In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Carol Farrelly’s ‘Turnstones’ is the winning entry from Canada and Europe.
‘No card, no entry,’ the porter said.
Jo flapped her sodden, raincoat arms.
‘Proof you belong is a centuries-old rule in this library,’ he said. ‘Just like silence.’
Jo searched again inside her pockets, while the porter stared with gargoyle-like dismay at the puddle she was dripping onto the flagstone floor. Tick, tick, tick. The storm reeled louder than ever outside, poking needles of cold night air through the door’s hinges and jemmying the window behind the porter’s head, but he seemed oblivious. It was this one patter of rain, which she’d brought inside – this dog-coat rain – that ruffled him.
‘Well?’ he asked. ‘Do you have proof or not?’
She rummaged inside her rucksack, even though she knew the card wasn’t there. She pulled out a creased train ticket home and a flyer for the nature conservation society, which she still hadn’t joined, and a rose-pink pebble from the cove back home, which she must have collected a long time ago.
‘Maybe I left it in my room,’ she said, suspecting she’d actually left the card in the blonde boy’s bedroom last night. It was probably lying on his floor, where she’d spent a restless night. Shagging in a single bed, he’d said, was one thing but sleeping together was another. ‘Too clammy,’ he’d shrugged as he chucked her a sleeping bag. ‘And you’re so tall. Right whippet-like.’ He’d smiled as he imitated her northern accent. ‘How do you even fit in these old hobbit rooms?’
Jo blinked at the porter’s grey, headstone teeth as he poked about his mouth with a toothpick.
‘But you must recognise me,’ she said. ‘I come here to study nearly every day.’
He chewed on the pick now. ‘Do you know how many people a year pass through these doors?’
She played patience and waited for his answer.
‘Just shy of one million people.’
She tried a smile. ‘But you’ve passed me through a hundred times.’
Jo knew he recognised her, but he was the neat, moustached type who kept to the rules, especially where young women were concerned – even more so when their burring, northern voices didn’t ring true on the A notes of conviction or entitlement. It was how most people reacted to her here. They detected a duck out of water and, while they didn’t shoo or kick, they considered it her job to adapt to their dry life. Even this porter with his soft Scouse accent sang the same song. Adapt or flop back into the water and carry on downstream.
‘I have exams tomorrow. There’s a book I really need.’
He dropped the toothpick into his shirt pocket. ‘And I really need to see a card.’
He pushed his hand underneath the counter and rustled a paper bag. He pulled out a grape and tucked it inside his cheek.
‘One day, we won’t need to remember passes or cards, will we?’ His voice was sloppy with grape juice. ‘They’ll have machines that read you, like they have at airports.’
The door beside her creaked open. A sliver of night sky glinted. A finger of rain fell on the flagstones. A mottled brown bird darted past her and ducked beneath the turnstile, then hopped, all twiggy orange feet, onto the staircase. A turnstone, she thought. She smiled at its quicksilver audacity. Not one flap or stumble or glance over the shoulder. No notion of trespass. It trotted inside as though the library was its usual, wintering home. Nothing to see here, its briskness said – and the porter didn’t see.
‘Your fingerprints will become your pass,’ the porter said, and plucked another grape.
Jo wondered if he might relent if she made friendly for a while. It must be a lonely shift.
‘More likely they’ll scan your face or eyes.’
‘An eye-print?’ Juice dribbled down his chin. ‘Do eyes have prints?’
‘Iris recognition.’ She stared at his flecked, green eyes. ‘Eyes are one of our most unchanging parts. Constant. And every iris is unique.’
‘Is that right?’ A smile twitched at his mouth. ‘Like a precious snowflake?’
Jo said nothing.
A gust whipped at the lattice window, and the glass billowed as though it was only canvas. The door swung open and a spittled wind whirled around her. Another turnstone scuttled past. The porter, still smiling at his own tired joke, didn’t notice. She leaned back against the damp wall and felt the wind twisting through the stone, whispering to itself or her. Stand firm, the wind whispered. Stand firm and soon you might follow that mischief of birds upstairs.
‘You’ll have to go back home,’ the porter said.
Jo stiffened. ‘What?’
