© Lee Williams
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The first time I saw her she was hanging about the arcade while a gang of old ladies fed pennies into her and clucked every time they thought she might pay out. They were wearing matching pink baseball caps - a coach party. I was a dachshund at the time and I smelled her immediately, so I went and cocked a leg up against her as if I were going to piss.
‘Shoo!’ she said in a tinny voice, and all her jackpot lights flashed in warning.
‘Snausages,’ I replied, and I sauntered out the door onto the seafront.
I wandered along to the old bandstand and waited. I knew she’d be too curious not to come. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes she fluttered in and settled on the bench next to me.
‘Nice fruitie,’ I said.
‘Ta. Took me ages. What’s your name?’
‘Jonno,’ I said. I didn’t ask what hers was yet. I was playing it cool. Later I found out it was Stella.
‘I thought I was the only one around here’, she said, stretching her wings like gulls do. Nice touch, I thought.
‘I’ve been here all summer,’ I said. ‘It’s dead boring.’
‘Why don’t you move on?’
Dachshunds can’t shrug, don't have the shoulders for it, so I just sat there. I felt a bit daft but I didn’t know what to say.
‘I came from up the coast last week,’ she said. ‘I used to hang around with the big troops in London but I got sick of it. Give me the fresh air any day.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘What did you do with the pennies?’
‘Left them in the arcade when I changed. Do you want to get an ice cream?’
There was no one around so we changed into an old couple and went to get a cornetto at one of the cafes. She made me laugh because she had a pink rinse and big glasses, so I did myself some checked trousers and a toupee. The people in the cafe had never seen such a lively old pair. We were giggling all the time.
I think it must have been then that I fell in love with her, but I was still too young to realise. Our kind learn quickly that puberty will kill us, so we don’t like to think those thoughts anyway.
We knocked about together for the next few weeks, nicking stuff from the tat shops and playing pranks on the old dears. Moving bushes, talking postboxes, you know the sort of thing. A seagull smoking a fag. Stupid stuff. At nights we’d curl up together out of the way, sometimes in the Big Claw Machine, two blue teddies among all the tatty beige ones. One day Stella asked me how old I was.
‘Eleven or twelve,’ I said. People had always told me it was better not to know.
‘I’m eleven,’ she said, then there was a pause. We were both thinking the same thing.
‘In London I heard of some who didn’t get the sickness,’ said Stella. ‘There’s supposed to be one in Scotland who’s thirty or something.’
I’d heard of them too, but I wasn’t daft enough to believe in them. Still, I didn’t like to spoil her dream.
‘Girls last longer anyway,’ I said. ‘Let’s go for a fly.’
Flying was our favourite. Of course it’s everybody’s, but we felt like we were the first ever to do it. We would barrel squawking along the seafront, rolling and swooping, then turn into thrushes as we hit the pavement café on the corner and dance through the crush of people like little gymnasts. After that we would climb up into the sky and look down on the town, spread like a map below us.
Then we'd really stretch our wings. The best thing for distance is a big old heron or something like that. We loved to fly towards the sun as it set, hauling it closer with each pull of our wings, or out over the twinkling sea. Some evenings we saw France on the horizon before we turned back.
One day I had the squits because I’d been letting people feed me all sorts of stuff on the duck pond for laughs, so I didn’t go for chips with her that evening. Instead, I agreed to meet her by the bandstand later. As I was walking down the front past the arcade, looking like the snooker player on the posters, I had the feeling that something was wrong. Then I suddenly twigged – there was an extra lamppost near the slipway. I strolled past and nipped behind the arcade, then came back with my sniffer on.
It was one of us alright. There’s no masking that scent, and this time there was a nasty edge to it. Something rank and metallic, like rotten flowers. I’d smelled it once before. When I got up close I could see the lamppost was out of plumb, leaning to the right like it was drunk. It was a shade too dark as well, and the detail was a bit slapdash. I’d have been embarrassed.
‘Wotcha,’ I said, and waited. There was a long pause.
‘How do, kind sir,’ he said at last. He’d made a little mouth down near the base, and the paint was gumming it up as he spoke. Shoddy.
‘Just watching the view?’ I asked.
He laughed wheezily. ‘You might say that, my canine friend. Indeed you might. Have you noticed the female over yonder?’
‘Yeah, she’s my friend,’ I said. I didn’t like his way of talking. False. And he smelt false too.
‘We can judge a man by the quality of his friends,’ chuckled the lamppost.
‘Yeah. Whatever,’ I said, and I moved on. I don’t suffer fools gladly, especially not twats who can’t make a proper lamppost. But I should have taken more notice than I did.
