The Written Testimony of Brooding John Thomas
A Victorian end-terrace attic conversion: quite simply, it met all my needs. Rubberwood-framed futon to boot (I pride myself on sleeping little. When needs must). A kitchenette—sink, small oven-cum-grill with two-plate hob (I eat little. When needs must). Electric shower, toilet. Granted, the macerator’s roar I did find a tad inhibitive. But is this not only the latest in good domestic ecological practice, flushing only when needs must? In any case, it was an airy garret. A dormer window and two south-facing Velux roof-windows allowed a good through-breeze.
And my live-below landlord suited perfectly. Or so I believed. In his burly build and shaven head, indeed I did perceive some potential for brutishness when viewing the room. But one will think as well of people as one may. A shirt of pink and purple paisley ameliorated that first loutish impression. What’s more, I inferred that he would rather I did not, did not, ‘entertain.’ Which I do not. I have always been faithfully wedded to my work. To which, does not my writing even now, in these—we may justifiably, I believe, call them ‘straitened’—circumstances, testify?
But I did call notice to one potential complication: my escritoire. I told him straight: ‘Disassembly not an option, Mr Box.’ If I did not consider him there and then to be the thug he would prove himself, how could I but acknowledge his intellectual limitations? ‘The turn in the stair?’ I needed to spell it out.
His raised eyebrows dropped. ‘We managed the futon,’ he averred. ‘And it’s Box. Please. Just Box.’
Good. Matter settled.
Except that Box failed to confide that, actually, he does like to ‘entertain.’ Not ungrateful for his assistance in conveyance of said escritoire on my inaugural evening in residence, with good grace I accepted his dinner invitation quite unaware that we would not be dining alone.
Imagine my surprise: a little Thai fellow, if you will, lounging on the sofa like Manet’s Olympia—clothed, but you’ll take my meaning. Box would later introduce (I hesitate to call him a gentleman) this person as his ‘special friend,’ Dale. But for now, my host busied himself in the kitchen, seemingly oblivious.
Who was this foreign presence?
And the look he gave me: up and down, through the smoke of a cocktail cigarette. A pastel-yellow cocktail cigarette with gold foil filter. So bald-facedly intrusive, outright rude, I’m bound to say, once Box did introduce us. Why would I not use a laptop? Where had I been published? What is the point of fiction? As if the very greatest feats of literary conceit themselves might all stand for nothing.
But I am nothing if not forgiving. One does develop quite the toughest of skins in my line: the criticisms, the inestimable rejections, believe me. That is, when they can stir themselves to bother to reject you at all, these editors.
For now, I put his comments behind me.
The trouble between us did not start in earnest until the following morning.
And understand this—if this and this only: live and let live, I have always held. Of man, of beast and of bird. But they did make it quite impossible to work. And working is my passion.
As soon as I heard he had risen, then, ‘These Jackdaws, Box,’ I put to him over the open door of his fridge. ‘What do you do about them?’
No answer. At least nothing constructive. Looking up at me from where he crouched, only a dullard’s repetition of the question. ‘Jackdaws?’
‘Flying relays, from the rooftops opposite to my dormer’s ridge. Flip-flap, scratch-scratching across the slates. Yipping, bickering. Nyit-nyit-nyit-nyt-nyit.’
And then, by no means the desired response, you may imagine. ‘I don’t do anything.’
‘What is Jackdaw?’
I knew Dale had slept over. Box had told me that as his ‘good friend,’ on weekends, he did. But I was wholly unawares that he had stolen downstairs on my shoulder, and was certainly not expecting matching dressing gowns: his and his, if you will. ‘His name Jack Box.’
Tiresomely, we had been through all this the previous evening: ‘You ask him why he call Box, hee-hee!’ Box only coyly shaking his outsize head. ‘It not real name, hee-hee! You ask why.’ Of course, I would not lower myself. ‘Jack Box. Bing!’
‘His name—his nickname—Jack Box,’ I explained patiently. Then, pointing upwards, ‘Their name Jackdaw.’
