The Welcome Swallow
Katie Huggins (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
The bird was the size of a mandarin. Its body was blue-black and white. Its orange face, looked out from its spot on the sidewalk taking in Glebe Point Road. He was holding one wing at just enough of an odd angle that I stopped. It was a warm, end of August day and I had been sober (except for the occasional lapse) since February.
I have a theory that there is something broken inside of me that draws in the people that hurt me. I thought there was something off – a smell, a look, a sound – that called them like a siren and maybe that was what the bird had too. I looked down for a moment to see him huddled next to the fence, not taking flight.
When it’s apparent the bird isn’t going to fly away, I try and call Zoe, a friend trained in animal rescue. Somewhere in the airwaves is a multitude of past phone calls I have made – drunk, hungry, crying, combinations. There is a black hole of unanswered text messages I thought I had lost friends in. This time Zoe doesn’t pick up.
‘You would call me quite often crying on the phone,’ my friend Rachel explained to me later. ‘But there were stages where I wouldn’t hear from you and I would text you and text you.
‘I was always worried about you, and I thought that there was nothing I could say and do to make you feel better,’ Rachel continued. ‘I couldn’t really say that you were drinking too much and had to get help.’
The taste of cold white wine is in the back of my throat.
‘The big change I noticed was when you started liking Joel,’ Rachel said. She explained she had been afraid of what would happen if things went wrong between us. This was something I had poked at in my lower times. I don’t have a good track record. ‘But I now know if I don’t hear from you at least you have him.’
I told Joel I didn’t drink the night he got drunk and told me he thought I was cute. He asked if he could ask me on a date. I sized him up.
‘If you remember on Monday, I might say yes.’
We didn’t physically touch until our second date. We were sober, walking back from Newtown. It was a Wednesday night and it was cold. As we walked past the hospital I saw patients in robes smoking as paramedics zoomed in-and-out. I told him I’d had a bad year, and I wasn’t likely to ever be able to do physical intimacy, particularly any man who had been drinking. He was young, the age I had been when my drinking had started to be a problem. I would get black-out drunk and kiss strangers.
‘If you want to bow out at any point, I totally understand.’
I couldn’t look at him. I focused on the sidewalk. He kept pace with me.
Later, on my street I stopped and made him walk back to me. The moon hung above the skyline. I look for that moon every time I walk that street. ‘I haven’t done this sober in a long time.’ I rocked up on my toes and kissed him.
Months ago I wouldn’t have been capable of having a relationship with Joel. I had never had sober sex for the first time with a partner. I had never had sex for the first time with a partner purely for pleasure. The first time, I cried in front of Joel. I was sober, and he hugged me in the middle of my bedroom. I had never been told by a partner that I was valid to my feelings.
A husky man in a mask saw me kneeling on the ground, talking on the phone to a wildlife rescue emergency call line. He spotted the bird and lunged forward, scooping it up in his thick fingers. I was startled but found my voice, and asked him to put the bird down. I imagined him squeezing his fist and the soft feathers bending under his grasp. The woman on the phone shouted in my ear asking what is happening, and the strange man was telling me the bird is fine. It’ll fly. The bird doesn’t.
‘Tell him to put the bird down! It’ll have a heart attack!’
My body went numb. I talked to this man but I could barely hear my own words. All I could think about is how this tiny heart would give out if the man didn’t sit the fucking bird down. I put the rescue woman on speaker phone. We shouted at him to stop, please God, I’m dealing with it.
Since becoming sober I am afraid of men, except for Joel. I can’t be alone with them. I can’t trust them, especially when they’re drunk. It makes me so anxious I feel sick.
Weeks into sobriety, I went to a friend’s party. I ended up in the Uber with the birthday boy. I could hear that voice in my head, the one alcohol had let me ignore. This is a bad idea. When I was drunk, I had no awareness of the potential danger around me. Really, I was lucky to be alive. Being around strange men sober is a sensory overload.
In the backseat streetlights played across our faces. He tried to hold my hand, but I didn’t let him. I had a water stain on my denim skirt. I felt so stupid and young. I distracted him with nonsense and hoped the others would be there when we pulled up. He helped the driver unload the esky of drinks. When the Uber was gone we were the only ones awake in Coogee.
He asked me to kiss him. Come on, it’s his birthday. I felt sick and angry. I kissed him because we were alone and I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
He holds me there and I hate him.
I hate all of it. When I found my first chance for a respite on the balcony, he followed me. His hand went to my knee, touching me intimately. I made a joke and moved my leg away. His hand drifted back and I try again. He didn’t move. I snapped at him. Don’t fucking touch me.
The stranger put the bird back down where he had snatched it. I see the bird’s chest heaving and I think about him having a heart attack when we’ve come so far. At the party I was too aware of what being alone with a man could mean. I was fragile and in his control. A broken bird.
The man leaves. I ask the woman on the phone what I have to do.
Take off my jumper and wrap the bird in it.
Get it to a vet.
As a clumsy soul I am not accustomed to holding fragile things. The bird nestled on my jumper, looking out over my arm. We have become a pair navigating the world. Sailors used the swallow as a way to know when they were near land, but also as a measure of distance and the tattoos they had indicated the length of unknown they had travelled.
Alcohol exasperated my depression and anxiety. I wallowed in its company and the insignificance I felt in others’ lives. Before sobriety I had thought of my drinking problem as a hyperbole because no one had a problem with alcohol, not when you were almost twenty-seven and had a full time job and degrees.
People will ask me how I know I have a problem with alcohol. When I explain it they say, Oh, I think I’m an alcoholic. Buried in our culture is a problem with alcohol that people don’t want to talk about. It’s a mirror we don’t want to look into. Over eighty percent of Australians had their first drink around the age of fourteen. University was a series of games and initiation rites that came soaked in alcohol. Alcohol related deaths total to around 6,000 a year and they aren’t starting from old age. I was around fifteen when I started drinking at parties and my drinking habits were on-and-off through university. I hit peaks and I hit lows, but nothing like the end of 2019. I wasn’t willing to examine what was happening, but when I told my psychologist I had decided to stop to both give my medication a chance but also because I thought I had a problem – he patiently told me he had been waiting for me to realise for some time.
I named the bird Walter. I talked to him as we walked.
‘It’s OK,’ I whispered. ‘It’s OK. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you, Walter.’
When I got to the clinic, the vet plucked him from the jumper. He had bright tattoos on his arms of birds in a mid-flight dance. As he held Walter he explained he was a swallow. ‘I used to see them all the time when I lived in Hong Kong.’
He walked me through the treatment, they would give Walter drugs, x-ray him and see what they were up against. If the fracture was minor on the shoulder then I could release him after his recovery. I left the vet hopeful.
When I got sober I was surprised when my close friends picked up my calls. At a friend’s party we were discussing my recovery. ‘Your problem was you thought everyone was sick of your problems,’ Zoe said. ‘But really we were all just worried.’
Across the room Joel was trying to make small talk about politics.
An hour later the vet called me. ‘The fracture is too bad. The bird wouldn’t recover.’ He kept assuring me I had done the right thing. He wasn’t in pain at the end, and Walter had gone, knowing that one person had cared.
Katie Huggins has an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and is currently studying her Masters of Creative Writing at UTS. She is a member of the Yorkshire Writing Squad and is currently writing her first novel. Katie works in film and TV production but her first and great love is writing. She lives in Marrickville with her two cats and partner.