This is the kind of thing I used to think in those days: what if the starlings don't really exist? What if they're only in my head? To be fair, they were a lot more like a state of mind than birds usually are. I always had the impression that I felt them before I saw them, a dark wave passing across my thoughts like interference on a television screen. A familiar coldness would come over me, and I would think something like: here we go again. I don't know how to describe the emotion that went with that thought - can something be eerie and comforting at the same time? I would look up and see them, the first small cloud of birds that preceded the much bigger flocks that would pass over towards sunset. They flew almost as one, but there were always a couple of stragglers slightly out of sync with the rest trying to catch up. Then they'd be gone, over the rooftops towards the sea, and I would stare into the space where they had been, and notice the light had changed: a touch of gold in it now, irrevocable.
I could think logically about these things. The approach of evening was responsible for the passage of the starlings, not the other way around. And if I had any doubts at all about their objective existence, it would be easy enough to point them out, to Rob or anyone else I happened to be with at the time, making up some kind of comment that would elicit a confirmation: starling time already! But that would have seemed like an admission that was something wrong with me, perhaps even a symptom in its own right. A bit needy, in any case - if you had to have someone else to confirm every passing flock of birds, where would it end?
One reason I was so starling-conscious was that I was usually out of doors in the afternoon. On days when I didn't have to go in to the university I would wake around noon, eat a cold Sainsbury's chicken-and-bacon pie and a tub of coleslaw, and then wander out into the streets till it got dark. I had a circuit of secondhand bookshops I did regularly, reading sometimes for an hour at a time in the half-darkness among the piles of warped paperbacks and softening hardbacks, though I seldom bought anything, having made a rule that I could only buy books I needed for my studies, which meant either literary theory or polar exploration. There were also a couple of shops that sold new paperbacks in glaring primary colours on psychoanalysis, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, Marxism, anarchism, environmental issues - the essential modern heresies according to a sign in one of the shops. On my non-bookshop days I would just walk, either along the seafront or up the hill into the northern part of town.
It sounds aimless, but there was a purpose behind it. I was learning Helmston by heart. I had a strong feeling that none of these places - the stately hotels on the promenade, the Regency crescents and three-sided squares each framing a vista of steely blue sea, the curving glass-roofed station with its buffers that marked the end of the line, the little jewellers and antique shops in the Royal Mews, the shabbier shops further out that sold joss-sticks and bongs and Indian silk scarves and army surplus clothes - they were all going to be gone soon, and it was necessary to memorize them before it happened. Sometimes I thought they were gone already, and what I was seeing was only a simulacrum imposed on blank space.
I must have been quite fit. Some of those North Helmston hills are steep, and I would walk for miles, often ending up in one of the residential districts where Helmston became just like anywhere else, with little parks and playgrounds schools and ordinary shops like co-ops and subpostoffices. But always, just as I thought I was back in the real world, I'd catch a glimpse of the sea in the space between two houses and realize I was still in Helmston after all. And then another wave of starlings would fly over.
Each wave was a bit bigger than the one before, and as the waves grew bigger so they were more broken, not with individual stragglers any more but little groups of birds broken off from the main body, and sometimes trailing quite a way behind. They called constantly as they flew, a squeaking so high-pitched that it seemed to be inside my head, which must have been one of the reasons I knew when they were about to pass. The noise also disturbed the seagulls, which reeled away from the passing flock with their own, louder, cries. It takes a lot to panic a seagull, but panic was what it looked like.
It was the first time since childhood I had been afraid of the onset of darkness, and I didn't really know why. It was like a pressure in my head, like the sky closing in. Those waves of birds told me it was time to get back to the seafront, to the strange little room I had in the Squirrels Hotel (basically just a double bed with a gold counterpane and a dressing-table with a huge mirror); I could probably just make it before it got dark, I thought, but I never did. More waves would pass over till the sky was full of them, and by the time I reached the curving road that led to the station, the lights would be coming on in all the shops, and assistants would be standing in the doorways to discourage more customers from coming in while they prepared to lock up. It was suddenly much colder and the town looked Christmassy with all its lights on, even though Christmas was over. By the time I reached the Squirrels I was half-running. I would let myself in, and walk, trying not to pant, past the bar where Bill the landlord would often be standing alone, waiting to serve his non-existent customers, to the dark staricase. I would climb to the dark landing with its little electric hotplate and miniature fridge, open the door to my room and put the light on. Then I would stare round the room, with its little row of books in one corner, its single dining-room chair where I had to work sitting at the dressing-table, the pile of notes doubled by the mirror. My palace of glitter.