AFTERMATH

Runner-Up

By Heather Alabaster

Heather says: I live in Durham with my husband. I began writing stories and poems at junior school. I often have themes in my head – then when the opening lines show up, I know I can get on and create engaging characters to give life to them.

If the bird came a third time, Jack would be ready. Tucked behind the bamboos, in their bony shadow, he listened for its screech to puncture the sky. He sat alert, poised with the hosepipe across limp knees; he’d give it a proper scare today, get that racket out of his head.

So when the vivid green shape flashed across the apartment’s roof garden, swerved round the canes and headed for the cordon apple trees, he was quick to spin the chair and wrench the tap to full blast. The hosepipe kinked but gripping it tight like a rifle, he caught the bird with a punch of water, sending it rocketing up. It screamed and vanished, the bamboos still quivering in their pots. Jack cheered and pumped the air.

In the kitchen, Pazir dropped the potato peeler when spray hit the window, and made for the roof terrace door, hands on bulky hips, dark head jutting to peer into the clump of potted shrubs further down the garden. Jack saw him and shouted, still brandishing the hose.

“Paz, I got him! Shot the bastard. Got him side on. It didn’t kill him, but he won’t be back any time soon.” Jack shook the hose again, then let it drop, looking over at his companion. “He won’t come back now. Will he?”

Paz chuckled. “Great shot, Jack. He’s long gone, I bet you’ve scared him off for good.”

The large man in the apron emerged to coax the unwieldy hosepipe back onto its stand, and wheel Jack’s chair towards the sunnier side of the tile-paved roof. Here, sheltered by the sturdy barrier fence, were two raised beds lined with herbs and a few late vegetables, backed by the trellis of apple trees. Out on the roof, detached from the jostling streets below, Jack would sit scanning the city, smoking black Turkish cigarettes.

Pazir padded back to the kitchen to get on with supper: sausage, with plenty of mash, and apple crumble – Jack’s favourite. Blending fat and flour, adding sugar with a nip of cinnamon, he was thinking about the bird. Until this lone visitor, it had been some five years since he’d last seen green parakeets. How they lit up the dusty landscapes of Afghanistan, winging past, swift and bold. Or else they’d hide, high in a dense canopy, guerrilla-style. If you stood a while, you might see glints of acid green and yellow, or a tail of heavenly turquoise as they ricocheted through the forest.

Pazir inhaled deeply – the scent was apples and cinnamon, but his memory led him to Kandahar in spring, and the fragrant southern plains, heavy with apricot, cherry and almond blossom. Here, boisterous flocks of green parakeets would dart in and out of the trees feasting on the swelling buds. The air was teeming and bright with colour, as if a magician had shaken out a kaleidoscope of brilliant drops, to tumble and shimmer in the sky. In the orchards there would be farmers too, armed with bird scarers and nets. Pazir recalled his father, setting off early down the rubbly track, melting into a pastel dawn to reach the crop before the morning ambush.

A flock could devastate a farmer’s field in hours, but his little sister Soraya, entranced by velvet-soft feathers and speechlike cries, had begged to keep one as a pet, to make it speak her name. But instead, it said “Pazir, Pazir, Pazir,” which broke her heart, so that one day she opened the cage and shooed it away.

Pazir understood that Jack’s own heart was scarred by the relentless seeking and killing of others, day after brutal day. Parakeets are not frequent scavengers, but in those hidden groves and valleys, where the dead lay uncollected, Jack’s patrol would sometimes disturb a throng stripping desiccated slivers from the bones. For Jack, as they scrambled and yelled around their prize, it always seemed his own name that rang in his ears, and he shrank from it, weighted with guilt.

When the cook raised the kitchen blind two mornings later, the parakeet was balanced on a scabby fallen apple, scaly claws latched on, its vermilion bill prodding at the softer parts. The neon-bright head swivelled at the sound, inspecting the intruder, while Pazir held his breath. The bird stared a moment longer, then picked up its feet and flew off. There was no shriek; Jack still slept, peaceful and safe.

It came early most mornings after that, for the apple cores and peel that appeared on the narrow service path under the kitchen window, where Jack’s wheelchair couldn’t go. The bird paraded round the scraps, poked, pecked and flared its beautiful tail, while Pazir watched, beguiled by soft shrouds of memory rising and wrapping him round. If it lingered, or Jack was heard stirring, he would raise his hand sharply, and it skimmed away. 

One day the parakeet landed on the window ledge, fluffing and fanning wings and tail in a bobbing display, its curious orange eyes fixed all the while on the face behind the glass. Pazir instinctively rested his hand on the pane between them, as in greeting. The bird hesitated, still staring, before hurtling upwards, but it seemed that now they were collaborators, and Pazir found himself not delighted, but ashamed.

Throughout the tawny, earth-scented October, the two men prepared the roof garden for the winter season. Jack – perched on top of the beds, legs splayed – stretched out to dig cells for onion, garlic and next spring’s tulips. Pazir coralled rusty leaves into crackling piles, deliberately working noisily as he went, with a watchful eye on the sky.

“Paz, I’m freezing, and it’s getting dark. I say we go in – let’s finish this tomorrow.” Ruddy-faced and chilled, Jack lifted his arms like a child for Pazir to hoist him up, brush off the crumbly soil, and place him carefully in the chair before he wheeled himself away towards the terrace door. Then he stopped dead.

“What’s that on the ground by the window? Paz – what the hell is that?”  

 “Looks like a feather, it’s only a feather. I’ll get rid of it.”

“It’s a green feather, can’t you see?” yelled Jack, his voice thick with rage. “It’s a bright green feather – it’s that bastard bird again. It’s back. I’ll wring its neck!” He thumped both fists on the arms of the chair with such force that his slight body jolted awkwardly up and sideways and left him crooked.

“Whoa, Jack, it’s alright. A bird’s shed a feather flying over, or it could’ve blown here from anywhere. Don’t worry.” Pazir spread his hands in a calming gesture, but Jack’s voice dropped low and urgent – almost a hiss through gritted teeth.

“Have you seen it, Paz? Has it been near us, has it been calling?”

“No, no, I haven’t seen it. Not here, no.”

Pazir, outlined against the setting sun, went to help his friend straighten, shifting him at his skinny waist, until he was upright again.

Once inside, Jack hunched on the sofa, eyes closed, not asleep. Pazir brought rum and coke, and apple cake, which neither of them ate.