The Bird Conundrum by Victoria Manifold

“They’re laughing at me.” When she heard birdsong, grandmother insisted that they were mocking her, that the birds flew down from the trees to personally insult her. She took me shopping and I begged her let me look at the Lego at Woolworths. I committed to memory the sets I wanted for Christmas and went to find her. I looked everywhere but she wasn’t there, I cried to the shop assistant that 'I had lost my grandma.' She'd only snuck out for a fag, and when we were reunited she berated me for crying, but I suppose I loved her.

She was shaped like a barrel, stout and round and fleshy, but with odd skinny limbs; tiny little legs, almost skeletal, frail wrists and bony fingered hands. She’d look at my sister Gina's and my legs, grab the fleshy parts of the calves and tell us we were lucky to have such ‘grand’ legs, then she’d let us feel how bony her own were. Her feet were tiny; at seven years, my feet were almost as big, grandma laughed and called me big foot. When I lay on her chest I sunk into her breasts and belly like a soft pillow, she had a milky smell mixed with fags and cooking fat.

###

The summer of Nineteen Eighty-Nine—as clear in my memory as a film, though maybe only snatches of a low-budget thriller, glimpsed through a crack in the door to my parents' bedroom when they thought I was sleeping—the summer my mother would take me to visit grandmother every morning.

Gina wore her hair in a thick long plait that snaked right down her back, and in the summer she turned as brown as a nut. The boys in my class would ask about her and I’d feel proud she was my sister.

My father had come home one night, agitated and upset: I listened through the door as he spoke to my mother, he'd been working with a man called Jimmy but Jimmy had been called away at lunch time for that his teenage son Dean had deliberately swallowed Drano. Jimmy went straight to the hospital. That night, dad hugged Gina and me so tightly I thought I would have an asthma attack.

###

Grandma had those spear-like flowers in her garden which she called red hot pokers , which, I now know, are called Kniphofia. She told me not to touch them; if I did she’d use them to poke out my eyes. I knew she couldn’t poke my eyes out with flowers, though I felt like she really wanted to.

Though she hated me touching the flowers, and the ornaments and the framed photographs, she would let me eat as much as I wanted; kept a glass dish of sugared almonds on her dining room table and I'd eat a whole bowl full in one go. She would laugh and ask if I wanted any more, I was a greedy child and always said yes. Then even if it were just before lunchtime, she’d fill my outstretched hands with as many as I could carry.

She was prone to violence and considered those birds her sworn enemies. “Go on! Piss off you little bastards! No one laughs at me!”

One day I listened very carefully to the birds, and it turns out they really were mocking and jeering her: “Titwitch;” “Cuntfart;” “Cumsucker.” I asked grandma why she didn’t have any pictures of birds, she had one of some stags and I thought birds much prettier. “Bah! birds are unlucky. Don’t bring an image of a bird into my house or I’ll wring your neck.”

I collected feathers and bird droppings and kept them in a little pouch with a picture of Rainbow Brite on it. ‘Were the birds mocking her superstitions? Were they really that cruel?’ At night I lay in the darkness stroking the feathers, waiting for answer, knowing I must ‘investigate’; I looked to the sky and saw the black dots of birds circling, high up in the distance. They hadn’t been in the yard since I heard them speak.

I watched them until grandma made me come in for lunch. She’d made fried bread, let me put on as much ketchup as I wanted and afterwards we had a plate of custard creams between us whilst watching television. Sitting on a big puffy sofa, sinking into the cushions with my belly bloated from the food my mother wouldn’t let me eat. Sleepy with satisfaction, I thought, ‘but how could those birds muster such vicious bile for the woman who’d just fried bread in lard for me?’, when mother came in.

And “What’s that smell?” she said, “Have you given her fried bread again?” “And what’s wrong with that?” “Shouldn’t be eating things like that: I don’t want a fat child.” “She likes it!” and “It’s not as if you were a skinny child.” The kitchen door closed and heard no more.

Ten days since I'd heard the birds speak and begun my investigation, yet all I had was a cheap plastic purse full of feathers and bird shit. I wedged myself into the gap between the shed and the wall, at the bottom of the yard; in frustration, emptied the contents of the purse onto the ground; the birds were still so far away. I stared at my hands, dirty from bird droppings, I sniffed at them but they didn’t smell of anything.

