Everything is so strange

‘Montgomery?  Are you awake?’ Madison called softly through the open panel of the priest hole, goose-bumps rising on her arms as the freezing cold air came rushing out at her.

It was mid-afternoon and Madison’s parents had gone out. Madison was so excited at the thought of seeing Montgomery Puff in daylight at last, although it was a dull, rainy day. And she was so tired from getting up every night, she was secretly hoping a chat with him now would mean she could have a night off!

‘Hurrummmmphh!’ Montgomery opened one eye and stared at Madison for a moment. ‘Madison?  Is that you?  You look different.’

‘Yes of course it’s me, Montgomery. I don’t look different… oh, I suppose it’s just we’ve never seen each other except at night before, when it’s been so dark.’

Montgomery came out into the empty room, where the daylight was breaking through the dirty windows. He stood quietly for a moment, his neck stretched out towards the window, his eyes tightly closed, feeling the warmth flow through his body.

‘How do you do?’ he said politely, turning to Madison. ‘I am Montgomery Puff, Grand Vizier of the House of Puff, ruler of the noble land of Dodos.’  He bent his knees and lowered his head in a kind of bow.

‘And I am Madison Greenacre,’ laughed Madison, making an inelegant curtsey back. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you. Gosh, it’s so nice to see you in daylight. I hadn’t realised how pretty your feathers are!’  She looked at the myriad of different browns and blues of Montgomery’s feathers and smiled. ‘You probably don’t like being called pretty, do you?’

‘I enjoy being admired,’ Montgomery answered simply. ‘You can use whatever words you chose.’

‘I wondered if you’d like to look around the house now,’ said Madison. ‘My parents are out, so it should be quite safe. I don’t really want to take you into the garden, though. I mean I don’t think anyone would see you but it’s too big a risk. Someone might see from the house next door, or suppose a delivery man came and saw you. No, I think we’d better stick to the house. And anyway, the rain is chucking it down.’

She led him out of the room, along the corridor into her bedroom.

‘This is my room, where I sleep,’ she announced and watched him as he waddled into the centre of the room and looked around.

‘What is that?’ he asked, looking towards her bed where the bedclothes were untidily heaped.

‘That’s my bed,’ replied Madison, moving across to it and pulling the duvet straight. ‘It’s where I sleep at night.’  She plumped up the pillows and a few feathers flew out from a small tear in the cover. Montgomery watched them float to the ground and inspected them closely.

‘These are feathers, like my own – only smaller,’ he added kindly. ‘I hadn’t realised your covering was so similar to my own.’

‘Oh, I don’t have feathers, if that’s what you mean. These are clothes. These are jeans, they’re a kind of trousers, and this is my t-shirt and this is my cardigan.’ Madison pointed to her clothes as she spoke and waved her hand towards the clothes strewn over the floor.

‘And the feathers?’ asked Montgomery. ‘Where are they?’

‘I told you, I don’t have feathers. Those ones have just come out of the pillow here. It’s stuffed full of feathers to make it soft, see?’

‘If they are not your feathers, where have they come from?’

‘I don’t know, some bird or other I suppose. I think they’re duck or goose or something.’

‘And these birds, they are happy to give you their feathers, are they?’

Rather late, Madison sensed the sensitivity of the situation.

‘Oh, yes, I think so… I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it really. I suppose they were old feathers they didn’t want any more or something…’ Madison tailed off rather lamely. She had no idea what to say. She didn’t want to lie to Montgomery, and it was true she’d never given a thought to where the feathers in her pillow had come from before. She just had to hope they were spare feathers.

Montgomery stepped carefully across a few clothes that were strewn across the floor towards the window. At the sight of the garden outside he stuck his neck forward and bang, hit his head on the glass. Recoiling backwards, Montgomery stepped heavily onto the bottom of the curtain and the thin material promptly ripped from the curtain rail and enveloped him. Panicked, he squawked angrily and kicked hard at the material trapping him, tearing great holes in it.

