Posted on Leave a comment

The Lyrebird

Emma can still hear the notifications from the seclusion of her room. Beep-beep and diddly-oop echoing up through the floor. She left them down there in the kitchen together half an hour ago, as soon as she’d finished her dinner and even though they’d not touched theirs. They’ve been getting harder and harder to be around for at least four years. Since she was ten.  

It’s her three-year-old brother she feels most sorry for. He’s still down there.

They’ll be slouched at opposite ends of the worn leather sofa by now, tagging each other on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram with whatever comes up on their own news feeds. Chuckling and nodding in mild agreement with everything – everything – even if they’re contradicting themselves. She doesn’t follow them on her socials anymore. 

And he’ll be there with his iPad, sat between them, blissfully copycatting. Swipe, prod, swipe, prod-prod. Learning by doing. She is deeply sad that he won’t grow up knowing their parents like she does. 


It’s not the same as it was. The music has gone.

But she tells herself that at least he never knew how it used to be, what it felt like to watch it going and be able to do nothing about it, or what it’s like now in comparison. She reassures herself that the vacuum gathering around the three of them is all he has ever known, so it must be the definition of happiness for him. 

Sitting alone on her single bed, rain falling on the little window above her head, is not her favourite way to spend a Friday evening. She sighs and closes her eyes, her head nodding forward and her arms going limp briefly. 

After only a few seconds, she opens her eyes again and turns round to lean slowly over the left edge of her bed until her whole body is over the floor. She balances herself with the fingers of her left-hand splayed white on the dark blue fibres of her carpet, and only her knees holding her up on the mattress. Then she stretches out and runs her right-hand index finger over the top of her record collection lined on the floor against the opposite wall, under a pine dresser full of ornaments and notebooks. She never used that table or its mirror for beauty. She prefers the natural look.

She pulls out the most worn record sleeve. Her absolute favourite song. Her mum’s favourite Leonard Cohen single. Then she pushes herself, with three shuffling bounces, back up onto her bed, sits upright and slides the record out onto the tip of her left index finger. 

The record rocks a little then gently rests its thinnest edge on the soft, round ball of her thumb. She raises it level with her eyes and looks over it for fluff or hairs, switches her grip to hold the record gently by the sides with the finger-tips of both her hands, then turns to her left again towards her record player. 

It is one of those old-fashioned record players. Retro. Vintage. Her dad’s from the early seventies. One of those ones with a built in speaker at the front, a melamine lid strong enough for use as a table top when the player is closed, and four slender, wooden screw-off legs, a plastic handle on the side and lockable metal clasps all round so it can be carried off like a suitcase.

Looking down through the play hole of the record with her right eye shut, she lines it up with the centre spindle of her record player, pauses, holds her breath unintentionally, and slowly lowers the record onto the turntable as she breathes out softly. 

The record in place, she reaches for her noise-cancelling headphones, which she keeps hooked over the top of her dark-grey, broadcloth headboard, just under the windowsill. There’s a relieving crack above her right hip as she twists all the way round to her left and stretches up with her right hand to grab them.

On the other side of the headboard, where it is shoved firmly into the corner of her room furthest from the door, it is covered with assorted memories pinned or stuck or taped to it. There are pictures, tickets, silly drawings and notes from her friends, and all sorts of other little bits too; all of which prompt happy memories. She has been collecting these here since she was seven. 

She slips her headphones on with the same gentle care you might take when you cup a much longed-for hot drink in the palms of your hands before drinking it. The action has the same effect on her too. Calming. 

She lifts and drops the needle smoothly onto the record. The player pops quietly into motion. She slouches back onto her three pillows and closes her eyes, feeling every note fill her.

It’s not the same as drifting to sleep when you were six while your mum and dad were jamming together downstairs. Laughing and joking. Riffing off each other. Loving each other’s talents. In awe of each other. Passionate. All that excited, creative energy used to flow up straight through the floor, through her bed and deep into her heart through her back.

And it’s not the same as pretending to be asleep in the living room when you were eight and it was past your bedtime, just so you could listen to your mum and dad write a new song. Hearing how their spark and constraint worked together. How they loved each other for their light and dark. 

Her earliest memory is spinning round and round in the living room while her parents played a song for her. She was holding two open marker pens in each fist, wearing a hat made from blue card and had a long glorious tail of red and silver tissue paper tucked into the top of her leggings. At the time she remembers believing she looked like a superb peacock. They’ve told her this was when she was about four. They can’t remember which song it was.

Listening to her favourite song on her own in her room is certainly not the same as any of that. What could be. But it’s all she has got, because now their instruments gather dust in two opposite corners of the living room.

Emma’s dad used to play drums – all sorts of cultural drums like Djembes and Bodhrans, as well as traditional kit and orchestral percussion too – but nowadays all he does is rap his knuckle once, or occasionally roll a quick triplet with his fingertips on the uncovered top of his Cajon as he walks by. The wooden top of that drum is now mainly used as a side by the kitchen door. A holding area for sweetened tea and cheap biscuits. The rest of his drums are tightly knotted inside two tie-dyed sheets in the corner under the stairs, behind the airer, ironing board and vacuum cleaner.

Her mum mostly played harp, but often the violin or piano too, and could turn her hand to most other instruments whenever she tried a new one. She hasn’t touched any in more than three years either. The last time she did, the string broke on her violin as soon as she picked it up and that thwarted moment seemed to be the end of it for her. Later that same evening she loosened the strings on her harp, her classical guitar and her violin, dried and dusted them down along with her dizi flute, then shut or zipped them all into their smart black cases and neatly filled the corner between the bookshelf and the window with their shadows. 

It would have been quite a ceremonial act if it wasn’t so brusque and huffy.

After this, he stood beside her – so close they were almost one entity – while she shut the piano lid with a hard crack. Then he locked it and threw the tiny iron key into an ornamental, bone-china, willow-patterned bowl on their mantlepiece. 

That bowl was the permanent home for many other forgotten keys, along with some picture hooks, cotton, paper clips, a little ball of Blu Tack and two 13amp plug fuses. All hidden under a pile of black and gold marbles. Like a universe that has hardened and collapsed in on its secrets.

Emma doesn’t take off her headphones when the song finishes. She is still trying to block out the constant sound of notifications from downstairs. Instead, she sits up, unplugs them from her record player, rolls over onto her right side, pulls her iPad toward her from where she last shoved it half under her pillow, and plugs her headphones into the iPad. 

She googles “interesting music” but only gets results for mainstream popular music. Because that is what the majority have taught the algorithms to think is interesting.

Then she googles “weird music” and gets a lot of Frank Zappa and the like. Ok, so the bots are pretty spot on there! 

She adds “al things” to the end of that search, which returns a few more of the kinds of results she was hoping for. People making amazing music from bits and bobs and pots and pans, or cutting speech and animal sounds into some quite brilliant rhythmically melodic tracks. 

She is looking for something for breakfast tomorrow. Something inspirational, she hopes. Something her dad will like. If devices are now the main currency of communication between them, she’ll give it a go.

After following the click-trail from one video to the next for a while, saving a few to her favourites but not feeling the need to share anything to her social media, she comes across one video about a bird. The tag line is “Lyrebirds Sing Their Own Destruction” and the short article claims that Lyrebirds, which can mimic the sound of any birdsong, have started to copy the sounds of chainsaws and diggers because they hear them cutting down the rainforests. The article says this behaviour is destroying the beauty of their song, and then extrapolates this opinion rather quickly and clumsily into an allegory for the whole of human-led global environmental devastation. 

As she taps on the YouTube link to watch the video, she is sure she will be able to see the dubbing – expecting shockingly imperfect image/sound matching. 

But the video is quite convincing. 

Even the birds’ throat movements seem to be in time with the rhythmic elements of the unnatural soundtrack. She scrolls through the comments while the video plays. Amongst the almost entirely purely emotional responses – outrage and doubt in equal measure, alongside the usual trolling and self-promotion – one comment catches her eye.

This is misleading. Read my blog. I went to find out. 

It is accompanied by a link through to a WordPress site.

Because of the promise of experiential research and because of the balance contained in that one word (misleading; rather than that too easily barked #fakenews with which we have come to demonise and confuse opinion, manipulation and outright lies) Emma follows the link to the blog.  

Hey, thanks for dropping by to read me! Please share this on if it connects with you.

A few months ago, I saw an amazing but also concerning video about Lyrebirds on social media. [EDIT: I just saw it again years later! The same things go round and round don’t they. I posted a link to this article in the comments. Perfect.]

These magical birds, which are native to Australia and were introduced to Tasmania in the 19th Century, look similar to UK pheasants; same size, same shape, same aimless walk; but with long, flowing ornamental tail feathers shaped a little like that Ancient Greek harp the Lyre. Hence the name. 

The video showed how they can mimic the song of any other birds around them, and other sounds too. It was quite spellbinding! But it also gave me the impression that the Lyrebirds repertoire has been ruined by humanity invading their environment. It didn’t really fall far short of explicitly saying – and was clearly designed to be suggesting – that these amazing birds have started to mimic human sounds like chainsaws and diggers rather than beautiful natural sounds. And, so the video said, this is because the grinding and unnatural human sounds are now all around the birds, encroaching upon and destroying their habitat.

How deeply sad if true. But, also…we all know that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet can you! So, I thought I would arrange a trip out to the Lyrebird’s natural habitat, accompanied by a guide or expert of course, to see for myself.

First off, I contacted Birdlife in Australia, who work to conserve native birds, and then the Australian Bird Study Association. 

After many confusing telephone calls, and a little bit of bureaucracy, I ended up exchanging a few emails and talking on the phone with an expert in a small research facility inside the rainforest of Victoria. A lovely and very softly spoken Dr. Saira Walker. She arranged for me to stay at her facility for two nights and sorted a lift all the way from Melbourne for me. A four-wheel drive out on a supplies trip would pick me up from the bus station. 

All I had to do was arrange my flights from the UK into Melbourne and get to the bus station. In the end, due to the timings of my travel options, I also needed to book myself into a hotel in Melbourne for one night either side of my trip into the rainforest. What with the flight stopovers either way, it was looking to be a brilliantly varied trip.

I woke in the early hours of the Wednesday that was the first day of my trip, having spent the entire day before packing thoroughly. A pre-booked taxi took me to Heathrow where I waited for three hours for the plane to be ready for boarding. A pretty dull start to this adventure, made duller by the food choice at the airport!

I had an eight hour stop-over in Singapore where I’d made sure I had plans to experience aspects of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian culture. Read my blog post on Singapore here. And then I went on to Melbourne with no trouble, sleeping while the plane crossed the ocean. I wrote about my two days in Melbourne on another post here too. 

But it was when I was picked up at the bus station that the trip really became an adventure. 

The electric light has drained Emma. Time has slipped by quickly. Her eyes close. Her iPad falls from her hand onto her bed. The last thing she is aware of is how warm her ears are.

Their motions are there before she is – light flashes and fades, elbows swing, skirt hems spin, knees flex and feet tap – the sense of the images beats her to it too – the curves and shine – fingers blurring and multiplying – she arrives with the heaviest sounds – she arrives when everything flashes into focus – her parents – their huge smiles and stupid dances – palms crack – bow clatters – hammers grinding teeth and gears. 

