Thrushes

Yesterday I walked through the arboretum at Coate Water. There was someone ahead of me with frisky dog – I’m not a dog lover, or rather I’m not someone who has much patience with people who don’t even try to control their dogs and say stuff like “Oh he’s never done that before” as their dog leaves its paw prints on your shoulders – so I slowed down and sought a different path. After a couple of moments, I saw a robin so I stopped walking altogether, wondering if I might see other bird life. After all, I thought, there are plenty of berries on the trees. Soon, a couple of blackbirds scampered through the leaf mould. They kept low but I could see the male’s golden bill. I stayed still enough to see the yellow halo around his sparkling eye.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw movement in the trees. Slowly I turned my head to look and there, in a hawthorn, was a mistle thrush. A beauty. Clean looking with his speckled gilet and that proud motion of his head.

“Sing, you beauty,” I thought.

He didn’t but a second and then a third bird joined him in the shrub. They began to eat but kept a wary eye turning. Could I get a picture? Slowly, very carefully I took out my phone and opened the camera app. I looked down at my feet. Ivy and some other creepers. I wanted to get closer to the birds.

When I was close enough to get a decent shot, I lifted the phone and got one of the creatures into the middle of the screen. I realised I was holding my breath, possibly in anticipation, maybe concentration, perhaps in awe. As I released then breathed in a dishcloth of a beast leapt from my left. The thrushes, obviously terrified, whirred away.

At least I saw them.

WORN OUT

His face glowed orange, yellow, red. Or one side of it did. He’d squeezed himself into a corner by the fruit machine and he gazed at the glasses ranged on top of the bar. Percy. He had a beard, or at least a couple of days’ growth, but he didn’t have long hair any more. Grey stubble. He still did that chewing thing though. There was a pint on the table in front of him with about two fingers off the top. He clutched his hands together between his knees and wobbled in time to some music only he could hear. The fruit machine blipped and beeped though. Glassy eyes. He’d drifted off, dreaming about something it seemed. Or maybe just bored.

“Percy,” I said.

He looked at me, put his hands on the table top and stood. I’d forgotten just how tall he was. We stood like that for a moment then I moved towards him and threw my arms round his shoulders. He didn’t reciprocate.

When I released him and stood back I got to look at him properly. He was thin. There didn’t seem to be much muscle and he was pale. His jacket, one of those pale green ex-army things, hung on him. It looked like someone else’s coat. There was a bulge on the bridge of his nose that I couldn’t remember and his right eye was bloodshot. He said something that I couldn’t hear.

He spoke louder. “Let me get you one,” he said.

He stood at the bar with his back to me. I thought he couldn’t face me. Or didn’t want to. I imagined myself telling him it was good of him to contact me then looking at my watch and leaving. I didn’t, of course.

He placed a pint on the table and I lifted it. Took a mouthful. Then I asked where he’d been.

“How d’you mean?”

The last time I’d seen him he was in his second year at Uni. That was almost fifteen years ago. No. More.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “It’s been a long time.”

“So?”

“I’ve been around.”

He looked worn out and I told him so.

“Thing is,” he said. And he paused to take a swig of his beer. “You see, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been a twat. I wanted to see you and tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

He picked up a beer mat and tapped its edge against the table. I saw that crappy tattoo on his hand then. It looked as though he’d done it himself. Perhaps it was supposed to be a sun symbol but it was egg shaped rather than circular. He took a deep breath then licked his lips and looked straight at me.

“I’ve made some mistakes in my life,” he said, “and one big one was losing touch with you.”

How do you respond to that? I must have sat with my mouth open for I don’t know how long. Eventually I said something like “I don’t know what to say. Thanks.”

“You see,” he paused again. “I’ve been inside.”

He wiped his hand across his lips and his Adam’s apple wobbled a couple of times. He started to cry.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

GETTING IN TOUCH

This is a dialogue heavy piece. I’ve messed about with dialogue like Roddy Doyle’s “Two Pints” series. (see “Uber” below) He’s excellent at capturing voices, such an important part of writing. I think what characters say shows us more about them than anything. But you have to take care and think about how ‘ordinary’ spoken discourse, conversation reveals character.

This piece is a first draft but I wonder if it gets anywhere near doing the job I want it to. One of the characters harbours the secret that he’s been in prison. I think that’s enough for now. Tell me what you think.

“You’ll regret that,” I said. “You ought to get in touch.”

He said he didn’t know their number any more. “And I’m not going round there.”

