Bird, Man, Dog by Sean Baker
It was a cold, miserable day in mid-December when Thomas first tried trapping a sea bird. He was wandering the beach, as he did most days, when he spotted a washed-up piece of fishing net. He crouched down like those African bushmen he'd seen on television, bending his knees and lowering his backside to just above the wet sand. He examined the net, sniffed it, its ancient fishy scent making his nose wrinkle and he brushed the back of his hand across his nose, prickling it with sand. (Sand was never far from his skin. He always left a silt in the bath. His mum would take hers first – she told him there was no way did she want to bathe in his sandy water. So he was always having to put up with her whiskery water, her shavings gathering by the edges. He may have been clean when he got out the bath and clean when he went to bed, he may have been clean when he got up in the morning and went to school; but by the time he was home again, he was sand-grubby, or dirt-sweat stained and his mum always said how he smelt of the sea. – You were probably a fucking dolphin in a previous life, she once said. And he asked her: – what previous life? And she said: – It’s just an expression for fuck's sake. But then he wondered what was a previous life anyway.)
The edges of the netting were frayed and straggled. A gull was walking and pecking nearby and he threw the net towards it, but the gull did a little hop, avoiding it as it landed softly nearby. Thomas picked up the net, the gull head-nodding away, and tossed it higher in the air, so it would drop on the gull, but as the edge of the netting brushed its wing, the gull skipped, wings flapping, with a screech of annoyance.
Thomas brushed his hair from his eyes. His brown hair was long and home to lice and the winter wind whipping off the North Sea was messing it like when his mum used to blow-dry it, and he would close his eyes to stop them watering. She didn’t do it any more. He was glad she didn’t, his hair just dried naturally and he liked that better.
He sat on the beach and pushed a pebble into the wet sand. On the horizon the side view of a huge tanker sitting still. The sea was grey like his bathwater and the white horses – reminding him of his mum’s ice cream moustache when they sat on the bench on the cliff when he was smaller – were trotting to the shore. He examined his piece of net, stretched out the holes as far as he could, testing its strength, thinking. He picked up a pebble and threw it towards a tern a few yards away. He missed, and the tern didn’t react. He picked up another pebble and found a loose strand of fibre dangling off the end of his net and tied on the pebble. He threw the net towards the same tern and caught the bird a glancing blow on the back and the bird took off. Thomas watched it drift upwards, carried by the wind. It called, to no-one or no thing in particular, just a squeaky screech that Thomas had heard a thousand times before, a ‘hey, hey’ of annoyance.
He retrieved his net and tied more pebbles to the edges of it. When he had used up all the loose strands, he flung it towards the sea and watched it fly through the air, unaffected by the wind. It landed with a clack clack clack amongst rocks and pebbles and empty shells and he looked round to see if anyone else was as impressed as he was. But there was no-one.
He went along the shore, kicking at pebbles, kicking at sand, away from the town centre, hurling his trapping net at any seabird close enough, missing his target, running after it, retrieving it and trying again. He looked up at the sky and decided it was getting dark, so he turned towards the red cliffs and the path that led up to the top, and headed home.
Home was four rooms he shared with his mum in a Hunstanton back street. They had the ground floor flat and above them lived loud people, always stomping, shouting and screaming. One room was a kitchen, one a sitting room, one a bedroom, one a bathroom. He let himself in with the key hidden under the half brick by the doorstep. He put his net in the red and yellow plastic lego box under his side of the bed, before going into the kitchen and reading the note held onto the fridge door with an ice cream shaped magnet. 'fish fingers and smileys'. He looked at the calendar. Written in the boxes headed Thursday and Friday was '4–12'. Saturday's box had 'Graham, here, 8'. He hated when Graham visited. Saturday nights were when his mum didn’t work and Thomas used to cuddle her on the sofa until he fell asleep and she’d carry him to bed. Now he had to stay on the sofa whenever Graham visited. But at least he could keep the television on and watch whatever he liked.
He switched on the oven, went into the sitting room and hit the television remote. He kicked off his shoes. Two brothers in love with the same girl (according to the rolling caption) were shouting at each other, fingers jabbing, audience clapping. He turned up the volume to drown out the screaming coming from the flat upstairs.
