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Posts from — December 2010

Evening News


achlan has trained a sparrow to talk.

Look, don’t get confused. It’s not about to open its beak and say, ‘What’s up with your long face?’, now is it? No, sparrows talk in a different way from that.

Maybe it’s better to say that Lachlan has learned how to listen to the sparrow – living on the streets gives you plenty of time to learn such things. While everyone else is hacking away on the office keyboard, Lachlan is outside learning the important stuff.

Now, this is not to say that his life ain’t hard. Well, there ain’t a day that goes past that Lachlan ain’t sorry for something-or-other, or aching deep in his belly for bread, or just plain tired of it all. But it would also be wrong to say that he ain’t happy: this is his life, and it’s got that sparrow in it.

The bird stays in a little cage he made out of clipped coke cans, and making that cage – that looks like a cube carved out of crumpled cars – took ages; not so much the cutting and filing, but the folding over of the edges so that he didn’t cut a finger off, or the bird took a wing or its head off, on all that sharp tin. The cage looks pretty – all reds and blues from Pepsi and Coke. The other hard part, was stealing the tools.

So now he’s pushing a trolley full of two-litre milk cartons. Thirty five of them have lids, eighteen of them don’t; but he’s hopeful of picking them up as he goes. Unfortunately, empty, lidless, cartons are easier to find. He pushes this thing for show. There’s nowhere to take it and no one to buy cartons, but a man with an obvious purpose – even if it’s just a trolley full of bottled air and a spot of stale milk – is still a man going somewhere. Sitting on the pavement, he finds, people want to move him along or get him to selling the Big Issue. That’s a great institution, right there, that magazine, but it’s just not Lachlan.

He lets the bird out whenever it wants. It (he) walks along his finger with those scratchy little claws of his, and he’s real tidy, with those little black wings and that tiny little head; not a feather out of place. It’s quite happy to sit there and preen, and occasionally chip, real loud, like a squeezed mouse. Lachlan has got him down as boy, on the fact of his being the cockiest little so-and-so; though he ain’t about to lift up his tail and make sure.

Why the bird doesn’t fly away is a mystery. It takes crumbs from Lachlan’s hand and it looks at him a lot; head tilted, beady eyes blinking; like it’s working him out, or waiting for him to speak. Sometimes it perches on the push-bar of the trolley. Other times it perches in his hair, and he lets it – as long as it minds its P’s and Q’s in the toilet department (particularly the Q’s).

But it’s when the city gets dark, and the lights come on, first pink and then burning up to yellow, that Lachlan and the sparrow get to talking. Or rather, the sparrow gets to talking in a whole load of bird ways, and Lachlan – who has been listening for years – finds that he’s beginning to make out the words.

Birds talk a lot of shit all day, but come the evening chorus – that time that is not day and isn’t yet night – they spread the news of the city, or, I guess, the countryside, if that happens to be their home. They sweep down to all that dark architecture, and get the others to shuffle up a bit, and then start talking about their day.

Man, it’s noisy. Real noisy; you’d have to be a moron not to hear the noise, but you’d have to be a genius to make out the words – or at least a fool, with an equal part of madman. Or, thinks Lachlan, so damned bored that you get to listening really, really hard for some repeating themes. And of course, that’s tough with only fifteen minutes of feathery, news-giving excitement.

But that sparrow of his, happy with the crumbs it seems, and that little cage – which is more-or-less a five star travel home; ‘cause Lachlan keeps the gate open and trundles it along the pavements (though the sparrow doesn’t like the cobbles so much) – is keen to teach him what only the birds seem to know.

It makes sense, of course, that they see everything and talk about it all: birds are a bunch of gossip-beaks. Just listen to the noise.

Of course, Lachlan was pretty intrigued to find out what a bird has going on in its day, but, you know what, they don’t really talk about themselves. They talk about us. They talk about that guy down at the bus stop who was shouting at his wife, or that woman who was crying into her book over lunch, or the kids that keep beating up on that other kid, who’s running out of different ways to sneak home.

But they also talk about other stuff: weird, other-things, which are as golden as that golden light as the sun sinks low.

The sparrow’s wings whirr and it lands on the push-bar. Lachlan breathes out a cold huff of breath that rolls like a cloud, rubs chapped hands together, and says “Shit me” through his teeth.

He’s never heard anything like it.

December 31, 2010   15 Comments

Clara’s Question


t was Clara’s idea to confront the city; to ask her question.

