The Birdcage: A Novel

The Birdcage: A Novel

by Marcia Willett

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It was Felix Hamilton who named it the Birdcage--the tall house in Bristol where Miss Pidgeon lives with her tenants, the beautiful and talented actress Angel Blake and Angel's daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie longed for a father, but Felix knew that ultimately he would have to remain with his own son, Piers, at the gracious, mellow Michaelgarth, the family home on the edge of Exmoor.

Many years later, Lizzie comes at last to Michaelgarth and meets Piers for the first time. There she finds a family in trouble--and miraculously, they need her to help them heal.

Written with shining honesty and compassion, The Birdcage has every bit of the wonder that Marcia Willett's fans have come to expect.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429909990
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 487 KB

About the Author

Born in Somerset, in the West Country of England, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately, her body did not develop with the classical proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine serivce; their son, Charles, is now married and a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. The Birdcage follows three earlier novels, A Week in Winter, A Summer in the Country, and The Children's Hour.

Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately her body did not develop with the classical proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine service, with whom she had a son, Charles, now married and training to be a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has published several novels in England; A Week in Winter is the first to be published in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

The Birdcage

By Marcia Willett

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 Marcia Willett Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0999-0


Dunster, 1956

The village is quiet this afternoon and Marina Hamilton hurries through her shopping, Piers skipping and jumping at her side. She says, "Walk properly, Piers," but he takes no notice, knowing that today she is happy and he does not have to be so careful. He looks with pleasure at the castle on its wooded hill, its battlements and towers framed by the dense trees, whose leaves are the colour of the new pennies he has in the pocket of his corduroy shorts.

Remembering, he thrusts his hand deep down into the pocket and feels the smooth roundness of the pennies, warm from his body, and the little sharp-edged three-penny piece that his father had given him earlier.

"Buy a stick of chocolate, old fellow," he said while Piers looked with awe at so much money. "Go on, put it away."

Anxiously Piers tucked the coins into his pocket for there was that tiny edge of urgency in his father's voice that he has come to recognise, although he doesn't understand it, just as he recognises that state between his parents that he calls to himself "uncomfortableness." It is present in the atmosphere like cold or heat — not visible, but there — and he tries to dispel it by talking loudly, showing something — a book, a toy — or demonstrating some new skill: standing on his head, turning a cartwheel. In the cottage, on the toll road just out of Porlock, such antics have sometimes caused trouble, the breaking of an ornament, the knocking over of a table, but not any longer; today, when they drive back home from Dunster, they will not be going to the cottage but to Michaelgarth.

Piers gives another big bounce of happiness, swinging on his mother's hand, beaming up at her, remembering how she told him the wonderful news.

"Grandfather can't manage on his own any longer," she explained, "so we are going to move to Michaelgarth to look after him."

Piers heard the lilt in her voice; he knows how she loves the place where she was born and grew up with her beloved brother, Peter: the big grey-stone house standing up on the hill looking out to sea, with the sunny, sheltered garth behind it, held within the two wings of the house. He loves it too. There is space to run, to make secret dens; his tricycle judders and jolts over the cobbles in the garth but once out on the drive he can go like the wind whilst Grandfather's springer spaniel, Monty, bounds along beside him, barking madly. If only he had a brother, they could play such splendid games at Michaelgarth.

This afternoon, he stands patiently beside his mother as they wait in Parhams to be served with cheese and tea. Perhaps now is the time, now that she is happy, to ask for a brother — or even a sister. Outside the shop he changes his mind; something deep inside warns him not to spoil today's happiness. Already at seven years old he knows how fragile it is.

"There's Daddy," he cries with delight. "Look, he's talking to Mrs. Cartwright."

He feels his mother's grip tighten on his hand and looks up at her. The smoothed-out look her face has been wearing all day has gone: she frowns and her mouth turns down. It is as if the sun has disappeared behind a cloud; anxiety is heavy in his stomach — as if he has eaten rice pudding too quickly — and in a sudden panic he shouts aloud.

