UNCLE IAN DIED . . .
When he collapsed onto the floor of the boat, he gripped at his seizing chest and struck his head on the petrol tank. As he lay convulsing for just a few seconds, the cormorant sat and watched. Only the slow blinking of its eyes showed that any muscle stirred in its green-black frame.
Ian was dead. And his cheeks were pitted from the blows of the cormorant’s beak. His lips were torn. The tender tissues of his gums were split. One eye remained intact. This was the bird that we inherited . . . .
“SINISTER . . . A feeling of impending disaster gradually permeates the narrative . . . reminiscent of the tales of Poe.” —Publishers Weekly
“The Cormorant has a relentless focus that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud . . . This is a first-class terror story that does for cormorants what Cujo did for Saint Bernards.” —The New York Times Book Review
Review at Too Much Horror Fiction: http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-cormorant-by-stephen-gregory-1986.html
Read another horror story about cormorants by a great author, here:
First published in Great Britain.
“For my Mother and Father”
The crate was delivered to the cottage at five o’clock in the afternoon. Two men carried it into our little living-room, put it down in front of the fire, and then they drove away in their van. For the next four hours, I left it there and continued working at my desk. I built up the fire with coal and a few freshly-split logs of spruce from the forest, cooked some supper, leaving some to stay warm for my wife until she came in from working in the village. Outside, it grew dark and there was the pattering of fine rain on the windows of the cottage. The wind blew up and made the trees of the plantation rattle. It was October. I could hear the tumbling of the stream at the foot of the garden, a reassuring sound, a background to the explosive crackle of the logs, the whining of wet wood in the growing heat of the fire. A curtain of drizzle concealed the mountains, they were dissolved into the sky, removed from around the village as though they had never been there. I worked for a while and I ate. The crate stood silent on the rug, in front of the hearth.
It was a box of white wood, about three feet square, with a panel of perforations on the top to ventilate the contents. Once or twice, in the course of the evening, I got up from the desk, knelt by the crate and sniffed at the tiny holes. I blew into them. I smelt the new wood, its clean, useful smell, and from the perforations there came the pungent whiff of the beach, the rotten air of an estuary which dries a little and sweats before the return of the cleansing tide. Inside the box, there was something warm and breathing, asleep perhaps, sleeping in a bed of stale straw. No sound, no movement. I returned to my work, but I was restless so I abandoned it for another look at the newspaper. Sometimes, as I read, my hand strayed and rested on the corner of the white wooden crate. When my wife came in at nine o’clock we would open it together.
Ann went immediately upstairs to take off her wet clothes and to inspect the baby. I could hear her shaking her coat, and imagined the shower of raindrops against the mirror in the bedroom as she dried her thick, brown hair with a towel.
She went to the tiny back room and found the baby sound asleep; I had been up to check that he was all right each time I left my desk, my paper and the crate. She came down again, her cheeks pink with her efforts on the bicycle through the enveloping darkness and with the business of drying her hair. She was carrying the cat by the scruff of its neck.
‘Don’t let the cat go upstairs when Harry’s in bed,’ she said, dropping the animal unceremoniously onto the sofa. ‘It was curled up on his pillow. Otherwise, my love,’ and she presented her cheek for me to kiss, ‘everything seems to be in order. Good boy.’
The cat leapt across the room and sniffed at the box. It arched its back, rubbed itself luxuriously on the corners of the crate.
‘So,’ said Ann. ‘It’s arrived. Let’s open it and see what we’ve got.’
The fire was burning quickly in the grate. A gust of wind in the chimney sent out the plumes of sweet, blue smoke into the warm room. There was the intimate glow of a table lamp which focused its circle of light on my typewriter and picked up the white brightness of my pads of paper. On the walls, the strong primary colours of our prints glowed in the flickering firelight, the spines of the paperback books were a brilliant abstract impression in themselves. The thick rugs seemed to ripple with warmth in the cosy room. The cat rumbled contentedly. Upstairs, the baby was asleep.
I went to the kitchen and came back with a screwdriver. It would be easy to open the crate. The top panel with its rows of holes came away with three gentle probings of the screwdriver. I put the lid and its twisted staples on an armchair. Together, we looked down into the box, grimacing at the smell which sprang powerfully up from inside and eclipsed the sweetness of the fire, the scent of my wife’s hair. There was a thick layer of straw; it moved a little with the sudden intrusion of light. I drew aside the bedding, moving gingerly and snatching away my hand. Ann chuckled and nudged my arm, but she would not reach down into the damp straw. The cat had withdrawn to a vantage point on top of the writing-desk, where it basked like a goddess in the circle of light. Its eyes were fixed on the crate, it sneezed quietly at the rising reek. Something was coming awake, shifting among the straw.
The crate creaked. A log spilled from its bed of coal and fell onto the hearth with a splintering of sparks. From out of its nest of straw, as though summoned by the signal from the fire, the bird put up its head. It yawned, showing a worm-like tongue and issuing a stink of seaweed.
Ann and I recoiled. The cat leapt onto the typewriter with an electric bristling of fur. Shedding its covering of straw, shaking itself free of its bedding, the bird rose out of the pit of its crate. The cormorant emerged in front of the fire. It lifted its wings clear of the box, hooked with its long beak onto the top of its wooden prison. Aroused from its slumbers by the direct heat of the flames, it heaved itself out of the box and collapsed on its breast on the carpet of the living-room. I felt Ann’s hand at my arm, tugging me backwards. Together, we shrank to the foot of the stairs which led up from the room. The cat was quivering with surprise. And the cormorant picked itself up, straightened its ruffled feathers with a few deft movements of its beak, stretching out its tattered, black wings and shaking them like an elderly clergyman flapping the dust from his gown. It sprang onto the sofa, where it raised its tail and shot out a jet of white-brown shit which struck the wooden crate with a slap before trickling towards the carpet.
Ann squealed and took three steps up.
‘Get it out! For God’s sake, get the thing outside!’
I stepped forward, instinctively reaching for a heavy cushion from an armchair, and advanced on the big, goose-like bird, wafting at its face with my weapon. The bird retreated. Its neck writhed and the horny beak made sporadic thrusts at the cushion. I forced it backwards into the corner of the writing-desk, as the cat fled with a loud hissing and its question-mark of a tail held up. The cormorant went under the table, lodged itself among the legs and peered out, like an eel in its underwater lair. It shot a yellow jet into the skirting board, pattered its webbed feet wetly into the carpet.
‘Get it into the crate! Get it out from under the table!’
Ann’s voice was shrill with panic.
I reached for the box and turned it onto its side in the middle of the room, with the intention of driving the bird back into the prison. Straw fell out and steamed in the heat of the fire. By tapping bluntly on the table with the poker, I forced the cormorant out. By now, it had found its voice, an ugly, rasping yell which drew from the cat a series of spitting coughs. The bird leapt clumsily from its den, beat its wings just twice as it somersaulted through the air, knocking the lamp from its table and sending up a whirlwind of paper from around the typewriter. The lamp went out with a report like a pistol shot. The flames alone illuminated the little room, for Ann was too numb with horror to shift from her position of relative safety to reach the light switch.
In the trembling glow of the fire, the bird awakened to a new frenzy. It threw itself about the room like a gigantic bat, croaking, squirting its shit, one moment hanging in the heavy curtains as though trapped with the moths and the craneflies, then achieving a series of laboured beats across the floor which ended in a panic-stricken collision with the pictures on one wall and the light shade which dangled from the centre of the ceiling. Books toppled from shelves as the cormorant thrust its beak into the crevices between them. I joined Ann on the stairs. Together we watched the hysteria of the cormorant, the bird which had been neatly delivered to us in its clean, white box. Even when it became calmer, the collapse of another log from the fire and its accompanying shower of sparks would set it mad again. It found the cat under the sofa and struck at it twice with its beak of black horn. For a second, it held tight on the cat’s foreleg, catching it with breathtaking speed as the cat made its instinctive, raking defence, but the animal tugged free and was up the stairs, between our legs, as quick and as hot as one of the sparks from the fire. The bird worked out its anger and puzzlement in the living-room of our cottage while we could only watch, while the cat was hiding, wild-eyed, in the darkness of an upstairs cupboard, while the baby awoke and whined in confusion at the cries and the clattering impact of the struggle below, while another night of drizzling cloud descended on the mountains. The flames of the fire had their cosy, orange light shredded and shattered into a thousand splinters of red and green by the heavy, black wings of the cormorant. It spat out its gutteral shouts. It splashed the walls and the books with its gouts of shit. It made threatening forays to the stairs, where I cursed and lashed out with my slippered foot. It wondered at the glowing logs, retreated from a power it did not understand and could not intimidate.
Until, exhausted as much by its unmitigated bafflement as by its assault on the incomprehensible surroundings, it staggered suddenly and toppled into the upturned crate. The bird buried its head in the familiarly scented straw, heaving with tension and fatigue.
I stepped quickly from the shadows, righted the box and replaced the lid. The cormorant shuffled into the drying straw. Then it was quiet. Its panting breath sent up fumes of fish through the perforations. I sat carefully on the sofa, avoiding the stains. Ann was weeping softly on the stairs, the tears which collapsed into the corners of her mouth catching the golden lights of a dying fire.
* * *
The cormorant had been left to me and Ann in the will of my uncle. Uncle Ian was a bachelor, who had spent all his working life as a schoolteacher in Sussex. For him, the narrow confines of the country prep school and all the trivial politics of the staffroom were a prison from which he could joyously escape in the holidays on his wooden river-boat. He kept the boat on the tidal mudflats of the Ouse at Newhaven. It was afloat for only four hours at a time, but he could safely reach the county town of Lewes up the river, have a meal and a pint of the local bitter before swooping back towards the coast on the retreating tide. He made this voyage innumerable times, never tiring of the flat fields which stretched away on either side of the river, never wearying of the gulls and swans and herons which maintained their posts at the slow bends and reed beds. In the summer, the swallows and martins spun their dizzy aerial threads around the little boat. A sandpiper fled upstream and waited on the next flat of drying mud before whistling plaintively and fleeing once more from the intrusion of the rippling wash. At Piddinghoe, the sun caught the golden fish which is the weather vane of the village church and threw its reflection into the brown water. There were coot and moorhen among the reeds from which the heron raised its dignified head. In the autumn, Ian went upstream in the shrinking evenings and saw a tired sun extinguish itself behind the gentle barrier of the downs.
But it was on one of his rare winter journeys that he came across the cormorant. At first, in the failing light, he thought there was a clump of weed floating in midstream, and he had steered away to avoid catching it in his propeller. But, as he passed and saw that the dark mass in the water was a stricken bird, he turned and came in close. The cormorant, a first-year bird, was drowning. It had spread its wings in an attempt to remain afloat a little longer, but soon it was waterlogged, and the swirling tide simply turned it and stirred it, and the creeping cold was deep in the bones of the young bird. There was oil on its throat and in its face. When Ian lifted it carefully into the boat, he saw that the oil was in its wings, locking together the feathers. The cormorant was trying, with its failing strength, to preen the filthy oil from its breast: in doing so, it had swallowed it and gathered it in globules around its beak. The bird lay in the cabin of the boat and rested its black eyes on the boots of the man who had plucked it from the Ouse. It was a tough, young creature. It responded to Ian’s ministrations, his cleaning and feeding. Where it had at first been passive, it grew demanding and rude, aiming its murder-beak at the hands of the old man who proffered fish and meat. By the spring, it was as arrogant and vicious and unpredictable, as preoccupied with the business of eating and shouting and shitting as any first-year cormorant. Ian doted on the bird. It seemed to him to have many of the characteristics of his colleagues in the staffroom and the pupils that he taught, yet without the hypocrisy which threw up a veneer of good manners. The cormorant was a lout, a glutton, an ignorant tyrant. It affected nothing else.