‘Go get your card, if you want inside tonight. But we close in an hour, so –’
He moved to close the rattling door, but a red umbrella sprang out at him. Somebody sighed, unless it was the umbrella closing. A navy-blue scarf fluttered to the floor and a gloved hand caught it just in time. A man in a black pork-pie hat bustled towards them and as he turned to shut the door a whole gang of turnstones scurried inside. Her skin crawled with the strangeness of it. One bird stopped by her feet and dunted its beak against her boot. Unimpressed by the tang of wet vegan leather, the bird re-joined its companions as they streamed upstairs. Stocky little waders with fading tortoiseshell backs, snowy-white breasts and upturned beaks like small, black shovels. They were plentiful enough on the gravelly beaches back home, but it made no sense to see them here, so far inland, penned in by flagstones and shelves. The storm must have dragged them off their migratory course. A breaker-shaped wind had scooped them up and carried them here, a little flotilla, and the library’s lights had drawn them inside. Now, they had gained entry where she could not; and it made her both want to laugh and to cry.
‘Good evening, Dr Hurley,’ the porter said as the man shook his umbrella.
Another bird appeared by Jo’s feet. A bright-eyed straggler, it crept past her, seeming more cowed than the others. She smiled as though to say welcome. She’d always liked turnstones. One summer, the day her father lost his job, she’d spent hours in her cove watching these birds hunt for insects and crabs and the soft white scraps of the gulls’ daily catch. They’d scoured the beach, shovelling with their beaks, flipping shells and stones like flimsy coins. That was the reason for their name, her father told her that evening as they comforted each other with warm milk and small talk.
The porter, too preoccupied with Dr Hurley, still hadn’t noticed the trespassers. He took the man’s umbrella, held it flat in his palms like a precious sword, then placed it in the stand.
‘Freak storm, sir, eh?’ The porter nodded at the window. ‘Never said it would be this fierce, did they? There’ll be trees and roofs down tonight.’
Dr Hurley, his face still hidden beneath his hat, nodded. ‘Although it’s not such a freak, is it? Not anymore. This is our climate now. We’ll have to adapt, Derek – or expire, like the dinosaurs.’
Jo stepped forwards. ‘And we caused it.’
The porter started, as though the wall had just spoken. ‘Sorry,’ he bumbled. ‘This young woman –’
‘Or some of us did,’ she said.
Dr Hurley turned. She’d expected silvered sideburns and spectacles, but she saw a young man, blonde, with round eyes, full-lipped.
‘True,’ he replied. ‘We. If only we’d worked out long ago how to use that word better.’
She nodded. It was a good reply: she wondered how well she used the word herself.
The porter blinked, looking a little lost, as though stuck on the thought of habitual storms or yet more adaptation. She could understand that daze.
Dr Hurley tapped the turnstile with his hat. The porter jumped and buzzed him through, without one flash of a card. The man hummed a tune as he climbed the stairs, and a bird trailed behind him.
‘He didn’t have a card,’ she said.
The porter started humming Dr Hurley’s tune. ‘He’s one of our most brilliant young scholars.’
‘Rules are rules, you said.’
He turned his back and pulled the handle on the shivering lattice window.
Another turnstone trotted past, its beak stuffed with a scraggly, black mess. A catch of flies or spiders plucked from a library arch or nook, or perhaps a plunder of moss and twigs for an unseasonal nesting.
‘Please.’ She wanted to call him Derek, but she resisted. ‘Can’t you let me through?’
‘I know Dr Hurley,’ he replied. ‘I don’t know you.’
A gust barrelled against the window as he spoke – as he lied. The glass bulged. The door thudded open again. The walls made a flapping noise like an enormous umbrella struggling to open. The porter lunged and slammed the door shut.
His eyes were wheels. ‘You can’t go out into that.’
She smiled at his softer voice. She imagined herself already curled in her favourite chair upstairs, the book she wanted in her hands.
He nodded at the bench. ‘You can wait there, till it’s calmed down.’
The glass snapped behind him. Cracks zigzagged across the panes. A thin beak poked through one corner. A squashed white ball flailed against the splintering glass and swelled like a pelican’s gulping throat.
‘What the hell?’ the porter croaked.
‘It’s a turnstone,’ she said.
‘A turncoat?’ he asked.
‘A bird,’ she spoke louder. ‘A turnstone.’
