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Always seagulls in this town, crossing the road, and we were in a rush too, but there was a big black car about to pass. Waited for it to go by but it stopped. So we stopped too, on the pavement with the seagulls. We stood there, me and the children and the seagulls, waiting, and I saw a couple of people I’d once known, waiting too, and I wondered if it could be you in that coffin, in that car.
There were the nights 15 years ago when we’d sit up late with you talking about being in London, going to restaurants, thinking you were the Queen. We never went to London or to restaurants. Loved your stories of being the Queen in London restaurants. You talked about the police, about the hospital, too. We took acid sometimes, me and Sylvie, and one time thought we’d probably gone mad. So we decided to find you for your expert opinion on the matter. We found you walking at the top of the high street among the seagulls, wearing your suit and bushy beard, looking like a fisherman going for a job interview. We took you down an alley for a confidential consultation, and you said we’d have to wait and see.
Later, flicking through social media, I learned it was your funeral that day. The hearse had stopped at your favourite place in town, near the bench where you’d sit feeding the seagulls.
I live in London now, but I come back to this town in holidays and I see people from the past, in coffins or in pubs, dead or very red, selling pasties or driving by, shouting my name through the seagulls, and the tide is coming in, and the seaweed, and who were we and who are we now, and what happened?
All night, in this town, I hear the seagulls. At 3.23am the five-year-old shouts out, mummy I can’t find the handle. I shout back, you’re dreaming it’s OK. She shouts again, mummy I can’t find the handle, and I leap out of bed thinking she must be trying to reach me and can’t find the handle but there she is in bed, with her eyes closed, sleeping. She shouts about the handle again and I say it’s OK you’re sleeping, and then the eight-year-old shouts too, telling me she’s not sleeping. But she is, and he goes to the toilet, and then goes back to sleep.
And the seagulls are still screeching, still echoing around the harbour. What do they do all night? Fishing, fighting, fucking, eating leftover pasties? I lie there thinking about seagulls and about how it’d been your favourite spot in the town, down by the harbour where the seagulls cross the road. I think about taking a walk to see what they’re doing now, and then, quite suddenly, there’s silence. Did it just get darker, even with my eyes closed? I open them, and there’s nothing, not even the dull light at the top of the curtains. Then it slams in, the rain hammering on the windows, and my husband says, they don’t like the rain. He’s awake too, it turns out, hearing the seagulls. He reaches out for me, says he loves me and I say we’ll be too tired tomorrow for the children. 4.29am. I think about drinking the leftover wine by the bed, and he thinks about having some toast, and then, I hear him sleep breathing.
As I begin to drift off, at last, I hear a thud. For a moment I wait, frozen, and then I force myself to get up and look out the window. The dawn light is just beginning to cut through, and there’s a seagull, dead, on the garden table.
What the fuck, my husband says. The thud must’ve woken him, too. We stare for a while out the window, but nothing is going on; it’s just lying there. We get back into bed. 5.18. We lie there alert, listening.
At 5.50, I nearly give up on sleep and think about getting up, but then must have drifted off again, because the boy’s feet thud onto the floor and he comes in between us, waking me, and we lie there, telling him to go back to sleep – but it’s gone 7 now and he’s fidgeting, and talking about school friends, asking questions about stars, what is light and infinity, and I get up and put the kettle on.
Waiting for it to boil, I peer out the window, and there it still is, on the table. Drinking tea, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the neighbour. We’re staying at my mum’s house while they’re away dog-sitting for a friend, and she’s saying she woke early and saw the light on, and she’s asking, how are you? We heard you were coming to stay. Meraud is about my mum’s age, and moved here from the other side of town last year, downsized after her son had long gone, she says, and she tells me again, how much better it is here than London, without the pollution and with more room to grow vegetables, and I tell her again that we think of moving back sometimes, but it’s always going to be next year, and really, I’m not sure. There’s too many ghosts here and there’s not enough houses. She’s telling me about the courgettes she’s growing, and the peas have done well too this year, and she’ll drop us in some tomatoes, and she even loves the seagulls, although most people call them sea rats.
