[Fiction] In Search of Blue — David Roberts

Summerlong I disappointed myself. Summerlong I was the disappointment of myself. I would wake at an hour all too abrupt for my better nature, put on my green most uniform clothes and drink a treacle strength coffee before rolling a cigarette and leaving the house. Waited for the bus and caught the bus through town, across the city, other people already out and moving, striding with rigorous mugs or clocked off from night shifts, streetdrunks still up and going. Past the hospital, through once grand streets. A short walk across almost waste ground to get to that place where the machines slept their clockwork dreams.

After pleasantries and a round of brews and putting our boots on we would give the machines a knock, strum them slowly awake and load them onto the vehicles, check that they were fuelled and oiled before driving out to the estates and roundabouts, that bit by the side of the tip where it had been agreed that we might give them the run of it. Day after day my duties did not differ all that much. The machines had to be exercised, and exercising the machines meant getting enough exercise to sleep at night. Seven laps of a roundabout, nine sometimes. We would put them through their paces and load them back onto the vehicles, take that quick moment for a smoke before driving to the next estate or roundabout, when time allowed a look at the parks. Verdon (pronounced dun), Osgathorpe, Stovin. Returned to the lock-up for lunch. Something about hygiene or heating or lack of equipment meant we weren’t allowed to eat there, and we took our scran (what the worklads called snap) from out the fridges, drove to a building the next park over, the one at the top of the Cross with the table and the microwave. Went again to the roundabouts. Made sure the machines had a decent afternoon of it before returning again to the lock-up, fuelling and oiling and changing out of workboots, drinking brews, throwing darts for an hour or so until it was acceptable to clock off. I would wait for the bus and get the bus back, roads stalled with traffic, on occasion from the upper deck able to glimpse the river, the invitations of the river.

We had to be especially careful, on some of the estates certainly. Those damp, marshy landscapes near submerged and only ever visited first thing, before any stirring up of life. Where the worklads said no fucker worked and more than anywhere we would not look (be seen to be looking) beyond the machines, walk past such carry on. I will admit here and now that it came as a surprise to me. Prostitutes limping latebruised home, ice-cream vans that would pull up to just the one kid on a push bike. Attack dogs. Not that it was so bad as they said it used to be. The worklads said it had been a whole lot worse. Not since Kelvin was disinhabited and turned to dust had there been any estates where high-vis went against the risk assessments, was strictly forbidden, safety yellow a screaming target for bricks and bottles, televisions lobbed from off of the balconies. Fly-tipping from on high. A worklad from one of the other teams, no chap I ever actually met but getting on they said and easy with it saw fit one day to get involved, nothing so much, a morning’s altercation on Spittal Hill but quite enough for him to suggest it stopped, that it wasn’t really the time, was it, wasn’t really the time nor the place for such a scene, quite enough of a wind-up for the lad to pull a knife and stab him up there, in the top of the leg. Not deep or arterial, but good just cause for a fortnight off. On a small handful of days the cutting had to be rearranged due to the bluewhite impassibility of incident tape. Some mornings so thick with litter that we could barely get the machines moving at all. Getting the bus across the divide I read an essay suggesting it was best to try and read the city as a metaphor, a series or system of overlapping metaphors. That this way – viewing the city outside the concrete, not as a direct and absolute falsehood but as an entity ever so slightly unreal, not unreal so much as misunderstood – a tangible sense of understanding might be reached. Some means of working with the material. This northern aspect the ghost or negative, some annulment of the other. Accents to be interpreted across the barricades. Shelves pronounced shelfs, houses as house-is. The worklads knew their arrows, spoke of stow-uns and hoy-uls, row-uds. They took their time to tell me about the Bessemer process, how things were before the milk got snatched. When the parks still had flowerbeds and bandstands, there was a nine-hole golf course in Earl Marshall. When there were still pubs this side of the city. The smaller of the two Marks was counting them off if he was being honest, the years to retirement, said he’d been born back when you would not believe it, in a granular time of slum housing, outside toilets. Streets cleared so the whiteheat of technology might burn its progress to the skies. Now look at it, he said. Sinking back to slum again. All it took was that first handful, a wrong ‘un or two, one bad family moving in and causing a mess and who would want to live there then. The old ‘uns had enough and just look at the state of it, litter fucking everywhere, nappies strewn all over the grass. Laughing gas canisters. Paraphernalia from forgotten wars. Drug stuff. And why does it have to be, why is it us that’s picking through the filth? A patch on the corner of Lopham and Brunswick always seemed to contain a light covering of disposable razors. Six or eight every time we aired the machines, as if they were being tossed with each shave from out the windows, north worth throwing towards a bin.

