Links to the other parts of the novel at the end. Only 4 more parts to find out how I wrap this mother up! Thanks for reading!
Everyone still looked doubtful.
“Look at me, am I stressed? I’m away from my mate!” shouted the puffin.
Maurice rolled his eyes. “You’re dead, dummy,” he said as if the puffin had forgotten this.
“I don’t get it! I don’t get it!” said the penguin.
Maurice puffed up and rolled his trunk up and then out. “What I’m saying is: There is going to be one hell of a row in a few minutes!”
The birds looked at each other and then at Alfie.
Persephone paced backwards and forwards on Brandon’s bed. “I’m not sure how Maurice is getting this,” she said, “But I would have to say I agree: there is one hell of a row building up.”
In unison, the birds said “Ooooooo-oooo-oooo!!”
Marvin, who had no experience in the dating department, had just impressed the only girl who had ever shown an interest in him. He was half crocked on stolen whiskey but felt a deep regret for this. She was still in her basketball kit she had been wearing since lunchtime and fat beads of perspiration shone on her upper lip.
“We won!” she said to Marvin. She gave him such a big smile he couldn’t help but smile back.
“Would you like to celebrate?” he asked. “I have a bit of whiskey left.”
“Whiskey?” she asked. She frowned deeply. “I don’t drink that stuff!”
Marvin was confused. Surely all women liked a drink?
“Um, we don’t have to have a drink,” he rummaged through his mind for something they could do that did not involve drinking alcohol. He could think of nothing. For the past few years, drinking everyday had been a part of his life. He wasn’t hurting anyone!
“Let’s just go for a walk,” she suggested.
Her name was Tonya and she was a Scorpio. Right, Marvin thought. He himself was a Pisces. He was supposed to like losing himself in his work and day dreaming about better things but he did not recognise them in himself. On the other hand, Tonya liked to look at life in a deep and profound way. It all seemed very suspicious to him.
He followed her to a garden very near to where he lived. Except it was very unfamiliar to him. Tonya told him it was supposed to look like a Japanese garden but Marvin didn’t have a clue what Japanese gardens were supposed to look like. But being in this garden made him think of his mother. She too loved to look at plants and animals and have a connection to the earth. She had always said the way one perceives the world is the way one actually experienced the world. It made him wonder about his mother, if she was happy, if she was coming back and most importantly, if he was anything at all like her.
Persephone’s tail twitched and wagged. Something was definitely in the air but she just couldn’t put her paw on it. Like Marvin, there was some sort of “vibes” they were just about able to understand. She needed to keep on watching and hoping peace would find its way to them again.
It had all seemed so much easier before Alfie had arrived. It was almost as if his presence had disturbed their order and understanding of the world. They were missing human logic but at the same time played right into its hand. None of it made sense and both of them felt—but could not explain—a deep uneasiness that had settled over everyone who had to stand by and observe as events unfolded.
Clarice awoke on a Sunday morning and checked to see which house visits she was to make. Like other nurses in her hospital, she was required to check in on patients who were on the borderline of independent living and needing at least part time care.
To her dismay, two of her patients had been replaced with new ones and this usually meant only one thing: the regular patients had died. This always bothered Clarice. She knew she shouldn’t be “emotionally involved” with her patients but at the same time, there was an unstated declaration that a nurse needed to care for her patients and as far as Clarice was concerned, this meant feeling something for their situation. Sometimes, if she could make it, she went to the funerals of those who had been in her care. She always sent a sympathy card to the family or friends of the deceased.
“What’s the score with you?” asked a young nurse who had only recently started. Clarice liked her on a personal level enough to be friendly but on a professional level, she didn’t think she was up to much. Her name was Joy which Clarice thought was about as incongruous as it could get.
“I have eight visits, two of them new.” She concentrated on toasting her bread so that it was just a light tan colour. There was nothing worse than burned toast—not to mention it set the fire alarm off. “You?”
“I have four new ones, wouldn’t you know?”
“Gosh,” said Clarice, knowing Joy would not be attending any of the funerals nor would she be bothered about sending cards.
“In fact, I only have the four new visits to make,” Joy was saying. “Would you like me to take on a couple of yours?”
It was sweet of her to ask but Clarice looked forward to making home visits. There was something edifying about delivering a hot roast dinner to someone who didn’t get company very often. Although she knew she could get into serious trouble if caught, she had gotten into the habit of adding a few extra vegetables to the paltry portions. What were a few carrots and a few more peas? To top up the meals maybe cost her a couple dollars. The satisfaction of knowing she made someone’s belly feel a little more full on a cold day was worth the risk and extra effort. When she found out a few of her patients had their roots in England and Ireland, she started adding a Yorkshire pudding or two and a little extra gravy as well. Again, it came down to a couple of bucks but it brought out a conversation to folk who just didn’t get a chance to talk to another human being for the whole entire week.
