Sunday 10 September 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and other tales by Sally Zigmond, warm white wine: STILL LIFE WITH CUCKOO AND BULLDOZER



Follow the cuckoo. Follow the cuckoo as it flits from the hedge at the bottom of Penny`s garden. Follow it to the ash-tree where it begins to call. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. The sound hiccoughs through the brittle chill of the June morning. Soon the air will grow limp and flow with heat. Penny wakes in her room that overlooks the ash-tree. She goes to her window and watches a pale sun rise above liquid trees. Mist trails across the field beyond the garden. The field is empty. The cows that once swished lazy tails through clouds of flies have gone. The field has been sold for development. The sun rises for the last time over the long, cool grass, flecked with vetch and clover. The bulldozer is on its way.

            Penny`s mother passes her door on the way to the bathroom. `Bloody bird. If I had a gun.` Penny`s mother is thirty-nine and dreading her next birthday. Penny is sixteen and ripe for love.

            Follow the cuckoo along the boundary of Fieldview Crescent to the fence-post at the bottom of Teresa`s garden. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Teresa turns over as far as her nine month foetus will let her and lies staring at the corner of the ceiling. Geoff snores beside her. The cuckoo is her enemy. It has been calling all day, every day for weeks. Why won`t this baby be born? Will she never be rid of this parasite? It is drinking her blood. Eating her flesh. Growing fatter as she grows thin. The nursery is ready. The cot is ready. The drawers are full of nappies and babygros. Teresa is full of despair. The sun bursts through the mist and onto her face. Another hot day. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

            The bulldozer is on its way. It is on a low-loader trundling down the bypass. Early commuters fume and tune their radios to find an alternative route. Or swear. Or run their fingers between their wet collars and their sore necks and overtake on blind bends. Harry narrowly misses death as a car hurtles towards him on the wrong side of the road. But this isn`t his story. So we can skip the bit about him finding a lump in his groin that morning in the shower and get back to Fieldview Crescent.

            Cuckoo. Cuckoo. The cuckoo is hiding in the holly bush in Sadie`s garden. This prickly defender is the single unwelcoming feature of Sadie`s property. There are two loungers and a drinks trolley on the patio. Beyond the double-glazed patio doors, through the lounge with its pink shag-pile, into the bedroom where china dolls in pantaloons and velvet bonnets pout from every available surface, is a double bed. Sadie doesn`t hear the cuckoo. She drank half a bottle of gin last night. She was not alone then. But her visitor had to get home to his wife. So she is alone now in her short nylon nightie. Her fluffy slippers wait at the foot of the candlewick like patient pink bunnies.

            Follow Penny on her way to school, which is on the far side of the old cowfield. She used to hop over the hedge and walk past the gentle beasts, but they are gone and the field is fenced off, so she has to walk around its edge. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Where is that wandering voice? Penny did Wordsworth last term. The morning breeze lifts crisp grass sap into her nose. She breathes in its lingering dampness. Soon to evaporate. Soon to suffocate under bricks and concrete. She waves to Teresa, who is at her window. Teresa does not wave back. Geoff is laboriously grumbling through a bowl of cornflakes. Teresa stopped frying bacon when the morning sickness began. He hopes normal service will return when the baby comes. That will put the colour back in her cheeks. She won`t have time to moon about then.

            Sadie turns over. Her arm dangles over the edge of the bed like a flipper. Follow her dream where she is floating in a bright blue swimming-pool where the sun makes bright lozenges of light around her face. The water caresses her sagging cheeks. Soothes and calms. Peace at last.

            Teresa was going to wash some windows. The sun shows up every mark. But that means going outside. She can`t go outside. It is too hot. And the cuckoo is there, watching her with its bright, black eye. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. And when it stops for a second, there are the wood-pigeons burbling on the chimney-pot. She checks that the piece of hardboard she got Geoff to hammer across the fireplace is secure. The nails have worked loose but she can`t go into the garage to fetch the hammer. That would mean opening the door. She sinks down on the hearth rug, defeated. The cuckoo begins again. She hates the baby.

            Penny is sitting at the front of the class alternately writing carefully in her loopy script and sucking the end of her pen as Miss Hargreaves burbles about the foreign policy of Elizabeth I. She sounds like the wood pigeons on Teresa`s chimney-pot. Penny can still hear the cuckoo. It is in the copse at the back of the tennis-courts. She and Willa have a semi-final to play at lunch-time. Willa has hay-fever, but Penny knows she will win, anyway.

