Seagulls. It was beginning to seem as if their population was increasing exponentially. This was the third time in under a week that I'd been awakened in the wee small hours by their strange, harsh noises. And believe me these some of these noises were very strange indeed. Despite the fact that the night was still dark, they started up every day at 4am, regular as clockwork, and began to... to... To be honest I couldn't say exactly what they were doing. Lying there in the darkness, my mind phasing in and out of a light-headed semiconscious state, I resigned myself to having to endure yet another of what in recent days had often started to sound like performances of some kind.
This morning it started like an argument - two gulls exchanging guttural insults. However at one point one of them obviously scored a point of some sort as its pronouncement was greeted by a chorus of raucous shrieks and calls from what sounded like a considerable audience... Just what was this? A play? A trial? Seagull parliament? As I gradually drifted off to sleep again I started to be bombarded with bizarre hypnogogic images of seagulls in court, wigs, gowns and all, the authentic cries from the outside world providing a soundtrack to what was in danger of turning into a very odd dream...
It could only have been a couple of hours later that I was stumbling around the flat attempting to wake up and face Monday morning and the prospect of another week at work. As I lowered myself gingerly into a hot bath, experiencing the bizarre melancholy this always produced in me (something I'd dubbed "bath sadness"), I found myself thinking of Jenni - she hadn't called last night. I knew that she'd been up in London during the day, rehearsing with the band in which she played bass guitar, and sometimes she got back so late - thanks to the engineering works that had seemingly dogged the London to Brighton line since time immemorial – that she went straight to bed. Still, not having received even a text message from her was enough to start my natural anxiety working overtime.
We'd been seeing each other for over four months now and in all that time she'd never once given me any indication that she was unhappy with the relationship - but what if she was hiding something? As I got out of the bath and towelled myself off I was shocked to find myself entertaining the suspicion that she'd been travelling to London for another reason – an extra boyfriend perhaps? It certainly seemed to have been a while since her band had played any gigs...
No, this was ridiculous, I decided, stumbling sleepily into the kitchen filling the kettle and switching it on. She had obviously got back late and gone to bed. And maybe the credit on her mobile phone had run out. I walked out onto the balcony, despite the chilly morning.
The view was, as always, magnificent. I was fortunate enough to live in a flat on one of the upper floors of Sussex Heights, the tallest building in Brighton, the windows of which commanded unparalleled panoramas of the surrounding area - and not just, as Jenni was fond of pointing out, because it was the only place in Brighton and Hove from which the view wasn't spoilt by the unattractive intrusion of Sussex Heights onto the cityscape.
Although she had a point.
From my eyrie I had a fine view west, towards Worthing, but more importantly towards Regency Square and in particular Astra House on the corner of Preston Street and the seafront. Astra House, where Jenni rented a small studio flat. I more or less knew which windows belonged to her; when we'd first started seeing each other we'd indulged in a number of juvenile games sending messages to each other in Morse code by switching the lights in our respective flats on and off - the main stumbling block being that neither of us actually knew Morse code.
At this time in the morning it was impossible to tell if she was in or not; the lights were off but seeing as she only worked part time it was entirely reasonable to assume that she was still asleep. I wandered back into the kitchen, assembled my meager breakfast of toast and coffee, and meandered back out onto the balcony.
A young seagull, caught in the act of alighting on the parapet, gave me an anxious, guilty look. Not taking its eyes off me it shuffled sideways, putting a few more inches of rail between it and me. It glanced down at Regency Square, for all the world as if wondering whether to try this new flying business again. Despite being fully the size of an adult, the young gull still sported its freckled infant plumage, its eyes still dark brown - in some ways more attractive than the mad yellow eyes it would develop as an adult.
"So, what was all that about then?" I asked it, referring to the noisy routine earlier on. Decidedly alarmed by this turn of events, the young gull flapped its wings unsteadily. Perhaps it didn't know.
"Ak-ak-ak!" it remarked warily. Almost without thinking I tore off a small piece of toast and tossed it towards the gull. With a surprised look it dropped down onto the balcony floor and assaulted the fragment of toast, obviously anxious to wolf it down before I changed my mind.
Glancing at my watch, I walked back inside; as usual it was taking me far longer to get up and out of the flat than it should. Picking up my shoulder bag, I hurried out, noticing as I shut the door that the seagull was still standing on the balcony, looking in at me.
The day had passed very slowly, the not-hearing-from-Jenni situation making it very hard for me to concentrate. I had texted her once, mid-morning, but had yet to hear anything back. The afternoon dragged unreasonably and it was with no small relief that at 5.30pm I left the office and walked back along the seafront towards home.
