Question: who's the bigger bully? Jonathan Niker or Edith Sorrel? Go to the top of Chance House. OK sure, anything you say. Make me a coat of feathers. Great idea, I'll start right now. Perhaps it's not just ‘victim’ I have etched into my forehead, but ‘daft’ as well. Norbert No-Brain-At-All. Norbert Push-Him-Over- He’s-a-Piece-of-Cake. Maybe I'm just grumpy because of this needle.
Have you ever tried to thread a needle? Fact: no matter how wide the eye of the needle is, the cotton is always wider. Fact: no matter how carefully you cut the cotton to stop it splaying, it splays. Does that deter you? It does not. You just keep on trying. You line up cotton and needle, steady your hand, push and bonanza! You miss.
Again. That's when you check to see whether you have a hand or a bunch of bananas at the end of your arm. No question. It's the bunch of bananas. But as persistence is one of your finer qualities, you try again. This time you see the cotton come out the other side! Hurrah! Hurray! You whoop with joy with triumph, only to find the cotton has in fact simply passed behind the needle and (while you've been whooping) dropped on to the floor.
“Need any help there?” Mum has come into the room and is rootling around in the dirty linen basket.
“What are you doing?”
What does it look like I'm doing? Reading a comic? “I'm trying to thread this needle.”
Because I told a batty old woman I'd make her a coat of pigeon feathers, of course.
Mum, with a kindly expression:” Suck the cotton.”
“Suck the end. It makes it easier to thread.”
I suck the end of the cotton. Guess what? The cotton stops being splayed. In fact I'd have to describe it as becoming pointed, sharp even. I approach the eye of the needle. One swift forward thrust and there we are, the needle is threaded. It's threaded! I pull the cotton through. I am a genius. Now for the knot. Carefully I make a loop of cotton and push the un-needled end through the hole. Then I pull the thread tight. Easy enough - but - there is no knot. How can there be no knot? I run the thread between a disbelieving finger and thumb, and there it is. The knot. You'd need a magnifying glass to see it. I try again. A second knot. Also minuscule. And, irritatingly no where near the first knot. I jerk the cotton (could be anger, could be frustration) and, at the other end of the thread, the needle does a backwards flip to land in its preferred position on the floor.
“Bad luck,” says Mum. She retrieves needle and thread. “Watch.” She licks her index finger, wraps the end of the cotton around it, rubs the join between finger and thumb, slides the rubbed loop free and somehow contrives to pull a knot out of nowhere with the nail of her middle finger. “See?”
Then there's a flash of steel and the needle's threaded again. She hands it to me. “Can I ask what you're trying to do?”
“Sew,” I say, rather ungratefully.
“Anything in particular?”
“On a jumper.” I indicate the flesh-tone pink cardigan.
“Oh. Are you doing a play?”
A play. This is the wonderful thing about the human brain. It's always trying to make sense of things, even when they don't make sense.
“I'm making a coat of feathers. It's part of the project. With the old people.”
“Oh right. I see. A kind of artistic expression of how flying has changed from their day to yours?”
Good old Mum. Brain in overdrive. “Something like that.”
Mum looks at the feathers. “Have you only got three?”
“I'm going to get more.”
And as soon as I say it I know that I am. Because of course, I'm going to make a real coat of feathers. Just as Mrs Sorrel asked. No matter how long it takes. The piece is already complete in my mind. A hundred large, dark feathers sewn on first and spaced to allow lighter, smaller feathers to be stitched on top. All the feathers matched and gradated, culminating in some of those tiny, really fluffy pure white feathers, sewn around the neck line, and dotted over the body like down on a bird's breast.
“Well, mind you wash your hands afterwards. I'm not quite sure how clean those feathers are,” Mum, returning to her work at the linen basket.
“How long does it take someone to die of cancer?”
I spent some considerable time last night trying to think of a way to work this question into the conversation so it sounded natural. As you see, I failed.
Mum pauses, dirty socks suspended in mid-air. “Depends what cancer.”
“Liver,” I say.
“Who do you know with liver cancer?” asks Mum.
I didn't intentionally look at Mrs Sorrel's medical notes. They were just there, on Matron's desk, thrusting themselves under my nose.
