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THE SEAGULL AND THE SHEIKH

 

*T *

[] HE SEAGULL
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THE SHEIKH

 

A Novel

 

 

 

By

Diane van der Westhuizen

 

 

 

 

 

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system,

without written permission from the author.

 

 

DISCLAIMER

 

This book was inspired by a family’s determination to rescue an injured seagull. Apart from this central storyline, all other events and characters have been included for the purposes of dramatization and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

Email address:

[email protected]

 

Cover design:

Diane van der Westhuizen

The story revolves around Nelson, a giant black-backed seagull named after a song popularised in South Africa by a local duo, Des and Dawn Lindberg. If you wish to listen to this wonderful track performed by the Lindbergs, you’ll find it here: https://youtu.be/dAl20P4oYnM.

 

THE SEAGULL’S NAME WAS NELSON

(Written by Peter E Bennett – 1970)

 

A long time ago in ’67

A little boy was running on the beach,

When all of a sudden he heard a plaintive cry

So near yet so far out of reach.

He looked behind a rock so tall

And there before his eyes,

Was an oilsome seagull lying there

Windswept with pain in his eyes. 

And the seagull’s name was Nelson

Nelson who came from the sea,

And the seagull’s name was Nelson,

Nelson the seagull free.

 

He fed that seagull limp and small

Until that bird could fly,

And when he thought it was so

He let little Nelson go,

And it flew above his head into the sky.

And the seagull’s name was Nelson

Nelson who came from the sea,

And the seagull’s name was Nelson,

Nelson the seagull free.

 

 And the time had come for the boy to go

And sadness was in their eyes,

But it’s not for you to criticize

You’ve never see a seagull cry.

 

And the seagull’s name was Nelson

Nelson who came from the sea,

And the seagull’s name was Nelson,

Nelson the seagull free.

 

 

THE SEAGULL

AND

THE SHEIKH

 

Until one has loved an animal,

A part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

~ Anatole France

 

DEDICATION

 

To my friend, Carol, whose infinite abundance of love and tireless devotion to the abandoned cats in Dubai banished my scepticism of the human race’s compassion for those who have no voice. She and her fellow cat lovers deserve the highest reward for feeding those souls discarded in the desert by their humans. Mankind spends billions on luxuries for themselves, but all these cats ask for is shelter from the excruciating desert heat, food, water and love.

It struck me one morning as I visited the colony of cats with her – what if nobody came? What if there was no food or water for them? The desert is harsh and the heat in the height of summer, relentless. And without water, lethal. But these remarkable women are there every single day, ignoring searing temperatures that seemingly suck the air out of one’s lungs. Carol scales those treacherous granite blocks every morning, laden with heavy water bottles and large bags of food. One misplaced step and she could cut herself badly on the rocks’ sharp edges.

But her determination doesn’t end when she summits the pier. Each cat is fed in its own special spot down amongst the nether regions of the rocks, meaning that she has to lower herself between the blocks to ensure that every bowl is topped up. Cats that are ill or injured are given special wet food and, if they need medical care, are trapped and taken to the vet for treatment; the cost of this care often paid for out of her own pocket.

Not satisfied with only feeding the cats on the pier each morning, Carol also does an hour’s ‘tour of duty’ every evening to feed scattered lone strays that have made their solitary homes in apartment garages, building sites and hotel gardens. Having identified feeding spots for these souls, skittish because of human cruelty and neglect, she faithfully feeds them every night, regardless of what may be happening in her life.

To Carol and these women – I am humbled by your dedication to those who can offer nothing in return, except their love.

To the irrepressibly happy, loving cats that trudged through the scorching heat, their blistered paws cut and bleeding, to find refuge – humans would do well to emulate your spirit. You found it in your little hearts to forgive us and learn to trust us once more. Beano, Big Daddy, Charlie, Smudge, Mama Cat, Findlay, Meow-Meow, Buddy, Brownie, Queenie, BC, Mustang Sally, Ginjie, Ying Yang, Spot, Calico and all the other furry joys – thank you for the happy sight of your tails raised high in the air, your bodies vibrating with deep purrs as you ran to greet us every morning. It was an honour to rest on the rocks you call home and visit with you a while.

Unconditional love knows no boundaries. And so it is with Carol. Her unbridled compassion extends to all living creatures, not only to cats. During a recent holiday in Dubai she told me the true story about Nelson, the norees (the Arabic word for seagull) that became a part of her family’s lives for a while. Her story touched me so deeply that I promised to write it. I hope Nelson’s story raises you up as much as it did me.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

I stood at the very tip of a pier of massive, roughly-hewn granite blocks jutting out into the Arabian Gulf. A sweltering late spring breeze, thick with humidity, dried the sweat on my back, giving some small relief from the oppressive heat. I threw my arms wide and my head back, welcoming any other stray breezes that could fight their way through the moisture-laden air. Above me, huge black-backed seagulls hovered noisily overhead, greedy for any scraps that a lone fisherman may let drop. I watched in awe as they wheeled and turned, rose and dove again, their great, agile bodies as sinuous as fish in water. Their magnificent wings, measuring almost the length of my body, scythed the great sky as they battled each other to get close to the fisherman.

“I wonder if one of them is Nelson” said a voice from behind me. It was my friend, Caroline. She clambered over the rocks towards me, a troupe of the colony of cats she fed every day daintily picking their way beside her. They were hungry for their breakfast, but hungrier for affection. They knew Caroline would sit on the rocks with them for a while and stroke them and talk to them before she went home. Most of them would only slip down amongst the rocks to eat and escape the blazing sun once she had left.

“Nelson?” I asked, puzzled.

“Didn’t I tell you about Nelson?” she asked, now standing beside me, her tanned willowy frame making me feel like a stodgy doughnut.

“No. Who was he?” I thought she was perhaps referring to a stray cat she had managed to find a forever home for.

Caroline sat down on a hot rock and was immediately inundated by cats, all mewling and vying for her attention. She idly stroked Big Daddy’s sinewy body as she continued. He was a huge black and white bruiser, his fur tough from the harsh conditions on the pier. True to his name, he was the ruler over all he surveyed. The other cats hung back, waiting for their turn to be petted. Ying Yang yelped as Tyson gave her a gentle smack for trying to jump the petting queue. Big Daddy’s pale green eyes closed into slits as he enjoyed the ecstasy of Caroline’s hand running over his back. I sat down beside her and immediately the stragglers formed a pool of fur around me. They knew a cat lover when they saw one. Beano, the second in command, lay next to my leg, his head resting on my thigh. He had been a hard case to crack. The last time I had seen him he had been a combative thug, wary of people, his white face and ears riddled with the scars of many street fights. Caroline had managed to trap him and had taken him to a friendly vet who charged minimal fees for neutering. So, one snip later, Beano had become a soppy old man. His deep purring next to me told me he had forgiven humans for the unkindest cut of all for males, of any species. He glanced up at me with dreamy eyes as if to say: This was worth losing my nuts for.

“Nelson” Caroline continued, “was a seagull that David and I found on the beach about ten years ago.”

“D’you mean here, in Dubai?” Caroline and her husband, Mario, had been living in Dubai for about 11 years, but they owned a gorgeous beachfront house in a quaint village in Cape Town, South Africa.

“In Dubai. D’you see the Burj Al Arab?” She pointed to the landmark hotel in the distance, its glorious sail-like facade rising out of the smudge of humidity enveloping the city.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, beyond that, on the beach, is where we found Nelson.” Meanwhile Charlie, disappointed that Caroline had stopped scratching his head to point at the hotel, stood on his hind paws and rubbed his head against her outstretched hand. She smiled at him absentmindedly, bent down and kissed the crown of his head. She loved all the cats passionately, but he was one of her favourites. If she hadn’t already adopted three of the colony cats and taken them home to South Africa (at teeth-grinding expense), she would have taken Charlie home with her too.

“Dave was only about twelve years old then. He has an affinity with birds you know. I must also tell you about him and Spartacus too, one day.”

“Spartacus?” Unless I the heat had melted by brain, Spartacus was a movie. And I didn’t recall her mentioning Russell Crowe dropping round for a cup of tea.

“Mmm, an Egyptian goose he brought up. At home, in Cape Town.” A cat walked passed her and swished its tail gently across her face.

“Sounds interesting, but I’d like to hear about Nelson first.”

“Sure. But you must be getting really hot. Want to have a swim first?” I was used to the heat of the African sun, but it was a mere candle flame compared to the blast furnace desert sun that had started to claw its way into my skin. I stood up, eager to cool off in the sapphire blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. Beano gave me a baleful glance and, realising we were leaving, slipped down amongst the rocks. Most of the cats would spend all day in the shade of the bowels of those granite rocks. Occasionally they may surface to greet a visitor to the rocks, hoping for a friendly pat or maybe a scrap of fish from a fisherman.

“Okay, come on let’s get wet.” Caroline grabbed her bags, stuffing them with the now empty water bottles and cat food. She scrambled nimbly down the side of the pier towards the beach. It always astonished me how sure-footed she was in slip slops. I, on the other hand, crawled down nervously on all fours like a drunken crab. I didn’t fancy spending my holiday in a plaster cast. I loved sightseeing in Dubai, but I wasn’t that keen on seeing the inside of a Dubai hospital A and E ward.

“Oof!” I jumped off the last large granite slab onto the soft sea sand with relief. I wouldn’t be adding to the collection of Band Aids on my elbow and knee. At least not today, anyway. Not too shabby for an-out-of-shape fifty-odd year old, I thought.

A few of the cats followed us down the rocks and flopped down under the shade of Caroline’s car parked on the beach. Their dozy stares followed us as we slipped off our beach dresses and stepped into the warm, calm water. The look on Mama Cat’s tortoiseshell-puzzle face from under the car seemed to say: Don’t play with the seafood!

I gratefully sank into the glassy surface of the salty water and turned to face the city. In the ocean behind me, I could hear the deep, dull roar of the luxury yachts as they glided regally by, their occupants draped on their decks, long cool drinks in hand. Above us, an omnipotent light aircraft rose high into the sky. It took off every half hour from another pier with a cargo load of skydivers on board. On the shore, hundreds of locals and holiday makers lay spread-eagled on the beach. I could well have been in the south of France and not the United Arab Emirates. In the water around me, tiny ladyfish danced around in small schools. I closed my eyes and held my face towards the sun, my body gently swaying with the soothing current of the Arabian Gulf.

I heard splashing as Caroline swam towards me. I opened my eyes to find her standing next to me, her red sun peak pulled squarely down over her eyes.

“This could never get old” I remarked, with a sweep of my arm. “If it does, send me to the glue factory.”

“Mm, we love living here,” she agreed. “I mean, just look at the place.” I didn’t need reminding. Tall buildings, crowded closely together, rose out of the desert just past the shoreline. Way out in the distance I could just make the tip of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, its slender spire straining its way through the murky humidity. Off to our left the Palm Jumeirah jutted out into the ocean, the incredible Atlantis Hotel at its tip. Dubai is a man-made phenomenon. Every single nut, bolt and bag of cement has been imported; not to mention the massive amounts of delicious food, cars and household goods. Dubai is, after all, situated in the Arabian Desert. It’s only natural resources are, seemingly, dates, camels and an inexhaustible supply of sand. Its vast oil reserves having almost been depleted, the local economy had turned its focus, very successfully, towards the tourism industry.

We stood silently for a while, taking in the glorious view and revelling in the balmy water. Around us were hundreds of other bathers, standing, as we were, up to their necks in water. It was a peculiar sight. Hundreds of disembodied heads bobbing up and down in the still waters like corks.

My writer’s brain, rejuvenated by the swim, kicked into gear.

“I want to hear about Nelson. C’mon let’s sit on the sand,” I suggested.

Caroline smiled. She knew I couldn’t resist a good story. Especially a story about an animal.

“Good idea. I packed us some breakfast.” Caroline loved feeding people. Her fabulous cooking, not to frequent mention visits to amazing restaurants in the city, had expanded my waistline generously during my first weeks in Dubai. I’d had to ditch my bikini for a sedate one piece to hide the newly-added embarrassing bits.

We walked out of the water and sat down on our towels. Caroline reached into a bag and handed me a bottle of laban, an Arabian dairy drink, often enjoyed with breakfast. I could almost feel my derriere expand as I took a deep swig.

“Right” I said, “I’m ready. Now, tell me about Nelson.”

She lay back on her towel, adjusted her peak cap, and propped herself up on her elbows. She squinted up at me.

“I can’t remember where I left off. What’ve I told you so far?”

“You said it was something that happened about ten years ago. Something about you, David and a seagull. Then you pointed to somewhere further down the coast.”

“That’s all?”

“Yup. That’s it” I replied, eager to hear the full story.

She chuckled. “Then you better grab a samoosa.” She pointed at her bag of goodies. “This is going to take a while.” I did as I was told and sank my teeth into the scrumptious curry-filled pastry. I made a mental note to go on a diet as soon as I got home.

