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A Journal of the Plague, by A Rare Bird

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Day 42 - It wd have been a perfect day to sleep in, but the cats are wauling next door.  The rumour has been floated that the owner is relocating.  Strange, after he just paid a king's ransom to install a catflap in a window.  I had complained that the door flap was too noisy opening and closing.  The window flap is silent.  If he asks me to pay for it, I imagine the only solution would be to have him pay for installing it in my window instead. 

The streets are quiet as catflaps, except when the gangs of vandals roam, looking for food.  I have locked the gates.  When the postman brings mail, he must pull a chain which connects to a bell in the hall.  He brought news of the death of an old colleague.  If life were a tontine, why would anyone want to win?

My daily meal today will be vegetables, finely chopped, mixed with bread crumbs and one of the last dozen eggs I have.  This I shall form into bullets and fry in oil.  I use the same oil to rub on my legs so I do not get thrombosis.  If anyone needs minor surgery these days, the out-of-work barbers will have to suffice.  Luckily, when I lost the crown on my canine tooth, I found I could eat comfortably still with the underlying support tooth.  This has been a benison, as it is golden and looks quite rakish.  The crown fell to the floor unnoticed by me until a month later when I trod on it.  Had I Hoovered as I had intended, it would have gone into the dustbin.

Yesterday, when I mentioned the fireworks, I was under the impression that someone was celebrating.  Now I discover that the noise and explosions were the result of a chemical fire at a nearby warehouse.  I state this only to clarify the matter. 

Day 43 - After I wrote yesterday, the postie returned and rang the bell.  I went to the balcony to see what he wanted.  I always converse from the balcony with the postman.  But he wanted a quiet word.  Hmm.  So I went down and to the gate.  I trust him, so I did not feel endangered by his proximity.  His message has no direct bearing on anything here, so I shall not mention it further.  But I needed to find a solution to this business of conducting private conversations from within to someone without. 

I am inventive, as a rule.  I knew I could manage a form of simple, or intricate, means of inter-communication.  Had I not heard of speaking tubes?  Yes, indeed.  They feature on ships and submarines.  Terrestrial speaking tubes seemed the "way to go", as I believe the saying is.  I hied it off to the garden and into the shed.  Amongst the poisons and the pots, I turned up just the things I needed.  A set of graduated copper funnels (I would need the two largest ones) and a great length of flexible rubber conduit.  I added a roll of laundry line wire to my load and set to work.

I ventured into the outside world beyond the front gate.  Here the bushes grew thick along the iron fence across the breadth of my property.  I would have to ask the boy to cut them back someday.  I lodged the larger of the two funnels into a thickness of shrub, joining it to one end of the tubing.  It was a perfect fit, and was quite impossible to dislodge once in place.  The rest of the tubing lay before me inside the gate.  I had forgotten to consider how to get it up to my balcony.

Scurrying back inside and up the stairs, I found a long piece of string and dropped one end off the balcony, securing the other end to the railing (Lesson learnt from an earlier episode).  Back down, I tied the tubing to the string.  Back up again - pulled the string and the tube up and onto the balcony.  It draped nicely from the outer fence over the bamboo bordering the walk up to the front steps.  I needed only to connect the other funnel to this end, and I would be able to speak to the postman when he next came.

Indeed, I could surprise him by speaking as if I were standing before him!  That would be a lark!  But would he know where to speak in return?  That was to be our secret knowledge.  For I found I could produce noises eerie enough to frighten away any vandal who might be lurking at the gate.  I must now await the opportunity. 

That was all yesterday.  This is an unsurprising today.  The postman is late.  I must leave the journal for a while, but I hope to continue later today with adventurous tales of speaking tubes and frightened vandals. 

Day 44 - What an inauspicious number.  It brings out my orthophobia.  I never remember how to spell words with the number 4 in them  Forteen or fourteen,  forty or fourty?  It is a spellcheck I must perform mentally every time I read the words. 

Well, yesterday!  I waited for the postman, funnel in hand, but he never appeared!  Perhaps he had nothing for me (four me?). I have put a small note by the gate to inform him that he MUST ring.  But time is never wasted here.  As I waited, I listened to the blackbirds sing their wonderfully imaginative songs.  I have different birds in the front garden from those in the back.  This is a terraced house, and thankfully that has kept the cats in the back garden, without access to the front.  It occurs to me now why the birds are singing so joyfully - the cats are all gone! There were five at the end, but at their worst, there were over a dozen.  Blackbirds being territorial as they are, there may be a few squabbles over the wider range of free space now. 

There WAS a chance yesterday to frighten someone passing the house.  The spot has always been a popular one to stop for a chat, as there is a streetlamp just there.  Now, it would seem that there is also a "Hot Spot", where people can pick up signals for their telephones.  According to science, these fluctuate randomly, so there might not be another chance for me to frighten those abiders.  Consequently, I waited not a long time at all until a young fellow stopped with his fag and his 'phone.  I do not like fag ends thrown into my garden.  If they must be thrown, why can there not be fag end filtres made with plant food or fertiliser?

The fellow was but a minute at his post before I began a low growl from my end of the speaking tube.  That was my first real test of the soundness, as it were, of my apparatal contraption.  He heard it, I could tell, but he ignored it much as a fellow might ignore a bullfrog.  Figuring out how far to ramp up my repertoire of sounds, I decided to hoot like an owl.  That got him, all right!  Perhaps the poor man has a fear of owls, I do not know.  But he scampered off just like a fingersnap. 

You may wonder at my bravery, or indeed my recklessness in confronting strangers at my gate.  But we are living in an anonymous society.  I dare say, the fellow would not even recall his position in space if asked to find my house again.  He was but a phantom of the plague, not just the viral sort, but the plague of modernity as well.  Why wear a mask over the one we always wear when we are out in society? 

