I opened my eyes.
Things were a little blurry. The sky was creamy, the sea all made up of frothy peaks. Weird. Not that the bird on a rock, right in front of my eyes, seemed to mind. It looked happy enough.
The solid yet elongated body, built for swimming fast underwater, but relatively short neck identified it as a member of the auk family. Black head and wing plumage ruled out the guillemot, which is dark brown, and its white front meant it couldn’t be a black guillemot, not that you’d see them so far south anyway.
I looked at the bill expecting to see the familiar, comforting palette of primary colours that could only belong to a puffin. But no! Its bill was black, all black.
It was a large stout bill, almost threatening looking. Well I guess it certainly would be threatening if you were a sand eel. They are razorbills’ favourite food. For this was, I felt confident, a razorbill.
There should have been a white line on its bill. Its feet didn’t look quite right either – one was thrust forward like it was going for a walk, the other back. Also it was too upright, too straight. Like a penguin.
Could it actually be a great auk? The large flightless bird of the North Atlantic had been extinct for over a hundred years but you never know…
…no, I do know. It was just a slightly misrepresented razorbill. Maybe the ceramic painter had used a museum specimen as a model, they’re often not displayed right, and the white line on the bill was just too fine to paint in.
Anyway, there I was in the tavern toilet having fallen asleep against a tiled wall decorated with pictures of seabirds: a pair of puffins, kittiwakes gliding, a black-backed gull – a lesser judging by its yellow legs – perched on top of a lighthouse and the razorbill on a rock. My bundle of sleeping bag, notepad, torch and flask that I’d used as a pillow had slid to the floor, and left my face pressed up against the wall. I could feel a sharp line in my skin where a tile edge had imprinted itself into my face as I slept.
When I was fully awake, I forgot about birds on tiles. I wanted to see real birds. To do that I needed to know what time it was.
It was mostly pitch black outside. There was an occasional flash of light from the nearby lighthouse that turned the pub silver for a second, and then back to darkness. There were no street lights on the island. Good thing too.
The real question on my mind was not what time it was now, but how long would it be until the manx shearwaters started calling and then arriving.
Manxies don’t like it when the moon is up and the stars are out, and they certainly don’t like street lights. They need darkness to keep safe from predatory – and pink legged – great black-backed gulls. So this cloudy summer night was perfect for seeing them. As long as I had my torch.
Somebody in the pub had said the best place for manxies was up the other end of the island, by the far lighthouse. It was a couple of miles along a track. Near enough to be no problem getting there and back, but hopefully far enough that nobody else would bother – there’d just be manxies and me.
Once I was clear of the little cluster of buildings and over a slight hill, I navigated by the flashes from the far lighthouse. I used my small torch to make sure I kept to the path that snaked through the heather and gorse. The sea was always present, somewhere down to my right – surf hissing at the foot of the cliff just a blind stumble away.
The lighthouse lit up the sky ahead at regular, long intervals. I counted between each: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and just as I was about to count eighteen the light shone. The next time I nearly got up to nineteen and the next time I actually counted to twenty. I counted, and walked, quicker as I got closer to the lighthouse.
The wind was picking up. I could feel its dry chill cutting through the humid air.
The track descended. For a few seconds, I felt like I was heading down towards the sea – the sound of slow but thunderous waves on rocks got stronger and stronger – but the track worked its way safely through a low wall into a compound of pale buildings. There were two low single storeys and in between them the lighthouse.
I placed my bundle down as a pillow on the soft turf beside the path. I lay on my back, staring into the safe darkness, hoping to see a manxie caught in a beam of light.
They hadn’t started calling yet, so it was unlikely. I shut my eyes to listen for them.
The lighthouse was close enough that even with my eyes shut I could see it flash. I started counting again, settling at seventeen. I tried timing the flashes with my watch. Fifteen seconds, dead on.
Okay then, I thought, I’ll see if I can count at exactly one per second. I started counting – far too slow, I only got to eleven. The next time I nearly got it and the third time I was spot on.
I was feeling pleased with myself and shut my eyes again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, open my eyes and shine.
I repeated the trick and just as I was starting to feel bored, and was wondering where all the manxies had got to, something flew over that was bigger than the biggest bird I’d ever seen in my life.
Caught for just a split second in the beam, it had a seven or eight foot, who knows maybe more, wingspan. Could it be a white-tailed eagle? No, definitely not. It was longer than that, with great legs trailing out behind like a heron’s. But it was much, much bigger and broader than any heron or egret from this country.
What on earth was it?
