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B.

Cunningham

THE STARBIRD

AUSTIN

MACAULEY

Copyright B. Cunningham Cover image by Sarah Wearer. The right of B. Cunningham to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers. Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library. ISBN 978 1 84963 059 7

www.austinmacauley.com First Published (2011) Austin & Macauley Publishers Ltd. 25 Canada Square Canary Wharf London E14 5LB

Printed & Bound in Great Britain

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to sincerely acknowledge the invaluable help of Kim Murray of Austin & Macauley in regard to the editing of The Starbird.

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Although he was 10 years of age, Alistair had never seen real snow until about two weeks ago. This was because of the warmer winters caused by global warming. But this winter did not follow the usual pattern which we have got used to. Two weeks ago the weather had suddenly turned bitterly cold and it had snowed quite heavily. The weather had remained very cold, keeping the snow lying everywhere as a hard, frozen, white carpet, which made a crunching noise as you walked over it. Thus, this frozen snow had become a somewhat permanent feature of the winter landscape, much to the joy of the children, who soon found lots of slopes which they could toboggan down on toboggans, which in some cases, because of the lack of snow from global warming, had last been used by their fathers when they were children. This covering of snow at Christmas time, albeit just a hard frozen layer of no more than a couple of centimetres, should have made this Christmas a very special one for Alistair. It had made him think of all those merry Victorian Christmases, which he had seen depicted on the front of so many sparkling Christmas cards, showing Victorian people riding in (and on) Victorian coaches which were being pulled by Victorian horses, with their reins in the hands of Victorian coachmen. But two big black shadows as black as the snow was white had suddenly been cast over this first white Christmas of Alistairs life,

making Alistair feel that he was not part of it as if he was looking through a window at a party to which he had not been invited. The first of these two black shadows appeared two weeks ago when Alistairs father lost his job at a company where he had worked for the past ten years as a very highly regarded Computer Systems Engineer. Sadly, the company had had to close down because of the effects of the socalled credit crunch. Alistairs father had no idea how, under the present circumstances, he would ever get another job doing his own kind of work or indeed any kind of job, as companies all over the world were having to shed staff, rather than take them on. And it is indeed true, as people say, that troubles never come singly. For this great misfortune was quickly followed by an even greater one when Alistairs six-year-old brother, Robin, suddenly became very seriously ill. Alistairs mother had immediately phoned their family doctor, Dr. Rushmore, who, as soon as he had come and examined Robin, immediately phoned for an ambulance. This was the first time in his life that Alistair had ever seen his parents cry. When Robin had been taken into the hospital, Alistair went every day with his parents to visit him. On the way back in the car, one day, from one of these hospital visits, with his father driving, as usual, Alistair noticed that his mother and father were talking very little. This made him feel somewhat lonely as he sat in one of the rear seats of the car, next to the seat on the right, which Robin usually occupied. For whenever they had all been together in the car as a complete family, the car had never remained quiet for long, as Robin would always be noticing things through the car window and telling them what he had seen.

When they arrived back at the house, Alistair noticed that his mother looked as if she had been crying, and this upset him for the whole evening. He was glad when the time came for him to go to bed as he did not like to see his mother and father looking so unhappy. When Alistair had been in bed a few minutes, his mother and father came into his room. His mother sat on one side of his bed while his father sat on the other. His mothers large, moon-like face, with its big brown eyes which were always full of life, and her full shoulder-length hair of a shade of chestnut brown, somehow never failed to reassure Alistair. As she now had a smile on her face the first that he had seen on his mothers face since before Robin had become ill this smile made him feel even better. It also made him think of Robin, who was more like his mother than his father having her large brown eyes and chestnut brown hair. Alistair, however, with his fair hair, blue eyes and rather serious manner, was more like his father. Having his mother sitting on the side of his bed made Alistair remember how when he was younger, his mother would come upstairs every evening to read a bedtime story to him and his brother, for at that time they both shared the same room. Knowing that a bedtime story would always be waiting for them, to nicely end the day, had never failed in making going to bed if not exactly a pleasure, at least a bit less of an ordeal for the two brothers. And now Alistair was given some wonderful news, when his mother told him that she and his father had decided to do their very best to get Dr. Borashdi, who was treating Robin in the hospital, to agree to let Robin spend Christmas with them at home. This unexpected piece of good news made Alistair feel better still, and he now knew why his mother was smiling at last.