Ian was told by his doctor that he would shortly die. This did not distress the elderly bachelor. His had been a lonely and a bitter life. He had found little in common with his company in school. Only the oily and rotten-smelling river and its everchanging skies had eased the disappointment of so many unfulfilling years. Something of the mischief of the cormorant had touched him as he went through the dreary business of making a will. He had a little cash to leave, the boat, a run-down cottage in the mountains of north Wales which he had ceased to visit and use once the long hours of travelling from Sussex began to be too much. And he had the cormorant. Strong as it was, it had become dependent on him for food. In a short time, through the spring and into the summer, he had seen that the bird would never learn to support itself. It had grown into an impressively ugly bird, a gangster of a creature, with its mantling black wings, the cocksure stance, the menacing angles of that horn-brown bill and its rubbery, webbed feet. It oozed the stink of fish, the smell of the river, it breathed the tang of the tides. But it had learned to feed from the hand of the man. The bubble-beaded pursuit of dabs in the waters of the Ouse was forgotten. He would leave it in his will to one of his relatives, distant as they were, and the bird would be supported and nourished like a child, like the children which Ian had never had.
And I was Ian’s choice of beneficiary.
I hardly knew him. We had met over the years at weddings and funerals and the occasional family Christmas. Maybe he had been able to see something of himself in me, the germs of disillusionment in my boy’s face. But, unlike Ian, I had married while Ann and I were students at a teacher-training college, and we had gone together into our jobs in a Midland school. We persevered in the face of uncooperative students, using unsuitable and often irrelevant textbooks, and we returned in the evenings to our suburban, semi-detached house. We met Ian at another funeral. Perhaps he could see, from the set of our eyes and the way of our voices, that Ann and I were not teachers, just as he had never really been a teacher. He liked me. And he told me that Ann would make a good and loving wife. I remember my hands were shaking from the cutting cold of the graveside. The drizzle settled on my glasses and dripped like tears onto my cheeks, into the sparse whiskers of my jaw. No, I was not a teacher. And Ian must have thought that the gift of the cormorant could rescue us from our routine Midland existence.
So he thought of me when he went to the office of his solicitor. His will was quite simple. He left the few hundred pounds to Harry, our baby son, and he left the cottage in Wales to me. He knew that the building was sound, although it had been neglected and had stood empty for several hard winters. It was only a tiny, terraced cottage, with a couple of bedrooms, but it had a fair-sized sitting-room with an open grate, a bathroom and a kitchen. There was a garden which led down to a stream at the bottom. Being snug in the middle of the terrace, it should have stayed dry throughout the years of neglect. Perhaps the roof would need some attention. He left the cottage to us, knowing from our expressions at the bitter graveside the last time that we met, that we would want to take it and make it a home with the money from the sale of our property. And Ian made one binding condition: the cottage should be ours for as long as we supported and sustained the cormorant. The solicitor shrugged, but admitted that the beneficiaries could be bound in such a way. The executor of the will would monitor the progress and the welfare of the bird and see that the conditions of the will were observed. It was mischievous. But something of the cormorant’s hooligan instinct must have infected Ian in his final months and coloured his philanthropy.
Uncle Ian died. He was on the boat one evening in June, moving briskly with a rising tide from the wide waters of Piddinghoe towards the rip under Southease bridge. He must have had pains in his chest since leaving the moorings at Denton island, possibly after a struggle to start the outboard motor. When he collapsed onto the floor of the boat, he gripped at his seizing chest and struck his head on the petrol tank. And, as he lay convulsing for just a few seconds, the cormorant sat and watched. Only the slow blinking of its eyes showed that any muscle stirred in its green-black frame. The bird stared into the face of the dying man. When the man lay still, his chest clenched in the rigour of death, when a dribble of saliva glistened on his chin, the cormorant dropped from its perch on the boat’s cabin and landed with its wide, wet feet on his belly. The boat caught in the iron limbs of the bridge, held there by the tide and the busy thrusts of the propeller. A heron briefly raised its head from fishing and turned an eye of frost on the butting vessel. The cattle snorted and returned to the lush grass of the water meadows. That evening, another boat stopped alongside the little cruiser. They found the man, dead, on the floor. The cormorant flapped heavily away to avoid the threatening boots of the boarding party, but it followed the boats downriver to the rank and frothy waters of the moorings.
Ian was dead. And his cheeks were pitted from the blows of the cormorant’s beak. His lips were torn. The tender tissues of his gums were split. One eye remained intact.
When they had taken the body away, the bird heaved itself onto the deck of its master’s boat. It was seen through the rest of the evening and that warm summer’s night, hunched on the top of the cabin. It only blinked and cleaned a few morsels of soft flesh from its beak.
This was the bird that we inherited.
We had been in the cottage for a week when the cormorant was delivered, that October evening. We had leapt at the opportunity of leaving our work in the Midlands. The sale of our house there gave us the financial freedom to have the cottage quickly surveyed and a few repairs carried out. Basically it was sound. A builder replaced a number of slates on the roof and some of the wiring was seen to. Soon, with our books and prints and brightly coloured rugs, the little place was cosy and warm. The village nestled under the cloud-covered summit of Snowdon, on the road between Caernarfon and Beddgelert. There was a shop, a post office and a pub. I stocked up with logs and coal; the fire gilded our living-room with its scented flames and sent up a tall feather of smoke into the autumn air. I was content to stay at home throughout the day and devote my time to the writing of my history text-book, exasperated as I had been in my experience as a teacher by the unsuitability of the material. Furthermore, I could manage Harry, our boy of eleven months, in the intervals of my work. Ann straight away found work in the pub, helping with the preparation of bar snacks at lunchtime and in the evenings until about nine o’clock. People in the village were friendly, but wary at first. We knew it would take time to make real friends there, by the nature of the mountains and the wet plantations. Being English was not a disadvantage, contrary to our expectations. The pub, the shop and the post office were all in the hands of English couples who had fled the northern cities of England to find a cleaner and less frantic way of life in the Welsh hills. There was no novelty in our being English; we were simply another young family who had come to settle in the village.
The news of the death of Uncle Ian was a surprise to us. But our inheritance of the cottage seemed to be a miracle, such a thunderbolt of good fortune that the matter of the cormorant was practically ignored as an eccentric novelty perpetrated by my uncle, as a joke. We set our minds on quitting school and beginning a new life in Wales. I had a notion of what the bird would be like: it would be gawky and angular, a sort of black sea-goose, I gathered from a handbook, with an extraordinarily healthy appetite for fish. Well, it could stay in the backyard, on the end of a leash perhaps, or potter around and scavenge like a farmyard goose. We bought fish for the cat anyway, so it would be no trouble to double the ration and feed the cormorant at the same time. It was a sure sign of our complacency in receipt of the cormorant that we had opened the white wooden crate in our living-room and expected some kind of placid, domestic fowl to emerge and be driven quietly out through the back door. The image of the sea-raven, hunched and black and indelibly marked with the stink of mud and fish, the slow-blinking cormorant which had set its beak to the cheeks and gums of its saviour . . . this had been forgotten in the euphoria of moving into our rural retreat. The turmoil of the bird’s first appearance by the flaming lights of the fire had upset our picture of domestic bliss. It came from its box as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat.
During a night of tears and recriminations, a long, sleepless night when the name of Uncle Ian came in for repeated vilification, we began to face up to that seemingly innocuous clause in the will which stipulated that the cormorant would be a part of our life in the cottage, or else the cottage would be forfeited. The next morning, before the baby could be brought downstairs, I manhandled the crate out of the living-room and put it down carefully in the yard. For all the sound and movement which was evident from within, the bird could have been dead. But that was wishful thinking on my part. In any case, there was some ludicrous clause which forbade us from disposing of our charge by releasing it or killing it; its death on the first day of our responsibility would have looked somewhat suspicious if we were to attempt to construe it as an accident. Undoubtedly, the bird was alive in the fetid straw of the box. Its smells simmered through the panel of perforations.
Ann came down the stairs, still smudging the tears of disbelief from her face. She set about the living-room with water and disinfectant. While she washed the paintwork and sponged vigorously at the curtains, the furniture, the pictures, the books and our precious rugs, I was busy in the yard with my hammer and nails. I hastily erected a sort of cage in one corner, a ramshackle structure of chicken-wire and woodwork, with a section of corrugated iron on the top to afford some weather protection. Into this, I tipped the cormorant. I pushed in the crate, having loosened the lid again, knocked it over with a wary foot and shook out the contents into the new cage. There was a bundle of damp straw, that was all. Nothing stirred. I had seen the same sort of thing in zoos: rows of big cages, each with its informative little sign, and nothing but a bank of straw at the back, in which, if the signs were to be believed, some exotic and possibly savage beast was snoozing. But not a flicker of life. So, after I had closed down the walls of chicken-wire with a series of nails, I took a cane from the shed and tentatively pushed it into the cage and into the mess of straw. One moment the straw lay silent and still. Then it exploded in a chaos of black wings and spitting cries. The cormorant erupted from sleep, flung itself at the wire. Its jabbing bill came through, it hung for a second, scrabbling with its fleshy feet, its wings outstretched on the wire, like some gas-crazed soldier on a French battlefield. I yelped and jumped back. I watched in horror as the bird fell to the ground and began to strut backwards and forwards across the floor of its confines, until it became calmer. It pecked a little at the ground, threw some of the straw in the air and found some nameless morsel hidden among it. I watched the workings of the bird’s throat. Something slid down into the mucous darkness. At least the cormorant was behind bars.
Ann came into the yard and looked at the bird from the back door. She was holding Harry in her arms. He was agog at the spectacle of the cormorant, throwing out his arms and wriggling like a trout. The bird froze for a moment, slowly opened up its wings into a black shroud and croaked. It came to the wire. Snaking its neck, it hissed a long, malodorous hiss and brought up a pellet of half-digested matter which lay steaming in the weak sunshine. Harry gaped at the offering and tried to get free from Ann. Something told her that this was not suitable viewing for her baby boy. Without speaking, she turned back into the kitchen, with Harry swivelling his little blond head for a last glimpse of the cormorant.
I opened a tin of cat food and managed to shove it under the wire, on a tin plate. The bird devoured the meat before standing on the plate and releasing one long jet of yellow shit where the food had been a minute before. I found myself fascinated by the cormorant’s manners. I knew of football supporters and pop stars whose behaviour in railway carriages and expensive hotels was lovingly reported in the lightweight press and who were alleged to be like this, wonderfully oblivious to accepted standards of decency and cleanliness. But this bird made an art of being vile. It was somehow endearing, such candour. I turned away from the kitchen window, in case Ann should see my expression and disapprove of my smiles. Uncle Ian must have felt the same about the bird. I fed it again and supplied it with fresh water, forgot about my writing for the rest of the day as I strengthened the cage and effected a sort of hatch which would make feeding easier. I stayed close to the cormorant in the backyard, going into the cottage to look after the baby while Ann was out, but returning to watch the bird. It waddled around the cage, panting. When it had drunk deeply from the bowl, it put its face down into the water and snorted through its fur-covered nostrils. The bird held up its wings and flapped them until a few black feathers dropped onto the slate floor. By the afternoon, the cage was spattered with droppings, to which the sprinklings of down and dust and straw had stuck and through which the bird went slapping with its wide feet. I saw that frequent hosing would have to constitute part of the new routine initiated by the arrival of the cormorant. But if I could establish some kind of relationship, simply by being the regular supplier of food and water, perhaps the new member of the family would not cause too severe a disruption of our lives. I watched the bird for the first afternoon and allowed it to watch me. Maybe it could become a manageable entity. Harry must be kept away from it, and then its unpredictable temper and lack of hygiene would not be a hazard.
