1st Prize :
Border Crossing Peter Newall
The Spacehopper Vanessa Pope
Bird Man Dog Sean Baker
Forms of Exclusion Erik L.F.Roth
Congratulation to all our short-listed contestants:
36 Till Death
A Button for a Soldier
A Day of Mizzle
A Matter of Time
Bird, Man, Dog
Fishing for Worms
In the Dark
James de Beresford
The Missing Nut
The White Cat
Fiona Honor Hurley
Selected stories will be published in a planned anthology
A new competition will be announced later in the year.
Read winning Stories HERE:
The train had been standing at the station for some time, I realised. I’d been reading, waiting for us to move off again, but we were still alongside the platform.
I looked out the window of my compartment. The railway station was a two-storeyed building with a gabled roof and dark green plastered walls. The sign at the end of the platform, in Cyrillic and Latin letters, was on an angle to me and difficult to read. Zarichne, it looked like. I didn’t remember seeing that name on the map, but the halt must mean we are at the border, waiting while they check passengers’ passports.
Behind the station were flat brown fields, a dusty white road with the angled sign of a railway crossing beside it, in the distance a dark line of trees, nothing else. But for the border, the place was nowhere in particular.
Nevertheless, the station was obviously tended with care. There were geraniums, masses of red geraniums, some in the window boxes you see at every old Habsburg railway station, but others ranked in low concrete troughs ranged along the platform. Their bright red blooms stood out vividly against the green walls behind them. Small trees with glossy dark leaves, perhaps lemons, stood around in wooden tubs, and cascading purple flowers descended from hanging baskets on each side of the station door.
Stopped at the border. In Western Europe, the guards board at the last station before the border in pairs, one from each country, and walk through the train as it travels towards the station on the other side, stamping passengers’ passports. Then they take the next train back the other way, doing the same thing.
A strange life, those border guards, backwards and forwards all day over twenty kilometres of track. At every change of trains one of the two is across the border, in the other man’s country. Climbing down the metal steps from the carriage, sauntering along the platform, waiting for the train going back, drinking coffee, playing cards, looking at the big black and white station clock, Now I am in this foreign country until the express comes through at 3:17, then I will go back to my country for an hour or so, taking this fellow with me, we will resume our card game in a station identical to this, only the pictures on the flyspotted calendars will be different. Then we’ll return here. At evening, at the end of the shift, he will take the last train back twenty kilometres to his country, go home to his wife and children, I will stay here and go home to my wife and children, have a meal, a beer, so will he no doubt, but the beer in my town is better than the beer in his town, over the border.
The station windows on the ground floor were all closed. It was a chilly morning, although sunlight lay across the wide stone windowsills. Inside I could see the broad back of a man in a blue uniform jacket sitting at a table, perhaps the stationmaster, or a border policeman checking a list of names. Nobody had yet appeared at the door of my compartment.
Of course, in the west these days borders are not a serious matter, a quick thumbing through the pages of the passport, barely a hesitation over the blank page, the stamp decisively applied, the passport closed and returned to you between finger and thumb, already looking to the next passenger, to the end of the carriage, to the cup of coffee at the next halt.
Here on the far eastern fringes of Europe it is different. Arriving at the border, your right to travel ceases. The train stops until you and your documents have been scrutinised.
A black and white cat appeared, stalking along the platform. In a square of sunlight between two troughs of geraniums it sat and began, unhurriedly, to wash itself.
And here in the east, unlike the west, there is no presumption that you will be admitted. On the contrary, here they stare at you as if they assume you are attempting to cross the border improperly. It is more likely than not, says their expression, that you have no visa, or that you are on our country’s black list. Indeed, says their expression, your passport may very well turn out, on careful examination, to be forged.
A small door at the end of the station building opened, and a woman came out onto the platform carrying a metal watering can. She was plump; fat, we would say in the over-refined west, but just healthily plump here. She wore a short dark jacket over a dress and a pale blue scarf tied over her head. Blonde hair in two thick plaits came down past her shoulders. Her face was broad and calm. She was perhaps in her late twenties. At a country place like this the stationmaster lives at the railway station, the residence goes with the job, so this woman is the stationmaster’s wife, or perhaps his daughter.
She began watering the geraniums, holding the big pewter-coloured can tilted with one hand, resting the fingertips of the other lightly on the spout. She looked down at the flowers with concentration. The low-angled morning light caught the spray of water from the rose of the can; drops sparkled on the red petals and the fleshy pale green leaves. The cat strolled up to her, squeezing its eyes closed in the sunlight, and wound itself around her ankles.
She lives upstairs with her husband, or her father, and these geraniums and potted trees and hanging baskets are her doing. She has planted them to brighten this railway station, but she would have them wherever she lived, she takes pleasure in them. She doesn’t care whether the train is here or not; that is only temporary, the flowers are permanent. She comes out to tend them each morning, and if the border guards are taking their time and the express is standing at the station, no matter, the plants need watering.
Nobody else had appeared on the platform. There was just the solid figure of the woman, now moving along to the next trough of sunlit geraniums, carrying the big watering can with ease in one hand. Through the window I could still see the blue back of the official seated inside. His arm was moving as he wrote something.
Watching the woman with the watering can – the cat was following her as she moved along the platform – I felt my life was very insubstantial compared to hers. She had the permanency and purpose of the railway station, her flowers, her cat. I was a passenger, a transient, teetering uncertainly on the border, not secured to any one place.
