Peter

by Charlotte Baker, edited by Chandler Yang

Mr Hammond raps his fingers on the table. His nails have not been cut and make an irritating scratching noise on the plastic. A magistrate with a grey-flecked brown bob sits opposite, looking over the top of her glasses into Mr Hammond’s tired eyes. Two council members, an Environmental Safety Officer and neighbour Sarah Griffiths, 56, sit alongside. He states his case in well-pronounced but painfully slow speech.

‘The parrots emit what can only be described as primeval squawks,’ Sarah states, cutting off Mr Hammond mid-line and shaking her head. ‘At random intervals. It’s not fair on the rest of us.’

‘Would you describe them as joyful squawks, or sorrowful squawks?’ a council member questions Sarah, smiling at her from the end of the table.

‘I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t say joyful, there are so many of them in there.’

‘We hear five hundred.’

Mr Hammond tries to clarify that the number is less than a quarter of that figure. Tabloid photos of Mr Hammond stood sullen, parrot in hand, outside the cottage he had called a home since he was first married flick through his head. He holds Rita, his prized Slender Billed Cockatoo, who rests on his bedside table at night and watches as he sleeps. The inflammatory taglines they had written underneath make his molars press together. But it could never get him too worked up, inventing lines like that used to be his living.

‘This is what I mean, there is no talking to Mr Hammond. I’ve seen programmes about this kind of thing. It’s becoming quite common. Hoarding. The noise is not something I want my grandchildren hearing when they come to stay. It’s outrageous.’ Sarah rubs her forehead until it ripens a mottled pink, her face moves with her hand, stretching the skin around her eyes. She had always liked Mr Hammond’s wife, Edna, she did her best. But after she died, there were only empty flower pots and a patch of dry land. How were they supposed to win the Best South West Village prize with that squawking in the background?

‘Would you say it affects your sleeping pattern?’ the Environmental Safety Officer asks, jotting words like nuisance and noise on a notepad.

‘Well, the spare room faces Mr Hammond’s garden over the back, and if the window was open… it would definitely be audible.’

‘I see. Do you see how your habit affects those around you, Mr Hammond?’ he poses the question directly to Mr Hammond, who stares blankly out of the window behind their heads, scrunching his hand intermittently.

‘And those animals!’ a council member adds ‘It’s only a tiny house, for all those birds!’

Mr Hammond had tuned out for Sarah Griffith’s speech about her ugly grandchildren, but he hears the faux concern in the man’s voice and grits his teeth, catching a bit of tongue in his denture, which angers him further.

‘What? Did you not see the footage? There is a fourteen foot enclosure! Those birds are better kept than any!’ but his voice doesn’t carry like it used to, and his gruffness overpowers his words. ‘I built it myself. Don’t just read some paper and make yo- ’

‘The noise, Peter. It’s too much. Think about my little ones-’ Sarah’s voice was trailing now. She has a residents meeting at five and doesn’t plan on arriving late.

Mr Hammond closes his mouth again and listens to them taking about regulations and tropical birds. He thinks back to the little face of his grandson Joe, in the pet shop while he purchased his sixth macaw, Wendy.  She flapped her wings as the owner plucked her from her cage, a frantic eddy of green and gold. Peter admired the contour feathers as they fanned and then nestled back against the body of the creature. As it settled on the perch for the man and his grandson to have a closer look, a long retrice fell to the floor. It was a little damaged, curling to one side and thin in the middle. Peter worried about feather mites; though he was not a man to turn a living parrot away- even at that point. Joe picked it up and smiled upwards. He must have been about seven. They took the parrot away that day on the fourty-nine bus.

He didn’t have to walk with a stick then. He misses being mobile, he misses Joe, but most of all he misses understanding the words of people sat in the same room.

Mr Hammond stares into Mrs Griffiths’ now narrowed face, and then at his claw tapping away on the table, and then at the faces of the five people that sit in a semi-circle before him.

‘Do you have anything else to add to the case, Mr Hammond? I would like to bring this session to a close,’ the judge speaks for the first time in twelve minutes.

Mr Hammond says nothing.

Images of a flightless house and his huge sheds empty bar a few spiders cloud his vision. He sees cupboards devoid of all pellets and seeds. He sees the birds taken in cages, mixed in species and personality, their particular set of magnificent feathers and glowing eyes indecipherable from the others, and dulled with improper nutrition. The handlers could never know that Evie and Steve don’t get on, or that she’ll peck his neck until he’s left in a ball in the corner. They can’t ever know that Fred will rule the others in cruel, dictatorial conditions unless kept alone. He sees himself having to find another activity for his Sunday evenings; usually spent compiling weekly seed mixes and checking the birds for disease. Having to finally fold Edna’s clothes and take them to the charity shop. Clearing her purses out of the wardrobe. What would he buy from Tesco?

‘Then it is settled. A decision will be given to you in writing within half an hour. If you would like to take a seat in the waiting room?’

But Mr Hammond has taken off, through the doors, into the busy city centre. He rests one hand on the grey stone windowsill and the other on his stick. He can feel that he has skin, and he still has a layer of fat underneath. He still has a skeleton, but under that he can’t really feel anything at all.

A pigeon walks toward him, slowly, and he pulls a Hobnob out of his pocket.

 

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