Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?
It’s not the teapot it once was. White china, with a pretty floral pattern in relief, it’s longer than it is wide and has a certain faded elegance. But it’s cracked and chipped all over, and there are dark patches where it's been mended and the glue has seeped out. It’s a teapot that has been used, and dropped. But somebody has bothered to mend it. Crucially, it’s a terrible pourer, so often the downfall of a promising pot. But we don’t know that yet.
For the moment it sits on the kitchen table of my mother’s last house, the crest of a wave in a surging sea of teapots. My mother was a keeper of stuff, a collector of objects. This made for a childhood founded on curiosity. What’s this? And why is it? And let’s just keep it so we can look at it. My father too was a collector, a lister, a scribbler of things in margins. Miniature glass hats, wine labels, a notebook with details of every recital and concerto he ever played.
I’m mostly grateful for these habits. Not only have I inherited them, but they also allow for occasional moments of heady nostalgia, afternoons spent knee-deep in old photographs and postcards. But right now, as we wade our way through the detritus of a life of accumulation, they feel like a monumental pain in the arse. The teapots are ranged before us on the kitchen table. There are also three dozen china toast racks, twenty-one pairs of glasses, nine keys, half a dozen unfinished Post-It pads with things like ‘call plumber’ scrawled on them, and a small colourful plastic bird that makes an irritating tweeting sound when it rocks, which it does often.
Our friend Annie, also latterly my mother’s friend, surveys the teapots. She’s devastated but efficient.
‘What are we doing with these?’ she says.
‘Dunno. Know any china toast rack collectors?’
‘Why would anyone have so many?’
‘Well, since you ask, it was an accidental collection.’
‘Both mum and dad thought the other one collected china toast racks. Neither of them did. After two or three birthdays it turned out they both did after all.’
Annie contemplates them in silence. This is her business, it’s what she does. She’s not just a house clearer – she’s brilliant at helping people decide what to get rid of. But I can tell she’s less than chuffed at the prospect of the toast racks.
‘Well I can try them at car boots, but don’t expect anything. What about the teapots?'
‘How many does one need? Get rid.’
‘Oxfam. I’ll just check inside them.’ I give her a look, but Annie doesn’t quail easily, which is one of the reasons she was friends with my mother. ‘People put things in teapots.’
Indeed they do.
There are two pieces of paper, folded together. On the first the handwriting is scrawly and unfamiliar.
With warmest thanks and congratulations on a wonderful performance.
The second, smaller, flimsier, has my mother’s handwriting on it.
Teapot given to M by R Vaughan Williams. KEEP!
I turn to Annie.
‘I think we might keep this one.’
And my head brims full with the sound of my father’s violin, silent these 25 years, the silver chain of sound soaring upwards, higher and higher and higher, into the boundless sky, just as RVW intended.
It starts, like so many things in my life, with a humiliating and idiotic mistake.
Chris is an affable chap, thin, with bright eyes and a ruddy complexion. Overtly outdoorsy in a way that I will never be. He moved down from the North East to the Isle of Wight some years ago. He’s doing some work on the walls. We’re holidaying.
Tea is being had.
The weather is glorious in the way only a spring day on the coast can be. Bright and sunny, plenty warm enough to spend the whole day outside in perfect comfort, but with a hint of freshness from the breeze coming in from the coast half a mile away. Being British, we’re making polite conversation. Being British, we start with the weather.
‘Glorious today,’ I say.
He appears happy to leave it at that. I don’t feel I’ve quite done my bit.
‘Lovely yesterday, too.’
Progress, of sorts.
‘We've been pretty lucky so far this year.’
I am so bad at this.
‘Were you working yesterday?’
‘No, actually...I managed to get up on the downs for some birding.’
This is great. Music to my ears. I’m in a conversation with a workman and I have an opportunity to talk about something I know a little about. This is rare. People who can fix things and are ‘good about the house’ live on an exalted plane as far as I’m concerned. I look up to them, in awe of their mysterious talents, and paralysed with fear that the merest fragment of conversation will lay bare my utter ignorance. Chris, as a professional thing-fixer and good-about-the-houser, is not far from being a god in my eyes. So any way in is welcome. I pounce on it.
‘Oh, are you a birdwatcher?’
‘Oh aye. The Isle of Wight’s grand for birding.’
‘I can imagine.’ There’s a slight lull as I weigh up whether to declare an interest. Oh go on then. ‘I was a huge twitcher when I was young. Not so much any more, but I still love it.’
Lies. Damned lies. There are two of them in those short sentences. Anything to stay in the conversation.
He's noncommittal but polite.
‘So what kind of birds do you get on the Isle of Wight? Lots of seabirds, I’d imagine.’
I’m pretty sure that the words ‘Lev, it’s an island, you fatuous git. Of course there are seabirds’ tremble on Chris’s lips, but he’s good enough to suppress them.
‘Yes, it’s excellent for that. And you get lots of migrants at the right time of year. But there’s lots of different habitats, see. Estuaries, cliffs, mudflats, downs, woods, farmland. Loads of variety.’
