The Birdcage Melodies

by James Bent (Australia)

 pentru versiunea română click aici 

Piazza Mattina        

         Franco smoked a cigarette, Milos next to him repeatedly smoothed his finger across his eyebrow, looking into the centre of the square.  A grey-stained travertine fountain, a sculpture of a horse with large, open wings from it’s shoulders, reared back between two dolphins posed diving from the pool, jets of water from the horse’s mouth and the dolphin’s snouts.  Across from Franco, Nico looked up from the morning paper, a woman wearing a black dress, drinking coffee at another table.  She raised her arms and touched the edge of the red umbrella shade above her, stretched her back and shoulders.  The fabric of her dress pulled across her chest, the sun on the side of her face.  Nico slid his hand inside the top of his shirt, pressed his fingers into the side of his neck and shoulder, nodded toward her.  Franco turned, his arm across the back of Milos’ chair.  A light breeze caught a flake of ash from his cigarette, floated down onto his black t-shirt.  He brushed it off.  Nico pushed his coffee cup to one side, laid the paper flat on the table, started reading.

         “A man shot himself in the hand, hoping that his ex-girlfriend would be impressed and take him back.  He attracted city police attention after the man, twenty four years old, went to the hospital with a bullet wound to his left hand, which he at first attributed to a shooting accident while hunting deer.  When questioned further, the man admitted that he had shot himself in the hope of winning back his ex-girlfriend, eighteen years old, after she broke up with him.  He told police he had made the decision to shoot himself out of desperation.  The man’s hand is expected to heal, and the injuries are not life threatening.  Local reports state the man’s ex-girlfriend was not impressed, saying that she would not take him back.”

         Franco looked up, stroked along his throat with the tips of his thumb and forefinger.  “Why would you shoot yourself in the hand?  I don’t get it.”

         “A girl told me to stand on a thumb tack once, so I guess its similar.” said Milos.

         “Why did she tell you to do that?” Franco asked.

         “She said she’d kiss me if I did.”

         “How old were you?”


         “Did you do it?”

         Milos nodded.

         “And did she kiss you?”


         “Well, it must have been nice to get a kiss.”

         Nico lifted the paper, lined the top of the pages with the top of the woman’s black dress, followed the curving shape of her chest.  “Is that girl still staying with you?”

         “Which one?” Franco asked.

         “The short one.”

         “No, she’s gone.”

         “Will you see her again?”

         “I don’t think so.”

         “Didn’t she model for you Milos?” Nico asked.

         Milos nodded.

         “Do you sleep with your models?” Franco asked.

         “Some of them, not always.  I never intend to.  I had a model tell me that it’s a turn-on to be painted.”

         “Like how?”

         Milos took a cigarette from a packet on the table.  “She said she was frustrated at the painting because it took my attention away from her, because she was naked yet I wasn’t really focussing on her.  So she refused to let me continue unless I slept with her.”

         “And did you?” Nico asked.


         “Was that good?”

         “It was very intense, but a bit empty afterwards.  And it didn’t feel right.  It felt very mechanical, like she was using me.  I just wanted her to go.  I didn’t even finish painting her.”  He lit the cigarette, followed the water falling from the horse’s mouth into the pool of water at the base of the fountain.  The sound of the flowing water echoed on off-white stone buildings enclosing the wide, stone paved square.  People walking, talking among themselves, the hum and murmur of morning conversations.

         Nico lowered the paper again, looked at the top of the woman’s legs.  The line of her black dress contrasted her white skin.  Franco threw his cigarette on the ground, rubbed his forefinger under his nose, the strong smell of tobacco.  He watched a teenage girl walking hand in hand with her boyfriend along the front of the cafe.

         Milos called over the waiter and asked for a pen.  He opened out a white, paper serviette on the table, drawing rhythmical arabesques, the cigarette in his drawing hand.  “I had a dream last night.”

         “What was it?” asked Franco.

         Milos sat back, turned the serviette round in ninety degree increments, screwed it into a ball.  “I was in this house filled with stuffed horse heads on plaques, and I took one and went down to a beach and starting running around naked, thinking that I was riding this horse, but it was just a head.  Then I took it down to the sea and started washing it, and there were these people telling me not to eat it.”

