FICTION: Seabirds By Tim Cooke

I awoke from a deep sleep with that invigorating feeling that something special had happened the night before. Warm light seeped in between the blind slats and decorated the duvet in perfect geometry. Befuddled, I retraced my steps: four pints after a long day in the classroom, a Chinese takeaway and three Japanese whiskeys. I drifted off alone on the sofa, a kitchen sink drama playing out in black and white on the TV. I must have dragged myself, practically unconscious, to the bathroom and then crawled into bed.

I sat up slowly – careful not to disturb that mysterious, glistening trace of nebulous memory – and reached for the blind cord, pulled it and let the morning pour in. The bird feeder swayed from side to side; there was no wind and no sign of the black-cap or parakeets. It was summer, but there was something pallid about the clear, cloudless sky. I pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes and pulled my face taut, but that strange, bright inkling refused to rise from the murk and assume any discernable shape.

Running was the best medicine. I rarely drank enough to induce a hangover of any consequence, but the regularity of these lonely sessions was taking its toll. The haze, which sat heavily in the space between my brow and the tip of my nose, was tough to shift, and the acid rising periodically into my chest was uncomfortable, to say the least – and then there was the slightly crushing sense that this weekly routine might repeat indefinitely. But these feelings were, for the most part, short-lived, as long as I ran fast enough.

The park was quiet, except for the horde of cricketers dragging their bags towards the two pitches spread in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. The idea that, in fact, the players were pulling their own coffins behind them, ready to hop into should the match prove too unbearably boring, made me laugh out loud.

I rounded the first bend and switched tracks, making room for another jogger approaching from the opposite direction. White headphone wires spilled from her ears and her puffed-out cheeks were almost purple. She was overweight and looked to be in some pain. I caught her eye as we crossed and she seemed to hate me for looking too closely. I felt a flash of shame and averted my eyes.

I had stopped listening to music on my runs perhaps a year ago. I found that the noise of the birds, the wind and the general hustle and bustle was far better for me – I’d rather leave it to nature than to music to dictate the mood. And I was free to think on my own terms. I glanced up at the tree where the goshawks had previously nested and gasped for a full breath to fill my lungs; the raptors were still in the park, I’d been told, but I hadn’t seen them for over a year and I longed for their return to this spot.

A green woodpecker chattered away somewhere nearby and two goldfinches hopped and pirouetted on the grass. As I watched these beautiful birds, perfect in their bold, sparkling symmetry, that effervescence stirred again and a series of images flickered like a Super 8 film reel in my mind: a crooked jetty projecting from a small cleft in a stretch of white cliffs, a worm-infested rowing boat and a bleak expanse of black sea – steep waves boiling and frothing in the distance.

My legs were starting to ache and the sweat collecting in the notch of my neck was forming a dark patch that would soon cover my chest. I merged onto the grass and nodded to the man on a mobility scooter I’d met on a bird-watching tour a few months earlier. He smiled and pointed his camera at the cluster of trees I’d just emerged from. “A siskin – beautiful bird,” he squeaked in sweet, lyrical Cockney, shushing the yappy dog that lived in his lap.

I lurched over the zebra crossing, danced through the kissing gates and penetrated the park’s left atrium. The house martins were out in force, swooping low over the lake, baring their bellies like fighter jets heading into battle. And again the images rolled before me: a grassy bank sliding down towards inky water, a stone staircase cut into the rock and a callous mist, thick and foreboding, obscuring the horizon.

My legs continued in perpetual motion and my stomach tightened; my breathing settled into a comfortable rhythm as the pain slipped from the soles of my feet into the ground beneath. The morning fell away and I plummeted into the murk.

*

The air was cold on my skin and the saline drift off the water stung my cracked lips. I moved forward, wrapped in a thick hiking jacket, and took large sideways steps down the banking until I reached the top of the stone staircase. It was long, narrow and precipitous, its gothic angles sinister and terrifying. The wind was fierce. On the fourth step, I slipped onto my back and slid towards the edge, where a sheer drop of fifty or so feet fell onto clumps of sharp rock and a barrage of furious waves.

I climbed carefully to my feet, splatting my hands in freezing pools of seawater, and used the weather worn rope that clung to the cliff’s wall to support the rest of my descent. I scanned the grey skies for birds, but there was nothing – no recognisable sound or movement to speak of.