She took a sip of laban, then began her story. My body was on the beach, but my mind took flight with the images she began to paint. So, it is here where I will take a mental step back and tell their tale as best I can. This story is theirs and I would be an intruder on their memories. And so it begins.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

A lanky young boy splashed through the shallows on the beach. His long brown limbs cut smoothly through the crystal waters of the Arabian Gulf, its calm water so clear he could almost make out every grain of sand on the sea floor. He was leaning forward, his head moving slowly to and fro as he scanned the ocean, searching for something. He suddenly stopped and reached down.

“Mom! I’ve found another one!” he shouted, waving a shell in the air. His mother, Caroline, strode towards the boy, her slender frame and curly hair echoing her son’s. She took the shell from him and smiled.

“They’re so beautiful. And dainty.” The delicate pansy-flower shaped shell was the size of the palm of her tanned hand.

“We’ve got enough shells now, Dave. These will fill the bowl on the coffee table. But we better get back home. Mario will be home in an hour and I’ve still got to make supper” she said, referring to her husband.

“Ah maaa” David complained, “it’s too hot to eat.”

“Dave, it’s getting late and… what was that?” she asked, cocking her head.

“What was what?”

“That sound.”

What sound?” David glanced around, wondering what she had heard.

“I dunno. It was weird. Never heard anything like it before. There! There it is again!”

It was a muffled ow-ow-ow sound, high-pitched and plaintive. Whatever it was, it wasn’t being made by a human.

I heard it!” exclaimed David. “I think it came from over there!” He pointed to an upturned rowboat lying on the shore, its scuffed blue paint a fading reminder of forgotten fishing adventures and careless skippers. Small crabs that had taken up residence in the dried seaweed snarled between loose boards scuttled into the shadows at the sound of David’s raised voice.

The young boy darted across the hot sand and threw himself onto his knees in front of the boat. He twisted his head sideways and peered through the gap between sand and boat.

“Mom! You’ve gotta see this!” he shouted urgently. Caroline flung her bag of shells onto the sand and ran towards her son. The anxious tone in his voice told her that something was terribly wrong.

“Look mom” whispered David, “just look at him.” She was surprised to hear the catch in his voice, a rare sign that meant he was close to tears.

“Oh, no” she whispered, as she followed her son’s bidding. She felt a lump rise in her throat.

It was a huge black-backed seagull; a magnificent example of his breed – the trademark smooth, snow white feathers covering his majestic body, with the sheen of tar-black pin feathers over his enormous wings. The bird lay very still, his rib cage barely moving as he took sharp, shallow breaths. It was as though every breath wracked his body with pain, his exhalations so shallow they barely stirred the grains of sand beneath his bill.

The gull’s powerful wings were drawn close to his sides, his head bowed so deeply that his large bill had burrowed into the sand, almost submerging the red spot near its tip. His eyes told Caroline the great pain he was in as they flickered with the slightest movement of his frail body.

“He’s hurt mom. Look.” He pointed to the gull’s back. But it had been the first thing that Caroline had seen. A two centimetre wide track of skin on his back lay bare, devoid of the sleek feathers that covered the rest of his body. The wound was raw and bleeding, almost to the bone. Dozens of hungry flies buzzed around the gaping injury, eager to feast off the fetid, weeping sore. Irritated, David reached out and waved them away.

“You poor thing” whispered Caroline, not wanting to alarm the injured bird. “What happened to you?” His powerful bill curbed her natural instinct to stroke his pitiful white head. No matter how badly wounded he may be, terror may give him just enough strength to strike out and claim a finger.

“He’s dying, ma” said David turning to Caroline, his dark brown eyes moist with unshed tears.

Caroline didn’t need her son to tell her what she already knew. She had enough experience with wounded birds to recognise the signs. “You’re right. It doesn’t look like he’s got long to live. We should put him out of his suffering.” She couldn’t get herself to say the words. She knew the way to end a bird’s pain – wring its neck. She shuddered inwardly at the thought of killing the beautiful creature in such a brutal way. But Caroline knew she didn’t have it in her to kill any creature, let alone this proud bird.

David’s dark brown eyes widened in horror. He, too, knew the way injured birds are normally dispatched.

“No! Never! We can’t do that! We have to try and help him!” He rolled off his haunches and flopped back onto the sand, staring at his mother with a challenging look.

Caroline put her arm around him. She knew his heart was breaking, but then so was hers.

“But what can we do, Dave? We can’t keep him. We live in an apartment and we’re not allowed to keep any animals. Besides, chances are he’ll die tonight.”

I don’t care!” he almost shouted at her. “We can’t just kill him! We can’t!”

Ow-ow-ow the gull mewled pitifully, as if pleading for help. Caroline felt her heart break a little more. She knew she had no choice. She would have to help the gull. Her heart told her so.

“Okay, I tell you what. We’ll come back tomorrow,” she suggested as a compromise. “In the meantime, we’ll try and find a place where he can be cared for.” This would at least also give her time to convince her husband that they might have an illegal visitor taking up residence in their apartment. The mere thought of that discussion gave made her stomach gurgle noisily.

“But we can’t leave him alone all night! He could die. And he’ll die all alone!”

“Dave, it’s the best I can do” said Caroline firmly. “I’ve got to talk to Mario about this first…” She didn’t have to finish the sentence. The look of resignation on David’s face told her he knew she wasn’t going to budge on her decision.

“I promise you we’ll come back tomorrow. Hopefully, we’ll have found a bird sanctuary for him by then if he’s still alive. If there isn’t another home for him… well, then we’ll see if we can convince Mario to let us keep him.”

“Thanks, ma” said David with a choke, throwing his arms around her. The two curly heads rested together for a moment.

“Now, come on. We’ve got to get back home.” Caroline rose and reluctantly walked away from the gull, grabbing hold of the bag of shells she had tossed aside.

“Come on, Dave. It’s very late.”

David scrambled to his feet but instead of following her, he began running towards the ocean.

David! What’re you doing?” Caroline yelled at her son in irritation.

“I want to give him some water before we leave” he replied, gathering seawater in his cupped hands.

“Okay, but hurry up!” Caroline watched her son, hands on hips, as he walked back to the boat. It was no good arguing with him. In fact, she wished she had thought of it herself. The bird was going to need all the help he could get to survive the long, tortuous night ahead of him.

David squeezed his fingers tightly together, desperately trying to save every drop as he carried it the seagull. He wobbled as he slowly sank to his knees and then onto his elbows. He gingerly offered the precious water to the seagull, but the bird didn’t move. He was either in too much pain or too exhausted to even notice the offering.

“Is he drinking?” Caroline asked anxiously. David shook his head in reply.

“Then pour it over his head. Maybe that’ll help,” she suggested. She didn’t know what on earth that would achieve, but it was all she could think of.

David lifted his hands above the bird’s head and parted his fingers, letting the water slowly dribble onto the seagull’s head and neck. The droplets slid off the bird’s body, only the faint rolling of the seagull’s eyes beneath his lids giving an indication that he had felt the cool water.

“David! We’ve got to leave, now!” Caroline knew that the longer her son spent with the bird, the harder it would be for him to deal with its death. She was certain the gull would be dead by morning.

“Hang in there boy. I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.” David cautiously reached out and stroked the smooth white feathers on the bird’s bowed head.

Ow-ow-ow the bird answered, this time with a lighter note to his voice. It was almost as though he understood David’s words.

David!” Caroline called urgently. She had to get them back to the apartment. But she knew that she and her son would get no sleep that night. Their thoughts would be with the dying bird crying out in pain, and alone.

David rose and purposefully strode past his mother. Caroline saw a new resolve in the boy. It was the mien of a boy who knew the right thing to do and would do it, no matter who or what stood in his way.

“Let’s go, ma.” He glanced back at the boat one last time and headed towards the city. Caroline ran to catch up with him, but a part of her remained with the gull. It took every ounce of strength she had to turn her back on him.

They were halfway up the beach, when a figure walked towards them. He was a tall, attractive man, dressed in a dishdash and agal, the white, flowing garments and headdress worn by men in Arabian countries. He peered at them through his large, dark eyes fringed with long lashes.

“Good day” he said with a deep Arabic intonation.

“Uhm, good day” answered Caroline sheepishly. She knew what was coming.

“You of course know that you are not allowed to be on this beach? It is a private beach.”

“Well, yes, we… uhm, I mean, we’re sorry” she replied sheepishly. “You see we live…” her voice trailed off as she pointed guiltily to a group of high rise buildings lining the road behind the beachfront.

“Of course, madam. But you must understand this is the private beach of the Sheikh. Please, you would do well to remember this in future.”

“Y… yes. We’re sorry. My son and I, we… we were just collecting a few shells for…” She stopped mid-sentence, realising she had basically told the man that they had been stealing shells from the Sheikh himself.

David leaped to his mother’s defence. “As-salam alaykum” he greeted in Arabic. Although he had only been in Dubai a few months, he had already started to pick up the local language and customs.

Wa ‘alaykum as-salam” greeted the stranger in return, bowing his head to hide a smile. It pleased him that such a young visitor was making an effort to learn his language.

“W… we’re sorry. We found a seagull. Over there.” He pointed towards the upturned boat. “He’s hurt. Can… can we come back tomorrow and give him some food and water? Please? Please?” begged David. He didn’t care if this man was the chief of the Dubai police himself. He would risk going to jail for the gull, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask permission before the bars slammed shut behind him.

The tall stranger considered the slender, tanned boy before him. David’s wild curly hair, bleached from the sun, framed his earnest face. The raw honesty of his question was laced with a passion rare for someone so young.

“Very well. Your concern for one of Allah’s creatures is touching. You may spend time on the beach tomorrow. But only tomorrow. Do you understand?”

“Th… thank you,” Caroline stammered in astonishment. She had never seen her son challenge an adult with such resolve before. “We won’t stay long. We promise.” She shot a scowl at her son. This could have ended badly for both of them. David grinned back at her, his white teeth dazzling against his tanned features.

“All is well. I will tell the palace guards to allow you and your son entrance. I greet you farewell now. Masa al-khayr.” He bowed shallowly to Caroline and her son in turn, smiled and headed towards the palace, its brilliant white facade peeping coyly from surrounding palm trees. A thought popped into Caroline’s head as she watched him: Who is that guy? A security guard? In a dishdash? Couldn’t be. Surely not.

Masa al-khayr. And thanks again, sir” David shouted to the retreating figure. Without turning, the man nodded and held up his hand in acknowledgment.

David’s voice had interrupted Caroline’s thoughts, but the question remained at the back of her mind. There was something about the man that had triggered a memory that eluded her. It was like an itch on her back she couldn’t reach.

Shit!” exclaimed David with a sigh of relief.

Dave!” admonished Caroline. “That was crazy. You could’ve gotten us into some serious trouble you know!”

“Yeah, I could’ve. But I didn’t. Did I?” he countered with a grin. “And now we can come back to the beach tomorrow and help Nelson.”

“Nelson?”

“The seagull. Remember the song from the sixties? And the seagull’s name was Nelson, Nelson who came from the sea” he sang, badly.

“Ooh” Caroline sighed wearily. Giving the injured bird a name was a bad sign. It was going to lead to trouble, she just knew it.

“C’mon Dave, I’ve got pasta to make. And I’ve got to do some fancy footwork to do to explain this to Mario.”

Mother and son strolled across the beach, their thoughts elsewhere. Behind them, Nelson cried softly, ow-ow-ow. It was going to be a very long night for the wounded bird, if he survived it at all, that is.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

David led the way. He ran like his hair was on fire. He had lain awake the whole night, willing Nelson to live. The image of Nelson’s head, weak and bowed with pain, was seared into his brain, making sleep impossible. The memory of the woeful sound of the injured gull’s cries had drowned out the extremely lively conversation about Nelson between his mother and his stepfather, Mario.

Hurry!” he shouted. “I can hear Nelson! He’s still alive!”

Sure enough, there it was, the faint ow-ow-ow they had heard the day before. David had had to strain to hear Nelson’s call. It was much weaker now, but where there was sound there was life.

The young boy tore across the shore, wildly kicking sand into the air as he propelled himself across the powdery beach. A neatly timed dive to the ground had him landing just short of the boat on his belly, sending startled crabs scuttling out of sight.

“Maaa! Quickly! Bring the water!” Caroline had packed canned tuna and a bottle of fresh water for Nelson. She had listened to her heart and had finally pushed aside any thought of having the suffering bird destroyed, either by themselves or a vet. Nelson had to be given the best chance to survive, and it was up to them. She had trawled the internet, but she had been unable to find a rescue shelter in Dubai for Nelson. They were alone in their rescue mission.

