The China Bird
Edward hoards his mother’s letters, not opening them straight away, but sometimes savouring what might be. He stacks them upright, and every morning when he opens his drawer for a neatly rolled pair of socks they tilt towards him in greeting. He laughs to himself, knowing how frustrated Mrs Ingram will be when she finds a letter still sealed. He could take them to work or lock them in his suitcase, but he knows that if she reads them, they will have between them an unspoken language of common knowledge.
He wishes he didn’t set such store by his mother’s letters and that, after his father’s death, he could have distanced himself from her totally. Usually she writes in intricate detail, painting pictures of her everyday life and of her garden, but the one he has opened today is a request. She wants him to accompany her to a funeral; a whole day in her company. He isn’t sure he can manage that.
From the wardrobe, Edward takes a jacket hanger of lightly varnished wood. He pokes gently with the end of the hook at Mrs Ingram’s cat, asleep on the bed. She ignores him. He drops the hanger onto the bed and turns away, beginning to peel back the left lapel of his jacket, slowly levering it over his lowered shoulder until it drops from his arm then, using his free hand, he pulls at the other sleeve until the jacket falls onto the bed. He sits down next to the cat and knobbles her jaw with his knuckle. He is distracted by the light from the window, where it illuminates the hidden water marks on the lining of his jacket. The cat purrs, stretches, claws at the jacket.
‘No you don’t!’ He snatches his jacket away and, holding the hanger aloft, drapes it around the varnished wood. The hanger, which is perfectly symmetrical, does not fit. This is a jacket that has been crafted and moulded to fit his twisted body.
Under his mattress Edward has a set of pink cardboard patterns, drawn and cut for him by his Uncle Ruben.
‘This, my lad, is a special formula just for you. Hold on to these patterns and you can always get a jacket made to fit. No off-the-peg rubbish for my nephew.’
He had draped his tape over every part of Edward’s body, taking a measurement of every dimension.
‘Is it accurate, Uncle Ruben? Your tape looks a bit bandaged.’
Uncle Ruben had smiled, shown his brown, crooked teeth. ‘Keep cutting it with these blooming things,’
he’d said, waving an enormous pair of black handled shears. ‘But never worry, my lad, your Uncle Ruben makes compensations. It’ll fit you like a glove. You’ll see.’
Edward remembers being pinned and pulled in every direction. The sight of Uncle Ruben manipulating the shape of his back into the jacket, steaming, moulding, pulling, and the warm comforting smell of wool, mixed with the scent of old fish heads carelessly thrown under the bench; pickled herrings from Uncle Ruben’s favourite lunch.
As he hangs his jacket in the shade of the wardrobe, Edward fingers the leather buttons on the cuff. Neither he nor his mother have ever informed Uncle Ruben that he had left home and so, once a year on his birthday, a letter arrives for him at his mother’s house. She slips it unopened into his birthday card. Mrs Ingram doesn’t know that he gets letters from Uncle Ruben, post-marked New York. He always takes these letters to work and stores them in his desk drawer under lock and key.
Edward has never written back. He considers his uncle’s letters a peace offering, something owed to him. All through his childhood he’d said, ‘You’re my favourite nephew. The person I treasure most in all the world.’ And then, when Edward asked for his help, he’d announced that he was off to find his fortune in America.
‘Never mind, lad,’ he’d said. ‘Don’t worry. Things have a way of working out.’
He’d laughed then, slapped Edward on the shoulder and asked him if he was going to miss his favourite uncle. Edward pointed out to him that he was the only uncle he’d ever had.....