La Bocana, Colombia, 2012
Photo by Triunfo Arciniegas
by Daphne du Maurier
On December the third, the wind changed overnight, and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden-red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plow had turned it.
Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.
Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farmland on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him and, sitting on the cliff’s edge, would watch the birds. Autumn was best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound; the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those that had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied them, followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil; but even when they fed, it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.
Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still. Flocks of starlings, rustling like silk, flew to fresh pasture, driven by the same necessity of movement, and the smaller birds, the finches and the larks, scattered from tree to hedge as if compelled.
Nat watched them, and he watched the sea birds too. Down in the bay they waited for the tide. They had more patience. Oystercatchers, redshank, sanderling, and curlew watched by the water’s edge; as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them, and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.
“Perhaps,” thought Nat, munching his pasty by the cliff’s edge, “a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.”
The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still. As the tractor traced its path up and down the western hills, the figure of the farmer silhouetted on the driving seat, the whole machine and the man upon it, would be lost momentarily in the great cloud of wheeling, crying birds. There were many more than usual; Nat was sure of this. Always, in autumn, they followed the plow, but not in great flocks like these, nor with such clamor.
Nat remarked upon it when hedging was finished for the day. “Yes,” said the farmer, “there are more birds about than usual; I’ve noticed it too. And daring, some of them, taking no notice of the tractor. One or two gulls came so close to my head this afternoon I thought they’d knock my cap off! As it was, I could scarcely see what I was doing when they were overhead and I had the sun in my eyes. I have a notion the weather will change. It will be a hard winter. That’s why the birds are restless.”
Nat, tramping home across the fields and down the lane to his cottage, saw the birds still flocking over the western hills, in the last glow of the sun. No wind, and the gray sea calm and full. Campion in bloom yet in the hedges, and the air mild. The farmer was right, though, and it was that night the weather turned. Nat’s bedroom faced east. He woke just after two and heard the wind in the chimney. Not the storm and bluster of a sou’westerly gale, bringing the rain, but east wind, cold and dry. It sounded hollow in the chimney, and a loose slate rattled on the roof. Nat listened, and he could hear the sea roaring in the bay. Even the air in the small bedroom had turned chill: A draft came under the skirting of the door, blowing upon the bed. Nat drew the blanket round him, leaned closer to the back of his sleeping wife, and stayed wakeful, watchful, aware of misgiving without cause.
Then he heard the tapping on the window. There was no creeper on the cottage walls to break loose and scratch upon the pane. He listened, and the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed and went to the window. He opened it, and as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings and it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage.
He shut the window and went back to bed but, feeling his knuckles wet, put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood. Frightened, he supposed, and bewildered, the bird, seeking shelter, had stabbed at him in the darkness. Once more he settled himself to sleep.
Presently the tapping came again, this time more forceful, more insistent, and now his wife woke at the sound and, turning in the bed, said to him, “See to the window, Nat, it’s rattling.”
“I’ve already seen to it,” he told her; “there’s some bird there trying to get in. Can’t you hear the wind? It’s blowing from the east, driving the birds to shelter.”
“Send them away,” she said, “I can’t sleep with that noise.”
He went to the window for the second time, and now when he opened it, there was not one bird upon the sill but half a dozen; they flew straight into his face, attacking him.
He shouted, striking out at them with his arms, scattering them; like the first one, they flew over the roof and disappeared. Quickly he let the window fall and latched it.
“Did you hear that?” he said. “They went for me. Tried to peck my eyes.” He stood by the window, peering into the darkness, and could see nothing. His wife, heavy with sleep, murmured from the bed.
“I’m not making it up,” he said, angry at her suggestion. “I tell you the birds were on the sill, trying to get into the room.”
Suddenly a frightened cry came from the room across the passage where the children slept.
“It’s Jill,” said his wife, roused at the sound, sitting up in bed. “Go to her, see what’s the matter.”
Nat lit the candle, but when he opened the bedroom door to cross the passage the draft blew out the flame.
There came a second cry of terror, this time from both children, and stumbling into their room, he felt the beating of wings about him in the darkness. The window was wide open. Through it came the birds, hitting first the ceiling and the walls, then swerving in midflight, turning to the children in their beds.
“It’s all right, I’m here,” shouted Nat, and the children flung themselves, screaming, upon him, while in the darkness the birds rose and dived and came for him again.
“What is it, Nat, what’s happened?” his wife called from the further bedroom, and swiftly he pushed the children through the door to the passage and shut it upon them, so that he was alone now in their bedroom with the birds.
He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.
How long he fought with them in the darkness he could not tell, but at last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew, and through the density of the blanket he was aware of light. He waited, listened; there was no sound except the fretful crying of one of the children from the bedroom beyond. The fluttering, the whirring of the wings had ceased.
He took the blanket from his head and stared about him. The cold gray morning light exposed the room. Dawn and the open window had called the living birds; the dead lay on the floor. Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified. They were all small birds, none of any size; there must have been fifty of them lying there upon the floor. There were robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls or in the strife had been destroyed by him. Some had lost feathers in the fight; others had blood, his blood, upon their beaks.
Sickened, Nat went to the window and stared out across his patch of garden to the fields.
It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard, black look of frost. Not white frost, to shine in the morning sun, but the black frost that the east wind brings. The sea, fiercer now with the turning tide, white-capped and steep, broke harshly in the bay. Of the birds there was no sign. Not a sparrow chattered in the hedge beyond the garden gate, no early missel thrush or blackbird pecked on the grass for worms. There was no sound at all but the east wind and the sea.
Nat shut the window and the door of the small bedroom and went back across the passage to his own. His wife sat up in bed, one child asleep beside her, the smaller in her arms, his face bandaged. The curtains were tightly drawn across the window, the candles lit. Her face looked garish in the yellow light. She shook her head for silence.
“He’s sleeping now,” she whispered, “but only just. Something must have cut him, there was blood at the corner of his eyes. Jill said it was the birds. She said she woke up, and the birds were in the room.”
His wife looked up at Nat, searching his face for confirmation. She looked terrified, bewildered, and he did not want her to know that he was also shaken, dazed almost, by the events of the past few hours.
“There are birds in there,” he said, “dead birds, nearly fifty of them. Robins, wrens, all the little birds from hereabouts. It’s as though a madness seized them, with the east wind.” He sat down on the bed beside his wife and held her hand. “It’s the weather,” he said; “it must be that, it’s the hard weather. They aren’t the birds, maybe, from here around. They’ve been driven down from upcountry.”
“But, Nat,” whispered his wife, “it’s only this night that the weather turned. There’s been no snow to drive them. And they can’t be hungry yet. There’s food for them out there in the fields.”
“It’s the weather,” repeated Nat. “I tell you, it’s the weather.”
His face, too, was drawn and tired, like hers. They stared at one another for a while without speaking.
“I’ll go downstairs and make a cup of tea,” he said.
The sight of the kitchen reassured him. The cups and saucers, neatly stacked upon the dresser, the table and chairs, his wife’s roll of knitting on her basket chair, the children’s toys in a corner cupboard.
