‘Something Was Being Broken’
WHEN STAN Ricketts found out that I was a member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club he gave me a full guided tour.
‘That pole there, across the bowling green, see? There’s a little owl comes and perches on that in the afternoons. We’ve house-martins under the eaves of the bungalow. We’ve had woodpeckers at the bird table. And you’ll have seen the kestrels.’
I nodded. I had seen the kestrels. Their boomerang silhouettes.
‘And come here,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you.’
Thick-built, crop-headed, pink-necked in a sky-blue polo-shirt, Stan Ricketts led me to a stand of privet, dark green and dull with dust. I stood in front of it and couldn’t see anything.
Bloody leather it, someone shouted on the other side of the hedge. The thirds were playing Welton. I heard a crack – a half-hit shot – and the thunk of the ball against the cane of the goalie’s pads.
Then Stan Ricketts’s hot hands were in my armpits and I was up in the air.
He propped me on a lifted knee, shifted his grip so one arm was around my waist, and with his free hand pushed open a hole in the foliage of the privet.
I’d never seen a nest before, not close up.
Four eggs, each of them the size of a gobstopper and the colour of our downstairs toilet. The nest a tight, clean bowl of mud and twigs.
‘Song thrush,’ Stan Ricketts said in my ear. ‘Lovely little bird!’
His hand under my ribs was uncomfortable. My mouth tasted of orange-squash and beef crisps.
I don’t remember saying anything. I might have said ‘wow’ or ‘blimey’.
Stan Ricketts put me down.
Stan ran the clubhouse at the sports club. It was a hockey club mostly but there were slimy concrete tennis courts for the summer and the bowling green got a lot of use from the older members. Stan manned the bar, mowed the grass, painted the lines, cleaned the changing rooms. Kept the place going.
There was a game on the bowling green now as Stan led me back around the clubhouse to the garden of the little white bungalow he lived in with his wife, Joan, who did the teas. As we passed I looked for the little owl but it wasn’t there. A man in a white flat cap and tinted glasses rolled his wood and then said ‘Awwgh.’
Stan opened the little gate into his garden. I thought he was going to say goodbye and send me back to my squash and crisps but instead he gestured for me to go into the garden with him.
‘Before you go,’ he said.
We followed a path past some vegetable beds to the side of the house. There was a sort of triangular cage of wood and wire in the grass. Not a pyramid but like a Toblerone box. Stan knelt down beside it.
‘Let’s see,’ he said. He lifted up a wooden flap and a chicken came out. I laughed.
It was a white chicken, about as big as a woodpigeon. It looked at me, looked at Stan, made a cluck, ducked its head down into its feathers.
I must have seen a live chicken before, surely, but that’s the first one I ever remember seeing.
Stan reached into the cage, made sort of satisfied noise, ‘ah-ha’ or ‘oh-ho’. Straightened up and climbed to his feet. He held out his hand and I saw he had an egg in it. It was white, with a small white feather stuck to it like a decoration.
‘Here you go!’ Stan said. ‘Tell your mam to cook you it for breakfast.’
The white feather fluttered though there was hardly any breeze.
‘Thank you,’ I must have said.
I had it for tea instead, as soon as I got home. My mum (I never said ‘mam’, I wasn’t as broad as Stan) fried it for me and I had it in a sandwich.
I wasn’t sure how you knew until you cracked it open whether it’d have a baby chicken in it or just a yolk and white. I wasn’t sure how eggs worked.
Not long after Christmas the river had been up over head height. The low-hanging branches of the trees on the river bank were hung with rags and rubbish snatched from the fast-moving water. The rags of blue plastic were the worst; I kept mistaking them for kingfishers.
It was May, now. The floods had long since subsided and the hockey season had finished a few weeks before. My dad had gone to the Isle of Man for the post-season tour. I’d got into the habit of coming down to the river on a Saturday.
There were birds to see there, on the river, in the overhanging trees, in the thick ash carr beside the footpath. I’d seen smart male blackcaps making mad noises; I’d seen a treecreeper like a broken bit of walnut on a hawthorn trunk; once or twice there was a woodpecker. The place was noisy with birdsong, but I was no good at birdsong.
Sometimes I brought my binoculars with me but today I hadn’t bothered. I knew what I was going to see and I knew I wouldn’t need my binoculars.
I made my way along the uneven path and when I came to where a contorted old willow leaned out over the river I crouched down and slithered through a bed of stinking garlic to the foot of the riverbank. I took care; I knew what happened if you went in the river – the weeds dragged you down, and you drowned. Or else you got cramp, especially if you’d been eating. Either way you drowned. I edged along the bank, the grey water lapping a few inches from the toes of my trainers.
