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The Birdwatcher

Matthew Hornsby

Matthew Hornsby lives and writes in London, having spent time living in Portugal, Spain, and Japan. He currently works in the public sector, having previously been an English teacher and a scrap metal dealer. Matthew writes short fiction and science fiction when he can, but unfortunately produces passive aggressive emails and unfinished to-do lists in more prodigious quantities. He has a bachelor’s degree from King’s College London and has studied short story writing at City University of London. Website:
Matthew Hornsby

Matthew Hornsby

Matthew Hornsby lives and writes in London, having spent time living in Portugal, Spain, and Japan. He currently works in the public sector, having previously been an English teacher and a scrap metal dealer. Matthew writes short fiction and science fiction when he can, but unfortunately produces passive aggressive emails and unfinished to-do lists in more prodigious quantities. He has a bachelor’s degree from King’s College London and has studied short story writing at City University of London. Website:

Days like this were a birder’s dream. Good, clear, morning light; bit of wind but that didn’t matter. Most of the trees were still bare skeletons in late winter, so decent visibility, and migratory season meant a nice volume of birds – raptors, waders, ducks, and a load of little brown jobs flitting between the bushes and amongst the trees. Clear enough for a good photo, so Craig had brought his camera out. Best of all, it was quiet. A chilly Wednesday in mid-February meant kids were in school, dog-walkers were at home, and the North Face contingent was nowhere to be seen. Back down in London, no doubt. The fewer people around, the more birds you got. That was how it always was, and that was how Craig liked it.

It had been a good morning, all in all. Up before dawn, cuppa, bacon sarnie, then out. Down on the sandbanks he’d got some redshank, shelduck, and big flocks of sanderling and plover, sweeping across the shoreline. After that, he’d lugged his gear a mile inland to this spot. A bare path led him between fields of marshy grass to a small copse, where he’d set up his camera again. There was a small shed there, but the land was empty. Outside the shed, there was a pile of old beer cans, labelled Lech, Tyskie and Zywiec. People used to take care of this place, thought Craig. He supposed it didn’t matter so much to you when you weren’t from here.

In season, the place would be full of the pickers that John Spalding brought over. The Spaldings owned the land, farmed a thousand acres stretching back from here to the main road and the town. The usual mix for farms round here – potatoes, bit of sugar beet, some fruit and veg in a few ugly greenhouses. He’d met Spalding a couple of weeks ago, last time he was here, to ask for permission to go on the land – always best to try knocking on the door with landowners. The farmer was old and deaf, and Craig had a tough time getting across what he was there to do.

‘Shooting, is it? We had a problem with rabbits last year, but I had a chap on then. He’s gone now. Wouldn’t mind you taking a pop at the crows and the pigeons. Where’s your gun?’

It took about fifteen minutes to explain that he was only there to watch and take pictures. The farmer seemed suspicious, but eventually gave in.

‘Doubt you’ll see much interesting, but don’t let me stop you, long as you stick off the fields. I’ve lived here my whole life and never seen owt worth taking a picture of!’

In any case, it was out of season now, and the only noise was the wind, rustling trees, and the diminished midday chatter of the birds. Perfect conditions to tick off the Short-eared Owl. Craig had been pursuing the birds for years – ever since Mary left him, and he’d gotten back into birding on his days off – but he’d never managed a decent shot of one. Something about the species had gotten under Craig’s skin. When others in his photography group posted their SEOs on Facebook, he felt his gut tighten with jealousy. The bastards would never share the best spots. He’d even started having dreams, not irregularly, about the perfect shot he would take of one, here, on his patch. The bird would float across a field with its characteristically ethereal glide, and alight on a post, or a tree stump. Craig would lean into the camera, praying under his breath that the bird would stay where it was. Sometimes, he’d get the shot, the owl filling the frame, and he’d feel a rare joy swelling inside him. Other times, it would flap up into the air just before he closed the shutter, and he’d swear aloud, gritting his teeth in frustration. Either way, he’d wake up, exhausted, alone in bed.

Craig lowered his binoculars and listened. A noise had picked up somewhere in the field behind him, one that jarred with everything else. A car engine, coming closer. It sounded knackered. He couldn’t see it, so it must be hidden behind the trees somewhere, but wherever it was, the intrusion was unwelcome. Just one of the farmer’s lads dropping by, probably. It stopped, and there was quiet again. Craig settled back to his binoculars, hand on the camera.

