by Simon Lowe
A bright and perky morning in 1983. Bill Finton, a consultant ecologist, waits for the postman to deliver a bribe. Yesterday, Bill took a bribe to the hospital hoping his daughter would be as enthused by the unopened parcel as he was. He thought she might like to open it, or guess what was inside- a light hearted distraction. But Bill’s daughter was not seven, she was seventeen and recovering from an abortion. It was, in hindsight, eccentric to believe an unopened parcel might cheer her up. And his daughter was not downbeat. She did not need cheering. She had books and cassettes, foam tangerines covering her ears. Plenty to make her happy.
The parcel contained The Complete Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology, and was signed by the series editors. There was a note inside. Good luck with your site visit Bill, sure we’ll be fine. It was from the planners who hired Bill to complete an Extended Phase 1 Habitat Survey of a site in Wales. The planners were keen to rubber stamp the application for a luxury hotel and country club. In Thatcher’s Britain (boo, spit, vote, elect) there was a developing belief that biodiversity mattered. Stricter regulations were passed down by Europe. There was plenty of work for consultant ecologists like Bill. And planners and developers went to great lengths to keep their ecologist on side.
The postman teetered along Bill’s path with a package under his arm. The bribes were not making his life any easier, Bill thought. He used the blade of a kitchen knife to slice open the flaps of a cardboard box. Waterproof jacket, walking boots, binoculars, compass, clipboard, plastic map bags, lanyards, coloured pens. All top of the range and ludicrously expensive. The note said, everything you need Bill, good luck with the survey. It was from the local farmer selling his land to an ambitious hotelier. The purchase depended on Bill’s survey granting the all clear. Bill was disappointed. He had no need for all this new gear, apart from the jacket. Bill may not have thinned with age but his jacket certainly had.
Bill folded ordnance survey maps upstairs in the guest bedroom. There were boxes, files, folders, bundles of paperwork, textbooks, on the bed, on the floor. It had a thin wall separating it from his daughter’s bedroom. She was studying for her A levels but mostly liked to play her electric guitar in a maximalist style. The guitar plugged into a small amplifier Bill wrongly believed would lack the necessary oomph to irritate him or the neighbours. His daughter’s bedroom was hers exclusively now, it was no longer communal. A virtual bedsitter. Bill had diminishing status, there was a rolling back of the state in their house. It was fine. What could he say to her these days anyway? Now she was grown.
Bill’s daughter sat with her guitar, unplugged, at the table, eating peaches from a jagged tin. Bill ate his breakfast sloppily. His beard glowed with marmalade.
-I thought you quit your job because of ethics dad, now you’re taking bribes?
-I’m accepting the gifts but I won’t allow them to influence my findings.
-Sticking it to the man, right?
-I’m hoping for cash, ideally.
-Cool, what would you buy?
-That depends on your exam results, remember?
-Can I accept your gift but not allow it to influence how much revision I do?
-Well my gift depends on you doing well so…
-I know. Joke dad. Sooooo serious. Ok, I’m gonna have a lie down.
-How about doing some work?
-I will, later
-Come on, think of the cash!
-I’m tired and..
-I’ll give you a shout when the postman arrives shall I? See what I get today?
-Great, go for it dad.
The postman arrived and handed Bill a thick, bulging envelope. There were no convivialities. A silent exchange. Perhaps the delivery of bribes had made the postman solemn and he was ashamed to be a part of it. Bill knew the envelope would be stuffed with notes. Four hundred pounds in crisp twenty’s. Bill turned the money into fans and ran upstairs like a victorious quiz contestant unhinged by success, mishearing the instruction, Come On Down! He forgot to knock. There was a boy in his daughters room. The boy was not compromised or naked or hiding his erection, nothing like that. He was sat at his daughters desk scribbling, large text books flopped and bookmarked in front of him. His daughter was asleep, some post punk played her a lullaby.
-Hi. Sorry, I didn’t know we had a guest.
-Hi Mr Finton.
-I didn’t see you arrive.
-No. I couldn’t sleep so I cycled over. That’s a lot of money Mr Finton.
