New Fiction: ‘The Thievery of Small Birds’ by David O’Neill
When I spend enough time thinking about it, I always come to the same conclusion. It didn’t hurt as much then as it does now. An antipodal take on a common assumption.
Time heals all.
No chance. Time slaps it on. Thick.
At least, that’s how I reason with circumstance. Like any other person that finds themselves a whisper away from where they think they should be, it gives me something to blame. Conversely, it is also what I cling to, it’s how I manage to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
If I mentally place everything in order. Conversations, events, arguments. Laid them out bare and self-consciously exposed without the durable shield of context, I feel a sense of confusion. At no stage during this interpretation of events do I notice a signpost. Not once is there a warning that things were skewing somewhat, somewhere, beyond my abilities as both a navigator and cartographer. All I would have wished for, some gut feeling that I was about to be folded neatly away from the brightest of lights, went unanswered.
The cliff walk that lead to the hospital was, and still is, a source of immeasurable comfort. Rising high above the coast line, the thin marriage between ocean and sky lies far beyond the dotting of nearby islands. Its sandy beaches laid out below. A recreational setting of modest standing, though neither inviting nor private enough to be picturesque. It would form the bedrock for innumerable memories, and arguments. In summer it was filled with the sweet smell of nectar from fields that tumbled from the path. In winter it was transformed into a wilderness that threatened to swallow you whole. Wind beating your back or sides. Knocking your balance and igniting your anxiety in one swift assault while offering a feeling of exhilaration and romance. Feelings which were impossibly amplified by the imposing grey of the psychiatric hospital which stood at the end of the path.
Above everything however, the walkway that lead to the hospital gates offered the chance to either plan or recompose. The difference in air, lightness and gait was tattooed onto every walker depending on the direction of their step. Evidence poured from them, ambitiously upbeat if they were walking in to visit friends and relatives yet silently screaming as they left, bereft of feeling and re-entering a world that no longer looked familiar.
The hospital itself was a contradiction. Ornately built but now decrepit. Disused wings finding use as haunts for adventurous teenagers and the mark of their excursions were left on the walls and what was left of the windows. The building sat on a piece of land which was inspirational in itself. An oasis of rolling fields and wild forestry but which had also garnered an unfortunate reputation as inspiration for many to leave by their own hand. The quiet seclusion of the oak trees hopefully offering some final consolation and privacy to those unfortunate to see the feint view of the ocean while perched between thick leafy branches.
Inside, little else differed. Despite the honest attempts of the staff to create an environment that was either stimulating or calming for the clients, the only area of the hospital that was still in use, the ‘new’ wing, had begun to show its age. It was an adequate environment without ever being a place that was likely to raise spirits. Walls were painted in pastels with plastic potted plants scattered around to give the air, but not the smell, of home. Sun bleached prints of famous paintings hung at jaunty angles, staff simply unwilling to shift them back into position day after day while oblivious shoulders brushed them off balance once more.
The clients themselves generally fell into two groups, which I categorised by the manner in which they navigated the halls. They either shuffled or ambled. Amblers were the more likely to strike up conversation. Sometimes good natured, occasionally incoherent but for the most part, an enjoyable distraction of otherwise despondent visits. Shufflers kept to themselves, rarely engaging and seemingly at a loss to explain the frightening and peculiar world that they now found themselves enveloped by. Holding a near telepathic connection with nurses that thanklessly cared, fed and protected them from the barbs of the outside world created by conditions they could not reason with.
Amy, my wife, had been a client for eight months. Her admittance was now the opening verse of an unquantifiable chapter of our lives. One which I feared would ultimately be the closing chapter. Future plans, spreadsheets and whispered promises hold little weight when you become the sidebar headline of a local newspaper article. A traffic accident left her with a brain injury that, while not fatal, had fatally drawn a line under the brief wedded bliss we had previously enjoyed.
Before that day she had been a model of composed beauty. Navigating the arrows of life with a self-depreciative shrug that I could only try to emulate. Our life together had been one of contentment and dependence. An encouraging muse, feisty and warm-spirited. It was her guttural laugh had drawn us close initially. I haunted her presence, incessantly, trying to make that sound reappear. It was her ability to find humour in the banality of life though, that solidified our union. I gleaned a great joy from listening to the lilt of her laugh as she described the comings and goings of her time. Her nose scrunched above a delicate smile, shoulders rising and falling as she grasped her hands together in delight. Amy laughed with her whole body.
I have long since recognized the death of her humour as the insurmountable barrier that now hung between us. Few essences of her being now remained in a shell that occupied my fears. Without question though, the disappearance of her laugh was what changed me from husband to carer. That laugh would not return.