It wasn’t quiet, though. There was another noise. Against the wind, it was a difficult sound to place. If it was a bird, he’d certainly never heard it before. Wrong time of day for a fox. He held his ear to the noise, and when the wind changed for a second the sound sharpened, leaving no doubt as to its origin. It was a woman’s voice, moaning. It sounded like she was in pain.

Craig stood still. Of all the fucking days, he thought. He waited a while, and the sound went away. Probably some nutter who’s driven out here to let off a bit of steam. No reason for him to get involved, and no way he was moving away from this spot, not after the trouble he’d been through to get here. The sound started again. It was rising to a crescendo, a low moan gradually giving way to shouting and what sounded like words – although nothing that Craig could make out – then subsiding again. Craig hoped that would be it this time. Another five minutes passed, however, and the moaning returned. It was louder this time, more insistent. Craig sighed. He’d have to do something. If she was a nutter, he’d give her a piece of his mind, tell her this was private property. If she was a woman in trouble, well, he was a man, after all.

Walking around the shed, he went down the track, alongside a row of trees. He passed a fork in the road. The moaning was growing louder now, clearly punctuating the rustle of the wind. At the end of the track, he saw the car. It was red, old, compact. There were only dark shapes in the windows, and no sign of anyone around. Craig stood there for a moment, and the moaning continued, its pace and rhythm unchanged. He thought about shouting something out – ‘Are you ok?’ – but he held back. Instead, he approached, as the woman’s groans started to die away again. As he got closer, the shapes inside became clearer. There was a man in the front left seat, but he wasn’t moving. Craig got to the window, and leant down. The man seemed to be asleep. He was heavy set, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and his bald head was slumped down on his chest. It was unbelievable, given the racket that had been coming from the back, and Craig could see the woman now, who lay across the back seats. She seemed to have a sheet or a blanket covering her, and her head down. He went around the car, to the rear right window that was slightly open, where he could see the woman clearly. She was young, with a huge, swollen belly. Her eyes were clamped shut, and her face was slick with sweat in the cold February air.

Craig looked at the empty driver’s seat. Someone must have been there when the car parked – so where had they buggered off to? More importantly, what was he meant to do now? He thought about calling the police, or an ambulance. They dealt with enough time-wasters, though – he ought to figure out what was going on first.

He reached down, and pulled at the handle to the car’s rear right door. The woman opened her eyes. She looked terrified, staring at him with wet, red eyes, grinding her jaw in pain. She was tiny, apart from the swollen mid-section, and wore a set of pink ‘Hello Kitty’ Pyjamas under a white dressing gown. She had short blonde hair, and didn’t look older than twenty. The car was a mess, with food wrappers, cans and bloodied tissues piled high in the footwell.

‘Are you all right, love? Can I help?’ said Craig. What else was he supposed to say? She started talking, in a panicked tone. He couldn’t understand a word. The language sounded Eastern European, he supposed, but he had no idea. He doubted his A-level German would be much use here.

‘You speak English?’ he said. ‘Do you need help?’

He repeated each word, putting special emphasis on the ‘help’. She looked at him. The fear wasn’t gone from her eyes, but they had softened a little.

‘Yes,’ she said, followed with another stream of incomprehensible words, then another grunt of pain, then ‘yes,’ again, ‘yes, help, please.’ As she finished the words, her breathing shortened, and she began to groan again, her eyes closed, her fists tight around the seatbelt next to her.

Craig wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He’d remembered when his daughter Jenny was born, and he’d just stood round like a lemon whilst Mary effed and blinded at the doctors and nurses.  He’d been a young man, then. There was no one in a white coat around now. Craig got into the car, and grabbed the woman’s hand.

‘Just breathe, love. Breathe.’ He searched for something else to say that might be useful. ‘It’s going to be OK.’ He mimed taking deep breaths. She seemed to understand, and her screams subsided slightly. He could hardly believe that he was having a positive effect. After a couple of minutes, she settled down again.

‘Where’s the driver?’ said Craig, slowly, pointing at the empty driver’s seat. This only produced another panicked stream of non-English, and her expression grew pained.

‘OK, calm down,’ he said, ‘let’s just focus on the here and now. Just breathe, stay calm, everything will be ok.’

There was a murmur from the front of the car. The man in the passenger seat seemed to have awoken, and was groggily mumbling to himself.

