A week on Coquet island: a blustery day

Wednesday 2nd October

Today it is windy, and the island is breathtaking. The courtyard walls provide some shelter from the gusts. I kneel on the ground, trowel in gloved hand, dislodging weeds from the silt and soil between paving slabs. The sun is warm on my back. 

How did I end up here? One of only two people upon this tiny island, this glimmer of earth upon the sea. It feels like a dream or an adventure from a children’s book. It feels like a story. 

The trowel scrapes concrete and I pile weeds and dead grass beside the path in rows. When I stand to carry a pile to the midden, the wind whips strands of weed and grit into my face. I splutter, try to loosen a blade of grass from my tongue with my teeth, hold tightly to my bundle of weeds and force them beneath the midden’s top layer. Wisps and clumps of grass threaten escape.

Beside one of the outbuildings is a cobbled area – dating, perhaps, from the area’s use as a monastery in the 15th century. The cobbles are covered with a matt of silt and weed which comes away in large pieces. Within it I find several small bird bodies – the decaying or desiccated remains of Arctic terns. Some are attached to the stones, somewhat organically, and I find myself scraping feather and dissolving body off concrete. It is not a pleasant task but not really so unpleasant either. Attempting to ignore the smell, I examine carcasses and skeletons. It’s fascinating to see the way that the feathers connect, to study the beaks and bones of birds I’ve seen from a mainland shore.

A vigorous trowel scrape, a gust of wind – and one light tern body is flicked upwards and swept twenty feet away. A final flight, perhaps. From this moment, I have a continual feeling of mild peril – it is all very well for the wind to throw grass and grit at me, but I would prefer not to receive a faceful of dead bird. (W laughs when I tell him this later; ‘It’s not so bad once they’ve dried out’). Worse-smelling than the bird remains are those of their eggs. A gloved finger breaks the shell of a hidden, unhatched egg, and I gag at the smell, become a little more cautious. 

I clear the cobbles of earth and weeds and birds, collect a sturdy brush and try to sweep away what remains. This is ill-considered. The wind, with more humour than spite, showers me with dust and bits of weed. I blink, try to wash clumps of grit from my eyes, and hope not to know the identity of whatever has landed in my mouth. Just grass, I hope.

Standing in the corner of the courtyard, I look out to sea. It is bright blue today and flecked with the white tips of curling waves. Gulls follow fishing boats like pennants on a kite. I watch juvenile gannets diving, tucking in their wings and plummeting towards the water’s surface. Overhead, skeins of pink-footed geese form vs and ws, interlaced sides of triangles, patterned black against the blue never-ending sky. How did I end up here? I can’t quite tell.

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