“What is that?” Frank asked, pointing.
“It’s a xeme,” the bald man said. “Also known as a fork-tailed gull, or Sabine’s gull.”
“Is it real?”
“Stuffed, of course,” the man said. “It’s about twenty or more years old, I’m really not sure off the top of my head. Came from a retired soldier or something like that, I think. My assistant would have known, but alas I can’t ask him now.”
“Huh?” Frank looked at the man. “Why?”
“Car accident, unfortunately,” the man said. “They’re not sure if he’ll make it.”
Frank nodded in a vague gesture of sympathy.
“Would you like a closer look?”
The man turned around, picked up a small stool and used it to reach the bird from the top shelf. He placed the bird in its glass case in front on the counter in front of Frank.
Frank lifted the glass cover and smelled. The primary aroma was dust, as though nobody had cleaned it for years. Despite the age, there was something about it. The grey plumage sat on top of white, with a black and white tail, white chest and dark grey head. The yellow tip of the beak was firmly closed and the small oil-drop eyes seemed to be staring right into him.
“It’s been kept away from light,” the shopkeeper said. “It’s in fairly good condition. Naturally, if you -”
“I’ll take it,” Frank said, holding up a hand and shaking his head.
He felt rather strange, going home on the bus with a stuffed bird Admittedly, it was inside a glass case, which was inside a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper around it, but even so he hadn’t planned to buy it, and couldn’t really afford it, but there was just something about it.
The living room mantelpiece, above the gas fire, seemed exactly the right place for the bird. The photo of the wedding day with Jenny moved to make way for it. After all, that was a long time ago. Jenny was a long time ago.
“I should be over this by now,” he muttered to himself.
He woke the next morning in the armchair facing the television. Except it wasn’t facing the television, any more, it was facing the bird. He didn’t remember going to sleep in the the living room, or turning the chair to face the bird, but the half empty bottle of wine on the table, and the empty one on the floor, explained that. They also explained the headache.
Frank cleared the bottles away, putting the half finished bottle into the fridge. Something bothered him, but he couldn’t work out what. He checked his watch.
“Later than I thought,” he muttered. “Time to go shopping.”
He went to the living room again, picked up his glasses and squinted a bit. The bird seemed to be facing him.
“Weren’t you facing the window?” he asked it. He shrugged, and walked out.
The supermarket was four or five minutes walk around the corner, and it didn’t take long to do his weekly shopping. He arrived back home an hour and a half later, with four shopping bags full.
It took until seven o’clock to realise the bird was facing the window again.
“You’ve been cheerful all morning,” Anna said. “What happened?”
“Well boss,” Frank grinned. “I sort of had some luck over the weekend.”
“Uh huh,” she nodded. “What sort of luck?”
“Nothing special,” Frank grinned. “Just the ordinary.”
“OK,” she shrugged. “Enjoy lunch.”
Frank raised his eyebrows. “See ya,” he said, putting his coat on.
Instead of going straight to the sandwich shop, as usual, he went to the newsagent. He put a line on the lottery, then headed for the sandwich shop.
“What’s got into you today, Frank?” Lenny asked him in the company kitchen. “You’re happy today.”
“Got a bird,” he said.
“What’s she like?” Lenny grinned. “Good legs?”
“Beautiful feathers,” Frank said. “And a yellow bit on the end of the beak.”
“Oh,” he started.”I thought you meant…”
Frank laughed. “Yeah. Gotcha.”
“So what really happened?”
“I bought a bird,” Frank replied. “I told you.”
Lenny shook his head.
“Yeah,” Frank said into the phone. “And don’t forget the total anonymity, please.”
“That’s fine Mr Sorenson,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “And you just remember to come to the money management course is all.”
“I know,” Frank sighed. “Do I really have to?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” the voice replied. “As I explained to you before, it’s the law. We have to do that before we can let you have the money.”
“OK, all right.” Frank said. “Well, I guess I’ll see you Saturday.”
“We’ll look forward to it Mr Sorenson.”
The call finished, he went back to his desk, unlocked the computer and emailed Anna. It was five minutes before she emailed him back, asking him into her office.
“You’re quitting?” she asked.
“Uh huh,” he said.
“Personal reasons,” he replied. “Like I said in the email.”
She picked up her pen and twiddled it, looking at her fingers for a moment, before looking back at him.
“Have you got another job, Frank?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Then why are you leaving?”
“Like I said, I can’t go into it,” he replied.
“Is it money?” she asked. “Do you want a raise?”
“Did I ask for a raise?”
She looked at him. He didn’t flinch.
“No,” she sighed. “I guess you didn’t.”
Frank got home a bit late that night. He decided to treat himself to a pizza on the way home. The money didn’t have to stretch to the end of the month now, just the end of the week. And that felt good.
“Hey,” he said to the bird. “You did a great thing for me there, you know that?”
The bird was silent, but seemed to be looking at him.
“I guess I gotta get a bit drunk, huh? Break down the barrier?”
Although the bird didn’t move, Frank would have sworn in a court of law that it agreed.
“You need me to do something for you now, is that it?” he asked the bird. “What do you need me to do?”
He opened a bottle of wine, filled a glass and drank.
“Let’s find out, shall we?”
Frank woke up, cold. He checked his watch. 4am.
“Where the hell am I?” he asked, standing up. “I’m not at home, anyway.”
He looked around. The window was broken, letting in the cold night air, and there was a smell of something he couldn’t quite place. There was a light on, somewhere. It wasn’t bright daylight, but it was enough to see by.
There were guns mounted on the wall. Hunting trophies. Some of them looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in a while.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he muttered.
On the wall were photographs. A smiling man with a dead elephant, and a gun. The same man, smiling again, holding three or four dead birds. Another one, this time with a crocodile.
He looked closely at the birds again.
“Oh no,” he said to himself. “They’re not, are they?”
Frank turned round, slowly, taking his eye off the picture of dead gulls. He walked over to the antique desk in the corner of the room. He looked over it, into the corner of the room, and saw what he half expected to see.
The man from the photographs stared at nothing, a large knife protruding from his chest.
Frank shrugged, put his hands in his pockets, and walked out of the window. He wondered how soon he could be on a plane out of the country.
The post “Xeme” first appeared on simoncollis.com and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2018. All rights reserved.