The bird pressed its breast against the window and hammered. A streak of pink rain trickled inside. The bird’s head slumped forwards then dropped away. A white feather drifted towards them. The porter swatted it, but the feather danced higher, showing its bloodied underside.
‘Christ,’ he muttered.
‘Poor thing,’ she whispered. ‘Desperate for shelter.’
‘What? So, it bludgeons itself to death?’
Another bird thumped against the broken glass, as though turning itself into a giant hailstone. Then another came, and another. They thrashed their wings and pounded their shovel-like beaks, trying to tunnel a route from the storm into this dry-nest library.
You don’t belong there, her father had said to her. ‘Why there?’ her Biology teacher had leaned back in her chair. ‘Aren’t our local universities good enough?’ ‘You’ll change,’ her once best friend had said. Then, at the interview, one of the tutors had played Frankenstein and stitched all those muttering voices together. ‘So, Josephine, tell us why you think you belong here at this world-class institution?’
Still, she had come; and they had let her.
More beaks rapped at the window and more cracks appeared, but still the glass didn’t give. Finally, as though fearing their companion’s fate, the birds rose and vanished.
The porter stared at her. ‘Maybe they’re rabid?’
She wanted to slap and hug him. ‘Only mammals get rabies.’
‘Are you sure?’
He sniffed. ‘Is that your subject?’
He fell quiet. She wondered if he would grab at her if she opened the door to the poor birds flailing outside.
‘Something’s wrong with them,’ he said. ‘That’s not normal, is it? Even in a storm. Why don’t they hide in their own places? Trees or barns or caves?’
Again, the door crashed open. Another flurry of turnstones swirled between them and rushed upstairs. Jo stared. The birds must have shoved the door open with their combined weight and will. She’d read once that turnstones had the shoulder strength to shift knuckles and thighs of driftwood. They jostled and heaved until they uncovered pools of insects glistening like berries.
‘Christ –’ The porter flapped his bony hands at the birds, who were a rolling bank of seaweed now. He slammed the door shut and waved a key. ‘They’re swarming the place.’
A mob of birds ran towards him and streamed between his legs as though he were just an old tree. He kicked at one and it shrieked and jabbed at his ankle. Another bird reared and pecked at his scrabbling hand. He dropped the key.
‘Don’t provoke them,’ she said.
‘They’re like rats.’ He twisted his mouth.
Jo leaned forwards. She couldn’t resist any longer. She’d tell him the other thing she knew about turnstones.
‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘Turnstones have been known to eat people.’
His eyes flashed. ‘What?’
Two birds hopped onto the counter, their wings half-lifted like little shields. A second later, they were under the counter, plucking at the bag of grapes.
‘They eat people,’ she repeated.
His eyes turned glassy. ‘Is that some kind of zoologist joke?’
‘It’s a well-known story. My dad told it to me one Hallowe’en.’
The turnstones, grape-skins now dangling from their beaks, tilted their heads as though to listen to her version of their birdlore.
The porter half-smiled. ‘You mean a made-up story?’
A weight pressed down against her foot. A turnstone stood there, sleek and hefty as an otter. And for a moment she wished a romp of otters would burst through the door – and then a beach and a sea. The turnstone dropped from her foot and headed upstairs.
‘It’s a true story. Documented.’
‘You’re saying these birds kill humans?’
‘They eat flesh. They’re carrion birds. So, they mostly eat insects and shellfish, but – if someone or something else has done the killing – they’ll dine on far bigger creatures. A sheep or a seal or a human.’
The porter glared at the watching birds. She could see it was hard to imagine, these handsome, silken birds, not much bigger than a song thrush, gorging on a human body. They were too velvety and rounded, their bellies too snow-white, their eyes too bright – although, if you studied them, you could see the carnivorous potential in their shovelling nibs.
‘Humans?’ he said, stuck on that word.
She drew nearer. ‘So, here’s the story. One night, a man was walking along an Anglesey beach when he heard clicking pebbles.’
The porter leaned against his desk, just as she had leaned forwards in her bed when her father began the story.
