Nest Box

The swifts arrived early, and fewer in number than last year. No real surprise. I’d noticed how each summer the flock had dwindled, the skies falling silent for longer spells. But a breeding pair always set up home in our bird box, and often they were return visitors. We recognized individuals by the shape of the cream patch at the bird’s throat. Ben suggested the box, though I was the one for the birds—he’d read about the decline in properties with natural eaves, how the swifts were struggling to find good sites to raise their young. We thought we could help them out. Our nest box had occupied the same spot ever since we bought the house, back in nineteen seventy-five.

This year the sightings began in April. I woke one morning, rheumy-eyed with my back niggling after another restless night. The usual chorus started up, the blackbird, a family of territorial great-tits, hurling warnings to each other and anyone else who cared to listen. Then, piercing the melee, those unmistakeable screams. They were here! After days on the wing, migrating all the way from the rainforests of the Congo, they were here, in sleepy Herne Hill. I turned over excitedly to tell Ben, and then I remembered. It was like that most mornings. I pushed back the duvet and hurried downstairs, before the memories could nix me.

Outside, the patio stones cooled my bare feet as I scoured the sky. I could still hear their cries, fainter now. Minutes passed before I glimpsed them: five distant specks, high up and hard to track—impossible without my glasses. They spun out like seeds dancing from a dandelion clock. I squinted up at them until my neck ached. It boggled me how they knew the route.

One more screaming pass overhead and the swifts vanished from sight. It was only then I noticed my next door neighbour, sneaking looks across the fence whilst she watered her prized tulips. So I was out in my pyjamas. What was it to her? I was inclined to give her a piece of my mind, only for a while now I’d suspected she was reporting back to my son. I retreated inside, irritated.

I texted Gill to let her know the news—she was in the local group too. Soon after, the WhatsApp messages started pouring in. I’d finally got my head around it, WhatsApp. I typed my own note to confirm our Herne Hill swifts had made it before putting the phone away. Some days I couldn’t cope with the constant chatter, the smileys or whatever they were called these days, hieroglyphics that I scrutinized, wondering if I was reading them right. Later I saw Gill had texted me back. She didn’t ask how I was, though that was what she meant. People had been kind. But I knew, given enough time, even kindness became a burden.

I made a brew and installed myself in the garden, watching the sky, trying to count the fleeting shapes. Six, maybe seven? Fewer than last year.

*

Matthew rang on Sunday at ten o’clock on the dot. I imagined Esme nagging him over breakfast, the implied get it over so we can get on with our day. Matthew sounded harried, but then he always sounded harried. It was a millennial thing. With hindsight I thought we’d probably spoiled Matthew, with his middle-class upbringing so far from what Ben and I had grown up with, Ben in Essex, me in West Yorkshire. Like any responsible parents, we’d wanted him to have better prospects. Turned out he’d given himself some extra expectations on top, or maybe that was a generation thing too.

Matthew spent some time giving me the exact specification of his new coffee machine, a superior model, I should consider getting one myself, before reaching what was clearly the point of the call: could I take Lucia for the afternoon? By that stage I’d already let on I had no plans for the day and I couldn’t get out of it, which annoyed me further. Lucia was an odd child. Precocious. She’d always been closer to Ben than me. Lucia was ten but according to Matthew, she was already acting like a teenager. (‘She wants her privacy. Privacy, for Christ’s sake!’) I wasn’t sure if this problem was of Lucia’s making or theirs, but either way, I was stuck with the girl. Esme was probably off to the spa, I thought sourly.

The doorbell rang at a minute past twelve; Matthew had been literal when he said the afternoon. I opened the door and Lucia slipped straight past me (‘Hey, Granny’—I hated both of those terms—what was wrong with ‘Hello’?) and disappeared into the quiet anticipation of the house. From the car, Matthew gave an overly cheery wave and drove off. I trouped resignedly after Lucia and found the patio doors wide open. She’d headed straight to the garden.

I brought seeds, declared my granddaughter—she tended to speak in statements, did Lucia. If I plant them today they’ll grow in a month.

What kind of seeds? I asked suspiciously.

Wildflowers.

She thrust the packet at me, watching my face in that direct and rather unnerving way of hers while I read the description on the back. I considered the garden. I hadn’t done much maintenance over the past few months, or before that to be honest, there’d been so much else to think about, but even so the borders were full.

