Sparrows – Simon East

sparrows

1.

Life is good for Morgan, or good enough. Morgan does not want for money or respect. Best of all Morgan has self-respect. He could have more friends, a girlfriend perhaps, but if he reproves himself betweenwhiles for failing to attend a “gathering”, he soon reminds himself: There is plenty of time for all of that. Morgan is lucky you would say. He sometimes looks out of the kitchen window at the back. He likes to watch the birds. He watches past net curtains and trellises trained with climbers—an ample, verdant garden—and thinks I am lucky, and if there is anything missing then there is plenty of time for all of that.
And, of course, Morgan is right. He’s not yet out of his twenties. He earns less money than is disgusting, but far more than necessary. The house is his own—so far as a house with a mortgage can be one’s own—and the Korean 4×4 that he purchased second-hand by less than a year. The sofa is excellent faux leather, in the colour they call “ashes of roses”. If his eyes are sunk a little deep, if he has a somewhat tubercular pallor, Morgan is still tolerably good-looking. He wears a suit well, being rather too slim but with decent proportions beyond that. He has a diploma from a reasonable college, in book-keeping or something of that stripe. At work he does something with computers; he is rarely more explicit than that in the way of indulging the rare person who inquires.
‘It would bore you,’ he chuckles, a thin rattling noise that sounds like he would do better to cough.
If you thought of asking, you get the feeling there is not so much to find out about Morgan. He does not feel passionately about computers, or about anything, really, that he can think. Although he knows that he is certainly lucky. And Morgan is well regarded at work. The indexing would be arse-about-tits but for Morgan, people say, and the computers spitting out every sort of syntax error. Morgan is a rock, they say: a little gauche, a prig on occasion, he is still mostly okay; a little too much like the wallpaper at times, but generally alright.

2.

On Friday April 4th there is a notice in The Argus concerning sparrows, and then a memorandum is circulated the following Monday at work. Outbreaks of illness in humans have been linked to live sparrows—isolated incidents, and none of them near this town, but incidents nonetheless. Symptoms to watch for are bullet-pointed in the memo, including sore throat, dizziness, lethargy and livery pallor. Contact with sparrows is to be avoided wherever possible. Sparrow excrement, however, is not thought to be a problem, a fact that occasions a partial recovery on the part of the most despairing office clerks and the office junior (who sometimes sustains a hit while running errands to the annexe). The Argus forecasts apocalypse, and is at pains to suggest a mechanism by which the parasite infiltrates and “sunders” healthy cells.
There is no cause for alarm, however. The matter is in the hands of the council’s extermination experts, who are also in possession of exemplary training credentials.

3.

The following Saturday passes off pleasantly enough for Morgan. He takes a turn in the park after a late breakfast. This is normal, even indispensable, of a weekend. He visits the delicatessen for veal sausages and expensive cheeses, which feels appropriate somehow. And he has been playing on the computer a lot recently: a new game, Lethal Pact III. It is frustrating Morgan who will slash his way through the first two stages, wearing the brilliant-white outfit, before his hand sweats and he loses his grip on the joystick during the difficult third stage. That is what he tells his mother in the course of one of their rare conversations. She is not interested in computer games but keeps interrupting him by slurping soup on the other end of the phone.
‘It is so unhealthy to live alone,’ she says. Four hundred miles away and she still sounds too close. ‘You need a wife,’ she will say, eventually, whatever Morgan says.
Morgan never did have a girlfriend, which is strange some people say. Nor does Morgan concern himself much with the idea of sex, although sometimes, wrapped up in bed, he does suspect that there is more to his wish for a partner than just idle company: the feverish heat of a breast in his hand, the ecstasy of a good hard fuck. This must be a product of what he calls his “dark” side, the part that thinks about laying boorish ignoramuses out with a single blow, and sex, and once even sex with a goat. It is a small part, but it frightens him to think, so that he fetches the alarm clock up off the bedside table and adjusts it with little obliterating movements of his hand. Morgan has read a little Freud, which he puzzled his head to understand, and it appears that this dark element may pertain to his mother, who is a relentless housekeeper and disciplinarian. Even now Mrs Morgan says:
‘You will find a young lady wife,’ in the pointy voice. ‘It’s not normal, to be a bachelor at your age.’
But most of the time, and certainly once he has fiddled with the alarm clock, Morgan can tolerate solitude. He is making his excuses now and replacing the handset. Speaking to his mother he is reminded of the cloying smell of her ponderous breasts, through the layers of muslin cloth.

4.

The sparrows are a problem. The people with the exemplary training credentials are not controlling the populations, or at least not those in Morgan’s garden. Morgan has stopped putting seed into the little carved-stone Venus’s cupped hands of a morning. He is watchful on Saturdays while walking in the park. Yesterday he overheard a small boy in galoshes ask his father, ‘Who is that man with the twitchy eyes?’ Some people forget: Mr Sweetman at the office was feeding sparrows almond peel from out of his lunch box yesterday, on the flagged square before the annexe. But it comes easily to Morgan. He doesn’t linger outdoors unnecessarily, although where needs must he has taken to carrying a stick, including a little silver ferrule, which he will tap or wave. He washes his hands before eating—not that he didn’t wash before, but now he washes a little more than before.
He is the master of protocol.
Still, Morgan has a slightly sore throat, which he worries about. He stayed away from work today, in fact, for the first time in three years.

5.