“Your grandmother is a murderer.” A sparrow sat on the wall looking down at me. “She killed my lover. That’s why we laugh at her, why we call her names. It’s all we can do.” “I don’t care. Why should I care?”

“Your grandmother is a tyrant.” “There’s not much I can do about that.” “You can do more than a bird can.” “Why should I?” “Ask any of the birds. Every one of us has lost someone because of her. You could help us. I’ve heard the way she speaks to you. She doesn’t just kill birds, she tortures them. She revels in their pain. Do you think she’ll always be happy just with birds? We’re going to punish her. Consider our offer.”

The sparrow flew away; I remained wedged between wall and shed till grandma shouted me in for lunch. She’d done egg and chips, lovely egg and chips swimming in grease and I was so hungry and it was so perfect: a stack of bread and butter on the side, real butter too, “And I’ve got us some trifles for afters.” I looked out of the kitchen window and saw the birds lined up on the wall.

###

Sunday afternoon, both of us had to go to grandma’s; she’d been complaining that she never saw Gina. We ate some stale French fancies and watched the Antiques Road Show; Grandma opened the window to have a fag, leaned her head and arm out of the window and started puffing away; a bird did a shit on her, right down her arm and in her hair too. Dropping the fag on the carpet she ran out of the room, into the back yard, started shouting at the sky and throwing rocks; she screamed out her lungs at an empty sky.

Then I came down with something, my stomach ached, accompanied by bad diarrhoea.—I thought about what my grandma did to the birds and it had me really worried.—I used almost a full roll of toilet paper and eventually the toilet wouldn’t flush; my dad had to come and unblock it. I watched him up to his elbow in my shit and toilet paper before he told me to go outside and play. Later he came down the stairs solemnly and gathered the whole family round: “From now on the toilet paper will be rationed. It’s one sheet for a wee and two for a poo. Never any more.”

“But dad that’s not fair, just because that little pig—” “I’ve made up my mind and that’s how it’ll be from now on. They’ll be no more incidents.”



Gina came into our bedroom, she’d been in the bathroom running a bath and must have forgotten something. “What is it with you? Is it because you have to go to Grandma’s every day?” “No,” though it was, and Gina surprised me with her perception. She put her arms out and gave me a hug. An idea had already crystallised in my mind: I could protect Gina and mother and myself. I approached the birds the following day; a whole group flew down to the space between the wall and the shed, the sparrow seemed to be their leader.

Lunch that day was a salad and grandmother hardly spoke to me; she set it down in front of me but her place was empty. “I hope you’re happy with that.” “Thank you grandma.” “I’m not eating that, though, I’m going to have bacon. If you'd rather that, then let me know. I’m making it now.” She inhaled the bacon smell deeply.

###

The sparrow said, “The first thing you can do is bring us her fags.” “The first?” “Next week we'll give you something else to do. When you get the fags, bring them here.” It was harder than I imagined, stealing the fags, as she kept them in the pocket of her apron and wore her apron always.

She would say she didn’t smoke very often but was always secretly puffing away as soon as she was on her own; she once gave up and everyone was on edge for weeks. Mother had booked a family holiday to Berwick-upon-Tweed and was too scared to tell grandma that she wasn’t invited, and when she eventually plucked up the courage, the upshot was grandma took to her bed moaning that she'd been betrayed, and the only way mother could coax her out was to throw her a packet of fags and thus ended grandma’s abstinence. And since then she’d never let her fags out of her sight.

I told my mother ‘I wanted to stay over at grandma’s house, that I voluntarily wanted to spend a full twenty-four hours or more with her’. I imagined she'd never believe that I would want to do that, but she did and I was packed off. It was better than I expected: it was stew for tea, which ordinarily I hated but seemed fine that night.

Then she put on Bergerac and fell asleep, she snored loudly and I was briefly enthralled by the program. A girl was roughly kissed and her lips bled, but I couldn’t let it distract me for too long. I stretched my arm around her barrel belly and towards the fag pocket. “What you doing?” “Just giving you a cuddle. I thought you were asleep though.” “Just resting my eyes.”

Her house was small and we had to share a bed; she hung the apron back of the bedroom door before she slept, I waited until I heard the snoring, crept out and took the fags from the pocket. It was nearly a full packet so I knew the birds would be pleased, I tiptoed down the stairs, unlocked the back door, and it was cold and dark outside but I wasn’t scared. I placed the fags on the wall, my heart thumping in my chest from sheer elation and I could hear the sound rushing in my ears as I stood in the dark.

