A Bride for Birdie by Charlie Britten

Having agreed that he would hold up a placard bearing his name, Birdie didn't know what to write on it, even as he walked into Stansted Airport. His birth certificate read 'Frank Derek Bird’, but nobody called him that, so in the end he balanced his piece of cardboard carton against the wall in the Arrivals hall and scrawled his nickname in red felt tip pen. As he took his place around the rope barrier, alongside the crush of friends, relations, taxi-drivers and tour operators, his eyes darted to the right and left. Nobody he knew. Good.

Tanned passengers in holiday clothes emerged from behind the barrier, pushing their luggage on trolleys, a family, a group of lads and a middle-aged couple, more families, then the flow dwindled to a trickle. Trotting back to look at the monitor display, to confirm that MW1 896 from Moscow had indeed landed, a doubt--or perhaps a hope-- flickered like a candle in his mind.

Someone behind him tapped him on the arm. Spinning around on his heels, he found himself facing a skinny girl of about twenty, wearing a strappy top and a skimpy mini-skirt of the sort Birdie's own daughters described as 'pelmets’. He looked her up and down, conscious that she was doing the same to him. Fantasies of Bond women apart, she was much as he expected, except for the orange-dyed hair which definitely did not appear in her internet photograph. “Natasha?"¿

“Birdie?"

He smiled. “I didn't see you come to the barrier."

She shrugged.

“Did you have a good flight?"

“Yes. Da."

An awkward pause followed. “Give me your bag," he said at last. It was light and ordinary- looking, he thought; the child within him craved the excitement of seeing something foreign, some exotic Cyrillic lettering at least. “It’s about 400 yards to the car park." He rephrased this. “We walk. Not too far."

When they reached the Porsche, she ran her fingers over the bevelled edge of the passenger window. “Nice."

“Your door’s open," he said, lowering himself into the driving seat. He was unsure whether Russian cars had centralised locking.

He turned the key in the ignition, as always, enjoying the deep throttle of the engine as it started up and daring to hope that she did. His wife, Jane, hadn’t liked the Porsche and refused to ride in it for several weeks. “We’ve got better things to spend our money on, Birdie," she’d said.

“It’s me own dosh, innit? I’ve earned it. Getting up in the middle of the night, going down to Covent Garden, loading up the lorry with fruit and veg, bringing it back up here and setting up the market stall. While all them posh people were still tucked up in their Uncle Teds. You can't take it with you."

“You’ve got a family, Birdie, two lovely girls."

“Three lovely girls." He’ d put his arm around her waist. “You’re my number one. I'll take you to Tenerife again. Playa de las Americas. How’s that?"

They never did reach the Canaries; twelve months after that conversation, he, Dawn and Vanessa had attended Jane’s funeral.

Natasha sat in the passenger seat beside him hardly breathing, leaning forward and staring out the window, as if she were contemplating baling out. No woman could ever replace his Jane, but that wasn't this Natasha’s fault. “So what’s Russian scenery like then?"

“Is good."

“Bit different to England, then."

“Trees, forests. And wolves."

He negotiated the traffic island that led out of the airport, its many turnoffs, and slip-roads. “But what about your steppe?"

“Steppe?"

“Yes. No trees there, just grassland, innit?"

“Da."

She giggled when he used the remote to operate the gates and the garage doors. Soon they were back at Birdie's house. Her eyes formed two round saucers when they stepped inside the hall, roving up the stairs, taking in Jane’s photo and Dawn and Vanessa’s graduation portraits, then sliding back down the oak balustrade and on to the door handles. “Go-old!"

“Nah! Just brass. You want a cuppa . . . tea, I mean. I suppose you have it in a glass with
lemon. You see, I've been jenning up about Russia on the internet."

She shook her head. “Niet. Tea English way."

“I'll pop the kettle on. Then I'll take you up to your room."

As he led her into the guest room, her eyes widened again. “Safe." She fingered the flowers which, this morning, he’ d placed in a vase on the dressing table, struggling not to dislodge Tesco’s 'arrangement’. “Is beautiful, Birdie."

Dropping her bag on to the floor, he opened the door to the ensuite. “And this is your bathroom."

“My bathroom?" She did an excited little jump on the carpet. “I shall be well . . . very happy here, in this big house."

Birdie sat down on the bed. “Natasha, my love, we’ d better talk business." He ran his fingers up and down the pattern on the genuine antique French lace bedspread which he had bought off his mate, Jimmy, when they had been doing the Southend market together.

“Da."

“The deal is this. You stay here, in this house. Right? I'll look after you, give you money to buy clothes and bling and all that. Then we’ ll see how we get on. If after a few months we’ re OK, we’ ll get married. But if it don't work, you go back to Moscow. OK?

She blushed bright red, her head bent towards the floor, her eyes fixed upon the carpet.

He stood up. “Now I'll get you that cup of tea."


The kettle was boiling when he returned to the kitchen. As he poured the water into the mugs, he remembered he was supposed to go to Vanessa’s next weekend, for Sunday lunch with the family, his grandson banging his Peter Rabbit spoon on his high chair, Jane’s apple pie, Jane’s way of doing cauliflower cheese. He could hear what they would say before they said it.

“You met her on the internet?"

“You ve been on dating sites?"

“You, Dad?"

He pressed the teabags against the side of the cups, squashing out as much brown goo as possible. Dawn and Vanessa laughed at his strong tea. “Why bother with the water, Dad?" They had been good to him after Jane’s death, everything family should be.

