Maybe I lay down and slept; maybe I fainted; maybe all this was a fevered dream and I was still lying beneath the slow-turning fan in my hotel room, soon I would wake to find myself again late for my appointment with Pigafetti. I remember opening my eyes and staring up into the vault of the sky. Where all morning it had bustled with thousands of birds, now there were just a few, maybe a dozen, floating, coming closer drifting towards me. Swooping and chirruping and turning in the blue air, dipping and looping with the joy of the wind, brilliant azures and golds, crimsons and emeralds, long violet wires looped behind them, echoes of their passing.
I don’t know how long I lay there watching the birds of the sun but gradually the wind lifted the birds out of my sight until they were just specks, the tiny dancing flies swarming around the brim of my hat.
I re-entered the swarming jungle, now descending on the lee side of the mountain. Here the jungle was quieter, the passage easier and then I could smell the iodine of the ocean. At last, I arrived the sea, and stood on a small beach at the head of a rocky cove. On every rock and nook and perch there were birds, thousands of them—gulls, gannets, skuas and pelicans, petrels, shrikes, hawks and mynahs—all restless and irritable cawing, sharpening their beaks on the basalt tumble. Penguins and cherry clawed crabs patrolled the shoreline. In the water was the wildest array of sea life: rays and skates flapped in the water, shoals of mullet and baitfish troubled the surface of the bay. Further out to sea there were porpoises, sharks and whales, six, ten, a dozen, all lined up their giant flukes held aloft.
All the creatures are quiet watching as I walked down to the sea. Something was being nudged onto the sand by a shoal of whiting. It was a red clipboard with the Man’s initials etched in gold copperplate. The bay was silent, the creatures pensive.
‘Well?’ I asked quietly. Then louder,’ Well?’ I walked back up the beach and pushing a pair of disagreeable albatross aside, slumped on a rock. ‘What do you want for him?’ The answer was an emphatic round of squawking, chattering, cawing, blowing and flapping from the finned and the feathered.
This was hopeless. How could I understand any of this? I looked down at the sand before me and noticed a disturbance, a movement. Bivalves, scallops mussels were pushing their shells up through the sand, tens, dozens, forming lines, verticals, and horizontals, making letters… crude letters.
U N D the shells spelled out. Then, UNDER. That was a word. UNDERSTAND.
‘What? What do you want me to understand?’
The shells spelled out AS THE RAINS COME MATING STARTS. Then the shells vanished back into the sand and were replaced by the word NO.
LIFE IS HARSH KILL OR BE KILLED. Again the words vanished to be replaced by NO.
And then another set: THE CORAL MATES ON THE FULL MOON AND THE SPRING TIDE. NO, NO, NO.
THE CORAL LOVES
THE ANTELOPE LOVES
The shells having made their point sunk below the sand. Again the unanimous cawing cacophony. Shoals of fish leaped into the sky, dolphins somersaulted and the great whales slapped their flukes and blew clouds of spray into the empty sky.
‘So what do you want?’ I asked.
PRIVACY, the shells replied.
MAYBE A LITTLE RESPECT.
WE HAVE DREAMS.
‘Be specific,’ I said.
Two weeks later I’m back in London talking to the suits. I gave them The Man’s clipboard and explain the animal’s demands for equal billing for the Sunday evening nature documentary. To give Simon and Andy credit they didn’t throw me out, well not at first, not before they’d signed over my expenses. But of course, nothing happened and next season we met Steve and Terri a khaki couple from some adventure zoo on the Gold Coast. He was an audacious clown, pulling on the crocodile’s tail, poking a stick down a spider’s hole, while she looked at the camera and tut-tutted and rolled her eyes and told us what a complete dickhead her husband was for placing himself in such rending danger, and how we should never ever try this even if a pride of lions decide to move in next door
It was degrading but this time at least you knew who to barrack for.
I don’t know if they ever found The Man or whether any of the other detectives and hack-psychics came up with anything. Maybe he ended up in a tree house with chimpanzees or lounging against a polar bear on an arctic floe, or perhaps on the Serengeti fleeing from some sixty-kilometre-an-hour predator only to have his boots knocked out from under and a hot cat stink in his face as he falls forward into the dust.
I’ve gone right off animals. Now when I look at dogs passing in the street I don’t see cheerful optimism any more, I see blame and accusation. I’ve stopped explaining myself to the ravens in the park. What’s the point?The sparrows are convinced I didn’t try hard enough, parrots and doves squawk their disdain and turn their backs on me. Walking past the High Street Pet-O-Rama had become a regular chaos of booing, seed throwing and bubble blowing. Now when I look up in the evening sky and see geese heading south and they dip in formation towards me, I dive for the nearest cover.
Once in a while I’ll try to convince the cat that I really did try but television is a complicated business. That’s when she fixes me with those ice-green eyes and I know I’m wasting my breath. So here I sit in my grey little flat, tending the terrarium waiting for the phone to ring and remembering that clearing on the summit and the golden birds of heaven dipping and climbing in the shimmering air.