-This? Oh just a bribe.
-Ha. Very good.
-Were you at the hospital yesterday?
-Hospital? No. Why?
-I just thought… never mind
-Was there an accident?
-No, nothing like that, well… I suppose….
-Listen Mr Finton, can I ask you something?
-What is it?
-My botany module, I wanted to pick your brains…
-Oh. Great. Sure. What are we talking, structure, growth, reproduction?
When she was little, and he was away, Bill’s daughter would stay with his sister. But she is no longer little. Her friend Bliss had a keyboard. He thought they were always together, making music, eating out of tins. It didn’t occur to Bill that she was having sex. Boys never got a mention. Neither his daughter or Bliss appeared very grown up. They showed little interest in Thatcher or the election. Nuclear crises barely stirred them out of their pyjamas. They were so soundly cuckolded in suburban childhood, nothing seemed to scare them. Global self immolation included.
Bill packed a bag, filling a folder with maps and measuring equipment. It was his first job since leaving the consultancy. The Handbook for Phase 1 Habitat Surveys insists consultants work in pairs, never alone. But Bill had little money to hire a qualified surveyor to accompany him. In all his years at the consultancy he never worked alone. It could get competitive, monitoring the area of ground each other mapped, seeing who was progressing the quicker. And Bill was slow. He spent a lot of time admiring the ground, sniffing, touching, sensing the land. He hadn’t become an ecologist by chance. Colleagues complained he only mapped half the ground they did in the allocated time. He saw how they rolled their eyes on discovering he was their partner for the day. Bill wouldn’t miss his colleagues. In 1983, Bill had not entered the new age. His mode was fading fast and yet he could not bring himself to observe the new ways. One eye was closing whilst the other was yet to open.
Bill walked to the library. The library was, sartorially speaking, a haven. He felt at home amongst the beards and flapping trousers, plenty of beige and brown. It was unlike the offices at the consultancy where ties had suddenly thinned and trousers straightened. Beards replaced by caterpillar moustaches. Hair cut short and styled with gel. He saw the peaks of men’s ears for the very first time. Bill was pleased to have his maps photocopied by a similarly flared, beige man: a survivor. It wasn’t all change, just yet.
Bill browsed the physiology section. He saw the boy from his daughters bedroom at a nearby table in similar scrum like formation, hunched over textbooks. There was a big heavy dustbin man coat folded over a chair, two badges on the lapel. No Jobs. No hope. The election was in a few weeks. Bill read a paper everyday, but he didn’t need to, he could tell from the consultancy which way things were headed. The consultancy, created by campaigning students, children of the 60’s, had blithely hopped on the entrepreneurial wave and felt no need to step off. Every new government policy read like a Get Rich Quick scheme. There was a ladder, you were free to climb, if you wanted.
Bill felt sorry for the boy and his badges. He was surely backing the wrong horse. But then perhaps the boy didn’t care about horses. Maybe all that mattered to him was the often quoted statistic: three million unemployed. Bill wondered if this was the boy who got his daughter pregnant. He hoped so. The boy was politically active and interested in botany. Fascinated, it seemed. He credited his daughter with an astute choice. There was no denying it, he felt very kindly to the boy. No sign of a father’s rage.
-Still hard at it I see.
-Oh hello Mr Finton, thanks for your help yesterday.
-Making sense now?
-Will you be over at ours later?
-Wasn’t planning to.
-I’m going away for a few days.
-Great, anywhere nice?
-Be sure to take an umbrella
– It rains a lot. We have a caravan there.
-Oh well let’s hope I get lucky. So she didn’t mention I was going away?
-Nope. I’m going on a march later this afternoon anyway.
-Good for you, although I’m not sure it will do any good.
-No, the polls look pretty disastrous don’t they?
-What do you pair talk about then?
-Music and stuff.
-She tells me to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. I hope it’s a joke.
-Yeah, she’s pretty laid back. It’s great really.
-I suppose. Anyway, got to dash. Good luck in the exams. Remember the sonoran desert has devil queen and devil bush, it’s one of the only places in the world where both can grow. It’s an exceptional habitat.
