“In the lair of the blue-beaked noddie,” by Robert Garnham

Apr 20th, 2022 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

‘Well, someone’s sure as hell spooking the blue-beaked noddies’, Greg said.

We remained quiet, of course.

‘Gibbering wrecks, the lot of them. The island jungle is a fragile ecosystem. They only exist on this island because there aren’t any other predators. Rats . . Cats . . Humans . .’.

I was a human, and so was Liam. It was hard not to take this last remark personally.

‘You know what it was like here, just a few days ago’.

I nodded.

‘Blue-beaked noddies everywhere. It’s the only place in the world where we managed to re-introduce a sustainable colony’.

I’d chase them away from the bins with my slipper raised over my head, but I didn’t want Greg to know this.

‘And we don’t know what’s happened, but they’re all hiding in the scrub, now. The undergrowth. This isn’t natural behaviour for the blue-beaked noddie. It’s got to be behavioural, rather than biological. Something has sure as hell given them the willies’.

 The night before, Liam and I had lost ourselves to a biology seldom studied here at the remote research station, and we had made out, naked, in the glare of the full moon in a copse where ordinarily the blue-beaked noddie would frolic to their feathery content, and as we lost ourselves to an animal passion we could hear the blue-beaked noddies chattering excitedly, their guttural chirruping adding an upbeat sleazy tempo to our nocturnal exertions. Indeed, they seemed to enjoy it. But it was probably best not to tell Greg this.

‘Do you think he’s on to us?’, I asked, as Greg and his wide, floppy brimmed hat marched away.

‘It’s weird that he should just single us out, of all the people who work here’, Liam replied.

The tropical sun beat down. We both had work to do. Liam was due to dive on a nearby reef and so something interesting with plankton. And I needed to rearrange my sock drawer.


We did that joke, the first time we met. You know the one. ‘Oh! I’ve got crabs!’, the moment our eyes met over the Perspex tank filled with crabs outside one of the huts at the research station. The tank was lit brilliantly by the tropical sun and his face was magnified by the water. Crikey, he’s got a freakishly big head, I told myself, so I was quite relieved when he looked up and it was a normal head size.

We’d both said the same thing at the same time.

‘Oh! I’ve got crabs!’


‘You said it first’.

‘Compulsive reaction’.

He’d just arrived, like, half an hour before. Dropped off his bags in one of the accommodation units, and now he was familiarising himself with the scientific amenities.

‘What’s your field of study?’ I had asked.

‘Biodiversity in the bumphead gurnard. And you?’

‘I do the bins’, I replied.

And he thought that this was hilarious, but that night, ironically, behind recycling dumpster number six, we made out with such intensity that he said it reminded him of the spawning methods of the common bumphead gurnard, which I took to be a compliment.

‘Have you really got crabs?’, he asked.

Within days we were meeting each night, making our way from the buildings of the research station into the surrounding forest which covered most of the island, whose fragile ecosystems had been sheltered from the mainland for thousands of years. The pungent, earthy aroma seemed a natural aphrodisiac as we lost ourselves to various chemical and emotional processes in a clearing under the glow of a tropical moon. And all the time he’d kept up the pretence of a lecture about the bumphead gurnard and its role in the ecology of the reef, sea grasses and mangroves, just in case anyone should catch us at it. For who was I, but a lowly bin man eager to know more about such processes.

It’s just a shame that we were putting the frighteners into the blue-beaked noddies.

The first night, they’d scampered around and clucked and chattered, hopping from foot to foot. It was kind of the same the next night. The night after that, they must have known that we were coming because they all kind of sat on branches in the thicket and watched, appalled, yet fascinated. Word must have got around, because the night after that there were more of them, and some of them had brought snacks to munch on. And they were quieter, watching intently. Every now and then there would be a chirp. And when it was all over, they kind of sauntered off to their own parts of the forest.

‘Those blue-beaked noddies are giving me the creeps’, Liam had said.

But after a while, we didn’t really think about it.


