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The evening has worn on until dusk. It is fast becoming a hot summer’s night. I sigh and think about how difficult it will be to sleep in my flat. England isn’t built for this kind of weather. It’s made for cold winters not blistering heat. The buildings are designed to hold in the warmth not let it out. I try to push the thought out of my mind and concentrate on the conversation that is happening right in front of me. The four of us sit outside in the beer garden. We have spent the better part of a day here. Why waste time moving on when we have such a good seat, Susan had said? She is right, although I won’t tell her that. She is talking right now about something. Whatever it is, she seems to think it’s very important. I try to pick up the threads of the conversation. It seems to be about tax havens and their connection to Brexit. I vaguely know what she is talking about, but it’s too hot for politics.
I am about to excuse myself to go to the toilet, not because I need it but because I want a break from current affairs when I hear a very familiar sound. A flock of swallows has just flown overhead. This is their time of night, just as dusk is beginning to deepen. The noise fills the air and quickly fades as they go about their business. The sound stills me. The conversation about Brexit vanishes into the background. The memory comes flooding back. Just like it always does around this time of year. The time of year when swallows are visiting England from Africa. They come here to breed and fill the air with their call. I know very little about swallows, what knowledge I have of them has been absorbed from years of nature programmes on the BBC. The reason I know anything about them at all is because of the memory that now fills my mind.
I was young, just a child. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been in hospital. He was a heavy smoker, had been for years, and it had finally caught up on him. He went in for surgery, but something had gone wrong, and the family had been called to his bedside. I was young but old enough to understand what that meant. That his death was near, but despite my believed maturity, I still didn’t fully understand the full scope of death. It didn’t seem real to me. Something that didn’t make any sense. I could not process it properly. Maybe it was because I was a very melancholy child, prone to shyness and solitude. Or perhaps I was just a child. Either way, I knew something was happening when my mother did not come home that evening.
It was late; the swallows were at play outside of my third-storey window. I can hear their calls as they swooped around outside, seemingly rushing around at great speeds. In my adolescent mind, they were speeding to their loved ones or passing important messages. Most likely, they were feeding, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was up late, reading my book in the twilight. This wasn’t unusual. I was always an avid reader. It must have been The Hobbit although I cannot remember that for sure. I choose that book because it was the one I would read over and over again, never growing bored of Bilbo and his adventures. I squinted in the gloom when I heard the door open and then close downstairs. My mother had returned from saying goodbye to her father. I can only appreciate now how hard a thing that must have been. To know someone was dying and not be able to do anything about it. To say goodbye. How could you find the right words?
Anyway, I lay there in my bed, still reading my book in the half-light. Outside, the evening was turning to night, and the swallows were as active as I’ve ever heard them. They swooped and squawked in the sky. The noise seemed to fill the room. I strained to see them outside of my window, but their speed obscured them from me. I began to wonder if they knew what was happening. As if in some way they were saluting the passing of another soul from this plane of existence. A strange thing to think as a child, but then I was no ordinary child, if such things exist. Suddenly, I heard my mother come up the stairs to my room. This is where the memory becomes hazy. I do not know why. Maybe grief clouds the mind. Perhaps it is the years that have clouded the memory. The only thing I can remember is my mother’s sorrow written all over her face but not the words she spoke. Instead, what I can remember is the swallows outside. That noise, that strange sound. It has stuck with me all these years. Did they know what had happened? Were they trying to communicate their understanding in the only way they could? I will never know.
Even now, while I sit with friends outside on a balmy summer’s eve, I become distracted by that sound once again. Those swallows at play as they fly above my head. That familiar, beautiful sound. Are they trying to tell us something right now? Or are they just doing what swallows do? I feel cosy and at peace with memory. It reminds me of death but also life. Life and death are interwoven together, linked forever. One cannot be without the other. I find comfort in that as I listen to the flight of the swallows.