"Daddy," he calls across the street. "Hello, Daddy. Hello, Mrs. Cartwright."

They both turn and Mrs. Cartwright smiles, waves her hand. "Hello, Piers. How are you, Marina?"

His father raises his hat to Mrs. Cartwright, as if bidding her goodbye, but she accompanies him, crossing with him to where they stand outside the post office.

"Hello, darling," says his father easily. Piers sees him move, as if to kiss his mother's cheek, but a stiffening, a tilting of her chin, makes him hesitate.

"Hello, Marina," says Mrs. Cartwright. She looks amused, her eyes sparkle, and Piers decides that she is very pretty, with her little feathered hat and tall-heeled shoes. "I hear that you've moved back home."

"Yes, that's right. How are you, Helen? How's James?"

Piers tugs at his father's sleeve. "Are you coming home to tea with us, Daddy?" he asks eagerly.

His father glances at his watch and Piers sees him look at his mother's face as if he might find an answer written there.

"I expect your father has to get back to the office," she says. "He'll be home later."

"I've been with old Mrs. Baker at Myrtle Cottage." He says it to Piers but rather as if he is telling the others as well. "The roof is leaking like a basket. Well, I'd better be off. See you later."

He raises his hat again and turns away. Helen Cartwright smiles down at Piers.

"This boy is just like his father, Marina," she says. "So you're back at Michaelgarth. That's such good news although I'm sorry to hear that your father isn't too well. Your mother's death must have been a great shock to you all."

"It was very sad but I hope he'll pick up a little now." Her voice is cool but polite. "You must come for tea soon, once we've settled in properly."

"That would be very nice." Mrs. Cartwright still looks as if something is amusing her. "Felix was saying that James and I should come in for drinks one evening but I'd love to come to tea."

"Goodbye, then." His mother turns away, pulling Piers with her into the post office, but he twists back to smile at Mrs. Cartwright.

"She's pretty, isn't she?" he says later, hurrying along at his mother's side. "I like her."

"Perhaps that's why she says that you're like your father."

Her voice is sharp, the happiness is gone, and as he trudges back to the car his spirits flutter down and make a tiny cold pain inside him. He fingers the two sticks of chocolate in his pocket — one for him and one for Grandfather — and he still has two pennies left. He climbs into the car, kneeling up on the front seat so that he can see out properly, and as they drive down The Steep he remembers that they are going home to Michaelgarth and he is happy again.

As she drives along the familiar narrow lanes, between high-banked hedges, Marina is unaware of autumn's magic. The haws gleam crimson against fading leaves of yellow, hiding the luscious purple blackberries which cluster on rich-red brambles, and the sun is slipping below the blue-black rim of Dunkery Hill. Marina sees none of it: inside her head is a muddle of images and she is torn between guilt and suspicion. She sees Felix — hands in his pockets, laughing with Helen Cartwright — and remembers the instant twisting fear that stifles every other normal reaction. She knows that there is no reason why he shouldn't talk to an old friend, yet she is incapable of responding naturally; of calling across the street to him, as Piers did, or crossing to join them.

"Hello, Helen," she could have said, "hello, darling," and let him kiss her as he had wanted to, just a little affectionate kiss on the cheek. Instead, fear and rage held her aloof, recoiling from his gesture, hating him for standing with pretty Helen Cartwright in her silly hat and, no doubt, paying her compliments. If only she could have slipped her arm within his own, smiled back at Helen from a position of strength by his side, instead of remaining apart, mistrusting Helen's look of amusement, sheltering behind disdain.

Marina's hands tighten on the wheel: misery and anger war within her. Each time she vows that she will be different, that she will change, but each time that reaction is so sharp, so quick, that she has no time to fight it down and to remember that she means to trust him. She loves him — and hates him — because he is good-looking and attractive, because he likes to laugh and draws other people to him. She suspects every woman who comes near him and feels some kind of need to punish him for that quality, that warmth and generosity, which is like a magnet to men and women alike. He tries to understand and works hard to show that her suspicions are unfounded. That remark to Piers, "I've been with old Mrs. Baker at Myrtle Cottage," was meant for her and, decoded, meant: "No, I have not been having lunch with Helen Cartwright."