Emptying the bins in one of the labs shortly afterwards, amid the test tubes and microscopes, someone had blue tacked a poster of a blue-beaked noddie on the pristine white wall, and I just admit, I came over all unnecessary and had to go away and have a sit down.

Greg held a meeting in the main canteen of the research station.

‘The situation is becoming critical’, he said.

He was sitting on a table, kind of sideways, one bum cheek on the table surface, his legs dangling at an angle.

‘The blue-beaked noddie is being put off its natural breeding patterns. It’s being distracted. As a naturalist, I understand that each year there has to be a certain amount of wasteage – that’s the term we scientists use for the specimens of any species who fail to find a mate each year . . .’.

‘The freaks, in other words’, Liam whispered.

I tried to snort back a laugh, and Coca Cola came out of my nostrils.

‘But this year the numbers are catastrophic. We’ve never seen anything like it. From this moment forward, all staff and scientists are to stay away from the woods on the island, is that understood?’

The floppy brim of Greg’s hat wobbled with the intensity of his anger.

‘I’ll be placing security staff on the entrances to the woods at all hours. This has to be our top priority,’

I looked away from him for a moment towards the windows of the lab. The sun was beating down and I could see the green trees. The colours were so vibrant, what with the deep blue of the sky. So utterly pristine.

‘Well’, Liam whispered.

‘Now, are there any questions?’

There were no questions. Greg had made his point. I wondered how uncomfortable it must have been for him, to sit like that with one bum cheek on the table and one not, all kind of sideways in a measured approximation of casual authority.


After the meeting finished, Liam and I sat on the steps of science lab number six, the trapped sun bearing down on us, trapping the heat of the concrete and the faux colonial wood veneer of the science lab.

‘We’re going to have to stop’, he said. ‘The fragile ecosystem is more important than our rampant biological urges’.

It felt a little embarrassing to be talking his way. But Liam was a scientist and he saw everything in cold, hard facts.

‘Do you think . , our friendship will survive?’

‘Why not?’, he replied.

The sun lightly caressed his delicate features. Over the last few weeks I’d got to know him, or at least, I thought I had. And while it’s true that he never seemed to share much beyond his own physicality and some minor gossip about bumphead gurnards, our proximity and shared moments had become the closest thing I had to a friendship at the research station.

A small beetle crawled along in the gully formed by the gap between paving slabs. He studied it intently for a couple of seconds, and then squashed it flat.

‘If Greg finds out . .’.

‘He won’t’.

‘He’s an intelligent man’.

‘And I’m not? Oh, is that what this is all about?’

‘Don’t be silly!’

Liam was wearing a white t-shirt and cargo shorts with lots of pockets. From where we were sitting we could hear the exotic birds in the jungle and the slow lap of the sea as it broke over the reef.

‘It doesn’t . . . Necessarily . . . Have to be out in the jungle that we . . .’.

‘Then where else?’

He had a point. We all lived in shared accommodation. Scientists and menial staff alike had the same facilities.

And that’s when I thought how sad it was that love should bloom in such an austere and clinical environment where every action had a consequence.

‘So, this is it, then?’

‘We can still be friends’.

‘Those times we had . . .’

‘Mere biology’, he replied.

I knew he was lying and that it had meant something to him, too.

‘I have to go’, he said, ‘I’ve got a bucket of dinoflagellates waiting for me in the lab’.

We both got up. The sun continued to beat down. We went our separate ways.


The next few days passed very slowly. I’d see Liam with the other scientists, his white lab coat flapping around his long, bare legs, or off out on a dinghy to dive on the reef and look at the gurnards, the wind in his hair and a kind of winsome expression on his face. I passed once while he was in a deep conversation with Doctor Emma and Professor Roger about nutrients and photosynthesis in the bottom-feeding molluscs, and he did just kind of turn, ever so slightly, and nod. I was on my way to the eco-compactor with an arm full of empty egg boxes for the recycling. As I pulled the lever on the machine a couple of moments later, I was filled with a sudden sense of ennui and I wished that a similar machine existed which just crushed down all disappointment till it was a fraction of its normal size.

