A taxi clips my leg when I try to join the queue—there’s no longer a dedicated lane for my kind at Arrivals—but I spot my ladies trundling from Terminal One so I fluff my feathers and slip into a gap before the taxi-drivers close rank again. My hens recognise me from the booking site and they push through the queue, lifting their wheelie cases into my undercarriage. They clamber aboard—two on my left shoulder, two on my right. They lean snug against my folded wings. No need to adjust, which is good as my feathers have not been oiled in weeks. The evening is warm with a hint of breeze. Perfect conditions.
‘Buckle up!’ I say. ‘Next stop: city fun!’
I calculate that there is enough of an interval between two buses—these indifferent municipal machines that stick to their slow-moving lane—and I run, feet slapping tarmac, a sound I have loved since my first days in operation. We lift off.
I feel the weight of the ladies on my back: eight legs, four stomachs, four brains. Their personal data tickles my processors.
Don’t go too deep, I tell myself. Don’t break the privacy. Be glad of these meal ticket girls.
They look relieved to be off the ground—I saw Barbara Harris (the bride) give a longing look to the taxi-rank before she climbed aboard. I understand. I’m vintage now, an old Tier2 machine, a novelty. There are smoother, calmer ways for sophisticated ladies to travel into the city.
‘How long will the journey take?’ asks the one called Clare Dehaan as we leave the airport’s lights behind. She is not a confident lady, I can see. She clutches the hands of Lauren Mills as I surf a good thermal.
‘Not long!’ I cluck.
‘We’ve got a cocktail mixing masterclass at eight,’ she says.
‘Wow. Cocktail mixing,’ says Barbara Harris. ‘All the classics.’
‘If we’re late they might give our slot to another group,’ says Lauren Mills. I need a good review so I abandon the thermal and boost my engine, and
I motor fast, heading for the river, cutting across the lattice of streets and squares and hills.
‘How pretty,’ says Tina Eze, the smallest of them, as we reach the river and follow its curves. ‘How lovely. Don’t you think it’s lovely, Babs? The water looks so silvery in this light.’
I adjust my data: Barbara ‘Babs’ Harris (the bride), who sniffs in answer to her friend, ‘What’s that smell?’
‘Don’t mind the boosters,’ I say. I don’t tell her boosters will soon be banned. What will I do then?
Bad question. File it away. Bury it. Glad to have a job for now. Take their minds off the boosters. Chatter and cluck.
I tell my ladies the best places to dance, where to dine. The best routes to cloisters, miradouros, ancient trees. My ladies spot sights—The Castle, The Sé—and call to each another. Speckles of spittle fall on my back and I read the salivary DNA chains and know their ancestors: grafters, lovers, survivors, mothers, screamers, guzzlers, smokers, snackers. Bad teeth, bad hair, bad hearts, bad guts. No, I say to this data. These ladies are blossoming brainy bridesmaids of likeability. They travel the earth. They marry. They dream. They have careers. Don’t delve. Don’t break the privacy. Help them have their ton of fun, give them the giggles, the ride of their life.
And if they don’t enjoy the ride and strike me down with a bad review? Bad question. Reroute it.
I swoop low over the city’s main park. On the grass, a gander mounts a goose, their organic bodies all showy feathers and squishing cartilage. No control of their functions. No knowledge banks. The ladies squeal and point. I don’t understand why these mating fowl delight them. But it is not my place to question my passengers’ responses. I dip as low as I dare in this non-landing zone and hover five feet above the geese so they can get a better look.
‘There is another fine sight you may like,’ I say. ‘If I may. It will only take five minutes.’
‘Oh go on then,’ says Babs.
I boost to the modern art museum and glide over its white block buildings and concrete pools. Mallards sit plump on the grassy bank of its reed-lined lake, enjoying the cool dusk air before they retreat to their houses to sleep.
‘We didn’t book a birdwatching trip,’ says Lauren Mills.
‘I like birds,’ says Tina Eze.
There he is. A night heron, with his three white nuptial plumes. His yellow eyes glow as he wades in the shallow water.
‘A sighting’s good luck,’ I tell them. ‘For brides to be.’
I look back at Babs. Her left eyelid droops slightly when she smiles.
