November 27 - December 3, 2011: Issue 34
Words and Images copyright Huang Zhi-Wei (aka Reg Wong), 2011. All Rights Reserved.
My one-legged seagull of Narrabeen
Huang Zhi-Wei (aka Reg Wong)
It was a typical Sydney noonday in early February. The mid-summer sun was already poised at its zenith, radiating nuzzling warmth and dazzling light to every corner in its domain. Below an arching azure sky, Narrabeen Lagoon glistened languidly. Wafting past me, in an invisible but tangible stream, was the tempering Pacific Ocean breeze. In the midst of this tranquillity, an empty park bench beckoned me to sit, contemplate, and absorb my daily quota of vitamin D.
As I slowly munched on my invariant cheese sandwich, I was overcome by an intoxication of quiet contentment. Dulled by the narcotic drone of incessant traffic from Pittwater Road, I succumbed meekly to the lake's mesmerising sparkles of reflected light. Before my senses could resist, they drifted into the twilight zone that demarcates sleep and wakefulness. My reverie lasted only a minute, or perhaps two, before it was quickly dissolved by rhetoric from my subconscious: could it really get better than this?
After a few blinks, my eyes regained their focus. It was then that it came into view: a one-legged seagull beyond the fringe of an irregular circle of raucous seagulls which had gathered around me, hoping for a breadcrumb here or a bit of cheese there. At less than three-quarters the size of the others, it looked pathetically small and scrawny. It was nervous, tentative, unsteady on its single leg, shy beyond seagull character, and obviously famished.
At my first glimpse of him, I was instantly reminded of flyblown Sudanese and Eritrean children, with their limbs emaciated and their tiny faces expressionless, their vacant eyes staring expectantly at the Red Cross food vans. In a flash of instant replay before my mind's eye, I saw a familiar hungry salivating child, filled with resentment and envy at the sight of neighbouring children casually nibbling at their after-school snack of bread … with margarine … and jam! This vivid recall of contrasting decadence and deprivation of a time long gone prompted tepid teardrops to trickle out of the corners of my misty eyes.
I named the little fellow Long John Silver without a second thought that it might be a member of the fairer sex. Does it really matter? Didn't Johnny Cash sing "A Boy Named Sue"? And wasn't it The Bard himself who wrote, "What's in a name? Caesar and Brutus. Sound them : they do becometh the mouth as well." Even the silver screen's quintessential macho man John Wayne was actually, if ineptly, christened Marion. And let's not forget that a recent decade-long dominant woman tennis player was Billy J King! So what if I choose to call it/her/him Long John Silver? Unconsciously, though, I always did, and always will, affectionately think of the little fellow as him, the universal male, just as girls - and women - now invariably refer to a gaggle of themselves as a bunch of undifferentiated guys.
Since my compassion - and, definitely, my favour - now rested solely with Long John Silver, I persisted in throwing portions of my sandwich at him but it was an exercise in pointlessness : the gulls at the top of the pecking order immediately fought for, and successfully snatched at, every morsel of sandwich meant for him. In the frantic scramble for anything resembling food, the more brazen drew ever closer to me while Long John Silver, the most timid and obviously weakest of them, retreated beyond the perimeter of the throng of boisterous adults.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I should throw a fragment of bread into the midst of the jostling adults to ignite a frenzied fracas and then, when they are all distracted, to aim a piece in Long John Silver's direction. The ruse worked a treat. After a dozen or so of such trial runs, Long John Silver actually became habituated to remaining outside the circle of snarling, squawking and snapping adults to anticipate his own delivery of uncontested bread and cheese. Satisfied that he had learnt the trick, I decided that I should return the next day to reinforce the lesson.
The bonding sessions between Long John Silver and me evolved into a ritual that lasted the remainder of my eight idyllic weeks at Westpac in Narrabeen. Each day I sat on the same park bench, at about the same time, and looked forward to sharing my sandwich with Long John Silver. As soon as he spotted me he would glide in, silently and gracefully, to keep our rendezvous and to maturate the bond … between man and bird. Those were refreshingly joyous times for me and - I'd like to think - for him.
Is it a rarity for man and bird to form a bond based on mutual dependency? Fluffy kookaburras perch quietly on our aged neighbours' railing while they wait patiently for a serving of minced steak as their regular allowance. A tight-knit family of magpies comes to my late old friend Peg McDonald's rear veranda every afternoon to receive a daily ration of mincemeat. Accompanied by a rash of brilliant colours, wild but very personable rainbow lorikeets descend en masse outside my kitchen window to demand a piece of honey-soaked bread, which they graciously eat while they stand confidently on my fingers. Further away in my motherland, it's not uncommon to see teams of cormorants, assembled fore and aft of wobbly sampans, tirelessly diving for minnows for their masters. And, of course, the partnership between falconers and their peregrines is the stuff of legends and poetry. Yes, man and bird can co-exist … and co-operate … and form an attachment, however seemingly unnatural.
Was it because I had lost my Cairn terrier Tina Louise on New Year's Eve that I was now forming an attachment to Long John Silver? In Mr Polly, HG Wells said that the most expedient way to get over a lost love is to find a new one. Was I unconsciously doing just that - targeting an adopted pet on which to lavish some of my surplus attention? Although this was intuitively logical, I couldn't connive at Long John Silver's frailty, fragility, and feebleness … all the pitiable qualities that elicited the latent avuncular tendencies in me.
My persistent worry was, "Who'll feed you when my tenure in Narrabeen comes to an end?" This constant gnawing and rather vexatious question provided sufficient incentive for me to drive to Narrabeen on most Sundays - with my grandson Joshua James in tow - for the comforting relief provided by just a glimpse of Long John Silver.
