Before Lent by Jane Murray Bird

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drops of oil on a nonstick pan

I killed the birds the day I left my husband. Three of them; no stones. It was Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, a kitchen carnival with floats in the shape of squeezy plastic lemons: Pancake Day. And everything was going to be OK. I had bought the pan the previous morning, when I was still a housewife. The non-stick coating had reminded me of my previous boyfriend and how he had returned a pair of stain-resistant work trousers, that had clearly been torn in an over-zealous suit maneuver, to the buttoned-up department store in town. He told them that he wasn’t sure what had gone wrong but he blamed the non-stick coating. He got his money back.

The first two pancakes were just for the race. My friend, her husband, and their little boy came over because, even though they had lost a baby, everything was going to be OK. She was newly pregnant again and moving like a stack of tissue-wrapped family albums was balanced on her head. I ran as hard as I could on the dry, tide-in sand of Portobello Beach, tossing the frisbee of flour, milk, and eggs from the pan like a shuttlecock from a racquet. It was swimming in oil. My big dog kept leaping in the air to try and snatch the sandy pancakes from the kids. I don’t know who won.

We walked back to my flat in an Edinburgh February’s half-light and I fired up the gas hob. I stood at the stove with my pot-bellied friend and one by one, by the open flame, we solved our problems until there was a stack of 24 pancakes. Everything’s going to be OK, with sugar on top. The oil smoked, the batter splashed little crispy discs that turned each pancake into a thought bubble and hissed, ‘“Is it? Is it? Is it?” The kids smeared jam and banana and chocolate spread, on each other, the dog.

The first thud might have gone unnoticed in the hubbub, but for the fact I was standing right next to the cage, fetching milk from the fridge underneath it. Cheeky Chef Sparky Blue – who had lived a life as colourful as his feathers and picked up a new name in every home – lay dead on the sandpaper. It wasn’t an omen because birds die all the time. You see pigeons under the railway bridge, headless, and it’s not because the fox is sending a warning; it’s just nature.

“Everything’s going to be OK,” I tried to explain to my friend’s horrified little boy, through a mouthful of lemon and sugar, as the pretty little bird I got out of the free ads to keep Cheeky Chef Sparky Blue company, fell from her perch and hit the grit.

They must have been fighting, I reasoned. They must both have been mortally wounded. Suddenly it seemed obvious that you could not just lock strange birds in a cage together and expect them to get on, pair bond, mate for life. I stood there still in front of them, shielding the kids from the stiffening little bodies, my face burning.

There was a third bird – the largest – a handsome turquoise one, no doubt concerned to the extent of his birdly consciousness, about the fate of his cage mates. I had got him last, like the books said to, so that if one bird died, the remaining one wouldn’t be lonely. The books didn’t mention two dying at once. The books don’t mention a lot of things. When he also dropped heavily from the top bar, wings still folded against his side like the others, stone cold dead, I had the bright, clear vision of a canary. I span around and yelled: “Everybody get out of the house now!”

I opened all the windows and doors, put the dog outside and phoned the emergency gas leak number on the side of the boiler while my friend took the kids round to hers. I wanted so badly to call my husband; the phone in my hand came to life with its trilling ringtone. My friend, terrified for her unborn baby, had got in and immediately searched the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and gases that kill birds. And there it was: the non-stick coating. The fumes from non-stick pans were not poisonous to fetuses, just our feathered friends. Everything was going to be OK. I texted my husband: “I killed the birds with a frying pan.”

Jane Murray BirdJane Murray Bird studied creative writing at the Open University in Scotland. Her poetry has appeared in magazines including Mslexia and Magma, and she was commended in the PEN memoir competition.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Antony Theobald

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