This story is free.
However, inspired by my wonderful friend Nicholas Gregoriades, who I believe to be one of the most unique and special people on this earth, and who recently celebrated his fortieth birthday by asking his friends to donate to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, I would be very pleased and grateful if you would make a donation in return for reading it.
Donate whatever you think the story is worth, or more, (whichever is more). The link to the UNHCR website is here: https://donate.unhcr.org/int/general/~my-donation#
Seagulls are white with grey wings.
Their eyes are yellow and their beaks are orange, except for a dark smear of red at the end. They keep it a secret. They don’t like us to see it. But I know about Seagulls.
One day a Seagull killed something and ate it, and it accidentally dribbled blood. Afterwards it tried hard to wash it off but not one in all the seven seas could ever clean it of that stain. And that is why now, each new baby Seagull is hatched with that warning sign there on its beak.
My Seagull is that first, bloodied Seagull, hundreds of years old and so swelled up with rage that its body alone is the size of our house. It is always angry and it is always black. My Seagull comes in the dead of the night and only its beak glows red in the darkness.
My Seagull only comes for me.
I scream. I scream and writhe in the darkness, squirming away from it, falling with a thump onto the boards by the bed until finally someone, somewhere else in the house, gets up and sighs and puts the light on so that then I am blinded another way. Now I don’t know which way is the window and I clutch in panic at the flesh and fabric which, in turn, clutches back at me, until gradually everything slides and swings into focus, and I wheel round, still clutching, to face the window and it is quiet and still and cold in the yellow streetlight, and there is the sound of a car from far away, and a scatter of bird song, and the creak of the house. Miranda rolls her eyes and turns over, grumpily. Anne is still sitting up, staring at me. A voice from the warmth and flesh and fabric says,
“Valentine, it’s alright.”
And the gull is gone. It will come again tomorrow night.S
Some people, like Habi and Seba at school have been here three years and still they are scared of really ordinary, stupid things like lorries. They won’t cross the road without help and they don’t know any English. They actually never even tried! I tell them what I know, because I know not everybody is as good at getting on as me. And because I was one of the first to come here. I’ve been here since I was three. I have been here for ages and so I know things.
In the morning I have to get up earlier than the others because of the ferry. It’s OK because I don’t really like to be asleep. Mrs. Greene puts the breakfast on the table and I help myself in silence. I like it this way. I like the quiet in the mornings when everyone is sleeping. They like it too, I heard Mr Greene say. They need a lie in, after all that disruption. Mrs. Greene told him to hush now. I heard them.
Before I leave for school I stack up the dishwasher. I try to be especially nice in the daytime. I had to leave the last place because of the night.
We drive to school quietly too, but Mrs. Greene puts some music on. I know the route off by heart now, for when I am older and I can drive Mrs. Greene somewhere nice to say thank you. If you get on the ferry, like Miranda and Anne do, you can be there in just under half an hour. You’re only on it for ten minutes. That’s what they say to me. Only ten minutes.
I don’t understand how it is they don’t see it.
If you drive you have to go a really long way before you get to a point where you can cross on a bridge. On the roads there are a lot of other cars. You have to stop and then start again, even on good days and it always takes a lot longer. Mrs. Greene never says anything. But I’m sorry about it.
I’m really sorry about the ferry.
Today is Tuesday and so it’s a school day. I like school because you can do things in order. One class at a time, one subject, one classroom. Everything all in a line, all in turn.
That’s the thing I couldn’t work out when I first arrived in this country. The way everything is always shouting at once. Billboards and radios and vehicles and people and even those things you hold in your hand that send messages. People have them going, all at once, and they like it. They don’t seem to be worried about getting one of them wrong. I was afraid that if I tried to read the billboard at the same time as listening, I might not hear the words right. Or I might miss the message the billboard was supposed to be sending. And what if it was important? What if it was something they expected me to know? Like the day my counsellor brought in a lady and she was supposed to comfort me in my own language. But the sound of it scared me and it didn’t make sense. I couldn’t make it taste properly on my tongue. Nobody speaks those words to me anymore.