         “What do you think it means?  It’s quite surreal.” Franco asked.

         “Don’t know.  It’s just a dream.” Milos said.  “Why did she leave?”

         “The girl?  We spent a few days in bed or drinking, and then last night we just ended up sitting there saying nothing.  When I got up this morning she was gone, left a note to say thanks and that she had to go.  That was it.”

         “Did you like her?” Nico asked.


         “Well, better sooner than later then.” Nico replied.  The woman in black glanced across at him, her black hair back in a ponytail, light red lipstick on her lips.  She licked froth from her top lip.  Nico tried a smile, the woman turned and looked the other way.

         The sound of birds taking off all at once, Milos watched an old man riding a bicycle quickly passed the fountain.  On the south side of the square, the pillared entrance of an old library, a man sat on the steps wearing black jeans and a white t-shirt, playing acoustic guitar.  He watched the birds fly into the air.  A young woman in tight blue jeans and a black top sat on the steps near to him, reading, put the book flat on her lap to listen to him play.  Milos tapped Franco on the shoulder, pointed at the man.

         Franco smiled and laughed, then stood up.  “So what’s on for the rest of the day?”

         “Not sure.  But there’s a party tonight.” Milos said.


         “At the Albergo Constante.  Raf knows about it.”

         Franco took some coins from his pocket and dropped them beside his coffee cup.  “Okay.  Well, I’m going, but maybe see you tonight?”

         Milos leaned forward, tapped the ash of his cigarette in a glass ashtray on the table.  “Sure.”

         Franco left them, walked by the woman in black, looked down, the top of her dress fitted tightly, shaped around her body.  He walked across the west side of the square to be in the sun, looked up to open windows, boxes hung and filled with vibrantly bright marigolds.  Window shutters being pushed open to the expansive light blue sky, a few thin, white clouds moving slowly.  Outside a doorway, two old men in flat caps smoked pipes, arguing over a game of chess.

_Calder, the Avalanches, Fontano

          Franco closed the door to his apartment, took off his shoes, tucked them under a metal spiral staircase to the left leading up to a mezzanine floor.  The sound of the air conditioning in the ceiling, air blowing through a wall duct.  He went into the kitchen space, opened the fridge and took a bottle of mineral water, unscrewed the cap, a sudden burst of gaseous fizz.  He poured a glass.  As he drank, he looked over the long, high ceiling apartment.  Two square-armed, white couches opposite each other in the lounge space on the other side of a black marble bench, a glass coffee table between them on a thick white rug.  Behind the couch to the left, a large, unframed canvas hung on the white painted wall, the black outline of a faceless female nude holding an open black box, painted on a solid background of carmine red, the contents of the box hidden from view.  Behind the couch to the right, a medium sized, black framed canvas covered with a mix of cardinal and dark red oil paint, defined by multi-directional, textured brush strokes.  At the far end of the apartment, an open study with an oak writing desk and matching rectangular oak stool in the middle of the floor, an oak shelving unit to the left filled with a mixture of records, books, CDs, stereo, small pictures, a cardboard slot-together model of Calder’s The Big Bird.  To the right of the study, the double-height white painted wall continued uninterrupted.  Natural wood strip floors laid running to a pair of French doors, red curtains drawn back.  Franco walked over and pushed both doors open, a warm breeze from outside filled the apartment with a refreshing, light airiness.  He went to the oak shelves and turned on the stereo.  Two Hearts in 3/4 Time, the Avalanches. 

         Through the open doors, a stone balcony with a simple iron balustrade, a one meter continuation of the interior hanging above a narrow street.  An apartment directly across with an identical balcony shaded from the morning sun, the balcony doors open, white net curtains blown by the gentle breeze.  Franco watched and waited.    Nothing changed.  He went over to the desk and sat on the stool, straightened his back, looked at a framed postcard, Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale Attesa.  A long slit in a red canvas, the edges of the slit pushed inward revealing darkness inside.  He took a fountain pen and pad of writing paper from a drawer in the desk, drew on the centre of the pad, light strokes, crossed lines, hatched bars.

         A telephone on the wall next to the apartment door rang three times.  He got up and answered it.


         “Franco, it’s Raf.”

         “What’s up?”

