The Year the Flamingos Came

A tedious job and an uncertain future collide with a strange natural phenomenon in this story of immigration and silent voices.

Image Credit: 
© 2016 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

The summer the flamingos came Kerry rode the bus, the child inside her curled tight like a whelk. It was 1975. Pegwell Bay came into sight: the Hoverport. A chorus arose, women out of their seats, skin and cotton, nylon, tweed, shoulders.

‘Bleeding heck!’

‘What are they, storks or summat?’

‘Herons, ain’t they?’

‘They’re never herons! They’s flaming flamingos they is! We sawr them when we took our lot to Florida last year. Remember I brought in the photos?’

Cars had pulled in by the Viking Ship, and people were getting out. Their driver slowed down and Kerry pressed her nose against the glass. Flamingos they certainly were. A flock of some two dozen neon ballerinas, incongruous on the mudflats. Beyond them the Channel hovered, still and grey. Beside them, a hovercraft waiting, and two figures digging bait.

Kerry felt her heart leap as she watched them. Home birds. They were home birds. Around her the women were still flaffing. The child inside her flipped as if in response, a light ripple.

‘Do you think they got beached like that poor whale last year?’

‘I dunno! Maybe they got blown in with the wind or something!’

‘There weren’t no wind last night! News said we’re in for a long hot summer!’

Their faces steamed the glass. The flamingos became hazy and disappeared as the bus cruised out into the slow-moving traffic. They slipped out of Kerry’s vision.

Around her the factory flock settled down, apart from Beth, who took the opportunity to light up, settling her reed-thin hips against the back of her seat, continuing the tale of awe with her neighbour. The thin wisp of smoke curled away from her conductor’s hand, mimicking the tail of a kite in a robust wind.

‘Well, you never bleeding know, you never bleeding know, do ya? I tell you it’s a sign that; mark my words.’

‘They was bold as brass weren’t they? Not that I know nuttin ‘bout birds but them lot wasn’t them that come every year was they?’

‘No, they ain’t. Hey! You don’t reckon they escaped from a zoo or something, do you? Or that circus? They was putting up posters at the Lord of the Manor…’

‘Them kind o’ birds don’t do tricks you dumb twit!’

‘Oo you calling dumb Irene? You didn’t even know what they called, you was calling them herons!’

Laughter bounced off the seats like party balloons, each ear catching its sound, magnifying it, carrying it forwards and backwards, soaring on a ripple of words.

Kerry looked across through the window on the land side. The towers of the power station loomed upwards, grey and austere, tucked in at the waist, matronly bell-like shapes. Behind them the country was flat and uninteresting, the squat fireworks outbuildings an echo broken by the barest glimpse of the ruined walls of Richborough Fort. Someone had told her it had been there since the Romans. The bus was approaching the factories, and the turgid smell from the polluted sea entered, replacing the air of jollity with its insidious presence. Beth ground her cigarette out into the ashtray on the arm of the seat, and the rustling of bags replaced the chatter, the spread of breeze-block and corrugated buildings coming into view, the bus slowing down, pulling into the concrete yard.

* * * * *

The bathing hat slipped beneath her fingers, the wheel slicing it neatly. She sighed. She was never going to get the hang of this. Around her strips of decimated rubber decorated her workbench. The noise from the machines filled the workshop, hummed and rattled; women’s fingers flew, heads bowed, words and brief bursts of laughter breaking through Radio 2 on the loudspeaker. The DJ, Terry Wogan, joked about it only being 200 shopping days to Christmas.

The smell of sulphur snaked in from the back, the men shifting trays of rubber into a cavern of heat. All day long banter cut and thrust between them and the women on the shop-floor. The taste of rubber clung to their tongues. The heat influenced the way they moved in their overalls, unbuttoned to the waist. Cigarettes hung from their lips by the open hangar door. Waves of cool air ushered in constant moans of complaint.

‘Shut that bleeding door!’

‘Bit o’ fresh air, put hair on yer chest, you lot!’

‘Whadda you know Frank? You ain’t got neither!’

‘More belly than chest, that one!’

‘You should bleeding stay ’ome you lot, get yer husband’s tea on time!’

The girl next to her had mastered it already. A neat pile of swimming hats lay in her tray. The supervisor had come round, and had looked down at Kerry’s massacred strips with thin, pursed lips.

She got up to go to the loo, feeling the supervisor’s eyes on her. Five minutes, she mouthed.

Two of the women from the bus were smoking over the sink. They glanced swiftly over at Kerry and carried on their conversation.

She went in and sat on the loo. She didn’t even want a wee. She just wanted to sit for a minute out of the clatter and hum. She felt useless. Now she was pregnant she was going to be even more useless. She’d been on hot water bottles all through her trial period here. She didn’t know why they moved her to swim-hats. Maybe the season had something to do with it.

Words winged their way over the toilet cubicle. ‘They’re taking on another bunch of new ones next week.’

‘Chrissake, another six months and they’ll be threatening redundancies again. Did you see the news last night about the pits? Blighters weren’t happy with closin’ down Chislet; first excuse was no more steam trains, now they’re going on about steel. Happen there won’t be no call fer it one day.’

‘That’ll never happen. That can’t happen. You can’t take away work like that from men. And they’ll always need coal, folk’ll always need coal.’

‘Well the way they was talking it didn’t sound too good. Don’t know what my Jim would do if he ever lost his job.’

