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FLY - Olivia Gunning


When our compost bin vanished, I took my girl by her soft hand and I said, “Nita, we’re detectives now and we’re going on a bin hunt.” If the bin had gone somewhere, it was most likely to a neighbour. Who would travel far to steal a bin or adopt one blown down the street by the wind?

It was Easter. The holiday fund was too modest to go anywhere so we stayed home and I called it a playcation to make it sound acceptable. Cooking, swingball tournaments, building Rube-Goldberg machines and counting intervals between aircraft ascending from Heathrow. When the compost bin affair arose, we added domestic detection to our portfolio.

Nita’s fingers were small and cushioned and gripping and our eyes were trained looking for The Evidence which, we had ascertained, would be multiple compost bins in front of someone’s house. If there were two, the extra would be ours because nobody has more than one.

“Actually,” corrected Nita, “they’re called food waste bins. But why?”

She’s quite right – and isn’t it ludicrous to believe in some giant shared eco compost heap? I only learned last year that it’s all incinerated. But it feels better saying ‘compost’.

She trusted me, colluded, to go towards danger, the unknown. We only needed to walk to number 77 – that’s three doors down – and we saw it.

We hid behind a camellia bush in furious flower and watched the bin. It was on its side, rocking gently, as if whisked there by a wind and we were sure, so sure, it was our bin.

Examination of the suspects:

Number 77 had two very large cars, both equally polished. Their porch was brand new and spacious and their curtains weighty with opulent fabric.

I said, “I’m guessing these people have some money.”

“Yes,” Nita said. “Just look at their shiny letterbox and that bird statue.”

Missing evidence:

I had never written our house number on the bin so it was hard to prove.

“I want to grab it,” whispered Nita, but it was too late because I was already dithering, saying things like Trespassing isn’t OK, Nita and What if they have two? So we had to go.

We skipped back in the rushing spring air, conspiring and cackling. The gusts spun through the sun in our street, daffodils and primroses and crocuses bouncing us along like marathon runners. In spring, leaves take on the yellow shades of Nita’s hair, all those light-loving strands.

We fell in the house and slammed our door, gushing about the bin. Why hadn’t I taken it? It was definitely ours, wasn’t it? It was ours! And we would regain it and we would write our house number on it in permanent marker. When we got it back. When. But how?

That night, I interviewed Nita for her Easter project. She was the artist and I the interviewer, in awe of her salt-dough sculpture, The Snowman. We planned and practised and were sure of ourselves. We would make this project a fine one. We knew what to say.

“Nita Naseem, we’re so happy to have you here in the studio – it’s such an honour.”

“It’s all mine,” said Nita, and almost blushed but didn’t, because it was only me.

“So, Nita, I’m interested to know where you find the ideas for your sculptures. For example, The Snowman: what drove you to create such a fantastic piece? It’s so pretty and smooth.”

“I wanted to make the same man I saw in my book,” she said. “He’s my favourite person.”

“I can’t think of a better reason for making art, Nita. What will your next project be?”

She stalled and searched for words somewhere, on her lap, behind the camera, me.

“Keep going,” I whispered. “Keep going, Nita.”

It doesn’t matter if you hesitate. It’s just a way of making sure you’re content with what you’re doing. Just shows you’re conscious, questioning.

When Nita was in bed, I went into the garden and our jolly next-door neighbour was weeding in the dark. I said hello and we chatted on tiptoes over the fence. I told her about the compost bin. She said that nobody can get two from the council unless they buy the second one, and who does that? She said it was definitely ours and I should just take it and be breezy. “Some things are obvious,” she flipped. “Don’t overthink.”

Later, I watched the video of Nita-Naseem-the-famous-artist, and saw her skin imitating the light that fell upon it. I watched my favourite part again, when she halts, falters, looks right at me because I might give her the way out.

Keep going. Keep going, Nita. And she was off, tale-streaming about Mr Snowman who survived all year round and his story was all about how he never melted, never faded, not even with seasons.

I didn’t pass my first driving test because of hesitation. I waited for a car to pass before pulling out. I didn’t stall, I just waited. We watched it, the examiner and I, as it trundled towards us innocuously, trundled past, trundled on in its straight-line route. After the test, Mr Hemlock (that really was the examiner’s name) almost screamed at me. What were you waiting for? That driver was crawling along and miles away.

He signed my certification of failure on grounds of hesitation, and stormed out of the car.