Metal crashes while they spin. 

Metal crashes while they spin. 

Metal crashes while they spin.

Her mouth is dry. 

With her eyes still closed she sucks the back of her tongue in an attempt to generate some saliva. Nothing happens.

She reaches out but finds from the feel and the weight that her glass is empty. 

With her eyes still closed she fumbles and stubs her way to the bathroom to suck a long, slow drink from the tap instead. She stumbles straight back to her room with one eye part-open this time, having not quite turned off the tap behind her. 

It needs a washer replaced. He says he’ll get round to it soon. 

She falls back into bed and drifts in and out of sleep for a few minutes. All the while wishing she’d not left the tap to tick and pop. Like the worst kind of electro-jazz, the rhythm of the tap mixes in and out of time with the constant notifications on her parents’ phones echoing up again from the kitchen below. Out of synch.

She squeezes her eyes tight, shakes her head, screams No, fuck this, no way as loud as she can inside her mind. Then she slowly gets out of bed, swings on her dressing gown over her soft cotton pyjamas and goes downstairs. 

Her dad has made Full English for everyone, as he always does on a Saturday morning. To start the weekend good, as he used to say but doesn’t anymore.

The oblong, white laminate table in the middle of the kitchen has brown and red sauce in the middle, along with salt and pepper, and butter, jam, honey and marmalade. Her dad, in grey tracksuit bottoms and a white t-shirt, covered by a blue-striped apron, is at the stove to her right, filling the plates with food. Her mum, in black leggings and a grey jumper is further to her left, across the table, standing by the sink and the back door. 

Emma sits quietly on her usual chair, tucked in between the mop-propped-open door and the humming fridge. Somewhere miles away, Mongolia maybe or New Zealand, a large empty box is placed on a feather duvet. 

Her brother is on his booster seat opposite her, smiling nicely at her. Behind him the large window lets the light flow in and lets Emma’s mind take a walk to the end of the garden to sit on its own in the little bit of woodland down there. 

Quite frustratingly, each time one of their parents’ phones goes off her brother beep-beeps or diddly-oops to himself and laughs. This new addition to, repetition of, the inane cacophony all around threads thinly through her and tugs her back from her spot in the shade.

“Alright love,” her dad says as he drops her laden plate in front of her, sits down to her right and immediately picks up his phone. Not waiting for her quiet response.

“I’m ok.” 

“Sandra,” he’s not looked up at his wife across the table from him, he’s just talking loudly to her while he still looks at his phone’s screen, “you seen these fucking idiots?”

“What’s that?” Sandra looks up.

“These.” He stands, reaches, and leans a little over the table to show her his phone’s screen. 

Sandra looks closely at it. She scowls. 

“Can’t see it properly, share it with me.”

Sitting back in his chair, he presses his phone a few times. 

Hers beeps and she taps the screen.

“Oh yeah,” she says squinting at her phone. Scrolling down slowly. “They’re all arseholes. Look at this Emma.” She shoves her phone into Emma’s face.

“Mum!” Even her exclamation against the sudden invasion of her space is quiet. Almost unspoken. Cutting off its own echo with a softly gulped-back breath.

Emma takes a quick look and notices that the article is about travellers who have moved into a local car park. 

She thinks for a moment.

“I suppose, as long as they’re good neighbours then it’s ok isn’t it.”

“Don’t be daft! They’re all criminals.” Her mum’s voice sounds authoritative, like she is certain she is speaking the truth. 

Emma cannot understand how her mum can make such sweeping statements about people of whom she knows nothing. Emma, at her youthful age, knows that there is good and bad in any lifestyle. That you can’t say or assume the nature or intent of any group of people or any singular person. That doing so is judgemental. That doing so is one ist or another, whether or not it is notorious enough to be well known. How come her mum doesn’t know this. Or has she forgotten it too. Like she’s forgotten the music. 

“They’re not all bad,” Emma says quietly. “They’re just different from us, like everyone is.” Then she smiles thinly, picks up her phone and looks at her dad. “Look at this, Dad.” Hope flutters lightly in her heart. Her smile shivers. She opens one of the videos she found last night. “It’s amazing isn’t it.” A homeless woman on the side of the road playing traditional African drum rhythms with just her fingertips on jam jar lids. Pretty powerful on several levels really.

Her dad doesn’t look up from his phone. 

“That’s not important, Emma,” her mum says sternly, reaching out to grab Emma’s wrist and push it down onto the table. “This is!” She swipes assertively on her phone for three tense seconds while still holding Emma’s arm down, then she shoves her phone into Emma’s face again. 

Emma doesn’t react. She even keeps her arm still inside her mum’s fist.

Her mum turns from her after getting no response, letting go of Emma’s arm.

“Gaz, look at this one.”

“Yeah, right on,” he says after less than a second’s glance. “Tag me in it, I’ll share it on.”

Their phones beep and diddly continuously throughout breakfast; their basic needs for human connection endlessly and incompletely attended to with cursory and often unmet glances at each other, and the occasional minor snigger that sounds more like a sniff or grunt than enjoyment.

Across from Emma, her brother messily mashes up his food and eats it slowly, alone. All the while, his copycatting of the phones is getting better and better. It gets so good in fact that, during a lull in notifications – everyone taking a mouthful of breakfast at the same time all around England, Emma thought to herself – it becomes obvious that her little brother has managed to mimic her parents’ phone notifications well enough to trigger their autonomic reactions. 

He beep-beeps.

Sandra Picks up her phone. 

He diddly-oops.

Gaz picks up his. 

They each stare at blank screens with no notifications on, and then both put their phones down again with slight frowns.

Emma’s brother clearly finds this very satisfyingly funny. 

Emma, on the other hand, finds it funny like gone off milk smells a bit. 

Unable to feel happy amidst the gadgets’ anesthetisation of her family, she pushes her breakfast away having only eaten half a sausage, one small mouthful of beans, half a bit of bacon without the rind, and only the white of a fried egg. She gets up slowly, shudders invisibly as the squeak of her chair on the wooden floor creeps up her spine into the back of her mouth, and then she returns slowly to her bedroom. 

Her parents don’t stop what they are doing when she leaves the table. 

The record is still on the player and the blog she had been reading the previous night is still open on her iPad’s browser. She resettles on her bed, plugs her headphones into her record player and sets it going, picks up her iPad to read again, and sighs what would be a happy sigh of calm relaxation and safety if it wasn’t so full of disappointment and loneliness.

The four-wheel drive that arrived to pick me up at the bus station in Melbourne was covered in mud and dust, and it was clearly very worn out. The driver however was very smiley and set me at ease quickly. His name was Karl. He chatted to me about his childhood the whole drive from Melbourne to Victoria and on into the rainforest. Thirty or forty miles in total, I think. 

His driving style in the towns was exhilarating to say the least, and the level of excitement and fear I felt increased significantly when we got onto some tracks in the forest that he was clearly very familiar with!

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the facility. Karl told me everyone was out on a count; a trip into the forest to see how many birds they can find in a given area. They do this regularly to keep a track on population, not wanting to tag the birds in any way. 

We walked very quickly together, weaving in and out of a series of dark blue port-a-cabins that were unevenly distributed between a few small clearings, along narrow paths and through wide-open out-door seating areas all floored with compacted earth under layers of well-trodden leaves and reeds. The whole facility was sheltered under off-white canvasses tightly stretched between the trees six or seven metres above our heads. 

He took me straight to a long rectangular cabin in a clearing on its own. He had to kick the bottom of the door to open it, then walked me to a bed at the far corner at the end of a row of six other beds, opposite a row of another seven against the other long wall of the cabin. Each bed had a small table at the head, a trunk at the foot, and a drawer underneath. Like a school orienteering trip or a military billet. 

I put my bag on the bed, unpacked my toiletries onto the shelf between the legs of the bedside table and sat down to start to type up some notes, while Karl went to take a shower. I was glad to hear there were showers, my muscles needed some heat. But when I took one later it was not what I expected at all.

The group returned within about an hour and Dr Walker came over to greet me. She was as smiley and light as her soft voice on the phone had suggested.

Dr. Walker, or Saira as she insisted I called her, took me out to a caged-off area where I saw my first ever Superb Lyrebird, with it’s lovely blue-tinged head and little round dark-brown body.

Its unbelievable tail curved gracefully out of some really cute downy tufty feathers. It was almost twice as long as the bird itself. It had subtle grey-blue stripes hidden amongst the rich browns and lacy plumage, which Saira said were called ‘filamentaries’.

Saira also taught me that there is another species, which is not as glamorous because it does not have the colour or plumage. This one is called Albert’s Lyrebird and is named after Prince Albert. 

Both species are expert mimics, ground dwelling, and mostly flightless. Though they do like to flutter up to the tops of trees and can achieve long graceful glides, but only if they launch themselves from high in a tree or if they run down hill first!

The one I was looking at was not a captive bird, it was wounded and being nursed back to health. It had been found with a large wooden splinter through one of its short, reddish wings. 

Saira told me that it was due for release on the last day of my trip but that she couldn’t guarantee I’d see it head back into the wild, because the birds they look after from time to time never seem to want to leave. As if they’re quite happy in the large aviary, though completely oblivious to the fact they are trapped of course.

At one point while we were talking, this bird put its head deep inside a large, tipped over, steel bucket and sung into it; its beautiful song echoing and amplified. It was a really funny sight! And the bird was clearly enjoying itself! 

After watching this for a little bit, we walked together to one of the out-door areas Karl had whisked me through earlier, and we sat down for dinner with Saira’s co-research-lead Dr. Jayne Wilson. Their two male and three female PHD student research assistants joined us as well

It was a delicious meal of Kale and Black Bean Lasagne. And they were an inspirational lot to dine with. There’s nothing better than listening to experts who are passionate about what they do.

After dinner we went to sleep early in preparation for a morning trip to count the Lyrebirds in another part of the forest. A trip I would be joining!

When the record plays out, Emma is too comfortable to move and restart it. The weight of holding her iPad to read has weakened her wrist and the light from its screen has done for her eyelids again. 

Something bright from an outside that is brighter than the windows of the café cuts in through a quickly widening crack around the edge of the roof – blinding – the roof is lifted fully off the walls – it is tethered to a beautiful Lyrebird – they used to come to this café – she remembers it well – they played their songs in the corner – the cheers while she drank milkshakes – the walls teeter outwards – separating – dividing – falling softly like petals and feathers – jolt from their footings and swing out and up – dragged away with the roof by four more Lyrebirds – the clean sky surrounds what the café no longer does – only the chair she is sat on remains – sound waves from the birds’ songs buzz and throb against her skin – her shoulders jump and roll, frustrated that her arms are fixed to her hips.

That tight, dry ball of nothingness fills her empty stomach with need.

“Emma, are you coming down for dinner?”  Her dad’s distant voice is quickly chased up the stairs by the crash of the slammed living room door. 

Everything is loud and bright except for the things that are crumpled and creased around and inside her.

She has slept straight through lunch.