“All right, all right, we’re coming, we’re coming” she answered. She turned to her husband whom she had miraculously convinced to take time out of his weekend to see Nelson. It hadn’t been an easy conversation. Mario had had severe reservations about trying to save the bird. He had learned to have patience with the steady stream of cats needing medical care that Caroline had brought home, but he wasn’t so sure about a huge, powerful (and, no doubt, filthy and smelly) seagull. But Caroline had worn him down, and he had finally thrown in the towel and relented. But it was more than Caroline’s insistence that had made him join them on the beach. It was something far more important than visiting a wounded bird. Mario had recently married Caroline and he still had to win over David’s trust and affection. It is never an easy thing to become part of a ready-made family. And, although Mario loved David as if he was his own son, he knew he still had to prove himself to the curly-headed boy. He recognised this as the perfect opportunity to do just that.

His final words on the matter were: “Okay, okay. I’ll go with you. But that bird is not, I repeat not, coming near this flat! Is that clear?”

“Oh, thanks Mario. I knew you’d agree!” she had said and thrown her arms around his neck.

“He’s alive, Mario. He’s still alive” cried Caroline, unable to hide her relief. “Come and meet Nelson” she said, tugging his arm.

“Just remember what I said about Nel… that bird, coming home with us!” he reminded her.

“Yes, yes, love. Now hurry, he needs help.” They picked up their pace and trotted towards the boat.

The weak ow-ow-ow grew fainter and fainter as they caught up with David and knelt next to him on the sand.

Mario was the first to poke his head under the boat.

“That’s Nelson, Mario,” said David excitedly. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

Nelson didn’t have the strength to open his eyes. His bill was still firmly stuck in the sand. It was obvious he hadn’t moved a feather since the day before. Dozens of flies were buzzing around the wound on his back. One settled boldly onto a thick patch of blood and rubbed his front legs over its face.

Gerrof! Go away!” shouted David angrily, waving his hand over Nelson’s back.

Mama mia!” he Mario exclaimed. It was usually a bad sign when he switched to his mother tongue. “He’s… he’s a big guy, isn’t he?” he stammered. Being up close and personal unnerved him. He quickly withdrew his head from under the boat. He also didn’t trust that dangerous-looking bill.

David ignored him. “Mom, give Nelson some water. Quickly!” he urged.

Caroline rooted around in her beach bag, hauled out a bottle of water and poured it into a plastic bowl. She frowned.

“How do we get him to drink? He’s too weak to lift his head.” She was humouring her son. She didn’t hold out hope for Nelson’s survival. But then again, doing something, anything, to help the bird was better than watching it die without at least something to eat or drink.

David took the bowl of water from her. “He’ll drink. I know he will,” he insisted passionately. Mario glanced at his wife and slowly shook his grey head. He too, didn’t hold out much hope for the bird’s survival.

“Here boy,” cooed David softly, “this’ll make you feel better.” He placed the water near Nelson then gently lifted the gull’s head.

“Dave, don’t!” Caroline reached out to pull his arm back.

“It’s okay mom. He won’t hurt me. He knows we want to help him” he said softly, not wanting to startle Nelson.

The gull let out another feeble ow-ow-ow, his eyes rolling around under his eyelids as he desperately tried to open them. The bird’s shallow breathing quickened, as though he was about to take his last breath.

“You can’t give up now, Nelson. I won’t let you. Drink some water. Please!’ he begged. Behind him, Caroline wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. It hurt her to see her son in such pain. Mario put his arm around his wife as they silently waited for the inevitable. It wouldn’t be long now, they were sure.

“Please” sniffed David, “please drink the water, Nelson.”

“He’s too weak to drink, Dave. Let nature take its course and end his suffering. He’s better off dead. That wound on his back is too deep.” There was no way for Mario to make this easy on his stepson. He reached out to pull David away from the bird and the pain.

No! I won’t give up on him! Nelson! Drink! Here…” David dipped a finger in the water and let it run over Nelson’s bill.

“It’s no use, Dave…” said Mario, wanting to spare his stepson from further pain.

“No wait! Look!” exclaimed David.

Nelson’s eyelids fluttered weakly as he opened his bill to receive the water. He gulped as it slid down his throat.

“He’s drinking, ma! Look, he’s drinking!” David scooped a handful of water and poured it over his head. Nelson’s thirst was so overwhelming that he somehow found enough strength to lift his head and open his bill. He took another gulp of the water and weakly shook his head.

Ow-ow-ow. David was convinced Nelson’s voice was a little stronger. The water had partially slaked the gull’s thirst and given him his voice. The gull shuddered as he took a deep breath and held out his bill for more water.

“Ha, ha, ha! That’s it Nelson. See? I told you ma. He’s not going to die!” exclaimed David, showering another palm full of water over Nelson’s head. The bird gratefully drank the water, but after swallowing only a few drops his head flopped weakly forward onto the sand again.

“It’s no use, my boy. You’re just going to prolong his pain. We should rather leave him to die” Mario said quietly. He remembered a quotation by Confucius he had once read: short pain is better than long pain. He felt certain that Nelson would only survive a couple of more hours, at the most. In his eyes, it was the best way. Indeed, it was the only way.

The brief glimmer of hope that Caroline had felt died when the gull stopped drinking. “He can barely drink the water, how’s he going to eat?” she asked her son. “If he doesn’t eat…” She didn’t have to finish her sentence. David understood what his mother was trying to tell him. But he wasn’t about to give up on Nelson that easily.

“I’ll feed him. I’ll take care of him. Please ma. Mario?” David looked pleadingly at his mother and stepfather.

“No, David. It would just be cruel to let him suffer longer than he has to” reiterated Mario, hoping to finally get through to David.

Then Caroline joined the fray. It was important to her that her son was given the chance to try and save the gull. Besides, she would never rest knowing that they had left the bird to die. She would never forgive herself, and chances are, neither would her son. And certainly not now that Nelson had taken a drink of water. It gave her some hope that they may be able to save him. Just maybe. In her eyes, it was better to have tried and failed, than to have turned their back on a creature in need.

“Mario?” Caroline looked at her husband questioningly. Uh oh, thought Mario. He knew that look all too well. It was the look his wife gave him when she was about to tell him that there was a stray cat in need curled up in their guest bathroom. He was suspicious of the scruffy cats Caroline had brought home when they had stayed in a pet-friendly villa. He was convinced they would all contract a case of ringworm, or worse. But his soft Italian heart always relented. He didn’t like anyone to know that he funded his wife’s passion for cats and spent thousands of dirhams a month on food for the strays she fed. Despite his dislike for the felines, every evening he accompanied Caroline as she visited the cat feeding stations. Of course, he would tell everyone, this was because he needed the exercise, not because he cared about the scruffy cats. But he wasn’t fooling anyone.

“Auntie” retorted Mario, using his term of affection for her, “how…, what…, where are you going to…?” He ran his hand through his thick grey hair, making it standing wildly on end. Visions of feathers and bird poop and God-knows-what-else liberally decorating their modern apartment flashed through his mind.

“Marioooo…” David and Caroline pleadingly chimed together.

“Besides, Nelson most probably won’t live very long. And we can’t just leave him here. He’s too weak to make a mess at home.” Seeing that appealing to Mario’s emotional Italian nature wasn’t working, Caroline pulled the rationale card on him.

“But the smell… And besides, you know we can’t take animals into the apartment” argued Mario, clutching at feathers. He had been privately relieved that they had moved into their new apartment that had a ‘no pets’ policy. But the poor man was outgunned and outnumbered. Emotions outweighed logic for the mother and son.

I’ll look after him, Mario! And like mom says, he’s going to die soon anyway!” begged David, sensing that his step-father was running out of arguments.

Clearly, David had already thought about the logistics of caring for the wounded bird in their apartment. Another bad sign for Mario. Caroline stared mutely at her husband, her eyes welling with tears. She had played her final trump card and it worked.

“I said… oh God, okay, okaaay” Mario groaned, throwing his hands up in surrender. “All right. All right. Bring the damned bird home.” His wife’s tears had been the last straw. This was a battle he had lost before it had begun, in truth. The argument was a ritual they had been through many times over the years. He’d lost count of the times he had refused to harbour mangy cats, and then finally given up after hours spent defending his home against a feline invasion. If the sheer exhaustion of arguing didn’t get to him, then the last resort – tears – always pushed him over the edge.

Mama mia,” he muttered under his breath. “God help me.”

“Oh, thank you Mario. Thank you! You won’t regret this,” exclaimed Caroline, kissing him on the cheek.

“Oh no, I’ve got a feeling that I will…”

“Thanks Mario. You won’t even know he’s in the apartment,” promised David.

“We’d better buy lots of air freshener” grumbled Mario. But he doubted that even the most powerful pot pourri would be able to disguise the disgusting fishy pong wafting from Nelson.

“Mom, give me the towel. I’ll wrap Nelson in it so he won’t panic.” He had to get Nelson home as soon as possible, even if the best he could hope for was to make the bird’s last hours on earth comfortable.

“Hey! Not my towel! Use David’s” demanded Mario. He shuddered at the thought of blood-sucking bird lice taking up residence on his body and in his hair.

“Here” said Caroline, handing David her towel.

David gently laid the towel over Nelson’s back. “It’s okay, boy. I know it hurts. I’m sorry. It’s just until we get you home” David whispered. He winced as the towel touched Nelson’s wound. He could almost feel the bird’s pain. The gull took short, rapid breaths and ruffled his feathers untidily as his nervous system reacted to pressure on the open wound. A slow, soft, ooooowwww escaped from him. It was almost too much for David. But he had to finish what he had started. He gritted his teeth when Nelson began to pant in agony as he folded the towel under the bird’s body.

Oooooowwwww. The gull’s jaw became slack as his head hung weakly over David’s hand.

“Sshhh, Nelson. You can do this. I know you can.” He raised the bird and held him against his chest, talking softly to him all the while. Then, suddenly, Nelson’s head flopped heavily backwards against the young boy’s body, his eyes firmly shut.

“Oh no! He’s dead, ma!” David looked pleadingly at his mother, as though asking her to revive the bird.

“It’s okay, Dave” said Mario softly, “you did your best. It’s not your fault. There’s nothing you can do now. It’s better this way” He put his arm around David’s shoulders as the young boy started sobbing as if his heart had been torn apart.

David, afraid at what he might see, slowly opened the folds of the bloodied towel, and stared at the majestic bird. The snow white feathers of Nelson’s body, so stark against the pitch black of his wings, were smooth once more, finally at peace. Nelson’s head flopped limply to its side in the palm of David’s hand. His bill hung open, his small sharp tongue protruding slightly.

“We should bury him, Dave. It’s best if we dig a hole away from the water” Caroline gently suggested.

“Oh mom” David sniffed, “it’s so sad.” His shoulders heaved as he began to sob loudly. Caroline put an arm around her grieving son. Death is part of life. It was a hard lesson for David to learn, but an important one. She could only try and comfort him, for grief is a personal burden that no one can shoulder but the grieving. She guided her son gently towards a spot where the sand met the grass, then she knelt down and began scooping up handfuls of sand to prepare the grave. Mario, unable to express his sadness for the boy’s sorrow, knelt next to her and plunged his hands into the warm sand. David stood watching them, his body jerking with sobs.

Unnoticed by the family, a lone figure watched the solemn ceremony from behind a clump of flowering shrubs set back from the beach.

“It’s deep enough, Dave” Caroline said gently. “You can put Nelson to rest now. At least he’s out of pain.”

David silently slipped to his knees and slowly leaned forward to place the seagull’s limp body at the bottom of the freshly-dug hole. Another sob escaped from him as Nelson’s head slipped slowly onto the sand.

“Goodbye Nelson, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you buddy.” David bent over and kissed the crest of the gull’s head in a final goodbye. He quickly got up again and walked away from the gravesite.

Caroline looked at Mario sadly. “Let’s get this over with. The sooner David leaves the beach the better.”

“I know” replied Mario, scooping up a handful of sand in his cupped palms. He held them over the gull, ready to cover Nelson.

Wait! Stop, Mario!” Caroline shouted.

“Why? What?” Women! He thought. One minute it’s ‘bury the bird’, the next minute it’s ‘stop’! He knew he should’ve rather gone shopping at the local mall for that telly he’d been eyeing.

“The towel moved! I think Nelson’s started breathing again!”

“He’s dead, auntie! Dead! Morto!” He tossed the handful of sand aside in exasperation.

“No, look!”

Mario looked closely at the gull. She was right! The towel was rising and falling, almost imperceptibly. The gull was breathing. But just barely.

Caroline was about to shout to her son, when Nelson did it for her.

With the last scrap of energy left in his weak body, he mewled: oooowww!

Nelson? You’re alive? You’re alive!” David yelled with a broad grin of relief as he bounded back to the grave. He carefully lifted the seagull from the freshly-dug grave, relieved to see Nelson’s chest moving. As he gently rearranged the folds of the towel over the gull’s injured body, Nelson trustingly laid his exhausted head against David’s chest, his eyelids fluttering as he tried to open his eyes.