I’d go back to my accommodation unit at night and let out a deep sigh. This wasn’t the easiest thing to do when you share a bedroom with five other people.

‘You okay?’, Professor Roger inquired.

‘Fine . .’.

‘I know how you feel, we’re worried about the blue-beaked noddies’, he said. ‘But nature has a way of sorting these things out’.

I looked out the window at the gathering dusk. You could hear the birds in the forest, even at this late hour, squawking and chattering.

‘Yes’, I said to him, ‘The noddies . . .’.

‘Oh, and stop by my lab, in the morning. Nobody’s emptied the waste paper bin in days’.

Is this it?, I asked myself. Is this all I have to look forward to in life? Liam was okay, he had his molluscs and his plankton. And his long legs, and his winning smile. I stared up at the ceiling of the accommodation unit. I was really starting to dislike Liam.


It’s often funny, isn’t it, how when you decide you don’t really want to see someone, they just turn up all over the place. We both arrived at the cafeteria for breakfast at the same time, and we exchanged pleasantries, side by side in the queue for bangers. As usual he was dressed in a pristine white tshirt and his cargo shorts and his beautiful long legs, and I was dressed like a sack of crap. Mid-morning I was loading up the pick-up truck with bags of waste material when I found him poking around in the main skip because he’d accidentally thrown away a dorsal fin from a bumphead gurnard which had been of special scientific interest. And when I went to the loos, there he was at the urinal next to mine. I couldn’t go. I pretended I had and wished him a good day and spent the rest of the afternoon busting for a wazz.

‘He must be doing it on purpose’, I told Doctor Emma. ‘Isn’t there anything you could prescribe . . You know . . To help me forget?’

‘I’m a doctor of zoology’, she replied, ‘but I’ve heard rumours that the nutrient pellets we feed octopuses can certainly knock a grown man off his feet for a few hours, if that’s what you’re after’.

I thanked her for her advice and later that day snuck into the scientific store room. I found the octopus pellets and indeed, they zonked me out to such a degree that I missed dinner and woke up almost twelve hours later at breakfast. And yes, I’d forgotten Liam. I went to the queue to get some sausages and there he was, right next to me again in his pristine white t-shirt and cargo shorts with his long legs. Not only was I dressed as a sack of crap, but I had bleary eyes and I hadn’t shaved, either.

‘Are you okay?’, Professor Roger asked, when we met by chance at the compost heap. ‘You seem to be walking around in a daze, and you’ve lived on nothing but sausages these last few days. You haven’t been at the octopus pellets, have you?’

‘I’m fine . .’.

‘Just make sure you get the right ones. You know, there’s two different kinds of octopus pellets. One that goes into the octopus, and one, er that, . . ‘.

‘To be honest, it’s just a kind of weariness I’ve been feeling of late. I can’t quite put my finger on it . .’.

‘Just like the blue-beaked noddie’, he sighed. He then seemed to snap out of his reverie. ‘It’s hard, here’, he said. ‘OK, this may be a luscious paradise of beaches and jungle, but that doesn’t make the pain go away. This is life in a microcosm, an environment that we have created for ourselves. You could say that this is our own ecosystem’.

‘And it functions just like one?’

‘Yes, a complex web of associations and mutually beneficial behaviour. There’s even a pecking order, with Greg right at the top’.

‘And his hat . .’.

‘Yes, yes, his hat. It’s a complex system and we all play our part. And look what it does to you! I had a full head of hair when I started here’.

Professor Roger dives his hands into the compost bin and pulls out some grass cuttings. He plonks it down on top of his bald head. I laugh. He laughs. We are both laughing.


