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Natural History

Kevin Boniface


t was the morning after a particularly stormy night, the same night our neighbour torched his shed. I didn’t know this neighbour very well, we worked different shifts so we rarely bumped into each other. He was recognisable though for his striking appearance: tall and thin with a long scar that ran from the top to the bottom of the left side of his face. Style wise, he favoured the hairdo and eyewear of Nick Knox of the Cramps combined with the threadbare knitwear and army issue boots of a badger baiting youth worker from the 1970s. He’d once sold me a car battery for a fiver. Anyway, that night’s strong winds ensured his fire not only spread to next door’s fence and wheelie bin but also badly scorched their new secondhand Austin Montego. It was specifically the damage to the Montego which prompted the noisy fist fight in the street below my bedroom window at 2am.

“Look at the state of my fucking car you stupid fucking twat!”

The fire was still smouldering as I walked past it at 7am. As on most mornings back then, I was on my way up to the moor at the end of Frederick Street to release another mouse from one of the humane traps into which I’d naively put so much faith and peanut butter. It was as I rounded the corner into William Street that I happened upon the small ziplock bag full of exotic looking feathers. A flash of green caught my eye amongst the wind tossed takeaway-styrene of another tangled litter trap. I crouched and reached out an arm between the rotten fencing and the last remaining asbestos panel of what was once one of those mid-century garages for an Austin 1100. At full stretch, holding on to a deformed hawthorn for balance, I managed to snag the bag between my index and middle fingers. I stuffed it into my pocket and continued on my way to the moor where I released the mouse as usual.

Back at home I turned the key in the nightlatch, shouldered open the door and watched as a dozen or so mice scattered across the kitchen floor for the cover of the battered skirting. I swept the table top for droppings and put the kettle on; I disinfected the table so often in the couple of years I lived in that house that by the time I left I’d worn away any trace of varnish. I reached for the vintage Ty-Phoo tea caddy from the high shelf and dropped a tea bag into a mug. I’d started storing all my mugs, bowls and pans upside down in the cupboards after I’d found droppings and sticky yellow piss stains in them. I also kept all my food in metal containers otherwise the mice would eat it before I did. I’d once found a mouse asleep in a double-boxed pack of Shreddies and from that point on I scoured the charity shops for all the old bread bins, biscuit tins and sweet jars I could lay my hands on. I sat at the table and drank my tea, making sure I coughed, sniffed and shuffled my chair regularly lest the mice got the impression I’d left the room and decided to reemerge. Remembering the bag of feathers, I pulled it out from the pocket of the jacket on the back of my chair and tipped out the contents onto the table: six complete and very beautiful iridescent hummingbird skins. Stunning greens, pinks, purples, yellows and blues. Labels attached to each specimen read Property of Bradford Museums in an old-fashioned typewriter typeface.

I laid out the skins in front of me while I finished my tea. I stroked and teased the feathers into place until they were neat and pristine. They were obviously old and very fragile but were in good condition. They were beautiful.

I’d thought about keeping the bird skins but a few days later I phoned directory enquiries for a contact number at the museum. Remarkably the person answering the phone knew immediately what I was talking about. She explained that on that stormy night, the night my neighbour set fire to his shed, she decided to take a box of bird skins home with her to try to identify them over the weekend. She said she had a hell of a commute. Her usual hour-long drive took her almost two and a half hours and had been a stressful experience. Twice she was diverted around fallen trees and at one point the car in front was hit by a child’s trampoline.

“It just came out of nowhere!”

When she finally turned off the main road, the flames from the neighbour’s shed fire were leaping over the wall and across the street.

“By that point I just didn’t care, I just drove straight through it!” she said.

She eventually arrived at her home up by the moor at the end of Frederick Street but when she opened the boot of her car a squall had swept the box of bird skins out of her hands. She scrabbled around with a torch and located all but one bag of specimens.

And so it was that I set off again, past the scorched ground where the shed had been, to reunite the birds with the curator of Natural History who was impressed that I’d known they were hummingbirds. I left her to ponder the specifics and went back home to my mice.

"Natural History" is taken from Kevin Boniface's Sports and Social, Bluemoose Books, Sept. 2023.


Kevin Boniface