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The bird catcher (revised)

by M Farquharson 

Posted: 21 June 2012
Word Count: 3191
Summary: Second version of the story, lots of changes, hopefully addressing the problems mentioned. apologies for the length, comments gratefully received.

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The Bird Catcher

At the sound of the announcement, there was a quiet shuffling on the platform. I could feel the tremble of the train before it appeared, python-like, growing fat and then sliding towards the platform with a hiss. To avoid the rain, people walked quickly towards the electric doors, but for some reason I hesitated in front of a carriage, peering at a woman who was looking out of the window.
I got into the carriage and sat down, a few seats away from the woman. I placed my wet newspaper on the table and tried to relax into a state of numbed isolation. It was impossible so, once the train picked up speed, I decided to go for a coffee.
As I walked along the aisle, the train lurched to the left and I was thrown towards the woman; I didn’t look into her mottled grey eyes, but mumbled: “forgive me,” straightened up and walked quickly towards the door, almost tripping over a violin case that protruded from the luggage racks. In the buffet car, I ordered a brandy with my coffee and then sat down by the window, watching the rain jitter down the glass in nervous streams.
For the past 30 years I’d been rehearsing this moment, but nothing had prepared me for such a clumsy encounter, or for the possibility that she might not even recognize me.
The last time I’d seen her it’d also been raining, although that day it had rained much harder: dark shots from a bruised sky. The rain had come suddenly, unexpectedly, banging down on our heads, pummeling us into the water that tasted of salt and was suddenly cold.
It had been her birthday – it was 1982, so she must have just turned 23 -- and I’d spent all my money on a bright yellow catamaran. But I’d named it, ‘Bird catcher’ and she’d said that wasn’t funny. I probably looked disappointed because she then suggested we take the boat for a trial run across the bay.
“It’s late, Julia, and we don’t have life-jackets.”
“Just a few minutes, we won’t leave the bay.”
We left our things in the boatshed and hauled the cat across the beach and into the water, just as the other boats were heading for shore.
Despite our ignorance, we’d advanced quite comfortably. I sat at the back with the rudder and the main sail watching her trail a long white arm through the water.
“Hey, look how dark the sky is over there,” just as she spoke, the wind picked up and one of the yellow hulls lifted us five feet out of the water, while the other one rush-cut through the sea like an electric knife. She shouted my name and gave a small scream as the boat took us flying out of the bay.
In response, I shouted at Julia across the wind: “Stand up; right on the edge. That’s it. Don’t let go.” With only the rope sustaining her, she was riding horizontally above the waves. “It’s like galloping bareback,” she shouted.
The waves were losing their innocence more quickly than we were. Far from the clubs and bars and colonial chit-chat she hated, we were king and queen of the sea. It was like discovering sex, sleeping close together in a single bed, watching Match of the Day and then reading poetry. I would hold onto her all night, afraid to wake up and find she wasn’t there.
My pleasure was broken by a loud thwack as the wind toppled the boat and we were both chucked into the sea. Our triumph had been short-lived. The upturned hulls had lost their streamlined elegance and now looked like a pair of wet bananas.
Rain was drilling into my face and I could hardly see. Julia was laughing but I’d realized how far out We’d been carried, and had no idea how we’d make it back. She put her arm around my shoulder.
“Don’t,” I said to her. “Just pull,” She tried, but we weren’t getting anywhere. As we grew more tired, my frustration turned to anger.
The sky had darkened, a wind from somewhere was howling and there were flashes of lightening. I looked around for other fools like us, but there were no sailing boats or surf boards in sight, just a wooden fishing boat, with a putt-putt engine, heading for home. The fishermen passed right in front of us but they were busy strapping boxes to the deck, so they didn’t hear us shouting at them from the water.
“Let’s rest; just a minute.” She held onto one of the hulls, facing out towards the channel that separated Hong Kong from China. Behind us was a forest of lights from blocks of flats, roads carved out of the rock, factories, warehouses, a racecourse and glass wall towers, built on land that had been reclaimed from the sea. In front was China, an enormous expanse of undeveloped land with no sign of life at all. The dark green hills were a heavy, anonymous presence, behind the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. China was another world, something you looked at briefly before closing the window and turning on the air-conditioning. Curious travelers were just beginning to visit China after the Cultural Revolution, but they were few and far between.
“People who swim across from China; what happens if they get caught?”
“I don’t know, Julia, I suppose they get sent back.”
She turned on me. “What do you mean you don’t know? You’re a journalist.”
“Yes, but it’s not my beat.”
“Your beat.”
I grabbed the rope and concentrated on pulling the Bird Catcher out of her watery grave.
