The children looking at gulls on ice. I’m thinking of children behind bars.
You can’t help but walk around craning your neck as you look high. It’s the unusual juxtaposition of these monoliths of light framed against the night sky. They draw your vision skyward, dwarfed by our own creations.
With a view to remembering, I had set off on my final night’s walk, crossing the bridge behind my hotel, at dusk.
I took the same route as last time, but this day being a Sunday meant the atmosphere was more subdued, the army of office workers gone, leaving behind a vacuum for nature and a wandering Manc to fill.
I had this familiar, definite trail in mind, but, as often happens, it was birds that led me astray.
As darkness fell, I heard gulls somewhere overhead. Studying the night sky, I could make out their aerial skirmishes beneath the towering cranes.
I began to walk towards the direction the birds had flown in, now aware that I could hear the carcophonous shrieking of many others somewhere up ahead. And so they led me from my safe and ordered plan.
They took me to a point called Limehouse Lock, a part of Canary Wharf I hadn’t been to before. I stood there, against iron railings, peering out to locate the gliding forms.
There were hundreds of gulls-skimming above the dark waters of the Thames. Some low, just above the surface, some higher, all moving as one great flock.
Don’t gulls sleep at night, even in a city that doesn’t sleep?
At night it is always dark water. I could remember looking out over the Saltsjön one evening in Stockholm, regarding the depths there as black water. Expansive and ominous, deep and threatening, I thought of Lindqvist’s book Harbour. In that novel, the writer made an evil entity out of the whole body of water, no doubt influenced by the death of his own father who was lost at sea.
I could imagine it, this great mass, untameable and omnipresent, claiming all who are foolish enough to try to master it.
I stayed for a while. Away from the bright lights of the city, here was the greater thrill: being led to somewhere different, somewhere new, by these feathered guides. Watching them move uninhibited en masse over the masking shadows of the Thames.
As he approached the promontory, he wasn’t expectant. He was distracted by two of his favourite things-granddad and balloons. (“Boons! Boons! Purple boons, blue ones!”) His £1 fishing net may have been a give away, but he clutched it possessively without seeming to understand what it signified.
His older sister, of adventurous spirit, never hesitant or unsure, raced on ahead, disappearing from view as she mounted the steps then descended the other side. As James clumsily made his way up, I got ahead of him, determined to be in a position to see his reaction on first sight.
Using his granddad’s hand for support, he reached the top, tottered slightly, then looked in front. Those bright blue eyes of his, made even bluer in reflecting back the summer sky, widened, fixing firmly on the distant horizon.
Such a simple, short word, but the way he uttered it, the way he drew it out, held such greater significance, and made my heart leap in a shared acknowledgement. He turned his head slowly from side to side, scanning the whole panorama. Taking it all in. You could see it, he lost all sense of scale, and from that first momentary shock, the great expanse created in him the impulse to run.
And run he did. In wild abandon, all thoughts of balloons and fishing net discarded. He ran over the sand towards the sea, still some distance away, then veered this way and that, giggling as he moved, until finally, breathless, his little legs faltered and he came to a stop.
Then he became The Castle Rascal.
His sister Millie employed use of her bucket and spade to build a sandcastle, decorating it with a single seashell on top. But as she moved to build another one, he was in like a shot. Kicking it over and doing a celebratory, in-your-face-sister jig. “Nur-nur!”
“James!! she shouted angrily, but he already had his sights on her next castle, and she quickly headed him off, defending it ably like a knight of old.
He turned his face towards the sea, and was lost again. A moth caught in the thrall of the flame.
He set off towards the approaching tide, intent on acting upon its open invitation. Occasionally he would flinch as the shadow of overhead gulls skimmed across the sand towards him, seemingly to snatch him up, but he continued on. I stayed where I was, with his mother and his sister, watching the two figures of him and his granddad become receding, diminishing points. Allowing the moment to become a shared bonding of two different but connected generations.
If ever I lose my sense of wonder about this world, if ever my awe falters and I begin to take it for granted, the surefire remedy is to view it through the eyes of my delighted children.
The gulls cried overhead.
I helped my wife search for shells to be the crowning glory of my daughter’s new castles.