The life of birds, or
Sorry, David Attenborough
It took practice to keep a good angle on the telly while shrinking into the sofa, but Arjun was a Master. Cuppa was made, shoes were off, Sir David was on, and Meena was talking about the rubbish. This was the Goldeneye duck episode, and ducklings were launching themselves out of their nest so their mum could take them to water. Meena had got to the bit where she couldn't go in the kitchen because it was full of litter and it smelt too strongly of plastic, he wasn't expected to reply yet. They used to have the perfect relationship—cheered if the chewda packet didn't miss the bin, only did a big clean just before an in-law came round. Everything had to be spotless now, because she couldn't bend properly and hadn't seen her feet for a while.
The goldeneye was taking over some other duck's chicks. Meena had got to the part where she didn't understand all the effort he'd put into his tae kwon do but he couldn't help his wife when she really needed it. Her belly was swelling daily, and they had 7 more weeks to go. It could be twins, or a cuckoo. Sir David would know.
"Arjun, I'm not cooking your dinner when the kitchen is a state. You got home two hours ago, and you were just sat down all day." That one he couldn't let go.
"Look, the lift is out again, I got up at 6am and did an 8 hour shift, and driving a bus involves more than my arse."
The ducklings were making a funny cooing sound. Maybe a baby-parent bonding thing.
" Shush, not in front of the baby. Shame you can't make it go with your mouth.You were talking about doing a marathon after you got your black belt. What good was it? You can't go down four flights of stairs? I just had to walk up them!"
"I'll finish my tea, and see how I feel." Meena opened her mouth, but her issues would have to wait.
" Hang on," he put up a commanding hand, "turn the T.V down. There's that cooing again. That pigeon is too close."
"What pigeon? Stop trying to change the subject, I know you've not been listening to me. I'm turning this thing off." She waddled over to the telly, then paused. " Bloody hell, I can hear a pigeon. How did you know that? What's going on?"
"Wait here. Something is happening in the kitchen. I have to see what it is."
He left Meena with one hand on the remote, one hand on her belly and her mouth still open. Behind his back, he heard whispering but who would Meena be talking to? He concentrated his powers on the strangeness ahead.
The cooing got louder as he got into the hallway, then a squawk and a dull snapping sound, like a twig breaking. The back of the flat caught the setting sun, and there was a purplish glow from the room ahead. There was a fractured shadow on the wall, like branches. But they were too high up for trees. He raised his arms in a double forearm block.
As he eased into the kitchen he saw a small cloud of fluffy feathers, something green splattered in their crusted-over rice cooker, and a peregrine falcon with partly out-stretched wings and a dead pigeon in its mouth.
Sudden apearances were part of his job, people round Battersea often thought they could take on a double decker and win. He had good reflexes, he had moves. He calculated the damage a medium-sized bird could do in their tiny kitchen. David said they had a wing span of 120cm, that was about the size of their glass induction hob. He could handle this, it just needed a slow, thoughtful approach. He took a centering breath, and almost choked on a feather.
"You're a peregrine falcon." he said.
He closed his eyes and slowly counted to 10. When he opened them, the bird had put its wings and the pigeon down, and angled its head towards him, but was still there.
"You're a peregrine falcon. You kill in mid-air. You can't come in here."
"And you're 4B, the speedfreak with the triple plumage. You can call me Raven. Biggest thing I've killed! What's yours, mate?"
"Um, Arjun. I haven't killed anything, maybe a spider. You can't talk."
He tried not to look at the floppy head of the pigeon.
"Course not, Spider, can I call you Spider? That'd be bonkers! We're communing, alpha to alpha, recognising our similarities, ready to flap out our differences. How do you change plumage so often? You know one day all white, one day all blue, and some days like this, a bit...bedraggled, like you've been through a hedge. Have you been through a hedge? Cos I've done that too! I got a nice squirrel out of one."
"It's my work uniform, or my tae kwon do uniform, I can take my outside bits off. I'm not bedraggled, I'm relaxed! And anyway, I think you're changing the subject. Why've you just killed a pigeon in my kitchen? You can dive 240 miles an hour."
"Look, mate, neither of us started here, right? You do what you hafta survive. I started off in Newham, nothing worth eating round there. Now I've got a nice little place over the road here, and a nice little mate, and four little chicks. I gotta provide for my family, y'know? Your mate's about to lay, you'll have all those mouths to feed. Just cos you can go fast, doesn't mean you hafta, right? I see you put your claw down when you're in that moving cage you ground-fly. I see an easy kill, I usually only get one in five, I save some energy and my mate worries less."
