‘One Bird, In All That’

 

It was painful to him to hear birdsong in the canopy and not know the names of the birds.

‘Clissold!’

‘Sir?’

‘I was just – just seeing that you were still there, Clissold. Follow more closely. It would not do to be separated.’

‘Yessir.’

It was as though a migratory bird, a swallow or tern, were blinded by smoke or cloud to the stars by which it steered its course. No: it was as though the stars were there to be seen, but they were not the right stars – they were the stars of a different sky, a different heaven. In any case the bird would be lost.

Leo Szellenger, with a swipe of his stick, at last broke free of the smothering foliage and stumbled out into a clearing, a triangle of low-growing weed that ended in a ragged precipice and a steep, rock-strewn fifty-yard descent to the river.       

 There was no sunshine; the white sky stretched from horizon to horizon like a sheet of boiled linen. He wiped his face on his fouled shirtcuff. Sunshine, even if it burned him, crisped him like bacon-fat, cooked his brains and sent him mad, would be preferable to this; with sunshine, so he understood it, there was some sort of healthy fermentation in the skin-cells, some invigorating vitamin efferverscence. This was just heat.

His calf-muscles throbbed.

‘My god,’ he sighed.

‘We’re going nowhere fast here, sir, if you don’t mind me saying,’ Clissold said, coming up alongside and tipping up the peak of his ridiculous baker’s cap.

‘We are not supposed to be going anywhere at any predetermined rate,’ Szellenger snapped. He stumped out through the weeds to the edge of the cliff, and peered down. ‘We are hunters. We go where our quarry goes. We travel as quickly or as slowly as our quarry travels.’

He could smell the river water. He wished that the spray of the water as it crashed in a white cataract through the rocks far below would reach up to where he stood, just for a moment, just to wet his face – just to rinse his collar and cool his insect-bites.

Clissold, once again coming alongside, said: ‘That’s all very well. But our quarry can fly, sir. He has us at a disadvantage in that regard, sir.’

Szellenger did not reply. In a tree part-way down the slope – and who the devil knew what kind of tree? – a bird was singing.

‘Sounds like a warbler, do you think?’ he murmured. ‘Glasses.’

Clissold passed him the field-glasses. Their metal was greasily warm to the touch.

‘Don’t sound like any warbler I ever heard,’ he said.

‘That, Clissold,’ said Szellenger, ‘is precisely the point.’

‘But then, it don’t sound like a warbler I ain’t never heard, neither.’

Szellenger raised the glasses to his eyes and rolled the focus-wheel. A blur of damp eyelashes. He blinked and refocussed – but the bird was gone.

Atkozott.’

‘More trouble than they’re worth, these things,’ Clissold said, taking back the glasses and stowing them in a pocket of his pack. Szellenger turned away from the escarpment edge.  

They had left England almost a year before. For Clissold, the departure had been rather a wrench, because England for Clissold was a home: no wife or son, of course, but a house, a pigeon-loft, a local pub – a home. He had wept on the journey from Southampton to Belfast and again on the journey from Belfast to the Cape, although on both occasions he had attributed his wet cheeks to salt-water blown off the sea.

Szellenger had pretended to believe the lie. He had not himself wept.

‘Where now, then, sir?’

‘Down. Into the valley.’

‘Down into the valley again. Scarcely worth climbing all this way up, was it, sir?’

Always there was a nasal insolence to Clissold’s sirs. Szellenger sometimes thought that he would prefer Mr Szellenger, or even Leo, to another sir from the pinch-faced Londoner – but that would not do. Perhaps he could order Clissold to use his Hungarian title, Országbíró Szellenger – the attempt would at least be amusing.

‘Something funny, is there, sir? Can’t say I see the joke myself.’

‘I was smiling at the glory that awaits us,’ Szellenger said. ‘Only at the glory that awaits us.’

