It was a white fluffy feather. The first time she spotted it, she had been drinking her morning coffee at the back door of her flat. Its soft, white otherness coercing her beyond her own space into the dew-bedecked, communal garden area.
It had lain there on the red bricked path, quite still.
The next time it appeared, she had been crammed onto a commuter train, rattling her way from Plumstead to London Bridge. An unexpected jerk of the brakes had upended a discarded coffee cup. Mesmerised, she watched how its spilled contents wound a random path across the table. The feather, which seemed to have materialised directly in front of her, lay in its path. And even when the brown trickle pooled around it, soiling soft white filaments, it continued to lie there, quite still.
Then it was gone. Its fate seemingly sealed by a dirty tissue, deployed by a fellow passenger in a bid to protect floral leggings from the dripping liquid. Wearer of the leggings duly judged and found lacking, Genevieve gave her own appearance a quick once over. Wearing her child-like tininess with pride, she had encased it in her usual neat uniform, coupling a smart top and quality jeans with seasonal designer footwear. She nodded almost imperceptibly, as if granting herself permission to be OK.
She hadn’t noticed it when she sat down at the boardroom table. If she had, she certainly wouldn’t have chosen that seat. She didn’t like mess.
Once, editorial meetings had made this chrome and glass space burst at the seams. These days, however, the magazine publishing industry was in flux. This half-empty space paid testament to that. As a newly-minted features editor, she herself had lived through much of the recent rationalisation. Trying to listen to more of the same, she found her attention drawn instead, to the bedraggled, thumb-sized symbol of escape in front of her. Lying there, quite still—its soiled state was magnified by the polished glass.
“And what do you think, Genevieve?”
She attempted to sit up straighter, look attentive. The fact that her phone started vibrating at just that moment wasn’t helpful. She said something she hoped would be construed as positive, while attempting to retrieve it. As soon as she was off the hook, she surreptitiously checked for messages. Her older brother Theo’s curt caps catapulted her into a state of anxiety.
YOU WILL BE SILENT.
Her eyes were drawn to the feather. Oddly, the presence of its soggy mess seemed to soothe her. Even more oddly, the more closely she peered, the more it seemed to dry out. She inhaled, the unexpected breath moving the newly fluffy plume closer. So close, in fact, that it now hovered at the lip of the table. It stayed there for a little while longer, poised to take flight. Then, as though echoing her own fear, a tremor ran through it, and it dropped down into her lap. She brushed it off and sent her text.
She knew, of course, that she would pay for that. As she had for moving away from home. And before that, going to university; and before that, having a boyfriend, and, way before that, the first time she had said no to him.
The time for silence was over now. She had witnessed her niece’s new brittleness; watched the rosebud smile fracturing in his presence. While the rest of the family chatted and passed the potatoes, the child’s darting awareness—the way she watched for even the smallest lift of eyebrow or finger—became gruesomely fascinating. She forgot to eat, skewered her in place by the nine-year old’s relentless chewing.
Then, with a curl of his full red lips, he bit.
“Look Mum, it’s Jack Sprat and his wife. Genevieve isn’t eating, and Caitlin can’t stop.”
His jovial bonhomie was as infectious as ever and the rest of the table started chuckling. And, as ever, Jackie, her sister-in-law, was the loudest of all. Mum and her new man joined in. As the guffaws rang out, Theo watched her watching Caitlin, watching him—while his charm offensive continued to ooze from honeyed lips.
“I know,” she whispered into his farewell hug. Echoing off the bannisters and up, towards the bedrooms, it made his manicured hands tighten on her hollowed out limbs. Still she persisted. “I know, and I will tell if you don’t stop.”
Then, suffocated by her courage, she shrunk back into herself.
His riposte was swift.
“You are nothing, nobody. Mad, ill—what shall it be today? Everybody knows you tell nothing but lies.”
Like drawn swords, the words sliced through the last of her. Job done, he released her to the streets with a softly-stroked cheek. From her mother’s front door she blew this way and that until she eventually found her way home.
Hands shaking, she sneaked into her flatmate’s bedroom where the wine sparkled and the vodka winked. Resisting their pull, she pulled the door to and grabbed her phone.
“Mum, you don’t need to say anything. Just listen. It’s about Theo. You know there’s no point telling Jackie, he’ll just get the doctor to prescribe her something—so I’m telling you. Back me up, please.”
She trailed off, realising that there was no longer anyone on the other end. She should just do it on her own. Just tell. Times were different now. Then, as she was putting her phone away, a text message popped up.
Don’t phone Mum again. I don’t like her being upset and BTW don’t forget to put the pictures of our nice family lunch on Facebook.
She didn’t reply and, in a further, small act of rebellion, didn’t go on to Facebook either.
