This story is about the closing in of winter darkness and what the birds have to say.
The rook was stalking me. She was there when I got off the bus and she walked, on those black, twig legs, after me as I headed for the underpass. I was conscious of her there all the way along the path. I struggle with the moment where I have to go underground. I stopped for a minute and she drew level with me. Her eyes were little jet orbs with a fleck of light in each one.
‘You’re alright. Go on.’
The voice was the same one it’s always been from rooks – bossy but re-assuring. I answered in my head.
‘It’s a bit hard at the moment, that’s all.’
‘I know. But go on. Go on.’
She looked away from me then and started to toy with an empty tobacco pouch that was lying on the wet ground. I walked through the underpass.
They can be silent for years, birds, and then suddenly they’re all yabbering at me – advice at every turn. This time it started with a gull that ordered me to lift my head as I was walking down Southover Street. Gulls are all about orders – with none of the wisdom and re-assurance of the corvids – just demands. But sometimes we need to meet a demand, for our own good. Out of his loud, trumpet call, head thrown back, he sent me,
‘Head up. Now .’
I ignored him because my head was just too heavy. I was startled by his sudden descent onto the roof of a red Nissan beside me – a foot from my shoulder. Then, yellow-eyed and ostensibly silent, he ranted at me.
‘You lift up your head and you walk down this fucking hill like you’re in your own town. Up. Now.’
He seemed to stamp his webbed foot on the car roof. I lifted my head.
He ran from the roof, up into the sky, and I watched him circle over the pub and head towards the sea.
And so it’s been for weeks now. The birds appearing out of the empty, autumn sky. Birds lifting me – even pigeons with stumpy legs have something to share. You think it hurts? Look at this! – raising a rotten toe.
Someone has put a bird feeder outside the library. It brings all the pretty little ones. I love the way the pied wagtails rain down out of the sky in clusters. They are so damn dapper and they take nothing seriously.
‘Look at her, look at her. Nice jacket, Babe. Seen my tail? Seen my tail? Sun’s coming out.’
They’re right too – the sun is coming out. I sit on the little wall and look at my phone. There’s time enough to sit here and breathe for a bit. I can feel the pressure of the bricks under me – the cold washing slowly through the fabric of my trousers. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this. Even the birds seem a bit desperate this time, like they can see how dark this winter is threatening to be. The swallows took something vital this year, I think. I imagine them, coasting on warm air down to Africa. I picture their forked tails against amber skies. I feel the beat of wings and the softness of sun-warmed feather on my cheek and then, of course, I’m crying again. Thinking about warmth is harder than enduring cold.
Out of nowhere, they cut across my blurred vision – like darts – red-tipped with flights a flash of yellow. Gold finches – two. They hit the swinging bird feeder and peck at seed, turning their heads fast, this way, that. One speaks,
‘You don’t know what’s over that hill. That hill, over there, could be anything.’
‘Yep. It’s all over that hill there. We can see it. Anything. Everything.’
Then they are gone. I look at the Downs – curves like a woman’s hip, light bisecting fields, stretching away from me. I shake out my cramping legs and walk on.