August 09, 2006

This parrot is now reversing

I'll be on a ferry on Sunday, Caen to Portsmouth, taking a van across the Pyrenees and France for three days. I've not been on a ferry for a while: it used to be aeroplanes I could never afford, so much so that after making a plane journey in 1991 it was ten years before I took another. Even now, when I fly regularly between Zaragoza and Stansted, when I'm blasé enough to talk about the time "it usually arrives" as if it were a bus journey, I still make sure that I am far enough ahead in the queue to get a window seat so that I can watch the country I am leaving, as it recedes, and the place to which I travel, as it looms. I used to do much the same on a ferry, watching the land behind me until I could see it no longer, then hoping to catch the sight of new land before anybody else, as if there were a gold coin for the first of the ship's company to see it.

I took a ferry from Ramsgate early in the morning once: sufficiently early that I had to stay in a B&B the night before, on the cliffs above the ferryport. The one I stayed at had a parrot, presumably to convey the idea that the proprietor was an old sea-dog who, though now retired, could hardly bear to be out of sight of his beloved sea and who had brought home with him a parrot he had acquired on his travels. In all probability neither parrot nor proprietor had ever seen any more of the sea that one can see when standing on the land, and certainly the parrot's interests clearly lay in the freight lorries that made use of the port rather than the ferries to which they transferred their containers.

I knew this - I could hardly not know it - because with immensely impressive skill and attention to detail it had learned to imitate the sound of a lorry's alarm and the warning message lorries play when they're reversing. The lorries are, I believe, restricted in how much activity, and therefore noise, they are able to generate at night, so as not to unduly disturb the residents. The parrot however was not apparently subject to this restriction and made the most of his freedom from red tape: all through the night, just outside the window, emitting the same phrase over and again:
Beep! Beep! Beep! This lorry is now reversing!

August 07, 2006

The monster in the corner

While we are staying in the house, its owner is away, in Ireland. So we are looking after the house itself, her garden, her cannabis plant and both the cats. They are longhairs, brother and sister, though resembling one other in little but name: to distinguish the two, we have called the tom Mimi Blanco after his white coat and his sister, smaller and half his weight, Mimi Pequeña. They get on better than other pairs I have known, restricting themselves to an exchange of jabs every couple of days and other than that not quarrelling about food or territory. Blanco is the braver of the two, though he will not let himself be picked up: Pequeña will pick up, light and small enough to fit comfortably in one hand, but will not visit the darker parts of the house on her own.

She will have to, soon. Cats hate changes in their environment. They do not want new people coming into the house, but once those people have arrived, they are made nervous if the people leave. They do not want the temperature to rise, and if it rises, mew and whine, complaining that you let it happen, wanting it changed back to what it was before. But after it has risen they will mew and whine if it begins to fall. They do not want the furniture to move, and least of all they want their feeding-place to change. But now the feeding-place, alas, must move, has moved, and the change has made them nervous.

We are away, back in England collecting my life, until almost the end of the month, and the job of feeding and watering, both cannabis and cats, will pass to an elderly woman who lives across the street. Pequeña mostly lives on the first floor, where the people mostly live as well, the ground floor being to all intents and purposes a basement, a floorful of things apparently unused. But the old lady is not agile and to make it easier for her, the food bowl has to move from the first floor kitchen to a ground floor room adjoining the front door. We have moved it already, so that they are used to it before she comes. But although they know it is there and although they have mostly ceased to stand in the kitchen and make mewing, mimi noises, Pequeña cannot get used to it yet. The bowl stands at the foot of the staircase, but although Blanco, with a little encouragement, will bound down the stairs, with more ease than he can bound up them, Pequeña needs to be carried, or she will not go.

