Thursday 19 October 2017

Lovebirds

And if he did hear he gave no indication of it, and later she would wonder about this above all else. Well you can take your ridiculous birds with you.

She shouted it at him as he leapt down the steps that dropped from their front door to the street, his arms stretched rigid by his sides as he stormed away, the heavy rain instantly soaking his shirt.

She watched him hastening down the street and away from her, fully expecting him at each moment to stop and turn back – or at least to look back, to show some sign of hesitation – until finally he disappeared from sight. She considered going after him or shouting something more to draw him back to her, but instead she closed the door and went back inside, tearful but too angry to cry. She drank tea in the living-room, repeating the argument in her mind over and over, unable to sit still for any period of time.

As the day wore on – one more wasted Saturday – her restlessness was replaced with an angry lethargy. She lay wrapped in a blanket on the sofa and stared idly at the television. From time to time, she heard the discordant chirping coming from the kitchen. It was a sound he had convinced her she would get used to, though even after a year she hadn't, but until recently the gesture itself had outweighed any annoyance that came with caring for two exotic and clamorous birds.

Friends, when she had told them, reacted with puzzlement. It was the strangest of gifts, but he was oblivious to the extravagance of it, endearingly proud of the statement it embodied, and this only added to the mystique of things. She softened quickly to the idea of it: two star-crossed lovers understood only by each other, the sole members of a secret and amorous club and the birds a totem of their love. It was all very dramatic and romantic, and he had moved in with her a few weeks later.

But lying on the sofa now, hearing their sporadic chirping, the birds seemed representative of other things entirely.

For a while, and in particular the past few weeks, an air of frustration had crept into things. They seemed ill at ease with each other, gentle bickering often overflowing into more serious arguments, the past few weekends marred by their disputes. The latest had been as baseless as the others – at least on the surface of things – but had grown through the morning and into the afternoon until finally it erupted into vicious and hurtful accusations on both sides.

He left then, in a hurry, forgetting even his coat and muttering something about last straws and the end of things, saying he wouldn't be back.

"Well go then," she said cuttingly as he was leaving, and he turned momentarily to say something more to her. She was surprised at the bitterness in her tone and noted the look of genuine hurt in his face. She waited for him to speak – to shout, to react – but he simply shook his head and left.

Perhaps attempting to hurt him further, perhaps attempting to draw him back into the argument so he wouldn't leave – she would wonder about this later, would be consumed by it – she followed him out to the top step.

"Well you can take your ridiculous birds with you," she shouted before he gradually disappeared into the mist of rain. It wasn't unusual for their arguments to end like this, but it was a running joke of theirs how inept he was at storming off, typically not making it out the door or more than a little way down the street before stopping and returning, either to continue the argument or to seek a resolution. And each time she would welcome his return, though usually hiding the fact, never willing to be seen to give in.

And so she was surprised that this time he hadn't returned, hadn't even looked back at her as he left, and it made her feel angry and helpless and sorry all at once.

*****

As she lay prone on the sofa that evening, her phone seemed to stare at her from the coffee table, taunting her. She wondered who would give in first; she resolved not to let it be her and waited for him to return in person or to call her. It occurred to her that perhaps in his haste he had left without his phone, but a search of his coat and then table-tops and other spots discounted the notion. Still, without his coat or anything else, she gauged that he would have to return soon. Where else could he go?

She waited, and evening turned to night, her anger increasing with the changing light before slowly giving way to worry. Finally she relented and dialled his number, not knowing what to expect but steeling herself for a continuation of hostilities, prepared for the possibility of either his continuing anger or his remorse, prepared to respond to either with an amplified sense of her own misgivings and, following this, her own remorse and forgiveness. Perhaps then, she hoped, they could salvage the remainder of the weekend.

She dialled his number and waited. As it rang, the sound of the birds' chirping seemed to intensify and ring along with it from the kitchen. She felt another pang of worry when there was no answer – worry for his well-being, firstly, it not being like him to remain incommunicado, but also for their relationship. She was reminded of her comment about the birds.

It was his long-ago gesture of love – extravagant though it may have been – that she had used to hurt him, and flippant as the comment was she felt an overbearing need to retract it, to rectify the situation.

