The Greater Crested Tern
I’m skimming through a second-hand book on falconry for research when I meet Laurie for the second time.
The first time was at the Rook In Arms, and he was hyperventilating during the live music. He had cropped brown hair, sharp blue eyes and way-faring stubble. Now his hair is longer, but his eyes are the same. Mantling behind me, he says my book looks like a fun read, even if he prefers ones about gulls, or the nesting habits of the albatross.
Great, I say.
He points out the different aspects of the handler’s glove for a while, cooing at the feather patterns of the bird; how marvellously adapted for aerial hunting it is.
When I say agree he turns with a sudden, sharp seriousness and asks how long I’ve been interested in this sort of thing. When I cannot answer, he looks into me for what feels like far longer than it is. Time, albeit briefly, stops. Then he asks if I want his number, and I say I could take it or leave it.
He scribbles his name and number down on my notebook page. ‘07700 900285, Laurie’, in beautiful yet ultimately unreadable font, like a census from the Eighteen Hundreds.
“Did you want to come round later?” he asks. “We’re right by the coast, we do all sorts of really beautiful studies, -- no sandy beaches mind you, but, you know that, you’re a local-- you’re a local, aren’t you? Did you tell me last time? I’m awful with names and faces.”
It’s as if he fears that if he paused to think for even a second, there’d be a dreadful kind of word backlog, leading to a devastating meltdown and a city in northern Ukraine being left radioactive for the next six hundred years.
I look at him like the global warming tide looks at the outlying Maldives islands.
“That’s alright,” Laurie says, nodding guilelessly. “I’ll show you around.”
My water rolls off him.
Laurie lives two roads from the sea, where he shares an overwhelmed house with three other ecophysiologists.
The front garden is waist high in hair grass. The kitchen has a portrait of Edward the Seventh on the wall that is being used simultaneously as a darts board and a pinboard. There are yellow and orange post-it notes stuck to it, with things like “Note differences in ribbed starfish from Anglesea/Monterey Bay’, ‘population decline of migrating grasshoppers 08-23 (32%)’, and ‘rub? run? MUU’.
On the living room table there’s a glass vivarium housing various water plants and a single plastic bath-time duck. There are books too, ones about cattle herding and Scottish mosses and figure drawing and generating renewable energy from the tide.
There is a humid conservatory full of resilient plants and what Laurie says is a large specimen of red-toed tarantula, if I can spot it. I politely decline.
On the upstairs landing wall, a complex diagram of a seagull preparing to take flight is stapled over fourteen different pieces of printer paper. The bath is surrounded by waterlogged textbooks on Sixteenth Century poetry, pre-dribbled candles and four fifths of Ulysses. Laurie didn’t like the end, so he rewrote it from the perspective of the seagull. He assures me it is a good read, if you pick apart some of the more experimental narrative choices.
Under the sky of his bedroom, the taxidermy of a greater crested tern soars.
I stand, trying to decipher a meaning from it.
He turns to face out the window. It’s all grey light, and on the horizon line the sea is hazy in the fog, like someone drew it in chalk and ran a finger along it to smudge it.
“I need to ask you something.”
There’s something new swimming in his tone.
I say, okay.
“How long have you been into Falconry?”
I am quiet.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you say it, roughly? Has it been months--years?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Did your grandad go falconing with one when he was a boy? Did you live on the moors, and see one dive down for a mouse, and think from that day that they were beautiful? You, a little kid, watching the way they fold their wings in--tell me. How long have you been into falconry?”
“I don’t know.”
Laurie sobs and laughs into his hand; it is a dangerous noise. “Oh, god—it’s you, isn’t it?”
Of course it’s me.
“You don’t need to have a reason. You read a book, and you don’t need to be told the characters are eating, you just assume that they do, and you assume that they’re breathing and going for a piss and that’s all happening while you read the plot, isn’t it? You don’t read a book for the breathing and the ham sandwiches and the piss breaks—you…”
He sucks in this huge breath.
“I don’t even know what ecophysiology is—you didn’t look it up, did you? I don't even have a last name! I don’t know the names of the people who live here because it’s a big, empty farce! You didn’t give them names! I’ve never read Ulysses, I’ve especially not re-written the ending, I don’t know anything about Scottish moss and where the hell is the Rook In Arms? — There’s no context behind any of this! Why was I crying in the pub? Why Edward the seventh? Why a tarantula, why the duck? You can’t just keep throwing stuff against the wall and hoping something sticks! None of it implies anything! How am I supposed to scrape together something three dimensional out of this, when all you give me is random pieces?! I exist, dammit!
When he raises his arms, it is almost as if he both parting the sea and sending a falcon to flight.
Thunder crashes. The ocean roars. A pink-toed tarantula curls up between the last third of Ulysses.
The choice of The Greater Crested Tern as the winning entry was a very difficult and odd one to make. We were presented with a torrent of brilliant pieces, showing an eclectic range of styles and beautiful writing capability. We felt burdened: like choosing the most beautiful flower in a bouquet. It cannot be done without applying some form of subjectivity.
Although, even with choice of more refined pieces, the merits of The Greater Crested Tern could not be ignored. Within a thousand words, the story is threaded with blooming motifs and detail which are in turn sewn in to a wonderfully metaphysical piece. The writer uses an interesting range of sometimes obfuscated literary devices, which bed well into the prose. The creative and multilevelled story instantly caught our attention, and continued to blossom in our minds long after reading.