By the time I drop my ladies at their hotel, they have given the journey five stars and booked me for the next day. I express gratitude but I can’t help remembering how it used to be. All-in multi-day trips. Find the price point and sell sell sell. A decent living from nearly-wed women adding zeros to my chip; enough for repairs, enhancements, feather oil. There were lots of us then. Room for specialisation and stand-out acts. Like Cockerel—Look at the big cock, everyone!—strutting down the street, pumping punters full of booze, dazzling with bright plumes.
The ladies enter their green-tiled hotel through well-greased glass doors, shrieking like gulls as two try to enter at once and their wheelie cases bash together. Then they’re in. Swallowed by five storeys of boutique B&B.
Cockerel’s gone now. Not classy, too crass. He struggled through alternative occupations—corporate team building, toddlers’ parties, novelty trans-species sex shows—before he gave up trying, drank the remainder of his stock, ended up stripped for parts in Scrap Town. Once, later, I saw his bright crown on a boy who was handing out happy hour leaflets at Praça Europa. I wanted to peck out that boy’s eyes, but instead I filed the impulse. My knowledge banks stir. You indexed hate?
I don’t like walking the back streets and narrow alleys, but they are the quickest way to reach Dove’s place. A girl smiles at me as she presses herself into a doorway to let me pass. When I cluck my thanks her boyfriend pulls her tight with protective arms. Our reputation isn’t great anymore. We got above ourselves, the city said. Charged too much to cover down-time, upgrades, maintenance costs. The tourist board issued reports on sustainability that said tuk tuks and taxis weren’t so bad after all. They turned the regulations against us, raised the Tier2 tax.
Dove is in his shack, making bhel puri. Intellectual property is strongly programmed in his type and he refuses to tell me the secret of his mix. But we can talk for hours about everything else: life, death, the absence of death, our future in the city (mine: shaky; his: assured by smallness, cheapness, enjoyment of menial repetitive tasks, classification as a Tier3 who contributes all profit to voluntary city taxation).
‘How was your pick-up?’ he asks.
‘Okay.’ I start to analyse the proportion of puffed rice to onion in his giant silver dish and he flaps to make me turn away. I squeeze past a plastic table and look out of the high barred window.
‘Where are they staying?’ he asks.
‘Fancy fancy.’ He adds lemon juice to his spicy mix. ‘Have you heard about the mayor’s new campaign? He wishes to return human drivers to tuk tuks.’ I swivel round and the table scrapes across the floor. ‘That can’t be right. Have they forgotten the traffic accidents? The overcharging? They’d never dare if it weren’t for the stags.’
It was a beautiful time, those months when the stags roamed—we all felt special: they never looked down on the rest of us, never forgot we were kindred. I suppose it’s obvious looking back that they were too noble, too sleek, too fast for city parks and boulevards. But, sure, they attracted an influx of rowdy men, an easy argument for discontinuation. They needed a forest; they got Scrap Town.
‘There will be a city hall debate,’ Dove says. ‘But that is for another day. Have your ladies booked with you again, or was it a grand arrival kind of deal?’
‘I’m picking them up tomorrow at noon.’
‘That is truly excellent, is it not?’
‘I guess.’ I look out between the bars again.
‘Are you feeling all right, my friend?’ Dove flutters to the window ledge so he’s level with my face. He preens the small feathers around my eyes. ‘I’m fine,’ I say.
The next day, clouds have dulled the city and there’s no sign of the ladies outside the Novo. I can’t see a parking space, and as I slow down a taxi driver yells at me for blocking the traffic. I run around the block, in the full flow of vehicles, fluffed up to protect myself from tuk tuks who swerve ever closer. Twice around the one-way system. Three times. Then, there they are! I’ll get paid again today. Enough for feather oil and a week’s city tax. O joy! O clucking joy is mine, mine, mine!
The ladies take the same positions as before. Clare Dehaan and Lauren Mills are already holding on to each other before we take off. Babs leans forward and pats my neck as she pre-pays on my chip.
‘We wondered if you could recommend somewhere off the beaten track for lunch,’ she says.
‘How unbeaten do you want it?’ I ask.
‘Oh, let’s go whole yolk, shall we?’ She makes a rude gesture at a beeping taxi and I like her even more.