I can’t remember how we spent that evening. I know we decided to make a quick getaway so we wouldn’t have the newcomer hanging around with us. I was pretty certain he had the sickness; at least I guessed that’s what the smell was. So we made off across the bay, then doubled back and hid on the cliff top, chasing each other through the warrens and spooking the bunnies.
At sundown she went to pick up a couple of bottles of pop and I headed back to the new nest we’d made by the train station. It was the coolest nest in the whole town and the other birds didn’t know what to make of it. We used an upside down sunhat for the base – one of those ‘Damn Seagulls!’ ones with fake birdshit – and filled it with shredded comics, coloured wig hair and the stuffing from soft toys. I loved it there, loved sneaking off in the morning and flying back with a strawberry lace in my mouth to surprise her.
That evening I waited for half an hour but she didn’t return and I started to get worried. It wasn’t like her, so I went back to the arcade to look for her.
I went in through the grill as an adder and tasted the air. She was in here all right, and so was the creep from earlier. I was proper worried now, so I changed up into a man and turned the lights on.
‘Stella,’ I whispered. I heard a whimpering from right at the back among the fruities. I changed to a dachshund and trotted in deeper with my nose to the floor.
I found them in the dark corner near the money booth. I could see something struggling in the shadows at first, and then I saw them. I don’t think at the time I actually took in what was happening, but part of me must have realised. I had a feeling I’ve never had before or since. My eyes blurred and I felt myself losing control over my own form. My skin sizzling and lifting into points as if someone was pulling it with hooks.
He had her pinned down with one claw round her neck. His face was part gull and part man, beak open in a sort of silent red scream, a stumpy tongue quivering in its depth. The rest of him was hunched and knotted like a twisted pit bull. She lay beneath him, all white feathers and soft flesh, a form I couldn’t place. She said later he’d made her take that shape.
I must have barked. As soon as he heard me he spun his head round, owl-necking, and loosened his grip on her throat. She lifted away from him like smoke, flipping out tentacles and latching onto nearby machines. Her octopus body slipped out of his grasp and left his dirty great cock behind, reddened and nodding. He howled as if he was hurt.
‘Fuck off!’ he shouted, finding a human voice again.
‘Help me Jonno,’ said Stella.
I rose up on my haunches, let my back buckle and pop and my mouth split open in anger. I don’t know what I turned into but it scared the shit out of him. Me too. He hit the floor and bounced, heading for the door. A basketball, would you believe? I pounced after him.
Just as I had him in my arms he came apart like an apple being peeled and straightened into a snake of some sort, letting his momentum carry him through the grill. I slammed against it hard, pissed off with myself for not paying attention. By the time I was outside he’d gone. Luckily there was a full moon that night and I could see him clearly against it, in the shape of a bat, as if he were an extra in an old horror film. I gave chase.
If you’ve ever wondered which would win in a fight, a bat or a huge eagle, then you’re almost as thick as he was. I ploughed into him screeching, and ripped the shit out of his wings before he knew what was happening. He must have thought he’d got away from me.
After that I can’t tell you how many changes we made. Sometimes little birds are good, for maneuvering, then of course you want a bit more beak and claws for the attack. If you’re good you can do combinations, and I was definitely better at it than him. We must have gone through the whole Handbook of British Birds up there, a bird-watcher’s wet dream. I didn’t realise how weak we both were until we hit the sea.
I’ve never liked the water much, so I’m not good with fish. Of course I can do a decent dolphin, but not much else. He knew all these freaky phosporous things, though. It was like fighting in an underwater disco. I wanted out but I didn’t want to let him get away so I kept dragging and leading him in towards the shore. When we were close enough I tried to stand up as a bear but found I couldn’t form properly. I realised for the first time how damaged I was, and I think he did too. He smiled at me. He must have been something that could smile but I don’t remember what. I just remember his teeth.
He kept hitting me with claws, hooves, big fists, moving round me all the time. I was weakening and I couldn’t even move properly or see where he was. Then I think he began to take his time, to put in a bit more effort. I remember blades and wheels, being thrown and twisted about.
He was about to kill me when Stella stopped him. If it was in a film, it would be like this:
The baddie is leaning over the goodie smirking and the camera is looking up at him, then suddenly a big spike comes through his chest. He looks down at it, surprised, then he falls off to one side and the heroine is there behind him, smiling. She looks beautiful.
Anyway, that’s what my memory tells me happened. I think it must have been something like that. She took me back to the nest and held me until morning.
