Birds, Dandies, and Sweethearts, a poignant moment-in-time story inspired by the author of acclaimed Attrib, Eley Williams, who gave a talk at the Nuffield Theatre in February. Author Tilly Roberts shares an interest along with Williams in exploring the 20th century American critic Edwin Denby’s question ‘What does each second mean, and how is the span of attention used to make it a longer or shorter experience?’
Birds, Dandies, and Sweethearts:
You bring me Love Hearts, half an hour late. Present them to me as if they are the most romantic gesture you could have possibly thought of, and as if I, sitting there catching my breath (which had just blown out the door, as you walked in) should be overwrought to have such a late, but inarguably thoughtful, lover.
“For you child,” you coo teasingly, brushing my cheek.
Your brilliant green eyes crinkle with a thousand sins and virtues which in moments like these, I can never separate rationally.
“Have you got anything stronger?” I ask, gesturing to the hearts.
You chuckle to yourself and take a chair on the other side of the table. My heart leaps up in my chest, circles you, does a somersault out the open window, then settles into the usual eddy about your lips. Fluttering around the chandelier like a charm of goldfinches, my breath finds its way back to me.
I could never be angry with you, oh no. Never laugh at your weaknesses or upbraid you for your lateness and your excessive bluntness, which at times makes me really question the strength of society’s foundations, as they break open so beautifully in your wake.
It is a fair afternoon outside, and The Man on the Moon is quiet, and peaceful.
All along Brighton seafront people flock like birds. Lining the beach, floating in the sea and crowding excitedly, like a murmuration of migrating starlings around the pier, in great numbers. The salty air cools as evening approaches, and the red sun dips down to bathe in the bright blue and white crested waves. The sun-kissed birds depart in droves, walking slowly along the promenade, to sup in Brighton’s Laines.
A few sea birds begin to cluster around the bar. The flock grows louder and more brash, as the cool night air entices more inside, all a shiver. Some well-groomed light-mantled albatrosses look me fiercely in the eyes, snowy egrets wink and smile with their toothy beaks, but a weary row of seagulls only have eyes for the bottoms of their glasses. The waxy moon peeping out now, walks solemnly around the corner, and over the post office out of sight. A lively looking gannet pimped out nicely in a fresh summer suit, starts up a round on the old piano. So prettily he sings. And his fellows croak in unison around his feet. A dandy bird sashays up to our table, in a smart cap and a striking pink shirt. I hear the plucky flip flap of his feet approaching, and you look up from your paper with a grin.
“Dandy! Fancy seeing you this early,” and with mock horror you pretend to shield your eyes from the glare of his shirt, “I’m not used to you in the daylight.” Dandy puts his arms round your shoulders and winks at me, glancing down at the paper open on the table.
“How’s the Seagulls doing, well? I heard they beat Man-U the other day,” he chirps.
You turn back three pages and point to the stats.
You press your eyes to his tail feathers like a branding iron to a lamb’s woolly flank, and you hail me like a fellow passenger on a drowning ship of envy, pointing to Dandy’s prinked diamond flip-flops, you ask me for my opinion.
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” I say, “so hold on to them tight Dandy, because all the birds will be after them for sure,” smiling – all the while dreaming up a storm, as your eyes meet mine.
I like to think I could move if I wanted to, maybe just a toe, but it is not meant to be. Indeed, a bird has never been more securely tethered. And you are so close and smiling now, maybe you can hear, over the chatter, the rolling waves along the shore, and Dandy twittering along to the music – my breath as it saunters over to the bar abandoning me once again, it might give up on ever returning at this rate.
I open the Love Hearts and take a purple one between my teeth, and a yellow one with a star on it for Dandy. Dandy bends and pecks me on the cheek as he pops the sweet in his mouth. His gaze is like yours; flattering and direct but softer.
Many birds I know could not hold my gaze, let alone yours. Some fidget and quiver as if in that moment, they have lost all their fine feathers, others look to the walls for comfort or down at their shoes, and only flash a glance when they think it safe. Safe in the knowledge I never want to be safe again, and as for my feathers please take them all. For I am Agafya with no train to listen out for, and as for vodka, I only need a drop and I will do anything for you.
A look from a passing curlew through the tall window turns my head, and I find something unexpected, caught in the between the window and the sill, it’s not my breath, I think… it’s yours.
Dandy has left us now, and there you are again reading the paper, The Sunday Times sports section ‘The Eagles, can Souaré turn it around after foul Last Saturday?’
