The Tide Goes Out

It was a crisp, wintery afternoon and I had run out of milk. Seizing on an uncharacteristically spontaneous impulse I pulled on my coat and boots and set off to walk to the corner shop at the end of my road. As I turned left out of my house the burning gold of the horizon reminded me I was walking towards the sunset, and its fleeting glory pulled me off track. The shop will still be open later, but the sunset would soon be gone.

As I paced along the road, admiring the kiss of golden sunlight on rich red brick, the chill of the winter breeze brushed against my skin and filled my lungs until I felt more alert than I had all day. Once again I made the accidental discovery that people have been realising since time immemorial: fresh air is good for the soul.

I missed my turning for the shop and followed the sunset across the road towards the park. I traced the perimeter fence, catching glimpses through the hedge of specks of white, like a freak snowstorm had covered just the one field. At the gate, the hedge ended and I stood for several moments in worldless awe.

The field was blanketed with seagulls. They had spread across it evenly in their hundreds, a sheet of perpetual motion wallowing in the boggy grass. As I passed through the gate and moved slowly down the path they began to fold in on themselves, first from one corner and then from two, just a few at a time fluttering a short way before settling down again in the midst of their companions. There wasn’t a single moment of stillness in the field. Slowly, without apparent cause or design, the sheet of white rippled backwards until the flock was concentrated in a band at the far side of the park.

I glided towards them, unable to resist their draw despite the squealch of the mud rising up and covering my boots. I moved gently and stopped short of their territory, reluctant to interrupt the natural rhythm of their hive-mind dance. The constant movement had not ended; now the wide band of birds was narrowing and shortening, the stragglers in the furthest corners rushing to catch up and not be left behind. Like a fluctuating ribbon they began to take off to the north, not in neat orderly groups or a regular line but at random, plucked from their patch of grass by a single swirling thought. Each gull seemed oblivious to the exodus until the thought brushed against its mind, and then it spread its wings and hurried after the departing stream.

On the other side of the fence, a dog and its person strolled past. The current sped up and the trickle became a deluge of flying bodies. The group on the ground got smaller and smaller until at last, in response to a call to action that I couldn’t hear, the remaining few took off in one movement, filling the sky with their presence and moving along the invisible string that connected them to the rest of the flock.

A moment passed and they had all gone, vanishing behind the trees so that no trace of their presence remained. I waited for a beat to let the memory take root, and then set off back towards the shop to buy some milk.

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