‘Hello mate,’ said Craig, tapping him on the shoulder, ‘you ok?’ The man turned his head slowly. His expression was foggy, but his eyes were deeply bloodshot, giving him a demonic aspect. He said something, slurring every word. Again, Craig understood nothing. The man’s breath stank of spirits with a bloody, metallic tang.

‘You’re going to have to speak English, I’m afraid,’ said Craig. ‘Is this your wife? Girlfriend?’ The man looked at the woman across the backseat, and his eyes seemed to sharpen. He said something, again in his own language, to the woman. She replied. Whatever she said, he didn’t like it one bit, because he came back with a torrent of rage. A bit of spittle flew from his lips and landed on Craig’s cheek.

Things had gotten rather out of hand, as far as Craig was concerned. He felt like he was in a dream, just like the one with the owl, like he no longer had control of his actions or where they were taking him.

‘Look – you’re going to have to cool it, pal,’ he said, holding his hands up to the man. The man reached out with his right hand and shoved him, knocking him back against the car door. The man was now screaming and flailing awkwardly with his right hand into the back seat, like a driver trying to reach round the seat for the A to Z. Craig suddenly realised why he was only using his right hand. His left hand was attached to the door handle with a pair of steel handcuffs.

Craig had never been one to get himself in trouble, especially not on a stranger’s behalf. He minded his own business, and was generally appreciative of those who stayed out of his. Right now, however, it seemed to him like he had no choice but to throw himself between this young, distressed woman and this madman’s blows. He went in with his back to the man, and tried to put his hands under the girl, to get her away from the car. He felt hard fists on his back, and they were both still screaming, a mixture of words and raw sounds. Slowly, he managed to move the girl towards the open door. Once out, she was able to half stand, and he propped her up as she tottered away from the car. The man within continued to scream, now much more noise than words.

After a few steps, the girl’s legs gave out, and she lay back down on the hard mud and dead grass outside. Craig dashed back to the car, and pulled out the sheet that had covered her, and brought it over, slipping it on top of her. She was crying now, her sobs still punctuated by an occasional shout of pain.

‘Come on love, hang in there. You’ll be OK. You’re out of that maniac’s reach now. Remember what I was saying about breathing.’ He held her hand again. He reflected that it was the probably the first time he’d held a woman’s hand, apart from his daughter’s, in about five years.  She looked at him, seemingly desperate for him to do something, but he had no idea what. He pointed at himself.

‘I’m Craig.’ He pointed at her. ‘You?’ She suppressed a groan, seeming to calm slightly again.

‘Violeta,’ she said. ‘Violeta.’

‘Now then, Violeta. Everything’s going to be ok.’ He didn’t know why he said that. It was a stupid thing to say. He had no idea how this was going to turn out. He took out his phone.

‘I’m calling an ambulance, or the police.’ She clearly recognised the word ‘police’, because as he said it, she began to shout even louder. She reached up at the phone with one hand, as if she were warding off an evil symbol.

‘No police! Please! No police!’

The phone lingered in Craig’s hand. For the first time, he felt angry at Violeta. If people didn’t want to follow the laws of this country, then why did they even come over here? He was a mug for getting himself involved. He kept his hand firmly around the girl’s and felt her crush it in rhythm with her pained groans, as her contractions started again. He’d read enough in the papers about the immigrant gangs in this part of the world, coming over by the busload; pimps, dealers, thieves. Getting a pregnant woman involved, though, that was low. English gangsters wouldn’t do that, would they? He thought of the empty driver’s seat. Who had driven these two out here, and where in God’s name had he buggered off to?

He looked at Violeta. Seeing her properly now, she looked even younger than she had in the car. Just a kid, really. She couldn’t be much older than his Jenny – or ‘Jen’, as she insisted on being called these days, now that she was a moody teenager. Craig noticed that Violeta’s hair was dyed blond, with black roots poking through, and her complexion was dark. She wasn’t unattractive, thought Craig. You idiot, he thought to himself, thinking about something like that at a moment like this. It wasn’t surprising though, considering how long it had been since he’d got any. He winced a little as her knuckles closed again around his hand, and she alternately muttered and shouted unintelligible phrases. Craig wondered what he was going to do. He got his phone out again. He had better call an ambulance, whether she liked it or not.

‘Can I help you, mate?’