Julia was holding the rope but she wasn’t helping. She was watching the sky. As if in response to my comment, China no longer existed. Behind us was the island of fairy lights and in front a solid black wall that was moving towards us.
Julia had let go of the rope and, within seconds, she’d been pulled by the current at least ten yards away from the boat. She was a much stronger swimmer than me, so I knew she’d be alright. I kept pulling on the rope, not realising you have to angle the stern right into the wind so the sails aren’t weighed down by water. I had no idea how to right the catamaran and no one to help. I played rugby and was supposed to be strong. I pulled and pulled but the boat wouldn’t budge. Damn it. With only half an eye, I noticed that Julia was now just a little blob about 20 yards away. What was she doing? Why didn’t she swim towards me? It was a very Julia-way of chastising me for moving to Hong Kong and-- worse still—for liking it.
I hadn’t forced her to join me. It was her decision. In fact, I’d thought everything was over between us and had been working out here for six months when she announced she’d given up her place on the orchestra, was taking a train from Victoria Station and would travel across Siberia on her own.
“Didn’t you have enough money for an air-ticket?” my secretary had asked her the night after she’d arrived. I turned away in dread of Julia’s response. She hadn’t said anything, but I’d felt my loyalties divided between her elegant arrogance and the innocence of the other girl.
A week after arriving, Julia had enrolled for Chinese classes, “but everyone here speaks English,” another of my friends had commented. She’d recently contacted a group of musicians who were experimenting with a new repertoire for Chinese classical instruments. She was talented and motivated enough to make it here; why was she so depressed then, mooching around in supercilious abnegation? I wished she’d relax a bit.
By now she was almost out of view. I knew I should to join her but was reluctant to abandon the boat I’d bought at such expense the day before. I went on pulling, but the hulls wouldn’t budge, so I dropped the rope and swam towards her. When I reached her, she stopped struggling against the water.
“Why are you so angry?” I heard her ask me.
“Who? Me?” I spluttered, treading water before a wave covered my head. When I came up coughing, I looked behind me. The catamaran was just a distant yellow speck.
“It’s only a boat.”
“It cost me everything I have.”
This was not a good time for an argument. We needed to keep our mouths shut and guard our strength to avoid being defeated by the sea. If Julia hadn’t refused the invitation, we could’ve been playing cards at my friend’s beach house, enjoying a view of the rain from the comfort of his sitting room. I imagined Men At Work on the stereo and a plate full of curry puffs.
This island was a young man’s paradise and hell for a gentlewoman who wanted to play Brahms in an oak-paneled sitting room. Her decision to come here had surprised me. She was First Violin, I was always at the back, near the fire exit. She took the bows, I was just a musical bureaucrat, but young enough to walk away when I sensed I wasn’t wanted. I’d found a job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, then moved quickly to the local rag, swapping minor percussions for a bit of space on the back pages. I reveled in my new identity. Apparently I was ‘cute’ and ‘funny’ and ‘single’. But then she’d bought a train ticket across the Soviet Union, the year that the United States had boycotted the Moscow Olympics. somewhere between Moscow and Omsk, she’d befriended a Soviet soldier en route to Afghanistan and expected me not to mind.
Julia looked like a half-drowned rat, but swam like an otter.
“Chris… what’s happened to you?” Only Julia would ask a question like that, treading water in the middle of a raging tropical storm. I’m just a normal guy, I would have answered her, an overpaid reporter who’s having fun in the Far East, playing cricket between high rise buildings, enjoying the parties, the bars and the hostesses; is there anything wrong with that? I wanted her to know that I loved the power-house energy of the business district and the chaos of Wanchai. Give me summer sweat, the rattle of a tram, the hiss of a newly opened bottle of San Miguel and I’d give you the Academy of Ancient Music, any time.
But, it wasn’t the moment for a conversation now, alone, with all this black sea swirling around us. There were no racing yachts or water-skiers, just the two of us; she with her head full of music and Soviet soldiers (I thought she hated soldiers) and me wondering if I’d get out of this mess in time to make the party.
I looked out towards the fragile line of lights that marked the shore. Behind the bay was the block of flats where we lived. I guessed it would be too far to swim, even on a calm day. Riding the top of a wave, I saw a light in the distance which might possibly be a police boat scanning the waters for migrants. The boat had stopped. Either they’d found someone or they were circling around ‘The Bird Catcher’ looking for us.
We were 100 yards away, but the light was strong and the boat would find us soon.
“We’re going to be o.k.,” I shouted to Julia, and had begun to swim in the general direction of the police boat when I heard a scream. It was a piercing, terrifying sound. I swam back to Julia’s side and saw that she was spluttering; about to go under. I saw real terror in her face, as if she’d sensed her own death.
