|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.68(d)|
About the Author
Graham Parker, whose classic albums include "Howlin' Wind", "Heat Treatment" and "Struck By Lightning", divides his time between the wilds of upstate New York and London.
Read an Excerpt
At that time of the dayabout eleven A.M. on a brilliant July morningmy grey plimsoles had wings on them. They seemed to propel the rest of me forward as if the compass and map that dictated my direction were sequestered in their toe-caps, and not in the feverish spin of my head. Bounding down Woodend Road with all the energy in my wiry thirteen-year-old frame crackling under my skin, I flew across Blackdown Road and disappeared into the woods like a hare.
I could never be happier. The summer holidays had begun with a firm demarcation, a tingling, anticipatory glee, but now, after a seemingly endless time, they promised to continue into eternity, as if each night of sleep was a death to be resurrected from each sparkling morning. That's how it seemed, at any rate, until that dreaded, stomach-churning moment that arrived a week, two days, or the night before the blackest day of the year: the end of the summer holidays.
That moment, however, was eons away. Beyond the creosoted fence that bordered the far side of Blackdown Road, I arrived at the dung pit, my first stop of the day. I kicked around in the horse manure and turned over a few brandlings, those sticky red-striped worms that perch love so much. Then I thought of grass snake eggs, for I had found a lone papery specimen here last year. I couldn't remember what I'd done with it: traded it for marbles? a bird's egg? It seemed too much like a prize I would keep, place in anaquarium full of dung, and smuggle into the warmest spot in the house until it hatched. But racking my scatty, adrenaline-loaded brain, I recovered no recollection, and so, tapping the sweet-smelling cack from my shoes, I pelted off down the hill under the cathedral of elms, oaks, chestnuts, and pines.
As I bounced down the stony slope, casting fitful glances at the green horse pastures on either side, my mind sizzled with the choices that lay before me: I could keep going straight, over the sandy track at the bottom of the pastures and onward to the edge of the army married quarters in search of lizards on the heath. I could swing right at the track, head down to the back of the church, cross the road by the army museum, drop onto the tail end of Blackdown Road, and arrive at the canal under Kernley Bridge to hunt newts, leeches, frogs and snakes, keeping a sharp lookout for pike in the weedbeds. Or I could take a similar tack but veer left opposite the old museum and trudge up the road toward Pirbright and cut off into the gorse and broom thickets to the snake pit. On a day like this, lizards would be under the tins warming up, yet it was still cool enough for slow-worms and grass snakesperhaps I might even spot an adder. All my options seemed good, any combination of choices was possible at this hour, and every scenario was likely to present the opportunity to pursue my natural history obsession of the moment: collecting birds' eggs.
There are some who may find the practice abhorrent; indeed, both of my biblesThe Observer's Book of Birds and The Observer's Book of Birds' Eggschastised against such temptation. But we "eggers," as we called ourselves, were sincere nature lovers, environmentalists before the word was invented. We loved wildlife in every form. (All right, I couldn't resist kicking the heads off of dandelions when bees settled upon them, and I once went through a bizarre and highly destructive phase of swinging a five-foot fiberglass fishing rod, tip-end in hand, cork butt to water, at baby pike as they hung motionless in the shallows of the canal waiting for prey. But bees are plentiful, and I quickly went through the pike-bashing stage, presumably a juvenile chemical imbalance, soon turning my hotheaded attentions to the destruction of property and the letting down of army officials' car tiresmuch less cruel practices.) Our policy was to take only one egg per nest from a clutch of four; we would never (well, very, very rarely, and only under extreme temptation, i.e., a particularly scarce specimen high in a tree or deep in a sand bank burrow) remove an egg from a nest of less than four.
It was the exquisite beauty of birds' eggs that evoked such avarice. They looked like pretty, egg-shaped china marbles. The sheer elegance and perfection of their colour, symmetry, and design made it impossible for us to keep our dirty hands from plucking one precious jewel, now and again, from the sweet warmth of those impossible little baskets. To have a dozen or so different specimens cushioned on a bed of sand in a shoe box was to be somehow closer to the secret of creation: that mysterious world of smells, sex, call and response, fight or flight, peck or be pecked. So badly did we hunger after knowledge of that world that we eggers would break a cardinal rule of nature lovers everywhere and take a thing that, if left alone, would one day become a life.
