Chapter 1

Sonya trod lightly on the ground as if she weren’t really there. She was wearing her favourite shoes. Flat and comfortable. Red suede and each adorned with a black bow like the ones she’d used to decorate Alice’s cot before they took her away. 

The bows reminded her of being a child when her auntie June, not really her aunt but her mother’s best friend, had enjoyed reading her a bedtime story. They were like the ones in the story about the girl who couldn’t stop dancing. She was somewhere else. She’d always been somewhere else. Her real self lost in another time and place. In another dimension. Stuck in static air between then and now, unable to live in the present.

 Tony’s shoes squeaked like scared little mice as he walked along the narrow footpath. They were scruffy and looked worn as if he’d fished them out of the sea. They walked in silence, their thoughts interrupted only by the rogue hushing of the ebb and flow of the murky estuary water.

“Are we going to talk about yesterday?”

“Do we have to?”

“You’ve got some explaining to do.”

“I don’t even want to think about it.”

“You owe me an apology.”

“I'm sorry.”

She didn’t mean it and he knew. She tried hard to think about what she’d said but she couldn’t quite remember. Alcohol fogged her memory of their argument. She’d dredged up the past and blamed him. He was a victim, she knew that. But so was she. And poor little Angela was the innocent child in the middle of it all.

“Do you even know what you’re apologizing for?”

“I’m sorry. I really don’t want to think about it. It can’t be good. I feel awful.” She turned away from him and focused on a distant point on the horizon.

“I can tell you if you want?”

“No, please don’t.”

“It’s not up to you. What you said really hurt.”

 “I was drunk. I didn’t mean it, whatever I said.”

“You told me that you want a divorce. You still love Andy.  Do you remember now?”

“Stop it!”

“Why? You’ve got to hear it. You can’t just pretend nothing happened.”

“Just forget about it. I’d had too much to drink. You know what I’m like.”

“What about Alice, then?”

“Please, don't.”

“If you really want to find her then why don’t you just go back to Collisville and look for her?”

“You know I can’t. I don’t even know for sure that she’s there. She could be anywhere and Mum said she doesn’t want to be found.”

“Is that the truth?”

“What do you mean?”

“How do you know you can trust her?”

“She’s my mother. Of course I can trust her.”

“I’m just saying she might be out there looking for you. Don’t give up. Have you seen the letter your mum told you about?”

“No. She said she threw it straight in the bin.”

“There. How do you know it’s real?”

“Why would she lie?”

“I don't know. To keep you in this cage you’ve made for yourself?”

“What cage? I’m not an animal.”

“But that’s just it. You are. All that’s left of you now is the animal. You’re a wreck. I feel like I’m living with a ghost.” He wiped his brow with his forearm and tears shone on his cheek in the midday sunshine. “I can’t do it anymore.”

“What are you saying?”

“I can’t go on like this.”

Tony jumped down from the footpath onto the round grey cobbles and glided over them as if there were a clear path towards the dark sea.

 “What are you doing?” 

He didn’t answer. She watched him as he got closer to the water’s edge. The wind silenced her voice, stealing away her good intentions to help him.

“Tony!” It was in vain. She couldn’t reach him. She was voiceless like the red-headed mermaid whose feet burned when she danced or walked on land.

He waded into the grey water. It reflected the oppressive sky bearing down on them.

He was waist-deep. She could see him shuddering in the freezing water. How far would he go? His chest was now submerged and his shirt opened up like a parachute, only it weighed him down instead of helping him fall gently. Now his neck was fully submerged. 

Then he turned to face her. His face white, eyes tearful and mouth open, gasping in shock of the water’s chill.

“Come back. Please!” She sobbed, leaping down onto the beach. She fell over the cobbles like an old drunk woman, scrambling over them, searching for a sure route to take her to him but there was none. Her path was obscured by the unpredictable shapes and contours of the rounded-stones beneath her feet. She felt like a runaway train, out of control. Her life was derailed. She reached the shore and waded in after him. Then he fully submerged his head and she panicked. 

She found him underwater and his face already looked dead. It was swollen, grey and his body was limp. She grabbed his shoulders, tugging him upwards. The air shocked them both. Inhaling, spluttering and filling their lungs with it, they breathed and held each other tight. He gripped her like a child holding on to his dying mother. He feared too much. They both did. They walked towards the footpath, their sodden clothes leaving a trail over the cobbles.

“Let’s go home,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s just forget about it.”