The bird: it would be about eighteen months old, if Uncle Ian had rescued it from the river in its first winter. By now, it was three feet long from the tip of its tail feathers to the end of its beak. It was by no means utterly black when looked at in the sunlight and when it was behaving calmly, although I had thought of it as uniformly coal-black in the midst of its lunatic fits in the living-room, on the previous evening. In fact, it was shot though with browns and greens and blues as the sun caught it on its back and wings, the iridescence of oil and the stale river. There was a lighter patch on its breast, which the handbook said was the mark of an immature bird: this would disappear and the cormorant would become completely sooty. Its beak was an impressive weapon of heavy horn, three inches in length, brown and smooth, hooked at the tip. The bird stalked around on its webbed feet, putting them down with a slap in the water and in its own many-coloured squirts of shit. It held itself upright, like a goose, hissed with its bill open and made a nasal croaking. The cormorant was a Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula. Or maybe it was just a sea-crow, corvus marinus, as the name suggested, just a scavenging, unprincipled crow. The name came to me in a flash: Archie. I would call the cormorant Archie. It was harsh, like the sound the bird repeatedly croaked. There was something cocky and irreverent about it.
And in the evening, when twenty-four hours had elapsed since the opening of the crate, our mountain cottage seemed to have recaptured the peace and cosiness which the arrival of the bird had destroyed. Ann came in from work. It was raining again. She was breathless and a little flushed from her short bicycle ride, there were jewels of fine drizzle in her hair and on her eyelashes. When she smiled, I saw the pale blue opacity of her teeth, I kissed her and tasted her clean, metallic tongue. She went upstairs to take off her coat and to see that Harry was asleep. In the living-room, the fire was banked up with coal and a white, bitter-smelling log of horse chestnut. Everything was clean and warm. The cat lay curled on a cushion, its head lost in the thick fur of its body, its sleep a safe oblivion. I had been working on the text-book, with the pool of light thrown onto my typewriter by the table lamp. All was at peace. Ann came down, having brushed her hair until it burned in many different reds and browns, the colours of the autumn which the night outside had hidden. We sat on the rug, close to the flames of the fire, and again we kissed. The fire spat. There was a flurry of wet wind on the window. Together, we gently collapsed and lay in the soft cocoon of our cottage. And soon, when the fire was low and the lights it had shone so brightly had begun to fade into ochre, when the embers sighed and tumbled inwards to be swallowed in their own secret furnace, we went upstairs to bed.
We awoke to the screaming of gulls.
It was just light. Ann shoved me and sat up in bed, instantly alert to the cries of the baby. She heard Harry, but his weak noises were blurred in the frantic chorus outside our bedroom window. In a moment, she had gone to his room and picked him out of his cot, returning with him to the warmth of the double bed. I reached over, rubbing my eyes, and pulled open the curtains.
The backyard was a snowstorm of gulls. They wheeled in a maelstrom of white and grey and black. Their cries broke in the cold morning air, a hundred voices of the sea and the blowing spray, focused on the small expanse of garden. The gulls dropped into the yard, rose again on the strength and elasticity of their wings. They came close to the window, the herring gulls circling with throats distended to issue their bullying laughter. The black-headed gulls threw out their bilious cries. And among the gulls’ cacophony, there came the repeated croaks of the cormorant, as though it had summoned the gulls and was ordering their riotous congregation. We watched from the window. Harry chuckled and thrust his hands forward. His cheeks became flushed, he shouted something in a rasping tone. I put on some trousers and an old pullover, stepped into my slippers and went downstairs. Through the kitchen window I saw the gulls swirling like a blizzard around the cage, then up to our bedroom, their wings beating against the glass. I heard Ann’s shriek, heard her tug the curtain closed again. I heard Harry’s ugly shouts.
The cormorant stood with its chest pressed against the wire, its neck extended and the murder-beak jutting through. It had outstretched its wings and hooked them somehow onto the wire, gripping there like some prehistoric bird with clawed fingers. Archie stood erect, croaking and hissing, a black, malignant priest in a multitude of angels. I put on a coat, quickly found some cat food. There was an old, threadbare blanket in the airing cupboard, which I took out and threw over my arm. Then I stepped into the yard.
First of all, the gulls recoiled from the garden, evaporated up and over the surrounding trees. Archie was silent. Still the cormorant hung on the wire. But, with a series of hoarse cries from that horny beak, the gulls returned and dived around my head with a crescendo of screams. They rained their soapy droppings on the slates and on my shoulders. The birds came down until I felt the buffeting of their wings. The air was filled with the smell of brine and fish. I lurched forward, shoving the plate of food into the cage. The cormorant turned, tore itself from the wire, leaving behind a few black feathers. It came for my hands. But I withdrew as the beak came close. I put the blanket over the front of the cage and secured it with a number of slates. Archie was silent again, distracted by the meat, and soon the gulls dispersed. The cormorant was gone. There was no longer anything in the backyard to summon their hysterical presence.
This was Archie.
Ann shuddered at the sight of the cormorant, its demonic arrogance. She held Harry to her breast and twisted his face towards her own. But the child flung a sidelong glance in the direction of the cage, beating the air with his fist. Brilliantly flushed, his eyes glittering with ice, he was suffused with the malice of the sea-crow.
In the fortnight which followed, I began to find that I could exercise more control over Archie. The bird became accustomed to the man who came each morning with food, and it no longer made its snaking thrusts at my hands. Instead, it watched from the far corner of its cage while I opened the hatch and eased the iron plate through the wire, before it walked like a duchess towards the meat. Archie ate with a flurry of bolting gulps, taking a beakful and then stretching up its head to ease the food into the gullet. I saw the meat slipping downwards, a bulge in the throat, working and moving like a live thing. Every afternoon, it was time to hose out the cage with a fine spray of water. All the accumulated droppings sped across the slates in foaming milk, pieces of straw and discarded fish, the walnut-sized pellets of indigestible matter, it all washed out of the cage and into the nettle beds of the little garden. Archie spread its wings and held its face up to the flying water. It stood under the shower with its beak open, allowing the water to course over its tongue and its half-closed eyes, down its oily breast. The cormorant shook off the water with a vigorous beating of its wings. It shivered from top to toe, like a wet dog, and the droplets flew across the backyard in a confetti of blues and greens and silver.
But the bird could not stay inside its cage for ever. Sooner or later, it would be time to bring it out and let it have some exercise. Now that it was used to its new breadwinner, I began to foresee the time when Archie would even go free, as it had begun to do for Uncle Ian, and still return for its food. First of all, it would suffice to bring Archie out on a leash. One crisp November afternoon, while Ann was at work and Harry was sound asleep upstairs, I decided to attempt to exercise the bird. I gave it a small dish of cat food, only a couple of beakfuls, to distract it long enough for me to secure it on a length of rope. As the cormorant bent to the meat, I approached. I had put on my Wellington boots and a pair of gardening gloves as protection against the beak. The meal was placed near the hatch, to bring the bird within range. It was disconcertingly easy: Archie obligingly placed one foot into the noose which I had put onto the floor in front of the plate, and, from the safety afforded by the barrier of chicken-wire, the rope was gently pulled tighter until the knot was snug around the bird’s ankle. Archie hardly glanced up from the plate. It continued to swallow each morsel with familiar speed, as though at any moment the remaining food would be confiscated. I waited for it to finish. At the final gulp, Archie turned towards me, stared and blinked, yawned a long, creaking yawn, a gentle kiss of fish breath. I opened the hatch.
Archie waddled out into the yard. It was a cold, clean afternoon, lit by a watery sun. The sky was blue and empty of gulls. I left the rope slack, and the bird stalked into the garden, pushing its head among the long grass. It glanced up at the sky and shook out its wings, but it folded them again carefully, pushing away a few feathers with the preening of its beak. I allowed Archie to lead me further from the cage, towards the stream which ran past the foot of the garden. At the sight of the water, the cormorant increased its pace. There it stood on a slippery boulder and watched the tumbling brook. In a calmer pool, it trod boldly down and floated like a duck, paddling its feet to maintain position in the current. It put its head under the water and tugged at the weed. The stream brought along a clustered spawn of bubbles, leaves from the oak and ash which lined the water, twigs and acorns which the bird inspected and sieved with its inquisitive bill. Archie floated low in the current, the water ran across its back like mercury. The bird relaxed and filled itself with the half-remembered rhythm of tides.
I sat down on a dry boulder a little way upstream and wound the rope a few times around my wrist, allowing a little slack so that Archie could move about the slower pool and venture into the swifter currents.
I thought about Uncle Ian: a grey, anonymous man, embedded in a grey, anonymous school, a man whose features I had never really noticed. We had met so seldom, usually at a graveside, with our carefully polished shoes side by side in the soil, hearing the customary graveside words and the drumming of earth on a coffin of new wood. I knew little about him. He had been a teacher, but his heart was never in it; he was irritable with his boys and curt with the other members of staff. He had never married. He must have spent the long evenings after school in his musty flat, just a hundred yards from the Channel coast, where the spray spattered the window frames until orange tears of rust stained the building, where the salt gathered like frost on the panes of glass. In the holidays, he rubbed and painted the boat on the mudflats behind Denton island. When the rain came or it was too cold to work, he would sit alone inside the cabin, with his cigars and a bottle of beer. The swans came and demanded feeding, soaking the crusts of a sandwich in the water of a tidal pool before drawing them down and down the emaciated columns of their necks. He might flick them the butt of a cigar and watch them recoil, nauseated. It was Ian’s little joke. And in his final year, he had the cormorant to occupy him over a bitter Sussex winter. Whatever love he had stored up and barely touched in the recesses of his soul, he must have spent on the bird. He restored it to rude health. Somewhere within Uncle Ian, under the greyness of his disappointments, behind his gruff and apparently wilful gracelessness, there must have been a reservoir of love, as good as new, never sullied by the pitfalls of human companionship. The one time he had reached into this untapped fund, the cormorant had answered with such passionate kisses as tore away the flesh of his cheeks, his lips, his gums. The fresh soil had rained also on the wood of Ian’s coffin. I was at the graveside, with my shoes in mud. The rain trickled into the sparse hairs of my beard and poppled my glasses. My hands shook with the cold until I felt for the warmth of
Ann’s fingers. Uncle Ian had thought of us in his last few months. Archie had come from Sussex to the mountains of Wales, like an orphan, lost and hurt in the company of strangers. It was a strange gift. Ours was a bizarre duty.
The roar of a low-flying jet broke the peace of the autumn afternoon. At the buffeting noise, the cormorant sprang from the water as though an electric charge had been passed through it, landing on the grassy bank of the stream in a disarray of wet feathers. For a moment, Archie scrabbled to get a foothold and lay on its breast, unable to find a purchase with its unsuitable feet. The jet howled on its way and left behind a thunder of bruised air. The bird stood up. It blinked and came at me like a farmyard gander, the head held low, the beak agape, hissing. For Archie, the breach of its calm in the cold pool must be attributed to the presence of a man: the noise was a man-noise and the man was a threat. I jumped to my feet and retreated before the determined bird, cracking the length of rope and sending a loop like a wave along it, which finally snapped against the cormorant’s belly. This, and the size of the green wellingtons, was too much for Archie; backing off, it began to shake itself. A shower of icy water flew from its slick black plumage. I tugged the bird towards the wire cage. Again, it was a simple task to lure Archie into captivity with the replenished plate of cat food. Leaving the line attached to the bird’s ankle for future use, tying it through the mesh onto the kitchen drainpipe, I securely closed the hatch. Archie was back in the cage and no damage was done. I looked forward to telling Ann when she came in from work.
It became increasingly easier to take Archie into the garden and down to the stream for his afternoon exercise. I enjoyed the hours I spent with the cormorant, and the bird began to treat me as though I were an acceptable part of its environment. I sat with my boots in the water and felt the teeth of the cold gnawing on my toes, through my feet and into my ankles. It was a marvel that Archie was content to float there, half submerged, to explore the depth of its pool without being affected by the temperature. At night, the bird returned to the white wooden crate in which it had been delivered, snuggling down into the pit of straw. There was once a visit from the executor of the will, one of my cousins. He was a suave young executive, disappointed not to have benefited under the will; it was quite clear that he would have been glad to find either that the cormorant was being neglected by the fortunate couple who had inherited the cottage or that the bird was proving to be a really intolerable addition to our family. In fact, he saw that Archie was thriving, growing into a sleek and haughty creature. Our routine had comfortably accommodated the bird. We did not mention the uproar caused by Archie’s first emergence from the box, nor the congregation of gulls. I smiled behind my hands to see the cormorant on its best behaviour: it lunged like a wild cat at the man in the city suit when he put out a hand to inspect the cage; it hung on the wire in a spasm of rage. As a peace offering to the astonished visitor, a steaming pellet was delivered after a second’s laboured retching, and a squirt of shit nearly reached the city shoes. Archie was on top form. I winked at Ann, who was watching from the kitchen window, but she turned away, rolling her eyes at the ceiling.