After Alistair had talked with his parents for a while about how Robin should feel better for being at home with his family for Christmas, and how it might perhaps lead to an improvement in his condition Alistairs mother kissed him on the forehead, just as she had always done every night when he had been the same age as Robin, then she and his father whispered Goodnight to him, and left his room. But immediately after they were gone, Alistair remembered what his Granny Kath had always told him about prayers always being heard, provided they were truly sincere. So he got up, knelt by the side of his bed and asked God to please make it so that Robin could come home for Christmas. Dr. Borashdi, with his wife and children two little girls, aged five and three had come to England from Mumbai in India just over a year ago, because Dr. Borashdi had been offered a position in the hospital where Robin was now being treated. Upon commencing work at the hospital, it had not taken long for Dr. Borashdi to become very highly regarded by all the other doctors and the nurses. Sometimes he would think of things to help his patients get well, which none of the other doctors thought would do any good at all. However, they never failed to be astonished when, to their utter amazement, they saw that these remedies worked. Alistairs parents also noticed something rather special about Dr. Borashdi, and this was why they decided to ask him if it might be possible for Robin to be allowed home for Christmas. If it had been any other doctor but Dr. Borashdi, they would have felt that they would have been wasting their time asking, but such was their faith in him, that they thought he might be able to think of some good reason to agree with their request. So, on their next visit to the hospital they asked him if this might be possible.

Well, at first the doctor was very much against it. But after giving the matter further thought, Dr. Borashdi changed his mind and said that he would allow Robin to spend Christmas at home after all, as it would probably do him more good than harm by helping to raise his spirits. But he then went on to say that Robin must return to the hospital the day after Boxing Day, when an ambulance would be sent for him. And he added that Robin must continue to be given his medication all the time that he was at home, and also that Alistairs parents must immediately phone the hospital if they should notice any worsening in Robins condition, no matter how slight. Alistair and his parents were very happy to hear this wonderful news and, after thanking Dr. Borashdi, they immediately went and told Robin. When Robin was told that he would be going home for Christmas, he immediately brightened up, and for the first time since he had first taken ill, he was able to produce a real smile. This time, when Alistair and his parents left him, unlike all the other times there were no tears in Robins eyes, just a happy contented smile. Thus it was arranged that Robin would be sent home by ambulance on Christmas Eve. The journey back from the hospital in the car, for Alistair and his parents was quite a long one, as the hospital was on the opposite side of the town from where they lived, and this journey was made to seem even longer by their getting held up in a big traffic jam, not far from the hospital. This had been caused by some thoughtless person leaving the gate of a field wide open on the other side of the road, which had allowed a herd of cows to escape. Now a long line of traffic was held up while the farmer and his son did their best to round up their wayward cattle, some of which

had had time to wander a considerable distance down the road and in amongst the traffic. While they waited in the car, Alistair, from where he was sitting in the left rear seat, stared through the adjacent window at the silent winter landscape of fields of frozen snow. Standing in a nearby field on the left side of the road, and not far from the gate of the field, was a silver birch tree. Of course, being winter its branches were now completely devoid of leaves and looked ashen grey against a magnificent winter sunset in the west, where a huge, glowing, pink sun was slowly setting in a misty, pale turquoise sky. Above the fields of frozen snow, long, thin shreds of icy pearly-white clouds, tinged with pink, drifted slowly and peacefully across the sky from the right. The sheer beauty of the scene was such, that it was not even spoiled for Alistair by the sight of a big black crow, alighting like a giant bat upon one of the leafless branches of the silver birch tree, making the branch bend under its weight. After cawing in a most melancholy fashion the crow flew off causing the bent branch to spring back into place, and in so doing, catapult into the air a little cloud of dry powdery snow, which then fell to the ground like a miniature snow shower. But then, like the serenely drifting clouds, Alistairs thoughts also began to drift, back to the time of the holiday, which he had so greatly enjoyed last summer at Llanfairfechan on the coast of North Wales. With his family he had spent a wonderful two weeks in a stone cottage with a slate roof, the slates of which had been quarried from a slate quarry high on the upper reaches of a mountain which rose steeply from the rear of the cottage. Under this slate roof, Alistair had slept more soundly than he could ever remember. Neither could he recall a single day when he had not awoken to the cries of the seagulls as