It must’ve been fifty feet up and it was the briefest of glimpses so it was hard to judge exactly how big. It looked like it was heading for the lighthouse itself. Maybe it had built a nest there and had young to feed.
Whatever it was, I’d not seen one before. I had to get a better look and find out what it was. So I too headed for the lighthouse.
I trod carefully, trying to be silent. I kept my torch shining right down, just in front of my feet, picking out each step one at a time. If the bird heard or saw me coming, so I reckoned, she would be off into the darkness before letting me have another look.
I slowly circled the base of the lighthouse, looking up all the time. The darkness I’d been so happy to see was now against me. I could see nothing but the vague outline of the tall building disappearing into the sky.
I shone my torch upwards as I went but its weak light was not much use. It didn’t go all the way up. I could just make out a window – a small square void in the whitewashed wall – but its ledge looked too small for such a large bird to perch.
There was a door with a rusty padlock. I assumed it was locked – well you would, wouldn’t you. But just then the Atlantic breeze, which had been so quiet, stirred. I felt its salty chill on my face – and heard the door creak open.
Just an inch. But I gave it a nudge and with another creak, it opened further. With several more little nudges, I was in.
I started climbing the spiralling iron stairs – slowly, carefully, trying not to make a sound. And again with the torch pointing down to the next step, then the next step then the next step…
…there was a sound from above. I stopped to listen. It was rhythmic, not natural. Hard to be sure what it was. Perhaps a generator to power the lantern? I continued, step by step.
When you’re somewhere you’ve never been, you notice every sound and wonder what it is. You notice movements, shadows escaping the corner of your eye, and don’t know what they are.
When you’re trying to move silently, you hear every single one of your own steps. You hear your heartbeat and breathing, and sometimes wonder if they belong to someone or something else. I kept telling myself there was only me here. I held my breath and the breathing sound stopped.
There might have been a big bird on a high window ledge or the roof, but not inside – surely. Yet I gripped the metal bannister with my right-hand so tight that it etched a groove into my palm, and my left-hand – steadying me against the curving stair well – got so sweaty that it slipped down the scratchy old granite surface.
Surely it was just me in there. No one else could be there. How could anyone else be there? In an automated lighthouse at the uninhabited end of an island in the middle of the night.
But she was there alright. I heard her singing: “la-la-la-, la la, la la la. La-la-la, la la, la la la.”
I could even identify the song and realised that I hadn’t heard a generator, I’d heard a radio. It was playing Kylie Minogue and someone was singing along to it.
What actually was going on?
I kept on going up those iron stairs. Their creaks echoed round the stairwell but the sound would be drowned out by the music – so I reasoned – especially as it was coming from above and I was coming from below.
The stairs kept winding up and round. It seemed like an age but eventually I could see a landing, where the spiral staircase stopped, and an open door into a room. There was a ladder in the middle of the floor.
Dare I go further? If I did then whoever was in the room may see the top of my head.
But if I didn’t, what would be the point of coming up here? What would I do then – give up, go back down the stairs and look for manxies? Well, I for one couldn’t face the embarrassment of chickening out like that. Nobody else would know but I would. The blank page in my notepad would tell a pathetic story.
So further on up I went.
The radio was playing a different song by this point, something slower. There was no voice singing along but I could hear willowy brushes across the floor and the whispering of stirred air. And I could see whirling shadows. They flitted through the doorway, down the stairwell and across the surface of my eyes.
I went up another step.
Then I saw her.
Her wavy hair rose and fell down onto huge, swan-like wings. And then she danced back out of sight.
Everything about me froze – my eyes still stared at where she had appeared, my mind was unable to process what my eyes had seen, I felt a creeping sensation run up my back. Only my heart raced. Loudly.
She kept dancing. The light from above momentarily outshone the small lamp that otherwise lit the room. It glinted silver in her wings. She chased round, skipping and jumping up.
Her hair, I was pretty sure, was brown like a golden eagle. Her skin was as pale as a barn owl, but her face was delicate and her eyes bright – not like any bird’s. One hundred percent human. Her legs were dressed in pale pink tights and ballet shoes.
Well, my heart was beating like a piston. My lungs were tight. My mouth was dry as bone with a heavy tongue of lead. I managed a feeble, croaky whisper, “hello, hello?”
“Hello, hello,” she carried on dancing while singing my words back to me, “hello stranger, come in. My name is Kate. What is yours?”
“Tom,” I croaked.
“Hello Tom, come in,” she instructed me in a sing-song Eastern European accent, “I was foolish and therefore you saw me. I was in big hurry to get inside. Every night I get inside early so not scare the crazy birds.”
“Crazy birds?” I queried, curious and relieved that she didn’t seem to mind me being there.
“Yes. Crazy birds. They are very crazy! They laugh and cry at the same time. They laugh from the earth and cry from the sky. They are crazy birds. Without doubt!”
“What do they look like?”
“No idea! They are scared of me. I never see them.”
“But you hear them at night?”
“Yes. They make crazy sounds.”
“Manx shearwaters. They’re why I came here. They’re my favourite birds,” I started to feel more relaxed, strangely at home, talking about manxies, “they are so beautiful when you watch them fly across the sea. I love them.”
“Ah. Sweet that you love them.”
“Yes,” I enthused, “they fly just above the surface. It’s like they are precisely cutting the top of the waves. That’s why they’re called shearwaters. But actually their flight rises and falls in time with the waves so they are always an inch or two above the surface. It’s like they’re the sea’s companions.
“They catch fish and bring them back to their young in their burrows. The young call to their parents, and their parents come flying in and call back. They have lots of strange calls. The parents need to find the right burrow. So they all have different calls. They’re all unique. Really unique.”
“Really unique like me?”
I laughed and then immediately regretted it. Kate turned her face away and looked down to one side, hiding beneath one of her wings. For a second, the light from above cast a hunchbacked shadow on the floor. All I could see of her was a protective mass of feathers.
“Sorry,” I said.
Kate climbed the ladder leading up to the light and called down, “show me manxies.”
I climbed up and followed her onto the balcony around the lantern room, and then kept on following her as she went up an outside ladder to a platform at the very top – above the light itself. The Atlantic wind, just a breeze at ground level, blew keenly up there. It stripped warmth and moisture from my face, and my shirt billowed out behind me like a parachute. I clung onto the rail.
Kate flexed her wings, “so where are they?”
I looked out through the thick night air across dark, murmuring water. There was no way of seeing small birds as they flew anxiously to land. I could only see a few yards in front of me. But the calling had begun. Shrieks and cackles and mournful wails came from one direction, then from another. It was hard to tell how near or far until one flew past close. We heard it coming towards us – like an emergency siren – and then receding, but never saw it.
“I have to fly to see them,” Kate announced and climbed up onto the guard rail and launched herself into the air. She flew up and round, out of reach of the lighthouse’s beam.
“You need show me,” demanded a voice from the darkness, “come show me!”
“How can I?”
“Fly! I show you,” she swooped back onto the railing in front of me, “first I show you to fly, then you show me manxies.”
“I can’t,” I protested weakly.
“If you try you can,” Kate insisted, “come Tom, come on!”
The railing was about three feet high. There was a bar halfway up. She held my hands as I stepped up onto the bar, then, one leg at a time, climbed over the railing and sat upon it. Without warning she let go, forcing me to grip the rail with both hands. I leant back, so if I fell I would fall back onto the platform.
Kate took off again, did somersaults in mid-air, “come Tom, come show me the manxies, come on!”
I stared into the dark sea. I felt the western wind on my face. It was a dream. Wasn’t it?
“Just fall forward. You float. I catch easy.”
I shut my eyes and jumped. Feet first.
I don’t know what I felt next. Did I think I was flying? There was just nothing, only stillness, no time passing. The wind continued to blow in my face. I tasted salt on my lips. I could’ve been in a deck-chair on a beach or a hammock in a holiday park. I was suspended in nothing. I was not moving.
I wondered if I would see the flash from the lighthouse. How long since the last one? Should I start counting from halfway to fifteen? Then I’d be ready to open my eyes and see the light.
“Nyet, nyet, nyet!”
There was a fierce grabbing at my shoulders, like talons, and I felt like I was suddenly wrenched upwards. My spine was being stretched. I got to fifteen and opened my eyes. There were feathers.
I landed gently, on springy turf. My legs buckled slightly but I stayed on my feet.
“You should bend knees, soften impact. Then let yourself roll over. You break bones if not careful,” Kate told me off, her Russian accent more pronounced, “and when you go off top of lighthouse, fall forward into air. Not jump feet first. Never feet first. NEVER!”
I nodded dumbly.
“The first time I flew, it was by accident,“ Kate explained, “look along the coast there in distance, there are lights yes? That is Ilfracombe. Hillsborough Cliff is just past it. A big, dark cliff. It was covered in fog. No way to see where it was. I fell and fell and fog wrapped itself around me. And I heard a raven calling. I could not see it in the fog but again and again it called. Again and again it was calling for help. And the fog shook and became a blanket, soft and warm. And the blanket shook and became feathers. And my arms shook, and the feathers stuck to them, and they became wings.
