E L I Z A B E T H   K I E M


All through a winter of rain and closed windows, outside, the birds were singing.
‘All night long!’ I insisted to those who assumed that the new flat at the end of a cul-de-sac must be immeasurably quieter.
Inside it was quiet. Inside, it was the middle-of-the-sea quiet, and the middle was half-way down, not half-way across. Inside, it was every shade of the stillest band of blue: four rooms painted four expensive colours: Purbeck Stone and Cornforth White, Wevet and Belvedere. Which is to say they were painted watered sand and shadowed sea. All were blue-grey and grey-blue and cool to the eye. They were quiet walls, listening to the life outside.

Back then – in the winter, in the rain, in the darkness of a first floor flat in which every wall was pitched a different note of blue – I lay awake listening to the night warblers. I went online and learned that a European robin has little in common with its American cousin. London robins, I learned, sing at night because it is the only time they can make themselves heard.
The order to go inside came on the same day that the rain stopped and the sun came out. You will remember, I think, the glorious weather of those early days, when London stayed home? It was a bright blue-sky spring, a yawning yellow morning spring. We sat by our open windows and looked away from the blooming into the flat screen of our new life.

I warmed to lockdown like my terrace warmed to the spring. Just inside the French doors, lurked life in quarantine hues. Rooms of subduction, with a view of the riot outside. The warmest was the bedroom at noon its pricey pale palette reflective; the darkest slid into grey – Anglian shingle in a dry spell. The central room, a tiny atrium without a single wall unbroken by a doorway, was stained the color of an internal organ deprived of blood. For it was. There was no direct sunlight in this foyer, which slumbered like the tenements of Mediterranean cities.
When the meetings full of people in boxes ended, I passed through that central room feeling the pale blue membrane between interior and exterior, aware of its possible breaches, contaminants, haemorrhages, and stepped onto the terrace. The birds were un-muted – they all spoke at once.
There was one who spoke loudest and I spent the first week distracted by his call. A daybreak, five-beat whistle on repeat that slid upwards through the day – still insistent, and disciplined in its one-two notes in early afternoon. He rested in the evening, but not for long.

‘What is it?’ I texted people who might know.

I channelled my grandmother, who would drop out of conversations when she heard an unfamiliar bird to whistle a mimic. I downloaded an app to find the bird. The app was unable to distinguish my bird from the chorus behind him. The app wondered if he was a wren, a thrush a chaffinch? Bird song, like colours, comes in all shades. To describe them is wordplay without certainty, accuracy. Do we all see the same blue in the stretch of sea? Do we all hear the same bird in the burble of dusk? My bird, invisible but insistent, seemed to circle the house.
Two weeks into lockdown I dreamt I was sitting on a pale piazza with a companion who used the expression ‘sat there like a tit’ after which I lost the thread of the conversation. I wanted to say it, too. I wanted to say it right, say it well: Felt a proper tit. I asked if the double entendre was critical to the expression and it took him a moment to laugh, so I figured it was not. But which kind of tit? I wanted to know. I needed it confirmed. I’d read too much Gogol and I could imagine either: an electric jay, silly and herky-jerk, his coffee gone cold. Or, alternatively, a sadly sagging breast, resting a nipple on the lonely al fresco of a pale Italian piazza.

‘A blue tit,’ was what he replied.
I woke and there he was, my blue tit, greeting another blue sky, unabashed by the waiting, the stasis, the singularity of his song.










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