Then he went on a tirade about his parents not understanding. I tried to point out that dropping out of university and going away who knows where was not an easy thing for anyone to accept.

“Freedom,” he said. “I do nothing illegal.”

“Apart from the substances.”

“They should be legal.” He shifted in the chair. “If you know what you’re doing they’re OK.”

“Listen,” I said. “You’ve come this far today.”

He bowed his head.

“You said you wanted to see me and we’ve talked about things that happened all that time ago.”

“Yeah.”

“You can’t just walk away from the past. Your links to it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s what’s made you who you are. You can’t deny it.”

I went and made some coffee and he hadn’t moved when I brought it to him. He sat still and ignore it.

“Drink your coffee,” I said after a while, “before it goes cold.”

He looked at me for a second then gazed out of the window. “What do you reckon?”

“There’s the phone,” I said. “It’d be dead easy to find their number.”

“But what would I say?”

“Something like ‘I’d like to come and see you,’ They could only say, ‘Fuck you.’ Or words to that effect.”

“Exactly.”

“But I bet they won’t. They’d be delighted to see you.”

I got hold of the telephone directory and found the number. I picked up the phone, dialled and handed it to him. Then I went intot he dining room and slid the doors shut. But I couldn’t help listening.

“Hello. It’s Stephen.”

Yeah.

I just wanted to get in touch.

I dont know. See how you are.

I’m at Martin’s.

He’s OK.

Not difficult with a name like his.

Yes he is but she’s visiting her parents.

Is he?

Oh. Yes. I remember.

For his dinner.

What? Vincent goes with him? He never liked rugby.

No I didn’t. You’re right.

I’m OK. Bit of a bad back.

I got in a bit of bother.

Not too serious no.

Dont want to talk about it on the phone.

Later today?

How do you think Dad will take that?

Are you sure?

If you’re sure?

No. I’m sure Martin’ll bring me up.

I don’t know about that. That might be a bit much.

OK. I’ll ask him.

Yeah.

Look it’s nearly four. I can be there in what 20 minutes.

No. I’ll be there.

Let’s say six o’clock.

A LEGEND BEGINS

This is a story my Dad told me. And I checked it with Percy’s Dad.

It seems there was another bloke called Widdop. Seems he was a tramp. All year and every year he wandered all over. He had a great big stick he carried because he had a limp. Dad said they’d see him every now and then and he’d wave and sometimes stop and have a chat. They’d give him a bit of food – an apple, a crust of bread, some cheese. He didn’t smell too good but Dad said he heard that someone like Weston from the church would take him to the baths. There were individual tubs there then. Otherwise, he jumped in the river I suppose. But then again Dad and Percy’s dad reckon that folk didn’t bath anywhere near as much in those days. But he never changed his clothes. Dad said he wore baggy brown cords, a rough work shirt and a duffle coat.

Anyway, it seems he helped out at a farm in spring and autumn. Summer and winter he’d be wandering. Dad said there were tales that he’d been damaged over in France during the war. And Dad meant the 1914 war. He was a big fella, six foot plus. But he hardly ever spoke. Strong silent type I suppose. That limp was testament to his service, Dad reckoned. But he said there was something about his eyes that said he wasn’t all there.

Dad said him and some of his mates followed once. They went all the way from West Girling all the way to Wyckham Junction. He went in the woods and, when he saw he was being followed, he turned and yelled “Fuck off” at the top of his voice. And he waved his stick and said he’d hurt them if they didn’t leave him alone.

Yes. They left him alone.

Then they didn’t see him for ages. A couple of years Dad said. Long enough for them to think he’d snuffed it. But then one day round about his birthday Dad saw him. He’d have been about 14 because he was out delivering and he left school at fourteen.

“There was Widdop with this kid.”

Yes, a lad. About Dad’s age he said. Maybe younger. And they were striding up Cumberland Road. Widdop with his stick and his limp. Didn’t take long for folk to say this little kid was Widdop’s apprentice. A foundling. His nephew. They walked around for ages together.

Don’t know what happened to Widdop but the lad must have grown up to be Giddy Widdop. Never went to school. But he knew stuff. Stuff about woods and fields and plants and birds and that kind of stuff.

“MOST PEOPLE NEVER HAVE TO FACE THE FACT THAT

AT THE RIGHT TIME AND THE RIGHT PLACE, THEY’RE CAPABLE OF ANYTHING.”

Did he jump or was he pushed? He was sad. He had regrets. He was mad. He could never forget. But was he shoved or did he dive?

