Outside my window, distant traffic roars. A glass oil lamp, placed on my windowsill and fashioned in the shape of a bird, flickers in the night breeze. It was bought by my aunt Carol. She was kind of eccentric; the kind of person you’d expect to own twenty cats. The kind of person that always seemed to be draped in an over abundance of scarves, cheap jewellery, colourful knitted cardigans and handbags stuffed full of trinkets and a few scrunched up tissues poking out the top for good measure. You get the picture.
Well Carol had this habit. Let’s just say that junk shop owners must have loved her. She was never out of them, providing their keepers with what I can only assume was their main source of income. Not only was she on first name terms with every junk peddler in The Unknighted Kingdom, she also liked to talk fondly of them as old friends. She would talk about their ailments, families and whatever else came to mind in the way that aunts do when they are supping on a cup of tea and engaged in the type of idle chat that seems to be peppered with random references to people and places.
‘You want a slice of cake with that cuppa, Carol?’
‘Yes please, love. Oh that reminds me, you know old Jimmy that owns the junk shop on the corner of the Old Zen Road, up where the Drunk Cow used to be? Apparently his wife has been under the weather. Now there’s a woman that can bake a fine cake.’
And so on.
Over the years, as I was growing up, our house became full of knick-knacks and oddities that Carol would inevitably bring round as gifts after trips to whatever shops she’d been to that week. Most of them were broken and useless, but we use to humour her. Periodic trips to the charity shop to offload most of the junk became the norm.
It was on one such visit, years ago, in which she fished around in her handbag and produced the bird lamp. It sure was an odd looking thing. Made of coloured glass, it looked like it had been fashioned by a glass blower with a cough. Its beak was slightly twisted and its misshaped body haphazardly spawned feathers in all the wrong places. It wasn’t ugly, in fact it did possess a certain amount of charm, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of thing you’d proudly display on a mantelpiece. Carol said she had bought it because she felt sorry for it and thought it needed a good home. My dad pointed out that she obviously didn’t feel sorry enough for it to keep it for herself, but my mum told him to shut up and did the usual act of placing it proudly on the side. We all knew that it would probably be thrown into the charity shop box as soon as Carol was out the door, but this was our routine.
We ended up keeping the bird lamp. It kind of became the epitome of all the tat we’d received over the years and my dad would mockingly ask it for answers to the crossword clues. My mum and dad would even playfully talk through it during rare arguments.
‘You tell that lazy husband of mine that opening a cupboard door for me doesn’t constitute helping out around the house!’
‘You tell that stubborn wife of mine that it was me who built the bloody cupboard in the first place!’
And the bird lamp would silently watch.
I don’t know what it was about that bird lamp, but over the years my mum and dad became extremely fond of it. It didn’t stop my dad calling it an ugly bugger whenever he laid eyes on it. It even started making an appearance on holidays. On the evening of the first day, as we would sit watching the sunset and relaxing with a cold drink, my mum would produce it from somewhere and place it on the table. My dad would complain and grumble and ask why she’d bothered to bring it yet again and then he’d position it so it was facing the sunset.
‘See,’ she would say. ‘You do like it.’
‘Well, when you are as ugly as that, I suppose it’s only fair that once in a while you should get to watch something beautiful,’ my dad would reply.
On Saturday nights, my mum and dad liked to dance. They would play old records, and I mean really old, I hated them. They would waltz around the front room laughing the night away while I sat tortured by the music and embarrassed at the behaviour of two grown adults. My dad had long given up trying to convince me of the merits of anything they listened to, so somewhere along the line he’d decided that the bird lamp would be the main recipient of ‘a real musical education’. As my dad twirled my mum around the front room he’d occasionally cast his eye at the bird lamp and bellow above the music all the usual statements.
‘They don’t make them like this anymore,’ he would yell, or: ‘You should have seen us in our prime,’ and his personal favourite: ‘The music of today’s youth is just noise compared to this! Just listen to that violin!’ And the bird lamp would sit and silently watch.
I remember a time when my mum was sick. She’d been admitted to hospital, nothing serious, but it turned out that she would have to have a minor operation. It meant that she would be away for few nights. My dad was a mess. I’d never seen him like that before. When he wasn’t pacing up and down the kitchen, he was muttering to himself or making endless cups of tea which would sit on the sideboard until cold. For the first time it struck me that I had never seen them apart. On the afternoon of the second day, after playing with a teaspoon for twenty minutes, it became too much for him and he grabbed the bird lamp from the table and marched out the front door. I followed him all the way to the hospital, trying to keep up as he hurried along the corridors until he came to the ward my mum was on. She was sat up upright in bed, a puzzle magazine in hand. She took one look at him and laughed.
‘My God, you look worse than me,’ she said.
My dad didn’t say anything, he just sighed. He took the bird lamp out of his pocket and placed it on the table by her bed.
‘What did you bring that for?’ she asked.
‘I’d feel better if I knew it was watching over you,’ he replied.
‘It’s a glass bird,’ she said. ‘What do you think it’s going to do, call you later and tell you how I’m doing?’
‘He watches. And I’ll sleep better knowing that he’s looking after you.’
My mum started laughing again and told my dad that as stupid as he was, it was a very sweet thing to do. I left them holding hands and chatting while I went searching for a cup of tea. My dad later told me that he’d slept as soundly as a baby that night.
My mum was discharged from the hospital two days later and the pair of them were soon back to their old dancing, laughing, annoying selves.
I, of course, grew up and eventually left home to make my own way in the world. I would visit whenever I could. I would often turn up and ask the bird lamp if he’d been keeping a close eye on them. My mum would tell me to stop being silly, but she got what I meant. I guess it had kind of become a family thing.
After a few years, I settled down, moved further away and eventually had my own family. Regular visits to see my parents became phone calls and family gatherings now revolved around holiday times. With a family of my own, it became the norm for my parents to come to us. Our kids loved them in the way that only grandparents know how to elicit, and they would always be excited whenever gran and granddad were coming to stay.
For my eldest daughter’s tenth birthday my dad made a papier mâché model of himself that looked awful. It was stuffed full of sweets and had a sign stuck to it that read: ‘The Piñata Papa. Hit Me’. As the children proceeded to smash it to pieces with sticks, he rolled around on the lawn in mock agony, causing some of the youngest ones to actually start crying. My mum asked him what he thought he was doing, upsetting small children like that, but this only seemed to encourage him more and he spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, chest puffed up, proud of his latent thespian abilities.
It was around this time that we heard the news. It was my mum that broke it to us. My dad had been to the doctors after finding a lump. The doctor had sent him for a scan. It was confirmed as inoperable.
To say it was a shock would be an understatement. For most of your life, I guess you assume that your parents are invincible, even when they start to appear a little frayed around the edges. My dad was no exception. I couldn’t say that he’d lived a life of purity and had always taken care of himself, but I always thought he would just go on forever. My mum was devastated.
At this point, I’ll spare you anymore details. The Inconceivable eventually becomes the inevitable and one day the phone rings bearing a message that will change your life forever more. In this case, more than I could ever have anticipated.
My dad had passed quietly in the night. My mum had crawled into bed and put her arm around him. She fell into a peaceful sleep, from which she didn’t awake. They had both been found the following morning, hand in hand, clutching a little glass bird lamp.
The funeral was yesterday. I visited their house afterwards. Childhood memories flickered and played in the shadows like an old movie as I walked through every room. As I had a last look round to check that everything was in its place, I noticed the bird lamp. I placed it in my pocket and switched off the lights, leaving everything else for another day.
When I finally got home and everyone else was sound asleep, I removed the bird lamp from my pocket and placed it on the table. I smiled as I remembered the way my dad used to insult it and I tapped its twisted little beak. A thought occurred to me. In all the years my mum and dad had owned it, I’d never once seen it used as a lamp. I searched through a drawer and found a little bottle of oil. Opening the window, I placed the bird lamp on the windowsill and lit its tattered wick. In the roar of distant traffic, its flame flickered in the night breeze. I watched it for a while and suddenly realised that its twisted odd little shape couldn’t have been a mistake. The flame danced, lovingly reflecting a million colours off the surface of its misshapen glass. For the first time I saw its true beauty.
I closed my eyes and sighed the sigh of a man attempting to lift the weight of the day with a paper bag. In the back of my mind I could hear an old song being played, the kind my mum and dad would dance to. It’s funny how that music suddenly didn’t seem quite so annoying anymore. As I listened in the darkness behind my eyelids, the music rose in volume until my attention was directed outwards. I opened my eyes and stared straight ahead. The music was coming from the bird lamp. As I looked closer, my eyes caught the tiniest outline flickering in the flame; two figures laughing, my mum and dad, waltzing to the music of the lamp.
I guess that little bird was watching all along.