Happiness is an awkward mackintosh on me, lopsided, with the front sliding up to my neck. I wear it experimentally, stretching my arms out often to see how it looks. I wonder if passersby see that it’s new.
He’s unstable on his feet. I watch him retrieve something from the ground and struggle to straighten up, two metres away from me and existing in another world.
The traffic light has just turned red, so I must idle. My window is open a crack, and I press the button to close it. He’ll come to my window, of course, and I’ll take no action, just as I’ve been told by those in the know – who’ve visited the shelters. I tighten my core, yet outwardly I’m another bored commuter hidden behind large shades.
The ground is purple with crushed jacaranda blooms, and I worry he could slip. I’ve been mincing my own way through mushed flowers the past few weeks.
Following rejection at the side of the blue Peugeot in front of me, he approaches my window, and holds up his good hand, cupped. I give my tight smile and head shake, then look ahead. He usually doesn’t persist, but today he lingers. I suck in my lips and don’t respond.
I watch his progress to the next car in my rearview mirror, relieved and depressed, the banter of the Drive Time team tugging ineffectually at my thoughts. The sun highlights the cavity in the right of his head, and I look at it a while. In a bid at comfort I once conjectured that it was the result of a fight – that his was a violent life. In the end, I felt sunk regardless.
As he reaches the fifth car, the Peugeot is off in a burst of exhaust, and a moment later the light turns green. African time doesn’t exist on the roads. I’m not in gear yet, and the car behind me hoots – loudly. I climb up and around the corner, eager to reach the highway, eager to think of other things, eager to put the windows down and have the wind dry my face.
Nothing was to be heard, only the steady plea of the wind across the moor and the susurrus of the grasses closest to me. I knelt down on one knee, intent on listening to this raw environment but also needing refuge from the wind. My fleece was zipped up to my chin, and I could feel cold sweat sliding down my neck.
I had left the sheep farms well behind me to follow a path of heavy slabs that led across the crown of the mountain, past a line of lambing shelters and then on towards what appeared to be nothing but past-prime heather and dirt blending into mud. Tiny raindrops started to settle themselves onto my face as I knelt, but I didn’t turn back. This place – this rough expansive place that belonged entirely to me in that moment – was a place I wanted to store within me. I couldn’t rush it.
So I hovered there for insensible minutes, knowing it would all have to last me a very long time.
Shelley wasn’t the bravest seabird that had ever lived. Far from it. In fact, she was the only storm petrel she knew who lived on the mainland, preferring the stability of her life in the big horse chestnut in Mrs Kowalski’s sprawling garden – with its view of the ocean and the sturdy fence that kept out mammals – to a life at sea, roaming up and down the Atlantic. She had visited her cousins’ rocky, summertime home just once as a fledgling; she had found it desolate and inhospitable, and, after one particularly fearsome night of hunkering down as the small islet was buffeted by winds strong enough to pluck the feathers off any little petrel girl, had vowed to never return.
It was lonely, to be sure, living the years by herself in that big old chestnut on a quiet stretch of Ireland’s coast, and when the colony was far away she had to do her trawling on her own, but Shelley’s parents had raised her with the injunction to be true to her nature, and she had always determined to do just that, even if her nature made the other storm petrels call her names like “deviant”, “landlubber” and, possibly most hurtful of all, “weirdo”.
Feeling shunned by her own, Shelley made an effort to converse with the other genera in the surrounding trees, as well as with diverse and seasonal passers-by. Some would give her strange looks, but others were friendly and the hen two trees over always made a fuss of her when she visited.
It was this mothering friend, called Helga, that Shelley visited the day of her fifth birthday. Helga knew a thing or two about standing out from the crowd; she had once told Shelley that she believed her family to be the only Fea’s petrels in the land.
Shelley had cleaned herself particularly well in mark of her birthday; the backs of her wings glistened jet black in the weak sun and her square tail fanned out neatly as she made the short trip. A moment later she hopped onto the branch leading directly to Helga’s home. “Happy birthday, Elskan,” Helga said when she spotted Shelley, making use of the Nordic endearment she’d adopted for her young neighbour. She fluttered her wings in Shelley’s direction, inviting her to come further in.
