The disappearance of 7-year-old Billie Fleming from Selmarshe village remains unsolved. She vanished in January 1974 from a group of children, including her twin Ned, out looking for starling murmurations in the marshes.

It was a complicated case with potential suspects amongst the numerous visitors to Selmarshe during murmuration season. Police also investigated a local group rumoured to practice witchcraft in the marshes. They denied involvement. No evidence was found. The Fleming family still believe they will be reunited one day.

{Extract, Britain’s Missing Children, Telegraph Magazine, 07.03.1979}

black and white photo of Maxine Peake looking at her hands


I’m laid out, cold. Morticia, the sweetie, fashioned my ‘hip-at-75’ Mirren bob into a Thatcher bouffant. No hard feelings though, I rarely received such loving care and attention when I was alive. Besides, open caskets are tacky, and I’ll be dust before the weekend. My real concern is what the group will do without me keeping a lid on things.

Ned, I watched you over the years. The extraordinary pain of losing Billie. Your lifelong friendship with my son Quinn. You left the village when you were a teenager. Now you’re returning to revisit your childhood obsession, the ever-mesmerising murmurations in the marshes. This year you’ll capture them in black and white for your latest commission. And you’ll come to bid me goodbye.

Some of us didn’t like outsiders moving in. Your family felt unwelcome when they arrived with their two newborns. With the nightmare of what happened to Billie, things spiralled. There was talk of witchcraft, accusations we’d put a curse on your family. The Wicker Man didn’t help. Are we pagans? We’re spiritual people, interconnected with the earth. We observe nature’s cycles with ritual. We have jobs and bills like anyone. But, the dark cloud of abuse, occultism and violence in our past lingers. I hope I excised all the bad seeds.

Harlow, the village shopkeeper waves as you drive in. He’s unloading winter cabbages and shiny red onions, sleeves rolled up in the frosty air. It spooks you. He’s still alive? He was lined and croaky thirty-odd years ago. You sense he’s expecting you. You brush the thought away. Your therapist said returning could reactivate trauma. You’ve had a lot on, a litany of investigations to find the cause of the sickness in your body. A tough diagnosis.

Your bashed-up Saab crunches the gravel driveway of the no-frills cottage in the grounds of a run-down house. You stumble out, picking up your camera. Itching to see the village before dark, you check in with a keycode and glance inside. Heading out, you see a familiar but hard-to-place woman between partly-opened curtains in an upstairs window. You have your cane, it steadies you. You look again, the curtains are closed. You walk past the undertakers. Were I alive I would almost hear your laboured breath through the pebble-dash wall. Your leg gives way.

We’re spiritual people, interconnected with the earth. We observe nature’s cycles with ritual.

Sunset leaves a pastel glow as the dark waits. You sense gritty footsteps behind. You turn, the woman from the window slips into a passage. Enough. You go back, exhausted. You check emails, eat leftover curry from last night’s takeaway with the best part of a bottle of Chablis. Your sleep is strange and ruptured.

Early morning, creased and knotty, you find a coffee pot, sit at the kitchen table, inhale as it brews. The first hit gives you what you need, but you drain it to the last grounds. There’s no window blind, it’s blue-black outside. Today is a big deal, revisiting where you and Billie played and looked for birds.

You flinch at a bang at the door. You push yourself up from the chair.

No-one there.

A murmur, faint, distant, but getting closer. Out of the inching dawn a young girl on a Raleigh Chopper, silver with red décor.

Yours was black with white. Picked out together from the catalogue for your eighth birthdays. You rode yours once. Billie never got the chance.

She pulls a skid, stops, smiles and looks you right in the eye.

Then she’s gone.

You follow barefoot onto the gravel. Walking is a trial, you remember too late. Sharp stones cut your knees through flimsy pyjamas. You look up from the heap of you. You drag yourself inside. Quinn’s good in a crisis, but you can’t find your phone. Or your laptop. Bewildered, you sit on the bed and soothe with sketches and pencil notes. You drift into sleep until afternoon.

Keep going.

They say this year’s murmurations are epic. You park at the far side of the lake, a lesser-known spot. Wet ground, there’s a bank between boulders. As the sun sets, high cloud brings shocks of deep orange, violet and yellow. You hear voices, the rise and fall of song, incantations. Beyond a wall of wintered trees, they form a circle, still chanting. You panic, you knew the rumours. You stand from your stone cocoon and turn to escape. They see you and follow. You try running, tripping on lumpy grass. They advance and surround you, your cane sticks in claggy mud and you fall to the ground.

The birds are here, rising and plunging. Beautiful black plumes, tornadoes, teardrops surge across the sky, and drop quietly dove-shaped low on the water before they come to roost.

Black and white photo of a hand stretched out in front of a tree


Artist profile:

Ned Fleming: Photographer.

Exhibition: ‘Murmur’.

Belmont Gallery, SW1.

“My murmuration fascination began in childhood. Their beauty doesn’t tell the whole story. How they work isn’t fully understood by scientists but I know that murmurations helped me at a time of deep emotional pain. When we were seven my twin sister Billie died from a brain tumour. It felt like part of me had gone too. We grew up around murmurations, but they became an outlet for my grief. For a time I denied her death, creating stories, fake newspaper and police reports that she was missing, in hope I would see her again. Now, murmurations are my symbol for the healing power of creativity and nature and the idea that not everything can be explained”.

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