Peacocks For Sale

Mike Nelson

I get the idea driving through Bradford. It was last October about two in the afternoon and the traffic had stopped at the bottom end of Thornton Road. I was in the van and returning from this wallpapering job I’d been doing out Haworth way. Big old Victorian stone-built gaff up past The Bronte Museum. Beautiful. Massive garden overlooking the moors. Dead quiet and that. The old American couple who owned it had pissed off someplace so left me to it- papering the dining room with this whacky pattern: Cole and Son, silk-embossed, two hundred quid a roll. It was supposed to represent a tropical garden- big green leaves, yellow flowers and, peeking out from it all- peacocks. Great big things. Hard to describe- not quite blue, not quite green, just peacock colour.
The problem was, like a lot of these old places the walls were out so it was difficult to match the joints properly, particularly as the join was exactly where the peacock head connected with the peacock body. If I managed to join one peacock then the next peacock would be out and so on. Finally, I settled for matching at eye-level and just hoped they didn’t look up, or down. After about four lengths I got fed up with it all, sneaked a glass of Courvoisier from the oak drinks cabinet and went outside for a smoke.
I felt good out in the garden, looking across the moors all bleak and dreary but beautiful in the autumn sun. Other people’s lives? I could see myself living there, in this old Victorian place, with her and the kids. Maybe having people round for a bite to eat and afterwards going out into the garden for a smoke and a natter. Yeah, I thought, that’d be the life.
I didn’t think about it for too long though as I knew where it’d lead. Instead I went back in, cleaned out the glass, put it back in the cupboard and fucked off.
Driving home is when I see it. At first I thought I was tripping, I mean I had been staring at peacocks all day and my head wasn’t in a good place, but no, it was real, stuck to the side of a construction site hoarding on a bit of old cardboard, written in red and black marker pen: PEACOCKS FOR SALE £65 EACH OR £150 FOR THREE with the mobile number scrawled beneath. That’s weird, I thought but then the traffic moved and I put it out of mind.
Until that night. I stayed up too late as usual, smoking, drinking, eating crisps, watching some crappy cookery programme on catch-up. By the time it got to two in the morning I figured I’d probably had enough and staggered on up to bed to see if I could actually get some sleep for once. Needless to say it was difficult and I tossed and turned for ages like a bloody spin dryer until I eventually drifted off…
We’re in this garden or park place. Emily is still a toddler and is licking on this massive ’99 Mr. Whippy ice-cream while Charlie is still a baby in his buggy. She’s holding Emily’s other hand and I’m pushing the buggy. The sun is shining and we’re all smiling like we’re so happy and nothing can touch us. We come to this big bird enclosure, aviary thing. It’s filled with all kinds of birds- parrots, budgies, toucans and at the bottom these three enormous peacocks just strutting about like they own the place. We stand there looking at them and then Emily points and goes- ‘pea-cocks’ which has the weird effect of the three of them turning round to face us and opening up their magnificent feathers in unison. It’s amazing because all the colours are shining in the warm sunlight with the magical colours of the peacock feathers staring back at us. And she goes ‘beautiful’ and then she lays her head against my shoulder and neck.
When I wake up I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.
The next day follows pretty much the same pattern as the day before: wallpaper, brandy, garden, spliff, early finish. Only this time rather than drive past the sign I pull up opposite, dodge the traffic and take a picture with my phone.
It’s a message, I know it is.
That night I call the number.
“Hello. I’m ringing about the peacocks.”
“Yes?”
“Yeah…I’d like to buy one.”
“Excellent,” he says. “Excellent.
Then he gives me the address and he says bye and I say yeah, see you later and then we both put down the phone.
About seven that night I go round in the van. It’s on a side street off Manningham Lane. Little terraced house covered with stone cladding and a little iron fence. It’s small but neat enough. I get out, open the gate, and ring the bell and out pops this old Asian bloke in a blue Adidas trackie and white skull cap. “Hello,” I say, “I’ve come about the peacock.”
“Please,” he says. “Come in, come in.” So I take off my shoes and in I go.
He makes me a cup of tea and gets out this plate filled with jammy dodgers. I take two. “Nice,” I say. “Cheers.” He’s dead smiley and that and seems like an alright bloke so I’m convinced I’m making the right decision. We stand there for a bit in his kitchen. I ask him how long he’s been breeding peacocks and he tells me ten years. I then ask does he sell many and he says a few, for weddings mainly. He asks if I’m married and I nod.
“Could I see the peacocks now please?”
“Of course,” he says. “Follow me.”
It’s getting dark so he switches on the security light and this tiny lawn lights up like Elland Road on a night match. I follow him down to the bottom of the garden to his home made aviary crammed with peacocks. All strutting about looking at us. There’s loads of them. I try to count but they keep moving about. I think I’ve counted twenty but I might have counted the same ones twice so I can’t be sure. Either way there’re loads, all in this little cage thing at the bottom of his garden. Mental.
“So,” he says. “Which one would you like?”
The truth is I don’t really know because they all look the same. Some are bigger that others but apart from that. I stand there for a bit feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing when the one in the far corner lets out a squawk and unfurls its feathers. It’s just like in the dream: amazing blue and green and the dark feathered eyes staring at us beneath the security light. “That one,” I say. “I’ll take that one.” He smiles, unlocks the gate and goes in brushing aside the crazy peacocks aside with his feet as they think it’s feeding time or something. Then I remember the sign- THREE FOR £150. I think fuck it. I’ll save forty five quid. “And that one and er…that one.”
“You want three?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’d like three please.”