The weeks passed. Autumn in the mountains, with its scent of pine resin and the damp decay of oak leaves, changed to winter. The air clenched its fists. There was a period of dry, crackling cold. Morning was a silent world of frost, when each clump of bracken was as brittle as glass, as sharp as a razor. In the afternoon, the sky turned darker quickly, discolouring like an old bruise. The cormorant waited in the corners of its cage, waited as though its bones would crack under the strain of the creaking frost. I piled up the straw and the bird sought refuge in it. I was tempted to stay inside and play with Harry, who was beginning to walk a few tottering steps. Ann came in each evening, and her kisses were the kisses of ice: her cheeks, her nose and even her metallic tongue were beaded with ice. We heaped up the grate with more coal and more logs as the night outside squeezed the cottage. Before it was bedtime, the little boy was encouraged to walk up and down the length of the hearth rug, collapsing at the end of each successful journey into the arms of his mother. But his concentration was sometimes broken by the crackling of the logs. He whirled round at the explosion of sparks and put up a hand to the smoke which was blown back down the chimney. Then he would sit down heavily, bemused by the fire. I had to lift him away from it, as his fingers went out in the direction of the flames. There was something more than a child’s ordinary attraction to the fire: Harry’s face became clouded over, he was lost to us for a second or two.
The time came to take the bird out with me on my searches for firewood. I set up a partition in the back of the van, as the owners of dogs have for their pets, and drew the cormorant along on its leash before urging it, with a threatening movement of the boot, to hop up into the vehicle. Again, it was wonderful how easy it was to manoeuvre Archie with the help of a plateful of cat food as the persuasive factor; apparently, it would sublimate any other desire to the call of its appetite. With the bird ensconced in the back, I drove down the Caernarfon road towards the coast. There were looks of dismay from the drivers of following cars as Archie flattened itself against the rear window, wings outspread, the mighty sea-crow raging against captivity. Stopping near the castle, I opened up the car and tugged out the cormorant, which collapsed at first on its chest in the puddles of the harbour car park. I led the bird firmly across the swing bridge, keeping it close to my green boots and shouting in advance to warn away curious pedestrians. Children, especially, evinced an extraordinary desire to offer themselves as targets for Archie’s beak: there was something in the whiteness of their hands and the chubby legs of toddlers which brought a glint to the cormorant’s eye. By the time we reached the beach, we had attracted a small but enthusiastic following. But there, among the seaweed and the rock pools, with the authentic smell of the sea, the salt in every sniff of the air, Archie was oblivious to its admirers. The bird went to the end of the rope and stretched itself until the sinews sang. It opened up the wings like the remains of an ancient gamp, buffeted the breeze from the Menai Straits. Archie croaked. It sent up a flock of oyster-catchers in a whirling cloud of black and white. The cormorant croaked again and conjured a fragile mist of dunlin. The old heron beat away towards the flatter beaches of Anglesey, a pair of crows set off to their place on the walls of the castle. Untangling the entire length of rope, I attached the other end to the weathered wood of the groyne. The cormorant was afloat in a matter of seconds, moving from the beach like a semi-submerged submarine, dark and sleek. I gathered armfuls of driftwood. Archie dived and surfaced with dabs from the sandy floors of the straits, its hunting instinct revived. The aching cold crept into another November afternoon, twilight fell over the shoulders of the castle and settled on the black water. Lights sprang up like fireflies all over the old town. I took the wood back to the car and returned for Archie. It was easy to draw the bird into the shore and over the seaweed-slippery rocks of the beach. Archie was tired. It lay in the back of the van, burrowed into the straw, barely moving as I drove from Caernarfon into the mountains of Snowdon. Full of dabs and sea air, the cormorant tumbled into its wooden crate, disappeared among the warm bedding. The driftwood was laid to dry in a basket in front of the hearth, breathing out the fumes of seaweed.
Many times, we spent the hours of the winter afternoons among the boulders of the beach. The cormorant learned to follow me, in pursuit of the green wellingtons. The rope remained around Archie’s ankle, but it seemed, on those evenings when the scent of wood fires from seaside cottages mingled with the sweat of the falling tide, that the bird knew the value of staying close, as it had stayed close to Uncle Ian even as a dead man.
There was firewood to be found, too, in the sheds of the mouldering old slate quarries of Nantlle. Here the bird could indulge another of its predatory instincts. I took Archie up to the mines one dismal day at the end of November. When the cormorant baulked at the bottom of the slate steps which climbed to the abandoned workings, I bent without thinking and picked it up under one arm. It was strange, I thought, I had never touched the bird before, always avoiding contact, always manoeuvring it with tugs of the rope or gestures of the boot. This time, Archie submitted to me and sat still in the crook of my arm as I walked up and up the grey slabs which wound between heaps of discarded shards. In a few minutes, we were a hundred feet above the village. From this vantage point, I could see up the valley towards the summit of Snowdon, smothered in its own private blanket of drizzle. On the lake, a flock of gulls was sprinkled like the ash of a forgotten cigarette. To the north, the sea spangled under a patch of sunlight. I put Archie on the ground again and led it over the miners’ track to the empty buildings of the quarry. The place had been deserted by its community for thirty years. It was peopled by the gentle ghosts of the village. In the sheds and the offices were the ordinary relics of the miners: a rusty kettle in a back kitchen; the china cups and saucers of innumerable tea-breaks; the skeleton of a typewriter, with a sheet of yellowing paper in place, as though its owner had been called away from beginning his letter; pencils and rotten elastic bands in the offices; abandoned tools in the warehouses, some with the initials of the owners marked in the wooden handles; the manager’s telephone on his desk, black and ugly as a charred bone. The rain through the roof had rotted the floor-boards. Jackdaws had stubbornly dropped their twigs into the chimneys, persisting in their folly until the debris filled up the grates and overflowed onto the planks. I tiptoed through the empty rooms. Plaster blew from the walls, as fine as flour. Somewhere a door was banging in the wind, hammering its irregular beat, the ghost of an obsolete miner. A rat fled along the corridor.
And it was the rats which sent a shudder of excitement through the cormorant. Archie bristled like a tom cat, clattered to the end of the rope. The bird flapped its wings and croaked the sea-crow threats. So I tied the leash to a window-frame in order to allow Archie plenty of scope for hunting, while I set to work collecting firewood, the splinters of abandoned pallets, old boards which I could split with my hatchet. In the next room, I could hear the patter of the cormorant’s feet on the floor, its manic cries. I went to the door to watch. It was only a game, it seemed, for the rat which emerged from the skirting was big and brave. Archie had no intention of closing with it. The rat stood on its hind legs, like a pocket grizzly bear, swayed and snickered. The cormorant beat the air with its wings, sending up a cloud of dust. The rat and the cormorant continued their threatening displays until honour was satisfied, and the rat slid back into the darkness. Archie rearranged a few dishevelled feathers. But the bird was curious, it trembled with the thrill of the confrontation and went from room to room as far as the rope would allow, hissing at the holes in the skirting boards. The rats were a challenge. They made the dabs seem tame.
In spite of my growing confidence with Archie, Ann maintained a wary distance. She wanted nothing to do with the bird, leaving its cleaning and feeding and exercise entirely in my hands. Harry could now walk steadily around the house and showed a lively curiosity in any ornaments, books, pots and pans which his stubby fingers could reach. Ann was forever impressing on me the importance of keeping the boy away from the cormorant. Just because it consented to being stroked and even occasionally being picked up by its guardian did not mean that it would respect the tender little toddler. I knew this, I had seen Archie accelerate to the end of its leash in pursuit of small children on the beach at Caernarfon. Whenever the boy went into the garden, I had to manhandle him, struggling, away from the cormorant’s cage. Harry would learn, we hoped, to count the big black bird among the hazards of his baffling new world, but for the time being he headed straight towards the cage at the slightest opportunity. And at such moments, the child’s face became clouded over, his features seemed blurred in the overwhelming desire to reach out for the cormorant. Harry’s chuckles were ugly as I swung him back into the kitchen, chuckles which were answered by the rasping cries of Archie.
Ann invited a number of her new friends from the village to see the cottage and the baby. Whenever I had the chance, sometimes to Ann’s obvious irritation, I would proudly mention our unusual pet, and in the backyard our visitors might manage an outburst of appalled laughter at the sight of Archie. So that was the cormorant, a bird like a caricature of goose and crow, the likes of which Ann’s friends had never ever seen, even on the screens of their televisions. It was mischievous, I knew, but I told Ann that the creature was a permanent feature of our life in the village and it did no harm to show it to the neighbours. I did not meet people so easily. I was either bent over the typewriter, feeding Harry in Ann’s absence, or out in the van with Archie. To the neighbours, I must have seemed rather an outlandish figure. They heard the clacking of the typewriter even through the thick walls of the terrace. Over the garden fence, I would be seen with the hose, directing the spray onto the droppings which spattered the slates. They would hear me sometimes talking to the bird, swearing loudly at the tangle of rope, they saw me emerge from the cottage with my ragged pet and lift it by the neck into the back of the van. Children and cats were warned not to stray into the Englishman’s garden. Only the gulls dropped down and cried into the face of the creature in its cage. I realised how odd all this must seem and smiled at the apparent eccentricity. I knew that I was only an escaping schoolteacher who had run from the routine of the suburban Midlands to bash out another ordinary textbook. But meanwhile I would enjoy my role as the man with the cormorant. Archie watched me with an enigmatic eye.
In the afternoons, when Ann’s visitors were her young friends from the pub kitchen, who would come for endless cups of tea and the comparisons of different brands of baby foods, I excused myself and went out with the bird. There was ratting to be done in the quarry offices, firewood to be gleaned from the seashore. The women raised their eyebrows and shrank to the corners of the room as I came through from the yard with Archie under my arm. The cormorant obliged with a snaking of its neck, the issue of fish breath. Usually I could make it through the front door before Archie lifted the stiff feathers of its tail and shot the shit onto the pavement. The women squealed and put their hands to their faces. And then, at last, we could drive away in the peace of the little humming van, into the plantations for easy pickings of pine splinters, or towards the coast. Now Archie could be trusted to sit in the passenger seat beside me. The bird peered through the windscreen. It thrust its head into the slipstream and sucked in the rushing cold air. I always slowed down drastically when we were passing a cyclist, to give him or her the full benefit of seeing the jabbing face of the cormorant at close quarters. There was once the pleasure of unseating an elderly gentleman, who bellowed in horror before toppling from his bicycle into a bed of nettles. Archie and I laughed all the way to Caernarfon. Horses and dogs were also fair game. Archie beat its wings at the window, the great sea-crow on the way to its hunting ground. Any other beasts, on four legs or two, were best to quail before the cormorant. Only I could approach Archie without its frenzied threats.
The weather softened as December arrived. There was talk of Christmas on the radio, and decorations in the pub. I returned from one outing with the bird, with a shapely little fir tree surreptitiously dug from the plantation. In the evening, at nine o’clock, Ann came home. I had had a good session at the writing, Harry was bathed and fed and ready for bed. There was a lovely fire and a number of logs warming on the hearth, waiting their turn to fuel the flames. Everything was in order. Ann awarded me a congratulatory kiss for my efforts. The cat leapt up from its buzzing sleep and scrabbled its claws on the side of an armchair, so I sent it through to the kitchen. And while the child sat starry-eyed on the sofa, agog at the brilliance of light and colour, we decorated the tree. There were mugs of soup, I lit a cigar, the tree became a fairy-tale tree and the room glowed.
