I don't just clean my hands, I clean the feathers. I wash each of them with soap; I rub the quill, the vane, gently easing apart the barbs of the flight and then smoothing them together again. I want each barb to be as neatly and as perfectly as on the day it was made. I dispose of mud, of crushed bone and other sticky stuff I don't want to inquire too closely into. Then I begin the drying. First with paper towels, just gentle pats, and then with Mum's hairdryer. At first I turn it on full, but that blasts the barbs apart again, so I learn to keep it on low, blowing lightly from a distance, making the air follow the direction of the barbs. With patience I even manage to coax some fluffiness back into the downy part of each feather, the place where flight meets quill.
The hum of the hairdryer brings Mum.
“What are you doing?”
“Blowdrying feathers.” Doesn't she have a hospital to go to?
“For goodness sake.”
“Well, you did say you didn't know how clean feathers were, so I'm
I've a feeling things are going to get worse and they do. When the feathers are clean and dry I begin sewing again. Up till supper, after supper and then when I'm supposed to be sleeping. She spots my light. Comes in.
“You'll ruin your eyes,” she says. “Sewing when you’re tired is a very bad idea.”
“I'm not tired.”
“Don't be cheeky,” she says, switching off the lamp.
But it's not cheek. I'm really not tired. If I need to stay awake for the next week, then that's what I’ll do. If I need to sew by torchlight, then I’ll do that too. I'm on a mission. I got to the top of Chance House and I’ll get to the end of this coat. A boy who's been to the top of Chance House can do anything. Mrs Sorrel made me fly and I shall make her fly. Whatever Mum says, whatever…
“Robert, switch out that light. Now!”
I switch it out.
But not before I've set my alarm for five-thirty. As it happens I wake before the alarm anyway. While night changes into day, I sew. It's a strange sensation being awake when everyone else is asleep. It's strange sewing in the silence and the half-dark. I feel like one of those mythical women at their looms, the Lady of Shalott, or Odysseus’ wife Penelope weaving to ward off the suitors while her husband is still away, sewing by day and unpicking at night. Only I sew by day and sew by night. Day and night. But it is still not going fast enough and there are not enough feathers. I have to have more feathers.
I have a quick breakfast and leave early for school. I don't have to explain myself because Mum's on earlies too, and she's out of the house before me. Of course I go via the graveyard, I can't help myself even though I picked the place clean yesterday. I expect nothing. So it's a gift to see one pure white, perfectly dean and dry feather on the tomb of Charity Ann Slaughter. A breast feather definitely. Gratefully, I stow it in my inside jacket pocket. Then I make for the beach.
I've argued with myself about whether I'm allowed to mix pigeon and seagull feathers and decided that I am. My Firebird coat was never meant to be red or orange. It was meant to be grey and white, this is what Mrs Sorrel chose when she chose the Chance House feathers. So I'm just following her lead. I know she would approve. What matters is the coat, getting it finished in time, and there will never be enough pigeon feathers.
The wind carries the tang of seaweed to me a street before I reach the beach. When it's very windy the seagulls come inland. Today they are wheeling above the water's edge. Wheeling and screaming. I across the prom and come down the steps near the breakwater.
A feather. Immediately a feather, an omen. Caught in the stones by the bottom step. Again white. Again perfect. As if it bad just that moment descended from heaven. I pick it up. Three droplets of water sit proud on the flight, like dew on an early morning flower. I don't think I've ever seen a more beautiful feather. Thank you God. Thank you seagull. I unzip my jacket pocket and slip it inside.
I spend an hour on the beach, until my fingers are wind-frozen. I find proud tail feathers and little puffs of fluff, so light you'd think the wind would have carried them away. But it has not, and there they are, waiting for me. I gather them all. Even the two feathers I find stuck together with tar.
I arrive at school as the bell goes for assembly. I dutifully follow the other children into the hall. But what I want to do is sew, to begin immediately I have the cardigan lodged inside my schoolbag, neatly folded inside its own protective Sainsbury's bag. My fingers itch with the wanting. But I have to be careful. The project is private. Something just between me and Mrs Sorrel. What I mean is I don't want Niker to get wind of it. I don't even want Kate to know. Where Niker might scoff, she would ask questions.
“Why are you doing it? What's it for?”
If Kate asked that, I'd have to tell her. I'd have to say, “I'm making this coat because I believe it will save Mrs Sorrel's life.”