they soared above the cottage in the early morning air, as if they were trying to tell him that he should have been up hours ago. Yes, what a marvellous fortnight that had been! They had crammed so much into it like the day when they had driven up to the top of Llandudnos two-hundred-metrehigh Great Orm, which dominates the resort, like a kind of Welsh Rock of Gibraltar, and from the lofty summit of which you can see the magnificent views of the mountains of Snowdonia. Then, in the afternoon they had all enjoyed a wonderful performance of the fairy tale opera Hansel and Gretel, which was given by the Welsh National Opera in the theatre on the seafront. And there was the day when they had visited the lighthouse on the most easterly point of the Isle of Anglesey, just across the Menai Strait from Llanfairfechan, where Alistair and his brother, Robin, had spent a most enjoyable hour, searching for little crabs in the rock pools, with nets which seemed much too small to catch anything that happened to be moving fast; for the little creatures always managed to scurry away to hide under a rock. And there was also the day when Alistair and his family had gone for a ride in their car into the mountains, in the hope of finding an inn that Alistairs father had been told about called The Black Swan, which lay at the southern end of a big lake. The weather when they had set off had been fine and sunny, but as they climbed higher and higher up the narrow, twisting mountain roads, the weather had suddenly changed for the worse, and the windscreen of the car was soon covered with myriads of tiny drops of drizzle, making it necessary for Alistairs father, who was driving, to have to switch on the windscreen wipers. With the back of his hand, Alistair wiped off the condensation on the window next to where he was sitting in the back of the car. Then, through the clear area of glass he tried to look up at the peaks of the surrounding mountains. But they were all

completely hidden by the drizzly clouds, so Alistair gave up trying to see anything through the window. Alistairs father almost missed the very narrow road on the left, which he had been told would lead them down into a wide valley, where the big lake and The Black Swan Inn were to be found. And, as if by some perfectly timed miracle, just as they arrived by the side of the lake which was on the right side of the road the weather suddenly improved, and before long the sun was shining on them, though in a rather uncertain, pale and watery way at first. But the sun soon found its strength, and quickly dispersed the rain clouds. It shone radiantly upon the lake and the spotlessly clean whitewashed walls and slate roof of The Black Swan, which was on the opposite side of the road from the lake, and standing some way back from the road. So, after having turned left, off the road, Alistairs father drove up to The Black Swan and parked the car in one of the three car spaces at the front of the inn. The entrance was not difficult to find as it was directly beneath a large white sign, upon which there was a life-size picture of a black swan large enough, in fact, to have been recognisable as such, even from as far away as the distant northern shore of the lake. So, having found the entrance to the Inn our, by now, hungry travellers were all somewhat relieved to be passing through its double doors. These double doors led them into a fairly large dining room, with whitewashed walls, black oak beams and lots of copper and brass with almost enough of the latter to give people the impression of having walked into a tinkers workshop. But it has to be said that the yellow wall lights served to create a most cheerful and homely atmosphere. As it was still early in the day, being not quite noon the dining room was empty so they had it all to themselves.

Having found a nice table near a window, which looked out onto the lake, they ordered their food from a very pleasant, fair-haired, middle-aged lady, who looked very Welsh, but surprised them all by speaking with a Lancashire accent. It was not long before they were being served plates of Welsh rarebit which every child should know is toasted cheese on hot buttered toast. And the toasted cheese was steaming hot when it was brought to the table, having been freshly toasted and not just warmed up, like you get in some places. This delicious meal was washed down as people like to say with some very good Earl Grey tea, and they could not have enjoyed their meal more if it had been a kings banquet. After this tasty lunch, and after having thanked Doris, as her name turned out to be, for the food and excellent service, they left The Black Swan to spend some time watching some anglers fishing by the side of the lake. These anglers had been sheltering from the drizzle under big umbrellas of various colours. But they now no longer needed their colourful shelter from the rain, as the sunlight was shining brightly, and reflecting from the ripples on the surface of the lake, making them shimmer and sparkle like gleaming shoals of silvery fish. And as these anglers fished with a degree of patience which few people who do not fish themselves could ever understand some rather noisy seagulls cried and swooped down low over the lake, making the anglers very angry. Some of them shouted at the seagulls because they thought they were frightening away the fish. Alistair, however, could not help but feel that it was the shouting of the anglers, rather than the cries of the seagulls, which was disturbing both the fish and the peacefulness of the scene, and he wished that they would just keep quiet. For Alistair felt that the cries of the seagulls