When it was done, the boy slipped from the couch and went unsteadily to the tree. While we watched, breathless and silent, Harry stood and reached out a hand to touch the fresh green needles. He put his face to them, sniffing like a dog. Then he turned, with a smile of ecstasy on his face, a glistening bubble at his mouth and his eyes lit with excitement. It was his Christmas tree, he knew it. Ann felt for my fingers and squeezed them hard. A scratching at the door reminded us that only the cat was missing the festivity, evicted from its customary territory in front of the fire. The smile on Harry’s face froze for a split-second, worked itself into a lop-sided grin. With a hoarse cry, he staggered towards the door.
He strained on tiptoe to reach the handle, could not quite stretch his fingers high enough, howled over his shoulder for one of us to help.
‘Calm down, Harry,’ Ann said, as she got up from the sofa. ‘It’s hardly an emergency. Mummy’s coming . . .’
The scratching continued. Cursing the cat’s claws and the inevitably marked paintwork, she went to the door. Harry reached up again, failed to touch the knob. I could not tell whether he was weeping or laughing, there was only a series of blurred shouts. Ann swept him up and dumped him back on the sofa. She opened the door, squealed and stepped backwards.
The cat came into the room, tottering like a drunk. It lurched into the side of an armchair, rolled on its side with claws flailing at the fabric. With another desperate effort, as Ann recoiled and I stood up in dismay, the cat collapsed on the hearth rug. Its face was a mask of blood. With every rasping breath, bubbles of mucous blood blew from the mess where the mouth had been. There were no eyes, only a cowl of scarlet, glistening wet in the firelight. Blood simmered deep in the throat. Only the blubbering movement in the middle of the mask betrayed the existence of the cat’s nostrils, there was only blood in a gout where the cat’s face had been. The animal fell on the rug. A long sigh came from the throat, it relaxed suddenly until a series of spurts of urine flowed, strong at first then falling to a trickle over the belly. The cat lay still. But a whisper broke from its chest, its body shuddered. The cat lay still.
The room was silent.
Until a log split open with a snap among the flames of the fire. And Harry’s chuckles rang out. His face was brilliant with exhilaration, ablaze with pleasure. He beat his little hands together.
Ann sprang forward and picked him up. She hurried upstairs with him, her cheeks wet with tears. Harry swivelled his head wildly as he disappeared from the room.
I swore at length, before I picked up the cat on the coal shovel and moved through into the kitchen. The back door was ajar, the cat had just come in from the yard. The kitchen light lit up the yard and the garden. I left the shovel by the door and went outside. The hatch on the side of Archie’s cage was flapping loose. The cage was empty. The cormorant’s leash trailed down the garden towards the stream. I took up the rope but I did not pull. Running it through my hands, I followed it away from the lights of the cottage, until a resistance was felt in a jerking movement, like the fighting of a fish on an angler’s line. This time, I began to tug, tugging at first, then sending the rest of the rope in a whiplash curve, disappearing in the gloom.
Archie came out of the shadows.
The cormorant was all black. It stood up straight and faced me. In the darkness, Archie was all black, its wings held out in a mockery of benediction. The bird came at me in two leaps, brandishing the heavy beak, punishing the night shadows with the power of its wing beats. There was blood on its bill. The broad feet shone red. Among the ruffled feathers of its breast were smears of sappy gore where it had begun to clean its face. I kicked out with my slippered foot and the bird flapped backwards, long enough for me to take up some slack around my wrist and reel it in, retreating to the lights of the kitchen. Archie resisted, skidded forward on slippery feet. As I fumbled with the hatch, the cormorant struck hard at my hand. Swearing, lashing out, I caught the bird’s throat, lifted it up sharply and held it away from me at arm’s length. The feathers flew about my head, the winter night stormed around me in the narrow confines of the backyard, I opened the hatch wide and flung the cormorant inside like a bundle of rags. My hand was bleeding. I secured the cage with more than my accustomed thoroughness and went back into the cottage.
Slipping the dead cat into the dustbin, I covered it with cold ashes from the previous day’s fire. There was nobody in the living-room. I could hear Ann’s low, musical voice in the bedroom above my head, the answering chuckles of the boy. Before she could come downstairs, I went to work on the stains of blood and urine which the cat, in its death throes, had left on the hearth-rug. Still wet, they shifted easily with vigorous rubbing. The scents of soup, sizzling wood and the needles of pine were gone, obliterated by the ammoniac whiff of disinfectant. The room seemed shabby: the fire was fading, there were brown-ringed bowls and spoons left lying on the carpet, my cigar had gone out, stale and neglected. There was no warm woman or child, no cat. I put some coal on the fire and chucked the butt of my cigar into the grate. When Ann came down, she was a different woman. She was stone, she was ice. She shed no tears for the cat, her cat which she had taken in years before, before she had met me. Ann was drained from her performance with Harry, disguising her nausea for the sake of the child. Unable to speak, she sat in silence and stared at the fire.
‘It was Archie, it got out of the cage,’ I said.
She turned her face to me blankly, as though I had addressed her in a foreign language.
‘Your hand . .
I had forgotten my hand as I cleaned up the room. Blood ran down my fingers into the edges of my nails, but it was drying, a blackening crust.
‘It got me when I was trying to stick it back in the cage. I’d better wash it . . .’
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I’ll do it,’ and she stood up, drawing me with her into the kitchen. I let her put my hand under the tap and clean it with soap. There were two ragged cuts half an inch long which she dabbed with a stinging disinfectant. She ignored my wincing, she was looking through the window into the area of light, watching the cage for a sign of movement. I said nothing, just followed the direction of her eyes into the shadows of the backyard. She patted the hand dry. Turning back to the living-room, she said, ‘What about Harry?’
‘The bird’s locked up now. It can’t get out.’
‘The cat,’ she said. ‘Look at your hand. What about the boy?’
I paused before replying.
‘We’re stuck with Archie for as long as we want to live in this cottage. The thing could be with us for five or six years . . .’
‘That’s six years of watching Harry keeps right away from it. Even in the cage, it’s not safe. He could open it already, you know how inquisitive he is, he has to touch everything. It’s natural. If we’ve got to keep the filthy creature, get it somewhere secure, away from the garden.’ But we both knew that, under the conditions of Uncle Ian’s will, the cormorant must remain as part of the household, on the premises. The executor would certainly see to that. I could only assure Ann that I would reinforce the wire mesh of Archie’s cage or erect a second barrier to deter the child from approaching the cormorant.
The tears came. She sobbed like a child for the death of her pet. When the tears dried up, she swore at the memory of Uncle Ian, a frustrated malicious pervert, she rained curses on the cormorant. Struggling to rise from the sofa, to storm through the kitchen and into the backyard, she reached for the poker as a weapon of revenge. I prised it from her fingers and replaced it by the fireside. She breathed deeply, some colour returned to her lips. I held her close.
‘Tomorrow I’ll fix the cage. Don’t worry now . . .’
We went upstairs. Harry was sound asleep, his cheeks rosy pink, his little blond head framed in the whiteness of the pillow. Outside, the night was still mild, a gentle December after the bitterness of the November frosts. All was quiet: no wind, no rain, no traffic, only the village which hugged itself to sleep under the slopes of Snowdon. We went to bed. Ann called out for the cat in the last seismic efforts of lovemaking. I watched the grimaces of her face in the halflight, saw the tears run into her mouth and onto the lines of her throat. She gripped me hard, I loved her with all my strength. She released a long sigh, a whisper broke from her chest. She shuddered and was still. Together we lay in the hot confusion of our sheets. With my hand I wiped a bubble of saliva from her lips, leaving a trace of blood from my injured fingers. Ann moved away, touching me unconsciously, like a young animal . . .
‘Wake up, wake up! Look, it’s Harry . . .’
I sat up with a start at Ann’s frantic whispers, and rubbed my eyes. A moon had risen, filling the bedroom with a strong blue light. We were wide awake and watching the little figure, pyjama-clad at the foot of our bed. The child was oblivious to us. Harry had come from his cot in the next room, walked to the window, to stare into the garden behind the cottage. He did not turn towards us, even with the commotion of our waking. With his hands on the sill, he leaned forward to peer down into the backyard. Moonlight bathed his face. His eyes narrowed a little at the gleam. Harry concentrated on his object in the yard.
We crept up behind the child. Still Harry was unaware of us. We looked over him, at the blue-black garden, the purple shadows. The cage was lit by the light of steel.
Archie too was awake. The cormorant stood in the full silver beams of the moon, head and beak erect, wings outstretched.
Utterly motionless. Utterly black. Not a tip of a feather trembled. It was an iron statue, a scarecrow. It was a torn and broken umbrella, a charred skeleton.
Father and mother and child stared at the bird. Harry suddenly hissed loudly, forcing the air like steam. He reached out his right hand and touched the window-pane. With the passage of a heavy cloud, the garden was in darkness. When the sky became clear again, when the cage was washed with moonlight, Archie was gone.
There was no statue, no skeleton. No cormorant.
Harry turned from the window. He walked between us as though we were invisible to him, into his own room, and clambered onto the cot. We followed and saw the child tug the blanket over him. In a second, he was sound asleep.
He slept soundly until morning.
Ann and I did not.
Ann was a formidably determined young woman. When she declared that she was leaving with Harry, going to the safety of her mother’s for at least a fortnight so that the boy would forget the cormorant, there was nothing I could do or say that would change her mind. I argued that Archie would be completely secure behind strong wooden bars, that I could clean and feed the bird without releasing it, that I would never take it out for exercise except when the child was asleep upstairs. None of this was enough. Harry’s moonlit communion with the cormorant had shaken her. For a few minutes, possibly longer if the child had been at the window before we had awoken, Archie had been more important to Harry than we were. He had watched and signalled to the cormorant, oblivious to our presence in the room. Ann said she would go back to the Midlands for two weeks and return to Wales for Christmas. In that time, I would be able to make suitable arrangements in the bird’s routine, make the cottage a safer place for our son.
I drove Ann and Harry down to Caernarfon, where they were booked on the coach to Derby. In spite of my efforts with water and sponge, I could not disguise the smell of the bird in the little van. I swept out the dry droppings and discarded feathers, wiped the windows which were smeared by the bird’s breath and tongue. But the van smelt of Archie. It had pecked holes in the plastic upholstery, pulled out beakfuls of foam rubber, leaving the seats pock-marked, pitted with yellow craters. Under the matting there was sand. A few strands of seaweed clung to the seat belts, there were fish scales like sequins which had come from the cormorant’s feet. Ann rode in silence, with her face near to the open window. She held on to Harry, in the absence of a child’s seat; I felt the tacit criticism, that I had adapted the van to accommodate the bird but never thought to fit a seat for the safe keeping of our son. Harry also sat silent, round-eyed, his nostrils twitching at the strong scents. Throughout the twenty-minute journey, he made no sound. He was alert to the presence of the cormorant.
In the main square of Caernarfon, we awaited the arrival of the express coach. It was a mild, damp afternoon. The lights came on in shop windows and banks, there were slippery leaves on the pavements from the young sycamores. Over and around the walls of the castle, the gulls circled, screaming. There was a mantle of droppings, like early snow, on the statues of Lloyd George and Sir Hugh Owen; the stone figures shook their fists furiously at the birds. Harry squirmed in Ann’s arms. She was glad that he was aroused from his trance, once again just a fidgeting toddler. He pointed and shouted at the people in the bus queue. Some of them smiled, others looked away, embarrassed. When the coach drew up, I kissed Ann on the mouth, wanting her to stay so much that I would have killed that wretched bird if she had asked me to. I was engulfed by my love for her; just for a moment it obliterated everything else. Harry wriggled away when I tried to kiss him, putting up a chubby fist and slapping me on the lips. They boarded the coach. As it pulled out of the square, Ann’s face was close to mine through the perspex. The child was staring over my head. For a second, again there was the mesmerised glitter of dreams on his face. Harry gaped into the distance, his mouth fell open, his right hand came up and was planted on the window. The bus moved out. I shivered at the final impression of the child. Harry was pointing, gesturing wildly over my head, vainly trying to make his mother see, as the bus disappeared around the corner. When I turned, there was nothing which should have fascinated the child so much: no fire engine, no brass band, no soldiers in uniform. Only a few pedestrians on a glistening pavement, no-one familiar. Except . . . no, a gray figure, the figure of an elderly man vanishing into the warmth of a shop. I found myself shivering again. I followed the man, stopping at the shop window. And with a shrug, I saw a complete stranger, a greying figure, rather blurred in the smoke of a dying cigar.
