Short Stories

 

The Last Peacock Feather

It’s the smell that gets to Mari first, that sour tang of river with the promise of the sea. And then there’s that familiar hollow pang that drags its way through her chest, and she has to swallow hard. How many years has it been now––ten? Port to port––Hull to London––the sea lapping at her heels.

London is so big; you can live your entire life here without once tasting brine in the back of your throat.

Ten o’clock in the morning on a cloudy June day, wandering along the South Bank, watching the muddy roll and sweep of the Thames, opening the senses and embracing the pain of time and place lost. Mari has mastered the art of loss, she stands inviolate while calamity quicksteps through the lives of those of less consummate skill. Today has a sweet edge though, because she’s not alone. Mari’s daughter walks beside her, a mother in her own right, wrapped in her own memories. The silence is companionable, as lazy as their stroll along the riverside, today time is theirs to command. Mari takes another deep breath and finds that she can smile.

This day—carved out of busy schedules weeks in advance—belongs to them. The river, good food, and the Tate Modern, liberally spiced with on-street entertainment and performance art. By unspoken agreement they pause and stare across the river. Mari is surprised and vaguely comforted by the fact that she recognises the landscape, can point out buildings, places that her feet have walked. Her daughter smiles and says that they should do this more often, shake themselves free of work and kids, and to prove it out come the ‘phones, diaries are compared and a date six weeks hence is pencilled in.

Mari walks with her daughter from the London Eye to the Millennium Bridge and back, twice, keeping close to the river, stopping often, finding something new in each moment. Together they meld into the life-stream that mirrors the river, flowing along its banks, swirling into eddies around jugglers, fire-eaters and the compulsory hotdog and sweet crepes stalls. By the scaffolding around Blackfriars Bridge there’s a man, grizzled grey in a white kaftan, offering individual peacock feathers for sale—on their second pass his stock is halved. Mari and her daughter share a glance, who is buying them?

The fire-eater: skinny, and heavy booted, missing teeth shouting louder than his voice—five routines without a drop! His t-shirt announces The Flying Karamazov Brothers as yellow-orange fire sketches a complex weave around his body—behind his back, under his legs, his face raised to the sky for, he said, his highest ever throw. Children shout, coins scatter into his tattered cap. Mari rummages in her purse and finds the courage to cross to the fire-circle and drop a one-pound coin in amongst the silver and copper.

Hunger forces a halt. Settled at a riverside table for lunch they watch families bunch and straggle across the broad promenade, envying the energy of the children in their scampering, squealing games. Young couples walk with a casual intimacy, the grey and silver haired stroll with time-bonded confidence, and scattered lone tourists clutch and point unwieldy cameras. It’s good to sit, rest her feet, and let the world slip by. It’s also fun to watch her daughter struggle to eat her stacked burger, with extra jalapeno peppers, with any sort of dignity. What the hell, her daughter says, laughing and licking her fingers.

The sky, mostly drifting blocks of shaded grey, lightens as they walk, and talk shifts to the future. Aspirations make them smile. Mari wants sunshine; she squints up at the clouds. It was on a day like this that they’d spoken those words: new start, new life. But they couldn’t catch her out that easily. Quick-footed she’d smiled, and presented both cheeks for the goodbye kiss, not noticing until later the acidic bite, gnawing through skin, burrowing straight into her heart.

The soft thump of rhythm and a gathering crowd pulls her daughter forward and Mari moves in her slipstream. Three young men: one addressing the crowd in cheeky accented English; one on his knees, a mass of brown curls tied back from his face, fiddling with a battered sound system; the third standing over him, hiding behind sunglasses, arms crossed, trying to look cool. They take turns, leaping into the circle, faces hard with concentration, turning and twisting their bodies to the music. Mari might have stayed longer, but her daughter turned away, muttering that her son could do better.

Time for the Tate—sketch book and pencils, notebook and pens ready and waiting. There’s time to savour the sun––yes, actual sun––and their Starbuck treats before venturing into the cool, murmuring spaces of the gallery. Ah, her daughter says with a smile, the surrealists, like the paintings were placed there just for her. And maybe they were. They puzzle over Picasso and linger over Dali, taking their time. Even the picture-hoggers, crowded close, noses almost pressed to the canvas, can’t spoil their sense of anticipation.

They’re ready. Back to the entrance to collect folding stools, and then, with an almost shy glance at each other, they split up. Mari catches sight of her daughter occasionally, bent over her sketchpad, expression intense, and she smiles.

Time condenses, people disappear, there’s only the art and the words flowing onto paper. It’s a surprise when Mari feels her daughter’s hand on her shoulder. Finished? An unspoken question. Mari snaps the elastic around her notebook, even though there’s a whole world of writing still left to do. Hunger hits when she stands up. How long has it been? There’s still time to walk by the river, still time to soak up every smell, taste, sound. Later, when the time is right, the sensations will find their way onto the page. For now, Mari will enjoy her daughter, soak her up. After all, she’s the reason Mari came to London in the first place.

The wind has picked up, flapping coats and blowing hair into eyes, but the grey day has transformed into a determined summer evening. Mari can feel herself unfolding, stretching out tired creases from those parts of her that spend too much time jammed into the cupboard under the stairs. She glances up and catches sight of the prow of a silver-bottomed, steam-punk ship settled on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Square blank windows stare down from the bridge, three fans mounted atop a tall brass tripod windmill lazily in the breeze. Mari stares, and her daughter stares with her. It must be part of an art installation, they agree, carried up there piece-by-piece and welded into a seeming whole. But that’s not what Mari wants to believe. She wants climb up to the roof, she wants to stomp along the deck of the ship and feel its solid clanking strength; she wants it to spin its fans up to full speed and lift into the sky. She wants it to deliver on its promise.

A large crowd has settled on the green space outside the National Theatre, six o’clock and time for the Inside Out performance. Mari and her daughter find a spot near the front, scrunched onto a corner of green, and wait. Four performers—three men and one woman—dance, jump and tumble their way through a story that maps their friendship from childhood, through adolescence, adulthood and finally old age. Music and movement carries the crowd through the joys and sorrows of that journey, a shared experience that requires no words. Rousing applause. The crowd stumbles to its feet and disperses, subdued by the legacy of the story.

Faces crowd into Mari’s mind, blurred by time and the wilful act of forgetting. And she wonders: which river do they haunt? Mari knows the delicately choreographed steps of the abandoned.

Millennium Bridge, they walk along it because they never have. Midway they stop, captured by the silent power of the river flowing beneath them. Moored tugs and ploughing tour boats clutter the river’s path, curling a furrow in their wake. The sheer presence of the river is overwhelming: Mari can feel its strength, mindless and uncaring, surging beneath the surface; it drags at her, scent and sound and motion ripping away layers of detritus. Exposed, Mari stands transfixed, as the memory of that final betrayal—brown and dirty—rolls through her. It was such a small step, in the end, from one world to the next.

Mari drags her gaze from the muddy water, turns and walks back towards the South Bank; her daughter follows, for once unquestioning.

The old man in the grubby kaftan is packing up for the day. A young couple bustle past. He’s walking, hands in pockets, a half-embarrassed, half-indulgent smile on his face. She’s grinning, clutching the last peacock feather, its blue eye iridescent in the last rays of the sun.

peacock feathers

 

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