To deliver the meals, Clarice used a portable warmer from the hospital that fitted neatly into the trunk of her car. It was simply a matter of filling the warmer with the trays from the hospital kitchen, wheeling it out to her car and lifting it in.
Except on the day she would discover Alfie’s body, things didn’t quite go to plan.
After the shooting, her car was completely unusable and so she had to arrange to borrow another one. What a palaver that had been! The biggest problem was that she simply had a bad credit card rating courtesy of her deadbeat husband. It was bad enough to discover he was spending a great deal of money that she knew nothing about but quite a different matter to learn she was somehow implicated in the whole matter because he had used their joint account as if it had been solely his own. Creditors—many of them who were, quite frankly, extremely dubious—had simply taken her husband at his word. And when the payments didn’t arrive, started to pass the bill on to credit agencies who wrote to her husband—at home all the time—and she was blissfully unaware a crisis was brewing. Until, of course, she needed a bit of credit as a guarantee she was reliable enough to return a borrowed car safely back to its creditor.
“What do you mean?” was all she had been able to respond to the rejection.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” said her car insurance representative, “But you can only have a loan car if your credit rating passes and I’m afraid. . .” He shrugged his shoulders.
Of course, it took several hours of awkward phone call backwards and forwards to figure out what on earth was going on. In the meantime, the guy that got shot in the leg in her backseat had died, so her car was needed as evidence for the inquest. She was just plain lucky Brandon, who had not been given the all clear to drive due to his concussion, had offered to loan her his car.
Alfie, Ivan, the birds, Maurice and Persephone all breathed a sigh of relief. Alfie wanted Clarice to discover his body because he knew she would take good care of him. Maurice and Persephone, using what remained of their animal instincts, were nervous of what would happen if Alfie was under stress and the birds were just keen to save what was left of their damaged reputations from when the penguin decided it would be a great idea to scare Brandon into walking through a sliding glass door.
“I knew this would happen all along. All along!” honked the penguin.
Alfie and Ivan exchanged glances.
“Really,” said Ivan. “So I take it you also knew the guy that was shot in the leg was going to die too?”
“Sure! Sure!” boasted the penguin again.
“Then I hope he doesn’t like spit roasted penguin, flamed flamingo or poached puffin because he’s right behind you.”
There was a flurry of ghostly feathers as Ralph lunged for the birds, which scattered in three directions.
There was an ear shattering trumpet as Maurice made his entry and stood between the birds and Ralph. For a few seconds Ralph looked so completely and utterly confused that Alfie took pity on him. After all, it wasn’t every day that one died and then encountered three talking birds and a six tonne bull elephant. Besides that, Maurice looked ready to charge although for the life of him, Alfie couldn’t imagine what kind of damage could be done now that everyone was dead.
“Whoa,” said Ralph with resignation.
“I should say so,” said Maurice. “You don’t get to intimidate people anymore around here. You will behave like a gentleman or you can go elsewhere.”
Ralph looked suitably sheepish. “OK,” he said with a sigh, “I didn’t mean for things to get so crazy anyway. I would not have hurt the nurse. I just needed to get out of town quickly. There was no need to shoot me.”
The birds had hidden behind Maurice and were peeping out at Ralph from between the elephant’s legs.
Caroline, freshly released from the hospital, was bored and lonely now that she was back at home. As it was a Saturday, she decided she would wander over to drop in on her Uncle Nathan. It had been a while since she had last seen him and she had often thought of him. Like her grandfather and everyone else in the family, she had been devastated when had been so badly injured in the accident. No one had said very much but she had witnessed the unspoken agony on everyone’s faces. To get to Nathan, she would have to get a couple of buses but, as she had nothing else to do, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to reconnect with family.
Persephone had been fretting over Nathan’s fast decline back into absolute decrepitude. All the progress he had made the previous months was undoing at an alarming rate. The tom cats were back and demanding to be fed, the toilet was blocked again and the kitchen was a mess. Worse, Nathan was flopped back on the couch totally comatose of sugar and mindlessly watching television. There were red and green dots on the screen and the one representing him was flashing red.
There was a knock at his door but Nathan did not even flinch. Persephone jumped off the couch and walked over to the tom cats with her tail in the air. There were two older toms lounging near the front door. Neither of them was interested in tail anymore and had reached the stage of their life when they wanted nothing more than a peaceful life. So when the younger toms started to fight, the two older ones decided it was time to make an exit.
Over time, cats imitate certain skills they have seen humans do. There are cats who have managed to toilet train themselves for example and other cats that can open boxes of dry cat food and cats that can squeeze through impossible places. And then there are cats who have lived together for so long and have seen humans do so many things that they learn to collaborate and do as humans do. So one old tom cat simply stepped on the back of the other tom cat and reached up, unlocked the front door and let themselves out. In the process, they let Caroline in.
