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Torfaen Tales

Us and Them

“Not far now,“ said Richard, turning to his wife with a smile.

Helen smiled in return. She knew as well as he did how far it was to St Ives. After all, it was she who had introduced him to the delights of Cornwall. The sight of the vivid blue sea and golden sands on her right as they reached the Hayle estuary still filled her with awe after more than fifty years. As children she and her brother and sister had always been told off for bouncing up and down on the back seat, each trying to be the one who caught the first glimpse of the sea.

Helen’s mother’s parents had lived on a farm near Hellesveor, just beyond St Ives. Every summer the family had undertaken the long journey from Cambridgeshire to Cornwall, fortified with doorstep sized sandwiches and bottles of her mother’s home made lemon squash. There was room for Mum and Dad to sleep in the house with Grandma and Pa, but Helen, Josie and Tom had to sleep in bunk beds in the ancient blue caravan at the bottom of the garden. Not that they minded, of course, for that meant they could chatter and giggle until all hours.

Some days they helped around the farm, collecting eggs, going out on the tractor with Pa, or picking beans in the vast garden. There was always something that needed doing to maintain and harvest the abundance of nature in this fertile corner of England. But eventually the children’s attention would turn to the beach. St Ives was within walking distance; quite a trek, but that just made the swim at the end even more worthwhile. Sometimes Grandma joined them, but Pa always stayed behind at the farm, hard at work. Sometimes Dad would stay behind and help his father in law. He always said manual labour made a nice change from teaching.

As they strode down the hill into the town of St Ives a heated discussion would ensue: which beach would they visit? Usually the grown-ups made a decision based on the direction of the wind. Ah, Helen could still feel the silky, warm sand on her feet as they crossed the sands to spread out their ancient beach blanket. On windy days its corners had to be weighed down with the thermos flask, the sandwich box, whatever else was to hand. And then the kids were free to scamper away and plunge into the clear, cold water, squealing and splashing.

As they drove down the hill into St Ives Helen could see the tiny figures of children on the beach, running in and out of the water, just as she and Tom and Josie had done all those years before. And as her own two children had done on their many holidays in this lovely place.

Richard turned into a lane and brought their car to a halt in the car park behind their imposing hotel. Helen had quite enjoyed the years of makeshift camping with her young family, but was thankful that they were now able to afford fine hotels and restaurants wherever they went. Their children had flown the nest many years before; now it was Helen and Richard’s time to enjoy the luxury of holidays for two with no expense spared. They could have gone to Sydney or Cape Cod, and sometimes they did, but still, every few years, they returned to Cornwall, to St Ives. Her grandparents had been dead many a year, but still Helen felt the pull of her heritage. The old farmhouse near Hellesveor was still there, painted a different colour and looking much smarter than Helen’s childhood recollections. On each visit Helen liked to drive past, wondering who lived there now, although she knew she would never have the courage to knock on the door and enquire.

A porter appeared to spirit their luggage away, and Helen and Richard paused a moment to admire the view.

“We‘ve seen some magnificent sights,” said Richard, slipping his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “But this has to be one of my favourite views in the world.”

“Mine too,” said Helen.

“I know you would have loved to move to Cornwall, but …”

“Yes, I know. You need to be near a major airport because you’re always off somewhere with your work. Honestly, Richard, I don’t mind,” she said with a reassuring smile. “I’m very fond of our home. Now are you going to carry me up to the honeymoon suite?”

“I rather hoped you’d carry me,“ he replied jokily. Richard had booked the special room in celebration of their thirtieth wedding anniversary.

The honeymoon suite was certainly the last word in luxury, a spacious room with an enormous bed, and an en suite bathroom with a sunken bath as well as a high-tech shower. The control panel for all the gadgets in their suite looked like it needed a science degree, so Helen left that to Richard. She wandered over to the window to admire the view. Like an overgrown kid she couldn’t wait to get onto the beach.

She pursed her lips in displeasure. “Ugh, there’s bird mess all down this window. You’d think in a place like this the standard of cleaning would be better.”

On their way to the beach, Helen voiced her concern to the concierge.

“I’m very sorry, Madam. I’ll have someone see to it right away. I’m sorry to say we’re having constant problems with seagulls this year, but we’re trying our utmost to keep the windows clean. If you have any further problem please don’t hesitate to mention it. And I should warn you not to eat while out in the open. The seagulls are very predatory. Why, just last week, a woman suffered a cut lip when a seagull snatched a sandwich out of her mouth. I don’t want to alarm you unnecessarily, but I would advise caution.”

