Andrea Smith
Autumn Starlings

His was the generation of freedom. He didn't remember the war. For him it was rock and roll and coffee bars. Night clubs and private parties. Free love. Sex. No rules. No restrictions. But not anymore.

     'It's that time again, I'm afraid, Mr Robinson.'

     He looked up. Her face was kind but tired. Shattered. She must have been nearing the end of her shift. He'd watched her, hours spent running back and forth with bottles and bedpans, the medicine trolley and the blood pressure machine. The nurses all did their best, but there was never enough of them. Never enough time. Every patient in that ward was trapped. The restrictions of ill health and hospital life. No-one more so than Eric.

     Slowly he dragged himself into a slightly less slumped position. Wincing silently, still in pain, he took the little cup of pills and swallowed them with several gulps of water. And she was off to the next bed.

     He wanted to scream. This damn bed – in his mind he was whacking it with his stick in frustration. Thwack! In reality he could do nothing but lie there motionless. This wretched hospital. His wretched body.

     He looked around. Eight beds. Each with a man of similar age inside, locked down by the bedcovers. All looking lost. Harrowed.

     This wasn't him. He didn't recognise himself in the faces of his fellow patients. This wasn't the Eric he'd always been. The Eric he'd always thought he was.

     He had always been free. Always done as he wanted. But that's what had led him to this mess.

     It was years since he'd last seen Brighton. Decades. He'd gone down to the prom by the pier. He wanted to see the starlings again. In the autumn they swooped in a huge group, making swirls in the sky. They roosted under the pier, but for hours beforehand they swirled about in the air above. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Bunching together, making a thick, dark mass – then spreading, creating a faint, grey cloud. Eric had watched as they made ovals and esses and paisley patterns; rising and falling, contracting and spreading like a small child squishing Play-Doh through its fingers. Organic curves, constantly changing. Shifting.

<  2  >

     He'd sat and watched. Stick by his side. He could have been there for one hour or five – time meant nothing. The sky had grown darker, the air was colder, but all he was aware of was the birds. People passed by on the path above. He barely noticed them and they had no reason to see him. If they did, he'd just have been an old man on a bench. Probably a tramp. Or a drunk. No-one.

     The clip, clip of high heeled shoes and the dull thud of trainers. The distorted noise of music and amusements from the pier. A muffled car radio – the repetitive beat. Laughter. The smell of coffee and doughnuts. They formed a dull backdrop, but couldn't keep him in the present.

     He sat on the bench. Their bench. And watched the birds. And remembered. Eventually the lights went out on the pier and the starlings made one final swoop, disappearing underneath. His cheeks that had glistened in the bright bulbs of the twenty-first century illuminations were now just cold and damp. His eyes were red and his coat front sprinkled with little droplets that hadn't yet soaked into the fabric. The tears had been continuous.

     He reached for his stick, but it fell to the ground. There was no-one to help, so he attempted to stand unaided. Only now did he start to become aware of the cold. It had already travelled through his winter coat, his jumper, shirt and vest, and deep into his bones – he had known nothing. He never noticed his stiffness worsening. His head was woozy. The world wasn't in focus and he had nothing to steady him. Then he was sprawled across the prom.

     The pain was instant. He was suddenly alert. The misty reminiscences vanished. His hip – had he broken his hip? The prom was rough on his thin, wrinkled face. His cheek – grazed, certainly. Bleeding? He couldn't tell. The cold had numbed it, just not enough to actually stop the pain. Spread-eagled across the concrete, he felt he was lying on ice. It had absorbed the cold and now seemed intent on passing it on to him. He tried to get his hand to his pocket for his mobile phone, but movement didn't seem to be an option.

<  3  >

     He closed his eyes. At least he'd seen the starlings.

     Then there were voices. Two men – young. Softly spoken. Slightly giggly. Footsteps too. Slow and quiet. He recognised the combination. Lovers. Fifty years ago one of them would have been him.

     Then the voices changed. They'd seen the old man. They were urgent now, footsteps fast.

     'Call an ambulance.'

     'Is he alive?'

     One ran to Eric's side, while the other talked on his phone.

     'My name's Jim. Can you hear me? Are you in pain? Who did this to you?'

     Mugged. They thought he'd been mugged. Eric opened his eyes. A young, blue-eyed, fair haired youth was crouched on the ground beside him, his head almost upside down to look into Eric's face.

     'You'll be okay,' he said, with absolutely no conviction.

     'They're on their way,' said his friend. Eric couldn't see him, just a slight shadow. A movement in the dark. But from the voice he presumed he was good-looking too.

     They reminded Eric of him and Kurt. The memories became entangled with what was happening now. His brain seemed cloudy. He tried to speak, tried to explain. No mugging. Just nostalgia. Him and Kurt. Here. Before.

     But the cold and shock had left his face immobile. He managed ''ank oo' and closed his eyes again.

*

Fifty years ago it would have been him and Kurt, taking a walk in the shadows of Brighton beach at night. You had to be careful, then, though. Mustn't arouse suspicion. Know where to go so the police couldn't find you.

     He and Kurt had favoured the beach for their walks. No holding hands, of course, but just being together was all that mattered. Sometimes talking – fast and excitedly, all their hopes and ambitions. Sometimes in silence – no need to speak.

<  4  >

     They'd met at a party. There were some great parties. No-one cared for the law. Drugs? Probably. Sex? Definitely. Boys with boys. Girls with girls. Sometimes people disappeared in threes and fours. No judgement. Freedom.

     It was at one of these parties that he spotted Kurt. It was like some stupid, soppy song. At least his memory of it was.