I drove back to the cottage in the mountains. I had already decided that, in the absence of Ann and Harry, I could spend the fortnight trying to soothe the spirit of the bird rather than simply confining it more strictly. First of all, it would be freed from its cage, to wander on the length of its leash within the yard and garden. Archie had never shown the slightest inclination to fly: indeed, I doubted whether it was capable of doing so. Probably there had been more lasting damage as a result of its oiling in the Sussex Ouse than anyone had realised. Although it spent a great deal of energy in the boisterous flapping of its wings as a means of threatening a potential hazard, the bird never looked like leaving the ground. Therefore, even on the end of a length of washing-line, the cormorant could not go beyond the limits of the garden. It was unable to flap onto the fences which separated the yard from the neighbours’ gardens. But Archie would be free to explore as far as the stream and swim in the pool at any time. There was no cat or child at risk. Perhaps the bird would surprise one of the rats which visited from the nearby farmyard.
Furthermore, I had determined that Archie would accompany me without the leash on our outings to the coast or to the quarry. I was sure that the bird would stay close. It remained dependent on me for its feeding, relying on the plates of cat food even after an afternoon’s fishing for dabs.
So, that evening, in the darkness, I removed one of the panels of wire mesh from the cormorant’s cage. It would be able to come and go at will, to return to its bedding of straw when the cold began to grip in the late afternoons. Archie emerged, blinking at the light from the kitchen window. I put down the tin plate and went back into the cottage. The cormorant was at large in the garden, just as it had been when the cat had gone into the gloom and met the stabs of a weighty beak. Later, before I went up to bed, I checked that Archie was secure. It was breathing evenly under a heap of straw. And in the light of early morning, the gulls came. I pulled close the curtains and slept, with the tumultuous cries surging at my window like the surf on a shingle beach. I would not be a party to the cormorant’s magnetism. When I awoke again, the gulls were silent, as though they had been dismissed.
I took the bird to the quarries at Nantlle that afternoon, for its first taste of real freedom. Perhaps I should admit that I was looking forward to the two weeks on my own, to see what could be made of the cormorant. The quarries would be better than the beaches for the initial attempt at giving Archie its head: there would be no distracting people. I carried it up the winding staircase of slate and deposited it on the grassy track on top of the grey mountain. On the way, Archie had waved its bill uncharacteristically close to my face, so I was relieved to put the bird down. I was nervous, and possibly my apprehension was transmitted to Archie. When I bent to untie the slip knot from around the cormorant’s ankle, it snaked at my hands, reddening the skin with a nudge of the beak. There was no blood drawn, but an aching contact of bone on bone, the sort of dazzling pain which is felt from a blow on the fleshless surface of the shin. I swore, put up my arm to fend off the bird’s face, stood up and stepped smartly aside when the knot was free, seething and rubbing my fist. Very angry, I strode away towards the empty buildings. As I coiled up the rope, I walked and listened for the sound of the pursuing bird. Archie stretched the tattered wings before springing along behind me. When I turned to look, the cormorant was coming, calling breathlessly lest it lose sight of the green wellingtons.
I went from room to room with my hatchet, determined to behave as though there was no bird. I worked at the floorboards and skirting, carting it back to the manager’s office where the telephone sat in one corner. There, I chopped the wood into smaller pieces suitable for kindling and easily packed for the return trip down the steps. I had a rucksack which I filled with the fuel. Deliberately shutting out any thought of Archie, I concentrated on the job until I had amassed enough wood to make the expedition worthwhile. The light was fading fast. In the shattered old buildings, the gloom fell like a curtain of purple velvet. There was no sound of the cormorant. I stood still and listened. Somewhere, a door was banging in the wind. A few twigs fell into the grate, the ruin of a jackdaw’s nest. Otherwise, there was silence.
Taking up the rucksack and the length of washing-line, I went out of the manager’s office and into a long corridor which gave onto a number of other doors. Now it was very dark. It was a mistake to work too long and mistime the passage of dusk in the December afternoon. I wished I had brought a torch with me, but felt that I knew my way around the abandoned building. Stopping sometimes to listen, I stepped slowly from room to room. With the rucksack on my back, I could feel with both hands at the frames of the doorways, find my way into each little office or kitchen. I instinctively ducked to avoid hitting my head on any sagging lintel, calling softly for the bird and clicking my fingers. A rat sent up the dust from an empty room. It was silent again. But when I felt another rat brush past my legs, scrabbling with its feet to get a purchase on the smoothness of my wellingtons, I must have jumped in alarm. I heard my own voice cry out sharply just before I cracked the top of my head on a jutting slate. The darkness was filled with an explosion of shooting stars. Both hands went to my skull, the fingers feeling for blood. A prodigious pain . . .
And outside, among the rusted wheels of the quarry, the mounds of unwanted slate, only the second-hand luminosity of the street lights in the village below gave any definition to the relics of the mine. A breeze moved the heads of the dry nettles. The willowherb trembled.
I stood still in the enveloping shadows, waited for the fireworks in my head to subside.
And then there was a sound.
From along the corridor, the tread of footsteps.
Something shifted the remains of a rotten floorboard, back in the manager’s office which I had left behind. My head throbbed and another flare went off before my eyeballs. I turned carefully and faced along the corridor.
‘Archie? Come on, Archie . . . come on . . .’
I strained to see into the gloom. Something was moving towards me, picking its way among the debris. Not the pattering of rats, a weightier tread, irregular and halting over the uneven floor, working its way closer and closer.
‘That’s it, Archie . . . come on . . I hissed into the shadows.
And the footsteps came on.
Heavier and heavier, crushing the dried-up splinters, scuffing the layers of dust. Louder and louder, the footsteps increased their pressure and volume somewhere within the spangled recesses of my skull. Involuntarily, as they bore down the corridor, I screwed my eyes tightly shut, saw another shooting star blaze across the darkness, and I stepped to one side . . .
The footsteps went past me, slowly, inevitably, over the rubble of plaster, along the corridor, fading and fading until once more there was only a rumbling, electric silence.
I remained still. I was frozen in stillness.
Until the cormorant cried from the yard outside.
I shuddered myself awake and burst from the building. There was Archie, shaking a cloud of dust from its wings.
I breathed deeply the freshness of the night. I sucked in the cold air. I gulped and sucked and gasped, to erase from my nostrils the clinging scent of a dead cigar.
From that time, there was no question that Archie could be trusted to follow me without the leash.
I stumbled past the bird and along the rough, grassy track to the top of the flight of slate steps. Down I went in the treacherous darkness, down the steps as quickly as possible without waiting or turning for the cormorant. At the bottom, I tore the rucksack from my back, flinging it with the hatchet into the van, and I leapt into the driver’s seat. My hands on the steering wheel were moist and clenched; the knuckles stood up white in the glare of the street lamps. There was no traffic through the village, nobody walking the pavements. I sat in the van under the orange lights. Above me there loomed the mountain of slate, tufted with the feathery silhouettes of rowan. In the daylight, a colony of herring gulls scavenged there. Now, in the wet blackness, it was silent and still. I breathed deeply and studied the backs of my hands, the dust from the quarry offices, the sweat of my race down to the van, the wounds inflicted by Archie. The crown of my head was thudding.
The village slept.
And then the tapping on the door.
Bone against metal. The cormorant was there on the pavement, ringing its beak on the van door. Before I could get out and open up the back (for I did not want to share the cab with the bird), Archie was working to a panic of impatience. It beat the black wings. It reared up, goose-like, to rap on the window. Hoarse cries clanged along the empty street as the bird threw its tantrum. So I waited. I would not jump to attention for Archie, like a flunky, opening the doors of the car like a liveried chauffeur. Until a few lights began to appear in the upstairs rooms and porches of the terraced cottages, I waited and allowed the cormorant to exhaust its anger. Or was it afraid? Ashamed of my own retreat from the quarry, my overwhelming urge to reach the security of the van, I got out. As soon as the back doors were opened, Archie sprang up and folded its wings. We drove back, over the winding road from Nantlle, and stopped outside the cottage. Archie went unhesitatingly to the white crate, once I had attached the line to its ankle again. This time, the bird stood still, it allowed my hands on its feet, ignored my face close to its own. There was no threatening gesture of the beak. Archie disappeared into the box with a few seconds’ shuffling and the rearranging of its angular limbs.
I too slept.
Without doubt, Archie was dependent on me. The length of rope was not necessary on our expeditions. For the first time, the cormorant swam free on the Menai Straits as I collected wood on the shore. It set off from the beach in determined fashion, as though late for an appointment, swimming low in the water, the beak tilted slightly upwards. Away from the land, it began to dive, shooting smoothly from the surface, clear of the water for a split-second, before vanishing without a ripple. Thirty seconds later, I saw the bird reappear. Through my binoculars, I watched the struggle with the dabs, the manner in which Archie tossed them this way and that before it was ready to begin swallowing. Then the working of the throat. Eels were brought writhing to the surface. They coiled themselves around the cormorant’s bill, defying it to lure them into the rapacious gullet. A big eel wound itself with the snake-neck of its attacker, and Archie was forced to dive again to get free of its sinuous opponent. I watched and I gathered fuel. I trod among the seaweed-slippery rocks, the litter of dead crabs. Lights came on along the further shore of Anglesey. So I sat and saw the sun go down behind the trees of Newborough warren, the gulls rising from the dunes. Behind me, the castle was no longer floodlit in the evenings, for all the tourists had gone. It rose like a boulder from the harbour side, alive with the roosting of jackdaws and starlings, the hysterical laughter of gulls. They too became quiet. Archie came up on the beach, suddenly clumsy on the stones in comparison with its effortless diving, stumbling towards me through the twilit cold. It was holding something in its beak. Together we returned to the van. I put down my collection of wood.
‘What is it, Archie? What’ve you got?’
The bird waddled forward and held up its bill to me. I instinctively withdrew my hands. In the half-light, I could not be sure what Archie was carrying, and I would never really trust the hooked beak. Archie craned forward again and put down a fish by my green wellingtons. It was a dab, still alive and convulsing, its gristly body arched with cramp. I bent to pick it up.
‘Thank you, Archie. Thank you very much.’
All the way home, the fish kicked on the floor of the van. Archie stood on the passenger’s seat, watched the hedgerows lit in the headlamps, the trees which fled from the passing of the car. It blinked at the lights of oncoming traffic. Once again the vehicle smelt of the bird. There was weed on the mats, the slime of eels on the windows. Archie left its signature in shit on the upholstery.
And in the house, only the second time since its arrival in the white wooden crate, Archie came into the living-room. I banked up the fire. I was still cold from the seashore, my feet ached when I took off my boots. The lights of the Christmas tree sparkled in their corner, the flames from the dry and salty log spat upwards to the chimney. Archie stood before the fire, its wings held out a little way from its chest, not stretching them, but draping them out like a fashion model in a Parisian cloak. I put down newspapers to avoid having stains on the rug. But the cormorant slept in the warmth, still standing, its wings mantled and its head turned downwards onto its breast. It slept, while the room was filled with the scents of the Straits. A little steam arose from its plumage and from my thick, woollen socks. My own head began to nod. In the warm room, Archie and I were asleep.
When I awoke, the cormorant was no longer there. I sprang up and shouted, shivering suddenly from the memory of a dream and glancing at the dying fire. I must have been asleep for hours.
In my dream, there had been a frantic pursuit down the slippery staircase of the quarry: something, some grey presence was behind me, there were heavy, relentless footsteps, the whiff of smoke in the dark air . . . But then I was awake, trembling a little in my stockinged feet before the embers in the grate. And Archie had vanished.
