I couldn’t remember ever seeing the shop before - but then my sight isn’t good and they do say I’m pre-occupied a lot of the time. It comes from living alone and anyway, that’s not a part of town I visit very often. It’s where Lewis has his place and I try to delay going there as long as I can.


I never get to redeem the stuff I take to him and it hurts me to see it in the window next time I go. I think Lewis owns more of me than I do and every bit I hock there is just another piece of me going out of my life.


Anyway, I was talking about the other shop. It was sort of squashed between a bookshop and another place I’d never seen open. Somehow, it seemed half the width of the other places; not much more than the shop door and a tiny sign on a bit of warped hardboard that just said “PETS” in crooked green letters.


 I don’t go into shops much. Maybe the smell of the room clings to me. There’s a look they give me I don’t care for and someone always follows me about so that I wish I had money in my pocket so I could take it out and show them. Except for the corner shop where I get my bread every third day, I’m not much of a contributor to the economy.


This place had a couple of steps down into the shop itself, and I made them without tripping over my stick. It was cool, but smelt funny. After the sunlight, I had to get used to the gloom.


There were rustling sounds all round me and little cries and scutterings; when I regained my vision, I could see there were rows and rows of cages along one wall. I went up close to one and looked inside. Amongst the wood shavings there was something glaring back at me. It had red, gleaming eyes and a lot of teeth for such a small creature. I don’t think it would have made a very nice pet.


I moved on down the line of cages. Some of the things were very strange. I remember pet-shops and this one was different. I wondered where the owner was.


When I found out, it gave me quite a start. He appeared beside me as though he’d slipped out of one of the cages I’d passed. From the way he smelled, it seemed quite likely. That’s a little joke. I suppose everyone smells of their environment.


He was small and dark, and there seemed to be lots of hair everywhere. Not a beard, just hair that hung down over his collar and poked out of his shirt-front and cuffs. His eyes were bright and active over a pointy sort of nose that had its own complement of hair, inside and outside. I don’t recall what he was wearing, but for once I didn’t feel shabby, which says something. I remember the voice.


“Something for you, sir? A little companion for the evenings at home?” He was running his fingers along the bars of the nearest cage with little thrumming sounds. The things inside were stirring and scuttling about, hopping onto ledges and rattling feed dishes while something bigger in a lower cage was jumping up and down, grunting and screeching alternately. Without taking his eyes off me, he gave the cage a kick that silenced the occupant except for a subdued whimpering.


“She gets a little agitated when we have visitors. I think she longs to be taken into a home. Now, sir…any particular fancy we can help you with?” Somehow he made it sound obscene.


This was a change. I felt for the creased five rand note Lewis had given me for Lucille’s teaspoons. It would have been more if I hadn’t lost one, but the money made me feel more of a mensch. Lucille never thought much of me but it’s a long time since I heard her say so. I hardly miss her at all. Even when I’m carrying her stuff off to Lewis I seldom think about her.


“I was, aaah…I was just looking. It’s a long time since I visited a pet shop. I rarely think of keeping a pet, well, not seriously, you know?” He nodded, sympathetic. Understanding.


“Live alone, do you, sir?” He was looking at my clothes, but there was none of the usual sneer I’m used to. He beckoned with one hairy finger and I followed through the narrow little passage of a shop to the back.


A curtain blocked off one part and I could see chinks of light though the fabric. He swept the curtain aside and light spilled out into the shop. A chorus of cries and shrieks from the animals and things in the front stopped when the curtain fell back behind us.


We were in a little alcove, brightly lit by a single bare bulb on a knotted cord.  Five cages each held a single bird. Pausing in their feeding or preening, they regarded us brightly or, like me, stood motionless, dazzled by the light.


“Now this is what you want, sir. Clean, pretty, friendly and economical. Which one do you like?”


To tell the truth, they all looked the same to me. I peered at one and it fluffed its feathers, uttered a little cheep and looked at me, first with one eye and then the other. One of the birds suddenly emitted a long and piercing trill of pure liquid sound. The crescendo, deafening in that tiny space, died away into a throaty warble. I  stepped away hastily, covering one ear.


“That might be a little disturbing. Not that I was seriously considering. any of them, of course. Although they’re all very nice, I’m sure.”