         “Not much.  What are you doing tonight?”

         “Not sure.  Milos said something about a party.”

         “Yep, that’s right.”

         “Who’s is it?”

         “A friend of mine.  You’d like to meet her.”

         “Okay, sounds interesting.”

         “Is that girl still staying with you?”


         “So it’s just you?”


         “Good.  I’ll come over later.”


         Franco hung up, laid down on the couch beneath the solid red painting, shut his eyes.  His ear against a white cushion, he listened to the sound of the air conditioning, continuous and unchanging, overlaid by the sound of the red curtains flapping in the breeze and the sound of the music.



_Pink on white


         From the moment the doors to his apartment opened, Ynes moved to hide behind the white net curtains, her body against the wooden door frame, one eye peeking into his apartment, her cheeks flushed, pink on white.  She watched him answer the telephone, then fall asleep on the couch.



_The Albergo Constante

         Franco woke at six thirty in the evening.  He went into the bathroom, went to toilet, washed his hands and face, brushed his hair, came back out to the kitchen and made himself a small antipasto of bruschetta, mortadella, olives, pepperoncini, provolone and anchovies, topped with olive oil and cracked pepper.  The balcony doors still open, the end of a breeze across the backs of his arms and neck, splitting the fading heat of early evening.  He turned and looked at the shade across his balcony, sun hitting the closed doors of the apartment across the street. 

         Just before seven, the buzz of the intercom.  Franco pressed the button to release the front door, left the apartment door on the latch.  The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, Raf entered wearing a grey suit with a high collared white shirt, the top two buttons undone, the grey lapels of the jacket cut low and pulled tight around his sides by a single black button, tight-fitted matching grey pants over the tops of black leather boots.  His brown hair cut and styled into a nuova-pompadour.  He raised his head to Franco, walked over and took an olive from the white plate, popped it into his mouth, chewed, took the stone from between his lips and dropped it on the black marble bench-top.

         “You’ve been sleeping?” he asked.

         Franco nodded.  “All afternoon.  I woke up half an hour ago.”

         “You were up late last night?”


         “The girl?”

         “Yeah.  She left this morning.  I’m going to get changed.”

         “Okay.  I’ll fix some drinks.”

         Franco went up the spiral staircase to the mezzanine.  Raf opened a cupboard next to the fridge, took a bottle of Cinzano Bianco, poured two small glasses, drank both, poured two more.  He carried one glass with him into the lounge, across to the oak shelves, looked through the CDs.  Vampire Weekend, Back To Mine, Feist, Kistune Maison, K&D, Gotan Project, Vivaldi, Lhasa De Sela.  He pulled out Le Quattro Stagioni, dark green and white Gill Sans lettering over translucent, light green and white tones on the cover.  He slid the CD back on the shelf, pulled out Lhasa De Sela, loaded the CD into the player, skipped forward, pressed play.  De Carla a Pered.  Sat on the back of the couch he faced the painting of the red girl, stared at the black box, stood up, his face close to the surface of the painting.  The featureless face looking down at him.  He smiled at her, sipped his drink, listened to the dismal voice in the gypsy-like music.  At Franco’s desk, he picked up a fountain pen, wrote a single word on a pad.


         He put the pen down, ripped the page from the pad and covered it with his hand, looked up to the red girl.  “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine?”  He waited and laughed, folded the page in half and put it in his pocket, went to the bathroom, shut the door, locking it. 

         The entire wall above a white porcelain sink covered with a mirror, Raf turned on the hot water tap, vaporous steam rising.  He leaned forward and stared at the reflection of his dark brown eyes.  In the mirror, in his eyes, a smaller version of himself, a reflection of his reflection in the centre of his dark pupils, dissipating twists of vapor rose between his face and the surface of the mirror.  He opened his mouth, smiled and licked his teeth.  He turned on the cold tap and mixed lukewarm water, washed his hands using a bar of cherry soap.  A knock on the bathroom door. 

         “I’m pouring more drinks.”

         Raf turned off the tap, dried his hands, went back out.

         Franco dressed in dark blue jeans, black leather shoes, a dark green polo t-shirt, a black leather bracelet on his left wrist.  He picked at the antipasto on the kitchen bench-top, passed a glass of Cinzano to Raf.  The music changed.  Close to me, The Cure.  “So, who’s this girl?” he asked.

