The Bird In The Garden, by Richard Middleton
The room in which the Burchell family lived in Love Street, S.E., was
underground and depended for light and air on a grating let into the
Uncle John, who was a queer one, had filled the area with green
plants and creepers in boxes and tins hanging from the grating, so
that the room itself obtained very little light indeed, but there
was always a nice bright green place for the people sitting in it to
look at. Toby, who had peeped into the areas of other little boys,
knew that his was of quite exceptional beauty, and it was with a
certain awe that he helped Uncle John to tend the plants in the
morning, watering them and taking the pieces of paper and straws
that had fallen through the grating from their hair. "It is a great
mistake to have straws in ones hair," Uncle John would say gravely;
and Toby knew that it was true.
It was in the morning after they had just been watered that the
plants looked and smelt best, and when the sun shone through the
grating and the diamonds were shining and falling through the forest,
Toby would tell the baby about the great bird who would one day come
flying through the trees?a bird of all colours, ugly and beautiful,
with a harsh sweet voice. "And that will be the end of everything,"
said Toby, though of course he was only repeating a story his Uncle
John had told him.
There were other people in the big, dark room besides Toby and Uncle
John and the baby; dark people who flitted to and fro about secret
matters, people called father and mother and Mr. Hearn, who were apt
to kick if they found you in their way, and who never laughed except
at nights, and then they laughed too loudly.
"They will frighten the bird," thought Toby; but they were kind to
Uncle John because he had a pension. Toby slept in a corner on the
ground beside the baby, and when father and Mr. Hearn fought at
nights he would wake up and watch and shiver; but when this happened
it seemed to him that the baby was laughing at him, and he would
pinch her to make her stop. One night, when the men were fighting
very fiercely and mother had fallen asleep on the table, Uncle John
rose from his bed and began singing in a great voice. It was a song
Toby knew very well about Trafalgar's Bay, but it frightened the two
men a great deal because they thought Uncle John would be too mad to
fetch the pension any more. Next day he was quite well, however, and
he and Toby found a large green caterpillar in the garden among the
"This is a fact of great importance," said Uncle John, stroking it
with a little stick. "It is a sign!"
Toby used to lie awake at nights after that and listen for the bird,
but he only heard the clatter of feet on the pavement and the
screaming of engines far away.
Later there came a new young woman to live in the cellar?not a dark
person, but a person you could see and speak to. She patted Toby on
the head; but when she saw the baby she caught it to her breast and
cried over it, calling it pretty names.
At first father and Mr. Hearn were both very kind to her, and mother
used to sit all day in the corner with burning eyes, but after a time
the three used to laugh together at nights as before, and the woman
would sit with her wet face and wait for the coming of the bird, with
Toby and the baby and Uncle John, who was a queer one.
"All we have to do," Uncle John would say, "is to keep the garden
clean and tidy, and to water the plants every morning so that they
may be very green." And Toby would go and whisper this to the baby,
and she would stare at the ceiling with large, stupid eyes.
There came a time when Toby was very sick, and he lay all day in his
corner wondering about wonder. Sometimes the room in which he lay
became so small that he was choked for lack of air, sometimes it was
so large that he screamed out because he felt lonely. He could not
see the dark people then at all, but only Uncle John and the woman,
who told him in whispers that her name was "Mummie." She called him
Sonny, which is a very pretty name, and when Toby heard it he felt a
tickling in his sides which he knew to be gladness. Mummie's face was
wet and warm and soft, and she was very fond of kissing. Every
morning Uncle John would lift Toby up and show him the garden, and
Toby would slip out of his arms and walk among the trees and plants.
And the place would grow bigger and bigger until it was all the
world, and Toby would lose himself; amongst the tangle of trees and
flowers and creepers. He would see butterflies there and tame
animals, and the sky was full of birds of all colours, ugly and
beautiful; but he knew that none of these was the bird, because their
voices were only sweet. Sometimes he showed these wonders to a little
boy called Toby, who held his hand and called him Uncle John,
sometimes he showed them to his mummie and he himself was Toby; but
always when he came back he found himself lying in Uncle John's arms,
and, weary from his walk, would fall into a pleasant dreamless sleep.
It seemed to Toby at this time that a veil hung about him which, dim
and unreal in itself, served to make all things dim and unreal. He
did not know whether he was asleep or awake, so strange was life, so
vivid were his dreams. Mummie, Uncle John, the baby, Toby himself
came with a flicker of the veil and disappeared vaguely without
cause. It would happen that Toby would be speaking to Uncle John, and
suddenly he would find himself looking into the large eyes of the
baby, turned stupidly towards the ceiling, and again the baby would
be Toby himself, a hot, dry little body without legs or arms, that
swayed suspended as if by magic a foot above the bed.
Then there was the vision of two small feet that moved a long way
off, and Toby would watch them curiously as kittens do their tails,
without knowing the cause of their motion. It was all very wonderful
and very strange, and day by day the veil grew thicker; there was no
need to wake when the sleeptime was so pleasant; there were no dark
people to kick you in that dreamy place.
And yet Toby woke?woke to a life and in a place which he had never
He found himself on a heap of rags in a large cellar which depended
for its light on a grating let into the pavement of the street
above. On the stone floor of the area and swinging from the grating
were a few sickly, grimy plants in pots. There must have been, a
fine sunset up above, for a faint red glow came through the bars and
touched the leaves of the plants.
There was a lighted candle standing in a bottle on the table, and the
cellar seemed full of people. At the table itself two men and a woman
were drinking, though they were already drunk, and beyond in a corner
Toby could see the head and shoulders of a tall old man. Beside him
there crouched a woman with a faded, pretty face, and between Toby
and the rest of the room there stood a box in which lay a baby with
large, wakeful eyes.
Toby's body tingled with excitement, for this was a new thing; he had
never seen it before, he had never seen anything before.
The voice of the woman at the table rose and fell steadily without a
pause; she was abusing the other woman, and the two drunken men were
laughing at her and shouting her on; Toby thought the other woman
lacked spirit because she stayed crouching on the floor and said
At last the woman stopped her abuse, and one of the men turned and
shouted an order to the woman on the floor. She stood up and came
towards him, hesitating; this annoyed the man and he swore at her
brutally; when she came near enough he knocked her down with his
fist, and all the three burst out laughing.
Toby was so excited that he knelt up in his corner and clapped his
hands, but the others did not notice because the old man was up and
swaying wildly over the woman. He seemed to be threatening the man
who had struck her, and that one was evidently afraid of him, for he
rose unsteadily and lifted the chair on which he had been sitting
above his head to use as a weapon.
The old man raised his fist and the chair fell heavily on to his
wrinkled forehead and he dropped to the ground.
The woman at the table cried out, "The pension!" in her shrill voice,
and then they were all quiet, looking.
Then it seemed to Toby that through the forest there came flying,
with a harsh sweet voice and a tumult of wings, a bird of all
colours, ugly and beautiful, and he knew, though later there might be
people to tell him otherwise, that that was the end of everything.