When the pipe burst, they didn’t know what to do. Until then the blockage had been just one of many difficulties.
First the water came out grey and foul, full of evil smelling sediment, after that it had trickled and eventually stopped coming out at all. None of the other flats seemed to have been affected and so, after a while they began to take their showers downstairs, they took their washing round to her mother’s and they took no baths. That was alright because recently the sky was brooding and heavy, flat as a lid on a box. They went to and from the little flat in relative peace, but the atmospheric pressure was building. At the sides of the roads the grass had begun to grow especially green, which he found disturbing. He’d escaped the verdant, uniform lawns of his childhood, and hated to be reminded of them.
One day she let herself into the flat and found him getting ready to fix the pipe. She surprised herself by not arguing with him, even though he had no experience or skills in this department, and she foresaw disaster.
‘Do we have any tools?’
‘I borrowed them from the guys downstairs. They were cool about it.’
‘Ok. Did they tell you what you needed to do with them?’
‘I’m Googling it, as we speak.’
She leaned over his shoulder at the computer, which had a couple of things to say about fixing pipes. The problem was that his heart was not really in the task: ‘The sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be done!’ He sounded weird about it even to himself.
They had been living together for over six months, and had been young to do it. Their lives came together very neatly at first, in the same way that their bodies fitted together when they lay down.
‘Wait!’ She said. ‘Don’t bother with the pipe. Let’s just get a plumber in, right?’
‘We can’t afford it’ he said. He was rummaging through the tool box.
‘Mum and Dad will pay.’
‘Over my dead body will I take money from them!’
His vehemence was impressive, because it was completely insincere. They looked with trepidation at the tools which he had borrowed, now laid out menacingly on a towel.
The source of the trouble was obvious to both of them. It was under the sink, crouched in the u bend and negotiating the household’s sinister poisons, bleaches and detergents. They couldn’t remember how they found this out, but it had been a fact between them for weeks. He opened the cupboard door and without pausing to think, began to beat the pipe violently with a wrench.
They were both quite impressed. The noise was, at first, less loud than you might expect, dull and deep like the tolling of a bell, but tinnier and distorted by the curve of the pipe. This sound quickly assumed a rhythm as he got into his stride. He was having at this pipe, bringing his arm up so as to clear the low roof of the cupboard and then swinging it inwards again to make contact with maximum force. Oddly, she wasn’t worried about by the insane violence her boyfriend was enacting on the u bend. Ducking the violent rebound of the wrench, which nearly hit her as she leaned in to look, she felt a great tide of release being siphoned out of her into the mammoth blows which he was dishing out.
‘Go on!’ she shouted joyfully, ‘Fucking take it!’ she yelled at the pipe. He yelled at it too;
Why shouldn’t he lay into the bloody thing? The whole huge nuisance of the flat and by extension of living seemed reflected in the jarring sound of the maligned pipe, which dented, then crumpled, then split.
Out of the gap spewed feathers with the force and volume of water. Pigeon feathers, the feathers of an impossibly large number of pigeons, making no sound but an eerie rustling as they exploded in a fountain all over the kitchen, forming a deep blanket of grey, like ash. They looked at each other with their mouths hanging open, first with shock, increasingly with disgust and then with amazement.
The first ten seconds of the flooding had almost made sense. Here must be source of the blockage. It was disgusting that they had a dead pigeon in their pipe, sure, but they had at least got to the bottom of things. A minute later however they were beginning to be amazed. After that they were afraid.
The night after she met him she had gone to bed and been paralysed by her heart, beating so hard you could see it through her tee shirt. She had been reminded of this as she watched his beating arm, the contours of which were so familiar to her. The violent pulse of attraction which had pinned her in the dark. For the first time she realised her feelings for him had been violent. She hadn’t known before that to say you loved someone violently was not a figure of speech. It was how you explained a love which struck with all its might, struck so hard that it might hurt the striker with the force of its return.
When people asked how they were they said : really great thanks and when people asked how the other one was they said: great, actually.