         “A friend of mine.”  Raf replied.

         “I know, you already told me that on the phone.”

         “Drink your drink.” 

         They both drank.  Raf reached for the bottle, poured more.

         “But she’s nice?” Franco asked.

         “I told you that on the phone too.”

         “You said I’d like to meet her.”

         “Well, there you go.”

         Raf looked over at the picture of the red girl holding the box.  Outside, the sound of a car horn echoed along the narrow street. 

         “Taxi.” Franco said.  He picked up his keys and wallet from the bench-top.

         They finished their drinks and left. 

         A white Fiat Oggi stopped at the end of street just before it narrowed.  Raf climbed into the front, Franco in the back seat sat forward, his arm on the back of Raf’s seat.  The taxi driver crunched the gears into reverse, accelerated back without stopping to check for cars coming along Via Principale, pulled the hand-brake and turned the steering wheel.  The car skidded and span through ninety degrees, the taxi driver crunched into first gear, accelerated forward.  Franco fell back, laughing, Raf wedged one leg in the foot-well, his arm against the door, trying not to get flung around.  The driver yanked the steering wheel with both hands, leaned into each corner, the window wound down, shouting at people crossing the street, at other drivers, beeping the horn.

         They turned into a side street, a row of three story houses along one side, a large, open park on the other, short kept green grass and gravel paths lined with green-leaved faggio trees.

         “La Grande Sosta” said the taxi driver, pointing to the park.

         Raf raised his head to a narrow house, a bronze plaque on a stone wall next to a blue wooden door, Albergo Constante.  “This is it.” 

         A group of people congregated outside the hotel, several young men standing with a girl dressed in a light red, seven-eight coat, curly brown hair tinted red, with pouting red lips, bright blue eyes, thick features on her face delicately arranged on a canvas of pure white skin.  All of them smoking cigarettes.  

         Franco leaned forward.  “Drop us off along the street a bit.  I want to walk down.”

         The taxi driver nodded.

         They pulled over further down the street, Franco gave the driver a note and they got out.  A girl wearing a black dress, overlapping layered bands of fabric from her hips down to the middle of her thighs shimmering with every step and the sway of her hips.  She walked toward them, playfully bit her teeth at Raf and laughed.  He turned his head with her, followed her body as she walked passed them toward the hotel.  Franco put his hand around the back of Raf’s neck, feeling short hairs.  They looked at each other, burst out laughing.  The taxi drove off.

         The black dress shook all the way down the street in front of them, turned down a set of steps as the girl reached the hotel.  An amalgamation of sounds swelling from the basement: loud music, people talking, laughter.  Raf and Franco reached the group standing out on the street, the girl in the red seven-eight coat singing lines from a song:

         summer in the city, means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage

         (pause, the girl takes a drag on her cigarette)

         la  –  la,  la – la la la,    la     cleavage, cleavage, cleavage

         “Man that chick is sexy.” she said.

         “Who?” asked one of the men wearing tight, dark-blue jeans and silver rimmed dark sunglasses.

         “The chick who sings that song.” the girl replied.

         Raf and Franco raised their heads to them, turned down the stone steps to an open front door, went into a long room packed with people.  Raf pushed his way through toward the middle of the room, someone grabbed his arm, threw their arms around his neck, kissed him on the cheek.

         “Hello sexy.”  A girl in a tight, white singlet, tight blue jeans, black hair, blue-grey eyes sparkling like smoky quartz.       

         “Imilia, fuck you’re hot.  How did you get that hot?”  Raf smiled, kissed her cheek.  “Here, I want you to meet someone.”  He turned round to face a man in a purple corduroy baseball cap, a trimmed grey beard, talking to a girl dressed all in black, a smock top and jeans, a large brown fringe over bright blue eyes highlighted with silver liner.  Raf smiled at them, they smiled back, continued talking to each other.  “Sorry, looking for someone else.” Raf said.  He looked back to Imilia.  “Lost him, never mind.  There’s a girl here wearing a black dress.  Have seen her?”

         Imilia shook her head.

         “Well, I’m going to get a drink.” he said.  “Look out for Franco, my friend, the one I want you to meet.”