He had thought that he would never weep again – that he had wept all of the tears alloted him in this life, that he could weep no more – when, in the spring of ’twenty-six, he had left Budapest. He had left, but it was not a parting; it was a death. Budapest was no longer Budapest, no longer his Budapest. He had not, as people did in sentimental stories, bid goodbye to Budapest, for there was no-one and nothing to say goodbye to, only a place where Budapest had once stood, and an arrangement of standing stones beside a river, and so he had only packed his things, and boarded a ship, and gone.

Of course he had wept, still. He had wept as anyone weeps at a death.

Tomato-sized beetles hummed from the undergrowth as he and Clissold re-entered the shadow of the canopy. 

‘Everett’s White-eye, there, sir,’ Clissold said, pointing into the trees above with his stick.

Szellenger glanced upward.

‘I see him.’

‘Want him?’ Clissold was already unstrapping the rifle from his pack. Szellenger waved a hand.

‘No – not this one. We have an Everett’s.’

‘We could have another one in half a minute.’

With firmness: ‘Not this one.’

In fact there were three Everett’s White-eye skins tied in paper within Clissold’s pack. Here lay Clissold’s value: a good shot, a fine taxidermist, deft with the killing-jar. Reared on the Lea Valley and the Hackney Marshes, he did not know the birds of Borneo, of course – but who did? Both he and Szellenger were learning fast.

Neither had ever seen – so far as they knew – the bird they sought. It was from a fellow at Oxford, a leathery botanist named Barlowe-White, that Szellenger had first heard of Galloway’s Warbler.

Just returned from Malaya aboard a steamer stuffed to its seams with specimens for Kew, Barlowe-White had spoken sourly of the Scotsman with whom he had shared his second-class berth: one McAvoy, who claimed to have ‘bagged’ (Barlowe-White drawled the word with disdain) the last Galloway’s Warbler – the very last of its kind.

‘All the way from Lahad Datu to the Cape,’ Barlowe-White had complained. He had puffed out his chest and assumed a wildly inaccurate Scots accent: ‘Twas a Scot found the first, and a Scot found the last.’ Then he had shaken his head and finished his gin.

According to Barlowe-White, the so-called ‘ornithologist’ McAvoy did not know one end of Borneo from the other – barely ventured south of Sintang or north of Keningau, spoke no Iban, no Siang, no Busang, barely a mouthful of Malay –

‘I know the bird he boasts of,’ the botanist had said. ‘And the porridge-swilling ass may have shot the last of its kind in Java, the last in Sumatra, he might have extinguished the Papuan line of its family, might for all I know have purged the Solomon Islands of the damn’ Galloway Warbler. But the bird lives on in Borneo. I have heard the people speak of it. I have heard its call myself. It is there – for him who would seek it.’

 Szellenger, grown flabby and pale beneath Oxford’s pewter skies, had gawped at him, and inadvertently let a dribble of his own gin spill and make a dark coin on his trouser-leg. He had thought: I would seek it.

The last of its kind, he had thought, with a feeling of longing.

‘Up and down, up and down,’ Clissold muttered, thrashing his way through a stand of shoulder-high ferns. ‘You ain’t the grand old Duke of York, sir.’

Szellenger shook his head and pressed on. Indeed he was not the Duke of York, for was not the Duke of York a happy man in the prime of life? Did he not live well in his handsome Richmond home, had he not a beautiful young wife?

Had he not a child, a small baby daughter?

‘You ought to be glad, Clissold,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘Glad of the wholesome exercise.’

‘I could’ve had wholesome exercise humping barrels with my dad in Limehouse, sir, without the expense of travelling to Borneo.’

The alien birds still sang each to the other in the impenetrable canopy. Szellenger tried to ignore them. He might as well try to ignore the smothering heat, try to ignore Clissold’s grumbling, try to ignore the blisters on his heels –

In any event he tried.

She, like Clissold, had been from the east of London, though hardly from the same stratum. Her father had been a librarian at Toynbee Hall; a home in shabby Stepney was convenient. Szellenger had met her at the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, in the City of London. They had exchanged, first, admiring remarks regarding the architecture, and, second, rather bold glances – for she was an academic’s daughter, well-read and fearless, and he – well, wasn’t he a dashing foreign aristocrat, decked out in the regalia of his kind: the accent exotic, the title obscure, the mien melancholic, the manners courtly, the eyelashes long and dark?