He knelt down, raked out the old embers, and relit the fire. The glowing sticks brought normality; the steaming kettle and the brown teapot, comfort and security. He drank his tea, carried a cup up to his wife. Then he washed in the scullery3 and, putting on his boots, opened the back door.
The sky was hard and leaden, and the brown hills that had gleamed in the sun the day before looked dark and bare. The east wind, like a razor, stripped the trees, and the leaves, crackling and dry, shivered and scattered with the wind’s blast. Nat stubbed the earth with his boot. It was frozen hard. He had never known a change so swift and sudden. Black winter had descended in a single night.
The children were awake now. Jill was chattering upstairs and young Johnny crying once again. Nat heard his wife’s voice, soothing, comforting. Presently they came down. He had breakfast ready for them, and the routine of the day began.
“Did you drive away the birds?” asked Jill, restored to calm because of the kitchen fire, because of day, because of breakfast.
“Yes, they’ve all gone now,” said Nat. “It was the east wind brought them in. They were frightened and lost; they wanted shelter.”
“They tried to peck us,” said Jill. “They went for Johnny’s eyes.”
“Fright made them do that,” said Nat. “They didn’t know where they were in the dark bedroom.”
“I hope they won’t come again,” said Jill. “Perhaps if we put bread for them outside the window they will eat that and fly away.”
She finished her breakfast and then went for her coat and hood, her schoolbooks, and her satchel. Nat said nothing, but his wife looked at him across the table. A silent message passed between them.
“I’ll walk with her to the bus,” he said. “I don’t go to the farm today.”
And while the child was washing in the scullery he said to his wife, “Keep all the windows closed, and the doors too. Just to be on the safe side. I’ll go to the farm. Find out if they heard anything in the night.” Then he walked with his small daughter up the lane. She seemed to have forgotten her experience of the night before. She danced ahead of him, chasing the leaves, her face whipped with the cold and rosy under the pixie hood.
“Is it going to snow, Dad?” she said. “It’s cold enough.”
He glanced up at the bleak sky, felt the wind tear at his shoulders.
“No,” he said, “it’s not going to snow. This is a black winter, not a white one.”
All the while he searched the hedgerows for the birds, glanced over the top of them to the fields beyond, looked to the small wood above the farm where the rooks and jackdaws gathered. He saw none.
The other children waited by the bus stop, muffled, hooded like Jill, the faces white and pinched with cold.
Jill ran to them, waving. “My dad says it won’t snow,” she called, “it’s going to be a black winter.”
She said nothing of the birds. She began to push and struggle with another little girl. The bus came ambling up the hill. Nat saw her onto it, then turned and walked back toward the farm. It was not his day for work, but he wanted to satisfy himself that all was well. Jim, the cowman, was clattering in the yard.
“Boss around?” asked Nat.
“Gone to market,” said Jim. “It’s Tuesday, isn’t it?”
He clumped off round the corner of a shed. He had no time for Nat. Nat was said to be superior. Read books and the like. Nat had forgotten it was Tuesday. This showed how the events of the preceding night had shaken him. He went to the back door of the farmhouse and heard Mrs. Trigg singing in the kitchen, the wireless making a background to her song.
“Are you there, missus?” called out Nat.
She came to the door, beaming, broad, a good-tempered woman.
“Hullo, Mr. Hocken,” she said. “Can you tell me where this cold is coming from? Is it Russia? I’ve never seen such a change. And it’s going on, the wireless says. Something to do with the Arctic Circle.”
“We didn’t turn on the wireless this morning,” said Nat. “Fact is, we had trouble in the night.”
“No . . .” He hardly knew how to explain it. Now, in daylight, the battle of the birds would sound absurd.
He tried to tell Mrs. Trigg what had happened, but he could see from her eyes that she thought his story was the result of a nightmare.
“Sure they were real birds,” she said, smiling, “with proper feathers and all? Not the funny-shaped kind that the men see after closing hours on a Saturday night?”
“Mrs. Trigg,” he said, “there are fifty dead birds, robins, wrens, and such, lying low on the floor of the children’s bedroom. They went for me; they tried to go for young Johnny’s eyes.”
Mrs. Trigg stared at him doubtfully.
“Well there, now,” she answered, “I suppose the weather brought them. Once in the bedroom, they wouldn’t know where they were to. Foreign birds maybe, from that Arctic Circle.”
“No,” said Nat, “they were the birds you see about here every day.
“Funny thing,” said Mrs. Trigg, “no explaining it, really. You ought to write up and ask the Guardian. They’d have some answer for it. Well, I must be getting on.”
She nodded, smiled, and went back into the kitchen.
Nat, dissatisfied, turned to the farm gate. Had it not been for those corpses on the bedroom floor, which he must now collect and bury somewhere, he would have considered the tale exaggeration too.
Jim was standing by the gate.
“Had any trouble with the birds?” asked Nat.
“Birds? What birds?”
“We got them up our place last night. Scores of them, came in the children’s bedroom. Quite savage they were.”
“Oh?” It took time for anything to penetrate Jim’s head. “Never heard of birds acting savage,” he said at length. “They get tame, like, sometimes. I’ve seen them come to the windows for crumbs.”
“These birds last night weren’t tame.”
“No? Cold, maybe. Hungry. You put out some crumbs.”
Jim was no more interested than Mrs. Trigg had been. It was, Nat thought, like air raids in the war. No one down this end of the country knew what the Plymouth folk had seen and suffered. You had to endure something yourself before it touched you. He walked back along the lane and crossed the stile5 to his cottage. He found his wife in the kitchen with young Johnny.
“See anyone?” she asked.
“Mrs. Trigg and Jim,” he answered. “I don’t think they believed me. Anyway, nothing wrong up there.”
“You might take the birds away,” she said. “I daren’t go into the room to make the beds until you do. I’m scared.”
“Nothing to scare you now,” said Nat. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
He went up with a sack and dropped the stiff bodies into it, one by one. Yes, there were fifty of them, all told. Just the ordinary, common birds of the hedgerow, nothing as large even as a thrush. It must have been fright that made them act the way they did. Blue tits, wrens—it was incredible to think of the power of their small beaks jabbing at his face and hands the night before. He took the sack out into the garden and was faced now with a fresh problem. The ground was too hard to dig. It was frozen solid, yet no snow had fallen, nothing had happened in the past hours but the coming of the east wind. It was unnatural, queer. The weather prophets must be right. The change was something connected with the Arctic Circle.
The wind seemed to cut him to the bone as he stood there uncertainly, holding the sack. He could see the white-capped seas breaking down under in the bay. He decided to take the birds to the shore and bury them.
When he reached the beach below the headland he could scarcely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember. It was low tide. He crunched his way over the shingle to the softer sand and then, his back to the wind, ground a pit in the sand with his heel. He meant to drop the birds into it, but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds. There was something ugly in the sight. He did not like it. The dead birds were swept away from him by the wind.
“The tide will take them when it turns,” he said to himself.
