‘I’m sorry,’ I say, looking straight into the gold flecked eyes, ‘I can’t see another way.’ The round eyes blink brightly back. I turn on the hot tap above the small white bath, hygienic and functional like everything else in here. There’s a red sign above the taps, with a warning about the scorching water. Steam rises instantly from the bath, and I move to the toilet to wait. I wonder, briefly, if I can hide her in my little room down the corridor. But no, she’d be found straight away: they mop the rooms every day. Besides, there would be nowhere to hide: bare lino under the single bed, and then there’s just the little lockable set of drawers, pine-veneer desk, plastic chair. The walls are painted magnolia: there’s not even wallpaper to hide behind. And even if I could squeeze her into one of the drawers, she’d probably suffocate. I know they do their best to make it homely in here, but it’s nowhere near. Bile rises in my throat when I think of the thick carpets and rugs I left behind. Laying as still as I could on the luxury pile, not daring to move, hoping this would make him stop. Sometimes it worked, but usually he won: got me moving again, a kick in the soft belly fat, a boiling spoon to the flabby upper arm.
I inhale the steam deeply now, looking down at the exceptional pigeon cradled in my palms. She’s a stunner, a certain win. I feel the quality of her down against my skin, she is oiled all over. I gently test the fineness of the bones, the strength of the frame, the vibrating breast muscles, the deep throat. Perfect balance. She was always my favourite and he knew it. He said it wasn’t right to have preferences: that the birds would pick up on it and stop coming home. Back then, he was still teaching me: he’d take me to all the shows, even the big one with the starry midnight carpet, crimson drapes and dazzling stage. My crushed velvet dress felt cheap under the bright lights. I spent most of the dinner tracing constellations on the carpet with my pointy shoes, while he chatted lofts and speeds and prize-money with the experts. They mostly ignored me, after the initial once over, and I was relieved to sit: the heels had rubbed my feet raw and bloody. I escaped to the toilets a couple of times, to stick plasters on my little toes and smile my mouth at the other wives. The tribute band rattled on, occasionally interrupted by trophies and rosettes for the winners, and eventually we got a taxi home, him staying up for a last whiskey. I went up by myself, was relieved to fall back into the feathery bed without him, to stretch out like a star-fish. He didn’t take me the following year, but I can’t say I minded too much: it left me a whole weekend to breathe, to read, to wear what I liked. I stayed in my dressing gown until lunch, spent both afternoons burying bulbs and raking the soil, ready for the wildflowers. I suppose I must have known something wasn’t right, even then, but I was lucky – everyone said so. What a nice couple we made, lovely semi-detached, no need for me to work, even a little garden and a drive.
I stand up now, turn off the taps, pigeon quiet in my left hand. The tiles are chill under my bare feet. It is peaceful now. Yes, that’s better. I wish I could feel a flutter of heart on my palm. A pigeon’s heart beats too fast to feel the separate beats. She must be thirsty. I fill the sink with cold water, lower her to drink. She dips her beak daintily: not like the cocks who plunge and gulp, plunge and gulp. I glance out of the window for hawks. A habit, no more. The sky is leaden, a few ragged leaves clinging to the spidery branches of the street trees above. It’s a shame: a hawk would be more natural. He’d kill me though. I decide that the noise of the shower might stop people getting suspicious: I don’t want anyone knocking on the door. I turn the shower on. The bath will fill up more slowly this way too.
Some people call these safe houses, but I’m not sure how true it is. I’ve seen the other girls flinch, like me, at the surprise of the buzzer or the tannoy scuffle. I don’t have the stomach for the communal lounge. I’ve tried it, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t handle the zombie faces, the greasy hair, the howl of daytime tv. I should give them a break though, the other girls are alright really. They share my habit of not looking people straight in the eye. We’re all sorry for the space our shadows take up, we shrink into the walls, hurry our bodies across roads when cars pause to let us pass. Some of us starve ourselves, some of us gorge: we are trying to stem the dark bleeding inside us, the seepage that makes us so bad. We are so bad that we are treated like animals – we are worse than animals – we are so bad that we are treated like animal shit. He made me lick a bit I’d missed once, from the pigeon loft, when I hadn’t disinfected it properly. I retched, stomach completely empty: I never ate breakfast then. I cried here though, on that first morning when they gave me hot toast and butter next to the window: big tears plopping down my nose and spoiling those beautiful slices, the melting sunshine, puddles of gold soaking into warm fluffy bread. The tears ruined my steaming mug of tea too, made it all salty. Giant heaving sobs, they were: I had to go to the bathroom to sort myself out, I was an embarrassment. They are so kind to us here: I’m not the only one who finds it hard to take.