David bowed his head over the gull and whispered to him. “It’s okay, Nelson. I’ll help you through this, buddy.”

“We must get him home quickly, Mario,” Caroline urged. They had to get him out of the searing heat that was dangerously dehydrating him. This time there was no resistance from Mario.

“We better get moving then, hadn’t we, eh David?” It was clear that the bond between bird and boy had become a powerful force. It was beyond his understanding and he knew that if he tried to stop David, it would become a rift between him and his stepson that he would never be able to repair. The choice had, in effect, been made for him. And if Nelson died while in David’s care, at least it had been God’s will and not the fault of a stern stepfather. His conscience would be clear.

“C’mon mom! Let’s go home.” Without glancing back at the adults, David marched determinedly towards the tower blocks lining the beach.

Caroline smiled at her husband. “Home time, Mario. We’ve got a seagull to look after.” Mario gave her a wry smile and rolled his eyes heavenwards as she scrambled to collect her scattered belongings.

“The next time these two cook up something like this, I’m definitely going shopping. Even if it’s just for damned toilet paper!” Mario grumbled as he followed his wife.

From his hidden vantage point, the stranger watched the boy tenderly carrying the gull in the gaudy orange towel. The man’s eyes continued to follow David, and then his parents, as they made their way off the beach. He smiled, then turned and headed back in the direction of the Sheikh’s palace. Allah would definitely be pleased.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Bemused motorists rubbernecked to watch the peculiar sight of the rescue party making a mad dash through the bustling traffic. David’s scrawny legs scurried helter-skelter in his baggy board shorts as he clung fiercely onto Nelson, taking no notice of speeding cars or pedestrian crossings. He wove in and out of the traffic as though the devil himself was after him. The driver of a gold Bentley convertible nearly wiped out a traffic sign as Mario ran ahead, stopping traffic to let David cross the busy intersection. Caroline followed in the rear, curly hair and beach bag bouncing crazily as she ran to keep up with the men.

“Sick seagull coming through!” shouted Mario, waving his hands frantically in the air. The Bentley driver slammed on brakes and yelled something – no doubt impolite – at him in German. But Mario took no notice. A scratch on a $200 000 Bentley was small change compared to a boy’s broken heart. Caroline was the fittest of them all, but even she was taking strain as she ran in the exhausting heat. She wheezed and panted as she tried to keep up, only pausing briefly to wipe the salty sweat running into her eyes.

David was oblivious to the chaos he was causing on the road. He was following his heart and his head couldn’t get in the way. He had only one aim – to get Nelson to safety, food and water. The gull’s life was hanging on a thread and every second was precious. A second could mean the difference between life and death for him.

In the shelter of the young boy’s arms, Nelson’s head bobbed up and down on his limp neck as though he was dead. But David didn’t have time to check. Besides, his determination and his faith in the bird’s will to survive wouldn’t allow that thought to enter his head. He would save this bird’s life by the sheer force of will.

They threaded their way through the streets and high rise buildings lining the wide marina that forms the spine of Dubai. Puzzled mothers with babies in strollers stared at the frantic trio wending their way past crowded sidewalk cafes and the wide quays lined with luxury yachts and floating restaurants. The rescue party gasped in the hot desert air, redolent with the fragrance of apple and cherry shisha from the hookahs smoked by restaurant patrons.

“We’re almost home” Mario gasped unnecessarily as he quickly side-stepped a small Yorkshire terrier out for a walk with his well-dressed human. The Yorkie yipped in alarm and snapped at his heels. Its owner shot Mario a baleful stare.

“Hey! Watchit, knobhead!” she yelled at Mario, bending down to calm the shivering terrier. Nice language for a lady ran the arbitrary thought across Mario’s mind.

Mi scusi. Sorry. Jammer” Mario shouted over his shoulder as he ran, arms outstretched, towards an elegant glass-encased skyscraper. He slammed his hands against the entrance’s glass doors, ran into the building and held one of the doors open. He gave a sigh of relief as a blast of the chilled air-conditioned air hit his sweat-soaked body. He stood holding the door with one hand, the other resting on his knee as he bent double as he tried to catch his breath.

Mario had barely taken a good, sturdy lungful of cool air, when David came flying through the door, his eyes fixed on the elevator doors ahead of him.

“Where’s… your… mom…?” wheezed Mario. But David hadn’t heard him. The adults would have to take care of themselves. He had already hit the button to hail the elevator and stood, foot tapping impatiently, as he waited for the elevator to arrive. He watched the readout above the elevator as it took a small eternity to reach the lobby.

“We’re nearly home, Nelson. Hang in there,” he murmured to the bundle at his chest.

From behind the reception desk, the Philipino concierge eyed him suspiciously from under his peaked cap. Pets weren’t allowed in the building and Romeo took his job very seriously. He vigorously ensured that the Rules of the Building were strictly adhered to by all who crossed his threshold. He wasn’t going to allow any four-legged furry critters or two-legged feathered fowl to jeopardise the good money he sent to his family in the Philippines every month.

“Good apternoon Missa David,” Romeo greeted politely. It is a phenomenon of the Filipino language that doesn’t enable the speaker to perform the tongue acrobatics required to pronounce the ‘ph’ or ‘f’ of the English language.

“Are you not peeling well?” Phillippinos are unfailingly polite. This was Romeo’s best attempt to winkle out of David was hiding under the strange bundle he was so guarding so carefully.

But Caroline arrived just in time to stop him in his tracks. She deftly stepped between Romeo and David, obscuring the view of her son and the illegal visitor from the doorman.

“He’s hurt his hand, Romeo. We’ve put a towel around it to stop it from bleeding and messing up the foyer.” She hoped that Romeo’s pride in housekeeping would give them the edge.

Romeo gulped as he stared at his normally-immaculate resident. The humidity had wrecked her styled hair, making it stand on end like she’d stuck her finger into a plug point. Her red face, wet with sweat and exertion alarmed the fastidious concierge more than a little.

“Hullo m’aaam,” answered Romeo, with the familiar accent peculiar to him and his fellow countrymen. “I… I hope Mr David pixes his hand quickly.” His suspicion was outweighed by his good manners. But he could have sworn he’d seen the boy talking to the bundled towel. Either David had lost his mind along with some blood, or there was something fishy going on judging by the strong odour of rotten fish invading his nostrils. And what was that strange sound he’d heard echoing around the marbled foyer? Maybe it’s a ringtone of a South African animal on Miss Caroline’s cell pone, Romeo placated himself.

“Thanks Romeo. I’m sure a Bandaid will sort him out” Caroline replied, relieved that he seemed to have taken the red herring.

“Ping!” The elevator had arrived! Before Romeo could ask any more nosey questions, the rescue party crammed into the elevator and jabbed the button for the 15th floor. As the doors shut, Caroline and Mario smiled and waved cheerfully at Romeo.

The concierge would have to let the matter go for now, but he made a mental note to keep a watch on those weird South Africans and that crazy Italian in apartment 1504. He brushed an imaginary dust bunny off of his immaculate uniform and strutted back to his desk. Once there, he yanked out his large Book of Building Code Infringements and began scribbling details for future reference.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“C’moooon Mario” urged David, shuffling impatiently from foot to foot as his stepfather fumbled frenetically around in his pockets, hunting for the front door keys.

From within the folds of the towel, came a mournful ooooowwww.

“Hurry Mario! Hurry!” Caroline urged.

Merda!” Mario’s keys had morphed into a tangled mess of metal and cotton, his keyring having become snarled with the threads of the inner lining of his shorts during his vigorous jog from the beach. He yanked the keys with a frustrated grunt, ripping the bunch of keys loose from the white tongue of lining that followed the keys out of his pocket. Fwripp! He winced as the keys were violently separated from his favourite (expensive) shorts, freeing them up so that he could jam a key into the lock. Resigned to the loss of his favourite item of clothing, he twisted the key and snapped the lock the open. Caroline eagerly pushed the door open and the three of them jostled to get into the cool interior of the apartment’s foyer.

Apartments in Dubai are typically fairly new; as are most of their buildings. In the last twenty years, Dubai has poured more concrete on their construction sites than the total cubic meterage of fresh air inhaled by half the planet, by all accounts.

The Romero’s apartment was characteristic of the modern architecture favoured in Dubai – generous marbled hallways leading off to spacious living areas and bedrooms, with a wide balcony affording them a view of the Marina below and Palm Jumeirah in the distance. The tawny colours of the walls and floors of the apartment mirrored the shifting desert dunes that drift across the Arabian Peninsula. The cool air and neutral colours gave the apartment a relaxed feel amid the frenetic twenty-four hour, non-stop, foot-to-the-throttle activity of Dubai. Relaxed until now, that is.

Now what do we do, Dr Let’s-take-Nelson-home?” Mario asked his wife, hands on hips.

Caroline dropped the beach bag and ran her hands through her wild hair. She hadn’t thought this far ahead. What exactly were they going to do with a dying, smelly, pooping gull? The state of the guano-smeared towel was evidence that, if nothing else, at least Nelson’s digestive system was alive and well.

“My bathroom! I’ll keep him in my bathroom!” exclaimed David, running down the passage with his precious cargo.

“I’ll get a box for Nelson” shouted Caroline, running in the opposite direction. Mario rolled his eyes towards heaven. Normal was gone. Crazy had taken over. His stomach grumbled. But he doubted he’d see a plate of hot food any time soon.

Caroline grabbed an empty cardboard box from a kitchen cupboard, lined it with a clean tea towel and ran to the family bathroom. She said a private ‘thank you’ prayer that she and Mario had their own bathroom. She had a suspicion Mario would have moved to a hotel if he had had to share his bath with the bird.

“Oh, God” Caroline gasped, dropping the box and covering her nose and mouth. David had unwrapped Nelson and placed him and the towel into the handbasin, releasing the fumes trapped in the towel that was smeared with blood and faeces. But the stench was not only of guano; it was also the smell of death. The ugly festering wound on the gull’s back was now oozing a yellow slime that was trickling down over his wings.

“How is he?” asked Caroline from behind her hands, afraid to hear her son’s answer.

“He… he’s alive. I can see him breathing, but I can’t feel his heartbeat.”

“That’s because it’s too weak. He needs food. God knows when he ate last.”

“Where’s that can of tuna you took to the beach? Maybe he’ll eat that.”

“I’ll get it.” She ran back to the kitchen and returned with the tuna on a plate.

“How are we going to get him to eat?” Caroline asked. If Nelson couldn’t hold his head up, he couldn’t eat. She had often watched seagulls eating. They would grab the food in their bills and then tilt their heads backwards to swallow.

“Let me try,” answered David. He tilted Nelson’s head back, took a pinch of the tuna, and dropped it into his open bill. But the gull was so weak that he couldn’t close his bill to swallow. Seeing the problem, David held Nelson’s bill closed and massaged his throat, hoping to coax the food down the gull’s oesophagus.

“Come, boy, eat! You’ve got to eat” David urged. His answer was a terrible hacking sound as Nelson began choking on the tuna that had lodged itself halfway down his throat. Frightened the bird would choke to death, David quickly released Nelson’s bill. The seagull managed a pitiful cough, launching the fish into the side of the box with a wet splat! David looked at his mother, his face dark with panic.

“He’s not eating! What’re we gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Dave. We have to get some food into him somehow. He needs protein.”

“Maybe we should try feeding him something else?” David would’ve been happy to feed Nelson Beluga caviar, even if that meant he wouldn’t see a dirham of his allowance for the rest of his childhood.

“Weeelll, the only other fish I’ve got is some prawns I was going to use in the spaghetti marinara for lunch” replied Caroline, gazing thoughtfully at Nelson.

“Then let’s try the prawns!” Lunch could wait. Nelson’s life was more far important than a pasta dish.

Caroline scuttled back to the kitchen and chopped up a prawn. She figured Nelson didn’t have the strength to digest, much less eat, a more than one prawn. If, against all odds, Nelson ate the prawn, she would keep the rest of the prawns for the gull.

Seated on his favourite armchair in the lounge, Mario watched his wife as she dizzyingly dashed backwards and forwards between bathroom and kitchen. His stomach rumbled again. He wouldn’t have been charmed to know that his lunch was being fed to the seagull.

“If this doesn’t work, then Nelson’s definitely going to die” remarked Caroline, handing David the prawn.

“Here Nelson, try this!” David slipped a pinch of the chopped prawn into Nelson’s upturned bill. It lay there for a moment, and then the small lump of prawn meat slid down Nelson’s gullet. Painfully, slowly, the gull swallowed. David gently lowered Nelson’s head onto the towel again. He swung around and faced his mother, his eyes shining.

“He’s going to make it ma. Nelson’s going to live.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, David. His internal organs could be failing because of malnutrition and dehydration.” Unrealistic expectations can make disappointment all the more bitter.