On a day when we were through with the machines that little bit early (that time between giving them their run through and finding it acceptable to return to the lock-up), the worklads gave me something of the grand tour, said this’ll make you feel at home, we’ll have you welcome here. That used to be a steelworks, it was all steelworks round this way. Industrial estates woven in a tapestry of shuttered units, big fuck off monstrosities. Sandwich vans. Keep fit classes lapping carparks, doing sit-ups more complicated than your ordinary, workaday sit-ups. That used to be a steelworks, it was busy then, never stopped. Washing done on Sundays else it’d come black in off the line. That used to be a pub, there on the corner. It would open an hour before the shift, workers sweating out their pints and sinking another half or two at break, on clocking off. They’d have them lined up, waiting ready on the bar. Course it wasn’t so strong then, the bitter. Drink five pints and run a mile. It travelled all the world, that steel. A name enough to open doors. Benjamin Huntsman. Fabulous stuff. That used to be a pub, that used to be a pub as well. One on every corner. You’d hear the steelworks going all night, could hardly sleep a wink. The whole place throbbing, clanging away. It’s why I did so well at school, nodded off in half my lessons. Why else you think I’m putting up with this? That used to be a right little pub there, lively hole it was, you’d hardly believe it nowadays. We always called it the Ferret. To get past the licencing they said it was a sports club, that there was a ferret race each Sunday morning. Opened two hours before every fucker else, heaving, the place would be heaving with it. It was lively in there all right. I was in there once when shots got fired. Banks and offices, maintained shrubbery. Advice spoken into headsets, over phones. That used to be a pub, on Sundays they would have a stripper on. One time she didn’t turn up and they got the barmaid to do it instead. Ask Dogbin John, he’ll tell you. A right cracker she was. Ask Dogbin John, he was there. During the Big Depression there was a baker down in Attercliffe would start work early, firing the ovens at what ungodly hour in order to produce his first batch for those in need. Could hardly have slept the whole time through. Back when you’d get fifteen thousand people down Owlerton Stadium, Clem Beckett, the founder of the Sheffield Tigers team, got himself banned from the sport for organising a dirt-track rider’s union. A blacksmith by trade, he would always show his respects, take to his bike in shirt and tie, started riding, would have been in the first handful or two in all the world to ride the Wall of Death, did it so as to be raising money for the poor in these districts. Took part in the Kinder trespass, signed up as a member of the International Brigade got lost at Jarama was it, the Battle of Jarama I think it was. When was it that the worklads down Salmon Pastures went on strike for the want of a changeable scene for their daily, provided scran? Before it really got going, the river went that way of the Irwell and the Goyt, most every river in the industrialled north. Considerably less a river than a flood of liquid manure, in which all life dies, whether animal or vegetable, and which resembles nothing in nature, except, perhaps, the steam thrown out in eruption by some mud volcano. Too putrid even for disease, waters flowing hot and steaming down through Attercliffe. From the bus you could see it mending. Fishermen cast lines for grayling and trout. Ladders were being put in place so that the salmon might get past the weirs, again find reason to spawn. From the Atlantic to there. It was said that infrared or otherwise cameras were again picking up evidence of otters. The whole thing getting clean. I had heard that it was easy enough, that it involved a bit of luck but you might well see a kingfisher on it, that seeing a kingfisher might do big things to a man. For the Dutch artist Hans Waanders all it took was the catching of a blue glimpse (the suggestion of a blue glimpse) on a small and sheltered pool near his home in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a placid, seemingly insignificant puddle of water he thereafter deemed his ijsvogelwiel. He was thirty-one years old, the year was 1982, and a course was set for the remainder of his life. His was to be a chronicling of absence as much as presence from then on, and it was not for another eight years that he next caught sight of a living example, some flash snatched almost as a blue disturbance in the light rather than a solid happening of the world, in that time cataloguing his evidence of kingfishers in echoes and mirrors, telephone directories and encyclopaedias and postage stamps and palimpsests, any loosefound scraps where suggestions and traces might be felt. A life lived quietly, in pursuit and contemplation of Alcedo atthis, birds which for him took up their space upon some edge or limit of existence, preferring