Her walk downstairs is slow and unenthusiastic. Her steps through the square, sparsely furnished, white and grey living room are barely intentional. When she gets into the kitchen her brother and dad are sat facing each other across the corner of the table. One beep-beeps, the other laughs and then beep-beeps too. The first laughs and diddly-oops. Which is returned. They’re just staring at each other, beeping and diddly-ing, smiling stupidly and dribbling a bit sometimes. Paying no attention to anything else. 

She slips into a gap in the air, sits softly again upon her chair, her arms hang limp beside her, she looks at her plate of food. 


Her dad turns to her.

“Listen,” he says quick and chirpy, jerking his head towards her brother and turning straight back to him to carry on the annoying game.

This is clearly not the time for her to try to get any of them back into music. 

She starts to quietly eat her meal.

Her mum joins the table a moment later, having wiped down the kitchen surface and put a dish on to soak in the sink. 

“You look sleepy, darling.” Her mum really sounds like she cares. 

But straight after saying that, a split second after a smile forms on Emma’s lips, her mum turns to her dad and brother and beep-beeps then laughs herself.

Emma’s smile folds back in on itself. She picks up her plate and leaves the room.

When she gets upstairs, she sits cross-legged on her bed, positions her dinner directly in front of her, places her iPad on a stand the other side of that, leans over her plate to swipe and zoom to set the next part of the blog on the screen so she can read it while she eats, then puts on her headphones and sets her favourite record playing again. 

Even though the bed was not comfy, I had slept deeply and as a result woke groggily. We had porridge for breakfast and headed out at once. 

It was like a proper adventure. It started in the dark and the light grew around us. Men with torches and machetes guided us, cutting back the sides of a well walked but thin path through the undergrowth. 

After an hour of walking we arrived at a clearing where there were three small wooden bird hides. We sat quietly on the thin wooden benches inside these to watch the birds. Some of the group took detailed photos of the birds and some took detailed notes about the birds’ behaviours. I was just sat silently enjoying my chance to watch and listen to the birds for the first time in the wild. 

It was true. It was unbelievable. It was astounding! They mimicked all the bird calls I could hear around me. 

I sat quietly and listened to the natural beauty and crazy variety of sounds they could produce. I heard no machine or otherwise unnatural sounds though, as the video suggested I might (or would).

While we quietly ate lunch still inside the hides, I whispered to Saira that I’d not heard the birds make any mechanical sounds at all. She quickly quipped back with a bright smile that they don’t. And she told me that she would explain more later.

After lunch we headed back to the facility, tidied and washed ourselves and the equipment, and then sat down together again for dinner. We had a delicious vegetable curry this time. Saira talked to me about how the birds don’t mimic the sounds of destruction. In fact, the whole table joined in to emphatically support her. They were all aware of the video and didn’t appreciate it. She wanted me to make sure I told you all that these birds are much more discerning than that. 

They carefully choose which sounds to mimic based on mating advantage and how beautiful the sounds are. Only Lyrebirds in captivity or in permanent proximity to humans mimic the bad/unnatural noises. And – Saira asserted this last point extremely clearly, in her soft yet inescapable way – the birds stop making the unnatural noises very soon after they are back in their natural environment. 

After dinner had slipped into chatting over empty plates, we returned to the sleeping cabin, where I had been looking forward to having a shower since I arrived. 

It turned out that the shower was outdoors, with the shower head hung from a low tree bough, fed by a large black bag full of water strung high in the tree above the canvass canopy to gather warmth from the sun. It also turned out that early afternoon, not early evening, would have been a time when I could have had hot-ish water. 

My shower wasn’t cold, but it was a temperature I would not call warm either. And being outside, enclosed in just the flimsy circle of a thankfully much larger than usual fabric shower curtain, was weird but very physically and mentally revitalising.

After all the exercise and all the conversation, my mind and body were equally worn out, so I slept well on my last night.

Metal clatters onto china.

An old man carries a lantern in the daylight – he sheds a tear for everything he sees – young eyes crack open, letting light into light; then close, returning to darkness – he searches all night for Cordelia and Galileo – the rhythm of her blood beats in her ears, calling out to them – they have been lost in a labyrinth without corners for centuries.

An ache at the base of her spine.

Discomfort in her shoulder.

Emma’s fumbling fingers find her empty plate and cutlery from last night. Her mind latches on to the Sunday. She can hear them all downstairs. 

As always.

When she steps into the kitchen wearing the same dressing gown and pyjama combo she has had on all weekend, their faces are full of polished happiness, glistening smiles and the widest of eyes. The base of her spine and her shoulders still ache. Residual. Built-up energy. Tension. Something else.

Her family are still smiling beeping didly-ing smiling ooping beeping smiling smiling, mouths wide, teeth bared. Beep. Beep. Beep. Diddly. Diddly. Diddly. Oop. Oop. Oop.

She can’t stand it. Such a ridiculous reason to ignore her.

“Are you gonna say hello?” The assertiveness that shoots up from her heart and wraps itself around her words takes her by surprise, filling her with power. “Are you going to speak to me?”

They turn to look at her, then just stare and laugh.

Stare and laugh and diddly-diddly-diddly-oop-oop-oop-beep-beep-beep, and smile back.

A blinding uneasiness creeps darkly over her, shifting the tension in her shoulders and the base of her spine into sharp pains. Urges to escape.  

She grabs her breakfast from her usual place on the table and returns upstairs with it.

What the fuck is going on? She screams deep inside her mind and belly in unison, as she drops onto her bed.

A spring pops loudly beneath her weight. It’s an old mattress. Her spine jars, sharp pains spread and shoot throughout her body. A million little electric shocks at each nerve-ending.

She can’t explain to herself what she has just seen. Why her family are ignoring her and copying their phones so gleefully. 

She clenches her fists, the skin on her arms tighten, pulling taught the skin across her shoulders, stretching and dragging it over neat rows of pins. 

She shivers. 

She swings round and sits cross-legged at the head of her bed, puts on her headphones, and sets Leonard Cohen spinning again. The warm lilt of the song relaxes her. 

She opens her iPad to the last blog entry and leans back.

Sharpness at the base of her spine and shoulders again. Discomfort. Unease. Urge. Something.

She tries not to think about it or about what she will do when she’s finished her breakfast. When the words have come to an end. When the song ends. How she will, if she will, if she can try to talk to them again. 

If they can talk to her.

She is just trying to be happy right now. But she can’t help feeling certain – knowing for sure – that something has changed.

For them and now for her too.

My final morning at the facility was wonderful. I woke early and Saira took me to watch the first attempt at the release of the now healed Lyrebird. 

As Saira had foretold, it didn’t seem to want to come out at first. When the gate was flung wide open, it came over to look at the new space in the fence and the group of us for a moment, but then it dashed back to the bucket and sang into its own echo chamber again! 

Saira said that the nerves are normal, they are very wary birds and once they have found something that feels safe they tend to stay with it. So Saira told us all to step back and far to the side so the bird’s path out into the forest would be clear, then she went into the aviary and simply lifted the bucket off its head. The poor bird looked so surprised for a moment. Stood stock still in shock or disappointment and then something seemed to switch it on. I jumped at its quick movement! It ran flapping out of the gate and fluttered quickly, branch by branch, to the top of a tree - where it stayed. 

We watched it up there for a bit and then had breakfast as a group together before I left with Karl, who needed to get into town at a reasonable time in the morning.

As I was driven away, the freed Lyrebird jumped down from the trees and swooped towards me and the four-wheel-drive, then it managed to sweep round and get halfway back to the group waving us off before it landed somewhat clumsily on the floor and disappeared into the trees on foot. 

A beautiful farewell from a beautiful free animal.

On my flight back I had a stop over in Hong Kong, very different to Singapore (read my blog post about it here) and during this I had a chance to reflect on everything I had learned about the Lyrebird on my trip.

I guess it is partly true that they can mimic unnatural sounds. But it is extremely misleading to suggest that they are doing it a lot in their natural habitat. 

I suppose that this kind of thing is all about exposure. 

Only Lyrebirds in captivity – in prolonged contact with the strange environment that humanity has created for itself – have been found to mimic our unnatural sounds, but only because they are trying to fit in with their new unnatural surroundings. They wouldn’t and don’t do it otherwise. 

These wonderful birds’ nature, their innate beauty, their joy; it all wants to return. And it does so swiftly as soon as they are set free in their natural surroundings. But while they are captive, they will easily succumb and willingly return to any influence. 

And the more I think about this, the more I realise that we are all a bit like that really. I certainly express myself properly and easily when I am in an environment where I feel happy and natural, and I certainly find this almost impossible when everything around me is disorientating and unnerving.

Thanks very much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Why don’t you take a look round the rest of my blog for more interesting reads. 

Full of fascination for the Lyrebirds and admiration for the blogger who didn’t just blindly believe what she saw on the internet and went to find out the truth for herself, and remembering there are always different perspectives on everything, Emma closes her iPad and her eyes in unison. She takes a deep cleansing breath in and out through her nose, finds that one little seed of confidence we all have deep inside of us, and slowly takes off her headphones hoping to hear a change in the house beneath her. 

But the same notification sounds are still coming up from downstairs. 

Her confidence wilts. 

She uncrosses her legs and sits on the edge of her bed. She is really confused by what she thinks she has seen and heard of her family in the kitchen. Perhaps she is tired and imagining all this. Surely all three of them can’t have gotten as bad as it feels. Perhaps when she’s not down there they do more than just beep and grin.


Perhaps she needs a rest.

She slumps back onto her pillows and closes her eyes. But agitation keeps sleep at bay. 

This can’t be real.

Her confidence finds new roots in her disbelief.

Suddenly she’s up and runs thuddingly down the stairs, barges through the living room door, which slams into the wall behind gouging out a bit of plaster, and on through the living room into the kitchen.

Standing in the doorway, alert and out of breath but calm and still, she watches them. She watches carefully. She listens carefully. She wants to be sure that what she thinks she is hearing and seeing is true. 

Are they really just beeping. Can they really no longer talk.

She looks at her mum.


She turns to her dad.


She runs to him. Grabs him by the shoulders. Face to face. Desperation overcoming the disbelief, feeding a different kind of confidence.

“Diddly-oop.” He smiles and reaches to grab her for a hug. 

She ducks away, into the corner of the kitchen by the cooker. 

They all turn towards her, smile huge smiles, and continue with the noises as they move slowly in her direction.

“Beep-beep diddly-oop beep diddly beep oop.”

She opens her mouth to scream SPEAK TO ME, but something has definitely changed in her too. She involuntarily sings one word from deep within herself, 


She claps her hand over her mouth in shock! 

She turns away from her dad, from all of them, runs back through the living room and dashes straight out of the dark red, wooden front door, leaving it clattering and swinging in its frame behind her. 

The estate that she lives on was built in the sixties; quite large detached houses with wide and tall rooves, spaced out well with gardens and garages, long sweeping roads, and a decent amount of trees around too. 

A few metres down the road from her house a thin, bald man with a black and grey beard, wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a zipped-up hoodie, turns out of a wooded alley with his Labrador. She runs towards him. He starts to smile as she approaches. He opens his mouth.


What on earth is happening. This guy is beeping too.

She’d been slowing to a stop, to ask for his help, but she picks up the pace again and speeds on past him, heading now towards the corner shop. The man turns as she passes him, lets go of his dog lead and breaks into a run; chasing her, his dog left alone on the path.

