There are two quotations that preface my novel Two Thirds Man. One is from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which I have written about before. The other text I hope to use comes from Candia McWilliam’s extraordinary novel A Case of Knives. It is a simple line but it captures what my book is about. It’s this:
Prisoners call it the sky.
I was reminded of this recently as I read a beautiful and elegiac novella by Peter Hobbs, In The Orchard, The Swallows. It is a lovely book, set in Pakistan and written gently, much as was Hobbs’ excellent earlier book The Short Day Dying.
In The Orchard is about enclosed spaces: a larder where an unnamed man recovers from weakness, a garden (beautifully described) in the house of the kind man who has rescued him, then the orchard, a place where the memory of love resides, also a town so small that one stolen kiss could destroy a life. The man has been in prison, not sentenced but forgotten there after that single kiss.
The book asks the question – what redeems a small space, turning a cell into a place of refuge? ‘In my first weeks in this place I have come to understand that not all enclosed spaces are prisons, and that some are for safety: some are sanctuaries.’ In both the prison cell and the orchard when the man rests, waiting for his once love to come, there are swallows in flight. This is how they appeared in prison:
‘There was that flicker there, as though the sun were a bulb losing its electricity... too sudden, too complicated, to be cloud. ... I kept my eyes on the window, and the slant of light it cast against the wall, waiting for the flicker to repeat. And when it did I saw a shadow pass... the exact flutter swallows made as they reached a perch. A digging and breaking, a folding of their wings as they landed.’
The image of the bird as freedom to the incarcerated mind is hardly new. In the scene where Mozart is played over the loudspeakers in Shawshank, the wise old inmate Red Redding muses (and in the film he is always right about everything): ‘It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man felt free.’ A little in contrast, but using the same idea, is the description of a prison van from Malcolm Braly’s On The Yard as ‘A stout grey bird of passage coming from one alien land, bound for another.’
Then there is the label for time in prison as bird. This is at root a seventeenth century metaphor drawn presumably from caged songbirds, but it entered slang, early in the twentieth century via rhyming slang – bird from bird-lime and bird-lime rhyming with time. Bird-lime was a sticky concoction used to capture wild birds by being smeared over branches. Here is a nice quotation from The Listener for 1953: ‘Having done his bird, as imprisonment is called in the best circles.’ From bird comes the still used first bird for a new prisoner.
In Two Thirds, birds play a double role. There is a caged bird that is given to Joe Livesey as part of his learning how to live, something based on a real quirk in the local rules of some older British prisons, where at the governor’s discretion it is permitted for inmates to keep birds in their cells.
But bird actually started the whole book. Leaning on a windowledge with an inmate-friend one afternoon, we stopped talking and watched the seagulls. They had taken up residence among the crenulations. That evening, I wrote a story based on what we had seen. I showed it to him and he wrote his own version.
For a long time, the story of the seagulls remained in the novel. Eventually, I took it out – it did not belong any more. So I offer it here instead, as a fragment of the very beginning of the back story to the book.
Remember the line – prisoners call it the sky.
* * * * *
We fed ourselves. There were prizes to be found there, corpses precious to us. I would pull and fight for my scraps, they for theirs. It was a time of never being hungry and never being satisfied because there was always tomorrow, however fine today had been.
We grew to know each other. I gave them names. There was Bad-Blood because he was misshapen, an egg poisoned in its nest on a high factory chimney. Next was Grunt the black-backed bruiser with wounds from too many fights. The old one I called Wings because he flew higher than the rest of us. He liked the sun. The fourth was beautiful, should have been feeding off scraps left by tourists with cameras on some sea-front promenade. He became Electricity because he was. The others called me Stardust.
We would look up to the sky waiting for the others to arrive. If we caught some dainty treat, we might eat only half and share the rest. Bad-Blood, Grunt, Wings and Electricity, Stardust. We were a gang.
Some days we would not hunt through trash but find some tall, forgotten place where we would stand and scream, yammering our complaints to the sky. Sometimes we even spoke of finding a scrap of the sea to make our own. ‘We are not meant to live like this,’ we told each other.
Then one day Wings stumbled and did not get up again. He caught his foot in twisted metal, a foot made for water, splayed and too inflexible and now too trapped. We called for help but there was none. The ragged-headed rooks just looked. Wings tried to fly but couldn’t. The waste held him.
We waited with him. we spoke of all the things we would have done. We shared our dreams of fish and water, being clean. After a long, a too long time, Wings’ yellow eyes went pale, his story stopped.
And the rooks, the crows, even the sweet-faced kittiwakes, they stepped forward to take from Wings’ bones what meat they could find.
We fought. Bad-Blood and Grunt and Electricity and I, we threw our bodies at the other birds. I was pecking with the rest, glad to be killing. I learnt that this was what I was for – forget the naming and the looking out for friends, this was faces full of feathers, wild beaks wounding, striking, seeing better than the bird in front of me. We fought and won. We cleared the ground, Bruiser, Bad-Blood, Electricity and I. We looked at one another and we moulted those old names.
We turned. We threw ourselves onto Wings’ corpse, squabbling over the stringy meat until we’d had our fill. Then we flew away apart. Our time was done.