This is probably the longest short story I have uploaded to the shoebox. I wrote it on a battery powered laptop during a torrential rainstorm and power outage. When the rain cleared and the power was restored the story was finished and I quite like the results.
I would like to dedicate it to the memory of Ray Bradbury; whose imagination was powerful enough to fill endless rainy days.
It was raining on the day that I was told this story.
It was not the ordinary, everyday sort of rain that requires an umbrella on the walk to work. Neither was it the sort of fine, misty spray that can be refreshing if enjoyed while out strolling on a hot summer’s evening. Instead, it was the sort of rain that trapped folk indoors, the sort which left braver, or perhaps more foolhardy, souls shivering under overflowing shop awnings, soaked to the skin and cursing their earlier optimism. It was the sort of rain that needed its own special category to properly define it and the locals, who lived and worked in Carmen-upon-Sea, the peculiar British seaside resort that my work had taken me too that morning, had their own term for it:
‘It’s bucketing down,’ the blind man warned me; addressing me from the armchair that sat in the corner of the hotel lobby.
That would do, I thought, and I jotted it down in my notebook.
I remember dressing earlier that morning, listening to the rattling from beyond the hotel window, and hoping that the weather might abate somewhat; that things might brighten in an hour or so.
They did not.
I can remember thinking, as I munched my way through a restorative full English breakfast and the customary marmalade on toast that followed, that perhaps the early afternoon would bring some respite.
It did not.
Eventually, having read everything worth reading in that morning’s newspaper and having completed as much of the crossword as I felt able or inclined to do, I became resigned to the fact that the downpour was unlikely to stop any time soon and so, pouring myself a fresh cup of coffee, I made my way out into the hotel lobby.
It was here that I stumbled upon, indeed almost tripped over, the elderly gentleman in the dark glasses. He sat facing away from me, his eyes pointed in the direction of the window where the water ran down the pane in long, heavy, lonely streaks.
‘It’s bucketing down,’ he said and I nodded, only realising the futility of my gesture as I noted the cane he kept propped by his side.
There was a seat free directly opposite him, separated by a little coffee table that housed a haphazard pile of brochures for local attractions and a small china pot of tea that the blind man had evidently been working his way through before I arrived on the scene.
Thinking that I might leaf through the brochures to find some alternative plan for the day, I remember asking to join him and, indeed, I can still recall the welcoming way in which he replied, with a sweep of his hand and a smile.
He was an old man, that much had been obvious from my first glance, but he looked not just old in years, but also old of time; as though he belonged to a generation that only existed in picture postcards; a relic of British summer holidays spent wandering along the promenade or picnicking upon the high, golden sand dunes. He wore a crisp, white suit with colourful braces that held up his trousers at the unusually high level that folk of a certain age seem to eventually settle into. His shoes were golden brown, polished like the sands that, somewhere beyond the rain, stretched outwards towards the salty spray of the ocean. On his head, covering thin wisps of whitish hair, there sat a cream coloured trilby decorated with a neat little bow. All of this detail only helped set off the dark glasses that covered his eyes; a pair of bushy, grey eyebrows nestling, like slumbering beasts of legend, above them.
While I began rummaging through the brochures, mostly maps and advertisements for local restaurants, we got to talking. It had been idle chitchat at first, remarks about the awful weather, quickly moving on to chatter about the town itself and the nature of my visit.
I can still remember the smile that lit up on his face when I told him I was a journalist and that I was here researching a story. He didn’t seem interested in what the story was, rather he used it as a prompt; an opening to move the conversation in the direction he evidently enjoyed best of all.
“I can tell you a story,” he said to me, his lips stretching out into a full blown grin.
“Oh, yes?” I remarked, paying only mild attention as I examined the lunch menu of a local restaurant.
“Have you ever heard about the day the Firebirds came to our town?” he asked.
I was forced to admit that I hadn’t; presuming, in my ignorance, that “the Firebirds” were some sort of touring performance artists of the kind who often visit seaside resorts during the Summer season.
Perhaps sensing my lack of understanding, the old man leaned forward, conspiratorially, letting his voice descend into a low whisper.