Caroline realised as she let herself in that she had been so busy with her own sadness that she had lost track of nearly all members of her extended family. By her calculations, she hadn’t seen Nathan for nearly two years—and she thought that was quite a conservative estimate. The last time she had seen him was just after his accident. He was recovering and was eagerly talking about the house he would buy with the compensation.
“I just want a very simple house,” he had told her. “I don’t want to have to take care of too many things or get bogged down with renovations. Just an easy place to lay my head at the end of the night.”
The last time she had seen him, there were still obvious scars from the accident imprinted on him. Nathan was only a few years older than her and he had graduated from high school just before she had started. When he finally got his driving license, he would come collect her to hang out at the 7/11 across town where they’d get a sugar high from too much cola and shoot the breeze about nothing terribly important. But he made Caroline feel loved and protected. Everyone in the family had said (repeatedly) how lucky she was not to have been in the car when he pulled out in front a pickup truck after he had dropped her off.
Caroline’s parents had been screaming and shouting at each other (as usual) when the phone had rung. Neither had heard it so it had been her who had picked up the phone.
“Caroline?” said the voice on the other end.
“Grandpa!” She was always glad to hear from even though he was often tired and cantankerous. He was not moving as fast as he used to and she was just starting to become afraid that she wouldn’t have him for too much longer.
The shouting carried on and Caroline felt embarrassed for her parents. “Caroline, can you get one of your parents on the line?”
Caroline looked at her parents, both red faced from screaming. Her mother had tears running down her face. “And what do you do? Huh!! Nothing! You never do nothing!”
“It’s not a good time,” she had whispered. “Is there something I can do for you?”
To Caroline’s horror, Alfie began to cry. He didn’t make it obvious at first but she could hear his voice breaking with emotion.
“It’s bad news,” he sniffed. And Caroline could imagine him holding the bridge of his nose as he tried to get himself under control. “Nathan—“
As soon as Caroline realised something had happened to Nathan, she had put the phone down and begged for a lift from a neighbour.
Seeing her grandparents so upset had had a huge effect on Caroline. When you’re growing up, you want to believe that grownups never have such huge problems that they cry. You want to believe they have all the powers to change everything. Nathan was in surgery so she didn’t get to see him that evening. Getting her to go home to her warring parents had been very difficult and in the end, Alfie and Lucy had let her stay with them so they could all go to the hospital together the following morning.
Nathan had been a pathetic sight, covered in plaster. He was in an induced coma so was completely unresponsive. Caroline had a hard time believing he was actually under all those bandages. The worst of his injuries were the ones that couldn’t be seen, she had been told. She had never been to church in her life but had prayed for Nathan, not caring if he suffered long term damage for his injuries. Caroline would have loved him no matter what had happened and taken care of him no matter what state he had been left in. He deserved people who weren’t going to give up on him.
And so, she felt terribly guilty on the day of her first visit to him in a very long time. Caroline closed Nathan’s door and stepped into the living room. Garbage was knee deep and there was an awful pong of cats and rot. But worse than that, was the certainty in Caroline’s gut that something was very wrong. Everyone could be a slob at times but this was far, far worse than just a pig out.
Like Alfie had found, every room was simply beyond the imagination. Persephone rubbed against Caroline’s legs the best she could do. Caroline took another tentative step inside. For a few moments, she saw no sign of life and she thought perhaps the house had been overtaken by squatters. She hoped, it had been overtaken by squatters.
And then her eyes rested on the pile of rags piled on the couch.
Nathan was curled up on the couch and was sucking his thumb. Except for the sucking motions he made with his mouth, he appeared asleep. It was difficult to know whether or not she should wake him up to end this embarrassing situation or let him sleep through it so he could be oblivious to it.
Her indecision came to an end when Nathan began snoring. It was not the snore of someone lightly sleeping but perhaps the death rattle of someone who might at any moment find it impossible to inhale due to the tongue’s sudden and irrevocable lodging in the throat.
For a few seconds, Caroline had been fearful Nathan was beyond saving and then there came a flurry of twitches in his limbs.
“I’m awake!!” he shouted. “I’m awake!” Unseeing, he turned in Caroline’s direction.
Seeing Nathan was awake, Caroline visibly relaxed. They could fix the house up again but perhaps Nathan was beyond fixing.
Unknown to either Nathan or Caroline, the dead birds were watching them, and began to high five each other and perform a weird bird dance. It didn’t take long before Maurice and his new friend Ralph joined in the fun.
“Not so bad being dead, is it?” Maurice asked Ralph.
“I’ve felt better,” he said with a straight face.
“If there was anything you could do again,” Maurice probed, “What would you do?”
Ralph was very thoughtful for a few minutes. In fact he was so thoughtful Maurice had thought he had fallen asleep. “If I had time,” he said, after waking up, “I would tell Janie that I loved her.”
There was a collective gasp. They had all heard of the name Janie but no one had thought much about her. Janie was Brandon’s wife, a nonentity really.
“There must be more than one Janie in the world,” Ivan said authoritatively whilst trying to remember any other Janie he had ever met before.