Red Kites for Christmas
After school, we head for the hanging wood to wait for the kites, the light already bleeding away. My smallest daughter and I pick our way through brambles, disturbing a roebuck lying up under the weatherproofing of the laurel. We find a comfortably shaped tree to lean on. And then the blank sky begins to fill: red kites for Christmas. A turning gyre of dark, elegant rags in subdued colours and silence moves lower and lower, ever towards the wood.
We count 7, then 17 as they circle nearer and then they become impossible to number: 45, 63, 70 and we lose count and simply stand there, held in the calm centre of a quiet, slow, windless whirlwind.
The evening is punctuated with the coughing and batter of pheasants, whose wings are not meant for these woods. Ravens join the carousel of kites briefly, then peel off towards their own roost. One repeats a single note, then does so again on a higher frequency. Another on the hill calls like a mallet ringing off a nail. ‘Who’s up there banging?’ whispers my daughter. ‘No one’, I reply. ‘It’s a raven saying something important’. We exchange a shrug.
The kites seem unwilling to settle. Perhaps we are too close? What must they make of our pale faces peering up from the dark woodland floor with nothing but the odd lump of chalk or the last gleam off the holly leaves to reference by? The inverted triangle of my daughters’ white school blouse under her coat, shines like the stripes of a badger’s face, white where there should be black, either side her school tie. The twin beards of her Father Christmas ear muffs glow white. She is utterly absorbed in watching. On her school jumper, a red child’s kite with the motto Aiming High. We retreat a little.
Now the carousel is thick with the swirl of birds in muted colours that the wood takes back. The hill darkens and against it the birds become invisible, until they are backlit by sky the colour of school semolina.
The turning circus tightens. Most fly anti-clockwise, but others counter it. There are a few clashes, back peddles of great, 5 1/2ft wings as they bridle, rearing up like griffons. One by one, the kites try to still themselves, without the art of hovering; they do so with the difficulty, counterbalance and poise of a trapeze artist, or someone balancing a slow bicycle.
They land lightly and sit straight–backed, weighted by their delta tail. Some lift, circle and rearrange themselves in the ash trees. Always, the ashes. The trees reply with a clonk and knock of wood, absorbing the birds so they disappear. And we must go, walking hand in hand out of the dark wood and back towards other, twinkling lights, swinging our arms and singing quiet Christmas carols as we go.