“Would you like to hear the story?” he asked.
From the window pane beside me I could hear the rain hammering down as strongly as ever. The clock in the lobby was ticking in a gentle, steady rhythm and I can still remember taking a long sip of coffee, smiling back at him, and telling him that yes, I would like to hear his story:
‘I was but a boy,’ he began.
I was but a boy when they came. My sister and I had spent the day before in a feverish excitement, packing our miniature suitcases and gathering together last year’s bucket and spade from our father’s shed. I can remember how it was still coated in the lingering residue of last season’s sand and smelled faintly of the salt of the sea. Our mother had wanted to buy us new ones and had, on several occasions, expressed a desire to throw the old ones away, but we had stamped our feet and insisted on keeping them until the following summer.
We had plans, you see. On our previous holiday we had spent the long sunny days constructing, not just sandcastles, but sand kingdoms; great high fortresses of packed wet clay surrounded by deeply dug moats; dark brown rivers filled laboriously with the seawater we had painstakingly carried back and forth from the foaming spray that surrounded the beach. We built the castles high and proud and the moats deep and treacherous and we populated them with imaginary characters plucked from the realms of our daydreams. Other children tried to join us at our building but we shooed them away, chased them back to their own substandard, unimaginative kingdoms. Here, in our spot, we were kings and queens of the beach and, such was the pride and good manners of folk back then that nobody looked to interfere with our creation. Even the ocean kept a respectful distance from our kingdom; occasionally washing away the odd barrack that intruded on its domain but never entirely demolishing the foundations we had put in place.
So, when the following summer rolled around then, of course, we wanted those same magic buckets; wanted to recreate the holiday gone, to take back our kingdom from the waves and the rogue children of other seasons who we realised, by now, would have conquered it and laid it to waste.
In the end, we never got the chance. On that first morning the Firebirds came and I could see the fear and confusion in my mother’s eyes as she woke us.
What is it, June?
‘What is it, June?’ he said, and at first I took this to be some part of dialogue from his story, that maybe June was his mother’s name and that, in the scene I now imagined in my head, this was his father coming to question her on why she was waking the children in a state of such apparent fright and concern.
It was only after the second voice spoke, elderly and feminine and from somewhere directly behind me, that I realised that the blind man had detected the presence of another in the hotel lobby.
‘It’s time, Edward.’ said the voice and I turned to see her.
For how long she had been standing there I couldn’t be certain. I had grown entranced by the old man’s storytelling and the eyes that were hidden behind his own dark glasses would most likely have never seen her coming…would mostly likely have never have seen anything at all for a very long time.
She was elderly too, less of a picture postcard than he was but still with the air of something quaint and peculiar that refused to be drawn into focus. She wore smart trousers and a blouse buttoned up behind a long flowing coat. Her hands bore dark lace gloves and on her head she wore a tightly wrapped headscarf. I couldn’t tell, as she approached us, whether or not she had just come in from the rain or was thinking of heading back out into it. It seemed a peculiar way to dress simply to take tea in a hotel lobby, although, as she drew nearer, it became apparent that her clothing was as dry as her tone.
‘Do you have them?’ she addressed the blind man; paying scant attention to myself.
The blind man sighed and looked vacantly in my direction.
‘Time for my medication,’ he explained, patting the sides of his burgeoning stomach. ‘Diabetes,’ he offered by way of further exposition ‘Type two, fortunately,’ he smiled.
The gloved lady seemed unimpressed as Edward patted his various pockets before offering a resigned sigh.
‘I must have left them in the hotel room, June.’ He offered in apparent resignation. ‘I’d better go fetch them.’ he said, taking his cane in hand and hauling himself to his feet with the traditional creaking, old man’s sigh.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend, first?’ said the gloved lady.
‘Oh, yes’ said the blind man, turning back to face me. ‘This is my sister, June, who I was telling you about,’ he said with a smile and, turning to face her, added ‘our friend here is a journalist, I was just telling him about the day the Firebirds came, perhaps you’d like to tell him the rest while I pop upstairs and fetch my tablets,’ he added.
