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Evening News

L

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.

15 comments

1 ganymeder { 01.01.11 at 3:44 am }

What a beautiful story. Thank you.

2 Stephen Hewitt { 01.01.11 at 2:12 pm }

Thanks Catherine 🙂

3 Aidan Fritz { 01.01.11 at 4:37 am }

It took me a little while for the voice to sink in, but once it did I really liked the small details in this piece (talking in bird ways, not liking cobbles, not talking about themselves, evening chorus, pop-can cage). These birds capture how I talk to people at parties… all kinds of stories; few about myself.

4 Stephen Hewitt { 01.01.11 at 2:18 pm }

Hey there Aidan – yeah, sometimes I think there’s a battle between the way I’d say these pieces and the way I write them: this one had a suspicious amount of punctuation in it, suggesting a bit of a verbal assault course for the poor reader. Sometimes just pops out that way. I guess – I hope – internally consistent, though, once you get to grips with it. Glad you liked the details and I know what you mean about people talking at parties.

5 John Wiswell { 01.02.11 at 4:23 am }

Birds always talk the most trash at that hour of the morning I’m trying to sleep. Incessant gossipiers. I’d rather he taught them how to shut up, rather than how to speak. That’s a service!

6 Stephen Hewitt { 01.03.11 at 12:02 am }

Hi John – thanks for reading and commenting. Now that you mention it, I too have suffered the incessant tweeters at ungodly hours. Worst culprits in Dundee, though, are the gulls…

7 justin davies { 01.02.11 at 12:03 pm }

This is a beautifully crafted piece of writing. I felt a proper connection with Lachlan because you have built such a real picture of him and his street life. Madman, clever or stupid? It doesn’t matter because we all have a bit of each. His is a different take on life, and maybe a different reality, but it is still real. I want to know what the bird is saying at the end though!

8 Stephen Hewitt { 01.03.11 at 12:08 am }

Hi there Justin – glad you liked this piece and found it to have some reality to it: I tried to make sure Lachlan came across as his own person. I would’ve liked to have known what the bird was saying as well, but I guess only Lachlan knows. 😉

9 Joan { 01.05.11 at 12:00 pm }

I love the sort-of anti-climax of, ‘The other hard part, was stealing the tools’. This is Lachlan’s reality – alternate ‘universes’ – this is what I’m interested in (among other things) – things look different from wherever it is you are standing. This links in with what you said on ‘Thought Monkey’ about different personal personas – you relate to people, therefore are different with different people, just as the ‘truths’ of your environment depend on your own reality (I was going to say ‘sense of reality’ but who’s to say yours is not and someone else’s is?).

I think this is why I’m interested in fantasy fiction – it’s no fantasy if you happen to be there.

It’s good the way you transform, smoothly, the ‘it’ of the sparrow to ‘he’. Of course the sparrow is a ‘he’ to Lachlan – more of a person to him than most people, it looks like – but then back to ‘it’ again – Lachlan is only part-way to accepting this sparrow as a fellow … whatever.

(I can see you working through ideas of ‘is it a boy/ is it a girl?’ also – and whether it matters. Of course, much of the time, it doesn’t.)

10 Stephen Hewitt { 01.08.11 at 7:13 pm }

Hi there Joan – I guess you’re talking about ‘personal truths’, and I do think perspective into a story is really interesting, given such a big part of writing is about filtering things through characters. It also feeds into how I’m beginning to see stories as a functional ‘what happened’, which is quite distinct from how you position ‘cameras’ (character viewpoint, prejudices, etc.) along the way to capture that story or, rather, capture what those events meant to that character, which, I think, is really what people think of as ‘story’. To some extent, you could tell entirely different narratives of the same tale. Here, I have Lachlan. But if I told the same story from the POV of a Social Worker who wants to get him off the streets, then I’d get a whole other story – about the worker, the bird, and Lachlan. This new viewpoint could be momentary or lasting. In a fun way, it’s even possible to imagine that worker was around in the first story – I just didn’t focus on him (or her). 😉

11 Harry B. Sanderford { 01.06.11 at 5:00 pm }

Beautiful piece of work here Stephen. The bit with Lachlan’s “trolley full of bottled air and a spot of stale milk” giving him purpose is so sadly true. I felt like Lachlan had taken to listening to his sparrow because the rest of the world no longer sees him or talks to him. You call attention to the issues in a very unique and amusing way without soapboxing. Very nice!

12 Stephen Hewitt { 01.08.11 at 7:20 pm }

Hi there Harry – I’m glad you liked the bottled air, and good to know I managed to tip-toe over any moralising. I would, indeed, hate that – it would definitely demean any passing sense of reality in the character. 🙂

13 #FridayFlash Favorites (2011/04/08) | Be the Story { 04.10.11 at 12:54 am }

[…] “Evening News” by Stephen Hewitt — If you watch a bird long enough, maybe you can begin to truly understand. […]

14 Chuck Allen { 04.10.11 at 10:11 am }

I have often wondered what we are missing when we hurry around too busily. I love the tale. Lachlan and his friend are an interesting duo.

15 Stephen Hewitt { 04.11.11 at 11:26 pm }

@Chuck, I agree. Folks should slow down more. Glad you liked this one and thanks for popping on a comment. 🙂 St.

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