In a fit of recklessness he had crushed his lips against hers (it could not properly have been called a kiss) in the shadows of Red Lion Court.

They had married. Her father the librarian had not been enthusiastic, thinking Szellenger most likely a cad or a fraud and certainly in any event a foreigner; Szellenger had had no parents to be enthusiastic or otherwise. Anyway they had married. She had worn pale-blue flowers and a dress of ivory, and even on the arm of her grudging ill-dressed father had looked beautiful indeed.   

At the altar he had murmured to her: ‘The old fellow might have patched his trousers.’

She had smirked and her blue eyes had flashed daringly. They had both earned a look of censure from the vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West.

And then, after, they had come to Oxford, he for post-graduate study, she for him, and then there had been born, in ’twenty-seven, a son –

‘Is it this hot in Budapest, sir?’ asked Clissold conversationally.

They were deep in forest, in baking darkness at the foot of the valley, working, with stick and parang, a passage westward through the undergrowth – the direction in which the warbler-like bird had flown. Or at least, Szellenger thought, wiping his face on his sleeve, the approximate direction – a rough guess at where the bird, whatever it was, might have gone.

Damn, but this was a fool’s game.

‘There is no Budapest, Clissold,’ he said.

‘Ruined in the war, was it, sir?’

‘Ruined after the war. A city stands there still but it is not Budapest. First Mr Lenin and Mr Kun, and then our dear Mr Horthy: they killed the Budapest I knew.’

‘Politicians come and go, sir.’

‘It makes no difference, Clissold. They are all beasts.’

‘That’s your top brass for you, though, ain’t it, sir,’ Clissold said through a sigh. Without haste, he added: ‘Present company excepted of course, sir. You’re all right – and the rest of the Szellengers, too, I’m sure.’

‘There are no other Szellengers,’ Szellenger said.

With his son he had quartered the countryside of Oxfordshire. With his son he had learned every bird of that country, every flower – they had learned together (she had thought his first word to be ‘mama’, but Szellenger had known it to be ‘magpie’).

‘It’s opening out, sir. I can see daylight.’

Indeed the forest was, as they climbed, growing less dense. Fragments of sky showed through the canopy.

‘We shall be upon him soon, Clissold!’ Szellenger laughed.

Clissold muttered something that sounded like needle in a bloody haystack.            

They would still, of course, have to cross the river, and it would be a far more daunting task for the pair of them, Szellenger reflected, than it had been for the warbler. When, perhaps two hours after descending from the hilltop, they stumbled once more from the undergrowth, they found the river at their feet, twenty yards or more across and thundering in a thick white rope through a cleft between soused green-grey rocks.

‘Bloody hell, sir,’ Clissold moaned.

Szellenger was too breathless to answer. He bent, propping his hands on his knees, and coughed until his chest felt clearer – not clear, but clearer. Six years of English cigarettes, he thought sourly. Then he stood and regarded the rushing river.

‘You will go first,’ he said, ‘and, if you gain the other side, I shall name this the River Clissold.’

‘And if I don’t, sir?’

‘I shall name it the River Clissold anyway, in an act of remembrance.’

The Londoner shuffled warily to the brink of the water. Spray darkened his dusty bootcaps.

‘I expect drowning is a fit subject for jokes in Hungary, is it, sir,’ he said. ‘It ain’t so much so in England, though of course you ain’t to know that.’

‘We are two men who have travelled the full span of the earth in fruitless pursuit of a single songbird,’ Szellenger said. ‘We are characters in a comedy, Clissold. You would do well to remember that.’

Clissold grunted, and hoisted his pack higher on his shoulders. Leading with his right foot, he stepped into the river.

‘The riverbed’s rock, at least,’ he said.

It was not deep – not at its edges, in any case. After three paces the river-water was only up to Clissold’s shins. He swayed with each step as the current pulled at his feet.