“Boodly-bip-bap boodly-bip-bap.” Close behind her.

She keeps running. 

“Boodly-bip-bap boodly-bip-bap.” Getting closer.

Inside the long, thin shop, which is divided into two aisles with a row of shelving down the middle, there are three people. An elderly woman in a grey anorak and cheap trainers at the back by the toiletries. A teenage boy in a football strip right in front of Emma staring at the chocolate bars. And the owner of the shop, in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt, leaning on the counter beside the till reading the paper.

She stands in the doorway and tries to shout HELP, but instead she sings “Lieeeeee…” again and claps her hand over her mouth in shock and fear again.

The woman turns towards her. “Bing.” She steps forward. “Bing”

The shop owner steps out from behind his counter. “Boop-boop”

The boy turns round to face her. “Bing-biggy-bopidy-bap.” Grinning.

Emma turns and runs out of the shop. 

The three of them burst out of the shop one after the other, knocking whole shelves flying as they go, joining the man who left his dog behind chasing her down the hill.

“…boodly-bip-bap bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bip-biddy-bip bing-bing…”

Emma sees a blonde woman in a smart suit getting out of a white Audi. She runs up to her and grabs the woman by the mouth and back of head to silence her so that Emma can speak first.

“Lieeeeeee…” She sings again.

Emma shuts her own mouth quickly, unclamps her hands from the woman’s head and runs off.

What the hell?!

The woman joins the people chasing Emma. 

“Bing-bip bing-bip.”

The small crowd is now building to a cacophony. 

“Boodly-bip-bap bing boop-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bing-bip boop-boop bing-bip boop-boop-boop.”

Emma passes a few more people as she runs down the hill away from her house. Each one of them is smiling and beeping in some weird way. And each one joins the crowd now chasing her. 

“…boodly-bip-bap bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bip-bing-beep-bing chitty-chip-chap boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting bing-bip bing-bip bop-bop beeeeep…”

What the fuck is happening to the world?

Half-way down the hill, when she comes parallel to the entry gate of the local park, where there is a lake for walkers, a playground for toddlers, a glass-fronted sports centre and concrete moulded outdoor skate park, across the road from a small but busy petrol station, she stops and opens her mouth to scream, hoping someone there not taken by this weird affliction might be able to help her. But all Emma can do is sing that one word again.


She’s breathless now. The pains in her shoulders and the base of her spine are sharper too; deeper; scratching down and digging up. She can’t hold the note for long. She doesn’t have the energy or strength to start running again. She falls to her knees in the middle of the road. 

The frantic beeping crowd catch up with her and surround her. Between the blur of their reaching hands and eager legs, and beyond the glare of their gleeful leaned-in faces she can see people, drivers and passers-by looking over, taking an interest, edging closer, circling. Joining in! 

Each with their own kind of beep. 

“…boodly-bip-bap bing boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap chitty-chip-chap bop-bop beep…”

There’s nowhere for her to turn. Her heart is racing. The pains are becoming too much to bear. She won’t let herself open her mouth to try to shout at the crowd to frighten them away, because she fears the lie that she will sing. 

The beeping mass step on her heels and toes, kicking and knocking her just by being close. She turns and turns, lunges, leans, and tries to stand, dodges and ducks, but she cannot escape; she’s being suffocated, drowned out, crushed.

She takes a deep breath and tries one more time to break through, as hard as she can this time. They tighten against her shove and envelop her. 

The pains in her body surge, filling her with heat. Something inside her wants to break free.

“…boodly-bip-bap-bing-boop-boop bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bop-bop-beep-beep biddly-biddly-bip tippetty-bing biddly-biggety bipedty-dip boop-boop…”

She tries to push them repeatedly, but she still cannot break through. Each attempt weakens her and, in so doing, each attempt fills her increasingly with anger and frustration. 

The need to scream.

But she keeps it all in.

Holding it down while they hold her down.

Until there’s nothing else she can do. 

The fear and the worry.

The pain and the lie. 

Whatever it is.

It must come out.

A deep breath. 

Her stomach and chest swirl.

Oxygen mixes with adrenaline. 

Her mouth opens wide. 

“Lieeeeeee…” her skin is going to burst “…k a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir…”…her favourite song fills the air, the delicately plucked guitar, the layering and building strings on the backing track, the warm crackles from the original record, her voice singing Leonard’s part, it all flows from deep within her… “…I have tried in my way to be free.” 

Calm fills her. 

She smiles a deep happiness.

She lets her song fill the air. 

The frantic beeping people around stop to listen. Their beeps silenced. Their strength dissipated. She pushes through them easily and runs off down the hill.

The deep ache at the base of her spine pushes her on.

Her steps become longer and longer. Seconds are spent off the ground.

The scratching under her skins makes her spread her arms wide and broad.

Tens of seconds pass between steps. 

Her skin tares open. 

Soft, warm feathers shoot from her shoulders, down her arms, over her back and spread over her entire body; shredding and shedding her clothes as they do.

Her long, sweeping tail feathers finally sprout from the base of her spine.

Blue glints subtly on the back of her head. 

The huge wings that her arms have become take her high up into the cool sky.

Gathering all around her from all over the country, and as she swoops on all over the world too, others follow. Others who have freed themselves. Others who also cannot help but sing their natural songs. 

Far below and far behind them, the captive crowds continue repeating all they know. Beep-beep. Like a cheap, forgotten metronome. Bippidy-boop. Out of synch and irrelevant. Bip bip bip.  Until they too find a way to break free from the boodly-bip-bap-bing-boop-boop bip-biddy-bip-beep ting-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling bing-bip bing-bip tily-tilly-tick-boop bing-biggy-bopidy-bap bop-bop-beep-beep biddly-biddly-bip-boop beep-barp-bap-bip tilly-tinkly-tip-tip top-top-tapetty-tip tipitty-tipitty-beep-beep thank bing-bip-bop-boop you toot-toot-tilly-tick for tiketty-tippetty-bing still biddly-biggety-bipedty-dip reading biddly-biggety-bipedty-boop all tinketty-topetty-toot-toot of chittity-chittity-chip-chap this cheep-cheep nonsense.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Ok Button

It always makes him jump when his black melamine dial-phone rings. It usually sits silently in the corner by the front door on its low, round wooden table under his coat that hangs patiently on the wall at the foot of the stairs. The phone has been there for generations; before his grandchildren and before his own children were born. He even recently took it apart to replace the bell inside when it started hacking like an old dog instead of ringing. It’s a beautiful old device. Timeless sweeping lines. Weighty in your hands like it means something. Mechanical, so you know you’re using it.

And loud as sin! 

This time the ring makes him spill a whole silver tea-spoonful of sugar right beside his favourite cup onto the tiled kitchen worktop, filling some of the gaps in the dried and cracked grouting and covering most of two brown tiles. He used to have a whole set of six of the same cups. Big, chunky, rustic hand-made clay mugs. Each had been slightly wonkier than the others. And all were glazed a bright, fiery reddish-orange, which shifted hue and intensity as you moved them through the light. But the other five have all long since been dropped or knocked; or smashed some other way. Even the handle of this last one has fallen off and been glued back on twice, so it’s just for show now. 

He turns slowly, leaves the small kitchen and crosses the only slightly bigger living room – walking round two matching, pastel floral-print armchairs as he goes. One is threadbare with a deeply sunken seat that is bolstered and stuffed with old cushions and blankets, with an equally threadbare footstool tucked up in front of it. The other armchair is almost as neat as the day it was bought, covered in a thick plastic fitted sheet, and hasn’t been sat in for seven years. 

The walk is only about 12 steps all in all, but with his knees it takes him at least thirty seconds. The whole time he worries the caller will ring off. He hasn’t spoken to his son in two months.

By the time he picks up the phone, he is quite out of breath and his mind is pre-occupied with his desperation to answer promptly so as not to offend. But he doesn’t get a chance to speak first. 

“Hello, is that Mr. Ronson?”

Disappointing. A Stranger.

“Um, hello. Yes, that’s me.” 

Bound to be sales or something. 

“Hello Mr. Ronson, this is just a courtesy call to remind you it’s ten minutes before you need to press the button.”

“Oh, is it?” They’ve never called him before his time. He looks at his watch. The faded white face set in brass, on a recently renewed brown leather strap, stares back at him blankly while he gathers his thoughts. “Oh yeah. I was just making a drink. I usually press it when I sit down with my morning cuppa.” They’d delivered it three months ago. And since then he’d been pressing it at eight o’clock every morning – a time he’d not had much choice in choosing when the remote operative set it all up.

“Ok. Good. This is just a reminder.” The squelch of an intentional telephone smile accompanies their words. “You’ve been a bit late recently so we wanted to…well…” a sharp and insincere laugh fills their pause with tension “…remind you to press it to let us know you are ok. Ok?” 

A couple of days last week, and once the week before, he’d been finishing up on the toilet when he was supposed to press it and each time they’d called him less than a minute later. To check he was ok before they alerted his family and/or the emergency services. Which was good. He never wants anyone to worry unnecessarily, so it’s useful they check first.

“Ok.” As he shapes those sounds in his mouth, he realises it isn’t ok. He twigs.

“Ok, goodbye Mr. Ronson.”

“Um, hang on a sec.” It is obvious to him.

“Yes.” The caller is clearly exasperated to be kept on the phone; probably has much more important things to be getting on with.

“Well. Can’t I just let you know I’m ok on the phone now?” See. Obvious.


“Well, we are talking now–” 

“We are.” They butt in, along with another smile-squelch.

“Yes – um –” it puts him off, “so you know I’m ok.”

“Yes. I do know you’re ok.” 

The emphasis on the ‘I’ feels odd to Mr. Ronson.

“So, do I still have to press the button in ten minutes?”

“Seven minutes now, Mr Ronson. And no, you don’t have to press it if you don’t want to.”

“Oh. Ok. Good. Fine then, I won’t bother.” He says matter of factly, letting a small, hopeful smile of relief come to his eyes.

“This call is just a reminder that, if you don’t press the button, in nearly six minutes now, Mr. Ronson, you’ll receive a friendly call within a minute of your chosen time. Just to check that you’re ok.”

This sounds more threatening to him than comforting. 

“But I am ok. You just said you know I’m ok.”

I do know.” Again, the emphasis is really off-putting.

“So I don’t have to press the button?”

“No Mr. Ronson. You don’t have to. You never have to. It’s always totally your choice. We’ll just call you if you don’t.”

“But why?”

“To check you’re ok. I’ve explained this Mr. Ronson. This is how it always works, please don’t waste either of our time.” 

“But this doesn’t make any sense at all. You’re not listening to me.”

“Please don’t get angry with me Mr. Ronson. We just check in with you for your peace of mind. That’s all. Nothing untoward here.”

He’s not angry, he knows he’s not, he knows he is just standing up for himself. He is bored of the conversation, and frustrated and confused with not being listened to. And, much more importantly, he doesn’t want his tea getting cold. 

He rolls his eyes and hangs up. 

He stares at the big red button beside the telephone, which has “Ok?” written on it in very friendly lettering. It takes no effort to press it. So why has he started to hate it so much? 