They don’t because I have forgotten. I have. I have forgotten it all.
I go first into Maths and do numbers. Then I stop and pack up and I go into Art. I paint fruit and flowers and we all get quite messy, even Miss Cranner, and we get paper towels and wipe paint off the tables. I hang up my painting because it needs time to dry and I have an apple at break and I eat up the core but I spit all the pips out. Then the bell goes and I go and get changed for PE.
It’s easy. It’s everything one at a time.
“When you first got here,” says my counsellor, often, “all you did was crouch down and stare at the floor. You used to crouch there and do that for whole days at a time. We couldn’t get you to move. We couldn’t get you to eat. You just crouched there and stared. See how much you have learned now? See how far you have come, Valentine, you should be so proud of yourself.”
I am that. I am proud. Though I know that she says it to stop me thinking about the gulls and the ferry. But I did come far. I really did.
I came a long way.
The ground was just the place I started. I had to absorb one thing at a time. It was by far the most sensible way to learn it. I always have a system. It’s how I know things. First the ground, then, when I had seen all there was to see there, I raised my eyes just a little, and studied the feet. That part took the longest. Feet are all different sizes and they’re not the same shape, and some are fatter than others, or have blue lines on or rough bits. And some don’t even have the right number of toes. And they move here so quickly in such different patterns you hardly even get enough time to properly look. It took a long while before I felt I had seen all the feet parts. Only then could I raise my eyes some more.
By the time I was five I could stand up quite straight.
At lunchtime Ben Clarkson and Jamie Griffin link arms with Jhamal Khan and Thomas Lancet. They walk like that, in a line, around the playground. You have to skip, quite quickly, out of their way and it gets harder later because other people join them. They keep collecting people, laughing and linking arms at the edges until the line goes nearly all the way up to the goalposts and it gets a lot harder to run to the edge. Ben Clarkson and Jamie Griffin keep shouting and laughing. Gita says that they are making a gang.
The very first Seagulls had forked tongues, like serpents. But the God that made the Seagull had run out of material before he made the Seagull’s heart. And so he hoped for the best and rolled a heart up together just out of the last bits of scrap ends of things. Some clay, some water, some glass, some string. He formed it and then he thrust it deep inside the Seagull and it began to beat right away like a drum. For a while the forked tongued, serpent Seagulls flew through the air, and swooped and cackled. But all the time the very heart inside them was gradually pulling and tearing apart. The clay and glass and string and water were surging against each other, but couldn’t escape. And so the Seagulls were flying in agony, full of pain because they were beating a heart full of war. One yellow eye tried to push out the other, one grey wing to fly in another direction. Until one day something finally had to give way and, with one united squeak of terror, the Seagull’s forked tongues tore exactly in half from the top to the bottom and fell into the sea.
And that is why the tongue of the Seagull is always so very hungry for more.
Yesterday I heard Mrs. Greene tell Miranda she wasn’t allowed to go on all the time to other people at school about the noise that I made in the night. Miranda said when is she going to stop doing it and why can’t we swap her for somebody else. She said it’s not as if me and Anne had it easy but you don’t get us screaming our heads off all night. Mrs. Greene said that Miranda should understand what it’s like. She said that Miranda and Anne should wear their earplugs because she knows they need some sleep for their schoolwork. Miranda said fuck earplugs and it’s been ages and what about an MP3 player instead so at least we can have some decent music and Mrs. Greene said well maybe. Maybe. OK.
Gita and me are partners in music. We have to make a rhythm by each playing something different so that when you do it together it makes a new beat. Gita and me are always partners in music. We are going to be composers.
