Read The Birds of the Air Online

Authors: Alice Thomas Ellis

The Birds of the Air

The Birds of the Air
The Birds of the Air











Constable & Robinson

55-56 Russell Square

London WC1B 4HP

This edition published by Corsair,

an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2012

Copyright © Alice Thomas Ellis 1980

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library

ISBN-13: 978-1-78033-659-6
eISBN: 978-1-78033-886-6

Printed and bound in the European Union

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Cover illustration: Diane Law

Cover design:




All his beauty, wit and grace

Lie forever in one place.

He who sang and sprang and moved

Now, in death is only love.














‘IT’S GOING TO SNOW for Christmas,’ called Mrs Marsh from the kitchen, raising her voice – unnecessarily since the house was so small.

The tone of cheerful kindliness annoyed her daughter. Mary felt rather like someone for whom a marriage was being arranged by people who doubted the suitability of the match but who could think of no seemly way of retiring. Her family and friends behaved like outsiders privy to a secret and dubious courtship, treating her with an arch, considered and wholly unnatural care, whisper ing together and falling silent when they remembered her sitting by the window and possibly listening. She supposed she must be dying, and wondered whether, if she touched the window pane with her cold finger, the cold would seep in from outside as though by osmosis.

The wind had taken over the dark winter garden, growing wilder as the morning passed, rattling through the bluntly pruned twigs of the rose bushes, which clanked like an armoury, and arbitrarily re-disposing the few remaining leaves of autumn, sweeping them past her gaze, lost and despairing – the unquiet dead taken by surprise.

No woman, well or ill, could sit in the garden today without looking foolish and feeling harried. The wind changed course, sycophantically smoothing the uprising mane of the cypresses and tearing away to flatten the common yellowed grasses that still stood, lifeless and fading, on the ridge.

Nor had the cat ventured out today. Most mornings he walked the ridge, describing his territory with a formal heraldic precision. A bold feral tom, striped like a flag, tail waving, he would stroll and lean and sway among the stalks, nose uplifted, sniffing, throat stretched, eyes half closed, absorbed and proud, the only thing to retain its fluidity, alive and warm and moving in the frozen grasses. Sometimes Mary sitting in the garden would hiss jealously from behind the philadelphus and watch him leap away startled, all selfhood lost in the indignity of fright.

Beyond the ridge, beyond the hollow, lay the old wolf-coloured woods, grizzled with snow: ground untouched by man, who could find no use for it. There would have been forest there when the Great Worm lay curled in the declivity, where now were raised neat and placid chimneys, and the Terrible Lizard moved along the cat’s ridge, ambulant architecture, a saurian cathedral, the Creator’s tribute to himself before he thought of making men to praise his genius. Mary raised her eyes higher to encompass her image of this reptile, vast and indifferent, confident beyond the need of pride, surveying the woods with his small eyes when the world was warm – before Robin had lived or died. It was more pleasant to imagine the manless irrelevance of prehistory than to regret the recent comely countryside supplanted by dull suburb. It was painless to dream.

The wind sprang like a dog at the eucalyptus in the hedge and the leaves turned their pale backs to its bullying, shivering and pulling away. Mary sat by the window thinking of wilderness, of wastes of ice and sky, of the long wide light, cold beyond sensation or reflection. She hardly noticed the sparrows hopping and picking at the crazy paving just outside the window, where lay crumbs and bits of chopped bacon rind under a bush still carrying a crimson rose that had stayed too long and hung frozen and shamed on a bare branch.

What does she find to stare at all day, wondered Mrs Marsh irritably, shaking out a tablecloth on the lawn with more crumbs for the poor birds and observing her daughter, as so often now, close to the window and surely cold. She trotted into Mary’s room folding the cloth.

‘Is that a book you’ve got there?’ she demanded.

‘Yes,’ conceded Mary.

‘Then read it,’ said her mother, dancing with exasperation, ‘

Seventy-two miles away Sam stared at the window of his mother’s drawing room, observing a fly that had dropped out of nowhere and appeared to be drunk. It crawled along the ledge and suddenly rolled over on its back, waving its legs. Sam wondered whether the faint buzz he could hear was the fly giggling, or possibly weeping.

Outside this window lay the university town which Sam found unrewarding save for the bus station and the caff where the men from the motor works ate their meat-and-two-veg and drank their tea. He yawned. His mother had roused him at 10.30, whispering that his father was about and would soon be asking what the children were doing. ‘Kate is tidying her room,’ she added, gazing round in reproachful comparison. Sam had listened stoically. If it hadn’t been for his sister he would have been a better boy. The urgent necessity not to resemble Kate in any way had led him into much trouble.

