By Matt Leyshon
Photos © Patricia Routh
The summer afternoon trembled to the buzz of chainsaws as workmen tidied the trees around the allotments. Magpies chattered angrily, hopping back and forth on the bushes. Paul took his bag from his shoulder for a moment and looked across the road to his mother’s house and the estate beyond. A solitary bird circled above, like it was its turn to keep watch.
Little had changed since he was last home. He had let a few people down when he suddenly left Manchester for London 5 years ago and so there were a few faces here that he hoped to avoid during his stay, but the familiarity still felt good. He was looking forward to relaxing with his mother for a while. He was sure that she would insist upon making his drinks and keeping him well fed, just like she always used to. Paul waited a moment, thinking that his mother might throw open the door and wrap her arms around him without him needing to ring the doorbell. Her door had been repainted but the mechanical bell had not been updated and it sounded like a pepper grinder when he pressed the button. He hadn’t seen her since he’d moved away but it seemed that she hadn’t been waiting anxiously at the window for his return.
Toys and empty drink bottlers were scattered across the neighbour’s front lawn. A mobile phone ringtone crept out from an open window further down the row and sneaked off down the ginnel. At the other end, near the marshland, he could see house martins fussing around the eaves of the end terrace like wasps at a picnic.
“Who is it?”
“Mum, it’s me,” Paul called through the woodwork.
The door opened slowly and his mother peeped out cautiously from behind it.
“You been getting cold callers again?”
“They’re all cold,” she said, hurrying him in before quickly closing the door.
They sat in the front room and Paul looked out over the allotments as he told her about his new life in London. His mother still sat in her favourite old arm chair but she had moved it into the corner beside the window so that she faced into the room instead of looking out of the window. She almost seemed to be cowering, like a nervous pupil in a new class.
“And how about you?” he asked.
“I’m getting by,” she said. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Please, Mum,” he replied, remembering how she still preferred to make his drinks since he broke the kettle all those years ago.
She rose very deliberately and followed the walls to the door with her face turned oddly away from the window.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” he called as she filled the kettle.
He was sure that she must have heard but she did not answer. His eyes followed a pair of baby gulls toddling back and forth on the roof of a shed in the allotment as he waited for his mother to return.
“It’s good to see that the council are looking after the place,” he said as he took his tea and watched her follow the same route back to her chair in the shadows.
“It’s not the council,” his mother replied. “And they’re not looking after the place, they’re looking at me.”
“Because I’m alone,” she said.
“But you’re not alone now, I’m here,” Paul said.
“We’re all alone,” she answered. “Anyway, you don’t need to worry about me. I’ve managed up to now, haven’t I?””
Paul watched the tree surgeons working from their harnesses to take his mind off of how peculiar his mother was behaving. Some of the time they were able to converse like they used to, but now and again she kept saying really odd things. He soon established that she did genuinely believe that she was being watched by the men with the chainsaws, but it seemed that she believed this to be only a small part of a much wider surveillance operation. Over evening dinner she claimed that they were also removing tiles from the roof at night so that they could enter her home through the loft.
“There aren’t any tiles missing,” Paul called in from the back yard, shielding his eyes from the sun with his forearm.
“They put them back afterwards, obviously,” she replied. “But it won’t be long before I’m sleeping beneath the stars.”
His mother pulled the kitchen blind down and did the washing up. Paul returned to the front room. He saw an elderly gentleman making use of the long summer evening to spend some extra time on his vegetable plot, but he could see no sign of anybody watching the house or preparing for a night of roof tile stealing.
“The old one is still there,” his mother said, having silently returned to her chair in the corner without him noticing.
Paul jumped and cursed under his breath. “He’s the first to arrive and the last to leave. I’ve been going to library earlier and earlier each day, but he’s always there waiting,” she explained. “And he’s there when I get back too. The others are catching on now. The bus was full to the brim on Friday, so tomorrow I shall have to leave earlier still.”
