Seraphim Preening


i Be kind to your web-footed friends

I AM a small man. I sit at the edge of my tiny cot-bed, legs dangling over the end. I am sub-vocalising a march by the late John Philip Sousa. In fifty-four minutes I go to see the doctor.

Last Tuesday. I was making small figures from sheets of paper taken from a ream on my table. I think ream is the word. They were not simple figures. They were made with care and deliberation after a pattern I copied from an Origami book in the prison library.

When I launched them into the air they floated. How they floated. Some looped the loop. Others skidded under the cot-bed between my legs. More crashed into the door of the cell.

After a while I could stand it no longer. I banged on the door. Again I banged. Very loudly. I called out. Louder still.

"Warder! Warder!"

I took a tin plate and clattered the door.

"Warder! Warder!"

A single eye appeared in the peephole. A rattle of keys. Door slammed open.

"What is it dis time?"

Dese, dems and dose: he was an ugly culchie with bad breath.

"Me shoulders."

"What's up with your shoulders?"

He was in a bad mood.

"The pain. Back again. I want to see a doctor."

He vardied the cell. Saw the paper figures for the first time. Picked one up.

"What's all dis?"

"It's a bird."

"What's it made of?"


"And where did you get the paper, yeh little git?"

"From you, warder."

"Yeh little git. You told me you wanted to write your bleedin' memoirs, and I bleedin' believed you, didn't I? Foolish-ate-yer-bun dat I am."

He grabbed the tiny figures, crash landed around the cell, and crushed them in his large raw-boned hairy-backed hands. He scooped up the rest of the - what was that word - ream.

"Dat's it den. Made a bloody geheck of me."

He stood at the door.

"You're a quare bloody hawk, d'ya know that. A quare bloody hawk."

"What about the pains? In my shoulders?"

"Doctor comes on Friday. Stay in your cell. Keep your nose clean and I'll fix an appointment for you."

He slammed the door. His footsteps down the corridor echoed to nothing.

I was going to write me memoirs. I really intended to. The paper birds were a ritual invocation to my anamnesis.

I'm Seraphim. Seraphim Coddles. Seraphim. I looked it up in a dictionary. It means celestial being, one of the highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy, gifted especially with love, and associated with light, love, ardour and purity. That's me. Light. Love. Ardour. And. Purity.

At school we learned about angels from the Catechism. Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels and Angels.

Angels ran in our family. Me father was Raphael, me granda's name was Gabriel. At night I'd sit up in bed and recite the names out loud.

"Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels and Angels."

They had wings and they swooped around Heaven buzzing the clouds.

ii For a duck may be somebody's mother

Every Sunday morning my father would take me to the Bird Market.

"Straighten your shoulders," he'd say, "straighten your curse-'o-God shoulders and shame the world."

Lofty red brick buildings, tall and shabby, rabbit warrens for people. Under the shadow of St Patrick's Cathedral. A square of bitter grass where the old wither in the sun and the young play piggy in the shade of Swift.

My father had often talked of the Bird Market and I imagined it as a lofty glass building, airy and spacious and ringing with the chatter and barter of bird and buyer.

It wasn't.

A shabby wicket in a lean-to falling down gate.

"This is it," my father said. "The Bird Market."

A narrow lane, evil-smelling and crammed with people. All I could see were the pockets of coats and the big gnarled hands which occasionally dropped to top a fag or knock the dottle from a pipe. Couldn't see more.

When he was in a good mood me da would remedy this by hoisting me on his shoulders. I locked my hands beneath his chin and felt the sandpaper of his unshaven cheeks.

The bird cages were strung along one wall. Tiny cages full of the flurry of angel wings and raw wet beaks and black frenzied eyes. I saw them when he was in good humour. When he wasn't; I didn't.

"Da! Daaa!"


"Can I have a bird? Of me own?"

"You're too young."

"I'm six and three-quarters."

"You're too young. You wouldn't look after it."

On my tenth birthday I bought a bird. A cock linnet. The dealer put it in a little brown paper bag with holes in it.

Me da wasn't pleased.

"What's in the bag?"

"It's nothing, da."

"Give it here." His big, raw-boned, hairy-backed hands tore open the paper. His fingers closed around the bird. I could see the tiny chest thumping between those fingers.

"Where'd you get this?"

