The Birds, continued

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. 

“What’s that?” 

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.” 

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