In the year since my father died, new words and phrases have entered our language. There is a rich, etymological seam he would never hear: shielding, zoom, Coronacoaster, Covidiots, PPE, Clap for Carers, ‘rona, social distancing, furlough, Eat Out to Help Out. Our first year without him in it has been an extraordinary one.
In the spring of last year, before Dad was ill, I discovered the shock of a dead heron by the side of the road. It looked as if someone had cut the strings on the ancient creaking of this pterodactyl-marionette. One great wing stretched up the bank, the other sweeping the road in an awkward final-curtain bow. The bird’s serpentine neck folded around its yellow, stickleback-harpoon of a bill, and the white neck feathers marked with black darts and red chevrons. A crumpled house of cards. I wonder if it had been shot and, after a stricken glide, fell, crashing Icarus-like into this pile of unglued feathers and hazel-pole legs. A thunder-cloud fall of woodpigeon sky.
Heron is a talisman bird for me. Spirit of my Grandad, scholar gypsy and Romany Rai, I picture him now, producing his worn, warm copy of The Observer’s Book of Birdsfrom his leather waistcoat pocket for me. He always said he’d come back as a heron. It suited him; his hunched wisdom and careful stepping. His windswept, jet mortarboard of hair. I still feel his influence, and I wondered what this dead bird might mean; this augury of significant feathers, like a collapsed tent.
It was near harvest time when we began to voice our concerns about Dad. The withdrawing. The far away-ness. Between jobs, my brother had come over by chance from Australia and, it being the summer, we had the gift of much family time together against the growing unease that something was wrong. Mum and Dad’s house is just a farm away in our village. We walked backwards and forwards through the process of harvest, the air hazed with the grey-gold of chaff and chalk dust. We walked over the folds and heights of the downs, when we weren’t looking after Dad. The birds had fallen into their harvest silence, moulting feathers, and we made a collection: red kite, buzzard, woodpecker.
Throughout those days, from mid-afternoon onwards, a tawny owl called from Mum’s garden. I tried not to be superstitious. Roman ‘augurs’ would note the ‘auspices’ or behaviours of birds and try to predict what might happen. An owl calling in the daytime was a bad omen of a world out of sorts: one on the roof, certainly inauspicious – with a death in the house likely. But we liked the owl and by now, we thought we probably knew what was coming.
It was still a shock, nevertheless, when Dad died within a month, just seventeen days after the diagnoses of an aggressive brain tumour. We’d broken him out of hospital and he died peacefully at home – a gift for the bereaved not granted to those who lost someone in 2020.
The ravens, rooks and jackdaws gleaning the stubble seemed to shout the news with their Berkshire-accented, harvest warning ‘Oi! Boi!’ Fyre, barn, fyre barn.’ Dad had been a fireman. What followed was a year of birds and grieving. Quietly at first; the kite’s mournful whistle on fog-shrouded days; the robin’s notes from the tangled miles of traveller’s joy or ‘bedwine’ that wound through the hedges like an elaborate handrail I needed to get me away from home and back again – even the feathered seeds are curled around their central globe like tiny ostrich plumes.
Most poignant were the song thrush’s strident, repeated phrases that began on the midwinter solstice and carried me through and beyond the midsummer one, through all the birdsong of the most beautiful, blossomy spring in living memory. Our Covid spring, our global plague year, our year of hope for change; my first year without Dad in it.
As harvest began to swing round again and the birds moulted their feathers and fell into a late summer silence, a new anxiety bloomed. Two of our three children’s immediate futures were to be decided by a faulty, unequal system that would not favour their small, rural comprehensive education. During an unsettling, unprecedented heatwave, more new words entered our language along with overwhelming uncertainty: algorithms, tropical nights, masks.
I wonder what Dad would have made of it all. How he would have reacted. He would have marched on someone over the exam debacle, certainly. His whole life was about protecting family.
As harvest and the anniversary of our losing him came round, a pair of barn owls moved into the oak tree near the house. I saw them nuzzling up to one another and one bright, September morning, picked up a feather beneath the branches. The light shone a white gold through it. It felt like an exhalation. We could hope, perhaps, for owlets next year. The two eldest children got the exam results they needed and we prepare for another leaving. Our son, spreading his wings and leaving the nest for University. Dad would’ve been so proud.
Nicola Chester lives and writes in the kitten heel of the Berkshire ‘shoe’, at the heart of the glorious North Wessex Downs and half a mile from both the Wiltshire and Hampshire border. She is the RSPB’s first and longest-running female columnist in Nature’s Home Magazine and a Guardian Country Diarist.
Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.