He wondered if anyone ever listened to bird song in the city any longer. It was just lost in the general cacophony. Indulging in listening steals valuable minutes from an overloaded day. Who knows a thrush from a blackbird by its song? Why even the most common chirpers and twitterers like the sparrow and starling, who provided the soundtrack to his childhood, had disappeared. Occasionally crawling home in the early morning, winter or summer, some sodium-light inspired blackbird has stopped him in his tracks. Perhaps it was just the excess of alcohol that heightened his sensitivity to its piercing night-time call. Perhaps it was that Beatles song.
That spring, after a long hard winter, he kept an ear out for the garden visitors. They let you know the season was changing before he realised it. Only in that hour before dark did they really let go to let him know they were out there. Establishing their territories apparently. He'd certainly seen little of them over that winter despite putting out seeds and nuts. Then the previous week his heart was lifted in that over-hyped poetic way. Just silhouetted against a darkening indigo sky, a thrush gave a fifteen minute performance, uninterrupted and catching him off guard. He was indulging in his first patio fire of the season, and in a reflective mood, it propelled him back to that other world of pain and pleasure, tickling his conscience, awakening his guilt.
Sammy Johnson was often described as a “character”. In his village this meant that he was prepared to be an individual, that he behaved differently to others, but that such differences were not held against him. At least not to the same degree as they were held against anyone else. Being a “character” suggested something appealing but not quite orthodox; rakish perhaps; daring certainly. Daring to be different required a certain panache if it was to be respected rather than ridiculed. Sammy was well known through the village and around the moorland farms and hamlets and on his death at 60 had only left the area once to join up as a junior farrier in the army in 1916. He was returned home when he was discovered to be just 14 and spent the rest of his war and many years afterwards working down the pit like his father and brothers.
To him, in his conscious memory, Sammy was an old man with a nicotine stained moustache, cloth cap and collarless shirt; a stereotype perhaps. He could only have been around fifty five at the time, but already he was unfit for work. He was old and the only man in the adjacent households of women and children. Not a big man physically but a hard man, a man of flint. The child was no more than four or five but Sammy figured prominently in his life, living next door at Grandma Johnson’s. He was the taciturn type keeping his sentences short and his sentiments blunt. He was permanently attuned to the weather and spent most days and not a few nights at the allotment he had tended for over twenty years. To the child, and no doubt to his many other nephews and nieces, the allotment was a source of wonder. Being taken there was an admission into the world of men. Of unintelligible conversations over hedges. Of a green house smelling like the tropics, heated by an array of cast-iron pipes from the back boiler of a pot-bellied stove rigged in the corner of a shed large enough to accommodate an old settle, just long and wide enough for sleeping on. Of tomatoes hanging like grapes from steaming cane-supported sagging vines. Of bird’s nests tucked invisibly in hedges or crevices. From a child’s perspective the allotment with its bottomless well, its overhanging trees, and its margins of wilderness was a dramatic and exciting world of new and visceral experience.
While Sammy would generally return from the allotment with a fistful of flowers and a bagful of vegetables, the child would return with a jar full of caterpillars or perhaps a huge bloated frog drawn from the well. They were lined up on the back wall they shared with Vinny Mason, another “character” who limped around the local hills pushing a handcart laden with any scrap he happened upon, and who sang in pubs in the local town for his beer money. Vinny’s ramshackle shed provided a secure back drop on his side of the wall to shelter the seasonally-changing menagerie. Sticklebacks, newts, frogs, caterpillars, later on toads, mice, and voles all fell victim to his hunting instinct, nurtured before he was five, by Sammy. All were lined in a variety of jars and bottles on that wall.
A child’s height puts it so much more in touch with the micro world. A child can see and hear so much more of that Lilliput than an adult. However it did not increase his sensitivity to the fate of his captives. They died, or metamorphosed, or were released, or were stolen, or escaped. They were buried, or flushed down the lav at the bottom of the yard. It all seemed perfectly natural. Sammy was not a man for sentiment, preferring to crush caterpillars or mice under his well-worn army boots or wellingtons, but he indulged the boy in catching and returning with his trove of vermin. But the thrush was something different.
What prompts a man to challenge nature, to want to own and tame it? What satisfaction can there be in outwitting, in deceiving a lower creature unless for survival? Who caught the first songbird, not to eat or steal its feathers, but to imprison it for its voice? He was a small child maybe five. His father was still away in the Navy. Sammy was his father figure. His mother was not happy but she was not the type to show her anger and Sammy had kept the families together throughout the war as the only man in the two houses not in the forces. The child could hear them talking, standing in the yard as if invisible while she gently chided him for his action.
“Why? Why did you bother?”
“I thought he’d like it?” “But where are you going to put it?”
“I’ll knock something up woman, stop fretting”.
The thrush was consigned to the cabinet of an old valve radio with a wire grill tacked over the speaker hole. It hopped from one side to the other agitated and desperate. It neither ate nor sang but pined silently for its freedom. It lasted three days. It wasn’t there when the child woke and went to see it before going to school. He knew it was dead and probably consigned to the dustbin. Nothing more was said. Only now did he fantasise that perhaps his mother had set it free but to save Sammy’s face pretended it had died. The man still remembered Sammy's triumphant tone when he brought it home.
“Three weeks I’ve had my eye on that bugger. Just got closer and closer each day then got a sack over him.”
No sense of remorse, no consideration of consequence.
“Why did you do that? The child's mother had said.
“Got a lovely voice” was his reasoning, “and I thought the boy would like it”.
For many years he mused on the meaning of this episode, but never took for granted the beauty and vigour of a free bird's song.