“You’ re going to have to tell them. Maybe today," he told the kitchen wall. He talked to himself a lot nowadays.

He reached into the fridge for the milk bottle and tipped some into his own and Natasha’s.
“You can’t be afraid of your own daughters, Birdie." Thrusting his spoon into the sugar bowl so hard as to cause a small white earthquake, he tossed two heaped hillocks into his mug, then stirred it and stirred it until froth appeared on top. “Do they expect me to live like a monk?"

As he climbed the stairs again, he heard a ring-tone. From outside, he supposed, as he plonked the hot mugs down on the window-ledge opposite Natasha’s room.

“Hi Hayley," cried an Essex voice. For an instant his mind went back several years, to the short time when Dawn had worked alongside him on the stall, and how she had chatted all day to her friend 'Hayley’ while customers stood around holding up melons and punnets of strawberries.

“Nah. I got the bus, didn’t I?"

Strange. The sound seemed to come the front of the house. People talking in the street, perhaps?

“Three buses actually." As he picked up the mugs again, he looked through the landing window, but saw nobody. The voice seemed to travel from outside and through Natasha’s room.

“I'm all right, honest No, Hayley, he’s really not pervy. He’s nice, and his gaff’s well
posh."

He banged on her door. Hard.

“Hayley, gotta go." Silence. Then, a heavy Mittel-European voice said, “Kom inn."

He swung the door open. “Don’t give me that."

Still clutching her mobile in her hand, she shrank back from him, pressing her skinny form into the wardrobe door.

He thumped her mug on the dressing table. Tea slopped over the sides, staining the veneer, pine on mdf. On the shelf underneath lay her clothes, dingy t-shirts, faded underwear, arranged in tidy rows.

“You’ re English?"

She nodded tiny nods.

Outside Birdie could hear the drone of his neighbour’s mower. Brian was always doing his lawn; a normal man, an ordinary man, a single man, whose life revolved around cricket and his garden. “Why?"

Silence.

“I want to know why."

Still no reply. She stared with her big brown eyes, a rabbit in the headlights.

“Who’s Hayley?"

“My sister."

He yanked the curtains closed, shutting out Brian, even though he knew without looking that his neighbour’s eyes would be glued to his lawn.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I kept seeing on the internet, all these adverts for Russian escorts. And, well, my name’s Natasha, and that’s Russian innit?" She gulped. “Are you going to tell the police?"

“No, love. Don't think they’ d be bothered, do you? What I am going to do is call a taxi and send you back to where you came from this afternoon. Romford, judging by your accent."

“Basildon."

“Well, I'm from Southend. I suppose you thought that all men on dating sites were fair game, that this was some sort of joke." He slurped all his tea down at once, scalding his oesophagus. “You’ re lucky it was me you found on the internet, not some wierdo." He moved towards the door. “I'll leave you to repack."

“You want to know why?" she said, as she grabbed the neat pile of t-shirts. “Because I've got nothing. That’s why. When I said on the internet that I'd never known my father and my mum was an alc-y and I lived in this high-rise flat in a well dodgy area, it were all true. But in Essex, not Moscow."

He halted in the doorway. “Hang on. I gave you a grand for your air fare. I thought it was a bit much at the time. You can get to the States for half of that. You little minx!"

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was in debt. I used your money to pay it off. I'll pay you back. Honestly, I will."

She wouldn't be able to; he knew that.

“I'm so sorry. I really am sorry. Just leave me alone now.Â

“How old are you? Truthfully, how old are you?"

“Twenty. Like I told you."

“When I was twenty, I was married and Jane and I were working all the hours there were on the market. Do you work? In Basildon?"

“There are no jobs out there."

“Oh no?"

“No. There really aren’t. It’s the recession, innit?" She drew herself up, suddenly taller. “I'm not ashamed of being poor. In fact, I'm not ashamed of anything. I would’ve been as good a wife to you as any East European girl."

He rang the local taxi firm, the one Dawn and Vanessa used to hire when they had gone out clubbing. He was an idiot. That’s what Dawn and Vanessa would have told him, but they wouldn't be able to say it now. No embarrassing conversations. Now he could carry on being the same old Dad.



Still he heard the drone of Brian’s mower, up and down, down and up, effecting stripes fit for the batting square at Lords. “Will he never stop?" he asked the kitchen wall. “I can’t go on like this, sitting in this house all day, listening to his racket. Admit it, Birdie. You’ re bored." He shoved the tea mugs into the dishwasher; the other crockery alongside it clattered in protest. “Trouble is, though, you went about this the wrong way, mate."

As the cab pulled into the drive, she emerged from her room and walked downstairs carrying her meagre bag, a tiny straight-backed figure, her orange hair combed, her face washed and makeup reapplied. Still her eyes lingered on the gilt door-handles and the oak balustrade.

“Goodbye, Birdie."

“Goodbye." He turned away from her, picking up 'The Daily Mail’ on the hall table and putting it down again. “Don't worry about the money. For the air fare, I mean." He shrugged. “I don’t want it back. You need it more than me."

“I said I'll pay you back and I will. I'm going now. Goodbye, Birdie.“ She forced a smile as she stepped through the front doorway.

“Natasha Bet they call you Tash, don't they? Wait."

She turned, just her head, without moving her shoulders.

“Do you want a job?"

Her face creased into a frown.

“Could you cope with the cold and standing up all day? And grumpy customers?"

“What?"

“Would you work for me? I'm fifty-five. I don't have to retire yet. I'm going back to the market."

“Yes, please."

THE END


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