Elspeth was in the corner, tucked between the wall near the window, and her bedside table. She was looking at the white lords and ladies on the base of her pink lamp, and talking to them, as she did at times like this. They were dancing to an increasing crescendo, while she beat the bass drum in time, by flicking a round ball at the top of one of the tassels on the fringe of the lampshade. She counted as she flicked, as she felt the sound of the orchestra play faster and louder, stomping along the hall and crashing through her bedroom door.
Elspeth didn’t hear much of what he said. From under water, sounds are muffled. His lips moved, mouth wide, teeth, spittle, eyes large, face red, neck tight and stretched with rage. Elspeth heard the odd word. “Stupid” mostly, and “selfish”. She saw the hand, raised her arms across her face and closed her eyes, as she felt her head jerked from side to side. The blows were grey and purple behind her eyes, but she felt nothing. A disembodied voice said, “I’m sorry. It was an accident.” That just seemed to add to the rage. The force from the tug of her hair, she did feel. She heard a scream and “Please!” and heard the thud of her own feet trying to keep up and the bang of her shoulder against the door frame. Saw the bird cage fall from the stand by the front door, onto its side – a flutter of yellow and green. The cage door fell open.
“Leave her alone,” screamed a voice from the kitchen, “I’ll deal with it.” She was thrown to the floor. From where she lay, Elspeth could just see her mother, through the open kitchen door – on her hands and knees, mopping up the white puddle Elspeth had left there, 10 minutes before.
“That’s right! Take her side! You always do! I’ll leave all right. I’m off t’t pub and this lot better be cleaned up before I get back!”
Elspeth relaxed a little, when she was sure he had gone. She still lay there on the floor, staring at the open cage door, marvelling that the budgie didn’t spy his chance and fly away. In her head, she was the budgie, Noah, traversing the mountains and running through the mazes of the green patterned carpet of the hallway floor. But Noah, simply stood up in his upside down house and sang the “telephone ring” song he always sang, to his friend in the mirror, just from a different angle.
Elspeth pushed her head and shoulders up with her arms. She could feel the bruises on her arms and shoulder begin to ripen, and her head was a ringing fizz. In her make-believe world, her mother, a lady dressed in white, would dance over and help her up, cradle her in her arms and say, “Come on my love, let’s pack our things and leave this place. I’ll never let him hurt you again.” But this mother didn’t run to comfort her. This mother continued to clean up the broken glass and mop up the milk, with her back to Elspeth, in silence.
Elspeth got up slowly and picked up the cage. Noah flapped about again and then found his perch. “Fly away, Noah, while you can,” whispered Elspeth. But Noah wasn’t listening either. She left the door open for a few moments, watching and willing him.
“Mu-um,” Elspeth said, her heart beating fast, her tongue feeling enormous and like a foreign object in the back of her throat.
“Why don’t we leave?”
“I want to go Mum. He scares me.”
“But where would we go, Elspeth?” said her mother, sounding hollow, like an echo. “And besides, I love him.”
Elspeth felt a familiar thud, as her rapidly racing heart plummeted into her stomach and the grey Nothing worked its way into her intestines. She turned to walk back to her room.
Her mother spoke again. “It’ll be alright, Elspeth. You’ll see. You’ll just have to learn to be less clumsy.”
Elspeth felt a black stabbing pain in her chest. The Nothing now seemed to bleed through imaginary wounds and with every step her veins carried it back to her heart. “Those are HIS words,” she thought. As she passed Noah, she closed the cage door. She’d be blamed if he did get out and made a mess anywhere. “Not this time, Noah,” she whispered. “It’s just you and me now, we’ll have to find another way.” Elspeth walked back to her room without wishing her mother the usual “good night” or telling her that she loved her. She closed the door of her room, went to the window, and gazed out at the grey buildings and the expansive sky, and imagined herself flying.
A boy from one of the flat’s below was leaning against the veranda, staring at the horizon too. He lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Elspeth recognised him. He used to call for her and ask her to play, when they were younger, but she’d never seen him like this before. She watched a while, standing back from the window. She liked the way he flicked his fringe. Less so the way he shoved away a cat, but she’d stop that.
Elspeth lay on her bed, with a smile on her face, staring up at the ceiling. Now she was the white lady, dancing, with her sights on a white lord. She thought of her friend, Sue, with her baby and her own flat. She pictured Noah, in his cage, in a big kitchen window, as she closed her eyes.