Birdie

I was not always a ghost. Once I was as substantial as anyone else. But somehow, over the years I lost the knack of holding myself together.

Each demurral and self-effacement caused the molecules of my being to loosen and drift apart, until the day I disappeared altogether.

In the early days of my un-being I haunted the rooms of my childhood home in a bewildered fog of disbelief. I desperately held onto the hope that this was just a miserable dream, that I would awaken from it, relieved, and that I would resolve to do more than merely exist.

But days flowed into weeks and then endless months.

When the wrecking crew arrived I cowered on the pavement of my parents’ home, hiding behind the pink oleander my mother had planted just before my birth. I will forever taste dust and destruction when I smell that sweet perfume.

When all was done and the last debris carted off in cheerfully yellow trucks, I trudged the kilometer or so to the village. Even now it amuses me to remember how I started at every sound, and how I crossed the street to avoid fellow pedestrians.

That night I slept on a bench at the central bus depot. I chose the least lit and most isolated spot I could find. I woke to Mr Stanislov sweeping under me, his thick wooden broom chimed against the bench’s metal legs, and his tuneless whistle quavered in the cool morning air. A large, scruffy marmalade-striped cat was weaving around his legs murmuring and purring in counterpoint to his breathy serenade.

I must have moved, for the cat caught sight of me. Where all others were blind to me, this scraggy, scrawny cat had my measure. It sat silently, yellow eyes fixed on me, until Mr Stanislov had moved on.

As the sound of his whistling faded, the cat gathered itself and leaped on to the bench where I now sat. It gave me a long, considered stare, sat down next to me, and began to groom itself. Before long its purrs rumbled deep from inside its tatty frame.

Surprised by this unexpected company, I sat with the cat, long into the day. It had curled up into a tight, dirty orange ball and retreated to wherever it is that sleeping cats go.

When the sun was high in the sky, it stirred, and stretched. It fixed me again with its yellow stare, yawned and began grooming itself. I heard the rasp of its rough tongue, and could smell the increasingly musky dampness of its fur. Suddenly, mid-lick, it stopped and turned its head to over its shoulder, as if it heard something. And then it was gone. Its striped orange tail disappeared jauntily down the road.

We shared my bench many a morning, the orange cat and I.

One day, taken with its attitude of feline purpose, I decided to follow it. So I jogged down the road after it, with its stripy orange back end a few meters ahead of me.

We were soon trotting along the sandy dirt road to the one and only rail siding in the village. A couple of shanty huts had sprung up, like begrimed trail weeds, in the dry brush, lining the tracks. A forlorn string of grey washing was strung to an equally dismal sapling. The clothing flapped listlessly in the small breeze that stirred the dust at my feet.

I heard the commotion inside, long before I could separate the voices. A deep growl, underpinned a higher, hysterical note – a child, I decided. The buckled metal door swung open, and a slight, ragged form tumbled into the dirt, stopping just a few heartbeats from where I stood, frozen. The door banged shut, and the figure stirred.

Her face was swollen, with dirty tear tracks down hollowed, hungry cheeks. Her hair hung in mousy strands down her shoulders and neck. There was a small trickle of blood from her split lip.

“Oh Kitty,” she murmured as the orange cat trotted up to her, completely undisturbed by the scene. The cat smeared itself against her, climbed on her lap, kneading and head butting in an ecstasy of reunion. The child rummaged in a pocket and brought out the smallest crumb of dried bread. The cat accepted the offering with dignified delicacy, and promptly sat, still on her lap, to clean its face.

The door burst open and the cat scrambled with practiced speed.

“How many times,” howled the enraged gargoyle of a man, “have I told you to get rid of that cat?”

As he roared, I saw his arm rise, in slow motion, brandishing a thick metal frying pan. He lunged at the girl and swung. Without thought, I threw myself between them, and felt the full force of his stroke on my shoulder and back. I threw myself over the child’s cowering shape as he stepped up and rained more heavy blows down on us.

Wondrously, the consistency of my no-longer-present flesh and bones seemed to be enough to convince him that he had dealt with his intended victim, and just as suddenly he was gone. The slamming door shook the ramshackle building.

I rolled off the child and lay in the dirt, dazed, battered and bruised.

“Come Miss! Come!” unbelievably I felt a tug on my hand, “He will come back, we must hide!”

She dragged me to the bushes and into the scrub, away from the railway line. I crawled and scrabbled in the dirt, finding stillness after an eternity of flight.

I woke to the child gently wiping my face with a grubby damp patch of her ragged dress.

