Friday, first light. His night shift done, Riley replenished the feeder in his garden and retreated to the conservatory. He took up his binoculars and tracked them across the bleary strip of rough grass separating the garden fence from the wood, training them on the treeline. In less than a minute, a streak of dazzling green swooped down from a silver birch, quickly followed by another, and then another. Soon, they were tearing apart peanut husks with their smart magenta bills. A hullabaloo perched all along the fence, comical in its strangeness, but persistent, loud enough to shred the dawn chorus. Three hours later, at nine am, it was time to get in his car and take a day trip to the next town on his list.
As he drove, a week of laborious April rain gave way to a few welcome flakes of blue sky between the rain clouds. He left the motorway and followed signs to a Midlands town that merged into all the other places he’d been these past three years. Greggs and Subway bookended the jaded centre. Half the shops had windows boarded-up or whitened-over.
He’d been there for an hour, handing out leaflets to those who’d take one, when he saw a figure he knew to be his daughter, hopping off a bus only a few yards ahead. This wasn’t unusual. Many times before, he’d glimpsed her crossing a street, ducking into a shop doorway, getting into the back of a car. Each time she stole away, a phantasm of Riley’s imagination. Each time a paralysis set like concrete in his veins. Yet this time was different. She was closer than ever before. So close, he could see the lustrous fibres of her ponytail coiled under her upturned collar. Gaining ground, he inhaled the wake of her perfume. He grabbed her arm. His breath shortened. She spun round and they came face to face.
It wasn’t Beth.
A startled young woman gawped back at Riley. His eyes were drawn to a mark on her left cheek she’d tried to conceal with makeup. It looked like purplish mould blemishing a freshly painted wall.
‘What have they done to your beautiful face?’ Riley asked.
The woman’s fingers touched her cheek. She continued to stare at him, eyes fearful, mouth gaping. But then her expression hardened. ‘Get off me,’ she snapped, yanking her arm free.
The leaflets slipped from Riley’s fingers and scattered on the wet pavement.
‘Creep!’ she yelled. ‘Stay the hell away from me!’
Without a chance to explain, he watched her dash up the high street. Every few paces she turned to check he wasn’t following her. Like a beaten dog, he picked up the leaflets and returned to his task.
This was how it typically went. Sometimes they took one, but more often they didn’t. Sometimes they studiously looked the other way so they didn’t have to meet his imploring gaze, or inspected their phones as they glided past. Sometimes they even crossed the street to avoid him as if he was carrying some contagious disease. Many confused him for a religious nut, or a sales zealot. Generally, the only people to show the faintest interest were the elderly or an occasional homeless person seeking the brief consolation of human exchange. The only difference today was Riley felt like he had an x-ray machine strapped to his chest. The furtive glances of onlookers reached inside him and could see that he was merely going through the motions.
A leaflet flapped in the wind and clung to his fist. The rain, which had been threatening to return, came down hard. People scurried for cover. An umbrella popped open and flew by like a glistening projectile. From under it, a passing hand snatched a leaflet, and then, only a few paces on, screwed it into a soggy ball and fed it to an overflowing bin.
With the rain bouncing off the pavement, he decided to call it a day. Back inside the car, he turned up the heater and slotted Electric Ladyland into the CD player. As he pulled away, the enigmatic opening of ‘…And the Gods Made Love’ immediately transported him to the time Beth, her interest piqued by The Jimi Hendrix Theory, had gone through his vinyl collection. Cross-legged on the living room floor, she’d listened to all four sides of Electric Ladyland. He remembered feeling how the unbearable weight of his love might topple and crush him. Poised, intent on proving she liked the music, she closed her eyes in trance-like immersion. And he willed Hendrix’s music, its easy longing and soulful abandon, to flow through her, for her to feel the crackling anticipation between the tracks like a secret whispered into her ear.
He got home just after three-thirty, exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. Half an hour later, the phone rang. It was work. Somebody had called in sick last minute. Could Riley do another night? Though it was the last thing he needed, he heard himself saying he’d be there as soon as he could.
Allied Meat was only two junctions on the motorway. Before he knew it, he was descending the stairs, tying the plastic apron, pulling on the hairnet and hat, the rubber shoes and gloves.
Patrycja was at the long metal table he was usually assigned to, with Beata and Lena. He felt her eyes grab at him as he walked past, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to forestall images of her soft, pliant body popping into his mind.
‘Back so soon, Riley?’ said Beata.
He nodded and kept going to the next table.
‘You like being punished, no?’ Beata’s pink face, slick with sweat, cracked a smile. The bright, scouring light rendered her hard-edged and ugly like everything and everyone else in the factory. She made a sideways remark in Polish. Lena sniggered. Patrycja scowled, elbowed Lena, and told her to shut up.
Riley busied himself with his knife, studied his clouded reflection in the blade.