It is good that his son can get on with his own life now without worrying about his old man, without having to call every day to check in. It shouldn’t matter that the big red button is always cold to the touch. 

He looks at his watch. He hasn’t got time to get back to his cuppa and back to the button before he needs to press it. He doesn’t want them to call him again. So he stands there, perfectly still, leaning against the wall, panting a little, watching the second hand tick through the next two minutes. 

When the moment comes, he smashes his hand hard into the Ok Button. He doesn’t give a shit if the button or table break under his force. And he knows he’s too weak now anyway. Then he heads slowly back to the kitchen to tip away the cup of tea he’d been making, wipe up the spilt sugar, make a fresh cuppa, and start the day again.

Posted on Leave a comment


The driving rain was falling sideways, longways, soaking me through and through. But the tarmac beneath my feet looked dry and felt it too. I don’t know if I touched it with my fingertips or my tongue to establish this. It does seem unlikely that I’d used my tongue, but the potential I did presents itself now as I recollect.

The edges and ends of the streets defining structures were eerily greyed out, twisted, and de-focussed at the time, and so they remain in my subconscious. There was no discernible character about any of it. I cannot recall how it looked or how I felt as I walked along it. All I can say for sure is what I remember it not to have been. 

It was not dark and foreboding like the river Styx. It was not endless and lost in time, like the country lane I walked along to school as a kid. It was not a brightly dappled alley between two tall hedges of green poplars.

It was not wild and desperate and inhospitable like the outback, or comforting like the street where I grew up, or reassuring like the various cities I know well. 

It felt like a dilution of everywhere it was not, of everywhere I have never been hidden beneath a haze of everything I have never known nor ever will. 

I walked on. Knowing only that I should. With the rain still falling hard at my back and long beyond me to the invisible end of the street, slipping past the ground inconsequentially.

Every nondescript corner turned into another nondescript road or alley with every new step. And the rain came with me, still soaking me and everything ahead except the ground under my feet.

Each un-occurred happening that unfolded an expectant nothingness before me was bringing me closer to somewhere I knew I would know once I got there.

If I had known then where I was, maybe now I could better explain the nature of the streets, or I could google it now to see a few pictures to help me. But at the time I did not and I still do not. And nor did I then or do I now have any idea how I had come to be somewhere that was so unfamiliar to me even in the minutest detail.


The only thing in all this that mattered was my cargo. It had appeared in my hand when the sideways rain started, and it had very quickly gathered an air of importance around itself. As unexplainable as the temporary nature of the streets I was walking. As unnerving as a swinging light bulb in a sealed room. 

Even though I knew I had not just come out of a pet-shop, and I had no recollection of the rhythmic neon gaud and tack of a fairground, it was present and undeniably real 

Admittedly there was a sort of vague recognition connected to it. The kind associated with the unplanned obtaining of anything. A distant “I want that” echoed somewhere. Like when you are drinking a good whiskey out of a really nice glass in a pub you’ll never go to again, and after your last sip you slip the glass into the big pocket of your winter coat just before you leave. 

I knew that it had certainly not fallen from the sky for instance; I knew I would have remembered the actions of reaching and catching…and the slapping, slopping landing in my palm too. Similarly, I knew I had not picked it up from somewhere or plucked it from a tree – how unlikely that would be, anyway – or anything like that. 

It was there and that was as it should be.

It felt wriggly and squishy in the palm of my hand. Its flimsy flesh so tenderly gelatinous it was almost intangible. Its inescapable eyes were unfathomable. Its orange scales such a succulent shade that they seemed synthetic. Edibly so. Like the inside of a Jaffa Cake. 

I wanted to lick it, to consume it, but I didn’t. I knew that I should look after it.

As far as I could tell, not that I am even remotely an expert on the species, it looked perfectly healthy despite the fact that it remained dry amidst the sideways rain at my back that persisted in drenching me but not the floor as I continued to walk through the certain but unexplainable everything.


Eventually, I found myself coming to a stop and standing calmly still on the edge of a dry, dusty and rocky wasteland littered with cables and car parts. The sideways rain was still falling hard at my back, but it was no longer falling beyond me now. Like I was the sideways ground and I extended left and right and up and down.

In the distance, in the far corner of the wasteland, there was a small, simple house. It was tucked tightly under the yellow stone heal of a giant bridge over a mighty river. The house had a simple roof and three simple windows. As I walked across the wasteland, the sideways rain came with me. It did not want to go ahead.

When I walked up to the light blue wooden front door, I saw that it was rotten and crumbling into centipedes and caterpillars at my feet.

I recognised only the warmth this scene encouraged in me and the way reaching out towards the door reminded me of the desire to touch piano keys. I knew it would be dry inside, too. But everything else remained as unfamiliar as everything else.

The door swung open easily and, once inside, I immediately put the fish in a cardboard box behind the TV for safety. I knew then, and I remain sure now, that this is the precise action one should take when arriving anywhere with a newly acquired goldfish. However that goldfish had come into one’s ownership and wherever you were. 

I did not for one moment consider the large and broad heap of ant powder I had put behind the TV months before to cope with the unrelenting invasion of ants in the early summer: they came in as a wave one morning, covering everything like a quick black moss, undulated there for three days and crept off silently at midnight. 

I did not even consider if ant powder is poisonous to goldfish. Probably is!

I did not even remember to remember the bowl of water in the corner between the footstool and the orange tree, which I knew was always there for the birds who usually pass through on Wednesday afternoons.

None of these things were important or even natural considerations in the circumstances. An open box behind a TV was and is the ideal, the only, place to keep a goldfish – that remains an indisputable fact of my memory – and an available bowl of water or a mountain of ant powder are both total non-events. As inconsequential as 


It was getting dark and I was understandably hungry after all that had happened, so I went to find a kitchen. The closer I got, the surer I was where it was and the more I found I knew about its insides. 

Wooden. White. Metal. Slate.

I quickly found my place in there and cooked myself what I saw. A packet of egg noodles was on the shelf, which I mixed with some pre-roasted aubergine and peppers I found in the fridge in a shallow tray of olive oil. I roughly chopped some partially sun-dried tomatoes that were laying on tissues on the draining board. I tore up some fresh basil and loads of rocket from the herbs growing behind the sink. And I mixed it all together, along with a little ground pepper, in a wooden fruit bowl that was sitting slightly off centre of the dining table. I spread some granary bread thickly with butter, both of which I found at the back of the large empty larder covered by a white and blue tea-towel. And then I went to sit down on the small blue-grey sofa back in what was almost certainly the living room, with the foot stool, the orange tree, the bowl of water, and the TV in front of me.

There was a bottle of chilled white wine and a crossword waiting on the coffee table.

I have never in my life finished a crossword to be honest. I like them but I do not think my brain works in the order required so I usually stop. Often before I’ve started. Maybe I mean that I don’t like them.

After finishing my dinner with half the wine, I went back into the kitchen to do the washing up and then returned to the living room, poured another quarter of the bottle of wine into my glass and switched on the TV. 


As I leaned to press the button, I caught sight of the box I had put behind it earlier. I had almost forgotten about the fish. I leant right over to have a closer look, putting weight on the TV and worrying a little that I might snap or crack it, and I noticed that the fish had multiplied into three. This was fine as far as I was concerned. I had not been expecting one, I certainly had not been expecting three.

The three of them looked happy together there, neatly set up as they were, pout to tail, in a triangle. The box seemed a perfectly adequate size for all three of them, and the ant powder beside them and bowl of water in the corner still played no part in the decision to leave them there.

There was a documentary on about Puffins I was interested in watching and after that there were a couple of those topical panel comedy quizzes I wanted to catch up on. I decided to stay on the sofa all night. I had a glass of wine left in the bottle and three quarters still in the glass, I would be fine.

The evening moved on slowly without any further consequence. At about eleven thirty I began to feel tired and thought about finding a bed. I stood up and went to turn off the TV.

Again, I had forgotten about the fish behind it in their box. 

One of them had been mauled and disembowelled by a no longer present cat. I had not noticed anything happening. I only knew it had been a cat and I only guessed what I saw were fish bowels. It had been tossed into the heap of ant powder and was dead. It faded out of existence as I stood there.

Of the other two, one had been chewed quite a lot but was still in the box. It died right then, also disappearing quietly and whitely into nothingness. 

I remained bizarrely calm about these two deaths. At the time I did not see any point in making a fuss. All sorts of things I could not explain had been happening, why not this. All three fish had appeared out of nothingness after all, what was the harm in them returning to it. 

Quite apt in fact.


The original goldfish was the one that remained. I do not know how I knew that. It did not have any specific distinguishing marks, like grey or white patches, I just knew it. It was a certainty, as with so many of the uncertain things that had been happening to me. 

It still lay there, perfectly healthy as far as I could tell just a little wrinkled and dried up. I could see its little body gently swelling and flattening as it lay in the corner of the box breathing shallowly. The sides of the box seemed to be moving in and out with it too – as if the fish’s gentle breaths could tug on the world around it.

I knew then that I had to get it into some water before its unexplained little life petered out right there before me too. I didn’t want this fish – the first and last – to die. Its utter importance insisted and insisted and insisted and and insisted and and and…

I bent still further over the top of the TV set. It creaked under my ribs. I reached down into the little box and grabbed the fish in my right fist. It quickly spun round and looked out at me like it knew what I was doing. 


The smell of my orange tree, the orange of its scales. 

I went to put the fish in the bowl of water. But without any warning whatsoever, and I am not entirely sure what sort of warning would suitably foreshadow such an occurrence, as my hand opened to release the fish the foot stool sucked in the bowl of water and spat out an old cold cup of coffee in its place. 

It had never done this before.

The poor little fish landed head down into the nasty black liquid. I quickly scooped it out and took it to the kitchen to get a replacement bowl. 

It needed to be glass.


I found one of my mum’s old, deep mixing bowls in the back of the deepest cupboard. The shallow places are for the shallow things. I remember the bowl clearly from childhood. Heavy, wide, vertical ridges and grooves around the side, with a thick lip at the top and a wide flat base. I have not seen it since she and I moved from the flat to the house when I was about thirteen and it certainly is not a bowl I expected to find so easily so long after I moved out of her house. 

I turned the tap on full to fill the bowl with water and dropped the fish in. Immediately it began to swim around and look happy, if still wrinkled and still clearly slightly desiccated. 

The water very quickly became murky, then deeply inky, but the fish was still alive and happily swimming. It had its head out of the water to breathe (some of the things I knew about this fish wouldn’t even explain themselves to me) and it was scanning the room intelligently and contentedly.

It was looking at me too, studying. 

At that moment a being flashed into existence beside me. It was a mixture of many friends from my past and future. Six, seven or maybe twelve faces and bodies blending and phasing in and out of each other, twisting together like twigs, mud and clumps of grass in a sand storm.

“It has bled all the poison out now,” my friends said in voices that echoed back and forth along the paths we will walked together, “You just need to change the water.”

And then my friends popped, just as suddenly and inconsequentially, out of existence.

I decided it would be prudent to do what they said. If you cannot trust the momentary appearance of your eternal friends, what can you trust. So I put the plug in the sink, picked up the bowl, and tipped the fish and murk into the sink.

