Theyll come for you, Daphne
was saying. Daphne was the Lead Counter. They really will. Theyre
bastards like that. They dont understand, of course, that were here
to protect them. They see us as predators. They think were after their
eggs, and this kind of natural reflex kicks in. Its all been thoroughly
were all wearing bright yellow waterproof jackets. Daphne had been there the
year before and her jacket was still coated in a thick layer of dried guano.
With or without her jacket, she looked like a corgi. She had that corgi-esque
manner about her. Short-limbed and head-strong.
So I dont have to tell you to watch out for those beaks. A couple
of years back some lad got pecked quite badly on the left buttock. We had to
call an emergency boat and dinghy him back to the mainland. You can probably
understand that the logistics of this took up a good couple of hours of
precious counting time. What he was doing with his left buttock exposed is
anyones guess. They gave him antibiotics.
could hardly hear her voice, what with the wind and the waves crashing on the
rocks below, and the squawking of those vicious flappy bastards.
But your work and your perseverance will go a long way to avoiding
ecological catastrophe, she continued. Just dont, whatever
you do, dont go and stand on one of their nests. It happens every year,
and honestly, its heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for everyone. And not only
that, but it really pisses off the parents.
The island was a barren rocky outcrop miles
from the mainland. A kind of plateau of igneous geological formations, its
wide, exposed top was covered in stunted grass and vegetation. Some joker in
the 1960s had classified it as a site of special ecological significance
because of its colony of rare saddleback gulls, though to the untrained
observer they looked just the same as any other damn gull. But apparently these
ones were special, and what made them even more special was the fact that here,
in one of the only places in the world where they had a successful colony, the
local rat population was particularly partial to their eggs.
rats had been successfully shooed away around five years previously, boxed up
and sent elsewhere, and now the breeding patterns needed to be assessed by
people like Daphne, and a team of volunteers who were all so very incredibly
keen, and Nurse Matt.
rather liked Nurse Matt.
called Nurse Matt Nurse Matt because his name was Matthew,
This is exciting, isnt it?, he said, turning to me and
grinning as Daphne delivered her pep talk. Or as she liked to call it, her peck
looked shapeless beneath his yellow waterproof jacket. I wanted to grab his
hand and interlace my fingers with his, but it didnt feel right. The act
of counting the gulls was pious, serious business. It would have looked like we
werent fully attuned to the devotion necessary to count these bloody
I can barely contain myself, I replied.
So go out there, brave warriors!, Daphne said, her words being
carried by the wind. And make a difference! Do it for today! Do it for
tomorrow! And most of all, do it for the saddleback gull!
volunteers all clapped and then we kind of all drifted off to the area of the
island that we had been assigned. Nurse Matt had a big map which was being
blown by the wind. We had been given one quarter of the north shore.
Do you know where were going?, I asked.
Of course, he replied.
Hes a nurse, I told myself. His whole job is putting people at their
ease. Well, not his whole job, theres probably much more to it than that.
But its something he probably excels at, and not for the first time I
wondered if he saw me as little else than one of his patients, one of his
unfortunates whose wellbeing was his temporary concern in the clinical
environment of his love life. The diagnosis, I told myself, is always negative,
for dont we all die, eventually? Even love?
grass was clumpy, tufty, bent over against the constant winds from the ocean.
We had to watch where we were walking because the gulls built their nests
everywhere, but always at ground level. I mean, if you ask me, the suckers were
asking for it, and good on the rats for finding such a plentiful source of
vitamin D. Nurse Matt stepped gingerly, leading the way with paper folded map
in his hand, and I just kind of slouched along behind him,wondering when it
would be possible to hold his hand and feel the warmth of his breath on my
cheek, to find some nook in this barren place where our lips might seal in the
ecstasy of the moment.
As far as I can make out, he said, I think this is our
Wed met on an internet dating site and I
knew immediately that I wanted to get to know him. He seemed more mature, more
intellectual than others whose profiles Id viewed, sensitive to human
foibles and kind with it, in the messages we sent to each other, but the one
thing that really convinced me that he was the right person for me was that, in
some of his profile pictures, he looked amazing with his shirt off. For our
first date we went to the Museum of Smoke Alarms, but when he invited me back
to his flat afterwards I said that I couldnt go because I had such a bad
neck. A few nights later wed gone for drinks in a bar with poor lighting,
decorated with stuffed owls which loomed and stared out from the gloom, and
Id told him that I didnt really like birds. Hed replied that
coming out was one of those personal philosophical adjustments that so many of
us had struggled over, and that the act of working this out was a gestation of
so many different aspects of a persons private psychology, and Id
replied that Id meant the flying kind. We both laughed, and I plucked a
feather out of my cocktail, and we clinked glasses.
Hed then suggested that we go away somewhere, to a private island, and
Id blurted yes, yes, oh yes, that I was ever so keen to spend some time
with him, and hes said, Let me finish, and added that
wed go to this private island and count the eggs of the saddleback gull.
