Green Competition - Winner

P.J. Richards

Learning to Fly
Green Competition


P. J. Richards lives in Somerset, surrounded by the folklore, mysticism and nature that inspires her writing and art. Several of her short stories have been published in anthologies and literary zines, and her debut novel Deeper Older Darker is published by indie press Snowbooks. She’s thrilled by this win and still can’t quite believe it!

Learning to Fly By P.J. Richards

‘What’s that?’ She points at the picture in the book I saved and leans forward on my lap, almost overbalancing.
I shift her back so I can see the page again. ‘It’s a bird.’
‘Is it an alive thing?’
‘It was a living animal, yes.’
‘Did you see it in the real?’
‘Lots, they were everywhere.’ I smile. ‘They would come to my garden for the food I’d put out on the bird-table.’
‘They sat on a table? Like people?’
I grin and shake my head. ‘No, it was like a tray held up on a stick, with the food on top.’
She stares up at the blank, concrete walls, visualising. ‘Did they walk on them little wire legs, to get up the stick to the food?’
‘Well, they could walk and hop but most of all they loved to fly.’ I was warming to the tale and spread my free hand, miming a flapping wing.
‘Like a drone?’
‘Much better than a drone.’ I turn the page. There is a photo of a tiny bird drinking from a scarlet flower, pollen dusting its iridescent green head. ‘Look, this is a humming bird, it could hover.’
‘Like a drone.’ Her tone is condescending.
I smile. ‘Like a drone.’
‘Where did they go?’
Her question brings me up short with a cold, helpless loss in the pit of my stomach. Why tell the truth? What good is there in her knowing that they are all dead? She is young enough to believe. ‘They all… flew away.’
‘Where? Can I see them? Can you take me to see them?’
‘You have to close your eyes.’ I swallow the catch of emotion. Lean forward to look at her sweet, grubby, trusting face, eyes squinted shut, awaiting my directions.
I fall back on cliché. ‘They live in your dreams, that’s where you can find them – remember your happiest dreams? Those are the ones the birds bring you.’ I have to pause for a moment, pretend I’m rubbing dust from my face, not tears. And of course, the indulgent metaphor creates a tangent: she’s so quick.
She opens one eye and peers at me impatiently. ‘Then what brings bad dreams? Is it like them outside monsters? Is it like scavvers and shit?’
I’ve given up scolding her swearing; it’s not her fault that’s all she hears. ‘No, bad dreams happen, like storms, they’re frightening but they can’t hurt you.’
‘Named storms can hurt you and break things and flood stuff away.’ Both eyes are open now, to make sure I am concentrating on her rebuke. ‘Is there named bad dreams?’ She perks up at the notion. ‘If it’s going to hurt me, will it say a name at the beginning? If I tell it to shut up its name and I don’t hear it, then is it a way so it can’t hurt me?’
Her babbling shows such a striving for control; she is grabbing for the concept, still instinctively yearning for what the rest of us conceded long ago. ‘Yes, that will definitely keep you safe.’ It’s what she should hear from me. I have to be a barrier between her and the world for as long as I can.
Satisfied, she settles back against my chest, her hands laid on the pages of the book as if she’s drawing out the images through touch, her dirty fingers splayed like the wings of the bird beneath them. ‘My eyes is shut closed now.’ When I miss my cue she peeks at me. ‘Show me where the birds is gone. Please.’ She knows my rules and patronises them duly.
Where do I start? Do I tell her of flocks of seagulls giving voice to the waves, the twisting murmurations of starlings – what augurs did we miss in their patterns? Eagles climbing thermals into the clouds, peregrines stooping like arrows, patient rooks picking furrows, herons stalking riverbanks, the East-End chatter of sparrows, the low fluting of owls on still evenings… Or the sanctuary of my garden: the small, humble birds bringing their songs and bustle to my apple trees.
‘Think of a great big tree.’
‘Like that one you used to let me climb on?’
‘Yes, that one.’ The cracked and tilted remains of a dead oak inside the compound. I would lift her onto its fallen branches and hold her while she patted the bark and tried to balance. ‘But imagine it covered with soft green leaves: soft as your hair, green as…’ I cast around. ‘As the light on the door lock.’
She checked the colour with a brief blink then nodded.
‘Imagine it covered with flowers.’
‘Like the hum bird flower?’
‘Yes.’ Why not? This is a lesson in beauty not botany. ‘And on every branch and twig there is a bird and each one is different – all the colours you can think of, all different shaped beaks and tails, all sizes – and they’re singing.’
She tips her head back as if feeling sunshine. Her smile is knowing.
It’s a May dawn, the blossom is falling like warm snow, the blackbird is calling…
‘Wait!’ She tenses, anxious to correctly conjure the image. ‘Is there words in the singing?’
‘There are, but we can’t understand them, the words in their language are all said in peeps and squawks and caws and chirping.’ I know she has no frame of reference to understand the terms, but she surprises me by not questioning them. Onomatopoeia is enough it seems.
His gold-ring eye and bright beak hold the sunrise, he welcomes the light, and each refrain is a psalm…
‘Now what?’ There’s no impatience in her tone, just a gentle nudge.
‘They are singing their songs just for you.’ How bland: I’m stuck, lost in my own reverie.
‘I can see them and listen them – there’s so many!’
Her wonder is enlivening. ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’
‘They’re all of them looking at me!’ Her body is poised, her hands curl to fists on the book. ‘There’s a black one on top of the tree, he’s my favourite, his song is best – he’s talking to me. He is doing words!’
I play along, this is lovely. ‘What’s he saying?’
‘He remembers you when you was little in your garden. He says he didn’t mind when you copied his special morning singing ‘cause you gave him lots of food. He likes you.’
I am dumbstruck.
He sings the life into the trees, he hears the voice that follows his, stumbling on the notes: a homage, sometimes clumsy, sometimes clear, always reverent…
‘He says we can climb up the tree!’
My instinct to protect her lurches me back to the present. ‘No! you must never go out!’ But she’s slipped to the edge of my lap, her arms outstretched. The book drops to the floor, the pages, still open, are turned in the air-vent draught: birds fluttering, caged on paper, in memories, in myth.
‘Can’t you hear him?’ Her hands are cupped as if catching the notes, she scoops them to my ear. Her voice falls to a whisper. ‘He’s saying remember, remember, remember.’
The clear blue skies, garlanded with birdsong, small, pure throats spiralling music in misty threads. I try, I try so hard to match it; the rhythms are faster than my voice can follow, but the notes, even the highest, I can reach – they cascade into laughter, and the blackbird and I delight in our chorus...
‘I do remember.’ Is this joy? I’m too weary to hold on to it.
‘I want to touch them so they can be in the real and they don’t have to be stuck in the pictures, he’s telling me they don’t want to be in your book no more. He wants us to get up the tree so we can be in the sky with them!’
‘But we’re not allowed to climb it anymore darling.’ My words are stones to weigh her down. I despise the necessity.
She shakes them off, then takes both my hands and flaps them vigorously. ‘No, we can fly!
Her confidence, her warm hazel eyes with their flecks of green, are the promise of a spring I gave up on years ago. Her hope pushes upwards through the dead layers of my heart.
The blackbird is watching…
‘Alright. Let’s both close our eyes this time.’
‘Yes!’ She nods triumphantly.
‘And we’ll spread our wings.’ Her fingers reach for my sleeves, grip tight, and her fledgeling vitality urges me on. I move our arms up and down, as swan-like as I can manage. My shoulders ache and she senses the pain in my ungraceful movements.
‘Don’t worry Nan, the birds will help us.’
He comes closer, branch to twig, cocking his head from side to side, examining the seeds held out on my palm, deciding the rewards of trust are greater than the danger…
There is a rush of air – the vents must be broken – it sweeps over us. I stay in the dream and the wind becomes the downdraught of a flock.
‘Oh they’re everywhere! How is they so pretty? I love them! They’s grabbing our arms to carry us!’
My body is too heavy and stiff, but hers is still light enough, and she is lifted, each bird a feather on her wings. It’s only at the final moment I know that she is not rising upwards out of my embrace.
I am falling.
Back into my garden.
Delicate feet land on my hand...
We sing.

