he continued, “extending the tram system, or at least I thought it would be, but now I’m not so sure. Not now I think of the ecological cost. All those trees. Countless nesting sites.”

She looked at him without speaking for a moment before saying, “I’ve got to go to work.”

At the hospital, Gwen sat in the canteen with Angela.

“How’s Henry?” asked Angela.

“We won’t know for a while,” Gwen answered. “Thanks for asking.”

“Fingers crossed, love.”

“Thanks.”

“What about Andrew?” she asked.

“He’s under pressure at work. Going for a professorship.”

“Ooh, professor, eh?”

“Doesn’t half make him sound wise.” Gwen thought for a moment. “Andrew’s changing, though,” she said. “Whether in response to Henry or what, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

Gwen looked at the fine lines fanning out from the corners of Angela’s eyes, which deepened as she smiled.

“I saw an exhibit in the Didsbury Arts Festival,” Gwen said. “It was in that new food shop on Burton Road. There was a bamboo cage hanging from the ceiling with a tiny little screen in it playing a video of birds filmed in Beijing. Apparently, according to the artist’s blurb—Daniel Staincliffe, his name was—old men meet up in the mornings to play chess all over Beijing and they take their songbirds with them in little cages. They hang the cages up in the branches of nearby trees and while the old men play chess the birds sing to one another.”

“Aah.”

“Yeah, cute, isn’t it?” Gwen said. “But it made me think of Andrew. He’s like one of those birds stuck in his cage tweeting to other lonely people trapped in their own cages.”

“Tweeting?”

“You know, Twitter, Facebook.”

“Waste of time.”

“I know.”

“Something’s happening to him. He’s changing. We hardly talk any more; we never have sex. I almost wish he’d raid the savings account and buy a sports car or have an affair.”

Angela laughed.

Gwen looked at her watch.

“Better get on,” she said.

Gwen was standing at the kitchen table checking through the post.

“Anything?” said a voice behind her.

“Christ!” She spun around. “You made me jump. You creep around so bloody quietly these days.”

“Sorry.”

Duffy joined them in the kitchen.

“She’s got something,” Andrew said, bending down.

Duffy opened her jaws and dropped a dead mouse on the wooden floor.

“Well done, Duffy,” Gwen said. “That’s a good girl.” She knelt down to tickle her and stroke her.

“You make more of a fuss of the cat than you do of me—these days,” Andrew said.

Gwen gave him a look and he smiled weakly.

“Sorry,” he said.

“What do you want to eat?” she asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, Duffy knows what she wants, don’t you, Duffy?” she said, as if speaking to a baby.

The cat closed her nutcracker jaws around the mouse’s head and bit down with a sustained audible crunch. They both watched as Duffy worked on the mouse, tearing at the skin and cracking its tiny bones. After a short while, the remains on the kitchen floor were no longer identifiable. Gwen wondered if Duffy would leave the guts and the legs and the tiny feet, but she swallowed every last shred, the bristly tail slipping down her throat last of all. Gwen realised she was grimacing; she felt a little sick. Previously when Duffy had brought in birds or mice, either Gwen or Andrew had taken them off her and, if they were still alive and not too badly damaged, freed them outside.

Knelt down next to her, Andrew turned his head through ninety degrees to look directly at Gwen. His black eyes were expressionless.

Gwen rose to her feet, knee joints popping. She went to the fridge and got out a plastic container of leftover homemade soup.

“We’ll have this,” she said and pressed the button to open the door of the microwave. She gave a small cry and dropped the container of soup. It landed on its corner, dislodging the lid, and most of the soup splashed out on to her stockinged feet and on to the floor, quickly spreading.

“What the fuck is that?” she shouted, pointing inside the microwave.

“Ah, sorry,” Andrew answered, getting down on his knees with a roll of kitchen paper and a couple of tea towels, and mopping ineffectually at Gwen’s feet. “That’s an owl pellet.”

“What the fuck is an owl pellet and what is it doing in the microwave?” she yelled.

“Owls regurgitate the parts of their prey they can’t eat. Bones and fur and stuff. It all comes out in a little bundle, all carefully wrapped up like that. It’s called an owl pellet.” As he explained, Andrew wiped the floor. He filled a bowl with soapy water and started scrubbing.

“Why is it in the microwave?”

“Oh, because if you want to dissect one you should sterilise it first and the best way to do that is in the microwave. Otherwise the pellet can still be carrying rodent viruses or bacteria.”

“Jesus!”

Gwen left the room.