Morgan has not been feeling so well. If Morgan is a rock, he is a rock that has taken a knock. His cheeks are even more drawn than usual. He made a couple of mistakes at work, small ones. Morgan has made mistakes, people say. And eight days away sick in total. His throat is sore still, and there might be a little vertigo, too, although he can sometimes get dizzy just from thinking too much. Morgan’s routine is stricter even than before. He disinfects the patio at the back of the house and he has installed army-green netting overhead so that he can sit out in comparative safety. A little unsightly, it is not the netting that prompted complaints. Morgan has been shooting at sparrows out of the little window in the upstairs loo. Yesterday a police sergeant visited, who was extremely courteous. He left his shoes outside like Morgan asked. He took tea—even if he would not sit, thank you—and peered out at the netting.
‘If you would refrain from the ballistics, Mr Morgan,’ he said, very civil like, and sucked the tea from off his moustaches.
‘I didn’t hit anything,’ Morgan replied.
‘Even so,’ said the police sergeant, and he looked a little disdainful of people who shoot at sparrows. Or possibly people who shoot at sparrows and miss.
The story of the shooting somehow made it to work. People tut and shake their heads. Morgan is a little strange these days, they say.

6.

Sparrows are not a problem. It is on the news and in the paper. It is in another memorandum with bullet-points. Cases of illness believed to have derived from a proximity to sparrows were in fact a result of exposure to industrial insecticide. There are no crops in the town where Morgan lives. People are relieved, particularly the office junior against whom sparrows had certainly commenced a vendetta. And Morgan is relieved, too. He can remove the netting and start walking to work again.
His throat feels a little better already.

7.

The phone in Morgan’s house rarely rings, although it is there in case it does. In the course of three weeks, however, the phone has rung twelve times. Morgan has scarcely been to work since the retraction notice pertaining to sparrows. His throat is still bad, he says. And the lethargy… He declines to visit the doctors’ surgery to procure a certificate of his unfitness to work. None of his colleagues has stopped by to inquire after his health and he has missed the chance at preferment this time around. Instead, he sits and plays computer and reads his books about cars.
His fingers twitter at the edge of net curtains.
He rarely leaves the house at all now, in fact. The Bangladeshi cleaning lady was bringing groceries until yesterday, when Morgan decided that the risk of someone coming and going, willy-nilly, was no longer defensible. There are areas of the house where she walked or set down her accoutrements. Or touched. Morgan is washing a great deal: his hands, and floors and taps. He patrols the house dispensing a pungent pink disinfectant, although some areas are too much for him to consider venturing any longer. He has a roll of yellow tape that he used to cordon off the gardening implements on the far side of the conservatory, for example. He has isolated the umbrella stand with the stick in it, including dried earth on the ferrule; there are yellow bands all around it. The downstairs loo is altogether too perilous, that Morgan taped shut.
The last time he went to work everything was so dreadfully bleak and human voices scarcely reaching him. Seeking relief, he hovered near two women at the adjacent work station, where they were pawing the pages of a mail-order catalogue.
‘I absolutely adore that one,’ said the first.
The other said, ‘I was just adoring that one, too.’
‘Such a lovely cream.’
‘I was thinking yellow.’
‘But a pale yellow.’
‘You can’t beat pale yellow.’
‘And silk.’
‘Silk is just divine.’
Morgan only drifted back to his own desk, who could not contemplate divine modishness when all was feeling black.

8.

Morgan is out in the garden, wearing the samurai outfit, employing stealth. Even with him clad in white they cannot see, Morgan is that flat and still against the trunk of a tree. The fearsome sparrows are all around—in the air, on the lawn, strung out along branches. Oblivious. One is swooping to ground, that Morgan cleaves by his sword. The sight of sparrow entrails greasing the blade is so purging, before Morgan resumes brandishing his weapon; his is the ultimate sleight of hand. The sparrows are coming and coming, and flapping, and diving. And the blade falling and flashing and vanquishing. So many birds in the sky they are occluding the sun. Even Morgan is tiring they come on so long. He is up inside a horse chestnut and then down behind the stone Venus. He rolls along the ground. The sparrows must not get to him.
Soon daylight is returning. There are fewer and fewer birds in the sky and the garden is strewn with feathers and gore, the last enemy finishing with a whump on concrete flags.
So there is an end to sparrows after all.
Back inside the house there is an end to yellow tape, too, which had stretched for miles in nightmares, taping things round. And the ruddy assistant girl from the delicatessen, who is just now arriving inside the front door, needn’t remove her leather boots just yet; Morgan will do that for her, if he feels like it, when they have done eating. She is shaking out her hair, pulling her fingers through her tousled tresses that the wind messed. She is showing a little thigh over suspender tights, under skirts.
It is still dark in Morgan’s bedroom when he wakes, and the clock on the bedside table has stopped.

9.

Still the sparrows come. They are bolder than ever they were before. They convene along sills and eaves so that Morgan has nailed windows shut and blocked the chimneys using expired holiday brochures. Or else they worry the netting that has partially collapsed onto the patio. Others depart, but only with a mind to return later. The smell of disease is almost palpable. The garden is overgrowing, plums falling and rotting in the long grasses. Bees visit around, and flies. The phone and electricity have disconnected.
Morgan is surviving on tins, one every two days. He looks ill, he is permanently tired. Some days Morgan does not get up at all. His eyes have sunk deeper into his face and his skin is tinged with green. Sometimes his head spins. There is no clear means of return now for one who was waiting anxiously upon promotion and possibly even a young lady partner. Although, during brief spells of clarity and respite, Morgan does remember a time before sparrows, when he liked to gaze out past the curtains at birds, when he was lucky and there was still plenty of time for all of that.

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