A Big Fuck Off Bird
I went on holiday and it was alright. Plenty of beachy stuff like sun, seaweed and "interesting" stones, ice cream cones with chocolate sauce, and daily shivering dips in the bracing British waters. It was a Blue Flag beach which meant we could emerge teeth-chatteringly chilled without gills, webbed feet or that Ready-brek glow that says: nuclear reactor.
We ate a lot of sea-food, local specialities like crab, cockles, whelks, and chips of course, which like the holiday were cheap and tasty, but this seemed odd because, for some bizarre reason, an entire tribe of traditional Jews were also holidaying on this part of the non-kosher English east coast. Unlike everyone else, who invariably greeted you with a smile and a gentle "hello", these strangely flapping black and white men with ringlets and glasses and enormous hats kept their eyes fixed on some far distant point as they dragged objects to and from the sand. Shaven-headed women wore bizarre vellure sculpted bonnets in supernova colours with close-fitting dresses sporting large, gaudy prints designed to attract only their ilk and to scare everyone else including their children, who seemed impossibly normal, although they were sunbathing and playing beach games in full time-warp dress.
Mostly, we lived in a tent in the woods, and for once, I wasn't eaten alive. GGF however, being made of sweeter meat, was attacked. Note to self: always camp with someone tastier than you. It was fun to replace the wake-up sirens and eternal traffic grind of London's streets with nature's own audio nonsense. It took ear-plugs to get a decent kip once the woodpigeons started up at dawn.
There was a large hill up behind us. To get to it you had to climb a rusting metal gate which had been completely overgrown by rhododendrons, brave nettles and brambles tearing at sun-blessed flesh. One morning I woke around 7am and lay still under canvas, listening to the coroo-coroo-coroo-coroo of the woodpigeons. As pleasant dreams of a calm, predictable life receded, I acknowledged a physical obligation to my bladder, and began the somewhat laborious process of getting out of the sleeping bag and into my shorts without standing up. I could hear a small bird very nearby, in the bush immediately behind the tent.
Being preoccupied with my emergence and then releasing a splendid arc of gold which scintillated in the morning sun, it was some 60 seconds or so before I realised that the small bird, which I could clearly see darting about in triangles between a tree, a bush and a shrub, had actually been saying something.
It's not usual for birds to communicate in English, and as I carefully finished, I looked around to get a proper look at the flighty creature, which was brown, non-descript and determinedly cussing something or other.
"Utter crap. Utter, complete and total bollocks! Rubbish. Tosh. Total and utter crap. Crap!"
I waited another second. GGF was still asleep in the tent and I felt like waking her to verify this extraordinary occurrence, but instead, I cleared my morning throat, and said directly in the direction of the bush where the bird was now perched,
"Oh!" said the bird, audibly annoyed, "you are up for a chat now then?"
"Well I've only just woken up, but yes," I said, amused. "What is crap?"
"Well!" said the bird, self-importantly, "If you can get your brain to work this early in the day, the concept that only humans know of their mortality, for one. What arrogance! Arrogance! Of course we have a concept of death. What do you think we are, automatons with no culture? Jesus wept!"
I started to chuckle, and at this, the bird flew around in small circles.
"You wouldn't laugh if you knew better! Oh no!" it chirped.
I was still trying to understand how this exchange was happening, and quite what had happened to reality; but events seemed to have that unbroken continuity that only life or vivid dreams possess, and the scene maintained itself effortlessly, so I just accepted it. Sitting here now, granted its a crazy thing, but, in the wood, it was as real as toast.
"I have never held a firm position on that," I replied, soothingly, "and in any case, science creates more questions than answers. For answers, I tend to look elsewhere."
"You write, don't you?" asked the bird, cocking its head on one side.
"Yes I do," I replied.
At that moment, there emitted a long, dark note, something between a metal hinge and a buzz saw, from the direction of the hilltop. The small bird immediately ceased its chatter and hopped up onto a branch so that it was at head height directly opposite me.