If she is the stationmaster’s daughter, hers might be one of the small upper windows with net curtains. She would hear the trains in the night; goods trains, endless processions of windowless carriages rumbling through without stopping, or the long-distance express, pausing briefly at a cold, unlit hour. Would she wake up, or would she be so used to the sounds of their engines, of the gangers tapping the metal wheels, of her bedroom window rattling in its frame, that she didn’t even stir in her sleep?
Of course, if she is the stationmaster’s wife, she could not ignore those sounds. She married into the railway station life, and if her husband has to get out of bed in the middle of the night to attend to a train, she will get up as well and make tea for him.
But if she is after all the station-master’s daughter, why is she still living here, when she looks old enough to be married? Perhaps there is a story, written large in her life, her family’s life, tho explain it.
She will speak Russian. The books of railway regulations, the signs, the tickets and timetables will all be in Ukrainian, but this close to the border their household speech, the language of the newspapers that arrive on the train each day, will be Russian. She will have given the cat a Russian name.
. If she takes this much trouble to grow flowers, she probably grows vegetables in a patch behind the station building, facing out to the open fields. She will have turnips and greens out there, some winter berries on canes; perhaps she bakes their bread in the big, old-fashioned stove in the station kitchen.
I was sure my papers were in order. I had waited in the unheated room at the embassy until they returned my passport with a visa in Cyrillic script pasted into it. But what if the border police decide my visa is not valid? I don't speak enough Russian to win an argument with them, they won't speak English, nyet, pointing to the offending page in the passport, I protest as best I can, they shrug, nyet, shaking their heads, nyet, and I am taken off the train, here on the border. What if I am left standing here, my baggage beside me on the platform, when the express pulls out?
Take the next train back, I suppose. Or take it as a sign and stay in this border town, whatever it’s called.
The blonde woman had watered the farthest flower trough, and was walking back up the platform, looking up at the sky above the train, swinging the watering can easily, as if it were empty. Her headscarf made a patch of pale blue in the sunlight.
That’s what to do if I am put off the train; stay here and woo the stationmaster’s daughter. I have just enough Russian to talk with her. She might be interested by the stranger appearing at her railway station, in her town, in her life. I could stay with her in one of those upstairs rooms with the net-curtained windows, and we could walk round the few streets of this place, eat in the local inn, stroll in the evenings along the scented hedgerows bordering the fields at the edge of town as the days stretched out into summer. What would she look like if she smiled, I wondered, what does she wear on Sundays, what is her name? Irina? Nataliya? I could help her with the vegetable garden and befriend the cat.
Or if we couldn’t stay here, but had to go to another town to get away from her father, we'd go to Sarny, back along the railway line, or further on to Zhytomyr; stay in the old Grand Hotel there, in a corner room overlooking the main square, eat in restaurants every day, buy her new clothes, go to the local theatre, swim in the river, drink, laugh.
And to hold her, touch her, discover the strength of those arms that carry the big watering-can, feel the weight of her blonde plaits. By day she wears her scarf, but she will undo the plaits at night, yellow hair falling down over round white shoulders, the sweetness of beauty in the darkness. And I thought of candlesticks and feather beds and porcelain ewers of hot water brought to the hotel room, even though I knew it was not like that any more, not even here in the east.
And wherever we are, at this station or in another town, Sarny or Rivne or somewhere else, the trains go through, out across the border, in from over the border, back and forth. From silence we hear the beginning of their approach, then louder and louder until they rush past us, shaking the air as we smile at each other, leaning on the crossing gate, then silence returns as they shrink into the distance and disappear.
Summer days, summer nights, then autumn upon us before we know it, the trees changing, brown leaves blowing across the railway tracks, the storks leaving, the first evening cold enough for fires to be lit, smoke amongst the houses, a crescent moon in a dark blue sky. And always the trains going through, backward and forward, to and from the border, crossing at the station.
And then the day when we know – who realises it first is not important, but we know – it is time to go, time to go back, time.
So we go back on the train to the dark green railway station, she with two bags, one more than she left with, that is all. My visa has nearly expired, but I hadn’t talked to her about that.
The geraniums have wilted. She hurries inside the station building and comes out with a watering can, shaking it to dislodge spiders; I say well goodbye, she says yes, yes, goodbye, but looking down at the red geraniums.
The door of my compartment suddenly slid open. Two border guards stood there, in slightly differing grey and olive-green uniforms. One held out his hand; I gave him my passport.
He turned through the pages slowly, found the green visa, stamped it. Even though I am still inside the border, I have left this country now. The arrow on the stamp, with its little drawing of a train, points outward. I am in limbo, nowhere, between borders.
He gave the passport to his colleague, sharp-faced with pale blue eyes. He too started at the front and turned each page until he found his country’s visa, inspected it for what seemed a long time, then turned back a few pages, looked at me, checking the photograph. I didn’t want to look up at him, but I didn’t want to look out the window in a pose of unconcern either. I stared fixedly at the empty seat opposite me, feeling that too looked suspicious.
Holding my passport in one hand he fished a notebook from his tunic pocket, flicked it open, looked at a page in it, closed it, put it back and buttoned the pocket again, all with one hand. He unhooked the stamper from his belt, looked at me once more, and, holding the passport flat against the olive green leg of his uniform trousers, stamped it; ‘ker-chunk’.
‘Spassiba, thank you,’ I said, as he gave the passport back to me. They looked at me briefly without responding and went out of the compartment, sliding the door nearly shut. I got up from my seat and closed it.
I looked out of my window again. Everything had changed. A bald man was standing on the platform next to a shapeless pile of luggage, looking up and down the platform anxiously. The plump woman in the headscarf, still holding her watering-can, was talking to a fellow in a blue uniform coat, probably the man whose back I had seen through the window. She was standing close to him, smiling, probably her husband, then. He was smoking a cigarette; I was oddly pleased she was not.
