We go down to the beach at dawn to stop the chicks from choking. I put on jeans and a heavy jumper over my pyjamas. My pee steams in the cold bathroom, and the slate pinches my bare feet. Dad shakes the house awake with his footsteps. His head has lumps from the wonky doorways. Time to go, he says with one finger in his ear.
My face shrinks in the cold outside. I lost a glove yesterday, so this bare hand goes deep into my pocket, amongst the snotty tissues and the fossils. There are new flowers on the clifftop, and dad brushes them with the sole of his boot. I’m not sure what he’s checking, but he seems pleased.
Ours are the only footprints on the sandy slope. I once fell here, years ago, and sliced my face on the grass, which grows in tufts like buried pin cushions. The scar has faded to silver on my cheek. It is the shape of a bird’s footprint.
Dad does his long-legged run, and I keep back from the sand he kicks up behind him. He has already seen a tern chick, on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. At first, the fish stuck in its throat looks like a long tongue. The chick is flicking its head to the side, then lunging forward, gagging. It takes a few steps, stumbles under the weight of the fish, then quickly rights itself.
We have to do this at dawn, and we have to be fast, because we’re racing against the gulls and the skuas that wake up desperate with hunger.
Dad chases the little ball of fluff across the sand, then takes it up in his fingers, clamping its tiny head with one hand while gently pulling out the fish with the other. The chick struggles, pushing its grey webbed feet against his palms. He mumbles to the chick, soft sounds that are more like thoughts than words.
The knuckle-fish hasn’t gone too far down this chick’s throat. If the fish goes all the way down, the two barbs on its back hook inside the bird’s neck and it can’t be pulled out without tearing open the chick’s throat. There is only one thing that Dad can do with the birds when this happens. He makes the decision quickly, and without speaking. They are so fragile, it takes just a small tug, and then Dad slips them into his bag.