2021 Doris Gooderson – First Place

Biography:

Alison is a professional copywriter in the IT industry and she also writes for pleasure.  She usually writes humorous verse and performance pieces, often as Alison Absolute.  She’s an ex slam champion (Cheltenham Lit Fest, Worcestershire etc) and a member of Bridgnorth Writers. “I will now write more short stories!” she says,

Her younger son is a keen ornithologist and so they’ve spent many a happy hour together lurking in bird hides near marshes.  That’s what inspired the story – that and him growing up and away from her, as children do.  Alison’s prize money will go towards buying him a kayak for his birthday, so he can pursue the unfortunate birds even more closely!

The Hide by Alison Nichol-Smith

It had snowed this year, and the day was crisp, bright and breathtakingly cold. I had hoped for some patches of clear water where waders and waterfowl might gather, but the pools were almost iced over.  Still, the intense cold meant the paths were frozen too, making them easier to negotiate, even those leading right across the marshes.  I was wearing Hunters, but Colm was just in trainers, so that mattered. 

Oh, but it was beautiful, that morning on the marshes.  The dry brown rushes rimed with frost and every green blade of grass a tiny explosion of crystal stars beneath our feet.  Together we crossed the little wooden bridge, where the stream still ran deep with rich brown silt, giving us hope that the top pool might not be frozen. 

And then we were at the hide; a dark bulk rising up, silhouetted against the sky with the sun behind.  Every year, we come to this same place, and every year, as we reach the path, I feel half an urge to turn back.

And so we climb, Colm in front, me following, up the steps of the Endersley hide, our hide.  It’s empty, of course, as always, every year.  We choose our stations along the bench, lift and peg back our chosen flaps, steadying our elbows and binoculars on the ledge.  

Colm looks out over the frozen water, while I sneak a sideways glance at my beautiful son.  Thirteen years old today.  He has changed so much over this past year.  He is taller now; not quite my height, but very nearly.  By this time next year he’ll probably tower above me.  His face has changed too.  There has always been the calm intensity you’d expect of dedicated birdwatcher, but there is a solemnity now, a gravitas befitting his advancing years.  On a lighter note, his complexion could be worse, but adolescence is peppering the area around his nose with pimples and blackheads. I itch to squeeze one; an unworthy emotion I fight to supress.

Feeling my eyes on him, Colm turns and gives me a quick, self-conscious smile.  I smile back, and we both return to our binoculars,  But I can help looking again at him, the wonder of him, the beauty of his profile, the  sweet curl of his left ear, and he turns and grins again.  This time, we both hold the smile and he shuffles a little towards me, along the wooden bench.  I shuffled towards him too, until we are close enough to touch gloved hands, which we do.  

‘I do love you so, my darling’ I say to him.

‘Me too, Mum’ he says. I squeeze his hand, then release it so he can get back to his birding. 

The hide has the cheap insistent smell of cut pine, the interior raw and orange-toned, too bright against the white glare of snow and ice.  Hides should have dark corners, hidden places.  High up here above the marshes, in the bright snowlight, I feel exposed.  

‘I can see a heron’ says Colm.

I can see it too on the far side of the pool, grey and stately, balanced solemnly on one slender white leg, blending into the rushes, astonishingly still. A heron is not in general a big deal for us, but on a day like this, it’s something.  And we need something to mark this particular year.  The year it snowed.  The year we saw the heron.

Thirteen years old.   I can hardly believe it.  He’s wearing a padded black jacket, some sort of ski wear perhaps, blue jeans, white trainers.  He carries a backpack which I know will be full of his favourite bird books.  His hair is not really blond now, more a pale brown, very fine and silky.  He wears no hat or scarf.  He must be cold.  Goodness knows I am.  And the air is growing colder as the sun lowers in the sky, the light thinning and metallic.  At any moment, Colm is going to say:

‘Should we go back?  Should we go to the cafe?’

I know he’s going to say that.  He says it every year.  And so I play along.  

‘What will you have?  Hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows?  Or are you too old for marshmallows now you’re a teenager?’

‘I’m never too old for marshmallows.’

I rise.  He stays seated. Still watching.

‘You go ahead.’  He says ‘I’ll follow along’

The sun slants through in dazzling golden bars behind him.  I can barely see his face.  I move towards him, bend and kiss the top if his head, his silky brown hair. He smells of herbs, dried bracken, soap and nice boy’s sweat.

‘Happy birthday, Colm darling’ I say.  ‘Thanks, Mum’ he says, his clear hazel eyes looking so candidly into mine.

I close the door of the hide behind me, and stumble down the steps, heart thudding against my ribs; not just with the cold.  Along the path, I pick half a dozen fat bull-rushes, tugging and snapping the strong stems.  You’re not meant to, but I always do.  I walk quickly down to the cafe, boots crunching on the frozen snow.  Don’t look back.  

He doesn’t follow, of course, as I know he won’t.  Can’t.   I buy a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows, and sit there drinking the sickly stuff myself, alone.  On the table beside me, the bull-rushes thaw and drip.   

Four o’clock, and it’s time for them to close up.  They show me out tenderly, the last visitor of the day.  I drive home, stopping off at the cemetery, as I do every year. In the growing dark, I place my bull-rushes on Colm’s grave. 

Thirteen years old today.  Who’d have thought it?  Fourteen next year. That’s twice seven: he’ll have been gone then for as many years as he was here with me.  And I will survive another year, against all the odds, against my own inclination.  Because he’ll hold me to that one precious day, his birthday, when we’ll meet again at the wildfowl reserve he loved so much. 

He’ll be taller than me next year, his voice will have settled down, and maybe we’ll see a water-rail, or even a kingfisher if the weather is kinder to us.  And maybe one year he’ll have grown too old for birdwatching, and that will be that: I’ll visit the hide alone.

But until then, I still have my son.