There was a hiss, and the train stirred itself. Twisting in my seat to look back down the platform, I saw the two border policemen standing there, also lighting cigarettes. Each lit his own. My passport must have been one of the last they checked. A guard with a red peaked cap and a white flag walked along the platform under my window. A whistle was blown twice, sharply; the train jerked, paused, moved again, and began slowly to pull out of the station.
The woman with the headscarf was standing on the platform just ahead of my window. She had put down the watering-can and picked up the black and white cat, and was stroking it under the chin. She looked at the train. I was certain she was looking directly at me. I waved to her. She shaded her eyes with her hand, kept looking, turning her head as the train slowly moved past her; then she waved back. My heart leapt; there was our romance, compressed into a moment. She waved to me, waved to me while holding her cat, standing among her geraniums, at her railway station.
Looking back I watched the station fall behind as the train picked up speed. I felt I had known her, her plaits, her low voice, her flowers, her placid cat, the smell of her skin, the dimples at her wrists, the way her lips parted slightly in sleep, her small room, with an icon nailed to the wall, behind the net window curtains.
The telegraph poles started to whip by as the train settled into its stride, stretched itself out, became once again the intercity express. Travelling by train is transforming, alchemical. You sit in a carriage and moment by moment your world changes, you move from one place to another, and even as you arrive, you move on. The places don’t matter so much, movement is what is important; movement saves you from stagnation. You are not condemned to see the same thing day after day, the same walls, the same skies, the same people.
To live at a railway station would be the worst of all worlds. Every day you’d see the possibility of another life that each impatiently-waiting train offered you. But all the while you’d remain there, watching the departing trains out of sight, then turning back to the familiar station house. And one railway station, of course, is much like another.
I checked that my passport was securely in my pocket as the train sped away, leaving that station, that last country, behind. I leaned back in my seat and opened my book again. The express charged on, carrying me forward into the new land, the land across the border.
Mam and me grew up in the eighties. I bounced about Dublin on a spacehopper and she bounced on vodka and coke. It was hardly my spacehopper. I took it from a boy on the estate after I beat him in a fight. I felt bad about that later, about him getting his arse kicked for him by a girl so I offered the toy back. He wouldn’t take it, said he was too afraid to come to our house in case I kicked his arse again. I told him that it was his choice but he should know that I didn’t do deliveries. Mam laughed her head off when I told her that.
“Good enough for him”, she said. “I kicked your father’s arse when he walked out the door”.
I watched her set to work on the hopper. She was nothing like other Mams. She didn’t make me do my homework or clean behind my ears. She didn’t wear a flowery apron or go to the shops for milk and when we were together, just the two of us, it was like there was only me and her in the world.
When she finished, the hopper had black marker tits. We laughed at that until our stomachs hurt and that night, Mam gave me my first taste of vodka.
When the nineties came, Mam was grown and I was fourteen. Her thirtieth birthday was coming and she wasn’t happy about it, not one little bit.
“There’s nothing worse than getting old, Maureen”, she said.
I asked the neighbours round for vodka to help her forget. The hopper boy must have forgotten too because he called over as the party was getting started except he wasn’t a boy anymore. He was called Liam Cunningham now and he was sixteen and gorgeous. He got the shift from me that night, rough and wet in the hotpress with the blankets.
“Can I have my spacehopper back?” he gasped between kisses. I laughed at that and kissed him harder.
Someone at the party bought Mam tickets to see Boyzone. They’d been on the Late Late making eejits of themselves and I suppose the person thought Mam might want to go along and make an eejit of herself too. It was a fair enough assumption to be honest because everyone knew that no one enjoyed the craic like my Mam.
“D’yas dare me to set them on fire?” she says.
People must have wondered if she meant the tickets or Boyzone but Ronan Keating needn’t have worried his little blonde head because before anyone could stop her, she’d put a lighter to the tickets and up they went - then down they went onto the table that was swimming in vodka. When the flames got higher, she threw more vodka about the place and well, that was the end of the party. The house was burning down and everyone was out on the street cheering and clapping because no one threw a party like my Mam. I would have told her that as well except as the flames licked the walls and the house started to melt, I was still in the hotpress with Liam.
The social took me off her after that. Maybe it was because Liam had to get operations on his arms or maybe it was because someone said the fire was Mam’s fault. Either way, I was still sent to live with some family called Sullivan in the middle of nowhere and turn left. What I must have looked like, hair all singed off me, neck riddled in love bites crunching up their nice driveway carrying me knickers and pyjamas in a Dunnes bag. They wouldn’t even let me call her. The woman pretended like she was my new Mam. She bought me this big red hat with a yellow flower on the front to hide my burned head. She smiled at me like I was simple and said I was “gargis”, like she’d been watching ‘Fair City’ to learn my lingo.
I spent that first day screaming into the hat and the next five trying to get my burned head and knickers out of there and back to my Mam. The Simpletons had to grow extra eyes. I
managed it at last on the sixth. I dropped myself out of a window and walked nine miles to the dual carriageway before sticking my thumb out into the pissing rain. I got lifted after an hour by this old man whose car stank of chips and dog. He thought he was hilarious for driving with no hands. He found them again though, on some bog road with the engine switched off. He used them to hold me down while he did things I’d wanted Liam to do in the hotpress. I ran into the night crying about my forgotten Dunnes bag and wondering how hard Mam would laugh when I told her the story.