Where are you planning to put them?

In the grass. Grass is a monoculture.

And what’s that when it’s at home?

Lucia looked at me impatiently. She wasn’t old enough to disguise her emotions, and I could see her thinking: Ben would have known what she was talking about.

Mum says I can’t plant the seeds at home because they’re messy. 

So now you want to plant them in my garden? Go on with you.

But it’s for the bees, Granny.

Oh aye?

I sighed, knowing acquiescence was easier. Last time Lucia was here she’d started talking about Ben, jabbering on about some outing or other, and did I remember, and could she look at the photo albums. I couldn’t bear that. It made me sharp with her, which I later regretted. I gave Lucia a trowel and a watering can and she began digging divots in the lawn, crouching intently over each one as she removed a clod of earth and placed the seeds in the hole. Weren’t children her age supposed to be technology-obsessed? If this kept her out of trouble, I supposed I should encourage it. I couldn’t imagine these seeds would have much chance against the lawn—the monoculture—anyway. I settled back on the recliner with my binoculars. 

The camera in the nest box was set up and ready to go. I wondered whether I’d get the same pair of swifts this year, or if they’d be newcomers. They could be fierce claiming their spots: once we’d watched two rivals going at each other in the box, the previous year’s incumbent and a pretender, in a vicious flurry of beaks and wings and those funny retractable feet.

I must have drifted off. When I looked up the lawn was riddled with holes and Lucia was conscientiously watering each one. Her hands were black with soil. I should have given her my gardening gloves, Esme would be furious about all that dirt under her fingernails, not to mention her clothes. I was about to tell Lucia she’d made a right mess when I caught her next door peering over the fence. The look of horror on her face raised an unexpected flare of triumph in my breast. They could go to hell, I thought, the lot of them.

Very nice, I said loudly. Lucia gave me a penetrating look.

Do you really think that? she said. Or are you being sarcastic?

Too clever by half, that one.

*

Every day I checked the box. Someone from the society had rigged the camera so we could see the birds on the computer. Towards the end, when it was difficult for Ben to get out of bed, Matthew gave us an iPad and that way I could bring the birds to Ben. We watched the parents, taking turns with their eggs—three last year!—then later skimming in and out, and the chicks huddled together with their gaping, insatiable mouths. There was a correlation between their fattening and Ben’s thinning, but we didn’t remark on that, we talked about the parents with their stubby beaks and hunched shoulders, wings crossed like scythes, unaccustomed to stillness. The German word for them was Mauersegler, Ben told me. It meant wall glider.

Three weeks passed, and our box remained empty. I couldn’t understand it. I knew there were fewer birds this year, but all the more reason a box like ours—like mine—should be a draw. Other people in the WhatsApp group had pairs. They shared camera links. My jealousy rose up with a ferocity that took me aback. I thought about leaving the group until I imagined the fuss my disappearance might cause, and anyway I wasn’t sure I knew how to leave it. (Would anyone miss me, though? Folk went out of their way at first, but gradually a person receded from view, became opaque again.)

Sunday, ten o’clock, the phone strident in the kitchen. Matthew asked if I could take Lucia. He warned me that she was obsessed with the idea of a school strike next month, another of those climate days. Lucia’s friend had gone on the last one and Lucia was desperate to attend the next. Esme was furious about it. Esme didn’t believe in strikes. I was fairly sure she didn’t believe in the welfare state either, but I knew better than to say that to Matthew. I had a terrible feeling he’d voted Tory at the last election. Instead I offered to look after Lucia if she wanted to go on this march, that way neither of them had to take time off work. Matthew sounded grateful, also suspicious. He said he’d think about it. I resisted the temptation to meddle, and told Matthew about the empty nest box. Matthew joked maybe the box needed a makeover. I told him it was an RSPB box, the latest standard. Ben had chosen it.

I didn’t say as much to Matthew but the rejection of the box felt like a rejection of Ben. It wasn’t fair. That was the thing you were never allowed to say. You could be distraught, broken, catatonic even, but to say it wasn’t fair drew attention to someone else’s luck—because it was luck, at the end of the day, the luck of a mis-programmed cell—and that just made the other person feel bad when they were trying to make you feel better. But it wasn’t. Ben never smoked, wasn’t much of a drinker, kept himself in shape; he’d gone on bracing walks with Norwegian poles and played squash once a week at Brixton Rec.