I hit the narrow sandy track at the bottom of the slope like a sprinter and in a split second made up my mind to cross it and seek out the even narrower trail on the other side, up through the pines toward the heathlands bordering the army barracks and married quarters. Perhaps while hunting for lizards I would chance upon a wheatear's nest with a second clutch. But as I was about to pelt through the overhanging leaves of a young, spindly oak, a face popped out of the foliage, red and watery-eyed with a mop of blond hair perched on top. It was Adrian, a big, flabby kid who had recently joined the junior school (which I had finally left this term, being a teenager and ready for the horrors of a modern secondary education).
Adrian was born in England but had moved with his army parents to Singapore, Germany, and finally Malta. I hadn't had time to really get to know him, but his nickname, "Beetroot," had made him instantly famous. His problema heady one for a kidwas severe blushing. Not just the usual kind triggered by the myriad embarrassments of childhood, but big heroic blushing, blushing on a giant scale. Massive scarlet sheets would run up his face from the neck at the slightest provocation. If a teacher called his name for no reason other than to check if he was present, Adrian's face would go off like a lightbulb and, if there was no repercussion, swiftly return to the whitest of white. If the poor devil had been caught in some hanky-panky and was hauled up for it, he'd be flashing like a brake light each time he was subjected to the scrutiny of his accuser's gaze. Anything could set a reaction off. Just yelling, "Hey, Beetroot, stop wanking!" would provoke eruptions of colour so fascinating that inevitably some other kid would hurl a personal comment Adrian's way just as he was recovering from the first, and off he'd go again.
I was not altogether happy about running into Adrian in the woodsnot because I didn't like him (he was all right, though, a little on the dull side), but because if there was going to be an expedition, I preferred to be the leader. I liked to devise the plan, designate the target, be the whip hand, and generally have some idea of the outcome. Bumping into someone unexpectedly always meant a quick shuffling of egos, and besides, I just felt like being alone that day. But worse than the explosively pigmented Adrian was the threat of another wild card. For there, bobbing up behind him through the lush oak leaves, was a second kid, a squatty, troll-faced little brute whom I did not recognize.
"Hey, hey, Brian!" chimed Beetroot, and there was no turning back.
"Hi, Beetroot," I said sheepishly. "Where ya goin'?"
"Nowhere," he answered. I felt a mild twinge of doom in my stomach. I didn't like the look of his friend at all. He wore lederhosen, for one thing, and his dark, bullety eyes regarded me with a disquieting air of threat.
"Do you know Angus?" asked Beetroot, pointing to his friend, who now stood on the path directly in front of me.
"Nah, 'e doesn't fuckin' know me," said Angus brusquely.
He didn't have a pure Scottish accent, but his name betrayed his roots. His father was probably some bolshie Scottish sergeant major with red bristles on his neck, recently stationed down south to whip some discipline into the northern squaddies who came to the Aldershot area in droves, escaping the unemployment in Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester. These lads arrived by the lorry load for the promise of a better life in the army with its plentiful bounty of fags, tarts, and cafes with milky tea and pinball machines.
I hated northerners on principle, and my experience with them hadn't changed that view. They were all as thick as two short planks as far as I could see, and their cock-o'-the-walk strutting made me want to puke. But this kid Angus had a mixed-up accent, part northern, part southern, which wasn't that uncommon in the kids of the local schools, most of whom were army brats who'd been dragged around from colony to colony, always awaiting "the boxes," as they called their permanently in-transit belongings.
Angus muscled up in front of me, hoisting his leather breeches and puffing up his big-boned chest like a budding sergeant major. He wore a tight khaki jacket and no shirt. His chest looked strong and greasy. I could tell he was the kind of twit who still played with toy soldiers and organized war games in sand pits. He stared me down from under one thick black eyebrow that ran above his dark eyes like an obscene caterpillar.
"What's your name, mate?" he demanded.
"I dunno ... maybe," I stammered, feeling myself do a minor Beetroot imitation. My morning idyll had just evaporated under the gaze of this half-Scot lunatic, and a bag of nerves appeared where my stomach had been. I did not want to fight himhe looked as tough as a pound of nails to meand tried to think of something quickly to defuse the situation. Like a big brown angel, the image of a bird flashed through my head.