The next morning, he was woken by his mum pushing and nudging as her alarm sounded. He had to clamber over her and she grunted as his knees caught her in the middle somewhere. He poured himself some cereal and milk, and switched on the television. Ten minutes later, opening the curtains, he saw snow covering everything.
School was closed for the day and he walked through the cliff-top park, slushing the fresh snow with his shoes, net dangling from his pocket. He saw a pigeon. A grey-green-blue pigeon, plump. It was by a tree, the melting snow from the branches spattering the ground beneath and odd blades of grass poking through.
Thomas crouched down. The pigeon had its back to him and was pecking around. Between pecks it would raise its head, listen, look, before moving another pace or two and pecking again. Thomas stayed behind the pigeon, edging ever closer, net in cold hand, feet shovelling the snow as he slid, backside hovering just above the snow, occasionally dipping down, wetting his seat. A slow rise, one foot in front of the other for balance, clasping the net tight, ready to frisbee it at the pigeon. Thomas launched the net with a flick of the wrist and his body lurched forward. One pebble caught the pigeon on the side of the head, and it stumbled.
It was half crouched under the net, in a ring of pebbles, wings outstretched, eyes like black glass. It was making that caroo-caroo sound he’d heard so many times, though never this close before.
He stamped on its head. He felt his eyes sting when he saw what he had done, saw the blood-pink snow. He knelt down and touched the breast – warm and soft – and stroked it. He wondered what to do next. He felt his tummy churn.
He hid it under a bush, covered it in snow and walked along the path of the park on the cliff overlooking the North Sea. The wind gusted and he stumbled. He shivered and kept his head down when a man and woman walked past him. He heard them tut and wondered if he should tell them there was no school today, that it was all the snow’s fault.
He went down the steps between the raised beds covered in snow and onto the pavement. Grown-ups gripping little kids’ hands, or pushing pushchairs, passed him as he reached the bowling alley.
A man was sitting on the pavement, his legs outstretched, ankles crossed. He was leaning back against the plate glass of the alley, a dog lying by him, its head on the man's lap. The dog was stretched out and Thomas could make out its ribs. The man had a cigarette in his mouth, pointing down like it was stuck there. His blue hood half hid his face which was grey-stubbled and grainy like sandy driftwood. The man was staring straight ahead at the deserted bandstand opposite. He asked the man if he had matches. The man ignored him.
– You got matches? Thomas repeated.
The man looked up. Thomas wondered if he didn't understand English, so he cupped an imaginary matchbox and struck an imaginary match.
The man took the cigarette from his mouth and stubbed it on the pavement. A quiet sizzle as it sank into the slushed ice.
– You got a fag, have yer? he asked.
– Don't smoke, said Thomas.
– What you want matches for then?
– I got a pigeon.
The man’s eyes narrowed.
– It’s dead.
– You kill it? said the man.
– I didn’t mean to, said Thomas.
– You gonna set fire to it? said the man. Destroy the evidence?
Thomas shrugged again.
– Seems a waste of a good pigeon to me, said the man.
– I saw someone on telly cook one last week.
– They’re very tasty, pigeons.
– We could cook it.
– How you gonna do that?
Gulls above them yelped, hanging on the winter thermals. Thomas's teeth clickered and he tightened his body.
– Don't know, he said.
– We could share it, said the man.
The dog raised its head, yawning, baring its yellow teeth. Its nose twitched in several directions, twitch twitch twitch.
– It's in the park, said Thomas, turning his head towards the sea front.
The man stood up. Thomas took a step back and the dog sniffed around his feet, up and down his legs. Thomas stroked the top of its head.
– Come on then young 'un, gruffed the man.
They walked towards the park.
– What's yer name? asked the man.
– Whatcha doing out on yer own?
The man raised his chin. Thomas wondered about the man's mouth and how small it looked. His cheeks and nose and chin all seemed to be drawn towards it as though it was slowly sucking in his whole face. His lips were thin, hardly there at all really, like when Thomas drew a pencil line and then rubbed it out but you could still just see it. The dog drank from a melting pool in the road by the kerb.
– I've never had pigeon, said Thomas.