He looked out to sea and watched the crested breakers, combing green. They rose stiffly, curled, and broke again, and because it was ebb tide the roar was distant, more remote, lacking the sound and thunder of the flood.
Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas.
What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands . . . They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line. Had the sea been still, they would have covered the bay like a white cloud, head to head, body packed to body. Only the east wind, whipping the sea to breakers, hid them from the shore.
Nat turned and, leaving the beach, climbed the steep path home. Someone should know of this. Someone should be told. Something was happening, because of the east wind and the weather, that he did not understand. He wondered if he should go to the call box by the bus stop and ring up the police. Yet what could they do? What could anyone do? Tens of thousands of gulls riding the sea there in the bay because of storm, because of hunger. The police would think him mad, or drunk, or take the statement from him with great calm. “Thank you. Yes, the matter has already been reported. The hard weather is driving the birds inland in great numbers.” Nat looked about him. Still no sign of any other bird. Perhaps the cold had sent them all from upcountry? As he drew near to the cottage his wife came to meet him at the door. She called to him, excited. “Nat,” she said, “it’s on the wireless. They’ve just read out a special news bulletin. I’ve written it down.”
“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here; it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”
Together they went into the kitchen. He read the piece of paper lying on the table.
“Statement from the Home Office at 11 A.M. today. Reports from all over the country are coming in hourly about the vast quantity of birds flocking above towns, villages, and outlying districts, causing obstruction and damage and even attacking individuals. It is thought that the Arctic airstream, at present covering the British Isles, is causing birds to migrate south in immense numbers and that intense hunger may drive these birds to attack human beings. Householders are warned to see to their windows, doors, and chimneys, and to take reasonable precautions for the safety of their children. A further statement will be issued later.”
A kind of excitement seized Nat; he looked at his wife in triumph.
“There you are,” he said. “Let’s hope they’ll hear that at the farm. Mrs. Trigg will know it wasn’t any story. It’s true. All over the country. I’ve been telling myself all morning there’s something wrong. And just now, down on the beach, I looked out to sea and there are gulls, thousands of them, tens of thousands—you couldn’t put a pin between their heads—and they’re all out there, riding on the sea, waiting.”
“What are they waiting for, Nat?” she asked.
He stared at her, then looked down again at the piece of paper.
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It says here the birds are hungry.”
He went over to the drawer where he kept his hammer and tools.
“What are you going to do, Nat?”
“See to the windows and the chimneys too, like they tell you.”
“You think they would break in, with the windows shut? Those sparrows and robins and such? Why, how could they?”
He did not answer. He was not thinking of the robins and the sparrows. He was thinking of the gulls. . . .
He went upstairs and worked there the rest of the morning, boarding the windows of the bedrooms, filling up the chimney bases. Good that it was his free day and he was not working at the farm. It reminded him of the old days, at the beginning of the war. He was not married then, and he had made all the blackout boards for his mother’s house in Plymouth. Made the shelter too. Not that it had been of any use when the moment came. He wondered if they would take these precautions up at the farm. He doubted it. Too easygoing, Harry Trigg and his missus. Maybe they’d laugh at the whole thing. Go off to a dance or a whist drive.
“Dinner’s ready.” She called him, from the kitchen.
“All right. Coming down.”
He was pleased with his handiwork. The frames fitted nicely over the little panes and at the bases of the chimneys.
When dinner was over and his wife was washing up, Nat switched on the one o’clock news. The same announcement was repeated, the one which she had taken down during the morning, but the news bulletin enlarged upon it. “The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas,” read the announcer, “and in London the sky was so dense at ten o’clock this morning that it seemed as if the city was covered by a vast black cloud.
“The birds settled on rooftops, on window ledges, and on chimneys. The species included blackbird, thrush, the common house sparrow, and, as might be expected in the metropolis, a vast quantity of pigeons and starlings and that frequenter of the London river, the black-headed gull. The sight has been so unusual that traffic came to a standstill in many thoroughfares, work was abandoned in shops and offices, and the streets and pavements were crowded with people standing about to watch the birds.”
Various incidents were recounted, the suspected reason of cold and hunger stated again, and warnings to householders repeated. The announcer’s voice was smooth and suave. Nat had the impression that this man, in particular, treated the whole business as he would an elaborate joke. There would be others like him, hundreds of them, who did not know what it was to struggle in darkness with a flock of birds. There would be parties tonight in London, like the ones they gave on election nights. People standing about, shouting and laughing, getting drunk. “Come and watch the birds!”
Nat switched off the wireless. He got up and started work on the kitchen windows. His wife watched him, young Johnny at her heels.
“What, boards for down here too?” she said. “Why, I’ll have to light up before three o’clock. I see no call for boards down here.”
“Better be sure than sorry,” answered Nat. “I’m not going to take any chances.”
“What they ought to do,” she said, “is to call the Army out and shoot the birds. That would soon scare them off.”
“Let them try,” said Nat. “How’d they set about it?”
“They have the Army to the docks,” she answered, “when the dockers strike. The soldiers go down and unload the ships.”
“Yes,” said Nat, “and the population of London is eight million or more. Think of all the buildings, all the flats and houses. Do you think they’ve enough soldiers to go around shooting birds from every roof?”
“I don’t know. But something should be done. They ought to do something.”
Nat thought to himself that “they” were no doubt considering the problem at that very moment, but whatever “they” decided to do in London and the big cities would not help the people here, three hundred miles away. Each householder must look after his own.
“How are we off for food?” he said.
“Now, Nat, whatever next?”
“Never mind. What have you got in the larder?”
“It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food hanging about; it goes off. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after. But I can bring back something when I go in tomorrow.”
Nat did not want to scare her. He thought it possible that she might not go to town tomorrow. He looked in the larder for himself and in the cupboard where she kept her tins. They would do for a couple of days. Bread was low.
“What about the baker?”
“He comes tomorrow too.”
He saw she had flour. If the baker did not call she had enough to bake one loaf.
“We’d be better off in the old days,” he said, “when the women baked twice a week, and had pilchards7 salted, and there was food for a family to last a siege, if need be.”
“I’ve tried the children with tinned fish; they don’t like it,” she said.
Nat went on hammering the boards across the kitchen windows. Candles. They were low in candles too. That must be another thing she meant to buy tomorrow. Well, it could not be helped. They must go early to bed tonight. That was, if . . .
He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down toward the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.
Nat turned. He ran up the path, back to the cottage.
“I’m going for Jill,” he said. “I’ll wait for her at the bus stop.”
“What’s the matter?” asked his wife. “You’ve gone quite white.”
“Keep Johnny inside,” he said. “Keep the door shut. Light up now, and draw the curtains.”
“It’s only just gone three,” she said.
“Never mind. Do what I tell you.”
He looked inside the toolshed outside the back door. Nothing there of much use. A spade was too heavy, and a fork no good. He took the hoe. It was the only possible tool, and light enough to carry.
He started walking up the lane to the bus stop and now and again glanced back over his shoulder.
The gulls had risen higher now; their circles were broader, wider; they were spreading out in huge formation across the sky.
