Birdie by Rebekah McDermott

The tweezers were golden and longer than any I’d had before. Stuck on the end, most likely to peel off, was a little ceramic face, a girl’s, with her arms outstretched. They’d been expensive but worth it because they were homemade. I imagined that someone, probably another woman, had worked laboriously over a table covered with little golden tweezers and a pile of smiling faces.

I used them that Wednesday, as I teased out the small needles of dark hair that had started to sprout from my skin which already felt plucked and sparse. I weighed myself and dressed in cotton joggers and a white t-shirt. My outfit for Wednesdays. I poached my eggs. They sat naked on the plate, bulging and white and wet. Whilst I ate, I listened to the radio, which was my main source of news during the pandemic. 

I drove to the shop to get some more food. I didn’t trust walking out on the streets. The traffic was good, the roads smooth and empty, the lights green. I lost concentration. Forgot to turn right, and then left. I found myself in a nice cul-de-sac, peering at the small, blank bungalows with dark living rooms and empty driveways. It was two o’clock. The swathing, silent part of the day, just after lunch. Usually, at two o’clock, the afternoon was bloated with possibility. By three, often, it had gone.

That Wednesday was the first day Birdie looked at me, but not the first day I had looked at Birdie. I could see that she’d seen me. It had been a while since anyone had seen my face. I know that this was the time of day she took her lunch, always late into the afternoon and rushed, stealing away minutes to engorge on a sandwich that the woman she lived with had made her, as if she thought she didn’t deserve it. But she was seeing me through a glass window and I imagined that perhaps I didn’t look real to her. I wanted to make some indication that I was real so I reached down and touched my toes. When I released myself back up, she was tucked back into the corner of her room, at her desk, watching her screen. 

That afternoon a customer called me to tell me that they couldn’t pay their gas bill. I spoke to customers every day, listening to their voices. I always wondered what they looked like, and what they were wearing when they spoke to me. He had lost his job during the pandemic, he said. Because it’s a worldwide pandemic. He kept saying it. Spitting out the ‘pan’ and leaving the ‘demic’ to chase after it. I told him I understood and that he mustn’t worry. That agitated him. I bet you’ve got a cosy life, he said. He told me I was a piece of shit. I told him that he was the most fun person that I’d spoken to in a long time, and hung up. 

We first spoke on a Tuesday evening. I had dressed in an impactful way. She usually put her recycling bin out first and then her rubbish bin, whereas I made sure that I alternated so as not to make it routine. When we dragged the bins, they made an identical neat scraping sound across the street. I began to think of it as our mating call and the idea of this entertained me.

Are you okay? she said. It was the first words she had said to me. I smiled in a beautiful way, showing my lipstick and the rows of my teeth. I told her I was well. She had a sloped face, her features curving down in all directions. I wanted to cup her cheeks, because I knew they would perfectly fit the shape of my hands. She wore a hoodie with the letters GOOD CHOICE scrambled over her breasts. Her trackies had a small hole just beneath her hip, which I saw when she turned to close the bin. She seemed unwashed and dirty and real, smelling like skin and hair. 

It’s just, you were laughing, but it sounded like you were crying, she said. 

I told her it was because of the pandemic and she nodded as if she understood everything. 

You live in 109, don’t you? In the upstairs flat. 

I nodded as coyly as I could, because I didn’t want her to know everything about me. 

I see you sometimes, she said. My name’s Birdie. What’s yours?

I told her my name. 

Well, when this is all over, we should have a get together. Celebrate the beginning of the world.

I told her that I’d already decided that we would. 

We parted ways. As we retreated towards our open front doors she shouted at me, her lips moulding around her words.

I love your haircut. So chic! The pandemic has made me into someone I don’t even want to be. A pig! I should be more like you. 

So we met on Tuesdays evenings, every time after that, when we put out the bins, rolling them over the hot pavement. Birdie liked to talk about the pandemic, as if I were the only person she could talk to about it. Perhaps I was. She talked about her brother and how worried she was about him. He had deliberately grown a monobrow and she knew that he was only doing it because he thought it was cool. When she spoke, her eyes rolled around in her skull like magic eight balls. She liked to roll her eyes. It was her way of expressing who she was. 

I’m so worried about you living alone, she said, once, touching my arm with her fingernails. 

I told her that there was a magic to living alone. 

What kind of magic?

A lonely magic. 

She looked suspicious and told me that she didn’t think she would like it. 

There’s an empty space to it, I said. A watchful, empty space. It forces you to confide in yourself. 

Birdie rolled her eyes. 

Please don’t roll your eyes, I said. It was the first time I’d asked her for anything. 

She shrugged and piqued her front lip, as if someone had threaded a needle through her mouth and was pulling it tight.

I’ve got to go, she said. Bye. 

She danced inside her front door. I watched her leave.

It was a few weeks later that I realised Birdie’s girlfriend was pregnant. I hadn’t even known that she was really Birdie’s partner until that day. I’d seen them peck each other on the lips a few times, as if they were woodpeckers jabbing at bark, but wasn’t sure that this constituted a relationship. 

The girlfriend always did yoga in the mornings when Birdie was having her breakfast, and that was when I first saw the bump through the window, small and swollen, just a half-baked ball of flesh. I felt sorry for Birdie, having to watch someone exercise whilst she was eating. The girlfriend wore a bright blue jumper that made her skin pop. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was the bump that had bothered me. The girlfriend looked like a pig. I hated myself for even thinking or feeling it. Their baby was probably going to look like a pig, too. Dirty and round. 