She bites her lips with agitation, feeling remorse. As they climb away from the coast she sees Michaelgarth, standing strong and invulnerable on the hill, and she feels balanced again, more calm. She will pour Felix a drink when he comes home, cook something special for dinner, and later they will make love. She relaxes a little, changing gear to turn up the drive, and smiles at Piers, kneeling beside her on the passenger seat, looking eagerly up at the house.

"We're home," she says to him and sees his answering beam of relief. For the moment all is well.


The old Morris bumps through the stone archway that leads into the garth and comes to rest in the open-fronted barn. Piers has to use both hands to open the door but then he is out, running across the ancient cobbles and in through the scullery.

"Grandfather," he shouts. "Where are you?"

He glances round the kitchen and passes into the hall. Even though he is in a tremendous hurry he hesitates here, tilting back his head to stare up at the soaring stone walls, dazzled by the light that pours through the high arched windows which face both north, towards the sea, and across the garth to the south. Michaelgarth is built on the ruins of an old priory and this room used to be the chapel. To Piers it has a special quality that imposes itself on the day-to-day: despite his need to be quick, he finds that he must pause for a moment, to acknowledge whatever it is that lives here in the heart of the house.

His mother is coming into the scullery, he hears her drop her basket with a dull thud on the kitchen table, and he crosses the hall, flinging open the door of the drawing-room. His grandfather, the newspaper fallen across his knees, jerks upright.

"What is it? What's up? Where's the fire?"

Piers laughs to himself for he always finds this question very funny. The fire is where it always is: in the big marble fireplace. Monty is stretched out on the rug but his tail beats a welcome on the floor and Piers pauses to stroke him before he feels in his pocket and takes out the sticks of chocolate.

"I bought one each," he says confidentially, placing one of the sticks on his grandfather's knee. "Only don't tell Mummy. I'm not allowed chocolate except on Saturdays. You can have yours later."

His grandfather looks at the two small sticks in their shiny blue and silver wrapping, debating whether he should reprimand his small grandson for being deceitful. The grey eyes with their black lashes — just like his father's — look up at him with trustful glee and David Frayn takes his stick of chocolate with a wink and puts it in his trouser pocket.

"Very decent of you, old fellow. It'll go down a treat a bit later."

"That's what I thought." Piers frowns. "Do you think Mummy might like the other one? We could say that you bought it. She was a bit down in the mouth just now."

He likes the phrase "down in the mouth," which is another of his grandfather's expressions. It is exactly right for his mother's face when she's not happy and the corners of her mouth turn down.

"Was she?" His grandfather sounds thoughtful; his eyes scan his grandson's face as he rubs his fingers over his clean-shaven jaw. "And why would that be, I wonder?"

Piers shrugs — or rather his face shrugs: his lips purse and his eyebrows rise towards his hairline. He rolls his eyes. "Don't know." He thinks of something else. "We saw Daddy talking to Mrs. Cartwright while we were shopping but he couldn't come back for tea." He hooks his elbows over the arm of his grandfather's chair and slowly levers himself up so that his feet swing and bump against the chair. "She said I was just like Daddy."

"Helen Cartwright? Pretty girl."

"She had a hat made of feathers. I think she's pretty too, but Mummy says that's why Mrs. Cartwright thinks I'm like Daddy."