     They stood on opposite sides of the room, both looking and feeling out of their depth and alone. Then they caught each other's eyes – and neither could look away. Eric had never seen anyone so attractive. Tall, blonde, blue eyes, slim figure. And yet no-one – male or female – was paying this man any attention. Why wasn't there someone kissing him? Eric wanted to. He really wanted to. He'd never really felt quite like that before. He'd seen guys he'd liked, but this was… Different? Special? Desperate! He wanted him in a way that shocked him. He downed the last of his drink and, trembling slightly, headed to the kitchen, home to a varied collection of dodgy booze. He needed alcohol. Kurt followed.

     'Hallo.' The accent was the giveaway. Eric knew why Kurt was alone. It takes time for people to forgive, even those who couldn't remember the war. Germans were suspect.

     But not to Eric. They talked. They liked the same music. They liked the same films. Eric wanted to know if they fancied the same actors. He wanted to know if Kurt was just being friendly or… Was he simply reaching out to the only person in the room who wasn't ignoring him? Or…

     As people started to drift away, Kurt asked, 'Have you seen the beach at dawn? Beautiful.'

     Eric felt like he was on one of those rides on the pier; exhilarated, thrilled and slightly terrified. He managed to shake his head.

     They walked to the seafront; along the prom, away from other people. They sat on a bench, looking out towards the pier. Eric felt Kurt touch his hand. They looked at each other and smiled.

<  5  >

     It was a wonderful summer. Parties. Running on the beach at dawn. Moonlight skinny dipping in the sea. Laughing – so much laughing. Often it was with the rest of the gang – but increasingly Eric and Kurt sought out places to be alone.

     As autumn came, though, things changed. A more subdued atmosphere came over them all. Real life had started to make its presence felt. Kurt had to return to Germany. His studies were over. His parents had allowed him the summer to holiday and have fun. Now it was time for work. Business.

     On their last night together they sat on the prom. The starlings were performing their magic ritual around the pier. Hundreds of tiny individuals making up one complete entity, forever changing. The birds had the freedom to fly wherever they wanted – anywhere – and yet they didn't. Clusters would split away from the main group, forming their own smaller, swirling curves. But they always returned. Complied with the group, as their society dictated.

     It was dusk and the lights of 1960s Britain didn't have much power. Shadows were easier to find. Eric and Kurt sat next to each other on the bench, silently watching the birds. There was the usual shouting, laughing, music all going on nearby. The smell of fish and chips – the salt and vinegar tang. But it could have been a mile away down an echoey corridor.

     Kurt's coat had fallen open, covering his right hand as he held Eric's left. Eric knew this was the last time they would see each other.

*

Sitting in the hospital bed, tears quietly dripped from Eric's face. The feelings were as vivid now as they'd been then. As they'd been on the prom the night before. He'd made no protest. This was how life had to be. As Kurt had slipped away he'd decided he too would leave Brighton. Make a new life.

     The nurse returned.

     'Visitors, Mr Robinson. Quite a few – I'm not really supposed to let you have more than two.' Her voice trailed off as she grabbed a tissue from the bedside unit and dabbed at his face, no time to think why he might be crying. 'I'll let them in,' she murmured.

<  6  >

     She thought she was being kind. A nice gesture to a poor old man. But right now he wanted to be alone. He wanted to be free from this bed, from this hospital. He wanted to be on the prom. Why couldn't they have left him there? At least there he'd felt closer to Kurt.

     'Granddad, granddad!'

     The girls ran towards him, trying to clamber onto the bed to hug him. Their parents, far more aware of the grimness of NHS care, reluctantly ambled in behind.

     'Alright, Dad.' His son patted him on the shoulder.

     'Eric…' His daughter-in-law kissed him tentatively on the forehead. Neither had ever been good at showing emotion, and the sterility of the hospital wasn't helping.

     There had been compensations in being married. Vera had been a pretty girl and a dutiful wife. They were fond of each other. Definitely fond. Not love, but they cared. It could never be like it had been for him and Kurt, but after a few rocky years they settled down to a comfortable, convenient life. She pretended she didn't know about his indiscretions, and he pretended he didn't know about hers.

     She allowed him his freedom. As they got older, their lives became more and more separate, but they never stopped caring for each other. Somehow it worked.

     And without Vera there would never have been a son. And now his granddaughters. And without them, he might never have known what had happened to Kurt.

     When Vera died, they'd encouraged him to get online. Look up his old friends. Eric knew they were worried he'd be lonely. So he looked for Kurt. But it was too difficult. He didn't speak German and didn't really know where to look.

     Instead he looked for some of the old gang. Many had never left Brighton – and once he found one, finding the others hadn't been difficult. But no sign of Kurt.

<  7  >

     He had to know where he was. So he asked. Someone would know. He dreaded the reply – was he married? Was he with another man? But he hadn't really considered what the answer might be.

     His friends didn't conceal anything. Maybe they were hurting on Kurt's behalf, revenge for Eric's disappearance. His betrayal of their friendship, of who they thought he was. Half a century of disappointment.

     Kurt had returned to Brighton several times over the years. Even asked after Eric, though no-one knew where he'd gone. But he'd always been alone. There was never a wife, partner, lover. Right up until the end.

     Some had gone to Germany for the funeral. A niece had showed them an old photo that had sat in his living room for years. Kurt in Brighton. With Eric.

     Eric's cheeks were wet with tears again.

     'Why did you do it, Dad? Why the prom? In the dark?' His son looked confused. Not angry, just worried.

     Eric's voice was quiet but steady. Controlled.

     'I needed to see the starlings. That's all.'

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