The gloved woman seemed to grimace slightly and then raised her eyebrows as he wandered off across the lobby, the click of his cane joining the steady tick of the clock and the drumming of the rain on the window pane.
She took a seat opposite me, in the armchair vacated by her brother and taking the china teapot, poured herself a fresh cup of hot, black tea, stirring in some cream from the little white jug that accompanied it and watching as it dissolved in a slow hypnotic swirl.
‘So,’ she said ‘my brother has been telling you his stories I gather,’ a thin, weary smile creasing her lips. ‘Firebirds, was it?’ she asked, as she took a sip of tea.
I explained to her the essence of what her brother had told me so far and she nodded with a painful expression on her face.
‘My brother always did have a vivid imagination,’ she began.
My brother always did have a vivid imagination; far better than my own. This was despite him being a good two years younger than myself. I remember the previous summer when he had kept me entertained throughout the whole holiday. He was still quite small and rather scrawny so I’d help him build the sandcastles on the beach and act as a water-carrier while he dug out the moats with his spade. We built quite a kingdom that summer, as he may have already mentioned to you, but Edward was always the architect and it was always Edward who populated the castles with imaginary folk.
At the back of my own mind there was always my nagging consciousness of the frowns that masked our parent’s faces; a growing sense of fear and foreboding. They had lived through the previous war and they recognised only too well the dark cloud that was sweeping across Europe and which, inevitably, would come to our shores.
I think that even now, Edward still thinks of the summer that followed as a holiday instead of a retreat. The hotel was supposed to be a gathering point for those of us who lived in the coastal areas; a place where children could be grouped together, kissed farewell by their worried parents and taken away to a safe place in the countryside. Perhaps mother and father explained it to him as a holiday, or perhaps he convinced himself that this is what it was in order to blot out the truth. I can’t be sure. All I can remember is mother waking us that morning in a frightful state and father dashing about outside the hotel door, talking in deep and urgent tones.
We were up and washed and dressed quick as a flash and bustled downstairs to the lobby where other grown-ups frowned at us with that awkward expression they always wore when trying, badly, to conceal their concern from their children.
There were a lot of children gathered that day. A few, like me were unnerved by the adult’s behaviour but others like Edward ran about the lobby shrieking and laughing and having a whale of a time. We could hear the sirens whirring from outside, the younger ones like Edward and poor little Johnny Mercer thought it was all a terrific game and ran about the place with their arms outstretched, lost in their own imagination. After a time I lost sight of Edward and when mother came to ask me where he was I knew I was in for a scolding. I was the eldest; I was supposed to be looking after him you see…Well, it wasn’t my fault he got out. They were supposed to be the grown-ups…they never should have left the kitchen door unlocked. Not with what was going on outside. I can still remember the barbed wire they’d started erecting along the beach and those blasted things they buried in the sand. They were supposed to protect us…
Here they are…
‘Here they are,’ said Edward, emerging from the lift at the corner of the room and rattling a bottle of prescription medication as he made his way over to where we sat.
I awoke from his sister’s portion of the story, as if emerging from a deep and powerful dream, the hammering rain on the window suddenly fading back into consciousness and the ever present ticking of the hotel lobby’s clock replacing the blustery noise of the one she had described mere moments ago.
She rose from the seat and motioned him to take it.
‘There you are,’ she said to him in a reproachful voice. ‘I’m going to see if I can locate some umbrellas from the manager, were going to need them if we’re to ever make it outside today.’ She flashed me a knowing smile and then turned back to her brother ‘You just sit yourself down here and be sure not to bore our friend with your stories; I’ll be back by the time your tea goes cold.’ She smiled again. There was a hint of concern in her eyes; concern, I felt, over what it was that she fancied that Edward was going to tell me next. It seemed to flicker and spark for a moment, then dissolve in those deep brown pools as she turned away and headed off out into the corridor.
I turned back to Edward who had settled himself once more into the deep folds of the armchair and watched silently as he shook two tiny capsules out of the plastic bottle and noisily gulped them down with a slurp of tea, making an openly disgusted sound as he swallowed.