David Frayn folds up his newspaper; although his suspicions have been proved correct, he wishes it were otherwise. He is well aware of his daughter's jealous tendencies and his uneasiness is growing. Her mother had been of the same disposition and he knows what it is like to live with suspicion and mistrust; she'd poured all her energy into their son. Peter's passion for Michaelgarth and Exmoor, his wicked love of practical jokes and his unquenchable kindness, had held at bay those spectres of jealousy and fear, and when he'd been killed in the war it was as if his mother's life had ended with his. David doesn't want history to repeat itself with Marina and Piers. He's very fond of his son-in-law, who is a chartered surveyor and land agent, and very proud of him. When Felix returned to his flat in Dunster, after the war, he'd taken over the management of several small estates in Somerset, one of which is Michaelgarth. It is soon clear to her parents that nobody but Felix will do for Marina; she loves him much more than she ever shows, even when they are alone together, but David Frayn knows his daughter very well and wonders if it would be better if she were to love Felix a little less. Once they are married, and after Piers is born, he sees a possessiveness growing, a desire to control, which he recognises and fears. He hopes that his presence might exercise some restraint although he fears that he is an interfering old fool.

"Don't kick the chair, Piers, I've told you before." Marina comes into the drawing-room. "Are you ready for tea, Father?"

"I am." Piers gives one last big swing and drops back to the floor. "Mrs. P said she'd make a chocolate cake."

"And don't call her Mrs. P. Her name is Mrs. Penn."

Piers wonders whether to say, "That's what Grandfather calls her," but doesn't want to get him into trouble. Mrs. Penn has been coming up from Luccombe to clean the house and help with the cooking for years but she's getting too old for the long walk across the fields, and now that they've moved to Michaelgarth, Mummy is going to collect her in Grandfather's Morris. Piers likes Mrs. Penn, who is very small and bundly and whose hair is so thin that he can see the pink top of her head shining through the strands of grey.

"How old are you, Mrs. P?" he asks, knowing that the answer is always the same.

"As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth."

He likes this familiar exchange in the same way as he likes Grandfather asking where the fire is, although he doesn't quite understand what either of them means, and, anyway, when he looks carefully it seems that Mrs. P doesn't have very many teeth. Sometimes, when she's known that he is coming to tea, she's made him gingerbread men. Now that he lives at Michaelgarth he wonders if she might make them every day.

"Although, to be honest," says Marina later, as they sit beside the fire and she pours the tea, "she's getting too old to do anything thoroughly. I wonder if we should get someone younger, though I shall be able to do so much more myself now."

Sitting on the leather pouffe, managing his plate with difficulty, Piers licks the crumbs anxiously from his fingers. He is distracted from the pleasurable feel of Monty's heavy head on his feet and the way he raises it occasionally to lick Piers' knee. Mrs. P would be very hurt if she knew that she was too old to do her work properly.

"Can't get rid of Mrs. P," says Grandfather, drinking his tea. "She's been coming up to Michaelgarth since I can't remember when. Hurt her feelings, poor old duck."

"She might be relieved," suggests Marina. "Perhaps she'd like the chance to take it easy."

"No one likes to be told that they're too old. Mind you, she must be getting on a bit."

"She's as old as her tongue and a little older than her teeth," offers Piers.

Marina looks at him with exasperation; his face is smeared with icing but he smiles at her contentedly: the chocolate cake is excellent. She melts with love for him but doesn't let him see it; he mustn't be spoiled.

"Do you have a handkerchief?" she asks, hardening her heart as she watches his smile fade into anxiety as he rootles in the pocket of his shorts.

"Here it is," he cries, pulling it out triumphantly, but even as he flourishes it the chocolate stick falls to the carpet and he gives a little gasp, his teeth sinking into his lower lip, his cheeks bright as poppies.

"What is it?" She stretches across to pick up the chocolate, frowning. "Who gave you this?"

"Nobody. I bought it," says Piers, his heart bumping in his side.


Excerpted from The Birdcage by Marcia Willett. Copyright © 2004 Marcia Willett Limited. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Birdcage 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Missy_M More than 1 year ago
There were dozens of errors in the E-book that came from bad OCR translation. Made it a real chore to read this book. Wouldn't have minded if I'd paid 99 cents...but I didn't.
kellyn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This touching story describes how we create families, lose family members and sometimes, if we are very lucky, find them again. Willett captures the devestating consequences of jealousy, bitterness and distance in relationships with insight and sympathy rendering even unpleasant characters understandable.