The Dawn Chorus
The sound is constant, but the image intermittent. Furious indignation communicated through a porch door. I stand at the end of the garden path, letters in hand watching the dog appear and disappear in the glass pane. He bounces vertically, his rage like a geyser pushing him up from the earth. Each time his eyes meet mine his barking intensifies: incredulous that I’m still here, furious that gravity is pulling him back down.
Dogs hate me. Each day I crash through intricate universes of smells and boundaries to push strange biscuits through their doors. They devour the envelopes greedily, and then afterwards, the growing unease, the dim sense that they’ve somehow got it wrong again. Later they cower in kitchen corners as angry owners shout and gesticulate with shredded paper in their hands. Dogs blame me for all this.
I could watch the bouncing Airedale all day, but I’ve got another six pouches to deliver so I carry on up the road. Saturday 6.50am and the streets are silent except for the sounds I make: gate slamming, letterbox snapping, the same three bars whistled over and over again. The grit of a long lost tune that won’t be forgotten and won’t be remembered. It’s my magpie rattle – maddening and pointless.
I shouldn’t be whistling. It’s 27 days since she left me.
‘Never mind the dogs, beware of the kids!’ at number 37, followed by ‘Never mind the dog, beware of the wife!’ at number 39, followed by ‘Bless this mess’ at 43. I wonder how number 41 is holding out against the tide of hilarity and then I notice that they have a sign too: ‘For Sale’.
We never had any signs on our door. We had a letterbox that fit the purpose it was meant for, something I insisted on and I can tell you is a novelty in this world, but no signs or greetings to passers by. We were never really interested in the outside world. We had our own universe behind that door. But universes expand, and ours didn’t.
Round the corner on Johnson Road nobody’s answering their doors to sign for parcels, which is a relief to be honest. I hate getting people out of bed. Seeing them in the ratty clothes they sleep in, hair standing up, eyes still gluey – it’s too intimate. They seem too vulnerable to be opening their doors and letting the world rush in. Too early in the day to be in charge of a biro. It used to make me think of her, back in our bed still warm and stretched out onto my side. She’d offer to get up with me at four and make breakfast, but I couldn’t bear to put her through that. The best days were when I’d finish early, she’d still be there when I got home and I could climb in beside her. You think I’d miss that.
The gate to number 16 won’t open. They seem to have put it on back to front. You have to push it, but the garden path slopes upwards so it just gets wedged. It’s not unusual. You learn early on in this job that there are many people who just aren’t coping with the everyday small challenges that life presents. I don’t know what they make of the stuff that I push into their houses.
There was a third party of course, or at least, she wanted us to create one. I didn’t. That was all it was. One disagreement amongst hundreds or maybe thousands of agreements. The power of the unborn is amazing to me. Can you imagine leaving the person you love most in the world, or say you do, for some notional other that may one day exist? I told her how I felt and she just cried and cried and cried. I had no idea that people could cry so much. She told me she loved me, then she told me she needed to find someone else. I laughed at first. It seemed laughable.
I’m about to give up on the gate and climb over when I hear the noise of something hitting the ground behind me. I cross the road and find an old lady sprawled on the pavement behind a parked car. I don’t know where she’s come from. I kneel down, she tries to talk but it’s just a buzzing in her throat. I’m dialling 999 when she moves her head slightly and the blood starts to flow out onto the broken paving stones. It moves fast, and for a moment I’m unable to do anything but watch it grow and try to connect this rich, dark liquid with the small papery creature lying in front of me. She tries to sit up, she turns her head and covers her face in blood. I say: ‘Please don’t move’.
The 999 lady tells me to get the old woman to sit up if I can. It seems a bad idea to me. She says to apply pressure to the wound with a cloth. I find a handkerchief in my pocket and tentatively reach underneath the small head dreading what my fingers will feel. It’s not the smashed egg shell I expect, it’s solid and hot and wet. I hold the hanky hard against her head and slowly lift her up to a sitting position. The old woman has been speaking through all this, the buzzing from her throat sometimes rising in urgency. I don’t know what she’s trying to say to me. She looks at me with a terrible fierceness in her eyes – I look away. I block her view of the pool of blood by sitting in front of it, partly in it. We’re not made to see what’s inside us, I know that much.
I try to respond as if I understand the sounds she’s making. I’m saying ‘Yes’ and ‘Don’t worry’. It occurs to me that when the time comes to speak your last words the chances are they’re going to be incomprehensible. Another bad joke.
I’ve got pins and needles running down my arm. The hanky’s dark brown and blood has dried on my hand. She’s quiet now, we’re sitting and staring at the letters that have fallen from my bag into the gutter. I wonder if any of them were for her. Some have blown into the pool of blood, flapping in the breeze like birds trapped in an oil spill. I talk to her. I ask her questions. She can’t answer but I think it must be nice to be asked. I ask her if she lives in the street. Ask her if she’s married. Any children, grandchildren? I wonder if this flickering life means everything in the world to someone.
I tell her that I don’t have children. I say that in fact as of last month I don’t even have a wife. I tell her about all the half empty bottles of shampoo that Rachel left in the bathroom. I tell her how I go home at lunchtime to find the bed empty, the sheets knotted and all I do is whistle. I can’t get the tune out of my head. I say that if I could only recognise it I think I’d be free of it. I ask her to help me. I whistle the tune and say ‘Do you know it? Will you tell me?’ The street is silent.
At some point the ambulance arrives. The man tells me I can let go, and he takes her away. I stare at the blood for a long time, then I slowly pluck the letters out, shake them off and carry on down the street. My hands shake. As I walk up the path to number 68 the Alsatian throws himself against the glass door barking and slavering. I rest my head against the glass, stare into his eyes, and tell him that he can’t touch me.
First published in Good Housekeeping, 2008