"You from Scotland?" I blurted, hoping to distract him from the notion of fisticuffs.
"Ever see a golden eagle?"
"Lots of them!" he snapped, but of course he was lying.
There were definitely golden eagles in Scotland, but even I knew they weren't gliding over the towns and pecking in the gutters for stale chips. You had to know where to look. You had to go out to the remotest moorlands to see one, and I suspected that I had seen one more than Angus had.
It had been a year ago, and I was alone, heading toward the snake pit about a mile away from where I now stood. I happened to glance up at the blue sky and there, way, way up, was a massive bird in full flight, heading south. I knew immediately and instinctively that it had to be a golden eaglenothing else could look like that. But how could it be? This was Surrey! I lived in the south of England, and golden eagles did not make their homes anywhere below the wild northern wastes of Scotland. But in the local paper the very next day, I read that a golden eagle had been spotted flying high in the sky over the Camberley area. Incredible! I'd actually seen it myself! All those birdie terms from The Observer's Book of Birds bounced around my head like pinballs: Rare migrant. Bird of passage. Rare visitor. Winter visitor. Vagrant. "Lost" was not a word used to describe anything in The Observer's Book of Birds, but I reckoned it would fit that eagle.
"Are you an egger?" asked Angus, successfully distracted from punch-up mode.
"Yeah, I am. I've got quite a few."
"You got a pied flycatcher's egg?"
"No," I enthused.
"What, you know where a nest is?"
"'Course I do, mate. I put an ammo box up in the woods an' there's a clutch of four left in there. I took one when there was five. But you mustn't tell anyone where it is, all right?"
"No, no. I wouldn't do that," I said honestly. If this kid could get me a pied flycatcher's egg, I'd not betray him. Such an egg would be a major addition to my collection. It would even beat my sand martin's egg that a long-armed kid named Denis had reached into a burrow for in the bank on the River Wey near Guildford. And my swan's egg was pretty special, too. I'd discovered it floating in a private pond I'd sneaked into earlier that yearquite a lucky find, seeing as you can't generally approach a swan's nest for fear of being pecked or wingbeaten to a pulp.
|Family Muscicapidae. ||Flycatchers|
|End April-September ||Length 4 3/4 in.|
| This small flycatcher is uncommon, but if seen is easily|
distinguished by its smart black and white plumage. It is
a summer visitor.... The eggs are pale blue.
I could visualize the picture in The Observer's Book of Birds and remember a few details of the text. There was the male in a black-and-white illustration, perched in a flowering dogwood with the dull, buff female a little further back, eyes beady for insects.
"Come on, then, let's go!" barked Angus. For once I didn't mind being a mere foot soldier, not if I was going to get a pale blue pied flycatcher's egg.
Adrian and I followed the brawny-legged and leathery-smelling Angus back up the slope toward my home, and off to the left into the pine copse close to the creosote-coated fence that divided the civilian village of Kernley from the army-owned woods of Blackdown. The three of us tramped under the dappled sun-shot needles.
In the darkness of a cluster of pines, surprisingly near the Catholic church, Angus stopped and peered up at the trunk of a tall Scots pine. There was the ammo box wedged between two of the lower branches. I'd converted ammo boxes myself with varying degrees of success, but could scarcely imagine something so exotic as a pied flycatcher, in such an unexotic locale, favouring one as a nest. You could expect a great tit or a blue tit or perhaps a tree sparrowbut a pied flycatcher?
Angus shinned up the tree, his lederhosen gripping the sappy bark like monkey skin. When he tapped the side of the nesting box, a small, undistinguished, buff-coloured bird shot from the hole and disappeared into the pines. The lad reached in and came out with a pale blue egg, which he held casually in one hand as he slid back down the trunk. He presented it to me nonchalantly, as if a pied flycatcher's egg were no great thing.
I held the perfect, warm ovoid in my hand, marveling at its uniform blueness. The male flycatcher was nowhere to be seen. We squatted nearby, hoping to catch a glimpse of the female again, but after five minutes gave up and walked over to the church to get a drink.
"Thanks, mate," I said as Angus sucked on the water from a tap that stuck out of the back of the old holy building.
"Told ya, didn't I?" he said, wiping his mouth on his khakis. "Pied flycatcher."