Nearly all the Love Hearts are gone, you give me one with a KISS on it. I reach for the last two and consider which I should give to you. The violet one says in bold capital letters I’M YOURS, the other one confesses I LOVE YOU in palest blue. And then suddenly, without any warning. The easy flow of the night approaching us and the drink warming the pub through comes to a violent and shrill note of anxiety. Which one should I give to you? And will you give me one in return? The din of the chatter around me swells and lifts my pulse to its metre. Suspense, and the swift up raising and downing of drinks, buoyant only for a second – raised in cheer and hope, love and despair – all to the heights of the well-marked and feather-dusted ceiling. Glasses, beady eyes, and kittiwakes wink at me from every corner of the room, as I offer you the violet sugary pill, maybe trying to communicate something which is already too late.
You take it.
And the little dog laughs,
And the moon wanders on,
And a smile, skirts around the corners of your mouth,
And my breath, swoops low across the open bar
Buffeting a few feathers,
Alighting on a grandfather clock
The Man on the Moon
“There is only one, sweet child, only one sweet left now, one moment and it will be gone.
She tries, blinking to keep her lips from trembling she sets her chin into the right-hand corner of the room and yawns incompletely at the raised rafters.
The suspension of a bridge waving in the candle light, is her spine
– not quite strong enough to keep her steady
and her hands – not quite quick enough to save herself from falling,
from having fallen so helplessly.
Railing against this moment she stretches her hand out and lays it on the wooden table, like a battalion of French revolutionaries
at the bitter end fighting
for a better end,
her fingers trace the grain of the wood, looking for a stronger manifesto
with which to survive this moment.
She wants what they have all wanted.
Your face, is the mask of the oppressive stoicism revolutionaries underestimate, and the emblem of the coup which you and your friends see fought along the soft lines of her face – then smile knowingly at each-other.
You give your divided attention to the moment she gives the explosive power of an artillery gun, which could rock Brighton in its comfortable coastal seat, and make every bird flee south.
While you flip to the next page, in the sports section, birds are already gathering.”
My mind breaks like the waves of the English Channel over every possible, every considerable, every dreamed daydream which in this moment crashes around my ears in a cacophony of my own seduction. Seducing everybody, everybody but you – my gaze rests for a moment on the last love heart sitting on the table and then takes off, scattering around the bar looking for a way out of this trap I have made for my very own heart.
And you, ever cool, never fazed by me or them, reach across the table and take it, my very heart in your hands. Still reading the paper, you twirl it between your fingers. And I feel sick. You consider the message, and your lovely face does not move an inch in my direction. In one moment you could be my hero, my equal, my dream, my ‘sweetheart’.
I watch that moment like the little dog in the corner; that dishevelled creature panting its wares and rolling over and over and over – waving her legs in the air, tongue making the birds wet all over, as they chatter, starlings all. My tongue is dry and pressed hard against my teeth, as I watch you with doves’ eyes. That little dog looks up to the birds and pulls at their feathers, presses them earnestly with questioning eyes and teeth. I have never pulled at your feathers, maybe I should’ve? And the moment stretches out into oblivion on each side of us.
But I will never beg. I am not one who presses birds with my wares and hopes for their eggs, in return for my troubles. I am on this side of the table, equal to you. The moment is still churning and gathering beautiful dust. I try and deceive myself, that I have the courage to not care, to fly away past your gaze, and the reach of your hand which brushed my cheek so casually. My feathers would look a lot more like my own, if I could just move my feet and run.
“Child?” you ask “Why do you look so frightened? Are you alright?”
I breathe once, quickly. And bring my hands together in front of me.
I tell you, “I felt like I was falling for a moment, as if I were in a dream.”
You laugh and pat my arm, “Aww… they all fall for me don’t worry.”
The Barman, the little dog, and Dandy appear at our table and seem to all have something for us. A strange tale about a man lost at sea searching for his father, a large piece of scrunched newspaper with a drawing of a cat with its head torn off, and two whiskeys on the rocks. You down yours, like it’s water, you swallow mine like it’s God’s wish.
“Ah yes, that’s the ticket, James, my love,” you smile at the barman “Here, open wide!”
It must have been hard for you to measure the distance in your mind (it was only six feet), and carefully consider the wind speed (which was minimal), and the weight the object of my desire (barely a spoonful of sugar) and the volume of alcohol that you’d consumed (who knows). You were not late in your timing then, you waited for the opportune moment (almost 20:00) when James was positioned perfectly and with the skill of an 89 year-old boules player who has spent his life fighting for his title in his home town of Versailles, where though the Revolution had failed, he was crowned as the ultimate maître de Boules. I said a quiet adieu to my breath and the little dog barked loudly, and you tossed the last Love Heart into the Barman’s gaping beak.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was previously published on the Insight: Journal of Undergraduate English at the University of Southampton website and can be viewed here.