‘Did June get very far?’ he asked, his voice croaking back into life as he returned to the story at hand.
I explained to him that, at the point where his sister had left off, he had just gone missing in the hotel lobby. He twisted his face in response.
‘That’s the way she tells it,’ he explained as the rain thudded ever heavier against the window pane, ‘but in reality I knew exactly where I was going…the Firebirds were here and I wanted to get a look at them.’
I wanted to get a look at them but I knew that Mother and Father would never have allowed me to even take a peak outdoors while the Firebirds were about. They were scared stiff of the things; all the adults were. They didn’t understand them and so, because they didn’t understand them they went running around scared, locking everybody up so that nobody else had to understand them either. I sought out Johnny Mercer. I knew him from school and he was a tricky little blighter. His father worked at the natural history museum and Johnny picked up all kinds of interesting second hand information as a result. He was a great collector of bird’s eggs, in the days when this was considered an appropriate hobby for a boy and not an illegal activity monitored by some bureaucratic environmental busybodies. I knew he’d be interested in the Firebirds and I knew he’d be having the same thoughts as I was and so I sought him out. Once we were together, the adults mistakenly thought we were safe in numbers. That’s always the way that children fool their parents and always the way they ultimately get into all the sorts of trouble that their parents mistakenly think will happen if they are left on their own. I’m glad I never became a parent; I wouldn’t want to transform into such a senseless creature working on such odd, flawed logic.
Anyway, giving mother and father the slip wasn’t a problem once Johnny and I put our heads together. Giving June the slip was even easier, she was so preoccupied with having been given a bit of responsibility that she let her natural instincts slide and, just like that, Johnny and I were away, sneaking out back through the hotel kitchen and out into the rubbish strewn back streets beyond the hotel.
It was exciting to be out that morning. Everywhere you could sense a sort of abandonment in the streets, as people shut themselves indoors thinking that the Firebirds might attack them if they set a foot outside. We could smell the salt of the ocean in the distance and, ordinarily we might even have heard the waves crashing over the timid, frightened silence of the town. Except that something else filled the air that morning; a strange, fluctuating cry that dipped and dropped, rising and falling in intonation. I was a little scared at first, until Johnny explained to me what it must be; that it was the song of the Firebirds.
Johnny had stolen away some breakfast, a couple of rolls spread with strawberry jam and filled with cheese plucked from the table of a rich hotel guest and we munched them as we wandered down the empty backstreets of Carmen’s dustbin lined alleys; the song of the Firebirds echoing and vibrating until, finally, we came out onto the street that connected with the seafront and in the distance saw the rolling blue of the ocean rising in a lovely, inviting swell beyond the golden dunes.
I was so distracted by the beauty of the waves, evoking, as they did, that magical summer of the year gone that at first I didn’t notice Johnny standing frozen by my side, his arm arcing upward, one wavering finger pointing at the sky; at the shape in the sky that soared and suppurated and bent time in half as it hopped, skipped and jumped, flickering, burning, melting the clouds as it swooped.
The Firebirds were here.
The manager had no umbrella.
‘The manager had no umbrella,’ June’s voice interjected as she wandered back up to where we sat ‘it seems they’ve all been taken this morning,’ she gazed at the hammering on the window. ‘I’m not surprised, looking at that downpour.’
Part of me became cross. I was growing slightly tired of these interruptions and I knew, before she even made her follow-up comment, that this is what Edward’s sister was doing now; interrupting. That she was wilfully trying to prevent the story reaching the conclusion that Edward intended to take it to if given half a chance.
It seemed she sensed my irritation.
‘Well,’ she said ‘I suppose I’ll go and change, given that it looks unlikely we’ll be heading out in this,’ and, turning to me, she added ‘I do hope Edward isn’t keeping you from your own business.’
I sensed the implication suddenly present in her tone, that the story had gone far enough now and that it was time for this stranger to move on; that I had no right to hear about what happened next, about what happened with Edward and the Firebirds. That this wasn’t what I had come to Carmen-on Sea to research and that, perhaps, it was something that nobody ought to be looking into too deeply.