“Sure, ma” said David dismissively. He brushed passed her as he walked out of the bathroom.

“Where are you going?” asked Caroline. “We have to try and clean that wound and get rid of the dead tissue. His body’s too weak to fight the infection.”

“I’m fetching my duvet and pillows. I’m sleeping in the bathroom from now on” David shouted from his bedroom.

David!” Caroline was exasperated. Her son’s attachment to Nelson was becoming too strong. Letting go would be soul-destroying for a young boy. But there was nothing, short of Nelson’s death, that would’ve stopped him. Her son stomped back into the bathroom, pillows under one arm, the other dragging his duvet behind him. There was a don’t-mess-with-me look on his face. Caroline decided it was best not to mess with him. She watched as her son tossed his bedding on the cold floor and rearranged it into a makeshift bed. And this from a boy who hated camping because it was uncomfortable to sleep on hard ground!

Caroline reached into a bathroom cabinet and pulled out cottonwool and an antiseptic rinse.

“Here, you do this” she said, handing it to David. “I can’t. It gives me the willies. That wound looks foul and it’s going to hurt Nelson when the antiseptic hits the gash.” It had to be done, but she didn’t have the stomach to touch the fetid sore and cause the bird more pain. Nelson, meanwhile, was lying quietly in the handbasin, not moving. Only the slight movement of his feathers as he breathed told them that he was still alive.

David took the antiseptic and flooded a cotton wad with it. Then, as lightly as he could, he began swabbing the suppurating gash. He gritted his teeth as the bird opened his bill in pain. But there was no sound. The gull was so weak that he didn’t have the energy to cry out. It was more than Caroline could bear. She quietly slipped out of the bathroom, tears streaming down her face. Her son’s love for the bird made him far braver than she.

“I’m sorry Nelson. It’s okay. This is good for you. It’s going to make you better,” David murmured softly. He lightly wiped away the yellow slime that had seeped down Nelson’s feathers. Over and over again, he took cotton swab after cotton swab and systematically daubed the deep gash until the red, raw flesh was visible. The wound was finally clean. David took a deep, shuddering breath and stroked Nelson’s bowed head.

“See? It’s over. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now you can get better.”

“Are you finished?” asked Caroline from somewhere inside the apartment. She didn’t want to risk going back to the bathroom until David had finished the gruesome task.

“It’s safe, ma” replied David, “you can come in now.” He grinned as she popped her head inside the bathroom door. He had seen his mother tenderly handle cats with broken legs and jaws shattered by car accidents, but the stench and sight of Nelson’s ghastly injury had tested her limits.

“Maybe you should let him sleep now. He’s had food and water, and sleep is the best remedy to help him heal. Chances are he’s also in shock from the pain.”

“I think so too, ma.” David picked up Nelson, supporting his limp neck with one hand. Then he gently laid him down in the box Caroline had left on the floor.

“I’ll get something to cover…” began Caroline.

“It’s okay. I’ll use my T-shirt.” Before she could stop him, David had whisked off his white designer T-shirt and placed it lightly over Nelson’s body, covering his head. The shirt heaved slightly as the bird sighed heavily, sensing that he was safe. David gently lifted the box and lowered him it into the empty bathtub.

“It’s okay ma, you can go. I’ll watch him,” David reassured his mother.

“Don’t you first want some lunch or something to drink? It’s way past lunch and you haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“I’m fine, thanks. I’m not hungry.” The emotional stress had taken its toll on the young boy. Besides, doctoring oozing wounds isn’t exactly the best appetiser. He sat down on his duvet, his back propped up against the pillows. It would take an Act of God to get him to move.

“All right, my boy. Let me know if you need anything.” But he wasn’t listening. All his senses were focused on Nelson.

Caroline slipped quietly out of the bathroom and closed the door behind her. She said a silent prayer for bird and boy.

“What’s happening? Is the bird still alive?” Mario yelled, still parked in his armchair, television remote in his hand. Generally speaking, men have difficulty dealing with emotional issues but Mario also bore the burden of a sensitive Italian heart. His laissez fair attitude was his way of coping.

Caroline walked into the lounge and flopped down on the sofa next to him.

“Nelson’s alive, for now, anyway. He ate a little bit of food and had a few drops of water” she replied.

“And David? Is he coping okay?” asked Mario, switching off the television. It spoke volumes that he’d interrupted a crucial soccer match between his favourite Italian team and their arch rival to talk to her.

“He’ll be okay as long as Nelson stays alive. But if the gull doesn’t make it…” Her voice died away in the silent room as her mind stalled. She watched a haze of dust hanging on a sunbeam seeping through the blinds. She couldn’t give voice to that dark fear.

“Nelson’ll be fine, auntie” Mario reassured her, patting her knee. Unsaid words hung thickly between them. There are times in our lives where words are inadequate. And this was just such a time.

Frustrated that there was nothing further she could do to help Nelson or her son, Caroline suddenly leaped up off the sofa.

“I’ll make us lunch” she announced, heading towards the kitchen. She hated lolling around at the best of times and now, married to an Italian as she was, the perfect coping solution was to cook something. Anything.

“Spaghetti bolognaise sound good?” she asked.

“Weren’t you going to make spaghetti marinara?”

“Seafood’s off the menu. The prawns are off” she answered as she quickly disappeared down the passage.

Behind the bathroom door, the exhausted bird and boy slept.

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Ding dong! The front door bell! David leaped out of his duvet like someone had tossed a burning ember into his pyjama pants.

Caroline bolted out of her bedroom as she shrugged on her dressing gown, her hair as wild as her eyes. “I’ll get it!” she yelled, running to the door. They didn’t need nosey neighbours snooping around their apartment. If they were busted for harbouring an illegal seabird, they’d be evicted from their apartment before you could say “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull”. All it would take was one call to their landlord and they’d all be out in the desert without a camel.

David stuck his woolly head outside the bathroom door, nervous to see who the unexpected visitor was. He groaned as he rubbed the small of his back. Sleeping on a cold marble floor with only a duvet to cushion your bones isn’t exactly therapeutic.

“Mom!” he whispered loudly, “get rid of them!”

Really, Dave? Actually, I was thinking of inviting them in for a fry-up” she retorted, her mouth pulled into a sardonic grimace.

Caroline cautiously opened the front door a crack and stuck her face between door and doorjamb. Her heart sank when she recognised the early morning intruder.

“Good morning, Romeo. What can I do for you so early in the morning?” Caroline greeted brusquely in a cool nice-to-see-you-now-get-outta-here tone. She wedged her foot securely against the door to stop it from being opened any wider.

Romeo had opened his mouth to say something but her frosty reception had struck him dumb, voiding his brain of all conversational ability. Too often we picture scenarios the way we expect them to proceed without a plan ‘b’ if things get a bit weird. Romeo had done precisely that as the elevator had borne him to the fifteenth floor. Normally, Mrs Romero would have invited him in for coffee and a chat and here she was treating him like a bed bug infestation.

“Uhm… Miss…” he spluttered, trying to reboot his brain.

“Mmmh? Yeees, Romeo?” The question was asked in a sing-song voice, but it was more Thus Spoke Zarathustra than Good Vibrations.

Caroline had been one of his favourite tenants. However, from the offended look on his face, Caroline realised Romeo wouldn’t be doing her any more special favours. She could kiss goodbye to her copy of the daily newspaper he normally kept for her.

“Ahem…” Romeo began, finally managing to board his runaway train of thought, “good morning maaa’am.” Common courtesy will, at the very least, serve as honey rather than the vinegar of anxious curiosity. It also gave him the opportunity to carry out some concierge reconnoitering. Filipinos are generally challenged in the height department and he strained on his tip toes to see behind Caroline’s five foot eleven frame. However, the only reward Romeo got for his efforts was the sight of David’s head poking out of the bathroom door.

Overnight, Romeo had spent a great deal of time deliberating the Romero’s odd behaviour in the foyer. The strange sound coming from the bundle in David’s arms, coupled with a stench that could kill the potted plant on his desk, made him draw the only logical conclusion he could – that the family had smuggled a non-human visitor past him. He had woken up a man with a mission – to gather evidence of illegal activity in apartment 1504.

“Good morning, Missa David. I hope you are pine.” His Philipino accent was always more pronounced when he was nervous.

“Uh, morning Romeo” David called out with the affected nonchalance adopted by the guilty. He gave a brief wave and, as his hand travelled to his side he raked his hand through his mop of hair, dislodging one of Nelson’s white feathers. It hovered briefly above him, then drifted gently downwards. David stared at the feather, eyes crossed, as it lazily floated to and fro past his nose. His hand shot out and he quickly caught it, but it was too late. Romeo had spotted the feather. Aha, he thought, a bird! “A peather!” he blurted out, hopping up and down as he tried to get a better view over Caroline’s shoulder. Another statement from the Manual of the Bleeding Obvious, Caroline mused, dodging her head backwards and forwards to obstruct the doorman’s view. Frustrated by his inability to see into the apartment, Romeo tried to squeeze through the door frame past Caroline, but he was only five foot diddly squat. She wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was Romeo. She heaved her shoulder to the door and stood her ground.

“Actually, I’m glad you popped round Romeo, I need to buy tokens for water deliveries.” If you can’t fight ‘em distract ‘em, was Caroline’s tactic in the face of determined doorman, argumentative shopkeepers and a stubborn son. Besides, she was running out of tokens to buy water – a water cooler being de rigueur in all Dubai homes.

But Romeo was like a Rottweiler with a postman’s leg in its jaws. He wasn’t letting go. “Missa David” he said, ignoring his one-time favourite tenant, “that peather .., are you keeping something prom me? It’s an oppence to keep any powls in your plat, you know!” he reminded David officiously. When it came to rule enforcement, Romeo was the sergeant major of concierges.

“Huh, oh no, no, Romeo, it must be a feather from my pillow” grinned David, ruffling his hair for any other stray evidence.

Romeo, I’m asking you a question… can you get me more water tokens?” Caroline interrupted tersely. The gloves were now off. The polite doorman/friendly tenant facade was in tatters.

“Oh, uhm, sorry maaa’am…” It wasn’t as though Romeo had a search warrant, and the last thing he needed was for his new ‘enemy’ to complain to the landlord about his rudeness. That would have him on the first plane back to the Philippines.

“Porgive me, maaa’am. I just wanted to make sure Missa David’s hand was pixed.” Lies were begetting more lies on both sides of the enemy lines.

“He’s just fine, thanks. Aren’t you David?”

“Huh, oh, oh yes. Thanks Romeo. It’s fine now. I put some cream on it and…” he trailed off. If he was in a court of law, his facial expression would have been enough to have him pronounced guilty. David was a very bad liar.

“I’m glad you’re pine” muttered Romeo, not believing a word.

“Well, if that’s all Romeo… I have to make breakfast for Mr Mario,” interjected Caroline, hoping to cut the painful discussion short.

“Uh, yes Miss Caroline. I must go anyway. It’s time for my morning shipt.”

“Thanks Romeo. You’re very kind,” said Caroline, not meaning a word of it.

“Okay, maaa’am. Goodbye. Goodbye Missa David” he shouted to David. But David had already slipped back into the bathroom. Caroline smiled at the concierge and slammed the door shut. She slumped against the closed door and gave a deep sigh of relief.

“What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?” she muttered to herself. One day into Operation Hide the Damned Bird and they were already arousing suspicion and raising eyebrows.

Outside the door, Romeo stomped off to the elevator and smacked the button vigorously. He was furious, both at himself and his tenants. He was now absolutely, positively sure there was something shady about the goings-on in apartment 1504 and he was going to find out what. He stepped into the elevator and smacked the button for ‘ground floor’. He muttered to himself: “This I must report this to Missa Poxley. He’ll know what to do.” No stupid bird, or tenant, was going to get between him and his job. Mr M Foxley (Romeo’s pronunciation of his surname never failed to irk his supervisor) or, as he preferred to be known – the Duke, would sort that lot out. The Duke wasn’t cursed with the blight of good manners. The pompous Scotsman displayed all the obnoxious traits of a middle-aged individual suffering from the short man syndrome. The stout, feisty redhead vented the anger and venom of years of taunts about his height and decades of a sour marriage on any cretin who dared cross him. This was a man who would relish the opportunity to make himself feel important by bullying the vulnerable. When he was done with the Romeros, hell would be a welcome relief.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Romeo’s early morning foray to unearth any wildlife living in apartment 1504 had yanked David from a deep sleep. His rude awakening was made all the more cruel because it was the only unbroken sleep he had had that night. His subconscious had harassed him throughout the night, waking him up every few hours to check on Nelson. The last time he had monitored the gull, he had flopped back onto his duvet on the hard floor, satisfied that Nelson was, at least, alive. Now, wide awake, he knelt on the cold, hard floor and leaned over the bathtub.

“Morning, Nelson. How’re you doing buddy?”

