Tomchik’s Ornithology

Tomchik reaches for his bag, which sits between us on the bench.

“I like it here,” he says.  He produces a thermos flask from within the bag’s khaki canvas depths, and proffers it.

I refuse.  I am meant to refuse, he is hoping I will refuse, “Me, too.”  I acknowledge, as he pours himself a shiny metal cup of tea.  “You’ve gone environmental, then?”

“This metal thing?”  He glances at the thermos, shrugs his shoulders; “Is alright, I guess.”

“Is it biodegradable?”

Tomchik turns his grey eyes on me in that analytical manner of his.  “I don’t know,”  He replies.  “I am.”

The wind sweeps down upon our backs, riffling through the heather and chattering my teeth on its way to more important business in the valley below.  “Sooner rather than later if you stay here,” I tell him.  “Or am I the only one who’s freezing to death?”

“Sometimes it is worth a little bit coldness to enjoy,” He waves expansively over the view before us.  “You see whole village from here.  Is worth it, no?”

I have to admit our situation is ideal.  We are sitting beside a path which cuts along the side of Carter Fell above the churchyard.  We have an unobstructed view of the squat grey roofs clustered three hundred feet below, of the winding snake of water that needs a few rushing miles yet to become the River Wenly, and the narrow road that follows it.  I can identify my home among the roofs, and I can see Tomchik’s too.  We are neighbours, he and I.  In a small village, everyone is a neighbour.

“How long have you lived here, Tomchik?”

“Why you ask me?  I am immigrant, yes?”  He takes a paper package from his bag and unwraps it thoughtfully, exposing sandwiches.  “Cheeses and pickles; you like?”  Again he makes a token offer and I respond with a token refusal.  “Many years.”  He nods, selecting a sandwich and dunking a corner of it in his tea.  “You think I shouldn’t be here, yes?”

The question surprises me.  I have known him for all of those years.  “No, of course I don’t think that.  Are you sensitive about it?  If we have to look at it like that, you’re one very good reason I approve of immigration!”

“Ah.” Tomchik munches solemnly.  There is silence.

I say:  “I can’t imagine the village without you.”

Tomchik points.   “You see the Harry Tulliver’s house?”

“Plainly.”   The cottage where Harry and Jane Tulliver eke out their fairly meagre existence is easy to identify.  “It’s sad to see the weeds, though.  Harry used to be such a gardener!  He doesn’t seem to do much now; I guess he is getting too old.”

“No, no.  Not too old,” Tomchik corrects me.  “You are right to say sad.  I am right to say tired.  Harry is tired man,   That is why he is sad.”

Sometimes Tomchik’s crooked logic leaves me behind.  “Alright then; why tired?”

He allows himself a tolerant sigh, “Tired two ways.  The bay tree is still prospering, you agree?”

I agree.  The tree in Harry’s garden is his pride and joy.

“One way tired.  The goldfinches, they used to nest in this fine bay tree – now is gone.   Two way tired.  Tell me another way you recognise house of Mr and Mrs Tulliver?”

I do not understand him at first.   Of course I recognise the house!  What is Tomchik driving at?  I decide to stoke things up with a little amusement.  “Well, their roof is a slightly different colour.  White polka dots!”

“Bird droppings, yes?”

“Yes,”

“So!  Two ways!  Sparrows!    Sparrows squabbling, mess all over windows, all over back path.  Sparrow fledglings in a row on the fence, squeaking to be fed.  Sparrows nesting – six nests in the bay tree already.”

“So, why the feeders?”  I wave a hand to indicate the three feeders filled with seed that are distributed about Harry’s blessed plot.  “They wouldn’t come if the spoils weren’t so readily available.”

“Exactly!  Mrs Jane, she tells Harry, put them out!  So Harry puts them out, and sparrows come.  Starlings, they come, seagulls, they come.  They eat everything – seed, Harry’s peas, raspberries, strawberries, everything he plant, they eat.  Every time those feeders empty, his wife she puts out more seed.  Those goldfinches, they leave, the bluetits, the chaffinches, the wagtails…”  Tomchik shakes his head,  “all birds Mrs Jane like, are gone.  She thinks she can feed them all, but she just get more sparrows.  Just sparrows.”

“Harry should tell her.  Harry should put his foot down!”

“This I say to him.  I say to him, Harry, you must take back your garden.  He say no, if he tell her she say without her food all sparrows will starve.  She is responsible, she say.  More and more money she spend on food for the birds.  Tullivers, they are not rich.  Harry’s vegetables he grew were food for them.  Now…”  Tomchik shrugs fatalistically, “No vegetables!  Nothing!”

“I don’t understand Jane…”  I begin.

“No-one!”  Tomchik cuts in,  “No-one understand Jane!”

“Have you asked her about it?”

