I'd completely forgotten about the human-faced birds.
It started this morning when I found myself by chance in the neighbourhood where David lived. It was unexpected. I wasn't thinking about David, nor was I particularly intending to be in that particular part of South London. It just happened.
I was on my way between meetings, walking quickly on this sweltering July day, when the sky lowered suddenly and dark clouds flew in from the East, parting to unleash a torrential downpour. I was soaked to the skin already, when to add insult to injury, a number 21 bus careened past and tipped the entire contents of a pot-hole puddle right over me. I stopped walking and sighed.
I looked up, dripping, to see the insulting red silhouette of the double decker disappearing over the crest of the steep hill ahead of me. The hill upon which, to my utter astonishment (and slightly to my left) stood David's house. The sudden cloudburst was already breaking up; shafts of mid-morning sun silhouetting the familiar outline of the house where I'd lived for three and a half months, so long ago.
Tucking my soaking hair behind one soaking ear, hoisting my soaking bag over my soaking shoulder, I trudged up the hill towards the house.
The house looked identical after all this time. It stood on its own like a reproach; it was an old terrace-end house, dark and huge, Victorian, with five floors. The rest of the terrace had long since been demolished but for some reason, they'd forgotten about this one. It was the sort of house that it was easy to forget about. Windows looking out like baleful eyes set deep in a dark, brick-crusted skull at the top of its old hill. The roof partially caved in, top floor windows broken and dark. The ground fell sharply away on two sides of the house, towards a deep railway cutting on the Sidcup line on one side, and a deserted municipal square on the other, a dried out fountain and ornate wrought iron benches a decaying testament to happier (or at the very least more prosperous) times in a previous century.
The house had been boarded up, its owner an absentee. David and a few other misfits from art school had opened it up and taken possession. The house had filled up with students and countercultural dropouts, the smell of joss sticks and grass mingling with mildew and cheap cider. Music was always loud and either rocking or rocksteady. Having established squatter's rights, the new tenants fell to redecorating the house in their own image, garish colours and dayglo posters replacing the muted finery of the long-departed previous inhabitants. Only the top floor was uninhabitable, the roof having fallen in during that hurricane of 1987. Perhaps that and the subsidence had broken the owner's heart. Whoever they were, they never came back. Never tried to repossess the old corpse of a house.
This had been ten or eleven years ago. I don't remember correctly. That summer was one of those that no one would really recall correctly.
I stood, soaking, on the pavement outside. Looking up at the dark mass now, it looked no different despite the extra years. Even the sky seemed to have darkened in respect to the old place. Behind me the sun was again blazing in a cloudless blue sky but beyond the house, the thunderheads still massed, sullen like an unruly mob of demonstrators reluctant to disperse despite repeated warnings.
Peering up, I could see through one murky window a series of canvases on stretchers piled up against a paint-splattered wall; a couple of battered guitars leaning against a black, huge amplifier emblazoned with the Marshall logo through another. The roof was still at a haphazard angle and the house still looked like it would tip over down the embankment at any moment.
Without knowing why the fuck, I walked up the cracked front path and knocked on the door.
For a while, nothing happened.
My heart was pounding and I was about to turn away when I saw shadows moving through the grimy frosted glass of the dark green, paint-peeling front door.
Then footsteps approached and the door was flung open.
"Blimey. Been for a swim 'ave we?" The dishevelled figure of a tall, thin man in his forties, dressed only in a ripped pair of faded drainpipe jeans (the flies were unzipped) looked me up and down with blood-shot eyes, drawing on a roll-up. "Ello. Who are ya then? Wha d'ya want?"
I looked past him into the hallway. It looked exactly the same as I remembered, a forest of rusted bicycles and paint cans.
"I..." I began, before realising I didn't know what I wanted. I looked up at him again, but didn't recognise him from my time here. Not surprising given the turnaround of people in the house tended to be rapid.
I coughed. "I'm a friend of David's. An old friend. I just got soaked in the downpour and wondered if he was around, if I could just dry off..." It sounded lame even to me.