‘Shouldn’t worry about it love. Anyroad, we’d better go before that jumped-up chargehand has something to say.’

* * * * *

Back at her bench, Kerry picked up another two sections of semi-circular rubber.

Beth glanced over at her. ‘How you getting on ducks?’

Kerry met her eyes sheepishly. ‘I’m not really.’

She looked enviously over at Beth’s bench. Scores of neatly beaded swim-hats sat waiting for collection. Curved like slices of watermelon, a rainbow stack of lemons and lilacs. Beth’s hands sped round the wheel, perfect hats fell into her basket. Kerry had a moment of déjà vu but it wouldn’t reveal itself to her.

Beth’s hands stilled for a moment and she beckoned her over. ‘’Ere. Come and watch me for a minute.’

Kerry slid off her seat and walked round the bench.

Beth held up the two offending pieces of rubber. ‘First thing ducks, think: think of the money. Think how much extra in that little brown envelope on a Thursday for every thousand of these. Next, think: plonkers. Who’d wear shit like this? Not me, you wouldn’t even get me in no chlorine pool. Ramsgate beach under a sunshade, that’ll do. So think of them heads like Humpty Dumpty and stick ‘em together. These two pieces here, they’re sweethearts, see? They want to be together, sweet and close as a seam. Take your time, slide it, feed it with both fingers like if you’re knitting, fingers working together then Zip! There you are. If you’re no good at this, they’ll have you doing French letters and you won’t like that. Never hear the end of it!’

Kerry giggled, then put her hand to her mouth as Beth was as serious as a Preacher on Good Friday. She didn’t let on she knew nothing about knitting.

At lunchtime she went into the canteen for a cuppa, unfolding her sandwiches at one of the Formica tables. Sue from hot water bottles joined her.

‘Hiya Kerry, how you doing in swimming hats?’

Sue was tiny, with a sleek head of black hair that swung above her shoulders.

Kerry sighed. ‘Not very good. Dunno why they moved me. I was getting on fine in bottles.’

‘Orders I suppose. They do it all the time, you can’t get too comfy. You’ll get the hang of it, don’t worry.’

‘They were talking redundancies in the loo…’

‘They do that all the time! Gossipy old bags!’

Kerry laughed.

‘You gotta remember … oh but you won’t know this not coming from round here …the wimmin ’ere ain’t long been earning good money. Most, like me mum, come off the land, picking spuds and cabbages and apples in all weathers. These here wages are bloody good money, ’specially if you can top it up with extra. Some even take plugs ’ome to assemble, sit in front the telly, click click bloody click. But the bloody men still holding out their bleeding hands come Thursday payday! Tell you what though, I ain’t sticking round here long if I can help it, I’m gonna get a nice clean job working in Chelsea Girl or somewhere like that.’

* * * * *

They downed tools sharp at 4.45. Ten minutes to tidy up, do time sheets, visit the loo. At 4.55 they put coats on, made their way to the double doors. At 5 the siren went, trilling through the factory. Doors swung open all along the concrete walkway, women emerging from workshop doors gabbling and joining the throng, heading to the buses. Kerry thought of it as the Avenue of the Farmyard, it reminded her of her grandmother’s geese, her father’s cows.

The Saturday past, one of the girls had got married. On the Friday, her workmates dressed her up in strips of rubber for a wedding gown, complete with train, weighed her down with Durex condoms ringed with plastic flowers, adorning her head like a veil, and made her walk down the yard, the laughter and well wishers all breaking out of the workshop doors. The comments were ribald and coarse, and Kerry had felt shame for the girl. There was no way she would ever sacrifice herself so.

She’d forgotten about the flamingos. As the bus slowed down through Cliffsend, she noticed the cars lining the side of the road, the crowds and the cameras. Hand-held cameras took their place alongside those on tripods. They were filming the flamingos, pinning their elegance down on the mudflats.

* * * * *

She turned the key to her flat, her fingers sore from practising on the wheel all day. A letter lay on the door mat. The familiar stamp brought a smile to her face. But the worry lurched inside her, reminding her. She read it at the dining table, drinking tea. The first part of her mother’s letters were always full of warnings. She mustn’t wear her skirts too short or forget where she came from. She must eat enough greens. She must be careful not to make friends with people before she knew them. Most of all she must stay away from those English boys, they thought foreign girls were easy pickings. Had she found a congregation yet? She thanked her for the small money order she’d sent, hoped she was getting to grips with her job at the bank. Everybody at home was so proud of her. They were hoping her sister Evangeline would be able to join her soon.

She folded the letter back into the envelope and sat looking out onto the communal courtyard. The people in the flat above had left their rubbish at the side of the bin again. But she couldn’t complain, look what she had had to do to get this place.

The flamingos were on the Southern News. An expert said it was highly unusual that flamingos would migrate this far. Most likely they were blown off course, or perhaps the predicted warm weather blew them here. No one knew how long they would stay. Perhaps they were just resting.

Before she went to sleep Kerry remembered what Beth’s hands, spinning over the wheel, reminded her of. It was a storybook image: Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold, and the princess standing before him afraid, commanded to do the same.

Her sister Evangeline’s face swum before her as she fell asleep. When she dreamed, Rumpelstiltskin came into the room. He wore the face of her landlord.

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Maggie Harris is a poet and an author. Regional Winner, Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014. Winner, Guyana Prize for Literature 2014.

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