One of our neighbours has a parrot – an African Grey, I think. It lives in the front room of the flat closest to the street, and seems to spend most of its time on a perch against the back wall. I’ve never been able to get a good look at it. The windows are too high to peer into discreetly, and the lace curtains are almost always drawn. All you can make out is a hulking bird shape, hardly moving, and issuing the most extraordinary variety of noises. I wish everyone could hear this parrot. It can do a sexy whistle (my brother once asked me if there were ‘a lot of perverts’ living on our block). It can say: ‘Come on.’ It can imitate any type of alarm – car, house or phone – and does a stunning impression of a yowling cat. It recently started copying a text message alert, and a few weeks ago I heard it blaring the sound of an incoming Skype call.
This struck me, at first, as profoundly dispiriting. Here was this bird, that should be in the jungle learning to emulate the sound of gibbons and rushing water, but was instead imitating Skype ringtones, trapped in a dreadful situation made still more wretched by the fact that its owner was also trapped, with nothing to look forward to for the duration of the lockdown except more Skype calls and getting whistled at by her parrot.
After a few days, however, I started to see the matter differently. The bird was coping better than I was. It was drawing stimulation from its immediate environment, learning new skills, entertaining itself. Perhaps I could take a leaf out of the bird’s book.
I had been rereading J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters around the time I came to this conclusion. The story, first published in the New Yorker in 1955, is a hymn to confined spaces. It begins with an enforced quarantine, during a ‘siege of mumps’ in the enormous Glass family. Franny, the baby, is moved into the ‘ostensibly germ-free room’ shared by her oldest brothers, Buddy (the narrator, who will grow up to be a university professor) and Seymour (who will grow up to shoot himself in a hotel room at the end of ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’). Franny wakes up crying in the middle of the night, and Seymour reads her a story about a horse. A few pages later, Buddy gets a letter from his sister Boo Boo, informing him of Seymour’s impending wedding. Buddy reads the letter while lying in a military hospital bed, having his diaphragm strapped up with adhesive tape, ‘a usual medical procedure with pleurisy patients, presumably guaranteed to prevent them from coughing themselves to pieces’.
Even when Salinger’s characters aren’t confined to sickbeds or forcibly quarantined, they’re at odds with the outside world, unconvinced by it. Train journeys are a trial; the heat in New York is ‘indescribable’; large public gatherings leave an impression of vague, murky unpleasantness. Buddy has a ‘thirteen-year blackout’ regarding the physical details of the room in the enormous brownstone where Seymour is supposed to be getting married. He can remember only two things that happen in the hour and a half during which Seymour fails to materialise: an organ is playing directly behind him, and the woman to his right introduces herself in a ‘festive whisper’. No other conversations are reported, and even the ‘cardinal fact’ of the bride’s abandonment is something of an anticlimax. There’s no description of what she says or does or looks like, or even of her dress – she’s just a figure being escorted down the aisle by her anonymous parents, and later deposited ‘almost hand over hand’ in the first in a line of waiting cars.
Throughout the story, the outside, public world is presented as an impediment to conversation and understanding, to be retreated from as soon as possible. No good can come from tarrying there too long. Everyone is always lunging into cars or recoiling from street parades, hunching in doorways or fighting their way out of the noise and fuss into a stuffy apartment, a cluttered bathroom. People and relationships come into focus only in these almost unbearably cloistered spaces: characters learn essential facts about one another only when they are sitting just about in each other’s laps, or shuffling from room to room in Buddy’s apartment, which has been shut up and smells at first like the inside of ‘someone’s ancient raccoon coat pocket’.
The story’s big reveal, or at least the part where you begin slightly to understand why Seymour is the way he is and will do what he goes on to do, comes when Buddy is reading his brother’s diary, sitting on the edge of the tub, in the locked bathroom, next to a mirror on which his sister has written a message in her ‘almost indecipherably minute’ handwriting. The message contains the Sappho fragment that gives the story its title: ‘Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.’ I’ve always loved the sound of this, without really knowing why. The Glass family loves it too, Buddy says: Sappho has always been a great favourite, ‘largely through the immeasurable impact of Seymour’s taste in poetry on all of us’. He reads and rereads the quotation, and then sits down on the edge of the bath to read Seymour’s diary. You get the feeling he would climb into the laundry basket, if he could, and just lie there strapped up in three feet of adhesive tape, learning new skills, entertaining himself.