Jeremy Clarke

Birds of a feather

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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Goodness it was cold here last week. I was sitting by the fire reading an old newspaper when a robin flew past and alighted on a framed sepia photograph of my grandfather. My grandfather loved birds: he kept quails and finches mostly, and once he had a tame jay, so it was an apposite choice for a perch.

In the photograph, my grandfather is dressed in the uniform of the Machine Gun Corps and about to entrain for Flanders. He doesn't look a bit worried. With his nut-brown outdoor face and his huge hands, one imagines that my grandfather will be shooting his machine-gun at the oncoming Germans with roughly the same emotional involvement he invests in blowing kisses to his finches. I met him only a few times, when I was still small. He was always in his shed, sawing and hammering. When I remember him now, I think of the sound of his confident hammering.

From his perch on my grandfather the robin gave me a quizzical look, lifted his tail and crapped down my grandfather's trench-coat. From here it was a hop and a flutter to the top of the piano, where it lost his balance momentarily on the black polished surface. He crapped on that, then flew right across the room and alighted, more circumspectly this time, on to the mantlepiece, from where he examined me critically.

Birds that occasionally find their way into our house tend to panic, sometimes with horrible consequences. In their frantic effort to get out again they kill or injure themselves against the windows. This dapper, self-contained little chap knew exactly what he was doing. He had come in out of the cold for a moment and he was checking us out while he was at it. He looked down at me from his vantage point on the mantlepiece. For such a small and insubstantial creature his self-possession was very great. So much greater than mine, in fact, that I felt inferior under his gaze. As I was having one of my more paranoid days, I didn't want to be scrutinised by robins much, either. I laid my paper aside and went for a walk. When I came back the robin was still there, perched on the video recorder.

That evening I went to a party. It was a freezing night - my car was covered with frost even before I went out. At the party I drank too much too quickly. My hosts told me that long after everyone had left I was found asleep outside on the patio. My vomit was frozen solid and I was covered with a thick layer of frost. It had been hot at the party and I was wearing only a T-shirt. They'd carried me indoors and taken my boots off, sponged the sick off my clothes and covered me with a duvet.

Because I had no recollection of lying on the patio when I woke up, and because I was wet from the sponging down, I assumed I had been incontinent. I was very ashamed about this. So it was a relief, in a way, to learn that, although I could have died in the night, I at least hadn't been incontinent.

Before going home I went for a sauna at the sports centre. I hoped an hour in the sauna might warm my skeleton and clear my head at the same time. The early morning session was a 'mixed' one for people wearing swimming trunks. There was one other person in there: a depressed man in his early thirties. He looked depressed and when I engaged him in conversation, he talked depressed. He took a sauna on Saturday mornings to get away from the kids, he told me. Every Saturday morning he sits in the sauna for a couple of hours then he goes to work. His kids, three girls and two boys, drive him mad. He wished he'd had the snip a long time ago.

I asked him what he did for work. He stared sadly ahead. He was a clown, he said. Sparkles the Clown. A few minutes later a loudspeaker crackled to life and a pre-recorded voice said the building was on fire and that we must make our way to the nearest available fire exit. Almost immediately a member of staff popped her head in and shepherded us out of the sauna, along a corridor, and out of the building. No, sorry, she said, we couldn't grab our coats. We must go straight out. So Sparkles the Clown and I hopped up and down on the frost-stiffened grass for 15 minutes while firemen checked the building and tittering red-faced squash players asked us if we were cold.

When I got home finally, the robin was dead in the conservatory. He'd gone out, I was told, but must have come back in, panicked this time, and flown against the glass. I put him in the pedal-bin.