As he prepared for bed he pondered on how worried he ought to be about his mother. She seemed rather too young for dementia so he decided that he would see how she was tomorrow. As he settled into bed he listened to a police helicopter circling over Ardwick, its spotlight once passing nearby and briefly lighting the dark crack between his curtains.
As he tried to sleep he kept being disturbed by faint scrabbling sounds coming from the loft. The house martins that he had seen before must be in the loft spaces, he thought, and told himself not to worry. He was not really a worrier by nature and the occasional flapping of wings did not stop him from sleeping well in the end, but what happened when he woke in the morning worried him greatly.
Paul opened his bedroom door and flicked on the light in the hall. His eyes focussed to reveal a terrible sight that sent him staggering to the wall for support. His naked mother was balanced precariously in the corner trying to pull on a pop sock with one hand whilst clinging to a dado rail with the other.
“What the…” he yelped in horror.
“For goodness sake son, I have to dress here or they’ll see me. This is the only place with no windows,” his mother explained.
“Why don’t you draw the curtains in your bedroom,” he suggested.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she replied thoughtfully, adjusting her blouse. “There’s always a crack though.”
“A crack in what?” he said.
“Between the curtains. They’d still see in.”
Paul sighed in exacerbation and averted his eyes as he made for the bathroom.
“No, wait,” his mother called out urgently, scrambling to reach the door handle before him.
“Wait for what?”
“I’ve not checked the bathroom yet. There have been feathers in the bath these last few days.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” Paul said and went in, pulling the light cord.
There were no feathers in the bath. Paul peed and washed his hands.
“Are you decent?” he called through the door when he had finished.
“I’m dressed, Paul,” his mother replied. “When did you become so dramatic?”
“Only recently, mother,” Paul said, returning to his room. “In fact I can pinpoint the moment quite precisely. It happened when you claimed that people were watching you, stealing your roof tiles, and leaving feathers in your bath.”
“You think you’re funny, I suppose,” she snapped. “Well, I’m not mad. That much I do know.”
Paul closed the doors without replying and sat on the edge of his bed thinking. He was no psychologist but he had a good idea of what it meant to be paranoid and delusional. It was frightening to think that his mother might actually be mentally ill. What if he ended up having to care for her? He considered it a good thing that at least the people that she thought were watching her were really there, rather than being imaginary. Perhaps she just happened to look out of the window whenever one of the tree surgeons had looked in her direction, and so it wouldn’t be so mad for his mother to conclude that they were watching her. There was evidence that birds had gotten into the loft so perhaps she had found feathers around the home.
When he took his breakfast through to the living room he found his mother sat in her usual chair drinking a cup of tea and smoking a cigarette.
“Since when have you been a smoker?” Paul asked.
“There was a girl that I used to go to school with called Diana Hart. She used to look just like me when she wore her hair short. Anyway, she used to smoke. So I thought that if I smoked they might think that I was Diana Hart.”
“Does she still look like you?”
“I’ve no idea, the last time I saw her was at college about 40 years ago,” she said.
“But even if you are a spitting image of Diana Hart, you’re sat in the corner out of sight, so they wouldn’t be able to see you to misidentify you anyway.”
“I’m not stupid Paul, remember who you are talking to. I’m your mother,” she said. “I have to smoke at home so that I don’t cough and choke when they see me smoking outside, because then they would know that I’m not really a smoker.”
“Who are they, Mum?” Paul asked, dropping onto the sofa.
“You remember the McNamaras?”
“Jimmy McNamara’s family?”
“I know of them, Jimmy was in a few of my classes at college. Why do you think they’re watching you?”
“Jimmy McNamara’s mother had a sister called Gina. We used to be friends when I was little, not best friends, but we sometimes played together after school. Gina’s Dad was in the army and he got posted down south somewhere so the family relocated. Obviously they came back again, about a decade or so later, that’s how you know Jimmy who was Gina’s sister’s boy.