But I never told her. Not when I shook her awake beside her new fella, not when she poured us two vodkas and laughed at the state of my hat. Nothing had changed and it never would. I told her about the Simpletons and their stupid posh house and about how I’d wanted to come back to her. When it came to old men, I opened my mouth to pour the vodka in.
The new fella couldn’t touch us, didn’t take long for him to figure it out. Mum kicked his arse for him as he walked out the door. We laughed until our stomachs hurt, we laughed when the social came knocking and when Mam tried to trick me into opening the door. Still looking for the craic. Days turned into weeks and then the weeks got lost in months until the morning she found me with my head in the toilet.
“I’m hungover”, I moaned and I hoped it would impress her.
“You’re pregnant”, she said to me.
By the time I’d wiped my mouth to look up and see her laughing, she was gone.
I lay on the bathroom floor, pukey face against the cold tiles wondering about all the things I’d learned nothing about. I wondered about sore tits and needing the toilet every five minutes. I wondered about boys in hotpresses and how he’d only got away with a grope. Then I remembered the smell of dogs mixed with chips and before I could start vomiting again, I poured myself a vodka.
Pregnant my arse! Why did she have to say it? I threw one drink into me and then another and another. Must have been a joke! Another and another. Yeah that was it - good one
Mam! Then that film came back to me-
Are you alright, Sharon? Are you alright, Maureen?
I was still laughing crossing the estate. The Simpletons and the social could have been having the St Paddy’s Day parade for all I noticed. I was going to find her and tell her that I got it, that I was finally in on the joke. Pregnant?! It was no spacehopper like but still, it was pretty good. I’d find her and then we’d laugh about the joke together and then I’d say I was feeling better now ‘cause boy was I ever?! No more calling Jesus on the porcelain telephone for me! Then she’d give me a hug but I wouldn’t need it and hopefully she’d pour us a vodka…
But I couldn’t find her. Anger nipped at me and then fear chewed. I searched the pubs I knew and the ones I didn’t. Old men with twitching lips stared at me from dark smoky corners and when I turned my back on them, I was sure I felt their fingers crawling on me, hands trying to grab me, to pull me down, drag me into red hot flames.
Should have kicked his old arse for him.
Then I was running again, racing to God knows where but the feet were faster. I pictured that old spacehopper and imagined myself bouncing to freedom on but I could only crash and burn. I wanted my Mam but she’d left me, she’d gone. She didn’t want to be a Granny - nothing worse than getting old. The feet were still coming so I pleaded for myself and for the baby I only just drowned with vodka. Hard hands were grabbing me, scaly fingers grasped my wrists and I was being carried away, away from my Mam, away from our world, away from the sound of my own screaming
Liam Cunningham, the hopper boy, carried me two streets to put me in his bed. In the morning, he pulled himself out of the tangle of sheets on the floor and asked his mother to drive me back to the Sullivan’s. I waved him off from their nice driveway, my pink hand raised to his burned one. Over the next months, I spent every Friday night freezing me bum off in a phone box that seemed to be getting smaller. One night, Mrs Sullivan said my boyfriend could call the house phone if he wanted. Liam and I giggled half the night away at that. Two months later when I was howling and wailing and cursing the roof off the Rotunda as I squeezed Amy out of me, Liam held my hand tight and when the nurse said she’d never seen a young father like him, Liam beamed at her and I decided that I loved him.
We married each other in September 2001. It was hardly a big wedding like. An office ceremony and then a small do. I decided to be shameless and have Amy as flower girl. I was already two months gone with Aaron. I watched Liam get drunk with the Sullivan boys and wondered if I could pass a vodka off as water…
The next day, we ripped presents open like children and watched the towers burning on the news. Across crystal frames and fancy candle holders, memories stirred a look between us and the telly was turned off.
“Why’s Mammy crying?” asked Amy, but her Daddy didn’t know.
It was me that first suggested it, that Liam should be a nurse.
“You brought me back to life”, I said and he kissed the top of my head.
He trained with ease and graduated with honours. He gave me an idea.. It was us against the world and we were winning. Mrs Sullivan minded the children while I took evening classes and breezed them. Got my leaving cert and kept going. I was physiotherapist. Mr and Mrs Medicine they started calling us on the close. Liam said he’d never been prouder of me. Said my Mam would have been proud of me too. He slept in the spare room for a whole week.
Then one day, it was the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday and I wasn’t happy about it, not one little bit. A simple knock and an opened the door and there was Mam, just standing there on our nice drive. She said she was sorry and said things about God, not a drop in seven years! She looked better too. I closed the door without breaking breath and she stood there looking lost. I wondered would she knock again. I wondered would I ignore it. Amy appeared then, borrowing car keys, a quick peck on the check and a routine “I love you”. By the time I looked out the window again, my daughter and the woman were gone.
Liam said I should have talked, said forgiveness was part of moving on. He moved his stuff into the spare room and I thought about that spacehopper and poured myself a vodka.
It was nearly my birthday after all.
Nothing worse than getting old.
Liam would protest like he always did.
And I would kick his arse for him as he walked out the door.
