Chelsey Flood



I'd like to tie a piece of string around my parakeet's foot and carry him along with me like a balloon, but he can't bear it. I had a go yesterday and he went berserk, it took all my effort to get the string off, and he wouldn't come near me for days. He watches me now as I collect my stick and cardigan and I feel the usual guilt about leaving him, about having him at all. Lively green specimen like that all cooped up in here.

Arthur brought him home, years ago, as a surprise. I'd caught him screwing around again and we'd decided to work it out. One last chance, I said. He walked in over-bright, calling me his Fern and telling me to close my eyes. I held back a grimace trying to honour my decision, pressed standby on the remote control, listened out for the usual rustle of polythene round flowers but there was barely a noise, just the tiniest gust of air as Bone flew from Arthur's hands. He shrieked and panicked round the room, crashing into the light fitting and curtains, and we laughed, feeling cruel and excited all at once as we chased him round the room.

We held hands all the way through Eastenders after we’d put him in his cage, snogged like teenagers in our bed that night.

“I mean it this time,” Arthur said, “just you and me now, and Bone, till the end.”

“I'll bring you back a treat, Bone,” I shout, closing the door, but he doesn't need my pity. Bet he swans around happily when I'm out the way, pecking at the sofa and shitting on his cage from above. No need to feel guilty at all. I turn back to see him watching me from the window and wonder if this is how my children feel when they leave me.

The sea front’s busy with mums pushing pushchairs and students buoyant with youth. I wander along with the help of my stick, thinking about what Bone and I will have for tea: maybe fish fingers again. I used to give him special vitamins and fish oil but now I just give him whatever I've got in the flat.

Two young girls stare at me and I smile, hoping I haven't been talking out loud. It’s all you can do not to look crazy once you pass the big eight-oh. “Lovely day,” I say and they smile back, chorus, “Yes, lovely!” like well-behaved little girls talking to their grandmother – they'll soon be back to talking about drugs and blowies and who’s been fingered by who.

Strange the walls we put up between ourselves; I've been bored since sixty because of them. The joy of shocking the young soon wears off when they won't join in.

“Sex!” I used to shout when they took my picture at family dos and the group would fall about laughing, but they'd never get involved, it wouldn't pave the way to chat about successful conquests or extramarital sex. I've seen more penises than the lot of them but they can't bear to think about that.

That's what I miss most about Arthur now, ironically, access to his body, his warmth. I remember our final fumblings, me topped up with oestrogen and him with Viagra. We laughed at the time but afterwards, lying in our bed, we both smelt the decay. He coughed wet sobs and I held him close, nestled to my limp bosom, kissed his balding head.

He was grateful for his infidelities then, he didn't say it but I knew. Lying there being comforted by me, he thought of other people, of past sexual victories when someone else thrashed around for him. He pulled himself together soon enough and went to make us tea and crumpets, the two of us finally comfortable in our marriage.

A couple walk past, holding hands, looking out to sea. The girl smiles at me and I smile back, but I can barely see her. My eyes sting.

I sit down on Maud's bench.

“Still miss you,” I tell her.

Maud was Arthur's final fling, the last one he could manage, the one that resulted in Bone. She grew organic herbs and sold them at a stall where he was market inspector. Alan, her husband, was an accountant. We slept together when we found out about their affair but it was a tragic second-prize shag. A sorry little moment, but it meant we could carry on, it staved off divorce.

At first Maud and I avoided each other at the market, then we started nodding cold hellos and a few years down the line I was just glad of a familiar face. The way she used to laugh on that stall! No one could resist her for long.

Arthur’s face was a picture the first time he came home to find her in the window seat sipping her famous all-herbs-in soup.

“D'you want a bowl, love?” I asked, pushing away thoughts of him groaning inside her.

I close my eyes, let the sun warm my eyelids and the world turn luminous pink. The sea rushes in and out, and I think of my blood trudging round my body, knackered and loyal, keeping everything going. It hasn't betrayed me yet.

Alan's was the first to turn, with a peptic ulcer that bled him, secretly, to death; then Arthur's, with a cancer that ran through his lungs and bones and brain; and finally, Maud, who died of leukaemia, after three years of just the two of us.

I can list these deaths almost casually, six years from the last, and still my blood carries on like a workhorse. And Bone's. He must be the oldest parakeet in town.

A woman walks by, pulling one struggling child by the arm and shouting back to another. She smiles cheerfully at me, ignoring her child's whinging and I smile back. I don't miss those days. The little lagger passes me and I say, “Hello,” try to look kindly but she cringes and squirms, running off to catch up with her mother. Such silly things, children, but then we encourage them to be that way, don't we? to act childish for as long as they can because we don't like being grown up.

A young man walks past, keeping his eyes firmly away from mine. He has important things to do. He does not think it would be nice to have a bit more sense of community. He is Maggie Thatcher's dream.

Birds fly low over the sea, stuck in some kind of ritual. They fly in graceful, irregular circles then sink suddenly to land on the reef, ready to eat or mate or whatever it is the ritual means. I think of Bone at home waiting on the windowsill for me to get back. I don't even know if he's ever had sex, he was a baby when Arthur bought him and he hasn't been outside for the last sixteen years.