He hurried on; although he knew the bus would not come to the top of the hill before four o’clock, he had to hurry. He passed no one on the way. He was glad of this. No time to stop and chatter.
At the top of the hill he waited. He was much too soon. There was half an hour still to go. The east wind came whipping across the fields from the higher ground. He stamped his feet and blew upon his hands. In the distance he could see the clay hills, white and clean, against the heavy pallor of the sky. Something black rose from behind them, like a smudge at first, then widening, becoming deeper, and the smudge became a cloud, and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west, and they were not clouds at all; they were birds. He watched them travel across the sky, and as one section passed overhead, within two or three hundred feet of him, he knew, from their speed, they were bound inland, upcountry; they had no business with the people here on the peninsula. They were rooks, crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, all birds that usually preyed upon the smaller species; but this afternoon they were bound on some other mission.
“They’ve been given the towns,” thought Nat; “they know what they have to do. We don’t matter so much here. The gulls will serve for us. The others go to the towns.”
He went to the call box, stepped inside, and lifted the receiver. The exchange would do. They would pass the message on.
“I’m speaking from the highway,” he said, “by the bus stop. I want to report large formations of birds traveling upcountry. The gulls are also forming in the bay.”
“All right,” answered the voice, laconic, weary.
“You’ll be sure and pass this message on to the proper quarter?”
“Yes . . . yes . . .” Impatient now, fed up. The buzzing note resumed.
“She’s another,” thought Nat, “she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s had to answer calls all day. She hopes to go to the pictures tonight. She’ll squeeze some fellow’s hand and point up at the sky and say ‘Look at all them birds!’ She doesn’t care.”
The bus came lumbering up the hill. Jill climbed out, and three or four other children. The bus went on toward the town.
“What’s the hoe for, Dad?”
They crowded around him, laughing, pointing.
“I just brought it along,” he said. “Come on now, let’s get home. It’s cold, no hanging about. Here, you. I’ll watch you across the fields, see how fast you can run.”
He was speaking to Jill’s companions, who came from different families, living in the council houses. A shortcut would take them to the cottages.
“We want to play a bit in the lane,” said one of them.
“No, you don’t. You go off home or I’ll tell your mammy.”
They whispered to one another, round-eyed, then scuttled off across the fields. Jill stared at her father, her mouth sullen.
“We always play in the lane,” she said.
“Not tonight, you don’t,” he said. “Come on now, no dawdling.”
He could see the gulls now, circling the fields, coming in toward the land. Still silent. Still no sound.
“Look, Dad, look over there, look at all the gulls.”
“Yes. Hurry, now.”
“Where are they flying to? Where are they going?”
“Upcountry, I dare say. Where it’s warmer.”
He seized her hand and dragged her after him along the lane.
“Don’t go so fast. I can’t keep up.”
The gulls were copying the rooks and crows. They were spreading out in formation across the sky. They headed, in bands of thousands, to the four compass points.
“Dad, what is it? What are the gulls doing?”
They were not intent upon their flight, as the crows, as the jackdaws had been. They still circled overhead. Nor did they fly so high. It was as though they waited upon some signal. As though some decision had yet to be given. The order was not clear.
“Do you want me to carry you, Jill? Here, come pick-a-back.”
This way he might put on speed; but he was wrong. Jill was heavy. She kept slipping. And she was crying too. His sense of urgency, of fear, had communicated itself to the child.
“I wish the gulls would go away. I don’t like them. They’re coming closer to the lane.”
He put her down again. He started running, swinging Jill after him. As they went past the farm turning, he saw the farmer backing his car out of the garage. Nat called to him.
“Can you give us a lift?” he said.
Mr. Trigg turned in the driving seat and stared at them. Then a smile came to his cheerful, rubicund face.
“It looks as though we’re in for some fun,” he said. “Have you seen the gulls? Jim and I are going to take a crack at them. Everyone’s gone bird crazy, talking of nothing else. I hear you were troubled in the night. Want a gun?”
Nat shook his head.
The small car was packed. There was just room for Jill, if she crouched on top of petrol tins on the back seat.
“I don’t want a gun,” said Nat, “but I’d be obliged if you’d run Jill home. She’s scared of the birds.”
He spoke briefly. He did not want to talk in front of Jill.
“OK,” said the farmer, “I’ll take her home. Why don’t you stop behind and join the shooting match? We’ll make the feathers fly.”
Jill climbed in, and turning the car, the driver sped up the lane. Nat followed after. Trigg must be crazy. What use was a gun against a sky of birds?
Now Nat was not responsible for Jill, he had time to look about him. The birds were circling still above the fields. Mostly herring gull, but the black-backed gull amongst them. Usually they kept apart. Now they were united. Some bond had brought them together. It was the black-backed gull that attacked the smaller birds, and even newborn lambs, so he’d heard. He’d never seen it done. He remembered this now, though, looking above him in the sky. They were coming in toward the farm. They were circling lower in the sky, and the black-backed gulls were to the front, the black-backed gulls were leading. The farm, then, was their target. They were making for the farm.
Nat increased his pace toward his own cottage. He saw the farmer’s car turn and come back along the lane. It drew up beside him with a jerk.
“The kid has run inside,” said the farmer. “Your wife was watching for her. Well, what do you make of it? They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.”
“How could they do that?” asked Nat.
“Don’t ask me. You know how stories get around. Will you join my shooting match?”
“No, I’ll get along home. The wife will be worried else.”
“My missus says if you could eat gull there’d be some sense in it,” said Trigg. “We’d have roast gull, baked gull, and pickle ’em into the bargain. You wait until I let off a few barrels into the brutes. That’ll scare ’em.”
“Have you boarded your windows?” asked Nat.
“No. Lot of nonsense. They like to scare you on the wireless. I’ve had more to do today than to go round boarding up my windows.”
“I’d board them now, if I were you.”
“Garn. You’re windy. Like to come to our place to sleep?”
“No, thanks all the same.”
“All right. See you in the morning. Give you a gull breakfast.”
The farmer grinned and turned his car to the farm entrance.
Nat hurried on. Past the little wood, past the old barn, and then across the stile to the remaining field.
As he jumped the stile he heard the whir of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms, he ran toward the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes. They had not learned yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder. And they had no thought for themselves. When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground. As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.
He found the door; he hammered upon it with his bleeding hands. Because of the boarded windows no light shone. Everything was dark.
“Let me in,” he shouted, “it’s Nat. Let me in.”
He shouted loud to make himself heard above the whir of the gulls’ wings.
Then he saw the gannet, poised for the dive, above him in the sky. The gulls circled, retired, soared, one after another, against the wind. Only the gannet remained. One single gannet above him in the sky. The wings folded suddenly to its body. It dropped like a stone. Nat screamed, and the door opened. He stumbled across the threshold, and his wife threw her weight against the door.
They heard the thud of the gannet as it fell.
His wife dressed his wounds. They were not deep. The backs of his hands had suffered most, and his wrists. Had he not worn a cap they would have reached his head. As to the gannet . . . the gannet could have split his skull.
The children were crying, of course. They had seen the blood on their father’s hands.