Bird, Man, Dog
It was a bone-chilling day in mid-December when Bird first thought about trapping seagulls and terns. He was on his daily beachcomb when he spotted a washed-up piece of fishing net. He crouched down like those African bushmen he'd seen on television, bending his knees and lowering his backside to just above the wet sand. He examined the net, sniffed it, its ancient engrained fishy scent making his nose wrinkle and he brushed the back of his hand across his nose, prickling it with sand. (Sand was never far from his skin. He always left a silt in the bath. His mum would take hers first – she told him there was no way did she want to bathe in his sandy water. So he had to put up with her whiskery water, her shavings gathering by the edges. He may have been clean when he got out the bath and clean when he went to bed, he may have been clean when he got up in the morning and went to school; but by the time he was home again, he was sand-grubby, or dirt-sweat stained and his mum always said how he smelt of the sea. You were probably a fucking dolphin in a previous life, she once said. And he asked her what previous life? And she said: It's just an expression for fuck's sake. But then he wondered if there was such a thing as a previous life. Or a future life.)
The edges of the netting were frayed and straggled. A gull was walking and pecking nearby and he threw the net towards it. The gull did a little hop of disdain as the net landed softly nearby. Bird picked up the net, the gull head-nodding away, and tossed it higher in the air, an arc designed to drop on the gull, but as the edge of the netting brushed its wing, the gull skipped, wings flapping, with a screech of irritation.
Bird brushed his hair from his eyes. His brown hair was long and lice-riddled and the winter wind whipping off the North Sea was messing it like when his mum used to blow-dry it, and he would have to close his eyes to stop them watering. He sat on the beach and pushed a pebble into the wet sand. On the horizon a huge tanker in profile appeared to be unmoving. The sea was grey like old dishwater and the white horses – a thousand white moustaches on the sea's face – were trotting to the shore. He examined his piece of net, pulled the holes as far as they would go, testing its strength, thinking. He picked up a pebble and threw it towards a tern a few yards away. He missed, and the tern made no reaction. He picked up another pebble and found a loose strand of fibre dangling off the end of his net and tied on the pebble. He threw the net towards the same tern and caught the bird a glancing blow on the back and the bird took off. Bird watched it drift upwards, allowing itself to be carried by the wind. It called, to no-one or no thing in particular, just a squeaky screech as though it were crying an indignant 'hey hey'.
He retrieved his net and tied more pebbles on it. When he had used up all the loose strands, he flung it towards the sea and watched it fly through the air, unaffected by the wind. It landed with a clack clack amongst rocks and pebbles and empty shells and he looked round to see if anyone else was as impressed as he was by this maiden flight. But there was no-one.
He meandered along the shore, away from the town centre, hurling his trapping net at any unsuspecting seabird, missing his target, running after it, retrieving it and trying again. When the grey of the sky matched the grey of the sea, he turned towards the red cliffs and the path that led up to the top, and headed home.
Home was four rooms he shared with his mum in a Hunstanton back street. They had the ground floor flat and above them lived stompers, shouters and screamers. One room was a kitchen, one a sitting room, one a bedroom, one a bathroom. He let himself in with the key hidden under the half brick by the doorstep. He put his net in the red and yellow plastic lego box under his side of the bed, before going into the kitchen and reading the note held onto the fridge door with an ice cream shaped magnet. 'fish fingers and smileys'. He looked at the calendar. Written in the boxes headed Thursday and Friday was '4–12'. Saturday's box had 'Graham, here, 8'. He'd be sleeping on the sofa that night. He switched on the oven, went into the sitting room and hit the television remote. He kicked off his shoes. Two brothers in love with the same girl (according to the rolling caption) were shouting at each other, fingers jabbing, audience clapping. He turned up the volume to drown out the screaming coming from the flat upstairs.
The next morning, he was woken by his mum pushing and nudging as her alarm sounded. He clambered over her ('watch where you're putting your knees') and made himself some breakfast. Opening the curtains, he saw snow covering everything.
School was closed for the day and walking through the cliff-top park, slushing the fresh snow with his shoes, net dangling from his pocket, he was looking for a victim. He saw a pigeon. A grey-green-blue pigeon, too plump for quick lift-off. It was by a tree, the melting snow from the branches spattering the ground beneath and odd blades of grass poking through.
Bird crouched down. The pigeon had its back to him and was pecking around. Between pecks it would raise its head, listen, look, before moving another pace or two and pecking again. Bird stayed behind the pigeon, edging ever closer, net in cold hand, feet shovelling the snow as he slid, backside hovering just above the snow, occasionally dipping down, wetting his seat. A slow rise, one foot in front of the other for balance, clasping the net tight, ready to frisbee it at the pigeon. Bird launched the net with a flick of the wrist and a forward thrust of his whole body. The pigeon's head snapped round. One pebble caught it on the side of the head, and the pigeon stumbled.
It was half crouched under the net, wings outstretched, eyes betraying nothing. Its final caroo-caroo would linger in Bird's head for days.
He brought his foot down on the skull. His eyes watered when he saw what he had done, saw the blood-pink snow. He knelt down and touched the breast – warm and soft – and stroked it. Now he had to eat it.
He hid it under a bush, buried in snow. He needed matches. He walked along the path of the park on the cliff overlooking the North Sea. The wind from the east gusted and rocked him. He shivered and kept his head down when a man and woman walked past him, tutting. He went down the steps between the raised beds covered in snow and onto the pavement. Parents gripping children's hands passed him as he reached the bowling alley. A man was sitting on the pavement, his legs outstretched, ankles crossed. He was leaning back against the plate glass of the alley, a dog lying by him, its head on the man's lap. The dog was stretched out and its tarnished gold fur was ridged by ribs. The man drew on a ciggy, the end glowing red. His blue hood cowled his face which was grey-stubbled and grainy like sandy driftwood. Bird could see brown eyes with creamy whites that seemed to be concentrated on the deserted bandstand opposite. He asked the man if he had matches. The man ignored him.
– You got matches? Bird repeated.
The man looked up. Bird wondered if he didn't understand English, so he cupped an imaginary matchbox and struck an imaginary match.
