Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Bird Sanctuary - Meet Bert

Early on a frosty October morning, Laura September - owner of September’s and Nessa’s boss - lifts the latch on the door to the terrace garden and steps outside. The air is icy cold and smells of wood fires from the chic wood-burning stoves of the surrounding houses. This is her favourite time of day: long before any of the staff or customers arrive; before their activity and commotion brings September’s alive. It reminds her that this is still her business. It’s moments like this she cherishes: alone with her thoughts in her very own café. Looking up at the milky sunrise she jumps as the baby inside her kicks sharply under her ribs. Well, maybe not completely alone anymore…

From the earliest days of trading, Laura witnessed Northbridge residents beginning to identify her coffee shop as a ‘safe place’ – somewhere to escape from the hustle and bustle of the day, if only for the time it takes to drink a coffee.

One of the first customers to venture through the doors, almost eight years ago – and remain a perennial character ever since – was Bert Mottram. Known universally as ‘Old Bert’, he is regularly the first to arrive on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings – often waiting by the front door when Laura or Nessa arrive to open up. A man languishing somewhere in his mid-60’s, Bert always arrives wearing pretty much the same outfit: long baggy faded blue thick-knit jumper, which swamps even his considerable frame; battered outback hat, perched atop his long, white wavy hair; scuffed brown hiking boots and old blue jeans. Over his shoulder is slung a fraying canvas satchel, containing an ancient pair of binoculars in a cracked leather case, a much-used notebook and a stub of pencil attached to the bent ring-binding with a small length of jute string, and a red-and-white striped Thermos flask, which has seen considerably better days.

September’s is a stop for Bert on his way back from Nether-Easter Nature Reserve, an RSPB-maintained sanctuary for myriad bird species. Every morning – except Sundays when he attends church (keeping a promise to his beloved late mother) – Bert makes the pilgrimage from his small council semi along the River Severn and through the small gate leading to the reserve. Since his mother’s death several years before, Nether-Easter has become a sanctuary for Bert; a place where he can indulge in his life-long passion of bird-watching, unhindered by other people.

Bert is well aware that he doesn’t fit in – he has only to see the intrusive stares of his Northbridge neighbours to confirm this. Other people judge him too quickly – and stick their noses into your business, uninvited and unannounced. His birds never judge him. They are largely unaware of his presence, as he sits ensconced in one of Nether-Easter’s wooden hides, but that suits him down to the ground. From the hide he can watch them, making notes in his notebook, enjoying a cup of musty-tasting tea from his aged Thermos – and they never mind.

In September’s Bert has always found a refuge from the prying eyes of Northbridge people. The girls are generally friendly and sometimes will even ask him which birds he’s spotted that morning. Unbeknownst to him, this is largely because of Laura’s insistence that Nessa and Purdy make time for the old man, following their complaints about being caught in lengthy conversations with him.
‘This place is a safe place for Bert: make him feel at home, girls.’

So Bert’s life revolves around dawn patrols at Nether-Easter, bacon sandwiches with pots of tea at September’s and Sunday church visits. These are the points in his week that make the other, drearily lonely hours worthwhile. Which is why he doesn’t want to leave his small council house near the river.

But now all this is under threat: all because some nosey busybody phoned the Council. Mrs Ecclestone from Number 42 had been watching Bert for some time, concerned about his increasingly unkempt appearance. She must have peered through his living room window while he was out one day and, appalled at the state of the room, hurried home to call Social Services. Within a week, Bert had been informed that he was being offered a place in a sheltered housing development, five miles up the road in Woocombe Edge.

‘It will be lovely, Mr Mottram,’ said the lady from the Council.
‘Is it near Nether-Easter?’
‘Oh no, quite a long way away from there.’
‘But I go birdwatching there.’
‘Ah, I see. Well, the gardens at Hillbank are lovely. There’s lots of birds on the bird table.’
‘But I want to go out to the hides.’
‘Out? Oh no, Mr Mottram, you can’t go out without one of our staff. We have trips out, though. We go to Sainsbury’s on a Wednesday to take you shopping.’
‘I don’t want to go shopping. I want to watch my birds.’
‘Now, now, Mr Mottram, I know change is a scary thing. I’m sure you’ll find other things to do at Hillbank. Our residents are very active, you know.’
‘I don’t want to go.’
‘I – I’m sorry, Mr Mottram. You have to go…’

Without his birds – without his freedom – Bert’s life is meaningless. Facing the fear of losing everything he has and moving away from the only things that give him joy is simply too much to bear.

He has tried reasoning with the Council. He even cleaned his kitchen last week – but to no avail. The date is set and he must pack what little he has. But what the Council don’t know – or his birds, or the girls at September’s – is that Bert has a plan. There is an old rusty shotgun hidden well in his garden shed. When they come to collect him in two weeks’ time, he won’t be there…

© Miranda Dickinson 2008

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Welcome To SEPTEMBER'S...'s a coffee shop with a difference. Meet the people who work here and the customers that visit - all of them have a story to tell. So pull up a comfy chair, enjoy your coffee, maybe even indulge in something sweet - and listen to the stories that surround you...

written by Miranda Dickinson, author of Remember and The Mystical Wombat's Guide to Life