-Right-oh, erm, thanks Mr Finton.
There were lists stuck to the fridge door. His daughter had written Michael foot smells in multi-coloured magnets. He didn’t know if this was political expression or her teasing him, again. It occurred to Bill that by announcing he was going away, he had, in effect, invited the boy over. He was encouraging something few fathers would. Bill wondered how the other fathers did it; how they gathered and imposed their beliefs in such a sensible, practical fashion. He knocked on his daughter’s bedroom door and told her he would be leaving soon, everything she needed was stuck to the fridge. To his surprise, she asked if he had time for a cup of tea before his long drive.
-I know this is a big thing for you dad. Your first solo outing.
-I’ve done plenty of surveys before, I think I’ll be alright.
-Not by yourself you haven’t, I want you to take care, you know what you’re like.
-There’s really no need to worry, just crack on with your revision, I’ve got all that cash remember.
-Call if you need me. Bliss has a car, we can drive to Wales no problem.
-Bliss has a car? Since when?
-Last week. It’s a Mini.
-I didn’t even know Bliss was taking lessons.
-Ring every day, promise.
-What have you forgotten? there’s always something
-I might double check my coloured pencils.
-The Mini’s good to go dad, so you’d better ring!
The roads were busy. At the consultancy it was policy to share a car. Nobody liked Bill’s old Ford Orion. They preferred foreign cars, small nippy things that could tear down narrow streets and country lanes. Bill usually struggled to follow the conversation over a symphony of revs. He was enjoying taking his drive to Wales slowly in the Orion. He felt a tingle of excitement, a joyous burst somewhere (his soul? his frontal lobe?). Bill was a saviour to the living world. Newts and creeping marshwort could rest assured, Bill Finton was on his way! And it was no longer his bosses at the consultancy who would need to explain themselves if Bill were to uncover a protected species. Bill would be the one to apologise for the inconvenience his findings might cause and provide an action plan. Of course nobody sat down with the whimbrels and whinchats to run through their eviction. Nobody said sorry to them.
The radio played pop music, synthesised and plastic. It didn’t sound like his daughter’s music. It wasn’t slow and spiky. It was happy. The radio predicted fine weather and a landslide election result. Bill could relax for the rest of the journey, enjoy the solitude, knowing, like the doomed Labour party, he was on the side of moral rightness. Or righteousness? Either way, it felt good.
Bill placed his bag on a slim bed. The room smelled of mildew and cigarette-filled memories. He looked in the bathroom mirror. His eyes were moist, he squeezed them like chamois leathers over a sink. His daughter was indescribable. She was perfect. How was it possible, considering everything? Bill felt a rare moment of confidence in his ability to care.
In the morning, the window was stippled with condensation. Bill opened it to reveal a sunrise over the Welsh valleys and a smell so pure it could only be distilled from innocence. He chose a continental breakfast rather than the full Welsh, not wanting to feel overloaded for his busy day ahead. Bill was approaching the Orion when the owner rushed to inform him there was a package waiting at the front desk, it had been delivered first thing. Another bribe, thought Bill, that’s a bonus. It was a wicker hamper filled with cake, chutneys, crackers, cheese, plus a large bottle of whisky. A note said, busy day ahead, thought you could do with some supplies. The Bank. They had loaned the hotelier a substantial amount of money at a steep rate of interest. Bill placed the hamper on the back seat and wondered if it might make for a better lunch than his planned ploughmans at the local pub.
The site unfurled itself in front of Bill’s headlights; a rippling bed sheet over a rising morning steam. Most of the site was arable and did not require surveying. Bill plotted his route. He liked to begin with Habitats E and F, which included bog, mire, swamp and marginal vegetation. There was a section of low-lying land where Bill believed he might find some wet flushes or bogs. He put his bag on the ground and kneeled on a hummock, searching for dominant species of peat moss to code. Satisfied with his findings, he began to colour the relevant area on his map purple.