One of the things that I know that Habi and Seba didn’t learn yet is about making friends. You need friends so that if there’s a gang or a school test you can huddle together and say how you failed it or how stupid the gang are. If you do that it means you’re never the person who has to eat their lunch on their own and gets called ‘potato face’ or ‘scab queen’ or ‘nits’. Friends are a really important thing. It doesn’t matter too much if they keep changing. You just need to always have, say, three or four. They can be from different groups if you really have to, but it’s better if they like each other, and can hang around all together. I like it best if you are in the middle when you are hanging. So they are all round you on the outside and you can be look out and watch their backs.
The best way to make a friend is to give them a secret. Secrets are a thing that you tell just that person and you make them promise on their hearts not to tell anyone else. It’s a thing that you make so it’s just yours and theirs and you give it to them, really carefully, and then they look after it. And once you have told it, it means you are friends.
The secret doesn’t have to be a real thing. Though you never should say that, it’s sort of implied. Jeanette Wilkins has one of my secrets. It’s that the shields in the school hall with old students names on are actually cursed. They have been here for centuries and the names are not students, but medieval demons, trapped there in the text. If the words ever fade from the engraving, the demons will be freed. Me and Jeanette look each time we go into the hall just to check we can still read the words on the shields. So far it’s OK but we’re scared that the cleaners might scrub too hard one day and they need to be warned.
Gita is holding one of my secrets as well. She knows that once I saved Mr. Winters from drowning. It was late at night and he was fishing by the harbour. An enormous fish, evil and thirsty for humans, pulled at his rod so that he jerked and fell. Only his hand, clutching hold of the railings kept him from being sucked under and down. I grabbed his hand just as it was slipping and falling and I tugged until he was back on the shore. I promised Mr. Winters never to tell anyone, and I made Gita promise as well.
I told Hadyn about the man who stalks the playground at night time and I told Marcus about the tramp who glows in the dark. I told Lisa about Mr. Trent kissing Miss Summers behind the screens in assembly and I told Jen about the ghost that comes out after school.
The last lesson is history. I don’t go to the classroom because for this week and last week I am excused from history. No one really said why but I heard Mr. Greene talking to Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Griffiths saying of course and that he understood. Mr. Griffiths said the films and pictures were sometimes upsetting and he allowed any child to chose not to watch them if they didn’t feel comfortable. Something about the way he said it made me think that I wasn’t one of the children. One of the ones he was thinking about when he said ‘any child’.
I asked Miranda before and she said my class was doing Hitler and that the films weren’t that bad they were black and white anyway. And I asked what was in them and she just said war. And I asked why I couldn’t see them and she said dunno maybe it might bring back memories and I said nothing because I have forgotten. I have forgotten it all. And then I told Miranda to go and fuck because I felt really angry and because I heard her say something like that once to someone before. I waited for the notice that said I was moving but either the Greene’s didn’t mind much or she didn’t tell.
My counsellor was not in today so I spent history in science. Which is confusing but OK because I like Mrs Steppan. She lets me sit quietly at the back of the room while she teaches the seniors, and I look after the snails that we keep in the tank. I know a lot about snails. I used to see them quite often at the beginning. When I was still only looking at the floor. Snails have very bad eyesight which means it is hard for them to find their friends in the wild, and also because they all look the same. Snails are very brave because lots of much bigger things want to eat them, so they are always on the move. Snails never settle anywhere because it’s not safe for them. So they carry their houses on their back all the time. If the going gets tough, they slide back into them and stay there safely, until it’s OK to come out. I like that about snails.
I try not to think very much about the ferry.
The seniors have to do an experiment. Some of the girls talk to me. They say I am sweet. They say it in front of me which is confusing because it is as if they don’t know that I can hear them. They ask me why I am there and I say I am helping with a special project. I say that the school is training government spies. I say that the spies are mostly for good but there are a couple of bad eggs and I have to unmask them. The senior girls like me, and they agree to hold my secret. They turn back to their desks and I feed the snails.
“OK, very sweet…” says one of them, twirling her fingers around near her head, “but completely looooopy!” She sings that last word, ‘loopy’, so it sounds like a song and the ooo in the middle is longer than normal.
