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THE IRON BIRD

An Extract

CHAPTER ONE

Let me make one thing clear at the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.

Of course, the species has more than one name. Indeed, I remember there used to be a specimen in another institution that insisted on being introduced as a Nubian vulture. But I’m afraid one is reluctant to regard oneself as Nubian. Goodness me, no.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with the adjective ‘lappet-faced’. There is not.

Oh, I suppose the term might not conjure up quite the most attractive image, but be under no illusions: it’s a compliment compared to some of the other names I’ve been called over the years. Dear me, some creatures can be so cruel.

You see, I have a title: I am the Rt Hon Bel-imperia Pinch. And so I should therefore be addressed as ‘Mistress Pinch’, or ‘ma’am’, but I regret to say… I regret to say that I am sometimes called the most terrible things. Forgive me if I repeat some of the more offensive examples: a cold-blooded carnivore that dines on the dead, a gimleteyed harpy, That Bloody Bird, a wicked witch, a milk-snatcher…

Oh, and Attila the Hen. Let’s not forget that one!

Naturally, one tries to push such spiteful comments out of one’s mind. One carries on. One has to; after all, there are more important things in life than being liked. Yet even so, it still hurts to be dismissed as a contemptible creature – of course it does; it hurts just the same. In fact, if I might share a little secret, sometimes it reduces me to tears.

Does that come as a surprise? The confession that I sometimes weep? Yes, I can see that it does. What was that? What was that? One is a little hard of hearing. Do speak up.

You’d been expecting a more resilient specimen? You’d assumed that I was a tough old bird?

I see. Well, I shall take that as a compliment, dear. I used to be tough. Goodness me, I used to be as tough as… Not old boots. One hesitates to compare oneself to an old pair of gardening boots. Let me choose another noun: I used to be as tough as iron. But I must admit the truth of the matter is that the onslaught of old age has rendered
me rather frail.

What was that? I didn’t catch the question. Don’t sit there stuttering. Come on, dear, this institution belongs to the brave not the chicken-hearted. Spit it out.

How old am I?

I see it is no longer considered impolite to ask a bird her age. Next question, please. No, not you – you’ve had your turn. The creature sitting on that bench over there. The one scratching its flea-bitten coat. That’s right. You.

What’s the average lifespan of the lappet-faced vulture?

Why, what an erudite question! We seem to have a would-be ornithologist in the audience tonight. Albeit one with fleas.

The average lifespan of a lappet-faced vulture? Oh, at least 80 or 90 I should imagine. No one can be sure. But I am afraid there’s no escaping the fact that this old carpetbag of feathers and bones is falling apart at the seams. Sometimes I am too tired to unfurl these tattered wings. Sometimes I forget… I forget things, dear.

(Chapter continues)