“Miss? Sorry Miss! It’s getting dark, Miss. We need to find shelter. I know a place, if you can walk?”

I groaned, and staggered to my feet, with her bony shoulders under my hands. She was thin and fragile, yet substantial enough to lead me to another, even more run-down shack in the darkening woods.

I woke again, to the flickering shadows of a candle creating a mad chiaroscuro on the shack walls. The first recognizable thing I saw was the orange cat, with its yellow eyes. As soon as I met its gaze, it trotted up to me and butted my forehead with its stripped head.

“He’s saying thank you Miss. Thank you for saving us. Dad was gonna kill us this time. For sure.” The words were made more appalling by their matter of fact tone and the youth of the voice.

I lost count of how many times I wandered in and out of consciousness. But every time I opened my eyes, the child and cat were there. I receded into the darkness, again and again.

When morning broke, I awoke to birdsong, and the tickle of mousy hair against my nose and cheeks. The child was nestled against my body, and my arms had wrapped themselves around her and the cat. The pain of the previous day flooded back, along with the bewildering knowledge that somehow to this lone waif and her feline companion, I was Real.

My heart stuttered. The tightness binding it cracked and then shattered apart. Heat filled my chest, and flooded my limbs, like liquid sunshine. My back ached, and my mouth was dry and tasted foul, but I lay there in the golden warmth, in wonder.

The child’s eyes fluttered open, and the cat stirred between us. She smiled.

“Hello, Miss! I told you, Kitty, that she would be just fine!” The last was said in a mock stern tone. The cat stretched and yawned, nestled happily between our bodies.

As she examined my face, she took on a sweetly solemn expression.

“You are that Lady, aren’t you Miss?”

She smiled at my incomprehension, “Never mind Miss, we will show you!”

Later that morning, we assembled ourselves in a lesser degree of disarray. She then pulled out a small packet of stale biscuits for breakfast, and the child and the cat feasted.

Tentatively, the three of us made our way, back into town. The child was no longer concerned about discovery by her father who, as she put it, was now, very likely out for the count.

The streets were quiet, and we travelled unnoticed. We were invisible to eyes that did not want to see, a shadow, a thin ragamuffin, and a scruffy cat.

When we stopped outside the small town hospital, I was surprised and not a little confused.

“Come, Miss, we know a secret way in.”

Following her to the back of the building and the loading bay, she bid me wait until the coast was clear. A laundry truck was being loaded, and we hid in the shelter of one of the large green refuse containers that lined the crisp white wall. Finally the truck pulled out and drove down the hedge lined service road.

Two white-garbed workers slid shut the large green gate and strolled back into the building.

The child stared earnestly into my eyes, “Follow Kitty and me, but be quiet, and be small.”

I nodded, and we crept to the loading bay and into the darkened corridor leading into the maintenance sections of the hospital.

Whether by good luck or by cosmic design, we met no one else, as we negotiated first two flights of stairs and then a long empty corridor.

The child left me in the shadow of a potted palm, as she went ahead to peep into each of the open doors. At the third door, she stopped and beckoned. I whispered to the cat, and together we made our way cautiously to her small crouched form. I hunkered down next to her, and she murmured “Here! We need to go in here!”

I peered into the room, with its single white-draped occupant. Machines beeped and wheezed, in splendid isolation. Finally sure that it was otherwise empty, we slid in the doorway. I quietly shut the door behind us to keep us from officious eyes.

We approached the bed.

Even though it was unnaturally pale and altered by the pipes and bandages, the face was clearly recognisable. I felt the entire universe dislocate in a dizzying shift.

I lay, unnaturally still, barely breathing on the white bed, and I stood, hovering next to the bed in the company of a dubious cat and a grubby urchin, as a confusing mix of observer and observed washed over me.

“The nurses said you couldn’t decide if you wanted to live or die.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “They said that you had nearly been beaten to death by your husband, and that you were badly broken.”

At her words, the flood of memory poured down my cheeks in hot tears. The wave of shame and fear rose up and crashed against my heart and mind. I found myself kneeling on the cold tiled floor, weeping heartbroken for my poor lost self. The child wrapped her arms around me until the sobs subsided.

“But Miss, you aren’t broken, you are here with Kitty and me.”

“What is your name?” the words were strangled in my thickened throat.

“Birdie McBride, Miss” again, the radiant gap toothed smile.

“Birdie McBride, will you stay with me? While I wake up?”

In answer, the cat leaped onto the white sheets, and curled up with a contented purr. The child nodded, went over to the bed and took my cold hand.

©Kim Magennis 2015


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