It began as a soft down on my cheeks. Go and fetch my razor, then, said my father, without looking up from his newspaper, and I’ll show you how to do it. The air was unbearable just then, so I went back upstairs and climbed out on to the roof to contemplate things.
Already the shafts, even of such tiny feathers, dragged on the palm of my hand when I stroked my cheek against the grain. But the other way – oh, very pleasant! – it felt both sensual and dignified, and shed a new light on my future career as an adult. I amused myself in this way for the best part of an hour, sitting up by the lightning conductor, being sage, till I heard a cheap waltz drifting up from the living room and my reverie was dispelled.
That early delicacy did not last, of course. By evening a shadow had fallen across my face. The feathers had grown into little black tufts like the lures that fishermen use. I took some bread and fruit from the kitchen, and as I sat at the open window of my bedroom I felt the gusts of a gentle breeze lifting and flattening the fabric of my new beard. I thought of the sails of a ship.
In the morning I drank a glass of water from my bedside table and walked into the bathroom. The beard had grown in the night. Those little tufts were now as long as fingers, and not black but iridescent, blue like a magpie. I stood in front of the mirror turning and tilting my head and the light from the skylight rippled across the bearskin under my chin. It flashed darkness, a pool of oil – and when I drew my hand across it a thin film of grease was left on my palm. I puffed out my chest. I felt like singing.
Downstairs things went badly. My mother put down the pan of milk she had been heating, took down her coat from the peg and walked out of the back door. I could hear her snuffling out of sight on the logpile, which is where she went whenever things in the house were looking ugly. My father took one look at my beard and spat into the corner. He cuffed me with the back of his hand very hard and I staggered back and caught the back of my head against the corner of the clock on the wall. To hell with you then, he shouted, if that’s the way it’s going to be! Enough of this bollocks! Get out! And he did actually catch me by the lapels and throw me out, past my snivelling mother, on to the dust of the road outside.
Luckily the lapels of my suit were made of strong stuff, and survived this unnecessary treatment. The suit itself was only the one I had been given by my uncle the year before and which I was just then beginning to grow into; it was a little on the plain side and had worn thin at the knees and elbows. But its navy colour matched the dark magnificence of my feather beard, and as I strolled down into the town I felt really rather magnificent myself. Nor was my new aspect wasted on passers-by: Anna from the bakery gawped as I walked past the shop without even making one of her put-downs, and the policeman who was standing in the middle of the square outside the railway station actually raised his hat to me, a thing I had never before experienced even on the day that I visited the superintendent to receive his apology for knocking me down with his bicycle.
As I reached the edge of the square I turned round to see the policeman looking after me with his hands on his hips, and it occurred to me that a beard made of feathers must be a surprising thing to encounter and with all probability would be reported to the authorities. And on the spur of the moment I turned into the station building.
On the train my newfound gravitas continued to impress people. The conductor called me sir when he asked for my ticket. A small boy in our compartment requested my permission to eat his apple. His father smiled proudly behind him. I nodded in what I hoped was a genial way, opened the window and hummed a song under my breath. For the first time in my life I felt like reading a newspaper, reached up and pulled one down off the rack. The news – a new theatre building in Vienna, the failure of trade negotiations, riots at some Baltic university – interested me, to my amazement. The boy’s father took out a cigar case and offered it to me, but I was overtaken by a sudden timidity and declined. After that I went out into the corridor and stood next to a woman who was looking out of the window. She turned to look at me. She looked tired. Can you spare me any money, she said, just a few coins. To help me through a difficulty.
I gave her what I had in my pocket and she looked at me at first with a sort of sneer but then she softened and turned so that her back was resting against the window. Then she sat down with her legs extended across the corridor in front of her. I thought they would be in the way if anyone came past but the beard enabled me not to say it. She said, Sit with me, so I did. My legs extended across the corridor too. She sighed and watched me watching her out of the side of her eye. Ever since I got rid of it the gentlemen won’t look at me, she said. I looked at our shoes. We sat in silence for a while and the motion of the train made our knees bump against each other. It was very warm, and I got drowsy. I was just dropping off when I felt her get up; I half-opened my eyes and watched her move along the train into another carriage.
I was woken by something moving around in my beard. At first I thought, Uh-oh, but it was the guard poking at me with the handle end of a broom. It was nice of him not to use the brush end. The train had stopped. Your stop, sir, he said, and helped me to my feet. He steadied my elbow as I got down from the train and whispered, I wouldn’t stay around the station for long if I was you.
He pulled the door shut and disappeared, and the train moved away. While its noise was receding, I I looked around, but there was nobody else on the platform. A few weeds were beginning to grow up through cracks in the stonework. The station building, a pretty red-brick thing with steep gables, was shut. Bright flowers were choking in the window boxes. And by the time the train had become inaudible I noticed how many bees were flying around, between the windowboxes and across the tracks to the opposite platform which was if anything even more overgrown with willowherb and dandelions. They were big, hairy bumblebees. Had I had a hat I would have doffed it. As it was I took out my ticket and sat down on the edge of the platform to examine it.
There could not be any doubt that the station I had alighted at was not the destination printed on the ticket; but the train had gone, and there was no one around to remonstrate with. I threw loose pieces of gravel down at the rails. I was listening carefully for the metallic ding that indicated a direct hit, and so I caught quite clearly the first duck calling.
It was noticeable not only for the surprise of hearing a duck so close to the station, but also for the quality of its quack. There could not be any doubt that a duck had made the sound, but there was something peculiar about it: it was a quack which sent a shiver through you, and this was not a quality of the quacks produced by any ducks I had previously been acquainted with. I heard it again, and then a third time, each a perfect eerie replica of the first. I got to my feet.
Just then a gunshot rang out, very loud and close by, and one of the windows of the disused station blew in with a crash of splintering glass. On the other side of the tracks there was a sway of movement in the willowherb and the brambles behind the willowherb. I turned and ran out of the station and down the deserted road.
Tony Williams is a poet and short story writer based in Sheffield, UK. His poetry collection The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street was published by Salt in 2009.