Then I rinsed out the bowl into the sink, refilled it and used a sieve to get the fish out of the crude oil that had formed around it. I took my time to rinse it off slowly and deliberately, scale by scale, under a dribble from the tap so as not to damage its tender body, and then I popped the fish back into the bowl I’d filled with clean water. 


I picked up the bowl too quickly. It sloshed. The poor fish rolled around and was nearly slopped out. I stood still for a few seconds, staring out of the window, holding the bowl softly in both my hands, waiting for the water to relax, and found myself thinking about whether the river rushing by outside ever relaxes. Could such power ever be held so gently that it would become still. I wondered on…to whether I should add some gravel from the wasteland outside into the bottom of the new bowl, so the fish would know its ups and downs. But in the end I didn’t feel like constraining it. 

I slowly took the fish in its new bowl into the living room, and found a place to hold it in the air, in front of a picture of sand dunes, the beach, the sea. 

A sunset.

A winged horse galloped towards me out of the sun. The sound of its hooves hollow. Its gait, feeble and weakening as it loomed. Ribs. Eyes. Cracked Lips. 

Do goldfish eat bread, I thought. 

The horse laughed at me. Or maybe it just retched dry air. I wasn’t sure. And then I heard it whisper that the life of this little fish would always be part of me.

Being unsure from my progress so far whether or not I had any natural ability to provide for this goldfish, even though it had not yet died, I quickly also realised that, should I begin to feel like I was failing I had no idea how to ask it what it might need. 

Knowledge of how to commune with it did not seem to come to me, like so many other things had.

I’d learned to speak Cat and Dog as a child, and have practised all my life to talk with our avian friends very well too, but I’d never attempted goldfish. Or any kind of aquatic animal for that matter. 

Well, ok. Once I’d chatted to an Otter for a bit about how warm the water was and stuff. But that’s it. And that does not prepare you for this.

I felt that clear-headed confusion you get when all you know is that you will know. I noticed my tongue was dry because my mouth was open a little. I only had one eye in the middle of my forehead. I looked down at the poor little fish in the bowl, who I think understood even less of all this than I did.

The sharp edges of the ridges on the bowl were outlined with a black absence. The light was doubling back within the scooped-out corners of the grooves. The water inside looked bright and clean. This was not bioluminescence. The tap in the kitchen does not drain Halong Bay, or at least I don’t think it does. This was some kind of molecular phosphorescence. But I thought that kind of thing was fiction, so perhaps my retina had mutated in some way when my eyes had merged. 

The little goldfish looked back at me, glistening, breathing slowly. Breathing. In and out. Hovering in the water, not floating. Its tiny black eyes fixed points.

The walls around us were breathing or beating, too. Expanding and contracting. I was too. Shrinking and growing. Pulled and pushed. Breathed into. Emptied.

And then it started with the bowl.

Little wobbles. The odd loop. Blurring and phasing. Duplicating. Combining. Quickly everything around it, around me, us, around those pin-point eyes; everything began to shift and pulse.


I began to fall or spin or fly. Echoes and silences muffled my ears. Lightness. The smooth rush and white crash of a weir. I was inside something. Or under it. Or beyond it.


I was with it. I was flowing with it. Light dancing with water.


Posted on Leave a comment


It was only one in the afternoon, very early for me to wake up. My teeth were gritted and the muscles in my jaw were hurting. I frowned. My legs were tangled in my duvet so inextricably that I had to fight my way out. I was breathless and lying on the floor by the time I’d managed it. 

I stood up and tugged my red towelling dressing gown from the hook on the wall at the head of my bed. I ripped my dressing gown, again. It was getting quite torn now. It was only six months old. I don’t know how it had gotten so bad. While glaring at the hook, that stupid brass idiot, I decided to have a bath to calm myself down. 

As I turned from my staring competition with that hook, I bashed my leg on the large, low, chunky wooden table in the middle of the room; knocking the cup from last night’s bedtime tea across the room. It smashed on the skirting. Cold dregs flecked my face. I frowned.

“Fuck it.” I shouted even though there was never anyone in the house to hear me. 

I left the room, forgetting about the mess and catching my hand on the doorframe as I closed the door. I frowned. I decided I would have a cup of tea to calm myself down before I had the bath. I went down stairs. The pocket of my billowing dressing gown caught on the top of the banister and I nearly fell. I yanked it off. 

The carpet in the hall had been rough on the balls of my feet, so I was pleased to have the cold tiled floor of the kitchen underfoot. I made a quick cuppa. Why do tea bags always drip?? And then I sat at the kitchen table and rolled a fag. My hand was still hurting a little from grazing it on my bedroom doorframe. I noticed that I was holding it closed tightly against the slight pain. My knuckles were bloodless white. I flexed my fingers. My skin cracked. A small droplet of blood beaded up and then rolled down my hand to the table.

I picked up my tea and took a sip. I burnt my lip a little on the side of the cup and the soft skin inside my mouth on the tea. I flinched a in shock and bit my lip. It bled. I frowned. I put the tea down hard, spilling most of it. I took a pull on my cigarette. For some reason the filter was all squeezed. It was a waste of time to smoke. I stubbed it out angrily and in nearly pushed the ashtray off the far side of the table; but I shot out a hand to stop it, knocking it back towards me harder than I’d intended. It slid off the table and emptied itself onto my lap. An entire week of smoking sat on my lap staring up at me. I frowned back at it.

“Great.” Still nobody there to hear me. Never is.

I stood up. The ash, butts and ashtray flew off my lap and across the kitchen. I tipped the remainder of the tea down the sink and wiped up what had spilled with the arm of my dressing gown. I went upstairs again to have the bath to calm myself down, leaving the kitchen in disarray behind me. I would tidy it later. 

As I walked up the stairs, I noticed that I was stomping slightly. I decided to accentuate it for fun. By the time I reached the bathroom I was nearly stomping right through the floor. I turned on the bath and had a quick shave while it ran. I cut myself three times and gave up. 

My stomach was hurting a little. I thought I probably needed a shit. I sat on the bog. The porcelain was far too cold. I couldn’t shit no matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t even fart. I was shuddering from the trying. I frowned. I gave up. My bath was nearly run. I decided to get into it as it finished. It was far too hot. It burnt my feet, ankles and calves. I jumped out and almost slipped over as I landed on the wooden floor. I frowned. I turned the cold tap on, put my dressing gown back on and went out of the room to roll another cigarette. 

When I came back into the bathroom the bath was nearly overflowing. I speedily leaned over and turned off the cold tap, banging my head on the wall behind the bath as I did. I frowned. The ash fell from the cigarette into the bath. I frowned. I got out of my dressing gown again. My cigarette was ripped from my hand and landed in the bath. The brown of the tobacco started leeching out into the bath water; sharp twists and curls leading the way, blotches spreading behind; suggesting the brittle talons or desiccated tongue of a dying old dragon. I got in anyway. It made me feel a little nasty bathing in what was basically a diluted ashtray, but I had to. The bath was now erring on the side of tepid. Typical. I frowned again. 

I bathed in record time. The bathroom floor was covered in water by the time I’d finished. I got dressed in my bedroom, almost falling over as I put on my trousers. Apparently, most deaths at home happen while people are putting on their socks. If only the heart attacks and strokes would have the decency to wait while we made ourselves presentable!

I went down to the kitchen to make some breakfast and coffee. Stepping over the debris from my last visit, I put a filter in the plastic filter holder, filled the kettle and took down the jar from the shelf by the fridge. It was empty. I went to get another air-sealed bag from the larder. I began to open it on the way across the kitchen. Those bloody foil bags are so difficult. I ripped it and a bitter mist of coffee flew everywhere. I frowned. I went to get another, and this time opened it with scissors. I tipped it into the jar, only spilling a nominal amount on the surface, and then heaped three teaspoons into the ready filter. 

My kettle always dripped no matter how careful I was when pouring it. I burnt my toes. I frowned. I began to make some bacon, eggs and toast. The bacon didn’t come out of the packet properly and tore as it did. The eggs dripped on the hob as I cracked them. The toast burnt; that toaster, all bloody toasters, are always terrible. 

I put it all onto a plate that I quickly wiped clean from the dirty pile beside the sink, and sat at the table with it, the coffee and a glass of orange juice. I didn’t do the washing up or sweep up the coffee grains or tidy up anything else because my breakfast was waiting. 

The first sip of orange was too cold and stung my still burnt and bitten lip. I winced and frowned. I finished my breakfast and took out a toothpick. I cut my gum while trying to get at a stubborn bit of food. I frowned. I rolled another fag and went to watch Netflix in the living room with my coffee. 

With the familiar repetition of my favourite decades-old comedy on in the back ground, I laid my head on the sofa. It was three o’clock. This was the only time I had to relax. In two more hours I had to go meet Pete at the pub. 

When there was fifteen minutes before I had to go and meet Pete, I called a taxi. Uber hasn’t reached us in my neck of the woods yet. I asked for the taxi to wait down the road and the driver to call me when they arrived; I don’t like strangers knowing my address. The taxi would be fifteen minutes. Great. I’d be late and Pete didn’t like having to sit on his own. I frowned.

The taxi didn’t turn up. I called them back.

“Where the fuck is the taxi?” I said, as soon as the phone was answered. 

The man on the end of the phone reacted badly to that. I don’t know why, I was perfectly within my rights to be angry. He told me it was just around the corner.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. ” I’m going to call another firm.”

He said that was just fine. 

He was angry, but for what reason. I hung up and called another firm. They said the only taxi they could send would be twenty minutes. I told them that wasn’t good enough, but they said that was all they could do and perhaps I should have planned a bit better (the audacity!). 

So I waited, frowning. 

Pete called me and asked me where I was. He was angry too. For what reason. I was on my way. I hadn’t forgotten. We’d been friends for more than twenty years and I hadn’t seen him in six months. We’d arranged this a week before when we bumped into each other outside MacDonald’s. I wasn’t likely to forget.

“Just relax!” I told him. “Get me a beer.” He didn’t sound all that pleased but said that he would wait for half an hour. 

Eventually a taxi turned up.

“Fox and hounds,” I said as I jumped in, bashing my shoulder on the doorframe.

“Please.” The driver said.

I frowned. “Did you just correct me?” I hadn’t said Fox and Hounds rudely; I’d just neglected to say please.

“It’s only common courtesy,” he said.

I was on my way.

“Shall I tell your controller I think you are rude?”

“If you like,” he said.

“I will.” 

I was silent for a while. It looked as though he was taking me a long way around. The pub was out in the sticks but I new a much quicker way to get there.

“We’re not going the right way,” I said after a little while.

“It’s the best way to go at this time of day.”

“No it isn’t. Your controller said eight pounds and that’s all I’m going to pay.”

“I’ll let you out when it gets to eight pounds if you like,” he said.

“No. I want to go all the way to the pub.”

“It’ll cost more than eight pounds.”

“I’m not going to pay more than eight.”

He didn’t answer me. I frowned. He had been very rude so far and I wasn’t going to stand for any more of it. We were only half-way there and the meter was already pushing seven pounds. 

“You’d better stop the meter mate,” I said after a few more moments of tense silence. “I’m not paying more than eight.”

“I can stop the car if you want.” He spoke very assertively.

