When the phone started ringing, Jacob jumped, and there was a moment’s flailing about as he dug out the television remote before he answered.
“Hey bro, are you in at the moment?”
Jacob blinked at the muted TV screen. Where else was he supposed to be going? There was a lockdown on, in all but name at least.
“Yeah. I’m in. Though I can’t have visitors.” On the off-chance his sister Maria had forgotten, though how anyone could have done when it had been going on all year was a wonder.
“No contact delivery, it’ll be fine. Simon will be there in about half an hour, if that’s good.”
“Yeah. Say, I’m not going anywhere.” As he spoke Jacob picked a piece of crisp off his t-shirt and ate it. Hmm, he thought, might need to get changed though. He knew he hadn’t slept in this t-shirt, but he couldn’t remember how many days he’d been wearing it. What was the point of worrying about things like that? The world was outside collapsing.
“Awesome, talk soon.”
And just like that Maria hung up. Jacob pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it. “Good talk, sis. Nice to know what’s going on, as always.” He toss the phone away, losing it somewhere amongst the cushions on the floor.
With a sigh he looked about the mess of his flat. The problem with lockdowns, of any form, was the fact no-one visited. Also the fact that he had nowhere else to be. And the fact that he’d lost his job. And just… well, all of it. After a year that felt like a lifetime, Jacob was sick to the back teeth of them. He was sick to the back teeth of everything, although tidying was significantly higher on the list than, say, watching TV.
“I suppose I should clear some of this up,” Jacob said to the room. Most of what he said was to ‘the room’ these days, and he wasn’t sure if it would be more or less comforting if it started answering back. Even though his brother-in-law Simon wouldn’t be allowed into the flat, Jacob leapt on the excuse to have to tidy. Guests were coming round; the fact they couldn’t legally come inside didn’t matter.
Jacob had got as far as showering, changing and loading up the washing machine when the buzzer for the building door went. He didn’t even check who it was before he opened the electronic lock. By this point in the year, a stranger wandering through the halls would be a pleasant distraction. It would certainly be the most interesting thing that had happened all month.
There was a knock on the front door to his flat, and Jacob shoved the cushions out of sight and kicked the beer cans under the sofa. After another quick check that the strip of flat from the front door to the outer wall was clear, Jacob put on his mask and opened the door.
All he saw was a birdcage.
“What the hell?” Leaning out he saw Simon already at the top of the stairs, carefully not touching the rails, waiting for a thumbs up from him. “Simon, what is this?”
“Present from Maria,” Simon replied, the words muffled by his own mask.
“What? No, I don’t–” He looked down at the birdcage and frowned. “I don’t want a bird.”
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just following orders, which were to deliver it. If you’ve got problems with it, take it up with your sister.”
“What am I supposed to do with a bird? Simon? Come back!”
With a final wave Simon disappeared down the stairs. There was a faint chirp from the birdcage.
Still in a minor state of shock, Jacob reached out for his beanie cap on the coat hook and used it to grab the birdcage handle, subconsciously avoiding all direct contact with it. He brought it into the flat and stood holding it up, trying to work out where the hell to put it. In the end, after he’d stacked most of the dirty plates on the table and given up, he pulled out a chair, kicked the socks off that, and plonked the birdcage down.
Inside it was a tiny bird, with a squat orange beak, and orange cheeks against a grey body.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Jacob asked.
The bird chirped back, with a louder, squeakier sound than Jacob had expected. After the endless silence of the flat, getting any sort of response to his question made him smile.
“That doesn’t really answer it. I don’t think Maria has a bird, so where did you come from?”
There was a bag of birdseed strapped to the far side of the cage, but no note or explanation. After sending a quick text to Maria – to get her to ‘bloody call when you’re free’ – Jacob ran a hand through his hair.
“Suppose I’d better get back on with tidying. I reckon you count as a guest.”
As he worked Jacob talked, filling in the bird with what was happening, and where things belonged, and why that pair of underwear had ended up next to the TV. It wasn’t the same as having a person there, but at least there was far less judgment.
