**content warning: mentions of implied sexual content**
I’m halfway down the station platform when I remember the birds. Three of them—Paul, John, and Lennon—two speckled, one brown. I told Maxie it was a little like naming them Paul, Jesus, and Christ, but she didn’t want to know.
We kept them in a cage in our living room. I pushed seeds through the bars and watched them plop to the floor with little clunks, mixing in with the bird shit. They would peck me when I came too close, but Maxie could hold the birds in her palm and feed them. Like Snow White, I told her. She said if that were true, she’d have a Prince Charming. Instead she had three birds shitting in a cage, and me. Always me.
I told Maxie this the last time she rang me. I had stood alone on the same platform, nursing a different headache. I carried a suitcase covered in ugly flowers, and broke one of the wheels trying to make the suitcase do a wheelie. I put the wheel in the breast pocket of my jacket, where it reminded me of a tumour. The ARRIVALS board informed me there would be delays to Swindon. Lucky, I thought.
My unhappy weekend was growing teeth, stretching out into Monday and Tuesday and beyond. We had barely owned the birds and we were already arguing over them. Over the phone, Maxie laughed nastily.
“Well, I’m relieved you’ve finally recognised the talents of Mr. Lennon, at least.”
“He’s not Christ-like. And he isn’t good for bird names, either.”
“What would you have named them, then?” Maxie demanded, and it was her High-Wire voice, the kind that leads to things falling down. I held my breath for a moment, listening to the static, imagining the sound of her breathing, where the wire ended, where Maxie began.
“Well?” Maxie said, clipped.
“It’d be Curtis, Cobain, and Lennon if you had your way with the birds,” she snapped.
I opened my mouth. Closed it. Soundlessly, I watched as a train to Crewe departed from the platform. A squeal of brakes, the hiss and flick of unseen wires, the driver pulling away. Directly in front of me a little girl with a dirty face pressed against the window and licked it. Her mother said nothing, and our eyes did not meet.
“What do you have to say about that, then?” She sounded so satisfied it made me sick. I said nothing. I did not move a muscle. I have always handled my problems this way—it is a process of solidification. Like water to ice.
Maxie snorted. Through the static, it sounded metallic. “I thought so.”
She hung up.
This was two months ago. Two months ago in a different station; a different time. When we shared an apartment, a birdcage. A life.
It was my apartment. That’s the irony. It was my spot. I’d come here to walk, aged eighteen, unsure in this new city; past streets I did not recognise, people I did not know. There was a bus stop. I used to stand there and pretend I was waiting for somebody. It overlooked the backs of houses and the underbellies of shops, and it smelt like dishwater and things fried half to death, but it was mine.
I’d been late to love. In my second year, I had my first kiss with Agatha Francis a block away, sheltered in the doorway of a disused bank; her hand in my hair as I fumbled awkwardly with her breasts. Her lips tasted like lemon lip-gloss.
Later, when she was applying another layer, she said: “That’s not how you hold a girl if you want her to feel loved.” I thought of this as I carried boxes of Maxie’s books up the stairs to our apartment, on the day we moved in. Maxie liked psychiatry books. The Cycle of Love, How to Cope with Passing, Relaxation for the Modern Woman: A Guide. The last one always struck me as something of a joke. I couldn’t think of anything less peaceful than being told how to relax. She wouldn’t let me read Jack Reacher. She said it poisoned the male mind. I read T.S. Elliot instead.
The room overlooking the Poundstretcher next door was the biggest. We called it a living room though it was not; it was more of a passing-through room. We had a single shelf. On it was a picture of her graduation (BA, Law; complete with a youngish Maxie sandwiched between her parents, unsmiling, in a scarlet University of Bristol gown) and a plastic mug I had been gifted in a pint-drinking competition at a pub in Slough, shaped in a mould of the ex-Prime Minister’s head.
The TV was on the fritz (unless you liked static and the porn channels—then I suppose it worked fine). Our walls were cracked and the floor was cold, and the birds never knew when to shut up, especially Lennon. Maxie said they were still adjusting to the time zone. Oh, I thought, they’re adjusting, all right. Our laxative birds and us.
But the sofa held pride-of-place. She had kept the sofa from her ex-boyfriend. It smelt like his cologne. He told me once, having arrived both drunk and unwanted, that she liked to give him blowjobs on it. It was the only place she did it. She didn’t like anything else. But he was sure, he said, grinning, that I would know that by now. Without asking, he took another beer from the fridge. He must have cost me a fridge’s worth of beers.
Maxie threw me out a week ago. I can still see it. She’d taken the liberty of packing for me, and everything was labelled. I remember I was disappointed by how little boxes there were. It made me sad that TUPPERWARE, WARDROBE, and CRIME were all I’d managed to contribute to our lives.
“What’s in that one?” I asked, pointing to CRIME.
“Tabloids, mostly.” Maxie sniffed haughtily. “Relics of your subscription to The Daily Mail.”