“Nah, it’s all right.” I had resolved to let him carry on and see what happened when we got there and I could in,y lay eight pound. I sat watching the meter intently. 

Seven-pounds ten. I started planning what I might say. Seven twenty. Then I wondered if I could run away. Seven thirty. But I didn’t want him to chase me into the Fox and Hounds. Seven forty. I would just have to remind him I only had eight pounds. Seven fifty. But why was I going to a pub with no money. Seven sixty. I would say my mate Pete was buying my drinks for me. Seven seventy. But then, surely, Pete could lend me the rest. Seven eighty. I could run before we get there. He doesn’t know my address. Seven ninety. We were already on the winding road that leads through the woodland to the pub. Eight pound. 

An ideal time to leg it. Into the woods. I could easily walk the rest of the way through the undergrowth. It wasn’t all that far, and it would give me a chance to relax before I got to the pub. 

I took a quick sideways look at the taxi driver. He wasn’t paying me any attention. I stealthily undid my seatbelt, folded my coat in my arms and quietly part-opened the door. The seatbelt alarm gave me away! He reached out to grab me, but I was too quick for his fingers. I turned to look at him as I slipped away from him, giving him a cocky smile. For some reason, he looked worried! How odd. I could tell I’d won. 

Then I caught a glimpse of the speedometer. 

We were doing seventy. There was nothing I could do. I was already falling insanely gently through the door and into the rushing wind. The white noise snagged me and unwound everything. The doorframe caught my legs as my head hit the hard tarmac. 

The opposing forces set me spinning wildly. I bounced along the road, arms and legs twisting and thrashing in a complex choreography of crushing collisions. For the first time ever, I knew that I was thoroughly incapable of any attempt to control my condition. 

Just before my eyes closed, I smiled. 

Posted on Leave a comment

The Crossing

A woman with a long life behind her crossed the town bridge in the stark wintry light of an early February afternoon. Coming up close behind her, closing in as a strong wind took its first breaths, a young man walked slowly and precisely.

The woman was wearing a long black coat buttoned up tight. Only the very tip of the collars of a bright red blouse peaked out around her neckline. At the bottom, there was the slightest glimpse of bony ankles wrapped loosely in translucent skin, and then some beige sandal type shoes worn on top of thick black trainer socks. Her long hair was black in places and grey in others. .

Actually, the blackness of her hair is probably not correct. It is more likely that she in fact had very dark brown hair that looked black. But what the eyes filter out the brain never knows. 

The young man was dressed smart, most probably for work, in a neat suit, shiny shoes, smart hair, a long grey coat and leather gloves. Firmly and comfortably in his right hand he held a sandwich wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. There was nothing in his left hand. The speed and length of his stride brought him closer still to the old woman, close enough that he could hear her muttering to herself but not so close that he could hear what she was muttering. 

But he did not pass her by. He slowed to match her pace and just hung there on her wing like a swallow in the slipstream of a swan, his presence still unknown to the old woman and his intent still undisclosed by any tell.

The harbour bridge they were crossing was more than 100 years old. It was not a big bridge and its span was no more majestic in scope than a child’s first spontaneous reaches, but it was central to the town and always had been. It was the only way in or out by road unless you went around the long way, which people rarely did. And if you saw someone doing that, you’d know they weren’t local – assuming you were local that is. 

The old woman was tightly clutching, in what looked to be desperation, a pure-white carrier bag in her left hand. Affording it – by the passionate nature of her grasp; by her evident desire for it – a respect far beyond that any regular plastic bag deserved. As though it contained all her infinite structure; all her bonds and beliefs; all the wisdom she had built up throughout her fragile and gigantic existence. 

Her fingers were clawed round the bunched-together handles and neck of the bag, constantly twisting and readjusting her grip. Maybe she was just an awful worrier, maybe it was simply very heavy, but for whatever reason her hand didn’t stop. Her thin wrist looked like it might finally give way at any point and, despite all her fretful trying, that bag would fall to the floor; whatever was inside facing its final, awful suddenness. 

The skin on her face gave the impression of being the oldest part of her. It was loose and grey. It no longer clung to her eyes, which themselves were no longer what they once were. No longer as crystalline. Even in the cold wind that would make mine stream, hers appeared dry. 

Nor were her lips as full and soft as they had been in her youth. Instead, they were pursed and bloodless white and, as if resolutely supporting her hand’s deep concentration on that bag.

The bridge was the oldest part of town, aside from the old smugglers’ pub just up the harbour from it. You could tell this easily if you looked closely. Although it was re-painted every five years or so, the paint would quickly flake away due to the rusted and warped metal beneath. 

Many of the wooden boards that acted as windbreaks on either side were also twisted or rotting, and some had fallen solemnly into the harbour and had been swept out to sea long ago. It appeared the local council could not keep up with the rate of loss.

The tarmac on the walkway was bulging and cracking, and the roadway was old and potholed. In places, the kerb stones were loose and one or two had fallen forlornly into the road to be repeatedly run over and gradually ground, first into grit and then powder, by passing cars and lorries.

The young man’s suit was well pressed. It was black with subtle charcoal pinstripes. His shirt was blue, and his tie was too. His shoes were simple timeless brogues. His face was tanned, clean-shaven and young. His hair was not very short, not cropped, but not long either. It was brown and neatly brushed to the right. He advanced still closer towards the old woman, almost within a breath’s breadth of her.

As he did, the wind grew around them and, in practised response, the old woman began to run her right hand loosely along the dented and twisted brass handrail of the bridge. 

The wind was strong enough to cause her some trouble maintaining a perfectly direct course. Every now and then she would waver and, at these points in time, her hand would grip the rail firmly. Also, at these moments, as if she only had the strength within her frame to grip one thing at a time, that carrier bag would begin to slip from her left hand. But she never dropped it; not even close.

A small electric car had recently and rapidly come silently around the corner of the bridge behind the two of them. From the end of the bridge that was lost in the past of their progress, the car coasted gently and stealthily. But neither seemed to pay any notice to this subtle addition to the situation. 

No crows cawed a single discord deep within their instincts.

The old woman was too intent on preserving her delicate balance, and the young man remained intent on her; still close and unnoticed, so close that the old woman should have been able to feel his warmth or hear his step, but she showed no signs of this. Caught up in her own fragile progress.

The young man’s eyes were focussed on her.

The bridge creaked as if it were being put under some awful strain. The lights that were positioned on high flagpoles at the two ends of the bridge, as if on sentry duty over the event, wavered violently. Almost shivering. 

In front of the pair, a wooden balustrade was loudly ripped from its fixings by a strong gust of wind sweeping up from the water below. It clattered across the carriageway into the opposite side, cracking and destroying one of its adjacent brothers. Both took the long dive together into the grey-green-greasy harbour below, their various splinters becoming one twisting intricate form in the air as they plummeted. 

She watched them fall. 

The sky darkened a little and the air took a deep breath. 

The young man moved as fast as he could. 

The old woman’s fingers could not react quickly enough.

As the car came up adjacent to the pair, the old woman was blown off balance by a massive burst of wind. Terribly selfishly, perhaps almost jealously, that gust ripped the ever so important carrier bag from her brave fingers and blew it under the wheels of the car before the young man could get hold of it. 

The carrier bag and its contents were torn, crushed and scattered to the four corners of the bridge in one bright, splitting moment. 

For just one empty second, with the car racing past him – its driver entirely oblivious as they passed by – the young man, stumbling to keep his balance amidst the swift fury of the wind, could be seen – paused – confidently holding the old woman at an angle of almost forty-five degrees.

And then, as if lightly balancing a diamond on its fine point, he made sure she was sturdy again and that the wind had dropped before he relaxed his grip and quietly walked past her to the end of the bridge, disappearing through an opaque black glass door that was conspicuously set in the front of a bright white building.

After her loss, the old woman continued onwards, taking the rest of her journey with lighter steps. As she went, she wept. Her fingers felt the loss most keenly while the warmth from the young man’s strong arm still radiated throughout her body. Her tears refracted the white light of the day, brightening her eyes. Brand new courses were marked out on her face. The taste of the tears was sharp and new. Her lips unfurled. 

Whatever it was, it was gone.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Last Bus

Dawn had been away for the whole Easter weekend staying with her cousin’s family and getting to know their freshly squeezed first son. The next generation. He had arrived three weeks prior, with all the pulp and all the bits of new life, and she’d fallen in love with him the moment she’d met him. The un-creased soles of his feet. His curiosity. His reach. The limitless futures that lay before him. 

Her time away had been very happy. There had been wide-eyed potential there.

But it is all deftly replaced by the trudge and dust of her own whittled eternity as she walks from her cousin’s car toward the train that’s waiting at the single-platform terminus to encase her and carry her away.

Three train rides. Two and a half hours with landscapes whipping by, hypnotising her; in cahoots with the sway of the train, lulling her to drift away and miss spotting that windswept lonely tree on the hill that looks like a ragged parrot tied to a perch. Or a well-worn beret on a hat stand, as her cousin had suggested when they were tipsily making the same journey together four years prior.

She steps through the sliding interior doors of the train, clutching her torn and stained camping rucksack and a scrunched-up carrier bag in her right hand. What had looked like a mostly empty carriage from the outside reveals itself to be half-full and to have only backward-facing seats free. Her slight frame hunches a little at the realisation and her usually outwardly calm face subtly dulls. Disappointment is all in her shoulders, and in the tiniest corners of her thin lips and wide eyes. And right now, in the way her light-blue jeans and black Stone Roses t-shirt engulf her momentarily. 

She had been hoping for a space she could make her own.

She takes off her bright red jacket as she walks down the aisle, roll-folding it into its hood as she goes. When it’s done, she stops, throws it in the overhead rack with her rucksack and sits in the closest seat that has a table. She doesn’t like those fold down tray things; too close. 

She empties her carrier bag onto the table in front of her. A banana, a bottle of water, her book, her debit card and her phone tumble out. Of the two people opposite her, one raises an eyebrow and goes back to staring blankly out of the window while the other kindly rolls the wayward water bottle back towards her with a smile. She smiles back, picks up her phone and skims through the pictures she’d taken over the weekend. Seeing the baby gets her thinking about potential again. She starts to wonder if she really ought to explore the train more fully to find a forward-facing seat in another carriage. There is potential in everything after all. 

But she decides not to bother.

After a long, slow journey, the train is late pulling into her final station. Dawn only has two minutes to get to her bus. 

She runs over the large, angular, echoey, corrugated iron bridge that connects all fifteen platforms at Reading Station. Politely dodging people on the two sets of escalators (one up, one down) proves particularly complicated, but she does her best to be humble and nimble. 

She flails her ticket at the guard by the luggage gate (who momentarily considers stopping her, but thinks better – kinder – of the situation) and then she careers on through the concourse-cum-captive-capitalist-cathedral, grateful she doesn’t have the time to be hoodwinked by the insistence and availability.

Once out in the fresh-ish air she hurtles across the busy access road / bus station / taxi rank towards the waiting bus, holding her bags out to either side at waist level for balance, to stop her tripping on them, to ward off all the vehicles around her. When crossing roads, she always feels a need to summon an assertiveness that does not come naturally to her.