Anyway, the day before they were to move away Gina and I were out playing at what is now the halls of residence in Fallowfield. There was an outhouse where strange birds that looked as old as time roosted, there were drains being laid, and there were big concrete tubes everywhere that we liked to play in. There were deep ditches and holes in the ground and we were jumping over them and hiding. Then we heard someone shout out, “Make-make”, or something like that. I’d pinched an egg from one of the nests so I thought that he was after me. We both ran as quickly as we could, jumping over the ditches and holes, each making our own way for Wilmslow Road where we had left our bikes. When I got to my bicycle I jumped onto it and began pedalling, but when I looked behind me Gina wasn’t there and yet in the distance I could still make out her bike leaned up against the gate. I thought nothing of it really because I knew that I wouldn’t see her again and figured that she would have just made her own way home. But when the McNamara’s moved back later, Gina wasn’t with them. She must have fallen into one of the drainage holes that day and died down there, alone.”
“You know this?”
“Well, why else would the McNamaras be after me?” his mother replied.
“How could you come to that conclusion?” he cried. ”It makes no sense at all.”
Paul threw back the living room curtains and warm sunlight rushed in. He was surely mistaken, but he thought he saw a figure suddenly drop behind the hedge at the allotment border.
“He’s there again, isn’t he?” his mother asked.
Paul kept watching, trying to convince himself that he had not really seen someone watching over his mother’s house. After some time the figure rose again above the hedge but Paul could see now that he wasn’t even facing his mother’s property. But it was the same grey haired man working his allotment, bending and rising as he gardened. Two trucks had pulled in further up the road and men in dark overalls were getting out and gathering equipment to continue work on the trees. He heard the tits and sparrows chattered furiously outside in anticipation of their homes being desolated.
“Looks like they’re going to be working on the trees again today,” Paul said.
“It doesn’t matter. I can get to the bus stop via the ginnel,” she replied.
Whilst his mother was out Paul watched the men strap themselves into their harnesses and climb the trees again. Despite the roar of the chainsaws that soon drowned out the birdsong it did strike him as curious that they did not seem to be achieving much and that there was little evidence of them having done much the previous day either.
The man who had begun digging early in the allotment was soon joined by others. Heads would bob up above the hedge line periodically. With the sun behind the gardeners, casting their faces into shadow, it was often impossible to know which way they were looking. A flock of pigeons swished low past the window suddenly and Paul jumped back, startled.
It dawned on him that an easy way to perhaps cure his mother’s paranoia would be to show her that Gina McNamara had not been left to die in a drainage hole. A quick check on his laptop revealed a social network profile of Gina McNamara who was alive and well and living in Bolton. She even had his old college buddy Jimmy listed as her son. Paul felt very pleased with himself and went into the yard to wait for his mother so that he could deliver his good news. A seagull watched him so closely from the roof of the outhouse in the neighbour’s garden that he could not relax until he had adjusted the chair and turned his back to it. He found himself gazing up at the roof again and saw that there were some loose tiles where a small bird might have gotten in to the loft.
When his mother returned home with groceries he made her a brew and told her the good news about Gina McNamara.
“So why are they after me?” she replied.
“They’re not,” Paul said.
“Look in the wheelie bin.”
Paul lifted the lid of the wheelie.
“Feathers?” he said. “Loads of coloured feathers. What about them?”
“I found them this morning before you got up,” his mother said. “They weren’t in the bath this time. They were on my bed and in the kitchen. They leave them in my house so that I know.”
“That I was a coward and that I left Gina in the drain to die. During the First World War the women would present men who weren’t in uniform with white feathers to shame them into enlisting. So it’s like that, I suppose.”
“But these feathers aren’t white. And Gina didn’t die, I’ve shown you that she’s alive. These aren’t all from in the house are they? Tell me the truth, mother.”
“Son,” she said. “Just look between the cracks in the ceiling tiles in the spare room, there are some still there that I’ve not been able to reach.”
Paul went upstairs and sure enough, in the gaps between the polyester tiles, feather shafts of all colours poked through. He stood on a chair and pulled one out. The shaft was an unnatural purple colour whereas the barbs forming the vane were a gaudy and equally unnatural looking shade of greenish-blue. The feather might have come from a budgie or canary except that it was too big, being almost as long as his hand. He returned to the yard deep in thought.