‘That’s the way, Clissold,’ Szellenger called. He did not find it easy to keep the anxiety from his voice. ‘It is barely the length of a cricket-pitch – pretend that you are at your Oval, and you need only stroll the twenty-two yards to win the match.’

Clissold said nothing, but only continued step-by-step to pick his careful way through the foaming water, across the riverbed, toward the far riverbank. He looked, Szellenger thought, like a man on a high-wire.

He was in the middle of the river when he stopped. Szellenger saw him tug at the brim of his baker’s cap. The water churned at his knees.

Szellenger was about to call out ‘take care!’ when Clissold half turned and said: ‘How d’you mean, ‘fruitless’?’

‘What’s that, Clissold? I cannot hear you over the noise of water.’

‘Fruitless, you said. Fruitless pursuit.’ He was now turned all the way about, and was facing Szellenger with his hands on his hips, blinking in the river-spray. ‘How d’you mean, ‘fruitless’?’

Szellenger opened his mouth. He did not remember saying the word. He had not meant to say the word.

The river roared. Clissold’s feet went from under him.

Almost before he was aware of having moved Szellenger found that he was on all fours in the cold water, that he had struck his knee sharply on a stone, that he had river-water in his mouth, that Clissold’s body, almost lost to sight, was flailing wildly in the white water – it was not deep, but Clissold, sprawled on his back, was being pulled by the river towards a narrowing in the stone cleft, and beyond that who knew what rapids, what waterfalls –

Szellenger splashed forward through the water in a series of awkward lunges, scrabbling with raw hands at the riverbed, advancing a slow yard at a time through the fierce lateral current. A fish slipped horribly beneath his armpit. A black waterbird scared up from the reeds at the riverside flew screaming into the forest.

He raised his head. A boot, a half-yard of drenched khaki. He reached, he grabbed. Water choked him. He coughed, spat, hauled Clissold’s body towards him. Clissold’s hand grasped at nothing but spray. Szellenger threw himself forward, taking Clissold by the waist. The butt of the rifle, strapped to Clissold’s pack, struck him hard above the eye. Forward, forward. Never mind the knee, Országbíró Szellenger, never mind the blood. A steepening in the riverbed. A lessening in the force of the current. Clissold’s hands clutching at his shirt.

The riverbank.

Szellenger released Clissold and threw himself on to his back on the rock, gasping for air. Damn Clissold. Damn Borneo. Damn the warbler. The white sky seemed to curdle as he watched it. A bird flew high above him, a hornbill. His breathing at last became easier; his heart at least slowed from a gallop to a canter. He heard Clissold moan, cough, and swear, and then say: ‘There’s a comedy for you, sir. A fellow drowning in three feet of water. And I was a champion swimmer at school, sir, did you know that.’

Then Szellenger heard him gag, and vomit, and swear again. The feeling of heat, dismal, sunless heat, had returned.

‘Well, we have crossed the River Clissold, Clissold,’ Szellenger said.

‘It nearly killed us, sir. I don’t want it bearing my good name after that.’

‘Do you not want to be remembered by posterity?’

‘I thought this bleeding warbler was going to see to that, sir. Pardon my language.’ Clissold sat up, with difficulty, and propped himself against his sodden pack. ‘The glory that awaits us, sir, if you remember.’

‘Of course,’ said Szellenger. ‘Indeed.’

Raising himself on to his knees, and wincing at the pain from his right, he unfastened the straps that bound the rifle to Clissold’s pack. He took the rifle and turned it over in his hands. The cold gunmetal gleamed unwholesomely.

‘Will it still shoot?’

‘I expect so, sir, once it’s dried out.’

‘You sound tired, Clissold.’

‘Ain’t bloody surprising, is it, sir. After all this, Mr Szellenger sir, it ain’t bloody surprising if I’m tired, is it? After coming ten thousand miles just to die in the bloody jungle. I am bloody tired, sir, yes. Begging your pardon. I am bloody tired.’

