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Published: February 21st 2011
Haven't been on the road for a while, but here's a trip down memory lane, back to South Africa and 1973....
It all started with the sacks - the sacks in the back of the Land Rover. Watching quietly from behind a half-drawn curtain, we saw our stepfather - in Barbour jacket and shooting boots – emerge from the cabin. Dark glasses hiding owlish features, he dropped to the ground, clamped an unlit cigar to his lower jaw and, an open shotgun hanging over his forearm, strode up the slate garden path and through the half-mast door.
“Bring ‘em in boys!”, he said, lurching heavily into an armchair and lighting the half-smoked cigar. Throwing his legs onto a footstool, he swatted two flies, blew his nose violently, and waited for my younger brother to scamper in with a bottle of Carling Black Label.
Outside, we approached the Land Rover nervously, while our mother, unseen by us, watched from the kitchen through a series of open doors. A Labrador sat in the house entrance, observing the scene intently. Far off, in the distance, the tiny figures of two African women were bringing in the peach harvest, their outlines moving like brushstrokes across the broad burnt-grass canvas.
We inched towards the Land Rover. The only sound was the crickets singing and the dogs panting happily in the hot sun.
I reached the Land Rover, tugged gently at the tarpaulin. What bloody carcass would I have to gut? Why should I prove myself to be “a man”, just because I was on the verge of adolescence? Why was my stepfather like this!?
My brother pulled the canvas cord sealing the tarpaulin, and the gloom inside the back of the truck yellowed, casting a white stripe of light onto one of the two sacks. Which moved! ….Which jumped! ….Slightly, imperceptibly, but definitely JUMPED…..! We leapt back in shock and the tarpaulin flapped shut.
“Come on boys! Where are those birds!” boomed a beery voice from the house. “Hurry up!”
The sacks were jumping more violently now – literally dancing, moving with a life of their own, dervishes hopping 2,3,4 inches at a time. Then a rustling noise, the sound of wing flapping against wing, and a low, guttural squawking. The birds were alive!
We brought the sacks into the farmhouse, where they squirmed and struggled on the cold slate floor.
“What are we going to do with them?” asked Mother, shaking water off her hands as if she were baptising the place.
We glanced at the five shotguns mounted on the wall above the fireplace, but blowing seven birds’ brains out at close range hardly seemed a valiant way to go about things. Two hunting knives gleamed beside the shotguns (and there was always the axe), but who wanted to preside over that kind of bloodbath?
Mother continued: “Wring their necks as if they were chickens, or drown them like unwanted kittens? I’m certainly not going to do it – is anyone else?”
“Noooo!” we hissed in unison.
And so Birdhaven was born.
A project to house seven pheasants, Birdhaven lasted two weeks of the long Christmas holiday. Shirts off, toiling under the hot African sun, we dug holes, cut logs into poles, covered them with creosote, set them in concrete. We had a handyman who was released from his duties to help with the heavy work, and every now and then our stepfather came out to watch – drawing heavily on his cigar and watching impassively from behind dark glasses. Occasionally he would approach the site, squat low, tap a pole and mutter something incomprehensible through clenched teeth, cigar wagging as he spoke. Then he would swish back to the farmhouse through the yellowed grass, and sometimes (but only at the end of the day when food was their goal) the three Labradors would follow purposefully.
The dogs were particularly fascinated by the progress of the aviary, gazing with languid eyes as each nail was hammered, each sheet of wire mesh cut, each pole lowered into place. At times they seemed to be memorising each step of the construction, as if one day they would be asked to build their very own home from scratch. As they lay happily (always together) in the sun, tongues lolling in the heat, I noticed that their eyes never left the work-in-progress.
Two metres high and three wide, with its own door, Birdhaven would have been a home fit for the finest bird of plumage, the most pampered peacock, let alone the seven squawking fowl currently flapping around bad-temperedly in our darkened garage. But to us, especially as the aviary neared completion, the birds started to take on new meaning, becoming exotic, jewelled creatures of myth and fantasy. We had a taste of the sense of achievement a great engineer might feel as a bridge was opened, an ocean liner launched. And this sense of occasion was enhanced by the presence of the dogs, watching every move like spectators at a tennis match – content, relaxed, yet strangely alert.
