This week’s short story is Mike Russell’s Flock, one of eight short stories in Strange Medicine.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits, as usual, on the 7:00 a.m. train, on his way to work. Dressed in his black raincoat, pin-striped suit, white shirt, black tie and black shoes, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads the morning newspaper, either nodding or shaking his head in agreement or disagreement with the various articles. Each movement of his head, be it a nod or a shake, maintains and strengthens who it is that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw believes himself to be.
‘Why does he continue to go to work?’ is a question that many people have whispered behind the back of Anthony Tobias Bradshaw; not because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw is past retirement age and in receipt of a pension (though he is) but because the business for which Anthony Tobias Bradshaw continues to work closed down twelve years ago.
If anyone were to ask Anthony Tobias Bradshaw why he continues to diligently repeat the same administrative tasks, Monday to Friday, nine to five, in an abandoned office building, for a business that no longer exists, he would undoubtedly reply:
‘Because I am Anthony Tobias Bradshaw. That is what I do.’
The train slows to a halt. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw lays his newspaper on his lap and peers out of the window. The station that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sees is not his destination. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his watch; his destination is not due for another twenty-seven minutes. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.
‘Yes, sir?’ the young guard replies, rushing through the carriage towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw, eager to be of service.
‘This is the 7:00 a.m. non-stop train, is it not?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw asks.
‘Yes, sir,’ the guard answers. ‘This is the 7:00 a.m. train and it is non-stop.’
The guard smiles, happy that he has been able to help. Before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw can ask the guard why then, if the train is non-stop, has it just stopped, the guard walks on through the carriage with the satisfied feeling of a job well done.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his newspaper and resumes reading. Whilst Anthony Tobias Bradshaw reads, the carriage doors open and an elderly woman in a multi-coloured shawl steps onto the train. She walks towards Anthony Tobias Bradshaw and sits in the seat opposite him.
The carriage doors shut and the train continues on its way.
The elderly woman stares at Anthony Tobias Bradshaw.
‘In the future,’ the woman says, ‘I remember a man like you.’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly lowers his newspaper.
‘I am sorry, madam, are you talking to me?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enquires, knowing perfectly well that she is but wanting the woman to understand just how impertinent it is of her to be doing so.
The woman ignores Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s question and says:
‘One day, the man realised that he wasn’t a man at all but that he was, in fact, sixteen birds. At the moment of realisation, the birds all suddenly took flight, each one flying off in a completely different direction.’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw slowly shakes his head.
‘Is that so?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says. ‘And what exactly is it that you are attempting to communicate to me by sharing this little work of fiction, this little fairy story, hmm? I presume that you intend it to have some sort of symbolic function, though I really cannot see what on Earth that might be.’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw waits for an answer but the woman simply stares at him with an expression that clearly shows her disdain for everything he has just said. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then returns to his newspaper.
The 7:00 a.m. non-stop train eventually reaches its destination, the extra stop somehow not having added any time to the journey, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw packs his newspaper away in his briefcase, shakes his head one last time at the elderly woman in the multi-coloured shawl who is still staring at him with the same expression, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands up, steps off the train and walks towards the derelict building in which he works.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters a large room filled with rows of empty, dust-covered desks and empty, dust-covered chairs. Though all of the desks and chairs are identical, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw always works at the same desk, his desk, and sits on the same chair, his chair, both of which are significantly less dust-covered and are situated at the far end of the room. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down and opens his briefcase.
‘I should not have even entered into conversation with her,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud to himself. ‘I should have just shaken my head then ignored her. That is what I should have done. To even entertain the possibility that such nonsense has meaning is a weakness that leaves oneself open to attack.’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels a breeze, looks around him and sees an open window. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head, reprimanding himself for not having closed the window the previous day. He hears a rustling sound coming from the waste-paper bin beneath his desk, looks inside the bin and sees a pigeon flapping about amongst the screwed up newspapers. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.
‘This is what happens,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud, ‘when one leaves just the tiniest opening.’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw opens his desk drawer and removes a pair of scissors, a ball of string and a bulldog-clip. Using the scissors, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw cuts a one metre length of string from the ball. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then ties one end of the length of string to the bulldog-clip. The other end of the string, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties to the paperweight that is sitting on his desk. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then reaches into the waste-paper bin, takes hold of the pigeon, attaches the bulldog-clip to one of its legs, carries it to the centre of the room, sets the paperweight down on the floor, then lets go of the pigeon. The tethered bird flies about frantically, pulling on the weighted string, unable to escape. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back to his desk, sits down, watches the bird for a while, nodding in satisfaction, then begins his usual daily tasks.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich that he bought, as usual, from the newsagents in the station that morning, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat and leaves the office, ensuring before he does so that all of the windows are firmly shut.
At the station, as usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train. On the train, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits reading the evening newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles. The 6:00 p.m. train travels to its destination on time without incident.
‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls as he enters his house.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat and removes his shoes.