It was a pleasant enough afternoon - cold but clear, but somehow this just made things worse. The still small voice of reason at the back of my mind was being completely drowned out by the paranoid ramblings of insecurity, now working overtime. For the hundredth time I pulled my phone out of my pocket just to check whether Jenni had returned my text message. Of course she hadn't.
By the time I arrived back at my flat I was really beginning to feel in need of a stiff drink, and more than a little irritated to discover that I was out of alcohol. I dithered, uncertain as to what to do. I could always go to the off licence; the nearest one was in Preston Street, and who knows, perhaps I'd run into Jenni? Then again perhaps that wasn't such a good idea. If she was avoiding me she might think I was stalking her or something. Or what if she tried to call my landline when I was out at the shops? The answer phone was broken.
Oh, this was ridiculous. I peered out of the kitchen window towards Astra House. A few of the windows on its east facing side were now lit, but not Jenni's. Had she even returned from London at all?
Tap tap tap.
I jumped, startled, and cautiously made my way back into the living room from whence the noise had come. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I hadn't yet switched the light on, but the setting sun gave the room a warm, crimson glow.
Tap tap tap.
It was coming from the balcony. Hair beginning to rise on the back of my neck, I slowly turned around. Outside on the balcony stood the young seagull from that morning, looking directly at me. Catching my eye, it leaned forward and let out a long plaintive whistle before straightening up and regarding me again. I smiled. No fool, that bird. It had identified a source of free food and was coming back to try again.
I suppose I must have been a bit of a soft touch, for almost without hesitation I fetched a slice of bread from the kitchen, opened the balcony door and tossed it to the gull, which fell upon it with more enthusiasm than skill. Stepping around my new friend I walked out on to the balcony myself, and leant on the rail, staring out into space.
It was still a beautiful evening, the Sun only now beginning to disappear behind the horizon, its reflection a rippling red stain on the water. Above the shattered skeletal wreck of the West Pier a large flock of starlings swooped and circled, appearing to be not so much a group of individuals but more a strange, amorphous thing with its own unknowable agenda. I glanced down at Astra House again. Most of the lights were on now, except for those from one particular flat. Jenni's.
I'd had enough. Leaving the gull to its feast, I headed past it, through the flat and out. I was going to the pub.
My choice of watering hole wasn't made at random; the Quadrant Freehouse by the Clocktower was one of my regular haunts, and also somewhere Jenni sometimes worked behind the bar on the occasional evening. I suppose subconsciously I may have been hoping that she might be there, but basically the decision to go there had been made more out of habit than logic. It was a familiar, friendly place.
As I entered the bar I remembered, relieved, that it was Monday evening, and therefore not too crowded. One of the barmen, the tall dark-haired one, looked up and smiled, recognising me.
"Hi Steve," he said, "All right? Red not with you?" As usual, I found his over-familiar use of Jenni's nickname a little irritating, but smiled back anyway.
"No," I said, "Haven't seen her since Sunday morning. I was hoping she'd be here."
"So was I, mate," he said, "She was supposed to be working tonight. I've had to pull a double shift. Been calling her all day. No answer."
The news hit me in an odd way - on the one hand I was glad to hear that it wasn't just with regard to me that Jenni was incommunicado. On the other, a much bigger, darker worry settled into my brain, casually turfing out the chattering relationship-anxiety I'd been listening to up until then, and starting to whisper its own sinister thoughts to me. I was now beginning to worry for Jenni's safety. Not quite sure what to do, I bought a pint and sat down, my mind in turmoil.
I closed my eyes, tireder than I'd realized. Jenni's sharp-featured face swam up at me out of the darkness, wide, dark eyes, short red spiky hair. In my current state it was almost more than I could bear and so I opened my eyes again.
INCREASE IN MISSING PERSON CASES.
A man sitting across from me was avidly scouring the sports page of the Argus with vapid enjoyment, but it was the headline on the front page that held my attention and turned my apprehension up a notch. I remembered now, there'd been a piece on the local news the previous week, something to do with the local crime figures having just been published. Amongst the other statistics, both good and bad, it seemed that in recent months there'd been a slight rise in the number of people who'd just disappeared without trace. This was the last thing I wanted to think about now. I drained the bulk of my pint in one and staggered up to the bar for another in short order.