“Further I fell and stronger my wings were. And birds were all amazed. Not crazy birds! Just normal seagulls that lived in the town. All amazed and they flew away. And then I flew away. Flew to here. I never go back to Ilfracombe or Hillsborough Cliff. Maybe one day. Now I am a strong flier. Difficult for me to be there but easy for me to fly there. I am a very good flier. But even I cannot fly feet first!”
“I see. Thank you,” I meant it more than anything I’d ever said. And now she had started talking, I didn’t want her to stop, “why do you live here?”
“It is a place for me, I think…” her voice trailed off.
“Here is nowhere. No people. Just a lighthouse living in sky. I come from nowhere. As girl I come from Russia. Then I fell into mid-air. Since then I come from nowhere. So here is a place for me in mid-air. It is for me and it is for birds.”
The calls of the manx shearwaters were getting more frequent. Some were so loud they must be nearby – in the earth below us and the sky above us. The wind was also strengthening and waves that had travelled thousands of miles across the Atlantic were crashing onto rocks just below us.
“Thank you for saving me,” I said, “now I’ll show you the manxies. You must tuck your wings away.”
“Why tuck my wings away?”
“Because if they think you’re a bird, they’ll think you want to eat them. Great black-backed gulls eats them. They don’t just eat them but turn them inside out, strip all the flesh and leave sad little sacks of skin and skeleton behind. That is why they’re scared of you. They think you might be a giant great black-back – their worst nightmare come true.”
Kate looked down and hid her face beneath a wing, as she had done before. The manxies kept on calling – like mad torturers and their victims somewhere out in the darkness.
“You know,” I continued, “in some places they call them devil birds because of all the strange sounds coming from underground.”
“Devil birds? Bad name.”
“Yes it is,” I laughed, “but I don’t believe in devils. They don’t exist.”
“I prefer manxies,” Kate lifted her head up and tucked in her wings – clasping her hands together behind her back to keep them in.
We walked out onto the headland, treading carefully to avoid tripping on heather or stepping into burrows. It wasn’t long before a manxie, hollering and gurgling, crash landed a few feet in front of us. I shone my torch.
The bird’s long black wings were spread out, so much larger than the rest of its body. Even prone on the ground the wings’ elegance made my heart beat quicker. They tapered to slim, pointed ends – perfect for slicing through the air with minimal resistance.
Her eyes gleamed in the torchlight. She didn’t move. Maybe frightened? Maybe just confused. Anyway, I pointed the torch to one side so she was left in half-light. She shuffled forward and raised her head to get her bearings, revealing her white throat and breast feathers. Black and white and beautiful manxie.
She could barely walk – that’s the way all manxies are. Their feet, right at the back of their bodies, frantically paddle them forward like a spluttering outboard motor whilst their long wings, so perfect out at sea, flap uselessly against the ground. Over uneven terrain they are constantly getting bumped off course or going bill first into the vegetation.
After a largely unsuccessful attempt to propel herself towards her chick’s burrow, our manxie stopped for a rest. Again I shone my torch to one side so she wasn’t dazzled or scared.
Kate crouched down to take a closer look. She cooed to the bird who didn’t seem to notice and kept resting. After a few more seconds the manxie recovered her energy and set off again.
She seemed to be going well, scrambling across the ground in a roughly straight line, but then she suddenly veered off course. Perhaps a stray stone or sticking-up piece of heather root had caught her wing. Anyway, she went round in a semi-circle and ran straight into Kate’s foot. The manxie lay there panting and disorientated, but not scared.
“Oh my little friend,” Kate whispered, “we will leave you in peace now. Good luck and I hope your baby fills its belly tonight. And thank you Tom. Also my friend.”
I could feel myself glowing. Optimism and energy welled up inside me, “can I try again? Please. I promise to fall forward this time, not jump feet first.”
Kate shrugged her wings, “okay.”
I started running back to the lighthouse, “race you! Last one to the top is a boring seagull!”
“You are such a child!” she laughed.
This story was inspired by the memorial statue to Ekaterine ‘Kate’ Frolov on Capstone Hill in Ilfracombe – and through that by Kate herself.
Kate was a 13 year old Russian girl who tragically fell from nearby Hillsborough Cliff, in thick fog, on 19th July 2000. The inscription by the statue describes Kate as a “beautiful young girl, full of life and energy”.