Two hoppers lugged cargoes of cooked pigs’ tongues and tipped them on each table. They set to work, packing the tongues into tins with a scoop of powdered gelatine, trimming pieces to attain the exact weight of 450 grams, or to fit them into gaps between the curled tongues. The finished tins scooted away on a conveyor belt. It was hot, tedious work. After a day handing out leaflets to unwilling strangers, his back ached like he’d taken a knock-out punch to his spine, and there was no escaping the sickening, meaty smell oozing off the vats of cooking tongues.
At Patrycja’s table, the other two women sang along to the local radio station that pumped crap all night to the factory floor. When the song ‘Kiss’, Tom Jones’s, not Prince’s original, came on, Riley happened to catch Patrycja’s eye and winced. Then, Lena and Beata went quiet, waiting for the chorus to kick in before shrieking together: ‘I just want your extra time and your… KISS!’ The way they hollered kiss sounded to Riley like keys. They collapsed into fits of laughter. Hilarious, he thought. He was a fool to agree to another shift. Their laughter was like smashing bottles inside his skull. Really, fucking hilarious.
At break time in the canteen, while most of the others went outside for a cigarette, he found a table to sit alone and rest his eyes. His thoughts drifted to the woman he’d startled that morning whom he now imagined at home gathered round the dining table with her loved ones. Though still exasperated by the man who’d accosted her, she was relaxed enough to poke fun at him, to dismiss him as a harmless weirdo. He opened his eyes to find Patrycja sitting down opposite with a bacon roll and a mug of coffee.
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘You know. Beata, Lena.’
‘They don’t bother me.’
‘That right?’ She smiled and reached for his hand. ‘You want come back to mine, later?’ Tenderly, she trawled a thumb over his knuckles. ‘Or we go to yours. We not been your place yet.’
Patrycja was younger than him, in her mid-twenties, but she had so much hard-fought experience packed into that face of hers, he had to look close to detect her youth. To ignore the pouches hanging under her large earnest eyes and the fine silver scar crossing the twisted bridge of her nose. Plus, he did his best to disregard the factory rumours that she was only interested in him because of her fear of deportation back to Poland, back to Marcin, her violent brute of a husband.
He withdrew his hand and added another sugar to his tea, took his time stirring it with his spoon. ‘It’s we have, as in we have not been,’ he said, pettily correcting her abridged English. ‘And, to your place.’
‘We have not been to your place,’ Patrycja mimicked. ‘Better?’
Her eyes sought his approval, but Riley was occupied flicking grains of sugar across the table, a hazy kaleidoscopic image of a long-fingered hand opening a bird cage swirling in his mind. Then he heard Beth calling from Hyde Park. She was in Year 7, on her first residential school trip. Listen, she said. He imagined his daughter reaching her phone into the air for him to hear. When a siren subsided, he could make out a weird sound like hundreds of rubber toys being squeezed repeatedly and out of synch. What’s that? Sounds like mice being squashed. She laughed in that surprised way of hers, like a sharp shower on a sunny day. No, Dad! Parakeets! They have them here, her voice singing with wonder. They escaped and bred and now there’re loads of them. Cool, eh?
They’d found out about The Jimi Hendrix Theory later on a BBC wildlife documentary. The theory claimed the population spreading across the country stemmed from a typical moment of Hendrix showmanship when, back in the sixties, he released a breeding pair of Indian Ring-Necked Parakeets on Carnaby Street, Soho, as a gesture to world freedom. From an open cage, Riley saw the parakeets fly to the far reaches of a perfect blue sky, heard Hendrix’s guitar soar with them.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Riley felt a tickle on his face, and his eyes raked the gloom to find a little spider dancing on a thread. Beside him, Patrycja’s sleeping body curled too close, too tight, made him uneasy. That and the metronome of her breathing meant the prospect of sleep was impossible. Aiming for the spider, he swiped an irritable hand above his head and was glad when it came away with nothing more than a fistful of air. He got up, pulled on his bathrobe, and went downstairs.
After opening the conservatory doors, he stepped onto the stone patio, cold and damp against his bare feet. Overnight, the rain had stopped, the wind diminished to a silky breath, an intermittent susurration in the woods. The nearly cloudless pre-dawn sky revealed a haze of spring stars, with Jupiter and a new moon gleaming above the treetops.
To his left, he glanced at the ladder propped against the house that Beth had used to escape. He hadn’t moved it in over five years. He found his foot on the bottom rung, and climbed, unthinking. Soon, he was at the top, staring through the partly open window into Beth’s room. From this new perspective he looked upon a room simple and unadorned, in contrast to the cluttered, garish, fifteen year-old girl’s bedroom he thought he knew. The neat single bed and its modest mound of scatter cushions; the small chest with CND stickers on each drawer; even the mangled remains of an acoustic guitar that in a rage she’d smashed against a wall when he’d grounded her. All of it smooth and cold as if made of porcelain or enamelled.