If you were stood in the street, you would have seen through their living room window just a couple arguing, facing each other with frustration. You couldn’t have seen the glut of feathers vomiting through the kitchen door. The pipes were gasping and choking, the sound of it now emanated from the walls and floor.‘Don’t pigeons have those mites?’ she said eventually. ‘The ones which make you go blind?’ They started holding their arms over their faces to protect them, intermittently putting them down to monitor the tide. Eventually they managed to wade their way across to the door and the hallway, which had yet only a fine covering of feathers. They said nothing, what could they say? The flat was haemorrhaging. ‘It must be a nest,' he said, ‘They must have had a nest in there’.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ she replied, and her look was so full of contempt that he wanted to laugh at the sight of it, her standing there with the feathers gathering and beginning to stick in tufts to her socks, looking at him like that. If there had been water all over the floor they could have argued about it. But what the hell was this? Could you argue about something like this? They stood in silence as feathers after feathers poured out and began to thrust themselves in great waves into the bedroom and the bathroom. The bath began to fill with feathers. At least, he thought, this can’t be all my fault. Yes, he had broken the pipe, and certainly things were much further now from being fixed than they had been before. But he surely couldn’t be held responsible for it all.
She was thinking perhaps she was just very sick, and hallucinating. Or was it a miraculous sign? What deity, she thought, would make itself known this way? She moved, as if in a dream, through the grey drifts, switching off the plug sockets and the electrics. She unplugged the toaster, the microwave, and put them on a shelf. She turned the fridge off at the wall.
She was red and itchy looking, not just in the face and forearms but in the back of her hands and on the exposed parts of her chest. He realised she might be allergic to the feathers. Eczema had bled away the edges of her lips, so that they always looked smudged, like a photograph taken when moving. He thought about crying which he almost never did, except at the television. It wasn’t quite right, not quite.
There was an appropriate reaction to the feathers, he knew there was. There was some right way to respond. She had pulled herself away from him and her heels threw up the smaller, downier specimens in puffs and there was a crunching of larger feather’s cuticles underfoot. Her mouth was open and perfectly dark inside. She began to sneeze helplessly as the down rose up around her face. After each sneeze she tried to speak but couldn’t get the words out before another sneeze came. Her eyes went red with tears and her whole face flushed with annoyance; her nose ran. She held her hands up to her face but there were feathers stuck to them. A haze of motes of crushed feather floated up, lit by waning sunlight. One of the sneezes sent her backwards into the pile of feathers, but after that she began to propel herself towards him, sneeze by sneeze and step by step. He felt something uncontrollable welling up in him, bubbling in his diaphragm and spilling up his gullet.
She knew she should be angry, with him laughing at her in this state but then, she thought, what else could he do? What could he do about her sneezing, which wasn’t his fault, and what could he do about the feathers, which made no sense at all. Nonsense is said to be funny. The sneezing would be funny to anyone but, she knew, especially to him, who always tried to make her giggle by pretending to fall over his own feet. As her throat began to swell along its inside she saw that he, too, was gasping for breath and the pipe too seemed to be emitting great gasps; a dry metal gullet spitting feathers.
When he saw that she was not laughing with him, but actually choking to death, he called an ambulance. While paramedics carried her down the stairs, he turned and waded back into the kitchen for one last look at the gash. The feathers were still pouring out in an unceasing gush, and for a moment he thought that it looked like a living thing, a flailing limb striking out, as his had done in the assault of the pipe. But when he looked again he thought instead that it was like an automaton, operating with a deep mechanic pulse, regenerating itself. He put his hand out to stroke the back of the lithe and muscular stream, which was tracing an ark or wave about two metres long across the room. But as he touched it the feathers began to splinter off in a froth, and his fingers came away glazed with blood from tiny cuts. He thought then that he could hear her laboured breathing, though she must be halfway to the bottom by now, and they had put a mask on her. Still though it came to him, these hissing intakes and outtakes of breath and, bewildered, he found that his knees were going weak again, and he felt that laughter welling up, like a bubble of pleasure, and he had to force his way out of the door before he was incapacitated by the long gasps of mirth which were beginning to tear out of him like the yelps out of a dog.