Of my two big lockdown projects, one is well ahead of schedule: the iron table legs I am restoring have been stripped and primed, and are ready to paint, fully two weeks before the delivery date for the top I ordered. When it arrives, I will cover it with a mosaic made from broken bits of Victorian crockery I picked up in the park the year they redid all the paths, and have saved ever since in case of global pandemic.
“It’s going to be hideous,” my wife says.
“What it looks like is not the point,” I say. The point is to reassemble shattered fragments of the past into something whole, thereby staunching the flow of time and arresting the ageing process insofar as it applies to me. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work, which is why I kept putting it off.
I’m having less success with my other lockdown project: encouraging the birds of the air to land on my outstretched arms every time I step outside. I got the idea from my dad, who for years stopped at the same deli on his way to work, for a coffee and a muffin. He drank the coffee in his car while reading the paper. The muffin he tore into small crumbs which he balanced on his wing mirror.
The only time I went with him was shortly before his retirement, when he agreed to take me to his office on his day off to fill a cavity for free. As we pulled up outside the deli, dozens of birds flew down from the surrounding trees and landed all over his car. They waited there until he returned with the muffin and then, in my memory, queued patiently to perch on the wing mirror, one at a time.
What I once viewed as a disturbing eccentricity has, during lockdown, become a personal ambition. I keep seeds in my pockets and leave trails of them in my wake.
“Any luck yet?” my wife says one afternoon.
“The birds of the air aren’t interested,” I say. “The squirrel of the tree, on the other hand…”
“Oh dear,” my wife says. The squirrel, my enemy, had been breaching the rules on social distancing long before I started chucking bird food everywhere.
“Now he comes right up to my office door,” I say, “and gives me this look that’s like: ‘More seed now.’”
“That was always going to happen,” she says.
“I need something birds like that squirrels don’t,” I say.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she says.
Two days later, I’m in my office shed when the youngest leans in.
“This came for you,” he says, handing me a package.
“Nice,” I say, shredding it open. Two cans roll on to my desk.
“Spray paint?” he says.
“For my legs,” I say. His eyebrows knit briefly.
“Ah,” he says. “Your weird table project.”
“Don’t judge me,” I say. “You should have a project.”
“I do have a project,” he says. “My final computer project.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “How’s that going?” He starts to tell me. I think: uh-oh.
After lunch I give the table a first coat, wearing the mask I’m meant to put on to go to the shops. I spray until the can runs dry and my glasses are fogged with black dots. Then I go inside for a shower. When I return to my office, there is another package waiting for me on my chair. The label says “Tasty insect medley”. There’s a picture of a bird on it.
I open my office door, spread a thin layer of dried bugs on the mat and return to my work. When I look up an hour later, I’m surprised to see the insects have all disappeared. There on the mat is a bold robin, looking for all the world as if he is about to peck on the glass. I look down at his fierce eye, his puffed red breast and his pointy talons, and wonder why I ever wanted something like that anywhere near my arms.