She dialled his number again, the tension of the day's turmoil seeming to drain away, replaced now by sorrow and a resolve to apologise, to let him know how much she loved him.

Later, when she thought of the moments that followed, she would wonder at the strange workings of the mind, at how anger can turn to remorse and then back to pure rage and heartbreak within the space of a few minutes, how fragile and unreliable affairs of the heart can be.

The phone rang and rang. She pictured him staring at it somewhere, seeing her name light up on the screen but still angry enough not to answer. She felt the guilt mount, and then the worry when still she heard nothing.

She continued to redial his number, over and over, obsessed now with the act itself, and when finally, unexpectedly, the ringing stopped and the phone was answered it took her a confused moment to register that it was not his voice on the other end, that it was the voice of someone else, a female voice; it was a woman who had answered his phone.

Unable to speak, not knowing how to react – feeling, in fact, that she was in some way intruding on something – she hung up and burst into tears. It all seemed horribly clear to her. It explained their recent difficulties, explained why it had been so easy for him to leave her earlier that day. And she understood instantly that the voice – sounding young and alert, whoever it was – was the voice of a woman taking a situation into her own hands, knowingly answering his phone and speeding along the dissolution of his relationship to hasten and cement the beginnings of her own. It was the dreaded other woman.

She wondered how long it had been going on.

She was trembling when her own phone rang just a moment later. It would be him this time, trying to remedy his predicament, either denying or apologising for his betrayal of her. But it was clear in that moment that it was the end of things, that things for him had obviously been over for some time – for however long he had been seeing this other woman – and that now it was over for her too, revealed to her in the cruellest of ways. She felt humiliated, betrayed, wronged, and foolish now at her feelings from just a few moments before of having wronged him.

She let the phone ring.

She felt floored by the moment, unable to fully believe what had just happened, and she made a promise to herself not to answer, to let him stew in the guilt she was sure he would be feeling, not to allow him any morsel of opportunity to exculpate himself.

It was this nascent feeling of betrayal that accompanied her uneasy slumber and throughout the night – in a state of strained half-sleep – the incessant chirping of the birds in the kitchen seemed to be mocking her.

*****

Later, she would recall and dissect the day in excruciating detail; the argument itself, each word exchanged, the image of him striding angrily away from her; the hours that had followed and the places that her mind had arrived; the phone-call, that voice on the other end of the line; her sudden hatred of the lovebirds and their song, obscene and mocking symbols of duplicity.

Later, in her torment, she would try and arrange each aspect of these things in her mind.

It wasn't comfort that she sought, much less redemption; her mind, broken now like her heart, would be unable to allow any cathartic understanding of events. There were too many things to consider, too many uncertainties and each one more shattering than the last – no way to know with any conviction which was the most troubling, the most despicable.

She would be haunted by the argument, by its needless beginning and its petty nature. And by the stubborn determination she had felt not to search him out after he left, the afternoon spent swearing not to be the one to capitulate.

The facts of the accident would haunt her, too.

The details of it were pieced together over the following days like a slowly unfolding horror film – that it had happened mere minutes from their home, mere moments after he had disappeared into the rain, and that she had lain on their sofa hating him as he lay alone in the road, wet and broken.

And later in the day, while she had been so consumed with the playing out of the game, he had stayed unidentified in the hospital, being worked upon in vain. This thought would plague her, as would the fact that later that night when her pride finally allowed her to dial his number he was still alive, that had she not been so quick to doubt him, to accuse, she would have realised that the voice answering was not some other woman, but a nurse seeking only to identify him, that he didn't need to die amongst strangers.

And she would be consumed both by the sickening knowledge that she had spent his last moments denouncing and reviling him, and by her complicity in both the fact and the nature of his demise.

These things would weigh endlessly upon her.

But it was the lovebirds, that ultimate symbol of his affection and love, which would remain the most sordid reminder of the day. It was the words she had used that would follow her through time, never far away – ridiculous birds – and the nagging uncertainty of whether he had heard those words.

It would fester along with everything else, incessant and unanswerable, tearing into her core. Even after the birds themselves ceased to be she would continue to hear their sounds – sometimes mocking, sometimes mourning, bottomless reminders of her guilt.

And if he did hear the words he gave no indication of it; this she would wonder about above all else, the immovable anchor in a cold sea of grief.

Irish Independent

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