It reached epiphany one bleak night, after months of waiting.
Tormented by the drink and the absence of the cormorant; pushed to the edge.
In September, my godmother took me to a talk about the birds of the River Lea. I had accidentally told her about my watching the month before, over an uncomfortable meal when I had no news to share and nothing much to say. I hadn’t meant to sell it as such a big part of my life, waffling on with my thin ornithological knowledge. Thank god she has an interest after all, I’d imagined her think.
The talk was at a community centre on Lea Bridge Road, one of those far-from-up-and-coming areas that estate agents pitch hard to desperate first-time buyers. The advert had obviously not reached the hipster nature lovers people like to believe live in these parts of East London, because the majority of attendees were over sixty with unbrushed, grey hair and woolly jumpers. The types that go on walking tours to visit the peregrines and tawny owls nesting in the City, or take the Central Line to ancient footpaths in Essex, where you can cross fences on wooden stiles, smell manure and witness the harvest. The Londoners who watch Countryfile and Springwatch, dreaming of living in the countryside ‘one day’, while the police raid the drug dealers who live across the road.
My godmother didn’t know what to do around these people. All through the talk, I could see her eyes twitching as she attempted to figure out what it was about birds that interested me.
The audience sat silently as the host told us of the grey wagtails, flycatchers and nuthatches that he had observed on the wetlands over the past year. He discussed these flittering brown creatures as though they were common – as though, if you watch carefully and are educated enough to know your reed warbler from your marsh warbler, you will discover that there is just as much nature in the city as outside it. That if you are patient, observant and careful, these habitats will expose an abundance of low-count species thriving in the most unexpected of places. Good for him – I didn’t believe a word of it.
My stretch of the canal had none of the diversity he spoke of. It wasn’t near open fields and didn’t offer an abundance of opportunity for rare birds to feed. I’ve never seen a kingfisher or a reed bunting, but it’s possible they’ve shown themselves to me and I have not noticed them. It’s possible that in all the time I’ve spent watching birds, I’ve only seen the ones I wanted to see. I watch birds, but I am not a bird watcher.
I’ve come to know the birds of the canal quite well. There’s the swan – or the mute swan (Cygnus olor) – the show pony of the water. I sometimes feel guilty about liking the swans – makes me feel vapid and vain. I can never shake off that hazy memory from when I was little, when I witnessed a swan drown a duckling in broad daylight, performing to a crowd of human onlookers. At five years old, I couldn’t fathom how such a beautiful creature could do such a cruel thing, always so regal in picture books. My mother, not bothering to cover my eyes, did nothing to the save the baby duck.
The grey heron (Ardea cinerea) stands, statuesque, on the edge of the water, surveying his hunting ground. The heron is more common on the lake, a mile away in the park, but he does occasionally visit me here. Staying still for what feels like hours until a sudden movement under the water triggers him to dart down and spear a fish with his beak – perhaps a perch or a roach or a gudgeon, or so I read. I used to get excited about seeing a heron, pointing them out to whoever would listen. Large and solitary, they blend in so well with their surroundings. You often don’t notice them at first, they need that second glance, where, for a split second, you wonder if they’re a decoy. And then, bored of your admiration, they fly away with their six-foot wingspan and long, spindly legs hanging behind. They aren’t my favourite bird – too predictable, too pompous – but still rare enough to make me want more.
The coots (Fulica atra) and the moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) are the ones who give me most comfort. Always around, these little cousins are steady and reliable – how I’d imagine siblings to be. The coot sticks to the edges, its little red eyes and white beak clean and vivid against his black body. I see the coots every time I watch. Flittering and flustering, marking three or four in my notebook in the morning as they come out to give me reassurance. The moorhen is never far away, its red bill alerting itself to me in the middle of the canal – unafraid of unknown territories. I sometimes see the moorhen in the middle of the estate, checking up on me as I walk to the shop, and then stumbling off, unsteady on his webbed feet like a drunk baby.
But I’m really doing this for the cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). The cormorant I can’t work out. He hypnotises and works his way into my dreams. Appearing and disappearing. Teasing me. Provoking me. If I don’t see him during my watching, he’ll magically appear one mile upstream – his little, bullet-shaped head floating on the water. The other birds have patterns and predictability. They have their favourite places to perch, their favourite places to huddle. But the cormorant has an untameable spirit within him. He has something to tell me, if only I could learn his language. It’s the cormorant who keeps me watching.
I first noticed him in ’56 when I ended things with Vincent. I sat on the bench, mustering the courage to finish the thing that could not be.