He looked me up and down again, a sly smile on his gnarled face. "Friend of Dave's eh? Nice." Annoyingly, I found myself blushing. He turned his head and shouted back into the inviting darkness of the house. "DAVE! GIRL HERE TO SEE YA! DAVID!! GET YER FAT ARSE OUT OF BED!!"
We stood there for a moment in silence, both looking at some indeterminate point somewhere behind and above him.
He turned back. "Nahh. 'e must be out. Wanna come in and wait? He's not usually gone long." He looked me up and down once more then stood aside. I picked my way through the copse of rusted bicycles and made to go up the stairs. He followed me in, closing the door.
"Dave's room's-" He stopped when he saw me with my hand on the banister. "Oh. You know. OK luv, let us know if there's anything I can help yer with." He winked. "I'm Martin by the way." He pronounced it 'Marr Inn', without the 't' and with a West Country roll to the letter 'R'. "Nice to meet yer." He reached out and we shook hands. His were dry and cool.
"Thanks Martin," I said. He bustled past me up the stairs and I heard him disappear into a room on the third floor. After a second, some loud dub music started pounding through the house. I breathed in the smell of mildew, dope and incense and smiled, trudging wetly upwards to the first floor landing I remembered so well.
Pausing for a moment, I pushed open the door and peered inside.
It was like I'd only been away for a few hours. David always kept a sparse room. He'd painted the floorboards white when he'd moved in. The coat of gloss was a little more scuffed than I recalled, but of course, over a decade had passed. The chair in the corner was still covered in clothes, almost all neatly folded. The old steel clothes rail by the window was still there. I smiled as I noticed his one old grey green suit, hanging there still. I'd only seen him in it once, going to an interview for a job he never intended to get. He was mortified when they hired him. He lasted one morning and never went back. I remember him bursting back in pissed and laughing, with a pocketful of stationery. We left a lot of post-it notes round the house after that. The pile of CDs had grown noticeably though the vinyl record pile looked exactly the same. I noticed he had a DVD player now. The sleeve of Fellini's Amarcord lay open on top of the shiny silver machine which looked out of place above the old black VCR on which we'd watched episodes of Blackadder, stoned out of our heads, chortling like idiots.
All along one wall was the pile of books. David was a voracious reader. There was no attempt to order or classify the books. The regular sized paperbacks, he'd started standing in a tight line from one corner right along the wall to be bookended by a pile of horizontally piled larger books and mags on the opposite corner. Once a row had been filled, he'd started again, a second row of books on top of the first, all the way across. He'd got to two and three quarter rows of books one on top of each other when I'd left. Now the book pile had run on, eight rows high. There was no way he'd ever again get to read anything from the lowest row of books, which I noticed were buckling from the cumulative weight of words upon words piled densely above them. I looked across the lowest rows, seeing some familiar titles. Short Cuts by Carver had been a particular favourite of his. It had taken me ages to get through. I remembered him ranting about Altman's film version. He hated it for the contrived order that it tried to impose on the original.
I noticed he still had the alarm clock I'd given him. Time Cube, it was called. A plain white cube of time. We liked the abstractness of the idea even though in reality it was just a cheap alarm clock from some crappy shop in Lewisham. It was on the floor next to the futon mattress, right where I remembered it. A half drunk mug of coffee sat next to it and the old Winnie-the-Pooh plate he used as an ashtray.
I shivered. A draft was blowing in from the landing and I noticed I was making a puddle on the white-painted floorboards.
I got my mobile out of my handbag and checked the time. I still had an hour and a bit. I'd dry off my clothes then call a cab to take me to my meeting. I pushed the door to with my bum and walked over to the plain white chest of drawers, stepping out of my heels while unbuttoning my black shirt and unzipping my short blue pinstripe skirt. The top drawer contained some towels. I found a hanger on the clothes rail and draped my wet clothes on it, opening the window and letting the sun start its work on them. My bra felt a bit damp too so I unhooked that and looped one of the straps around the hanger to let it dry a bit.
