Stork in the Heavy Woollen

I was having a look through the uncredited wing on my bookshelves the other day: those are the shelves where books and papers are sent to live out their odd little lives without much fuss, and sadly for most, never to be read again. They are too idiosyncratic ever to be hauled off to the second hand bookshops, yet had been precious to me at sometime, and for some good reason: but often a reason long forgotten. At the back of my mind I roughly know what is there, but unlike all other books they don’t sing proudly from the shelves of categorized material. I came across a copy of London Magazine in the uncredited wing. It’s the only one I have: that too was kept for a very good reason, and I had just about forgotten it.  The date on the cover is February/March 1989 and it contains a short story of mine; it’s the only one I ever sought to have published, and it ended up in the pages of one of the U.K.’s top literary magazines. The title is “Stork in the Heavy Woollen”. I settled down to read it and laughed until I cried.Back in 1989 it might have been read by three or four hundred people and probably by not a soul since. After the reading I wiped away my tears, thinking this story really does deserve an audience, and with that in mind I have made the decision to post it on my blog. See what you think. If, like me, you think it deserves a wider audience please share it with others.

Stork in the heavy Woollen

It was in March – a month too early my mother moaned whilst propped up in bed with broken waters – that the stork brought our Connie all the way from Africa. He took a wander about the mill town and deciding that he liked it here he built his nest on top of our chimney-pot and settled down to wait for his mate. I stood in the cobbled street, the rain glistening off the stones, and surveyed the wet roof as it cowered beneath the leaden sky. I judged the nest to have a diameter of about three feet. It was made from twigs, a few items of clothing from our washing line ( there were my mothers bloomers and I could make out several odd socks) and it was all plastered together with mud which he had scraped up from Balmy Dubs. He was a common white stork with fragile stick-like legs, which looked as if they were about to snap at the knees, and somebody had painted him pink all over, thinking perhaps that he should be flamingo.Mrs Pyke, shopping bag lolling on her arm passed me by. “He’s a bit far west isn’t he? was all she could manage, and it was said with a sour scorn which told more of the woman’s awkward shape than knowledge of either geography or bird migration. Our neighbour chewed on her gums for a moment or two, perhaps considering a turnabout, then quite suddenly she set her square face towards the shops. I watched as she gingerly walked down the cobbles, not worn flat as they will have been in most streets, but round and proud as they had been when the street was first constructed. We lived at the top of the town and the road was so steep that nobody came up our way. The few who lived at the very top like us and the Pykes didn’t go anywhere very much, except to the shops and down to work. Those who managed to find a job at all worked at Ridley’s Mill. I watched the black smoke billowing out of Ridley’s chimney in the valley below: watched the wet, the smoke, the rear view of the grey Mrs Pyke, old coat flapping as she picked her way down to the shops. We had no motors. or carts or anything with wheels which might wear away the stones, there was just us and our feet and a few dogs who had been set down at the top the hill. Like fairies on a Christmas tree, my father used to say. It was quite unfair to expect us to flatten them stones; like Mrs Pyke we all had to be careful how we picked our way for fear of bunions, and dropped arches. It’s quite unfair – that’s what my mother would often tell anyone who cared listen. The Boots Pharmacy wrapped in its aromatic smells of Tolu Balsam and toilet water did a bomb with felt-padded insoles and corn plasters. My parents visited the chiropodist every Saturday morning. He did a bomb too. It was quite unfair – my mother would moan on at Mr Palfreyman’s bowed head, as he pared away the dead skin from her feet. Meanwhile, my father wrote to the council, begging them to come and reset the road surface with cobbles which might be easier on the feet, but though he received many letters in reply not a soul came. We were on our own up there in that rarified atmosphere: we had to do our own flattening. Mr Pyke, who fancied himself an engineer, concluded that with the present population as it was we should each have to go about our normal daily activities for two hundred and eighty-seven years before an impression would be made on the rounded cobbles. Either that, or each household would have to produce over one hundred children for there to be even a slight wearing of the stone within a decade. At least, our Connie was a start on that long haul, I thought as I heard her cries from the cot in the bedroom, and as I watched the disappearing figure of Mrs Pyke winding into the valley where the town lived: standing on its two good feet and mostly unaware of our limping existence. I looked back to the nesting stork. I suppose Mrs Pyke was right; he was a long way west. But storks are like that, they have flankers who are supposed to warn the rest of the flock of danger as they flap their migratory ways from the great lakes of Africa all the way to Huddersfield. I guessed that the pink bird, who at this moment didn’t seem to mind the thick black smoke whistling through his feathers whilst he amiably sat waiting, had been a flanker who had drifted so far in his search for the unusual that he had completely lost touch with his fellow travellers. It seems he had picked up little Connie in her fall from wherever over Africa, and ended up depositing her down our chimney a bit on the early side.