The man took the ciggy from his mouth and stubbed it on the pavement. A quiet sizzle as it vapourised slushed ice.
– You got a fag, have yer? he asked.
– Don't smoke, said Bird.
– What you want matches for then?
– I want to cook a pigeon.
– How you gonna do that?
Gulls above them yelped as they hung on the winter thermals. Bird's teeth clickered and he tightened his body.
– Don't know, he said.
– You share it with me, you can have a match.
– You know how to cook it?
– Better than you do by the looks of yer.
The dog raised its head, yawning, baring its yellow teeth. Its nose twitched in several directions, twitch twitch twitch, searching for the source of its interest.
– It's in the park, said Bird, nodding his head towards the sea front.
The man stood up. Bird took a step back. The dog sniffed around his feet, up and down his legs and Bird stroked the top of its head.
– Come on then young 'un, gruffed the man.
They walked towards the park.
– What's yer name? asked the man.
– Thomas, said Bird.
– Whatcha doing out on yer own?
The man raised his chin. Bird wondered about the man's mouth and how small it looked. His cheeks and nose and chin all seemed to be drawn towards it as though it was slowly sucking in his whole face. His lips were thin like pencil lines. The dog drank from a melting pool in the road by the kerb.
– I've never eaten pigeon before, said Bird.
– By the looks of yer, you ain't eaten much of anything.
– I do alright.
– Where yer sleeping?
– In my bed, said Bird, pointing ahead, beyond the park.
The dog walked with them, tail swinging.
– What's its name? asked Bird.
– Just call it Dog.
– Doesn't it mind?
– It's a dog.
– Yeah but all pets should have a name.
– Says who?
Bird couldn't think of an answer to this so he kept quiet.
They reached the park and Bird ran ahead to retrieve his pigeon. Dog chased him, running around him, his nose leading him straight to the carcass. A bark from the man meant he only sniffed round it. Bird picked up the pigeon by the feet and showed it to the man. The man took it.
– Good and plump, he said. We'll take it down the beach.
– It's more private.
They walked down the tarmac ramp to the beach and the man led them to the foot of the cliffs.
– First thing you have to do is pluck it, he said. You ever done that before?
Bird shook his head. The man brushed snow off a rock, revealing red stone, and sat close to the cliff-face. Dog foraged among the rocks and pebbles, his nose leading him where it would. The man tugged at the wing feathers and they came away with a knuckle-crack. He pulled at the smaller, fluffier feathers underneath and Bird began to see grey-blue flesh around one wing. The man did the same with the other wing. Bird watched the feathers fly away, higher and higher. He watched one feather in particular, trying to follow it. Dog barked at the gulls above its head and they screeched back. Bird listened to the battle of bark and screech.
– Are you watching? said the man. I'm doing this for you, you know.
Bird squatted and folded his arms, shoulders hunched.
– What's your name? he asked.
Bird frowned. Breast feathers were swirling all round them, swarming like butterflies released.
– I can't guess, said Bird. It could be anything.
– Could be. But it ain't. Now, see how I do this? Pull em out gentle. It's very important not to tear the flesh, see.
– Let me try.
The man handed Bird the pigeon and Bird tugged at the downy feathers. They came away from the breast and he was surprised how easily they did so.
They finished plucking and the man took a knife from inside his coat. It had a big blade, shiny. The man placed the carcass on the rock and held out a wing. He chopped down hard and made a sawing movement to get through the bone. He flipped the pigeon over and repeated the action with the other wing.
– Now we cut off the feet.
He tossed the pigeon feet away and stretched the neck out along the rock.
– You made a mess of its head, he said.
– Didn't know how to kill it, said Bird. So I stamped on it.
– Good a way as any, if yer don't know.
The man cut off the head, close to the body, and lobbed it into the snow nearby. He called to Dog. Dog bounded towards them and his nose found the head, blood-marked and crushed. The man cut just below the breastbone.
– This is what Dog's waiting for, he said.
He pushed two fingers deep into the pigeon, feeling in the bloody darkness. He pulled his fingers back and the blood-brown innards spilled onto the rock. He dived his fingers back in and flicked out the heart and lungs. He gathered the guts and the sinews and threw them to Dog.
– Your hand's all bloody, said Bird.
– Dog'll lick that clean.
He held out his hand. Dog had swallowed the innards in a single gulp and was sniffing the snow and pebbles around. His nose found the man's outstretched hand and he licked it clean, licking his lips when he finished, savouring his drool.
The man opened his sack and took out a small saucepan.
– Fill this with snow and mind you don't get any sand in it.
Clambering, Bird scraped snow from the rocks into the pan. When he turned back, he saw the man was walking to the snow's edge, where the sea had absorbed the snowfall and the beach was visible. Bird followed him.
The man had put down his pack by a barnacled groyne and gathered some rocks into a ring.
– Are we cooking it now? said Bird.
– Sit yourself down there.
Bird sat on the damp sand. It was cold and he felt a creeping dampness in his seat. Dog nudged him, its nose cold on his cheek. Bird scruffed its head. The man took a camping stove out of his pack and set it in the middle of the rocks. He lit the stove and put the pan of snow on it.
– How long will it take? asked Bird.
– Do you want taters with it?
– Take about forty minutes I reckon. Snow's got to melt, then boil, then cook.
– What about the pigeon? How long does that take?
The man reached in his pack and took out a small frying pan.
– We'll cook it in this, won't take long. I like em pink.
The man tossed Bird two potatoes and held out his knife.
– Peel these.