“It’s all right now,” he told them. “I’m not hurt. Just a few scratches. You play with Johnny, Jill. Mammy will wash these cuts.”
He half shut the door to the scullery so that they could not see. His wife was ashen. She began running water from the sink.
“I saw them overhead,” she whispered. “They began collecting just as Jill ran in with Mr. Trigg. I shut the door fast, and it jammed. That’s why I couldn’t open it at once when you came.”
“Thank God they waited for me,” he said. “Jill would have fallen at once. One bird alone would have done it.”
Furtively, so as not to alarm the children, they whispered together as she bandaged his hands and the back of his neck.
“They’re flying inland,” he said, “thousands of them. Rooks, crows, all the bigger birds. I saw them from the bus stop. They’re making for the towns.”
“But what can they do, Nat?”
“They’ll attack. Go for everyone out in the streets. Then they’ll try the windows, the chimneys.”
“Why don’t the authorities do something? Why don’t they get the Army, get machine guns, anything?"
“There’s been no time. Nobody’s prepared. We’ll hear what they have to say on the six o’clock news.”
Nat went back into the kitchen, followed by his wife. Johnny was playing quietly on the floor. Only Jill looked anxious.
“I can hear the birds,” she said. “Listen, Dad.”
Nat listened. Muffled sounds came from the windows, from the door. Wings brushing the surface, sliding, scraping, seeking a way of entry. The sound of many bodies, pressed together, shuffling on the sills. Now and again came a thud, a crash, as some bird dived and fell. “Some of them will kill themselves that way,” he thought, “but not enough. Never enough.”
“All right,” he said aloud. “I’ve got boards over the windows, Jill. The birds can’t get in.”
He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed. He would make extra certain, however. He found wedges, pieces of old tin, strips of wood and metal, and fastened them at the sides to reinforce the boards. His hammering helped to deafen the sound of the birds, the shuffling, the tapping, and more ominous—he did not want his wife or the children to hear it—the splinter of cracked glass.
“Turn on the wireless,” he said. “Let’s have the wireless.”
This would drown the sound also. He went upstairs to the bedrooms and reinforced the windows there. Now he could hear the birds on the roof, the scraping of claws, a sliding, jostling sound.
He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.
“All right,” he said cheerfully, “we’ll all sleep together in the kitchen tonight. More cozy here by the fire. Then we shan’t be worried by those silly old birds tapping at the windows.”
He made the children help him rearrange the furniture, and he took the precaution of moving the dresser, with his wife’s help, across the window. It fitted well. It was an added safeguard. The mattresses could now be laid, one beside the other, against the wall where the dresser had stood.
“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”
No use thinking ahead as far as that. And they’d be giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only, coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light program. He knew the reason. The usual programs had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections and such. He tried to remember if it had happened in the war, during the heavy raids on London. But of course. The BBC10 was not stationed in London during the war. The programs were broadcast from other, temporary quarters. “We’re better off here,” he thought; “we’re better off here in the kitchen, with the windows and the doors boarded, than they are up in the towns. Thank God we’re not in the towns.”
At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. No matter if it scared the children, he must hear the news. There was a pause after the pips.11 Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. Quite different from midday.
“This is London,” he said. “A national emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. Every householder must take precautions to his own building, and where several people live together, as in flats and apartments, they must unite to do the utmost they can to prevent entry. It is absolutely imperative that every individual stay indoors tonight and that no one at all remain on the streets or roads or anywhere outdoors. The birds, in vast numbers, are attacking anyone on sight and have already begun an assault upon buildings; but these, with due care, should be impenetrable. The population is asked to remain calm and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until 7 A.M. tomorrow.”
They played the national anthem. Nothing more happened. Nat switched off the set. He looked at his wife. She stared back at him
“What’s it mean?” said Jill. “What did the news say?”
“There won’t be any more programs tonight,” said Nat. “There’s been a breakdown at the BBC.”
“Is it the birds?” asked Jill. “Have the birds done it?”
“No,” said Nat, “it’s just that everyone’s very busy, and then of course they have to get rid of the birds, messing everything up, in the towns. Well, we can manage without the wireless for one evening.”
“I wish we had a gramophone,” said Jill; “that would be better than nothing.”
She had her face turned to the dresser backed against the windows. Try as they did to ignore it, they were all aware of the shuffling, the stabbing, the persistent beating and sweeping of wings.
“We’ll have supper early,” suggested Nat, “something for a treat. Ask Mammy. Toasted cheese, eh? Something we all like?”
He winked and nodded at his wife. He wanted the look of dread, of apprehension, to go from Jill’s face.
He helped with the supper, whistling, singing, making as much clatter as he could, and it seemed to him that the shuffling and the tapping were not so intense as they had been at first. Presently he went up to the bedrooms and listened, and he no longer heard the jostling for place upon the roof.
“They’ve got reasoning powers,” he thought; “they know it’s hard to break in here. They’ll try elsewhere. They won’t waste their time with us.”
Supper passed without incident, and then, when they were clearing away, they heard a new sound, droning, familiar, a sound they all knew and understood.
His wife looked up at him, her face alight. “It’s planes,” she said; “they’re sending out planes after the birds. That’s what I said they ought to do all along. That will get them. Isn’t that gunfire? Can’t you hear guns?”
It might be gunfire out at sea. Nat could not tell. Big naval guns might have an effect upon the gulls out at sea, but the gulls were inland now. The guns couldn’t shell the shore because of the population.
“It’s good, isn’t it,” said his wife, “to hear the planes?” And Jill, catching her enthusiasm, jumped up and down with Johnny. “The planes will get the birds. The planes will shoot them.”
Just then they heard a crash about two miles distant, followed by a second, then a third. The droning became more distant, passed away out to sea.
“What was that?” asked his wife. “Were they dropping bombs on the birds?”
“I don’t know,” answered Nat. “I don’t think so.”
He did not want to tell her that the sound they had heard was the crashing of aircraft. It was, he had no doubt, a venture on the part of the authorities to send out reconnaissance forces, but they might have known the venture was suicidal. What could aircraft do against birds that flung themselves to death against propeller and fuselage but hurtle to the ground themselves? This was being tried now, he supposed, over the whole country. And at a cost. Someone high up had lost his head.
“Where have the planes gone, Dad?” asked Jill.
“Back to base,” he said. “Come on, now, time to tuck down for bed.”
It kept his wife occupied, undressing the children before the fire, seeing to the bedding, one thing and another, while he went round the cottage again, making sure that nothing had worked loose. There was no further drone of aircraft, and the naval guns had ceased. “Waste of life and effort,” Nat said to himself. “We can’t destroy enough of them that way. Cost too heavy. There’s always gas. Maybe they’ll try spraying with gas, mustard gas. We’ll be warned first, of course, if they do. There’s one thing, the best brains of the country will be onto it tonight.”
Somehow the thought reassured him. He had a picture of scientists, naturalists, technicians, and all those chaps they called the back-room boys, summoned to a council; they’d be working on the problem now. This was not a job for the government, for the chiefs of staff—they would merely carry out the orders of the scientists.