It’s not that I purposefully ignore Liam. It’s hard to ignore him, he’s there all the time. I just try not to put myself in a position where I am exposed to him unnecessarily, because that sort of thing can really bugger up the day, I try to get on with my chores and responsibilities the best I can while not thinking about those rampant moments we had shared in the undergrowth and how it had all come to a crashing halt just because of some stupid species. But it was hard to concentrate. Carrying the sacks of waste paper warned by the sun down to the recycling bins reminded me of the warmth of his body. A fleshy jungle leaf imbued with a layer of dew brushing against my neck reminded me of his tongue. And those Perspex tanks full of crabs outside the lab, oh, they were the hardest of all. I kept expecting to see his magnified face.

‘You can’t force them to mate’, Doctor Emma was saying to Greg, when I walked past one day.

And even that made me think of Liam.

‘Perhaps it’s their diet?’ Greg sighed, ‘we are looking at so many possibilities. Something’s putting them off’.

‘They might just be a generation of losers’, I said, stopping next to them with a plastic tray full of empty wine bottles from the scientists accommodation unit.

‘And who asked you?’

‘You said so yourself. Every generation has wasteage. Perhaps for some reason, this is a whole colony of . . . Wasters’.

Greg looked at me in a funny sort of way.


‘They just can’t get dates, they’re society’s nerds. They have no interest in mating because, I don’t know, perhaps they have other things going on’.

‘And since when have you been an expert in the blue-beaked nodding?’

‘Have you tried porn?’


‘Set up some televisions throughout their habitat. Play some of those documentaries about the mating habits of the blue-beaked noddie. I’ve seen some of the younger scientists in the common room watching them for a laugh, along with Octopus Bloopers Volume Six. Perhaps that will put them in the mood for a bit of blue-beaked noddie action’.

Greg looked at me for a very long time. He then turned back to Doctor Emma.

‘As I say, we’re now looking into their diet. There’s got to be some biological reason why this is happening’.


For weeks there had been nothing but sunshine and clear blue skies. Each day had been hotter than the day before. Even the trees looked like they were starting to wilt, it’s no surprise that the blue-beaked noddie couldn’t get it up. Towards evening, dark, ominous clouds started to roll in from the sea and the distant horizon flashed with sheet lightning, the thunder booming across the surface of the ocean to the island and the research station. I went to the accommodation unit early, and watched as blobs of rain appeared on the window, individual drops crashing in the jungle sounding more like gunfire or fireworks

It was hot. I’d never known a heat like it. The very air seemed infused with water, the sweat was rolling down my brow. I lay back on my bunk and tried to read a magazine but the concentration necessary even for this was somehow too much. I couldn’t even look at the pictures. The other scientists were all in the common room or the canteen, so at least I had the place to myself. I lay back and listened to the rain on the corrugated iron roof, intensifying as thunder cracked and lighting sizzled in the sky overhead. There’s going to be leaves everywhere in the morning, I told myself. And guess who’s going to have to clear them up.

It was too hot even to lie down. I got up and sat with my legs dangling from the bunk. There wasn’t even the slightest breeze, I’d never felt so uncomfortably hot. Perhaps I should open a window?, I thought. Get at least some kind of air movement. There was another vicious flash of lightning as I looked over to the window only to see, in that split second, outlined by the lightning, six blue-beaked noddies sitting on the windowsill, looking in.

I gasped. Then I told myself, no. That was a mirage. That sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But then came another flash, a flicker of bright light and sure enough, the outside window ledge was crammed with blue-beaked noddles, all looking in at me.

‘Well . . . This is creepy . . .’

I hopped down from the bunk. By now the rain was incredibly intense and it clattered on the iron roof of the accommodation unit. I went over to the next window and sure enough, more blue-beaked noddies.

‘This can’t be . . .’.

I backed against the cool of the interior wall, aghast, too afraid even to move. Another flash of lightning showed that there were hundreds of them in the branches of the nearby trees, all of them looking in the window of my bedroom. And that’s when I heard their chatter. The door of the unit opened as it by an unseen hand, and they all started waddling in, chattering and chirruping as they did so. There must have been thousands of blue-beaked noddies, all of them waddling towards me with their blue beaks pointed like the needles of a compass directly at me.