I told him.

"How much?!"

I told him.

He went spare.

"Five bob! That's the money yer granda Gabriel gave yeh for your birthday."

"I know ..."

"The money I told you to put into the post office."

"I know da, but I'll save up."

"It was to be put in a post office and you bought a bloody bird with it."

"I wanted one. Of me own."

I knew I was snivelling. My father hated snivelling. He waved the bird under my nose. His tone was pleading and reasonable.

"When I tell you to do something you must obey. The fourth commandment. Honour thy father and thy mother. If you disobey you must be punished."

He didn't punish me. He punished the fucking bird. He wrung its neck. I gave it a sailor's burial. I set it in a matchbox out to sea.

I was obedient after that.

When he said I was to go to work in the timber yard, I went to work in the timber yard.

He carried me on the crossbar of his bike. My legs being tiny, got pins and needles. It nearly friggin' crippled me.

"It's a good job," he said, "a good job with prospects."

Good job? Messenger boy more like. Fifteen bob a week. I got on well with the boys, kept me nose clean, and after five years rose to the exalted rank of junior docket clerk. I was twenty-one. My father died. I rode his bike.

My legs - never my most becoming feature - didn't quite reach the pedals and to ride it I had to roll from side to side. The kids made an awful jeer of me.

"Eh ... stand on tuppence to look over thruppence."


"Little oul' fellah cut short."

My legs were too short for the pedals and my mind was too slow for the speed of the orders in the timber yard where I worked.

"Docket this Coddles load waiting checker's standing out in the rain get the finger out me lorry's tickin' over I need the docket now here's the mill return twenty twelves nine by four two deeps one flat your father would've done it in his head hurry it up hurry it up Jasus this half eegit's not half the man his father was."

iii Be kind to the denizens of the swamp

The other clerks tended to pick on me.

"Have a nice weekend then? With the birds again?"

I explained that that was how I spent my Sunday. Up to the Market after Mass and stayed there till the pub opened. Then the dealers left and I went home to my books.

They made a lot of play about me having a "Bird". I'm no fool. I knew what they were at. It pleased me to indulge them.

"Ever had a bird, Coddles? Of your own?"


"What was it like?"

"Trembled in my hand."

A nudge. A smirk.

"Then died."

A snort of laughter.

"I set it in a matchbox out to sea."

All the time they'd make the same jokes, ask the same questions.

"How's the pains in your shoulders?"

"Still there."

"It's that bloody bike. Why don't you buy yourself a little model."

"That bike was belong to my father."

And that was the end of that.

I went for a job as commercial rep for the company. I was the best qualified but they turned me down because of my height. O'Toole the manager even allowed himself a little joke as he cracked the knuckles of his big, raw-boned, hairy-backed hands.

"You're ideal, Coddles," he said, except in one small detail. As you are aware appearance is of the utmost importance..."

I knew what was coming.

"So you will appreciate," he chuckled, "that in this vital qualification you fall short, if I may allow myself a little joke."

Gobshite. The pains in my shoulders got worse.

I never married. It was shortly after being turned down for the job that the Helen episode occurred I believe. And it was Nolan, the one who eventually got the traveller's job, who set me up.

A new assistant orders clerk, by name Helen Moraghan, had been engaged at Head Office and I grew to know her - purely because we phoned one another all the time on business.

Nolan told me that Helen was about my size. I'd never met her. She was just a pleasant daily voice on the order phone.

"Knee high to a gin bottle," said Nolan, "and she seems struck on you."

The next time she rang down from the office with a request, I remember, for seven by one tongued and grooved I took my courage in both my hands.

"Oh by the way, Helen. That is, would you be interested in coming, that is if you've nothing better to do. I mean I thought you and me like might, if you're free ... If you'd like to that is."

Yes, she said, she'd like that. Yes, she said, she'd see me Friday night. The Metropole. Half seven.

It was as easy as that.

Dearest, dearest Helen. Half past seven, outside the Metropole.

A wet Friday evening. Newsboys still crying out the evening papers.

"Herald A' Mail, Herald A' Mail"

The Metropole clock struck the half hour.

I looked in front of me. Long legs. Long long legs leading all the way up past a long slender figure. Somewhere up there a heart-shaped face framed in black curls glittering with the diamonds of rain and topped with a jellybag hat smiled down on me.