“Probably a lot of fuss over nothing,” whispered Helen to Richard as they crossed the foyer. “Health and safety in the nanny state and all that. Still, I’ll be glad to see that window cleaned.”

Porthminster beach was as wonderful as ever. Helen felt as though she was floating on air, with a light, warm breeze lifting her hair, the sun on her back, and the sea lapping gently at her toes as she walked hand in hand with her husband. They passed a child’s abandoned sand castle. A seagull was standing on top surveying the scene. It was a beautiful bird with a plump, white breast and grey wings folded neatly at its back. Its yellow beak had a flash of orange, almost like blood. And its bright eyes were constantly on the move.

“Now that’s a big seagull,” commented Richard.

Helen had to agree. Many things from her childhood, such as Wagon Wheels and school desks, seemed small now by comparison, but this seagull was indeed quite a monster.

“Big enough to make a meal,” she said with a chuckle. “Not that I fancy eating seagull. What I’d like is some nice locally caught fish.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Richard as they headed back to their room to dress for dinner. “I’ve reserved a table at Mr Fish.”

As they walked into town they couldn’t help noticing signs everywhere warning holidaymakers to be wary of seagulls, not to feed them, and not to eat in the open. As they walked along the harbour front they heard a cry and turned.

“That seagull just took my boy’s ice cream!” protested a woman.

Sure enough, half a dozen seagulls were now squabbling on the ground over the stolen cornet.

“You’d never think seagulls would like sweet things,” marvelled Helen. “Fish and pasties I can understand, but not ice cream.”

Then another cry went up. A seagull had taken a woman’s sunglasses off the top of her head.

“They’re Chanel!” she wailed. “Cost me a fortune! Bloody seagulls!”

The seagull in question flew up onto a high roof with the sunglasses.

“I know jackdaws like shiny things for their nests,” said Richard, shaking his head in disbelief. "Ah, this is our restaurant.”

Richard had chosen somewhere rather expensive to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and they treated themselves to a bottle of vintage Champagne. Richard commented that the place seemed rather quiet for a Saturday night in the height of the tourist season.

“Probably a result of the recession,” said Helen, savouring her starter of seared scallops. “A lot of people are having to cut corners these days.”

After their meal the couple made their way back to their hotel. Hearing a noise behind, Helen turned to see three large seagulls walking down the deserted street behind them, their webbed feet pattering on the cobbles.

“These birds are beginning to give me the creeps,” said Helen, increasing her pace.

Having reached their hotel the couple made their way to the bar for a nightcap.

“Two large cognacs please,” said Richard to the barman. At that moment a seagull crashed into the plate glass window, startling several people seated nearby including Helen. She joined Richard at the bar.

“These birds are getting to be quite a problem, aren’t they,” she said. “They seem to be around all hours of the night.”

The barman gave Richard his change. “I shouldn’t be saying this, Madam, but they’re putting a lot of people off coming here. Other resorts are having problems of course, but for some reason St Ives is very badly affected. Nobody seems to know why. I’ve been working here for five years, and I’ve noticed quite a difference in that time. At first the gulls were just a bit cheeky, taking food where they could. Then they started dropping out of the sky like fighter planes, snatching food from people’s hands and mouths. A few people have been injured.”

“Yes, we heard,” said Helen.

The barman wiped his counter. “Do you know, I’ve even seen a seagull pretend to limp in order to beg food.”

“We saw one steal a woman’s sunglasses earlier this evening. Flew up onto the roof with them,” said Richard, sipping his drink.

“The owners of this place spent quite a bit of money recently clearing nests and putting wire mesh up on the roof, and the workmen found all manner of things in the nests. Car keys, jewellery, mirrors … stealing sunglasses I can quite believe. And the damage the gulls do to people’s roofs! They take the lichen off the tiles and use it to line their nests, but of course they dislodge quite a few tiles. Do you know, they even peck at the rubber seals around car windows and sun roofs? Seems nothing is safe.”

Helen and Richard finished their drinks and went up to bed.

“Have you noticed the number of properties up for sale?” said Helen as the lift carried them upwards. “Maybe it’s the recession, but I wouldn’t mind betting the seagull problem has something to do with it.”

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. Helen awoke to a panoramic view of the sun sparkling on a calm, blue sea, and a cloudless blue sky overhead. She was pleased to note that the concierge had been as good as his word for the windows were clean. A discreet tap announced the arrival of breakfast, and Richard stirred at her side.

