Saturday, June 20

Birdhouse


THE KIND OF sky that doesn’t encourage people down the zoo, and upon our entry the first faint drops of rain starting to fall, the coldest. First visit since a biology trip in sixth form, twelve years ago, and I am not the same human anymore, but a completely different one. The zoo is on the edge of C—, set in a ripple of hills. A large fence runs around its perimeter, with green tufts peeping out over the top, and one cranes their neck as their car drives past, hoping to see a macaque or two. It was my favourite place, where my love for animals – born from my love for dinosaurs – solidified into experiences of wonder. One year I had a birthday there; an occasion spent providing a stand for birds of prey, feeding the sea lions with fish from a bucket, smiling happily, my favourite place. I always wanted other children to feel for the zoo what I did, that same joy and awe. Not until I visited some zoos in another country did my infant mind begin to recoil at the thought of captive animals; for until then I had thought that every zoo was of the standard of C—’s.
I was excited for the trip and my mother packed a picnic. My mother, me, my middle-brother’s partner, my niece, and then, at the last moment, my youngest brother. Memories returned as I walked back into the park. Twelve years but still recognisable. And that smell! the smell of animals.
As it was lunchtime already, we found a table and ate. My mother and I shared a small bottle of wine. There were pork pies, ham, bread, brie, tomatoes, chicken wings, cheddar, with strawberries and cherries for dessert. ‘Let’s eat this,’ I said—‘And get a move on. I want to see some animals.’ I took my niece to see some mangabey monkeys; I pointed while she pressed her feet against the glass. I showed her some lions and then some mice. The lions would have eaten her so easy, but they reclined in the half-sun and yawned many times. The meerkats were a pleasure to see, a large family of them, playing & digging in the dirt. There were new arrivals in amongst them, small & fragile with thin limbs, scampering about the adults and exercising their energy.
Essex families walked about, vulgar & honest, a race unto themselves. The zoo was hilly so that one was always either going up or down. Children were called, pulled on a lead, controlled, quietened, screaming, staring with amazement at the animals – and the latter the most good to witness, so that I smiled at them and fell in love with childhood again.
Just the four of us walked into a birdhouse. There were many special plants about, a fine mist in the air. A pond was in the middle of the room and running water could be heard. At the top of it all, were the call of birds. Sweet, high, chirping noises pitting through the air, until the first exclamation of—‘There’s one!’ They were beautiful things, colourful, Australian rainbow birds. Confidently they ignored the presence of us humans and busied themselves with their social follies. Not in the slightest did they mind us approaching them, but preened and whistled. So we stood there watching them, my niece most interested and cautious as their wings fluttered. My brother called us to one alone, on the other side of the birdhouse, that was not fleeing from him and was close enough to touch. He tried to touch the bird—‘No, leave it alone!’ I told him. Why was it not enough to witness the beauty, but always to want to touch it? We took our time walking around the birdhouse and not another soul entering, but the birds calling & calling, their startling bursts of colour hanging from everywhere. On the way out my mother paused and pointed out—‘Look! …’ She indicated a plaque on the wall. On it was the name of her neighbour, of whom I am also familiar. The zoo was thanking him for his adoption of the birds, dedicated in loving memory to his wife. My mother recognised the date the plaque was made—‘That was the day after she died.’ It seemed interesting to me that a man would visit the zoo the day after his wife had died. Then I wondered what the birds had meant to him and to her. No doubt you would consider an adoption with care, choosing a particular animal that possessed some resonance for you. And, that love! that love! How quickly a life had been ended by her breast cancer, and yet how the love had not died, but carried on, one being loving another, done but not gone. I imagined a kind of love like that for myself. I had never thought much of my old neighbour before, him very slowly walking up & down the road with his wife & his dog (both of whom had died within a year of each other), but, as we exited the birdhouse and left the calls behind, I thought something of him I had not before, and regarded him with a respectful envy I had not previously experienced.


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