I nodded, dumb with misery and cold with rain.

She was tall. Very tall. I suppose it was funny, if you had Nolan's sense of humour. She was kind. Very kind. She was also very embarrassed particularly when at the pictures I had to sit on a tipped-up seat to see over the head of the person in front.

And no, she said, no she didn't feel like having a Knickerbocker Glory in the Palm Grove.

I didn't ask her out again. Nor did we continue our chatty little conversations. She was transferred to O'Toole's personal office. I neither saw nor heard of her again. And the pains were very severe.

"Docket this Coddles load waiting checker's standing out in the rain get the finger out me lorry's tickin' over I need the docket now wrong timber T and G we sent him P and J they'll fall through the fucken' floor if they use that hurry it up Jasus this half eegit's not half the man his father was ..."

iv Where the weather is cold and damp

Eventually I was kicked out. In 1945 during the builders' strike. The clerical staff were not members of the Union. I was afraid of losing my job. But I was afraid of the pickets as well. The first day I reported for duty I passed them. We all did. No business that day, all day. Me, I just sat on my backside and read Birds of the World (by Oliver Austin, published by Golden Press, New York and, alas, now long out of print) till it was time to go home. Then ...

Then I found they had slashed the tyres of my father's bike.

"Yiz shower of c***s."

"Listen son, that's just a warning."

I went for the nearest one.

"Yiz fucken scum of the fucken earth, My da ..."

He held me at arm's length.

"Your father got his head broke open by a bobby's baton in nineteen twelve. Raphael Coddles was no scab."

I went home. Took to me bed. I didn't get up for a week. The strike continued for six. The letter from O'Toole put the tin hat on my career in the world of the builders' providers.

"Blah, blah, blah," he wrote, "blah blah blah, your contract is considered to be terminated."

I got up to read the letter.

I went back to bed when I had finished it.

I went to bed a young man. I rose from it an old man. An old man in an older city. My love contracted to a small radius, I think is the word. I didn't have much time for people. Only for birds. And I was never short of their company.

In this city there are plenty of birds. The gush and gobble of a thousand starlings in O'Connell Street, eternally scolding, eternally noisy. Birds in the Phoenix Park: Great Crested Grebes, Mallards, Moorhens, Collared Doves, Pied Wagtails, Song Thrushes, Starlings, Sedge Warblers, Tits (Long- Tailed, Coal, Blue and Great), Jackdaws, Magpies, Linnets, Yellowhammers, and the little Wren known in Gaelic as dreolin or in Latin troglodytes troglodytes.

Oftimes I did think of myself as troglodytes troglodytes.

A poet or some such irresponsible person once wrote:

"A little robin in cage

Sets all heaven in a rage"

Any bird in any cage certainly set me in a rage. Anywhere there were birds you could expect to find me. Anywhere there were birds in cages you could expect trouble. Sooner or later.

Birds in cages.

(For the record: my father wrung the neck of a cock linnet. I gave him a sailor's burial. I set him in a matchbox out to sea.)

Timber, I scavenged off the building sites, and God knows there were enough of them. Whole sections of our fair city were being torn down in jig time and there was always timber: tongued and grooved, planed and joined, planed all over, oh my early training came in handy and no mistake. Also nails to be knocked off. A Stanley knife. Even a small handsaw. Carefully I made it. Some two foot six by two foot six by four foot with two large leather straps which fitted over my shoulders. In it were bored a series of holes approximately one inch in diameter.

I had it figured out. The Bird Market held caged birds. To open the cages was out of the question.

Wall high. Seraphim low.

Besides, there were too many people about who might legitimately be expected to object. There was no way to get them except by buying them. Money: that was what was needed. In the final analysis. Money.

The dole wouldn't buy much. Not at current prices. And if I bought a single bird, me da'd probably rise from the grave and wring its neck.

Near the market was a pet shop. The sign said: Aenghus MacGiollaphib. For a long time I thought his name was Anus. That's how he pronounced it. It tickled me to think of so aptly named an asshole. It wasn't until I saw it gilt lettered above his shop. Aenghus MacGiollaphib. Pets. Somebody had spray-painted on underneath: farm fresh, nutritious and delicious.

The owner didn't like me.

"It's you again."

"I'm a cash customer."

