Chapter one of ‘The Seagull’ (part one of the Longhand trilogy), longlisted for the Wattys 2018

Hi anyone who’s reading.  This is the second draft so there will still be lots of errors – probably involving semi-colons, hyphens and rogue commas.  Please feel free to offer constructive feedback.  (By constructive I mean politely worded, not mean 🙂 … always helpful to have problems pointed out nicely…)  

The Seagull2

“Aargh, aargh,” screeched the seagull as Louis shut the curtains. “Aargh, aargh.”

The faded moth-eaten fabric obscured its watchful yellow eye, but he knew it was still there – watching and waiting – like it had been for days. It was following him. Every time he left the kids’ home or school it was there, scuttling towards him on pink claws; head cocked to one side so that he couldn’t avoid looking into its glaring eye.

“Get a grip, you nut job,” he muttered to himself, flopping into the plastic chair at the desk in his room. He was losing it again, he had to be.

Post-Traumatic-Stress, the psychiatrist had called it, addressing Louis’ social worker as if he wasn’t there.

Louis had stared at the floor, willing it to swallow him so that he could join his father in the afterlife.  He wanted to believe that there was an afterlife now; needed the comfort of thinking he’d see his father again someday.

Louis’ social worker had tried to take his hand, but he had pulled it away.

The psychiatrist had typed notes on his computer disinterestedly.  “It’s not unusual in children that have lost a parent,” he’d continued.  “It’s if he starts talking to things that aren’t there that we need to worry.”

“And what should we do about the fact that he won’t speak?” the social worker had asked.  A hint of frustration had crept into her voice, and Louis had curled his limbs in protectively. “He doesn’t respond to anyone at all.  We can’t leave him like this.”

The psychiatrist had shrugged as his printer chugged out a bit of paper. “Give him these twice a day. If he doesn’t respond in a fortnight or if he gets worse, we’ll have to consider other options.”

“You mean hospital?” his social worker had muttered, but the psychiatrist hadn’t replied.

“Come back if he starts hearing voices or talking to himself,” he had said dismissively.

The social worker had closed her car door as he slumped into the front seat.  “You’d better take what the doctor’s prescribed, love,” she had said earnestly, turning the key in the ignition. “I know it’s hard, but you don’t want to end up in one of those hospitals.”

So, Louis had. He had swallowed the large yellow tablet dutifully when instructed, not because he didn’t want to go into hospital but because he couldn’t be bothered to fight. And the pills had dulled the pain because he couldn’t think – they had made his mind numb and his limbs heavy. The other kids had whispered and laughed; called him loopy Langford and worse. Then Ben had told them all to shut up or come and say it to him. Ben – the drug-dealing delinquent who’d saved him.

The seagull tapped on the window, jolting Louis back to the present.

“Go away,” he shouted before he remembered that it was mad to talk to a seagull on the windowsill.  “I’ve got to write my essay.”

He unbuckled his father’s watch from his wrist and placed it gently on the desk, gazing down at the familiar misspelt graffiti: ‘barstards’ etched into the Formica with a compass; ‘eff off’ scribbled violently in biro. Then he glanced at his essay: ‘Louis Langford, class 8C, English‘. He had managed about a paragraph before the bird had found him, but it was crap. He couldn’t write anything since Dad had been killed. The words just wouldn’t come. Soon he’d be scrawling his hurt and anger on the desk like the previous occupants of this room. He wondered what had happened to them – the ‘care kids’ who had defaced this desk. Had they gone to foster parents? Scarier yet, been adopted! Or had they ended up in youth detention like Ben?

The absence of Ben’s tuneless singing made the building seem relatively silent. Relatively, because you could still hear Celina in room five cackling with her friends. But it was more silent than it had been in this so-called ‘care home’, where the kids with no one left to care for them went. The staff were okay. Some of them were great, but they were just that – staff. It made a difference.

Ben had never had a chance really, thought Louis sadly. He’d never known his dad – a small-time drug dealer who’d been sent to prison when Ben was one year old – and his mother had been hospitalised for alcoholism when he was ten. Ben had been in and out of foster care since – five years of upheaval and uncertainty. It was no wonder he’d got involved with that gang. They’d given him a sense of importance he’d never had. Ben had been kind to Louis, even if his motives were grey like Louis’ social worker had said. Ben had called him his little brother; ruffled his hair and told him he was looking out for him. He’d got Louis to talk.

“Did they give you big yellow pills?” Ben had asked, swaggering into Louis’ room a few weeks after he’d told the others to leave Louis alone.

Louis had nodded, unable to find the words to have a proper conversation, but Ben had persisted.