“I’m five today, Helga,” Shelley said without any to-do, shuffling along unsteadily on her thin little legs. An unexpected wobble had entered into her voice when she spoke, and she had to swallow hard to repress it, hurting her throat. “I’m getting old.”
“Not so, Elskan,” Helga insisted. “Still lots of time to find a mate and have a chick.” At this juncture she nudged her own hatchling further back into the nest with her beak.
“You really think so? Even for a ‘weirdo’ storm petrel like myself who doesn’t get out much?”
“Algerlega – absolutely.”
Shelley smiled gratefully at the firmness in Helga’s voice. Knowing her to be a forbearing friend, Shelley added forlornly, “But I never meet any other storm petrels, not now my parents are gone. I eat with them, but none ever talk to me. So how am I supposed to meet a good-looking young petrel who isn’t already partnered, or even just a girlfriend of my own age?” She suspected she already knew what Helga’s answer would be.
“By being brave, Elskan, by being brave.”
Shelley started to tear up. “But I’m not brave. I’m the opposite of brave – I’m, I’m … a chicken.” There was a short pause, then they smiled at one another over the little joke.
“Thankfully you are far too pretty and dainty to be a chicken. Look at you – you’re a sweet little catch. And maybe you haven’t been especially brave up till now – but you will be. You can be.” Helga batted a moment with the naughty hatchling. Then she faced Shelley again and said, “You’ve spoken to so many of the other birds around here – some of them big, rough types. Other storm petrels really shouldn’t be so terrible after all that. I even saw you talking with a big, testy Northern Fulmar last autumn!”
“It’s not the same,” Shelley pouted. “They – you – only expect me to be whatever it is I am – you don’t know what a storm petrel is supposed to be and do. Other storm petrels do, and I don’t fit in.” She sighed. “At least almost none of them remember me now and I can go feeding near them without having to endure the insults and knowing looks.”
“You don’t think I get looks, a Fea’s petrel in Ireland? Lots of birds are a bit different, a bit … unanticipated. Interesting birds, like us,” Helga said with a brisk devil-may-care shake of her head feathers. She then settled back down and gave her young friend a long searching look, before finally saying, “Why not stay on the waters a little longer tonight? Don’t just fly home as soon as you’ve eaten. Stay. Chat. Mingle.” Shelley nodded dolefully in response. “You don’t have to do much more than that. The right storm petrel will see you with time and he’ll take it from there. You must just let yourself be seen. Baby steps, Elskan, baby steps – tonight, just stay on the water for a little bit longer. Agreed?”
Shelley sat still, her face down, thinking, then she looked up and nodded decisively, a tiny spark in her stomach making her realise she could actually do it – if she decided to do it. There was nothing stopping her, she told herself. She was tired of being alone. Yes, she was living on her own terms, in her own way, but it was lonely. She wanted something more.
“Tonight I will be brave, Helga. I will make you proud of me.” She shuffled away, back along the branch. Just before she leapt off, she looked over her shoulder to smile at her friend and say, “Thanks, Helga.”
“Any time, Elskan, any time. You just hang in there. And Helga will be here to cheer you along all the way.”
That evening Shelley flew out to sea with a light in her eyes. The sky was dark with clouds, and a fresh north-westerly breeze carried her easily along her way. A short while later she dropped down onto the surface of the ocean, cold as always but with waves that were relatively gentle. No excuses, she told herself, and proceeded to nibble on the first piece of plankton that floated her way.
When her hunger started to abate, she slowed down her feeding and looked about furtively in between mouthfuls at the group of nearby storm petrels, all chattering with each other as they ate. They made it look so easy, and Shelley felt the recognisable anxiety wrap itself around her like seaweed around one’s feet. She contemplated abandoning her plan and just flying home. Her stomach was full enough. But then she remembered what she had promised Helga about being brave. The flicker of determination in her belly was still there, and she focused on it, urging it to grow bigger and help her.