I thought that this had been a euphemism and Id got very excited indeed
until he emailed me the instructions that Daphne had prepared on behalf of the
Society for the Protection of the Saddleback Gull. It turned out that it
wasnt a euphemism after all.
Id still said yes, because it meant time alone with Nurse Matt. Or so I
sleeping arrangements were communal, with twenty volunteers crammed into a
dormitory with bunk beds. I couldn't sleep that night, not only because of the
wind moaning around the building in the middle of this godforsaken island and
the snoring of random strangers, but because Nurse Matt and I had arrived late
and had been given bunks either end of the room, and all I could think was how
much I had wanted to be alone with him. I tried to see where he was in the
gloom, and make out which bunk was his, but all I could see was a poster on the
wall which said Know Your Way Around the Saddleback Gull, with arrows
pointing out things like wings and beak and eyes. The only consolation of
having a top bunk was that I had a great view of the smoke alarm.
There were no clearly defined boundaries. Our
sector looked just like any other sector on the island. I asked Nurse Matt what
would happen if there was an overlap, that we might count the same nest as the
counters of the neighbouring sector, and Nurse Matt said that it was better to
over-count, and that the mathematicians would sort all of this out, and the
fact that I had asked this question was a good sign because it showed that I
was serious about the welfare of the saddleback gull.
Its great to have a shared passion, I agreed.
Matt opined that we had to have a methodical approach to counting the nests.
The scattergun method was not one that he recommended.
Theres one, I kept saying. And another. And
theres another one, thats three. Three so far, Nurse
Slow down!, he said, ducking to avoid a swooping gull.
Two more over there.
Imagine a grid laid over our sector. In such a way we could move with
purpose from one end to the other.
quiet for a couple of seconds.
Theres another, I whispered, pointing.
ducked to avoid another swooping gull.
Well get to the cliff edge and then well start in
earnest, he said.
But what about the ones Ive already counted?
Well count those when we get to them.
Theres another one over there.
couldnt understand why he hadnt written down any of the nests
Id seen so far. He seemed pretty insistent that we should adopt his
hypothetical grid system. Perhaps, I told myself, perhaps this was our first
Is this our first row?, I asked.
were now walking towards the cliff edge, where the wind ruffled the tufts
contrasted against the grey of the angry sea.
didnt say anything. He merely ducked to avoid yet another swooping
I said, is this our first row?, I yelled, against the force of the
I think we should start here, he said. Start with zero.
Calibrate ourselves and begin this thing in earnest.
But what about the five that I already counted?
Forget about the five youve already counted.
the first time that Id heard a hint of desperation in his voice. I said
nothing as he brought out his pen and started writing on the clipboard that
Daphne had provided for us. He ducked to avoid a swooping gull.
OK, he said. Lets do this.
We counted all morning and I was very careful
to adhere to his hypothetical grid method. By the end of the morning wed
counted five nests in our sector, and then we counted again in the afternoon
just to make sure that we hadnt made any mistakes, and again the figure
came to five. We worked back from the cliff edge. Being at the cliff edge made
me feel very nervous indeed, knowing that just one slide, trip or stumble might
result in a three hundred foot drop down to the jagged rocks below, the angry
sea crashing, thudding against the cliffs. But Nurse Matt was more sure of
himself, and I knew that this was because he was used to working in
environments where things were literally life or death. I figured that on some
days, there must have been people dying left right and centre, that he was
probably surrounded by death, and perhaps that had instilled in him a need not
to tempt fate. But fate can sometimes deliver a kick up the arse. Now, me? If I
were surrounded by death, then Id probably become pretty blasé
felt good, after a while, to be working using his method. I could see that it
had its benefits and pretty soon we got into a great rhythm, breaking down the
sector that we had been assigned and looking for the nests under hedges, amid
thickets, and in the dips and hollows of the tufty grasses. The gulls were
tenacious creatures and often a nest would not be where you might expect one to
be built, as if they were conscious that this annual census would take place
and they wanted to do everything within their power to skew the result.
end of the afternoon, we had a final tally.
Five nests, he said.
the sky was darkening and the sun was beginning to set.
Are we going to make our way back to the accommodation block?, I
then he stopped. He stood still. He didnt say anything.
actually been quite fun, counting, but it did feel good to be standing upright.
And perhaps, I thought, perhaps hes just enjoying the sensation of
What do you reckon?, I asked.
didnt respond. He just stood there, his eyes kind of gazing into the
middle distance, except for when he had to duck to avoid a swooping gull.
I said, are we going to make our way back to the accommodation
distance. Like there was something that was bugging him. The wind ruffled his
collar, blew his hood away from his head. Mechanically, he reached behind and
replaced it again. Slowly, he turned around, turned away from me and stared out
to sea, stared at the indistinct horizon, the grey foam-topped waves and the
grey skies bulging with an approaching storm.
