He said I was the only person who’d asked about his eye. Tonight anyway.
‘One minute I had two eyes. And the next, one,’ he said, adjusting his black leatherette eye-patch. ‘Too near her young ‘uns. You know how protective the females are.’
‘Eagle Owl in Finland?’ I asked.
‘Great Grey in Norway.’
‘Still, you’ve won a prize.’
‘Ha, the best photograph by a one-eyed man,’ he said.
I laughed on the assumption it was meant to be funny.
I’d blagged my way into the National Wildlife Photography Awards with my girlfriend as my guest. Said I was the arts critic for the Transport and General Workers Union. I’m not sure my own wildlife photography will ever make it here – Adder on a Checkered Picnic Blanket, Blackbird at Night, Brown Rat with Cold Chips had not troubled the judges this year. Or any previous year. My girlfriend called me useless and said I needed a portfolio with more than three snaps.
‘What actually happened to your eye?’ I asked. ‘After, I mean. Did the owl eat it or did it fall blinking to the frozen tundra below?’
He raised his remaining eye to the ceiling, made his excuses and hit the buffet.
I spent the rest of the evening knocking back the free Chablis and watching my girlfriend flirting with some upper class Charlie who laughed out loud every time she used the word ‘snaps’.
‘They’re images, darling. Images!’ he guffawed, spitting dollops of canapé from his machine gun mouth. She always did like toffs. Or ‘money’ as she called them.
When the gongs were handed out, the prize-winning photograph of the Great Grey Owl with the photographer’s eye in its beak received the most applause. And rightly so. It was a hell of an image and it was taken by a guy with one eye. Technically two, but only one of them still in his own head.
I’d never seen anyone look so miserable collecting an award. And some award it was – a golden figurine of a bird, but not any bird, a Hoopoe – a rare magical bird with the crest of a cockatoo and a beak like a stiletto.
As we were leaving he came over, carrying his trophy.
‘Listen,’ he slurred, ‘the owl never swallowed my eye. It took it as a trophy. It’s still working. It sends my brain blurred images. At first of the nest and the owlets and now of all kinds of things – traffic accidents, assassinations, people playing scrabble.’
‘How do you explain that?’ I asked.
‘No idea, but wait,’ he said, clamping his hand overly dramatically to his forehead. ‘My lost eye can now see your girlfriend. She’s in the back seat of an over-polished luxury car with some chinless wonder. And, on the bonnet, I can see the Spirit of Ecstasy!’
I was still deciding whether he was taking the piss when he pushed the Golden Hoopoe into my hand and hiccoughed his way towards the door.
I spent the walk home with the Hoopoe inside my jacket, its protruding metal beak occasionally painfully puncturing my right nipple. It gave me time to compose what I’d say to my girlfriend if I ever saw her again. ‘Yeah, the statuette is beautiful, isn’t it? Worth a bit, I’d say. A big surprise to me too. Shame you’d left by then. Missed me collecting the Special Newcomer Award. Golden Hoopoe for Brown Rat with Cold Chips.’
John Holland is a multi-prize winning short fiction author from Gloucestershire in the UK. He started writing stories at the age of 59 and, ten years on, is now published widely online and in anthologies. John also runs the twice-yearly event Stroud Short Stories. His website is johnhollandwrites.com He’s on Twitter too – @JohnHol88897218