on a Bird in the Air Pump
I can't look any more. My eyes are screwed tight shut.
I am comforting Anne - touching the soft skin of her neck.
Anne's clinging on to me too - she is pulling at the taffeta
of my best, coral pink gown, which father insisted I wear
for this occasion. While all the while, in another room
The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was Arabella,
my bird, frantically beating her white wings against the
glass, while that lunatic - father calls him a professor
- gabbled on about his experiment. The professor smells,
too! Of aniseed, old cloth and Dutch tobacco.
'Come and watch this,' father had said earlier. 'You will
be astonished - it will pass the time - for all of us.'
He had said that while Anne and I were crouching by the
door of mother's bedroom. Then he had lifted Anne up in
his strong arms, and chivvied me.
'Come on, Margery, come on, my love. Everyone's waiting
I listened - all was quiet now. So we ascended the narrow,
wooden stairs to the attic, and as father had said, there
was my sister Pamela and her beau, and my brother George,
opening the cage to take out my bird.
'You see, Margery, the principle is, without air, we die.
The professor here will use an air-pump to remove the
air from the glass bowl. But your bird will not die, because
just in the nick of time I'll tell the professor to stop,
and -.' My father broke off to greet two of his friends.
My younger brother Ralph was pulling on the Experimenter's
gown, asking him to explain how his evil contraption worked.
Still, I cannot look. But I can hear. There's the creak
of the rope behind me. George is holding onto the rope
which is attached to the cage. When father says the word
and the Experimenter stops, George will lower the cage
so my bird can be put back inside it. But what if that
vile Experimenter cannot bear to stop and my bird dies
- trapped, straining to breathe, its little heart burst
Hark! I can hear something else! There's movement downstairs
- hurried footsteps. Is it the nurse? Has mother's time
come at last?
My poor bird - such a rare bird. My uncle brought it back
from his journey to Malacca - it's a cockatoo. There is
no other like it in our county. And yet - please God,
listen to me - if it is Your will that the Experimenter
takes the life of Arabella, and spares the lives of those
below, I will submit.
So. I will sacrifice my bird, my darling bird. She will
die, and downstairs my mother, who has lain in her bed
for two days, crying, sobbing with pain, will survive
the birth, and the baby too, will live.
And then there is a cry from beneath us which freezes
A cry such as I never heard before...