Coffee and birdsong


Short fiction by Mary Manning

It's ages since I've noticed birdsong. I've been too absorbed in misery to tune into their joy, but this morning, very early, with the window open because the night was hot, a bird is singing in the birch tree.

Girl making espressoIt sings the same song over and over, teaching its young to sing. The baby repeats two of the notes followed by a little trill as if to say please only two at a time.

Usually when the morning sun comes in the bedroom window and the trees make patterns on the wardrobe doors I wrap my arms around my head and pull a pillow over to make a three-tier tower: head, arms and pillow. I am inviolable in my keep-out tower. Not that there's anyone left to violate my space, which is why I burrow against light and birdsong in the first place.

But now, well and truly awake, I am on my balcony in a pink cotton dressing gown and thongs singing along with mother bird and drinking orange juice. Amazing! I haven't felt this lift of the spirits for about five years.

I've left it too late to walk to work so I'll catch the tram but tonight I'll walk home. It will be sunset so I might hear more birds.

I am noticing sounds more today. It's as if someone's cleaned my ears out with a cotton bud and pinned them back against my head for maximum reception.

Like now on the tram to work. Usually I am only conscious of the background clack of wheels and chat of passengers. But today the passengers seem soothed by faint repetitive music coming perhaps from a radio turned low. It is some sort of chant — a Jewish cantor comes to mind, or something from the Koran.

I realise eventually that the sound comes from the man sitting across the aisle from me. He wears a dark coloured taxi driver's uniform and on his head a scarf arranged like a theatrical curtain, the fabric hanging on each side of his face leaving only the central part uncovered. He is turning the pages of a book, quietly singing each page. I can see the lines of music. His singing is moving and tranquil.


"The child loves the choreography, laughs, points, tells me secrets in playmate language, loves me. I have made a friend. I feel a little spurt of the baby bird energy of the early morning."


I'd like to tell the man that his singing reminds me of the Gregorian chant I learned to sing at school but he keeps his head down. Today I can still sing the Latin words of the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei when I listen to a Mass by Brahms or Mozart.

With the words of the Credo in my head I walk into the coffee shop where I work and am straight into the buzz of conversations about people's plans for their day — pick up the dry cleaning, have a cholesterol test, find shoes to wear to the gallery opening. It's exhausting listening to them.

Two mothers come in with small children and job lists. The younger child wears one pink shoe and rattles a colourful confection of plastic shapes on a plastic chain. Her mother props her in a high chair at about counter level and in line with me performing behind my Gaggia. Pull, push on the levers, scoop the coffee, flatten it, steam fragrant liquid into white cups. My lever-pulling right arm has huge muscles from my coffee ballet.

The child loves the choreography, laughs, points, tells me secrets in playmate language, loves me. I have made a friend. I feel a little spurt of the baby bird energy of the early morning.

The women get up waving lists and car keys. The baby throws her plastic collection in my direction. A gift. The mother picks it up and looks past me as if I am an extension of the Gaggia. The child shouts and points to tell her that the plastic chain is meant for me but the mother says quiet now this is no time to throw a tanty.

I want to say that this child is my friend, but it's not the sort of thing you say to customers, or to the mother of any child you've just met.

On my walk home I search the second-hand shop for a garment made of warm brown wool and shaped like the robes worn by saints of long ago. I will wrap myself in it when I go out looking for people whose singing or conversation will take my mind off solitude. But the coats and jackets on the racks are all too bright or too skimpy. None is vaguely like a saint's robe.

Near the counter is a rack of sunglasses. I choose a pair with tortoiseshell frames. For the time being, until I find my warm brown robe I can hide behind the dark lenses and pretend I am not lonely.

On my walk home a flock of starlings streams into a huge palm tree chattering loudly about their day before settling down for the night. I can see the tree vibrating even through my new glasses.


Mary ManningMary Manning was a Melbourne writer and a former editorial assistant for Eureka Street. Her book Damaged in Transit, a collection of short fiction, was published in October 2012. The above short story orginally appeared in Eureka Street in August 2009. Mary died on Tuesday 8 November 2016.

Topic tags: Mary Manning, short story, op shop, tram, sunglasses, birdsong



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Existing comments

This gentle story feels very real - I love the fortress the character has built and the awakening to life around.
Margaret | 19 August 2009

loved it Mary, such conjuring of internal images
annetine | 19 August 2009

Today's 'coffee and loneliness' was a lovely warm glimpse of someone we could easily overlook today. I'll take more time to SEE. And have emailed it to all three of my daughters and a good friend.
glen avard | 19 August 2009

Another way of looking at solitude: it is a blessed reward for the time spent so inundated by the needs of others that the word itself was foreign.
Anna | 19 August 2009

Thank you Mary Manning. I was right there with you, in every way. I've been there dear, and will return one day.
Lesley | 19 August 2009

'Often the alone-goer holds himself in grace,' as the Old English elegy of The Wanderer begins, but it also cherishes the busy-convivial rush of the estranged world around us. Your story puts an anti-solitary agent at the heart of your interactions with with others — coffee being such a chatter-drug.
Tom Clark | 20 August 2009

Great story Mary,I could identify with it in my own life and think that many of us would. The modern lifestyle can be a fairly alienating experience - the connections we make can be limiting. Once there were conductors on trams who often created the friendly banter of the past. Or we'd talk to banktellers during the day instead of going to the ATM. Mostly the social life of our community has become corporate, and economic rationalism has changed us forever - perhaps this is why we experience more violence and antisocial behaviour as a result?

You have brought something to light that requires a broader discussion. How do we maintain and create community.
Ros | 20 August 2009

Thank you Mary. I pray that you may encounter parents more present to the moment and to the people around them during your daily Gaggia workouts ...
Andrew | 20 August 2009

I loved your pen pictures Mary, so much detail to evoke the images of loneliness amid a noisy world.
Emmy Oakley | 21 August 2009

A gorgeous story to start my day. Every line conjures some new fresh image. It's got all the beauty and resonance of poetry while having that thread of story to keep me hooked. I love it. More please Mary.
Julie Gittus | 21 August 2009

Such beautiful, joyful words - I am so sad to hear of this loss.
Barry G | 09 November 2016

Love the gentle observations & sensitivity in her writing. So sad to hear this sad news. Will miss her cheeky grin & twinkle in her eyes. Sincere condolences.
Teresa Martin -Lim | 10 November 2016

This is one of the best poems I have ever read. It is indeed a thing of beauty - a joy forever.
john frawley | 10 November 2016

Thank you for sharing this insightful poetic story. What a suitable tribute to its author.
Ern Azzopardi | 10 November 2016

Poignant to hear that voice, aware that the 'I' is now experiencing all it yearned for.
Steve Sinn | 10 November 2016

How beautiful was this. Sad, but so real.
Maureen O'Brien | 11 November 2016

Mary was the most gentle, encouraging, fun and faithful woman. She gave me my first chance to write professionally and in an ongoing capacity. I sat in her classes, met my husband whilst under her tutelage and thought she epitomized the ideal of a lovely literary lady; insightful, eloquent and with her own quiet distinction Vale, Mary, and thank you for the time and encouragement you gave all those you taught at the CAE. Ann and Robert Rennie
Ann Rennie | 14 November 2016


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