It brought us even closer. We’d fought for each other and saw ourselves in a different light. But it was the beginning of the end. The feelings I had when I saw him attacking her weren’t just shock, or anger at her pain. I was getting sick and I knew it. So did she. Sometimes when I looked at her I felt that she was the only solid thing in existence. Everything around her seemed blurred by comparison, out of focus. It was the world that changed, not her. I physically ached for her, wanted her in a way I could not express, though sometimes my dreams and my memories knew it.
Poor Stella. I noticed that she began to avoid making anything with a decent nose, so I could guess how I was beginning to smell. But she didn’t mention it to me.
One night we went on a date. It was her idea.
‘Let’s be like an ordinary boy and girl,’ she said, as we lay together in our nest. ‘Come and pick me up around six at the bandstand and take me out somewhere.’
‘Where do you want to go? I asked.
‘You’re supposed to choose, you spaz, not ask me. Now piss off and get ready.’
She jabbed me in the arse with her beak.
‘Oh, and wear something nice,’ she said.
I was so excited about it, I flapped about town for half an hour before I decided where to take her. There was an Italian restaurant in the high street called Luigi’s and she’d sometimes said she’d like to go there but I’d never fancied it before. I didn’t know how to behave in a grown-up place. Anyway, I thought I’d take her to the pictures first and then we’d eat.
I spent a lot of time on my appearance too. As a base I took the shape of her favourite actor, then I stood in front of the mirror in the public bogs and tweaked him a bit. I darkened his skin a touch and made his nose less girly, and I dressed him up in a nice suit. It took ages to get it to hang just right. I also did his hair bright pink to give her a laugh, but then I decided against it. I didn’t want her to laugh at me that evening.
When I met her at the bandstand she looked amazing. Nothing special, not too extravagant or dressy, no famous starlet or supermodel. Just an ordinary girl. She looked perfect. I thought she was perfect.
At the cinema we watched a film about a bunch of kids who get stalked by a retard in a jump suit. He’s been in a mental home all his life but he somehow has all these ninja skills and stuff. I thought it was funny but Stella jumped every time you were supposed to jump and she held my hand in the scary parts.
When we got to the restaurant we ate pizza and drank bottles of coke. We sat across this little table from each other and at first I think we both felt really embarrassed because we weren’t talking or looking up. Then Stella started whispering funny things about the other customers and we lightened up. She’s brilliant like that. She sees why people look the way they do.
‘I’m so glad I met you, Jonno,’ she said.
‘Yeah. Me too. We have a laugh, don’t we?’
She smiled. ‘What do you think of this shape?’ she asked.
‘You’re more beautiful than any shape you hold,’ I told her.
‘You’ll be a poet when you grow up,’ she said, giggling. Then the lie sank in and it spoiled the conversation for a bit. We picked at our pizzas.
‘Come to Scotland with me,’ she said at last. She reached out and touched my hand. ‘The stories are true, I know they are. Somebody there will know how to cure it. I won’t let you-’
She choked up so I took her hand and looked into her eyes. ‘Of course I will,’ I said.
That night we walked home along the front holding hands. By the bandstand we stopped and turned to face each other. It was as if we were running by clockwork, the best moment of my life. I took her face in my hands and she put her arms around my waist. Then we kissed. I closed my eyes and I felt us melt together. For a few beautiful seconds I thought we might even be about to fall into one another, to make a single body, perfectly in love with itself.
Some people spend their whole lives wondering if they are here for a purpose, or what meaning there could be in their existence. I’ve seen films where they bang on about it for the whole hour and a half. Well, I know why I was here. It was for that moment.
That night when she slept I left the nest and I came out here to this island; I flew out here across the ocean. The journey took me four hours and I felt frozen all the way. But what could I do? I couldn’t go to Scotland with her and chase that old lie while my sickness got worse and worse. I couldn’t let her watch me die, and I was scared of how I might behave towards her as I turned. So I did the best thing I could think of, and I flew away for ever.
Over the last week I’ve got worse and worse. Today is my last day, I know. When I got up yesterday I couldn’t take any form at all and it was an effort just to keep a body around me. I’ve been holding myself together just with my thoughts, and I’ve been thinking about Stella. I closed my eyes and I saw her, like a candle flame in front of me, the pure light of Stella without any body to hide her. I fixed that flame in my mind all day, and all through this last dark night, and it’s given me the focus I need to remain here.
But soon I’ll go. I can already feel myself fraying at the edges. It feels like I’m holding a breath but I can’t hold it forever. When I relax my mind I’ll come apart and that will be it. I’ll let the wind take me and scatter me out across the sea, out over the waves just as the sun comes up.