seemed only to add to the serenity of the place, rather than disturb it this place by the lakeside, which seemed so remote from all the hustle and bustle of the everyday world. The journey back from the mountains was uneventful, but very scenic and enjoyable, as the mountain tops were now completely free of clouds, so that Alistair and Robin were now able to look up through the car windows at the imposing peaks above, and also down into the valleys far below, which made them feel that they were in an aeroplane rather than a car. For the cows and sheep in the valleys below looked like little toy animals which might have fallen out of a childs Noahs Ark. When they arrived back at the cottage Robin was quick to remind his father that he had promised to take him down to the seafront that very evening after dark, so that he could look at the stars through the binoculars, which they had not forgotten at Robins insistence to bring with them on holiday. Alistair and his mother said that they would like to come too. So, after their evening meal, they waited patiently until it got really dark. Then they all set off to walk down to the seafront, having decided not to bother with the car. As far as the outward events of Alistairs holiday were concerned, this visit to the seafront was to be its crowning glory! When they got down to the seafront they followed the seafront path to the left and eventually came to a place near some trees, which were, in fact, enough to form a little copse. Here, there were no lights to blot out the stars. So, for the first time in his life, Alistair saw the Milky Way that great radiant star cloud:

Which spans the silent vastness of the clear night sky As a glowing, misty band of starry light, Like a heavenly bridge of stardust Fit for the gods to cross at night As the rainbow is by day. But the final and most impressive event of Alistairs holiday was that of a dream which he had on the very last evening, shortly after going to sleep a dream that was both terrible and wonderful! In this momentous dream, which seemed to have been influenced by their visit to the lighthouse just across the strait, it was noon and Alistair was standing on the rocks near the tall white lighthouse. The sea was breaking upon the rocks with ever-increasing violence. Then the sky suddenly became quite dark and foreboding, and was soon covered with big black clouds which were being driven across the sky from the right, by a wind of ever-increasing ferocity. The power of this wind quickly increased to storm force and, as it did so, it churned the turbulent sea into a seething black maelstrom of raging waves, which smashed with such force upon the rocks around the lighthouse, as to even seem to threaten the lighthouse itself. Then came the lightning and thunder, followed by rain and hail, where hail stones as big as gooseberries bounced off the rocks. As the tempest-driven wind blasted the lighthouse Alistair could hear what sounded like the frenzied screams of a million seagulls. Then Alistair looked up at the top of the lighthouse and saw it struck by a great bolt of lightning which was followed by a tremendous crash of thunder. And

Alistair was terribly dismayed to see that the lightning strike had put out the light at the top of the lighthouse. Up to that moment, this light had been shining bravely and steadily through the storm like a friend who will always stand by you, throughout the storms of life. Losing it deprived Alistair of his one bit of reassurance. But just as Alistair was about to give up hope, something made him look up at the threatening, gloomy sky, in its chaotic state of stormtossed turmoil. And as he did so, Alistair saw a small break appear in the clouds where they were at their darkest, and through this break even though the storm was still raging at its height he could see clear blue sky. Then he saw a small white speck descending from this break in the clouds. And this white speck gradually got bigger as it approached him, until it got close enough for him to recognise it as a white bird. This white bird continued to fly towards him, to stop just short of where he was standing, and to hover in the air like some childs delicate white kite, bravely flying in the wind at the end of a taut length of string. And Alistair felt something greatly comforting about this fantastic white bird, which had so miraculously descended out of the chaos of the storm. And as he stared at it, Alistair felt the force of the wind suddenly drop to no more than a gentle breeze which made him look at the sea, and he was astonished and greatly relieved to see that it had suddenly become quite calm. Then the lightning stopped flashing, and the rumbling of the thunder slowly died away until it became no more than a distant murmur as if it resented being silenced. Then the rain and hail abruptly stopped. Through the small break in the clouds from where the white bird had descended, there shone a great beam of bright sunlight which fell upon the white bird, making it shine out against the background of the dark, grey sky, like a brilliant flickering flame of white fire. Then, as Alistair continued to

stare with the greatest awe at this marvellous sun-lit, white bird, it slowly faded away. And as it did so, Alistair awoke from the dream with tears in his eyes. But now, Alistair was suddenly brought back to the present by a sharp jolt! For the car had come to a sudden stop. They had arrived home at last from the hospital. The journey, because of the hold up caused by the cows on the road, had taken thirty minutes longer than it should have done!