Three months later the sun came out, Connie smiled at me for the first time in the drawing room as she lay in my mother’s lap, and the stork still sat on our chimney-pot waiting for his mate to show up. At the back of our house there is a narrow flat area in the centre of which there is a depression which holds the rain water. It’s a natural bowl in the sandstone and it forever fills with water, and breeds insects and frogs. It must have been this narrow pool, called Balmy Dubs, which had attracted the stork to our house in the fist place. It was an ideal dining area for a solitary stork in the Heavy Woollen – a place of natural sustenance. After Connie smiled at me for the first time I went out to Balmy Dubs to look at the bird. He came down from the black roof in a red glide, his wings spanning all of eight feet, and he stood beside me an inch or two taller than myself. After wading about for a while, and feeding from the army of green frogs which had marshalled itself by the pool, he slowly walked about drying his legs among the red and pink poppies, and the ivy-leafed toadflax which grew from the moss covered outcropping at the top of our hill. Then he suddenly turned, eyed me with curiosity and bowed like a courtier He held out a stiff leg, and lowered his head turning it to one side. His eye had informed me we were about to dance. I was petrified. As much as I liked the pink stork there was no way I would consider him as a mate, not even as surrogate in his courtship dance. “Bugger off,” I suddenly found the courage to shout, and he flew off to the chimney-pot where he nested: spurned and shaking until his feathers loosened. I ran into the house, slamming the door shut behind me. I stood like a wallflower by the drawing room window, gradually calming from the sudden rage which had stormed upon me. The poppies growing in the interstices between the cobbles made a curious scarlet and black chequerboard of the steep hill in front of our house.

That night we had burglars. They crept into the house while we all slept, and stole my mother’s gold ring: the one with the triple ruby inset which had been in the family for so many years that nobody could remember its history. After the evening washing of the pots my mother had accidentally left it on the draining-board in the scullery. It had been easy pickings for the thief and my mother, filled with remorse for her carelessness, spent the following morning under the trees at Balmy Dubs. My grandfather, who slept up in the attic, after hearing of the news leaned out of his window and yelled at the stork not six foot from his head. “If tha can’t guard t’ouse what bloody use are thee? Tha’d better clear off.” The stork caught him with a solitary movement of the eye and opened and closed his beak several times making a noise like two pieces of wood being clapped together. It made a terrible din. “It’s too late now tha daft ha’peth. Tha should’ve been doin’ that last night,” my grandfather admonished. The bird continued to eye him up. I looked at him too, and as she passed me in the cobbled road Mrs Pyke turned towards our wet roof, her large head heavy as stone on a short plinth of a neck. “It’s a rum bird is that,” she said. Then she set her face towards the shops, and hitched her shopping bag a little higher up her arm.