The voice came from behind Craig, and he turned. A man stood there, holding a massive, battered suitcase in one hand. He was tall, wearing a yellow and blue checked shirt under a weathered leather jacket. His hair was cut short, and there were deep bags under his eyes. He wasn’t smiling. Craig stood and turned.

‘I’m just trying to help this young woman here.’

‘Yes, she’s ok. No problem. We’re going now. Sorry to bother you, mate.’ The man put his suitcase down and walked towards them both. His accent was three quarters Cockney, a quarter something else. Craig looked down at Violeta. He could see absolute fear in her eyes. He stepped forward, positioning himself between the two of them.

‘Look, would you mind telling me what’s going on here? She should be in a hospital, not in the middle of a field. It’s free for everyone here, you know, the hospital. Even foreigners.’ The man stopped. His eyes flickered impatiently between Craig, the girl and the car.

‘No problem. We’re going to the hospital now. Don’t worry, mate, it’s all ok. Don’t get upset.’

‘I’m not upset, actually, and I’m not leaving until I get a proper explanation. Who’s the other bloke there, in the car? Was it you who cuffed him to the door?’

The man had clearly moved from impatience to annoyance. He was slowly advancing towards Craig. Craig felt his fists begin to clench, slightly. The girl screamed again, and the man in the jacket said something to her in her own language. It didn’t sound friendly.

‘Look. These are my friends – family, actually. My cousin in the car has some problems. You know, in the head.’ He mimed a twirling finger against his ear. ‘Sometimes I need to lock him up, to keep him safe. Otherwise he goes crazy, might hurt someone, or hurt himself. This is his wife. She’s having a baby. We’re going to the hospital, but we needed to pick up clothes on the way. They stay out here sometimes, for work.’ He tapped the suitcase, then pointed at Craig. ‘What about you mate? What are you doing out here?’ The man was very close now, and Craig could smell the rank cologne that he wore. He was taller than Craig was. A vein in his lean neck pulsed as he spoke, and the edge of a tattoo peeked up from his shirt collar.

‘That’s none of your business.’

‘OK, OK. I’m just asking.’ He threw his hands up in a defensive gesture. ‘You have to be careful. I’ve seen some guys out here, they were bad guys. Watching girls, looking in people’s windows, you know?’ He gestured at the binoculars that poked out of Craig’s pocket and made an obscene hand signal. ‘Fucking perverts, you know?’

‘Look, there’s no need for that language. I was watching birds, for God’s sake’ said Craig.

‘Birds?’ said the man.

Violeta still looked terrified, and was moaning in agony.  The man in the jacket seized her wrist, saying something forceful. She screamed, and pulled away. He raised his voice, and leant down, grabbing her under both her arms, and started dragging her towards the car.

‘Hold on a second,’ said Craig. ‘Just hold on. I don’t think she wants to go with you.’

‘No, there’s no problem. She’s just emotional, isn’t it? Upset. Not your problem, mate.’ Something had been building inside Craig. He’d got to a point where he couldn’t hold it down any more.

‘I’m sorry, but I’m not turning a blind eye to this. I think we should get the police out here, then why don’t we see what they make of this situation?’ He brandished his phone again. The man looked up.

‘Come on. Why are you getting so upset? Why do you need to call the police? Because we are immigrants? Because all Albanians are criminals?’

‘I didn’t say anything about that – you could be from Timbuktu for all I know! You’re dragging this poor woman around, you’ve got a bloke chained up in your car; I’m sorry, but that’s not how we do things around here. Doesn’t matter where you’re from.’

‘I explained already! Are you deaf?’ The man waved his arm angrily. ‘I’m trying to take my cousins to hospital. That’s a crime now, is it?’

The woman on the ground was crying a full stream of tears now.

‘I’m warning you, mate,’ said Craig. The man was very close to him again.

‘I don’t care about the police,’ said the man. ‘I never robbed anything, pay all my taxes, road tax, council tax, all of it. But it could be very bad for my cousins, you know. I’ll be honest with you. They’ve had some problems with visas and all that. It’s unbelievable, seriously. These people are very good people, you know. They work very hard. Honest people, not fucking gypsies. Anyway, some problems with visas, blah blah blah. But if they get sent back home, that’s very bad for them.’ He gestured at the car. ‘My country is beautiful – mountains, beaches. Not like you see on the news. Lots of birds, so good for you. Maybe you’ll go there one day. But there are too many bad people. Sick people. My cousin, he’s been in trouble. Not his fault, you know. Very old problems, blood feuds, going back to the middle ages, but young people are still paying for them. He’s a good kid, even if he does get crazy sometimes. But if he goes back, they’ll kill him. Kill her too. Leave the kid to die.’