“They’ll have to be ruthless,” he thought. “Where the trouble’s worst they’ll have to risk more lives if they use gas. All the livestock, too, and the soil—all contaminated. As long as everyone doesn’t panic. That’s the trouble. People panicking, losing their heads. The BBC was right to warn us of that.”
Upstairs in the bedrooms all was quiet. No further scraping and stabbing at the windows. A lull in battle. Forces regrouping. Wasn’t that what they called it in the old wartime bulletins? The wind hadn’t dropped, though. He could still hear it roaring in the chimneys. And the sea breaking down on the shore. Then he remembered the tide. The tide would be on the turn. Maybe the lull in battle was because of the tide. There was some law the birds obeyed, and it was all to do with the east wind and the tide.
He glanced at his watch. Nearly eight o’clock. It must have gone high water an hour ago. That explained the lull: The birds attacked with the flood tide. It might not work that way inland, upcountry, but it seemed as if it was so this way on the coast. He reckoned the time limit in his head. They had six hours to go without attack. When the tide turned again, around one-twenty in the morning, the birds would come back. . . .
There were two things he could do. The first to rest, with his wife and the children, and all of them snatch what sleep they could, until the small hours. The second to go out, see how they were faring at the farm, see if the telephone was still working there, so that they might get news from the exchange.
He called softly to his wife, who had just settled the children. She came halfway up the stairs and he whispered to her.
“You’re not to go,” she said at once, “you’re not to go and leave me alone with the children. I can’t stand it.”
Her voice rose hysterically. He hushed her, calmed her.
“All right,” he said, “all right. I’ll wait till morning. And we’ll get the wireless bulletin then too, at seven. But in the morning, when the tide ebbs again, I’ll try for the farm, and they may let us have bread and potatoes, and milk too.”
His mind was busy again, planning against emergency. They would not have milked, of course, this evening. The cows would be standing by the gate, waiting in the yard, with the household inside, battened behind boards, as they were here at the cottage. That is, if they had time to take precautions. He thought of the farmer, Trigg, smiling at him from the car. There would have been no shooting party, not tonight.
The children were asleep. His wife, still clothed, was sitting on her mattress. She watched him, her eyes nervous.
“What are you going to do?” she whispered.
He shook his head for silence. Softly, stealthily, he opened the back door and looked outside.
It was pitch dark. The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea. He kicked at the step outside the door. It was heaped with birds. There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds. No trace of the living. The living had flown seaward with the turn of the tide. The gulls would be riding the seas now, as they had done in the forenoon.
In the far distance, on the hill where the tractor had been two days before, something was burning. One of the aircraft that had crashed; the fire, fanned by the wind, had set light to a stack.
He looked at the bodies of the birds, and he had a notion that if he heaped them, one upon the other, on the windowsills they would make added protection for the next attack. Not much, perhaps, but something. The bodies would have to be clawed at, pecked, and dragged aside before the living birds could gain purchase on the sills and attack the panes. He set to work in the darkness. It was queer; he hated touching them. The bodies were still warm and bloody. The blood matted their feathers. He felt his stomach turn, but he went on with his work. He noticed grimly that every windowpane was shattered. Only the boards had kept the birds from breaking in. He stuffed the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds.
When he had finished he went back into the cottage. He barricaded the kitchen door, made it doubly secure. He took off his bandages, sticky with the birds’ blood, not with his own cuts, and put on fresh plaster.
His wife had made him cocoa and he drank it thirstily. He was very tired.
“All right,” he said, smiling, “don’t worry. We’ll get through.”
He lay down on his mattress and closed his eyes. He slept at once. He dreamt uneasily, because through his dreams there ran a thread of something forgotten. Some piece of work, neglected, that he should have done. Some precaution that he had known well but had not taken, and he could not put a name to it in his dreams. It was connected in some way with the burning aircraft and the stack upon the hill. He went on sleeping, though; he did not awake. It was his wife shaking his shoulder that awoke him finally.
“They’ve begun,” she sobbed. “They’ve started this last hour. I can’t listen to it any longer alone. There’s something smelling bad too, something burning.”
Then he remembered. He had forgotten to make up the fire. It was smoldering, nearly out. He got up swiftly and lit the lamp. The hammering had started at the windows and the doors, but it was not that he minded now. It was the smell of singed feathers. The smell filled the kitchen. He knew at once what it was. The birds were coming down the chimney, squeezing their way down to the kitchen range.
He got sticks and paper and put them on the embers, then reached for the can of paraffin.
“Stand back,” he shouted to his wife. “We’ve got to risk this.”
He threw the paraffin onto the fire. The flame roared up the pipe, and down upon the fire fell the scorched, blackened bodies of the birds.
The children woke, crying. “What is it?” said Jill. “What’s happened?”
Nat had no time to answer. He was raking the bodies from the chimney, clawing them out onto the floor. The flames still roared, and the danger of the chimney catching fire was one he had to take. The flames would send away the living birds from the chimney top. The lower joint was the difficulty, though. This was choked with the smoldering, helpless bodies of the birds caught by fire. He scarcely heeded the attack on the windows and the door: Let them beat their wings, break their beaks, lose their lives in the attempt to force an entry into his home. They would not break in. He thanked God he had one of the old cottages, with small windows, stout walls. Not like the new council houses. Heaven help them up the lane in the new council houses.
“Stop crying,” he called to the children. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, stop crying.”
He went on raking at the burning, smoldering bodies as they fell into the fire.
“This’ll fetch them,” he said to himself, “the draft and the flames together. We’re all right, as long as the chimney doesn’t catch. I ought to be shot for this. It’s all my fault. Last thing, I should have made up the fire. I knew there was something.”
Amid the scratching and tearing at the window boards came the sudden homely striking of the kitchen clock. Three A.M. A little more than four hours yet to go. He could not be sure of the exact time of high water. He reckoned it would not turn much before half past seven, twenty to eight.
“Light up the Primus,” he said to his wife. “Make us some tea, and the kids some cocoa. No use sitting around doing nothing.”
That was the line. Keep her busy, and the children too. Move about, eat, drink; always best to be on the go.
He waited by the range. The flames were dying. But no more blackened bodies fell from the chimney.
He thrust his poker up as far as it could go and found nothing. It was clear. The chimney was clear. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Come on now, Jill,” he said, “bring me some more sticks. We’ll have a good fire going directly.” She wouldn’t come near him, though. She was staring at the heaped singed bodies of the birds.
“Never mind them,” he said. “We’ll put those in the passage when I’ve got the fire steady.”
The danger of the chimney was over. It could not happen again, not if the fire was kept burning day and night.
“I’ll have to get more fuel from the farm tomorrow,” he thought. “This will never last. I’ll manage, though. I can do all that with the ebb tide. It can be worked, fetching what we need, when the tide’s turned. We’ve just got to adapt ourselves, that’s all.”
They drank tea and cocoa and ate slices of bread and Bovril. Only half a loaf left, Nat noticed. Never mind, though, they’d get by.
