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Short Story: The Blackbird

Life in the rest home was not exactly a barrel of laughs for Peter, a former farmer who grieved the loss of his independence. Days punctuated by unsatisfactory meals and the deaths of other residents made him wonder when his own turn would come...until one day, he heard a bark.

Short Story: The Blackbird

There was a body outside his room. He couldn’t see it, but he knew it was there. A few minutes ago, a nurse had quietly shut his room door. Soon after, he heard the telltale sound of a stretcher being wheeled down the corridor. “Watch that gap in the tiles,” said an unfamiliar voice. Peter didn’t know the body’s identity, but he would put money on it being David Murphy from Room 29. He hadn’t seen him at dinner for a couple of weeks. If it was David, Peter was happy for him. The poor bastard had suffered for long enough.

“And round and round and round and round and round and round and …”

“Shut up, Margery,” a nurse snapped. Peter smiled.

He turned his wheelchair to face the window. It framed a square courtyard that was bare except for a couple of white plastic tables with matching chairs. Small black pottles were lined up like fence posts on one of the tables. Their contents looked like vegetable seedlings. The rest home staff had been trying for weeks to get Peter involved in the garden. They said he could sit outside in his wheelchair and hand seedlings to those doing the planting. He had laughed in their faces. It would be a piss-poor substitute for sitting in the cab of his John Deere planter as maize seeds dropped into the freshly ploughed paddock.

As he stared at the seedlings, a blackbird hopped from pottle to pottle without a care in the world. He saw one just like it every day. Peter envied the blackbird. He hated it.

There was a loud knock on the door. He turned back to face it. Oh f***. Shrek was here.

“Hello, Peter!”

He wasn’t fooled by Gail’s cheerful face. She could give John Key a run for his money as a ‘smiling assassin’.

She was as wide as she was tall, and the fluffy blue jersey that covered her huge tits clashed with her dyed red hair (but not the grey roots).

Peter had nicknamed Gail ‘Shrek’ after the famous merino sheep that had avoided being shorn for six years. As always, she looked like trouble.

“How are you today?”

The tone of Gail’s voice was similar to the one that Clare had used with the girls when they were little. He didn’t dignify it with a response.

She pressed on. “What a beautiful day! We are taking a few people for a picnic at Memorial Park. Would you like to come?”

“Will there be any roast lamb?” he asked.

Gail laughed heartily. “We’re going to have egg sandwiches and some lovely cheese scones.”

It was Peter’s turn to laugh. “I wouldn’t feed the scones in this place to a dog. No, thank you,” he replied.

But Shrek was determined.

“Peter,” she said firmly. “You cannot spend all of your time in this room by yourself. It isn’t good for you. You need company.”

“What I need is for people like you to bugger off and leave me alone,” Peter replied. “I used to spend hours by myself on the farm before the accident. I’m not a child, sweetheart.”

Gail opened her mouth to begin another spiel when she was interrupted by a sound Peter hadn’t heard for months. The bark of a dog.

“Amber, stop it,” a boy’s voice called, followed by the excited sound of a dog panting. The mongrel was obviously pulling on the lead. What was it doing in here?

“Calm down,” the boy tried again. The pants drew nearer before a furry brown nose appeared in the doorway, followed by a large dog and a tall teenage boy grasping its lead. “Sorry, but I think one of the cats might have run away,” the boy said to Gail. “Amber found it behind a chair.”

Shrek was displeased. “You’re going to have to control your dog a lot better than that if you plan to bring her in here,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” the boy repeated. “I think she’s a bit excited because it’s her first day.” He grinned at Peter. “Hi, I’m Marcus. I’m visiting for a couple of hours. Do you like dogs?”

Did he like dogs? In his mind he saw Floss, his old black-and-white border collie, sniffing the sheep shit as she followed him round the farm. She could dominate a sheep in seconds with one hypnotic gaze. In the 12 years of her life she had never let him down. Not like Fiona and Leanne, who happily packed his bags and dumped him here before returning to their glamorous lives in Australia.

“Well, yes,” he replied grudgingly.

“Peter used to have his own dogs, didn’t you, Peter?”

“Oh, really? What sort?”

“It doesn’t bloody matter,” Peter said. “I don’t have them now, do I?”

The boy’s smile faded. He looked out the window.

“Well, Peter, if you’re only going to be sitting in your room, I don’t think it would hurt to let Marcus stay for a few minutes, would it?” Shrek sensed a rare victory. “Otherwise I’ll take you down to the lounge for the bingo game.”

Peter glared at the dog. The dog wagged its tail. It was a badly behaved, good-looking animal. It looked like a ridgeback, but there was something else in there, too. It had a smooth amber coat, the only other colour being a long white mark in the centre of its chest. He could just see the hint of a ridge along its back.

“Fine. But that animal had better behave itself.”

“I’m sure it will,” Gail replied, like anyone would who knew nothing about dogs. “I’ll go and check on the cat while you two get to know each other.”

The boy entered the room. He was pale, skinny and didn’t look very bright. He was wearing a blue hoodie and grey cotton pants.

Sweat was visible on his forehead in between strands of short black hair. The heating in this place was like the warmth of a summer sun that never went down at night.

He missed the relentless cycle of seasons on the farm, the changing climate signalling that it was time to sheer, drench, dock or even slaughter a lamb for Christmas dinner.

