The bar-tailed godwit has one of the longest nonstop migration flights.
It’s funny what springs to mind on a long drive, but then everything about Henry’s drive is rather unusual. The road is one he knows well but hasn’t had the occasion to travel. The car lurches to the side as it hits a pothole and jerks Henry out of a daze. He is surprised to discover himself here. He had intended to drive home, but finds himself instead at the old industrial estate. The factory he busied twenty years with rises up from the skyline.
The factory had been shut late last autumn. They had been given a cursory notice and assured their skills would find them employed again. They had not, and lately Henry had felt like the little wind up toys he’d had as a boy. The ones he’d wind to the point of breaking and then release into his cupped hands to feel them jitter and shake. All that pent-up energy and nowhere to go. Maybe that’s why he keeps finding himself in odd places. He had started sleepwalking, he’d woken up in the neighbours’ garden once, had found a slipper in the local park and now it seemed he was driving odd places too. Although if Henry really thinks about it, maybe this was where he was trying to go all along.
The broken lock on the factory door beckons Henry to come in. He shoves the lock into the lint of his pocket and hesitates for a moment before stepping forward. The inside is dark. The factory is lit only by rays of light that stream through the cracked skylights, oil laden dust twisting in the beams. The assembly line lies dormant, car parts piled to the corners, the smell of rust hanging in the air. Bitter and old. Henry picks his way through the sifting light and finds his spot. His equipment is long gone; anything salvageable sold off. There is only a cross of orange rust to indicate where his workstation once stood. But muscle memory is strong; his hands automatically move to their task, miming to invisible machines.
As his sure hands move Henry closes his eyes and listens to the sound of the factory growing around him. He can hear distant pounding, that always-familiar song on the radio you only catch snatches of, the whir of drills, the clink clunk of parts fitting into place. He can almost hear his neighbour Morris’s tuneless hum. Morris who, soon after the redundancies, had gone fishing, and had not been seen since.
They had made things once. Him and Morris and the new guy who had in fact worked there three years and the girl they called Cookie for her lunchtime snacks. They had made things. They had made cars that people used, cars that got them to work and home again, cars that travelled countries. He had known then what his days would bring, how they would begin and end. Now there was nothing and time stretched as infinite and unknowable as the night’s sky. Henry throws the lock into the silence. The metal smacks hard into the wall and clatters to the floor, leaving the factory vibrating with Henry’s frustration and startling the birds.
For hidden inside broken mechanical arms and sheet steel presses, birds have made their homes, and from them they stream, filling the factory with their fervent calls. Dark-winged shadows spiralling over Henry and up, up and through the broken ceiling windows and into the light of the outside world.
In the airy stillness left in their wake Henry sees it. The egg. A single one tucked into a weathered metal drawer. Its delicate pastel blue shell nestled there like an Easter surprise. Maybe that’s why he takes it. Or maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to leave the factory alone. Lately Henry can’t tell you why he does most of the things he does. But he trusts his hands. And the fat round egg feels good cupped in his palm.
On the drive back the egg presses against his chest pocket, bringing the memory of his daughter’s heavy head as he had cradled it against his chest in the bath, trickling water over the soft waifs of hair. His heart beats against it and Henry wonders again how on earth he will look after something so fragile.
He takes the egg to the nearest thing to a pet shop he can find, an aquarium and reptile shop oddly located in-between the local church and a McDonald’s. The man at the counter stares at Henry through his heavy Monday morning hangover, but spotting an easy sell recommends a heat lamp, which incidentally is only sold as part of a Lizard habitat, Lizard included. Henry carts the tank under his arm, eyeing the green lizard warily. It splayed feet edge their way up the sides, looking for escape. Outside a kid of no more than ten kicks at the tyres of a chained BMX. Henry takes the lizard in one hand and passes it to the boy, who, wide-eyed, pockets it and flies down the street before Henry can change his mind.
At home he sits the egg under the lamp in the bathtub, the only space in his house that isn’t filled with a mess of job applications, unpaid bills and letters Henry has stopped opening. And as he sits there watching it, he contemplates what will hatch. In the darkness of the factory he hadn’t been able to make out the birds. All he remembers is the heavy beating of wings.
Henry wonders if he might ring his daughter and ask her. When she was young they had spent many weekends up at the marshes behind the house, her eyes always glued to the navy-issue binoculars, watching the birds circle whilst he had trudged on to eat ham and pickle sandwiches on the sea wall. But she lives in China now, and Henry can’t remember the time difference. All he knows is when he’s up, she’s asleep.
So while Henry’s daughter is up, cradling her hard round belly, with the same amazement as if it had sprung up overnight, Henry dreams of the birds in the factory. Sometimes they come flocking out of machines as parrots, the bright primary colours swimming together as they swirl further and further away; other times as the red crowned cranes that had graced his daughter’s wedding invitations, their beaks dancing together as their long necks bop up and down with the forceful strokes of their large wings. And sometimes as bar-tailed godwits, but as Henry doesn’t know what they look like, in his dreams they appear as tiny sparkling bodies that waver in the air, twinkling like stars in a darkened factory sky.
It’s the day of the hatching when Henry hears about a man found dead in a fishing shack. The radio presenter rattles off the headline before segueing to the reunion tour of some old boy band. He wonders about Morris. Morris who had always insisted, somewhere between the fourth and the fifth pint that it was him and Henry who, in going to their nine-to-fives, made the world turn.
But the world would turn without the factory alive with the sound of hundreds of bodies going about their work; the world would turn without the cars he made (after all, people could always buy different ones) and the world would turn with his feet still standing here, in this little flat, whilst he daydreams of birds. And for the first time standing still, Henry feels totally lost.
And as the egg begins to crack he wonders if it’s too late to start over.
He thinks about his daughter; about how under the gentle persistence of her quiet husband she had invited him over to Hong Kong once. He had turned her down on the grounds he wouldn’t like the food.
The bar-tailed godwit, he remembers his daughter’s matter of fact voice announcing one evening on the marshes, is one of the few birds that can fly from Europe to Asia. Certain types of swans have been known too. But then, most of them have been lost.
He looks at the egg with envy.
Because the great thing about birds, Henry muses, is that even lost, they end up somewhere new.
(c) Amber Lee Dodd, 2013
Amber Lee Dodd is a
writer/playwright whose work has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, New
Theatre Royal and is forthcoming at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young
Playwrights showcase. She has been published in Litro, Cleaver Magazine,
1000words and more. She likes thunderstorms and skinny dipping, sometimes
at the same time. http://amberdod2.wix.com/amberleedodd
Miranda Harrison: Actor and voiceover artist. Recent theatre includes In A Moment (Karen, ADC Theatre); Autumn Leaves (Julie, Barons Court); three roles for experimental company Le Nouveau Guignol; Memory of Water (Vi, Rose & Crown). V/O clients include BBC Children in Need, Punchdrunk and ENO Baylis, educational audio publishers, charities and corporate firms.