I reached in to the drawer and pulled out one of David's towels, the green one with the yellow leaf pattern that I remembered. I dried off my arms and chest and back and legs then started to briskly towel down my shoulder length blonde hair when I caught sight of myself in the oval mirror above the chest of drawers and paused.
I looked at myself in the scratchy surface of the mirror and was struck by how I felt so wrong and so utterly right at the same time in here.
I felt right because David hadn't moved on at all since I'd last seen him, however many years ago that had been; I felt at home in his room, surrounded by his things. We'd parted amicably enough; we'd drifted apart but he'd stayed anchored to the solid mundaneity of this room while I'd flown off and become something new and strange. A foreign body; a new woman, quite literally - soft, rounded flesh where there'd been a hard boyish flatness. The skirts hung better off my now fuller hips and thighs than they had off the angular rear end of the teenage crossdresser who'd once shared this room. I cupped my right breast and raised it up, watching a pretty girl in the mirror who didn't need to stuff her bra with socks; a girl who no longer needed to create an illusion.
I'd spent a lot of time back then looking in this mirror, imagining who I'd be this time.
The mirror was well placed. It had the room's biggest window behind it and to the left. On a long, bright summer day like this, you were perfectly lit to do your make-up and dress yourself all nice. I wrapped the towel round my hair and struck one of the old, vampish poses. I laughed silently to myself, then looked up as I noticed a dark flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye.
I turned from the mirror, face burning red, half expecting to see him behind me with that toothy grin, the window-light reflecting off his pebble thick glasses.
But there was no one behind me.
I turned back then, knowing of course that the movement had come from the window and realising, with a shiver, that I'd forgotten, unbelievably, completely forgotten about the human-faced birds.
Yes. The human-faced birds. And no, I don't mean that these birds somehow reflected some form of anthropomorphic humanity in their otherwise birdy faces. Not a knowing, human glint in the beady eye of a dunnock, or a sardonic world-weariness in the tilted head of a blackbird. This is not something like the cat in my local pub in Archway that me and my girlfriends call the "cat with the face of a man" because its squashy Persian face and fractious demeanour are so hilariously like those of a grumpy old man.
No. Let me explain what I mean when I say 'human-faced birds':
The view from the window next to the oval mirror looks out from the side of the house that overhangs the old, deserted town park square. It's clear that at one time this was an important local amenity, but a combination of the development of the surrounding railway land into sidings, and some subsidence-related damage had cut it off from the rest of the area. It's now an unreachable place, overgrown with weeds and cracked with neglect. At its centre, a dried out fountain looks over a wasteland of empty crisp packets and crushed Lilt cans. Ever ten minutes or so, the passing of the Charing Cross to Sidcup fast train shakes it. The ornamental borders are choked with bindweed, the park benches warped and rotting.
The streets that used to lead to it are transsected by railway now, made impassable by sturdy fencing and yellow and black signage with high voltage warnings. It was possible to get down the steep ivy and nettle-bound bank from the rear of the house, but after Angus the gay barman got stuck down there one night when it rained and had to be rescued by smirking firemen, no one from the house really wanted to try again. It wasn't like there was anything worthwhile down there.
Instead the square had become a meeting place for birds. The old square was an ideal spot for birds to convene and do what they do, and birds of many species gathered there on a daily basis to talk bird business. The noisy chatter would float up sometimes to our window and I used to pad over barefoot to look down at the pigeons, the starlings, the magpies and jays, the tits and carrion crows, even the occasional seagull, picking their noisy way amidst the rubble and rubbish of a place that people had forgotten about and returned to them.
It was down there, one early morning, that I'd first seen the human-faced birds.
It was early summer. David was out somewhere. Maybe with a woman. I don't know but I was alone, fast asleep on the futon when I was awoken by an unbelievably weird sound. It started with an astonishingly loud, chirruping birdcall that all of a sudden seemed to melt into a sound like the braying laughter of a drunken woman. I thought at first that it was a car alarm, when it came again. It was such an alien noise that I couldn't for the life of me work out what it was at all. Think about it and you'll realise how scary that is.
