20 Metres

Dear Sir,


I think about that smile you gave me in the sun and I wanted to explain why I had dirt on my face.


The night before at 11 p.m. my husband, sitting on the sofa, had said there was a bird in the chimney and/but/and he wasn’t going to do anything about it.


(When I say the chimney we live in a rented house and instead of a fireplace we have a thick piece of board which is painted over and stuck down with gloss paint.)


I looked it up on my computer and it gave the two obvious choices: get the bird out or leave it to die. The option of leaving it to die was gone into in some detail and how long it would take to decompose and the specifics of the smell. I went to bed and immediately fell asleep.


In the morning the children woke up and I took them down for breakfast. (I should say the house is very small so breakfast is right by the boarded-up fireplace which contained this bird). By this point I could hear sounds like a person’s coat when they stop right outside your front door, before they knock.


shwww shwww


Or if they’ve stopped there for another reason and aren’t going to knock.


I put on the radio and got the children ready, and then we walked to school.


On the way back I did think that if I saw you I might just confess the whole thing. But what could I say to make it sound appealing? Watch me smash something then perhaps we could have a little walk.




When I got home the bird was moving in the still house, living in the wall, my husband having already left for work. In the basement I found a broad flat tool like a metal version of an ice- scraper for a car windscreen and I used this and a hammer to slowly break in the edges of the board.


While I was doing this I thought of a book I had read in which the writer remembered her mother rescuing a bird from the chimney in her bedroom when she was a small child the age of my children. Her mother had reached up the chimney and drawn out a collared dove with her hands and they had watched it fly out of the window into the night.


I carried on with the edges not putting the radio on or making a cup of tea, and also there were no sounds from the chimney. I said to the bird stand back.




When the board came loose I opened the window a bit and out hopped a young blackbird. It flew into the wall once, and then it stopped, saw the window, stood on the frame looking at the garden for a minute and then left. It looked healthy and I felt good about myself.


At this point I did have a cup of tea and listened to the radio for ten minutes because I had been two hours at getting this board open. They were talking about churches falling into the sea.


But then I saw that it was nearly time to get my youngest from nursery school and I still needed to clear up the chimney, and so I got the hoover and a dustpan and brush, and some old newspaper and a bin bag. In the dark hole was a pile of soot and also something which made me stop still for a few moments because it was another bird. Not like the other one, this was a skeleton, sitting on top of the black dust.


(I am quite practical but I did have to stop for a few minutes and think about whether this second bird had died while we’d been living here and also about the young blackbird who had to sit in the chimney with this skeleton for the whole night while I lay in bed upstairs.) Then I thought for a bit about whether I should give this skeleton to a school or keep it for myself somehow, and I thought all of this frozen still on my knees by the fireplace.


And then I checked the time and it was five minutes until I should set off for the nursery school and so I swept the skeleton and the soot into a bag and then I hoovered up what I could and put the board back in place and went down to get her, but although I had time to wash my hands several times with good soap I didn’t look at my face and I only noticed when she mentioned that I had streaks of dark grease across my nose, and my chin. A powder of wood I hadn’t burnt and feathers.




On the way down to get her I walked past you and you had the sun in your face and you gave me a smile and it made me feel as good as if you were that blackbird’s mother saying thank you, it doesn’t matter that she had to sit on a skeleton all night while you and your husband did nothing, the important thing is that she’s alive.


And there were a couple of other things on my mind then too, like a painting by Clara Peeters of a table covered in dead carcasses but with one live sparrowhawk sitting on top of them, except it is uncertain whether the hawk was really alive or just taxidermy, and that if it was alive then Peeters had probably painted it on a falconer’s hand and merged it across, and that what was almost certain is that the scene never happened, that it never did sit there, one living thing among the dead.


(I wanted to know what you thought about things which might have happened, but hadn’t been the way they looked, and which were probably assembled from other scenes.)


I did want to know what you thought about that and also what you thought about cars, hair dye, central heating and also what your handwriting was like and what your swimming was like.


,,,,, Sir


Sir is mostly a dead word.


It was very quick and the sun was in our faces and then I went and picked up my little girl and brought her back for lunch, and then later on, when they were all asleep I went out and put the soot and the skeleton into the bin, and I didn’t tell anyone about it.






I was surprised not to hear back from you about the blackbird and I thought that maybe you would like a few more details about what happened that day. You see I did leave a few things out.


