Short Story: ‘The Goldfinch is Fine’ by Giselle Leeb

Giselle Leeb Short Story on TSS Publishing

Giselle Leeb grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham. Her short stories have appeared in The Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt), Ambit, Mslexia, The Lonely Crowd, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and other places. She has placed third in the Ambit, Elbow Room and Aurora competitions and been shortlisted for the Bridport and Mslexia prizes. She is an assistant editor at Reckoning Journal. You can find out more on her website here and follow her on Twitter @gisellekleeb


The Goldfinch is Fine

Giselle Leeb

 

Although the TV station gives the latitude and longitude daily, no one wants to know, except for the weatherman, who takes all of the burden alone. Each time he is forced to recite the giant wave coordinates, he goes home after the report and curls up under the covers and dreams he is floating on top of a swell, its height beyond his comprehension. He wakes crying and reaches for the laptop under his bed. He watches the goldfinch, high up in its glacial nest. As long as the goldfinch is OK, it can’t happen, he tells himself.

#

A call from the studio jerks him from an uneasy doze. Can he come in early? Yet another weather special. They might as well call it a ‘weather ordinary’. The solitary tree in his narrow back garden is bent halfway to the ground, but when he checks the forecast, it is only an extra-tropical storm.

He struggles into his new Gore-Tex raincoat. The opposite of understated, but a hundred percent waterproof. Surprisingly, none of the weather crew has made a joke about it yet, and he’s grateful because he’s not at all sure that he could laugh. He can no longer wear clothing in colours resembling the shades of deep water. And he has more chance of being seen in yellow.

He squelches through his muddy lawn, battling the wind. The neighbours’ children are playing behind their glass patio doors. Too exposed, he thinks. He has met them a few times, exchanging gifts of biscuits or chocolates at Christmas. They used to play in his garden occasionally when they were much younger.

#

“Slept well?” Kimani, the makeup artist, asks in an arch tone.

The weatherman glances up at him and notices that he also has dark rings under his eyes.

Kimani smears on concealer, then powders the weatherman’s face, before adding blusher and a touch of lipstick. “There you go. Ready to weather any storm.”

The weatherman struggles to keep his weather-face on, serious with a hint of cheer, sweeping his hands across the North-East Atlantic towards the UK in the direction of the low pressure arrows. The enclosed broadcast studio, with its strictly delimited walls and ceiling, no longer calms him. He watches himself on the small screen in front of him, still smiling, still making the occasional joke. It could be worse, he could be a newsreader.

The station has gone full-CNN lately: live graphics have him standing on a gently lapping sea, explaining the increasing frequency of rogue waves, until an animation of a giant wave surges through his body like a materialising ghost.

“Stay warm and dry, folks,” he quips and feels like slapping himself.

Lars, the cameraman, comes over to him after the broadcast, headphones around his neck. The weatherman lifts his chin and tries, unsuccessfully, to relax his facial muscles. Don’t scare ’em.

Like his weather reports, the crew’s customary bustle has become lacklustre, distracted. Younger than him, they have always treated him with deference, but also as if he is irrelevant. Now, they are finally taking a keen interest in the weather, asking questions. What is going to happen, is what they really want to know.

“I just present the weather,” has become his stock answer. Which is not entirely true: a qualified meteorologist, he knows both more and less than he would like. But what else can he possibly say?

He couldn’t start to explain that ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ are phrases he wishes still had currency. At times, his mind reverts to a childish imagining: the studio windows breaking, sharks and God knows what flooding in, hunting. Although, if it does happen, it’s unlikely the sea creatures will behave in quite that way.

Lars’s last question was about the speed of rogue wave formation, something technical, and he waits for his next with a twinge of dread.

But Lars only asks about the setup for tomorrow. He towers over the weatherman, but his troubled eyes look so like those of an uncertain child that the weatherman contemplates telling him about the goldfinch to cheer him up.

He dismisses the idea. The goldfinch is his little secret. What would the crew think if they discovered that his private obsession is to watch a small, plain-looking bird nesting high up on a pristine glacier?

He gives Lars an awkward, guilty smile. His carefully cultivated persona of the reserved Englishman is starting to feel redundant; he’s always half-known that he’s far too young for it, and besides, the times are a-changin’.

#

He bends into the wind on the way home. The worst of the storm has passed, but the grey drizzle he so used to love has transformed into a permanent ominousness.

His garden gate slams itself shut behind him. The neighbours’ children stand pressed against the patio doors, their faces distorted through the rivulets streaming down the glass. They wave at him and he waves back. It must be hard for them to be indoors so much.

He lets himself into his house. His home, he used to call it, before he felt that the walls were inadequate. He slaps some cheese slices on white bread and puts them under the grill. He places his laptop on top of the coffee table and waits for it to boot.