Judges Comments

'Learning to Fly', the winning entry in WM's Green Short Story Competition, conveys the heartbreaking scenario of being trapped in a future world where the environemnt is so toxic that birds are extinct and it is forbidden to go outside. The narrative voice is given to a grandmother whose vivid memories of the birds are evoked as she reads an old book to her granddaughter, who has only known their existence on paper.

P. J. Richards' story, original and deftly told, stood out for the quality of its writing. There's the wild, beautiful lyricism of the descriptions of the birds, contrasted by the references to the bleak imagined future world where the only comparision to the green of nature is the colour of the electronic door lock, and the only flying thing the granddaughter knows is a drone. There's the child's voice, so well conveyed, with its own rhythms and patterns and its vocabulary of future slang. There's the glorious shift as the two characters take flight into breathtaking imaginative realms: memory, for the grandmother, and imagination for the granddaughter.

'Learning to Fly' is eco-fiction with a pulsing heart that reminds its readers of the devastating impact of climate change not just on the physical lives of its characters, but on their imaginative lives as well. The beauty and wild tenderness with which its told only heighten the terror of its theme and its final, heart-rending message: that what lives in memory will only exist for as long as there is someone alive to remember it.



Runner up and shortlisted
The runner up in WM’s Green competition was Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. You can read his story at
Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Donna Booth, Wick, Caithness; Anna Caddy, Chard, Somerset; Michael Callaghan, Clarkston, Glasgow; Genevieve Flintham, Wells, Somerset; Alyson Hilbourne, Carlisle, Cumbria; Jocelyn Hoyle, Cremorne, Australia; Janet Jones, Minehead, Somerset; Aly Kerrison, Clitheroe, Lancashire; Jo Olsson, Queensland, Australia; Eileen O’Reilly, Wrexham, North Wales; Deborah J Smith, Maidenhead, Berkshire; S M Townson, Villenes-sur-Seine, France