“I won’t understand, otherwise. I won’t. I won’t understand. I won’t; I just won’t.” and she said that over and over in a tiny voice that would break your heart; tears behind her eyes.

I wasn’t at all sure. In fact, I didn’t want to slip off my glove to hold her hand – cold fingers aside – but she insisted we do it together. So we did, standing knee to knee facing the spot where our father had been struck.

This was hours before even the first bunch of flowers had sprouted and flopped in their cellophane, or condolences had been composed, or apologies made.

But it was late enough for there only to be a dark stain on the road and kerb-side that was not blood, but a black dampness, still frothy with detergent, from being scrubbed by a street-cleaning crew.

Clara’s eyes went wide every time a bus passed, now keenly aware of their mass and velocity; of their inevitable and ponderous size; of their ability to change everything on a misstep. But she was keen to ask what she had come to ask and who was I to stop her?

The question to a chilly Edinburgh comes as twilight hits the rooftops with that hard yellow light that slides to blue as the sun sinks beyond the west of the city. The birds fall quiet for a moment, and the starlings twist and turn in elaborate patterns before falling to roost on the monuments.

Clara sniffs, frowns, almost bursts into tears; but croaks – coughs – what she has to say. There is barely a question to it.

There is no response from the pavement, that dark water, the people, or the birds.

And then the whispering starts.

Clara’s question – her one, lonely word – is an exhalation on the breeze. It is a word that is only so much colour; so much of a cool caress.

On hearing it, a small child – pulling hard against his mother’s hand – repeats the word to an old man walking a dog. From such a small child – in trailing reins and a tiny, red-and-white striped hat – it is not so much a vocalized word as a shriek of frustration and a cry for attention. He knows that vowels and consonants are no longer important – the embodiment of that sound is enough to pass it on. The child has made the question his own.

The man walking the dog nods his head vaguely in time to his music. He’s listening to his iPod. The dial is cranked well up, but the cry of the child attracts his attention, just a little, and he makes a slight nod to an off-beat of the music. He casts his eyes upwards in surprise.

A woman, walking the other way on Princess St. is wearing a white dress; black heels. She thinks – for a moment – that an old man is looking at her. She reacts to that movement, magnifying it. Is she correct? Perhaps.

The old man does look, now that she is passing. Now that she has acknowledged him. Her filament of scarf blows in the wind and wraps about her cheek for a second. Her perfume is that of a master perfumery in Paris, and the old man sees and smells.

She looks away, and yet touches her neck with a finger; a light, fish-tail gleam of scales upon her silken, denier of tights.

The look deflates the man.

The woman smiles, a little embarrassed, and as the man and the dog and the woman pass, footfalls hit the stones with regular beats that are almost monolithic strokes against time.

But is the dog that acknowledges the message in that perfume. Who knows what animal sense is ignited with that cocktail of animal, plant and mineral essences, but it snorts once and barks. These sounds are fragments, turned through the larynx, tongue, teeth, nose, and even skull of the dog.

The message is splitting up: through the water under the paving stone struck by the woman’s feet, in the man as he fumbles for his iPod and accidentally twists it down a bar, before twisting it up, beyond its protected maximum.

The sun is falling, and an orange fire is lifting up towards darkness where the word has been spoken. On The Mound, tourists are still walking up and down the long steps, wandering past the National Gallery. The sound reverberates in the brass model of the castle sitting on its plinth, in the coffee stand, where a distracted barista jets five blasts of steam instead of his customary four into a latte. He wipes the steamer pipe with a cloth, and wonders, now why did I do that? Though only vaguely – this is not a big event for him.

The word travels on.

The Red Cross girl in her red puffa jacket – holding a clipboard – fumbles and then drops a five pence piece thrust at her by an anxious commuter running for a taxi. She curses softly and decides to ‘throw it in’ for the night.

A group of kids start jumping on each other’s backs; poking fun; running away; laughing. They stop and dodge left instead of right, as the coin tinkles past: the word is growing in timbre. Where it glides over the ice crystals – over last week’s snow, salted and grey – it cools. Where it piles through the cab and engine mounts of a number twenty-seven bus, it warms.

Pigeons on the roof of The Law Courts stop cooing for a moment, heads swivelling, tongues tasting the air. This is as it should be as the word passes like ultrasound through stone and steel.

