“Ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye.”
On Tuesday morning she is sitting at the breakfast table, hand hovering over the expensive cafetière her parents gave her for Christmas last year. She is counting out one hundred and eighty seconds in the usual fashion—one thousand, two thousand, three thousand—measuring out three properly paced minutes before she depresses the plunger. She likes medium strength coffee. She is, in general, a moderate person, though prone to spending exorbitant amounts of money on bold—some might say garish—items of jewellery.
She is almost one hundred and fifty thousands in, when a flicker appears in the corner of her left eye. Something is falling, or rising, or perhaps hovering, in front of her kitchen window. She has a vague sense of it dragging on the periphery of her vision. It is mildly irritating, like a twitch or a trapped sneeze. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. It’s early and she’s still a little befuddled with sleep. She wonders what it could be. An insect? A branch? A bird most likely, for she lives three stories up and there are no trees on her side of the building. She has hardly any interest in this fluttering thing. But surely, there’s no harm in taking a closer look, perhaps even putting a name to it. She turns her whole body so she has an uninterrupted view of the window. There’s nothing there. The window is blank and blue as an untroubled lake. She shrugs and returns to her cafetière.
As she pours her coffee she notices the flicker creeping back into the corner of her eye. She is curious now, not desperately so, but intrigued enough to rise from her seat, coffee mug in hand, and slide round the table to peer through the window. There is nothing to the left, nothing to the right, above her only sky, the thought of which brings to mind that one, famous John Lennon song. “Imagine all the people.” She hums it as she returns to the table, temporarily distracted from the distraction in the window.
As soon as she’s seated it begins again. She tries to ignore the incessant tickle of it, sliding up and down the side of her sightline. She adds milk to her coffee and, forgetting that she’s decided to cut out sugar, two heaped teaspoonfuls of the white stuff, stirring until she can no longer feel the grains gritting against the mug’s sides. She tries to concentrate on this morning’s crossword. Crosswords are another of her new resolutions. She is trying to be more present; to cut out distractions and focus on being a simpler, more balanced individual. Her sister’s leant her a mindfulness CD. She’s been listening to it in the bath. With candles. The box says mindfulness will help her pay attention to her thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong. Right now, she is struggling to pay attention to anything but the mysterious creature flitting about outside.
She sets the newspaper aside and returns to the window. It’s an old-fashioned sash type, stiff and heavy. She puts her shoulder to the glass and shoves hard. Once open she sticks her head through the gap. She glances up and down, left and right. She’s sure she’s looking for a creature of some sort; a bird most likely. The third floor’s too high for cats. Though the open window affords her an extra degree of perspective, she can’t see anything of significance. She has the distinct, and slightly disturbing, feeling of something narrowly avoided: a car, for example, or a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend. She closes the window sharply, relishing the dull thuck of timber settling into old timber. She returns to her coffee. Her coffee is cold. The thing continues to twiddle about in the corner of her eye. It is becoming increasingly irritating.
She takes a shower. She’s running late now and hasn’t time for a bath. In the shower she thinks about the distraction. She puts wings on it, feathers and a pointed beak. She colours it red, and once it is red in her mind, finds it impossible to believe she’s seen anything but red feathers, blurring frantically. She knows this is impossibly exotic for Belfast, in October, but she tells herself that she’s seen it and therefore it must be possible. When she leaves the bathroom, wrapped in a damp bath towel, she expects to see a red parrot, or some other tropical bird, hovering outside. She sees no such thing. Only the sheet glass and the curtains dropping down either side of the window like an empty picture frame.
She leaves the house three to four minutes later than usual. She has to run for the bus. Her hair is still wet from the shower and, as she picks up speed, begins to whip viciously around her face. She hasn’t a lick of make up on. She’s too distracted to notice. While running, she thinks about the thing outside her window, rolling the idea of it round her head until it is a clear and easily described as the shoes on her feet or the elderly lady who’s always standing at her stop. She could swear the bird—for she’s sure it is a bird—is still flitting about on the edge of her vision. But this must be her mind playing tricks. She’s half a mile from home now. She can’t imagine it’s following her.
