The Boat


The old man was talking to an empty bird cage.

He was sitting in the window of his cottage, looking out to sea. I think that he was telling the cage a story about one of his grandchildren.

'A very nice cage,' I began. In fact, it was a rough wooden thing: bars made of bamboo, hanging on a hook by a piece of string. It was so ancient I wondered that it had not been eaten away by woodworm.

'Years and years ago', he said, 'I bought it at a fare. The annual fare, you know. Old fares of that sort don't happen any more. Too many shops, I suppose, and anyway the old travelling folk have disappeared.

'I was eleven years old. That makes it nearly eighty years ago.

'I got the cage off an old travelling man. It had a very beautiful bird in it, with bright red feathers. Bigger than your usual caged birds, but not big enough to be a parrot or a cockatoo.

' 'It's a talking bird,' explained the traveller. 'But it will only ever talk to one person. It chooses a special child. Would you like to be that child?'

' 'I don't think I can afford to buy him,' I said.

' 'Give me whatever you can afford.' said the gipsey.

'I had only had three coins: two brown ones, and one silver, so old that it had a picture of the queen, not the king on it. I handed him the two coppers, uncertainly.

' 'That's all I've got.'

' 'He's yours,' said the Gipsey

'I took the bird home. I was always vaguely worried that I would get into trouble when I had bought something: that my mother would tell me off for wasting my money, or think that I must have stolen it. But she just said 'That is certainly a pretty bird? Did you find it at the fare? Well, make sure you feed it, it's a big responsibility owning a pet.' I fed in on seed and oatmeal and bits of fish, and it always seemed quite happy. I sometimes opened the little door to its cage, and let it fly around the room.

'But it never talked.

'It did make sounds: strange sound, not like anything that I had heard a bird make before. At first, I thought that was trying to talk; but if it was, the words were gibberish. I tried to teach it to speak: I used to sit, talking to it for hours on end; hoping that it would pick up some word or other and repeat it back at me. But it never did. Sometimes it would lean forward, and look at me, as if it was about to say something.

'I never quite gave up. You probably won't believe me, but I sometimes still talk to that empty cage even now. Old habits die very hard.

' 'I swear,' my wife used to say to me, 'Sometime I think you care more about that damned bird than you do about me.'

' 'Hush,' I would say, 'He might hear you.'

'My eldest son visited me last year, to show me my first great-grandson. He wanted to show the baby to the bird. He was sorry to see that it was gone.'

'Well, I'm afraid animals do die.' I said 'Its a fact of life. But there aren't many people lucky enough to have their childhood pets with them in their old age.'

'Oh, but it didn't die,' said the old man.

'Surely an eighty year old bird didn't just fly off,' I said.

'Oh no,' said the old man. 'It was a little fishing boat, that came ashore' he gestured out of his window 'just over there. A strange boat, with red sails. I climbed down to the beach to see whose it was. I was a good deal more sprightly then, you must understand.

'There was only one person on board the ship: a child, not more than ten or eleven years old, wearing a red tunic, the same colour as the sail of his boat.

'I greeted him; asked him if he was all right; welcomed him to our town. I asked him what became of the rest of the crew? Should I send for a life boat?

'He answered me, calmly, in a foreign language. 'I did not understand his words: but I had heard words like them before.

'I took him back to my house, and showed him the bird. He said something to the animal: a greeting, maybe. It answered him. There was a moment of silence, as they both looked at each other in complere amazement. Then, they started to talk. Their conversation went on for hours.

'The boy left, back to his ship. The bird was silent for the rest of the night.

'I knew, of course, what I had to do.

'Once it was light, I hurried down onto the beach, with the bird in its cage, and gestured to the boy that he was to take it. He looked doubtful. I pressed it to him.

'He opened the door of the cage; the bird waddled out, and climbed up onto his arm. He stroked its head.

'The boy looked gratefully at me, and reached into the pockets of his tunic.

'He handed me something: a gift in return for my bird.

'It was an old silver coin with a picture of the king, not the queen on it.'