And No Bird Sang – Richard Hillesley

When morning came it was snowing and I lay on a mattress on the bare floor, shivering as the light crackled across the window panes, fingers of wind nipping the buds, numbed by the cold and unable to move, chilled to the bone and dying for a pee, and a woman on the radio was talking to a man who had walked to the North Pole in winter.

– It must have been cold,
she said.

– Colder than charity,
he said, and a shiver went down my spine.

– When I boiled a kettle for a cup of tea the water froze before it reached the cup,
he said.

The light seeped in between the curtains. The wind rattled the window, and I lay beneath the sheets, immobile and stiff, dying for a pee, and tried to picture the ice between his kettle and his cup. I wanted to get up and dress myself but my clothes were strung across a chair on the other side of the room. I wanted to wash my face and make a cup of tea. I wanted to catch the bus and get to work on time, but my arms and my legs were stiff with cold, and I was dying for a pee. I dreamt of the ice and snow beyond the window and sank beneath the sheets. Someone moved across the room above and I heard the bathroom door open and shut and the mysterious anguish of the pish in the bowl and the release of the flush of the chain, and still I couldn’t move.

– How did you wash yourself?
asked the woman on the radio, and I didn’t hear the answer.

What happened when he went for a pee? I wanted to know. Did a dagger of ice shoot from his crotch to the ground and impale him in the snow? I wanted to know, but she didn’t ask the question and I never heard the answer I wanted to hear, and rolled across the mattress in agonies of procrastination and indecision, torn between lying in bed and the ice-cold walk to the loo.

Time went by and the voices on the radio turned to other stories and faded into the ether. My alarm went off and I went for a pee, my hand on my crotch as I went, and I ran down the stairs and made a cup of tea and walked to the bus stop through the ice and snow. I was late for work again.

A day or two later I was on a bus into the city and an old man sat on the seat next to me, talking to himself. This happened to me all the time, and I didn’t usually notice, preferring to watch the world go by and listen to my own thoughts, but he had a story to tell, and no-one else was listening.

– Johnny was lonely,
he said to himself, looking out the window at the road below,
– and they sent him to the North Pole.

I drew a face in the condensation on the window and stared at my reflection in the glass.

– It was cold up there,
he said,
– and there was nobody there but Johnny.

He had a scarf about his face and mittens on his hands. The snow was still on the ground.

– They sent him to the North Pole,
he said.
– and that was why he talked to himself.

I knew he was talking about himself. He sighed and said,

– That was why he talked to himself.

The bus jerked to a stop and I got up. I tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t see me, and the other passengers didn’t care to see him. The cold and dark had wrapped themselves around his soul.

– It was colder than charity,
he said, and stared into the void.

– And no bird sang.

– That was why he talked to himself,
he said, and I pulled my coat up round my collar, jumped off the bus, and went into the city, dodging clumps of snow and listening for birds.


Image via Pixabay

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