All day she’s distracted by the thought of it. She sits at her desk, incapable of concentrating on her spreadsheets. She’s sure she can see red birds blurring backwards and forwards above the office skylight. All she wants to do is recline the reclining part of her chair and stare at them. But she isn’t paid to watch birds. She is paid to type numbers into spreadsheets, to add these numbers up, and occasionally multiply one number by another, which is more difficult and requires concentration. This morning she cannot seem to concentrate on anything but the thing hovering outside her window. She rearranges the biros in her drawer and the paperclips too. She doodles little, red birds across a whole rake of Post-It notes and when the boss—who is a nice lady and not prone to placing undue pressure upon her employees—drops by to ask how the accounts are going, she snaps and says, “I’m working as fast as I can. I’ve only got two hands.” She apologises immediately. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I have a headache.” The boss says she should take a break. “Go outside, get some air.” The boss places a hand on her shoulder while saying this so she will appear firm, but also caring.
She takes a half-hour break from her desk. She walks across the street to the park next to Tesco’s. The thing flickers along next to her. From time to time she swipes at it, trying to make contact. She never catches anything more substantial than cool air. When she turns it’s always gone. People stare at her as they pass. She looks a little unhinged. Twisting. Jerking. Flailing her arms around her head. In the park she lies down under a tree. She sets her alarm for twenty-five minutes. As soon as her shoulders touch the grass, she realises just how tired she is. Thinking about the thing has sapped all her energy. She is almost immediately asleep. She dreams of red birds. Red birds flying. Red birds sitting on windowsills. Red birds pecking at little crumbs they’ve found scattered beside litter bins and downtown benches. She wakes suddenly when the alarm goes off and for a moment continues to see red birds fluttering overhead.
That evening, when she returns to the apartment with a microwavable lasagne in her handbag (she’s far too exhausted to contemplate healthy eating tonight), the thing is still flittering about outside her window. She tries turning her back to it, closing her eyes and downing half a bottle of cold Chardonnay so quickly it gives her brain freeze, but the thought of it is almost more distracting than the actual flicker. About midnight, driven to distraction she opens the window and yells into the black, night sky, “go away, leave me alone.” She imagines the neighbours will think her mad. She couldn’t give a toss about the neighbours. The thing does not leave her alone. It continues to flit and stutter and duck out of sight every time she turns around. It has given her a migraine; the worst kind, with flickering lights.
Finally, with no options left, she begins flinging small items out the window, hoping to scare the distraction away. A coffee mug. A shoe. Her sister’s mindfulness CD. A hardback copy of Wuthering Heights. A tennis racket. Two scatter cushions. A framed photo of her parents on their wedding day. The Next catalogue, which is quite hefty. It sails through the air like a greased missile, only stopping when it makes contact with something solid. She hears the clunk of one thing hitting another, somewhere, out there, in the impenetrable dark. This noise is both heartening and rather unnerving. She knows she’s finally managed to pin the shifty thing down. She suspects she may have killed it in the process.
She dashes downstairs, taking all six flights in a handful of urgent strides. She’s barefoot and doesn’t care. Outside, the garden is like a jumble sale. All the items she’s pitched through her window are arranged haphazardly across the lawn. She remembers, from A-Level history, that defenestration is the term for throwing an object or person from a window, but this seems too grand a word for what she’s done; too precise and calculated. She finds the Next catalogue beside a rhododendron bush. There’s a tiny smear of blood, like spilt jam, stuck to its corner. She wipes it against her pyjama leg. It leaves a stain. The bird is lying next to the catalogue, one wing open, the other folded in upon itself. Its head is bent back at an unnatural angle. It is quite clearly dead.
She fishes a tissue out of her dressing gown pocket and picks it up. She can feel the heat of it leaking through the thin paper. It’s already beginning to cool. She takes a long look at the bird, using the screen of her mobile as a torch. It is not red or at all exotic. It’s just an ordinary starling; greasy and mottled. There are dozens like it strung across the telephone wires. She turns its little body this way and that inspecting its legs, its beak, its tiny, black bead eyes. She’s lost all interest in the bird now it’s dead. She feels bad about this. Should she feel bad? She’s not the first person to kill a bird on purpose. She decides not to feel bad. She imagines there will be more birds to come; better birds with brightly coloured feathers and enchanting songs. There’s nothing to be done with the starling, especially now the flight has left it. She opens the wheelie bin and drops it inside. She closes the lid and returns to bed where she is almost instantly asleep. She dreams of birds, fluttering outside her window. She feels as if she’s hardly slept at all.