She wasn’t happy the next day but she didn’t blame me. She really wanted a fag though. Mother gave her sympathy, but the very minimum amount and when grandma claimed the birds had done it mother looked at her. I’d gone outside to speak to the birds but apart from the fags being gone I saw no sign they’d ever been there.

###

It was the Sunday after I stole the fags. I hadn’t eaten anything I considered proper all week. We were having our weekly roast, we could only have chicken; mother was worried about Chernobyl. The chicken was wrapped in tin foil and had been left on the side whilst the Yorkshire puddings cooked, I peeled back the tin foil carefully as I could, and tore the skin from the chicken and gobbled it up fast as I could; the grease streaked my chin and my fingers shone with it just as my mother and grandma came into the kitchen. Mother pursed her lips tightly and told me to sit down at the dining table; when she put my plate in front of me there were vegetables, mashed potato, Yorkshire puddings but no meat and I blamed grandma for this unfortunate turn of events.

I didn’t like Sunday, I hated the texture and taste of cabbage and broccoli, I felt ashamed because I couldn’t eat them and they were good for me. The house turned toxic on Sundays, Mother spent the morning cooking; sweating and being angry, whilst grandma sat at the back door, fag in her hand, telling mother “The fat isn’t hot enough for the Yorkshire puddings.” “If you mash them like that you’ll have lumps in the potatoes.”

Occasionally she'd start a job, then abandon it halfway through amidst a mess of dirty utensils. I thought I would die if I had to eat another Sunday lunch. I watched mother cooking in the kitchen, I stayed quiet in the corner and she asked me to go to the shop at the top of the street to buy milk and eggs and while she went to find her purse I went into the cupboard and got out the whiskey they kept at the back. I took a big draught before she came back in with the handful of change, the whiskey was disgusting and it burned my mouth, a wave of nausea washed over me as I swallowed. As she walked back into the kitchen I vomited down my dress and on to the floor. “Oh, couldn’t you have at least made it to the sink? Well, don’t just stand there like an idiot, come here.” She whipped my dress off and put it into the washing machine, wiped my mouth with a wet flannel. “Go up to bed. I’ll come see you when we’ve finished eating.”

I lay in bed and could hear them downstairs. As soon as the burning wore off I felt starved. My father would shout up the stairs to wake my mother, my sister and me before he went to work, but my mother hated getting out of bed so I would sneak into the dark room to rouse her, where it smelled of sweat, sex and closed windows; she was tired and ached but I really wanted a cup of tea. She made it milky and sugary and I drank it from a Mr Men cup. Mr Strong. The red square.

But that day grandma was in a particularly foul mood: the delivery boy had torn her newspaper putting it through the letterbox. He’d only torn the front page, and she only got the paper to read the obituaries. Still it blackened her mood sufficiently, I went outside to avoid her. “Thanks for the fags, Alice.” I looked up. “We appreciate it.” “Did you smoke them?” “Of course we did. We’re birds...

“...we need you to do something else. And this will be the last thing.”

###

I gave grandma the big glass of milk to have with her chocolate fingers: “This milk must be off. Can’t believe your mother brought that round for me. She’s useless. I’m not drinking off milk, Alice, you’re as bad as your mother.” “Drink it, it's good for you.” “You’re a cheeky bugger. When I was your age I wouldn’t have dared talk like that to my poor old grandma.” “It’ll make you strong.” “And how strong do you think I want to be? What do you think I want to do?”

Then she started laughing, her laugh was awful and it made me feel stupid. She sat at the kitchen table with the milk pushed to one side. I came up behind her, held her round the neck with one arm and I used my free to pick up the milk. She sputtered and spat but I held her down as well as I could. I felt enormously powerful. “Alice you little bitch, wait until your mother hears about this.”

She seemed to grow weaker, struggle less so it was easier to force the stuff down her. When the whole mixture was gone, I let her go, when pushed me over, slapped at my face and head but then clutched her throat and started gagging. On all fours on the kitchen floor, she was crying and choking and I stood there and watched. It was one of those spans of time that seem paradoxically to last forever and to take no time at all. I went outside to find the birds though none were about.


Victoria Manifold is a writer from the North East of England. Her stories find humour and darkness in the everyday. She explores her obsession with Columbo at lieutenantcolumbo.blogspot.co.uk. Follow her on twitter at @toria_manifold. Victoria is a founding member of the Brautigan Free Press.