At the funeral, our friend Gill read that poem by Raymond Carver. ‘Late Fragment’, it’s called. Ben was always one for words, whereas my passion was textiles, cotton grades and satin and the silk and oil of feather. He chose the poem himself, chose the whole damn ceremony, and I was surprised when I saw the print-out, how short it was. I thought a lot about that phrase, ‘beloved on the earth’. I was 67, Ben was 68. He’d retired two years earlier. It must have started by then, though we didn’t know. We’d had plans. Destinations. Now here I was, with potentially another ten or even twenty years ahead of me, no longer beloved.

One year we found a chick that had fallen out of the nest box. I’d been watering the plants when I saw it, a grey smudge on the patio. I thought it must be dead, it couldn’t possibly have survived the drop. Then I imagined all the waiting catastrophes if it had survived—neighbourhood cats, the foxes. I shouted—Ben! Ben, get out here!—and he came rushing out the house, likely thinking I was having a heart attack. Get something! I said, crouched protectively over the chick. Like what? I don’t know, a box, a towel! Ben came back with a tea towel and cautiously we nudged the tiny thing on top. The chick bleated and thrashed about in distress, but at least it was alive. We gathered up the towel like a sling. It weighed next to nothing. Now what? said Ben. I squinted up at the box. No way we could get it back up there, and didn’t parents reject chicks that had fallen out the nest? I couldn’t remember. I’d have to go on the internet. We’d best call the RSPB, I said finally, so we took the chick inside, and popped the tea towel inside a shoe box, and I sat anxiously beside it until the RSPB phone line opened.

It was the first time I’d seen a chick up close, apart from on the camera. You could see the pale edges of every individual feather on the crown of its head, and the wing tips were dipped in a startlingly clear white, like bric-a-brac on a dress hem. Against the sky they looked black, you’d never know they had any white on them. The chick’s eyes were as large as its beak. A few fluffy juvenile feathers clung on, at the back of its head, between the wings.

When I spoke to the RSPB they told me to weigh the chick and give it water with a soaked cotton bud, avoiding the nostrils, and if I could to measure its wings. That was a debacle and a half but we managed it, just about. Sixteen centimetres. It was almost ready to fly. And that was how we came to have the swift in the house for two days, until the moment we took it outside, and Ben cupped it in his hands and raised it high so it could feel the air flow, and its wings extended, and after a few cautious flurries it got the idea, and was gone from Ben’s hands and tracking upwards so fast I could barely follow it, and for three or four years after that it wouldn’t touch land.

*

Look at the bees, Granny! shouted Lucia. We’ve got bumbles!

Four weeks on from Lucia’s planting endeavours, my lawn was no longer a lawn. It was a riot of what Esme would undoubtedly have called weeds. The phacelia, or scorpion weed, had taken best. There was something carnivorous, I thought, about the leaves with their ridges of barbed spines protecting the flowerhead. A dozen bumblebees grazed contentedly.

Lucia got out her phone and said she was reporting the bees on an app. The flowers grew five-feet high in places and she crawled in between the stems to get the best angle for her photograph. Watching her reminded me of my childhood, long afternoons let loose on the Yorkshire moors with my bike and my brother Derek, no adults, no supervision, no keeping of the time. This glut of phacelia, its robust messiness, made me feel southern, gentrified even, in a way that took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure I liked it.

I counted ten! said Lucia triumphantly.

That’s grand, love. Show us the pics?

She perched next to me and with the help of the app, we identified two species, the garden bumblebee, and what we decided was probably a common carder, fluffy and golden with thin stripes.

Now can you conjure up some swifts? I joked. There’s not so many this year.

Lucia told me, very seriously, that insects were dying. And swifts eat insects, don’t they? she said. So maybe that’s why they haven’t come. I explained to her how the swifts collected insects in a clever pouch at the back of their throats, and rolled these catches into a ball with saliva. They ate the balls themselves or took them back to the nest if they had chicks. Except this year the box was empty.

But I saw one go in, she said.

Don’t be silly, Lucia. I’ve been watching the camera on the computer. I’d know if there was a bird in there.

But I saw one.

I let it go. I didn’t want to discourage her.

Are you still sad, Granny? she asked, with that uncanny perceptiveness children so often display.

