Hanging out the washing against a hot, blue still-summer sky, I was suddenly aware of birds. On the aerials above the house: house martins. Our house eaves (and that of my three neighbours) still bear the ghosted imprints of former nests; but the house martins had already gone before we moved in, over a dozen years ago. A builder knocked them off to make repairs and a tawny owl pulled the rest down over several nights one summer, to get at the chicks. I have tried tempting them back, creating mud-puddles in dry springs for building, and putting up a woodcrete nest. The sparrows use it, and I am grateful for that; but I still dream of house martins swooping up to the bedroom windows.
A dozen flutter onto the aerial, and then more, until there are twenty on each, and more on the roofs. Then, there are hundreds in the air, flashing white rumps and a glossy blue-blackness at the sun. I call my neighbour and then we are all out our houses, witnessing this visitation of 1,000 sweet little hirundines on migration. They circle and bank, their contact calls a soft, wet, ‘beep beep’ among the twitter of a handful of swallows.
They settle in their hundreds, strung like clustered pegs along these zip wires to the south through a gap in the wood and over the downs beyond. After a few minutes, they bounce off at once; like raindrops sprung from a washing line, to sparkle out over the field. They form a big, glittering flock that rises and spirals south. Come back next year, I implore them silently (I think). We’ve put up boxes where your old ones were!
The following day, the weather breaks and the house goes dark. Outside, I feel the warm swirl of charged wind, and watch the swallows rise ahead of it like ashes. In the farmyard, they’re tucking up the bale stack in black plastic. The sky has gone the colour of elderberry wine and bruises. The wood, silhouetted against a thin ribbon of light to the east, becomes a 2D animation of itself, a black-paper cut out, a stage set. There is an unreal, pin sharp, storm clarity. The cornfield glows like gold, then pales as if blanched by moonlight. The sun has been eclipsed by a giant mothership of a cloud. The high, pylon whine of crickets falls silent. Robins, a wren and a dunnock stop singing. The sparrows fly up from the field to roost.
The first rain fell from a rent of blue sky in what my Northamptonshire Nan called a ‘fox’s wedding’. She used to say it ‘lightnings each night to ripen the corn’. Hampshire Nan would predict a storm if she could see rabbits on The Isle of Wight from Southsea. The thunder growls away towards the M4 and when the light comes back on, the birds start to sing again as if, at three in the afternoon, it was dawn.