I lay in bed at 3am and tweezed out any hairs that I could feel on my body. Hairs between my pelvis and my belly button were my favourite. They were always thick and black, the root deep, the end of the hair follicle bubbled and protected with the meat from my skin. 

I tried to stay away from Birdie and her pregnant girlfriend after that, but it was hard, because they were so close to me, all the time, their figures in line with my vision. They spent Friday evenings on zoom calls, in the corner of their living room, gesticulating wildly with their bodies. 

I’d realised that there was a love between Birdie and me. We had spent the last few weeks soaking into the walls of our homes like water on wet sand and had only retreated for each other. It was an act of discovering, for me, anyway. Perhaps not for her. Perhaps she’d always known what it was like to love. 

My plucking had gotten very bad by then and I was starting to wonder if my flesh was trying to speak to me. It would mutter to me, not only at night, but also in the day, when I was listening to customer’s voices. The tweezers were much too harsh to use on my eyelashes and so these I removed, gently, by pulling them out with my forefinger and thumb. I pulled up my jumper to look at my stomach, noting how my hips jutted out at sharp angles, how my breasts slumped, barely filling the cups of my bra. There was satisfaction in the harsh curve of my collar bone and the spareness of my skin. Her electric razor lay on the side of the sink, matted with short crops of hair. I pressed the switch and raised it to the back of my skull, shaving in measured lines. The razor was the tractor and my hair the corn. It was necessary that the crop was cut, the grain thresh out.

Then I closed my blinds, I drew my curtains. I lived in the dark. I was good at living in the dark. I’d done it before. I would rather not see the sky than see Birdie again. I would not give her the satisfaction of being able to see me. 

Birdie accosted me one Tuesday when I put my rubbish out. Our bins groaned at each other as they were rolled out, to meet, once again. 

Are you okay? she said. 

I told her I was well.

It’s just, I haven’t seen you in weeks. You haven’t seen me either. I know it. 

I told her that I’d been living in the dark and focussing on my work. That a lot of people needed someone to speak to during the pandemic. 

But you’re not a therapist. You work for a utilities company. 

I told her that energy was important. 

Why are you so bald? she said. She ran her hands over my exposed scalp. 

I told her I’d always been bald. 

Really? Her eyes rolled around in her skull and she stuck out her tongue as if she was deranged. 

Your girlfriend is pregnant, I said. 

Isn’t it exciting? We’re going to have a little pig. 

Then she kissed me. It was a stark kiss. She wasn’t even trying to hide it. She put her hand on my thigh and traced her hand up my buttocks. I buckled under her touch. 

Hey, she whispered, hey. It’s okay. I’m here. Touch me. 

I looked into the street, and the windows. I didn’t want to become neighbourly gossip, for not socially distancing, so I stepped away from her. 

Come to mine tonight. The pig will be out, she said, before dancing inside her front door. 

I dressed in a dynamic way. I rubbed oil over my scalp, and my plucked eyebrows. I listened to the pulse in my neck. When I opened my curtains, I could see Birdie sitting on her sofa, waiting for me. She kept brushing her soft hair as if she were nervous. 

Outside, the glow from the streetlamps pooled on the road like yellow mud. It was quiet and warm. I knocked on Birdie’s door and stood and gasped a gulp of air. 

I knocked again.

I knocked. 

The door slipped open. A split. An old man. 

I’m here for Birdie, I said. 

His fingers paddled the side of the door, pressing it, balancing himself.

You’ve got the wrong house, he said, leave me be. 

But I’ve seen her, I said, and she’s seen me. 

The old man spat at me. 

Stop dressing like a goose, he said. Everyone can see you.

I went the next night instead, and the next. But it was always the same, with the old man. His lips were dry and cracked, the skin weeping, calling for something more. I missed Birdie with a cold ache that swept through my muscles and bones. I even missed her family of pigs. Her curtains were closed now and her bins were never put out on Tuesdays. I considered climbing up the drainpipe and knocking on the window, smacking with my knuckles, perhaps to a tune that I knew only Birdie and I would understand. She’d sung to me once, whilst we sat on the wall outside her house, the back of our heels knocking against bricks. It was a strange warbling song. I sang it to myself every night before I slept, listening to the notes crack and thin. It was a song about a boat. It was lost on the edge of the ocean, at the very edge of the world, its sails ruptured and beaten. The sailors themselves had all perished in a storm, but the boat continued to bob aimlessly for years, its hull licking the soft skin of the ocean’s horizon.

I listened to the dark after that. It was the only thing I had.  I waited for the pandemic to end. I never knocked on Birdie’s door again.

Into the tolling sound, I’ve now learned to live as the dead do, climbing not only my walls but also my mirrors, so I can see myself, finally, warm and radiant and true, acquiring the kind of face I’ve always longed for. 

These are my sounds of life. My rhythm. My proof that life still exists.

I wait. 

About The Author

Originally from near Bristol, Rebekah McDermott graduated with a First Class degree in English with Creative Writing from The University of Birmingham. She subsequently graduated with Distinction from Royal Holloway’s Creative Writing Master’s programme and won The Children’s Society short story competition, in partnership with Viking Books UK. She is currently working as a Rights Manager at Bloomsbury Publishing. Her short story For All the Birthdays has recently been published by Swoop Books.

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