Kate is as good as her word. She brings me a pocketful of feathers, grey white, clean, downy, dry. Dry! They can all be sewn immediately.
“Are there enough?” she asks.
“No. I don't think so. But I'm really grateful anyhow.”
“I’ll bring you more. I’ll go again tomorrow.”
“What about the Chance House feather, did you get that?”
“No. I tried. Scoured the Art Room. The bin hadn't been emptied so if it had been chucked I would have found it. But it wasn't there. Nor on the floor. I did every inch of it. And I asked Catherine. She denied all knowledge.”
“’What would I want with some filthy feather’.” she mimics.
“Did you believe him?”
She hesitates. “I don't know. But I can't see any reason why he would keep it.”
“Trophy. Like Indians keep scalps.”
“He was flat on his back, Robert. Probably wasn't the first thing on his mind.”
“And because it must have been obvious to him how important the feather is to me.”
“But is it important to the coat? I mean, if you finish the coat, isn't that good enough?”
“What's the ‘but’?”
She's acute, that Kate. Because, of course, there is a “but”. The one I've been trying to keep secret even from myself.
“Come on,” she says.
Things that exist only in your head can be kept vague, pushed away, but once something is spoken aloud…
“Tell me,” she says and takes my hand. Kate takes my hand.
“I called the Home. Spoke to Matron.”
“Mrs Sorrel's gone into a coma.”
“Oh, my goodness.”
“And… and guess when she took this dive?”
“Oh. I don't know Robert. Don't give me a quiz on this.”
“Yesterday lunchtime. Not the morning. Not the evening. Not the day
before. But yesterday lunchtime. When Niker and I were fighting.
When the feather was broken.”
“Yes,” I say. “Could be.”
Out in the hall, a key turns in the lock. Kate jumps up and her hand goes with her. I shove the feathers behind a cushion.
“Oh - hello Kate!” says Mum.
“Hello, Mrs Nobel.”
“To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Miss Raynham,” flusters Kate. “She asked me to drop something by for Robert. You don't mind, do you?”
“Work?” inquires Mum.
“Work. Yes,” says Kate.
“No, I don't mind.”
“Kate was just leaving,” I say.
“Well, don't hurry on my account.”
Kate hurries. She's out of the door in a flash. “I’ll bring Miss Raynham's… erm… other stuff tomorrow,” she calls over her shoulder.
Mum regards me but says nothing. She kicks off her shoes.
“Good day?” she inquires at last.
“OK, “I reply
“Get your maths done?”
“Well, there’s good news on the work front.”
“I've got tomorrow off.”
“And the day after.
“I do get days off, Robert. Code of working practice in the NHS. Good behaviour. Whatever.”
She's taken holiday! I stay in, good as gold all day, and she takes time off. It's not fair!
“So I’ll be able to keep you company.”
“Nice,” I say.
“The less good news is I’ll have to work Friday evening. But I think time alone with your dad will be no bad thing, don't you?” I say nothing. “Good,” she says. “That's settled then.”
Well, it certainly settles what I'm going to have to do about Niker.
“Do you think I could borrow the phone? Take it up to my room?”
“Can I ask why?”
“I want to call Niker. Apologise.”
“But… I sort of want to do it in private. You know… because…”
“You're a good boy really.” She kisses the top of my head.
I take the phone and, when she's not looking, the feathers from under the cushion, and go to my room. Of course I'd rather go to Niker's house, look him in the eye when I ask the question, but obviously with Mum at home that's not going to be possible. And some dogs won't wait
I dial the number.
“Hello Mrs Niker, it's Robert Nobel here.”
“May I speak to Johnny?”
“I'm not entirely sure he will wish to speak with you.”
“Please, Mrs Niker.”
“Could you just ask him? I want to apologise. Say sorry:”
“Oh.” Her tone softens. “All right then. I’ll ask.” She puts her hand over the receiver and I hear some mumbling. Then Niker comes on the line.