– Never peeled potatoes before, said Bird.
– You wouldn't survive long on yer own would yer?
– I'm a fast learner.
The man grinned and sliced rough chunks of skin off one potato.
– Now you try, he said. Move the knife away from yer or you'll end up cutting yerself.
Bird swiped the knife across the potato and a large chunk landed on the sand.
– That's your bit, said the man. Not so hard, remember you just want the skin off.
Bird tried again and another lump, similar sized, fell onto the sand.
– Give it here, said the man. Or we'll starve.
When the water was boiling, the man dropped small cubes of potato into the pan then took out his tin of baccy and papers and rolled a cigarette.
– Want one? he asked Bird.
Bird shook his head and said:
– Have you always lived like this?
The man concentrated on his roll-up, licking the paper. He struck a match in cupped hands and lit the ciggy.
– Not always.
– Why do you?
– Why do I what?
– Live like this.
– Maybe I like it.
– I'd like it, said Bird.
– I don't think you would.
– Why not?
– Freezing your bollocks off every night? I'd rather have what you got, a place to go home to. Warm is it?
– Suppose so.
– Live with your mum and dad?
– Just mum.
– She look after you?
When the man finished his ciggy, he flicked the browned, dry-sucked end over the groyne.
– Can I come with you? said Bird.
– Come where?
– Wherever you go.
The man wheezed and laughed. His laugh turned into a cough and back into a laugh. Dog barked.
– You wouldn't last five minutes. Anyway what would yer mum say?
– Don't know.
– Well I do. And after she said it, she'd call the police and I'd get had up. Anyway, I'd rather stay at yours instead of you coming with me.
– She wouldn't like that.
– There you are then.
– She doesn't like dogs.
– Tell you what, have you got a coin?
Bird reached in his pocket, felt a fifty pence piece. He handed it to the man.
– What do you want it for?
The man balanced it on the back of his thumb, the thumb tucked under his forefinger.
– Heads I stay at your place tonight. Tails we hit the road.
He spun the coin into the air and they both watched it skywards and followed it to its soft splat on the wet sand.
– You'll need a name, said the man.
– I've got a name.
– A proper road name, a name that says something about yer.
Both were silent before the man said:
– Well, he's Dog, so you can be Boy.
– Boy's boring.
The man thought, stroking his stubbly chin.
– Well yer small as a sparrer, legs like twigs. How about bird?
– I like bird.
– Bird it is then.
– What's your name again? said Bird.
– I never told yer.
Forms of Exclusion
When the girl called him, he had suggested Sunday at six, and she is punctual.
‘Jen,’ she tells him. ‘Jen Lewis.’
There is the flash of an ID card, impossible to read; yet it would feel like an imposition to ask her to hand it over. Her identity is not an issue.
‘Timmins,’ he replies, confirming that he is the one she has come to interview. Then, quickly, he walks her to the kitchen, which has a table for her laptop. While she logs in, he runs an eye over the answer sheets she has put in front of him. Some questions have three or four options, others more. The staples that must have held them together have come loose; presumably quite a few people have leafed through them in search of a suitable answer. As she reads out the questions one by one, he concentrates on each in turn, picking the most fitting response. This is no easy task — there are so many unstated assumptions that he doesn’t share. His frustration grows.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says finally. ‘I don’t agree with any of them.’
‘Then I’ll put yours down as “Other”.’ He hears the clicking of her nails against the keys. ‘I’m not supposed to tell you in advance, but that’s always a possibility.’
And so, as he considers matters like the present financial crisis, corruption, gender quotas, foreign aid, international money transfers, what have you — the survey touches on a wide range of topics and takes a full hour — he sifts and sorts among the alternatives that are provided but has to resort to ‘Other’ increasingly often. This is the case even at the end when the girl requests some basic information.
‘Occupation?’ she asks.
There is no answer sheet for this one.
‘Other,’ he declares.
‘Are you sure? There are several categories to choose from. But yes, there’s “Other”, too.’ She studies him.
‘I suspect those categories are highly conventional.’
‘I suppose they are. The same questionnaire is used for all the countries in the union. Right. “Other” it is. And class?’
He checks the answer sheet. ‘The same. Let’s make it “Other”.’
She casts a brief look at him, but goes back to facing the screen.
He is about to say ‘Other’ automatically, but all that comes out is ‘Ah’. It’s not a question he has been asked for a long time.
‘You were born when?’ she prompts and he does the maths, as if he were at school again.
‘Seventy-two. I’m seventy-two,’ he tells her. He tries a smile to make up for the delay. ‘The years go by. Still, two or three either way makes little difference, surely.’ For the survey, he means, where, again, the responses must be grouped in larger categories.
No doubt she disagrees but has instructions not to get into any kind of dispute, no matter what.
And then, abruptly almost, the interview is over. She saves her file, gives him a leaflet that explains what the Eurobarometer is and switches off the laptop. ‘If you have any questions,’ she explains, ‘you should be able to find the answers in the printout. Thank you for your time.’ And she is gone.
Timmins returns to the living room. It is only on entering that he notes how over-powering is the smell of turpentine and oils. He opens the window in both kitchen and living room for a through draught and then turns to the canvas he was working on when the girl rang the doorbell. He can see at a glance that it won’t do. The small squirrel-like creature hanging from the plant by its left forelimb has to be much more luminous; nor are the reflections in its left eye at all as they should be. The animal is pure fantasy, as is the plant, but he still hasn’t got it right.