To soothe jangled nerves she drew on her book of inspirational readings and found a passage she knew. While reading about someone crying out for the wings of a dove, her eyes became heavy and eventually, she turned off her light. The writer had wanted wings to fly away. As the darkness enveloped her, she mused that, rather than being an act of cowardice, this desire to flee could, instead, be construed as a quest for redemption.
That night she dreamed of white feathers falling about her like snow, blunting the jagged edges of a guilt-ridden consciousness.
When she woke the next day, it was there again. Still stained by yesterday’s coffee, its soft fronds lightly shadowed the deep blue cover of the pocket-size book on her bedside table. Knowing that she’d left something important undone, she got up. Anxiety mounting, she forced herself to get ready. Her movements were jerky; puppet-like. Everything was centred on the fact she hadn’t been on Facebook yet. In an attempt to physically shut out thoughts of him checking his newsfeed, she closed the front door; stop-motion, shaky hands, sloshing coffee all over the hall carpet.
Her phone was still on flight mode as she got on the train. Standing there, tethered in place by the commuting bodies all around her, she thought how wonderful it would be to fling it out of the window. These days, of course, it was impossible to open the main windows on trains. She found herself wishing for an older time, her early childhood—when windows and doors had still been slammable and there had been no mobile phones. Remembering a family outing to Hampton Court, she thought back to her and Theo hiding in the luggage racks. Their mother’s fearful voice, echoing up and down the corridors, had left them shaking with silent merriment. However, despite Mum’s fear tipping into panic, Theo had still not given permission for them to reappear. In fact, his face had been alight with excitement right up to when the guard had found them.
That was also the day she’d found the injured thrush in the maze.
“It’s mine,” he’d told her. Oddly, the menacing flatness of his words seemed to justify the forcible removal of one wing and then the other. Through the haze of horrified cries, his five-year-old sister lost control of her bladder. It was that Mum concentrated on when they eventually emerged. Cool and calm, he explained that she’d had some kind of fit and how he’d ‘rescued’ her. When she went to retrieve the wing from her pocket as proof of what had actually happened, he placed a heavy, seven-year-old hand on her shoulder—just above the joint. She’d retreated into a guilty silence, carrying it with her until she was able to hide it in the sanctuary of her room.
Coming out of the Tooley Street exit, she spied another flutter of white in front of her. Blowing this way and that, it was beckoning for her to follow. As she did so, she became aware of twin spots of searing heat burning just behind her shoulder blades—seemingly in competition with the phone in her pocket. Convinced that coming off airplane mode might mitigate the physical discomfort also, she enabled its signal. Sure enough, twenty messages flashed up; email, text, Messenger. Even though the physical sense of discomfort had now reduced, it suddenly seemed imperative to put a stop to this barrage of words also. Scanning her photo library for pictures to upload, she noticed that the requisite nice family group was eclipsed by her niece’s rictus grin. Sliced across the child’s face, its pixels sprayed blood across the dinner table.
Although she knew that she should edit the less than perfect image before she posted, she chose not to. And then after it had gone up, she added in a cut-out of her niece’s face, with a ‘my darling Caitlin’ caption for good measure. He would understand what it meant. She was scared but, as she followed that strange little feather back from the banks of the Thames to her office in Shoreditch, she realised that her sense of triumph was stronger. The heat in between her shoulder blades flared again. As she reached back this time, she was surprised to feel a new, bony tenderness there.
The day went on and it felt to her like her top half was bursting. Certain that other people would notice, she watched for their expressions. However, having spotted nothing out of the ordinary she started relaxing, going about her day as if it were any other. She did, though, decide to leave bang on five o’clock. Tina, the sub, saw her and decided to come along. In fact, as she headed out of the doors, six of her colleagues were trailing behind her. She was a modern day Pied Piper.
When they’d reached their favourite Belgian bar, Genevieve thought it safe to take off a jacket which, in the fresh air, had got tighter still. She scanned the faces of her colleagues again; still nothing. As she hung it on the back of her chair, though, she noticed that a large grey and white feather was sticking out of the pocket.
Placing it on the table, she felt compelled to add a commentary. “I keep on coming across feathers in the strangest places. I saw one in the boardroom the other day. And now here.”
There was no reaction, other than from Cassie, editorial assistant extraordinaire, who exclaimed, “Wow, Gen—what have you done to your hands? They look amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an orange like it.”
Looking down, she realised that the hand that was clutching the quill was tipped with long, pointed yellow fingernails.
The evening passed in a haze. And when someone bought a round of spritzers, she found that she had one also. And then, somehow, it made its way past her lips, slipping down her throat in joyous abandon. She switched off the part of her brain that minded, drinking the next and then the next.
Pouring herself into bed that night, she saw a final text flash up.
I told you that you would pay.
