About a month ago I came home from a hard day’s work, opened the door, saw that everything was dark and so assumed no one was home. I was right. I opened our hall door to the main corridor and observed a small mouse on the floor. I made loud approving noises to the cat, who was nowhere to be seen and went to the kitchen to get some paper to pick up the mouse and throw it in the bin. I picked up the mouse which when I picked it up suddenly no longer seemed to be a mouse, it was so small, so weightless and stiff in my hand. I looked again, it was a blue tit. I became angry, extremely angry. I called out to our cat who was not at home and hurled every swearword I had ever learnt into the still air of the dark house. I was furious, I hated nature, hated the cat, hated myself. When Victoria and Rosie came home full of their adventure of buying a clothes rack they had to calm me down. “well, you can’t blame him, its his nature,” Victoria said. I told her that I didn’t care, that I hated nature and that we should have the cat put down: “There are too many fucking cats, all of them catching birds”, I said. It was Rosie’s turn: “Well, you should be angry not with the cat but with yourself. You put it there..” That last phrase needs explaining.
A year or two ago I gave a talk for some society or other and was given, as a thank-you present, a little birdhouse with the word PIMPELMEES written below a small hole of about three centimetres in diameter. Pimpelmees is the Dutch name for a blue tit. I said thank you, but did not feel particularly grateful at the time. I was, in all honesty, happier with the bottle of wine that came with it, and would have preferred a book token or some such thing. What can you do with a bird house? I stuffed it in the shed and there it stayed until last autumn when Victoria decided we should hang it up in the garden. We read the accompanying booklet. It told us what to do and what not to do if we were serious about wanting blue tits to use the birdhouse as their preferred residence. We did what we had to and this early spring we began to see interested blue tits fluttering about checking out the premises and the arrangements, looking through the hole, looking around the bird house, checking the angle of entry practising a few swoops and retreating again, no doubt to check another property they had had their eye on. This in itself was remarkable as our garden had not been visited by blue tits much before we had hung up the house. Imagine our delight when a respectable couple decided to take up residence. Suddenly I was immensely grateful to the arty lady who had given the thing to us.
We spent the next week sitting at the dining room table observing how they carried raw materials for the nest, feathers, twigs and other stuff. They decorated the entrance by picking away splinters around the hole. I presume this was to lay visible claim to the house as truly theirs. A colleague at school to whom I had confessed my excitement warned me not to go near as they would abandon the nest with the young in it. This was difficult as we had hung the house quite close to our garden door. So we were happy that the weather was rather awful during spring and when it wasn’t we made sure to ignore the birdhouse completely and keep as quiet as is possible while walking past it, or when sitting outside.
The cat couldn’t get to the birds. It tried; it climbed up the fence and got as close as it could, but it couldn’t make the angle to reach the hole. As it tried one of the blue tits, I imagined it was the male, but that probably says more about me, flew aggressively around the cat’s head threatening to pick its ears. Soon our cat abandoned the project and sat at the window instead, looking at the birds impassively, as they did their house-making, occasionally bursting out in that strange thing cats do with their jaw when looking at birds, uttering quiet little sheep-like maws. The reason I like our cat is that it really isn’t very good at catching things. I would like it to be better at catching mice, but if it were better at catching mice it would also be better at catching birds, so I am happy with the trade-off. Anyway, soon the supply flights began, telling us that the eggs had hatched. Everyday almost all day long both mum and dad would fly out and fly in carrying titbits for their pride and joy and putting out the waste whenever it was necessary. On a nice spring day we would open the door and hear the young chicks squeaking away faintly.
One of the birds always swooped straight into the bird house, like a jet approaching an aircraft carrier. The other had a more cautious approach, always looking out and jumping from a specially selected set of twigs and branches in a fixed routine towards the bird house entrance, looking carefully left and right before making the last little jump to the hole, to pop in and pop out straight away to fly off to get new supplies. We had to admire their tirelessness. Whenever the cat was in the garden, one of the birds would make what I assume to be warning noises.
And so we come to that fateful day. It was horrible. I looked at the bird house from our dining room and could see no movement. Obviously there was a problem. Perhaps both had been killed. The young would surely now go hungry and starve. Should I try to feed them? Should I go and find worms? I knew a hopeful patch at the back of the garden. Would that help? Can I help in that way? I abandoned the idea and observed the nest. It was completely still. The next day it continued to be still. I ignored the cat who came up to greet me. I refused to feed him his biscuits (Which Victoria duly did) and growled at him whenever I saw him. I wasn’t ready to forgive him and I secretly wished we no longer had a cat. He seemed quite content at all this, if a little surprised. Anyway, I began to think that it was strange for the nest to be quite so quiet. Surely the baby birds would be squawking away desperately? They don’t die that quickly, do they? Of course they don’t.
At that moment a different scenario began to form itself in my mind. Perhaps the birds had flown. Perhaps one of them must have not made its first flight and fallen to the ground. Perhaps it was abandoned by the rest. The cat, always a little ashamed at its own hopelessness in doing what cats do, had fallen on easy prey, had no doubt played with his catch in that cruel way they do and had abandoned it as a trophy in the hall when it no longer responded. It was there for us to find, to command respect.