         “How will I know him?” Imilia asked, touched his side, felt his grey jacket, a soft wool blend.

         “Just ask if he’s called Franco.”  He walked off.

         Toward the back of the room, steps led up to a half level.  Purple silk drapes with elaborate Indian-style patterns hung from the ceiling, pulled across and tied to the walls.  A DJ playing Stéphane Pompougnac house, behind a table covered in a black sheet, a pair of decks, large speakers on the ground in front of the table.  In the far corner of the half level, at the other side of a group of people, Nico and Milos with an Asian woman wearing a polka dot dress, a wide red belt high around her waist, black glasses, her black hair tied back in a ponytail, holding a glass of white wine.  Milos saw Raf and waved him over.

         “Hey Raf, this is Jun-ko.”  Nico touched the side of the woman’s arm, played with the short sleeves of her polka dot dress.

         “Nice to meet you.” she said.

         “You too.” said Raf

         “Jun-ko’s having an exhibition at the Galleria le Cioccie e la Fica.” Nico said.

         “Interesting.  You have some bits and pieces there?  Is it going well?” Raf asked.

         “Yes.  It went very well thanks, but it finished today, I was just telling Nico.”

         “Are you from here?” Raf asked.

         “No.  I’m leaving tomorrow.”

         “To go home?”

         She shook her head.  “No.  I’m going to the coast for an exhibition at Galerie de Bite et des Boules.”

         “Cool.  Milos is a painter.” Raf said, nodded to Milos.

         “I know, we were just talking about that as well.”  Jun-ko looked at Milos, back to Raf.

         Raf nodded.  “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a girl in a black dress?” 

         Jun-ko shook her head. 

         “Do you know where I can get a drink?”  he asked. 

         She pointed down the steps, a table with bottles of drink and glasses set up along the side wall.

         “Thanks.  Nice to talk to you.”

         “Same.” she said.

         Raf bumped into Franco coming up the steps.

         “I lost you.” Franco said.

         “Yep.  I’m going to get a drink.  Do you want anything?”

         Franco showed him the glass he was holding, Raf carried on down back into the crowded basement, Franco continued up, waved to Milos and Nico.  He stood and watched the DJ mixing records, a grey haired man wearing a black jacket over a white t-shirt, light blue jeans, headphones on one ear, one record playing, he held and released the other, changing the speed control on a mixer, matching beats.  A low stone wall at the edge of the half level, Franco stood watching people. 

         A woman with large purple discs for earrings, her small head accentuated by short black hair scraped back, standing with a man with a large, pointed nose and ginger hair.  She nodded her head as he talked, continued to nod when he stopped talking, turned frequently to look at a girl dressed in a tight, open backed red dress, a large dragon tattoo over her smoothly curved body.  A man with long slick-back hair tucked behind his ears, backed up against a wall, another man, older, with a shaved head, five silver studs in a row inside the top of his right ear standing in front of him.  As the older man talked, his mouth moved slowly, the back of one hand touched the forearm of the younger man.  A man in an extravagant red hat styled to slump on one side, large white buttons sewn around the edge of the lapels on his black jacket.  He held the fingers of a woman wearing a tight red dress cutting a straight line across her breasts, shoulder length black hair, bright rouge-red lipstick and black mascara, he rubbed his thumb over her red painted nails.  Two young women with starved-model looks either side of a much older man, one with fiery red hair, thick blue-green eyeliner over pale white skin, looking bored, the other with long black hair and blue eyes, wearing a black leather jacket, both with their arms linked in the arms of the man.  He stared with one lazy eye at his reflection in a mirror on the wall, beside the mirror a canvas covered entirely in black paint.  A girl with dyed black hair, a stud in either side of her bottom lip, wearing a white top with black stars, holding a drink, a cocktail stick with a cherry resting on the rim.  She stared up at a teenage guy with a nose-ring, a styled, effeminate haircut, wearing a black cotton jacket buttoned to the top.

         “Can’t you find anyone to talk to?”  A girl in a tight white singlet and blue jeans came and stood next to Franco.

         Franco smiled, raised his drink.

         “Franco?” she asked.

         He nodded.

         “Imilia.” she said, introducing herself.  “You’re Raf’s friend?”