Expelling saltwater through her nostrils, she lifted herself up and resolutely pattered across the water towards two youngish-looking birds on the fringe of the group. Having reached their spot, she plopped down into the water next to them, clearly taking them by surprise.
“Hi,” she said. “We’ve never met before. I’m Shelley.”
It turned out the two petrels she had chosen were brother and sister – Bonnie and Ioan – and they had just been discussing their next trip to Malta. Shelley asked them about it, and instead of making her feel embarrassed because she hadn’t been herself, they began to tell her about it. Bonnie described the warmth of the waters and the colours of the flowers on the trees, and Ioan told her about the taste of the food there, and the gentleness of the air. They asked her about her life, and then listened interestedly as she told them about her horse chestnut and the garden. Before she knew it, all the other birds had left and it was just the three of them that remained, talking. She had outstayed them all!
As she said goodbye to Bonnie and Ioan, having promised to meet them the next evening, Shelley felt lighter. She didn’t know if she was any closer to finding a partner – Ioan was a little young at just three years old – but she had been brave, and she knew it. Shelley-level brave, at least. And her future started to open up in her mind’s eye at the prospect of the other brave things she might surprise herself by doing.
A ditty was promised, so a ditty must be written! Also, a love poem, an old railway advert & Gibson Girls
One of my readers – Sean Smithson – spotted an error in my “About” page; the underlined “as” had been accidentally omitted: “If you read my posts you’ll inadvertently learn probably as much as you would like to know about how this mind of mine works.”
Well spotted, I say! I promised the reader who found a mistake a ditty, and so the below is what I devised.
But first, in case some of you don’t know what a ditty is, it’s simply a short, simple song or poem (from Old French ditie – poem).
A ditty (that embraces the silly)
Oh, run away word,
where have you gone?
Your home is right here,
are you going to be long?
Sean S., the word catcher,
caught the thing in its haste;
that word was sent packing,
and now sits in its right place.
Perhaps after that I should share a ditty or two as penned by the pros, so as to highlight all that they can be!
A Ditty (by Sir Philip Sidney)
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one to the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.
Now, for an example from the early C20th, the image below is one of a series of advertisements used by the Lackawanna Railroad in the eastern US to capitalise on its use of anthracite, a kind of hard coal that burns cleanly, not creating the soot and cinders that normal coal does.
The advertisers came up with the fictional character of Phoebe Snow, whom they used to promote the line they accordingly dubbed The Road of Anthracite.
The quote below, from Steamtown: Special History Study, explains how the railroad developed this advertising strategy:
Early in 1899, […] Mark Twain, wrote the company after a trip to Elmira that he had worn a white duck suit and it was still white when he reached his destination. [The company] seized upon the idea of taking advantage of the line’s clean-burning coal in advertising for passenger traffic and adopted the slogan for the Lackawanna Road as “The Road of Anthracite.” As a symbol, probably for the first time in 1901, the railroad seized upon the image of a demure “Gibson girl” dressed head to toe in sparkling white, and published a seemingly endless series of jingles or poems.
Three more of the Phoebe ditties go like this:
Here Phoebe may By night or day Enjoy her book Upon the way Electric light Dispels the night Upon the Road Of Anthracite Says Phoebe Snow, About to go Upon a trip To Buffalo: "My gown stays white from morn till night Upon the Road of Anthracite. A coach or sleigh Was once the way Of reaching home On Christmas day Now - Phoebe's right - You'll expedite The trip by Road Of Anthracite To read more, you can click here.
During WWI, anthracite was needed for the war effort, so trains couldn’t use it anymore and Phoebe Snow disappeared.
Phoebe was drawn as a Gibson Girl, and Gibson Girls, I’ve just learned with interest, were designed to be the epitome of supposed feminine beauty at the time: gracious, curvy, fashionable, independent, at ease with themselves, and possessing a fragile outer beauty.
The Gibson Girls creator, Charles Dana Gibson, had this to say about his drawings: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores […] There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.”
– Quote from Marshall, E. (1910-11-20). “The Gibson Girl Analyzed By Her Originator”. The New York Times.
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