As he spoke, the man kept glancing back at the sobbing girl and the car. It made sense, sort of. Craig had regretted getting involved the moment he’d opened that car door. They weren’t hurting anyone, he supposed, and what business of it was his? Easier for everyone if they were on their way to God knows where, and he could get back to what he’d come out here for. He saw Violeta looking up at him, the sweat and tears dripping down her face, the look of fear in her child’s eyes. He remembered the bloodshot rage in the eyes of the man in the car. No, he couldn’t walk away. He wasn’t going to let the smug bastard in front of him get away that easily. He lifted his phone again.

‘You think I’m a soft touch, don’t you? Like everyone else in this country. Well I’ve got news for you. I think you’re having me for a mug, and I think you’re taking advantage of these people. I’ve heard about what you lot are up to, people traffickers and all that. Now let’s get the police out here and see what they have to say about it.’ The man approached Craig again, quickly. The vein on his neck was pulsing furiously.

‘Nobody here is a people trafficker. This woman is having a fucking baby, mate. You want her to have it out here, in a field?’

‘Where else is she having it, then? My arse you’re taking her to a hospital.’

‘Somewhere better than this. Put the phone away.’

‘You what?’

‘Put the phone away. Or I’ll make you put it away.’ The man had squared up to Craig now, and was looking straight down at him.

‘This is getting beyond a joke,’ said Craig. He shuffled backwards slightly.

‘I’m not joking,’ said the man.

‘You’ve no respect, you people.’ They stood there. The man had his hands in his pockets. Violeta still moaned softly on the ground. Craig hadn’t felt like this in a long time. He felt his blood fizzing and running up and down his arms and legs. He imagined himself swinging a powerful right hook to the jaw of the man in front of him, knocking him clean to the ground. Then, he imagined the man pulling out a knife, stabbing him underneath the ribs, letting him bleed to death in this field. He imagined the girl being carted back to whatever dog shed she was being kept in, and the poor kid, raised like an animal. She should have stayed at home, taken her chance with the thugs in leather jackets back there, blood feuds or no blood feuds. At least she could go to a hospital.

‘All right. Jesus fucking Christ. No need to be so aggressive,’ said Craig. The man was silent. ‘Go on then,’ Craig continued, ‘get back in the car. No one’s stopping you.’

‘Yes,’ said the man. He was smiling now. ‘No one’s stopping us. Now leave us alone. Get back to watching your birds.’

Craig could feel the adrenaline sloshing through his body. If he was a younger man, things would be different. It was over now, though. He’d lost the argument. He was afraid. Slowly, he turned around, and started walking back in the direction from which he’d come. Violeta’s moans grew louder again, turning to screams and shouts. He looked back and saw the man in the jacket hauling her roughly towards the car. His words carried more softly back to Craig on the wind, but they sounded like threats, curses, and commands.

He reached the spot by the shed. His camera still stood where he’d left it. He didn’t know why, but for some reason he had expected it to have gone. The adrenaline had worn off, and he felt the punches he’d taken from the man in the car begin to harden into bruises across his back and shoulders. The car, somewhere behind him now, started up and drove off, the battered engine slowly dying away. He thought about the car. He should have taken a picture of the number plate. He could have gone to the police with that, sent them after that bastard in the jacket. He hadn’t thought about it at the time. He’d been thinking about saving his own skin. Useless bastard that he was. Useless, weak bastard. He kicked one of the old beer cans, and let out a strangled, enraged cry, one that he hoped no one would hear.

Across the moor, he spotted a black shape on top of a fencepost. With a flutter, it rose up into the sky, and began to float across the open space, with broad, lazy wingbeats. As it drew closer, the mottled colours and ghostly whites of its head and underbelly became clear in the pale daylight. It was, unmistakeably, a Short-eared Owl. It fluttered towards him, before hovering and circling above the patches of short grass in the field. Craig could see the yellow of its eyes. It settled, finally, on a fencepost, this side of the field – about twenty metres away. Craig put a hand on his camera. He held it there, but he didn’t take the shot. He couldn’t. The owl looked at him. Its eyes burned, golden points against dappled brown. It lingered, then turned, and rose once more into the salty winter wind.





Matthew Hornsby asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work


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