As she slept, she became an ibis. Her curved beak tearing through the hand that held her captive. She was used to the suffocating claustrophobia of the recurring dream, which in the past had always led to her losing consciousness. This time however, she had a new shape and, instead of succumbing to a deep darkness and then waking, her long beak pierced, her talons tore and her voice screeched. She battled death fiercely and bravely, leaving a bloody, crescent shape rent upon his cheek as she made good her escape.
When she woke up she looked around for a feather, any feather. Vaguely disappointed that none was in sight, she went to get up. As she did so, she felt something disturbing the quilt at her back, far across from the side of the double bed she usually slept on. Remembering what she had noticed the day before, she reached round to touch the exposed shoulder blade. Yes, there was definitely something knobbly there and no, she didn’t think it was her spine. Going across to the bedroom mirror, she strained to take a closer look. Still nothing.
She had no desire to go to work today. Phoning in sick, she truthfully reported that she had been feeling out of sorts. However, after she’d put the phone down, she realised that people would link her absence to the drinking last night. Embarrassed, her mind turned to the jewelled bottles in her flatmate’s room which would make it all go away. Instead she went out, pausing only to place her phone on the hall table and pull on a poncho before running from her flat.
With no particular destination in mind, she jumped into her little pink Perodua just up the road and drove off. As she settled behind the wheel, she noticed she was hyperventilating and tried to calm her breathing. Eventually the realisation of being unconstricted took hold, and she was able to truly exhale. In doing so she became aware of her surroundings.
She had driven to Charlton and was now in a small side street, just up from Theo’s house. It was half-past-seven in the morning. He would be getting ready to leave. Maybe, if she remained very still, she might be able to catch a glimpse of him as he headed across the footbridge to the station. Ten minutes later she spotted him. He’d obviously cut himself shaving, as he was holding a bloodied tissue to his cheek.
Suddenly the germ of an idea started to form. Waiting until she was sure he was safely away, she pulled up outside the Victorian semi. Knowing that Jackie would have suffered for his ‘indisposition,’ she would turn up out of the blue, a bit like a guardian angel, and offer to take Caitlin to school.
It worked like a charm. Jackie had been shaky, wittering on about how Theo had woken up with a cut on his cheek. Although initially reluctant, expedience had made her agree to Genevieve’s suggestion.
“I could even pick her up after school?”
Jackie glanced down at her phone nervously. That was obviously a step too far. Genevieve retracted hastily. “Not to worry, then, just school.”
However, as she started driving across Blackheath, she found that instead of turning schoolward she was heading for the South Circular. And, before she knew it, she was on the road down to Minnis Bay with Caitlin next to her. A beautiful, golden beach on the South East tip of Kent beckoned. It was one of her absolute favourite places.
Caitlin had been silent the entire time. Not ever questioning why they were now much further away from her school than they had been when they started off. Eventually, her hesitant little voice piped up. “Where’s your phone, Auntie Gen?”
After hearing that her aunt had left it behind, she added, “Maybe that’s why mine keeps vibrating. I have it in my bag.”
Understanding what was being shared, the aunt looked across at the pale little face beside her. “Would you like to throw it away?” she asked.
The silence stretched down the M2. Genevieve’s speedometer hit eighty and then ninety. She opened the window and, just like that, the child threw it away, its bounce on the tarmac echoing through their shared space. Turning a solemn smile to her aunt, Caitlin asked, “Is it over now?”
Again, a question was followed by stillness. The girl’s courage though, seemed to be growing with every mile they travelled. Eventually, she spoke again. “I don’t seem to be as afraid when I’m with you, Auntie Gen.”
A little feather blew in, settling on the dashboard.
They never reach Minnis Bay. Instead she spies the twin towers of Reculver, and turns off just after Herne Bay. She is drawn by stony limbs thrusting against the deep blue sky.
She feels the cloak of her expectations sweep her ankles as they start climbing the hill just behind the car park. When they reach the ancient ruins at the top, she is sure that the wisps of feathered hope protrude from Caitlin’s narrow shoulders.
I trust in you.
At the top of the crumbling stairs they climb further. Strong, pointy nails digging into the ancient masonry. As they kick of shoes, toes also find foothold. A diaphanous membrane sweeps across their eyes, protecting them from the falling dust, dislodged from ancient corners by their climb.
They stand. They have reached the far edge of the flat-topped, deep-dropped, man-made cliffs. The sea sparkles below them.
Do you still trust me?
The little hand seeks the bigger one. It lies there, quite still.
In Woolwich Road, a kind policewoman is making a nice cup of tea for a distraught mother. As she reaches for the sugar bowl, she sees that two white feathers have come to rest there. She shakes her head and blows them away softly.
© 2018 Madeleine White
Madeleine White was born in Germany, with roots in Canada and the UK.