“Stop taking them, bro,” he had said. “Stash them and give em to me. They’re making you zombified. Besides, I can get good money for those ones. I’ll split it with you. They’ll never notice, I’ve watched them.  They don’t make sure you take it.”

Louis hadn’t spoken that first night, but he had stopped taking the pills. Ben came to get them every night, sitting with Louis for hours; telling him all about his past as Louis listened wordlessly and the effects of the drug wore off.

“So, your dad was like an environmental activist then?” Ben asked one night.

Louis had nodded.

“And he was in prison in Russia?”

Louis had spoken before he even realised it. It seemed rude not to answer Ben’s questions after he’d told Louis so much about his past. “Yeah, for nearly a year,” he had replied. “Though I don’t remember, I was a baby.”

“What happened to your mum?”

“She left when I was born. She was a big shot in one of those petroleum companies. My dad worked for her before he joined the environmental movement. That’s how they met. That’s why he became an activist.”

“So, what … Your dad worked with your mum and then joined the other side … that company must have done some bad shit.”

“Really bad,” Louis had replied.

“That’s tough man.” Ben had clapped him on the back fraternally. “She didn’t ask for you back when your dad died?”

Louis had shaken his head and Ben had sucked air through his teeth, making a hissing sound. He had put an arm around Louis’ shoulders and hugged him tight.

“Are you sure you’re only eleven?” He’d asked. “You seem older.”

That had been a year ago, three months after his dad had died. It had been the first time Louis had spoken since it had happened, and Ben had been his friend since. Ben didn’t seem to mind the age difference. But now he was in youth detention – for shoplifting of all ridiculous things – and Louis was truly alone.

He heard a tapping on the window again and fished his headphones out of his pocket, putting them in his ears and turning his iPod on loud to drown out the noise of the gull. A familiar tune blasted his ears – one of his dad’s favourites.  He looked up at the photo pinned on the cork board above the desk.

“Why did you have to die, Dad?” He asked the smiling figure in a checked shirt. “Why did you have to leave me here?”

Louis remembered his dad’s laugh; pictured him smiling down genially as he put his head down on the desk and sobbed. 

“Sorry son,” he heard his dad say in his head. “I didn’t mean to.”

Louis could swear he felt the familiar pressure of his father’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly in the way only his dad could do.

I know it’s tough, but you’ve got to get your qualifications, Louis. So, come on…do the essay.”

A scrabbling from the top of the window woke him and he shot upright. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep, but it was long enough to have dribbled all over the page, smudging his name and the paragraph of nonsense he had written. The scrabbling stopped, then started again, then stopped.

What the hell was that noise? He turned towards the window. A bulge had appeared at the top of his curtain.

“Aargh,” said the bulge, as Louis jumped up from the desk and hauled the tatty fabric aside.

The seagull was perched precariously on the handle of his little window.

“How the hell did you get in here?” Louis hollered as the gull launched itself forward with a deafening flapping.  It landed on his bed. “What the hell,” said Louis as the bird pulled itself up to its full disgruntled height.

“Don’t you ‘what the hell me’, young man,” said the gull in a voice that reminded Louis of other people’s grandmothers. “A merry dance you’ve led me and no mistake.”

Louis shook his head. He must be dreaming still, he thought, one of those waking dreams that feel so real. He giggled – a talking seagull – what was going on in his head?

The seagull yanked a stuck claw out of Louis’ frayed duvet cover. The fabric ripped, but the bird’s claw remained entangled. It stopped and looked at him. “What are you laughing at?” You think this is funny?”

He gaped at it.

“Close your mouth you’ll swallow a fly.”

Louis swallowed and blinked. The bird was still there, staring at him when he opened his eyes. “This is not real,” he muttered to himself, turning away. “You’re asleep, it’s not real.”

“You’re awake and I’m still here,” screeched the gull.

“La-la-la,” sang Louis, pacing to the door. “Wake up. It’s not real.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you answer, so you might as well talk to me, real or not,” clacked the bird. “What are you calling yourself this time?”

He turned back to the gull. It was ripping at the duvet with its beak now, making the tear larger. He eyed the rip nervously as the bird carried on trying to pull itself free. “Louis,” he answered tentatively before he could stop himself. “Could you mind the duvet please, I don’t want to get in trouble.”

The seagull squawked crossly. “Oh, never mind me, tangled up in this stuff. You’ve been with these people too long if your only consideration is getting in trouble.” It flapped its wings agitatedly, rising from the bed and disentangling itself. “Aaaargh,” it screeched, landing on the desk. “Selfish is what it is … Selfish!”

