This is the story I read at the NYWF15 event ‘Newcastle Stories’. We were taken on a tour of Newcastle Museum and given the task of selecting an item from the museum’s collection to use as the basis for a piece of writing. This is fiction and any historical (or ornithological) accuracy is a happy accident.
The mother bird knows he’s there. She’s looking around, eyes afraid, worried, head flicking from one side to the other, up and down. He can see her puffing and huffing, feathers fluttering. Occasionally she lets out a low cry.
She’s right to worry.
He catches a glimpse of the egg. A pale bluey-grey egg with black speckles that look like the brushstrokes of a tiny ant artist. He wraps himself tighter around the trunk of the tree, snaking his arms through each other, holds on tight and still, trying not to breathe, trying to make himself invisible.
He wants this egg so much. More than anything. Ever since he first spotted it, it’s been all he can think about, and now here it is and he is so close to it and all he has to do is hold still until the mother bird feels safe enough to fly off, for just a minute.
Dad had been with him when he’d found his first egg — just an ordinary white egg but Dad had sat him down and told him all about the Tawny Frogmouth it belonged to, and showed him how to empty it out by carefully punching a tiny hole in either end and blowing into the top.
Dad had made him a wooden box, the bottom lined with shredded newspaper, for that first egg, and the collection that was to follow.
Dad will like this egg. He always likes the speckled ones. He has to get it soon, otherwise he won’t be able to blow it out and he’ll have to throw it away. Dad will call him a name, tell him he’s thick.
Or he won’t say anything at all, he’ll just exhale through his nose and give him that look and walk off.
Or maybe won’t even do that.
You can never tell with Dad any more — not since the Carrington dockyards closed and he lost his job. At first it had been fun, having him at home. Uncle Jack would come round and they’d drink beer and make plans. Uncle Jack told Dad about Elma. Light globes. Swallow your pride and go make light globes, Uncle Jack said. It’s a depression, take what you can.
Dad went to Elma. He came home later that night, blind drunk, eyes red and huge, raging about pigs and bastards, and punched Uncle Jack in the jaw.
Uncle Jack doesn’t come around any more.
Nobody comes around any more. Dad spends all day in the front room with the door closed. Sometimes he presses his ear to the door and tries to hear what’s happening in there – but he never hears anything. No footsteps, no tinkering, nothing.
The wind slithers through the leaves and branches, the tree sways around him. The mother bird cranes her neck, trying to see in every direction at once. He holds his breath.
Robbie Flanagan’s mother works at Arnotts. If Mum worked at Arnotts they’d be sweet. They’d have biscuits again and they’d be the good biscuits and not the broken old ones.
Mum could never work at Arnotts. Mum can’t even boil water without giving it the flavour of old socks. The burnt bitter taste of this morning’s porridge sits even now at the back of his throat. It had been at slimy and crunchy, all at once. He wonders, not for the first time, how it’s possible to make porridge crunchy.
Mum could never work at Arnotts, and if she did, the biscuits wouldn’t be worth eating. She’d add salt instead of sugar — like she had when she’d made his birthday cake last year. ‘Oops,’ she’d said. ‘They do look the same, don’t they?’
That was before, so Dad had laughed, telling her he didn’t marry her for her cooking, and it didn’t matter.
It didn’t to Dad. It wasn’t his birthday cake everybody spat out.
The mother bird is getting restless. She flies up into the air, just a few inches, stretching her wings.
The egg is still there.
This will be his new favourite. Better even than the tiny chocolate-brown one he’d found a few weeks ago, so small he’d worried about crushing it between his fingers as he blew it out. Dad hadn’t cared about that one. But he would care about this one.
It must be boring, sitting on an egg all day. Worrying about an egg all day. He feels a shiver of guilt. Mum doesn’t like him collecting the eggs. She says the poor birds, they’ll never know what happened to their babies. She says if someone came and took him away while she had her back turned she’d never recover.
Maybe she wouldn’t, but she didn’t notice when he ran off for hours at a time. When he did stay inside, she complained about him getting underfoot and shooed him out into the yard, told him to feed the chooks and not rush about it.
The mother bird is so careful, though. More careful than his mum.
The guilt hardens into a solid lump in the pit of his gut.
Will Dad even smile? When he sees this egg? Will he pat him on the back and tell him he’s made a good find and offer to help him blow it out? Will he talk to him about the mother bird? Or will he tell him he’s wasting his time and disappear into the front room again?
He should just go home. Or to Robbie’s and try to beg some biscuits. Leave the mother bird alone. There will be others, with lazier mothers.
He looks up, catching a glimpse of the sky through the thick web of leaves. Blue and bright. He could sit here for hours, egg or not. It’s better than being at home, in that thick fog of silence and anger. Here he can breathe.
The sudden flapping of feathers whipping against each other startles him.
He looks back at the nest. She’s gone. The egg is alone, unguarded. The lump in his gut fizzes and evaporates in an instant.
He takes a deep breath, unwraps himself from the trunk and hauls himself along the branch, wrapping his fingers around his grey-blue speckled prize. And then he’s down, out of the tree, scooting along the gully, through the field and back into town. Quick as the wind.
Quick as a thief.
The mother bird flutters back, the twig in her beak falls to the ground as she notices the empty nest.
She calls out, but it is no use.