He peered through the shutters of the door.

"Piss off, I'm closed."

I showed him the money.

"Look, I've got money. Five shillings."

"What do you want, ya little git?"

"I'd like some millet, and a cuttlefish bone."

He drew the bolt and opened the door a crack.

"Now stay right there. And no monkey business, d'yeh hear? I've got to go into the store for it."

He went into the store. His big mistake was leaving his keys on the counter. I locked him in the store room.

Then I opened the cash register.

He started to bang the door.

"Hey what are you up to? Silly bugger. I'll have the law on you. Let me out, now, you oul' eegit."

I scooped the jackpot that morning. Twenty-five quid and change. I still had twenty minutes. Five minutes to get to the market and fifteen minutes to make my purchases.

"The cock linnets is five bob a skull."

"How many yeh got?"


"I'll take the lot."

Linnets, bull finches, chaffinches, even a fucken' macaw I bought.

"How much is the canary?"

"Thirty bob and that includes the cage."

"Gimme the bird, and you can stick your cage."

In they went. Into the box. They thought I was mad. In the Market. I left them gobsmacked with their backs to the empty cages.

The box was heavy and throbbing with fluttery life as I trudged down the Quays towards the Fifteen Acres. The edges of the timber lay heavy and sore on shoulder and back. I knew how the late Jesus Christ must have felt going up that hill.

Beside the Wellington Monument I stopped. I placed the box carefully on the ground. It was a grand day. A pet day. I took me time. The kids gathered around. To jeer. I couldn't give a shit for their jibes.

"Eh Mister, what's in the box?"

"Will yeh open the box or take the money?"

"Were you always that small or did your mother leave you out in the rain all night?"

Suddenly I whipped out the Stanley knife. Be Jasus that scattered them. They stood in a wide and cautious circle around me.

Out on the road I could see a police car with its blue light flashing. Two large Civic Guards got out of the car and began to run towards me. I waited until they were yards from me then I slit the leather fastening with me knife and tipped open the lid.

The birds volcanoed upwards, shit and feathers flying far and wide. It was a magnificent sight. The kids fell back. Even the Guards stood awed.

When the birds had found their freedom the Guards escorted me to the car. I have never known such peace in my life.

v Now, you may think this is the end

My name is Seraphim Coddles and I am in prison. I sit on my bunk-bed with my legs dangling over the side. I have just come back from the doctor. The warder comes in. Without knocking.

"What did he say? The doctor."

"He said there's nothing organically wrong. Gave me a bottle to rub in. He'll see me again in a week's time if the pains don't go."

The warder looks at me.

"Are you worried?"

"Wouldn't you be?"

The warder suddenly starts to chuckle to himself.

"God and mighty," says the culchie bastard, "The only ting I can tink of is dat you're sprouting a pair of wings. Hah."

He pounds the edge of the bunk with his fist in glee. His big raw-boned, hairy-backed fist. I bounce up and down.

"Dat's a good one, eh? A bloody good one. A bloody pair of wings. I must tell the lads."

He leaves laughing.

I worry for him.

I think he should be locked up.

Possibly in a cage.

If this strikes you, as it struck me, as madness ...

vi Well it is 8


A very large number of high-quality entries meant that the judges - novelists Margaret Atwood and Will Self, Liz Calder, publishing director of Bloomsbury, and Jan Dalley, literary editor of this paper - had a challenging job to make up their minds. Our thanks go to all the entrants. Overleaf, Liz Calder reflects on the difficult process of selecting new fiction.

Our winner, Seraphim Preening, is original, well-constructed and plotted, and has a distinctive voice. Each judge also had other favourites, and we chose four more entries for special mention:

Beacons by Charles Lambert: a well-made story evoking fierce emotions underlying domestic life.

Memoirs of a White Slave by Aleks Lech: tense, evocative, highly erotic and very original.

Welcome Back by Patrick Cunningham: a wild and funny fantasy about the reincarnation of Clement Atlee.

Slugs and Snails by Ros Barber: a powerful tale of incest, abuse and ultimate survival.

Bloomsbury and the Independent on Sunday will be producing an anthology of the 13 best stories; the successful writers have been notified separately. Ios 1 is the first in an annual series featuring the best in new fiction writing. It will be published in September by Bloomsbury, and available by direct order from these pages.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea