The Joy of Clockwork Finches for Dinner

Walking is no longer any fun. I have been away for too long in the glass architecture and barren unkindliness of London, and now my leisurely afternoon walks along the beach lack the appeal they had before. It used to be that I would anticipate them; an opportunity to take myself away from my labour and to enjoy stretching my legs, the bracing fresh air, the birdsong and contemplation. The regular routes had a comfort all their own, inducing a somnambulism in me through which I would drift in a cloud of tobacco smoke and hip hop similes. Now I sit at my desk – the desk at which I sat throughout all of spring & summer – and watch, waiting for the rain to pass. The rain lingers; county-sized clouds pierced by swords of sunlight drift slowly over the rooftops of houses. Water overflows from the clogged gutters and splashes. The sound of water on water, on stone, of water on grass; a miserable symphony that lasts all day but at night, for reasons undefined, it clears and one can see the stars most clearly as though they had been washed clean and hung out to dry.
    I watch the rain. It stops. I roll three cigarettes and retie my shoelaces; by the time I am finished, the rain has begun again. I curse at it in the foulest language, before I turn my collar up – ‘Fuckit!’ – and leave the house.
    It is colder now.
    It is quieter now.
    The young people who used to smoke outside of their apartment building are no longer there, the disabled kids from the school down the way no longer sit in the park playing with fallen pine needles, there are fewer cars on the roads leading to the beach; everything is ghosts, preserved in my mind wearing the same clothes they died in, doing the same thing over & over again. I push my hands into my pockets. What am I doing out here? What am I doing here? What am I doing? I smile visibly at the same old finches in the same old bush that same old flutter away in twisted darts at my same old passing. It is clockwork that the finches are in that bush and leap up and I laugh because they have so innocently caused a feeling in me!
    Feeling anything is such a rarity for me these days. All the extremes of emotion I used to feel and keep within me, like a bluebird, are gone. Is it healthy? I could not say. I feel, but only momentarily. I feel rage, calm, anxious, aroused, I feel blips of joy and anger, I feel sadness and regret, sorrow, excitement, misery, but each is fleeting. They visit but they do not stay for dinner. It leads one to challenge their own humanity, or their sanity, whichever one is more attached to. If I am not feeling things fully, then I am led to question what I am doing here. Waking up hungover one morning I discover a note I made in my phone—‘If I can keep this up, I feel like I have a real shot at being a normal member of society. There is only regular emotion, not the strongest. Molly and her friend.’ That night I was woken up on the train by a cleaner; they had to call a driver out to take the train back to the station so I could get out. I got in a cab, and he recognised me. After seven years away, the cabbie recognised me and knew where I was going. ‘It’s all right, mate, I know who you are. I know where you’re going.’ He knew where I was going even if I did not. I was almost brought to tears that this stranger remembered me after so long and I wondered what impression I had made on him. I thanked him dearly and stumbled up the driveway, moved to weeping.
    I have not spoken to my therapist in over a month. What is on my mind? What would we even discuss? She sent me a ‘duty of care’ message. I responded a week later informing her that I was all right and covid-free. Everything is terrible, and I have trained myself not to think of it at all, to repress it, bury it deep down, replace the bluebird with a crow.
    However my youngest niece knows me by name now and she says my name and I understand, if only slightly, what it must feel like to be a father. My sister-in-law recalls to me all the times my niece used my name. I am very happy when she arrives with her frumpy blonde fringe, her mischief, her spitting and hissing – such a little shit – her laughter and half-formed chatter, the nomnom sound she makes when she eats hummus off the spoon. Being with her is the most I feel about anything. I kiss her and she pushes me away. I wish to swallow her. I wish to protect her from the world. I chase her around the kitchen. I push her on her scooter. When she slaps the piano keys, I slap them too and sing her name and she slaps my hand and shouts—‘Mine! Mine!’ Such a little shit. When she is watching a film, she points at Buzz Lightyear and coos; I kiss the top of her head.
    I am almost home now. It is cold and my sweat is cold. The pavements are damp, but they are empty. In summer, the seafront was busy; now it is off-season. This seaside town has returned to its squalor, rows of vacant shopfronts, to its empty purse and desperate council. Berries have fallen from the trees and become smushed into the paving slabs upset by roots. A kestrel sits atop its prey, balancing finely as it strips the feathers from the struggling sparrow and sinks its beak into the soft underbelly. A cat crosses the road with a dead rat between its jaws; the tail hangs down. Wind rustles the undressing branches. The smell in the air reminds me of my childhood. The smell of autumn always reminds me of childhood. The smell of autumn meant back-to-school and my feelings then were so intense that my senses were heightened, and so I was stained by it, permanently affected. The smell of rotting leaves and stagnant puddles reminds me of my youth, for both good & bad. The air is a perfume of decay. I am a different person to back then. I am a different person to six months ago. The berries smush underneath my trainers.
    ‘We’re going to see Nana & Gramps,’ my sister-in-law tells her daughter, buckled in the backseat of my brother’s new automobile. ‘And Reeze,’ my niece says. I feel so much love for her. During times like these, when she is covering her figurines with my mother’s cushions before her morning nap, I wrap my arms around her and hold her tightly, kissing her and telling her I love her, yes, I do. She pushes me away and shows me the figurines sleeping tightly, and she puts the cushion back over them. Such a little shit.