I am, really, in awe of Nita. Her scope for smiling. How a genuine reason to beam in the morning is a new box of Rice Krispies. How she has ideas popping like seeds in a pan.

“What we should do, Mummy, is write a letter.”

Nita had dreamt about the bin, woken thinking about how to salvage what was ours.

We wrote the letter, just as she said.

Dear Neighbours,

We have lost a food-waste bin and wondered if you had seen it.

Thank you.

Number 71.

We delivered the letter. Nita wanted to post it. I want to touch that shiny letterbox.

She made me stay at the entrance of the drive, watching my little girl skip six metres in front of me, as fear-filled as I will be when she leaves home. The letterbox snapped shut and she cantered back, lost her footing on the gravel, stumbled, bounced against the wind before her and saved herself. She threw her hands into mine and we literally sprinted home, coaxed and congratulated by the tulips and forget-me-nots. We flung the front door shut and leant our bodies against it.

“There,” she said. “Now we’ll find it. We won’t have to spend our money on a new one.”

I like to think about money when I go to sleep. Working things out is comforting even though the money doesn’t work out as comfortably as to give us knee room. The thought process is finite and that’s what gets me to sleep. We have just enough money, as long as no hefty expenses come up and out of nowhere. Spending needs are evidence of your world. Requirements are there to tell you what indulgence feels like: rare and grand. Sometimes, we get cinema tickets, we eat noodles out if we can, but if not, there is TV and we’re acceptable cooks.

My mother fell in her front drive on her way to her car. She fell over nothing, thin air, and fractured her knee on gravel, rendering walking impossible for weeks.

She said, “Rosie, when I fell, I felt so old.”

My mother’s voice usually laughs into the phone but I could hear the smile had gone. She said that falling, falling over air, into immobilizing injury was a conclusion of an era, of indubitable proof of age and deterioration and corrosion. No more bounce. But at least Dad has started cooking for her, which has taken him four decades. Mum likes long words. No, sorry, the right words.

Number 77 didn’t respond. Further proof that they were thieves, the thieves, even if it was inadvertent – if you count keeping a found object, something that isn’t yours, as inadvertent theft. If it was theirs, they’d have written back.

Meanwhile, we had nowhere to put our food waste. If we put it in the normal bin, foxes would spread our rubbish over the garden like a drunken picnic. We put the food waste in a dirty plastic bowl and hated it more with each fly that descended.

It’s easier to liberate a fly than to squash it. Catching them is an endless fight and usually the fly wins. We opened the window and fanned the dancing flies away and then slammed it shut. Nita thought it was fun, this infinite battle with the insect world, but I got tired.

“I need my bin back,” I said with my hair in handfuls.

When I was little, my parents were in an American Express ad and my dad used his own car! And why? Because his own car was a sludge-brown Mercedes – we were only just into the 1980s then and brown was still all over everything, and that Mercedes was top-of-the-brown-range, though now it looks like a dated, cheap private detective’s vehicle. There is this photograph of them standing by it: my mum is wearing a floor-sweeping dress, cream with vast orange flowers and an expansive, floppy straw hat. My dad is in a grey suit and wide tie and from the photo you’d believe they’d drunk a bottle of champagne just before stepping out of the Mercedes which they hadn’t paid for on American Express. They are sure-footed and fit and beautiful and the light makes them squint a little more into smiles which seem unable to fall. And if you look further into the photo, you can see a man delivering a cage of green birds. He is blurry but the birds are vivid.

This same photo was once thrown across the kitchen, years later, by one of my parents (they never admitted which) as my mum was cooking artichokes and my dad was ranting about how long it took. I asked if that meant their marriage was a failure and Dad apologized and Mum said their marriage could never be a failure, because we have you. These are the things we tell children.

I, too, have told Nita stories. The day we waved goodbye to my husband at the airport, I told her that waving goodbye was like drawing messages into the air. I said the messages would follow the person you waved to forever. We stood waiting for a bus home, the wind cracking icicles against our cheeks, and she jiggled her finger up and down and said, “I’m doing joined-up writing! That way the letters stay together.”

Back in the Mercedes days, my parents lived in an elegant town house in Ealing and there were parks nearby for when they got bored of their big garden. Around that time, some flashy green parakeets escaped a film set in West London. They adapted, bred, took over and now they are everywhere, feathers as bright and squawks as piercing as fireworks. The first time I saw them was at 6am as I walked home from a party, and I thought I was hallucinating. But they are real and it’s not fun anymore because the noise they make is wrong.

