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My mother calls me and asks me if I’d like to take care of their house when she and my father take a vacation in the colourful part of spring. It would be a great help, she says, and the birds do need to be fed. I can’t trust just anyone, she says.
My apartment is tired and lonely and I am keen to be tired and lonely in my childhood house, so arrangements are made. There is nothing much in my place that needs keeping or that I cannot take with me, and the view from my window over the drabbest part of the suburb is more and more like a picture I can’t take down. So I go.
As the potted flowers in my apartment begin to bloom, my mother and father disappear in an aeroplane and I pack myself in to a suitcase, appear on their doorstep and let myself inside. It has never really mattered where they go to – an island, a city, the third world, the moon.
All I ever cared was that they were away: memories of opening this door to a secret party come back as I turn the handle and step on to the tiles of the hall, barely faded over the ten years since I moved out. Spectres of fourteen-year-olds holding alcopops and joints rush and push past me and in to the house, piercings and band shirts with greasy long hair and shining foreheads. I put down my suitcase, which is quite small, vintage and quaint, and I can hear the birds in the aviary far down in the back room already excited by the subtle sounds of the lock closing behind me.
I’ve never really felt comfortable around my parents’ aviary. They installed it many years after I had left and gradually filled it with birds, mainly finches and lorikeets and other small bursts of colour and sound. They’ve always been eccentric, my parents, but the birds became an obsession. The cage is ostentatious, gigantic, overbearing, and takes up the entire back room, I had been told proudly by my father over the cracking phone lines many years ago.
I walk down the hallway, through the airy dining room and kitchen and out to the aviary, which is in a kind of sunroom. Or at least, it is a room that is often filled with sun, as it is now, brighter than the rest of the house and casting intricate shadows from the bars of the giant cage on to the concrete floor, illuminating the flourishes and rufflings of feathers.
It’s warm in the sun, and standing by the cage is like bathing in light and noise. I light up a cigarette and blow silent smoke in to the cage. It is lit up in lines, like a big film-noir cloud.
I grab a handful of birdseed from the cream-coloured bucket, letting the grains run between my fingers. The sunflower seeds are shiny and the oil makes them smooth, rushing from my hands like liquid. I stand there for a while listening to the sound it makes, which reminds me of rice being poured from cups in to pots of boiling water. A thing my mother used to do.
Holding a bunch of seeds, I feel awkward. I’m not sure what happens next, so I overdramatically fling it towards the giant aviary, scattering seeds all over the place like confetti at a wedding. The movement of my arm is silly, like a little girl throwing a ball, not knowing where her limbs should go or what they should do. The birds, for a moment, go quiet, perhaps with shock, and then start their chatter and song again. I can’t help but feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. The light has started to fade so I go back to the kitchen, eat briefly and go to work.
The neighbours do not recognise me. That is, the neighbours of my parents – they do not see in me the child I used to be, which feels unfair to me because they haven’t changed at all, still walking the same dogs or dogs which replaced the dogs they used to have which look exactly the same as the old dogs. I walk outside to put out the garbage and it seems like no-one notices me at all. I feel like I’m twelve again, except there’s no pocket money this time and all my spare change is spent on coffee, not red frogs and trading cards.
That night I wander through the house like a ghost. As the sun goes down the birds stop their chatter and I realise I have forgotten where the light switches are, so I fumble along walls until I reach rooms that feel like the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom. Eventually the house is lit, its emptiness suddenly illuminated like a lonely high school dance hall. For the first time in many years, I open the door to my old bedroom, now a study. Somewhere along the line my bed was transformed in to a bookcase, and my wardrobe in to a bureau, like magic. Still, I can feel an old familiarity, which makes me smile. I turn off the light and realise that the only bed is my parents’ bed.
Back at my apartment, the jonquils that I bought to freshen things up (myself more than the room) seem to be doing okay. They’ve got enough to talk about between themselves to not have grown bored yet.
I sleep on the couch. In the morning, a chorus of birdsong rouses me just after the sun floods the room with encouragement and for a moment before my eyes open, before I feel the floral fabric of the couch against my cheek, before I am aware of the pink tint of my lit-up eyelids, I think I am still in my bed, and then I remember. I uncomfortably walk to the aviary, and have difficulty keeping my eyes open in the whiteyellowness. This morning the birds mock me, jeering and screeching as if I were dressed in a giant bird suit, trying to be one of them. I throw some food in and walk quickly out to the garden with barely a look over my shoulder.
Over the next few days the house begins to interest me in how it differs from my own and I find myself spending more and more time in the garden, which I had not even realised I had missed. The feeling of the damp grass underneath my feet becomes more and more familiar. For a while, before I can sit at a table for four in the breakfast room on my own, I wake earlier than I need to so I can catch the morning on the cool lawn. I bathe in it, sometimes in just my underwear, doing my morning tasks outside, like drinking tea balanced on the soft grass, or cutting my nails.