‘Them. Up there. The birds.’ I demonstrated for him, flapping arms, scampering on tippy-toes back and forth across tiled floor. ‘Kraa!’
‘He crazy, Box. I tell you. Kraa!’
And his contempt for this small matter of my disturbed peace only deepened. I could not but remark avian activity behind the brickwork too—and, yes, I might have reported the difficulty sooner were I the complaining type. I applied myself to my work. Or tried. I did.
Next sortie downstairs found not Box, as expected, but selfsame Dale rooting around the breadbin. A whole week had passed! More to the point, the Thai had a key, which small domestic detail Box had also neglected to impart.
‘How your work coming on? Your [magnus] opus.’
I did not consider my work his business any more than I considered it mine to correct his Latin, but since he asked, ‘One cannot write with one’s fingers in one’s ears, Dale.’
His forgetfulness? Feigned, I strongly suspected.
‘The jackdaws, man!’
‘Ah, yeah. Jackdaws. Kraa!’ He mockingly, I fancied, mimed their scampering gait as I had for him some days earlier, but finished his performance with the enquiry, ‘You have pencils?’
I did, though failed to see the relevance.
‘With erasers?’ Was he deliberately being abstruse? But he elucidated with a mime: the stuffing of a pencil in each ear.
‘They’re in the chimney, I tell you. We need a cowl.’
He screwed up his little face.
‘I want to speak to Box,’ I said, at which precise juncture the front door opened: Box indeed, as world-weary as ever a man returned from the daily grind. He is a subeditor, if you will, for some local rag. Its name escapes me.
‘What I tell you, Box?’ Dale addressed him as if I were not standing right there between them. ‘Crazy. Now he want cow on roof.’
Let us say only that Dale’s lingual shortcomings might have brightened Box’s evening but append that Box might have informed me he would be taking measures in service of my complaint after all. Informed, warned: when; how. Ohhh, but can I imagine easily Dale volunteering for the task. If only for the satisfaction of giving me the fright he did: grinning like an imp through my Velux roof-window, holding up a cowl and mouthing Moo!
Fearlessness is a trait of the psychopath, is it not? No normal man would scale a roof that willingly—without scaffolding, without so much as a roofing-ladder! I swear I did not realise until job done and he was back on terra firma. We were all of us in the kitchen, ‘You’ve cemented them in, you barbarian, you!’
‘What he say, Box? I no understand.’
Box, for his part, only groaned.
‘Go release them this instant! It’s a brood, I tell you. They’ll perish!’
‘You want them gone,’ he said, ‘you not want gone? Job done. End of.’
You see? Psychopath.
For my part, I will confess: over the hours that followed, as artistically blocked by their plaintive cries as were those poor chicks literally, I found myself more than once praying for a speedy conclusion, an end to their suffering. But when I cracked, I did so thinking that I, the cause myself, might expire of shame. I had believed them dead; but lo!: no! In the early hours, faint yet distinct: a chirrup, a cheep, a chirp. Sweet music to my ears.
The brickwork was open—frankly, the pointing awful. I loosened much with my fingers, more with pen. Though so far in, I did require a proper tool. A knife! I went through two from the cutlery set that Box himself had supplied, and cannot pretend it was not exhausting work. Every knuckle even now tells a tale. But I could not gouge out all the mortar needed actually to remove a brick.
It was, serendipitously, a Sunday, when Box and Dale cycle. One shouldn’t knock it, I know, I know, burly Box in his Lycra, but off they set, he resembling what but a burst silicon stress reliever. Unbecoming ritual observed through my dormer window, this did at least afford the opportunity of discovery: in Box’s cupboard under the stairs, a hammer and large screwdriver to deputise for bolster.
I did not want now to scare the poor things to death—they would be traumatised by their internment in any case—so chipped, did not bash (gently gently, catchee jackdaw) but judged their height in the chimney too low. Encountered, therefore, on the other side of that first brick removed not them but their nest. Granted, having removed a second and a third brick, I did reach in and take hold of my charges: four chicks, no fewer!
Three, not to count one who had perished.