Day 45 - OCHLO-phobia.  That is the word I needed yesterday.  Fear of owls, remember? Not me, though.  I love owls, and birds in general, and spiders.  Bees, as well. 

Speaking of "Hot Spots" yesterday reminded me of the time when there was a prostitute living across.  I must explain that our street is sharply divided down the length - bourgeoisie on my side, the proletariat across.  My side are terraces built in 1888, the other side are blocks of flats built within the last 80 years or so. Once large flats, these were later subdivided into studio flats. 

The woman in question lived in one of the larger flats on the top floor.  Her habit was to stand leaning over her balcony with her upperwares on display.  Then when a fellow's attention was caught, she would shout out her services and the price list.  I imagine it must be similar to what goes on in a fast-food establishment.  Still, I don't think I ever heard her ask, "Would you like fries with that?"

She was actually a kind-hearted soul, whose daughter later took up the slack when mama's charms started to tarnish.  Only recently have I noticed that they are no longer in the neighbourhood.  They were working with a flower-seller who plied the pick-up places in town, offering roses for some exorbitant price.  The delivery lorry from Holland used to drop off his flowers by the cartonload, so he must have been a distributor as well.  My street has seen many changes.

Behind my back garden are the gardens of the houses on the next street up the hill I live on.  Have I mentioned the hill?  Here it is referred to as a mountain.  It is a hill covered with woods, which, accordingly, are referred to as forests.  You needn't worry about these distinctions.  On top of the hill is the main secondary school, built in brutalist style, all concrete and straight lines.  I tell visitors who see it from my terrace that it is the North Korean embassy. 

From my terrace, near the top of the house (have I mentioned that there are eight distinct levels to the house, from attic to cellar?), I witness many mysteries.  The one that still intrigues me is that of the woman of foreign features who washes and hangs out a huge carpet twice a week.  She struggles to get it thrown onto the railing of her balcony to wash and dry it after sweeping it.  It is not a special carpet; though oriental, it is machine-made and quite ordinary. And large - probably 2 metres by three metres.  The mystery is why she washes it so often. I presented this problem to an acquaintance more familiar with the customs of the woman's homeland.  Immediately came the answer - they probably eat off it.  Just imagining this made me so very hungry!  All that wonderful spicy exotic colourful food! 

The postman arrived today as usual.  He had had no mail for me yesterday.  It happens, he said.  I wanted to demonstrate my speaking tube, but he was in a great hurry to get his round finished.  He would not explain why, and he was in such a state of excitement that I could get nothing from him, other than bills and adverts to spend money to generate more bills.  Tomorrow there is no post, it being a special holiday here.  It is annoying to have to wait for the news he must be soon to share with me.  I shall sign off for today as your humble and obedient correspondent. 

Day 46 - Today I learnt not to count my chickens, or in this case, my schemes before they have hatched.  Let me explain.  When I installed my speaking tube device to communicate with people at the front gate, I knew that I should have to be able to use it with my balcony window closed, in the event of inclement weather. 

I had my eye on the neighbour's window catflap as inspiration.  But suddenly I realised that what need had I for inspiration?  I needed merely the catflap itself.  The old neighbour with the cats is suddenly gone, together with his five remaining cats, and a new young couple are moved in, sans chats.  They need no catflap.

As I mentioned, these are terraced houses, all built at the same time, with only slight variations in design.  Without benefit of telemetric implements, I could still determine, from a certain vantage point in my garden, that the window with the catflap matched that of my balcony, being one of two panels which open at the middle.  I need not draw you a plan.  The two windows, doors actually, would merely need exchanging, one for the other.  I need only get the required permission from the new neighbour fellow, as well as a person to perform the task, possibly also the neighbour fellow.

So, early this morning, as I heard the shutters of the couple's bedroom being raised (I assume it is their bedroom), I prepared myself to meet someone's morning gaze into my back garden.  My gardens are far the lovelier of the two, and even the cat neighbour agreed that cats and gardens do not go well together.  The young woman who had raised the shutters stood at the window, laughing and rubbing her scalp through her long red hair.  Yes, fine, I muttered.  Now get your husband to the window.  Duly he made his appearance, and I halloed him, wishing him a good morning.  He smiled and waved back.  I told him I wanted to discuss a matter with him as soon after breakfast as he was available. 

So, at half past ten we were all three in the back of the house, standing on either side of our adjoining fences.  I explained my idea of exchanging the window (although I was rather vague about my actual reason for wanting to do so), and they seemed quite willing to agree, so long as the windows fit, and that mine was not defective.  The fellow, Michael, said he could do the work easily enough with a bit of balancing help from me.  His wife, Ann, mentioned that the flap had worried them, as one of the cats had not yet been caught and was running wild.  They had sealed the flap, but the cat still managed to get through.  This would solve their problem well.

Just as we were turning to go back inside to prepare access (we would be using only the rear doors into and through my house so as not to arouse suspicion from people in the front of the house), just then the cat in question tore past us at bullet speed.  Michael put out his foot to trip it up, which caused the cat to run to the very back of the garden.  There it turned and headed back again towards us, picking up even more speed with its longer run.  It crashed headlong into the catflap, which was sealed, ripping it from its position in the window, and breaking the window as well.  The cat had got inside the house for the last time.  It lay dazed and fazed in the room, much out of breath, to be sure, but still breathing and not actually wounded in any way.  Ann put on a pair of gardening gloves and threw a cover of some sort over the cat, grabbed up the ends of the cover, and tied the cloth together like a bag.  Or so I was told, for I had immediately retreated to my back door at first sight of the dreaded beast.  I learnt later too that the old neighbour had been notified, and that he had sent someone 'round for the animal.  The question now is who should pay for a new window.  At least I am in the clear. 


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