"Bloody great," I agreed. "I'm going home to blow it."
I drank deeply from the tap, which boasted the coolest, most delicious water I had ever tasted. I imagined it came from deep under the shady bowels of the church and not the village mains.
As we walked up Blackdown Road toward my house, Angus and Adrian decided to peel off into Key's Cafe for a cup of tea and a game on the machines. As they were about to enter the squaddie-filled dive, Angus turned to me casually and said, "I know where a sheld-duck nest is."
"A sheld-duck?!" I gasped. My brain flipped the pages of The Observer's Book of Birds. I would look it up when I got home, but vaguely remembered that sheld-duck are considered a marine species.
"Where?" I asked hopefully, knowing that bird habitats could be variable, especially in the imaginations of thirteen-year-old eggers.
"Down the canal," said Angus with complete authority.
Down the canal? My heart came into my mouth as the detailed illustration in the bird book appeared in my mind's eye. There was the handsome male sheld-duck, crouching in a low waddleit was red-billed, pink-footed, black-headed, and decked out in all manner of flashy green-brown black and white glossiness. The bird was making for its burrow in a sand bank, the pale ocean behind it framed by stalks of yellow seagrass.
"Wanna go this afternoon? I know where it isit might have laid by now," said Angus, leaning into the cafe door.
"Yeah!" I boomed.
"Whatcha got now?" asked my dad, squinting up at me from the cabbage patch, a white hanky, tied at the corners, perched on his head to keep the sun out.
"Pied flycatcher's egg," I answered, opening the back door and entering the kitchen.
"Flied piecatcher?" he queried, turning back to the cabbages, where he continued picking off the green caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly, dropping them into a tin for drowning.
"Pied ..." I answered, but didn't finish, anxious as I was to see this latest jewel placed with my collection.
In the quiet of my bedroom, I pulled the shoe box out of the drawer where it rested among my coin collection, stamp albums, and loose matchbox tops. I made a mental note to buy a new scrapbook next time I went to Aldershot; I needed to safeguard the matchbox tops before they got too crumpled with the constant opening and closing of the drawer.
Out in the back garden, I heard my mum and dad talking softly about the bloody caterpillars and slugs and other pests that shared the vegetables with us. My mum sat in a deck chair at the back of the garden on a small patch of lawn, flanked by a row of cabbages on the one side and rows of beans, lettuce, and cauliflowers on the other. She hadn't even heard me come in; she was going deaf, even back then.
I stared lovingly at the eggs sitting on their bed of sand in my box: the song thrush egg, turquoise blue, speckled with warm brown, but cracked from careless blowing (they were common and I could replace it at any time); the pale green mallard's egg, unmarked and big as a small chicken's egg; the coot, stony-buff and finely speckled with brown and black; the moorhen, creamy and pinkish, dotted with lavender-grey and dark brown. Beautiful! Then came the sand martin, the great tit, the pied wagtail, the blue tit, the long-tailed tit (I had suffered for this one, clawing through the thickest gorse bush, sustaining dozens of bloody scratches to reach the impossible oval dome made of moss, lichens, dog hairs, and spiderwebs), the chaffinch, the house sparrow, the tree sparrow, the bullfinch, the linnet, the starling, the jackdaw, the goldfinch, the greenfinch, the jay, the magpie, and finally, plucked from the pied wagtail's nest, the parasitic cuckoo's egg, looking for all the world like a blown-up version of its host's egg, but given away by its large size.
At the back of the drawer sat the white swan's egg cushioned in a bed of cotton wool. It was too big for the shoe box.
I extracted a fine sewing needle from the rummage of the drawer and went to the bathroom, where I carefully popped two tiny holes in both ends of the pied flycatcher's egg. I made one hole slightly larger by twisting the needle a little, and then I placed the smallest hole to my mouth and began to gently blow the viscous yolk into the sink. I could hear my parents murmuring outside, drowsy in the buzz of summer bees, their conversation punctuated every now and again by an explosive hacking cough from my father's smoker's lungs. A distant jackdaw cawed, and various tweetings from small birds spiked through the mélange of sweet homey sounds.
