This short story of mine was published online in 2008 in West47 – but it’s no longer available on the web so I thought I would add it here. It remains one of the stories I am most proud of.
I watch you each morning as you walk the beach. Your blue shirt shows though the worn elbows of the old Aran sweater you always wear. Your dark hair is slicked back from your face. You move with purpose. Your stride is longer than mine. I check when the falling tide leaves your footprints in the wet sand. You find a stick on the tide line and carry it with you. You use it like a walking stick, putting it in front of you as if to balance your step.
The first time I see you I am returning from my morning walk. The sun is up but the air is cold and a strong breeze blows from the shore. As you go by you nod your head once in acknowledgement of my presence. I do the same. We do not speak.
I ask the postman about you. He and Mrs Keane are the only people I see. The postman tells me you’re old Kelly’s nephew. He left you the house when he died last year.
I watch your house from my kitchen window. I notice things when I do the washing up or make tea. I am not spying on you. You start fishing. You spend long hours, rod in hand, the Atlantic waves licking against the sides of your small boat. Mrs Keane tells me you’re a carpenter by trade. I don’t ask her; she gives me the information, freely, without charge.
I see that you are like me. You are sad and you want to be alone.
I find a seagull on the beach after the night’s storm. The wind gusts as it blows foam from the raging waves. Seaweed trips across the sand like tumbleweed across an American plain. The bird does not move as I approached. I bend low close to him, talk gently, encourage him to take flight. But the gull sits there resolute, unwilling to move. I step closer. He opens his beak and glares at me with his tiny black eyes. The minute feathers on his head move in the wind. He is perfect. The white feathers on his body are bright, glaring; the grey feathers, soft and contrasting. I stretch my hand forward but the bird lashes out with his sharp yellow bill.
The wind howls in my ears. I pull my hat further down over my ears. As I look up I see you approach. I stand up and step back from the injured bird, willing you to stop and help. As you get closer your steps slow. For a moment I think you will veer away and walk by, but you pause before the bird. You nod your head to me before crouching down to look at the helpless creature. I wait for you to speak but you remain silent, as resolute as the bird is to remain still.
‘I think he’s injured,’ I say at last, but you do not hear. Perhaps the wind carries my words away. I bend down again and repeat myself, ‘I think he’s injured.’
You look up briefly, then look down at the bird. ‘The storm,’ you say. It is the first words I hear you speak and they are barely audible.
‘What should we do?’ I asked.
You shake your head. Your brown eyes look only at the bird. Tiny grains of sand are trapped in your hair; a piece of seaweed blows against your leg. You take no notice.
‘Do you know what kind of seagull it is?’ I ask.
‘Fulmar,’ you say.
The damp is creeping through my coat, my hands feel numb despite my gloves. I shiver.
‘Will I go and get a box?’ I ask.
You shake your head.
‘Should we just leave it?’ I persist.
You shrug your shoulders as if you do not care. We wait as the wind gathers speed around our crouched bodies. My knees begin to ache. Rain falls; the wind drives it into our faces. You finally stir into action.
Slowly you move your large furrowed hands over the bird, swooping down you pick it up. Oblivious to the bird’s sharp bill digging into your fingers you tuck him inside your sweater.
‘Yours?’ you ask and I nod as my cottage is closer.
We walk quickly, bent low against the cutting wind and rain. I open the front door and step inside.
‘Come in,’ I say, ‘I’ll get a box.’ I move to the kitchen, pull off my soaking wet coat, I throw it on a chair. I fetch a cardboard box from the back room. It is worn, bent and faded but functional. You place the bird inside the box and put it in the corner of the room taking care to secure the lid.
‘I will be back,’ you say as you march out the door before I have time to stop you. I watch you from the window, walking quickly and without concern for the pouring rain. While you are gone I hover by the box. I steal peeks at the fulmar through the gaps in the lid. I want to take the bird out and stroke his silky feathers but the thought of his sharp bill stops me.
You return with slivers of freshly cut mackerel. At first the bird tries to bite your hand. It ignores the fish. You persist. The bird turns its head, left then right. It looks back at the silver-blue strips. Then it lunges for them, swallowing them whole and with greed. The following day the bird walks around his box depositing fish smelling droppings at regular intervals. My whole house takes on the whiff of a badly kept fish stall.
We take the bird to the place we found it. You open the lid of the box. The bird hops out. He looks at us before moving away. He turns his head from side to side, opens and shuts his bill as if yawning. He stretches his wings, closes them and stretches them again. Then with wings held out he begins to run down the strand. The toes of his webbed feet leave marks on the wet sand.
He flies. I laugh. You smile.
Now you and I meet every morning to walk down the beach. You say little. I try not to disturb your silence. It is enough to walk with you. Occasionally we see a fulmar. You tell me they are not technically seagulls but birds related to the wandering albatross, a bird that spends most of its life flying over the southern ocean.