“I got those for the birds.” I told her. She gave the hmmm that people give when they are trying to disguise a No, I don’t think you did. I slumped my shoulders. Didn’t feel like getting into another useless argument.
I went to pick up WARDROBE, lifting it out into the stairwell with my joints protesting. TUPPERWARE soon joined it, but by the time I was ready to move CRIME, Maxie had already moved on. She sat on the kitchen floor, snivelling to herself, painting her nails a vivid pink.
In the living room, Lennon was screeching. John and Paul twittered uncomfortably, but he wouldn’t stop. He kept on screeching. Maxie would be on the phone immediately after I left. To whom? Her mother was almost senile; her few friends from university, while sympathetic, were ultimately uncaring.
No. I knew exactly who.
“He told me you used to get him off on that sofa. Is it true?”
“Oh, for the love of—I can’t believe you’d even ask me that.”
“But is it true?”
“Get out, Ken.” She wrung her wet nails at me. I took a hesitant step towards her. “Get out!” Maxie screeched. For a moment even Lennon fell silent. In a single instant, things were easy again—just me and Maxie. Maxie looked at me, but not with disgust. With simple, cold dissatisfaction. And I finally understood.
I did not resist as she pushed me out. Her nails left smudges of pink on my arm, like one of us was bleeding. I stood in the doorway. As Lennon began to cry again, I pointed to the box marked CRIME.
“I wasn’t lying when I said I bought them for the birds.”
Maxie gave me a long, hard look.
“Then the birds deserved better.”
On the platform, I hover outside the Men’s, where it is the stink of piss, the ugly stink of piss at noon that makes me realise I have truly, irreversibly arrived back home.
Stockport station is red and wide and exposed. There are three teenagers on Platform Zero, all wearing black. They are laughing. One of them pours a Monster Energy drink onto the track, where it fizzles out to nothing. My mother told me energy drinks would stain my insides green, and make me lose brain cells. My sister said this would make no difference.
Mum moved back to Stockport when Dad left. Mum said there was nothing left in Stockport, but that was fine, since there was nothing left for her now, either. Dad shrugged when I told him. “Stockport is to me what Afghanistan is to the Americans—bloody well far enough!”
I spent my summers with my mother and the rest of the year with Dad. They made up for the distance by shouting down the phone. When I was seventeen, I went into Manchester for the first time. My friend Chris snuck me into a club named Sourditch after his father’s wake and told me three things. One, the more fucked-up the place, the less likely it was they’d ask for ID. Two, don’t piss in a jar and call it melted gold. Three, the only way to love a woman happily is to lie to her.
“Am I supposed to lie or not, then?” I shouted. You had to shout everything to be heard over the music.
Chris opened his mouth and I got the feeling he could’ve quite happily sat there and planned out my womanful, melted-gold life for me, only the bouncer did actually come over and ask us for ID. We were thrown out. Turns out Chris was lying, too.
Maxie liked to use my childhood to explain things about me. In the course of a year, I learnt not only was it responsible for my poor timekeeping skills, but my sloppiness and lack of commitment. It was refreshing to have someone to blame it on, really. Better than blaming myself.
“It’s your childhood, Ken. Why you can’t stick to things. You’re afraid of commitment.”
Maxie toyed with my hair as we lay on the sofa. We were watching Titanic. Maxie shifted her head up, her eyes meeting mine. The light turned them sharp and unyielding.
“You’ve got a fear of commitment.” Maxie repeated, like I hadn’t heard. She twisted my hair between her fingers.
“I’ve committed pretty well to Budweiser.” I joked. I was dumber then.
She stopped toying with my hair. She went tense.
“That’s not funny, Ken.”
I apologised, but she remained rigid, her lips pursed. I wanted to make it up to her but I didn’t know how. Behind bars, Lennon flapped up and down, making steady progress to nowhere. Maxie’s hand was loose in mine, but she didn’t let go.
Together we watched Leo DiCaprio falling into the ocean, fading first to a streak of white, and then not even that.
“Scuse me, mate.”
A gruff, burly-looking construction worker elbows his way past me, scowling. Passer-bys are giving me funny looks. I realise I have been blocking the entrance, and scuttle to the side, blushing.
I walk further down the platform. I want to reach the end. The buildings that surround the station are either big and square, or termite-wood old. There is a strange slope to Stockport—things disappear. You feel like all you can see is all there is. It excited me as a boy, bored me as a teenager. I am not sure what it makes me feel now.
Another train is departing. This time for Norwich. The driver scans the emptying platform, spits, and hops on. Most of the seats are empty, and there is nobody around to lick the windows. They leave smoothly, effortlessly. I wish it was always that way.
I think about her again, though I told myself not to.
I think we made a mistake. I think we made several. I think about those birds, and I miss them. Especially Lennon.
About the Author
Sarah Hall-Murphy is a writer in the North of England. She likes to write about the North, and is currently in her second year of a creative writing degree.