I tingled all over, happy as a sandboy, staring at the blue, blue flycatcher's egg as if it were the prize jewel in the Queen of England's crown. Back at the shoe box, I placed the egg gently between the streaky, dirty pink chaffinch's egg and the lightly speckled greenish-blue linnet's, which set it off nicely. I thought of the large, creamy-white sheld-duck's egg that might soon be mine. Experimenting with a space between the mallard's and the coot's, I concluded that yes, it would just fit in the crowded shoe box.
* * *
Beetroot, Angus, and I met by the old army museum that sat back off the road in a tangle of rhododendrons, pine trees, and mountain ash that grew feverishly a few hundred yards from the north bank of the Basingstoke Canal. The lads considered a quick tour of the museum but I put them off, having seen repeatedly the musty firearms, coats of arms, cruddy old uniforms, and the tin of chocolate presented to Queen Victoria that made up some of the museum's dusty relics.
"How far is it, Angusthis sheld-duck's nest?" It was past two when I'd left the village and I was anxious not to get caught miles away from home in the dark.
"Not too far," he answered. As we took off behind the museum, we were eyed suspiciously by the caretaker, who squinted through the dirty window of his office. Soon we reached the high bank of the canal and turned left, heading toward Pirbright and the numerous locks that dotted the old, disused waterway to Brookwood and beyond.
The towering elms, pines, oaks, silver birches, and beeches kept us cool. We moved at a fair clip, stopping occasionally to look down at the still, mirrorlike water of the canal. Whenever we stopped, the only sound we could hear, save birdsong, was the intense rustling of leaves as thousandsmillionsof wood ants worked ceaselessly at their nests. The orange-and-black insects built huge piles of dead leaves and dirt, which we poked at with sticks, our eyes tearing up as the aggressive creatures flipped on their backs and sprayed the heavy air with formic acid from their rumps.
Before long, we arrived at the abandoned swimming pool, left to rot after an outbreak of polio after the war. We resisted a romp through the old, rotting changing cabins or a quick climb down the ladder into the marshy wastes that now grew on the floor of the ancient structure. Frogs were down there, newts, too. But this was a mission from which no distraction would detain me for long.
"So, when did you find the nest, Angus? And how far is it now?" I asked as we moved away from the canal, where the undergrowth had become too dense, and made our way up to the back of the sewage farm.
"It's ... it's still quite a long way," he said vaguely.
Out in the full sun by the rotating arms of a sewage tank, we stopped for a breather. I immersed myself in the rich smell of sewage, blended with heady lilac and honeysuckle, and the annoying tang of Angus's lederhosen. Beetroot sat on a stump and absently scratched his balls.
"Stop wanking, Beetroot!" I scolded, triggering a rise of crimson across his face. Just then a sharp report rang out. We bolted back toward the thickets bordering the canal. It was the sewage farm attendant, who had shot at me once before. We peeked out from the bushes and saw the crazy old geezer pointing his pellet gun at us for another go. Finally he lowered the gun barrel and shouted, "Piss off, you little buggers!" Satisfied that we had gotten the message, he turned back to his old, dilapidated hut.
"Fuck off, you old bastard!" was my parting yell as we scrambled down the sandbank to a short towpath by the canal. Sandbanks! The perfect place for a sheld-duck nest.
NEST. Of bents, moss and down, in a burrow, usually a rabbit's.
EGGS. 6 to 12, creamy-white. May.
FOOD. Sand worms and hoppers, shellfish, snails, crustaceans, seaweed.
Well, it was a stretch, but we'd had a long, nasty winter, and birds that usually laid in April or May were still nesting, even now in July. And the book never mentioned a second clutch. Maybe they'd forgotten. Lots of birds had two clutches a year, and there were all kinds of freshwater shellfish in the canal and plenty of weeds for them to eat. Admittedly, it would be farfetched for a sheld-duck to be forty miles from the nearest coast, but I remained optimistic, convincing myself that where wildlife is concerned, there are always exceptions to the rules. Maybe a pair had just blown off course, like the golden eagle, and landed in the Basingstoke Canal and decided to nest there. Angus, after all, had procured the pied flycatcher's egg, and he did seem to know where he was going.
"Hey, Angussandbanks!" I said encouragingly.
"Nah, it's further than this," he mumbled, and on we trudged.