“Okay, okay. Calm down,” begged Louis in a hushed whisper. “Someone will hear you, and then -”

The seagull’s sharp looking beak clashed shut with a frightening clack. “And then what?” it snapped.

Louis knew what. They’d have him sectioned, but he didn’t want to say that for fear of setting the gull off on another loud rant. “And then…someone might hurt you.  They’re all a bit mad, so keep it down, alright?”

The seagull cocked its head to one side and fixed him with its cold eye. “Well, I’m Melissa, if you care,” she cackled crossly. “Now come on Lugh of the Longhand.”  She snatched his father’s watch from the desk in a sharp-looking claw.  “We don’t have much time.”

“Hey,” he shouted, scrambling to catch the bird as it flapped to the window. “Give that back.”

The seagull squeezed the claw with the watch, then her head through a tiny open gap in his little window.

“Give it back,” Louis repeated, grabbing her abdomen.  “That was my father’s.”

The bird wiggled and wriggled out of his grasp.  “Don’t make this difficult, Lugh of the Longhand,” she said with a sound uncannily like a tut.  “Now hurry, I told you we don’t have much time.” She pulled her bottom through the window and launched herself into the air, taking his father’s watch with her.

“No,” shouted Louis. “That was my dad’s, bring it back.”  But the seagull had gone.  He ran to his bedroom door and yanked it open, running down to the hall, past the sniggering faces of some kids on the stairs.

“Loopy Langford,” one shouted after him to a cacophony of laughs, but the wind swallowed their insults as he opened the front door, blowing him backwards as he fought his way out into the night.

There she was: up above the lamp-post across the street, flapping her wings desperately against the gale that buffeted her and tried to blow her out to sea. Or was it her? Seagulls all looked the same to him. He surveyed the street. There were no other gulls about, so he hurried towards the lamp-post.

The bird looked down, his father’s watch glinting in her claw from the orange halogen glow.

“Come on,” she cried, battling her way to the next streetlight.” If you don’t hurry, we’ll miss it.” She took off again and flew ahead.

Louis picked up his pace, striding purposefully.

“You’ll have to go faster than that,” she shouted, wheeling in the air. Hurry up!”

Louis broke into a jog, then a run, and soon he was sprinting, trying to keep up. The wind blew from the north, out to sea. It grabbed his breath as it went, carrying the last warmth of summer with it. But the sea remained flat and peaceful, ‘Like a mill pond’ his father would have said. Louis had never seen a mill pond, but he imagined that it would be calm, inviting, possibly deadly.

The bird landed on the beach and watched Louis disparagingly as he ran down the concrete steps to join her. “Just in time,” she squawked.

He gasped for breath, hands on his knees, trying to ignore her voice.

She looked him up and down disapprovingly. “This would never have happened three-thousand years ago.”

He wrinkled his brow.  “A gull is not talking to me,” he muttered to himself, lunging towards her.  “Give me my watch.”

The gull hopped back, out of his reach, cackling to herself softly.

He glared at her.

“I’d strip if I was you.”

Louis gaped at her in disbelief. “No way!” he snapped before he could stop himself.

She stretched her wings and looked out to sea. “Suit yourself…. but don’t blame me when your nice clothes get all salty.”

Louis looked down at his jeans. They were his favourite ones. The last thing his father had saved up to buy him. He had disapproved of brands because it was unethical, he said, but he had caved in and bought them for Louis anyway.

“Who cares about my clothes,” replied Louis. “I don’t want to look like a nutter.”

“Aaaargh,” laughed Melissa, turning her back into the wind and taking off. “Aaaargh, aaargh, aargh, aargh…well you’re going to look like a nutter where you’re going…but it’s too late now.” She opened her wings wide and wheeled round, letting the wind carry her out to sea. Below her, the sea sighed then held its breath it seemed.

“Give me my watch,” hollered Louis, running into the still water. It was breath-stealingly cold.  He gasped as the cold crept upwards, freezing the blood in his heart. He stopped, unable to propel himself further forward, unwilling to turn back. And then it came from nowhere. A wave big enough to engulf three of him, stacked on each other’s shoulders. Louis froze with fear. He should dive under it, he knew, but panic held him statue-like. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the cold to close over him, but it didn’t come. He opened his eyes and looked up. The wave had stopped just in front of him like someone had paused a film. And in the static water, right at its crest was a huge wooden ship – an ancient looking ship with a massive carved silver prow. At the front of it stood a giant of a man, wild with long white hair but a young face.

“Longhand,” boomed the man jovially.  “It’s been too long.”

 

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