Szellenger didn’t look at him. Carefully he wiped the barrel of the rifle with the hem of his shirt. He could hear Clissold breathing hard through his nose.

‘I am sorry, Clissold,’ he said.

He rose to his feet with an effortful grunt. His knee almost gave way beneath him but he steadied himself with his stick. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘onward.’

‘Always onward, isn’t it, sir,’ muttered Clissold. ‘Always onward, never ‘backward’, never ‘back home’.’ But he, too, clambered to his feet.

Both men turned to face the west. Ahead of them, a sweep of deep-green forest stretched away and upward to peter out on a brown mountainside perhaps ten miles distant.

‘One bird, in all that,’ Clissold said.

‘Not just any bird,’ said Szellenger.

‘The only Galloway’s Warbler in the world.’

‘The last Galloway’s Warbler in the world.’

‘And when we find it – ’

‘ – we take it.’

‘Kill it, that is, sir.’

‘Indeed.’

Clissold sniffed, and wiped his nose on his cuff.

‘It seems a long way to come, sir,’ he said, ‘to kill something so small.’

Szellenger smiled. 

‘You had ample time to reflect on that, Clissold, on the voyage here.’

‘Yes, sir. But that was different, sir.’

‘How so?’

‘Because at that time, sir, I thought that we’d be not only be killing it, but bringing it back, and it’d make us famous.’

Szellenger mustered a laugh.

‘You think now that we shall kill it and leave it lying in the bush?’

‘No, sir. We won’t bring it back because we ain’t going back.’

There seemed no uncertainty, no trace of a question in the intonation. And yet Clissold seemed to wait – perhaps for a denial, for Szellenger to guffaw heartily and assure him that, my dear fellow, nothing could be further from the truth, the very idea!, we are not to die out here, a laughable notion, quite laughable  –

‘Why, sir?’ Clissold said finally.

Szellenger stared at the dark trees ahead. They seemed a wall, a solid wall. Or else they were a hole into which he would fall. A grave, then. A grave like hers. A grave like the boy’s. Fever had taken them from him as Lenin had taken from him his home, his Budapest. And now what had he, what was he? Nothing and nothing – or, if anything, then barely more than nothing.

‘It is the last, Clissold. I am the last.’

‘Very poetic, I’m sure, sir. I could’ve had poetry back home in London, if I’d wanted it.’

‘But you did not want it. You did not want London. What did you want, Clissold?’

‘I dunno, sir. But not this, for God’s sakes, sir. Not – ’

‘You do not know yet what this is. Neither do I. We shall find out together. And we shall at least find the bird, by damn.’       

He looked at Clissold, and smiled. Clissold did not smile. Beneath his baker’s cap his face was pale. Then he blinked, and tugged his cap lower; the sun, low in the north-west, was shining through a blue rupture in the clouds. A bird sang – over Clissold’s shoulder, on a low-stooping Hopea tree, a bird sang, and Szellenger saw from its bold eye-stripe, its glossy green nape, its habit, described by Barlowe-White, of cocking its tail like a nightingale, that this was Galloway’s Warbler. Clissold turned in time to see it cease singing, cock its tail again, and fly away, taking an undulating westward line toward the dark trees.

‘You could’ve had it, sir,’ Clissold said dully.

‘No. The damn rifle is still wet. But if you had turned in time, you might have caught it in your hands, like a butterfly.’

Szellenger flexed his knee again. It hurt; it would not serve him for much longer, but perhaps he would not need it for much longer. He stepped from the rock into the knee-high grass that filled the plain between the river and the forest; wincing at each step, he began, with swipes of his stick, to forge a path toward the trees.

‘Come, Clissold,’ he called, without looking back.

Clissold had lowered his wet pack to the floor, and was rubbing his right shoulder. He watched Szellenger limp away. He damned him for a bloody fool of a damn’ Hungarian. He bent, took up the pack, hoisted it once more on to his back. He swore. He stepped from the rock into the knee-high grass.     

Advertisements

One thought on “‘One Bird, In All That’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s