The air is heavy and strange, as if full of impending storm. The sky above is blue, but we see it through a filter of red-gold desert dust that turns it mauve-grey. On the common, a springlike warmth emanates from the ground; you can feel it on the palm of your hand held a foot above it. In the wet gully, kingcups are in flower along with the complicated leaf and flowerheads of tiny golden saxifrage. On the bank, with their soft, trefoil leaves and meekly bowed heads, wood sorrel, or ‘alleluia’ are out for Easter.
On the old gravel workings a pair of lapwing call to each other and a woodlark sings. I am not sure I would spot one on the ground among skylarks, but the song is undeniable – a more musical la lululu; a purer, broken hallelujah with a melancholy edge. It is beautiful.
And then, with a heart-leap of relief and excitement, I glimpse my first swallow, the fine wires of its tail streamers snipping through the veil of fine, falling sand it should have left behind. But what of the other birds coming in now from Africa and Spain, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and flying through the shotgun fire of ten-thousand Maltese hunters? Are they lifted on the wind as their fellow travellers plummet to the ground? Or sitting out the sand storm before trying to cross that treacherous desert? I imagine them up there in slow motion, rowing through thick, choking gold dust that dulls the light along the South coast – all on an instinct.
I can taste it on my tongue, feel it drying on my lips, can stroke it to a silky powder on my wrist. I wonder if it’s hard going up there, if it stings the eyes of cuckoos, willow warblers and nightingales, swallows, and little ringed plovers, like it does mine?