Underground, a tour of Germans, Poles and French – mostly school children – laugh a little nervously, as their guide gets a chill; her first ever, while giving this tour of Mary King’s Close. She apologizes without thinking. Now where did that come from? she wonders.

At Murrayfield – a giant stadium shaped like a bowl antenna – a press officer is talking to her mother on the phone; to Barcelona where her mother now lives. As she does so, a little grit gets in her eye, or some other distraction. She moves the phone a little from her face, wobbles it back; modulates the signal.

Her mom says, “You’re breaking up. Lindy? You know you gotta stand outside.”

But now the word has gone digital: into electronics and transmissions, binary and radio. Pulsing outward as one becomes two, four, eight… a billion wavelets and refractions, amplified through a bow-wave of discord, that is pulsed through space by satellites.

It is a moment of self awareness. The city knows it is ill-equipped to deal – alone – with such a question; it is beyond mere bricks and mortar. It has passed it on to a higher authority, and having done so, the launchpad of reflections begins to end, one voice through the next. The sun, in Edinburgh, vanishes to the last of its cooling fire and the finite darkness of the city comes to rest.

Sodium lights twinkle. The word – the question – has gone beyond.

Abruptly, Clara says she wants to go home.

I look at the sky and nod my head slowly, looking at that lemon slice of moon, so clear, and the stars that are popping. She is scared of the answer; that the answer might be another question: ‘Why not?’ Or worse, that there might not be an answer at all.

December 24, 2010   14 Comments

How to Catch a ‘Noo-noo’

An image for the short story 'How to Catch a Noo-Noo'.


want a real fairy!” says Jess, stamping her foot. A small piece of Lego pings away.

Her father, Jonathan, is not at all keen on this tone of voice. It is what – as far as he is concerned – leads to a ‘stramash.’

“Claire, you deal with her,” he says. “I’m off to the club.”

“Great,” says Claire.

An hour later, and Jess is sneaking along behind the sofa. She has prepared a Little Miss Sparkle Barbie outfit stuffed on a dolly made of sticks, and to this she has attached a noose with a long, trailing string. The ‘decoy fairy’ is now looking disconsolate at the top of the family Christmas tree – one of those expensive ones, from Fortnums.

In a plump hand, Jess has the string end. She is ready to pull this really, really, really, fast. Fast like a silly kitty when you pull its tail and you laugh a lot! That’s how fast!

“Come on, noo-noo,” she mutters, gap-teeth whistling – the ‘terrible twos’ and the elusive tooth fairy have not been kind.

Five minutes of patient waiting later – which is about five hundred years as far as Jess is concerned – and nothing has stuck its head in the tempting noose, even though the dolly has a smile drawn on it in red crayon, and clearly wants to be friends.

“Dickilus, noo-noo. Dickilus!” She stomps off and returns to add a tiara. This requires an interesting trick, balancing on an antique steamer trunk, a box of toys, and the flatscreen TV. Dickilus! – how many sparkles does she have to add? Stupid noo-noo!

This is much harder than last year.

Finally, there is a flutter of wings; a rustle in amongst the chocolate, tree-decorations (followed by a disgraceful tinkle of foil slipping from branch to branch); and then a snarling fury at the very top of the tree.

Whatever is up there is clearly territorial, and isn’t about to allow some other ‘Jumped up be-atch troll queen spend another second at the top of her tree, thank you very much’.

When the fairy dust is really flying, there is a tempting tug on the string.

Too soon. Jess has made this mistake before and only ended up with a tiny nut-shoe and a smear of butterfly dust.

Another tug.


Tug, tug.

Now! Jess gives the string a vicious pull. Yoink! There is a puff of fake snow at the top of the tree and then the snarling begins.

The other end of the string clatters through the fairy lights, blunders around the lampshade, dislodges cobwebs, patters – yowling – along the tops of the curtains, but now Jess is reeling it in; her musical fishing rod playing ‘half a pound of tuppeny rice,’ plink by plonk.

Time to fire up the plastic stove and find Mr Bear.

Jess has the noo-noo sellotaped to a Cindy chair, next to the disappointingly crunchy remains of last year’s noo-noo. She is ecstatic.

“Noo-noo want coffee or tea? Noo-noo is Jessica’s best friend! Silly Noo-noo. Okay, mummy will pour.”

The ‘noo-noo’ says nothing – it’s too busy trying to gnaw its way out of a sarcophagus of sellotape. There is only terror in its eyes.

December 17, 2010   13 Comments