‘He thought it was the click-clack-click of turnstones, foraging among the pebbles.’ She repeated her father’s words. ‘The sea had been a right squall that day, but come night-time it was calm. A dark skein of silk. The man thought the water’s shivery lullaby must have called the turnstones, just like it had called him. But no. The turnstones smelled meat. The salt of fresh wreckage. A shipwreck. So, they crept through the tidewrack, digging and flipping stones and flotsam, prodding at whatever lay underneath. Sometimes they hunched their wings, if the pebble or driftwood was too heavy, and then they’d huff and puff. Their click-clack-click grew more and more frenetic. Insects and crabs weren’t good enough that night. The air was so ripe with iron and malt. They knew there was a better feast.’
The porter had both elbows on his desk now.
‘The man thought it was a washed-up pig, at first. Then, as he drew nearer, he saw it. A man’s corpse. The legs bent, one arm stretched above, still clasping his hat. Seaweed plastered across his face. His eyes still open. He must have died in the squall, fighting a wave, praying to the Lord above, and the high tide carried him ashore. He’d been a sturdy man in life; but now he was just a richness of meat. The walking man stared as the birds crawled the length of the corpse, like ants mobbing a sugar cane. They pulled strings of flesh from his neck and cheeks – and they trilled.’
She stopped her father’s telling there. The porter fixed her with revolted eyes as though he held her responsible somehow for the turnstones’ actions – or because she’d so relished the telling.
‘They trilled?’ he muttered.
A screech rang from the floor above and then a slow roar, like a tide rushing across shingle. They stood stock-still. A hurled book clattered down the steps. A green Doc Marten tumbled against the wall. They glanced at each other. It hadn’t occurred to either of them to wonder what was happening upstairs.
‘How many people are up there?’ she asked.
The porter’s face was flushed. ‘A few. The usual night owls.’
Even now, she thought to say she should be one of them.
‘We should go check what’s happening,’ she said.
‘No, we should call the emergency services.’
He reached for the phone and lifted it, ever so gentle, in front of the two birds.
He shook his head and held out the phone.
‘Dead,’ he said.
Jo winced as she heard the flatline: that squealing tinnitus that told you nobody was there, not anymore. Gone, absconded or taken.
‘Have you got a mobile?’ he asked.
‘Not with me,’ she lied. ‘What’s the point? This place is a dead zone. No signal inside these mausoleum walls.’
‘Mausoleum?’ His mouth twisted. It surprised her too, her choice of words. Once upon a time, she’d dreamed of this place.
One of the turnstones raised its wings again and sang – ‘kit-it-it’ – as though offering advice.
‘We should look upstairs,’ she said. ‘Gather everyone together.’
‘They’ll have used the fire exits. We need to leave too.’
He grabbed Dr Hurley’s umbrella and shook it half open. The birds turned towards these new, strange, rustling red wings.
‘But we must check,’ she persisted. ‘This library’s huge. Someone might be lost. Didn’t you hear the scream?’
He shook his head. ‘You’re relentless. A freak storm’s raging. A plague of birds is threatening the library. Who knows what’s happening outside? And you’re still plotting how to get inside for that damned book of yours.’
And you, she wanted to snap in reply, are obsessed with refusing me entry. Keep out, you trill. Keep out. Instead, she summoned her calm voice. ‘The birds aren’t threatening.’
The porter brandished the opened umbrella. One of the turnstones hunched its shoulders.
‘What about all the books upstairs?’ She flapped her arms. ‘Can you picture the mess the birds might be making? And the old reading room? The manuscripts?’
The porter tugged at the door. ‘And what would we do? We’d need nets and cages and boiler suits. We have to leave,’ he said, still battling with the jammed door. ‘There’s too many of them. And you’ve just told me how vicious they are.’
‘They’re just taking shelter,’ she said. ‘The storm’s confused them.’
Finally, the door juddered and came unstuck. The porter poked his head outside while she looked back to the turnstile. It would be easy enough to duck beneath, like the birds – to trespass, even though she officially belonged.
‘Listen,’ he whispered. ‘Dead silence.’
She looked at the purple darkness. The silence of a becalmed boat. The quieter, forgotten thrum of a world without the hum and jingle of cars and bicycles and phones. Already, the swirling from above had become familiar, reminding her of home. The two watching turnstones raised their gorgeous, tortoiseshell wings and glided up towards the ceiling, just like she wanted to do.
‘The storm must have passed,’ the porter said. ‘Thank Christ.’