I’d tried to leave him after the pigeon shit, but he knew. He must have seen something in my face, he knew my very thoughts. As soon as his car was off the drive, I’d scurried round, grabbed one of those bags for life from the kitchen. I ran upstairs and stuffed a few things in: bra, toothbrush, deodorant. I’d leave my phone, he’d only track me. While I was floundering about, I heard the engine. Tyres on the gravel: he must have turned round and come back. I nearly dropped the bag, fumbled, fingers like cold sausages. I managed to shove the bra back, then went into the bathroom, and stuffed the bag in the airing cupboard, ran my hands under the tap. He called my name. I heard him coming up the stairs. ‘Can’t you hear me?’ he shouted, ‘I said, are you going to that coffee morning at the church?’ I opened the bathroom door, towel in hand, trying to hold my fingers still. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Have you forgotten something?’ ‘Oh no, I just didn’t want you to miss it – I know you’ he said, voice dangerously calm. ‘Murial knows how forgetful you’ve been getting – I asked her to give me a ring to let me know you made it okay.’ I nodded, attempted a smile. And then off he went to work.
I didn’t try again for months after that. I stayed out of my body when I could. He went down on his knees to beg my forgiveness. He held my hand at church; the gentle, patient husband. The rabbit was the last straw though. He was a beautiful velvet lop, with chocolate indigo fur: water against my cheeks. A hot furry ball in my lap. I knew he didn’t love me back – he was wild after all – but I served him, best I could. Every morning, when I could, I looked for dandelions, pulling gently on a whole handful leaves to prise up as much of the root as possible. That was his favourite. I scraped the soil off with my nails, made sure he always had sweet hay, fresh sawdust, oats. The droppings were round and neat, easily swept.
One day, I arrived back from the supermarket, white welts in my fingers from the heavy bags, and saw a dark tuft floating down the drive towards me. I knew already, dropped the shopping. I bent down to pick up the fluff, rubbed it, unbearably soft between my finger and thumb. I looked closer: the indigo bled into the secret silver next to his skin. I rushed round the back, saw the cage door swinging wildly, the mesh rabbit-run at an unnatural angle.
He was already in the conservatory. He opened the door and said softly, ‘I’m sorry love. A fox must have got him.’ He squeezed me tight after that, told me how much he loved me, how he’d always told me to be more careful about locking up the cage for the night. I went back to the drive, collected the white loaves, the orange juice with no bits, the smooth peanut butter. Textures can make a person very angry.
That night I lay in bed next to him, cheeks burning. By some act of mercy, he was already snoring. And that was that. Next morning, I made it out with my thick carrier bag: knew it would be me in the wheelie bin if I didn’t get far enough. And so, I did it. Did it without triumph or pride, but I did it, just like these other women: we have all drawn on the courage of lions to get here. It’s been three weeks already: three weeks of knowing he might find me, three weeks of not being found.
But suddenly, this morning there was tapping. I was making the bed: a habit, meticulously smoothing the sheets. Tap, tap, tap at the window, behind the cheerful curtains. I stopped dead. It will go away, I thought. It will go away. But there it was again: tap, tap, tap. I pulled the red alarm cord above my bed: stood, stock still. I heard footsteps in the corridor, a brisk knock, and a woman sailed into my room, smiling. ‘Are you alright love?’ she asked.
‘There’s someone outside the window’ I replied, rooted to the spot. She strode over, pulled open the curtains and smiled again. ‘Nope,’ she said, throwing open the window as far as the safety catch would allow, ‘shoo-shooing’ as she went. ‘No-one there, just a dotty pigeon on the ledge. Go on, be off with you. Shoo!’ I stared at her. ‘No-one’s going to get you here, three floors up,’ she said gently, ‘but it’s only natural you’ll be worrying. Why don’t you go off down the lounge and watch some telly with the other girls.’ And with that, she was gone, back down the corridor, muttering about rats with wings.
My feet were in hot tarmac: it clumped as I waded to the window and let the bird in. She was beautiful. I checked her legs quickly: no capsule. A relief. I checked her left wing, gently stretching it out, until the flights were fully fanned. Nothing. I inhaled sharply. The right wing, it must be. As I stretched it out I saw the scarlet streak at once. There it was, one word stamped in red ink. ‘Forever.’
Had he sent her? It was impossible to know. What matters is that she’d found me. And now, here she was, in this steamy bathroom. Here, in this safe house, with the scraps, the lumps, the useless bitches with all the power of the world surging in their bellies; rising in their veins. We are here. So, I must do it. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, looking straight into the gold flecked eyes, ‘I can’t see another way.’