“I gather you’ve got something to say to me?”
“Sorry,” I say.
“You will be,” he replies. “Trust me.”
“Niker?” I have to keep my temper.
“Niker - do you remember when we were in Chance House?”
“I have some vague recollection.”
“And you liked me?”
“You liked me. Niker. Just a little bit? Maybe?”
“No. That doesn't compute.”
“You thought I was funny.”
“And I thought you were nice. I liked you, Niker.”
Anorher silence, but a more interested one.
“Well,” I forge on, “I am really sorry about what happened in the Art Room. I shouldn't have bit you. It was all wrong. Hitting people is wrong.”
“Oh, here we go.”
“But it was about Mrs Sorrel.”
“Now I don't expect you to understand this, because it barely makes any sense to me, but you have to trust me, because I'm going to trust you. OK?”
“Which planet are we on now, Norbert?”
“The coat of feathers isn't just a coat of feathers.”
“Right you are, Norbe.”
“It's connected to Mrs Sorrel's life. You know she's been ill?”
“I know she's been ill.”
“Well when we fought, when that feather, the grey one I found at
Chance House, when that got broken, Mrs Sorrel got worse. Much
worse, Niker. Dyingly worse, Niker.”
“Oh - that planet.”
“So I need the feather back. And the white one if you ye got it. I have to have them. Sew them on the coat.”
“And what if I haven't got them?”
“Have you got them, Niker?”
“No. Sorry. Not at home. Goodbye.” He puts the phone down.
“Niker!” I scream. All niceness, all cooperation, all apology vanishes. I want to kill him. I’m going to go round to his house and kill him. Now.
“He didn't accept the apology?” Mum, hearing me scream, has come
Mum sits on my bed. “Sometimes it's as difficult to accept an apology,” she says, “as it is to offer one. But well done for trying.”
“Do you want to play cards?”
“Cards. Cribbage. Sevens.”
“Where have cards come from?” I look at her face. “Is this some brainwave from Mr Jolly Kind Counselling, Head of Pastoral Care?”
She havers. “No.”
Me lying to Mum, “I've tried not to think too much about that recently. But her lying to me - that's painful.”
“I just thought,” Mum continues, “perhaps we don't play as much as we used to.”
“Mum,” I say in as grown-up a voice as I can manage, “none of this
is your fault.”
And so begins the dance we do around each other for the next few days. I try really bard at being normal. Norbert Normal. I've almost forgotten what it's like. I eat with Mum, talk with her, even play cards. I'm quite good at cribbage actually. Then I live my secret life. I spend a lot of it hating Niker. I believe he has the Chance House feather, and probably the white one too. I imagine climbing out of my bedroom window when Mum's asleep, going round to his house, shinning up a drainpipe and (as I've never been to his house and therefore don't know which room is his) dropping into his parents bedroom by mistake. “Oh - hi Mrs Niker, didn't wake you did I?” Because this scenario doesn't seem to “compute”, to use Niker's word, I manufacture a second one. In this one Niker invites me round for a face-to-face reconciliation. I tell Mum I have to be there at a certain time and no matter what time I make it, Mum always says: “Fine. I’ll come with you.” So that just leaves me making a break for it in broad daylight and taking a machine-gun with me. But I still might not be able to find the feather. Where would a guy like Niker hide it anyway?
“What you thinking. Robert?”
“I'm thinking about having a bath.”
I'm taking lots of baths. About four times as many as usual. Mum has remarked upon my cleanliness. She's worried that washing might be becoming my new obsession. I can't tell her that actually it's the old obsession. Sewing. I conceal the coat and Kate's feathers inside my dressing-gown, run a bath and sew behind the locked bathroom door. After an hour or so I actually get into the bath, which by then, of course. is cold. They say that cold water sharpens your brain. It doesn't seem to sharpen mine. My plans still go in circles and nothing stops me worrying about Mrs Sorrel.