The night before wed left to come to the
island, Id stayed in his flat for the first time. It was a small place,
three rooms in a hospital accommodation building. The furniture looked like it
had also been supplied by the hospital, neutral colours and cheap cushions,
functional and bland and as beige as the walls. He had nurse uniforms hanging
from doorways, from the doors of his wardrobe, from a kitchen cupboard, and
hed let me sleep with him in his bed.
We have to be up early, hed explained. But Im
used to that. Im always up early for my job. Some shifts start at
stupid-o-clock. I hope you understand that I cant stay up too
wouldnt you know, I hadnt been able to sleep at all well. Perhaps
it was the excitement of being with him, or being in a different environment,
or the apparent tedium of the chore ahead of us, or maybe it was just the big
black coffee Id had before wed retired for the night, but I just
couldnt sleep. I could feel his body next to me in the bed, so pristine
and wonderful and yet I felt there was a barrier between us, in spite of the
fun wed had in the cocktail bar and the laughter and the poor lighting
and the stuffed owls.
Id got up and gone wandering around his flat. His ID lanyard was on the
coffee table. His backpack was near the door. There was nothing else in the
place that hinted that he had any real personality at all. No books, no DVDs,
no posters on the wall, nothing. I then leaned on the windowsill and looked out
at the other flats arranged around a central courtyard, some of whose windows
were lit, and I could just make out student nurses studying at desks, watching
televisions, just getting on with things. And I counted how many people I could
see. Five, six, seven. Seven individuals, seven lone healthcare professionals
navigating their way through life, these blocks of flats and apartments just a
staging post, a temporary halt on the way through.
next morning wed got up early and caught the bus to the port, where the
charitys chartered boat was waiting to take us to the island. Id
pointed to a gull and hed said that it was a regular gull. Shall I
count it anyway?, Id asked.
No, hed replied.
The thing is, he said, turning
back to me. The thing is, I just dont think were right for
But weve had such fun!
sun was going down at a rapid rate. He ducked to avoid a swooping gull. We were
both getting covered in a modest sprinkling of guano, which came in at crazy
I just dont think were right for each other, he
seagull shit, slanting in like warm snow.
to lay my hand on his. But then we both had to duck to avoid a swooping
That one was close.
It was, he replied.
Theyre bastards, arent they?
Yes, he said. Yes, they are.
I mean, this conversation . . Should we really . . I mean, cant we
wait until were . ..
I look at couples, he said, and what it is that makes them a
success, and . ..
Another tide of guano.
Ah, jeez, I said, some of it went in my mouth.
And if theres one thing which they all . . Hang on . . Which they
all have in common, is . . Hang on . ..
then began to spit.
Horrible, isnt it?
Tastes a bit like rotten fish.
then had to duck to avoid a swooping gull.
The one thing they all have in common is . . For goodness sake!
Another veritable wave of saddleback guano hit the both of us. Some of it was
dripping from the front of my hood. His yellow raincoat was starting to look
The one thing they all have in common is that they have different
interests which . . .
both had to duck to avoid two swooping gulls.
Different interests which . . GAH!
saddleback gull suddenly swooped down and flapped around between us, flapping
our faces with its wings and pecking the top of his head like it was a nut
which it was trying to crack.
Get it off! Get it off!, he yelled.
flailed my arms and the thing started pecking at me. But then came a wave of
seagull guano so voluminous that it managed to frighten it away. It was coming
from all directions, aimed squarely by a flock of gulls which circled and
yakked above us, angrily and obviously intent on getting us out of the way.
So anyway, he yelled, above the noise of the wind which had
suddenly got louder, joined by hailstones now being flung from the angry sky.
And the seagulls were flocking above us, their angry cries being carried by the
wind. So anyway, Ive decided that perhaps its best if .
Aiiiyeeeek! Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk!
more seagulls swooped down. Another wave of guano. The hailstones crashed and
thwacked around us, bouncing up from the tufty grass.
For gods sake!, he yelled, Lets just go back to
the accommodation block.
It was good to be out of the firing line. The
other counters were there, too. We took off our yellow macks and handed them to
someone who rolled them up and put them in a big tub, presumably to be sent
somewhere to be washed. We went over to Daphne, who was sitting behind a desk
in the middle of the accommodation block.
How many from your sector, lads?, she asked.
Five, Nurse Matt replied.
One up on last year, she said. Well done. Thanks for your
on comfy chairs in the corner and drank coffee from mugs. We could hear the
hail subsiding as it hit the corrugated iron roof of the accommodation block,
its tinny roar lessening in intensity until it was just the sheen of persistent
rain. We drank the coffee, and sighed, and relaxed, and he said that we had a
boat to catch later that evening which would take us back to the mainland, but
then he would have to get up early because he had work the next morning. And I
said Id probably need to use the shower and he said that this was okay