I knew wrens from the back garden and from my bird books but I’d got to know them a lot better since I’d been coming to the river. Even I could tell when it was a wren singing. If it was louder than all the others then it was a wren. And I’d taught myself to listen for the ‘pyah pyah pyah!’ a wren made, like a laser-gun sound effect from R-Type.
It was good watching them zip about in the carr, shouting at nothing. Then I found the nest and that was even better. It felt like Christmas, only unexpected, a surprise Christmas. I found it just by accident; I was watching a wren with a beakful of grass when it disappeared into a hole in the roots of a tree. When it came out it didn’t have any grass. Well, I wasn’t daft.
They’d made a very neat job of it. It was satisfying, how neat it was. Like the thrush’s nest Stan had shown me. Not like woodpigeons’ nests I’d seen in the forks of trees, barely more than loose heaps of sticks; they were so rubbish it made me mad. I could’ve done a better nest than those, I thought.
But never in a million years could I have done what the wrens had done in their little hole by the river. It was like a tea-cosy with a neat round hole in the front of it, knitted out of pale-green grass and what looked like wool and what looked like shredded off-white plastic picked from the low-hanging trees.
That first time I found it, I had a look inside, but there was nothing to see. All the time I was there one of the wrens was rattling away at me from a branch in the tree, so close that I could’ve reached out and grabbed it. It was so small and it just couldn’t care less.
Then a bit later I saw that the wrens – the mum wren, that is – had laid eggs in the nest, six of them, small and white and a bit speckly. The next time I went to the nest the mum wren was sitting on the eggs; I couldn’t see the eggs at all, just this funny wren’s face glaring out of the nest-hole at me. Then the other wren, the dad, started rattling at me, so I went away. I didn’t want to get them upset. They had enough on their plate.
I’d looked it up in a book and I knew that the wrens should have finished incubating by the end of the first week in May. The eggs would’ve hatched.
It was warm, almost muggy, in the shelter of the riverbank. The sun hadn’t been out all day. I could smell rosebay willowherb, a smell I hated: it made me think of canals, and canals – the canals around here, derelict, desolate – gave me the creeps.
I was still a fair way from the nest when I heard the dad wren’s alarm call. I didn’t hear it start; I just started hearing it. From where I was, through a screen of just-budding tree branches, I could see the crevice in the tree roots. I was expecting to see a cat or a magpie or something exciting like a weasel or an otter or a fox, going after the eggs – but there wasn’t anything. Just the male wren, hopping from one willow-branch to another outside the nest, rattling out his panic call.
Then I realised that it wasn’t one call I could hear, it was two, and that the mum wren was out of the nest as well; I saw them both, hopping back and forth, back and forth, tails cocked, wings quivering, making the fine branches wave and wag their new leaves.
They were in a proper state and making a hell of a noise but all this time there was nothing I could see to frighten them. By now I was right up to the nest and there was nothing I could see.
I got to the nest and I leaned in close. My ears were ringing from the wrens’ noise. If they’d been people it would have been blood-curdling, that noise they made, the terror in it. I could make out the hollow inside the nest, and there were chicks there, and I thought they were moving.
My mouth was dry. I’d never been this close to baby birds before.
I put my hand in to touch them and straight away took it out.
The bodies of the baby birds had been warm but still. There’d been something else in there. I looked at my fingers and saw that they were crawling with brown ants.
I think I shouted something. I wiped my hand on my jeans, looked again at my fingers. There were four broken ant-bodies smeared against the skin. A live ant was probing at a wick of skin by my little fingernail. My hand was trembling.
I looked inside the nest again and saw what the ants had done and what they were doing. I was still a bit excited; I felt bad about that for quite a while.
A couple of years later I was told that Stan Ricketts had lung cancer and a couple of months after that my dad told me that he had died.
It made me feel grown-up.
I’d never known the hockey club without him, never known the clubhouse with anyone other than him behind the bar. He wasn’t old – he was ‘no age’, my dad said, but I never knew what age that meant – and he’d been a strong man, loud-voiced, lively. My dad said he’d been a heck of a centre-forward when he was younger, before his knees went.
In my experience people who died were quite old, mainly grandparents or friends of grandparents, so this was something new.
It was spring when Stan died, the end of another season. The last games were in the first week of April. After I’d watched my dad playing for the thirds (they won, against a Sikh team from Leeds) I went up to the clubhouse and looked in the privet hedge for the thrush’s nest. I felt very serious while I was doing it; it felt like something I ought to do, like feeling sad felt like something I ought to feel. I wasn’t going to go to the funeral – they’re not for kids, my dad said – so looking for the thrush’s nest was my version of a funeral for Stan Ricketts.
It was still there, but nobody was using it. It was just a broken cup of twigs and dust. It probably hadn’t been used since that first spring two years before. It was hard to feel very much about it.