            The low-loader has stopped at the gate to the old cowfield. The compressed traffic, now released, whoops past with triumphant full-throttles. Two men jump down. Their chests are mahogany brown. They glisten with sweat. The bulldozer is unloaded. The low-loader and one man leave. The other man wipes his hand across his brow. His hair is bleached to a pale-gold by the sun. He stands in the dazzle of the sun. He is golden Apollo. Penny and Willa watch with open mouths, their racquets limp in their hands. The game is abandoned.

            Penny`s mother is pegging out the washing. She sees the bulldozer trundle up and down the field, gouging up the grass, hurling gouts of rust-coloured soil into the simmering air like a juggler. Fine particles drift over the hedge and settle on Penny`s school shirts. Time for some coffee. She`ll have it inside. That bloody bird is still at it. It had been her husband`s idea to move to the country - `For the peace and quiet.` Well, he`s got that all right. The bloody crematorium's quiet as the grave. Never mind where his widow`s fetched up. Stuck here with a bloody cuckoo and now a bulldozer. Trust him to dump her somewhere like Fieldview Crescent with its Legoland bungalows and rustic pergolas. She sees Teresa at her window. She waves and brightly mimes the action of drinking a cup of coffee. Teresa shakes her head. Suit yourself. Grumpy cow. Anyone would think no-one else ever got themselves up the spout. Her windows could do with a wash. She ought to do it now. There won`t be time when she`s had that baby.

            Sadie finishes painting her nails and stretches out on top of the duvet until they dry. The telephone rings. She doesn`t answer it. Can`t spoil her manicure. If it`s important, they`ll ring back. She hears the cuckoo and the bulldozer, but they don`t impinge on her consciousness. She is going to have her hair permed this morning.

            Willa has gone. Her eyes water too much to stay outside. Penny lingers by the edge of the old cowfield that is now a lunar landscape. The drift of diesel oil wraps about her neck, pulling her onwards. The ground shakes and throbs beneath her feet although the bulldozer is at the far end of the field. It turns and comes towards her. She stands in the middle of the field like the lone student against the tank in Tieneman Square. The bulldozer stops a foot in front of her. It overpowers her. It blocks the sky. Close to, it is ugly, paint scraped, thickly encrusted with black grease. Its bucket snarls a shark`s jaw greeting. She is bold, yet trembles. Powerful but submissive. The pit of her stomach melts like chocolate left too long in her hand. The engine falters. The silence is delicious and soft like warm pillows on her ears. The driver jumps down and clicks his teeth. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

            Follow Teresa to the hall where the morning newspaper lies. She bends down slowly and picks it up and takes it back into the kitchen. She tears it up into long strips which she stuffs in the cracks around the windows. Sweat trickles into her eyes. She can still hear the cuckoo through the muffled roar of the bulldozer. The giant yellow monster is coming to gobble her up. She can cope with that. If only the cuckoo would leave her alone. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

            Sadie puts her glass down on the drinks trolley and checks her watch. Half-past one. She stretches out on her front and undoes the hook on her bikini top. One hour to toast her back. Then roll over. The cuckoo has returned to the ash tree in Penny`s garden. Soon it will move to the fence-post at the bottom of Teresa`s garden. Round and round. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Sadie doesn`t hear it. One page of Danielle Steele; one glass of Waitrose white Lambrusco and she sleeps.

            Penny watches him throw back his head and lift a bottle to his mouth. He drinks and drinks until the bottle is empty, warm foam trickling down the dirt-grained furrows of his chin. `Catch!’ He grins and tosses it in the air. It rises in a curve of kingfisher green brilliance and falls to the ground. `Butterfingers. ` Penny blushes and runs to it. She picks it up, trying to keep her eyes from the neck where the man`s lips have sucked.

            `You shouldn`t drop litter,` she squeaks. She did so want her voice to sound deep brown.