Yes, now I've said it. What I’ve barely been admitting to myself. I think a coat of pigeon feathers will save an old woman’s life. Even Catherine, the storyteller, wouldn't believe a story like that. But I believe it. I believe it with all my heart.
So that's why I lock myself in the toilet at break-time. Take out the coat and sew. There's not a lot of light and the cistern is one of those old-fashioned ones with a chain. The rubber end keeps banging into my cheek. But at least it's private.
Least it is until Niker spots my feet.
“What you doing in there?” he asks.
“Delivering a baby?””
No answer. Surely other people have shoes like mine?
“Or have you got the runs?”
“I think he's going for the Guinness Book of Records,” says Weasel's voice.
“Longest shit in history. Get your gas masks, boys.”
Niker laughs. Then I hear the door to the corridor open and close and I think they’ve gone. When the bell goes I come out, and there they are standing directly opposite me, arms folded.
Niker eyes my bag. “What's the game, Norbie?”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Well, let's see this nothing, then.” He makes towards the bag.
Wesley hesitates, but more from surprise than fear I think. Niker
keeps on coming.
Wesley turns to look at Niker. Niker’s mouth twists furiously. “Talking of dead,” he says, “you just wait!” Then he's gone. Wesley gives me a quizzical look and then trots after his leader.
For the rest of the day I make sure I am never alone and I never, once, take my hand from the strap of my bag. When the final bell goes, I'm out of that school faster than you would be if all the furies in hell were after you. I don't even stop when Miss Raynham's voice cuts through the air: “Robert Nobel, come back here at once and walk across the playground or else…”
I don't hear the else, I'm halfway down the street by then. I don't stop running till I get home. Mum lets me in and says my tea's on the table. But I want to sew so I let it go cold.
“Remind me,” says Mum, “not to bother to cook for you. If you want cold, you can look in the fridge.”
I don't answer, I'm concentrating on a very difficult piece of over-sewing, placing the pure white feather exactly between two dark grey ones.
“You're becoming like your father,” says Mum.
I don't answer that either. She opens her mouth to speak again but the phone interrupts her.
“Hello,” she says irritably. “Oh, speak of the devil. Hello Nigel.” She listens a moment and then she holds out the phone to me. “Dad for you,” she says.
“Tell him I’ll call him back.”
“What!” shrieks my mother.
While she's shrieking I have plenty of time to contemplate my error. It's dearly a big one - saying I'd call him later. So why did I do it? One, because I am at a very delicate stage of sewing; two, because I didn't want Mum to think I had time to talk to Dad but not time to eat her dinner; three, because Dad hasn't bothered to call since he let me down that Saturday so I don't see why I should do him any favours; and finallly, and most importantly, I am fully and completely engaged in the rather more important job of saving someone's life.
“Robert,” shrieks my mother, “you have become obsessed! Put that sewing down! Now!”
“Sewing?” I hear the disembodied voice of my father say. “Sewing!”
I finish my loop and put down the sewing. I take the phone Mum's handing me for fear she will have an epileptic seizure.
“Hello, Dad.” Another one of our startlingly intimate conversation begins.
“Whatcha been doing?”
“What's this about sewing?”
He sighs. “How about a week today? Friday?”
“A visit, Robert. Me coming to see you.”
“Sorry, Dad, no can do.”
That's when Mum starts pinching my elbow and mouthing wildly
“No,” I repeat, mainly for her benefit. “I'm sorry. It's the Sharing.”
“The what?” says Dad.
“It's a project I'm involved in. With some old people. Everyone who's been involved has to go. It's a school thing, I can't get out of it.”
“I'm not talking school time,” says Dad. “I couldn't be with you before seven anyhow.”
“That's when it is,” I say solidly. “Seven o'clock.”
“They won't miss you,” hisses Mum. “Make an exception, Robert, please.”
“No, sorry,” I say into the phone. “Bye.” I hand the phone to my mother, whose mouth is hanging open as though she's trying to catch flies. Then I collect my sewing and adjourn upstairs.
As I go up I hear snatches of the conversation. It's about my sewing, about my obsession, about how I'm going completely bonkers and it's all Dad's fault. At least this seems to be the shrieked implication. If he paid me some more attention then I wouldn't be turning out this way. How is she supposed to cope on her own, and hold down a job to make enough money for both of us to live, and keep me from going bonkers at the same time?
Of Course, I can't hear what Dad is replying but I expect it's along the lines of, it's a trifle difficult to visit the little obsessive, if he won't be visited. And in any case it's not true about the money because he sends her some and what's more doesn't she realise he has responsibilities to a new family now? Yes, she jolly well does realise that! Bang, the phone goes down.