Jo stood beside him and looked out onto the empty quadrangle, flecked with yellow drizzle. No army of birds stood there, wing to wing, as she’d half hoped. Only a streetlamp stuttered.
‘Let’s go,’ he said.
Jo flew to the turnstile and ducked underneath.
He stared at her. She saw that lost look in his eyes again. ‘Relentless,’ he said and slipped off into the darkness. The mist and drizzle seemed to wash him away in seconds. Only the streetlamp persisted and the fallen key’s glitter. Jo ran back, grabbed the key, and locked the door, fast as a razor shell.
The long, lamplit reading room was empty. Books lay splayed open. Abandoned rucksacks lay scattered underneath desks. A flask of coffee curled steam. Dr Hurley’s pork-pie hat rested upside-down on a shelf. A half-eaten Cornish pasty drooped on a chair. A muffin wrapper fanned like a dragonfly wing. A toppled water bottle dribbled a tulip-shaped puddle onto the floor. The people who had been here only minutes ago had fled through the open fire door. She pictured the blur of them leaving, their frantic yellow and red raincoats like the flare of tail lights through a rainy window. She’d been in places like this before: a scene of sudden absence. A daughter walks into her unmade bedroom and finds a brief goodbye note on her pillow, written in the tiniest hand as though even the pencil wished the writer invisible. Can’t cope. Gone back to my own country, where I belong. You’re leaving soon anyway. Love, Dad.
Jo rubbed her eyes and looked upwards.
The turnstones hovered beneath the ceiling like a swell of ruddy seaweed. There was no chaos in their movements, no misdirection, no jostling panic. They moved like one stretched beating muscle, an echocardiogram that was strong and healthy and still had far to go. A little horse’s placid heart, perhaps. It was beautiful, she thought – and she wished she could be a part of it, the joy and the belonging. Their slick wings brushed against each other, passing flight and heat back and forth. They circled as though to claim the land below. ‘Ours,’ they trilled. ‘Our turn! Our turn!’
Jo thought again of the story she’d told. It had repulsed the porter, but it wasn’t so grim to imagine. The birds had only made life from the dead. And wasn’t that what a library did too – or should do? Flight passed on. And didn’t she belong here, as much as anyone? Her father should have belonged here too. And the woman she passed every morning on the towpath, wrapped in the torn sleeping bag, sheltering beneath the brambles where the blackberries grew. She should belong. And, if he wished it – and she was sure he did – the porter should belong.
‘You’re just a tick in a box to them,’ her father had said. ‘A token gesture. Go somewhere kinder, Jo.’
She hadn’t listened; she’d wanted to prove him wrong. Things had moved on, she’d told him; and she didn’t want kinder – she just wanted fairer. He’d left his cramped goodbye note within a week of that conversation.
Jo wandered over to her shelf and pulled out the book she’d wanted. A little-known ornithologist’s journal. She sat at her favourite desk and flicked to the dog-ear she’d made on her last visit: the woman’s joy at witnessing the wintering birds’ return. A couple of turnstones settled on top of a bookcase and cocked their heads. Another clung to a swaying lightshade. Yet another, perhaps the straggler from earlier, swooped down and drifted just above her head to get a closer look.
‘I’m here,’ she whispered.
The turnstone squawked as though calling its mates. They were all dropping lower now. Soon they would be roosting on the desks and chairs – and this place would be theirs more than hers. It would belong to the turnstones, until the rescuers came with their batons and hoses or nets, perhaps.
She grabbed the half-eaten pasty and wished the meat was blackberry as she bit through the crust – a spoonful of sugared fruit, with double cream, scented with wind and bramble leaves. A chunk of pasty fell to the floor. Two turnstones dived and took turns at pecking, until they’d plucked free all the meat.
‘We’re here,’ she repeated.
Blue lights flashed against the walls. The porter must have reached a landline. Rescue, so-called, was on its way. She smiled to herself. Unless, of course, he’d reported her as the trespasser and not the birds.
The turnstones, all dozing now on shelves or desks, rippled and twitched like leaves – and the room had never looked so alive. If anyone walked in now, they’d see the bookcases were the terrace on a cliff, and the floor was pink and gold shingle, and the air blew straight from the North Sea, and the books were sleeping, stowaway birds. This reading room was a place where anyone might wander and sit awhile.