When Jacob went to get himself a drink – after washing some pots for the first time in a few weeks – he watched the bird and frowned. “Do you want a drink as well?” he asked. Didn’t birds always have a bowl of water in their cages? That was the thing, right? “Sorry. I’ve never been very good with animals, as Maria well knows. She must be desperate if she needs me to look after you.”
Not that Jacob had any small bowls anyway. In the end he had to settle for an old jam jar lid, turned upside down and filled with tap water. Though Jacob still had doubts, the bird jumped down and helped itself.
“Not picky at least them,” Jacob said with a smile. Awkward as he felt around the strange little thing, it was nice to have another living thing in his flat. Other than the three week old takeaway.
By the time Maria called that evening, Jacob had deep cleaned his living and bathroom, and had aired out and started on his bedroom. All the while he’d talked to the bird, the TV staying off for the first time in months. Every so often the bird would reply, and Jacob would pause what he was doing to listen.
“Maria?” Jacob said when he answered his phone.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Why did you leave me a bird?”
“It’s a present. That’s what sisters do.”
“What, a present? What the hell am I supposed to do with a bird?”
“Care for it, feed it, clean its cage out–”
“Seriously, Maria. I’m in rented, I’m not supposed to have a pet.”
“You’re allowed a bird though.”
“And how do you know?”
“Because we read your tenancy agreement together, and you pointed it out at the time. ‘No pets, with the exception of fish or caged birds’, it said.”
“Okay fine. I’m allowed it, but I don’t want it.”
There was a heavy sigh from the other end of the phone, one that Jacob had heard far too often. It was the one Maria gave when she was mothering him; when he’d lost his job or his girlfriend or needed to borrow money. Heard far, far too often.
“Just look after it, Jacob. Feed it, water it, google it. You’re allowed out to shop for essentials, so if you need anything you can go and get it. Just give it a week. Please?”
“Okay, fine. But why do I have a bird?”
“I said yes, didn’t I?”
“Good boy.” And she hung up again.
“That didn’t answer my question!” Jacob tossed his phone onto the sofa and frowned at the ceiling. In its corner, now on the table, the bird chirped.
“Yeah, mate,” Jacob sighed. “I have no idea what’s going on either.”
Jacob googled the bird. It was some sort of finch, apparently, though he couldn’t narrow down what type. Good pets, by all accounts, but Jacob had never been looking for a pet. He’d never wanted any pets, yet he’d just been landed with one.
For an hour or so Jacob sat and watched the bird and thought. When it started to get dark he went to the cage, opened it, and after a few misses, caught the bird.
“I’m sorry, pal. This just isn’t going to work with us.”
With his free hand Jacob opened the window and held the bird outside. The air there was fresh, ideal for trawling through pubs, drinking and joking. Just not this year.
“You’ll be better off out there, pal. It’s nothing personal. It’s me, not you. Seriously, it is. I’m not the most responsible person, and you’re better off not waiting on me. Go on, off you go.”
Before he could change his mind Jacob opened his hand, and the tiny bird dropped and flew away into the night.
“Goodbye,” Jacob said.
Coming back into the flat was all the more lonely now, and he left the window open to hear the noises of the street below. Thoughts that maybe he should’ve kept the bird swelled in Jacob’s mind, but he squashed them again. That wasn’t fair on the bird. Besides, after the year he’d had, he couldn’t bear the idea of keeping anything in a cage. He knew how hard that was on a soul.
Sighing heavily he sat down and rested his head on his hands. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, though he knew that was just a culmination of everything that had been going on. He wasn’t actually crying over a released bird. Of course not, that’d be silly. He’d only known it a few hours after all.
As he’d tidied up earlier on, Jacob had decided to cook dinner, but now he didn’t have the strength. Take-away called, and with a deep breath in he started to sink back down into the funk that had ruled his summer.
As he opened his eyes he saw the little finch sat on the edge of the table, watching him. The tears fell, but they fell with a smile now.
“Giving me a second chance, huh?” Jacob asked.
He closed the window, let the bird into its cage, and went to cook himself some food. All the while he chattered away, and got a soothing song in response.