During the two days Mum only leaves the house once - to get eggs. That's when Ian Wright rings the Home again to enquire about Edith Sorrel's condition. The care assistant tells him that his aunt's condition is no better but no worse either. I take this as good news, what I would expect. No more broken feathers, so not worse. No completed coat, so not better. On the pretext of “science homework”, Kate arrives with more feathers. She even manages to get some of the very tiny, downy white ones I wanted for the breast. I sew. And I sew.
On Friday the coat is finished.
“Don't forget,” Mum says, “Dad will be here at seven. Look through the spyhole. Don't let anyone else in.”
But at seven, of course. I'm not there to let anyone in. I leave the house at 6.20pm. Five minutes after Mum. It is the First time I have been outside for four days. The air smells different. Springlike. The trees are green-budded and even the apple tree in The Dog Leg is covered with pink blossom. And although it's dusky, it's still light. All good omens.
I begin my journey full of purpose and hope. The coat, folded in
its plastic bag, is heavy. I carry it close to my breast, one hand
outside, around the bag, and the other inside, buried deep among the
feathers. Its warmth is palpable. My living, breathing coat. Once I
imagine I even feel a heart beating there. But of course it is only
my heart I feel through the feathers. The beat, beat, beat of my
brisk walk towards Mrs Sorrel.
Immobilised, I stare. The room has been rearranged. The chairs which normally line the walls have been moved into graceful audience half-moons. Some of the residents, unable to identify their normal place, haver and mill. At the stage end of the room, Catherine throws a sheet over the paradise-garden triptych. The Firebird screen stands unveiled to her left. Even from this distance, Niker's fabulous coat of golden feathers draws the eye. Scolding either side of the coat are Niker and Mavis the chicken. Niker, at twelve, the taller of the two. On his knees before them, shooting upwards, is a photographer.
“Heads a bit closer,” he calls. “Mavis, is her name Mavis? Bit
closer in, Mavis love.”
“Is she deaf?” asks the photographer.
“Yes, says Niker.”
“Mavis love,” the photographer screams, “could you move in a
“Mavis,” says Niker and lifts an arm, motioning her towards him, as if he would embrace her.
She moves in and he does put his arm around her. The sight is so strange and tender that for a moment I don't see the panel dot Mavis's movement reveals. It is the third panel. The end of the story. It comes to me slowly across that divide. A hail but beautiful bird flying up into an arcing sky. The arc is a rainbow, brilliant sun but also a shower of rain. Least it should be rain, but there is a boy there crying. And the rain is his tears.
Niker grins. The photographer clicks. Grin, grin, grin. Click, click, click.
“Could that be enough now?” Catherine is hovering with a second sheet.
“Are you the artist?” the photographer asks.
“No,” says Catherine, “now if you'll excuse me.” She throws the sheet over the Firebird triptych.
Only when the piece is covered does my body unlock. I'm swiftly along the corridor and into Edith's room. By contrast with the residents lounge, Edith's bedroom is graveyard quiet. There is no movement here at all. Just a tableau in the centre of the room. The bed. Edith. Ernest. It's difficult to know which is the stillest: the iron bedstead, the barely breathing Edith, or finest, frozen in a posture of utter dejection. I have a long moment to take in the scene before Ernest finally lifts his head. When he sees who it is, he says: “Robert.” And then: “Thank God.”
I go at once to the bed. “Mrs Sorrel, it's me. Robert. I'm here.”
“I've finished the coat. It's finished.”
“Mrs Sorrel,” I pull the coat from the bag, “feel this!”
I look at Ernest. He shakes his head.
Edith's breathing is shallow but noisy. I've heard Mum speak about
this. It's the breathing people do when they are close to death.
Nurses call it the death rattle.
“Ah - ha,” she says.
Ernest seems to wake up then.
“Edith?” he says.
We both see her hand move, just the slightest push deeper into the feathers.
“Aaah.” Another, longer sigh.