The matter of Long John Silver's missing leg puzzled me. How could a seagull lose a leg? No sooner had I posed this recurring question than I would remember having seen many seagulls with only one leg! If you're in the habit of relishing lengthy Sunday afternoons at Manly Wharf or Circular Quay or Seaforth Marina, you've probably confirmed the curious sightings for yourself. So it must be an exclusive seagull predicament to lose an occasional leg, I gleefully concluded.
I am now convinced that it's not creeping cancer, or savage fights between uncompromising rivals, or unconscionable traps meant for waterfront rats that cause the odd seagull to lose a leg. Such superficial conjectures are all dismissed by their own inadequacy and flippancy : the true explanation is to be found lurking sub-surface.
Seagulls are in the habit of floating on water. Perhaps it's their way to keep cool, or to rest after long unsuccessful forays for scraps of junk food, or just "to get far away from the maddening crowd." In such an unsuspecting position, when their legs are immersed in water, they are most vulnerable, and susceptible, to surprise attacks by two types of marine predators - Moray eels and Flathead, both of which are found in abundance in Sydney lakes and estuarine bays.
Lagoon Flathead frequent relatively shallow tidal water, half-burying themselves in sand or mud, while they lie in wait to ambush unsuspecting passing prey. Moray eels are adept at cruising at all depths and prefer murky waters that belie their presence. Under water, the suspended red legs of seagulls resemble dangling worms, a provocative target irresistible to striking Flathead and Moray eels, which are equipped with two rows of razors that pass for teeth. When either of these creatures zooms in at a seagull's legs, the score is inevitably one to Flathead or Moral eel and zero to seagull. This scenario provides my explanation for the many one-legged seagulls in Sydney, unless, of course, you can formulate a more plausible hypothesis.
Even if I didn't look at him with rose-tinted glasses, Long John Silver was still not your regular seagull. He didn't have the monotony of grey wings and white bodies typical of all Pacific seagulls. His wings were a differentiated motley blend of white, grey and brown; his cute face with its soft eyes was an instant reminder of Disney's Bambi; and his intermittent call was a shrill, melodious, almost imperceptible, squeak that one expects from a contented peewee. So different was Long John Silver from other seagulls, you would be forgiven for thinking he was the love-child of a mild-mannered pigeon and a garden-variety seagull. If I sound as if I am gilding the lily or simply waxing lyrical, just remember I am merely sharing my fond memory of my one-legged seagull of Narrabeen Lagoon.
For about three weeks there were persistent rumours that my stay in Narrabeen was coming to an end. It was a popular belief (which cut no ice with me) that my multi-lingual skills could be best utilised at the bank's Chatswood branch where the customers are predominantly Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. Although it appeared pointless to challenge such seemingly cold logic, the Narrabeen manager nevertheless made an impassioned plea for me to be retained at her branch.
Before I came to Narrabeen, I was a member of Westpac's Northern Beaches support team. This meant that I travelled to a different branch every week, sometimes every day, to wherever there was a staff shortage. Given this rolling-stone work pattern, there was little occasion or opportunity to form a bond with anybody or with any branch. But after eight very agreeable weeks by The Lagoon I did manage to form a comfortable attachment to the staff, and customers … and, of course, to Long John Silver. On the afternoon of my last Monday in the branch, the normally unflappable manager slipped out of the bank without bidding anyone goodbye. This behaviour was out of character and clearly signalled that her request to retain me had been over-ridden.
I tossed through a wakeful night as I listlessly anticipated the dawning of another day. When my impending relocation was confirmed, I had no more emotion to betray, possibly because the sense of loss and defeat had already numbed me. When it was time for lunch, I raced over to the park bench with two sandwiches, a small one for me, and a larger one, a parting gift, for Long John Silver. He was already there, oblivious to our imminent parting. I fed him matter-of-factly and, just as matter-of-factly, turned away from him and returned to work.
As an emigrant who has spent a lifetime bidding endless goodbyes to aging parents, sobbing siblings, and fond friends, I had practically inured myself against the pain that parting always brings. It was no different that afternoon. As I mechanically cleaned out my drawers and cleared my files, I felt strangely empty : I had finally resigned myself to losing my new-found friends and my one-legged seagull. Yes, it was time to move on … to another Westpac branch, away from my Northern Beaches.
It is now a month since I took up my new posting at bustling Chatswood. In this concrete jungle, there is no empty park bench on which to sit and contemplate. Sure, there is the odd street-wise pigeon, darting hither and thither as it avoids the ire of irritable shoppers, but there is no beguiling seagull to win my affection. Although I don't want to worry about him, I keep thinking, ‘What's become of you, Long John Silver?’
Circumstance or chance or crisis often shapes our lives. I am fortunate in having mine shaped by choice - my choice to work at a retirement activity that occupies mind and body meaningfully. But any activity of choice, especially a retirement activity, has to be both stimulating and pleasurable. Such was my lot before I left the Northern Beaches. My constant hope is that my new posting will turn out to be no less rewarding. In reality, the odds appear stacked against such an outcome : my thoughts are with my friends and my gracious customers of the Northern Beaches; and my heart is with my needy one-legged seagull of Narrabeen Lagoon.
Long John Silver, if you are dead from starvation or foul play, I shall be broken-hearted; but if you're still alive, meet me - and my grandson Joshua James - at our usual park bench … soon! We have a lot of catching up to do … and a lot of cheese sandwiches to share.