“Stop it,” said young Johnny, pointing to the windows with his spoon, “stop it, you old birds.”
“That’s right,” said Nat, smiling, “we don’t want the old beggars, do we? Had enough of ’em.”
They began to cheer when they heard the thud of the suicide birds.
“There’s another, Dad,” cried Jill. “He’s done for.”
“He’s had it,” said Nat. “There he goes, the blighter.”
This was the way to face up to it. This was the spirit. If they could keep this up, hang on like this until seven, when the first news bulletin came through, they would not have done too badly.
“Give us a cigarette,” he said to his wife. “A bit of a smoke will clear away the smell of the scorched feathers.”
“There’s only two left in the packet,” she said. “I was going to buy you some from the co-op.”
“I’ll have one,” he said, “t’other will keep for a rainy day.”
No sense trying to make the children rest. There was no rest to be got while the tapping and the scratching went on at the windows. He sat with one arm round his wife and the other round Jill, with Johnny on his mother’s lap and the blankets heaped about them on the mattress.
“You can’t help admiring the beggars,” he said; “they’ve got persistence. You’d think they’d tire of the game, but not a bit of it.”
Admiration was hard to sustain. The tapping went on and on and a new rasping note struck Nat’s ear, as though a sharper beak than any hitherto had come to take over from its fellows. He tried to remember the names of birds; he tried to think which species would go for this particular job. It was not the tap of the woodpecker. That would be light and frequent. This was more serious because if it continued long the wood would splinter, as the glass had done. Then he remembered the hawks. Could the hawks have taken over from the gulls? Were there buzzards now upon the sills, using talons as well as beaks? Hawks, buzzards, kestrels, falcons—he had forgotten the birds of prey. He had forgotten the gripping power of the birds of prey. Three hours to go, and while they waited, the sound of the splintering wood, the talons tearing at the wood.
Nat looked about him, seeing what furniture he could destroy to fortify the door. The windows were safe because of the dresser. He was not certain of the door. He went upstairs, but when he reached the landing he paused and listened. There was a soft patter on the floor of the children’s bedroom. The birds had broken through. . . . He put his ear to the door. No mistake. He could hear the rustle of wings and the light patter as they searched the floor. The other bedroom was still clear. He went into it and began bringing out the furniture, to pile at the head of the stairs should the door of the children’s bedroom go. It was a preparation. It might never be needed. He could not stack the furniture against the door, because it opened inward. The only possible thing was to have it at the top of the stairs.
“Come down, Nat, what are you doing?” called his wife.
“I won’t be long,” he shouted. “Just making everything shipshape up here.”
He did not want her to come; he did not want her to hear the pattering of the feet in the children’s bedroom, the brushing of those wings against the door.
At five-thirty he suggested breakfast, bacon and fried bread, if only to stop the growing look of panic in his wife’s eyes and to calm the fretful children. She did not know about the birds upstairs. The bedroom, luckily, was not over the kitchen. Had it been so, she could not have failed to hear the sound of them up there, tapping the boards. And the silly, senseless thud of the suicide birds, the death and glory boys, who flew into the bedroom, smashing their heads against the walls. He knew them of old, the herring gulls. They had no brains. The black-backs were different; they knew what they were doing. So did the buzzards, the hawks. . . .
He found himself watching the clock, gazing at the hands that went so slowly round the dial. If his theory was not correct, if the attack did not cease with the turn of the tide, he knew they were beaten. They could not continue through the long day without air, without rest, without more fuel, without . . . His mind raced. He knew there were so many things they needed to withstand siege. They were not fully prepared. They were not ready. It might be that it would be safer in the towns, after all. If he could get a message through on the farm telephone to his cousin, only a short journey by train upcountry, they might be able to hire a car. That would be quicker—hire a car between tides . . .
His wife’s voice, calling his name, drove away the sudden, desperate desire for sleep.
“What is it? What now?” he said sharply.
“The wireless,” said his wife. “I’ve been watching the clock. It’s nearly seven.”
“Don’t twist the knob,” he said, impatient for the first time. “It’s on the Home where it is. They’ll speak from the Home.”
They waited. The kitchen clock struck seven. There was no sound. No chimes, no music. They waited until a quarter past, switching to the Light. The result was the same. No news bulletin came through.
“We’ve heard wrong,” he said. “They won’t be broadcasting until eight o’clock.”
They left it switched on, and Nat thought of the battery, wondered how much power was left in it. It was generally recharged when his wife went shopping in the town. If the battery failed, they would not hear the instructions.
“It’s getting light,” whispered his wife. “I can’t see it, but I can feel it. And the birds aren’t hammering so loud.”
She was right. The rasping, tearing sound grew fainter every moment. So did the shuffling, the jostling for place upon the step, upon the sills. The tide was on the turn. By eight there was no sound at all. Only the wind. The children, lulled at last by the stillness, fell asleep. At half past eight Nat switched the wireless off.
“What are you doing? We’ll miss the news,” said his wife.
“There isn’t going to be any news,” said Nat. “We’ve got to depend upon ourselves.”
He went to the door and slowly pulled away the barricades. He drew the bolts and, kicking the bodies from the step outside the door, breathed the cold air. He had six working hours before him, and he knew he must reserve his strength for the right things, not waste it in any way. Food and light and fuel; these were the necessary things. If he could get them in sufficiency, they could endure another night.
He stepped into the garden, and as he did so he saw the living birds. The gulls had gone to ride the sea, as they had done before; they sought sea food and the buoyancy of the tide, before they returned to the attack. Not so the land birds. They waited and watched. Nat saw them, on the hedgerows, on the soil, crowded in the trees, outside in the field, line upon line of birds, all still, doing nothing.
He went to the end of his small garden. The birds did not move. They went on watching him.
“I’ve got to get food,” said Nat to himself. “I’ve got to go to the farm to find food.”
He went back to the cottage. He saw to the windows and the doors. He went upstairs and opened the children’s bedroom. It was empty, except for the dead birds on the floor. The living were out there, in the garden, in the fields. He went downstairs.
“I’m going to the farm,” he said.
His wife clung to him. She had seen the living birds from the open door.
“Take us with you,” she begged. “We can’t stay here alone. I’d rather die than stay here alone.”
He considered the matter. He nodded.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Bring baskets, and Johnny’s pram. We can load up the pram.”
They dressed against the biting wind, wore gloves and scarves. His wife put Johnny in the pram. Nat took Jill’s hand.
“The birds,” she whimpered, “they’re all out there in the fields.”
“They won’t hurt us,” he said, “not in the light.”
They started walking across the field toward the stile, and the birds did not move. They waited, their heads turned to the wind.
When they reached the turning to the farm, Nat stopped and told his wife to wait in the shelter of the hedge with the two children.
“But I want to see Mrs. Trigg,” she protested. “There are lots of things we can borrow if they went to market yesterday; not only bread, and . . .”
“Wait here,” Nat interrupted. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
The cows were lowing, moving restlessly in the yard, and he could see a gap in the fence where the sheep had knocked their way through, to roam unchecked in the front garden before the farmhouse. No smoke came from the chimneys. He was filled with misgiving. He did not want his wife or the children to go down to the farm.