Across the length of the room his long shadow stretched to the far wall where a mirror blinked back at him. The harder he looked, the more the room seemed to withdraw from him, silvered by an anaemic glow that fell away sharply to impenetrable shadow, but out of which, eventually, emerged Beth. Once again, she confronted Riley; her loyalty stolen away to such an extent that, with a teenage snarl, she threatened to fling herself from her bedroom window rather than spend another minute under the same roof as him. Her boyfriend was actually all right, she screamed. She loved him. How could he, she accused Riley, actually know how she felt when he didn’t have a clue what real love felt like? A ghost of a man, unseen in the half light, Riley watched a replay of the night she climbed on to the very same ladder. Absconding from her bedroom for the last time, she hurried down the same rungs now numbing his feet, and fled to her boyfriend and the other faceless men in the waiting car parked at the front of the house. Whisked away forever as its sleek black shape pulled smartly from the curb.
Riley slid his hand inside to unfasten the catch and then pushed the window firmly shut. Once down, he pulled the ladder away from the window and carried it to the garage, securing it with a padlock and chain. With any lingering, vain hope that Beth might return the way she left dissolving from his thoughts, he went indoors and back upstairs.
For over an hour, he sat at the bedside with Patrycja sleeping peacefully only an arm’s reach away, occasionally stirring but never waking. The window pane brightened. He warmed his feet in a lozenge of sunlight blooming on the carpet, while, outside, Saturday gradually came to life: Emma Lane, next house but one, taking her daughter, Millie, to swimming; Anil, the teenager opposite, gunning his 50cc Honda and buzzing off into town; the footfall and fleeting conversation of passing joggers.
Patrycja’s troubled voice brought him back into the room and caused him to open his eyes. Deep in sleep, she muttered words in Polish he was unable to understand. Words that sounded like curses and then like pleas, her voice becoming louder and striking harsh notes of fear. Her body twitched, eyelids frantic with REM. Her legs flailed under the duvet and her arms punched the air. He leaned over to wake her but thought better of it, considering it too much of an intrusion. She let out a scream and sat upright, rigid, the pulse in her throat stamping through her skin, her eyes wide and wild.
For a moment she didn’t know where she was and looked at Riley as if he was a complete stranger. She shivered and pulled the duvet up to her chin. ‘Marcin?’ she said.
‘No, it’s me, Riley,’ he said.
‘Oh, yes, Riley,’ she mumbled. A tear brimmed in her eye and trickled down her cheek. She began to apologise for her nightmare, saying how stupid she was, asking why he wanted to be with a crazy girl like her. She paused and pressed her tongue against her upper lip to stem more tears. Then, she said: ‘It’s late. I must go. Leave you in peace.’
‘No,’ Riley said and nested her hands in his, brooding them like two delicate eggs. He didn’t want her to leave. Despite what he’d felt earlier, he experienced an unknown surge of panic. He couldn’t let her go. Not now. ‘No, you must stay.’
A noise gathered in the woods, shrill and insistent as neglected car alarms.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘the dawn chorus is in full swing!’
Patrycja gently freed her hands from his and tucked loose strands of her hair behind her ears to listen. Riley pictured a burgeoning green flitting through the dark trees, hopeful and fresh as new leaves. Maybe, he thought, it was possible for him to open his heart to Patrycja, after all. At least not to freeze whenever she broached the subject of his feelings about Beth. Confiding in Patrycja might finally lift a great weight, softly, from his shoulders, might allow him to rest. As she turned her gentle enquiring gaze upon him, he met her eyes and smiled.
‘What make such funny sound?’ she said. Without her noticing, a vivid shape, followed by another, flashed past the window.
‘Come and see.’
He reclaimed Patrycja’s hand, and she let out a squall of laughter as he tried to pull her from the bed.
She resisted and wrapped the duvet around her before eventually joining him. ‘What is it?’ she asked, bemused by his sudden animation.
Riley put a finger to his lips and then cradled her shoulders, running his fingertips over her goose-fleshed arm.
And, as he led her to the window, he was already planning how later he’d take Electric Ladyland from the top of the stack of vinyl and play it for her long into the afternoon. But before that, they would spend what remained of the morning watching the parakeets at the garden feeder. Together, they would feast their eyes on their delicious plumage and drink in their defiant, screeching feedback.
Originally from the North East of England, JIM TOAL lives and writes in the hills of South Shropshire. He works full time in education and has done so for nearly thirty years. He started writing again in his fifties after an interval of nearly three decades (a break which he now regrets). His work has been published by Litro as a Sunday short story. He is currently working on a loosely themed short story collection.
He can be found on Twitter @jtstories