– By the looks of yer, you ain't had much of anything.
– I have nuggets most nights.
The dog walked with them, tail swinging.
– What's its name? asked Thomas.
– Just call it Dog.
– Doesn't it mind?
– It's a dog.
– I think pets should have a name.
Thomas couldn't think of an answer to this so he kept quiet.
They reached the park and Thomas ran ahead to retrieve his pigeon. Dog ran too, overtaking him, his nose leading him straight to the spot and he pushed his nose into the snow. A shout from the man made Dog look up and he slowly sat, breath steaming from his panting tongue, his wagging tail brushing the snow behind him. Thomas picked up the pigeon by the feet and showed it to the man. The man took it.
– Good and plump, he said. We'll take it down the beach.
– It's more private.
They walked down the tarmac ramp to the beach and the man led them to the foot of the cliffs.
– First thing you have to do is pluck it, he said. You ever done that?
Thomas shook his head. The man brushed snow off a rock, revealing red stone, and sat close to the cliff-face. Dog wandered among the rocks and pebbles, his nose leading him here and there.
The man tugged at the wing feathers and they came away with a quiet crack. He pulled at the smaller, fluffier feathers underneath and Thomas began to see grey-blue flesh around one wing. The man did the same with the other wing, releasing the feathers as he pulled them. Thomas watched the feathers fly away, higher and higher. He picked a random feather to watch, trying to follow its swirling path as it got higher and higher, further and further. Dog barked at the gulls above its head and they screeched back. Thomas listened to the battle of bark and screech.
– Are you watching? said the man. I'm doing this for both of us, you know.
Thomas squatted and folded his arms, shoulders hunched.
– What's your name? he asked.
Thomas frowned. Breast feathers were swirling all round them and Thomas caught one and blew it off his palm.
– I can't guess, said Thomas. It could be anything.
– Could be. But it ain't. Now, see how I do this? Pull em out gentle. It's very important not to tear the flesh, see.
– Can I try?
The man handed Thomas the pigeon and Thomas tugged at the downy feathers. They came away from the breast in bunches and Thomas laughed as he tugged.
They finished plucking and the man took a knife from inside his coat. It had a big blade, shiny. The man placed the carcass on the rock and held out a wing. He chopped down hard and made a sawing movement to get through the bone. He flipped the pigeon over and repeated the action with the other wing.
– Now we cut off the feet.
He tossed the pigeon feet away and stretched the neck out along the rock.
– You made a mess of its head, he said.
– Didn't know how to kill it, said Thomas. So I stamped on it.
– Good a way as any.
The man cut off the head, close to the body, and lobbed it into the snow nearby. He called to Dog. Dog bounded towards them and his nose found the head, all blood and staring eyes and crushed bone. He licked it, grabbed it, tossed it into his mouth, crunching and swallowing.
The man cut just below the breastbone.
– This is what Dog's waiting for, he said.
He pushed two fingers deep into the pigeon, feeling in the bloody darkness. He pulled his fingers back and the slimy, blood-brown innards spilled onto the rock. He dived his fingers back in and flicked out the heart and lungs. He gathered the guts and threw them to Dog.
– Your hand's all bloody, said Thomas.
– Dog'll lick that clean.
He held out his hand. Dog had swallowed the innards in a single gulp and was sniffing the snow and pebbles around. His nose found the man's outstretched hand and he licked it clean, licking his lips when he finished, drool dripping onto the snowy sand.
The man opened his pack and took out a small saucepan.
– Fill this with snow and mind you don't get any sand in it.
Clambering, Thomas scraped snow from the rocks into the pan. When he turned back, he saw the man was walking to the snow's edge, where the sea had melted the snowfall and the beach was visible. Thomas followed him.
The man had put down his pack by a barnacled groyne and gathered some rocks into a ring.
– Are we cooking it now? said Thomas.
– Sit yourself down there.
Thomas sat on the cold, damp sand. Dog nudged him, its nose on his cheek. Thomas scruffed its head and let Dog sniff all round his face and neck. The man took a camping stove out of his pack and set it in the middle of the rocks. He lit the stove and put the pan of snow on it.
– How long will it take? asked Thomas.