“Don’t gib now,” said Nat, harshly. “Do what I say.”
She withdrew with the pram into the hedge, screening herself and the children from the wind.
He went down alone to the farm. He pushed his way through the herd of bellowing cows, which turned this way and that, distressed, their udders full. He saw the car standing by the gate, not put away in the garage. The windows of the farmhouse were smashed. There were many dead gulls lying in the yard and around the house. The living birds perched on the group of trees behind the farm and on the roof of the house. They were quite still. They watched him.
Jim’s body lay in the yard . . . what was left of it. When the birds had finished, the cows had trampled him. His gun was beside him. The door of the house was shut and bolted, but, as the windows were smashed, it was easy to lift them and climb through. Trigg’s body was close to the telephone. He must have been trying to get through to the exchange when the birds came for him. The receiver was hanging loose, the instrument torn from the wall. No sign of Mrs. Trigg. She would be upstairs. Was it any use going up? Sickened, Nat knew what he would find.
“Thank God,” he said to himself, “there were no children.”
He forced himself to climb the stairs, but halfway he turned and descended again. He could see her legs protruding from the open bedroom door. Beside her were the bodies of the black-backed gulls and an umbrella, broken.
“It’s no use,” thought Nat, “doing anything. I’ve only got five hours, less than that. The Triggs would understand. I must load up with what I can find.”
He tramped back to his wife and children.
“I’m going to fill up the car with stuff,” he said. “I’ll put coal in it, and paraffin for the Primus. We’ll take it home and return for a fresh load.”
“What about the Triggs?” asked his wife.
“They must have gone to friends,” he said.
“Shall I come and help you, then?”
“No; there’s a mess down there. Cows and sheep all over the place. Wait, I’ll get the car. You can sit in it.”
Clumsily he backed the car out of the yard and into the lane. His wife and the children could not see Jim’s body from there.
“Stay here,” he said, “never mind the pram. The pram can be fetched later. I’m going to load the car.”
Her eyes watched his all the time. He believed she understood; otherwise she would have suggested helping him to find the bread and groceries.
They made three journeys altogether, backward and forward between their cottage and the farm, before he was satisfied they had everything they needed. It was surprising, once he started thinking, how many things were necessary. Almost the most important of all was planking for the windows. He had to go round searching for timber. He wanted to renew the boards on all the windows at the cottage. Candles, paraffin, nails, tinned stuff; the list was endless. Besides all that, he milked three of the cows. The rest, poor brutes, would have to go on bellowing.
On the final journey he drove the car to the bus stop, got out, and went to the telephone box. He waited a few minutes, jangling the receiver. No good though. The line was dead. He climbed onto a bank and looked over the countryside, but there was no sign of life at all, nothing in the fields but the waiting, watching birds. Some of them slept—he could see the beaks tucked into the feathers.
“You’d think they’d be feeding,” he said to himself, “not just standing in that way.”
No smoke came from the chimneys of the council houses. He thought of the children who had run across the fields the night before.
“I should have known,” he thought; “I ought to have taken them home with me.”
He lifted his face to the sky. It was colorless and gray. The bare trees on the landscape looked bent and blackened by the east wind. The cold did not affect the living birds waiting out there in the fields.
“This is the time they ought to get them,” said Nat; “they’re a sitting target now. They must be doing this all over the country. Why don’t our aircraft take off now and spray them with mustard gas? What are all our chaps doing? They must know; they must see for themselves.”
He went back to the car and got into the driver’s seat.
“Go quickly past that second gate,” whispered his wife. “The postman’s lying there. I don’t want Jill to see.”
He accelerated. The little Morris bumped and rattled along the lane. The children shrieked with laughter.
“Up-a-down, up-a-down,” shouted young Johnny.
It was a quarter to one by the time they reached the cottage. Only an hour to go.
“Better have cold dinner,” said Nat. “Hot up something for yourself and the children, some of that soup.
I’ve no time to eat now. I’ve got to unload all this stuff.”
He got everything inside the cottage. It could be sorted later. Give them all something to do during the long hours ahead. First he must see to the windows and the doors.
He went round the cottage methodically, testing every window, every door. He climbed onto the roof also, and fixed boards across every chimney except the kitchen. The cold was so intense he could hardly bear it, but the job had to be done. Now and again he would look up, searching the sky for aircraft. None came. As he worked he cursed the inefficiency of the authorities.
“It’s always the same,” he muttered. “They always let us down. Muddle, muddle, from the start. No plan, no real organization. And we don’t matter down here. That’s what it is. The people upcountry have priority. They’re using gas up there, no doubt, and all the aircraft. We’ve got to wait and take what comes.”
He paused, his work on the bedroom chimney finished, and looked out to sea. Something was moving out there. Something gray and white amongst the breakers.
“Good old Navy,” he said, “they never let us down. They’re coming down-channel; they’re turning in the bay.”
He waited, straining his eyes, watering in the wind, toward the sea. He was wrong, though. It was not ships. The Navy was not there. The gulls were rising from the sea. The massed flocks in the fields, with ruffled feathers, rose in formation from the ground and, wing to wing, soared upward to the sky.
The tide had turned again.
Nat climbed down the ladder and went inside the kitchen. The family were at dinner. It was a little after two. He bolted the door, put up the barricade, and lit the lamp.
“It’s nighttime,” said young Johnny.
His wife had switched on the wireless once again, but no sound came from it.
“I’ve been all round the dial,” she said, “foreign stations, and that lot. I can’t get anything.”
“Maybe they have the same trouble,” he said, “maybe it’s the same right through Europe.”
She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.
They ate in silence. A piece of the dripping ran down young Johnny’s chin and fell onto the table.
“Manners, Johnny,” said Jill, “you should learn to wipe your mouth.”
The tapping began at the windows, at the door. The rustling, the jostling, the pushing for position on the sills. The first thud of the suicide gulls upon the step.
“Won’t America do something?” said his wife. “They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?”
Nat did not answer. The boards were strong against the windows and on the chimneys too. The cottage was filled with stores, with fuel, with all they needed for the next few days. When he had finished dinner he would put the stuff away, stack it neatly, get everything shipshape, handy like. His wife could help him, and the children too. They’d tire themselves out, between now and a quarter to nine, when the tide would ebb; then he’d tuck them down on their mattresses, see that they slept good and sound until three in the morning.
He had a new scheme for the windows, which was to fix barbed wire in front of the boards. He had brought a great roll of it from the farm. The nuisance was, he’d have to work at this in the dark, when the lull came between nine and three. Pity he had not thought of it before. Still, as long as the wife slept, and the kids, that was the main thing.
The smaller birds were at the window now. He recognized the light tap-tapping of their beaks and the soft brush of their wings. The hawks ignored the windows. They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.
“I’ll smoke that last cigarette,” he said to his wife. “Stupid of me—it was the one thing I forgot to bring back from the farm.”
He reached for it, switched on the silent wireless. He threw the empty packet on the fire and watched it burn.