It is on the furthest side of the room from the street, but there is still light, through the gaps around the edges of the door, and hence and outside which she knows nothing about. There is an inner courtyard, where both cats get light and air and room to run around, but they do not know the street except as a hidden world of noises: dogs and people and their cars. They may make of them, for all I know, what Plato's cave-dwellers made of the shadows on the wall, but while Blanco is sometimes at the door when we arrive, curious to find out whether how close reality is to his perception, Pequeña is afraid of the noises, or whatever she has made of them. She is afraid of the light around the door: she is also afraid of the dark, the quiet, unlit rooms on the other side of the staircase. When I first carried her down the steps to show her where the food was, she looked one way, towards the light, then the other, towards the dark, and finding neither brought her comfort, she struggled free and ran up the steps again, crying mimi as she went.

Between the light and the dark, the monster in the corner. The water tank is next to the front door. It hums, gurgles, roars, depending on what function of the sink or toilet has been carried out upstairs. Pequeña need not use her imagination to give this monster shape. It is there, menacing, crouching, watching her. She looks at the bowl - and looks straight back at the monster, unable to eat for fear that it will make her move while her head is busy with the food. Even if it falls silent, she glances at it constantly, unable to trust its silence, fearing that the monster will wake up.

But she will eat, now, sometimes, provided that I take her down myself and make sure the monster is kept quiet, no using the sink or bathroom before I carry her to the bowl. When she eats, she takes one mouthful and then looks to her left, like a swimmer breathing, checking that there are no noises, checking that the monster has moved. She eats, but nervously, quite likely losing as much energy in her nervousness as she accumulates in eating - and I must stay by her side while she is eating, being with her, making reassuring noises. But in a couple of days I shall be gone and she will be on her own, only her desire to eat preserving what remains of her much-dwindled courage, only her and the food and the monster in the corner, without me there stroking, waiting, standing by her, telling her that everything is going to be all right.

August 03, 2006


After he was shot and wounded, Orwell went to Marrakesh to recuperate: he described the storks he saw there as
great white birds....glittering like scraps of paper.
The storks winter in Africa and summer in Europe: I saw them as a child, on holidays, along the south-western side of France. I see them daily, here, during the summer. They nest at the top of the Cathedral. Huesca is practicaly alone on the plain and the cathedral, itself, like most Spanish churches, stands already on a hill. I don't know if Orwell ever saw it: you cannot see Huecsa from Siétamo, there being a ridge between the two, and atop that ridge a castle, Montearagon. From there, seventy years ago, one would have seen the cathedral clear and although Huesca is bigger now than it was then, it still stands out, as it was intended to do. But in dominating the landscape, imposing itself on human eyes, it necessarily attracts the attention of the stork: who must see it from a long way away and see it as an ideal place of rest and sanctuary. The upper reaches of the edifice are full of nests, where the storks, having made the opposite journey to Orwell's, take their rest and make their summer homes.

I can hear them from inside the house. Their cry is more a clatter than a call: it persists for several seconds sounding as if it was being made by someone setting off a wooden mechanism, each slat crashing into the next until its energy is exhausted. Yet when one sees them, in flight, singly or more often in a group heading towards the Cathedral, barely higher than the roofs, the startling thing is how small their bodies appear. They are large birds, but they are all wing: their body functions almost as a joint to hold their wings together, but the curve of the neck stands out, providing a third dimension to its shape.

It seems, at first glance, not quite right. It gives the impression that too much is being asked of the design, that the stork needs to look about itself and fly at the same time, the former requirement detracting from the aerodynamics that serve the latter. But one watches the storks until they are out of sight. It is the very slight ungainliness which makes one watch - that and the knowledge that they have come such a long way, together, understanding by instinct what we can only understand by reading.

What wonders they are, in their instinct, in their flight, in their ability to produce such a loud and lasting clatter from such an insubstantial frame. I am not sure what Orwell meant by "scraps of paper". The body is small but the wings are large, too large for scraps. Perhaps he meant, in the sun that must have shone in Marrakesh, the way it glints off portions of their frame, appearing suddenly whiter than they are, proceeding without much movement of the wings, without much effort, slowly as everything moves slowly in this energy-sapping sun.