For many months, visits consisted of walking with Amy, telling her about my life, our life, outside the hospital. They amounted to little more than a series of events she could not draw connections with. She asked questions, sometimes. The conversations themselves had a stilted feeling of discomfort, like speaking to someone you hardly knew, neither wanting to seem rude but never scratching the surface of platitudes.
We would sit occasionally in the visitor’s room. A large open plan area with stained furniture and peeling wallpaper. It was largely unoccupied aside from the occasional shuffler, having taken a wrong turn and unsure of themselves, quickly followed by a helpful nurse re-orientating them and guiding them back to the relative sanctuary of their room. The only redeeming feature of the room was a large sliding door made of glass. Through it you could make out a thin strip of the ocean and wild raspberry bushes that were dotted around the grounds of the hospital. These dashes of colour in an otherwise monochrome world often made me twitch with the pangs of guilt, or regret. Sometimes both.
You cannot choose the life you are given, I thought. More than ever, I knew that. What choices I had now were on a baseless, functional level; food, clothes, appointments. No longer could I make choices that excited me. It was unlikely that any I now had to make would have a negligible difference on mine or anyone else’s day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t being hamstrung by options that gnawed at me. My marriage was effectively over. The woman that I loved was gone. Our painting had gone from loose heavy brushstrokes to minute rigid detail. Without reservation, I still loved Amy, but it had changed. It was no longer the love that awoke in me a desire to impress, to comfort, to inspire. To others, I was still a duplicate of my past self. Still the devoted husband with sympathy and thoughts being kept for me alone while manfully staying afloat. Walking on legs which quivered under weakened load bearing shoulders. It had changed. My wife was gone and I was maintaining a façade. I hated myself for it.
‘You see that bird out there?’ I said
‘Sitting on the branch there’
‘Yeah, I see’
‘Well, he keeps swooping over to collect berries from that bush. You see that one?’
‘He is obviously bringing them back to his nest to, I don’t know, keep for later or to feed chicks. Doing a great job. A real family man. Anyway, every single time he flies off to get some more, that other bird over there, do you see him?’
‘He keeps stealing in and pinching the berries. Every single time. Unbelievable.’
A certain exasperation began to develop in me. I had noticed these feelings more often recently, resulting I’m sure, from a stewing sense of frustration at this situation we found ourselves in. Another sickening by-product was that it heaped guilty feelings onto an already unyielding foundation. This bulging mix was augmented by a growing fear. Fear that there was nothing left. No likelihood that life could yet surprise me, trace my being and toss it indiscriminately skywards like a paper airplane, allowed to land where the elements saw fit. This was it, I thought. No airplane, no wind.
I twisted the scarf around my neck and tucked it deep into my coat. Searching for car keys in advance to avoid spending a second longer than necessary in the late Spring rain shower that had just started. Leaning in to type a four digit code on a box on the wall. The box unlocked the front door yet it also represented a divide that separated us now and always would.
‘See you tomorrow’ said Wendy. Wendy was a nurse that worked day shifts in the hospital. We had said our hellos and goodbyes on a daily basis for over half of the past year but rarely troubled a conversation. In most ways, Wendy seemed different to Amy. Her stoic demeanour was in stark contrast to Amy’s previously vivacious manner. She was not un-pretty but her personality and any resulting beauty was kept under tight control, as was required, in the course of her work.
‘Yeah, see you’ I said.
‘You know’ she said, catching me in the doorway, ‘I smiled to myself when you were showing Amy those birds’.
‘Yeah, it reminded me of my younger brother. I used to keep coins in this big jar, in my room. Every time I went out he would sneak into my room and rob a few. I think he was at it for months. I would never have noticed really’. A smile creased her lips.
‘How did you work it out?’
‘He kept buying things he couldn’t afford. He was seven’.
Wendy laughed. A full, hearty laugh that completely belied her hesitant, wispy voice.
I returned the favour and walked to my car. Once inside I felt my shoulder ease back against the chair and remain there. Pinned to the notion that perhaps there were still choices remaining. I allowed the engine to tick over as rain blotted the window. Tears sliding down towards the bonnet. Each one navigating a different route, all assisted by gravity. Dragged southwards yet making the best of every obstacle.
Copyright © David O’Neill, 2015.
David O’Neill is a writer, poet and journalist. He has had articles published in magazines worldwide and has had fiction published or forthcoming in Spontaneity magazine, The Useless Degree magazine and The Incubator journal.