Again I heard my voice cry out. The bird appeared at the doorway from the kitchen. It had retrieved the dab which it had given to me on the harbour front at Caernarfon, and which I had subsequently wrapped in paper and put in the dustbin. Archie came into the room to meet me, with the fish held in its beak.
‘What the hell have you got there? Here, give it to me, let’s put it back in the bin. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but . .
The cormorant allowed me to take the dab, followed me through the kitchen and into the backyard. In its search for the fish among the other rubbish, Archie had strewn the yard with pieces of paper, the broken sections of cardboard boxes, discarded vegetables.
‘Bloody hell, Archie . .
I stooped to recover the debris. This time, I put the dead fish at the very bottom of the dustbin. But the bird’s determination to offer its prize to me had given me an idea. We returned to the front room. I closed the door to the kitchen and resuscitated the fire with more logs. Some gentle music on the radio, the twinkle of the lights on the Christmas tree; the black cormorant, sea-scented, staring into the flames.
‘Here, Archie, have a look at this . . .’
The bird snapped from its daydream, drawing its eyes from the golden caverns of the burning logs. It turned its face to me, numb from the heat. I had found the little collar which Ann had once bought for the cat, a flimsy thong just strong enough for a kitten. Sitting on the edge of the sofa, I reached out for the cormorant and put the collar around its neck, adjusting it to the diameter of the bird’s throat and marking the leather with my thumbnail. With scissors, I made a couple of new holes in the collar and tried it again. Archie was submissive in my hands, mesmerised by the fire, standing still with wings relaxed, like a gentleman being measured by his tailor. The collar fitted snugly, neither too tight for Archie to swallow nor slack enough to slip downwards. The cormorant craned to reach it with its beak, but could not. It brought up one foot and scratched vigorously at the collar for a few moments. Then it turned once more to its scrutiny of the fire, stunned by the flames. The bird forgot the collar, as it had forgotten the cat which had worn it.
And that left a week for fishing, a week before Ann would be back with Harry. I had to go into Caernarfon to do all the Christmas shopping, and I took Archie on every trip. There were presents to buy, food and drink. I left the cormorant in the van while I went from shop to shop, wanting Ann to be pleased when she came back, impressed that I had made such an effort to prepare for Christmas instead of tinkering at the typewriter or playing with the wretched bird. I found a special gift for her, a slender gold necklace with a dangling butterfly which would flutter prettily at her throat. And a sackful of presents for Harry, things which clanked and whistled and chimed, things to occupy his mischievous fingers and distract them from the ornaments on the mantelpiece. I queued in the off-licence, wrote a disconcertingly big cheque, staggered out with my burden of Christmas spirit. Meat and vegetables, fruit and dates and nuts: more cardboard boxes to squeeze into the van. Each time I returned, Archie battered at the windscreen. It tried to spring from the van but I forced it back. As usual, people stopped to stare, aghast at the big bird beating the windows of the little car. I smiled at the spectators and answered their questions politely: no, it wasn’t a goose; yes, it was quite tame but don’t go too close; it was a cormorant, but no, sir, I didn’t have a licence . . . until the shopping was done for the day. Then I changed into the green wellingtons, put on my waterproof jacket, took out the length of rope and attached it to Archie’s ankle. The leather collar was in place around the bird’s throat. Keeping the cormorant close to my feet, I led it over the swing bridge, along the sea front away from the castle, and dropped down to the stony beach. A few people paused in their walking to watch me and the bird. I let the bird have more slack on the rope, went to the water’s edge. The tide was coming in over the sand flats, creeping into the channels of the estuary, licking with its creamy tongue at all the dry clumps of weed, the salt-encrusted rocks. It was midday, mid-December, with more of a bite in the air, a taste of frost. It would be colder soon, the sky was bruised. The cormorant stepped gingerly through the high-water line of seaweed, bottles, whitened spars, and came to the sea. The line was secure, the collar too. Archie floated out, miraculously transformed from the clumsy goose to a purposeful, menacing submarine. I paid out the rope and the bird began to fish.
‘Go on, Archie. Get busy . . .’
The cormorant dived. For half a minute, there was nothing but the secret trembling of the rope in my hands. Somewhere in the brown water, decked in silver bubbles, with a stream of mercury pouring from the horny bill, the bird jinked and swerved in pursuit of fish. Using wings and feet as power, flying through the water, Archie was hunting. Before the shriek of the jets had ever shaken the sky over the Straits, before the churning of sand by the propellers of fishing boats, long before the first arrows sped around the battlements of the castle, Archie had been twisting through the tides of the estuary. The dabs fled, as they always fled, raising up the puffs of sand. Eels wriggled in the hope of reaching the safety of deeper water, they flashed a little grey metal and made for the shadows. In the air, the black-headed gulls circled petulantly and wondered at the world of the rumbling depths. Oyster-catchers whistled among the boulders of the shore. A pair of crows went overhead to the further land, to search the pools for the crusts of a cuttlefish. The jackdaws ate chips and crumbs in the castle courtyard. Archie was lost to the open air of the Menai Straits, connected to my hands by the twitching rope. I waited and watched the sea for the reappearance of the cormorant.
And when the narrow, black head surfaced, it was gripping the slimy sides of a dab. I saw its flatness, the size of a child’s hand. Archie was fighting the fish, wrestling it, manoeuvring it, to bring it round to face the entrance of the throat. I drew in the line, very slowly. Archie continued to juggle the dab, while I took in the line and the bird was pulled towards the beach. Quicker and quicker, and the cormorant approached the shallow water. I went in to the top of my boots, winding the rope around my arm until I could reach forward and seize the bird firmly by the neck. Still Archie was preoccupied with the dab; it seemed oblivious to the rope around its ankle, even to the grip of my hand. The collar constricted its throat just enough to prevent the fish from sliding down. I dumped Archie on the beach and snatched the dab from between its jaws. By the time the bemused bird had found its bearings, peering round at me and again at the water, the fish was in the pocket of my jacket.
‘Good lad, Archie, you daft bird! Go on, try again. There are lots more out there . . .’
Casting a glance at the movement of my jacket pocket, the bird turned back towards the sea and paddled away. I paid out the rope with one hand and felt for the writhing fish with the other. From behind me, on the sea wall, there came a little dry applause, some spectator impressed by my feat. I did not look round, being busy with the tangles of line in the rocks and about my boots, but I managed to take the dab from my pocket and wave it in the air above my head. The clapping became brisker, slowed down and stopped. The fish went into the bag which I had brought with me. By the time I turned to the sea wall, there was no-one there watching, only a few children cycling by.
‘Well done, Archie, you clever bugger!’
I was thrilled. The bird disappeared under the water.
Time and again, over the course of the afternoon, the cormorant surfaced with a fish. And I towed it into the shore. In a couple of hours, the bag was nearly full, with sixteen or seventeen dabs; it wriggled with the mucous exertions of the dying fish. By four o’clock, Archie was exhausted. I carried the bird under one arm and held the bag of fish with my other hand. With the wet rope coiled around my shoulder, I walked back to the van. Archie sat in the crook of my arm, panting. Nobody watched as the collar was removed. From the bag I took the four eels which Archie had caught and fed them to the bird, knocking their heads on the bumper of the van first of all, to make it simpler for the tired cormorant. They rapidly vanished. The light was fading under the beetling sides of the castle.
‘Great work, Archie. You can keep us in flatties for the rest of your career. It’s a deal, OK, eat as many eels as you can catch, hand over the dabs to me, and we’ll forget about your board and lodging . .
We went again to the river mouth at Caernarfon. It was better than ratting in the Nantlle quarries. In any case, I did not want to return there. In a few days, Ann would be home with Harry and perhaps I would not be able to get away fishing. So I thought it best to make the most of this new hobby, hunting with the cormorant. It was gloriously plebeian. As a schoolboy, I had often dreamed of possessing a falcon, learning the ancient laws and traditions of falconry. Now I was reaping pocketfuls of flatfish from the mudbanks of the Menai Straits, seizing them from the beak of the cormorant, alive with bone and gristle. They made a delicious soup, rather coarse and grey, but marvellous with pepper and brown bread. The van stank of fish. My hands were raw from the cold, the salt water and the inevitable contact with Archie’s beak. In the cottage kitchen, there hung the clinging steam of fish broth. And I loved it all, the rusticity of it. I drove the bird from the mountain village to the coast, and I smiled when I thought how I had changed in the few months since leaving the Midlands. What would my old headmaster say if I were to meet him, by some absurd coincidence, in the harbour car park in Caernarfon? I was used to wearing a jacket and tie for school: here I was, parking a smelly van on the quayside, stepping out in tattered jeans and Wellington boots, in such an ancient pullover that big holes had appeared under both arms in spite of Ann’s repeated attention, in a waterproof spotted with fish scales and containing in one pocket the corpse of a forgotten flatfish; to crown the effect of such scruffy clothing, on opening up the back of the van, a dangerous, black villain of a bird would spring out, a cross between a raven and a pelican but most closely resembling a vampire bat (redolent of fish). And the hunt for food: taking the bird with its leash and collar, filling a bag with fresh fish, while other people stood stupidly in a supermarket queue. My beard had improved, I thought: instead of being closely razored under my chin and on my cheeks, I had left it to crawl over my throat and disappear below my ears. The fingernails, which were once so immaculately filed and cleaned, were now neglected. With a frown, I remembered that I had hardly added to my notes for the book during the past week, something I should return to when the business of Christmas and the New Year was over. Meanwhile, I was enjoying the raffish company of the cormorant.
Leaving the boxes of shopping in the van, once more I walked the bird from the castle, over the bridge and down to the beach. It was high tide. There was a choppy sea driving into the Straits, tossing its white crests a hundred yards from the shore and spitting spray when the waves ran against the wooden piles of the jetty. The wind forced the seas along, threw the taste of salt into my beard. I licked my lips and fastened my jacket. It was a raw afternoon. The beach was deserted and the sea wall was empty of pedestrians and cyclists. Nevertheless, Archie braced itself in the breeze, allowing its wings to fall partly open and flutter. The bird seemed as eager as ever to get into the water, so I checked the knot around its ankle and fitted the collar. My hands were a little blue already. I nudged the cormorant away with my boot, unwinding all the rope until it lay around my feet in the grey boulders. Then I jammed my hands deep into pockets, my shoulders hunched against the cold. To me, the sea looked utterly uninviting: it was whipped to a brown cream, it was angry, unhealthy, the white spume scratched from the surface and spent in the bitterness of the afternoon. But Archie set off. The line uncoiled itself. The cormorant looked lower in the water than usual, lost sometimes in the chop and spray. Splendid . . . the specialist hunter unperturbed by the conditions, a pitiless mercenary sent into the field. There was something so icily efficient about the bird, cutting through the waves on a day when the gulls and the crows had sought the shelter of the castle walls. It went down, disappeared from sight. The rope paid out.
‘Good boy, Archie. Do your stuff . .
I turned away from the water, to have my back to the wind. There was nobody walking, it was too cold. The wind tugged at my trouser legs and blew up the hair on the back of my head.
‘Bloody hell . .
I was thinking of the cosy cottage living-room, the log fire, the scent of the Christmas tree and the wood smoke. There would not be much fishing today, however much Archie was enjoying it. Just a few dabs, enough to thicken up yesterday’s soup, and some eels for the hunter. I turned to the sea again, squinting into the wind. I could not see the bird.
‘Come on, come on, it’s freezing out here . .
But I knew it would be murky below the surface, a maelstrom of mud and sand, an underwater haboob. At any moment, Archie would reappear, after an unsuccessful chase. Maybe today there would be no dabs. I would at least have exercised the bird, it would have to eat cat food when we got home. No sign of Archie. The rope was slack about my feet. I reluctantly withdrew my hands from my pockets and bent to pick it up. As I did so, the line began to show above the surface of the water, well downstream, towards the jetty at the mouth of the river. The current had taken the cormorant nearer to the castle. I wound in the line, turning it around my wrist. It grew taut. The rope went away to my right and entered the water quite close to the slimy pillars of the jetty. I pulled tighter. It would not budge.