Finally, the mesh roof was nailed into place, the small gate was hung and, kicking each pole in turn, my stepfather declared the construction open to guests. The dogs seemed to agree, as they leapt up and started sniffing busily around the four corners of the dwelling, their tails beating happily against our bare legs.
As this was not (despite our fantasies) really a luxury hotel, state-of-the-art hospital or skyscraper, there would be no dignitaries at the opening, there was no champagne to pop, no speeches needed to be made. The guests could arrive the moment the last nail was hammered in. Nevertheless, mimicking the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a shiny new building, at the appropriate moment Mother stepped forward with a pair of wire cutters and, with a flourish, neatly clipped in half the wire holding the cage door shut. Then to the assembled audience of family members, curious Africans and Labradors, she announced in a Movietone voice: “I now declare Birdhaven open!!”
And so the “guests” were rounded up in the garage, returned to their sacks and brought, clucking and struggling, to their new home. We turned the sacks upside down and the birds fell out one by one, opening their wings into great coloured arcs and filling the air like mythological beasts. Birdhaven came alive in a mass of colour and movement – the freeze-framed feathers filling all available space.
For a few minutes, I watched, my brother watched, the handyman watched. The two African women with peach boxes on their heads wandered past, singing softly under their breath. A window opened in the farmhouse kitchen – my mother’s head poked out. My stepfather stood still under the flaps of his canvas desert hat. As the birds danced and spun in the air – a kaleidoscope of colour filling time and space – the dogs sat upright, more military in their bearing, ears pricked up, more formal now.
Then, after a few minutes, the birds slowly settled, and it was time to leave Birdhaven for the night…
Later, as I drifted off to sleep I wondered what the birds were doing. Did they sleep through the night, or were they still waddling around, pecking at the dust? Then I dreamed I was a tropical rainforest, surrounded by exotic birds: lime-green parrots hanging upside down like bats, scarlet macaws with prehistoric eyes, hummingbirds buzzing around golden flowers, angry white cockatoos with yellow crests. Towards dawn the dreams turned dark: vultures and buzzards circling for carrion, falcons and eagles swooping from the sky, tearing their prey into a thousand bloody pieces. In my dream an enormous flock of seagulls descended suddenly, enveloping me with flapping wings, hundreds of beaks pecking at my eyes.
Early next morning I awoke with a start. “Tap! Tap! Tap!” on the window. “Tap! Tap! Tap!” I half expected to see an escaped pheasant pecking angrily at the glass, but instead I saw the outline of a human hand and the brown blur of the body behind it. Opening the window revealed the sun climbing steadily in the early-morning sky and the figure of the handyman, forehead glistening with sweat and eyes open wide in agitation.
“Come quick! Come quick!” he whispered. “Just come quick!”
We set off at a jog across the fields. No one spoke. Even at this hour the structure of the aviary shimmered in the distance like some desert mirage. As we approached, its outlines came into sharper focus and I looked for signs of the occupants. The frantic flurry of yesterday was gone, panic had been replaced by calm, the birds had clearly settled into their new home.
Then, quickly, the calm became disturbing, the lack of movement eerie. Something was wrong, and as we reached the wire mesh we pulled up, stood still, staring silently.
A large channel had been scraped out under the wire mesh, the earth pile up behind it. The dogs, sentinels for past two weeks, were no longer on duty. Now, happy inmates in a luxury prison, they met our gaze steadily through the wire mesh. One, as if attempting a yoga position, poked his rear in the air and stretched his front paws out lazily. Another, sitting up primly on hind legs, cocked his head to one side as if to say: “How about that!?” Of the birds, there was no trace, no sign they had ever existed – the aviary was completely empty.
I watched, dumbstruck, as a single, bloody feather detached itself from the mesh roof and floated slowly to the ground.
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