“What? What is it?” I shouted the question with a strength that surprised me. With a flailing arm, she pointed to her left. I could just about see something floating, blobbing angrily on the black surface. “What?” I was screaming at her now.
There was a crash of thunder and almost immediately a crack and a bright light forked through the sky. In a split second, I saw a lump of wood, or something, floating to Julia’s left. I pulled her towards me but she wouldn’t come. I pulled her again until I felt her resistance would kill us both.
“Did it hit you?”
“No,” she shouted.
“Come on, then”
I watched as she approached the lump of wood and held onto it as if it was a child.
“Oh, God,” it was a complaint, a primeval call from her entrails.
“Julia, what are you doing?” Against my will, I felt a surge of anger against this stubborn woman who could never do anything the normal way, who made a point of always being different. I wanted a cold beer and a Chinese pancake with crispy duck brushed with hoisin sauce and curls of spring onion. I wanted my secretary, yes, I did, her soft simplicity, her love of the immediate; her love of me.
She thrust the piece of wood towards me. “Look, I think there’s a violin inside.”
“Julia, let it go. It’s not yours.” I spoke to her like a child, trying to snap her out of madness. I couldn’t see her face but could imagine the expression.
I found the current pulling me away from Julia and the ugly bulk of wood that I didn’t want to see. “Let it go,” I screamed at her. She reached out and scratched my arm with her nails. It was accidental but it stung.
I looked towards the search light that seemed to be moving in our direction.
“Julia,” it was hard to be gentle, but I was trying. “Just leave it. You’ve got your own violin. Look, the police boat is heading this way. They’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“No,” she yelled across a wave. “I’m not going with you.
“Chris,” now she sounded very strange, “Promise you‘ll say you were alone.”
I turned round towards the shore, calculating distances. I looked at her and the lump of God’s knows what by her side. She was tired and hysterical. I grabbed her arm and tried to pull her towards me, but she resisted.
“I don’t want … to go with you.”
“I’m not leaving you here.”
I began to wave my arm frantically so that the police boat would catch us in its search-lights. When I heard the rumble of the engine, I turned towards Julia, “They’re coming for us.”
In the darkness I couldn’t see her. I stretched out my hand but couldn’t feel her.
“Julia…” She didn’t reply. Damn her and her stubborn independence. As the boat came closer, I splashed around in the darkness as if I couldn’t swim.
The police boat stopped. An officer threw out a rope with a tyre on the end, I grabbed it and he pulled me towards the moving boat. “Any others?” The search lights were scanning the water and I expected to hear a shout, but there was nothing. “Are you alone?”
I didn’t look back. “That’s mine,” I said, pointing at the catamaran trailing behind his boat. He hauled me up onto the deck. I felt like a child in an adult’s body. As he handed me a damp towel he told me they’d been looking for aliens swimming across from China. They’d already found two bodies, drowned in the storm, and he expected there would be more. “Musicians?” I asked, but he didn’t hear my question.
Chinese police officers collecting dead migrants and upturned catamarans. And me, a day-tripper, alone and guilty. The boat reeled from side to side. I struggled to the edge to throw up.
The policeman came over to give me a life jacket and a thermos of Chinese tea. With this gesture, I decided to tell him about Julia but, just before speaking, I saw in the boat’s lights a couple of small sampans riding the waves. They would never make it, I was sure, so small and fragile and crowded with people. The policeman sensed my concern.
“Don’t worry about them,” he said. “They are experts, they know the sea better than anyone.” I stood by the edge of the boat until the sampans were out of sight.
After an hour of scanning the coast, the officer sent a message by radio and then told me they were returning to base. I asked him to leave me at the bay. With the ‘Bird Catcher’ reeling behind, we pulled up to a dock and they left me to drag the catamaran up to the beach on my own. The lights in the boatshed had blown so I covered ‘the bird catcher’ with a sheet of canvas and decided to come back for the bags the next day.
I ran up the beach and across the road to our flat, hoping to find Julia sitting in one of the rattan chairs, looking triumphant. But nobody was at home. I rang the office and spoke to the duty editor, offering to help him report on casualties and, if necessary, visit the morgue.
“It’s only a storm, mate, nothing serious. Anyway, it’s not your beat.”
“Yeah, well...”
“No worries, I’ve just called and there’s nothing doing. A couple of dead migrants came in on a police boat. Nothing more.”
“O.k; let me know.”
There was no-one else to call, nothing more I could do. I drank a few more whiskies and slept in the chair.
I woke early; my head hurt and I was shivering. It would be a very long Sunday. No news on Monday, nor the following week. The boat-hand had never seen Julia’s bag; he was emphatic.
Work no longer interested me, I stopped going to parties and playing sport. My secretary called me at home, but I wouldn’t answer. I returned to England and took a job as a music critic on a daily paper. I learned the names of every violinist in every decent orchestra in England. Julia didn’t reappear.
I thought the story ended there.