I opened my eyes and I saw that the sky was already quite bright through the curtains. The glowing Time Cube read '04:21'. The sound came again, accompanied this time by a loud hubbub of many birds, who seemed to be singing in response. I lay in bed, petrified with fear.
After a while, the sound came again, this time joined by a second, almost identical sound in a slightly lower key. Once again, there was an answering chorus of normal birdsong. I reached across and found a cigarette, lighting it with shaking hands.
The cigarette and my growing wakefulness gave me a bit of courage, so after the sound came again, I sat up and got out of bed. I was only wearing David's red Che Guevarra t-shirt. I felt weird going to investigate with my willy and balls hanging out so I rummaged in my discarded skirt from last night and found the black satin and lace knickers that he'd bought me for my birthday, pulling them on quickly.
I tiptoed over to the window next to the oval mirror, carrying the Winnie-the-Pooh ashtray with me. I began gingerly twitching aside one black curtain when the sound came again, almost making me leap out of my skin. I peered through and down at the square.
In the misty morning light, at first I couldn't see anything unusual in the space laid out one hundred and fifty feet below me; just the usual gathering of birds, having their morning meeting. A bunch of pigeons, blackbirds and starlings, some magpies, some crows, a couple of particularly big, fat black ones over to my right facing away from me...
Then one of the big, fat crows turned and I realised it wasn't a crow at all.
It was like no bird I'd ever seen.
It was big and muscular, black and sleek. Its compact sinew and shiny plumage reminded me of a black panther. The shape was similar to a crow or raven, though with a strange, drooping, two-pronged tail, but it was very much bigger, perhaps as large as a medium-sized dog. A magnificent fan-like crest of jet-black feathers with midnight blue tips surmounted its bulky round head.
But it was only when it raised its face to utter its strange laugh-like call again that I saw its human face. Pitch black wrinkled skin set in amongst the feathers, with a small, fleshy black, parted beak inside which I could make out horribly human-looking teeth and tongue; above that, a perfectly human ball of a nose, human ears to one side and, most revolting, a pair of eyes burning with intelligence, white balls with round irises and pupils and pale yellow eyebrows arched above.
It lifted its face up, the human-faced bird and shrilled its mocking laugh. The other, the male, slightly smaller, soon joined it with its deeper guffaw and both were followed by noisy assent from the gathered flock.
As it laughed, the human-faced bird was looking at me.
With a soundless scream, I remember falling back from the window. Maybe I hit my head. Maybe I fainted. But I remember David's smiling, bespectacled face waking me up with a wet, hungover kiss to my forehead. The sun was up and blazing and the human-faced birds had already adopted the texture of a dream. We made love and then we went out to the pub.
Two weeks later I'd moved out forever, the human-faced birds forgotten. Until now.
Now I realised that the flicker of dark movement while I'd been admiring my reflection must surely have been one of those creatures flying past the window. My heart pounded as I padded across to peer out of the window down at the brightly lit square.
There were three of them this time.
The old decrepit square was deserted except for three of the human-faced birds. Perhaps two of them were the ones I'd seen before. They were all gazing fixedly at me, standing in a tight semicircle. The big one, the big female with the hideous laugh nodded slowly as I looked down at her. The new one seemed to smile, to beckon me with a flick of his crested head. I knew more than anything else that I had to now go down there and talk to them.
I reached over onto the pile of clothes on the chair and pulled over a t-shirt. Without surprise I noted it was the red Che shirt. I pulled my pinstripe miniskirt down off the clothes hanger. The stretchy rayon had dried already. I stepped into the skirt and pulled on the t-shirt. I looked down at the waiting birds and the treacherously steep bank that led down to them and pulled off my high heels as soon as I'd put them back on. Under the clothes rail was a pair of old paint-splattered Doc Marten boots of David's. I still had my tights on and they slipped on well over them.