Mum sits down on the edge of the bed. “Real liver cancer,” she says, “is very quick but very rare. That's where the primary - or first tumour - is actually in the liver. Most cancer in the liver comes from a secondary tumour, and then the prognosis is rather better.”
“Weeks?” I ask. “Months?” A pause. “Years?”
“Not years. No. But whether months or weeks, that really depends at what stage the tumour is diagnosed.”
“So you don't really know.”
“Well, I am fielding a little in the dark here, yes Robert.”
“What about, about, you know when you get better for no apparent reason?”
“Spontaneous remission? It happens. Not very common though I'm afraid.” She looks at me. “Are we talking Mrs Sorrel here?”
“I'm sorry, Robert.”
“Don't be,” I say. “She's not dead yet.”
“Is there anything I can help with?”
“Yes. Can you show me how to do that knot again?”
She shows me. Then she hangs about while I fumble with the needle, the thread, the cardigan and the feather. She doesn't actually say anything until I've sewn the front of the cardigan to the back of it and the feather has slipped out of its binding and on to the floor.
“Here,” she says and she starts by unbuttoning the cardigan. “It's easier if you’re only working with one layer. Put the needle through from the back, so you don't see the knot…”
“No, no, I want that feather at the top, coming down from the shoulder.”
“Very well. Put it here then. I doubt if you'll get it to hold unless you actually sew round the flight. Or maybe you could push the needle through the quill itself?”
“Yes,” I say. “Do that. Push it right through.” I want the coat to
be strong. Safe.
I provide her with the rubber bottom of a stapler. She pushes and the needle goes through. A couple of cotton loops later and the feather is secure.
“Thank you,” I say, “thank you very much.”
“Next?” She's reaching for a second feather.
“No,” I say. “I want to do it.”
“Course,” she says, deftly securing the needle just below the feather and handing me the cardigan. “Your project after all. Marvellous if it teaches you to sew. Good old Mrs Sorrel. That must be a change from her day too.”
I don't know if this is meant to be ironic. It sounds ironic. But Mum’s not normally the ironic type. So I just keep smiling and nod in the general direction of the dirty socks. She leaves.
The next problem is how to get the head from the left shoulder to the right - which is where I want to put the second feather. I have this idea that the Chance House feathers should be spaced, two on the front and one on the back. The symmetry of the coat is going to be important as well as the colour, the texture. To work as the Firebird coat, it all has to be right.
If I was Mum, I'd simply cut the thread and start again - but that would mean a new knot and I'm none too confident about that. But I can’t sew across the opening of the cardigan, because then Mrs Sorrel will not be able to get it on. And that of course is the point. Mrs Sorrel is going to wear this coat.
Solution. Sew the back feather on first. Obvious really I run long and not very elegant stitches under the sleeve to get the needle to the right place. Then, I hold the feather firmly and push and push with the stapler back until the needle goes through the quill. As I loop the needle back around I prick myself. Blood beads between my finger and the quill and, as I try to brush it away, I smear it slightly on the cardigan. Of course, with all the feathers I'm going to sew on top, no-one will see this tiny mark. But I will know it's there. I take it as a good omen that some of my life's blood has flowed already - willy-nilly - into this coat.
There is not enough thread left to sew the third feather, so I have to fasten off the remaining cotton and cut a new length. This time I’m quicker, both with the threading and the knot. And I’m grateful, not just for my sake but for Mrs Sorrel's. Time is limited. The question is - how limited? As there seems no answer to that, I'll just have to work as quickly as I can. Every day, every hour, will count. Perhaps every minute. Just as each and every feather will count. The thicker the coat the better, the more likely to succeed.
So where can I get more feathers? The graveyard obviously. With such a colony of pigeons the churchyard must have a constant fall of feathers. I pull the third Chance House feather tight and tie off the Cotton. Still an hour of daylight left. I’ll go to the graveyard now. What shall I tell my mother? The truth I suppose.
“Just going out, Mum.”
“St Michael's and All Angels.”
“Yes. The church.”
“Get some feathers.”
“At this time?”
“It's prep, Mum. I have to.”
“It's raining, Robert.”
“Fine. I’ll wear my mack.”
I'm out of the house. It is raining. That thin, cold rain that drives liquid icicles down the back of your neck. But it's only a shower. By the time I reach the churchyard, it's stopped. I begin my search, scanning the grass around the older graves. Cigarette packet, bottle top, sodden tissue. A pigeon lands at my feet. Then another. And another. They’ve been sheltering around the tower of the church and now they are flying, thirty, forty, fifty of them, to my feet.