“What shall we do today?” she asked, pouring their coffee.

“I don’t mind, love, just as long as it’s relaxing,” he said with a yawn. “I didn’t sleep well. Those birds kept waking me through the night with their squawking.”

“I didn’t hear a thing,” said Helen.

“Must have been the cognac,” said Richard, grinning and ruffling her hair.

“I fancy a walk along the coastal path,” said Helen. “Looks like we’re in for lovely weather today. We don’t have to go far if you’re tired.”

So that was what they did. They dressed in shorts, t-shirts and stout shoes, and set off in the direction of Porthmeor Beach, beyond which the coastal path meandered in the direction of Land’s End.

As they drew near the beach they heard a commotion. A woman was shrieking at the top of her voice, and a crowd had gathered.

“Call for an ambulance!” someone cried.

“What’s wrong?” Helen asked a woman at the edge of the crowd.

“Seagulls just attacked a young lad. He didn’t even have any food. It was awful! It took half a dozen men with sticks and towels to drive them off him!”

Helen caught a glimpse of a plump boy of about twelve sprawled on the pavement. Blood streamed from gashes on his face and arms, and a woman, presumably his mother, sobbed as she cradled him in her arms. In the distance they could hear the siren of the ambulance. Helen glanced up, and was alarmed to see seagulls lined up on the roof of the snack bar as though poised to attack.

“Just look at them up there!” she whispered to Richard. “I’ve changed my mind about the coastal walk.”

Richard and Helen spent the rest of the day by the pool at their hotel. It was a little crowded, but at least they felt safe under the wire mesh canopy.

“It’s a fine thing when people have to be put in a cage to protect them from the birds!” quipped one guest as she applied sun cream to her husband’s back.

Word of the attack spread through the town like wildfire. By late afternoon it was rumoured that he had died of his injuries. Richard and Helen caught the news on television while dressing for dinner and saw a report of the incident.

“Jamie Randall, aged eleven, died in hospital early this afternoon as a result of a seagull attack,” the reporter announced solemnly into his microphone as he stood outside the Tate Gallery, his eyes surreptitiously scanning around for rogue seagulls.

Richard had taken the precaution of reserving a table at their hotel that night. Dinner was a sombre affair; talk was of little other than the boy’s death. The dining room was full as residents seemed reluctant to walk into town. The following morning Helen and Richard overheard several guests checking out early. They decided to stay until the end of the week, but their sleep was disturbed by the noise of the gulls which seemed to have become more raucous. St Ives was like a ghost town. Many families cut their holidays short and headed for home. Hardly anybody dared venture onto the beach, and business was slow in the shops, pubs and restaurants.

Back home in Berkshire, Helen followed the news of her beloved St Ives. Over the next couple of weeks things calmed down a bit and the tourists gradually returned, then an elderly man was killed by seagulls. The tabloids were full of sensational stories about seagulls with a taste for human flesh. A vigilante group got together and started shooting at the birds, then one of the group got shot by accident. Then there were complaints that they’d been killing all species of birds, not just seagulls. The situation was getting totally out of hand. Soon came various interviews with local business people who were going bankrupt as a result. The last thing they needed on top of the recession was a mass exodus of tourists.

“The world’s gone crazy,” mused Helen as she dead-headed her roses. “Grandma and Pa would never have believed such things.”

A few weeks later Richard accepted a lucrative position with an engineering firm in Switzerland which would occupy him for the next three years until retirement. Helen gave up her little teaching job and they found a tenant for their home. They enjoyed their time away, but were glad to return eventually to their own home. After they had settled, Helen’s thoughts began to turn to a short holiday in early autumn, and St Ives came to mind, so she perused a couple of bed and breakfast websites on the internet. Nothing. She rang the Cornwall Tourist Board.

“We always enjoyed St Ives,” she said, “but the last time we went it was overrun with vicious seagulls.”

The tourist officer sighed. “St Ives is very quiet these days. There are a lot of derelict, empty B&Bs, hotels and shops. The population is a fraction of what it was, and there‘s literally no tourist industry any more.”

“Are the seagulls still a problem?”

“I think the locals have learned to manage them more effectively. Fishermen bring their catch ashore in covered baskets, everyone is very wary about disposal of food waste, and of course nobody eats in the open. The mystery has always been why St Ives suffered worse than anywhere else.”

“Very strange,” mused Helen.

“I expect you could buy property down there very cheaply these days,” said the woman optimistically.

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Helen, smiling as she wondered about the farm where her grandparents had lived.

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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