The seagull didn’t respond to the quiet question. He was lying exactly where David had placed him the night before – wrapped in his T-shirt, his head resting on its side amongst its white folds. David reached over and gently stroked Nelson’s head. The bird’s eyelids flickered slightly as he strained to see his human friend.

David jumped to his feet and yanked open the bathroom door.

“Ma! Ma! Nelson’s trying to open his eyes! He’s getting better!”

A bedroom door, further down the passage was flung open. Mario stood in the doorjamb dressed in striped pajamas, his face as red as spaghetti sauce, his grey hair on end.

Mama mia!” he roared. “How can a man get any sleep in this bloody house with all this noise! If God doesn’t kill that stupidoa bird, then I will!”

“Morning Mario” Caroline greeted her husband airily, a manufactured smile on her face. “I’m making your favourite breakfast, eggs Benedict with salmon. Breakfast will be ready by the time you’ve had a shower.” Caroline knew that the best way to distract her Italian husband was with food. It worked every time.

“Mmh? Oh, okay. I’ll jump into the shower” he replied, all thoughts of revenge for his disrupted sleep forgotten. He disappeared back into the bedroom and shut the door again.

David!” Caroline whispered hoarsely, “keep it down will you!”

“Come and have a look at Nelson” answered David in a low voice. “He’s trying to open his eyes!”

“I’ve got to make Mario breakfast before all Hades breaks out!”

“Quickly! Just have a look!”

Caroline groaned. “Oh, all right” she said, knowing she’d have no peace until she did as she was told. This tug of war between son, husband and bird was going to test what little patience she possessed. And resistance was looking pretty futile. She stuck her head round the bathroom door.

“Ooooh my God!” she moaned. “If Mario sees this mess… and the smell…” She shielded her nose and mouth with her hand to ward off the stench of decayed fish, an oozing wound and the generous supply of guano splattered all over David’s T-shirt. But David hadn’t noticed. He was only interested in Nelson’s recovery.

“Look” he said, pointing at Nelson, “he’s trying to open his eyes.”

“It’s just your imagination” said Caroline from behind her hand, “he’s not moving.”

“But he was! He was moving his eyes!” David lamented. But Nelson lay stubbornly still. David stared at him, willing the bird to take another breath. As if in answer, the gull took a shallow, shuddering breath, then was still again. Must’ve been my imagination, David thought morosely. Looking at Nelson more closely, David realised the bird appeared even weaker than the day before. Death hovered eagerly over his feathered victim, waiting to strike. Maybe not now, but soon. Soon. Death was patient. He had eternity in his grasp.

“David” said Caroline quietly, “he’s too weak. Maybe it’s best if we took him to a vet and let him… you know…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. She had sworn to herself that she wouldn’t do that, but the agony the bird was enduring was excruciating to watch.

David didn’t answer her. He marched past her and disappeared into the kitchen.

Caroline followed him. “What’re you doing?” she asked.

David ignored her and began rooting around in the fridge.

David! What are you looking for?”

“The prawns. Where are they?” Clink. Clank. He pushed aside jam jars and sauces bottles.

Caroline realised what her son was up to. “David, it’s no use. Nelson’s going to d…”

David swung around to face her.

“Caroline” (she smelled deep trouble, he had never used her first name before), “I’m going to take care of Nelson, no matter what you or Mario say. And if Nelson dies, at least I’ve done my best to save him. You always tell me to do my best, don’t you?” he challenged her.

“Yes, but not…”

Don’t you?”

“Well…” A distant memory of a young Caroline helping an injured kitten crossed her mind. He reminded her so much of herself at that age. Only, the kitten hadn’t survived. She knew that David felt the same way about Nelson as she had for the kitten. But her son would also feel the way she had felt when the kitten had died.

Don’t you?” David demanded.

“I… okay, okay, okay already. But if he dies, don’t say I didn’t warn…”

“Fine. Thanks.” He turned around and starting flinging food around in the crammed fridge.

“Where’s that bowl with the…”

“Get out of the way. I’ll get it for you” said Caroline, pushing David to one side. She opened the fridge drawer and pulled out a blue container. Inside it, David could make out the curled pink commas of the fresh prawns.

“Here” said Caroline, jamming the prawns into David’s hands.

David grinned. “Thanks ma.” He kissed her on the cheek as he dashed out of the kitchen again.

“You better clean Nelson’s back again” she yelled at him, “and clean that bathroom too! Mario will…” Her sentence was punctuated by the sound of the bathroom door slamming. Round one to David and Nelson.

“We should’ve rather let Nelson die on the beach” she muttered to herself as she took eggs out of the fridge. “It would’ve saved us all from this bloody stress.” But that was only a knee-jerk reaction to her confrontation with David. With or without her son, she knew she most probably would’ve done the right thing anyway. A caring heart can sometimes be a burden.

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Romeo had lied to Caroline. His next shift only began later that afternoon. He had decided that the strange goings-on in apartment 1504 had to be reported to the building supervisor as soon as possible. He wasn’t about to risk damaging his exemplary reputation if the situation in apartment 1504 carried on for much longer.

For the occasion, Romeo wore a fresh shirt and his concierge’s uniform that he had personally washed, ironed and starched for his meeting with Mr Foxley, the ‘Duke’. Dreams of a possible bigger paycheck also danced around in his head.

He stood outside his boss’s office door marked ‘supervisor’ for a few seconds as he mentally prepared himself for a meeting that, he was sure, would end in glory for himself. Finally ready for the encounter, he rapped on the sleek glass door.

Enter!” barked a man’s voice.

Romeo opened the door and purposefully strode to the front of the desk, shoulders back, chest out.

“Good morning, Missa Poxley” announced Romeo confidently. His superior almost expected him to snap a salute to match his entrance. The Duke gritted his teeth. He’d never gotten used to having his surname mangled by his Philipino staff. Oh, how he yearned for the rolling green hills of the Lake District of his motherland. However, the pull of the big money in Dubai had lured him to the desert and had kept him there for ten years at last count. The maltreatment of his name was a small price to pay for a luxurious lifestyle, great weather and even better beaches. Never mind that after an hour or two in the sun, he saw a Greek god in the mirror and not a boiled Scots lobster.

“What is it ye need tae see me aboot noo, Romeo?” demanded the Duke, rolling his r’s in a thick Scottish brogue. His accent was not to be confused with the deep burr of Sean Connery’s James Bond. It was guttural and raw, not unlike the deprived council estate on which he had lived prior to his rise to the respectable middle class status that Dubai afforded him. Romeo’s accent may have been annoying, but the Duke’s was virtually incomprehensible to the Philipino.

“Missa Poxley” Romeo began, “issa bout the pamily in plat pipteen oh pour.”

“Aye, and what aboot them?” asked the Duke idly. In an effort to impress his boss, Romeo had reported so many trivial matters that the Duke was expecting more of the same. Besides which, there was nothing that the Duke hated more than a brown-noser like Romeo. He himself had brown-nosed his way from lowly concierge to the position of building supervisor, and he wasn’t going to fall for that old chestnut from his own staff.

“Missa Poxley, I think Missa David in pipteen oh pour is harbouring a powl!” Romeo stated with pride.

“A powl! What the in bloo blazers are ye talkin’ aboot mon?” thundered the Duke. His already ruddy complexion took on an alarming bright red hue. His red polyester jacket wasn’t doing him any favours in the sartorial department either. He pushed back his chair and sent it spinning wildly. He rose to his full five foot two inches and glared at the concierge. The Duke was only two inches taller than his subordinate, but those two inches allowed him to look down on Romeo. There were, after all, not many people shorter than Mr Foxley.

“Miss… Missa Poxley. Missa David in pipteen oh pour, he, he brought in a suspicious parcel yesserday. I… I checked this morning and I saw peathers in their plat!” Romeo answered nervously. He was terrified, not of the Duke, but of the power he wielded over him. He could so easily cancel his employment contract and he’d be back in the Philippines faster than you could say auld lang syne.

“Godalmighty, Romeo. A fowl! You think those South Africans are harbouring a bird in their apartment!” the Duke thundered. He was none too keen on displeasing the tall, attractive tenant or her family.

“Y… yes Missa Poxley.”

“How do ye knoo fer sure they’ve got a birrrd?”

“A… a peather, Missa Poxley. I saw a peather in Missa David’s hair.”

“A bloody feather! Ye saw a bloody feather!” The Duke leaned his doughy scarlet face over the monitor and glared at the terrified concierge.

Romeo took a step backwards. This was not the response he’d been dreaming of. He was more likely to get a slap in the face than a pat on the back.

“Now listen tae me, Romeo!” the Duke sneered, “I’ll nae have ye snooping aroond making false allegations against the residents. D’ye hear me noo? The next time ye come in ‘ere, I want evidence! D’ye hear me? Ev-i-dence,” he spat. He angrily slammed his fist onto his desk. “I presume ye knoo what that means noo, don’t ye?”

“Y…, yes Missa Poxley. I know what evidence means, Missa Poxley” Romeo stammered. He could feel sweat running down his back, despite the air conditioner set at a temperature suitable for penguins and polar bears. His heart sank as he felt his bonus slipping away with every drop of sweat leeching from his brow.

“Good! Now, get yerself oot of mae office. And don’t ye come back unless you have real ev-i-dence! Is that understood!”

“Y… yes Misss Poxley, sir. I’m ss… sorry por…” Romeo grovelled.

“What? For wasting my time? Now, gerrout!” roared the Duke.

“Sss… so sorry sir.” Romeo backed out of the office and quickly slipped through the door. His cheeks burned with disappointment and shame. In his haste to lick the Duke’s boots, he hadn’t thought of giving Mr Foxley hard, cold evidence. A single feather does not a bird make.

Romeo wiped his brow, straightened his drooping shoulders and headed for the exit door. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. The next time he would have the proof that would have those South Africans thrown out of his building. Of that he was dead certain. He just had to find a way.

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Meanwhile, back in apartment 1504, David was mixing a concoction of antiseptic and warm water. He daubed a wad cotton wool into the cloudy liquid and leaned over the bath.

“I’m sorry, my boy. I’ve got to do this again” he whispered to Nelson. The deep gash on the seagull’s back had started weeping again during the night. The infection in the wound ran deep and it had begun to fester once more, sending a trail of evil ooze over the bird’s body.

The boy clenched his jaw as he lightly wiped swabbed the wound. The pained bird screwed his eyes tightly shut, as if to ward off the agony of the liquid on his scarred skin. David unconsciously held his breath as he continued wiping the wound, aware that he was causing Nelson more pain. But he knew he had to carry on. It was the only chance of survival Nelson had. The gull would surely die if he didn’t rid the wound of the infection.

“Done! There ya go Nelson!” sighed David with relief, resting back on his haunches.

“Let’s make a deal. I’ll do whatever I can to get you better, but you’ve got to help yourself too. Mom’s given me some prawns and you’ve got to eat them. Okay?” But the bird remained mute, his head resting limply on David’s T-shirt. His feathers were untidily ruffled, a sign that he was in severe pain and discomfort.

“Wheewww” David exhaled heavily as he leaned forward once again. He could feel his stomach muscles tighten as he lifted Nelson’s head and gently prised opened the huge bill. But the gull was beyond resistance. His jaw hung open slackly as David placed a pinch of minced prawns onto the back of his throat. He closed Nelson’s bill and gently stroked his crop to encourage the bird to swallow. The prawns slid slowly down Nelson’s gullet. Another success! That made two meals, however small, that Nelson at least had in his stomach.

“Awesome, Nelson! The protein’s going to make you better.” Encouraged, David repeated the process twice over. He smiled with satisfaction.

“We’ll prove them wrong, buddy! You’re going to fly again.” His words were born of the excitement of the successful feed, but a dark shadow lurked when David thought of Nelson flying again. He may be able to help the bird fight off the infection, but what if the injury went deeper than he knew. What if Nelson’s back was broken? What would happen to Nelson then? A flightless seagull was a doomed seagull. David pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind and began dribbling water down Nelson’s throat. Fear of failure would not stop him from doing the best he could for the injured gull. He would do all that he could humanly do to help Nelson, the rest was up to a Greater Power.

Satisfied that Nelson had had enough to eat and drink, David nestled the bird amongst the folds of a clean towel to keep the bird warm. He stroked the sleek white feathers of the gull’s head, then he nestled down into his duvet on the cold floor for a few hours sleep. It was a vigil that he would continue as long as he had to. Nelson was depending on him and he wouldn’t betray that trust.

Bird and boy sleep side by side, one in the bath, one on the floor. The bird dreamed fitful dreams of wild blue skies and freedom, the boy of strong wide wings soaring on warm trade winds.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

C’mon David! Are you chicken or what? Puuuck-puck-puck-puck!” his school friend yelled at him. Rafiq folded his hands under his armpits and bounced around doing a weird chicken dance.