We manage to stick the peacocks in the back of the van. I’ve made a little space by shifting a ten litre drum of emulsion. I’m only going back to Leeds so I figure they’ll be okay. As long as I take it steady. I give him the cash and then I ask, “So, what got you into the peacock breeding?” Which, to be fair, is a good question.
“Ah,” he says, looking all wistful. “When I was a small boy my father took me to the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. There are numerous peacocks in the Shalimar Gardens. It is a beautiful place. Have you ever been?”
“No,” I say. “I haven’t been.” But we shake hands anyway and off I go. Me and the peacocks.

It’s two in the morning by the time I pluck up the courage to go round to her new place. It’s down this newly built cul-de-sac just up from the Oakwood Clock. I pull up outside, turn off the engine and sit there for a bit. All the lights in the house are off and there’s no one about. Quickly I get out the van…

The next morning I’m woke up by the ringing of the house phone. At first I think it must be the old American couple wondering why I haven’t bothered to show up today but it’s not, it’s her.
“Did you do this?” She demands.
“Do what?”
“Don’t gimme that. Filled my garden with peacocks?” I resist the urge to point out that three hardly constitutes ‘filled’.
“Yeah,” I say. “It was a present.”
“A present? What? Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“No,” I say. “You like peacocks. Like that time when we…” But I don’t complete the sentence because I’m not sure whether the time in the park/garden place was a memory or just a dream.
“They’ll have to go.” In the background I hear her new bloke gobbing off about how he’s going to shoot them. I tell her to put him on but she doesn’t, instead she yells at him to keep out of it. Then she says if I don’t remove them she’s going to contact the solicitor and take out an injunction for harassment and hangs up.

What choice did I have? An injunction would mean not getting to see the kids and even though I didn’t think he would actually shoot the peacocks (as if he had a gun) he’s probably do some messed-up vindictive shit just to get back at me. Feed them rat poison or some such nasty bollocks.
Later on she texts me saying that if they’re not gone by twelve then she’s making the call to the solicitor. I get there at five to hoping to see the smug silver haired twat but his Audi isn’t there, which is a shame. I ring the bell and she opens the door and goes into the living room without looking at me. She leaves the door open so I shrug and go down the hall, through the brand new kitchen and into the back garden where the peacocks are strutting about looking like they’re having a whale of a time after being cooped in that little cage. Still, like I say, I had no choice so a scoops them up, one at a time and bung them in the back of the van. Before I go I say, “Gail, I’m sorry but…I thought you liked peacocks.”
“No,” she says. “I’ve never liked peacocks…for God sake Dave- get some help.” Then she closes the door.

The peacocks don’t look quite the same in our back garden with the broken trampoline, discoloured plastic slide and piles of rubble. Still, that’s where I put them. I can’t really have them in the house, shitting everywhere. I stand watching them for a bit, pecking away at the gravel looking for something to eat. I figure they might be hungry so I go back inside and look for something to give them. I can’t find much so I empty some Sugar Puffs into a couple of the kids’ old cereal bowls and put them out on the rotting decking. Maybe they’d eat them? Who knows? I’m not really an expert.
Inside I discover an unopened bottle of cooking sherry hidden at the back of the cupboard. After the day I’ve had I could do with a drink. Finding a cloudy pint glass, I fill it with the sherry, pick up my gear and go into the living room.
That night I sleep like a corpse. No dreams. Nothing. That’d probably explains why I didn’t hear.
The next morning, I get up for work and go for a quick smoke in the garden. The peacocks have gone. There’s nothing left of them apart from a few feathers littering the garden. Shit, I think, a fox has got them. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in a situation like this, so I just stand there looking at the feathers and thinking how low can a man actually go? After a bit I pick up the largest of the feathers, go inside and carefully place it in a jam-jar on the window sill and go back to bed.

This was last October and since then things have moved on a bit. We sold the house and most of the stuff and there’s no more chance of me keeping peacocks as I don’t even have a garden. I’ve still got the feather though and, if I’m feeling that way out I take it out the jam-jar and hold it against the light and just stand there looking at the colours and the shapes and then I pull it towards me and run the soft smooth feathers slowly against the side of my neck. That’s what I do, sometimes, just because.

previous reviews & comments:

'What a great story. Really enjoyed.'
Jude Campbell, 2019

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