The cormorant stood on the lock, puffing out his chest and stretching out his wings. He brought a calm to my unnerved body, the reassurance of his mocking slowing me down. He demanded my attention and asserted control over the water. Asserted control over me.
I didn’t know then that he would stay with me. Provoke me for years to come. Become my secret obsession. The reason for my watching.
I picked up watching from my grandmother, who left me her flat when she died. A fortunate outcome in an otherwise unfortunate series of events that left me free of family – save for my godmother.
The two-bedroom flat in Derwent House is mostly void of Gran’s possessions now, except for two kitsch ornaments that I couldn’t bear to part with – nostalgia for those first years with her. The two proud statues, one a Pekingese dog, the other a blue laundry maid, now stand uncomfortably on my mantelpiece, at odds with the mid-century furniture and accidental minimalism. I wonder if I should have kept more, but my godmother took the lead on curating my new life. Came along with The World of Interiors and Architectural Digest and enthusiastically showed me furniture she just had to buy me. A sofa inspired by Florence Knoll, a chair in the style of Charles and Ray Eames – people I ought to know but didn’t. She said I needed to move on to my ‘new normal’, a phrase she had picked up from her therapist. But, in addition to the out-of-place ornaments, I did manage to cling on to a wicker conservatory chair, a pair of binoculars, and boxes and boxes of notebooks.
I only know about Gran’s watching because of the notebooks. When I cleaned out the flat they turned up in nooks and crannies all over the place. Hundreds of them, stuffed into shoeboxes, lurking in the back of cupboards, under her bed. I found some behind the washing machine, others on top of kitchen cabinets, under sofa cushions, in the bottom of drawers, behind rows of books and inside the old grandfather clock. Within each book, there were days of charts and rushed notes, all impossible to read. I’ve spent hours poring over them, trying to decipher the scrawls, like nonsensical ramblings in a teenager’s diary.
The notebooks documented her watching. Every day she would write the time and date in the top right corner of the next new line and make tallies of all the birds she saw. I’ve become used to her angular writing, but some words don’t resemble any language I’ve seen. I read the books every night, tracing her habits and taking some on myself, where I notice them mutate and morph as they latch on to their new host. I notice weeks where she watched every morning – at the same time for days on end. In others, she picks up the pace, watching four or ten times in the space of twelve hours, jotting messy, unintelligible memos in the margin: shopping lists, descriptions of tufted ducks and shovelers, things that had annoyed her about the neighbours. At her most frantic, she watched in the evenings, well after the sun went down – looking for what, I’m not sure. And then there’d be weeks, months missing, with no record of her watching at all.
He guided me home from Bianca’s party, where I’d screamed at her for not caring enough, for not reading my mind.
He floated besides me, leading me along the unlit towpath. The algae on his back like Brylcreem, slicking his elegant plumage, ready to hunt. Drifting on the surface one moment before lifting his head and slicing through the water the next.
I often imagine him swimming amidst the reeds, dominating the aquatic depths. I survey the water, trying to guess where he will rise, always getting it wrong.
I’m on my fifth book now. A tall, slim reporter’s notebook I bought in a multipack from Amazon. I settle into my wicker chair on the balcony, place my glass of water on the windowsill and prepare my apparatus.
I sharpen my pencil onto the window ledge and finger the shavings into a neat pile, which I will push into the bin later on. I open to a new page and write the date, pick up my gran’s bulky old binoculars, which hang securely around my neck, and start scanning the water. I begin my ritual at 6am, when the summer sun is peeking out above the towers across the river. The sky glows that soft golden pink that makes you feel like you’re the only one awake, makes you wonder how anyone could sleep through this. At this time, the narrowboaters are rising, stoking their log burners and gifting us that mystical, Dickensian smell. And for the next thirty minutes I slowly trace my way from the top-most reaches, where I can just about see the bend at Balmes Road, down to Whitmore Bridge in the direction of Limehouse. I observe the water, systematically marking the names of the birds in one column, tallying how many I see in the next, occasionally writing notes in the margin.
That’s on a good day, when the cormorant is showing himself, when he’s happy with me. He lets me watch from my concrete hide in quiet meditation – once a day observing the birds I’ve become so familiar with.
I’m looking for patterns. Little clues that tell me something more. I document the habits of the swans and their cygnets, the fleet of coots and the plump of moorhens. The solitary heron who sometimes visits but never stays long. Even when I branch out to observe the grebes and the geese – Egyptian, Canada, greylag – I find something habitual. A time they wake and a time they roost. A flourish of flirtation in spring, and a winter retreat. But not the cormorant. The cormorant remains a mystery, obeying none of the laws I was taught of nature, none of the habits I read about in books. He comes and goes with no ritual at all. At my side for months, and then nothing.