This process of colouring over monochrome maps continued throughout the morning. Next was orange for Habitat B, grassland and marsh. It was pleasurable work, taking soil samples, placing his ear to the ground, knowing there was no frustrated colleague, dashing from one spot to the next, scribbling colours, thinking of other things. After finishing the orange segments of the site, some stripy (acidic) some plain (neutral), he went back to the Orion and drove to a pub. He wanted to save the hamper for the following day. A modest cheese and onion roll would do, washed down with a glass of lemonade perhaps. There was always a concern that a stranger to these parts, an Englishman indeed, might arouse suspicion and be made to answer a severe line of questions. As it turned out, nobody was very interested in Bill. He got his change and sat on a barstool to use the payphone.
-Yes, who’s this?
-Mary, your sister, who do you think?
-Oh, sorry Mary, everything alright?
-Fine, she’s gone out.
-I don’t know, she didn’t leave me a note, why would she? anyway, she’s allowed out isn’t she? She’ll be down the town with her friends most likely.
-How’s the house looking? Wait, how did you get in?
-I’ve had a key for the last fifteen years Bill. Trust you to forget.
-The house is tidy, much more so than when you’re here to be honest.
-That’s something I suppose.
-How’s the job?
-Beautiful, it’s wonderful here, on my own…
-You were mad leaving the consultancy.
-I know. So you’ve said. A few times now.
-Quite mad, you’ve got responsibilities, you’re…
-A father. I know.
-I can’t be here all the time, helping out.
-I don’t think you are, are you?
-Fine. I’ll try again in the morning but frankly Bill, I trust her to look after herself more than I do you. Have you got everything you need. Not forgotten anything.
-No, I’m fine, speak soon.
The afternoon was spent mapping Habitat D (heathland). This was coloured yellow on the map. Bill had to be careful he used an ochre yellow pencil rather than the canary yellow for amenity land like golf courses and parks. It was an easy but embarrassing mistake to make if you weren’t thinking clearly. And Bill was not thinking clearly. He wanted to get back to the B&B and ring home again, check everything was alright. He didn’t expect his daughter to be housebound but the idea of her and Bliss, a new driver, driving in her Mini all day. It was a concern. And she was supposed to be at home revising. Also, if he couldn’t get through, she might really drive to Wales and check on him.
The phone rang and rang. Bill went to the chip shop and sat at the edge of his bed eating from newspaper typed in the most unusual language. It was gone seven and there was still no answer. His daughter had suggested they get an answering machine that record messages on a cassette tape. Bill didn’t think it was a bad idea, it made sense. But he never got round to it. Cooking three meals a day, plus a weekly hoover was hard enough. When his daughter caught him reading in his chair, on Saturdays, she suggested he should do jobs instead. Bliss’s mum spends all day doing jobs on a Saturday, she said.
Bill crushed his empty chip wrapper in a ball and threw it in the bin. He decided to try once more. The phone rang and rang. And even though, deep down, Bill knew it wasn’t necessary, he drove back to his house. To be sure.
At close to midnight, Bill parked the Orion in the street rather than pull on the driveway. If he used his key she might hear a noise and suspect he was a burglar. He imagined his daughter quite capable of removing half his head with her electric guitar. So Bill entered his house through the side gate and positioned himself in the garden. Bill knew his daughter didn’t bother to draw the curtains at night. He huddled by cherry laurel in his new jacket. The material was different, synthetic, more modern, clearly engineered for just such occasions.
Bill saw his daughter through the patio doors. She was sat in an armchair, playing her guitar. In front of her, cross legged by a coffee table overloaded with books, was the boy. Occasionally he would turn and laugh. She was distracting him. She was messing his brown curls with her bare feet, rubbing her toes in his face. At one point the boy grabbed her foot and wrote on her wrinkled sole with a highlighter pen. A tickling, fluorescent yellow message. The television was on. Neither glanced at it once.
Bill felt uncomfortable spying on his daughter, shame flooded his legs, momentarily paralysing him. His daughter and the boy were sharing a moment of ordinary beauty that should not be seen by others. An experience that could only be ruined by Bill. At his car, he noticed the boy’s bicycle, chained to a lamp post. He wondered if the boy would cycle home or stay over. He didn’t mind either way.