“My sister’s in her class,” says someone else, knowledgably, “she says she’s a bit weird, always making up lies.”
Snails leave a trail so their friends know where to find them, so they can meet up together or so they can mate. They leave a special, precious, glitter behind them and it stays there even after the rain. Secrets work the same way. They are like my glitter.
“Hello Valentine,” says Mrs. Greene, as I get into the car beside her, “How was your day?”
I don’t say anything much because I am thinking about crying, but I don’t really know why because the seniors were wrong. Everyone likes my secrets. It’s how you do it. I know things. It’s how you make friends. Mrs. Greene looks at me sideways and then, all of a sudden, she leans across and scoops me up into a hug. I like it there, the warmth and the flesh and the fabric of her and I breathe into it deeply and bury my head. And I think about how she’s getting Miranda an MP3 player, and how she keeps the house warm and snug and she got us a fan so we could still sleep with the window closed when it was summer, and how she took time to show me the locks on the catches so I knew that the Seagull couldn’t get in. I think about how I know things about art and science, and about numbers and snails, although not much about history, and I hold her.
I hold Mrs. Greene very tight.
Sometimes in my dreams I go back to the Ferry, though never, ever in real life. In the dream its exactly the same as it was. Just as it was really the first day I went. It wasn’t the Greenes then, it was the Fittons, and I was only very small. They explained it was a boat, to cross over the water. It meant you still got there but you didn’t have to swim. You were only on the boat for just under ten minutes and it only took half a hour to get to school. They said all the children who live on the island travelled across to the school that way. And so when I got there I wasn’t prepared for it. I felt safe, even maybe a little excited as I climbed up onto the wooden walkway. I looked around. I wasn’t ready for what I saw.
Seagulls surrounded the ferry. I didn’t know to fear them then, but they were big, and powerful and I watched them, wide eyed, unsure at first exactly what they were doing. And then I realised.
And I screamed.
The Seagulls were swooping down, grabbing something swiftly in their blood stained beaks. Then flying, higher, higher, higher, and releasing their prey above the closed roof of the ferry. Down, down the snails were falling, hunched, terrified in their shells, hundreds of them, hundreds of Seagulls, hundreds of Seagulls raining snails. All across the cold, hard top of the ferry were the wrecked, smashed bodies of broken snails. Every time a snail fell it made a sickening crunch and then there was the swoop, the victorious swoop of the seagull, down to the carnage below, to feed. The naked, squirming bodies of smashed snails were barely visible among the mess. Everywhere there were parts of smashed snail, blood and entrails and glitter and guts spread red and gleaming across the paint peeling surface of the ferry. I screamed and I looked down, away from the sight of it, and I looked down at my feet. My feet were standing on parts of crushed snail, on chunks of gleaming flesh of snail clinging hopeless to the sharp and shattered pieces of a snail’s safe place.
We were walking, all of us, across a massacre.
And the worst thing.
The worst thing was that I was the only one who was screaming.
“Valentine?” Mrs. Greene pulls away, but gently. She smiles at me, puts up her hand, strokes my cheek. “Valentine. You’re OK. Are you OK?” It worries me that she does not know.
“I think I am OK? Am I OK?”
She smiles again, but wider this time. “Yes,” she says warmly, “Yes Valentine, you’re OK.”
And I am OK, I reflect as I lie there, just before night time. I am watching the window carefully, but I know it isn’t out there yet. Gita says my secrets aren’t lies, they’re just really exciting, like stories and stories are good so that’s OK. And I lie there and I think about Mrs. Greene and Mr. Greene. About how I like then, love them maybe. Now that I know things and have been here a while. I think about Miranda and how she is grumpy but she still let me share an earpiece of her new MP3, and about how Anne is sweet and only little. I think about how Mrs. Greene smells in her pyjamas. I think about Mr. Greene in the kitchen, whistling and flipping his pancakes on Sundays. I think about all of them and how they are safe.
The Seagull only comes for me.