“Bugger off, jerk!” retorted David, scowling at his friend. “Some of us have never skied before. Ya know… the sane people? Like me?” He was standing at the top of the ski slope with his feet firmly planted into snow skies.

“Nyaaah! These things are slippery!” shouted David, his lanky legs wobbling like unset jelly. “And I look like a real idiot in this getup! I feel like a flipping pork sausage!” he complained, referring to the skin-tight bright red ski suit his skinny body had been poured into.

“Quit whining, Dave. Are you going to ski or not, chicken legs?”

“I’m not chicken! I’m going to do this!” David hollered in reply. But, on scanning the ski slope below him that seemed longer than an airport runway, he wasn’t so sure. He watched as another skier tumbled, performed an elegant arc in the air, and skidded down the rest of the slope on his back, sideways, coming to an untidy stop against a wall at the bottom of the slope. The hapless skier lay in the snow in a pile of tangled arms, legs and skis. He poked his head of the snow, spluttering.

“I should’ve stuck to body-boarding!” exclaimed David. “This just isn’t natural!” he complained. He was right in one respect. It was the least natural thing on earth – a ski slope, complete with real snow, in the desert. The wonderfully bonkers 400m long slope was perched on top of a shopping centre, complete with ski lift, toboggan runs and snow drifts. Caroline often remarked at the mad genius of the person who had suggested: “You know what this desert needs? A ski slope!” And even crazier was the person who answered that question with: “Of course ! Just what every desert needs – an indoor arena kept at -1°C. Far better than the 48°C outside. Yeah, let’s do that.”

Rafiq came and stood behind David, waiting for his friend to take his first plunge on the slope. He gently poked David with his ski pole.

“Come on dude. You swim amongst sharks in South Africa. You may break a leg here, but at least it won’t be bitten off by a great white! Man up!”

“Jeez, you’re a real pain Rafiq. You nag me worse than my mom.” Rafiq threw his head back and laughed at his curly-headed friend. Theirs was a friendship of friendly insults and jibes.

Just then, a little girl of about six years old went barrelling down the slope past the two friends. As she twisted her body, her skis showered them with a peppering of snow.

“Pffft, dumb female” muttered David, blowing the snow from his lips. “If she’d been on a wave…” He shook his head to dislodge flakes caught in his curls.

“Even a little girl can…” began Rafiq.

“Okay, okay. Enough already! I’ll do it. I’ll do it!” said David, cutting him short. He knew there was no way round it. It was unavoidable, like a visit to the dentist. He was also anxious to get home to take over Nelson’s nursing responsibilities from his mother, but he had promised to go skiing after school the week before. That was before a certain seagull took over his life.

“Here goes nothing” muttered David, digging his ski poles into the fresh snow. He gave a gentle push and slowly started his downhill trajectory.

“Waaaahhh” screamed David as he suddenly picked up speed. He waved his arms wildly in the air to balance himself. “I’m going too faaaast!”

“Remember to do the ‘pizza’ to slow down, and keep those knees bent!” Rafiq yelled before shoving off after him.

David somehow managed to swerve to avoid plowing into an elderly lady who was doing her best to stay upright on her skies.

“Hey, watchit!” she screamed him before flopping onto her bum, her legs and skis in the air.

“Sooorrrry maaaa’am! Can’t stooooooop!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. It felt like the windows of the shopfronts were rushing towards him at Mach one.

“Ooooh sshhiiiiiiiiiiittt!” Flashes of him crashing through the windows and landing up in someone’s lunch sped through his mind.

“The pizza! Do the pizza, Dave!” Rafiq was only a meter or so behind him. All he could do was to remind David to bring the tips of his skis together in pizza-slice formation to stop.

“Pizza? Where?” yelled David. Thoughts of a face mangled by glass had erased all trace of Rafiq’s skiing instructions.

“Your skies dude! Do the piiiizzzaaa!!!” screamed Rafiq at the top of his lungs. A toddler on a sled on the adjacent toboggan run started bawling, frightened by the mad skier yelling at the top of his voice. David’s red face and wild arm gyrations didn’t help either.

“Oooooooooh, the piiizzzaaa” David screamed back. He suddenly remembered the only scrap of information he had thought was important – how to stop. The trouble was he hadn’t paid close enough attention. He jammed the front tips of his skis together abruptly, bringing him to a violent stop. His skis stopped, but his body didn’t.

Nyaaaahh!” yelled David, as his body flew inelegantly through the air. Bam! “Oof!” He landed in exactly the same snowdrift against the wall as the previous beginner. David lay in a heap in the snow, his wild hair splattered with snow.

“You okay, dude?” asked Rafiq as he came to a smooth stop next to the human snowman.

“I… I think so. I can’t feel any pain.”

“You’re still in shock. Give it a few minutes. If you’ve broken anything, you’ll feel it.” But Rafiq already knew that there weren’t any broken bones or sprains. His friend would have been in so much pain he wouldn’t have been able to do anything other than scream in agony.

“Gee, thanks pal. Next time, I’m taking you body-boarding. Then we’ll see who’s the boss! Come on, help me up. I’ve got to get home.” Rafiq grinned as he reached out and pulled his friend to his feet. David unclipped his skis and yanked them off his feet.

“Now I know why I prefer water. It doesn’t hurt when I come off my board.” He groaned as he straightened himself up and dusted the snow out of his hair.

“Nah, I’ve got a better idea. Next time we’ll go to the Water Park” suggested Rafiq, referring to the giant water park at the crest of Palm Jumeirah. The mad water rides were legendary.

“Any day” said David, accepting the challenge, “if the water’s liquid, I’m in. The frozen variety I’m not so keen on.”

“Let’s get these skis and snowsuits back to the ticket office. I’m starving. How about a burger before we go?” suggested Rafiq. David’s stomach reminded him that it was still a few hours until supper.

“I’m not in the mood for a burger. I feel like fish.”

“Huh? Okay” answered Rafiq, puzzled. His skinny friend’s ability to cram three huge burgers into his tall frame and remain scrawny never ceased to amaze him.

“What about that new fish bar on the ground floor, Dave?”

“That’s fine. As long as the fish is fresh.”

“I heard it’s got the best sushi in town.”

“So, what are we waiting for? Let’s move it.” David may have been stressed and eager to see Nelson, but his stomach’s complaints demanded a square meal first. The thought crossed his mind that he may be able to grab a birdie bag of prawns for Nelson at the same time. Some people take home doggy bags, but David would be taking home a birdie bag. For now, however, his mother would have to babysit the sick bird just a little longer. He had, after all, been with Nelson day and night for two days since they had rescued him on the weekend.

The boys returned their rented skiing gear and hot-footed it through the gigantic mall to the restaurant. After grabbing a table with a view of the enormous fountain in the food court, they scanned the menu.

“I’m starving” complained Rafiq, “I’m going to slaughter their sushi salmon platter. ‘N you?” he asked David.

“I’ll have the same. But I also want a platter of prawns” answered David.

“Jeez. You must be hungry dude. The platter’s huge!”

“Well, I…” Just then a waiter approached their table, pen and pad in hand.

“Good afternoon, sirs. My name’s Adib. I’ll be your waitron. What would you like to order?”

“Hi Adib,” greeted Adib, “we’d like…”

“Your Royal Highness…” gasped the waiter, staring at Rafiq wide-eyed. “It is an honour…”

“I’m not…” said Rafiq, interrupting the waiter.

“Your Excellency, I… it is… we… we are honoured…” stammered the awe-struck waiter.

“You’re wrong, Adib” scowled Rafiq, close to anger. Adib clamped his mouth shut. He blushed furiously and held his notepad closer to his face to hide his embarrassment.

“Good. Now, we both want the salmon platter, but my friend also wants a plate of prawns.” Adib scribbled furiously on his pad, his hand shaking.

“V… very well, sir. And how would your friend like the prawns? Fried or grilled, perhaps with lemon or garlic butter?” He was addressing David, but his stared was fixed on Rafiq.

“The prawns must be raw, with no butter or anything. Okay?” Rafiq stared at his friend, puzzled. Sushi was one thing, but raw prawns? His friend was pretty weird, he decided.

“Y… yes, sir. I… I’ll place the order with the kitchen” Adib stammered. He walked off, turning to stare at Rafiq one last time.

“What’s going on?” asked David, puzzled by the waiter’s reaction to seeing Rafiq.

“It’s a curse” his friend smiled in return, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “I look a lot like the Sheikh’s son. I saw his picture, and we do look a lot like each other. I get this aaaall the time. It drives me nuts!”

“Cool. Don’t you get lots of free stuff? Until they find out you’re just Rafiq, the twit?” laughed David.

“Gee, thanks Dave” Rafiq answered sarcastically. “You’re lucky I’m not the Sheikh’s son, otherwise I’d have my bodyguards sort you out!” he grinned.

“Pffft, yeh right. The Sheikh doesn’t have bodyguards. He doesn’t even have a chauffeur, you dufus.”

“Yeh, yeh. Okay, okay. How would I know, anyway? I’m just Rafiq, the twit, remember?” He playfully frowned at his friend, his thick, dark brows knitted in a mock scowl.

“You don’t have to remind me” David laughed. The friends fell into easy conversation about things that matter most to young boys of their age until the waiter made his appearance once again.

“Here comes the food, twit” said David. “I’ve got to eat fast and get home before 5. I promised my mom.” His mother came in as a handy excuse to get back to Nelson as quickly as possible.

“Okay, mommy’s boy” grinned Rafiq as the waiter, clearly nervous, placed the plates on the table.

“Will there be anything else, Your Exc… ahem, sir?” asked Adib.

“That’ll be all thanks” Rafiq answered, nodding to the waiter. The two friends dug into the salmon roses and sashimi as though they hadn’t eaten for months. One thing that David and his family all agreed on was that food in Dubai was fantastic, no matter where they had eaten. It was a foodie’s paradise.

David put down his chopsticks, dug around in his rucksack, pulled out his empty lunch box and started scraping the raw prawns into it.

“What are you doing, dude?” quizzed Rafiq.

“Hey, oh, I’m… I’m saving these for Nelson… I mean, I’m… I’m uhhh.” Honesty was one of David’s strongest, but sometimes weakest, points. He hadn’t bargained on a nosey friend and couldn’t come up with a feasible excuse for taking home raw prawns from a restaurant.

Nelson? Who’s that?” Rafiq had never visited David at home and as far as he knew, he lived with his mother and stepfather. Did his friend have a weird brother who ate raw prawns that David had never mentioned?

“He’s, he’s… “ David stammered, frantically trying to think of a lie.

“Yeeesss… he’s… who?” Rafiq urged.

But David didn’t have it in him to lie to his best friend. “Oh, all right, all right! I’ll tell you. But you must promise not to tell anybody. D’you hear me? Nobody!”

“Yeh, yeh, I promise.” Rafiq would have promised him snow on the beach to get the secret out of his friend.

“And I mean nobody, Raf. My family could get into serious trouble if anybody found out.”

“All right alreadyyyyy. I promise” said Rafiq, exasperated.

“Okay, then I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me what?” By now, Rafiq was so curious he was about to launch a blob of wasabi into his friend’s eye in frustration. As far as he knew, David had never lied to him before. This must be Something Big.

“A seagull! Nelson’s a seagull!” David blurted out.

“A seagull? A stupid seagull? You’re feeding a dumb seagull? You made Nelson sound like a prawn-eating secret agent or something.”

“Nelson’s not just any seagull. We saved him. He’s hurt, so we took him home…”

“Home?” Rafiq asked excitedly. This was much more like it. It wasn’t quite the secret agent he’d hoped for, but he smelled trouble, and he liked it. “Can you keep animals in your apartment?”

David sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s the problem, you idiot! We can’t. That’s why no one else must know. We’d be evicted.”

“Wow! That is so cool! Can I see him?”

“No! My mom and Mario would have a heart attack.”

“Well, you’ve already told me about Nelson, so what difference can it make?” asked Rafiq, stuffing another sushi roll into his mouth. If they were going to visit Nelson, he reckoned he’d better finish his lunch pretty fast.

“My mom…” stammered David. He sighed with resignation. “What the heck. Okay. But we better get moving. Mom’s been looking after Nelson while I’ve been at school, and I’ve got to take over for the night.”

“That’s awesome!” gasped Rafiq, excited at the prospect of the covert operation. “Where do you stay?” he asked, whipping out his cell phone.

“Why d’you want to know? I’m taking you there.”

“I have to let my parents know where I’m going. Don’t worry, I won’t tell them anything else.”

“We live at 1504, Namira Dubai…”

“Dubai Towers on the marina. I know where it is.” Rafiq hit speed dial on his cell phone as he picked on the last of the stem ginger.

“Done. I only have to be home at six. Let’s pay the bill and get moving. I want to meet Nelson.”

David’s head started to spin. He already regretted having told Rafiq about Nelson. A secret is only a secret if no one else knows. A secret shared is no longer a secret. But it was too late.