At the foot of the staircase, I turned to face the blistering sea. The channel was exactly as I’d always imagined: foggy and dismal, the rushing wind sweeping rain into swirls and funnels, like dust devils in the desert. I advanced onto the jetty and felt the old wood creak beneath my weight. A dark, hooded figure was standing at the end, the rim of his long coat whipping and rippling in the storm. I handed him three heavy coins and lunged onto the vessel, which jerked and then settled down to a steady oscillation.

As I pulled further and further from the shore, heading into the tumult of wet and windy nothingness, I watched his ghostly frame shrink from view, a protruding lower jaw and red beard laced with ocean foam the only signs of life beneath the deep cowl.

The waves weren’t the long, neat, barrelling type, but rather the sort that rise like mountain peaks and then disintegrate, only to emerge seconds later not a foot away, larger and with greater force. They hurled themselves onto the boat, lapping at my feet and tearing the skin from my hands as I maneuvered the ores. The pain was real, as was that in my legs and shoulders, the burn in my throat, but I was on track and beyond these sloshing currents was the very essence of life itself.

The cliffs became a distant line, almost like a fence or an ancient wall slicing through countryside, and so I pushed my right ore deep into the water and let the boat swivel on its axis. Beyond the blanket of silver mist, I could see the outline of an island, mythological and almost volcanic in its craggy manifestation. I slipped off my backpack, struggled to unzip it with numb fingers and removed the camera from within. I flicked it to video mode and filmed for five minutes.

I turned the boat so the bow pointed southeast and navigated the first quarter of the island’s circumference. As I rounded a peninsula that rose from the sea like a black leviathan, the howling wind dipped and hushed. In its place came the cries of gulls – only higher, more melodious, with the texture of syrup. I fitted my camera on a tripod, which clipped to the sides of the boat, and pressed record for the second time.

Fifty or sixty metres on, the chorus had risen to an almost deafening pitch. I rowed twenty strokes away from land and let the tide carry me into the line of a huge, gaping cave, or, technically speaking, given the small gap the ran right up to ground level, an inlet. I reached into my bag again and positioned a pair of precautionary ear defenders around my neck, before setting my course for this wild, unprecedented abyss.

The crevice drew nearer and nearer and as my eyes – working like a fixed-focal-length lens – adjusted to the blue darkness, what looked like a multi-coloured waterspout came into focus. A cascading, kaleidoscopic whirl of red, purple, silver, gold, indigo and turquoise, orange, violet and the deepest shades of pink: the paradise seabirds of the English Channel, an unbelievable vision that warmed me to my core and gave me reason enough to return to land.

Plum-headed gulls, the rose-crested albatross, emerald-billed guillemots and the creamiest gannets you’ve ever seen, dancing like starlings in the shattered smile of this long-forgotten island. Their harmonies came straight from the mouths of angels. I looked down at the red record button still flashing on my camera – one, two, three; it stopped before the fourth, and the final bar of battery vanished from the dial.

*

I’m sat in the editing suite, considering whether or not to add a musical soundtrack. Music dictates the mood and I could find something that might, to some extent, replicate or induce that ecstatic feeling, but I should leave it instead to nature. I’ve arranged the images on the timeline in as pure and simplistic a fashion as possible. I recorded two parts of the journey: the first on the approach, which in retrospect has something of a scene from King Kong about it, and the second in front of that supernatural avian spiral, melting in and out of focus. I’ve used no fades, I’ve not touched the colours and the only cut is a sharp switch from long establishing shot to action close-up. There is nothing David Attenborough about this twelve-minute short, which I’ve decided to call Seabirds (the title appears in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen in the third second and then disappears at seven). The sound is, in fact, the most affecting aspect. It is not crisp or clear – there’s distortion throughout and a piercing whistle accompanies each gust of wind – but there’s honesty in this, if not accuracy.

The film, I’ve decided, is not as I remember the experience, and as I remember the experience is not as it happened, if it happened at all. But I had to make something of it – I had to record and revisit that place, that impossible event. In doing so I fear I have reconstructed to the point of destruction, but this process was inevitable. The more time I invest in the act of remembering – an act I now believe, after much thought, to be comprised of three distinct phases – the less I actually feel, and as a result that effervescence has settled to little more than a flicker. But I had to do this – as I say, it was inevitable.

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Tim Cooke is a teacher and freelance journalist. He writes about film, literature and place for various publications, including the GuardianLittle White Lies, the Quietus, Ernest Journal, the Nightwatchman and the Hackney Citizen. His creative work has appeared in Elsewhere Journal, the Lampeter Review, Drain Magazine, Foxhole Magazine, Stepz, Storgy, Particulations, Glove Magazine and Litro Magazine.

You can follow him on Twitter @cooketim2

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