Barbara had spent the rest of the morning in the dining room wrapping up last-minute presents she had made her -self for people who would have been glad to be spared the necessity of saying thank you: the college porter who had been so obliging one day, the charlady, some ex-
au pair
girls, a few half-dead old aunts – not Aunt Gwennie, she’d

Sam knew they would all have preferred bottles of booze or packets of fags anyway, but his mother said those things lacked the personal touch and went on packing pomanders and mittens and boxes of grainy fudge – hurrying and fumbling a little because some of Sebastian’s under -graduates were coming in for drinks before lunch. These were the dregs left over at the end of term who had had to make special arrangements with their landladies, while their more fortunate or popular fellows had gone to their own or each other’s loving homes or on skiing holidays.

Sam knew what they’d be like. His mother said they were
– which meant they’d be black, miners’ children, acned or similarly disadvantaged. He felt sorry for them. They had probably come to this place with charming visions of themselves attired in college scarves, blazers and gowns, floating down-river on punts, clutching armfuls of dreaming spires. Though he couldn’t under stand their hopes and aspirations, he sympathised with their disappoint ment. And he pitied anyone forced into regular confrontation with his father in the role of teacher. His own experiences of this had left a deep, lasting and negative impression.

‘Do find a book to read, Sam,’ his mother said when she became aware of him lounging behind the chesterfield biting his nails, but Sam had set his face against the academic world and had determined on a career in sound equipment.

His little sister came in with her writing pad and pencil. She was writing a book of verse and Sam wished her head would fall off.

‘Mummy,’ Kate asked. ‘How do you spell “ephemeral”?’

His mother made a telephone call before the first student arrived. ‘Ephemeral . . .’ she was saying. ‘Just imagine. Only a few days now, Mummy,’ she concluded. ‘All our love to Mary.’

‘That was Barbara,’ said Mrs Marsh, delighted with the news of Kate, her gifted grandchild. ‘She sends her love.’

‘I know,’ said Mary absently.

‘What do you mean, you
?’ asked her mother, suddenly cross again.

‘I mean she always does,’ explained Mary.

‘But how did you know who I was talking to?’ persisted her mother.

‘Extrasensory perception,’ said Mary.

Mrs Marsh looked at her suspiciously. ‘You’re silly,’ she accused; ‘you heard me say “Barbara”.’ She glanced round the room hoping to catch something in the process of untidying itself. ‘You haven’t got enough coal on the fire,’ she remarked, ‘and you haven’t got your cardigan on. I don’t know why you don’t have a nice clean electric fire.’ She had forgotten that she had herself insisted on opening up the fireplace when it became clear that Mary could no longer live alone and must come to be cared for in her mother’s neat, peaceful widow’s house. ‘So much more lively,’ she had said courageously, ‘so much more cheerful.’ She knelt and swept up a scatter of ash with a little brass dustpan and brush, asking, ‘What would you like for lunch?’

‘Anything,’ said Mary, aware that lunch was already prepared, and moving obediently to the chair by the fire.

Mrs Marsh hung her brush back on its tripod and looked up. There was a swift winged dispute on the sylvan bird-table and she jumped to the window, flapping the curtain. ‘These ones are doing it now,’ she said bewilderedly. ‘Last time I came back from the hospital over the downs all the birds were fighting.’

‘They do,’ said Mary. ‘Especially robins.’ She spoke that name with careful interest, as one in pain might move just to see how much pain there could be.

‘Oh, not robins,’ cried her mother, thinking of her Christmas cards before she remembered that Robin was dead. She liked the story of the robin who had tried to pluck the thorns from the crown of Jesus and soaked his little breast in red blood, and she couldn’t suppress a feeling of annoyance with Mary’s Robin for being dead. The event had upset her daughter out of all proportion. Of course it was a dreadful thing to lose your loved ones, but life had to go on. What would happen if everyone collapsed?

‘That’s why you never see more than one,’ said Mary. ‘He’s slain all the others.’

‘Don’t be silly, dear,’ said Mrs Marsh, who anyway had never cared for Mary’s view of nature – of what precisely flowers were, and why birds sang. ‘The poor little things are hungry, and it’s made them bad tempered. I’ll get your lunch, pet,’ she added, having taken to using endearments previously foreign to her. She didn’t dare tell her daughter outright that she loved her, since Mary was ill and might be frightened. All overt expressions of affection had terminal connotations: statements of love came at last moments – the ends of letters, farewells on railway stations, turning over to go to sleep.

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