BLACK CURLEWS

‘As sunlight broke through the cloud, the ibis's wings, rump and tail flashed with a bronze, green and violet sheen, like the iridescent rainbow of oil on water.’

Guardian article, April 2013

In the months after Stodmarsh, long after John Harvey’s body was dragged from muddy water and the harriers had left, I sat brooding at my desk, posting envelopes, preparing English lessons on pronouns and adverbs, editing two books ready for publication. I drank on Saturday nights and watched Come Dine With Me omnibuses on Sunday. Occasionally, I wrote short stories about Japanese Knotweed, remains of wiccan rituals in Welsh woodlands, undercover police afflicted by mission drift fathering children under false identities. 2013 became a good year for short journeys. Visits to Llanidloes, Bristol, Snape, Aldeburgh, Southwold. Two weeks in the Middle East, Amman, Petra, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem. In Petra we were hassled by Bedouin children, who could speak at least seven languages, aggressively pushing tacky postcards. I saw sad horses painfully whipped, grunting camels, fake Nabataen coins. Despite all this, the sight of the place itself trumped all the crass commercialism and the overly-enthusiastic guide who played up for the Americans in our tour group. Such ancient architecture, carved into the salmon-pink rock, was humbling despite its fame and the Indiana Jones comments on my Facebook feed. I came home thinking of transience versus the grand sweep of history, of Roman ruins close to home that I’d allowed to become boring and commonplace. I thought of migration patterns of birds and humans, how the individual is negligible but the overall impact of millions of lives throughout the ages has weight and meaning, and I thought of the accidental offshoots of grand plans and the people and creatures who were not where they were supposed to be, who branched the story off into many different unexpected directions and down forgotten tributaries. I googled images of black curlews, the glossy ibis, back hiding in the Kentish reeds, bucking the trend of where humans said they should be. In my imaginations landscape they’re resident and real. Scouring books and articles gave a few suggestions that the bird may have been known in the UK for much longer than we thought; where was it that said the Saxons called the wader the black curlew? I wondered if it mattered.

During this period I visited Kent a great deal. My elderly grandmother, 97 and going strong, had relocated to Whitstable into an assisted living facility five minutes from my mother. Time, I felt, may be short and my weekend trips to see the family increased. Pulled up and down the Thames estuary, staring out through smudged windows over farmland on the train down from London Victoria. Overpriced bitter coffee, cheese and onion pasties, crumpled copies of the Daily Mail.

Every time I travelled, I enjoyed the view after the train split in two at Faversham, my half heading in the direction of Ramsgate via Whitstable. The other half headed through Canterbury and onto Dover.

The black curlews came to symbolise my notions of home, of permanence and belonging. In London I walked through parks as screeching green parakeets flocked overhead. To some they’re invaders and non-natives, others as a welcome burst of (now commonplace) exoticism in the wintry city. If lucky, muntjac could be spotted near the leering Spriggan statue on Parkland Walk, that silent guardian to a dead railway. Even the ubiquitous grey squirrel, stealing seed from a thousand bird-feeders, was once an alien. Things change.

What is home, really? Another person, a feeling, a smell, a taste, a place. To know a place fully is to dream it, and I dream the Kent coast. It forms my archetypal landscape. All my fictions in some way reference this place, pulled out of the city on the Thames tidal wash.

In my family visits back in the county, I never went to search for the black curlews, but that will change.