When he’s here, I complete my watching by 6.30am and the rest of the day is mine. But sometimes the cormorant doesn’t show. Sometimes, I’m not able to make that simple vertical score on the page. Maybe, I think, I should just stay here a moment more. Make another cup of tea, call in late to the office. So, I do. Eventually – an hour, a day, or a week later – he reappears.
He spread his wings like the don of the canal. The greedy, sinister spirit loitering on the waterways, haunting me. I wondered what he knew of my life. How much he had witnessed, whether he knew that Tony had died that morning.
I was sure that he followed me, tracked me, hid from me in the shadows. In complete control of my sight. Not letting me leave my hide.
He stuck with me that first day as a widow. Bobbed around in the water as I poured whisky on the balcony. Some unintelligible urge forced me to scramble for a piece of paper – one black mark recording my first watch.
The watch lasted all day and by dusk, when all the birds had retreated to whatever mysterious place they nest in the concrete riverbank, the cormorant remained. Resisting the instinct to roost.
In November, he left for the longest time. Maybe I should call in late, became, maybe I should call in sick – the prospect of being away from the water too painful to contemplate. I would occasionally take walks along the canal – silent headphones in my ear – pretending not to search and hoping every glimpse of black in the corner of my eye was him. An unwashed vagabond, my hair unbrushed, like a transformed hag in a folk tale.
One afternoon, my godmother appeared as I was leaving to walk the towpath. I saw the look on her face when she caught a glimpse of the flat. I saw her lip turn up at my greasy hair. I felt her grip my arm tightly as she tried to make conversation with her dumb goddaughter. But I didn’t hear what she said, didn’t ask how she was. Felt nothing when she kissed me goodbye, squeezing me lovingly.
Midwinter, and the cormorant still hadn’t shown. I had counted forty-eight days since he had last visited, and I couldn’t think how to lure him back. So, I went searching.
I watched every day. Observing the water from my window, obsessively marking the birds in scores. Lines of coots, geese and swans becoming meaningless statistics on the page.
The canal stretches past parks, through marshes and into the wetlands of Walthamstow and Tottenham – the monotony of one path could carry you for days. In my hag-like state, I walked slowly, one eye always on the water. Children on scooters dodged me, groups were forced apart to let me through. I lit cigarette after cigarette until the box was empty, the binoculars a weighty and useless accessory swinging against my chest.
I reached the fork in the water where the river meets the canal, and I turned into the marshland where the filter beds are. Empty and desolate, the damp day had brought mist and kept strangers safely away. The mud squelched under my old Doc Martens, my floor-length coat catching on brambles that had lost their fruits.
The filter beds had been built almost two centuries ago, taking water from a central well and filtering it through sand and gravel to supply clean water for the boroughs nearby. One hundred years later, humans abandoned the land and nature took charge. Trees took root, rust ate away at metal, and the concrete channels became beds for reeds and rushes. Back in September, the ornithologist told us that hundreds of bird species flourished here – snipe and pochards, little grebes and common sandpipers. But I didn’t even see a blackbird that day. The place that was supposedly teaming with wildlife was barren and dead.
At the river, a layer of mist was caught in the shallow banks framing three cormorants standing high in a tree. One appeared after the other, drying their wings and lifting their backs to sit tall and proud, silhouettes in the leafless branches. And finally, he showed himself, flying just low enough for me to see his strong wings glide through the fog. Downstream, he landed in the water, waiting for me to catch up, and then a flurry of feathers as he flew up into the air once more, not stopping to dive, or fish or dry his wings. I followed him, unquestioning, almost running to keep up, unaware of the strange route we were taking through channels and streams I had not seen before and would not find again.
Eventually he brought me home, but by the time I reached the balcony, he was gone again. Teasing me with his rarity.
His name was the first I would write every morning – waiting in angst to add that sharp stroke of the pen. When he didn’t appear, it felt like an itch I couldn’t reach, distracting me for the rest of the day. I’d scrawl notes and shopping lists to give my fingers something to do. But when he didn’t visit, I knew I wouldn’t eat.
My gran once told me that in the Pagan calendar, the first day of February foretold the length of spring. If the weather was bright, it meant Cailleach, the deity who ruled the darkest months, had mustered up good weather to help her search for firewood – she would need more for the long winter ahead. If the weather was stormy, it meant she had overslept, and spring would come sooner. Well, at last, the end of January had arrived and the first day of February held my fate in its hands. Like Cailleach, I overslept. I trudged to the balcony, disappointed, but unsurprised, not to see the cormorant waiting for me. My militant drill began again.