Then I hear her crying and of course I can't hear that so I go downstairs and say sorry. Then I eat my cold supper and say how nice it is. But I have to tell you, stone-cold spaghetti bolognaise is not nice. Then I say I have some homework to do and I go back upstairs. Later she comes up and sits on my bed. I’m no fool so, when I hear her coming, I shove the cardigan under the duvet and get out my book. She obviously isn't concentrating much better than I am because, when I look down. I find I'm holding the book upside down.
“They've just rung to ask if I can work the seven pm shift,” she says. “Will you be all right?”
“Of course.” Question is, will she be all right? An early shift. A
late shift. And she can't have had more than five hours sleep last
night. No wonder she's exhausted.
“You know I love you?”
“And Dad does too.”
I don't reply
“Yes,” I say.
She ruffles my hair, like she used to when I was a baby.” Promise me to turn your light off on time?”
“OK, bye sweetheart.”
Downstairs I hear the kettle whistling. She must be making a thermos of coffee. She only does that when she thinks they're going to be really busy. A few minutes later there‘s the bang of the front door.
This gives me an opportunity and, if I'm to honour my promise and turn my lights off on time, I have to go now. I have sewn both sleeves of the cardigan and completed the left breast. The right one still needs more of the white downy feathers and the back of the coat is still distinctly patchy. But it is coming on and Mrs Sorrel needs to know that.
I finish off the feather I was sewing before Mum came in and secure the thread. Then I fold the coat carefully, lengthways, following the line of the feathers themselves. It can't be folded breadthways now. It's beginning to lake on a life of its own. It's no longer a pink cardigan, in fact you can barely see pink at all. What you can see is bird, fledgling bird.
I pack the coat in its plastic bag and slip out into the dusk. From school we go by bus to the Mayfield Rest Home, but it's not a long walk. Especially if you know the short cuts. Which I do. It's a beautiful evening, clear and already starlit. Not unlike the night I went to Chance House with Niker. I thread my way through the streets. The only danger at the Home is Matron. But I'm not afraid of her. Mayfield is not a prison. People are allowed to visit. Especially when they're welcomed, wanted. The walk takes about half an hour. The flesh of my face is chin but inside I'm glowing. I feel alive, happy
The Mayfield door has a bell for new visitors and a security code lock for patients friends and relatives. I paid careful attention last time Catherine pressed the buttons. 1,9,1,7 Nineteen seventeen. Possibly the birth year of one of the residents. I press the numbers and the door buzzes. I'm quickly in. From here I have to pass through the dining room in order to get to Mrs Sorrel's room, but it's past the residents eating time and in any case Matron is never involved in kitchen duties. So it's just a matter of slipping quietly through. Which I do. Then it's only half a corridor. I've already decided not to knock on Mrs Sorrel's door. I don't want to draw unnecessary attention to myself. So I just walk casually down the hall and let myself into her room.
She's asleep of course. Breathing lightly, little flutters of air coming from her mouth. But she doesn't look natural. She looks like a Snow White in a glass case, her body lying like someone else has arranged it and then brushed her hair while she was asleep, so that it lies too straight on the pillow.
She does not respond.
“Mrs Sorrel,” I say louder, “it's Robert.”
“Mmm?” She says from a long way out.
“Robert. Robert Nobel.”
“Mmm.” Her voice sinks away again.
“I've done the coat. Well, started it. It's here. I've brought it.”
I unwrap the fledgling thing. Lift it to her hand that lies so still on the bed. I run one of the soft, white feathers against her finger. Her hand twitches and she reaches, scrabbles for it. A hold, then a relax, a stroke.
“You are such a good boy,” she says and her eyes open.
I lift the coat up, show her glazed eyes the downy breast, the grey white sleeves, the strong, thick undercoat.
“It's beautiful,” she says.
“It's not finished,” I say quickly
“Beautiful,” she repeats. “Let me…”
I bring the coat close to her hand again and let her hold it, stroke it. I watch her manoeuvre herself upwards, so as to see and feel it better. Is it just my imagination that thinks she moves more easily for the touch of it? She turns it over, feels the weight of it. Now she is almost upright, and I haven't helped her at all. Nor have her eyes expressed pain.
“When will it be finished?”
“Soon,” I say. “Soon as possible. I work on it day and night.”