In the middle of the night, the radio replayed a John Peel session from earlier in the day. His daughter recorded them in her bedroom. The band were called Clock DVA. There was a disquieting, animalistic rhythm to their songs. The squarks and yelps sounded real as he passed woodlands. It was four o’clock when Bill arrived back at the B&B. He lay on the Orion’s back seat under a picnic blanket. He worried he was in no fit state to complete the survey. He made sure to take the hamper with him, plenty of sustenance. Today was Habitat A (Woodland and Scrub). A green pencil day. Even in Bill’s condition, this was something to look forward to.
A wispy cloud cover gave the site a darker, lusher feel. There was only a small woodland area to cover but all dominant species needed to be coded and the trees checked for holes and crevices where bats might live. Bill carried his hamper with him. He set it down next to a large conifer and made himself some cheese and biscuits. His new boots were filthy but noticeably more comfortable than his old pair, less stiff yet more hardy. He used his new binoculars to try and spot Hazel dormice in the branches whilst eating chutney from a jar. It was a struggle to keep his eyes open. Bill fancied a coffee, some kind of stimulant. The bottle of whisky was there; he took a nip to get the blood pumping.
The morning passed, as it always does. Bill crunched and scribbled his way through, stopping regularly to open the hamper and eat rye bread and jam or a slice of fruitcake, all washed down with more whisky, providing the necessary kick he required. He blamed some of his sloppy pencilling on tiredness. And when he tripped on a log, he stayed down, listening to insects shuffle daily news in his ear. He reflected on nothing, thought back to no occasion or person, no failed past or doomed future. The seconds passed as seconds should, noticeably and slowly. But there was still one last area of scrub to map. He lay on his back and looked at his map. It was something of a mess but the whisky and solitude was bringing him so much joy! Why would he mind? He detailed the scrub as best he could before settling himself once again next to a sweet chestnut coppice. The day was nearly over. He thought about closing his eyes but felt drunk and emboldened and somewhat glorious. He found a twig and flicked dirt and leaves, searched under rocks. He was a child. He found himself eyeing a giant Welsh poplar. He decided to climb it.
His new boots gripped nicely and the whisky clinked in celebration as he haphazardly circled the tree’s darkened, ancient bark. Black poplars were not so populous these days. This one, a solitary beast, was unlikely to pollinate. In the future, ecologists would only read about black poplars yet here was Bill halfway up one. Bill slowly coiled himself, led by erratically sprouting branches. Some of the leaves were covered in scab, a deadly fungal disease. This tree was hundreds of years old and dying. Bill took a drink and rested once more. He tried to reinvent the stretched view below. The perfectly manicured greens of an undulating 18 hole golf course. The deep foundations for heated basement swimming pools, saunas, jacuzzis. A gabled garden, patio dining areas, a turreted red brick building. If money was to be made in this new age, people were going to need places to spend it. Bill could see his old bosses in white robes, nodding to waitresses behind flutes of champagne.
The day before he left the consultancy, Bill decided to take a straw poll in the office. He told secretaries, fellow consultants, administrators, surveyors and cleaning staff his story, to get a sense of how seriously others perceived it. He told them he had audited a site and found a clew of slow worms under a rock. He filed his report but the development seemed to be going ahead at lightning speed. When he got a letter from the purchasers, British Gas, thanking him for green lighting the development, Bill approached his bosses to express concern and demand the slow worms be rehoused immediately. In his bosses’ office, he was eased into a chair, offered coffee and cigarettes and told the consultancy was updating its policies, adopting a more relaxed approach. British Gas already had six more sites they wanted surveying. Speed was of the essence here. If the slow worms were to halt progress, those six sites could go to another consultancy.