But in here, the climate never changed. Even if it had, Peter had nothing to do.

He saw the boy take in the peggy-square blanket that covered the bed, the framed aerial photo of the farm, and the book, A Shepherd’s Life, on the bedside table. He looked full of life, unlike the pathetic old bugger who sat before him.

Peter was silent. What the hell was he supposed to say to this kid? The boy would be better off visiting someone else. What about Connie McCormack in Room 16? She knew how to keep a conversation going. A one-way conversation, that is.

His irritation got the better of him. “Why are you here? Don’t you have something better to do with your time?”

The boy laughed nervously. “It’s my community service project. I’m doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.”

“Right. And what is that when it’s at home?”

“Umm, we do activities, sports, volunteering.”

“Hmm.” Peter thought of the rugby replay he was missing on TV. It was one of the few joys he had left.

He noticed the dog, which was probably bored, had started sniffing around the bedside cabinet. It spotted the rock of a scone that’d been left by a nurse at morning tea, nudged it onto the floor with its nose and ate it in one mouthful.

“Hey!” The animal was even more poorly trained than he had realised. He glared at the boy, who went bright red.

“My dog would never have done that at home, let alone in a strange place.”

“Bad dog,” the boy scolded. The dog sat down, a crumb clinging to its nose, and looked up at him sorrowfully. Ah yes, the fake apology. His dogs had never got away with that.

The boy looked at Peter nervously. “What kind of dogs did you have?” he asked.

“Border collies. Best sheepdogs in the world. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been on a farm?”

“Only once, on a school visit.” The boy smiled. “It was really good. I like being outside. I’m in the environment club at school. We do tree planting and stuff like that.”

Interesting. A few more hours outdoors wouldn’t do the boy’s pale complexion any harm.

The dog was now sniffing around the legs of his rollaway table. The movement caused the framed photo of Clare on top of it to fall to the floor.

“Amber!” The boy sounded scared. “Sit.” He tried to pick up the photo frame with his spare hand. He looked up at Peter. “I’m really sorry.”

“Leave it,” Peter snapped. He wheeled over and picked up the frame, which was now in pieces. He tried to pick up the photo, but he couldn’t get his fat fingers around the edges.

“I’m sorry,” the boy repeated. “I’ll ask Mum for some money so I can buy you a new frame.”

“That frame was a birthday present from my daughter.” When he’d opened it the price tag was still on the back. Twenty dollars at Target. Thank you, my darling.

“She’s a nice dog, she really is.” A nice dog. How many times had he heard that one?

“I’m really, really sorry.”

The photo folded as Peter grasped it from the floor. He turned it over. A crease now ran across Clare’s face and through the shoulder of her cardigan. His eyes began to water.

“I’m so …”

“Don’t say sorry again. It doesn’t make any difference to anything.”

The boy was silent.

Peter stared at the dog. The dog returned his stare before sniffing the air. It was probably intrigued by the strange smell in the place that had driven Peter mad in the early days. Now he hardly noticed it and that bothered him even more.

In the kitchen down the hallway he could hear the sounds of dinner being prepared. They would make him go to the dining room at five o’clock and sit at a table with three imbeciles, who might say ‘Hello’ and not much else. After tea, he would read or watch TV before turning out the light. He would lie awake in the dark remembering what he used to have. He would wonder when he would die.

The photo frame could be replaced. He could find another photograph of Clare in one of the albums in the wardrobe. And the dog had probably done him a favour by eating the rock of a scone.

“How long have you had Amber?” he asked. The boy was staring out the window. He turned. “About six months,” he said. “We got her from the SPCA.”

“Was she trained when you got her?”

“No. I read some books from the library, but …”

“You can’t train a dog using a book. It takes time and a firm hand.” Peter looked at the dog. “Sit.” It licked his hand. “Sit!” It wagged its tail. He put his hand on the dog’s arse and pushed it to the floor. “Good dog. Stay.” The dog stayed for a second before coming in for a pat.

He placed his hand on its soft, warm head.

“She’s very determined sometimes,” the boy said.

“So am I,” Peter replied. “So how often are you planning to come in here?”

“Once a week.”

Amber started sniffing around the rollaway table again. Peter put his hand on her collar.

“Look, it’s nice what you’re doing,” he said. “But if you’re going to bring a dog in here, it has to behave itself. Otherwise someone’ll get hurt.”

The boy looked worried. “Amber would never hurt anyone – well, I don’t think she would. And I need to do this to get my award.”

He would have liked a son. Someone to take over the farm. But there were no guarantees. Rex’s Andrew had headed to Wellington and a business degree. He never came back.

“Come in next week. Maybe I can give you some training tips for Amber. I’ll save a scone in case she behaves herself.”

Marcus smiled. “Sounds good. I’ll see you then. Come on, Amber.”

As they left, Peter glanced out the window. The blackbird had gone.

About the author:

Marisa King was born in Ōtaki on the sunny Kāpiti Coast. She has always been a writer, from the early days of churning out stories in exercise books on the floor of her bedroom. Careers in journalism, corporate communications and librarianship followed, before she decided to toss it all in and just focus on her writing. Marisa lives in Featherston in the beautiful Wairarapa with her partner and five cats. When not writing, she enjoys running, baking and – wait for it – reading.

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