‘Stop, Montgomery, just stay calm and I’ll get it off you.’  Madison hurried across to him. ‘Please stay still, you’re making it so much worse. If you just keep still for a second, I can release you.’

With a great effort, Madison finally succeeded in unwinding the curtain from the huge bird and looked at it. It was pretty much shredded.

‘Oh gosh!’ she exclaimed. ‘How do I explain this?  Mum’s going to be furious, these are new curtains!’  She looked up at Montgomery, then stared in surprise. He was shaking hard, every feather on his body quivering madly.

‘Montgomery, what on earth is the matter?’  She put her hand up to his chest and could feel his heart pounding, his chest heaving. ‘Calm down, please. It’s ok, you’re safe now. It was just a silly curtain, it wasn’t going to harm you.’

A moment or two later, the shaking subsided and Montgomery’s breathing slowed down.

‘I apologise for my unseemly behaviour,’ he said formally. ‘I was reminded for a moment of an unpleasant experience I had, and it caused me to forget myself. It will not happen again.’

‘You were really frightened, weren’t you?’ Madison asked softly. ‘What were you frightened of?’

Montgomery stood silent for a moment and then replied quietly,

‘For a moment I felt myself tangled, as I was in the net the night the men captured me. I couldn’t escape the ropes…’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Madison distressed. ‘I never meant to cause you any harm or remind you of horrid things. Oh, this is going to be so difficult. I wanted to show you all around, but I don’t want to keep coming up against things that frighten you. Perhaps it’s best if we stick to going into the garden at night and nothing more.’

‘No, pray continue with the tour. I know you would not do anything to hurt me. If I come across things I don’t understand, I will ask you to explain them and not be frightened. I trust you, Madison. I know you are the same kind of creature as those rough men who captured me, but you are different from them.’

‘Well, if you’re sure…’ Madison was thrilled he trusted her. ‘OK, let’s carry on for a bit longer. Look, be careful now, but out of this window you can see the garden. The window is this thing, it’s made of glass and you can see through it but you can’t get through it – as you’ve already discovered!’

The rest of the tour was equally fraught with danger. Madison showed Montgomery into the bathroom. When she turned on the taps to show him where water came out, he was so startled he backed away, crashed into the loo, bounced off the sink and ended up spread-eagled on the bathmat with a loo roll on his beak. It was very humiliating, and Madison had to cram her fingers into her mouth to stop from laughing out loud.

Although Montgomery had jumped up and down the stairs each night, he’d never properly seen the bannisters and before Madison could stop him, he’d stuck his head between two of the spindles and panicked as he couldn’t get it out.

‘Right, just keep calm,’ said Madison as Montgomery tried to jerk his head back out. ‘It’s a tight gap but you’ve got in, so you can get out. The thing is you need to keep your head upright and facing straight forward… that’s it, gently now. Good.’

Phew, she thought, as mercifully his head slid free again. Thank goodness he doesn’t have ears!

Montgomery was desperately keen to understand the new world in which he found himself, so Madison told him and showed him everything she could, from carpets to curtains, chairs to cupboards, cooking to cars. She introduced him to music and the television – although he didn’t like either very much.

And in return, after every nightly visit to the garden, Montgomery told her about his life on his island, his role as Grand Vizier, in charge of all the dodos.

‘It is an important role,’ he told her, grandly. ‘My fellows look up to me as their guide on all kinds of matters, from where we should go each day to find food, to sorting out petty squabbles among the dance. My father was Grand Vizier before me, until he died of old age a few years ago – or a few hundred years ago, I suppose I should say now.’

‘We lead – led – such a gentle, happy life. The feeling of the sun on our backs as we stroll around the island. The other birds are – were – all our friends. The parakeets would bring us fresh nuts from the top of the trees. And from time to time, for a treat, the gulls would bring us fresh fish, not like the salty, dried up pieces which were thrown into the cage where I was held.’

‘Tell me about your family,’ said Madison eagerly. ‘Did you have a wife and children?’