Dragged from the river this morning. Mouth gaping as though gasping for air. Lips wan as candles. Cheeks of a human fish. Eyes wide open, unseeing. Yes, he’d been been swirling and drowning for hours. Marks on his head after he was under. Blood washed away by the river. But he took in plenty of water. Breathed in without any gills.

He floated at the edge of the stream. Too heavy for the old boys to lift out. Drifted face down to the keep net. The biggest fish they’d ever caught. His silver hair meshed with waving weeds. His rainbow hued clothes oozed with water. Soon on his back on the bank. All washed up and spectral clean.

He drowned all right. Got bashed about a bit. He probably jumped. Perhaps he slipped. No evidence of killing. Plenty signs of death. Lodged in his chest was your watch. Still ticking at quarter to two. And, right by his heart, a tattoo. Your name in a heart. Forever.

VERMIN

She stood with one arm covering her nose and mouth. “What is this?” she croaked.

Dangling from a line, stretched between two trees, was an assortment of birds and animals. A fox hung by one back knee. Blood dripped from its snout into blackened, clotted grass. A couple of greasy banners dangled by their legs. Crows. More were tied by their necks, including a rook that stared sightlessly straight at us, pointing its once treacherous, now lifeless beak. Feathers and unspeakable bits and pieces had been cast off. Black goo dripped. There were some rats and shapeless things that had been sagging there for some time, bones poking through scant flesh. And the stink. Camphor and cooked cabbage in amongst the rusty blood and shit. I could see  and hear flies bustling about the eyes and wounds.

“This be private property if you did but know.”

I spun and saw the shotgun. A man wearing a green hat with earflaps, who had round glasses, who carried the weapon across his elbow, both barrels pointed at the ground. He wore khaki trousers tucked into socks, one of which was black the other grey. One boot was fastened with white flex.

“Ey oop, Giddy,” I said. “Just passing.”

“Farmer dunt like folks wanderin’ on his property.” He carried a crow by its neck.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re just on our way home.”

He took a step closer. “You shouldn’t be here.” Melissa whimpered.

I’m sure you can see what was going on here. Giddy was doing what he thought was his job – looking after Thompson’s farm. He was a feral sort of bloke, as you know. He was not a philosopher and we’d been told he had spells of violent madness. Some said he had visions, that he drank strange brews, that he was some kind of satanist. I’d seen a different side of him and didn’t believe half of what I heard. He wasn’t a mate and he was unpredictable but mostly he just wanted to keep out of people’s way and he wanted people to keep out of his way.

He took something from a pocket. Twine. I saw that there was a small, dark feather on his cheek and a little fingerprint of brownish red. He began to tie the twine round the bird’s neck. Behind me I heard more snuffling from Melissa.

“It’s all right,” whispered Percy. “We know him.”

“What are all these animals for?” asked Melissa.

“Warning,” said Giddy “Keep other vermin away.”

He dropped the dead creature to the ground and picked up the gun. I felt a hand on my back and turned to see Melissa hiding behind me. But Giddy climbed into the caravan and banged the door shut.

Then we heard a scraping sound coming from inside. Then snuffling, grunting noises and the sound of something being dragged.

To be honest, I had not been happy at Richie’s place. To begin with it was much smaller than he had led me to believe and, although his parents had gone away, I felt very uneasy about his two younger brothers being there. But this incident with the awful man was the final straw. I mean, he’d taken the gun and he was going to shoot himself. Or at least that’s what I thought. Richie hadn’t been very sympathetic so I was glad his friend was there. All those creatures dangling and rotting and smelling really made me feel sick, I mean physically sick. The thought of this strange wild man killing himself was just too much. All that noise.

“What’s he doing?”

I banged on the door and something clattered. Everything went quiet but the door stayed shut. I knocked once more and called his name again. The door flew open, barely missing my face. And there stood Giddy. He was naked except for his cap but he had a brush the length of his arm in one hand. There was a dark smirch across his thigh.

“What do you want?” he yelled. “I’m busy.”

I shifted my horrified gaze upwards, past the protruding lard white belly, the hairless chest. His lips quivered in his pink face and his breath snorted down his nose. His eyes rolled. I could smell thyme but couldn’t see past his bulk in the doorway.

“Fuck,” whispered Melissa. “That’s impressive.”

I found myself gazing straight at Giddy’s hefty member and had to snap my mouth shut, clamping my teeth together.

“Leave you to it, Giddy,” I said.

