A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
She was singing. I can’t sing, a lack for which all the other birds remonstrate with me for each and every dawn. I was made for drilling. I have a reinforced skull to prove it.
She was red – her lips, white – her skin, black – her cape, hooded over her midnight hair. She was all the colours of me. I thought to myself that this is what I drill for, but I stopped to listen to the sound of her voice as it somersaulted up and down, bouncing off the bark of the trees, shivering the leaves, cart-wheeling down until the roots of the forest twisted and begged their passion.
I followed in her wake as she walked, me fluttering from branch to branch, her heavy feet crunching the crisp, late summer litter in her path, delicious beetles and earwigs scattering either side. But I only had eyes for her. A butterfly flew through a sunbeam and she gasped as he flashed his red, white, black.
I watched her as she ate with him that night. The wiry grey man who roared as he melded metal with fire. His creations loomed around the place in almost animation. Sometimes the wind tinkered with them. They had legs and eyes and teeth and every morning I had watched him greet them, one by one.
She peeled a petal from a silvery green artichoke, dipped it in a dish of foaming butter, scraped the morsel of delicious with her white teeth, licked her crimson lips, swallowed.
‘Heaven,’ the singer said and smiled at the sculptor, blinking her inky lashes.
‘You seem distracted, my dear,’ he commented, as he refilled her wine. It glowed in the candlelit dusk.
She raised her glass to her lips. ‘I’m just tired,’ she answered, when she had set it back down on the tablecloth. ‘It was a long tour. It’s good to be back.’ She leaned back in her chair and stroked the just jut of her collarbone. He went to the kitchen and returned with fish, potatoes, a dressed salad. And later, raspberries that I had seen him pick under the nets he’d constructed to harbour them safe from the other birds’ appetites.
When the light to their room snuffed out I began my work.
Hours later she stood barefoot on the dewy lawn, drenched in white cotton, her coal-coloured hair hanging loose beyond the swell of her breasts. She sneezed and she coughed. She sat at the table, the sun apricot on her eyes, the curve of her thighs visible through the thin fabric of her nightdress, the nip of her waist, the thrust of her chest as she breathed the clear morning air deep into her exceptional lungs. She sipped from a teacup.
I drilled some more. My original ambition, not thwarted, but rearranged. A bee buzzed and on the air it came to me, the scents of honey and ginger. She was warming her marvellous throat. She coughed again, dry and scratchy.
‘You have worked too hard,’ he said, coming up behind her and pummeling his thumbs into the sides of her spine. She reared back, her mouth slightly open.
‘Perhaps,’ she said, staring into the trees.
‘You must relax now,’ he said. ‘Let me look after you.’
‘I can look after myself,’ she replied. ‘But it’s nice to be here.’ With a half smile. I drilled some more.
‘That godforsaken woodpecker,’ he said. ‘It’s been…’
‘I like it,’ she said. ‘It has its own rhythm.’ I drilled some more.
That afternoon, she had sat in the chair, a book open, half-read on her lap, her eye-lids soaking up the sun when a ladybird had landed in a flurry of black lace on her forearm. She walked him onto a fingertip and then to a rose. She whispered into his ear.
‘Go kill,’ she said. ‘You are the Knight of the Roses. Go multiply.’ I drilled and by the time she had sat down again I was flying over. Dropping something into her lap. She jumped from her seat, as if she had been soiled. I laughed as she rearranged her skirts. And my gift fell and bounced on the lawn and nestled unseen between the blades.
I saw her open the window at night, looking out into the darkness to where she could hear the hoot of the old owl. I watched her one drizzling afternoon counting frogs in the pond. I heard her scream with fury and drop her cup and saucer on the flags of the kitchen floor when a heron stole a fish. I listened to her talk about a childhood pet she remembered, a rabbit called Alice. I agreed with her when she argued the case for the squirrel who couldn’t understand that the food he left for the birds wasn’t for him.
‘You look beautiful,’ he said one lunchtime as he fastened her necklace for her and placed a kiss in the nape of her neck. ‘Happy birthday!’ And he popped the cork on a bottle, letting it fly free into the garden where it landed in a bed of delphiniums, proud and blue.
‘Mmm.’ She wrinkled her nose as she drank. ‘I’m getting old,’ she said. ‘I’m becoming autumn.’
‘Am I winter then?’ he asked.
‘Yes, my dear,’ she said with a wink. ‘I am a mushroom and you are snow.’
She danced that night on the lawn, kicking her shoes off and wriggling her toes, the music blowing out from the open windows. ‘Ouch,’ she said, resting her hand on his shoulder for support, laughing gleefully as she bent to one side and leaned back lifting her foot to peer at its sole, where my gift, the ladybird, had been trod. She picked it off and almost, not quite, threw it away. But she stopped and held it between her thumb and her fingertip and drew it close to her widened eyes, the colour of the moss that carpeted the forest. ‘It’s amazing,’ she said, turning it to and fro and I ruffled my feathers with pride. I drilled all night.
The following morning, late, she sat and she drank her honey and ginger and I dropped a bee in her cup. Plink, it went and gave a little splash. She fished it out and looked over to the tree where I perched. I looked shyly back at her and nibbled my wing.
I flew back over her, to the forest, so low I knew she would feel the beat of my flapping on her pale cheek. She stood, using the table for support, wobbling slightly in the sun, her hand a visor to her eyes, squinting after me. I hopped to a lower branch and she took a step forwards. And then another.
She saw the mushrooms first and it took her a moment to see that they weren’t real, but carved, in the fallen trunk of her tree. Her fingertips fondled the surface my beak had carefully smoothed. She poked her finger through the handle of the cup and tried to lift it from its saucer, but it was part of the stump I had sculpted. She laughed again when she did the same with the teapot and her bellow billowed around the copse. She found the artichoke, my first offering, and licked a wooden petal as she watched me hopping and bobbing on the branch above her head.
She found the champagne corks, the squirrel chewing on an acorn, the rabbit on his hind-legs, my portrait of me, warming my wings in the sun and my portrait of her, eyes closed mouth open, singing like the first time I saw her, her hair tumbling. She gasped, her hand to her mouth and I hopped onto her shoulder and cocked my head to look at it with her, her hair tickling my feathers as we brushed.
Two months later I sat on her hand on the stage as she sang to me, sang the opera she wrote about how we met.