Tuesday, January 14, 2014


I came to England and suddenly it was all about the birds. 

That can't be all, surely? That can't be everything there is to say about that? What happened? Was it the breakfasting thrush? Maybe I was just lonely and far from home and people were scary and had closed faces and walked purposively up and down streets I kept getting lost on. Maybe the birds were alive and warm and near and comprehensible and everything else was far and cold and obscure and spoke RP. Or maybe it was that through-the-looking-glass thing. English birds were all story-told, imaginary creatures, except they weren't. Nightingales. Barn owls. Kingfishers. Woodpeckers, like in the cartoons, everywhere except where I lived. Ducks that actually looked like the decoys. Robins, like on Christmas cards! What if I could find a robin! They lived here. 

I met a vet at one of those hellacious cocktail mixer type events for the torture of graduate students. And undergraduates too, for that matter, but I'd never been to one back then because I was studying in my hometown and didn't need some orientation dude in a bulk-printed t-shirt and oversize nametag to tell me about the good places to get a cheap plate of pasta on a Wednesday night.

But now I was at one, because I'd had to write nil in the next-of-kin box on the yellow form for the college nurse. Her name was Leslie Crisp, in case I didn't feel sufficiently as though my life had been wallpapered with pages of Dickens and Carroll. 

Anyway the vet was astonished to discover I'd never seen a robin and promised she would take me out to see one. We walked over one of the commons north of Cambridge. It was winter 2001 and clattering, amoebing murmurations of starlings realised and derealised over our heads. I would never see such huge flocks so near the centre of town again, but at the time it was just a thing that always happened, as anything that was happening then might have been a thing that always happened. I learned that the flock all shat together, hammering the riverside pavement with chalk-white scato-pointilism. 

We didn't find a robin that day, to the vet's disappointment. I'd never really believed we could find one at all, these clever, teddy-eyed, bauble-shaped puffs of feathers with red dickies that stood on snowy festive fence-posts and showed Mary the key to the secret garden.  

Sometime before Christmas on the way to Boots I came across one sorting thoughtfully through the leaf-litter in the gutter outside John's master's lodge. There it was. It didn't even fly away, like any self-respecting mythological creature ought. It let me look at it. 

It looked just like a robin. 

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