When I went into the clubhouse there was a man I didn’t know behind the bar. He served me my squash and crisps just like Stan would have. Nothing was very different but also everything was a bit different.
Joan, in her little kitchen beyond a square hatch in the clubhouse wall, was still doing the teas: through the hatch I could see her brown-grey perm and her metal-rimmed glasses fogged by the steam from the pans. I was surprised about that, and glad, too.
Nearly everyone who stopped at the hatch that afternoon to take a plate of stew said something to her about how sorry they were or how sad it was. Even most of the Sikh players from Leeds did.
I was glad I wasn’t having a tea – I’d have mine with my mum when I got home – because I wouldn’t have known what to say.
The next day, Sunday morning, I was down at the club again. It was meant to be the last training session for the colts’ team but hardly anyone turned up. We hit balls around for a bit in our tracksuits but there were only three of us and there was a cold almost-drizzle in the air, so Dave, the second-team captain who also ran the colts, said that we might as well knock it on the head. No-one disagreed.
I was on my way home when I saw Joan outside the bungalow. She was beside the dustbin, holding a stack of shallow cardboard boxes. They didn’t look very heavy.
She saw me looking at her, and smiled.
‘Having a clear-out,’ she said. Then she said: ‘You’re Colin’s lad.’
I nodded. I was always Colin’s lad down the club. That was all right.
‘You’re the one what’s into birds.’
Again I nodded. Joan put down the boxes and propped one hand on her hip. She was a round sort of shape. She had on a woolly jumper and blue jeans. She was looking at me like she was thinking.
‘Come here,’ she said.
I thought she must want a hand with the boxes. She was barely taller than me, after all, and maybe they were heavier than they looked.
I put down my stick and sports bag. While I was getting the gate open Joan bent down and shook the lid off one of the cardboard boxes.
When I got there and looked down into the box I didn’t know what to say. I looked at Joan. She had both hands on her hips now and her face was a bit pale in some parts and a bit pink in others.
‘Do you want them?’ she said.
I didn’t know what to say.
The box was divided into compartments – maybe eight one way and five the other, maybe forty compartments. Forty eggs on forty cushions of cotton wool. Forty labels filled in with biro in indigo block capitals.
There were some I knew without reading the label. The wren’s, of course. Spotty white and the size of my thumbnail. And the blue of the song thrush, and the house sparrow, marbled grey-and-white – I’d sometimes found the broken shells of those in the garden at home. Some of the others were birds I knew pretty well, dunnock, greenfinch, swallow, but there were a lot I’d never seen. Some I still haven’t seen. Pied fly, crossbill, Dartford warbler, firecrest (that one was really tiny).
I saw one or two I’d never even heard of and I thought I’d heard of all the birds. I hadn’t a clue what a bumbarrel was.
‘Do you want them?’ Joan said again. She sounded angry.
There were five of the boxes.
It was illegal, I knew. I didn’t know how long it had been illegal. I didn’t know how old these eggs were.
Joan said: ‘You’ll not get into trouble, as long as you don’t shout about it.’
Lesser-spot. Cetti’s warbler. Hawfinch. This was just one box. I heard Joan take a breath, and I knew she was going to say I can’t stand here all day or Make your flipping mind up, lad or something like that.
So I said: ‘No, thank-you. No.’
She was definitely cross now. Her face was pink all over.
She picked up the box with one hand, pulled off the plastic dustbin lid with the other, and tipped all the eggs into the bin. It made a really weird sound. All the eggs were empty, of course, blown clean. As they fell all together they made the noise of a series of dry little collisions, like a bag of popcorn being shaken, only in the noise there was also a sort of edge, a ragged edge – you could tell that something was being broken.
Then they were all gone, eggs and labels and cotton wool and all. Joan dropped the box on to the stone flags and peered down into the bin.
‘They’d have been worth a fortune to the right person, them,’ she said.
I hadn’t realised up until then that she’d been crying but now I saw that her eyes were red and her pink cheeks were wet.
She reached down, picked up another box, shook free the lid, and upended it over the bin without even looking inside. I watched them tumble in shades of rust and stone and moss and milk. These were bigger. Ducks? Geese? Falcons? Eagles?
I pictured the black bin full up to the brim with empty eggs.
‘It’s no use looking like that,’ Joan said. I hadn’t known I was looking like anything. ‘You said you didn’t want them, and they’re no bloody use to me.’
I didn’t know what to say. I turned away as she was picking up the third box; I turned away, walked back down the path, and went out of the gate.
Birds were singing in the hawthorns all the way along the tarmac driveway that led back to the main road. Despite the weather there was so much song that you couldn’t tell one from another; I was still no good at knowing birdsong so I couldn’t have said what any of them were anyway. It was all just a noise to me. But I couldn’t not hear it. It was like a conversation you hear behind you on a bus. I couldn’t not listen.