After my husband said he wasn’t going to do anything about the bird I sat downstairs drinking whiskey thinking about a boyfriend I’d had in my early twenties called Mickey. We cried to leave each other every day and he was big and awake and I think he would have been the ideal kind of man to smash down a rental chimney, forcefully, but quietly enough not to wake the children, and gently enough not to kill the bird. And I think he would have hoovered up afterwards and I think he would have disinfected the skeleton and donated it to a local primary school.


And do you know who else I think would be quite good at this? You.


Sir, my cards are on the table.


The other thing I left out was that a man came to seal the board back on with mastic. I called him when I was in the kitchen after the bird flew out and he said he’d be there in five minutes. Only then did I think to hoover the space of ash and only then did I find the second bird, the skeleton. So I was running around very quickly with that skeleton to hide it, in case I seemed like I’d made up the whole story like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, like Clara Peeters with her sparrowhawk. I tipped the bones into a bag from the local bookshop.




I want to stress that there was a first bird that flew out of the window. There was something alive on top of the dead.


My kids they’d had a nice day and I told them about the bird flying away safely. The little one had been learning about the body. Mum your brain is in there. Your heart is in there.


This man who came to seal up the chimney told me about his life. He used to live in Southampton and play for Southampton FC, and then his wife left him and he got to doing this. He was a big man big hands on his cup of tea.




S I R,


I am disappointed by your lack of response but I understand why. What kind of person discovers a bird in their chimney at 11 p.m. and then waits until morning, late morning, to begin to get it out? I said I went to bed and immediately fell asleep and then I told you I thought about Mickey.


Sir . . .


What actually happened was that I lay against the wooden panel with my ear right down on it and I listened. I heard nothing; I heard a faint noise.


I heard my husband brush his teeth I heard the kids moving in their beds I heard my old boyfriend laughing I heard the cars going by on the street outside I heard my heart beating in my chest and then I couldn’t hear my heart.


I thought about the taxidermy bear in the museum. Only the skin is from the original bear and the rest is put on, or toy as my daughter says. It has toy eyes. We play a game going around the museum of imagining everything coming back to life. The wings of the owls beating on the cabinet glass, the conch re-growing its black and white foot. We think of that bear walking right out of the door.


Sir,          there are other things happening in this street


Last week, on my day off, I was up a ladder, spraying windows, choking on it. Wipe with a cloth then scrub with a newspaper, scrunched up newspaper is great for getting streaks off, great for making things dry as tinder, and she was there in her garden bent over at the edge, bent with a little box, and the box looked too alive. Someone had told it what alive was.


She had a shovel and she was digging the soil, breaking bluebells just coming, flower onions on the grass. She’d dug a little trench, and she lowered the box but the hole was too small and the box stuck up, it poked its head and shoulders up out of the hole like Punch & Judy but mostly like Punch.


I was in a cloud of cleaning mist, stench stretching into my face and round the block, I thought it made me invisible, my eyes burning my interest burning and she looked around and I was up my ladder.


It’s thicker she says and my eyes are waxed with the stench of it, the lemon chemicals. I can’t hear through the smell.        It’s thicker


It’s the cat


Your cat!


The woman I didn’t send a card to, don’t know her, sometimes take her packages, wonder where she works, if her legs fit under her desk, has her father died, but never talk to her, never went round. I keep my place private, she’s a good neighbour, a good face, no malice, no violence. She pegs her washing on the line. She has jeans and T-shirts and her underwear all the same, all black. She pegs her washing on the line in all weather, all through winter.


But this cat, it came into my house, asleep on my sofa, playing with the children, it came into my garden, sitting on my legs. It was that grey like velvet, like flagstones, like eyes, like an old necklace, like an old gravy jug, like sharks, it went freely between her house and mine.


I am down but I still have the wax of it around me.


I’m so – what are you going to say – and words come at me quick

very    dead     vet      burying       eyes        bleach


She was a lovely cat


Thank you, she says.


She and me we are at home, doing not much, bringing skeletons in and out of our houses without anyone noticing.


I spoke to another woman on the street who told me that her mother used to go out in the garden in the rain and collect a bucket of snails and walk them twenty metres from the house and then tip them out. Snails remember twenty metres but after that they forget. I did this one night and I half thought I might see you, and that we could tip the snails out together. Imagine forgetting after twenty metres, making a new life.


My husband says I bring it on myself by watching, watching too much and if you just ignore it, it will go away. But I think you should always let a bird out of the chimney even if it means losing your deposit.


What I left out is that Tuesday is my day off.


Olivia Smith is a writer, researcher and teacher interested in natural history, domestic space and still life.



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