Hayley Anderton is a graduate of LJMU, and a writer of Young Adult fiction. Her debut novel, Double Bluff, is available on Amazon.
I fucking hate birds.
Sue Lacey was woken early on a Tuesday morning by birdsong. Several blackbirds chirped in a tree near her window. She puffed air out of her nose and looked outside. It was still dark, and her black cat was prowling the garden. If you won’t catch those goddamn birds, what good are you?
Sue shook her husband awake. He sighed into his pillow.
‘I wish you’d do something about those bloody birds,’ she hissed.
He opened his eyes but didn’t respond. Sue plumped her pillow and made the bed around him.
‘Make sure you put the washing on today.’
He rolled over, turning his back to her. Sue sucked her teeth.
The birds plagued her all morning. They screeched tunelessly as she ate breakfast, and as she brushed her teeth. They harassed her on her walk to work and by the time she got to Bramley’s cafe, she was ready to grab a gun and shoot the damn birds herself.
As usual, there were no customers. She could hear the cooks and the kitchen porter laughing in the kitchen. She was tired of them. Tired of the same scenery every day; groups of wooden tables, nondescript wall hangings, a blackboard of specials that weren’t that special, and a display of overpriced cakes that made her stomach grumble. Wearily, she wiped down the counter, waiting for something to happen.
At exactly twelve o’clock, Bertha arrived.
Bertha was what Sue would call a regular. A regular pain in the arse. Every weekday, Bertha would arrive at twelve on the dot, hobble to the corner of the café, and take a seat at table 18. Her legs quivered as she sunk into her seat. She raised a gnarled finger and called for Sue’s attention.
‘Hello dear,’ was Bertha’s standard greeting, ‘Now, what should I have today…’
Sue tapped her foot. She knew exactly what Bertha would have. A slice of carrot cake and—
‘And a pot of tea for two.’
Sue went back to the counter to process the order. She couldn’t help smirking. She knew who Bertha planned to share her tea for two with, and it wasn’t a late comer.
Sue returned and Bertha offered her a chair. She sat obediently and Bertha poured the tea with shaking hands. She popped three sugars into the cup.
‘Such a fine day. Beautiful weather. It reminds me of the day I met Marvin. Have I told you about it?’
A thousand times. Sue shook her head.
‘Well, let me tell you. I was walking along Southport Pier. The sun was shining…a beautiful day it was, Sue. A beautiful day.’
Sue could recite the story by heart: Marvin spotted her at the end of the pier, with the wind in her hair, and told her she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. That night, they went dancing and kissed in the moonlight. Love at first sight. It made Sue feel sick. She’d never had a lovey-dovey romance. She’d never made love under the stars, never had poetry written about her, or been sent flowers at work. She had been kissed in the rain, once, under the neon lights of a chippy, by a man who groped her chest. She didn’t think that counted.
She sipped her tea. I guess we don’t all deserve a Marvin.
Sue arrived home and found her husband snoozing in his chair. It was a hideous chair; a pinstripe lounger covered in musty blankets and toast crumbs. Sue thought she was generous to allow the chair to infest her living room. See how much I do for you? You lazy bastard. She nudged him awake with her foot. She could smell beer on his breath.
‘You said you’d have dinner ready.’
He grunted and closed his eyes again. Sue longed to slap him. Maybe then he’d pay her some attention. She raised her hand. She imagined the sting she’d feel on her palm as it connected with his greasy cheek. It was enough to stop her doing it for real. She retreated to the kitchen and turned on the hob for dinner.
Sue woke up. Her alarm was blaring. She blinked several times, disorientated. She fumbled to switch the alarm off and sat up.
The bed next to her was empty. Her ears perked up. Silence. She swung her legs out of the bed, and looked out the window. Her cat circled the yard with the remains of a blackbird hanging from his mouth. The bird’s head hung limp, and a puff of black feathers littered the garden. The cat looked at Sue for approval, gore smeared across his mouth.
Sue smiled. Maybe I might get a decent lie in now. She made a mental note to give the cat a treat later.
She left for work in a good mood. She didn’t mind that the day was slow. She made coffee for a pair of loud middle aged women, and waited for Bertha to show up. She thought that today she might ask her for a different story. Something about her childhood. Bertha would have been alive during the war, and Sue was fascinated by history.
Twelve o’clock arrived but Bertha did not.
Where the hell is she?
One o’clock. Two.
Sue waited until the end of her shift, and then a bit longer. She even bought a pot of tea for two, as though the earthy fumes might tempt Bertha to the café. Still, Bertha did not arrive.
Sue left the café knowing that something was wrong. Bertha was so consistent, a creature of habit. Her absence left Sue with an unpleasant flutter in her stomach.
Sue came home to silence. The only peep Sue ever heard from her husband were his snores in the afternoon. The house was often quiet. But never this quiet. It hurt Sue’s ears.
She made her way slowly to the living room, heart pounding. Maybe she hoped to see her husband there, waiting for her after her lonely day in work. Maybe for once he’d have dinner ready and they wouldn’t have to argue. Instead, she saw the empty space where his pinstripe chair had once been.
The absent chair had left deep grooves in the carpet, a reminder of what had once been there. Heart racing, she checked every room for her husband. She wanted to call his name, but feared she wouldn’t get a reply.
She found the note on her pillow. She eyed it up from afar, trying not to notice the two words on the paper but her eyes were drawn to them. She regarded them. Her suspicions were confirmed.
She rang him, but he didn’t pick up. She screamed into the voicemail about where he could stick his stupid chair. She cried and asked for him back. She listened to the silence on the other end of the phone and wished for noise. Something disruptive and loud that would pound her eardrums.
Sue lay alone that night. No matter how she tossed and turned, sleep refused to take her. In the early hours of the morning, she was greeted by grey skies and insufferable silence. For the first time, Sue wished for morning birdsong.
Work dragged more than usual. Sue kept glancing at the clock, wondering if Bertha would show. She bit the skin on her nail, waiting.
She was wiping the counter when twelve o’clock hit, and she whipped around as the door opened. It wasn’t Bertha.
Sue didn’t think she’d seen her before, but the woman at the door did seem familiar. She shook droplets of rain from her umbrella, the corners of her mouth downturned. Great. Another cheerful addition to a shit day.
The woman approached the counter tentatively. Sue sighed.
‘It’s waitress service. Sit down.’
The woman didn’t move. She chewed her lip, eyes swimming.
‘Are you Sue?’
Sue frowned. ‘Yes.’
‘Bertha told me a lot about you. She was very fond of you.’
Sue frowned as the woman grew teary again. ‘I’m sorry to tell you this at work…you might want to sit down.’
Long after the woman had left, Sue could feel a grey cloud hanging over her head. She walked home in the rain, barely feeling the cold on her skin. She waited on her doorstep for a while, listening to the patter of rain and the grumble of cars passing by. She was wet through, but at least it wasn’t quiet.
She sat in the living room, staring at the grooves in the carpet her husband’s chair had made. She imagined him sat in it, at the side of some deserted road. The thought made her laugh so hard. She felt sick. The sound died on her lips.
And then there was only silence.
Hayley Anderton’s book is available from Amazon. Click here for details.