When we were on the main track, about a hundred yards from the woods, Percy said something.

“What?”

“I said, I didn’t expect to see that.”

Laughter burst down my nose like a sneeze.

SPARROWHAWK

SPARROWHAWK

Percy was stuck indoors. Probably had some kind of hangover. Admittedly it was cold. I had football socks on and two pairs of gloves, my ex-army greatcoat over a couple of thick woolies, a scarf wrapped round my head and a bobble hat pulled on top. Anyway, I asked his mum to say I’d called and I went off on my own.

All the leaves and grass were edged with frost and the trees were all coated with white. It was really quiet. Suppose nobody else was daft enough to be out. But I had some nuts, bacon rinds and a tub of marg with seeds in it. I thought I’d get into the central clearing and sit for a bit to see what happened. I reckoned some birds could do with an easy feed.

Well, it didn’t take long. I sat on a log. I could hear skittering and soon a blackbird kind of chattering in the undergrowth as though it was practising. A nervous blue tit all fluffed up. Then I saw a flash of pink, dull sort of pink. Or did I? A jay perhaps. I stayed still but I didn’t see it again.

Then I realised my toes had gone numb and I thought I’d better move. My nose must have been blue. Anyway I needed a piss. But there was a flash to my right and out of the undergrowth whizzed a sparrowhawk. Birds scattered and cried. Or cried and scattered. I moved my eyes but nothing else then carefully I moved my chin and saw the sparrowhawk covering something with its wings. It was about a cricket pitch away from me. The bird moved and I saw it had a blackbird in its talons. I don’t think I breathed as I watched the smaller bird pulled apart by that cruel, hooked beak.

I’d decided to take a bigger route home, past Giddy Widdop’s caravan. When I got there, Giddy sat on a log a fire smoking and smouldering in front of him. He was well wrapped up but the door to the van was open. As usual, I couldn’t make out much inside. Did he really live there?

I moved closer to the smouldering heap, turned my hands towards the heat. Smoke drifted away from me but I could smell something else. Roasting meat.

“How do,” I said.

He nodded. “Na then.”

“Cold enough for you?”

“‘Appen,” he mumbled.

“Got a decent fire though.”

He had a stick in his hand and used it to turn something on the fire. I followed the line of his arm and the stick to see singed fur. He regularly kept ‘vermin’ as he called them, hanging, dripping and rotting. Crows he found, rats, a fox. I think he snared some of them but on the fire that day was something else.

“What you got there?” I was curious but I might be horrified by his answer.

“Dinner,” he said.

I was relieved. It could have been a rabbit. To be honest, it looked like a squirrel. Even through the scarf I wrapped round my jaw and the smoke from the pink glow I got a tang of that spicy smell that was always around him.

PERCY’S LEAP

I’m transported back to The Strid incident. It’s where the river Wharfe turns through ninety degrees and then cuts through hard rock in a noisy, white mass. It’s beautiful but dangerous. I can’t remember why we were there but it was some kind of school trip. We’d all been told the tale about a king’s son being drowned here. We knew The Strid claimed 100% of those who fell in. And I do remember standing and gazing at the water, looking at the slippery rock. Then we saw Percy standing on the other side of the deafening water.

“How did you get over there?”

“Jumped.”

“There’s not enough room for you to run.”

Percy shrugged and blew through his lips. The Strid at this point, probably its narrowest, was about five feet across. He was standing on a rock about three feet higher than our side of the water. On our side, the rocks were covered in green slimy moss and on Percy’s side they were clean, if wet. But there was no clear way to take a run.

“Step back a bit,” said Percy. As we did as he asked he jumped to our side. He shoved into a couple of others. One of them tumbled and fell to his hands and knees.

“You’re mad.” The kid’s jeans were soaked. “Fucking mad.”

“Show us how you did it.”

I knew that Percy could jump that distance, that height. I’d seen the piano stunt, when he’d jumped from standing to the baby grand in the music room. I grabbed his arm but Percy batted his hand away.

“Don’t push your luck,” I said.

“I’ll do it if I want,” he said and stepped down to the ledge, facing the pounding white water. “No luck involved.”

Two hikers had stopped next to me.

“What’s going on?”

“Our friend is going to jump across.” I said it in a matter of fact way, as though it was the most natural thing to do.

“What? He mustn’t.” The hiker stepped forward. “Hey,” he called. “Hey, you.”

Percy turned round. He blinked as though he had just woken up.

“This is a death trap. You can’t do it.”