"Well, we're only having one. But yeah, I've been worried if I can provide enough for it. For him, and for Meena."
The falcon scanned the kitchen, moving from dirty dishes, piled-up plastic bottles and the teeming bin. "Is all this for your nest? You've collected a lot of material. How big is your fledgling?"
Arjun moved in front of the bin, and tried to nudge it shut with a discreet elbow. The lid sprang back and hit him on the left buttock.
"This technically is the wife's domain. I try not to get involved."
"Even while she's nesting?" Arjun's ears heated as he nodded. "Well, I can see you two from a mile away. She's got her beak screwed on straight, and she's always feeding those scavengers in the park, that's a good sign in a provider. You'll work it out together. Just don't let on to anyone about the not-diving. I've got a status to keep up, y'know? Nature's Top Gun. It gets out, David has to do a new documentary, no-one gets any sleep!"
The bird dipped its head, picked up the pigeon and dived out the window. As it soared back up, it seemed to bank towards the flats, in what could be taken as a mid-air salute. If you were looking for that.
Arjun plodded back into the living room, past a pile of newspaper and an empty orange juice carton. Meena had her head down and was still whispering.
"Its ok, little gulab jamun, everything is fine. Oh, Arjun, tigh hai? You were gone a long time."
"Gulab jamun, that's a great name. We should keep that as the offical one, then the mothers would agree on something, you know, that they both hate it!" He bent over and addressed Meena's belly. "Namaste, mithai, tigh hai?" He put a hand by her belly-button
"You've not done that before." She beamed at him, her round cheeks pink. "Oh, he kicked! He likes your voice."
"Well, Meena, Mithai, there was a minor situation in the kitchen but I mostly fixed it. I might've watched The Life of Birds too often or I got some weird ninja skills with my black belt. You two relax though, I can whip up some daal. We've got naan, yeah? I don't fancy rice. I've just got to tidy up a bit."
Arjun grabbed a black plastic bag, took a centering breath. He'd been in defensive stance for too long. Time to use his reflexes, be like water. The sun reached fingers of fire into the overflowing kitchen, bouncing off their carefully picked out hob and birds circling.
Veena got lost every time on her way to Geography, the off-white, distinfectant soaked corridors as distinct as grains of salt. In Maths, the numbers danced around, whistling 'Another One Bites the Dust' and laughing at her. History was the worst, all the English Kings were called Henry. Today, she'd looked forward to the lesson. A presentation about her favourite historical character was a story, and stories she could do.
She pulled down her blue pleated skirt to regulation knee-length, and tucked a stray curl behind her ear. Her throat was dusty, her stomach bubbled. A shivery breeze invaded, bringing hockey-match shouts from outside and the crumbly smell of hamster-cage sawdust from within. Papa said to look at one person in the crowd, like she did during her Kathak dance performances. She waited for pink-cheeked Mrs Taylor to nod her into to beginning, then focused on her best friend Jacinta, on her immaculate braids and green furry pencilcase.
"I'm going to talk today about Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi."
There was some foot stamping and paper-shuffling but that was normal. Her wavery voice grew stronger as Jacinta gave a tiny finger-wave. She held up her painstakingly detailed drawing.
"This is the painting in Jhansi station, near where my family's from in Uttar Pradesh. This is Lakshmibai riding to lead her troops against the British in the first war of Independance in 1857."
A strange smothery sound, like the hamster choking but Jacinta continued to smile and Harry was her second favourtie thing in the world. Veena's her fourth, after her grandmother's rougaille, they've made a list.
"There's her shield, and that's her son, Damodar Rao, tied to her back with a shawl. "
A muttered "did she throw hi..", then stifled. Veena peered at the rows of lightly-graffited wooden desks but couldn't place the murmurs. Jacinta bent her head as Veena explained about the East India company and the attacks on Kalpi, probably looking for something in her precious pencilcase. Mrs Taylor shook her head, she'd run out of time. Veena placed her drawing on the blackboard, and smoothed down the edges. She turned back to the class, and lifted her chin.
"It was a famous victory. Unfortunately, Lakshmibai was killed in battle a month later. Are there any questions?"
Sleekly-blonde Susan raised her stubby-fingered hand. She always tried to sit next to Jacinta at lunch and said Veena had ears she would grow into. Veena pulled her frizzy hair forward and straightened her back.
"Weren't we supposed to do someone from history, not some comic-book weirdo? I'm going to talk about Emmaline Pankhurst!"