So Bill took a clipboard and asked as many people as he could to respond. What did they think? Would anyone be willing to take a stand, did they agree it was outrageous? Would a strike be the appropriate response? Or should he just leave and they could follow if they wanted? Most didn’t like the idea of legless lizards slithering about the place. They couldn’t see it was such a big deal. Some of his fellow consultants suggested it was perhaps time for him to go regardless. The broad consensus was impartiality. So Bill rang his client in Wales and asked if they would be open to dropping the consultancy’s fee and deal with him directly for half the price.
Bill peered through his binoculars. Perhaps if he saw a nest, a Lapwing or a Linnet and some eggs, he might stop the luxury hotel being built. Or delay the inevitable. But to delay the inevitable was not the heroic mantra of a man saving the planet. These days it seemed like everything had to go, it was one big closing down sale. His daughter, should she by some miracle pass her A Levels, would be going too. The two of them had been entwined, for the entirety of his daughter’s life and half of his. Bill was going to understand what it was to be alone soon. He drank more whisky. The landscape looked rigid. It had readied itself for what was to come.
Bill’s jacket, shoes and trousers were covered in dirt. He’d been rubbing his eyes so now his face was blackened too. He looked like an SAS commando on an ops mission, or a rogue sniper, hiding in trees. He climbed down with little grace and sat on the ground, his head not reacting so positively to the whisky as it was earlier in the day. He ate a small tin of shortbread. Wiping sugar from his mouth, he saw an arched, upright head wind itself towards him. Bill’s initial thought was an adder, but this snake was too slender. It was a smooth snake. Bill didn’t know smooth snakes had been introduced here but the creatures definition was undeniable. Smooth snakes were a protected species. Don’t worry, thought Bill, I am here to save you, you’re safe now, I won’t let them build on your home. Finally, he could be a hero. He tried lifting his arm but found he could only slump. The bottle of whisky and tiredness had created a cogent paralysis in him. He was lucid yet incapable. The smooth snake appeared to enjoy writhing up his trousers. Bill assumed it wanted to attach itself, cling to safety, as if he were a buoy in the ocean. In attempting to cradle the snake Bill held it in both hands, like a hose, poised to wash something. He squeezed like any good protector would. He wanted to make it clear, he would hold on until this was over. The smooth snake’s fate was not going the same way as the slow worms, left to be destroyed. He was going to take this fellow with him, to safety; once he was able to move. But as he held the snake, Bill realised it wasn’t quite as slender as he originally thought and the markings were indeed adder like. No big deal, adders were protected too, the principle remained, but unlike smooth snakes, adders were venomous and did not like to be grasped like hoses.
Bill’s arm swelled immediately. Even if he could somehow clamber into the Orion, he was in no state to drive. It was a pathetic scene. The adder was gone and Bill, slurring his cries for help, was poisoned, drunk and alone. Nobody was nearby because he did not bring a colleague to accompany him. He disobeyed the handbook that insists surveys be conducted in pairs on the ground of safety. It is not uncommon for surveyors to slip or fall or come into contact with poisonous plants and animals. It was foolish to work alone. Bill’s arm continued to increase in size. It was like watching the incredible hulk become angry very slowly.
The long summer evenings were not long enough. It would soon be nightfall. Bill wasn’t sure if his eyes kept closing because he was dying or simply taking a nap. His thoughts, as always, focused on his daughter. It occurred to Bill, in the chaos of his day, he had not rung her, like he promised. Indeed he had not spoken to her since his arrival at the B&B yesterday. She would be worried. She would most probably be in the Mini now, tearing along. As Bill’s head flopped loosely onto his shoulder he pictured her heaving him to safety, waiting by the road for an ambulance, refusing to allow history to repeat itself.
Bill would like to go back to the cafe, fifteen years ago. To order pink milkshakes again. To hold his daughter’s hand and explain things differently. To firmly guarantee they would both be fine. To be unequivocal on this point. To tell her he was going to look after her, always. They were a team. This time, he would compose himself. He would be clear and precise and strong. Like a father should.
About the Author:
Simon Lowe is the author of one novel, Friday Morning with Sun Saluki. His stories have appeared in Storgy, Firewords, Chaleur magazine, Ponder Review, Visible Ink and elsewhere.