*

Sonya lent her head against the train window. Rows of Victorian terraces moved passed her. She blinked in time with the falling raindrops as they flickered like insects on the other side of the window pane. The droplets disappeared in haste, hurried by the wind, forming little jets that sped with delight to their respective destinations on the tracks below. The human world appeared from afar like a place she could be if she so wished. It was as if she weren’t already in it. She was watching an old film. The rain droplets were flecks of dirt and dust caught on the lens before being shut away in the dark attic of an old picture theatre. 

 The green and brown blur of the allotments between the old mining terraces also reminded her of those stray resilient marks on old films she used to watch as a child.

They broke up the monotony of the uniform terraces. Each garden looked a little different, though. The colours of the washing hanging on all those washing lines varied; a yellow pair of shorts; a red vest; a green dress or a white towel. The possibilities were endless. The material world presented to her on a plate to be devoured. Consumed however she liked. Small white feathers and pockets of dandelion seeds floated in the air like ships lost at sea, desperately seeking a port into which they could drop their anchors.

The east of the city fell into non-existence behind her as the train followed its course towards the busy financial area near the central train station. She sat still while the world moved around her. She remembered pulling him up out of the cold water. His face had looked dead. She closed her eyes, driving the image out of her mind, but it always returned with a greater presence, impressing itself onto her mind like a hand print that burned.

She was a rock on the riverbed. The water rippled fiercely above her. On opening her eyes, she realised she was rocking in time with the motion of the train. She felt a little lighter. She wanted to stay on this train and not get off. She wished its track would never end. She’d always loved the sensation of the train rolling along its tracks. Perhaps it reminded her of being a baby in her mother’s womb. A comforting voice said, ‘it’s okay. Everything will be all right.’ She’d missed that voice lately, what with Tony and his depression. It was getting her down, but there was nothing she could do. They were in it together. It was up to her to pull him out from whatever depth of darkness he’d sunk.

The rolling train lulled her like a baby listening to soothing ocean waves. It embalmed her in a layer of dreams that detached her from the world. It made her forget the past, the present and the future. She was on her way to the end of the world. But soon she’d have to get off and face her spreadsheets and meetings. It was Monday.

 

She managed a small team in finance administration. She’d worked hard to achieve her position in the investment bonds company and she took pride in her work.  No-one could take it away. The train slowed as the tracks bent into the station. She looked up and saw a bird of prey swooping out of a thin grey cloud towards the train.

Tony would know. Perhaps a peregrine falcon, but they were a rare sight in the city. A few feathers danced through the air and determined to stick themselves to the window of the train, next to where she sat.

As she disembarked from the train she noticed small white feathers on the ground. She walked slowly and for a moment she was completely unconcerned by her busy surroundings. Strangers pushed and hurried around each other, eager to get to work early to avoid the rush. It was too late.

She left the train station and sped up to avoid being trampled by the hoard of office workers. Then came more feathers; they danced down from rooftops, landing at her feet. They fell onto her head and shoulders and covered the ground like snow. They fell in front of and behind her as she walked while turning to look around at the other people who accompanied her on this strange commute to work.

The others were silently focussed, determined to avoid eye contact and communication before crossing their thresholds into work. They were like machines on standby mode. They were robots in hibernation conserving their energy for the day ahead. No-one seemed to notice the small white feathers. They circled her feet and floated in puddles from yesterday’s rain. They were fairy sailboats.

They whispered against her skin and tickled her cheek, caught in a brief flurry of wind. There were feathers but no birds. Where were they all coming from?

She greeted her colleagues and briefly lied about having a nice weekend then settled into her work with a cup of tea. To her relief, the morning sped by. She left her desk at noon to get a sandwich when Tony called. Her mother was ill.

“I guess I should go and visit them. It’s been at least a year since I last went up.”

 Tony reminded her that it had in fact been almost three years. He said her father sounded anxious like there was something else to it other than her mother’s illness. Did it have something to do with Alice?

On her way back to the office she looked up and saw the bird of prey perched on top of the looming office building. The building towered above her but above the mass of steel and glass the bird sat peacefully. Yet it glared down with its perfect vision at the scene below as if it judged humanity in all its activities. Humans like ants were scurrying back to their desks. Back to the grindstone. It was a mountain of manufactured materials, an imitation of nature and filled her with dread. It was a cold vision of life, devoid of soul and therefore destined one day to crumble like all the civilizations that had gone before. As she looked up at the majestic creature, she recalled the words of Tennyson and whispered them under her breath. All the while, she gazed up in wonder at the bird. It captivated her. It held her gaze, magnetized.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

 

 As she whispered the last line under her breath it rolled it neck and flexed its wings. It soared up into the sky. Something landed by her feet with a bone-shattering thud. A white dove. It might have been a pigeon but it was almost completely white. Rare. She’d never seen a pigeon quite like it. It was still alive. She looked down at it in disbelief. Why would a bird of prey deliberately drop its catch? She knelt down and took pity on the poor creature. She saw pain in its eyes. A familiarity in its soul as if she knew this bird personally. A distant long-lost friend. Perhaps it was the child she’d once given up, who’d died and been reincarnated as a city bird. Rats with wings, people called them.