“God bless you. Robert Nobel.” She smiles. The whole of her pale face lit by that smile, as if someone has put a match to a candle deep inside her. I wish Ernest was here to see this face of hers.
“Is it dark?” she asks then.
“Outside,” she says, “is it dark, is it night?”
“And is it clear? Are there stars?”
“Yes. There are stars.”
“Then take me out,” she says.
When I don't reply immediately - because I cannot see how I can possibly take her out - she adds one word: “Please.”
And then I know I will move heaven and earth to take her into the
“It's cold,” I say, in a tone that makes me sound a little like my mother.
“There are rugs,” she says.
The bed is higher than the chair and I don't see how I can get her from one to the other. But, of her own accord, she swings her legs over the edge of the bed. Maybe they have given more of those drugs for pain. Maybe it's the coat, which she still has clutched in her hands.
“Bring it closer.”
I locate the brake of the chair and wheel it alongside the bed.
“Put your hands round my waist.”
I do as she asks. She can't weigh more than a sparrow. I lift her into the chair.
“Now the rugs.”
As I get them from the cupboard I think this is the first time I
have ever been with her and she hasn't been angry. Her calmness, her
gentleness is strange but also sweet.
“Now,” she says. “Are we ready?”
We are. I wedge the door open so I can get the chair out.
“Left.” she commands. “Go left!” Do I detect an urgency now? Or is it just that, like me, she's alert to the danger of encountering Matron? As I push her quickly down the corridor. I feel like an escapee.
“Use the fire door. It isn't alarmed. Just push it. Now.”
I brake, push the double iron bar and the door swings wide. The cold assaults us but I see her nostrils flare and she breathes hard in, as though it's years since she last inhaled the night.
“Through,” she says. “Now!”
I wheel her out. Behind us the door closes soundlessly. It is just the back of the Home, flat concrete paths, a spill of light from nearby windows, some straggly plants in bare earth beds, a wooden bench. But it is immediately clear that these earthly things do not hold Edith Sorrel's attention. She leans backwards, her neck lengthening, her chin up, because she's looking up, up and beyond. Edith Sorrel's body is not bound by this chair, this earth. She's not of these paths, she's reaching up, travelling up towards those bright and far-off stars.
“Edith,” I cry.
“Yes?” she says and turns a radiant face to mine. Then she adds, “Won't be long now.” Her eyes are dark and sparkling, as though some part of that sky and those stars have entered her head. And I want to pull her back, from whatever brink she's on. Just as Niker wanted to pull me back from the window in Chance House. But Edith doesn't want to be pulled, just as I didn't. Edith is happy, just as I was. Just as we both are. Inhabiting our nights.
“I love you, Robert Nobel.” she says.
And I don't say “I love you” back, because that would be mad. But somebody says it. “I love you, too.”
And afterwards I don't know whether it's me or Ernest. But I don't think it was him because he comes pouring through the door and this is what he says:
“Oh my God, Edith. Edith! I went to the room. You weren't there. You were gone. I thought…I thought…”
Edith looks at him cascading there and she says, lifting her hand to me: “He's come back.”
And Ernest says: “Yes.”
Then Edith looks at her husband, concentrates. “And you've come back,” she says, with an air of mild astonishment.
“I never left,” he answers.
And I think then he might lean and kiss her and that maybe she will accept that kiss, but it doesn't happen because Matron bulls through the doorway.
“Are you insane!” she says.
“Not any more,” says Edith Sorrel.
And that shuts Matron up, not least because, As Ernest tells me later, it is apparently four days since anyone in the Home has heard Edith speak a word.
But Matron still needs to do some spluttering and I am the obvious target.
“You!” she splutters. “It's you again!”
“Take me in, Robert,” says Mrs Sorrel. And I do. Ernest flows
quietly behind us.
“I don't think so.” That's Ernest, supporting me.
We wheel her back to her room.
“We can manage, thank you,” says Ernest to Matron. Matrons huffs but that is all she can do. She is not needed and not wanted. She leaves.
Together Ernest and I remove the rugs and lift Edith back on to the bed. She is still holding the coat of feathers. Her eyes are shut. She looks exhausted but peaceful.
“I have to go now,” I say. “I promised my mum.”
“You were right,” says Ernest. “You do make her better.”
“It's the coat,” I say.
“It's you,” says Ernest. He eases the coat of feathers from Edith's embrace and hands it to me. She sighs as it leaves her.
“It will be better still when it's finished.”
“Maybe,” he says. And then, “Don't leave it too long before you
come again, Robert.”