by Philip Webb Gregg
It’d started one week ago, when Mrs Cranberry had strolled into the upstairs bathroom to take a bath before her husband came home. Her hair was a little tousled and her hands were grubby from the garden (weeds, weeds, weeds, and never a moment’s rest). But when she turned the ornate taps all that came out was a flurry of feathers; spilling down thick and fast, as if someone had guillotined a mattress. Soon she had a bathtub full of the colourful things and not a drip of water. She was half-tempted to lie down and try to wash herself. But no, she concluded: that wouldn’t be proper.
‘Yep, looks like they’re nesting in the boiler,’ said the lady plumber from the top of the ladder. ‘Probably nice and warm now that winter’s on its way.’
She looked a little puzzled as she came down the steps, scratching her smooth chin with overly-masculine hands (Mrs Cranberry secretly suspected she was a lesbian).
‘Odd. Normally they’d migrate around this time of year, you know? I wonder why they’ve chosen to be different.’
Mrs Cranberry could hear them in the walls at night, fluttering up and down the pipes. Sometimes they would sing the briefest of songs at sunrise, when the sky was ripe like a blushing peach, and Mrs Cranberry would rise, careful not to wake her husband, and put her ear to the plaster, one hand lightly touching her abdomen, the other resting against the wall. After their song had passed she would feel a wave of tremendous sadness come crashing down over her, and silently she would creep back into bed.
The ornithologist arrived three days after the plumber’s visit. She was a small woman with a large cloud of messy auburn hair (Mrs Cranberry spied a few twigs and leaves, tangled in among the curls). She swept through the hallway and straight into the kitchen before Mrs Cranberry could say a word.
‘Sorry I couldn’t come sooner, had to deal with an owl up a chimney. Happens all the time, don’t you know?’ Her smile was swooping and sharp, but very beautiful. ‘Oh, but where are my manners? I’m Olivia, Kate’s other half. She said you were having some problems?’
There were eggshells in the corners of the carpets, small and freckled with red-brown splinters. Mrs Cranberry found them while doing the daily dusting (clean, clean, clean, and never anyone to notice). For a moment she had a strange desire to collect them all up and put them safe in the shoebox at back of her closet. She would look at them on rainy days, she thought, letting the smallest pieces spill through her fingers. Then she shook herself free of such silly notions, and switched on the vacuum cleaner.
‘Hmm,’ said the ornithologist, inspecting a feather. ‘Definitely a Barn Swallow. See the white patches close to the tips? Hirundo rustica, common as folk, or muck. Or mucky folk.’
She grinned again, presenting the slender feather to Mrs Cranberry, who dutifully peered at it through her spectacles. She was trying hard not to think about her proximity to Olivia (last night Mrs Cranberry had awoken to the sound of birdsong, from a dream in which she’s been bathing in a bathtub full of auburn coloured feathers, twigs and leaves tangled among them).
‘They just love natural cavities, see?
During breakfast the next day, Mrs Cranberry decided that it was time to talk to her husband (which is what she always did, when she was unsure of something). He looked at her over the top of his newspaper for a long, blank moment, as if remembering who she was. Then he wrinkled up his whiskers and went back to his reading.
‘Isn’t it obvious, dear?’ he said with a hiss. ‘Poison the little blighters, that’s what it needs. Then maybe we’ll both get some peace at night.’
He ruffled his pages, as if to emphasise that her midnight yearnings had not gone unobserved.
The next morning, while Mrs Cranberry was making coffee for her husband, six baby swallows came tumbling from the taps. They chirruped and fluttered all over the kitchen counter. Then they hid themselves playfully among the crockery, so that Mrs Cranberry had to chase and scoop them out of all the pots and pans using the silver sugar spoon. The little birds were soft and round, each one no bigger than a tangerine. They looked up at her with dark, wild eyes, ruffling their tiny feathers as if to emphasise that her midnight yearnings had not gone unobserved. ‘Please,’ said the voice of her unborn child, somewhere in the room. ‘Please don’t let them die.’
Three weeks later, she came home to find her husband naked in the kitchen. He had a bread knife in his hand and a towel wrapped around his head.
‘Darling!’ she said. ‘What are you doing?’
Her husband looked at her like a mad thing, eyes bloodshot and staring. He was crouched slightly, with his knees at an awkward angle and his back bent so that his spine formed an elongated C shape (Mrs Cranberry thought it looked very uncomfortable). And he was holding the bread knife out in front of him like a blind man would hold a stick.
‘Hunting,’ he said. And stalked off toward the hallway.
The house was full of birdsong now. Day and night, it reverberated around the furniture in high pitched sprays of sound. Mrs Cranberry had no choice but to kill her husband. He was chasing swallows all around the house with foam on his lips and dried urine down his legs (Mrs Cranberry didn’t even want to think about the state of the carpets). So she quietly laced his saucer of coffee with half a bottle of lavender sleeping pills and waited for him to curl up. When she was sure that the drugs had taken hold, she wrapped him in bin bags and put him in the boot. Then she drove to the nearest bridge and dropped him over the edge. As she watched the bubbles rise she thought it might be nice to take a bath.
A month later, when winter finally arrived, the house was dusty and silent. Mrs Cranberry had packed up all her possessions and was ready to leave. As the first snows drifted gently down from a shapeless sky, she took a few steps out of the house and put her suitcase down, not even glancing at the front garden, which was scruffy and ridden with weeds. She didn’t know where she was going, but she knew it would be somewhere warm. As she waited for the taxi to come and take her to the airport she drummed her fingers idly against her stomach, and was only slightly surprised when she felt something drumming back.
Philip Webb Gregg is a recent graduate in English and Writing from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and intends to go on to study at the Cambridge School of Art. He writes both for pleasure and for necessity. He believes stories are somewhat like the sweet-smelling spirits that rise from the fermentation of our subconscious. Find him on Twitter @philipwebbgregg.