The Alcoholic & The Aviary

She was drunk on Friday night and mistook herself for someone social, convivial, organising other gatherings, agreeing to proposals, setting dates, leaving times till later, to-be-confirmed’s. Yes, when she was drunk she was gregarious, but also especially forgetful, so that when, the next day, she received a text from her sister, stating—‘After three o’clock today is fine, or any time tomorrow,’ she walked around the house asking anyone who had been present whether she had made arrangements. Yes, she was told. Don’t you remember, she was asked. After more champagne than her empty stomach could tolerate, she had said she would visit her eldest sister, which was not something she usually did. The text scuppered her plans to laze, but she could not rescind now, and agreed to go. She asked me if I would like to join her. I was cleaning my room at the time, with a documentary on in the background about a commune of paedophiles—Pervert Park—that I was most amused by. It was warm in the room and I was quite sweaty. My uncle is an alcoholic but always keeps a fridge of beer—for a reason I cannot quite determine; perhaps guests, perhaps as a demonstration of willpower—and it would be my sincere pleasure to take one of those cold beers off his hands. I told my mother to leave without me, that I would catch her up once I had run the hoover over. Not only did the free cold beer endow the visit with appeal, but it was a chance to revisit my old walk; a walk that, after only six days, seemed like so long ago and vaguer in the memory than I had expected.
    Outside the air was very still and sticky, it did not move, it smothered, it was unpleasant and smelled of summer when she is trying not to throw up in the cab ride home. Because it was a Sunday, the forty-year-old couple were nowhere to be seen; every week day there is a couple who clean the retirement home, and at the time I used to go for walks they would withdraw to the van for fifteen minutes—one had to be careful to catch them—and they sat there, looking at me as I passed and I at them as they sat; I liked to imagine they were illicit lovers waiting for my disappearance before recommencing whatever fervent act I had interrupted. Instead, two young lovers cycled past, neither with any velocity or interest in the excursion, so burdensome was the heat. Indeed, I was already perspiring heavily and had not yet got down to the front. Despite my discomfort—and the fact that I was ruining a brand-new shirt—I was striding with great verve. The sight of the finches in the bush brightened my mood considerably, their fine little beaks; they scattered and recollected. If it were not so cruel, an aviary of finches one day on a property I own out in the country would be wonderful! What kind of monster could cage them? Not I. The covid testing facility manned by armed forces, nurses and security guards was absent at the weekend. I missed them, their well-coordinated operation, their queue of cars, windows down, speckled with blue masks.

    What was that? I stopped in my tracks and turned… Could it be? There was a new line of bitumen across the pavement. There was doubt it was a new line of bitumen. How about that? I disappear for a week and they carry out works on the pavement—‘He’s gone now. We can take up the path!’ The new line of bitumen was very straight, pointing toward the sea, lead the eye to the horizon where the water darkened in the distance. I went on my way. Further along—and now terribly wet from sweat—I saw a branch in the middle of the pavement. It was a branch I had seen a dozen times before. About two weeks ago it appeared in the middle of the path, a sizeable branch, a yard long, covered in leaves. Why, I had even noticed a man in front of me once, with his prissy little west highland terrier, shift the branch out of the way with clean tip of his boot, but now it was in the middle of the pavement again! What is more, the leaves had all died. They were brown and stiff so that, should I reach out and touch them, they would crackle and fall apart in my fingers. It seems as if every bit of nutrition left in the branch had been sipped, exhaled and exhausted. The dead of leaves. On my walks there were many branches that had been puled from trees or snapped from the trunk and dangling and every day I regarded them, curious as to how long the leaves would survive. Well, here it was: the evidence right in front of me, the study concluded. I smiled and carried on walking.

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    I would be a little late to my aunt’s but there were sights along the route that I could not ignore. The free cold beer was becoming even more tempting but I wished to prolong my anticipation. Then I began to worry that … what if there was no free cold beer? What if, leaving for a holiday in a couple of days, they had cleared the fridge and drained them all down the sink? I panicked and picked up my pace. The side gate was open and I entered their garden cautiously. One of my alcoholic uncles was in the kitchen, drying his hands and reading a calendar. We greeted each other. He offered me a cold beer. At first I pretended that I was not all that fussed but would accept out of politeness. It was a pint can of my favourite high-alcohol, low-cost lager, a rare find! Not stocked in my local off licence, would not even fit within the refrigerator shelves. ‘No, it’s okay, I don’t need a glass.’ Then my aunt emerged from the gloomy recesses of the house with my mother and offered me a glass of cold water, and that I accepted gladly. ‘No, it’s okay, I don’t need ice.’ I swallowed it all in one go, feeling down the length of my throat. I took the beer and walked around their garden. The pear tree was shedding its fruit. The lawn around it was a pear graveyard, each one in varying stages of decomposition. I gazed upon the rotting fruit and drank my beer. Really, I could have stood in one spot and looked around the garden, but I strolled leisurely, surveying, aiming to give off the appearance of contemplation and appreciation. Put simply, I was enjoying being alone; I liked to be alone knowing that there are people nearby. In the middle of the lawn—almost exactly in the middle, as though placed by an architect—was a dead mouse. It was only a tiny mouse but it was very dead. I bent down to study the dead mouse and all the flies leapt off, apart from a stubborn wasp who would not be disturbed from its meal. The mouse was freshly dead. Its innards, which had spilled out, still had that butcher-shop window shine to them. You could see its tiny bones and the flesh and the colour red and purple like the sweetest blackberry. Its eyes were open. The wasp ate. The mouse watched the wasp eating the flesh around its neck. The beer was nice and cold. ‘You got a dead mouse here.’ My uncle was drinking some non-alcoholic beer—‘The cat must’ve got to it. I blocked up its hole. Probably had nowhere to run.’ I frowned and stood up.
    After a couple of hours we said good-bye far too many times and I walked home with my mother, just like we used to do at the beginning of lockdown—albeit far hotter—and I was glad. There were dandelions and daisies growing between the uneven paving slabs; was it their little roots that so disrupted these blocks of stone? My mind became flooded—what if now I should bring up all my worries, the weight on my mind, my misery? It was opportune, but, no, why spoil the moment. I would keep it secret. You tell people this sort of thing and it never helps. We made little chatter. An old couple were outside a bungalow cleaning their motorcycle. ‘Look,’ said my mother—‘they have a motorcycle! They’re so unusual! She has that sign inviting you to look at her painting in the window and smell her roses to cheer yourself up.’ ‘I like them. They’re characters. She had out all her sketches at the end of the drive, life drawings and shit … You ever see them?’ ‘No, but I go out for my walks early. She’s probably not put them out by then … She also used to have that stack of books you could help yourself to.’ ‘That’s right. Yeah, I really like them.’ ‘Me too… Let’s go home and have a drink and order junk food.’

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