The Environmental Problem

A short story by Terrence Ortong

Image by sandid from Pixabay

I was woken up at about 6.30 in the morning by a hammering on my door.

“Come in,” I shouted down to Alun, “put the kettle on, I’m just getting dressed.”

“They’ve dumped a fridge on the island,” he said by way of greeting.

“Who have?” I asked.

“How should I know, whoever did it did it, that’s who. I went to meet the boatman this morning and he say’s he’s just seen a fridge dumped on the hill by East Bay.”

Let’s take a look I said. We walked down to East Bay where sure enough, at the top of the hill, was a refrigerator. We climbed up to it. It had a prime view of the bay below and the sea laid out beyond in all its infinite-seeming splendour. It was just a normal household fridge, without a door and slightly rusted but otherwise complete.

“How on Earth did anyone get it up here?” I wondered.

“Never mind that Jed, how are we going to get it back down?” We tried lifting it, but it was too heavy for us.

“I don’t know whether to curse them for dumping it here or applaud them, it’s quite an achievement to have got it here, it must have taken planning, organisation, a team of lifters, a boat, and several hours hard labour. Who’d do something like that?”

Alun seemed less interested in the miracle of the fridge than the reality of it. “Bloody nuisance is what it is, they dump them anywhere and they rust away, leaking dangerous substances. Pollution that’s what it is. We’ll have to phone the council, get them to take it away.”

We agreed to contact the council and I took out my mobile phone to take a photo and GPS coordinates of the offending item. As I took the snap, however, we both noticed something move within the fridge.

“My god Jed, it’s a bird.”

So it was, a perfectly camouflaged bird, about a foot wide, white with flecks of brown and green that perfectly matched the flecks of rust and mould within the fridge itself.

“I’ve never see a bird like it Jed,” and neither had I. I tried looking it up on the internet when I got home, but it didn’t seem to fit any of the descriptions or pictures.

Alun sent the photo to the Council asking them to send a boat and some men to move the fridge. “Two year’s time they’ll probably send someone out, Jed,” he said. He could be somewhat cynical about the efficiency of the mainland council.

Alun’s prediction was made to look foolish however. The next day we walked to East Bay to check whether anything had been done about the fridge, or whether more fridges had been added in the meantime. What we saw was neither an addition nor subtraction in fridge numbers, but a gathering of some 30 or 40 strangers on the hillside around the fridge.

“My god Jed,” Alun said, “you’d think they’d never seen a fridge before.”

He was right, the entire group of men, and they were all men, were holding cameras and busily taking photos of the fridge. It was like a scene from a movie, but only if you can think of a movie where a large group of middle aged, bearded and chubby men photograph fridges on remote hillsides and no such movie has reached our island.

We walked over to them. “What’s going on,” I asked a man at the back of the crowd.

“It’s a nesting pair,” he said. I looked at the fridge in some confusion.

“It’s a new species,” he said in further explanation. They’re calling the refrigerator bird. Somebody tipped the council off yesterday.”

“That was us,” I said.

“Ah, well it turns out it’s a nesting pair. As it’s unique it’s been fast-tracked up the endangered species list. They’ll probably turn the entire island into a protected area, seal off the land for miles around. That’s why we all came here today, by tomorrow the council will have issued its Environment Protection Special Order.”

“I see,” I said, “so you’re all …” I struggled to find the right word.

“Twitchers,” he said.

Alun interrupted. “If the Council issues an Environment Protection Special Order, does that mean they’ll move the fridge away especially quickly?”

“Move a breeding site? You must be joking, that fridge will be here ‘til the end of time.”

The twitcher’s prediction proved correct. When we returned the next day the entire bay and surrounding hillside was sealed off by yellow tape, with signs saying ‘protected area’ and ‘Environment Protection Special Order’.

We ducked underneath the cordoning tape and had a look. The two birds were still there, but sitting on eggs, fresh eggs, not ones that had been left in the fridge when it was abandoned.

As a result of the eggs the bird protection wing of government went into overdrive and a fleet of boats arrived the next day, carrying new fridges which were scattered along the bay, so that the eggs, when they hatched, would have homes for the next generation.

The eggs hatched into eight healthy chicks and the next year there were no less than five of the fridges occupied with breeding pairs.

“I don’t like it Jed, within a few years this island will be overrun with fridges, it already looks a dump. We might as well be living on the Isle of Wight.”

The year passed. As the next breeding season approached the council arrived with yet more fridges, dozens of them, scattered all across the bay, which was rechristened Refrigerator Bay in honour of the birds, not the fridges.

One morning I was woken early by a hammering on the door. Strange, I thought, it was before 6.00 a.m. so even the boatman hadn’t been yet, who could it be that early? Well, it was Alun obviously, he was the only person on the island. “I’ve been watching the birds Jed,” he said, “monitoring their feeding habits.”

Great, I thought, he had woken me up at 6.00 a.m. to tell me that the early bird catches the worm, or something similar.

But I was wrong.

“They don’t eat here Jed,” he said, they eat on the Other Island.”

“Really?”

Yes, I’ve been watching for months, they only return here to sleep, they fly over to Other Island, catch food, and bring it back here to the fridges.”

So why if you’ve been following them for months do you decide to wake me at six to tell me, I thought but didn’t say. Instead I let him persuade me to support his scheme. We walked down to greet the boatman and persuaded him to help us steal one of the fridges.

“If we can prove that the birds are happy to breed on Other Island,” he explained to the boatman, “then it should stop us being completely overrun by fridges.”

It was a simple enough plan, but hard to execute. We picked up the nearest fridge, but it was still a struggle with just the three of us to lug it over a mile over uneven terrain, back to the boatman’s boat. Once at Other Island we dumped it not far from the shore, too exhausted to carry it further, and crossed our fingers.

That season thirty-nine pairs of refrigerator birds nested in our fridges, but three separate pairs shared the one fridge on Other Island, even though there were plenty of empty fridges on our island.

The council took notice and the following year dozens more fridges were delivered to both islands. Alun and I were on tenderhooks for what seemed the whole year, and would go and check the fridges every day, sometimes twice a day.

One morning I was woken at 6.30 by a hammering on my door.

“I’ve just seen the boatman, Jed,” Alun said, when I got downstairs, “every single fridge on Other Island is full to bursting with nesting birds, and there’s not a single one on our island. We’ll be completely free of the fridges once and for all.”

Alun was right about the nesting patterns of the birds. With fridges in place on Other Island the birds had no need to visit us at all. To this day not one single Refrigerator Bird has been seen on this island.

We still keep the fridges though, just in case. They lie there, spread unevenly across Refrigerator Bay, glistening in the sunlight. Every so often we walk over and check them for stray pairs, even an individual bird, but they have left us forever, never to return. We are left with just the fridges for company.

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