I smiled back at her and assured her that I was as much a prisoner of the rain as her brother and that I found his company quite pleasant.
June seemed to take this comment on the chin and assuring Edward that she would be along to collect him shortly, disappeared off in the direction of the lift.
Edward smiled back at me, as if the interruption had never happened.
‘They were incandescently beautiful,’ he continued.
They were incandescently beautiful. Radiant, magical creatures; they must have been thirty feet long if they were an inch, which they most certainly were not. They soared through the early morning sky, dipping and pirouetting through the cloud. They didn’t fly like an ordinary bird, instead they seemed to bend space, as if the sky somehow moved around them so that they might wink out of existence at one point and reappear thirty yards away from some unseen vent. They tore holes in reality…and they burned, red and golden and beautiful. They torched and singed the edge of clouds as they swooped, their giant wings outstretched. Terrifying in scale and yet utterly bewitching. Johnny and I couldn’t take our eyes from them. And through it all they called out, that strange hypnotic cry, rising and falling and echoing through the streets; a strange alien cry from creatures without mouths; without beaks or claws or anything so hard and permanent.
I couldn’t help but gawp at them, despite the slight pain I felt from staring at them too closely and, as such, it was several minutes before I noticed Johnny beckoning me from the distance, crying out over the Firebirds call for me to follow him down to the sands of the beach. I ran after him, my head still turned up to the majesty that soared and dipped above me.
It was Johnny, drawing on all of that second hand information passed on to him by his father, who came up with the theory that the Firebirds were protecting something; something of immense value to them…something Johnny desperately wanted to add to his own private collection. When I got to the beach and saw the barbed wire, I figured he must be right; that the adults had already found what the Firebirds had buried in the sands and that they wanted a piece of it for themselves. Perhaps this was why the Firebirds had come, to make sure that the adults didn’t get a hold of their treasure.
And yet, there was Johnny already ahead of me, at the spot where June and I must have built those great rolling kingdoms the summer previous; digging, furiously digging up great piles of sand; scooping it up with both hands.
‘I’ve found one, Eddie,’ he was yelling at me, his voice a tiny crackle beneath the Firebird’s wail, ‘I’ve found one!’
It was then that I felt something connect with my shoulder; felt the brief terror at the thought that one of the Firebirds, seeing what we were up to, had ripped its way down through those invisible vents in the sky and now sought to carry me up and away into the sky; to carry me up to a great height and then to drop me, to dash me on the rocks and put an end to my curious nature once and for all.
Instead, when I saw the rough, worn hands that wrestled their way around my waist, holding me still, putting an end to my wriggling, I knew that I was safe…and yet in an altogether different kind of trouble.
‘Edward, thank Christ,’ the voice had said and I recognised it as belonging to Mr. Thomas, the local butcher. He was, so I would later learn, part of a search party that had been sent to find us, once June had sheepishly revealed our disappearance to the adults.
‘What on Earth were you thinking coming out here when those blasted things are flying over, and to the beach of all places,’ he yelled at me and I became scared because this wasn’t the friendly, smiling face I was used to seeing behind the butcher’s counter but a mask transformed by terror.
‘Don’t you know what we put out here, Edward? Hasn’t your father warned you about…Oh, Christ!’
I felt the hands loosen and the voice rise in sudden panic.
‘Johnny! Johnny Mercer, for God’s sake don’t move! Don’t touch that thing!’
It was the last thing I ever saw:
Mr. Thomas, the bulky, friendly butcher who would tell me jokes while our mother bought sausages, now sweating profusely in his grubby white uniform, dried blood still spattering the sleeves in gory Rorschach patterns, his feet pounding through the wet, heavy sands towards Johnny…little Johnny Mercer, who loved wildlife and collected eggs and believed in Firebirds and had a grin the size of a Cheshire cat as he called out to me:
‘Look Eddie, I found one!’
His tiny white hands tugging at the sand and prying loose his final treasure, the shiny Firebird’s egg he had found half buried. He hauled it up into the air, wrenching it free of the wet clay that ought to have held it a prisoner. And then…Well… time seemed to slow and I can remember Mr. Thomas screaming; a terrible, mortified scream and the sudden silence as the Firebirds fell silent and time seemed to freeze entirely for an instant; freeze on that image of Mr. Thomas diving towards Johnny.
And the egg cracking open in Johnny’s hands.
And a terrible blinding light.
Outside the window, the rain began to fade a little and the ticking of the hotel lobby’s clock was replaced by the solitary chime that marked the passing of another hour. Edward too fell silent and it took me a while to understand that his story was over.
I sat in silence, a hundred questions running through my head as I watched him reach up, his hand trembling slightly as he slowly removed the dark glasses from his face, placed them on the table in front of him and, keeping his eyes firmly closed, reached for the handkerchief he kept in his top pocket, dabbing them at the corners before clearing his throat with a polite little cough.
‘Would you excuse me for a moment,’ he asked me kindly ‘I feel nature calling,’ and taking his cane, but forgetting to replace his glasses, he rose and wandered off in the direction of the hotel lavatories.
I wasn’t alone for long. I felt June’s presence by my side a moment later. Whether she had ever really left or simply vacated to a suitable distance I couldn’t be sure. She had, however successfully located a pair of umbrellas.
We looked at each other wordlessly and she answered me as if reading my thoughts.
‘My brother always did have a powerful imagination,’ she said ‘and sometimes a powerful imagination is what it takes to hide from things that are too terrible to talk about.’
‘How much of it…’ I began to as before stopping myself; it didn’t matter.
‘You can find the graves of Bill Thompson and John Mercer, in the local cemetery if you are really interested,’ she advised ‘although I’m sure you have more important business to attend to during your stay.’
She was right, of course. Besides which, what would the inscriptions tell me other than somebody else’s version of events?
‘They never should have put those damned things along the beach,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘In one morning they took more of us than they ever did of them.’
I nodded, imagining a small coastal town in the grip of paranoid fear, fear of the unknown, fear of an invasion, of real life monsters coming in from the waves, of great gunboats and iron warplanes shelling their town. They had to keep the children safe somehow. They had to protect the homeland. What would a child make of it all? What sort of game could he conjure up in his head and what happened when reality intruded on the game in cold, harsh, light and heat and pain and fire? Perhaps a game that never ended, a life spent living in the illusion, hiding from the truth of that final moment.
There was a cough and Edward reappeared, his eyes still closed, his cane in hand, a slightly unsure, almost embarrassed smile crossing his face.
‘Sounds like it’s finally letting up out there,’ he said, in reference to the dissipating rain, ‘still time for a stroll, June?’ he asked his sister.
She smiled back at him.
‘I think so,’ she said and added, turning to me, ‘it was nice meeting you.’
Edward seemed slightly embarrassed.
‘Yes,’ he agreed politely, ‘I do hope I didn’t bore you.’
I assured him this was not the case and then noticed the dark glasses he had left on the table by the now empty pot of tea.
‘Don’t forget your glasses, Edward,’ said June, pre-empting me.
‘Oh yes,’ he said, forgetfully and bending down scooped them up.
And it was there, at that brief moment that he opened his eyes.
It was only a matter of seconds; the time it took for him to raise the lenses to his face and shroud them once more in darkness, that I thought I saw it; in the hollows where his eyes should have been; a flicker - a strange, beautiful, intransient light that burned and crackled like fire.
Then the glasses were over his eyes and the flame was put out once again.
I stood watching as Edward linked arms with his sister and, nodding to me courteously, was led slowly out of the hotel lobby and into soaked streets beyond.
I sat down, the image of those eyes, or rather of what should have been eyes, now forever burned into my memory and, realising that I had long ago missed my original appointment, I took out my notebook, the one I had planned to fill at the start of the day before the rain fell and the Firebirds came and the storytelling began in the quiet hotel lobby that time forgot.
Taking my pen in hand I began to write, wondering, as I did so, what new form Edward’s story would take under my own design.
‘It was raining on the day that I was told this story,’ I began.