‘Hello, Celia,’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw calls again.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always has a hot meal waiting for him when he arrives home. The meal always consists of meat, potatoes and three vegetables on a large, white, china plate with cutlery and condiments, positioned at the far end of the dining table. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife always eats before Anthony Tobias Bradshaw gets home because Anthony Tobias Bradshaw prefers to eat alone.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room.
Instead of the usual one large, white, china plate at the end of the table, there are sixteen small, white, china plates covering the whole of the table. There is no cutlery, no condiments and each plate, instead of containing a hot meal, has in its centre a small pile of seeds.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head.
‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts. ‘What’s going on? Is this a joke?’
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks into the kitchen. His wife is not there. In the middle of the kitchen table is a large packet of birdseed.
‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shouts.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks upstairs. His wife is nowhere to be seen. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back downstairs, enters the living room and sits in his armchair, shaking his head again and again whilst waiting for his wife to appear. When the clock strikes midnight and his wife is still nowhere to be seen, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw walks back into the dining room, picks up the sixteen small plates, takes them into the kitchen, pours the birdseed into the bin and puts the plates away in the cupboard. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then walks upstairs and goes to bed.
The next day, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw sits again on the 7:00 a.m. train and reads the morning newspaper, nodding or shaking his head at the various articles, then nodding his head with particular vigour when the train arrives at its destination without having made any erroneous stops.
Inside his office, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the tethered pigeon, then walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. As usual, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works through the day, pausing only at midday to eat a cheese and tomato sandwich, then at 5:00 p.m. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes his briefcase, puts on his coat, leaves the office and walks to the station. There, he buys the evening newspaper, then catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw closes the door to his house behind him, sets down his briefcase, hangs up his coat, removes his shoes, then calls:
There is no answer. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room. Sixteen small plates cover the dining table as before, each with a small pile of birdseed in its centre. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head then picks up his briefcase and stomps upstairs.
In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw undresses in front of a full-length mirror. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw shakes his head at his naked reflection, then opens his briefcase and removes a bulldog-clip. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches the clip to the end of his tongue. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces another clip from his briefcase and attaches it to the end of his nose. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces two more clips and attaches one to each of his ears. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw produces more clips, attaching one to each of his eyebrows, one to each of his nipples, one to the back of each of his hands, one to each of his thighs, one to each of his knees and one to the top of each of his feet.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw then produces from his briefcase a pair of scissors and a ball of string from which he cuts sixteen lengths. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw attaches a length of string to each of the bulldog-clips that now adorn his body.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw looks at his reflection and nods.
‘But how to harness them?’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says aloud.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw searches his reflection, then finds the perfect solution. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw ties each of the loose ends of string to his penis. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction, then puts on his pyjamas and goes to bed.
In the morning, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw wakes at the usual time, washes, dresses, walks downstairs and puts on his shoes and coat, picks up his briefcase, then leaves his house and walks to the station. The bulldog-clips and strings mean that Anthony Tobias Bradshaw has to walk rather carefully but, other than slowing him down a little, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw does not find them too troublesome.
‘The usual, sir?’ asks the newsagent, deciding not to mention the entirely obvious pieces of stationery attached to Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s face and the connected strings that disappear down into Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s collar.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods, then hands over the exact money for his copy of the morning newspaper and his cheese and tomato sandwich.
On the 7:00 a.m. train, only the young guard shows any sign of noticing Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s peculiar adornments, and even then his only reaction is a brief expression of concerned shock, which is quickly and professionally replaced by a congenial and un-judgemental smile.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw arrives at his office, nods at the tethered pigeon, walks to his desk, removes his coat and hangs it on the back of his chair, sits down, opens his briefcase and begins the day’s tasks. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw works until 5:00 p.m., pausing only at midday to eat (with some difficulty) his cheese and tomato sandwich, then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw leaves the office, walks to the station, buys the evening newspaper and catches the 6:00 p.m. train home.
In his house, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw enters the dining room, clears away the sixteen new plates of birdseed, sits in his armchair in the living room until midnight, then walks upstairs to bed.
In the bedroom, Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands in front of the full-length mirror and undresses. Anthony Tobias Bradshaw nods in satisfaction at the fact that all of the clips and strings are still in place. Then Anthony Tobias Bradshaw turns around and gasps.
‘Celia!’ Anthony Tobias Bradshaw says.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw’s wife is lying in the bed. She is wearing her multi-coloured shawl.
‘Turn the light out, dear,’ she says as if she has not been absent for the past two days and nothing is amiss.
Anthony Tobias Bradshaw stands and looks at his wife. He feels as if he has not seen her for longer than two days; he feels as if he has not really seen her for years. He is overwhelmed by her beauty, by the beauty of who she is, of who she really is, and Anthony Tobias Bradshaw experiences his first erection in twenty-five years accompanied by the noise of sixteen bulldog-clips snapping shut as they are all pulled at once from their various locations. The bedroom is filled with the sound of fluttering wings and that which used to call itself Anthony Tobias Bradshaw feels utterly fantastic.