Percy turned back to the river and stood tall, arms by his sides, relaxed. He breathed deeply. I could feel myself tracking him as I looked from his feet to the rock on the other bank. I closed my eyes and, when I opened them again, the only thing moving was The Strid. The only sound was The Strid. Then Percy’s arms swept wide like wings, his knees bent and he crouched forward, staring at where he intended to land. His hands surged ahead, launching his legs straight and upwards. His toes were the last of him to leave the ledge. Then he was airborne, reaching for the other side, his head motionless but his knees lifting, his arms arrowing above his head. He seemed to hang like that in the air and I heard a shock of breath to my left. Now his feet swung forward. His head was still motionless, eyes gazing at the rock. His arms, however, urged him to the spot he was going to land on. His toes were the first of him to touch the rock and, as they did so, he seemed to spring out of the stone and I thought he would over-balance. Instead, he took one step, turned around and raised one hand above his head. I felt myself release the breath I had been holding. Percy grinned. One of the hikers began to applaud and shout.

“Now you’ve got to get back,” I said.

“Piece of piss.” He jumped and, as he landed, he slipped and lunged headlong into the group that had gathered. When he stood, he clapped water and dirt from his jeans then looked at his hand. There was blood on the heel right by the thumb.

“Could have been worse,”he said.

SPEAK OF THE DIVEL AND YOU GET HIS TREASURE

Although why the divil is always a man I don’t know. Could be a woman. But probable is neither one nor the other. Just a thing. Anyway what’s wrong with the divel. Better the divel you know thatn the pope you never see.

I know these woods like them birds nesting down by the beck. There’s that bit where the deer rest every winter and where they wander looking for fresh young shoots and leaves. And that grassy place, the clearing where them huts used to be. And there’s the foxes at one end near what used to be the orchard and badgers up top by the big field.

The orchard is great for me. There’s eaters and cookers and keeper over there. And plums in season. People are scared of them but I don’t know why. Apples. Good for you. Hazle close by an all. And some chestnuts. All good. They keep well. And there’s mushrooms. There’s always good ones round here. Folk think blue ones are nasty but there not. Taste a bit lickerish. And them yeller legs and penny buns plenty on em at the right time o year. Very tasty with some of that bread I get from bakers in village.

Occsional coney. Dead stuff run over stuff. Not big but good roast.

The way it changes is grand. Them colours. Dead wood for a fire. And farmer looks after me from time to time. Lambing and clearing. Cutting and checking alls well.

And I walk round everywhere. Bump into folks. Get and do some singin in the house. The Robin or the Fox. No music. Just voice. Them good tunes. Tam Lin. Maria martin. I’ve seen them down my woods. Prancin and doins. Chantin and dancin.

Some says the divel gets all the good chewns. Good for the divel I say. Them down chapel are a right misery lot. Allus worryin about stuff. Not me. No. Not me.

BOX

Percy appeared. Just as I was thinking it was time to move. Neck and shoulders stiff. I put my coat on and felt a weight on one side. Felt around. Something in the pocket. It was a little container. About the size of a packet of cigs and made of wood. Dark wood. Tiny brass hinges and a clasp with a padlock.

“OK,” I said. “did you put this in my coat?”

He shook his head slowly, took his hand out of his pocket and showed me a tiny key.

“Wait on,” I said. “Not here.”

We jogged to his house and sat at the table in the kitchen.  We didn’t say anything, even when I put the box on the table. We stared at it.

“Shall we?”

I nodded. He put the key in the opening and there was a soft click as the padlock opened. Percy lifted the lid. We looked inside. On the dark red baize lining were two sachets. I took one out. It was folded like Wrigley’s chewing gum or a Beecham’s powder.

“Go on then.” Percy nodded.

There was an aroma of herbs and pepper as I unfolded the paper. Inside the wrapper were brown and dark green threads. We gazed at them for a few moments.

“Where did this come from?”

“I can guess.” Percy started to fiddle with the box. He pushed his thumbnail into a groove I hadn’t noticed and a flap opened. There was another piece of paper in there. It was pale blue and had been torn off a bigger piece. When he unfolded it there was some writing.

“oppen yur mind Bruw up and see”

“It’s hash, man.” Percy was excited.

“Dunno.” I picked up a strand and rubbed it between my finger and thumb, sniffed. “Smells like soil.”

Percy put the kettle on.

“Not now,” I said. “Wait until we’ve got ready.”

“How do you mean?”

“Just calm down and think for a minute.”