“Do you want it on?” I say. “Do you want to put the coat on?”
She makes another noise and, although it does not sound at all like “yes”, both of us know what her answer is.
I unbutton the pearls.
“I’ll lift her,” says Ernest. “Edith, Edith darling. I'm going to lift you now. And Robert's going to help you with the coat.”
He puts his arm under her neck and around her bird-like shoulders, then very gently he lifts her to an upright. Her head lolls and she still doesn’t open her eyes. But I work to get the coat on. I hold her hand and guide it through the sleeve, I pass the back of the coat around her thin nightdressed shoulders. Ernest manoeuvres his hands, never once letting her slip from his embrace. Then I go around to Ernest's side of the bed and help with the second sleeve. Edith sighs as Ernest lowers her down on to the bed again. But it is a more contented sigh. I do up the buttons then, my fingers fumbling. I touch the skin of her neck.
“Sorry,” I say
“Love…” she replies.
Ernest gasps. “Edith? Edith we're here. Robert and I are here. You're all right.”
“Yes…” she says and opens faraway eyes. “Yes.”
For a moment she stares at the ceiling and then, painfully slowly, she moves her head first towards Ernest and then towards me. “Hold me,” she says. I take her left hand and Ernest her right. Her skin is dry and paper thin but oh - so warm.
“I'm going…” she begins then.
“No,” says Ernest. “No, no, no, no, no.”
“I'm going….” she repeats and then smiles a sweet, surprised, angelic smile, “to sing.”
Ernest looks stunned. Terrified even. She opens her mouth, clears her dry throat. Then she begins. Makes a painful, rasping noise, the hoarse cough of an instrument on which dust has lain for decades. She shuts her mouth, licks her lips and begins again. A gasp, a croak and then a warble, tremorous, sad and old. She grits her teeth and begins again. And again.
Ernest listens, his face contorted with grief. Even I want to stop her, because she seems to be straining for something so impossibly long gone. And I fear she will burst with the pain of it. But we both just sit and hold her hand as asked until a different sound comes.
And I do not know, even now, where that sound came from. The forlorn stuttering of an old woman giving way to a single note - and then a run of notes - so beautiful it would make you cry to hear them. Pure, clear notes coming not from a dry throat but from a soul in joyous night. And Ernest is crying. There are tears pouring down his cheek but he looks, for the first time I've known him, happy.
Then the notes stop. Edith takes a breath and Ernest holds his, and then she begins one final note. Holding her one-note song in a smile which she bestows on Ernest so that they seem, hand-joined there on the other side of the bed, a couple. On my side of the bed, on my hand, I feel the faintest of touches. I can't call it a squeeze, though I want it to be a squeeze, I want it to be her holding me. But she hasn't the energy now. I don't think she can turn her head even. And yet still the note sustains, though fainter now. And fainter. Until it ceases. A last outbreath, and we both wait for her to breathe in again. But she does not.
“Edith!” Ernest's head drops on to his wife's breast. He buries his face la the feathers. “Edith.”
And I know that the bird is dead.
My Firebird is dead.
I let go her hand, feeling each of her fingers fall away from mine.
Then I stand up. The bedroom door is open though I never heard the
catch. Niker is in the doorway. If he opens his mouth, if he says a
single word, I will kill him. But he says nothing. Just swallows,
and I know he's heard. He must have come because of the song. Niker.
“And what happened to the little boy?” asked the Silent Prince.
“Some say,” replied the adventurer, “that he cried so long and so hard for his Firebird mother that he lost his voice and became silent. Others say, when he awoke the following morning he found two golden feathers shining on his pillow, and these feathers brought him courage and love and luck for all of his life.”
Someone is walking through the words. A man appearing from the edge of the room. His height and gait look familiar. He stops in front of me. It is my father.
“Hello, son” he says.
My head is at the level of his chest. Arms come about me. He holds me warm and tight. Someone begins to sob. It's me.