I watch a tramp sitting on a rock on the seashore. He chews on pebbles and starts swearing at the seagulls. 'Where's Whitey?' he yells. One of them is his friend, the locals say; only he's not sure which one it is. His name is Doug, I think, but I’m just a tourist, I came to observe, nothing more. My easel sways with the wind. It’s an isolated spot here between the rocks but he’s staring at me now in that vacant way of his. They say he was in a war but nobody’s said which one. He’s too young for it to be long ago. I try to capture the folds of his coats as he holds his hand above his head. The morning sun is low in the sky but it still blinds him. My brush sweeps across the canvas. I’m stealing life, I always think. Holding it prisoner. Playing God with a man who talks to birds. A man at my hotel told me he’s been yelling at the gulls for years. That he used to live in a home until it closed down. He pushes himself from his perch.
“What you doing, mister?” His words are brittle, unpleasant. He isn’t drunk. I always expect him to be but I’ve never seen a bottle of anything in his soiled fingers. His face is unshaven. His eyes two bright blue beacons shining out from a face darkened by madness.
“Painting.” I always keep my voice low and even. I imagine him carrying a gun, slung low. A soldier stalking me.
“Painting what?” he demands.
He moves around my easel and looks at the hunched figure on the rock. He laughs then leans around me to trace the faint lines of the seagulls above the figure’s head. “Is that Whitey?”
“Whitey’s flying. Whitey’s free.”
“Did Whitely die in the war?”
“No, Whitey didn’t die.” He shakes his head. “He flew. Up he went into a sky full of smoke and he never came back down. He turned into a bird, you see. That’s what Whitey did. He turned into a bird.”
“And you’re looking for him?”
“No, he’s there.” He points to the gulls dancing and whirling over the foam of the outgoing tide. He raises his hand and waves to them. “There’s Whitey.”
I stare at the gulls, waiting. Waiting. One splits from the flock, crying out, swooping earthward towards us. It follows Doug as he turns away. A white and black shadow, it follows him down the beach. “Whitey,” he calls to it. “Whitey.”
As I watch it stays with him. It rises and falls but it never turns away. “It’s just a gull,” I tell myself. “It’s just another gull. Anything else is madness.
Rona J Frith