Number 77 had made it difficult for us. The silence, the non-responding to our letter, was to deny wrongdoing. A silent denial that only fed our suspicion. Now they knew and still they said nothing. Held onto something, both the bin and the knowledge we’d lost ours.

Of course, if you consult our kid-friendly history books, the only way to regain what is yours, from people like those at 77, is the Robin-of-Sherwood method. That night, Nita and I read through her illustrated version of Mr Hood, described by her book as a name given to those involved in ‘petty theft’.

“We could be vigilantes!” I exclaimed.

“Or robbers,” pointed out Nita. “We don’t actually know it’s our bin.”

“It certainly looks like ours,” I retorted.

“They all look the same.” Nita was right.

“Number 77 are the only ones in our street with two bins,” I said.

“And they’re not even using it because it’s on its side,” Nita reminded me.

“We will go tomorrow.”

Nita said, “I want to do it.”

“No,” I told her. “This is a kind of trespassing.”

I walked lightly along the expensive gravel; the letterbox flashed at my eyes like a banger. I could see the bin, still on its side, open, abandoned, grubby yet wanted. I slunk towards it. At the window, the drape was thick as a gag and I’m sure I saw it flick. I didn’t see a face or a fingertip but it made me flounder, that glance of a curtain. I stalled, yet again I stalled, turned on the scrunchy driveway and left.

“Why didn’t you just grab it?” Nita hissed.

Lost my nerve. Wavered.

Nita invented a game called Plane Rounders. The premise is running while there are no planes overhead. When a plane approaches from the airport, she rolls herself into a hedgehog ball and lies still. The planes are low enough over our house that the wheels are still out and look like they may trip over our fence. We can decipher details of the belly and the airline company lettering is legible. As soon as the sound has gone, Nita runs as many laps as she can until the next take-off. The planes come on average every ninety seconds. My next-door neighbour likes to time Nita as she runs. My neighbour is always merry and dyes her hair scarlet. She is forthright and shouts things like, “Go Nita!” and “Run for it girl!” and then gives her slices of bright red cake that match her hair.

When they measured the pollution levels at our local school, where Nita is a pupil and I the receptionist, they found there are almost fifty micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air, which is nearly illegal. If they’re allowed to build the new runway, the school will be closed down. It has been there for a hundred years. Something feels wrong about this order.

Planes take off into the west, the direction our garden faces. Sunset pushes in over our garden and into the kitchen windows. Our bedrooms are on the easterly side, so morning comes to us first in our beds. We follow the arc of the sun through the day and then retreat to our east-facing beds and wait. Our British winds are mostly south-westerly. I never thought of wind as predictable. Winds, in my mind, are capricious and wayward. Whip things away on a whim.

My husband went away on a two-engine plane that would have released around ninety kilograms of nitrogen oxide on its entire journey. Planes should take off into the wind because the counter-current helps them lift off. A counter-current is safer. Planes need more fuel to take off than on any other part of the journey and this is usually the noisiest part of flight. We didn’t hear his plane. We didn’t hear anything and sometimes, I’m glad we didn’t. When he vanished through passport control, we were going to call him back to wave one last time because we always wanted to wave to people one last time, but I hesitated because it felt silly. We’d agreed, after all, before he flew away into his counter-current.

I get downstairs to find that Nita has already made her own breakfast. “I used a little plate,” she says, “because toast isn’t that big.” She has so much jam everywhere that the crusts stick to her fingers as she puts them in the compost bowl.

My jolly neighbour calls from the garden. Nita and I go out smiling because we’re in pyjamas and it’s always funny to talk to someone outside in pyjamas.

“Got you this,” says my neighbour. She’s grinning madly, lowering a food waste bin over the fence. “Wrote your house number on in permanent marker.”

We gasp. “Where from?”

“Number 77, where else?”

“But how?”

“Just strode up there and took it,” she chirps.

Nita jumps up and down and cheers. “We got back what’s ours!” She is gleeful and triumphant as she goes to continue yesterday’s drawing. It is of the one big tree that reigns over our road, trunk so enormous they had to alter the pavement to accommodate it. She draws parakeets with a fluorescent marker. They stand out against the dark branches, like space invaders.

Olivia's fiction has been published by The Forge Literary Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Hobart and Ghost Parachute, among others. She has lived, worked, taught and written between the UK and Morocco for near on two decades.


Twitter: @olivegunning

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