Five, to count their mother, poor little lady, so distressed that all this while she had breathed not a word. Nothing louder than hopeless murmurs of reassurance that were doubtless beyond my range. On my futon, I laid her, exhausted, alongside her barely-feathered children.
I will spare you a description of the departed mite. Suffice to say, her starving siblings had availed themselves of her. To plead their case the mother raised her beak. ‘Please… They’ve such an appetite at this age. Don’t hold this against them.’
I have professed as much: I felt so deeply my share of guilt. How could I hold against them their instinct to survive? When needs must.
But I could help yet.
‘Just you wait there.’ Chattering as children will, I left them, surviving chicks, but was as quick as could be. I bought birdseed, bread, bacon. Crows, I know, have catholic tastes. They liked the bacon best.
‘You are a good man,’ Harriett told me on return (Harriet was her name) and I told her the whole sorry story: how that evil little man is consumed by his psychopathic hatred of children especially. I know he is. He veritably boasted as much over dinner that first evening.
Prying baldly, did I like women, he asked. ‘As well as I like men,’ said I. He leered. For that reason only did I proceed to expound my theory that all relationships lead inevitably to a diminution of self. I might have opined that family life is ultimately incompatible with artistic creativity. I meant that and that only.
But, ‘Children?’ he burst as if in agreement. ‘Good for nothing!’
‘They are not right for you, Dale,’ Box ventured, meekly.
‘Good for nothing!’
I do not hold with that view. I am certain my mother derived great pleasure from me. But I held my tongue.
‘You are a good man,’ Harriet assured me, adding, of her children playing between us on the futon, ‘I know I can trust you with them.’
This was a comfort; but her wistful tone sounded an alarm. ‘What do you mean? You’re going nowhere.’
‘Oh, my darling, darling man.’
A consequence of how she lay, I had not noticed until now: ‘Your wing is broken!’
She bid me not be angry: her last twenty-four hours had been such a trial—not that she blamed me. ‘Let me,’ she said, ‘remember you for your kindness, not rage.’
Dale did it, fitting the cowl. In defence of her brood, up she’d flown and he’d stuffed her back, the brute. How could I not be furious? But she was right. If these were to be her final hours, I should make them as comfortable for her as I may.
We lay together, me the safety rail to the kids’ soft play. And, do you know, I have never known intimacy quite like it? There was little need for words. As I looked into her pale eye (it is not so easy to look into both eyes of a jackdaw) I began to wonder just what I had been thinking all these years: a lifetime of solitary dedication to my art, returning what? I have nothing. No job, no income, home—not of my own. No family.
A familiar angry scrabbling overhead prompted my query; though I did not speak it, Harriet confirmed: ‘Their father.’
I shan’t profess I really wished to share the moment; but to suggest opening a window was only decent.
Decisively, ‘No,’ Harriet forbad me. ‘He will only be angry at the disturbance and care nothing for the children’s welfare. You are their best hope now.’
I had not registered Box and Dale’s return. Summoned, from the turn in the stair I looked down on that Lycra-clad unlikely pair. The children at play had disturbed them, it seemed.
I told Box, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and slammed my door.
Harriet passed at 2:47 a.m. 3rd June 2015.
Cradling her head, I did what I dared not while she lived. I kissed her beak. Chastely, be sure.
To spare the children, when we spoke of what lay ahead, we had done so cryptically. But all too soon her fate was obvious; they guessed. At the prospect of their loss, they themselves commenced to decline, and within hours of their mother’s passing, they had all but stopped eating.
All except for Margo, bless her. Plucky little Margo. I know it’s wrong for a parent to admit to having favourites, but not doing so would be to deny her. With a spirited nip to the thumb for my trouble, she it was I delivered from the chimney first, she who had consistently begged loudest, gaped widest. Her feathers were but prickles; if allowed, she would have leapt from my futon, intrepid little trooper Margo. Yet it was she of all the children who most quickly warmed to me, might sit contentedly for spells in my palm.
It broke my heart, of course it did, to watch so helplessly her brother and sister follow their sibling and mother into their birdy hereafter. But, sweet consolation, I could at least now pour all my resources into Margo’s preservation and well-being.