fresh water systems but occasionally wandering to tidal creeks and the coast, widely distributed from Europe to the Solomon Islands, in New Guinea known only to exist in the east. Making interventions within field guides, expeditions throughout Europe, across Iceland, going so far as to produce a survival kit which would allow its owner to flourish anywhere in the world, a pack containing maps, surveys, images and the kingfisher’s name in over fifty different languages. Pajaro martin pescador, isfugl, chim boi ca, zimorodek, blauet, burung raja udang, iskele kusu, yali capkini, burung paruh udang, Eisvogel. On a visit to Paris he was to stumble upon Le Martin Pecheur, a shop alongside the Seine, as much an event as those occasions when he would come again to experience the actuality of a kingfisher. Disturbances so brief as almost to be within the imaginary only, azure scratchings across these, our laminate realities. In Madrid he visited the Prado, found Alcedo atthis five hundred years old and sitting alongside the hoopoe and robin and green woodpecker in The Garden of Earthly Delights, this suspension or capture within time his greatest sighting of all, confirmation that that earlyfirst accident at the ijsvogelwiel had indeed been a happy one. Would that be me, I wondered. Might such as that be me. From the bus glimpsing the mending river (the understanding that it was a mending river) the thought of walking it back into town seemed a ready, permissible one. Impetus enough to get me out my rut, alleviate me. Awake too long and sweaty on my feet all day with it I thought maybe tomorrow, Friday maybe, someday soon when I could bring myself to countenance that bit more of a wait to get out of my greendamp clothes would be the day. Stalled in traffic and looking up from my reading, something began to eddy and drift through the uncertainties which might have been revealed were I to fork along that riverside path, the ideas which might reveal through such a walking. Me or not me so much as somebody like me, like I might perhaps come to be if I were like myself but with another bag of faults again, the sort of man who might take that little bit of time to walk home from work and see a kingfisher, reconsider such things as might be called his focus from thereon after. Not closing in but opened out, in tin-roofed shacks drinking palm toddy and telling the story of the time he did not catch the bus home, the blue horizons ever after chased. Mangrove systems of Africa and Asia, peerie islands in Pacific archipelagos, bends and confluences of fast flowing mountain streams from the Himalayas to Japan. Kingfishers so big as crows. Laughing Australian badlads. A whole world through which to search out birds nesting on the crest of Mediterranean waves, icefishers of the Antarctic. Just to have an idea such as that at the end of the working day, be walking home and thinking of such a man, how tall he might be, whether he might stutter or limp, suffer psoriasis. Nothing but a worklad till he saw that bird, started running. What would it mean to him, man out from Attercliffe, whether it would be a case of ticking one and moving on to the next, writing a name and a date and a place in a notebook, some observation about the weather or difficulties as to transport, how biting were the insects but never looking back, always falling onwards, moving calm as you like to the next kingfisher on the list, the kingfisher behind the shoulder of the next kingfisher on the list. So many thoughts that walk might win. Whether he would come full circle, finish his game. Whether it would be me, attempting to be that man. Whether what he was trying to do would be worth his doing it even if he could not do it. Through islands and their civil wars, habitats logged to nothingness. Some insect bite and unrecovered, sweating the last of it out beneath redundant mosquito netting, pissing blood. Tomorrow came, the next day. Really, what was holding me back. What was stopping me. It was not as if I had not walked before, would not know what I was supposed to be doing. All that which might flow from something so simple as that, ideas stirred up, becoming clearer over the course of however long it might take, even if they weren’t up to much, were not those ideas enough to get me up and out my rut. Something more than nothing. To see or not see a kingfisher, what might that do for me?  Hans Waanders pursuing Alcedo atthis ever after, the raw notion of a man pursuing all the kingfishers after but the one chanced sighting, on his way back homewards from another day with the machines. Standing at the bus stop legs gone sluggish too many hours already in one day, coldwaiting beer, just but the thought of coldwaiting beer over and above the thought of walking, winning ideas through that my walking. Who was he, that man, looking for his kingfishers? Where was he, that man, looking for his kingfishers? Sitting on my homeward bus and thinking that I might perhaps happen to think of someone such as him if I were to walk the river, was that the same as thinking about (the possibility of) such a man while walking the river? Between the bus and my thoughts of home I could not help but wonder if he yet belonged to me, where on the scale or register of belonging he might already be said to sit. When do half thoughts become notions become ideas, cross that threshold into something more? When they have a height, let us know the status of their waistline, we can confidently state which fruit stone it was on which they last chipped a tooth? When we might have more than but an inkling as to whether they are sad mammals who still have hair to comb? To be walking, and thinking of him. In his sixties now, and having seen some half, two thirds of the world’s species of kingfisher, a beautiful list of names within a book always upon him, how many islands he might have passed through, the streams and lakes and tidal systems, confluences patiently watched. A limp maybe, from some shrapnel injury, insurance claim fuelling the whole furore. Homespun tattoos, perhaps a missing thumb. Eyesight faltering, the urgency of a man with his eyesight faltering, not wanting to shut his eyes and think ever after of what they might have come to see. What stories he might come to tell over another jug of palm toddy, rice wine, localised whisky. Whether you might begin him talking at all, he who only ever sits alone, in a darkened corner by himself ordering doubled rum after doubled rum as he concatenates his cigarettes into another restless night. Up again through that damp in his head and those coffees enough that he might go about and look for his kingfishers, move along. Malachite, cerulean, Sulawesi dwarf. Those beautiful names all annotated in his book. Buff-breasted paradise, African dwarf, glittering. Clytoceyx rex, widespread but uncommon throughout a large part of New Guinea, its heavybroad bill unique among the kingfishers and invariably caked inside and out with mud when retrieved from mist nets, with shovelling appearing to be the main method of foraging, the diet principally consisting of large earthworms. Shining blue, Buru dwarf, chocolate backed. Halcyon senegalensis, which in appearance is very much like the African mangrove kingfisher and not altogether dissimilar from the blue-breasted, a common bird of woodlands, forests and wooded places around human habitation throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Whether his running to might really be a running from, what he might be said to be trying ultimately to escape, get apart from, whether that might be anything more than what we, all the rest of us are trying to escape, we who wake at hours all too abrupt for our better natures, disappoint ourselves all summer long. How a man such as him would keep going through distant nights in tin-roofed shacks, damp mornings in his head. How the affair might be funded if not through some insurance claim. Drug running perhaps, a steady pay off for doing his time. In the prison library falling for the kingfishers and never looking back. The clandestine transit of goods or information. Something so prosaic as an ability to code or practice occasional bouts of law. A frugal lifestyle but for the flights the ferries, the guides and cooks and porters necessary for his treks towards montane species. Halcyon megarhyncha, living solitary or in pairs deep into primary forest, a shy and retiring kingfisher which keeps to the mid- and upper storeys and even while singing is exasperatingly difficult to locate. A quiet man, only ever having a beer in celebration of another addition to the list. Barred from every pub this side of the Manor, he hasn’t taken a drink in years, wakes an hour and a half before leaving the house in order to stretch, practice calisthenics and consume his necessary proteins. So much that might be considered, thought through. If I were only to walk and think of him, where he might happen to be. Really, what was stopping that? By the river, what was stopping that? It was not as if I hadn’t walked before, would not have a certain idea as to what I was supposed to be doing. I sat on the bus, looked up from my book, would never know. If it would even be kingfishers for him, if he might see a kingfisher down there on the Don but think nothing of it, stop in for a pint and forget the whole thing, get carried away, into the night. Do you remember that bit, that bit in the films? The one with the red and the blue? I always thought that could have been me. Me, standing up. Me, with the steady hand. Taking charge. In the tight the sticky, some restless train. Making the cut. I sat on the bus, looked up from my book, would never know.
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David Roberts is a writer currently based in Sheffield, England. His work has featured in places such as Poetry WalesMinor Literature(s)Sein und WerdenInk, Sweat, and Tearsthe Bohemyth, and his novel, How to Look Better and Feel Great, was shortlisted for the 2020 Northern Book Prize.