The man in the buffet car didn’t want to sell me another brandy so I walked slowly towards my carriage.
There was a controlled screech, the train stopped and I was thrown against the electric door. As I stood up, people were pushing bags and cases against my legs, blocking my way forward. By the time I reached my seat, Julia had gone.
The aisle was full of people so I sat down and pushed my face against the window. Behind streams of water, I could see Julia standing on the platform and a young woman with jet black hair running towards her. They embraced, the girl picked up the violin case and held it over Julia’s head, laughing. Julia put an arm round her shoulder. The two of them walked off towards the exit, locked by conversation into a world of their own.

MARY FARQUHARSON, Mexico, June 2012

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 21:00 on 21 June 2012  Report this post
I liked all the natural description in this - the boat capsizing and what follows, but I found it hard to believe in or empathise with the characters.Maybe we are supposed to regret the loss of Julia but she comes across as such a nuisance that I'm thinking 'good riddance'. We don't know enough about her to understand why she behaves like this.

On the other hand, we don't like the hero, leading an evidently shallow life of pleasure, and apparently so weak. I don't know how old he is but he comes across as one of those limp Evelyn Waugh characters who are under the spell of some neurotic woman.

Here are some points I picked on for comment:

I could feel the tremble of the train

I liked this line at the start

To avoid the rain, people walked quickly towards the electric doors,

They couldn't avoid the rain unless it were expected rather than falling at the time, so maybe it would be better to say 'people rushed to get out of the rain'. Do we need to know the doors are electric?

impossible so, once the train picked

The comma should go after 'impossible'

mottled grey eyes,

unattractive, which i think may be unintended

banging down on our heads,

Maybe 'drumming' or 'beating' would be better

I’d spent all my money on a bright yellow catamaran.

Presumably he had enough left to support his lifestyle. I thinl 'all my savings' would be better.

I'd like him to have some motivation for buying the boat.

flying out of the bay.

Maybe 'out of the water' would be better

The waves were losing their innocence more quickly than we were.

I didn't understand this. The pair were losing their ignorance in the sense that they had overestimated their ability to handle the boat in bad weather, but they weren't innocent.

China was another world, something you looked at briefly before closing the window and turning on the air-conditioning.

I think expresses very well the vapid lives they live

“It’s only a boat.”
“It cost me everything I have.”

Preumably he still has enough to pay his bills, so this doesn't make sense. Why would he spend all his money on a boat when he hasn't sailed before?

“but everyone here speaks English,” another of my friends had commented.

This is a good indication of the arrogance of his social circle but it also redounds on him in that he claims they are his friends. May be better as ''one of the chaps at the club said'

“Oh, God,” it was a complaint, a primeval call from her entrails

This seems overblown and I think it's aprtly because the second part seems exaggerated in the context and in contrast with the simler 'complaint'

“Musicians?” I asked, but he didn’t hear my question.

I was unsure about this. At first I thought it seemed extremely callous to care only about the worthless Julia when two refugees had drowned, but it also didn't make sense because how could the police know whether or not the people they'd fished out could play the violin.

I imagined Men At Work on the stereo

I'm not sure people would catch the reference here. For a moment I had a mental image of men repairing the stereo, but I assume it's some kind of pop music.

Rain was drilling into my face

This conjures up a bizarre image. Maybe it could be 'it felt like the rain was drilling..'

I’d found a job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, then moved quickly to the local rag, swapping minor percussions for a bit of space on the back pages. I reveled in my new identity.

I didn't quite believe any of this. I know it's easier as a colonial to do this sort of thing in HK -or used to be- but I don't think he'd be old enough to use such a blase tone.

This is already quite long for a short story, and what I really feel is this needs to be part of a novel, or at least I feel we don't have enough information about the characters.