            `Is that right?` he says. His teeth are ice-white against his brown face. He lights a cigarette. `Want a drag?` Penny shakes her head quickly, then wishes she`d said yes. There is a silence. The cuckoo is in the hedge behind the hockey field. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

            Penny`s Mum has had enough. She telephones her friend. `There`s a bloody cuckoo driving me mad. Fancy meeting me in town?` She puts on her white shoes that pinch and heads for the bus-stop. Follow the clack of her heels on the pavement. Brittle dry dust rattles around her bare legs. The sun flattens her head. She should have worn her white straw hat. The cuckoo cannot be heard above the traffic on the main road. She will buy herself another pair of shoes to celebrate. She has fifty-two pairs of shoes. They are all elegant. They all pinch.

            Teresa is talking to the cuckoo. It has grown to the size of a dog and is sitting on the rosebush by the lounge window. `What do you want?` she says. ` Cuckoo. Cuckoo,` says the cuckoo. The telephone rings. She answers it. Eventually. It is Geoff.

            `Anything happening?`

            `The cuckoo,` says Teresa slowly.

            `Now remember. As soon as things start to happen phone the ambulance. Then phone me. I`m in a meeting but Sue will drag me out. You`ve got the number. I`m in Nottingham today, remember, not Leicester.`


            `Are you all right, love?`

            `Fine.` She puts the phone down. Her back drags. She goes back to talk to the cuckoo. A hot flush of liquid cascades down her legs. She doesn`t feel it. Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds` nests. They are bigger than their victims. The cuckoo is as big as a horse. It has laid its egg in her belly.

            `So, what`s a pretty girl like you doing still at school?`

            `I`m doing my GCSEs then I want to do A levels.`

            `Is that right? I didn`t know I was talking to an intellectual.`

            Penny blushes. `Do you think,` she squeaks. `I might have a cigarette?`

            His face is next to hers as he lights a cigarette from his. So close, she can taste his sweat. She is dizzy. She takes a large intake of smoke and staggers, her throat burning, her head ringing. The driver laughs. The bell goes. `I`ve got double maths now,` Penny wheezes, her head hotly reeling.

            `What time does school finish?`

            `Quarter to four.`

            `I expect I`ll see you then. You can teach me some maths. Clever girl like you.` He smiles and her body purrs.

            She doesn`t hear the afternoon lesson. She sees white teeth and a bronzed torso. Him and her. Sharing cigarettes, stealing kisses. The cuckoo is in the tree that overhangs the bicycle sheds. Willa is jealous. Penny can`t wait until a quarter to four. She will borrow one of Willa`s lipsticks. She can`t decide between Hot Pink or Passion.

            `Pay attention, Penny.`

            `Sorry.` Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

            Sadie yawns and stretches. She sits up, holding her bikini top to her. The bulldozer driver is grinning at her over the hedge. He looks hot. Sadie waves the bottle of wine in the air over the noise of the throbbing idle of the powerful machine. The engine cuts out. The man is beside her. `Anything stronger?`

            Sadie fastens her bikini slowly. `Plenty stronger,` she smiles, pleased that her hair has turned out so well.

            Teresa crouches on the lounge floor, her knees pulled up to her belly. She whimpers to the cuckoo. `Take your baby. Take it. I don`t want it.` Her head twists from side to side. Her fingers tear up tufts of carpet.

            The cuckoo is back on the ash tree at the bottom of Penny`s garden. The bulldozer is still. Its outline shimmering. Its metal burning. Its plastic seat melting. Damp air from the turned soil rises and steams away like the surface of a tea-cup. The soil`s skin is dry and tight; but underneath is raw flesh. Everything is still. Everything waits. Unseen, the cuckoo moves on. In the hedge a tiny sparrow sits innocently on a single massive egg.

            The school bell rings the end of the day. Penny rushes because she wants to get home, have a bath, get changed so she can casually meet the bulldozer driver in the field. She is pleased to see that it is at the far side, facing the other way. She doesn`t want to be seen yet with ink on her fingers and her second-best socks. She scuttles along the hedge, her satchel bulging. She has a history essay to do tonight. She`ll do it afterwards. The cuckoos call is louder as the air grows weary of the day.

            Passing Teresa`s hot bungalow, where every window is sealed like blind eyes, Penny notices that two milk bottles still stand on the doorstep. That`s not like Teresa. She picks them up. They are hot, the contents as thick as cheese. She rings the bell. There is no reply. She is about to turn when she hears a low moan.