At Dove’s place, the ladies scoop bhel puri into their mouths. They love Dove. They ask him about his shack, the street, the city. They admire his pink lacy tablecloths, his ingenious concertina door that he opens so they can sit in a line on wooden stools and look out at the street. They smile their approval at his meticulous preparation of dosas and chutneys and laugh at his tourist talk adaptations: ‘It’s an early bird who is getting into Vinho do Vinho.’ ‘They are all birds of a feather at Riva’s Riskoteque.’ ‘A decent steak at Tasca Tosca? Rare as hen’s teeth, I would say.’ They drink lagers of the world and get tipsy and a pleasant hour passes, then another, and Dove waxes my beak with honeycomb, and I’m starting to relax because this is the kind of day that makes it all worthwhile, when a tuk tuk pulls up outside.
‘That’s our ride,’ says Clare Dehaan.
‘But we’ve got transport?’ says Babs. She twists her engagement ring.
‘We won’t be long,’ says Lauren Mills. ‘We’ve just got a bit of shopping to do. Normal stuff. Presents. You know. We’ll see you back at the hotel for cocktails.’
We watch from Dove’s doorway as the two ladies rattle away, their tuk tuk sashaying up the narrow street, its frame festooned in fake sunflowers.
How can they prefer that to me?
Babs smiles and squints. ‘Cheer up. You can show us where to get better presents and stuff. Then they’ll be sorry. Dove, give us another beer would you, love.’
I wonder what her groom is like. I hope he is worthy of her.
I take Babs and Tina Eze to Grandmother’s Superior Gift Shop; Tina Eze jumps down and calls, ‘You look after yourself, now!’
Babs clambers forward and wraps her arms around my neck. ‘It’s been a blast.’ She gives me a playful scratch behind my chip. ‘Such a pleasure to ride with you. We’ll tell everyone how great you are.’
They stand together in the doorway of the gift shop and blow kisses up to me.
I lift off slowly and stretch my wings for the first time in days, to give them a good parting image before fluttering down to land in the next street. I will walk home and conserve my energy in case there is no work next week. I head for the river, and follow its wide bankside path, ignoring the swerving, honking tuk tuks who think they own the ground beneath my feet. I catch snatches of their passenger spiels, their voices blended from sympathetic, empathetic, coddling mother tongues. Their repertoire is limited, tourist talk: ‘Hear this sad exiled singer…’ ‘See the valid graffiti there…’ ‘Note that street named for a poet with an old lonely soul…’
After the railway bridge, the road fills with taxis and trucks, and I walk slowly to absorb the city’s dust and fumes: I must process more pollution than I emit in flight.
When I’ve sucked up enough bad air, I follow the grassy track up the hill. I admire the way my pink toes glow in the softening sunset light; they look like they belong among the poppies and yellow primroses. I climb slowly, following the chain link fence of the hospital grounds, past heaps of broken materials: ochre roof tiles, coarse sand, black slate. Small glass medicine vials lie in the grass, and there is the remains of a campfire with brown beer bottles in its ashes. Two kinds of ants stream past me in two separate lines, heading for a pile of shit.
When I get home, Hawk is waiting outside. I pull the stiff metal chain to roll up my door, and invite him in, clucking and nudging him to the corner I’ve furnished with second hand rugs. I’m embarrassed by how dark and cold it is inside—the old shed is hard to heat—though I know Hawk won’t judge me for it. He’s a warden who spends all his time visiting Tier2s in their allotted crumbling spaces. I wait for him to tell me why he’s here, why he looks so nervous: we both know my self-submitted city tax is up to date.
‘Been asked to do spot checks,’ he says.
When I say okay, no problem, his shoulders relax. He quickly checks my payment chip and measures my emissions. He tells me he’s been offered a job in Scrap Town.
‘You’ll take it?’ I ask.
‘Might do, might do. It’s a decent contract and it’s getting tough in the city—less work each year. You know the score.’
My networks discharge an inappropriate sadness so I turn away. Those geese in the park have more rights than us. All animals do. I remind myself of the terrible violence done to them by humans from time to time. It does not make me feel better.
By the time Hawk leaves, the sky is fully dark and Scrap Town’s lights make pretty sequinned patches on the hills opposite. On this side of the river, starlings gather in the trees. They’ve lived in the city for centuries, these old birds whose chicks hatch helpless, eyes closed against the world, but who soon learn to live a life of song and flight. All they need is water, a niche of a nest, a place to forage for grasshoppers, cherries, scraps. There are threats, too, of course, but they do not yet face the ebbing of existence.
I can delineate the routes the starlings will fly together, can hear their intent in the conversations passing back and forth along the branches as each prepares herself and others. I know they are ready to swoop and dance. In this moment it’s so clear to me that they are free.