Whispering, as if we might punished for talking too loudly, the bird said, "OK mate, you seem to have all the patter. If you think you're hard enough, go and ask Big Fuck Off Bird what he thinks about your pathetic attachment to human language."
I couldn't help stifling a laugh, but I didn't want to offend my irritable friend, who somehow knew me well.
"OK. That was him, right?"
"That was him. Straight up the hill, can't miss him. Mind your back!"
With this, the small bird darted upwards and disappeared, and on cue, another harsh call echoed down the valley.
There was something very serious about the note which had sounded, it had strength, gravity, an authority about it that would not be brooked. I was in two minds about making the journey through the undergrowth in my shorts and sandals, towards a creature who, by the sounds of it, was a far more formidable prospect. Still, the past ten minutes had been so astonishing that I could not resist. I put on a shirt so that I would not feel quite so vulnerable, climbed over the gate, and stepped immediately into stinging nettles which raised red bumps on my ankles as I waded and crunched my way to a path I could see leading up the hill.
I was entering a green prison, much darker than the clearing under the trees where we camped, and still cold, with occasional splashes of warm sunlight illuminating the valley floor, falling through many thick oak branches above.
After a minute or two, the way became easier, although the land was steeper. My ankles were stinging and I had bramble scratches all over my calves. I rounded a particularly large trunk, and caught my first sight of the top, as I heard the low, loud, harsh cry of the Big Fuck Off Bird once again. I was paying so much attention to avoiding being flayed by fauna, that I had not thought that much about what I might expect at the summit, but as I grew near, I realised that this was indeed perhaps a stupid thing to do. I had not told GGF where I was going - presumably she was still fast asleep back in the tent - perhaps I was being lured away from her! Momentarily I panicked, and nearly turned back, but then I heard that dark cry once again, and this time, it was almost intelligible. Torn, for a moment I looked back, then looked up.
Five yards up a final steep bank, and I would see the summit, and presumably this creature.
I scrambled up the sandy, leaf-covered earth, grabbing some exposed roots for balance, and I saw, in a tall cedar tree, on a low branch, the bird that my earlier companion had encouraged me to find. It could have been an oversized crow; its feathers had a metallic blue-black sheen, and it seemed to have its yellow eye fixed in the opposite direction. Slowly I approached as the summit gentled, until I came within fifteen yards of what really was a very Big Fuck Off Bird.
I was wondering what to do next when the bird began to speak.
"Drivel!" it said. The word was suprising.
"Pardon?" I asked, suprised.
"Drivel!" it replied again. The word was dry, hollow.
"Drivel?" I asked. The word was irresistable.
"Drivel!" said the Big Fuck Off Bird. The word was a crackling fire consuming all pretension.
"OK then," I said.
I waited, but the bird did not move, and said nothing more.
I let the sun warm my limbs, and stood in a wordless space, confronted by my own lack of response to this emphatically avian judgement.
I had some questions I could have asked, like, what was the essential difference between humans and creatures, did creatures really have culture as we know it, with accumulated knowledge being passed down through generations, did all sentient beings possess a true understanding of their own mortality, is there any way at all in which the coming mass extinction event can be avoided, and, how come I could understand and converse with birds all of a sudden. But the questions stuck in my throat, because in my heart, I knew that the Big Fuck Off Bird was right. Drivel. The word was like a nail driven smack into a water pipe, and now my mind was leaking. It was leaking drivel.
The bird had fallen silent. I was hungry and thirsty. Remembering the advice of my small bird friend, I didn't turn my back on the Big Fuck Off Bird, and walked backwards to depart, as if in the presence of royalty, just in case, until I was back in the undergrowth and down the hill quite a way.
As I neared the tent, the small bird appeared on a branch.
"Well?" it asked.
"Drivel," I replied.
"You got it," said the bird.
"Why go up the hill and ask the Big Fuck Off Bird though? I could have come to that conclusion myself with a lot less effort!" I asked.
"You know what that is?" asked the bird.
"Drivel!" came the answer, and the bird flew away laughing, full of itself for having explained nothing at all, which, after all, is a mighty achievement for a small brown bird.