“What are you staring at?” he yelled at the bald man who was peering over their gate.
The man looked shocked and his head jutted back and forth like a pheasant for a moment before it dropped out of sight. Paul heard him scampering away and so he ran across the yard and opened the gate to peer down the ginnel. He just glimpsed the man disappearing around the corner at the end of the row.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“One of them,” his mother said with a dry laugh as she lit up another cigarette.
“Oh, do put that out,” he said, stomping back indoors and slamming the back door shut behind him.
He dragged the chair out of the spare room and onto the landing. There must be an old pillow in the attic that has split open, he thought. He placed the chair beneath the loft hatch, but before he had the chance to open it and climb inside his mother called up to him.
“Paul, Paul,” she cried. “Gina McNamara is out there! Come and look if you don’t believe me.”
He climbed down and ran into his mother’s room to look out of her window. Sure enough there was a woman looking over the allotment hedge. Paul banged on the window and the woman looked up at him.
“Stay there,” he shouted and rushed down the stairs.
He threw the front door open and ran up the garden path. The woman was no longer looking over the hedge but he was sure that she would not have been able to get far. He dashed across the road and peered over the hedge into the allotments. The woman was nowhere to be seen. Crows were fighting so loudly over a nearby vegetable patch that Paul could barely think straight. The only place that the woman, Gina McNamara if it were really her, could possibly have got to in time where she couldn’t be seen was by the vans near the gate.
He walked up the road towards the vehicles. The chainsaws stuttered and stopped. Anxious thrushes began thrashing snail shells against the kerbs. He tried the back doors and in the first van there was no one, but in the second he found Gina McNamara.
“Are you Gina McNamara?” Paul said.
“Yes. And who are you?”
“Why are you and your family pestering my mother,” he asked.
“I promise you, we don’t mean your mother any harm. Sit down.”
The workmen were now hurriedly lowering themselves from the trees and one who had gotten down first was already running towards him and Gina.
“It’s too late for that,” he said. “You’re making her go mad.”
“Sit down,” Gina repeated.
“I don’t want to sit down.”
The workman arrived and stood before Paul. “My name is Hawa-tuu-take-take. Just do as she asks,” he said.
“When you’re Mum was a little girl she stole a very special bird’s egg. All we’re doing is making sure that no harm comes to it. A very special bird will hatch from it, one that has been worshipped by a select few since the dawn of time.”
“Worshipped? This is ridiculous.”
“This is a momentous occasion that happens only once every 50 years. Look at the birds, Paul, if you don’t believe us. Just look at the birds.”
It was true that the birds had begun behaving very strangely. Falcons and hawks were hovering high above like kites on strings and magpies were hopping noisily back and forth on the old wooden gate. The branches of the trees around the allotment were alive with the flapping of wings and other birds circled low, searching for somewhere to perch.
“Bollocks,” said Paul. Hawa-tuu-take-take stepped forward but Paul pushed him away and strode determinedly back to his mother’s house. “Stay the fuck away from us.”
His mother was waiting anxiously for him in the doorway. “What did they say?” she asked.
“They say that you have got some stupid bird egg or something,” he said.
“Oh. They’ll mean that strange egg I took when I was playing with Gina that day. Do they want it? Is that all that this has been about? Oh Paul, just go up into the loft and get it, I don’t even know why I ever kept it.”
“It’s in the loft?” Paul asked. “You’ve still got that egg?”
“Yes,” she said. “It seemed like the safest place. It’s been up there for decades. Why do they suddenly want it now, I wonder?”
A huge crow had perched itself outside on the sill of the landing window and began hammering at the glass with its beak, its black eyes rolled like marbles on a table.
Paul rushed up the stairs and pulled the chair back beneath the loft hatch. The men had come down from the trees and the allotment had emptied, they were all now crowded onto the front garden where they were making strange whistling sounds and flapping their arms.
Paul pushed at the hatch but it wouldn’t budge.
“Turn the latch, son,” his mother said.
Paul turned it and the hatch door dropped with such sudden force that it knocked him to the floor.