I went to the oval mirror and fixed my face. Some black eyeliner and shadow, mascara and clear gloss. My hair didn't feel right. Pulling it back off my face, I twisted and looped it into a tight knot that sprayed out behind my head in a blonde approximation of the human-faced birds' crests. Finally, I applied a horizontal double fingerful of black eyeshadow in two parallel horizontal stripes, cheek to cheek, across the bridge of my nose. I unpinned one of my earrings, the right, and let it clatter to the floor. It vanished between two of the warped white-painted floorboards. I was ready.
I switched off my mobile and stuffed it into my handbag, shoving the bag under the wooden slats of the futon base and left the room after one more look at the waiting trio of human-faced birds.
The sun was slanting low on the horizon by the time I stepped out onto the cracked flagstones of the derelict park square. It had taken an eternity scrambling down the bank and my tights and skin had been ripped by brambles, my legs and arms covered in red raw nettle rash. My eyes had run black rivers of sweat and tears down my cheeks and I was physically shaking with exhaustion and hunger.
And the human-faced birds weren't there. Not a feather, not a claw mark in the dirty ground. Nothing.
I ran desperately round the dusty square, looking in all directions. The silence was utterly deafening. No birdcall, not the merest whisper of noise from cars or trains. Not even the gentlest of breezes to bring respite from the stillness. I felt like I'd somehow fallen to the bottom of a deep, dry well. I looked up the bank but even the house had vanished, obliterated by the blinding light of the low sun as it dipped towards orange dusk.
When I could run no more, I collapsed on the bench nearest the dried out fountain and dissolved into a racking fit of tears.
I was woken by the sound of movement. Clicking footfalls approaching me, and the slow, gentle rasp of living breath. I opened my eyes.
In the dim light of a pale blue dawn, I woke and saw the third human-faced bird standing, looking at me with a sad smile on its beaky lips.
I sat up abruptly. The nettle stings had abated a bit but I felt hungry and thirsty.
The human-faced bird opened its mouth and a croaky chirrup emerged. It frowned its blue, unsettlingly human eyes and tried again.
All I could do was stare back at it. This time it actually looked frustrated and shook its head, ruffling its crest. It glanced skywards as if trying to collect itself.
It looked back into my eyes again, with another smile, as if willing me to try a little harder. Again it opened its mouth.
"EE-Tschhh KhoooTooo Shee Yuuuuhh!"
It coughed, and spoke again. More confident this time.
"Itssshh GOOOdh Twooo SeeeeYuuuu!"
I must have been staring with such a look of open-mouthed astonishment that it actually let out a little chuckle before it spoke again.
"It's so good to see you!" It shifted on its claws. "How long has it been? Your hair suits you a little darker."
I looked down at my hands and then back into the human-faced bird's face. I stared into his face even though I found it hard to focus for the tears in my eyes.
Beyond him in the misty morning, I could now see hundreds of the creatures, some looking at us, some talking amongst themselves, or flying, eating. Getting on with things. And beyond them, almost hidden in the undergrowth at the bottom of the bank, I could see the broken body of a bespectacled man who'd fallen down the steep slope outside his home one bright summer morning.
"I'm really glad you came down here. Really," the human-faced bird went on, nodding earnestly, as I tried to smile back at him through my tears. "I'm happy to have met you just this once, now you've become who you wanted to become." Still smiling and nodding, he'd begun backing away with his curious bird steps. Slowly, his words became an unintelligible birdlike burble again.
And then with a great clap of wings, his colleagues took off as one into the brightening sky, becoming slowly translucent as they faded away in the rising morning light.
Soon, only my friend was left. He stood for a while by David's body, then lowered his head, unfolding his wings. He was already starting to fade from sight.
I watched him take off and rise up in bigger and bigger circles until he too became a tiny dot of black that I lost in the cloudless blue far above me.
Originally published 8 July 2005 on draGnet 4.0, this is part of the Transformer series, a loose cycle of semi-autobiographical, semi-connected short stories, which I am presenting again in its entirety over the next few weeks.
The piece is unchanged except for a few small grammatical and style changes
Coming up next is "Transformer", the novella that frames these shorter stories. Those who read these parts of my older site will recall that I'd only partially completed it - two of the five instalments. I'll be rectifying that now, by completing the rest of that piece.
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