He reached over to tap one of the cages. Inside, a bright yellow budgerigar started to climb towards his finger, using its beak and scaly pink feet. It had blue patches on its cheeks and a long slim tail that was crossed, swallow-like, by the ends of its wings. The eyes were bright and black and set in a narrow grey ring of bare skin.


“Here’s the best company of all. A bird that can talk. Best of all, he says only what you teach him to say.” He gave a little snigger, then collected himself, as the bird cocked its head and raised the feathers on its head.


“Jeffrey, who’s a pretty boy then?” The voice was gravelly, and seemed to emanate from somewhere in the feathers of its throat. I looked at the man. His lips were pursed and he was bobbing his head, preparing to whistle. When he did, it was a lilting little refrain. The bird turned itself around on the bars and began to clamber down. It repeated the same whistle, nodding as it did so, but its eyes were fixed on me instead of the man’s finger.


“Aaaah, sir, he knows we have a guest. Step up and get acquainted, if you will.”


I found myself moving forward, bending over to see the bird as it laboriously climbed up to be level with my face. I was close enough to smell it -  like wheat fields in the sun, although I can’t ever remember being in one. Lucille was never keen on the open air.


“Jeffrey? Jeffrey?” The gravelly voice said in an enquiring tone, the beady left eye showing a tiny reflection of me.


“How much is it?” My hand was clasped over the note in my pocket.


“For you, sir, only three rand. And I’ll throw in a packet of seed. Do you have a cage?” There was a smug little smile on his unshaven face as if he knew all along what the outcome would be.


I lied. My funds had been savaged by this extravagance as it was. “A cage? Yes, yes, I do.”


The pet shop man produced a brown paper bag and opened the cage. The bird screeched, pecking wildly at his hand but, like a conjuring trick, it disappeared into the bag and was silent, except for the scratching of claws as it sought purchase on the floor of its new prison.


In the front of the shop, I paid him and pocketed the seed. He didn’t accompany me to the door, but I could feel him watching me. Probably with that same smile on his lips.


There were two letters waiting for me and I discarded them both. Beats me how they get your full name. Mr. JEFFREY ARNOLD McKINNEY - just like that, all printed out nice and neat. Mrs. Timmins says its done with a computer. Amazing.


In the room, I wondered how to introduce the bird to his new home. I hoped he wouldn’t mind the smell. I made a cup of tea while I thought about it, the packet standing on its flat bottom in front of me.


I was quite excited in a quiet way. Another voice in the room would be nice. A live presence that knew my name. It would make a change to have a live audience. Lucille was never that.


In the end, I just opened the packet and the bird stepped out onto the table. Where it crouched on its funny bare feet, looking round the room. I tried a little conversation.


“Hello, Jeffrey. Who’s a handsome fellow then?” The sound broke the spell and like a feathered meteor the bird shot across the room in a blur of movement and sound. It hit the window with a thump and fell out of sight behind the chest of drawers. I thought the impact must have broken its neck, but when I searched for it there were only a few bits of drifting lemon fluff.


I sat down in my armchair, listening to my own breathing, ragged from the stooping. Then, so close it made me jump, a voice said “Jeffrey? Jeffrey?” and I turned my head to see the bird sitting on the headrest of my chair. It must have climbed up the fabric using its claws and that sharp beak. I sat very still, and after a while it shuffled up close to me and squatted down, making comfortable little sounds in its throat.


After that, we settled down to a very pleasant arrangement. The bird ate its seed from an old saucer in the corner and even followed me about, pattering along on the linoleum. It didn’t fly after that first attempt and seemed content to walk and climb everywhere. Sometimes it spoke, saying the things it knew and I persevered with some new phrases.


It was a whole new life for me. I woke every morning to its cheerful chirruping on the windowsill and together we would go to make my tea. On the rare occasions I went out, it seemed genuinely pleased to see me on my return. It seemed that I could be happy after all this time. If I seldom thought about Lucille before, I now forgot all about her.


Until last week. Perhaps it was the ring.


It had never occurred to me to sell it. It was a sort of insurance policy against the really bad times. A nest egg, so to speak. But the bird had replaced the need for reassurance and in a mad moment, I took it, like all the other stuff, to Lewis. He’d never met Lucille, but he still looked a bit dubious about taking it, looking at her name engraved on the inside and sighing. But he gave me fifty rand, so I suppose he must have recognized the stone as quality. I went home, very  light-hearted.