“Anyone fancy donating a tail feather?”
The pigeons mill, unconcerned.
I resume my search. Empty pill packet, cider bottle, single yellow crocus. The birds move with me, circling with the perfect rhythm of passengers at railway stations, a flow without touch. Perhaps they don't want to get too near. Perhaps they recognise my desperation, my intent. Where are the discarded feathers? Crisp packet. Dog poo. Tombstone of Charity Ann Slaughter.
Feather. Feather! It's grey, drenched, muddy the barbs of the flight separated with the weight of water. I pick it up. Just as I pick up every feather I find in the next hour. The thin, the straggly, the waterlogged, I fold each as a treasure into my pocket. As I stoop the birds around me coo, a throaty, warbling, love-nest noise.
I started at the outer reaches of the churchyard, but I'm coming in now. Coming closer. Approaching the back of David Sorrel's grave. Of course a pigeon gets there before me. A brown and white one which hops up on to David's tombstone and starts to preen. And suddenly it seems disrespectful so I lift my hand to shoo him away. But he won't go.
“Go on, beat it!” I open my mouth to say. But nothing comes out. Because I've arrived in front of the grave. The white marble chippings are strewn with feathers. But also with blood. A bird has been dismembered there. It's the scene of a kill.
I crouch down. I want to touch. But also I don't. It's that Chance House feeling again - being both drawn and repelled in the same moment. I don't know how long I crouch there, immobile. There are enough feathers here to sew both sleeves, or most of the breast of the coat, but some of them are still fleshed together, half a wing lies broken here.
How came the kill to be in this place? What is David trying to cell me? Is it a gift of feathers from him, to say I'm on the right track? Or a warning - a coat of feathers kills? Or is it just me, doing what I accused my mother of, trying to make sense of something that doesn't make any sense? Trying to draw meaning from something which is simply nature, simply coincidence?
“What is it?” I say aloud.
“Urban foxes,” says a voice behind me.
I spin around. Ernest Sorrel towers above. His coat is black and flowing.
“Hello. Robert,” he says.
“Mr Sorrel.” He's carrying a bunch of narcissi.
“It's getting late,” he says. “Should you be out?”
I jump up, brush off my knees. “I'm just on my way home.”
“How did you know?” he asks then.
“About David? Did she tell you? Did Edith tell you?”
“So how did you find out?”
“By chance,” I say. Which is true and not true. I fell here that day by chance. But I came that day from Chance House. Which was not chance.
“Edith is gravely ill,” he says.
“I know. But she's going to get better. I'm going to make her better.”
Ernest laughs quietly. “You do make her better,” he says.
“No really,” I say. “I'm going to make her a coat of feathers. Firebird feathers. It'll make her well.”
“Firebird - the Firebird story? Did she tell you that?”
“It was my fault. I took away her coat of feathers.”
“I took it away. The thing that made her fly. That's what she said. I stopped her singing. And then, and then…” He falters, drops to his knees.
“And then?” I whisper.
But he doesn't answer me, begins to clear the debris from David's grave.
“It'll be all right,” I tell him. “I'm going to make the coat. She asked me to. It's what she wants. It'll be all right. It'll come right.”
“No,” Ernest says. “It's too late.” He picks up the stripped ribs which are all that remain of the pigeon carcass. Puts aside the broken wing. “Years too late.”
“I need the feathers,” I say.
“Those feathers, the ones in your hand. I need them.”
“Firebird feathers.” I'm sure now. David, Ernest, the feathers. All in the same place at the same time. It can't be chance. David wants me to have these feathers. Mrs Sorrel wants me to have them. Out of death life. Life. Surely life. “Give them to me, please.”
He does as I ask without comment. Then he returns his attention to
the grave, taking the dead daffodils from the vase and replacing
them with the fresh narcissi.
“The presentation, a week tomorrow. Friday The exchange of work between us and the Elders.”
He pulls himself stiffly to his feet. There are two damp patches on the front of his coat, where his knees have pressed on the earth.
“If Edith's there,” he says, “I’ll be there.” He looks at me. “If.”
And I know what he's trying to tell me. It's the time limit.