Quickly striding along the shore towards the bridge over the estuary, I coiled in the line, winding it around my forearm. I broke into a run when I saw the rope disappear into the coffee-coloured sea where it swirled in the legs of the pier. I leaned on the rope, my whole weight on the slender line, until it sang in the cutting wind and the droplets of sea flew from it. The bird was caught somewhere in the currents, with the rope around its ankle, the rope snagged among the weed and slime and barnacles of the wooden columns.
‘Archie, Archie, you bugger . . . where the hell are you?’
Uncoiling the line again, I ran up to the sea wall, vaulting onto the promenade, and sprinted to the jetty. There was an iron gate whose sign forbade entrance to the pier, except to authorised persons. I sprang over and went to the end, trailing the slack line behind me. Then I was directly over the spot where the rope slid into the water. I wound it in and leaned out, fifteen feet above the sea, with the line taut in both my hands. I strained to see. The tide came forcing up the river mouth, throwing back the feeble currents of the river itself. Around the wooden pillars, where they sank beneath the surface, the eddies coiled and hissed like serpents. Bubbles of brown foam were sucked into the whirlpools. Again I leaned on the rope and pulled it upwards with all my strength, until I thought it gave an inch. The water writhed. If the cormorant was there, it was fighting for breath, seeing its own spark extinguished in every silver bubble which burst from its beak.
I threw off my waterproof jacket, snatching the clasp knife from its pocket. Having tied the rope to the railings of the pier, I began to clamber over the barrier, to negotiate a descent through the slimy pillars. Outwards I leaned, looking down between my legs for every footing. There were big iron bolts to grip and to stand on, icy cold to the touch, laden with grease. The wind raced through the stanchions, by my face the rope quivered. Step by step, I made the precarious descent to the surface of the water, stood there with my arms wrapped around the wet wood, breathing heavily. There was no time to spare. Bracing myself against the cold, I stepped down further, the green boots feeling for the next foothold in the racing water. Down and down, with the water now at my knees, at my thighs, while I groped for another step, tugging at my waist and sinking bitter teeth into my stomach . . . the currents around my chest . . . the breath squeezed out of me . . . I gasped and clung to the jetty, there was nowhere further for me to go . . .
Gripping fast, I felt down the rope, first with my hand and then touching the tautness of it with one boot. I plunged my face into the water, one finger pressing my glasses hard against my nose. Again I ducked my head, the aching cold throbbed in my temples and at the base of my neck, my pullover was weighted down with green ice. I leaned down as far as I could with the knife in my left hand and began to saw at the rope. But I knew it was no good, that the currents and the struggles of the bird must have wound the line around the pillar, in and out of the seaweed-slimy bolts of the stanchions, that in straining on the line, in my panic, I must have tightened the tangle of knots, that even the inches it had given from my vantage point above the water were only a clenching of the knots. I worked with the knife. The rope gave. It flew from the surface with the release of tension and dangled from the railings above. But below the water, a boiling of currents gripped at my boots. The rest of the line was fast. And Archie was down there, with the rope around its ankle, among the netted cord.
I began suddenly to shake with the cold. In front of my face, I saw my own hands, blue and bruised, somehow distant, like someone else’s hands. The knife dropped from my fingers, sank into the sea. I felt that I could only stay there, chest deep in the water, that I would be content to wait there, it was too much trouble to raise my heavy boots, the wood and the iron were too cold, I could not make the effort to shift my grip, it was all too complicated, too difficult . . . But, in spite of myself, my knees came up and my feet searched for a higher step. The blue hands went like spiders up the column and found a hold on the jutting bolts. When my waist was clear of the surface, the wind attacked me, seeing me exposed in my streaming clothes. The green boots emerged, glistening, slow, sea-slugs. I crooked my knees to let the water pour out, continued climbing. My eyes came level with the planks of the pier. A few more steps and I was there, leaning on the railing before swinging myself over and collapsing in a heap by the jacket I had left behind. And there I lay, with my eyes shut, with the water running from me, with the grey light of a raw afternoon draining to the gloom of evening.
I must have passed out, exhausted.
For when I awoke, it was twilight. The wind had dropped. I stood up and felt the excruciating ache of cold through my body. Everything was still, the tide had turned and the surface of the water was silken black. There was no disturbance of the inky river. It was a clear, starlit evening. I knew that I must quickly get home and out of the wet clothes, into the bath. Throwing on my jacket, I trudged to the end of the jetty and painfully heaved myself over the gate. The path along the sea wall was deserted. There was nobody on the bridge as I crossed over. Hardly any cars were parked on the quayside, the castle was not lit. It seemed that the town was empty. It was a place of silence. My own footsteps, the squelching of water in my boots, were the only sound beneath the towering walls of the castle. I shuddered and walked on, spotting the van near the edge of the harbour, leaving my trail of wet footprints and sea water dripping from my clothes. The keys were in my pocket. The blue fingers felt for them, still numb from the touch of the sea-smooth wood and the iron bolts. I took out the keys. The jangling of metal broke the silence.
At the sound, Archie stepped from the other side of the van.
I halted. For a moment, the bird stood still, its wings folded. The cormorant and I waited in the twilight. Neither of us moved.
And the bird came forward.
It waddled at first, then it stretched the black wings and sprang along on slapping feet. Archie covered the yards in a series of flaps and leaps, stopped in front of me, beat a pair of damp wings, croaked once, and dropped some twitching thing by my green boots. It was a fish.
My voice was trembling.
‘Thank you, Archie, thank you. Where the hell did you get to, you daft bugger?’
The cormorant croaked again and folded its wings. When I reached out and touched its head, I felt it was wet. Archie nuzzled my hand, as affectionate as a dog. In a spasm, the fish arched at my feet. I bent down, picked it up and put it in my pocket.
‘Good lad . . .’
There was no rope around the bird’s ankle. The collar was there on its throat. We started towards the van.
And from somewhere in the dark sky, there came a little dry applause. Someone, some spectator, was clapping, slow, sarcastic applause, increasing in speed and intensity, slowing, stopping. The clapping stopped.
I craned my neck and looked up at the castle. My head swam. Among the battlements, leaning over and applauding the reunion of man and cormorant, celebrating the gift of the fish, the silhouette of a man was there against the bright stars. The figure was still. No more clapping. The figure was entirely dark, until there was a movement of an arm, a hand went up to the head, and a pinprick of golden light glowed for a brief moment. My neck was throbbing, my eyes stinging with water.
The man vanished into the blackness of the battlements.
And falling through the air, as bright as a comet against the castle wall, falling, falling, falling, to disappear in a shower of sparks on the rocks of the dry moat . . . the butt of a discarded cigar.
In a stupor of cold and shock, man and cormorant drove through the suburbs of Caernarfon, into the foothills, and climbed into the mountains of Snowdonia. Archie sat on the front seat, as still as iron, like a dark ruin of twisted metal. I drove quickly at first, gripping the wheel with whitened knuckles, then began to slow down when we had left the town. Perhaps I had seen something that my son had seen, something which had mesmerised the little boy as he looked through the window of the bus in the town square. What had Harry seen in the garden that night? Was the cormorant alone in the backyard? What else was included in the inheritance? I shuddered, as I had shuddered in the crumbling offices of the quarry, as the tremor of fear had run down my spine at the sound of clapping, at the spark which tumbled from the battlements of the castle. The presence of a grey man fell over me, cold as the snow which would soon envelop the mountains.
But there remained a few days before Ann would return from Derby, when Archie would go back to the security of its reinforced cage. There could still be expeditions to fish for dabs; I would be more careful to watch the weather and tides. I felt my bones aching, the water from my clothes had run onto the car seat and onto the floor. More and more, I was shaking uncontrollably, my teeth beginning to chatter. The heater whirred at full blast, the inside of the van was warm and the windows steamed up, but, until I could get out of my clothes and into the bath, I was desolate. Faster and faster I drove. Still Archie seemed paralysed, a statue of a cormorant. Parking right outside the front door of the cottage, I struggled briefly with the key and flung myself into the living-room. The bird came lamely through, silent, numb.
I built the fire, using three fire-lighters to make a quick blaze from the gritty coal before laying a well-dried log on the top. The bath was running. I left Archie in front of the rising flames while I threw off my clothes and scampered into the bathroom. It was wonderfully steamed up, I straightaway felt the soothing heat on my face and in my chest. In a moment, after that glorious agony of sinking into the scalding water, I lay back and allowed the heat to creep into every fibre of my body. I submerged my head: the chill in my skull was quenched, the ache at the base of my neck was extinguished. I must have slept for an hour in my drenched clothes, on the jetty. In that time, nobody had passed and noticed me there, it was not an evening for the casual stroller. Now I dozed in the warmth and steam of my bath.
And in my dream, I was at the graveside of another family funeral. Looking down through drizzle-dappled glasses, I could see my own feet in their funeral shoes, a long way away, as though I was towering above them, a giant’s-eye view of black shoes in the wet grass. I could hear the droning voice of the minister, familiar words which failed to drown the sound of soil falling from a spade onto the lid of a coffin. Raining . . . it was always raining at those family funerals. And who was it this time? One of the innumerable aunts or uncles, a foreign cousin flown back from Canada or New Zealand? I did not look into the grave. I continued to study the distant feet and listen to the patter of earth against the wood. Next to my own shoes, to my left, another pair, bigger, wider, an old-fashioned pair of black, laced-up boots, well polished, well used. On the heavy toe-caps, big drops of rain stood and trembled, supported by the thickness of the polish. They made my own feet seem slight, unimportant, the overwhelming presence of those boots. Still not looking up, I saw the legs of a dark suit close to my legs. It was raining harder. Pools were forming in the grass. The voice was blurred by the sound of rain. And to my right, another pair of feet: black, webbed feet, the cormorant standing respectfully at the graveside. I looked into the grave. There was a tiny coffin, the coffin of a little child, almost covered with brown mud. The rhythmic movement of the spade, the gathering puddles . . . the voices grew, together with the sounds of stone on stone as the spade threw in its layers of rubble and gravel. And the coffin disappeared. The images faded in the increasing rain, but the noises remained: the knocking, the voices, growing and growing until I was awake and shivering in my lukewarm bath . . .
In the living-room, Archie was moving about. I could hear the blundering passage of its wings, something was knocked over with a thud, some books or a lamp. There was the sound of a car outside the front door, voices, arousing the cormorant from its fireside slumber. I heard the bird shift from perch to perch, its clumsy progress from the table to the armchair, onto the back of the sofa. Quickly I stood up in the water and reached for a towel. Without beginning to dry myself, I wound it around my waist and went through into the living-room.
Archie was wide awake, bristling like a panther. Every feather was electric with the tension of listening for the new voices. It stood bolt upright on the sofa and creaked with nerves. Someone was at the front door, a figure dimly outlined through the frosted glass. The cormorant cried and lifted its tail. A stream of yellow shit spattered across the furniture. I whirled at the bird.
‘Bugger off, you bloody revolting creature, for Christ’s sake! What’s the matter with you?’
Wet and furious, I flung out an arm at the bird’s face and caught it on the side of the beak. Archie toppled from the back of the sofa, onto the lamp which it had knocked off the table. There was a welt of blood on my hand from the impact with the cormorant’s bill. The towel came loose. As I tucked it in at the waist, smearing the blood across my stomach and over the pink towel, the bird gathered itself. The head was snaking, it flailed the dagger beak. More books came tumbling down and a log collapsed from the fire onto the hearth as Archie moved over the carpet. I lashed out with my bare foot, but the bird seized a corner of the towel and sprang away with one powerful beat of its wings. Shaking with cold and uncontrollable rage, I stood there, stark naked, dripping wet, streaked with blood. The cormorant retreated to the far shadows of the room, to worry the towel as though it were dealing with a conger eel.
‘Filthy bird! Fuck off or I’ll kill you . . .’
The front door opened behind me.
Ann and Harry stepped into the room.
‘Christ almighty . . .’
(To be continued…)