            She knows her mother has the spare key. Her mother has all the neighbours` keys as chairperson of the Fieldview Neighbourhood Watch. She flings her satchel on the kitchen floor and scours the house for her mother. There is a note on the hall-stand. `Gone shopping. Sausages in fridge. Don`t take all the milk. And No Mess.` Two flies batter against the window. Outside the cuckoo still calls. The air is as thick as the milk on the doorstep. It curdles.

            Penny holds her breath when she eventually forces Teresa`s door. It is sealed with old newspapers. The hall smells of rancid mince. The air is clotted. Teresa is huddled in the middle of the lounge floor, her skirt held protectively around her bare ankles. Her feet are stained with blood. The carpet is wet. She rocks backwards and forwards. `Cuckoo. Cuckoo,` she calls plaintively as if to a lover. She smiles.

            Penny looks around her. She runs along the hall to the box-room she knows from her mother has yellow teddy-bear wallpaper and new lace curtains. The cot is white and empty. She runs back to Teresa. `Where`s the baby? Have you had it? Have you called the doctor? What about an ambulance?`

            Teresa croons. `Cuckoo. Cuckoo.`

            The cuckoo outside slows its call like a clockwork toy whose spring is slowly winding down. Penny glances at the violated cow-field and sees the bulldozer silent and driverless. She still has time to get herself ready to meet her new lover. Her first lover. She will float through the cow-field, the fronds of meadow-parsley will brush her arms like finger-tips. Only she must get help. Try Sadie. She`s a kind sort.

            Sadie`s door is unlocked. Follow Penny from room to empty room. The house is neat and pink like a Wendy house. There are china cottages on the window-sills. A plastic ballerina pirouettes, one pink toe teetering on the edge of an onyx ash-tray. There are two half-empty glasses in the kitchen. The tap drips. She smells cigarette smoke and what her mother calls cheap scent. As she pushes the bedroom door she hears a soft moan. Is everyone bewitched? Is it the sun? The heat? The throb of the bulldozer? The call of the cuckoo? Has everyone gone to the moon?

            On the bed two bodies move slowly and rhythmically like the bulldozer lifting and lowering its huge arm across the red-soil gashes of the cowfield. The man`s back is brown and sheened in a film of sweat. The muscles in his shoulder ripple like shook velvet. Sadie sees Penny transfixed in the doorway. She screams. The bulldozer driver pulls away from her palpating baby flesh. `What the shit?` Then he grins. `Oh, it`s only the school-kid. Now, where was I?` Sadie laughs as she disappears beneath the muscle.

            The air is cooler now, streaked mauve at the edges, fading like a bruise. The bulldozer stands proudly in the middle of the field it has laid to waste, awaiting its transport home. The cuckoo is somewhere and is silent at last. The ambulance screams away from Fieldview Crescent, its blue light a brisk bustle of officialdom. Geoff follows, grim and grey, in the police car. They found the baby behind the hardboard in the cold fireplace, its baby-bird mouth stuffed with newspaper.

            Penny is curled in her bed, a pillow stuffed into her mouth to stifle the stupid sobs that will not stop. Is this life? Is this where her education is leading her? To men who prefer the old tired flesh of Sadie to the bouncing thighs of promising, blooming youth? To women who murder their babies? To fields where cows once waded up to their bellies in soft, damp grass now crushed to support houses for new Sadies, new Teresas and Geoffs and all the rest who see nothing because they are too busy buying another pair of shoes?

            Sadie sleeps. She finished the bottle of gin alone. Washed the bulldozer driver from between her legs and stretched out in blissful talcum-powdered peace. She loves sleeping alone. It`s the daylight that terrifies her. It knows too much. Two pink bunny slippers wait for morning when the cuckoo will be wound up and ready to go.

            In the darkness beyond, beneath the ash-tree at the bottom of Penny`s garden where the cuckoo sleeps, a bat swoops low on soft grey wings, whispering with dark and secret purpose like leaves before a storm. 

About the author

Sally Zigmond's dream always was to read and write.When her sons were occupied during the day with full-time dedication, she attended various adult education classes run by the local government.She eventually stumbled on "Creative Writing for Pleasure and Profit" and she was hooked.  Her commercial fiction has been published by The People’s Friend, My Weekly, The Lady and Woman's Weekly. Her more literary fiction and has won prizes and competitions and much has been published in QWF - Quality  Women's Fiction.  
Hope Against Hope a Victorian novel was published in 2011 and Chasing Angels, a novella in 2019


No comments:

Post a Comment