The door slammed open. A thin lasso of white light loped across the far wall. The porter was the first to appear. He was waving a shovel in front of him like a butterfly net. Jo waited for the police officers or firefighters to follow, but nobody came. Instead, he half-smiled and closed the door.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
He edged towards her, holding the shovel high above his head. The turnstones fluffed their feathers. She glanced at the shovel. It was still clean. No bloodied clot of feathers.
‘I thought there might be carnage,’ he whispered. ‘Birds crashing. Corpses. I thought I might need to protect the books – and you.’
She almost laughed. ‘From what? Everything’s fine. See.’
He tiptoed closer, raising his knees high as though imagining himself in a river with beaked crocodiles. And, for a moment, she saw the different world that rose around him. These birds were old companions to her, but to him they were beaks and claws ready to attack. As she watched him creep, she saw herself elsewhere in this city – how she moved through the streets and buildings and lecture halls, making herself small, feeling herself the trespasser. A tutor had asked her once, around a table with other students, if something had happened to her. ‘You have that stillness,’ he said. ‘That silence, which comes from trauma. Intergenerational, perhaps.’ She’d written him a message afterwards to tell him he was the trauma, but she’d never pressed send. It still sat in her drafts.
‘Did you call 999?’ she asked.
The walls stopped flashing blue.
‘I couldn’t find a phone box.’
She pulled her book towards her again and stroked the page. He’d wanted to come back, he meant.
He still held the spade high in the air. ‘Jesus,’ he muttered. ‘Look at you, just sitting. What’s wrong with you?’
‘It’s an obsession with you – these books.’
The air above her sliced. Whoosh. She flung herself onto the floor and pictured the shovel whipping just above her head. She imagined the gargoyle look in the porter’s eye again. He wanted to chase away the turnstones, show her they didn’t belong – and neither did she. And if he didn’t quite belong here either, at least he played custodian. The air whooshed again, but this time she knew it was the turnstones. She rolled over and gazed up at the birds criss-crossing the sky, riding thermals, clustering together like the magnetic glitter she’d loved swirling inside her dad’s old Etch A Sketch.
She closed her eyes and remembered the rest of her father’s story, the part he must have invented especially for her, the part she would now give to the porter.
‘When the man saw the body,’ she said, ‘he staggered backwards, and his Bible fell out his coat pocket. One bird pounced and nibbled. Soon a group of them were dragging the book. They watched the pages flutter – this beautiful wing-shape that didn’t rise. They thought it was one of their own, injured. Between them, they lifted it back into the air.’
Jo opened her eyes. The porter was crouching beside her, still gripping the shovel. He hadn’t listened to a word. For a moment, she imagined the birds grabbing the shovel and carrying it high through the sky until they reached the sea and dropped it fathoms deep. She imagined too the birds plucking berries from the homeless woman’s bramble and pulping it into a jam for her with their orange feet.
The porter whimpered.
‘You’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘They’re quite friendly.’
She stood up and stretched her hands out towards the swooping birds, but she couldn’t reach even a wisp of a feather. She saw the rood had vanished now. She felt shingle and wind and sea salt. The birds had separated into four smaller flocks. They were knocking books from shelves and diving and pecking at the splayed-open pages: a table of seeds and berries and insects. A cave, a shelter, a banquet.
‘Don’t you see?’ She pointed. ‘This place is theirs.’
She laughed as the turnstones flipped the fallen books, looking to uncover the loot beneath. They flicked open covers and tugged at stitching and broken spines. Pages came loose, like clams unhooked from their shells. One pair pegged their beaks to the opposite corners of a page and raised it, a billowing sheet, between them. She raised her arms as another group hammered at the tiny curls of printed ink and plucked them free like strands of kelp. She trilled as the birds swallowed the tendrils like plump grapes and shellfish and eggs. She laughed as the floor became a cove of paper-white shingle and purple seaweed and anemone-red fruits – and the turnstones feasted.
‘See!’ She pointed. ‘Ours.’
The porter peered from behind his shovel, and she knew he saw only wreckage now, but his eyes might adapt. This storm, dismissed by the forecasters, had been such a long time coming. For tonight, this place was home. She picked up her book and stood on tiptoe and stretched. The turnstones rose and circled around her. She began to jive.
Image © Garrett Coakley