Sneak Peek Extract: Plague of Gulls by Stephen Gregory

November in Snowdonia. I’m in the caravan, up at the quarry. The gulls are going crazy, screaming and battering at the windows with their wings. I can hear the slither of their feet on the roof as they land and take off again. 

When I open the door, step outside and fling them a handful of bread and biscuit, they fight and gobble as though they’re starving and then they beat away from me, a white and black and grey cloud. I shut the door and walk to the edge of the quarry. 

It’s cold, eight o’clock in the morning. There’s a silvery drizzle blowing in the air. 

My stump’s hurting. The doctor said it’ll ache when the winter comes, he said I’ll feel the ghost of the missing finger when the days get colder. The ghost is haunting me already, a throbbing pain where the finger used to be. I cup both hands around my mug of tea and peer over the brink of the quarry.

My quarry. It still seems strange. It belongs to me, the hole, and everything in it. The gulls, all mine.

The birds calm down, once they’ve woken me and winkled me out of the caravan. And the pain in my hand eases a bit as I press it to the hot mug. Standing on the edge, I look down into the pool, a hundred feet below me. The water’s always different, it changes with the time of day and the light on the surface. In the mornings, before the sun’s risen over the hillside, it’s perfectly black, perfectly smooth, and I can see deeply into it. 

Dad’s car. I can make out the humped, rounded shape of it, lying in the pool like a dead whale. Dimly, the headlamps peer up at me. Shivering. Hard to believe, not so long ago it was August, the summer, the carnival in town. November … the word sends a shiver down my spine.      

I blink away from the round eyes at the bottom of the pool and look about the quarry. It’s littered with the rubbish which people bring up from Caernarfon: there’s a raggedy kind of avalanche, where people have driven up and slung their bags and boxes and broken machinery, unwanted bits of their homes, their gardens, their lives. A spillage of discarded stuff, snagged on the rocks on its way down to the pool …

A strange inheritance. I own a hole a hundred feet deep, and all the air and water in it. I own all the broken, unnecessary things which are thrown into it. And hundreds of gulls, which come to the quarry for the pickings and to wake me in the morning for their breakfast. 

My tea’s going cold. I sling the dregs onto the ground. I look up to the top of the hill, the iron fence and rusted barbed wire which are supposed to stop sheep and curious hikers from coming too close. Down to the town, miles below me: the gleam of slate from the rooftops, the towers of the castle no more than a glimmer of grey through the drizzle. 

Cold. I turn away from the quarry, with just a glance at the pool again. A flurry of a breeze picks up a sheet of newspaper. It whirls in the air, folding and turning this way and that, and a few of the gulls dive to the hole, as though they think the flutter of white is a gull from another quarry trespassing on their territory. But then they twist away, and the paper settles on the water. It spreads and darkens and sinks. The outline of the car blurs and disappears.

I turn back to the caravan. When I open the door, there’s a rush of air and some of the gulls drop to the roof and land there. They try to get into the door as I squeeze inside. For a mad moment, there’s a brawling of wings and their big rubbery feet and jabbing beaks around my shoulders, as they try to force themselves past me …

‘No, not you! And not you! And not you!’ 

I yell at them, and I beat them off with my hands. They clack on my mug with their horny beaks. And then, when they fall away from me, squalling among themselves, one of them springs forward again … 

Yes, you! Get inside!’ 

I let the bird come in, between my legs and into the caravan, and I quickly shut the door. 

Outside, the racket gets louder and louder. All the gulls in the quarry are banging at the windows and on the roof to try and get in. I pull the curtains shut and sit on the bed, with my hands around the cooling mug. Minute by minute, the commotion subsides, until my little space and the world outside are quiet again. 

‘You,’ I say to the bird. ‘This is all because of you.’ Right now, it’s standing on the end of my bed, rearranging a few ruffled feathers with the tip of its beak. At the sound of my voice, it cocks its head on one side and looks at me with a bright black eye. ‘Yes, you. What makes you think you’re so different from all the others?’

And you? the bird seems to say to me. What’s so special about you?

Nothing special. No claim to fame. I’m David Kewish, eighteen years old. Five years in a dingy little private school in Bangor and then I do so badly in my exams that not a university in the land will take me in.

David Kewish, sitting in a caravan in a Welsh quarry, with my gull. It pants into my face. I love that smell. The carpet feels damp, and the rumpled bed I’ve been sleeping on. I see myself in the wardrobe mirror. Funny, even when I’m tousled and bleary I look alright, a well-made teenage boy with a clear complexion and thick black hair. Nothing special. 

It was a strange summer. Some upsetting things happened. That’s why I’ve come up to the quarry, to let it all blow over. Rumours and whispers and tales about me. About the bird. About me and the bird. 

A strange summer. People got hurt. Was it one or two? Or three? Who’s counting?

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