I think of him in my empty flat while this rabble swoop around swapping partners and savaging fish. They wouldn't know what to do with a fish finger, and nor should Bone. Just because he can say Boobies doesn't mean he should be eating processed food.

I pat Maud's bench, the wood warm against my hand.

“Got to get back, love, Bone's by himself. If I don’t stop by tomorrow, look out for me, won’t you?”

Sun spews down on everything, burning my back as my stick taps home. My flat's in sight and if I could see better I know I'd make out Bone sitting in the window. Who am I kidding that he flies around when I'm out? He's there when I leave and he's there when I get back, a broken, feathered thing that depends on me for everything.

I unlock the door and rush in. Bone cocks his head at me and I cock my head back, stroking the tatty feathers on his neck. I crush a cashew between two dessert spoons and sprinkle it on the window sill.

“What have we done to you, eh, Bone?”

“Boobies,” he calls, knocking a bit of nut on the floor as he tries to get it into his beak.

Outside, a robin hops from branch to branch in the apple tree in the communal garden.

“You just eat that, Bone. I'll look for your vitamins.”

I find them underneath a pile of News of the Worlds, add a little to his cashews. The robin stares at us with his bright eyes, hopping from branch to branch, and I have a thought: perhaps it's her bright eyes, perhaps he's a girl.

“She's looking at you, Bone.”

I wonder if different species of birds can mate. I'm sure pigeons and doves do, I’ve seen their spawn in town, white pigeons bobbing grey heads and there's not much difference between a parakeet and a robin, surely to goodnight.

I open the window.

“That's the world, Bone, the big world. And that's a robin, I think she likes you.”

Bone cocks his head at me and I cock my head back. He shows me his leathery old tongue and blinks, knocks more cashews off the windowsill with his beak.

“That's all right, there's no rush. You get your vitamins, and when you're feeling strong enough you can just stroll out the window, find yourself a mate.”

I pull Arthur's old wheelchair to the window and sit down, apologising to Bone for all the experiences I've denied him. I soothe him like he's one of my children, woken from a nightmare, shouting and clammy, and when he hops onto the window ledge, I hold my breath. There's a strange yanking feeling in my chest, like sickness but sadder, and I know from experience that it's my heart.

“Off you go, Bone, it's all yours, no more than you deserve, don't worry about me, just get on out there. Be a good man, Bone. Be a good parakeet.”

He cocks his head at me and I cock my head back until we get stuck in a loop, cocking and blinking and waving our tongues at each other and I wonder if that's what we've been communicating for all these years:

I'm okay, you know.

Yes, I'm okay too.

Bone shakes out his wings and flies out the window, sun shining through his ragged tail feathers. He lands on the apple tree and I watch him, the last to leave. I pull Arthur’s blanket over my knees.

It's freezing when I wake up and my bones ache. I wipe the leftover cashews from the windowsill and go to close the window then I remember Bone in the apple tree. I lean out but it's too dark to see. He won't be there anyway, I remind myself, he'll be off with that robin, flying around, building a nest. I peer out a bit longer then pull the window shut. He'll be fine. Instinct will take over. He'll be fine.

My body’s heavy with sleep but the thought of Bone won’t go away and in the end I wrap Arthur's blanket round my shoulders and get the torch. I'll just check he got off okay, make sure he's not still outside. I grab my stick.

Seagulls circle overhead, white against the navy black sky. They look enormous from here, like pterodactyls.


I walk around the flats to the communal garden, stick tapping on the ground. It must be late, there aren't even any drunk people heading home.  

The timed lights click off and I shine my torch into the apple tree, the bushes, but there's just leaves and sky, twisted branches. He must have made it.

I breathe out, lean on my stick to rest, but it sinks into something soft and I lift it quickly, with a terrible thought. I shine the torch on the ground to check, heart beating in my ears, and there he is, lying down, my stick pushing his wing into the grass. 

I pick him up and pull my cardigan round him. He never lets me pick him up.


His eyes open and I cock my head at him but nothing. He's shivering, heart juddering fast against my chest, feathers wet and clumped together.

“You’re all right, Bone. We'll soon have you wrapped up warm and inside.”

I clutch him to my chest with one hand, tapping my stick with the other, wishing for the thousandth time I could move faster.

I rush to the sink to fill the bowl with warm water and put Bone in it, wet my hand and stroke his green feathers. I cock my head at him but his eyes are closed.

“Come on, Bone.”

The water’s turning pink, his wing’s hanging down and now the blood’s gone I can see a bit of white sticking out. I wrap him in a towel from the airing cupboard, support the wing as best I can.

Maud stayed here towards the end, said she wouldn't die in the hospice. We set her up in the spare room and I gave her her pills every day, helped her bathe and eat, and then one night she knocked on my door, low down because she was crawling and I rang for an ambulance. I wrapped her in my dressing gown, warm from the airing cupboard, and got a bowl of hot water, flannelled her face and hands, told her all the things I'd want to hear, the things we all want to believe. I do the same to Bone now, stroking his green feathered head.

“It’s okay, Bone, we’ll be fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of now...”

His wet body twitches and I hold it against my chest.

I think of Arthur in his wedding suit and Maud laughing on her stall, quiet steady Alan. I think of them and I cry like it's the end of the world because if it's not right now it's coming. It’s creeping up on me, I can see it, coming in through the windows, disguised as just another sunny day.

©2009 Chelsey Flood

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