Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis (publ.1980)


What is the collective noun for five English people gathered in a small house? A situation comedy. Alice Thomas Ellis was a Welshwoman so the exotic forms of social torment are as fascinating as the rites of the Trobiander Islanders to the anthropologist. As a Catholic and a very committed one Thomas Ellis has also the perspective of another world and the intercession of the loved dead. In ‘Birds’ Mary has her son Robin who has gone beyond the natural world taken suddenly and so there but not present. We gather that Mary was a single mother. She is broken by her bereavement and has retreated to her mother’s house to recover. Nourishment and nurture are closely aligned in the view of Mrs. Marsh her widowed Mum.

She pulled up a small round table and unveiled the tray with its lidded pot of tomato soup, lightly boiled egg hidden in a cosy, strips of toast ready buttered, banana and glass of water. The cosy was painstakingly embroidered to match the roses and forget-me-nots of the egg cup, as this was a district where the members of the Women's Institute were dainty rather than robust, embroiderers and flower-arrangers rather than makers of chutney and whole-grain bread.
Soldiers of toast! There is now the enforced cheerfulness of Xmas and snow and the whole family coming to visit, her sister and husband and two children with neighbours dropping in. It’s a snowed in situation with two visitors stranded. An inch has stuck and that means traffic chaos.
There’s a lot of fine literary writing which may sound like a sneer to you. For myself, I love it. Pain such as Mary's needs the help of nature.
The wind had taken over the dark winter garden, growing wilder as the morning passed, rattling through the bluntly pruned twigs of the rose bushes, which clanked like an armoury, and arbitrarily re-disposing the few remaining leaves of autumn, sweeping them past her gaze, lost and despairing -the unquiet dead taken by surprise.
No woman, well or ill, could sit in the garden today without looking foolish and feeling harried. The wind changed course, sycophantically smoothing the uprising mane of the cypresses and tearing away to flatten the common yellowed grasses that still stood, lifeless and fading, on the ridge.
In the Celtic way animals are familiars full of counsel. On this twee estate where the novel is set they are mostly banished as contributing to untidiness and the thin edge of rude nature.
There were only the birds, summer-fat in midwinter in this bird-loving environment. There were no cats; and dogs were discouraged, except for old Miss Jones's scottie, who was permitted, because his mistress was said to be of county descent and therefore at once deserved him and could be relied upon to look after him. The people at No. 5 who owned a chain of hairdressing shops had originally moved in with a bedlington, a boxer and a dachshund looking like an incomplete set of old-fashioned pictorial cigarette cards, but although there had been no unpleasantness they had soon realised that dogs didn't fit in to the Close and had given them away to friends who lived in ampler surroundings. There had been angry consternation when the Close heard that a policeman was to move in to the house next door to Mrs Marsh's. The neighbours were relieved to learn that he was a Chief Inspector, but still they wished he'd chosen a different place of retirement. He’ll bring his alsatian or his dobermann pinscher,' prophesied the lady from No. 5. They were all quite surprised when he didn't.
Will Mary find peace? Will her sister strike a blow against her husband Seb the philosopher who might be described in ordinary language as a dismal gobshite? Ask the turkey if Xmas is a good idea? But read this book, it’s very short, anguished, funny, desolate, satiric and life affirming in a contrary way. You need the loved dead.
Mary had gone back to her room. She opened the French windows and went out into the garden.
She could see the snow falling through the small rounded light from the downstairs lavatory window, a light as pure as from any cathedral clerestory. It fell with such soft determination in the still silence -soundless, weightless: gentle alien blossom that would melt, if she waited long enough, into familiar wetness, tears on the face: bathetic melting, mud in the garden, slush on the roads, useless tears.
She lifted her face to the angelic descent in the muted darkness, to the movement compelled by something other than desire, the lifeless idle movement of the drowned, to the veil, grave cloths, the floating sinking cerements, untroubled by blood, by colour: the discrete, undeniable, intractable softness of the slow snow in the night and the silence . , , 'Robin . .. she said.



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