Dinner that night was a strained affair. Afterwards they sat at opposite ends of the sofa watching something on television that neither of them wanted to watch. As soon as it was over, Gwen announced she was going to bed.

“It’ll give you a chance to dissect your owl pellet,” she said. “Where did you get it, anyway?”

“In the cutting. I climbed over our back wall and had a bit of a look around. It’s amazing. It’s completely overgrown. There must be so much wildlife there that will all be left homeless when they clear everything for the tram tracks.”

“It was a railway line in the first place.”

“I know, but that was forty or fifty years ago, and an entire ecology has grown up there since, and now that’s going to be destroyed, for what? So that we can take the tram to Chorlton? No one’s going to use it to go all the way into town. It’s a long and roundabout route. It’ll take forever and cost a fortune. They should have had the bottle to take it up Wilmslow Road and get rid of all those awful buses.”

She looked at him and shrugged her general agreement with his argument.

“I found the owl pellet at the base of one of the trees. There must have been an owl roosting there.”

“Right,” she said, softening. “See you later. Will you look in on Henry?”

“Yes, of course. Goodnight.”

Gwen fell asleep straight away. Sometime in the night, she was aware of the duvet being lifted on Andrew’s side and cold air wafting over her arm. Then the draught was shut off and she felt the warmth of his body next to hers. As she started to drift back to sleep, she heard him softly speak.

“It’s because of the serrations on my remiges.”

“What?” she said, confused, half-asleep.

“That’s why I move so silently. From room to room.”

“Go to sleep, Andrew. Please.”

He fell silent.

Gwen woke again and felt anxiety’s talons seize her immediately.

Andrew’s side of the bed was cold, empty.

She got up and walked onto the landing. The darkness told her it was still night-time. She checked her watch; it was almost three a.m. She opened the door to Henry’s room. She saw his blue-and-white-striped babygro stretched out in the cot. Andrew was not in the room. The door to Andrew’s study was open; he was not inside. Slowly she descended the staircase and turned left at the bottom to stand in the kitchen doorway. Andrew was standing in front of the sink staring out of the window. She took a step forwards and one of the wooden boards creaked. Andrew’s head started to turn.

And continued to turn. It turned through ninety degrees and kept turning.

She stood absolutely still, scarcely breathing.

Andrew had not turned his body from the sink, but his gaze was now directed towards the fridge just to her left. Another few seconds and he would have twisted his neck through a hundred and eighty degrees.

Gwen felt the hairs on her arms rise. She backed out of the room and walked quickly but quietly upstairs.

She lay in bed and did not hear any movement from downstairs. At some point she fell asleep.

In the morning, making the bed, she found a feather on the bottom sheet. She inspected the pillows and plumped them up.

Andrew was in the kitchen. They tiptoed around each other.

At work, Gwen logged out of the hospital intranet and on to the internet. She looked up “remiges,” trying various spellings until she found the right one.

“Tiny serrations on the leading edge of their remiges help owls to fly silently,” she read.

She decided they needed to talk.

When Gwen arrived home, the kitchen was in darkness, but the light at the top of the stairs was on. She hung up her coat and stowed her bag. She wondered about making a drink and waiting in the kitchen. At some point, he would have to come down. And she would ask him to explain himself.

Instead, she found herself walking up the stairs. She was halfway up when she heard him cough. He coughed again, abnormally, as if he was trying to clear his throat. Then there was a series of choking sounds. Her brother had once choked on a piece of meat when they were small and their mother had saved him by performing the Heimlich manoeuvre, sending a scrap of roast beef shooting out of his mouth, but it had been the choking sound that had stayed with Gwen. She was hearing it again now, a desperate, almost metallic squawking, mechanical and animalistic at the same time. She ran up the remaining stairs and stopped on the landing.

Andrew was standing in the middle of the bathroom, bent over at the waist. There was a small, indistinct bundle on the floor in front of him and a string of drool hanging from his mouth. The bundle—the pellet—was rounded, tapered at one end and bristly with hair. Under the brightness of the bathroom light, the whiteness of bone gleamed.

She turned away. On the floor outside the baby’s room at the other end of the landing she saw something she thought she recognised. She took a step towards it.

Even in the half-light she could make out the blue and white stripes.

Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality, Ornithology, The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories – and seven novels, most recently First Novel. He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories. Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press, which celebrated its tenth birthday in 2019, and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. His translation (from the French) of Vincent de Swarte’s 1998 novel Pharricide was published last year by Confingo Publishing, who will be releasing Royle’s latest short story collection, London Gothic, in spring 2020.