It’s only after a few weeks that I no longer feel entirely like a stranger in the house. Perhaps the repetition of me putting a key in a lock every day is enough to create a sense of home. I walk in to the bathroom to find my own toothbrush alongside those of my mother and father, my own mess of underwear on the floor. Ever so slowly, my clothes migrate from the suitcase in to the wardrobe, sidling up alongside suit jackets and dresses in plastic covers. The drain of the shower is furry with my hair, and the dust in the corners I know is made up of my skin more than anything else.
Apartment interlude: the flowers I left to their own devices wilt, shed tears and disintegrate, in fast forward as if sighing. An exhalation and a small collapse. Despite the theory about skin, dust layers everything like snow, and the pile of mail in its sliding path from the door-mailbox spews across the hallway like a pack of cards.
On a warm night, I slide open the wardrobe to choose a shirt to wear out. The hotel around the corner offers some quiet places to sit and have a glass of wine while reading the paper, which is really all I’ve ever needed in life, and it requires a shirt. Absent-mindedly, I grab one out and put it on, only to struggle with the buttons more than ever before. As I fumble appallingly with them, the birds suddenly begin their chorus of screams and I turn to face myself in the mirror, realising with a start that the shirt is in fact my mother’s. For a moment I look at myself, amused that I fit the same size as her, but I twitch and am quickly put off by the strange contouring of the seams and begin to unbutton it. Laying it on the bed, I pause for a moment, glimpsing my body in the full length mirror. After a second, I reach for one of my shirts, grab my father’s blazer and wander out in to the twilight.
For many nights after this I find myself thumbing through shirts that lingeringly smell like my childhood, trying them on, taking them off again, and sometimes wearing them out. It’s not too long before I am sitting on the couch, reading the gardening magazine which arrives at the doorstep each fortnight when I reach absent-mindedly across the coffee table and put on a pair of magnifying reading glasses that are not mine.
I become gradually aware of the fact that my parents have been away for a long time. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the tiny post-it note that details the phone numbers of the first three hotels they were at, which I am almost certain they have moved on from by now. I notice the shapes of the letters, the same ones that used to appear in lunchboxes, on birthday cards, and later on politely mailed invitations. My father’s handwriting.
For a moment I feel a sense of loneliness overcome me, the house feels more enormous that I ever have noticed and I want nothing more than to hide myself under the curve of the h and shelter beneath the roof of the m, safe and hidden from the rest of the world.
I finger the hem of the paisley women’s shirt I’m wearing. Back at my apartment, the power has been disconnected and the lightbulbs hang uselessly like dead fruit from trees.
Tonight I am at the hotel. I am wearing the magnifying glasses to read a book I found on a bookshelf in the living room, in a deep red booth towards the back of the pub. After a while, I venture to the bar to refill my glass of whatever, and she catches my eye. She looks young, not physically, but in the way she holds herself, her fidgety hands and darting eyes. Her haircut is fresh and awkward, a blonde bob with bangs, and I can’t help but find myself drawn to her. It has been a while since I have met anyone, or really spoken to anyone outside of work, so I offer to buy her a drink, or rather, clumsily buy it for her after she’s ordered it. Don’t worry about it, I assure her, and she follows me back to my booth, scratching her neck with her short fingernails and chatting about her life.
I focus on looking at her face, raising my eyebrows in interest and keeping my own eyes wide open as I listen to her speak. I angle my body towards her and brush my knee against hers. She is strangely comfortable; comforting perhaps. We drink a few more rounds of whatever and I realise that I have accidentally left my booking at the booth as we wander home.
As we undress she wanders around the house, touching things lightly, brushing her fingertips over surfaces. She jumps on the bed and before she is fully naked, holds her breasts in her hands and slumps on her knees, feet splayed out to the sides, white briefs and wide eyes. Before I take off my father’s pants and my mother’s glasses I glimpse myself in a mirror again and I realise that my parents are not coming home.
In the morning, before I open my eyes, I listen to the echoes of the aviary travelling through the house. The complexity of hundreds of bird-voices in polyphony teases at my hangover. The sounds become louder and I am sure that somehow the aviary has been opened and that the birds are in fact flying through the house. I imagine that the bedroom is filled with finches, circling around the high ceilings, ruffling the curtains with the beats of their wings, flashes of colour and Hitchcockian madness, slowly gathering in groups on the picture rails, the dresser, the top of the wardrobe, ruffling themselves, chattering, deafening me, throwing tiny feathers to the ground, scratching marks in paintwork. I open my eyes and the room is empty but for her, on the other side of the bed, our feet and legs intertwined at the bottom of the bed. She sleeps on my mother’s side.
words and images: Amelia Schmidt