Authors: Kate Thompson
Tess giggled to herself, imagining the sign outside the door being changed again from âthree hours' to âfour hours', then from four to five, and five to six, as progress slowed to a contented standstill inside the building. She could visualise the crusties getting out their Jews' harps and bongo drums as they settled in for the day, and the waxed jackets and pin-stripes sitting down among them, clapping their hands and chanting.
But the line did eventually move on, slowly but surely, and a few minutes later the golden bird came into view. It sat on a solid wooden perch, suspended above a lush forest of green and red foliage growing from large pots on the gravel floor of the cage. The sight of that gravel, laid down above the compacted earth floor on which she and the other onlookers were standing, meant something to Tess, though at that moment she couldn't understand what. It seemed absurd to be noticing such details when the phoenix was sitting there in front of her in all his glory.
She fought down a sudden urge to Switch and join him there and then, to become a part of that glorious radiance that shone through the glass panels of the enclosure. Instead, she tried to catch the bird's eye, to let him know that she was there and had not abandoned him.
It wasn't easy. His gaze moved slowly and evenly across the crowd, first one way and then the other. His expression was inscrutable and, when Tess did finally succeed in making contact with those calm, golden eyes, she could see no sign of recognition at all.
It disturbed her, and for a moment her buoyant mood deflated. Was she nothing to the phoenix? Was she just another pair of gawking eyes in the middle of this latest crop of uplifted faces? There was a certain arrogance about the bird's demeanour as he hung there above them all, passing his benevolent eyes from one to another, as distant as a priest handing out communion. The fat man moved sideways, blocking her view, and at the same time a sullen anger tugged at the edge of Tess's mind. If he was so detached, why shouldn't she be, too? Why should she care about him being stuck there for all eternity if he didn't even bother to acknowledge her presence? She could turn away now and never turn back, just slip off into the darkness of that other existence, to hunt the city streets in the hours of darkness and never be bothered with him again.
The crowd shuffled forward and she was edged along with them. The fat man stepped aside to get a better view and the light fell directly on Tess's face once again. As it did so, all thoughts of darkness were washed out of her mind and she was swept back into the jubilant mood of the encompassing gathering. The gaze of the phoenix passed over her again and she was perfect, glowing with an inner light as radiant as his own.
Outside the dull grey building, no one seemed in any hurry to move off towards their homes. If it hadn't been for the zoo officials who kept everyone moving along, people might have just sat down where they were, prepared to enjoy the weak winter sunshine for as long as it lasted. As it was, most people allowed themselves' to be guided back to the gates, where a cordon of posts and plastic chains separated the exit from the dense crowds still coming in.
The grass was green again now, except for those shadowy places beneath the trees and hedges where the sun couldn't reach. Tess kept an eye out for Lizzie, but when she eventually spotted her a few metres from the entrance to the exhibition building, she was too far away to call out. She noticed the puzzled expressions on the faces of the incoming visitors as they observed those who were coming out, beaming with pleasure. In sudden excitement, Tess realised that something extraordinary was happening here. Whatever power the phoenix held within itself was infectious. People were being changed by it. It was pulling them out of their dull, everyday lives and inspiring them with some sort of new spirit.
As though he were echoing her thoughts, Tess's father suddenly stretched his arms up above his head as if he was trying to reach the sun and said, âDo you know what?'
âWhat?' said Tess.
âI don't think I'll bother going on into the office after all. They can manage without me for one day. Let's go home and get the frisbee, then find a quiet spot somewhere and have our breakfast.'
âDoes that mean I can stay off school, then?'
Her mother laughed, her voice bubbling with the same inner excitement that everyone seemed to be feeling. âWe may be in a good mood,' she said, âbut we'd hardly go as far as playing frisbee without you!' âOh, wouldn't you?' Tess thought to herself as she sprawled luxuriously among the remains of their picnic breakfast an hour later. Her parents were playing frisbee some distance away, fooling about like young children in the sun. She was about to get up and join them when she noticed a familiar group of people making their way towards her across the park. It was Lizzie, with her escort of Mr Quinn and his children. As she stood up to go and meet them, Tess saw Lizzie turn to the others and give them some sort of command. They dropped back and sat down on the grass to wait for her, while she came on alone.
Tess bounced over to her, eager as a puppy, but something in Lizzie's expression made her hesitate. The old woman looked marvellous, as though she was twenty years younger. Even her stiffness had eased, and she hardly used her cane at all as she came forward to meet Tess. But there was something in her eyes apart from the reflected glow of the phoenix's radiance. It was clear to Tess that Lizzie had something on her mind.
âWell, young lady?' she said as Tess approached. âWhat does you think of all that?'
âOh, Lizzie. It's wonderful, isn't it?'
âOh, it's wonderful, all right. Of course it's wonderful. Look at all these people all over the place, wonderfulling away the day.'
Tess looked round at the growing crowds enjoying the space and the fresh air of the park. The grass was becoming almost crowded as people continued to file in and out of the zoo, and swelled the numbers lying about under the sun.
âWell? What's wrong with that?'
âThere's nothing wrong with that, unless someone has work to do.'
âOh, come on, Lizzie! I didn't think that you were the sort to get wound up over a few people taking a day off work!'
âI isn't talking about that lot!' said Lizzie, sounding exasperated. âI's talking about you!'
âMe! But you're the one who goes on about young people filling their heads up with useless rubbish and having no room left for what they need to know. How can you turn round and object to me taking a day off school?'
As she was speaking, Tess noticed Lizzie glancing past her and turning slightly away. âDon't look now,' she said with a nonchalant kind of expression, âbut here comes trouble.' She lowered her voice and spoke rapidly, determined to say what she had to before they were interrupted. âI isn't talking about school, you little fool. I's talking about work. Real work. You's here lounging around in the sun, lapping up all this light everywhere like a cat laps up cream ...' Her voice lowered even further and Tess glanced round to see her parents approaching, their faces beaming with welcome.
âYou has to do something with it!' Lizzie hissed. âYou's wasting time and you's wasting what that bird has given you! You has work to do.'
âHello again,' said Tess's father breezily, extending a warm, ruddy hand towards Lizzie. âI'm glad you found us. I was hoping to get a word with you.'
âHow do you do, Mrs Larkin?' said Tess's mother, smiling from ear to ear.
âI's doing fine, thanks, Mrs. And how's you doing yourself? I's sorry I hasn't time to be standing around and chatting, but Mr Quinn there is a busy farmer, and he's waiting to drive me back to Tibradden. You's most welcome to call if you's in the locality.'
Before Tess's parents had a chance to reply, Lizzie had turned on her heel and begun to walk back across the park.
ESS'S PARENTS WATCHED WITH
benign expressions as Lizzie and the Quinns departed. To their euphoric minds Lizzie's behaviour was quite forgivable, no more than mildly eccentric. For Tess, however, the aspect of the day had changed entirely. She knew in her heart that Lizzie was right. There was something she ought to be doing. The problem was, she couldn't think what it was.
âCome on,' said her father, âwhere's that frisbee?'
Frisbee would be fun, even though she was no good at it. But playing frisbee wasn't what she ought to be doing. She scanned the horizon of the park, looking for clues. For the most part, her view was blocked by trees, but here and there the buildings of the city showed through or above them.
She swung round, just in time to see the bright-green frisbee go sailing over her head and disappear among the branches of a copse which stood in a hollow some distance away. It was a mighty throw, and the wind had caught it as well. Tess watched as her parents raced past in pursuit and began hunting through the dead grass beneath the trees. She went over and began to help in the search, but her attention was taken by a number of small, neat piles of earth which were spread around the area. They were like molehills, but Tess knew there weren't any moles in Ireland. Everything today had a strange, dreamlike quality and Tess tried to concentrate; tried to make sense of what was going on. She might have found the scene humorous if it hadn't been for the persistent nagging from the back of her mind about the task that awaited her.
The first time the idea came to her she disliked it so much that she ignored it. Coming back a second time with the ring of truth, it wasn't so easily put aside. She tried to reason the thought away, was still trying as her parents gave up and came back to her side.
âNo use,' said her mother. âIt seems to be lost.'
âSorry about that,' said Tess.
âNo, no,' said her father. âIt was way, way too high. There was no way you could have caught it.'
âDid you notice the molehills?'
âMolehills? But there aren't any moles in Ireland!'
The idea came back and Tess finally accepted it. âNever mind,' she said. âI was thinking of paying a visit to someone. Would that be OK?'
âWho is it?'
âA friend of mine called Martin. He's off school these days.'
âIs he sick?'
âYes, he is. Sort of.' As she said it, Tess realised that this wasn't a lie. From her current viewpoint, out here under a cloudless sky and filled with the vibrancy of life, anyone who chose to spend their days sleeping behind closed curtains had to be sick.
Tess's father looked slightly disappointed, but he was far too happy to remain so for long.
âDon't be too late back,' was all he said.
It was early afternoon as Tess walked down the narrow street in Phibsboro. The sun was still shining, but apart from a shallow strip of brightness on the opposite pavement, the street was covered in shadows cast by the surrounding houses. Frost still lay in some of the remoter corners of the small front gardens and Tess shivered as she made her way up to Martin's front door.
As before, her knock was followed by a long silence. She waited, half hoping that no one would come and she could return to the sanctity of the park with a clear conscience. But Martin's mother did come, eventually, from some dreary corner of the house that Tess chose not to imagine.
Her face brightened when she saw Tess standing at the door, but not enough to bring colour to the pasty skin.
âHello?' she said. âHave you come to visit Martin again?'
âYes. Is he in?'
His mother's face clouded over again. âWhere else would he be?' She glanced around at the stairs and then, to Tess's surprise, stepped out of the house and joined her on the front step, pulling the door to behind her.
âI probably shouldn't tell you this,' she said, leaning close to Tess and speaking in a low voice, âbut we had the social worker here this morning. She went up and talked to himself in the bed, but she didn't get much sense out of him. When she came down she told me that if he didn't start going back to school soon he'd be taken away from me and put into Borstal. Something like that, anyway.'
She looked at Tess closely for a reaction. Tess tried to ignore the smell of cheap margarine that lingered on the woman's clothes, and put on several expressions, one after another. She started with dismay first, then sympathy, then disapproval, but none of them really worked very well because all she could honestly think was that it would be a waste of everyone's time. She seemed to have done something right, though, because Martin's mother nodded gravely and went on, âI don't know what's wrong with the boy. He hasn't been the same since his father died.'
âHis father died?'
âDidn't you know that? I thought everyone must know. It affected him very badly, right from the start. He never cried, not once. He just seemed to close down like a clam. I suppose I should have taken more notice at the time, but I always thought that he would be all right in the end.'
She paused and listened at the crack in the front door for a minute before continuing, âI've tried everything. Everything. I've done the rounds of the town with him; taken him to every counsellor and psychiatrist and psychologist in the phone book. He won't take any notice of them, though. He goes once and makes a fool of them, then refuses to go to any more appointments.'
Tess nodded, trying to look sage and concerned. Martin's mother sighed.
âThe fact is, I'm at my wits' end. My own health isn't the best and I'm worn out trying to cope. But I don't want them to take him away. He may not be perfect but he's all I've got.'
She looked into the middle distance, her eyes glossing over with distress. For a long time she stood quite still, while Tess grew colder and colder and felt more and more awkward; then, at last, she seemed to pull herself together.