– Take about forty minutes I reckon. Snow's got to melt, then boil, then we cook the taters.
– What about the pigeon?
The man reached in his pack and took out a small frying pan.
– We'll cook em in this, won't take long. I like em pink.
The man tossed Thomas two potatoes and held out his knife.
– Peel these.
– Never peeled potatoes before, said Thomas.
– You wouldn't survive long on yer own would yer?
– I'm a fast learner.
The man grinned and sliced rough chunks of skin off one potato.
– Now you try, he said. Move the knife away from yer or you'll end up cutting yerself.
Thomas swiped the knife across the potato and a large chunk landed on the sand.
– That's your bit, said the man. Not so hard, remember you just want the skin off.
Thomas tried again and another lump, similar sized, fell onto the sand.
– Give it here, said the man. Or we'll starve.
When the potatoes were peeled and cut, the man put them on top of his pack and picked up the pigeon.
– Just need to the cut the breasts off this, he said.
He rested the body on his lap and Thomas watched him slowly slide his knife around the pigeon, cutting away two breasts.
The man dropped the small chunks of potato into the pan of boiling water, then began rolling a cigarette.
– Want one? he asked Thomas.
Thomas shook his head and said:
– Where do you live?
– Wherever I want. Everywhere.
– Sounds like fun.
– You reckon?
Thomas thought about this. He thought about home and his mum and how it wasn’t the same any more.
– Have you always lived like this?
The man concentrated on his roll-up, licking the paper. He struck a match in cupped hands and lit it.
– Not always.
– Why do you?
– Why do I what?
– Live everywhere.
– You ever think maybe I have no choice?
Thomas wondered if he’d seen the man before but then decided he’d have remembered Dog, so figured he probably hadn’t.
– I want to live everywhere, said Thomas.
– Everywhere? Or anywhere but home?
Thomas said nothing.
– I don't think you would, said the man.
– Why not?
– Freezing your bollocks off every night? I'd rather have what you got, a place to go home to. Warm is it?
– Suppose so.
– Live with your mum and dad?
– Just mum.
– She look after you?
– A bit. I guess. She’s got Graham now, so . . .
– Oh she’s got Graham has she?
Thomas stared at the pan boiling the potatoes. He could feel the heat coming from the steam and from the stove.
– How do you know when they’re done? he said.
– But how?
The man rubbed his hands together, his fingers locked, the cigarette stuck to his bottom lip.
– You poke them with a knife, he said. If the knife goes in easy, they’re done.
The man finished his cigarette, and flicked the end over the groyne.
– Who’s this Graham then? said the man.
Thomas dug in the sand with a pebble, said nothing. With his other hand he stroked Dog, who was curled up by his feet, next to the stove.
– Can I come with you? said Thomas.
– Come where?
The man checked the potatoes in the pan, poking the tip of his knife into them.
– Remember, I never asked you, he said.
Thomas played with the pebble in the sand some more.
– I know, he said.
The man picked up a pebble of his own and tossed it into the sand near Thomas. He picked up and another and tossed it the other side of Thomas. Dog barked.
– What would yer mum say? said the man.
– Don't know.
The man continued tossing more pebbles, some over Thomas’s head, splatting on the sand behind him, some landing in front, at his feet.
– You’re in a circle of stones now, said the man.
He leant forward and Thomas met his eyes.
– Surrounded, said the man.
And he laughed, coughed and laughed. Dog raised his head and barked.
– Have yer got a coin?
Thomas reached in his pocket, felt a fifty pence piece. He handed it to the man.
– What do you want it for?
The man balanced it on the back of his thumb, the thumb tucked under his forefinger.
– If it’s heads yer go back ‘ome.
– What if it’s tails?
The man swung his arm round towards the sea.
– Then it’s everywhere isn’t it? he said.
He spun the coin into the air and they both watched it skywards and followed it to its wet landing on the sand.
– I want a name, said Thomas.
– You’ve got a name.
– A different name.
Both were silent before the man said:
– Well, he's Dog, so you can be Boy.
– Boy's boring.
The man stroked his stubbly chin.
– Well yer small as a sparrer, legs like twigs. How about bird?
– I like bird.
– Bird it is then.
- end -