“I do.  I ask her.  You know what she think?  She think without her these birds, they are dead birds.  She likes the pretty birds.”

Tomchik grasps my arm to gain my full attention.  He stares at me.  “You like the pretty Tomchik?  Chirp, chirp!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kingfisher

The gaudily-clothed party of holiday-makers seemed to have settled at last.   Their car in the boatyard car park was apparently empty and locked, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they were huddled beside the mooring in two groups, irresolute.

Their canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’s’ long, gleaming red cabin stood open, her Perkins diesel puttering idly.

Abel wandered across to them. A speculative family of ducks was already in attendance; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. The holiday makers’ kids were already on board, climbing onto the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder sister shepherded them to safety.

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South and would already be tired.  Comfortable or not, they would sleep tonight.

“Are you ready to go, everyone?”  He asked in his lazy, familiar drawl.

Malana, watching from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw how easily Abel drew admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the company.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by his lifetime on the canals.   Love of this work exuded from every pore, but he never hurried, or betrayed any anxiety.  It was a confidence that was inspiring.

The teenage girls began to giggle conspiratorially.  “The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“She’s seventy feet stem to stern and she’s got everything you need.”  Abel told her.  “You just have to remember it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

Malana drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in an invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Malana wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Malana glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Darling Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that, we called in ‘Daisy May’ from dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise this one.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Malana watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Malana another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (almost hurrying, she thought) down to the mooring, calling out to the elderly man.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten your tiller nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrowboat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its inexperienced helmsman grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  She said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Malana turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, miles away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Malana sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, one she had known for as long as she had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odour of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the spread was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Malana didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the tourist boat people passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.”  She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Malana chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, I seem to recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Malana sighed.  “Twenty years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Woodpecker!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, normally.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Nineteen.”

“Nineteen?”

“Nineteen years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, but reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Some were the times they might doze for a while, here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Malana’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, antifouling, engine oil and grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for combat. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Malana thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Malana allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Malana asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Malana said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Yes, I suppose I must.”   She said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to be different?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Malana did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of her visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Malana, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual, and he would look forward to her return.

 

Malana set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village where the lane emerged onto a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where a man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

 

 

A garden Universe

Earth Secrets

I steal an hour beside my garden table; hard wooden upright chair and book, watching sparrows to-and-fro from the dense forest of hedge to my left; that which I have named Leylandii Hotel.   Some have their bath-towels slung over one wing as they head for the bird-bath, some are involved in passionate discussion, others have beaks stuffed with detritus to embellish their comfortable beds.  Everything with wings is engaged in breeding  – the pleading of hungry children punctuates the silence warmly; an almost-melody only broken by paranoid blackbird fury.  He loudly insists the entire garden is his.  I’m sure the sparrows tease him mercilessly:  in their place I know I would.

A tiny fly, a fraction of an inch in length, settles upon the table and I half-notice it, absorbed as I am in my reading.  At taxiing speed it heads purposefully towards the table edge.  It clearly has a mission; a plan. It does not stop, or even pause, until it senses it has my attention.  Then it freezes, ready, I suppose, to fly.  Yet it does not.

Rightly, it does not.

In its tiny head is a clear objective, for one moment set aside.  Yet the look that has startled holds no malice – does it know?  A few seconds of wariness then it crawls on, leaving me, admiring, in its past.  It reaches the table edge and is gone.Insect

Immaculacy.  No other word could describe that slender thorax of iridescent blue, wings of powder-fine lace, the minute white dots behind those tiny cellular eyes or the sinuous dance of its feeling hands – fibre-thin antennae so fine as to be scarcely visible, but sentient nonetheless.  So neat, so faultless that I cannot help but marvel at the natural god whose creation this is.

I am struck dumb sometimes by the slow intelligence of those who claim to understand the relationship that exists between time and size in this great universe, who seem to dismiss the brevity of a tiny life as of no importance. Do we imagine this miniscule miracle of nature perceives its life to be any shorter than our own?  Do we think it sees its span to be a mere moment, or a full and rich lifetime?  In that same scale, how short are our own lives, and how much slower is the rhythm of the planets, the movement of the stars?

Within a head little more than microscopic to my eyes there lives a brain no greater or lesser than my own:  a mind capable of decision and scheme, aware of danger, equipped for its defence.  To say it is no more than a basic life-form, that it is there merely to breed and then die, is to acknowledge a state not dissimilar to my own:  for what else, when all’s said and done, is our function?   Yet I would not accept that as a full assessment of my life and its worth; and no more should I dismiss the life of that small creature.  For inside its head I am sure it worries, and thinks, and dreams just as I do.  The secrets of the earth and the keys to the universe may lie within that little brain.

And so it is, in that much greater mind above us, with the stars.