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Nurse Matt and the Saddleback Gulls
by Robert Garnham



‘They’ll come for you’, Daphne was saying. Daphne was the Lead Counter. ‘They really will. They’re bastards like that. They don’t understand, of course, that we’re here to protect them. They see us as predators. They think we’re after their eggs, and this kind of natural reflex kicks in. It’s all been thoroughly risk assessed’.

We 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 don’t 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 anyone’s guess. They gave him antibiotics’.

We 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 don’t, whatever you do, don’t go and stand on one of their nests. It happens every year, and honestly, it’s 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.

The 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.

I rather liked Nurse Matt.

I called Nurse Matt Nurse Matt because his name was Matthew,

‘This is exciting, isn’t it?’, he said, turning to me and grinning as Daphne delivered her pep talk. Or as she liked to call it, her peck talk.

He looked shapeless beneath his yellow waterproof jacket. I wanted to grab his hand and interlace my fingers with his, but it didn’t feel right. The act of counting the gulls was pious, serious business. It would have looked like we weren’t fully attuned to the devotion necessary to count these bloody gulls.

‘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!’

The 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 we’re going?’, I asked.

‘Of course’, he replied.

He’s a nurse, I told myself. His whole job is putting people at their ease. Well, not his whole job, there’s probably much more to it than that. But it’s 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 don’t we all die, eventually? Even love?

The 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 sector’.

We’d 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 I’d 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 couldn’t go because I had such a bad neck. A few nights later we’d gone for drinks in a bar with poor lighting, decorated with stuffed owls which loomed and stared out from the gloom, and I’d told him that I didn’t really like birds. He’d 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 person’s private psychology, and I’d replied that I’d meant the flying kind. We both laughed, and I plucked a feather out of my cocktail, and we clinked glasses.

He’d then suggested that we go away somewhere, to a private island, and I’d blurted yes, yes, oh yes, that I was ever so keen to spend some time with him, and he’s said, ‘Let me finish’, and added that we’d go to this private island and count the eggs of the saddleback gull. I thought that this had been a euphemism and I’d 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 wasn’t a euphemism after all.

But I’d still said yes, because it meant time alone with Nurse Matt. Or so I thought.

The 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.

‘It’s great to have a shared passion’, I agreed.

Nurse Matt opined that we had to have a methodical approach to counting the nests. The scattergun method was not one that he recommended.

‘There’s one’, I kept saying. ‘And another. And there’s another one, that’s three. Three so far, Nurse Matt!’

‘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’.

I was quiet for a couple of seconds.

‘There’s another’, I whispered, pointing.

He ducked to avoid another swooping gull.

‘We’ll get to the cliff edge and then we’ll start in earnest’, he said.

‘But what about the ones I’ve already counted?’

‘We’ll count those when we get to them’.

‘There’s another one over there’.

I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t written down any of the nests I’d seen so far. He seemed pretty insistent that we should adopt his hypothetical grid system. Perhaps, I told myself, perhaps this was our first row.

‘Is this our first row?’, I asked.

We were now walking towards the cliff edge, where the wind ruffled the tufts contrasted against the grey of the angry sea.

He didn’t say anything. He merely ducked to avoid yet another swooping gull.

‘I said, is this our first row?’, I yelled, against the force of the wind.

‘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 you’ve already counted.’

It was the first time that I’d 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. ‘Let’s do this’.


We counted all morning and I was very careful to adhere to his hypothetical grid method. By the end of the morning we’d counted five nests in our sector, and then we counted again in the afternoon just to make sure that we hadn’t 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 I’d probably become pretty blasé about it.

But it 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.

By the end of the afternoon, we had a final tally.

‘Five nests’, he said.

By now the sky was darkening and the sun was beginning to set.

‘Are we going to make our way back to the accommodation block?’, I asked.

But then he stopped. He stood still. He didn’t say anything.

It had actually been quite fun, counting, but it did feel good to be standing upright. And perhaps, I thought, perhaps he’s just enjoying the sensation of standing upright.

‘What do you reckon?’, I asked.

He didn’t 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 block?’

Middle 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 we’d left to come to the island, I’d 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 he’d let me sleep with him in his bed.

‘We have to be up early’, he’d explained. ‘But I’m used to that. I’m always up early for my job. Some shifts start at stupid-o-clock. I hope you understand that I can’t stay up too late’.

And wouldn’t you know, I hadn’t 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 I’d had before we’d retired for the night, but I just couldn’t 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 we’d had in the cocktail bar and the laughter and the poor lighting and the stuffed owls.

I’d 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.

The next morning we’d got up early and caught the bus to the port, where the charity’s chartered boat was waiting to take us to the island. I’d pointed to a gull and he’d said that it was a regular gull. ‘Shall I count it anyway?’, I’d asked.

‘No’, he’d replied.


‘The thing is’, he said, turning back to me. ‘The thing is, I just don’t think we’re right for each other’.

‘But we’ve had such fun!’

The 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 angles.

‘I just don’t think we’re right for each other’, he repeated.

More seagull shit, slanting in like warm snow.

I went to lay my hand on his. But then we both had to duck to avoid a swooping gull.

‘That one was close’.

‘It was’, he replied.

‘They’re bastards, aren’t they?’

‘Yes’, he said. ‘Yes, they are’.

‘I mean, this conversation . . Should we really . . I mean, can’t we wait until we’re . .’.

‘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 there’s one thing which they all . . Hang on . . Which they all have in common, is . . Hang on . .’.

He then began to spit.

‘Puh! Puh!’

‘Horrible, isn’t it?’

‘Tastes a bit like rotten fish’.

He 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 white.

‘The one thing they all have in common is that they have different interests which . . ‘.

We both had to duck to avoid two swooping gulls.

‘Different interests which . .  GAH!’

A 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.

I 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, I’ve decided that perhaps it’s best if . .’.

Aiiiyeeeek! Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk!

Two more seagulls swooped down. Another wave of guano. The hailstones crashed and thwacked around us, bouncing up from the tufty grass.

‘For god’s sake!’, he yelled, ‘Let’s 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 good work’.

We sat 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 I’d probably need to use the shower and he said that this was okay with him.




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