The egret and I don't belong here
Each time the phone clicks, the egret tilts her head. I take photos to remind myself of this visiting miracle, but however hard I try to keep my hands steady I can’t snap one that’s in focus. Blurred edges show cloud-like, fog-like – the ghost or memory of a bird.
I choose not to silence the sound so it’s like we’re communicating. It calms me on days when my nerves are strung tight like winter telegraph wires. I pace the urban streamside walk seeking the calm of green slow-flowing water. With the cost of living higher than ever and my zero-hours contract dwindled narrower than this stream, the threat of homelessness hangs heavier than wet washing in the houses I clean.
Once, as a child, my mum caught me eating the stale bread set aside for ducks. I can still taste the shame that rose burning into my gullet as she scolded me for my greed, and how relieved I was to vomit the mess of undigested bread by the road. I haven’t eaten a bite of bread since.
I’ve noted the sites of food banks in my area, but haven’t yet found the courage to join the line of hollow-cheeked, tense-shouldered hungry.
The egret perches on a branch that mirrors the curve of her beak. White feathers shine pristine despite the tarmac and dusty bricks. I think of how it would be to build a nest here, twigs lined with moth-winnowed blankets and repurposed bike tyres. I could curl between mud and strangers’ gardens, sheltered by a roof patchworked from the pages of discarded books, surviving on moss and lichen, and whatever small fish the egret filches from the murky stream below.
Strangers stroll, run or cycle by without pause. It’s as though the egret is visible only to me, and for the first time in weeks or months I feel lucky.
But today, someone has got here ahead of me. An old man hunches at the fence that hems the stream. His face is lifted and he’s smiling at the bird. A clear bag holding a loaf of bread dangles from one hand.
“Don’t give it that. Bread’s bad for birds.” The words escape before I know I’m going to speak.
He looks at me sharply, as if shocked I’ve noticed him. I wonder if he’s a ghost too. Like the bird. Like me.
“I didn’t know that.” His voice rasps a fraction higher than seems right for his frame. “Thank you for telling me.”
He shuffles towards the scarred, graffitied bench where the path widens out to meet the road.
I gaze at the egret, trying to draw its serenity into my chest with each breath, but my mind won’t settle. I can hear the old man’s wheezing from here.
He sits at the point where I usually take a sharp left and slog uphill.
Today, instead, I sit down on the bench beside him.
He opens the bag of bread and pulls out a slice. “It’s still fresh,” he says. “I just like to bake and make too much.” He offers it to, one eyebrow raised.
I accept the soft bread and raise it to my nose. It smells of yeast and sesame seeds, perhaps a hint of saffron. My stomach gurgles.
The old man laughs softly at the sound and I grin my self-consciousness. I wonder if he needs a cleaner, whether I can find the nerve to ask.
He takes a slice of bread for himself. We sit and chew in silence with the stream in front of us and the road behind.
Judy Darley can't stop writing about the infinite possibilities of the human spirit. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published in the UK, US, New Zealand, Canada and India. Judy is the author of short fiction collections Sky Light Rain (Valley Press) and Remember Me to the Bees (Tangent Books). Her third collection, The Stairs are a Snowcapped Mountain, is out from Reflex Press now. You can find Judy at http://www.skylightrain.comand https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.