Those Charming Birds by Hannah Retallick

I left the house as soon as the rain cleared. St Ives harbour was empty. As far as my creaky body would allow, I rushed to be there before anyone else had a chance to respond to the change of weather. There was a twinge in my hips which threatened to bring me to a standstill, but I managed to reach the barrier and lean forward, peering over it as I did when I was younger. The tide was out, the sand wet and puddled. Gulls flew over my head ready for a day of pillaging and plundering, the pirates of the promenade. My late wife used to call them sky rats. 

I had only been standing there for a moment, inhaling the fresh air, when I noticed an approaching figure in a striking red anorak. An old woman. Well, perhaps not as old as I.  

She smiled at me, her eyes open to conversation. My father always told me that I must greet passing strangers even if I were in no mood for it. He said it’s what makes us British – I think it’s what makes us human. 

“Good morning,” I said.  

“Yes, it is,” she replied, stopping. “A very good morning.” 

“Well, now the rain has stopped, it is.”  

“It always was,” she said, laughing. “Good for ducks before, and good for us now!” 

I couldn’t help breaking into a smile. “I suppose you’re right. I’m Fred.”  

“Margaret.” 

Margaret and I sat down on the nearest bench. It was rather damp from the rain and unlike hers, my coat was not long enough to cover my bottom, so I would certainly have a wet patch. We had a good laugh about that. She told me that she visits St Ives for a month every year, choosing June because there are fewer tourists around than in August, say, and it tends to be nicer weather. We had a good laugh about that too.  

“I realise that today might not be such a good example,” she said. “Although at least it isn’t cold.” 

I told her that I’ve lived in St Ives since my wife died three years ago and how I love being here because it was one of the first places we came on holiday as a young married couple. My wife and I both hated the sky rats though – nothing but trouble, stealing ice creams from poor young children. 

“Oh, I find them rather charming,” said Margaret. “They’re part of the experience, don’t you think? They represent the sea. How quiet it would be without them squawking and pitter-pattering on the roof!” 

“They damage roofs, you know. Horrible things.” 

She broke eye contact and looked to the horizon. 

 “Hmm, I think it might be becoming a good morning for ducks again,” I said, peering up at the darkening clouds above. 

She turned back to me. “Yes, oh dear.”  

“Shall we find cover?” I asked. 

Margaret stood up. “A coffee, perhaps?” 

We entered the nearby Harbour Café, narrowly avoiding a downpour. The café was only just opening. We were served by a smiling girl (young woman, I should say), who was tying a navy-blue apron around her waist. We stood while she made our drinks. Margaret ordered a black coffee and I had a frothy cappuccino, sprinkled with a chocolate powder. I paid for both. Margaret picked hers up and headed towards the table at the open front of the café, but the young woman insisted on carrying mine. Was I really that old! 

“It’s just because you hesitated,” said Margaret. “You must grab and run, and then you keep your youth and dignity.” 

“Hmm, my running days are over.” 

“Metaphorically, obviously.” Margaret hung her coat on the back of the seat. 

“So, tell me more about yourself. Are you married?” I asked. She hadn’t removed her gloves, so I couldn’t see her ring finger. 

“No, I’m not. I never have been.” She drew the rim of her mug up to her lips, cupped with both hands. 

“Oh. Did you want to be?” I felt my cheeks heat up. “In the past, I mean.” 

“Hmm. Maybe.” She paused and took a sip of her drink. “I’m not one to mope though, Fred. There was no one I was particularly interested in, so I got on with other things.” 

“Like?” 

“Like travelling.” 

“How interesting! I can’t say I’ve been to many places. I didn’t have the nerve when I was a young man…and then before I blinked, I had a wife and three young children. We barely managed holidays to the Lake District!” 

“Bless. Well, it’s not too late.” 

“I’m afraid it might be.” 

She smiled. “Never.” 

The deepest lines on her face were around her eyes and mouth; a lifetime of laughter carved into her skin.  

“Can I not plead limited mobility as an excuse?” I asked. 

“No.” 

“Which countries have you been to?” 

“All over. France, Italy, Greece, Estonia, Albania, Egypt, Canada, Tanzania, Australia, New Zealand…The list goes on.” 

“Goodness. Where would you recommend for an old guy with limited mobility, if he were to suddenly find the spirit of adventure?” 

“Given your aversion to sea birds, nowhere on the coast! You could always take a short city break. Paris, perhaps?” 

I escaped to the French capital for a moment. Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, smells of cheese and garlic and freshly cooked bread. Boat trips along the Seine with a loved one, holding hands and sitting in silence because nothing needed to be said. 

I returned to St Ives and was suddenly overwhelmed by a peaceful contentment. A workman walked by, munching on a breakfast bap, and some of it fell. Two birds braved the drizzle and descended, as though they had a radar for dropped food. They began to fight, a squawking fray! I glanced at Margaret and she smiled. It was like being in the front row of the theatre. We sat in silence because nothing needed to be said. 

The fickle sun reappeared. We finished our drinks and threw a ‘thank you’ to the young woman as we left the café. I looked at my watch, surprised by how quickly the time had passed. It was midmorning. 

“Thank you for the coffee,” she said. 

“You’re very welcome.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek. It was soft and smooth. “Thank you for your company.” 

“It was nice to meet you,” she said. 

“Perhaps I’ll bump into you again sometime,” I said. 

“Perhaps you will. I come down here most mornings.” 

“It’s looking to be a nice one tomorrow. Very nice. I might bring my camera.” 

“Lovely.” Margaret smiled, yet again. What a wonderfully warm smile! 

 She stood looking at me, as though reluctant to leave. “Watch out!” she said, suddenly. 

I ducked as a seagull flew over my head, so close that I could feel my scalp tingle. It sang, joyfully, to the other gulls and they seemed to be performing a dance, swooping up and down, around and about, sailing on the sea breeze.  

“Yes, I see what you mean about the birds,” I said, eventually, head raised to the sky. “There is something charming about them, isn’t there?”

Hannah Retallick is a twenty-seven-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, before passing her Creative Writing MA with a Distinction. She was shortlisted in the Writing Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019, the Cambridge Short Story Prize, the Henshaw Short Story Competition June 2019, the Bedford International Writing Competition 2019, and the Crossing the Tees book festival competition. https://ihaveanideablog.wordpress.com/

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