The channel doesn’t give the bird’s coordinates, but he’s worked out a rough set based on the location of the finch on the Quelccaya Ice Cap, high above Cuzco.

The ‘glacier bird’ is, strictly speaking, a White-winged Diuca Finch. Not a Goldfinch at all, but an ordinary grey and white bird. It is against his training to deliberately mislabel it, but circumstances are hardly usual.

Only one of its kind has ever been captured on camera nesting on a glacier. Nineteen thousand feet above sea level, it breeds in an environment with heavy snow, low oxygen, bitter cold, and high winds. Brave! And deserving of gold-feathered status.

 He opens the web page and is relieved to see the small bird standing on the edge of a hollow in the ice, its nest of twigs behind it, seemingly immune to the cold.

He has almost forgotten that the finch started off as one of a breeding pair. It seems so long ago now and everything is moving fast. The chicks flew the nest, only to be found some way down from the summit, sticky lumps dashed against the rocks. Nobody knows what happened to the mother bird. It flew out of the camera frame, never to be seen again.

The camera crew were forced to leave the mountain when the ice began to melt. But the male finch, against its usual patterns, has stayed. It has made its, possibly first, foray into the unnatural. Or, better, into ‘the new natural’. It makes him smile to imagine Lars saying it in his gruff voice, his touch of vulnerability offset by the smell of his robust aftershave. The new natural. Yes, Lars would find that quite funny.

He eats his supper, listening to the finch’s high-pitched melodious notes as daylight brightens the ice around it.

He washes up, then gets out the world map and marks the finch’s position, shifting it by less than a degree to compensate for the fact he doesn’t know its exact location. He adds his own position, an average of the distance between home and the station.

He uses the coordinates from today’s forecast to pencil in the giant wave. Strictly speaking, it is multiple waves. Yet he persists in imagining that there is only one freak wave, reconstituting itself in different locations, a recurring nightmare haunting the North-East Atlantic.

Already, the rogue wave heights have surpassed the estimates of climate models. But the scientists can’t agree on how they form, let alone accurately predict where they will appear next.

On impulse, he gets out a red pen and steel ruler and joins their positions with three precise lines. The acute-angled triangle stretches away from him across the vast North Atlantic to the finch in faraway Peru, the volatile wave coordinates tugging at them both from a third point in the middle of the ocean.

He doodles lapping waves around the UK’s shores as the rain starts again in earnest, the wind howling. A familiar nervous tension settles into his body: small changes can escalate quickly.

He thinks uneasily about last spring’s live report from a ship in the Atlantic. How he’d used the death of his long-deceased parents as an excuse to get out of it. There was no danger, they’d assured him, the waves were calm in spring.

Nobody at the station talks about that crew—

He checks the windows and stuffs towels under the front and back doors. He stares out at the driving rain until it is too dark to see, then goes to bed and watches the goldfinch before he falls into a restless sleep.

#

He walks to work in the morning, bending himself into the slanting spikes of water. His new raincoat is holding up well. He has added waterproof trousers, an unavoidable dark blue colour, the only ones in stock.

He wonders if Lars would have gone on that spring ship. He feels pathetically grateful to be on dry land, until he remembers that London is scarcely above sea level. In the event of flooding, perhaps he could reach the top of The Shard. He imagines being trampled by shoving crowds and discounts the idea. Instead, he slides himself and the goldfinch along the sides of the red triangle, like beads on his childhood abacus, until they have swapped places and he is snug in the nest high up on the glacier while the goldfinch sings to a studio audience, a dark wall of water rising behind it.

Why not tell Lars about the goldfinch? Surely it would cheer him up? But he feels superstitious, as if sharing the goldfinch will somehow hasten its end. He knows this makes no sense. He knows that absolutely anybody can switch on their computer and watch the intimate life of the bird in its nest.

#

A wonderful calm comes over him as he reports that there have been no new rogue wave coordinates today. Lars hangs about after the broadcast. He is expecting a question, but Lars takes him firmly by the elbow and steers him towards the cafeteria.

The cafeteria is running short on fresh food. They eat Ginsters Slices, picking at the cold pastry and congealed cheese.

Lars pulls out a hip flask of brandy. “Skol,” he says and they take turns at swigging from it. The weatherman notices that they are not the only ones with alcohol in plain sight.

Lars gazes across the table at him and the weatherman dares a glance into his warm hazel eyes. Lars has a question after all. He wants to know about relative risk. Lars is from Sweden and has to make a difficult decision if he ever wants to go home.

The weatherman thinks it best not to tell him about the Draupner Oil Platform off the coast of Norway. Until a laser-based rangefinder measured an eighty-six foot wave, existing consensus was that such a wave could only happen once every ten thousand years.

He’s always liked Lars. He only hopes that his eyes are not transmitting the swelling terror he feels inside. Lars deserves to be comforted. He should tell him about the goldfinch.