As the shadows lengthened, we came to the first lock. We paced gingerly across its massive crossbeams, one at a time, our arms out like tightrope walkers. This lock was low to the water, but the long series of locks that continued along the canal were twenty to thirty feet high and spanned the waterway, which was now reduced to a trickle, except directly below the vast wooden structures. The giant rectangles had been cut in the days when barges navigated the canal, pulled by horses tramping the narrow sandy towpath. Now only a thin stream ran in the weed-choked, dried-up bed. The water accumulated at each lock mouth, finally dribbling down the concrete siding in a waterfall that rolled over the horizontal stonework and splashed into the foaming pools at the bottom.
The sun beat down on us as we stared into the first deep lock. I had a feeling that we were never going to have time to reach the sheld-duck's nestnot if we wanted to get home in time for tea. Maybe these army brats could stay out till all hours, but I'd been home late the last two nights after playing football, and I'd cop it if it happened again.
"It's a bit late," I said lamely. "Are we anywhere near?"
"Still quite a long way," replied Angus, swatting a mosquito from his eyebrow. "It might be dark before we get there. Maybe we should try it another time," he added with a dull resignation.
We decided to walk to the next lock and cross it back to the north side of the canal, and then head up to the bus stop near the barracks on the road to Pirbright. That would save hours and a long trudge home, retracing our steps. I followed the two boys along the towpath, which began to get muddy and overgrown, with occasional tree trunks wedged across it like natural turnstiles. Adrian lolloped along while Angus laboured moodily, his head a few degrees lower than when I'd first met him that morning. I knew he hadn't expected me to push it this far. I also knew by now that the sheld-duck was pure imagination, and in all probability, the pied flycatcher's egg was a hedge sparrow's. But I didn't confront Angus about it. We all used our heads to make life interestingto get things going. There were unwritten codes about such things, codes that were never really examined. We wove our fantasy life into the fabric of nature, which made the whole world even more mysterious, more wild and unfathomable. Boredom was the only real enemy, and that could be vanquished with the slightest tweak of the imagination.
I left the two lads at the bottom of Blackdown Road where the bus had dropped us off. They went home to the married quarters. Realizing I had roughly an hour on my hands till the deeper dusk, I sprinted down Lake Road to a huge wild garden I would sometimes frequent. There, I knew, was a blackbird's nest, and by now I reckoned a nice fat clutch of brown-speckled green eggs would awaitprobably the third this year.
I crawled through the hole in the fence and made for the old orchard, peeking up at the house on the hill, which always appeared empty. I reached the kidney-shaped ornamental pond, long ignored, with its one massive goldfishfully a two-pounderthat I had named Hercules. Crossing the low, narrow, crumbling stone bridge between the kidneys, I came to the dense rhododendron. Sure enough, as soon as I moved a branch, a drab female blackbird took to the air. I reached into the twiggy nest and felt four warm objects. With the deftness of a master pickpocket, I plucked one and brought it to the edge of the pond for inspection. Turning the egg in my fingers to examine its universe of brown speckles, I heard a thumping in the undergrowth nearby and dropped the egg on the concrete siding of the pool. Crouching low, my eyes flashed from egg to bushes until, suddenly, a head emerged from the low rhododendron leaves and the guileless face of a cross-breed Labrador popped out, tongue lolling and ready for play.
I stood quickly and shooed the animalwhich I recognized as a harmless local from the villageand returned to the egg. Although it had landed on a patch of moss between the cracks of the crazy paving, it was still ruined, dented flat on the bottom and shattered lengthwise in three places.
The egg should have exploded, but instead the fragments of shell, which I now carefully picked away, were clinging to a gelatinous mass that lay beneath them. As I removed the final piece, I saw with sinking astonishment a perfect jelly sphere, inside which a tiny unborn fledgling kicked.
For as long as I dared, I studied that miraculous embryo as it twitched and kicked, its veins pumping blood to its clawlike winglets until a final beam of evening sun glanced through the foliage, illuminating a life that would never fly.
Back home, I went straight upstairs and took out the shoe box and the swan's egg. I transported the lot up me back of the garden to the compost heap. My dad saw me march by, a fixed grimace on my face, but he resisted comment. One by one, I took those remarkable jewels out from their place in the sand and, with the side of my fist, crushed them on the compost heap.
With each sickening crunch, I cursed myself. When I had finished, I sat back on my haunches and stared, dull-eyed, at the dry pile for a long, long time.