The bus closes its doors and starts to move off. Desperate to get home quickly and not wanting to have to stand and wait for half an hour, she steps into its path, flaps her arms up and down frantically while still running, and tries to make eye contact with the driver. He stops the bus – it hadn’t moved more than a metre or so – and re-opens the door. 

Less panicked now, she slows. But her thick brown hair, which has always had a life of its own, has momentum. It swirls around her head, into her mouth and sticks to her sweaty, flushed face and neck. 

She gets onto the bus a little dishevelled, completely out of breath, and stumbling slightly from the adrenaline. She dumps her rucksack into the luggage rack and while tapping her card to pay she briskly rubs her face five or six times to get rid of the tickly hair that’s gathered there. Then she walks straight to the back to stand. There are seats, but she’s been sat down on the train for too long. 

The sun starts setting as the bus pulls off. 

Her body still vibrating a little from the rush of the rush and her mind racing, her eyes come to a rest first. Watching the upcoming bus stops scroll by on the digital display above the door. 

It strikes her that she has no idea where Turnham’s Farm is. It is part of her hometown; well, she reasons it must be because the bus terminates there; and she has lived in Reading fully twenty-seven years with the thirty-three bus a thoroughly real and solidly present part of her life the entire time. 

Really, since as far back as she can remember she has been riding it.

It is the same number thirty-three bus she had always caught into town with her mum as a child, almost every weekend for shopping or to catch the train on to the grandparents’. The same number thirty-three bus that had taken her and her mum to the local park too. The same bus she’d ridden into town with her mates a few times, bunking off school. The same one she’d got drunk and puked on aged seventeen when she’d first started going out. The same one she’d taken to college and then Uni and then work. 

It is almost as if she’d lived her entire life on that bus. Or at least that it connects every point in hr life.

And yet, still, as she stands there rolling closer to home, she is unable to escape the truth. That she knows nothing about Turnham’s Farm. Nothing about the full potential of this bus that she has ridden hundreds, probably thousands, of times; that she has shared so much of her life with. She only knows what she sees of it.

It’s the same with the people on the bus too. As they get off, she finds herself wondering what each of them might be doing, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. What their potential is. Whether any of them knows where Turnham’s Farm is. If any of them have been there. And before she knows it, her stop is upon her. 

Having relaxed now as completely as she ever does, she gets off carefully, making sure not to knock anything or anyone, and remembering to thank the driver. As the bus moves off with all the other passengers still on it, she can’t help herself wondering if any of them are going to Turnham’s Farm.

It is a seven walk under sycamore trees from the bus-stop to the Victorian terrace she half owns with Antoan, a friend she’d met in university. He’d come to Reading from a small hill-side town in Greece and settled; she’d never left. 

When she gets in, he has clearly been stripping the living-room wallpaper all day. It is quite late so, leaving him undisturbed apart from popping her head in to say a quick hello, Dawn continues down the thin hall beside the stairs to their neat but dated kitchen to put on some dinner for them both. Nothing special. Just pie, chips and peas. 

She can cook well but doesn’t usually bother. It doesn’t give her all that much joy to spend such a long time chopping, mashing, roasting, etc. It is not laziness as such, more … efficiency. She just wants to eat more than she wants to cook. And that’s understandable, isn’t it.

While the pies start cooking, she runs to the local shop to buy some wine to take the edge off the travel-tiredness that has set in and returns just in time to put the chips into the oven with the pies. Then she takes all the sauces, salt, pepper, wineglasses, etc., into the living room with knives and forks, and places them on the floor as she cannot reach the coffee table. The clatter surprises Antoan who is up on a ladder scraping away at the last remaining corner of the room.

 “It’s not that dinner is remotely ready yet, I just felt like being remotely prepared,” she says even though she hadn’t meant to. Her intent was funnier / cleverer / more worth a response in her mind. She really is tired. She stifles a little yawn and goes back into the kitchen to idly flick through the Evening Post while the dinner finishes cooking. 

The table she sits at and the chair onto which she collapses are seventies/eighties in style, like the rest of the kitchen (except the electrical goods, which are all basic and modern). You could call it kitsch or throwback. Or maybe you’d call it old-school to make the luddites and stick-in-the-muds look cool. I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s not yet past enough to have a special word for it. Anyway, the stuff in there they intentionally bought was only to fit in with what the last owners of the house had left them with. Which Dawn and Antoan haven’t decided about changing yet. He wants to, she doesn’t; she doesn’t see the point.

Dawn often ‘reads’ the paper while food cooks, but in truth she never pays attention even in the slightest to any of it except the jobs section (just in case), the courts section (just in case) and she always reads the horoscopes too for some reason. Just in case, probably. 

She steadily turns the pages of the paper until the alarm she’d set on her phone goes off. Then she jumps up, turns on the microwave for the frozen peas that have been waiting in a part-clingfilmed mug inside it, crashes open the oven, burns herself slightly on the wrist as she takes out the food, clatters some plates out of the cupboard, and throws it all together in one similarly less than graceful set of motions. 

“Dinner’s here.” She says as she carries the plates into the living room with the bottle of wine under her arm. 

“Phew,” says Antoan, “getting ‘bout time to stop this now.” He sounds honestly thankful, as if he’d been looking for an excuse to stop all day.  

The sofas and other furniture (set of maybe antique draws, two identical Ikea wooden side tables, a worn red velvet footstool and a pine boot-sale coffee table) are pushed up close to the TV for Antoan to work around. Dawn finds there is no way in. She has to step over the table to get onto the sofa. She does so clumsily, almost dropping Antoan’s plate as she attempts to hand it to him while clambering. 

“Has the room shrunk a bit?” She’s not that funny today. Perhaps she never is.

 “Yes, cosy ain’t it.” Antoan smiles. Sarcastic lips, kind eyes. “How was the trip?”

“Nice.” Her tired eyes scan the room. “Really nice.”

All the paper is now off the walls. It looks as though he’d been neatly tidying it into a pile in the corner as he went. The bare, mottled and pock-marked plaster is exposed.

She’d forgotten the true depth of the bay window, and how nice it is to see some of the wall and feel space behind you when you sit down. Plus, where Antoan had lifted the edges of the old blue carpet to protect it against drips from solvent he’d been using to remove the stubborn bits of paper, she saw the potential of floorboards too. 

Perhaps a change would come soon. 

While Antoan pours two glasses of wine, Dawn says it looks like he’s done a thorough job and tells him, perhaps obviously (I should give her a break, she’s tired), that the room will probably need a lot of skimming to even it all out before they can re-paper and paint. She also says something about cornices, though she doesn’t really know what they are. And nor does Antoan. Then she turns on the TV and goes straight for Netflix. 

They both scoff their food while watching two episodes of <please insert your current Netflix binge show here>, stopping occasionally to sip their wine. Nothing disturbs their relentless eat/watch/sip flow, except for ten seconds or so of laughter when Dawn hiccoughs and a bit of pie flies invisibly across the shrunken room onto the TV screen.

“I nearly died earlier”, Antoan says as he puts his plate on the floor beside his chair and reaches for the remote to turn off the TV.

“What?!” She’s so tired that part of her believes him.

Antoan laughs a little. 

“Nah.” The soft creases around his green eyes admitting he had exaggerated for effect. “I fell off the ladder properly though when I was reaching up into the corner of the bay window. Spun right over the top onto the floor. Was quite a shock.”

“I bet.” It does sound it, but with the TV off she has drifted back to thinking about Turnham’s Farm. Besides, he looks fine.

After a few moments of silence, Antoan goes to get a beer from the kitchen. He’s not drunk much of his wine.

“Do you know where Turnham’s Farm is?” Dawn asks the moment he walks back into the room.

“Not really.” Antoan looks astonished by her question. Of course, he doesn’t know where it has come from, or, indeed, where it is going. “Why?” Antoan is willing her to continue though.

“It just struck me on the way home today that I haven’t the foggiest where it is.”


“I’ve been riding the thirty-three bus all my life and that’s where it goes, but I’ve never known where that is.”

“Again, so?” He pauses for a moment. “What does it matter? You’ve obviously never needed to go there then.”

“No, true. But it’d be nice to know.”

“Why?” He catches his patience by the tail.

“It just would, that’s all. It’s not important. It’d just be interesting.” She has no idea how her flights of fancy frustrate Antoan. 

He doesn’t make it obvious. Her eyes and whole body are so animated when she talks about an idea she’s having, whatever it is. He would never stifle such beauty.

“Interesting in what way; for what reason; what’s the point in knowing where the end of the line is until you find yourself needing to go there?” Though he does challenge her.  

“I don’t know, it’s just intriguing. The illusiveness of it.”

“Well, you would think that wouldn’t you.” Antoan pauses. Taunting. Smiling. 

A gigantic silence forms between them. It is about the size and type of silence that the word god conjures up for me. 

“Ride it all the way one day then,” Antoan says about a minute later.

“But that might spoil it for me. There’d be nothing mysterious left about riding the bus then.”

“Well don’t then.” Antoan draws in a sharp breath of almost frustration but immediately picks at some imaginary food in his front teeth for cover, before he continues with a smile. “It doesn’t matter. Either you do or you don’t.” Things are much simpler for him than they are for Dawn. They always have been.

She gets up and goes to her bedroom, returning quickly with her scrabble board. But she doesn’t play well. Most of the time, she thinks about what Antoan said. Either you do or you don’t. An oddly simplistic statement, far too perfect. 

She yawns and shifts restlessly the whole evening, like her cousin’s baby mixing frustration with fatigue, while Antoan wins three games in a row.  

 “You know, that’s interesting,” she eventually says.

“What?” Antoan yawns a tremendous yawn. One that could suck in a planet and its five moons. Not six.

“What you said earlier; either you do, or you don’t. I find that statement interesting.”

“I’m glad. I’m going to bed now though.” Antoan is perfectly happy not to carry on. He stands up. “See you in the morning mate. Cheers for dinner.”

“Night,” she says distantly, looking at the ceiling, her right hand blindly pat-searching the table for her glass and her mind still orbiting the baby; potential; the destination of the bus.

She does not find her glass immediately and when she does she just holds it, swirling it in the air, thinking for a few minutes before she slowly takes a sip. The wine is warm and boring. It dries out her mouth. She looks at her phone. It is eleven-fifteen, a boring time of the day; there’s nothing left to do, and no time left in which to do it. The last bus will be going by soon. 

Somewhere, something cracks.

Almost automatically, she puts down her glass, gets up herself, swings on her coat and leaves the house. 

An owl coos a shiver up her spine and a train rattles abruptly at the far end of the road behind her. But these sharp alarms soon dissipate into the night and she is left alone with the wind rushing up between the dark silent houses, rattling and rustling all around her.

She walks on.

When she is halfway to the bus-stop, the night is again disturbed. This time by a startling flush of fat driving rain that soaks her through in a moment; followed a fraction of a second later by a deep, long roll of thunder that builds to a close, deafening crack accompanied by a fit of five or six intense white whips of lightening. 

A storm is above her. Upon her. 

Antoan is warm and dry, sleeping deeply as always.

Far away, under still skies, her cousin’s baby grumbles in his bed-side cot. His mum quietly rolls over, rests her gentle hand on his chest and hums softly to him.

Dawn marches on.