Finally, he sighs. “Impossible to be exact,” he says.

Lars shrugs. “We may as well finish the flask.”

An update comes over the loudspeakers: a storm is approaching, a category one hurricane. They are advised to stay put and to stand by, all night if necessary.

The weatherman excuses himself and goes to the toilets. He sits in a stall and gets out his laptop and watches the goldfinch. It has all come down to this: a small bird in a nest of ice, alone. Unexpectedly, he starts to cry. Why is he still presenting the weather? It is becoming hard to predict anything.

He shuts the laptop and shoves it into his bag.

#

Bleary with sleep, he struggles to keep up with the arrows.

“Two minutes left,” says the director in his earpiece. “And, for God’s sake, smile.”

No graphics today, so he explains how wave height is affected by wind speed and duration.

“Keep dry,” he says. “And don’t go outside.”

In the cafeteria, he slumps over his laptop, too tired to open it. Today’s wave coordinates are nowhere near the UK shoreline. And the North-East Atlantic is a large area. But the tallest giant wave ever measured by a buoy occurred just off the Outer Hebrides.

He jerks awake to a banging noise outside, grey light trickling in. The place is deserted. He checks the forecast on his laptop: the hurricane is still out over the ocean.

He puts in his headphones and angles his screen away from the door.

The picture is tilted, the nest half in the frame. He feels a lurch of fear before the bird flutters into view and settles into the nest.

How long will the camera batteries last?

He notices a drip from the top of the ice hollow. He’d forgotten that the glacier is retreating by at least a metre a year. The new normal.

The viewer numbers are dropping rapidly. Perhaps he will be the last person to see the goldfinch. But the thought makes him nauseous. Before that can happen, he will show the bird to Lars.

#

The early-morning meteorologist can’t get in, so the weatherman stands in front of the green screen, his hands moving numbly.

Three sets of rogue wave coordinates, in three different locations, happening almost simultaneously. He can no longer pretend there is only one wild spirit disturbing the ocean. His red triangle has broken open; it is gathering coordinates, morphing into an unmanageable shape.

Afterwards, Lars invites him out for a smoke and he agrees, although he gave up years ago. They stand on the roof terrace, sheltering against a wall, constantly relighting their cigarettes.

There had been no questions from the crew this morning. Ironically, he’d noticed them averting their gazes, just as he became desperate to make them acknowledge something he no longer wants to bear alone. But irony has become irrelevant.

It feels reckless to stand outside, the strong wind ripping away tension as they watch the sky turning an eerie green. It reminds him of the excitement of his first weather special, reporting on the new hurricanes while hanging onto various balcony railings.

A piece of loose hoarding flies past and they duck reflexively, then look at each other and burst out laughing.

Lars puts an arm around him and he dares to lean against him. He feels exhilarated, like the bird in its nest far above the sea. The new natural. Why had it always seemed so impossible?

It is now certain that Lars will not be going home. All flights grounded and the other option, well…The weatherman was aware of Lars watching intently from behind the camera as he pointed to the small symbols denoting ships that had been in the path of the waves.

He thinks of explaining the conflicting theories of rogue wave formation to Lars. He takes a deep breath and asks Lars if he’d like to see the bird.

“Why not?” says Lars.

They go down to the cafeteria. There are no catering staff and they help themselves to another Ginsters. The weatherman longs for a strong cup of coffee, but the machine stands dull and quiet. Presenters and crew talk softly or slump across tabletops, the quiet occasionally punctured by an anxious phone call in the corridor outside.

“Fire her up,” says Lars and the weatherman opens his laptop and pauses for a second before clicking on the link.

He feels guilty about exposing the bird to yet another gaze, but he is also eager for Lars to see it. He thinks of the chicks and words like crushed, pulverised and dissolved come to mind.

#

He hadn’t thought it necessary to ask Lars to keep it secret.

The first he hears of it is before the lunchtime broadcast. Kimani bends close and whispers confidentially into his ear that the goldfinch footage is not live. That the camera, even if it had any power left, would have collapsed into the melting ice some time ago.

The weatherman feels perturbed. Does Kimani have insider news? How do you know, he wants to ask, but doesn’t.

He goes to the cafeteria after the forecast to be alone and watch the goldfinch. It must be live. It must.

Lucy, the researcher, sits down at his table. She smiles knowingly as he half-closes his laptop. The goldfinch is a robot, she tells him. “It couldn’t survive for so long on its own,” she says. “I bet the crew took the real one and released it somewhere safer. I mean, like, how long do birds actually live for, anyway?”

Lars comes over and massages his shoulders, as if they have been going out for years. “Ha! You’ll never believe AJ’s theory,” he says. And he sits down close to him and tells them the story, ignoring his scowl.