It was now ten past eleven, and I'd lost count of exactly how many pints I'd had. It had been a reasonable enough evening; after a while the rubber hammer of alcohol had bludgeoned my mounting unease back down to a manageable level, and I'd enjoyed a few superficial chats about diverse subjects with some of the regulars, the volume of my voice rising as its coherence had fallen. Now all I wanted was to sleep. Perhaps after something to eat. I left the pub and propelled myself off across towards Churchill Square, and the short cut home through Russell Square, stumbling occasionally and muttering at lamp-posts. It wasn't until I finally lurched into my flat that I realised just how drunk I was. The night air had temporarily sobered me up, now, back in the sanctuary of my flat my body relaxed again, succumbing to five minutes of suppressed staggering.
Hungry as I was, there was very little in the kitchen I could actually eat; I was far too lazy to actually cook something, which left bread as my only option. And so it turned out that I ended the day as I had begun it, standing woozily on the balcony, staring down at the darkened windows of Jenni's flat and eating toast. Eventually I realised that I'd been standing there for quite long enough and turned back to the interior of my flat. I walked quickly but unsteadily through into the bedroom, turned out the light, undressed messily and collapsed onto the bed, which quickly spun me away into oblivion.
I had no idea what time it was, and barely knew where. All I could think of was the vicious pain behind my eyes and in my neck. Burying my face in the pillow did no good. I twisted and turned trying to get comfortable, but the throbbing was relentless. Eventually I pulled myself upright, and, vaguely remembering the layout of my flat, made my way over to the bathroom under cover of darkness - I had no desire to turn on the light and submit my head to any more suffering. Fumbling around in the bathroom cabinet, dropping a couple of unidentified objects in the process, I eventually discovered that I had only two painkillers left. They would have to do. Swiftly downing them with a swig of water, I lurched back to bed and lay down.
Now of course the oblivion of unconsciousness cruelly eluded me, and the pills didn't really seem to be doing much good either. My worries about Jenni's disappearance leapt forward into sharp relief at the front of my brain. The lack of solid information, the not knowing, it was unbearable, it was worse than the headache. A million malevolent scenarios played out before my horrified mind's eye, every one more disturbing than the last. Eventually consciousness was replaced by a nightmarish fugue state, in which my fears were almost made flesh and the momentary relief at suddenly remembering that in fact it wasn't real was tempered by the fact that it could be?
A cold, calm rationality gripped me as my mind surfaced to reality once more. Something was missing, and I realised with relief that the headache had finally gone. I opened my eyes and in the darkness the ceiling seemed to be moving ever so slightly, shifting, sliding, pulsating, the after effects of the trance state I'd been in. A few seagull cries sounded mournfully in the distance. Was it that time already? Somehow, without seeming to cross the intervening space, I became aware that I was now standing in the bedroom doorway, looking out into the moonlit living room. Still the vague hallucinations persisted, this time it was the shadows that were almost alive, changing shape at the periphery of my vision, making the room feel somehow crowded, expectant.
I walked out onto the balcony, barely feeling the extreme early morning chill. High in the sky a backwards moon rode maniacally behind a few scraps of scudding cloud. I closed my eyes and turned my head upwards, feeling refreshed and renewed.
After an indeterminate amount of time (it felt like a few minutes but something makes me think that it could have been as long as half an hour) I opened my eyes again. The sky was now almost imperceptibly lighter, the manic moon a little lower in the sky. A few seagulls, tiny luminescent white specks against the night sky, soared steadily across my field of vision. In some indefinable way I felt as if something within me had been healed. Not only had my alcohol-induced headache gone, but I felt a calm composure within me. So I hadn't heard from Jenni for over forty-eight hours. There was bound to be a rational, acceptable explanation. All I had to do was wait for it.
I turned around, preparing to go back inside, back to bed for what little remained of the night, and was surprised to see that I had a visitor. The young gull from earlier that day was standing in between me and the balcony door, looking up at me with an unfathomable expression. I looked back at it, nonplussed.
It tilted its head to one side, but didn't make any moves to avoid me as I slowly began walking towards it. There was something unnervingly familiar about it, something much more than the fact that I'd encountered it a couple of times earlier over the past day. My head span...
hop eagerly towards her it becomes obvious that it's jenni... i've found her at last; pleased to see each other we touch beaks and then as one spread our wings and hop up onto the balcony rail... below us all human meaning drains out of the cityscape as it becomes instead an exciting, exotic terrain of shapes, sights and smells, the sea, the land, the sky... we leap forward and launch ourselves joyfully out into our new three dimensional world, climbing ever higher above the lights, the rocks, the waves, the air itself an almost visible fluid through which we nonchalantly negotiate our flight path, sliding easily across the cold sky currents, higher still we climb, the world revealing more and more of itself beneath us, until eventually we're alone, swiftly soaring away together beneath the dark blue dome of the brightening sky.