As I said before, it seemed to be set in Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene territory but we need at least one protagonist to sympathise with, especially in a first-person narrative

I hope some of this is helpful. I enjoyed reading it.


M Farquharson at 14:14 on 22 June 2012  Report this post
Thanks very much indeed for your careful comments. Julia is not supposed to be so unpleasant, so I will definitely have to work on that! Yes, Chris is probably too blasé for his age (early 20s) he is very much the sort of person I met in Hong Kong at that time, although I need also to avoid clichés. My idea was to set up the contrast between two different types of travellers but without making Julia into too much of a heroine (obviously went too far down the other path!) Your individual stylistic comments are very useful. Many thanks, I look forward to seeing the next version of your story, too.

Catkin at 02:43 on 24 June 2012  Report this post
There is some lovely description in this story. As I go through, I'll pick out the bits I particularly enjoyed.

I read the earlier version, but did not have time to write a critique. Now I've read this version, too, and I'm afraid that I still don't understand what happens at the end. Why did Julia not want to be seen? It obviously has something to do with the migrants, but what? What does the soldier have to do with it all? My best guess is that Julia became involved with the soldier, and she starts to work with him in a money-making scheme to help migrants cross to Hong Kong, but when Julia find the violin case, she realises that they are people very much like herself and has an attack of remorse. I still don't understand why she doesn't want to be seen with the narrator, though. Why does Julia vanish from the narrator's life?

What effect does her departure have on him? I very much liked the last line in the earlier version, which carried the implication that it was because of what had happened with Julia that the narrator was now an alcoholic. I thought it was a strong ending. Now it has vanished. There are still quite a few clues that the narrator is a drunk - the fact that they "don't want" to sell him another brandy in the buffet car being the biggest one. Do you still want readers to think of him as a drunk? If so, I think it would be a good idea to put the original ending back.

I also liked the fact that Julia found dead bodies in the water. That had a lot more impact than finding a violin case, but perhaps you needed her to know that the migrants were musicians, and that is why it was changed? Shame to lose the bodies, though. Perhaps she could find one dead body and a violin case?

Here are a few little points and thoughts:

I'm not sure about the python-like train - genuinely not sure. It seems to me as though it's trying too hard; jumping up and down a bit and shouting, "Hey there! I'm an interesting description!" Nothing else in the story gave me that sense that I could see the effort being put into the writing. I certainly think the "growing fat" should go, even if the rest of it stays, because I can't picture that: trains don't grow fatter as they get nearer.

for some reason

- but there is a very real reason

I placed my wet newspaper on the table

- this made me pretty sure that the narrator is a man, which turned out to be correct. A good detail to have, because otherwise we wouldn't guess for quite a while.

dark shots from a bruised sky

- really like this

all my money

- I agree with Sheila about this. I also agree that it's quite hard to believe they would go sailing when they have no experience and no life-jackets.

the other one rush-cut through the sea like an electric knife

- great! I also like the bit that immediately follows.

It was like discovering sex, sleeping close together in a single bed, watching Match of the Day and then reading poetry. I would hold onto her all night, afraid to wake up and find she wasn’t there

- Hmmmm, not sure. Sailing on a fast boat in dangerous conditions might be like discovering sex, but on the surface, it's nothing like watching TV together and reading poems. I think it's intended to mean that the narrator felt equally excited as he feels on the boat when he and Julia were first starting a relationship ... but it's not quite working for me. The TV and poems seem such quiet activities that they don't sit well with the all-action boating.

looked like a pair of wet bananas

- perfect! And perfect because not only would it really look exactly like that, but also, a banana is a rather comic thing, which is just right for someone who has been feeling very pleased with himself and has just had a rude awakening.

a wind from somewhere

- well yes. The wind would have come from somewhere. (I don't think you need "somewhere")


- lightning

China was another world, something you looked at briefly before closing the window and turning on the air-conditioning

- I like this.

I’d bought at such expense the day before

- this has been said already

Men At Work

- I remember them well ...

oak-paneled sitting room

- I'd be inclined to make this "drawing room", because it sounds more the sort of room where people would sit around playing live music - unless you feel that it's the kind of phrase he wouldn't use.


- revelled

I did get the feeling that they were both a bit too cool and calm about having a capsized boat and being in the sea in a tropical storm.

sheet of canvas

- he's a man. He'd call it a tarp.

If you could make it clearer what's actually happening and why, I think this would be an effective and worthwhile story. It's wonderfully atmospheric.

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