Here it comes.
‘I saw a nightingale the other day, my first one on the island. They’re pretty rare here.’
I could say nothing. I could make a polite enquiry about the nightingale’s location. I could change the subject, talk about football, art, go-karting, nuclear physics. Anything. But I have to show that I know, that I can keep up.
‘Oh, I saw one too.’
Chris is surprised, politely dubious.
‘Oh yes. It was up—‘
It hits me.
Not a nightingale. Of course not a nightingale. Never a nightingale.
Small brown bird, yes. Nondescript plumage, certainly, in its own way. Known for its song, absolutely. But it was never a nightingale.
Slivers of old knowledge begin to seep back.
You don’t see nightingales. Or at least you have to work quite hard to. They’re terribly shy, liking nothing more than to hide in the heart of a bush and pour out their liquid song, merely for the fun of seeing hapless birders in a state of delirium.
What they don’t do is go up to the top of the downs where there isn’t a tree or a bush or a hedge in sight, and, to paraphrase the poet Shelley, pour from their full heart profuse strains of unpremeditated art while higher still and higher springing from the earth like a cloud of fire.
Nightingales don’t do that. Skylarks do.
Chris is waiting for me to finish my sentence.
All I need to do is this:
‘Gah, silly me, not a nightingale. A skylark. I saw a skylark. Ha ha ha! What a mirthful moment has unintentionally resulted from my idiocy! Do tell me, an ignoramus, about the nightingale.’
But I can’t do that. I can’t admit I'm wrong. I’m a conductor, you see. We don't do ‘wrong’.
So I leave it there, like a turd in the middle of the carpet, and ignore it, even though I know I’m an idiot, Chris knows I’m an idiot, the whole world knows I’m an idiot.
I blather on for a few seconds, pretending I can't remember the name of the place I saw this mythical nightingale, and the conversation staggers on.
Chris finishes his tea and gets back to work, pausing at the door for a second. He seems on the verge of saying something, but he’s an affable chap, as I may have mentioned. The moment passes and we each get on with our day.
After Chris has left I sit on the terrace looking out across the countryside and beyond it to the sea. A mild wind ruffles the leaves. Behind me, over the road and above, large black birds wheel and turn, cawing and grawing, communicating in a language that to my ears is harsh and grating, but to them is conversation.
Carrion crows. Or are they rooks?
I used to know this stuff. I really did. Well, some of it anyway.
I turn to look over the road. This part of the island is known as The Undercliff, and the land banks sharply up behind the house.
More slivers of knowledge return. The birds are circling round a group of tall trees. That’s a rookery, isn’t it? So they must be rooks, not carrion crows, although I’m still none the wiser about how they’re otherwise distinguishable from each other.
The birds (definitely rooks, I’m almost certain) are acrobatic, wheeling, tumbling, then soaring on an up-draught, describing a large circle before coming in to land, branches trampolining under their weight.
A movement to my left distracts me. A bird, flying across the road and landing on the wall in front of me, its direct flight a rebuke to the rooks’ meandering. It’s purposeful, a piebald flash with a green-purple gloss in its tail. It’s in pursuit of something, or maybe just late for a very important date.
My mother’s voice is in my head, the words on my lips.
‘Hello Mr. Magpie, how’s your lady wife?’ Then spit three times.
Not actual spitting, you understand. More of a quick ‘ttht’. A habit inherited from my mum, the vestige of an old country superstition. And absolutely obligatory when you see a magpie. Magpies are harbingers of death. Good job I said hello to it, then. That’ll stop it, the murdering bastard. I dimly recall that a group of crows is called a ‘murder’, and while these thoughts are wafting through my head I realise that these aren’t the only birds around.
Suddenly I see nothing but birds that I only partly recognise.
A bunch of sparrows jazzing around in the tree just over the wall. Definitely sparrows. But which kind? House? Tree? Hedge? They’re in a tree. Must be tree sparrows, then. Or hedge. Is that the one also called a dunnock?
I don’t know. I can’t remember. And for some reason this upsets me. Why? It doesn’t bother me that I don’t know the name of the tree. I don’t do trees. Never have done. My dad did, even planting some in the field next to our house a couple of years before he died. They’ll be all grown up by now. I picture them as they were, whippy saplings kept on the straight and narrow with restraining girdles to make sure they grow straight, like the braces on my teeth all those years ago. My son will be at that age soon. I hope he doesn’t have to go through what I did, teeth-wise.
I replay the earlier conversation in my head, the habitual practice of the paranoid. How could I not know the difference between a nightingale and a skylark? They’re two completely different birds. I’d heard my dad play The Lark Ascending, what, half a dozen times? For crying out loud, I OWN VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’S TEAPOT.
I try to dismiss it with a shake of the head, and am glad to be distracted. Oliver is approaching across the terrace, a cricket ball in his right hand.
‘Catching practice, dad?’
Catching practice it is. Sod birds. They’re not for me.