When September came and still our now sombre lodger had not received his mate we began to wonder glumly if she might never arrive. “He’ll have to be off soon, or he’ll miss the tide,” my father told us cryptically, for he made it sound as if we were about to launch a fish. Then, as the ragged army of frogs took to the highest branches of flimsy trees and their generals escaped with their medals down the cobbles and all the way to the canal, the stork had no choice but to change his diet. He lived off poppy seeds and bread crusts. My father went to get the chimney-sweep, and carried his brushes up the hill for him. The sweep, whose name was Mr Biddle, wore a sooty top hat and frock- coat, and he had a winged celluloid collar. He normally pedalled about on a large tricycle but our hill was far too steep and bumpy for him, so he agreed to try and dislodge our visitor only if my father carried the brushes. The two men walked up from the town, my father with a great bundle of wooden rods on his shoulder. In the drawing room Mr Biddle fitted his sticks together producing a pole every bit as fragile-looking as the stork’s legs, and he poked it, with the brush at the end, up the chimney. Then we had a massive fall of soot which covered everything in the drawing room, including my grandfather who had fallen asleep in his chair. We had all been so intent upon the stork’s removal that we had completely forgotten that the chimney might have needed a good sweeping. Mr Biddle apologised and my mother went about the drawing room flapping a duster at the furniture and crying a lot. My grandfather woke up. Mr Biddle apologised some more and my grandfather went back to sleep. Then my father sent my mother out of the house and asked me to go with her to see that she was alright. My mother and I stood in the cobbled street and turned our attention to the rainy roof. The brush suddenly emerged pushing up the nest with the stork still sitting in it. He just sat there, a large ball of pink wool, clacking his beak together, and sounding like a group of old ladies knitting pullovers. The nest rose about six inches off the pot and then plonked back down again, ending up in roughly the same position it hade occupied before. The brush appeared again: like a giant spider its black legs crawled stealthily under the nest. Once it had grabbed the basket of twigs, Mr Biddle strained to lift it and we could hear him asking my father to give him a hand. But this time the stork had been ready for the brush and we could see him bearing down with all of his might, holding his home to the chimney pot. He spread his wings, at first we thought to fly off, but as it turned out only to give himself more leverage by pressing his wingtips to the old, wet slates. “Come on father, you can help too,” I heard my father say to Granddad who must have woken up again. With the added effort on the rods, the nest was pushed up and hovered, spinning on the black bristles about a foot in the air. The stork was madly flapping his wings causing a terrible down draught, and we could here the three men coughing as debris from the nest must have been forced down the chimney and into their lungs. Then there was a sudden snapping noise and Mr Biddle said, “Bugger it.” The stork and his nest were back on the perch. My mother and I went into the house and found the men all in a heap on the sooty floor, and raising a squawk deafening as any three jungle parrots. Connie woke up and yelled from her cot in the bedroom adding an awful juvenility to the noise. Meanwhile, the stork on the chimney-pot went to sleep. My father paid off the sweep, and carried his broken rods down the hill for him. It took my mother a week to clean up the mess.

At the approach to Christmas our visitor was reduced to eating rotten acorns which months earlier had fallen out of the trees. He also managed the heads of some early snowdrops, which he took into his beak as a Chinaman might take in a single grain of rice with heavy wooden chopsticks. It was all very sad and nobody knew what to do for the best. I  was sitting on the frozen ground at Balmy Dubs watching him scavenge in the mostly iced-up pond. The cold was slowing him, and he shivered in a sudden snow flurry. Icicles hung from his lower beak and he had to clap his beak together several times, which was done very slowly, to be rid of them. He eyed my grandfather as the old man approached with a length of heavy linked metal chain slung over his shoulder. “Tha mother wants thee,” he told me, and I raised myself from off of my haunches without wetting my hands on the light covering of snow. I went to the kitchen, where my mother baked pies in a floury haze, and was welcomed to the warmth of her oven. Minutes later my grandfather burst in, his face filled with excitement and hardly able to control his gabble. “E’s gone,” he said, “She came and took ‘im  and they flew south together. If tha’s quick tha’ll see ’em out front.” My mother and I ran to the door and looked out on the cobbles. The icy hill fell away, into the smoking valley below. The snow was falling heavily now. There were two lonely birds fluttering far off in the grey sky. They may as well have been pigeons. My mother wiped her floury hands on her apron whilst standing on the doorstep, letting  snow into the house. She was crying. “What’s up now?” my grandfather asked.

Like me she was going to miss him. Then my grandfather held out his hand and said, “Got thee a Christmas present.” The gold ring with the triple ruby inset sat in his outstretched palm. “I found it when I slit the gizzard.” She wept buckets over her Christmas present, and my father said that he couldn’t understand why she was so upset by the rediscovery of the family heirloom. When she came across on Boxing Day for left-overs Mrs Pyke said she thought the turkey tasted funny, and pulled a perfectly square face. My mother smiled at that. It was the first time she had smiled in days.


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