On the way I did something I hadn’t done for years. I went into an off-licence and bought a two-litre bottle of wine. It wasn’t anything special, of course, but for me, it was a sinful indulgence. Then I went into the supermarket pet department and bought a mirror with a bell attached to it. A sort of peace offering - because of the wine.

My little companion took to his mirror and bell straight off. I certainly took to the wine. On my second coffee-mug of it I noticed how like Lucille he was, in front of his looking-glass. He preened and groomed and admired himself, face close to the glass as though searching for imperfections.


It was late and the wine was making me sleepy as I sat there watching him. I screwed the top on the bottle and got undressed, noting with a sort of silly surprise how unsteady I was. But it was wonderful to drift off into a deep sleep without lying there staring into the dark - remembering.


I can’t say how long I was asleep before I was aware that someone else was in the room. It might have been as I closed my eyes or that she bided her time until she heard my breathing slow down. Anyway, she threw this musty smelling cloak over me and I found myself struggling against the folds, fighting for air. She looked awful, but I suppose being dead does that to you. The nose was more beaky than I remember it, but her eyes were just as hard and black as they’d always been.


“You really are such an apology for a man, Jeffrey. I can hold you down with one hand and I guess you could say I haven’t been well lately.” And she cackled at her own grim humor, the yellow feather thing round her neck fluffing out with each expulsion of breath.  I could see the blue patches on the side of her neck and despite my panic, I felt a scrap of satisfaction. I hadn’t always been such a weakling.


With my last breath, I got out from under that suffocating thing and she seemed to give up, withdrawing into the shadows at the end of my bed. I lay there, gasping for air until the spots stopped swirling in front of my eyes. Gradually, she shrank, growing smaller and smaller until she was the size of a yellow bird on the footboard of my bed.


I knew then that it had been an awful dream. In the gloom, I saw him fluff his feathers and settle down again as though he too had been disturbed in his sleep. I closed my eyes, searching for sanity.


When the voice came again, I knew I was awake


“Jeffrey...Jeffrey, you miserable creature, where are you? Don’t think you can get rid of me, you sniveling worm.”


That was it. I didn’t close my eyes for the rest of the night. She was still in the room. Red-eyed, I waited for the dawn. When it came, the bird shook himself, clambered down and headed for his seed-dish. Watching him pecking away restored normality and by true sunrise I was talking to him while I made my tea. He responded and by noon, I had almost forgotten the horrors of the night.


That night, I sat down to my bread but with the unaccustomed treat of a brimming mug of wine. The second went down even better, and when I swung my leg up onto the bed, I was fairly sure I could sleep.


This time, when she swept down on me from the shadows up there in the corner, it was all the more terrifying because nightmares like that shouldn’t recur.  The enveloping cloak was easier to avoid, but I was exposed to a full view of her contorted face. Contempt and hatred twisted her gaping mouth and the black eyes bored into mine as she clawed at my face. Her hands were scaly pink and skinny as a bird’s foot.

“You pathetic little man, you just never got anything right did you? Thought you’d found the answer didn’t you?” And the screech of fury she let out was enough to deafen me. I fought her off, but the fear was very real and I could feel my heart hammering. It really hurt in there. I felt I was getting weaker. She seemed to be getting stronger.


If I slept at all that night, it gave me no rest, but when I jerked awake from time to time, there was only that faint, yellow blob at the foot of the bed. She must have been hovering further out where I couldn’t see her. Just waiting. She was always very patient when she wanted something really badly.


The next night was worse, the struggling and the screeching, the things she hissed at me. You can’t imagine what she said. But then, you never met Lucille. I surprised myself by getting through the next night and the next, but after last night, I  had decided. I finished the last of the wine before she got there, but it gave me very little extra courage. Subconsciously, I already knew what I was going to do.


I went to the supermarket to buy the washing line. Their prices are usually cheaper than the corner shop. It wasn’t easy, but I got it over the water pipe above the sink and the table is standing ready. This time, I’ll be having the last laugh.


I wonder if the bird will forget the things I’ve taught him. I hope they can read my note and that they find him a good home.


Perhaps I should have mentioned Lucille in the note. But there’s no need. When they force that cupboard, they’ll understand.


Pinelands Writers’ Circle

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