She says, you knew Cadan didn’t you? He’s a bit of a legend, he’d sit feeding the seagulls and they’d sit on his head and his shoulders, and sometimes they’d shit on him and he’d carry on, and one time some kids threw change at him as if he was busking, and another time… What was he like when you knew him?
He’d gone to university and had a job I think, unlike the rest of us, but when I first met him in The Ship, he’d recently lost the job as he’d disappeared to London, and he’d come back and crashed down and was coming out the other side, with a lot of stories to tell. I remember his stories of London, I tell her, but I also remember another night when he was communicating with a dead friend in the cupboard, a friend who had gone off a cliff. I remember that he kept disappearing, for a few weeks or a few months, and then we would see him again, to talk with, to consult with, in between ups and downs, when he was neither too high nor too low to talk, and then one night I’d gone on a massive high with him on pills in some shed on a cliff, a castle right on the edge where we’d danced all night and danced right off the cliff into the sky for a while, and then we’d slept wide awake tight together all the next day, coming down, and then it was over, and I tell the neighbour this next bit, that when I left I heard he was steady for a few years, but I guess something happened? I ask her, but she doesn’t know, she says, she knew him from the seagulls.
We drink some more tea, and then she says, to be honest, she’d heard him talking. He talked about me, on the bench. He’d said I was part-seagull, and he was too.
I shout to my husband to see if he wants some tea. It’s time he got up. The eight-year-old comes in and the neighbour fusses over him, says how he’s grown, and then he asks if she’s seen the seagull. He points out the window, and she looks, and her face goes a kind of white as she talks about falling birds and bad luck, and I tell her we need a break, we’ve been working hard, and we want to have a nice time on the beach. We’ve heard there’s some crazy golf now, a couple of beaches down, and I ask her if she knows how much it is, and whether they sell chips. She doesn’t know, and I ask her to leave now, because we want to get ready for the beach.
We’re down to the beach early, before the crowds, and see large empty crabs that the fishermen brought in, and there’s someone gathering up seaweed. We think she might cook with it, and my husband goes to ask her. Emma studies seagulls at the local university, she’s doing a PhD and she works at a seagull sanctuary, and she’s collecting the seaweed for the rescued gulls in their care. Seagulls are social, says Emma. They communicate and they remember each other, she says, and they remember people. Seagulls are in decline – there’s 60% of what there used to be – because fish are in decline but they’re also finding their way into cities, and I remember, before we left London, hearing a seagull for the first time in the city. I tell her about the seagull in the city and then I tell her about the seagull last night and ask her why it dropped out the sky. She looks at me shocked and says they don’t do that, they go away to hide.
Before Emma releases any seagull, she tags it, so they know if it turns up again. She talks more about seagulls, which are even more interesting than slugs, says my girl, and then she asks if we can go with Emma and her seaweed to see her seagulls. 20 minutes later, we’re following her over the cliff and on the way, she asks where we’re staying, where the dead seagull landed, and I tell her and, oh that’s where Meraud lives, she says, next door. She’s a volunteer at the sanctuary, in turns out, and then she talks on in a rush of association about the loss of Cadan, and I’m trying to process it all – he used to turn up every week or two, with seaweed and with Meraud, they would help to clean out the aviaries. First it was just Cadan, and then Meraud started coming along too, looking out for him, her son, looking after the seagulls. A pause descends on us all, while we think of Cadan, and Meraud, in our different ways, my head reeling, walking over the cliffs, headed inland a little, until Emma points forward to the seagull sanctuary’s gate.
We walk up the lane, and I tune back into them talking. My husband asks if many of their seagulls die and Emma says yes, sometimes, in the corners.
We’re leaving this town, packing our suitcases, and I go out to the garden for a moment. I stop at the table, where the seagull still lies, a tag on its leg. I look up, at the neighbour’s window, and she’s looking down.
About Shelley Trower
Shelley Trower worked as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Roehampton. Publications include Senses of Vibration (Bloomsbury 2012), Rocks of Nation (Manchester University Press 2015), and Sound Writing (forthcoming with Oxford University Press).