‘Yes of course. My chosen consort was the beautiful Cecily Martha. She was so pretty, with several bright blue feathers in her tail which were quite stunning. We met when I was very young – of course all the dodos on the island are related in some way, and as the eldest son of the Grand Vizier, I was popular with all the ladies!  But I chose Cecily Martha and I could not have been happier. We would step together in the evenings and croon in total harmony.’

‘Croon, what’s that?’ asked Madison.

‘Listen!’ Montgomery Puff stood tall and blew out his chest till it was twice its already considerable size and an extraordinary moan came out of his throat. It was low pitched and as Madison listened, she could hear the note change up and down, reverberating around the empty spare room quite loudly.

‘Shh, stop Montgomery!’ hissed Madison anxiously. ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to be rude,’ she added as he abruptly stopped, looking outraged. ‘It’s just it’s night time and my parents are asleep just down the corridor and noises sound so loud at night. We mustn’t disturb them or they’ll find out about you.’

Montgomery shook his ruffled feathers back into place. He still looked affronted, but he nodded his head slowly.

‘I comprehend,’ he said stiffly.

‘Please carry on talking,’ said Madison, anxious to stop Montgomery Puff going into a huff as he had done a few times before. ‘Tell me about your lovely consort, she sounds beautiful.’

‘Suffice to say, to find someone with whom you can croon in total harmony is a rare and wonderful thing,’ Montgomery continued. ‘My Cecily Martha was a joy to be with. Together we bore many fledglings, who were a constant delight to us. To have a large family is considered both important and a blessing. We so enjoyed teaching them everything about life. Ah, many a happy evening we would spend, as the sun lowered itself behind the trees, crooning together to summon the moon. And again, in the early mornings, we would stand together in a circle and croon our welcome to the sun.’

They continued the night time strolls in the garden for a couple of weeks.

‘I do think it a shame that you should be so deprived of light and warmth in this country of yours,’ Montgomery Puff commented. ‘In my country, the sun shines a lot more brightly than yours does and brings with it so much that is pleasurable. I pity you.’

‘Oh, that isn’t the sun, that’s just the moon. You haven’t seen the sun here because I don’t think it’s safe to take you outside during the day, you might be seen. Don’t you remember the other day when we went around the house – that was in daytime. That’s why you could see so much more than we can when we come outside. But it was raining so hard the sun couldn’t be seen at all.’

‘I see,’ said Montgomery Puff a little sadly.

The following night when Madison went to get Montgomery Puff from the priest hole, he didn’t greet her with enthusiasm.

‘I don’t think I’ll come out tonight,’ he told Madison. ‘I’m a little cold and prefer to stay here.’

‘What’s the matter?’ Madison asked.

‘I appreciate your efforts to keep me safe,’ came the distant reply.

‘What do you mean?  What’s the matter?  Have I done something wrong?’   Madison asked, anxiety rising in her voice.

The great bird peered at her closely, then shook his over-small wings.

‘I feel... constrained,’ he said in his formal voice.

‘What does that mean?’ Madison didn’t understand. Montgomery continued to look at her a while, and then answered slowly and carefully.

‘While I prefer the berries – especially strawberries – and the nuts to the vile fish I was fed by Drake and his men, in many ways I am just as much a prisoner here as I was in that crate they put me into.’

‘What?  No, that’s not true, it’s really not!’ said Madison, appalled at the suggestion. ‘You don’t understand. I must keep you secret. If people found out about you, goodness knows what would happen. You’d be taken away from here, put in a zoo for everyone to gawp at. They’d want to do all sorts of experiments to find out how come you’re still alive. I told you, dodos died out hundreds of years ago. I looked it up on the internet – the last one seen was in 1681.’

‘I see,’ replied the dodo quietly. He bent his legs underneath him and lay down. ‘Goodnight, Madison.’  And he tucked his head firmly under his silly little wing.

Madison looked at him for a while but saw he was not going to lift his head again. She backed sadly out of the room.

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