‘Heh heh, hello chaps . . ‘.

I tried to back further against the wall.

And now the ones to my right started to flap and leap about, their feathers brushing against my arms and legs. They meant business, did these blue-beaked noddies, they meant me to move, so I did, the birds flapping at one side of me, the birds the other side clearing a space for me to walk. They turned around as the thunder boomed and crashed, waddled towards the door leading me outside while the birds to my right kept prodding, poking me to go the way that they wanted.

We went out into the rain. I’d never felt rain like it, as if thrown by some omniscient being, the ground an absolute quagmire of mud and mulch as the birds pushed me, flapped and pecked and shoved me out away from the accommodation unit and into the woods. Every time the lightning flashed I saw them ahead of me, marching forwards as if having claimed their prize.

I don’t know for how long we walked like this, me and the blue-beaked noddies, but we came to a clearing surrounded by dense vegetation, and that’s when they stopped pushing and flapping. I stood there, in the rain with the water running down me and for some reason the only thing I could think was, what if I get struck by lightning?

Amid the cacophony of the rain and the weather I heard more chattering and that’s when I saw Liam. He too was being cajoled by a flock of these flightless birds flapping and jumping at him, being led with his soaking wet lab coat flopping uselessly around him. The blue-beaked noddies pushed him close towards me and then stopped their pushing. It all went very quiet.

‘Hi’, I said.

‘Alright?’ he asked.

‘Not bad’.

We were both soaked. The rain ran in rivulets down our bodies. His white tshirt was clinging to him.

‘Been busy?’

‘Yeah, you know. Plankton’.

The blue-beaked noddies let out an angry squawk.

‘OK! OK!’

We looked at each other in the flash and blip of lightning, the heat and the thunder and the crash of heavy rain on the undergrowth. We embraced. And then we started going through our usual repertoire. It was just like old times.


The next morning dawned warm and sunny and, just like I’d thought, there were leaves everywhere. But that wasn’t the major concern.

The air was filled with the sound of copulating blue-beaked noddies. And it was the most rasping, primal, grunting sort of sound that seemed to go on for ages. They seemed to be doing it everywhere, from the trees to the tops of the storage huts to the steps of the canteen, they weren’t shy in the slightest.

By mid morning, Greg had to call an emergency meeting, but nobody could hear him because of the all the noddie action. He opened his briefcase to find his microphone only to find a couple of blue-beaked noddies at it inside amid his paperwork. They were in the microwave. They were in the hoods of coats hung up in the doorway, they were at it everywhere.

‘We now have a new crisis!’ Greg called.


‘We can’t hear you!’

‘Next year’s population will be too big!’, he yelled. ‘The ecosystem . . Won’t be able to sustain . . .’

A couple of blue-beaked noddies hopped up on the table in front of him and started at it.

‘Oh for goodness sake!’

The noise was so intense that by mid afternoon the decision had been made to abandon the research station, at least until things had cooled down a little. We all stood on the sandy beach as a fleet of dinghies ferried us to the supply vessel moored just off the reef. And as our boat pulled away from the island and the crescendo of mating blue-beaked noddies, Liam and I kind of snuggled together, and he told me that the bumphead gurnard had also seen its numbers decrease over the last few years, and that scientists were scratching their heads, wondering what kind of methods could be put into place to shore up their population.

‘Wasteage?’ I asked.

‘Some generations just don’t have it in them’.

The boat took us further from the island. You could still hear them even from a few miles away.


Robert Garnham’s short stories have been published widely in magazines such as Stand, Defenestration, Flash Fiction Magazine, Ink Sweat and Tears and others, and his poetry in Acumen, Tribe and the Broadsheet. In 2021 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He writes a humorous newspaper column in the Herald Express. He also performs comedy poetry all over the UK at fringes, festivals and TV, and had one of the funniest one-liners of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. For more information on Robert Garnham go to https://professorofwhimsy.com/

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