The plasticity of the charity bag felt like another cruel humiliation to Marilyn. Her once fashionable flowered sleeved blouses and trim-line shift dresses had been taken down from their hangers in the wardrobe – only to be dragged out in handfuls by the spiky haired shop assistant with youthful enthusiasm while Marilyn’s cheeks burned. Bright colours clashing like layers of a trifle, chiffon and polyester laid on top of one another in the bag, pressed trouser legs are unseemingly wrapped around a starched collar, polyester and cotton acting like reunited accomplices caught and stretched out on the counter, inspected and held up against the harsh fluorescent light. Something bounces out the bag and with a loud ping, rolls across the floor.
‘What is it? An earring? You’d never believe the things we find in pockets.” he says.
Marilyn crouches, despite her creaking knees and manages to pick it up. She rolls it between her thumb and index finger. Slowly, from right to left and back again.
Outside the syrupy water trails lines along the window panes. Something about today had made Marylin drive the bags to the second-hand store in town, after all they’d sat in the hallway for a week while she worked up the nerve. Things needed to be seen to.
Marilyn leans the weight of her aching hip on the side of the counter trying not to catch anyone’s eyes while the shop assistant’s excited tuts pass judgement against the unworn items with labels attached; that navy blue woollen waistcoat which cost a week’s wages the year they were married; the leg of Joseph’s best suit trousers is tangled in a cardigan she last wore for a Whitsun weekend in Whitby. It’s all a mess. ‘Isn’t it possible for me to just leave them here?” she asks, rolling the ring in her hand.
He keeps pulling items out and casting deep breaths at them.
‘No, we do need to check the quality of items before accepting them.’
It turns out there is a system for all lost things, even racing pigeons. Sandra at the post office told her there was a website these days for tracing them; all you do is enter the code and it gives you a name and a telephone number.
‘Websites are not so easy at my age.’ Marilyn says, thanking Susan for looking it up on her phone and writing the telephone number down. The allotment the gentleman named on the phone sounded familiar and as she drove there tall flats towered over green parks and things she remembered came into view. As Marilyn drove, she rolled the blue ring between her fingers. It was just as soothing as it used to be.
Turning the car into the muddy puddles that pass for parking spaces, Marylin spotted a man about her age standing by the whitewashed pigeon loft. The late afternoon clouds above him swirl – noticing the way his cardigan frays at the cuffs and is held together with a single large blue button straining over his round belly. A flat cap hiding grey tufts of hair. He waves and pats his hands on his trousers before reaching out to shake hers. Feeling overdressed in her mackintosh coat and floral scarf, Marilyn considers briefly why of all the clothes she bought and loved and wore over her life, why these ended up being things she couldn’t part with.
After all, she’d counted fifteen bags dispatched across town to charity shops to bid farewell to each fading scent and soft rub of worn fabric that wore her down everytime she opened the wardrobe to be reminded of that woman she used to be. The one who wanted so much and waited. Where had all that wanting got her in the end?
“I appreciate you calling. A reminder of Betsy after all these years is one way to make an old man happy.” Bob chuckled and Marilyn smiled weakly in return. He looks like a Bob. Not like Joseph, who always looked grander than a plain old Joe; a name that stuck with workmates at the colliery. But behind the doors of the home they made together, he was always Joseph. Lemony aftershave and a brown felted hat for Sunday best – a kind word for everyone.
The shed is vast – she follows Bob in, tracing along the dozens of cages that line up with the quick moving bodies of racing pigeons, the quivering feathers and earthy scent of bird droppings and damp straw. He points to the gas stove and offers her a cuppa. She is surprised to find herself accepting not just the tea, but the company, the ease at which she suddenly agrees to sit on a folded chair, a wire cage separating her from the throng of birds cooing, wings flapping and scuffling in the sawdust.
“So you live out at the coast?” he asks.
“Yes, that’s where I found the pigeon in my garden. Was it him? Sorry I couldn’t tell.”
“A fine racer. Betsy, she was one of my best. In fact, the best, 5 times champion in the districts. That was the closing race in the 1999 season, our club set 200 birds off in Nantes and only 181 made it home. Don’t even know why we lost so many in that race. Sometimes weather, maybe a bolt of lightning knocks them off course – can’t be sure.”
“I always thought it would start flying again once his wing healed and go on its way. But it stayed. How do they know how to find their way back?” she says stirring her tea.
“Well, it’s in their blood like radar, they follow the land, coastlines, motorways – homing into a magnetic field. You start by keeping them indoors as young-uns for a long time so they know where home is. Once they go out a few times, it’s just training them and instinct. Me, I think they are on the wing and a prayer like the rest of us’.
Marilyn tells Bob how she nursed Betsy. My birdie she’d whispered and with one light finger stroked its feathers gently. She found the racing pigeon outside on their fifth wedding anniversary, it was dazed and unmoving on a quiet Spring morning. The day started with no more than a rustle in the leaves and a tender strain of daylight breaking across the cliffs. Marilyn kept the bird in the kitchen until Summer when there was time to build a little nest box in the shed. It would fly in loops out into blush orange sunrises over the marsh but always back again. A daily ritual was formed. A circle of the days in which she stood waiting for his return every night. Tiny orange coloured eyes blinking fast and his hands on the soft grey downy feathers. That is what she wants to remember when she talks.
Not the frequent trips to the hospital for tests.
Not the nurse whose soft words they clung to like hope. Words that were doled out as tiny prayers as she listened and held Joseph’s hand. One afternoon they were led to a tiny room hidden at the end of a corridor, bare walls apart from a wooden framed print of daffodil flowers and boxes of tissues. She knew these were not the decorations chosen for good news. Nothing will leave this room unchanged, she thought and looked at Joseph. The words the Doctor said punched out a new language for them, forming long blank gaps where a future that enclosed them both had once stood.
