Keratin

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It was loud and messy in the pub. Football streamed over the bar, but we needed a pint after the stickmaking class.

I’ve always wanted to make a good shepherd’s crook, and the class is within walking distance of home. So I’d spent the evening shaping a tup’s horn and pressing it in a vice. By the time we were done, the turn-up of my trousers was filled with crispy filings like parmesan. I’m three weeks into this course, and I love the rasping file and the soft, pearly glow of keratin like mother of pearl. There’s no great mystery in making sticks; just infinite variety and space for the pursuit of perfection. I can see why some people are consumed by it.

But it’s thirsty work, so we sat and drank and each one of us wondered where we’d find the best hazel shanks to cut and dry for next year. I know a place, but I’m keeping it to myself. Then a man came in and staggered to the bar. He offered to buy us all a round, but he had to ask us twice because the football roared like a pig in a drum. Sticky chairs, and the light-flung fans of amber rum on the ceiling. There were photographs pinned behind the bar; fancy dress and folk at the civic week parade. Some of them were old and had round edges; some were new and blurred with thumbing. Beer mats damp at their edges; a dog sleeping as if somebody had killed it.

Then out into the street again as if we’d been tipped. Rain swirled around the streetlamps and the wall-eyed shop-fronts. It pooled in the gutters and hissed in the wake of a passing truck. We talked and turned for home, and in the briefest pause of quiet between our steps, I heard redwings above us; the shrill, almost inaudible “theek” of thrushes moving in the darkness, easily missed in the curse and dribble of a wet town.

Redwings come to us from Scandinavia. They come in shoals under the cover of darkness, and the only forewarning is a shrill and gentle call in the night. Each year I mark it, but usually I have the silence of home on my side. I was lucky to catch the note of that bird with a bellyful of beer and some joke half-issued in my head.

Soon those birds will be obvious and abundant. Redwings will hang from every bough and berry-bearing branch in Galloway, and seeing them will strike me as a kind of boredom. But in a quarter inch of silence and the turn of unfallen rain, that first bird seemed to tap me on the shoulder with a word of Autumn.

 

#116

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