         “Mm-hmm.”  He held his drink up to the crowded room.  “Nice place.  Do you know everyone here?

         She pressed her lips together, looked over the room.  “Probably not.  And it comes with the hotel, the room.”

         (Milos nudged Nico, pointed with his hand across to Franco and Imilia, Nico smiled.)

         “Are you looking for someone?” Imilia asked.

         “Not specifically.”

         A woman in a high necked top near the front door with striking dark brown eyes, short brown hair heaped on top of her head.  She held a drink, watched people.

         “Although, Raf told me about you.” Franco said.

         “What did he tell you?”

         “He said I’d like to meet you.”

         “And would you?”

         He smiled.

         Imilia moved her head lightly to the beat of the music, bit one side of her bottom lip.  Her tight top, the outline of a thin bra covering small breasts.  She leaned across to him.  “Tell me Franco, what turns you on?”

         He rubbed one side of his throat with his forefinger, looked up, to the right.

         “Don’t think” she said, “just tell me.”

         He rubbed the back of his neck, pulled his hand forward and stroked across his jawbone, below his cheek.  “I like watching women undress in front of me.  I like seeing their bodies.  I like when they won’t let me touch them, but make me watch them crawl around in front of me, naked, showing me everything, not letting me touch, tying my hands up.  And I like thinking about all the other naked woman I’ve seen or been with, and I think how similar they are or how different, and I think how good it is to be with a naked woman again.  But I also like to think that she’s thinking of all the men she’s ever been with, and I hope that she’s been with hundreds of men.”


         “Mmm, maybe it makes it bigger than the moment, and it’s good that I can be a part of all that, like it’s all been building to that one moment for a very long time.”


         “Or maybe it just makes me think that they’re dirty and that they’re a good fuck.”

         “You like dirty girls?”

         “I like naked girls.”

         He stared down at a lamp on the ground, the light-bulb visible through the top of the shade.  When he looked back up, he saw yellow green spots outlined in red floating across the image of the room.

         She closed her hand around his finger, rubbed back and forward, her mouth open.  “Do you think I’m a dirty girl?”


         “Do you want to see me naked?”


         “Do you want to fuck me?” she asked.

         Imilia caught something out of the corner of her eye.  She turned and looked down, Raf standing below them, his hand over his ear, blood across his hand.

         “What happened to your ear?”

         “She bit me.”

         “Who?” asked Franco.

         “The girl in the black dress.”

         “Oh, you found her.” Imilia said.  “Why did she bite you?”

         “I told her she could.”


         “I’m going.” Raf said.

         “Where?” Franco asked.

         “Somewhere else.”

         Imilia pulled Franco’s finger, it clicked at the knuckle, she smiled at him.  “Let’s go.”

         “What about your party?” he asked.

         She shrugged her shoulders, shook her head, smiled.  “I don’t care.”

         Franco looked down to Raf.  “Meet us outside.  I’ll get Nico and Milos.”

         Franco led Imilia across to Nico, Milos and a woman in a polka-dot dress.  “We’re going somewhere else.” he announced.                  

         “Where?” asked Milos.

         “Don’t know.”

         Nico leaned across to Jun-ko.  “You want to come?”

         She raised her wine glass.  “Thanks, I can’t.  I have to go back to the gallery and finish packing up.”  She smiled.  “It was nice meeting you though.”

         “Same.”  He kissed her on the cheek.  “Good luck with de Bite et des Boules.”

         She laughed.

         Outside, on the street, Raf waited with a serviette around his ear serving as a bandage.  The yellow-white street lights below the dark-blue sky.

         “What happened to your ear?” Nico asked.

         “A girl bit me.” Raf replied.

         “A girl bit your ear?” Milos asked.


         “That’s not good.”

         They hailed a taxi, a red and black Fiat 600 Multipla, Milos jumped in the front, the other four squeezed in the back.  Nico slid open the window, put his head and shoulders out, a lit cigarette in his mouth.  Raf reached across, tapped Nico on the arm, laid his hand out for a cigarette, he took one and put his head out the window on the other side, held the serviette with his free hand.  Imilia rested her forearms on top of the front seats, smiled at Milos.

The Birdcage Melodies

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