When he first took up painting, he had borrowed books on animal and plant life from the library and studied them carefully. He had recorded TV programmes to learn how various species move. Then he had started copying from the books. It wasn’t long before he realized that this was futile. Why paint what was already there? He wanted to create something new, not merely repeat what anybody could see for themselves, and so he moved from realism to fantasy and now paints only what is in his mind.
Seventy-two, he thinks. Not long ago he would have been considered a wise man, due to his age, at least in certain cultures. If they had been using a lunar calendar and not the Gregorian, he would have been seventy-four or seventy-five, but no wiser, in spite of the addition. He shakes his head. That kind of comment would have elicited no response from the girl. And what if he had been a dog? With seven years to the calendar year, he would have been … Well, there is no need to work it out: he would have been dead. That wouldn’t have perturbed her either. She would simply have made a note of the fact. Dead? Right.
There is no reply from Vi. Jen finds her in the kitchen, listening to music while ironing; she is fixing her clothes for the week ahead. Seeing Jen, she removes the earpiece.
‘A right loony.’ Jen shakes her head, squeezing past Vi to put her laptop on the table. ‘You wouldn’t believe it.’ She catches sight of the blouse on the ironing board. ‘Did you get that from H&M? I like the colour. It’ll bring out the blue in your eyes.’
‘Nice, isn’t it?’ Vi holds it up for a better view. ‘Now all I need is a pair of shoes. Who’s a loony?’
‘The guy I interviewed. No names.’
‘I know. So what was wrong with him?’
‘Well, he was weird. Mind you, the whole place smelled of paints. They could have affected his brain.’
Vi puts the blouse on a hanger. ‘It takes time,’ she points out.
‘That’s true. But he was ever so slow. Dazed, like. I could do with some coffee. You want some?’
Vi hooks the blouse over a chair. She has another three to do.
‘Remember Kevin?’ Jen asks. ‘The glue sniffer? That’s what this fellow was like.’
‘Yeah, I remember. A shame, really. Still, there was nothing we could do.’
Jen fills the kettle and lifts down their mugs. She puts two spoonfuls in each; they use instant. ‘When we started out,’ she says, ‘he took forever over some of the questions. As if it was a matter of life and death.’
‘That’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose. But it got to be annoying. He’d skim through the answer sheet and then go to the next one, as if they came in the wrong order. When I told him what page he should be on, he’d go back and run his finger over it, line by line, muttering to himself. Halfway through he got up and walked to the door, as if he was about to leave. Then he sat down again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They’re so manipulative.” Manipulative! A simple questionnaire. After a while he refused to pick any of the answers.’
‘They took too much for granted.’
‘He didn’t say. I didn’t ask. I’m not supposed to discuss the questions. I told him that if none of them seemed right, I could put his down as “Other”. And then he used that for over half of them.’
The water has come to the boil and Jen fills their mugs and hands Vi hers. She gets milk from the fridge. As it happens, she likes hers white, while Vi takes it black; they had joked about it when they first met. ‘Mind now, it’s hot.’
‘Thanks.’ Vi readjusts the blouse on the ironing board to do the sleeves. ‘Well, it takes all kinds.’
Jen sips at her coffee. ‘He didn’t even know how old he was.’
‘No? Getting senile, was he?’
‘Could be. At first I thought he was stalling — that he was going to knock a few years off, though God knows why. But he looked so puzzled that it was obvious he didn’t have a clue. When anybody asks me, I answer right away — even if I lie. Just kidding. With him, it was as if the years had gone by without a trace.’
‘Yeah. “What’s two or three years?” he said. Can you believe it? He was old, way over seventy, and can’t have all that many left. “What’s two or three years?” It’s half a lifetime, I could have told him. Well, you know what I mean.’
‘I know,’ says Vi. ‘Let’s not get old — at least not for a while.’ She lifts her mug, but the coffee is still too hot.
Timmins has moved the canvas with the squirrel-like creature to the side. It isn’t only the fur and the reflections that are wrong. He had wanted to capture the exact moment the animal let go of the plant, but that doesn’t show, neither in the play of its muscles, nor in the fibres of the plant. There should be tension, a certain breathlessness, but there is none. The creature could be dead. It could be stuffed. He will have to start again.
Deep inside he knows that what is actually bothering him is the interview, that and the girl. She had remained so unaffected, so expressionless, as she read out the questions, that even in retrospect he finds it chilling. Inscrutable, he thinks — that’s the word. It is as if she was above what she was doing. Of course, it’s possible that she is quite obtuse and simply couldn’t see how tendentious many of the questions were, but he finds that unlikely; if you are picked for that kind of job you have to be reasonably astute. Maybe she is just indifferent. Or maybe she can’t afford to care: she may be so desperate that she has to take any job that comes her way even if it’s on a Sunday.
Her eyes were what troubled him the most — he can still see them before him, brown and slightly hazy, as if they absorbed the light without giving anything back. There was no passion there. She seemed serenely unconcerned.
Now, where did that come from? He frowns, embarrassed, and that breaks the spell cast by the interview. Serenely unconcerned! What other words had imposed themselves on him? Inscrutable, was one. What else?
In a flash he sees what he should do. Rather than paint some animal that exists only in his imagination, he should paint the girl, using oils instead of language to recreate her strange aura, her otherworldliness, the exotic quality that had attracted and repelled him both. By painting her the way he’d seen her, he will be free of her and able to return to pure fantasy. ‘Jen, no other’, he can call the portrait. Or perhaps not — if she ever found out, by some quirk of fate, she might not see the joke. He will come up with something. It is capturing her elusiveness that matters, not the title. That can wait. Jen. No other.
The painting will have to go in a gold frame, he decides, leaping ahead.