At the house the two went their separate ways despite the lines of promises they made in marriage. He upstairs first, hands heavy on the banister, unable to speak. She in the kitchen weighted to the wooden chair with worry summoning the energy to warm a tin of soup for them to share.
In those months, she went back and forth to the hospital with Joseph, and looked after the bird. Peering into the shoebox, hearing it’s rustle she’d whisper ‘Hello’. The bird would stare back at her with blinking eyes. Holding out a teaspoonful of porridge oats was an act of faith as she had little idea if this was what the bird needed. But when it moved its grey mottled head to show a flash of blue metallic plume at its collar, she smiled for the first time in weeks.
In the time afterwards when things had been settled, it became possible for Marylin to shake sleep from her limbs and venture downstairs. In the kitchen she could pull up the blinds as the sky limped from a spectrum of pale violet to muted grey. Victories came when she set two places at the table for breakfast while waiting for the boiling splutter of the kettle, turning this way and that, thinking of butter melting on toast and how Joseph likes the crusts cut off. Two eggs for him on Sundays. For months she lived in a daze. Only at breakfast she would remember the fact that Joseph was dead. It would shoot through her brain, neuron by neuron in its jack-knifing mysterious circuitry. She told a friend once that it was like the stiffening sensation when you finally get to the front of the supermarket queue, only when you are next to be served, in that instance you realise that you’ve forgotten the milk, the eggs, something basic and everyday. The one item that sent you out the door in the first place. When she remembers. She panics and often the realisation strikes her when she has a cup or plate in hand, and her bare feet were so often flecked with white and blue porcelain chips like snow. There is nothing left of the dinnerware set they were given as a wedding present – it’s all been smashed each time Joseph died.
He is gone. Over and over, she is forced to rediscover. Each time grief had its own way of staining things, like a paintbrush left in water. The oily tide of colour catching at the surface.
After the funeral she hovered in their house the way a lodger might. Only lightly touching the possessions they shared, the curtains they’d chosen and china plates gifted for anniversaries, clothes they’d collected – the things they had once cherished that now felt stale and far away. Looking around the house she was not quite able to believe anything good ever happened here at all.
There were brief times she remembered how to be happy. Moments when she was feeding the bird and watching it make long sweeps of the garden with greyish blue winged perfection. No matter how she tried to forget, each thought circled back to the lack of Joseph in her life. Grief found a way in, even when she bolted the door against it; the bird’s blue ring in her fist, a talisman against something at the periphery; unpainted walls they never finished and peeling paper in the hallway.
But this week she had packed up the boxes and wrote labels. It was all ready to go. The charity shop was the final act.
In the low gloom of afternoon in his loft she told the pigeon fancier about Betsy. But held back one thing that happened one evening at the end of the Summer when grey lace clouds hung at the horizon. She found the poor pigeon dead on the patio, and in a panic she took the garden shears, snipping through his pink clawed foot to prise off the ring from the bird’s lifeless body. She kept the ring all those years, meaning to tell someone – find the person who’d lost it. Somehow explain what happened.
“It sounds like that bird was happy there with you. Must have reset his magnetic fields, made a new home.” Bob says.
Finishing the last slurp of tea she stares at the trees at the end of the allotment, bare and bold, waiting to bud. To have Joseph in her life had been enough, a glimpse of what could have been. This thought settles in her forgetful mind.
“Will you come again? I think you’d be impressed when they fly back from a race. It’s quite a sight. ”
She smiles, realising she is turning the ring in her pocket.
“Oh. Here it is.”
Holding her hand out to him. The blue jewel shining against the knotted pink petals of her papery skin.
“You didn’t need to keep the old ring, you know, pet. People just call and tell me normally. I don’t need proof.”
“I don’t know why I kept it.”
“Maybe it has brought you luck after all these years. You keep it, love.”
In the car Marilyn pulls her scarf tight around her neck and watches Bob lock up his shed. Before starting the car she thumbs through Joseph’s frayed A-Z, she should have thrown this in the recycling too. Just as she starts the engine she catches the sight of a loft of pigeons starting out in flight – a flash of metallic blue feathers glinting amidst the grey. They follow in a swoop and rise through the trees, starting out across the hills.
“Let’s follow them, see where we go….’ she says with her eyes on the road following the birds wings melt into smaller and smaller shapes in the distance.
7 thoughts on “Feathers by Lindsay Bennett Ford”
I noticed that some of the sentences were longer than expected but this actually enhanced the sensitivity and understanding that was shown throughout the story. (Marilyn / Shop assistant paragraph is a great example!)
A huge welcome to the site.
This one is well thought out and takes unexpected turns that hold up very well.
And Pigeons, who are vastly underrated.
This is absolutely wonderful – the comparison w reaching the head of the supermarket queue brought me up short & hit home so hard. And the ending likewise brought a lump to my throat. A great piece of writing!
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A very well balanced, careful and beautiful tale of the everyday – great stuff. Reminded me of my grandad who used to race pigeons and would talk about them at great length – I think he knew more about his pigeons than his own kids in some ways!
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Poignant with believable characters and vivid descriptions. “Let’s follow them, see where we go” … what a great way to end the story and for Marilyn to begin the next stage of her life.
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Thank you everyone for your kind and helpful comments 🙏
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Beautiful story, Lindsey.very poignant for me as I’ve recently lost my mum. It really put me in the heart and mind off my father and the grief he is going through. I’m sure the pain will only ever dull, rather than disappear.
So, wonderful to see you published again.
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