The bubbles came back, but her twitchy stomach was drowned out by a chorus of "did you mean Boudecia?" "She'd have fallen off her horse dressed like that!" "You can't take your kid to a war, you'd be arrested!"
Veena's generous ears melted. She opened her mouth but no words squeezed out. Jacinta's head was on her table, no help there. She turned pleading eyebrows on Mrs Taylor. She'd know how to explain the bravery,the wonder, the amazingness of Lakshmibai. The teacher took her by the corner of her left elbow and guided her to the window.
As she bent to fiddle with the latch, she said, "I'll have to fail you. Very nice drawing dear, but that was world history and we don't cover the Indian Rebellion until the optional module in the GCSE. Just go back to your seat."
The window was unfixable because a stinging wind flayed Veena's cheeks and wobbled at her knees. She stumbled back to her deak and watched Susan put her drawing in the bin and open a book about suffragettes.
Dear Maintainer of the Library of the People of Lewisham,
You have incorrectly sent me a standard notice of defacement and a fine. Please check your records. I am a student of personal development through literature at the San Andreas online Academy and am incapable of this heinous crime.
I expect your acknowledgement and amendment.
Dear Mrs Bedekar,
The notice is correct. You have returned your recently borrowed book, Mansfield Park, damaged i.e with writing over the middle section. As you are a new member and may not understand our rules, and it was not Pride and Prejudice, we have only charged you the cost price of the book.
Please pay at your earliest convenience.
Most Esteemed Keeper of the Books,
I am cognisant of the incident to which you are referring, but take umbrage at your use of the word 'defacement'. The dictionary definition is "to obliterate or injure the surface as to make illegible or invalid" (my italics). I am immersed in the 'critical thinking' section of my course, and it is illogical that Sir Thomas has a plantation in Antigua and does not mention any of the residents. I have merely added in their names and a short biography, therefore making this chapter more valid.
I am not alone in this conclusion. Please see Jean Rhys's editorial, 'Wide Sargasso Sea'.
Dear Mrs Bedekar,
Since we discovered your previous markings were in pencil, we were hopeful we wouldn't need to write to you again. However, you have returned Wuthering Heights with all descriptions of Heathcliff changed from 'dark' or 'sallow' to 'brown-skinned' and 'gypsy' to 'Brahmin', and a detailed and imaginary depiction of his birth in Asia. We must therefore fine you again.
Please take this as a written warning that this behaviour will not be tolerated.
Honourable and Gracious Correspondent,
I am currently absorbed in the 'focusing identity' section of my course and I have realised Emily Bronte did not have the sustained attention and research skills to fill in essential details. From my own experience, which I am informed is valid and valuable, Heathcliff is self-evidently Indian, and probably a Maharastran Prince. My own family happen to be from Pune and have royal connections. At least, my father took a tour of the Aga Khan palace, and one of the mosaics looked like Aunty Lekha.
I have merely completed something she would have surely atttended to if she had better access to medication and the internet. I eagerly await your comments.
Dear Mrs Bedekar,
I am the Head of South London Library Services, and we had hoped you had completed your course and taken your formidable focus on to other subjects. However, shortly before he went on extended leave, my Lewisham colleague sent me your returned copy of Bleak House, in which you have made the following alterations:
- Lady Deadlock's lover, James Hawdon, is now Janesh Iyer
- Her maid Rosa, is now Renuka from Ceylon.
- The sailor Matthew Bagnet and his wife are now the Benthams from Barbados
- There is a cameo by the African-American Shakesperean actor Ira Aldridge, presumably because you can't have too much of a good thing?
I am aware of your previous experiences with our organisation, and the results. May I suggest a more appropriate literary outlet for your considerable energies? We are considering a series of rotating lecturers, and I would invite you to apply for a postion. I, for one, did not know Ira Aldridge lived in Penge.
Please reply at your earliest convenience,
My Cherished Colleague
Thank you for your flattering interest, I am currently engrossed in the penultimate section, 'establishing my message'. I agree this is more suited to a different medium. A story can be so different if you see yourself in it. Perhaps that should be my lecture title. "Seeing Yourself". I will return my borrowed copy of Middlemarch unimproved, and my scissors and tipex to the stationer's.
I look forward to our long and productive partnership.
Anita Goveas: "I am a speech and language therapist by day and a short story writer by night. I am British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. I attend a writer’s group in Bromley. My stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, the Word Factory website, Pocket Change and Haverthorn magazine."