The Flight of the Swallow

Picture credits: Martyn Fletcher

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.