Rafiq waved his hand in the air to call the waiter. Adib quickly threaded his way to their table.

“Yes, sir? What is it I can do for you?”

“Can you bring us the bill please, Adib?”

“Uh, no need to, sir. The manager has told me that your meal is on the house.”

“Really?” asked David, incredulous. If he’d known their meal was free, he would’ve ordered the lobster.

“Y.., yes sir. Your meal was compliments of the house.”

“Please thank the manager for us” said Rafiq, unfazed.

“It is our pleasure to be of service, sir” answered the waiter, with a shallow bow of his head.

“C’mon twerp, let’s go” Rafiq said to David, pushing his chair back.

“I’m right behind you, dufus” grinned his friend, grabbing his rucksack.

From behind the reception desk a group of staff had gathered. They whispered excitedly amongst themselves as they pointed at the boys as they walked out the door. You would swear that they had seen a movie star the way they were carrying on. Or maybe someone really important.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

The two friends burst through the entrance door of Numira Dubai Towers together. The door swung wide, open testing the tolerance of its springs with a protesting ‘skreeek’.

“’Lo Rome” shouted David as he ran past the concierge’s desk to the elevator doors.

“Not so past, Missa David” protested Romeo, waving an arm in the air. He didn’t normally question residents about their visitors, but this sleuth was keeping his eyeballs peeled for any co-conspirators in the infringement of the No Animals Allowed rule.

“Huh, what’s up, Rome?” asked David laconically as he dawdled up to Romeo’s desk. But he knew exactly what was ‘up’. David was primed to kid the kidder about his friend’s visit.

“Uhm… I uhm… I just want to meet your priend” answered Romeo. Clearly he hadn’t thought through the conversation and didn’t have a clue how he was going to wheedle information out of the young resident of apartment ‘pipteen oh pour’.

David decided to play it cool. He wasn’t going to get stroppy with the concierge, even though he knew he didn’t have to make the introduction.

“Sure Rome. This is my schoolmate, Rafiq. Raffles, meet Romeo.” David surruptitiously winked at his friend. The message to him was clear: ‘make like nice with the knucklehead and let’s get outta here’.

“Missa Rapiq, issa nice to meet you” greeted Romeo, walking round his desk to shake hands. He was smiling at Rafiq, but he narrowed his eyes at him, on the lookout for any sign of deception. But David had already warned Rafiq about the nosy doorman.

Rafiq shook the proffered hand and beamed charmingly at Romeo. “Nice to meet you Romeo. Are you happy in Dubai?” he asked innocently. But the warning to Romeo was clear – get too bolshie and you’re back in the Phillippines, dude.

It worked. Rafiq had caught Romeo off guard. He had expected defence rather than attack. “Y…, yes, Missa Rapiq. Is nice in Dubai. Very nice.” It was his turn to backtrack.

“Cool” smiled Rafiq. He had played his ace and won. The enemy now in retreat, he turned to David.

“Let’s go dude. We’ve got to finish that maths assignment this afternoon.”

“Huh? Oh, oh yes. The maths assignment” said David, too quickly for Romeo’s liking. His radar had sniffed out trouble. But he smelled something more than trouble. He had caught of whiff of raw fish on the cool air-conditioned breeze as it wafted past his nose. He couldn’t know, but it was the odour of the prawns that David had stuffed into his haversack. Whatever it was, he decided, these kids were definitely up to something. He just wasn’t sure yet how to find out exactly what it was they were cooking up. Whatever it was, it certainly was more than just fish.

“Bye Romeo. See you round” said Rafiq as he walked back to the elevator doors.

“Yes, yes op course, Missa Rapiq.” Romeo, caught on the back foot, was as obsequious as a condemned man in front of a firing squad. But his polite smile didn’t reach his eyes. He was seething with inner anger. He had been fooled once again, but he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, but shame me thrice and I’ll have your liver boiled in chilli sauce.

David and Rafiq quickly ducked into the elevator and heaved a sigh of relief as the doors slid shut. Through the narrowing slit he could see Romeo scribbling furiously in a large black book.

“That dude is going to fry us. I just know it” grimaced David.

“He’s going to need evidence first. We’ll just have to stop him, won’t we?” Rafiq grinned at his friend. This was the best fun he’d ever had and he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather do than play mind games with Romeo.

“That’s easy for you to say. We’ll get chucked out of the apartment!”

“Don’t be naff, Dave. That isn’t gonna happen,” Rafiq scoffed.

“Oh yeah? And how would you know? Got a crystal ball, huh?”

“Don’t be daft. You’re making a whale out of a sardine. We’ll think of something.” Just then the lift stopped at the fifteenth floor.

“Then we’d better think fast, Einstein” remarked David, mildly irritated, as he walked out the lift towards their front door.

“Moooom,” David shouted as he jammed his key into the front door. He thought it best to not burst into the apartment without any warning, especially with Rafiq in tow. She wasn’t expecting any company, but she wouldn’t dare grill him for letting a friend in on their secret in front of Rafiq. Let her cool off. By the time Rafiq went home she should have calmed down enough not to go super nova.

“C’mon in” David said, with a nod towards the open door. “Mooooom,” he shouted again. No answer. David dug around in his satchel, took out the container of prawns and handed it to Rafiq.

“Does your mom know I’m here?” whispered Rafiq. It hadn’t occurred to him that David hadn’t warned Caroline about his visit and might not be charmed to find him standing in her apartment.

“Nah, but she’ll be okay about it.”

“Are you sure she…”

“Where’ve you been Da…” Caroline stuck her head out of the bathroom door. “Who…?” She quickly pulled her head back in again. Rafiq punched David’s arm as they heard the sound of running water coming from the bathroom.

“Y’see? She’s mad at us! You should’ve phoned first you knucklehead” he whispered hoarsely.

“Relax will you! My mom’ll be fine…” Caroline flung open the bathroom door again and patted her hair to tidy a stray curl hanging over one eye. Rafiq wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. She was wearing her trademark elegantly casual clothes, but her T-shirt was liberally smeared with some slimey yellow and green goop, a white feather caught up in the folds of her jeans leg. There was also a faint whiff of dead fish about her. She looked like she’d had a fight with a flock of angry birds, and lost.

“Uhm, mom… this is my friend from school, Rafiq… I, he…”

“Hi Rafiq. Nice to meet you” she answered politely. “Dave, I need to talk to you. Now!” she said, throwing a look at her son that could melt steel.

“Mom, it’s okay…”

“Dave! Your bedroom! Now!” Caroline ordered as she marched off.

“Sorry Raf. Looks like you were right. She is mad! Wait here. I won’t be long.” David slunk into his room to see his mother standing with her hands on her hips, a scowl on her face.

“Close the door, David!” He grimaced. It was seldom a good sign when she called him David. He obediently closed the door and faced her. He knew what he had to do – let his mother vent her spleen. He knew she would listen to reason, eventually.

“Dave! What. Are. You. Doing?” Caroline poked him in the chest to emphasise each word. “What were you thinking, bringing Rafiq home? If he finds out about Nelson, we could be in big…”

“Ow!” he complained, rubbing his chest. “It’s okay mom, it’s okay. I’ve told him already.”

“You what?”

“I told him about Nelson. Sorry, but it slipped out and I had to tell him.”

Shit!” she exclaimed. “David, I don’t think you understand how serious this could get. If Mario finds out you’re telling the whole wide world…”

“C’mon mom, don’t exaggerate. I haven’t told the whole world. I’ve only told Rafiq. And he’s promised he won’t tell anyone. I trust him.”

“And you know that for sure becauuuuuuse…?” she asked, throwing her hands wide, inviting an answer.

“Because he’s my friend, that’s why,” answered David.

“You’ve still got a lot to learn, my boy. Life isn’t that simple. And neither are people.” Caroline’s belief in humanity had long since died. That faith had been wrenched out of her with every broken leg, tattered paw and starving cat she had nurtured back to life and health. But she still hoped, nevertheless, that her son’s innocent view of the world would remain intact for another few years, at least. And that the death of his innocence would not be caused by a broken friendship.

“Aah ma, you’re making a… a whale out of a sardine” he retorted, borrowing Rafiq’s maxim. “And who knows, maybe Raf can help us. You’ve got to just trust someone sometimes.”

“Oh, well” sighed Caroline. David knew the signs – his mother was weakening. He beamed his biggest, brightest grin to melt the last of her resolve and anger. “I suppose it’s too late anyway. You’ve already told Rafiq about Nelson, so what’s the use. But he can’t stay for too long, d’you hear? Mario will be home soon and he’ll have a nucleur meltdown when he sees Rafiq.”

“Thanks, ma, you’re the best! I knew you’d understand.” David spun round and yanked open the bedroom door.

“Remember Dave, Rafiq can’t stay too long” Caroline repeated to his retreating back.

“Yes ma,” answered David as stepped back into the passage. But where was Rafiq? He had disappeared.

“Rafiq? Raf? Raffles?” David called out. Had he become bored while he and his mother were having words and left?

But there was no answer. “Rafiq?” He stood still, waiting for an answer. What if Rafiq had changed his mind and reported them to Romeo? No, that was impossible. Rafiq wouldn’t do something like that. Would he? Maybe he was frightened of getting into trouble with his parents. David felt a shiver of fear creep up into his throat. Then he heard it. A soft murmuring coming from behind the bathroom door.

“Raf?” he whispered as he opened the door.

There was his friend. He was kneeling on the hard floor, his body bent over the bathtub as he was gently stroked Nelson’s head with a single finger. The gull was still lying in his familiar position with his head bowed, wings tucked close to his body. David was relieved that Nelson hadn’t panicked at the presence of the stranger. But it was Rafiq’s demeanour that puzzled David. He had never seen his boisterous friend so quiet. He wondered whether the sight of the wound on Nelson’s back was making him sick. It was, after all, an ugly gash and it was still weeping.

“Raf? Are you okay?” David asked quietly.

“Dave” whispered Rafiq, “he’s beautiful. I’ve never seen a seagull this close before.”

David knelt down beside his friend, relieved to see that he, too, felt the same way about the helpless bird.

“Mm, he is beautiful” David agreed. “But he’s badly hurt. We don’t know if he’s going to make it.” In fact, it was almost as if Nelson had died on the beach. The only movements he had seen the bird make was the minute flinches he made when they cleaned his wound, or the weak movement of his gullet when they fed him. Maybe, just maybe, his mother and Mario had been right. Maybe it would’ve been kinder to leave him alone to die. David inwardly bristled at his gloomy thoughts and shoved them aside. He was in this for the long haul and negative thinking wasn’t going to help Nelson.

“Can I help you feed him?” pleaded Rafiq, ignoring David’s suggestion that Nelson may die. He now had joined them in the fight for the bird’s life and no messy wound was going to stop him from doing what was right.

“Yeah, sure” answered David, relieved that he had another ally. “But first we’ve got to clean the gash on his back. D’you think you can handle that?”

“Tell me what I must do, and I’ll do it” Rafiq answered with conviction. He was surprised at how deeply the sight of Nelson affected him. He would clean wounds and scrub the poop from the bath, anything to help the seagull. The boy had learned the true meaning of compassion, and it felt good.

“Cool. Then get the antiseptic from the cupboard. After that, we’ll feed him the prawns.”

The two boys spent the next hour tending the injured bird. All thoughts of video games, skateboards and skiing were forgotten. As they busied themselves caring for Nelson, the bond of friendship was galvanised into something unshakeable.

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

***

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THE SEAGULL AND THE SHEIKH

A mother (Caroline) and son (David) hear the mournful call of a badly wounded seagull on a beach in Dubai. Unable to leave the bird to die alone, they decide to take him home in the hope that they can nurse him back to health. The die is cast when David names the bird Nelson and forges a strong bond with the sick bird. But their simple rescue plan is a dangerous one. Keeping an animal in their apartment block is strictly forbidden and Carol’s husband, Mario, finds himself and their family under threat. Mario’s boss wants him thrown out of Dubai as Mario has stopped work on a building site as a result of poor wiring. It transpires that Mario’s boss is receiving kickbacks on the dodgy wiring and, as a result of Mario’s interference, his corrupt practices are in danger of being exposed. Mario’s boss calls in an oily private detective (who suffers from a bad case of OCD) from South Africa to spy on the family to uncover their illegal ‘guest’. But the family are not alone in their determination to save the seagull and their way of life in Dubai. A string of weird and wonderful characters traipse through their lives to either help or hinder their efforts, not least of which, the royal family (matters become complicated when David’s friend, Rafiq, impersonates the sheikh’s young son). Lies, deceit and corruption are revealed when they are all called to the royal palace to confront the sheikh himself.

  • Author: Diane Van der Westhuizen
  • Published: 2016-04-04 13:00:11
  • Words: 100046
THE SEAGULL AND THE SHEIKH THE SEAGULL AND THE SHEIKH