I stared into the abyss as the wind picked up and whistled through the buildings, a noise my headphones couldn’t drown out. The blank notepad sat lifeless in front of me, the binoculars anchored me to the flat. My pencil remained sharp, my columns free of tallies and margins uninspired. By sunset, I would swap coffee for wine, drinking from a discrete enamel mug. Another day with no sighting. Like every other evening, I read Gran’s notebooks, desperate to find some pattern there, some answer, some wise observation.
A trickle of rain started to fall, waking me from my stupor with a drop on my nose. The drops soon grew, causing giant, dark stains on the ledge. I withstood it for as long as I could, but the storm built to a crescendo and the heavens let go, leaving me to scurry inside to safety. Dry at last I perched at the windowsill. I could just make out the water from here, a clear view up to the bend and down to the bridge, a mug of wine the only thing affecting how well I could see.
I turned to the next notebook in my pile – more beautifully bound than most. It was covered in a marbled paper of sea-greens, as if each part of the palette had been picked by hand from the colours of the water. Inside, pages of observations and thoughts – more a journal than a watching book. No dates, no charts, perhaps a memoir in the making, perhaps complete fiction. Inside, written in Gran’s cursive pen, a dedication: For the cormorant.
I lost myself in her words as she described the thing that watched her. The thing she didn’t know. The thing that both haunted her and helped her. I read with guilt, prying my way into the private life of my dead grandmother. Pages of nonsense were broken up with observations of the birds and memories of days past. The lover she had been forced to stop seeing because her father did not approve; arguments with her younger cousin Bianca, my godmother; lonely weeks when Grandpa was away, and the void she fell into when he died. I read on as she documented the disappearance of my mother, the failures of my father. I read as my grandmother became a full person, not just the woman who looked after me, but a young broken-hearted girl; the mother of a troubled teen; the wife of a man who made her scared and safe in equal measure. Parts of her character I had not known took shape, pushed their way around her body to fill her out. Prodded at the corners of her being to make her more real than she had ever been to me when alive. A woman who had fears and faults, who had a sense of humour, who had made mistakes, who got drunk and fell in love. A woman, just like me, who had a reason for watching. A woman who heard the call of the cormorant and didn’t know what to do with it.
A neighbour’s doorbell rang, momentarily breaking me out of my trance. And then, fuzzy eyed and bewitched with alcohol, I saw him fly under the streetlights. Gentle and calming despite the drumming rain, he ploughed through the wind and into the fog. I raised my binoculars, trying to keep hold of the creature. Thunder rolled in, announcing his presence. The doorbell still chiming, somewhere in the distance. I traced him as he landed on the water, floating now and just about visible in the city’s dim light – his slicked black feathers shining in the water.
In my own notebook, I scribbled thoughts without looking at the page. I observed his every move – his calm control, his smooth capabilities. The thunder kept calling. The lights kept flashing.
I finished the last bottle of wine and reached to the back of the cupboard for the dusty whisky that was once my grandmother’s. Pouring it into my mug before raising my binoculars again. Lightning crackled in the sky behind the tower block opposite. The neighbours were shouting at each other. I kept drinking. He appeared and disappeared all night, holding me, his audience, in wild rapture. Like a mad woman I wrote him messages, still searching for patterns in the dark. Show yourself to me again. Stay with me. Protect me.
Finally, he stood – his chest puffed; wings outspread to make him five times as large. His armour repelling the water, the storm unable to harm him. He commanded the heavens to scatter, a conductor orchestrating the elements for one final ensemble. Eventually, without any applause, the rain subsided, the thunder stopped, and the moon began to show itself from behind the clouds. The cormorant patiently floated on the water, before arching his back, lifting his body into the air and diving underneath in one smooth and seamless motion.
It reached epiphany one bleak night, after months of waiting.
Tormented by the drink and the absence of the cormorant; pushed to the edge. I left the flat to find him. A possessed old woman stalking the towpath at witching hour. Stumbling on whisky and gin.
And through the gloom, glistening in the faint reflections, my sovereign returned at last. Simmering low to the water, I chased him on and on. Until he finally brought me home.
But it wasn’t the cormorant who would save me that night.
Shining through the darkness was my sweet little granddaughter. Sat at my door and here to stay: her father admitting defeat.
And no more could the cormorant rule me.
My starling and I, both safe at last, banished the black bird away.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.