And surely would have were it not for that meddlesome Dale.
I was gone a matter of minutes only to the corner shop for provisions: a little sausage meat. And I do not know the day, but I am sure it was a weekday. On my return, Dale was in my room, standing over her, right over her, on my futon where I’d left her safely cushioned in a playpen.
You may imagine the extent of my indignation.
And I will say this for Box: large he may be, softly does he pad. Until Dale addressed him, I had no idea he’d followed me upstairs. ‘Look, Box. What I tell you? He wreck the place. He crazy. You crazy to put up with him. Look in toilet.’
Box did and withdrew looking more pained than he’d entered. ‘You might have just told me, Dale.’
‘Why you no flush?’ Dale asked me. ‘He crazy but, man, you stinky crazy.’
Meanwhile, Box had spotted Harriet and her deceased children where they lay on the blotter of my escritoire. ‘Are those birds dead?’
‘Well you may ask!’ And I swear Dale would have harmed Margo, the look on his face, had I not deftly, if I do say so myself, taken him in hand. ‘That is it! I have just about had it up to here with you and your yellow cigarillos. How dare you? How dare you with your pigeon English. As for you,’ I turned on Box, ‘with your comedy name and lady-boy Thai-bride, you leaky Lycrous deviant, you!’
I might have frogmarched Dale onto the landing; I was every bit as surprised as Box to see him go tumbling down the stairs. Box looked at me, I at him. Dale made a hell of a meal of it, understand that. For one as lethally nimble as he had been on our roof however shortly before, he did. ‘My leg!’ he whined. ‘It broke!’
And Box might have padded stealthily up the stairs; such a clatter he made descending. In any case, his complexion when I apologised, retracting my contention (‘Lycrous! Of course there’s no such word’) was alarming: as deep a shade of purple as his paisley shirt, in fact.
He did not tear up the stairs coming for me just then, for which I suppose I should be grateful to Dale, the distracting fuss he made: ‘It broke, Box. It really broke.’
Box picked him up as one would a child. Wholly unnecessary, if you ask me. Unseemly, really. Done for effect. ‘You,’ he growled at me, ‘had better be gone when I get back.’
Margo. Oh, Margo. That she had had to witness that awful scene, I was sorry. Resilient chirpy chick that she is, she seemed fine. But with Box’s livid visage etched on mind’s eye, we needed… ‘A barricade!’ I resolved…of escritoire, fortified with futon. What better? The deceased I placed back in the chimney. Having promised a proper burial, of course I explained to Margo why this now could not be.
Then, if you can believe, I found myself wishing Box would return sooner than later. Mightn’t we discuss the matter reasonably, man to man, landlord to good tenant, through the door?
Oh, vain hope!
If ever fat man bounded up stair with more murderous intent, I never heard him. ‘Thomas?’ He pounded on the door. ‘John Thomas!’
‘I have flushed,’ I assured him. Untrue perhaps, as yet. I need reunite Margo with mother and siblings first, apologising, you may be sure: ‘When needs must, Margo, old girl.’ But I tell you now, that macerator’s roar was preferable to Box’s.
He would and did enter eventually, barricade notwithstanding. Thank goodness for the perfect fit of wash-cabinet between shower base and shower-room-cum-toilet door is all I can say.
I hoped even then that we could come to some arrangement. His attic, after all, I pled, did so perfectly suit, scrabbling jackdaws, macerator, aside. I diplomatically omitted Dale from that short list of minor grievances. For I had, you see, decided I simply could not move home again. Would not.
Though, actually, I will say this, this cell does serve just as well. I am not sorry in the least that having exhausted himself trying to break down that shower-room-cum-toilet door, Box called the police. My needs here are met: mattress (I’ve said: I sleep little) pee-pot… They did not find the pencil stubs I keep secreted in my socks for just such emergencies. ‘Bunions,’ I told the desk sergeant by way of explaining my limp.
Why, do you know, I barely miss my escritoire. I have this perfectly blank wall.