Slimy feathers and sticky gunk flicked across his face as the head of the strangest bird that he had ever seen protruded from the square of darkness in the ceiling above him. Its gnarly head was electric blue and its black and ovine eyes shimmered like oil. It opened its beak and protruded a probing pink tongue that was as long as Paul’s arm. He stared into its mouth and felt its foul breath fall across his face like a cobweb.
“Make-make,” it screeched, flapping its wings madly as it lunged towards him. “Make-make.”
The bird wriggled itself free by hacking up green spittle to lubricate the hatch edge. Then levering its bright and downy belly over the ledge, it flopped to the floor. Deep thumping noises reverberated through the house as it flapped its wings against the walls. Coloured feathers filled the hall. Razor quills swirled around gashing Paul’s face and hands. He kicked out at the bird and when he screamed, the bird screamed back louder and threw itself harder and harder against the walls and ceiling. It ploughed the carpet with its talons and gouged grey, dusty rifts through the wallpaper with its jagged beak.
“Make-make, make-make,” it screamed.
Paul shouted a warning to his mother and delivered an uppercut to the bird’s head. Its skull jerked back and thwacked against the stair rail. The bird went limp, tumbled down the stairs, and then rolled out of the front door spitting feathers like fireworks into the sunlight. Outside the twittering and tweeting grew more frenzied as birds formed a dreadful cacophony and the so-called worshippers began to join in.
“Make-make, oh beautiful bird,” someone wailed. “Make-make.”
“Make-make, we praise you,” voices trilled as the bird thrashed upon the floor.
Paul wiped the gunk and feathers from his face and dashed down the stairs. The bird was on its feet now, flapping its great wings and pecking angrily at the air. Then he heard a scream and he saw Gina drop to the floor, clutching at her scalp, screaming, and with blood spraying in arc between her fingers.
“He pecked her head,” someone cried. “She is chosen! Make-make.”
“I can see her brain,” a woman’s voice screamed. “I can see the chosen one’s brain. It’s pecked a hole in her skull!”
“She’ll be fine,” a man declared, stepping forward from the rabble. Paul recognised him as the grey haired man from the allotment. “Don’t worry about her now, just help the sacred bird.”
Paul watched as old man from the allotment began tenderly straightening the bird’s tail feathers. The others huddled around, reaching out to touch it and whispering their strange chirruping praises. Sparrows skirred noisily around their feet like competing colporteurs at a busy shrine.
Paul heard a sudden swooshing sound from above and pulled his mother behind him to protect her. A cloud of starlings swept over them like a black sheet. The crowd cooed and then began cheering as the bird, as if strengthened by the vast shadow, got to its feet and steadied itself. It stood still, its head moving slowly like an owl’s as it followed the path of the starling formation above their heads. The starlings circled like a plane waiting for an airport runway to clear, their shape changing constantly like spilled mercury.
The bird raised its wings slowly and the cooing crowd stepped back to give it space. A dazzling kaleidoscope of terrible colours sprayed across everyone. Paul shielded his eyes and squinted. As the bird lowered its wings it rose upon a wave of warm and fusty air. It flicked away the jewels of mucus from its beak with a long terrible squawk that filled the air like thunder, “Make-make.”
“Make-make,” the people sang with their whistling voices as they flapped their arms. “Make-make.”
“What are they going on about, Paul?” his mother said.
“I think they’re some weird bird worshipping cult or something,” he said.
The bird’s bright underbelly faded behind the swirling starlings before it disappeared completely into the clicking and chirruping throng as it rose, pirouetting and pulsing, high into the sky before eventually disappearing.
“Right,” said Hawa-tuu-take-take as he emerged from the crowd. He bent down to Gina who lay trembling with pink brain dripping down her face from the beak-hole in her temple. “We need an ambulance.”
“Oh no, you needn’t bother,” said Paul’s mother, stepping out from behind him. “We don’t need the men in white coats today. I’m not mad after all, am I son? Not compared to you lot!”
“No, mother,” said Paul. “You’re not as mad as that lot.”