The Seagull Sequence.
[The following passage was written as part of a story that I subsequently abandoned. Yet, on finding it recently, I felt that it was worth publishing in some form or other. Now that I have taken up writing blogs on a regular basis I decided to publish it there as part of my Chesil Beach series.]
I woke shivering. My pyjamas and the sheets around my neck and arms were damp and smelt of sour sweat. Marie was sitting by the bed, reaching out to place a cold, moist flannel on my forehead. Her kindness and the coolness of the compress were good and I smiled a thank-you but whether or not she could see it in the light from the half-shaded lamp on the far side of the room I couldn’t tell. Throughout the whole period of my fever, whenever I had been conscious enough to notice, she had been there.
Soon the dream would start, except that it wouldn’t be a dream. No matter how realistic dreams seem while you’re asleep, they slip away out of your reach as soon as you wake. You may try to hold on to them but a dream is like a greased piglet. By the time you are fully awake, it is away over the fields and only its squeals come back to mock you. Even these tiny squeals fade and fall silent as you get out of bed.
The ‘dream’ that was lining me up was not like this. It was going to be another of my fevered dreams. Vivid and disturbing long after I had been thrown back into myself.
The bed started to roll in long, slow waves which I knew were the beginnings of the swell which rises in Lyme Bay when an Atlantic depression shifts the wind round Portland Bill and funnels it up-channel. A gentle, easterly breeze can rapidly develop into a Storm Force Ten from the west.
Marie’s outline wavered and I let myself slip from her care and drift upwards and away. I could briefly see her, wringing out another flannel and laying it on the forehead of the man in the bed below. I, me, whatever part of me I was then, was floating through the ceiling and being caught by the sweep of the ‘dream’ out and over the beach to where a white-bodied gull with grey wings, smart as a bridegroom, was floating on the rising waves, a stone-throw offshore. The gull paddled round to face me and spoke, ‘Borrow my body and learn’, it said, apparently in English and I, whatever I was, merged with it.
When you are using Windows on your computer and you minimise a program, pushing it into the background so that you can clear the screen for the next job? It was like that. I saw the spirit of the gull shrink and almost disappear to somewhere just between its wings and then I was that bird. The rise and fall of the waves perfectly matched the rise and fall of my bed a few moments before and I, now the gull, was being lifted up by the sea and over the wave-tops effortlessly. As I rose I could see the sweep of the beach in the dawn light then, as I sank down into a trough, only the green slopes of the waves and the pink-streaked sky were visible.
I explored being a gull. My body was not cold or wet, the preening oil from the gland near my tail made my feathers into a waterproof boat and my skin was dry and warm within it. I paddled, first with one leg, then with the other and could easily control the direction in which I moved. The waves were getting higher with the increasing force of the wind and lines of white bubbles foamed and frothed at the crests before being whipped away to fly over my head towards the beach. Through the water itself I could feel the surge and crash of the breakers on the banked pebbles and the gull in me was urging, ‘Fly, fly, fly. Fly now.’ I paddled round to face the wind, spread my wings clear of the water and felt the lift beneath them. A few hard, backward pushes with my feet and I was up, the wind glorious and wanton, holding me a man’s height above the waves. I dipped a wing-tip slightly and was sliding, sliding away through the air towards the Great Rock lying low in the distance to my left. A lift of the same wing-tip and I was round facing the wind again and rising up, up, up above the turbulence caused by the waves and higher, higher, higher until the beach was a crescent moon far below me. Though I somehow knew I was a part of a man in a gull’s body, I had left my fear on the fevered bed and being at that height was pure exhilaration. I turned and dived, then with the slightest twist of a wing tip, I was rising again as the sun showed its glory above the horizon.
Now I was drifting down towards the Great Rock with just an occasional twist or flick of a wing to keep me on course. The Rock’s shadowed western cliffs were standing square to the wind which, in a frenzy of frustration, turned violently upwards catching me and throwing me ever higher until the Great Rock was just a white-ringed patch of green and grey on the wrinkled sea below. Other gulls were up here, wheeling on the crest of the updraft, each acknowledging me with a glance and a wing-flick as they passed, each circling up and spinning down in the joy of their life and their flight.
I pulled my wings in closer to my body and fell, the Great Rock growing beneath me, before spreading them again and turning north to exchange the savage uplift for the gentler currents above the beach. I found a spot where I could balance the currents against my body-fall and hung there, looking to my right along the curve of the pebble bank. No humans were about and five dolphins were sporting off-shore, riding down the face of the waves in slithers of foam and excitement. Their pleasure was infectious and the love they had for each other and for life, reached up and enveloped me, fluffing my feathers. I was drawn from my sky-spot and drifted sideways to watch them more closely and to share their joy. I beamed a taste of my exhilaration to them and one by one they leapt in recognition of my little gift.
With my tail to the beach, I left the dolphins to their sport and drifted landwards until I sensed a smooth and steady updraft from the beach and turned to follow the contours of the pebble-banks and the ledges formed by recent storms. Each bank had its own riser and I flipped between them, moving all the time north-westwards. Below me I could hear and sense the roar of the waves on the pebbles, the suck and hiss of the undertow and the grinding and churning of the pebbles as the breakers crashed down, surged up the beach and retreated to make way for the next. And yet, above this tumult the wind was kind, the uniformity of the sculpted banks forming risers as clean and as steady as the waves tumbling on the shore were wild and raw.
I soared past the Dragon’s Teeth, great blocks of concrete on the beach which the human part of me knew were built over half a century ago to check the progress of invading tanks. My human side also recognised the car park and the single, shiny new car on the tarmac with a man polishing the windscreen with a cloth. Near to him, a woman and a girl-child were lifting a basket out of the car’s boot. The seagull ‘food-seeking’ part of me pulled me down and I circled over the humans, shrieking my hunger. The child pointed up and the woman took a bag from the basket and tossed a piece of bread into the air. I snatched it on the wing, proud of my prowess and the child jumped up and down in her excitement. More bread followed and I beamed down my thanks, the gull in me making an offering of guano to fertilise their crops. Some splattered white on the child’s shoulder and my human part heard her mother say, ‘That’s supposed to be lucky!’ and the two laughed as she wiped it away with a handkerchief. The man was not so pleased. Like the child’s coat, his car had been splashed with white and he swore harshly at me, provoking a response from the woman but we, the gull and I, were out of earshot by then.
My bond with the gull was beginning to weaken and the wing-beats taking me up the coast to home were laboured. Even though we were only just above the level of the scrubby bushes and windswept trees behind the beach, a human fear of heights was returning. Above the bungalow I let go reluctantly, slipped magically through the roof and the ceiling below and re-entered my body on the bed. Marie was asleep in the chair by the bed-side, a cushion behind her head. I lay quiet so as not to wake her, blinking my eyes and gently feeling along my arms. They were no longer wings. Had I expected them to be? In a way I was disappointed. My fever had passed and I was cool again. ‘Borrow my body and learn,’ the gull had said. What had I learned?
I was tired and, as I turned over on my side to sleep, something on my pillow pricked my face. It was a grey and white feather.
- Flight By Robert William Service (renardmoreau.wordpress.com)