by A.T. Boyle
Trapped in a plastic bag inside a cheap wardrobe is a dove, its delicately pointed wings permanently extended in flight. The focus of many eyes on your wedding cake, this dove must now be considered alongside every other thing you no longer need. Being so tiny, surely there’s room to keep a bird that doesn’t need feeding?
As though concerned I will not make the right choice, and since you understand the object better than me, it’s an unexpected joy to realise we will consider it together.
I was watching your fingers delve to the back of the wardrobe searching for something practical, an extra blanket, a pillowcase for your growing family? In truth, you were seeking what you rarely allowed: indulgence. Surrounded by bare coat hangers and half-filled rubbish sacks, you notice how much your legs ache. You slump next to me on a bed you no longer need, shoving up closer until we’re almost able to touch.
The sheen of the bag forces us to peer through un-dusted glass at our taxidermied specimen. You’re puzzled about why you allowed this object to be relegated to the margins. Rather than facing the emotions that begin to rise, your second impulse – which follows quickly – is to run downstairs empty-handed, finish off the housework. The list of chores will always be as long as your arm, so I urge us not to ignore our first impulses. Thankfully, this time, we listen.
Loosening the wire round the neck of the bag sets us on a different course from mother, carer, daughter. Like the best of companions meeting for mid-morning coffee, with a tremor of excitement we perch the naked dove on the eiderdown between us, ready to share in something new. I may even get to hear one of your secrets.
We sit at once present and absent looking at the footless bird. Designed to be stuck into a bright white rink of Royal icing, it rolls in my direction. The ancient bedspread breaks its fall and a January sunspot helps us admire the skill required to form a needlepoint beak from sugar and water. Unlike the many statues you and Dad will come across on holiday (emperors’ arms, legs, penises, all lost) this beak remains firmly bonded. The bird is neither in flight nor installed on top of a cake. It seems forlorn separated from its familiars: the baker’s Lancashire kitchen, clever sculpting fingers, wedding feast, dark retreat inside a wardrobe. Rediscovered like a found pebble, we cradle the dove in overlapping palms, shocked by the spread of cold across our skin, trying to remember why we kept it.
I hear your muscles click, though the bedsprings don’t shift as you stand and move towards the door. You’re leaving me to it. I leap towards you in refusal, but your warmth easily contests the case I would have made for you to stay. Half out of the door and still I haven’t asked, not directly, if you always hid what you feared the most, requiring the rest of us to read between the lines. Or whether a single catastrophe caused you to adopt the familiar mantle. I’ll admit I could have been wiser to your finely-tuned manoeuvres, but you’d only have become more versatile putting me off the scent. On this darkening afternoon I understand that being the peace-maker entailed subsuming your own needs and desires. More or less happy with this role, even you, an honest woman, surely you stopped to consider how much you could feel at peace when emotions are afforded such fleeting attention.
The door has been left ajar and I’m left to make a decision about the bird. Over the years I witnessed your infuriating disposal of every object you didn’t need in a house of seven people and no room for sentimentality. Yet today I discover a loose cake decoration whose value I’m guessing was weighed and re-weighed, and you drew the same conclusion.
I hadn’t realised how long it would take to decide which skirts or tops or coats or cardis to keep, which of the vast array of shoe lasts with buttons Bluetacked in positions that coincided with your bunions will most remind me of your practical nature and attention to detail. I wish you had kept the wedding dress that you made. I knew which scarves you liked best – the ones you wore on our visits, or was that just another act of diplomacy? When I notice the sharp corners of unused cream boxes and unwanted belts breaking the skin of my rubbish sacks, I panic, thinking I’ll have to go through everything again. Your padding across the landing brings some comfort.
Before I entered this room your legacy appeared intangible. But I can see that spending time together helps with definition. Although your wedding cake is long ago eaten and you are both still recently dead, this decoration will be returned to its storage bag. I’ll place it inside an old tin I found, for extra protection. The dove will wait patiently for the lifting of the lid, and when I check on its welfare I might be reminded of the ways Dad utterly trusted you to apply family glue in the right places. Despite our differences, I must forgive your inscrutability, because the reasons were much bigger than yourself.
(Copyright A.T. Boyle, 2021)
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