She rose and looked around to see if anyone else was watching her. To her dismay, Amanda, her obnoxious Australian line manager was making a beeline towards her. She had bleach-blonde hair that was neatly cut, which swept across her shoulders like tassels on an expensive curtain. Her nails were long, too long. They were pointed like a cat’s claws and painted pink and black in an imitation of a zebra’s coat. She liked to think of herself as exotic. But she wasn’t at all different from all the other clones in this part of the world. She was made in the Australian suburbs. It was impossible to imagine her camping in a swag with the Aboriginals in the outback or even fruit picking in the country. She’d probably never even left the city, apart from going to the airport. She was the kind of person Sonya loved to hate. Secretly, of course. She’d never admit it to her face. She wouldn’t want to get scratched by those claws. Sonya brushed her skirt with her hands and picked herself up. She stood in front of the bird, protecting it.

“What was all that about?”

“What?”

“The feathers.”

“You saw them?”

“Of course. They were falling from the top of the building. You couldn’t miss them. Bright white reflects sunlight, darl.”

Sonya didn’t appreciate the lesson in optics, especially when she felt so shrouded in darkness after Tony’s little plea for help, or whatever it was.

“Something weird just happened.”

“What was it?”

“It was a bird,” she bit her lip. “Look. It fell.” She stepped aside to reveal the poor thing, its heart still beating desperately in an attempt to defeat death against all odds.

“Oh dear.” Her voice gave away no feeling of empathy. She lived to work. She worked to earn money to sustain a materialistic lifestyle. It was an assumption but Sonya knew it was true. It was true of all of them. They were stock characters from a dystopian nightmare.

“What should we do?”

“Put it out of its misery.”

“Shouldn’t we take it to a vet?”

“Take a pigeon to the vet? Don’t be a bloody sook, Sonya.”

Sonya laughed briefly, before feeling a little offended. What made Amanda’s life more valuable than this poor little bird’s? Amanda was the bird of prey and she’d stealthily transformed into a human. It was a trick.

“I’ll get one of the boys from investments. They’ll deal with it, if you can’t.”

“No. You can’t do that. Let me take it to the park and leave it in the bushes.”

“You know it’s far kinder to be cruel. End its suffering.”

“I – I just can’t possibly–”

“You’re late, anyway. Get back to your desk and I’ll take care of the bird.”

It pained Sonya to leave it there. It was a loss she’d not anticipated and she felt confused and heartbroken. Was it misplaced guilt? She could hardly put her feelings into thoughts, let alone breathe them into words.  The birds and their feathers were guiding her back to Collisville; back to Andy and a teenage Alice.

“Hurry up. Or I’ll ask you to make up the time. I need those reports by four.”

On returning to her desk, Sonya’s agitation and impatience grew. She sat at her computer, gazing out of the window longing to be at the top of a hill overlooking the sea of her childhood. She let her eyes linger on the one natural feature of the car park. It was an ash tree which had survived the years of petrol and diesel fumes that engulfed it on a daily basis. It leaned slightly and another white pigeon sat in one of its highest branches. Perhaps it was its mate. Her heart panged with grief and she choked back tears. She hurried to the toilet and cried her heart out. She had to find her. The daughter she’d been forced to give away fifteen years ago

 

*

 

Then she found him. She couldn’t take it in. The disbelief cushioned the initial grief she’d felt. The shock of seeing him there made her numb.

He was in the driving seat when she found him, the engine still running. She’d covered her mouth with a kitchen tea towel while forcing the garage door open to release the poisonous fumes. Carbon monoxide. Surely it was the worst way to go. His broad shoulders were hunched forward and his mouth was open wide. His face was cherry-red. She hurried towards him and began to tug at his grey t-shirt. His whole body was blotchy, red, purple and even black in places. But his lips were ice blue. His saliva pushed into her mind a premonition of the melting of the last glaciers on Earth. Its glacial stream glistened on the steering wheel. He resembled one of those ragdoll mannequins they use in car-accident simulations on television.

Her own lips were chapped and dry, their moisture used for tears. The skin beneath her eyes had darkened in the days that followed. Her cheeks had become deep pockets used to collect her tears. Angela didn’t understand. Gravity and grief had teamed up. They worked together on her facial features, pulling them down to earth so that slowly, she’d begin to realise the severity of their situation.

 

© J.C. Thomas

All Rights Reserved 2020