The trick is to move so slowly they don’t see you. I keep my elbow on the window ledge with my fingers in front of my mouth, and gently bend forward to my cigarette. One, two, inhale, then slide back. They never notice the smoke in this alley, not with the steam from the Thai restaurant next door billowing out in angry little bursts.
I take another drag and watch the tall one with the fish tattoos.
I spend each lunch break here, smoking menthols and watching workmen gut the building opposite. Today they’re dragging things from a third floor room and tossing them out the window into the skip below. I watch curtains tumble down, then a red stool with a mirrored back. I see it fall and wonder whether it’ll bring them seven years bad luck for breaking it, or me for watching.
I’ve had about all the bad juju I can take, believe me.
I’m just grinding my cigarette out when I see the flamingo. The bearded one lifts it by the beak and wiggles it from side to side as though it’s talking to the tall one. Their laughter carries across the alley to my window ledge. And then out it sails, a shock of pink feathers in flight down a Chinatown alley.
Taxidermy kinda creeps me out, to be honest. I look at the flamingo’s skinny legs poking out of the skip and wonder what kind of weird-arse nightclub they had up there on the third floor.
Once Max brought me home a taxidermy squirrel he found in a garage sale, dressed in a silk robe with its paws raised in boxing gloves. It had a ferocious expression like it was facing the fight of its furry little life. I’m sure Max meant it to be cute, but its pose disturbed me so much that I had to turn its tiny fists to the wall.
I pick the cigarette butt out of the coffee cup and bury it deep in the wastepaper bin. I rinse the cup so Jolanta doesn’t know I’ve been smoking inside. I try not to think about Max as I pull the window closed.
When I finish my shift the sun is a fireball dropping low over Melbourne. In the stifling heat the smell of lemongrass and chilli is almost overwhelming. I’m just passing the skip when I remember the flamingo. I stop, place my hands on the side, and peer over.
The flamingo is resting on its back. It’s taller than I expected, about five feet, with a shock of hot pink feathers. I stand on tiptoe. The curve of its beak is actually quite elegant, and I turn my head to the side to get a better look.
Are you going to fucking help me, or just stare?
I stumble backwards, my arse on the cobblestones before I know it.
I look around the alley, then up at the windows. It comes again, deep and gravelled from inside the skip.
Hey girlie…do you know what the collective noun is for a group of flamingos?
The thing is, I do. I really do. My voice is small when I answer.
Is it a flamboyance?
The voice coughs like a pack a day smoker, then hocks up a lump of phlegm.
Are you asking me, or telling me?
God damn, this bird is surly. I climb to my feet and creep closer. When I look back in, those shiny glass eyes are staring right at me.
It takes me a few moments to clamber in. I must have put on weight since Max left because it takes me a few goes to swing my legs over. I try not to huff in front of the bird; I don’t want him smirking at me. I carefully take him by the midriff and prop him against the metal as I climb back over. When I lift him I can see what a state he’s in, a banana peel wrapped around his foot and shards of mirror embedded in his feathers.
Not very flamboyant, am I?
I reach down and pick the banana peel off.
Nah, you’re ok.
He harrumphs like a gruff old man. Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself.
I smile. It seems like the right thing to do.
I’m headed home. Do you need a – I try to find the right word – lift somewhere?
He murmurs, like he’s thinking about it.
Why don’t you just take me the way you’re headed?
And so I reach one arm around his feathers, and gently tuck him into the curve of my elbow.
He’s pretty chilled, it turns out. I mean, he was cantankerous when I found him, but wouldn’t you be, lying in a filthy skip? He asks me about my day as I walk him to the tram stop. His voice is deep and raspy, interspersed with occasional racking coughs that make him shudder in my arms.
I tell him about the customer who complained about my ‘lack of sincerity’ when I wished her a good day. Jolanta was so pissed off that when I checked the roster, I saw I’d been relegated to the dreaded breakfast shift again. I sigh and say, What can you do? as we head past rows of smoked ducks hanging in a restaurant window.
You can burn the damn place down, he barks.
I recoil. Isn’t that a little harsh?
If he could roll his glass eyes at me, I get the feeling he would.
Listen girlie, life’s too short for that shit. You’ve got a spine – straighten it.
I don’t answer. I weave in amongst the crowd, trying to protect him from being jostled. When a small child reaches up to stroke his feathers I jerk him away. My flamingo, I want to shake my head at her. Mine.
When we reach the tram stop on Brunswick Street I set him down. I take a seat with one hand around him.
Has anyone told you that you sound like Tom Waits? I ask.
He chortles, a noise from down deep in his throat.
Yeah, I get that a lot.
We wait for the tram. It’s a comfortable silence, and I’m not looking to fill it. The air is hot and muggy. I close my eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on my eyelids as I bask. I’m almost dozing when it happens.
My left arm is jerked so violently I nearly get pulled off the bench. I open my eyes with a gasp and see a kid, no more than seventeen, with one hand on my bag, pulling hard. My fingers are wrapped around the strap, and each time he tugs I lurch forward with the momentum.
Drop it, bitch!
He’s trying to be tough, but I can hear the panic in his voice. A simple snatch and grab is turning into something else, and I don’t know which of us is more surprised that I’m not letting go. I can feel the sour taste of rage in the back of my throat, rising quickly.
I don’t plan it, I swear. It’s just that my right arm lifts from the flamingo and then my fist shoots out in a way it’s never done before. I see the boy’s nose and I feel a short, sharp thrill when it connects. There are no thoughts forming in my head, only a blind fucking fury that makes my head burn.
The boy sprawls on the footpath. He has one palm raised to me, blood smeared across his nostrils. I’m glaring at him, wondering what I’m meant to do next, when the humming starts.
The flamingo has fallen against the glass of the tram shelter. His humming is low and loud, a song I know, but can’t quite get my thoughts straight enough to identify.
When I look back the boy is already ten metres away, splattering blood as he races down Brunswick Street. I slide my fist between my knees as I reach to straighten the flamingo. I’m not really sure what to say as the tram rattles to a stop.
We’re climbing up the stairs when he clears his throat.
I take a window seat and prop him next to me.
The doors hiss closed and we sway forward. He chuckles, deep and dirty.
I nod, all business.
We’re just crossing over Gertrude Street when he starts humming again. When the words come, they’re as husky as his laugh.
We’re fighting our way up dreamland’s spine
With black flamingos, expensive wine
Dig deep in your heart for that little red glow
We’re decomposing as we go
I smile at him. I know the song now, but I don’t join in. I just listen to him as I rest my head against the window. I think of the space where Max used to keep his bookshelf. It’s just about the right size, I decide, a little more than five feet.
I wonder if my hand is going to swell: it’s throbbing so much I can’t keep it still. I listen to the flamingo sing me his Tom Waits lullaby as we head home. And then I lift one pink wing and gently nestle my sore hand underneath it, deep amongst the feathers.
I don’t think I’ve felt anything so warm and soft in my life.
RIJN COLLINS is an Australian writer with a fondness for red notebooks, black coffee, and stories about circus folk. She’s had over fifty short stories published in anthologies and literary journals, performed at festivals in Melbourne and Chicago, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She’s currently working on a novel, and trying not to include Elvis in it: so far, so good. More of her work can be found at www.rijncollins.com.