The real goldfinch is in a zoo somewhere with fake ice on a fake Peruvian glacier. The only way it would know is if it hits the edge of the sky circle, built with transparent plastic of course, like in that film with Jim Carrey. What was it called again?

Lucy laughs. Lars squeezes his arm and leaves before he has a chance to respond.

#

The weatherman is finding it hard to switch on his laptop. He clings to his last image of the goldfinch: the one where the bird flies unnaturally into and out of the nest it should have left long ago if it were obeying nature’s laws.

Jorge, the soundman, hovers next to him as the afternoon broadcast is about to start. The goldfinch is not really gold, he claims, in a rare mumbled burst of speech above the muffled music from his headphones. It is spray-painted gold.

He’s obviously never seen many real birds. And he definitely hasn’t seen the goldfinch. Although, in an odd way, he is closest to the truth.

The weatherman’s smile feels too big for his face. “Follow evacuation instructions for coastal areas,” he says. “If you are inland, batten down the hatches, folks. On no account go outside.”

Lars joins him in the cafeteria after the broadcast. The weatherman narrows his eyes at him.

But Lar’s expression is sad. “Sorry about the bird,” he says. “I thought it would distract them.”

They sit in silence for a moment, listening to the rainbands on the outer edge of the hurricane drum against the windows.

The weatherman reaches across the table and grips Lars’s hand. He wants to slip away home while it’s still possible, like a naughty boy in a fairy tale, running from a series of dragons. He badly wants Lars to come with him. But he urgently needs to update his map. How could he possibly expose Lars to the burgeoning coordinates that once formed a neat red triangle?

#

Bent low, torrential rain pounding his body, he can barely push open his gate. He wades through the lake in his front garden and nearly trips over the lone tree, its roots exposed, its branches stretching through the neighbours’ smashed patio doors. He glances nervously up at his loosening roof tiles before he finally dashes to his front door, shaking, reprimanding himself for his stupidity in coming home.

He forgot his yellow raincoat and he’s soaked. He towels himself down, then starts up his laptop. But the neighbours’ children bang at his door. They must have seen him battling up the path. Their parents went out for groceries at the corner shop early this morning, they say. It takes him a moment to realise the import of such a statement, but he decides it’s wiser to say nothing.

He fetches more towels, then turns on the TV and takes his laptop into the next room. He pauses before clicking on the link, half-expecting to see a golden bird singing victoriously, high above the world.

He sits for a long time staring at the soggy mush of twigs, at the collapsed edges of the melting ice. Perhaps the bird has flown off the glacier? Perhaps it has just fluttered out of the frame for a moment?

He gets out the map and calculates the coordinates for where it might be. He does not add the words ‘if’ and ‘alive’ to the equation.

He crumples up the map. He feels as if he has opened all of the windows and doors to his house and the hurricane is beating in, about to rip off the roof.

Why didn’t he invite Lars back? Why didn’t he? He calls him again and again, listening repeatedly to the warm tones on his voicemail.

The children have become quite voluble. The eldest, about thirteen, talks incessantly about storms, rain, the parents trajectory, where he last saw them on his app before the signal died. He gets up frequently and peers out the storm windows. The weatherman thinks it best to draw the curtains to stop the boy staring plaintively in the direction of his old home. And to stop himself watching the garden gate, hoping that Lars will drop by.

The wind shrieks harder and the electricity goes.

He lights candles. He realises that the children are hungry and heats up tinned spaghetti on the portable stove. He watches them as they eat, sitting in a row on the sofa. Absurdly, it reminds him of camp fires. But what sort of ghost stories could he possibly tell?

He thinks of himself, the goldfinch, and the wave, their connecting red lines untethered from his neatly drawn triangle. At any given moment, they could be flung apart, or smashed together.

The youngest starts to cry. The weatherman dutifully pats his head and is surprised at how natural it feels. He wonders if he should have been a parent.

He tries not to get up and go to the window, to conjure up the figure of Lars opening the gate, struggling up the path, to fall exhausted, but happy, into his arms.

At last, the children sleep and he opens the curtains. The wind has reached hurricane proportions, the garden gate flashing white as it swings violently back and forth.

A sailor described the wave as a wall of water that came out of the darkness like the White Cliffs of Dover, a monster so unimaginable that at first he mistook its foamy crest for clouds on the horizon.

He blinks back his tears and thinks of the goldfinch, singing joyfully, he hopes, and live, from a particular time and place that may not, already, be the time and place it was a moment ago.

He thinks of the goldfinch disappearing into a dying swirl of melting ice and electricity.

And it is just then that he sees a gold shape bobbing up the path.

He rushes to the front door and shoulders it open.

Lars holds the raincoat over his head, the dark pressing in behind him. “You might need this,” he says, grinning.

 

END


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