Aye, Lucia, I’m still sad.

I miss Granddad.

I miss him too.

Lucia was too young to understand that it wasn’t that I couldn’t picture life without Ben. I could, all too well. You read stories about couples going, one following the other, that people really could die of a broken heart. Perhaps you could if your heart was dodgy, or another organ just waiting for an excuse to pack up. I’d always been healthy—constitution like an ox, my mother used to say. I was here for the long haul. Since Ben died, I could see the appeal of constant flight. I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to dream. In the months at the end I’d grown accustomed to snatching half an hour where I could, in the waiting room, or on a chair at his bedside on the ward, waking with a crick in my neck and a burst of fear, then foolhardy hope. Now I couldn’t stop moving. I longed to be up there with the swifts. I had this mad notion of floating up to join them, the earth far below, everything small and distant and fuzzy, everything dissolved like sugar into tea.

Do you think Granddad would like the garden? Lucia asked.

I think he would, love.

She leaned against me. I put my arm around her, mulling how these afternoons had brought us closer. I knew that sooner or later I’d become irrelevant to her; she’d get caught up with the things that girls can’t escape, even if they want to, makeup and crushes, the giddying intensity of female friendships. I worried about her. It seemed as though every day there was another report about social media and girls getting depressed, and girls asking for plastic surgery to make their lips fatter or their noses smaller and even things that were physiologically impossible, like enlarging their eyes. At the moment, Lucia thought it was funny to take a photo of herself and put rabbit ears and a nose on it, but that couldn’t last.

I couldn’t bear the idea of the world crushing her idiosyncrasies, her curiosity. And honestly it was this as much as the chance to stick one to Esme that made me mention the strike. I told Lucia I’d offered to take her if her parents agreed. Her face lit up at once. I hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed if Esme refused permission.

And another thing, I said. How about you start calling me Gran?

Don’t you like Granny? said Lucia with interest.

No, it makes me feel… it doesn’t matter. I don’t like it.

Okay, Gran. You’re on.

Matthew came to collect her later that afternoon and conceded to stop for a quick brew. He stood on the patio, hands on hips, like a surveyor.

Jesus, Mum, it’s a jungle back here.

I glanced out the back. The haze of green and purple slowly settled into focus. You couldn’t get through to the gate without trampling the wildflowers. The roses were hidden behind a sea of yellow poppies. Legions of snails roamed the intersections.

We’ll get someone in, Matthew was saying. An afternoon’s work should clear it. 

No need, I said.

I don’t want you straining yourself, Mum.

I’m not planning to clear it, I said.

It’s good for the bees, said Lucia, looking up from the banner she was painting for the strike. I’d managed to talk her out of the slogan ‘I’ll be less activist when you’re less shit’—the S-word would set Esme properly on the warpath. We’d settled on ‘I’ll do my homework when you do yours’.

Right, I said. Good for bees. It wasn’t the reason I had let the garden go, but Matthew didn’t need to know that. My response evidently pained him; his back stiffened and his chin went in. The road from disorder to insanity was a straightforward leap in Matthew’s brain. I couldn’t blame him, I’d brought him up to value neatness. A tidy house is a tidy mind. Except life wasn’t tidy. I’d failed to teach him that.

Matthew’s consternation turned to his daughter.

How’s she been? he asked, lowering his voice.

Grand, I said.

Has she mentioned—his voice dropped even further, and I had to lean forward to catch his next words—that Swedish girl?

I frowned. Lucia and I had enjoyed a long conversation about Greta Thunberg earlier that afternoon; Lucia clearly hero-worshipped the girl, and I wasn’t going to steer her away from a sensible role model. It would be imprudent to mention this to Matthew, however.

Who’s that? I hedged. A new friend?

Oh, never mind, said Matthew evasively. Come on, Lucia. You can leave that banner here. And don’t think you’re getting out of your homework, either.

I’ll keep it safe, I promised, seeing Lucia’s crestfallen expression. See you next week then?

Yes please, Gran.

I watched them walk to the car, remembering how I’d initially disliked my granddaughter’s name. What’s wrong with Lucy? I’d demanded, knowing as soon as I spoke that it was a mistake, another plate I’d gifted to Esme’s armour. But I’d come to admit it suited the child, with her intensities. She hoarded facts, and shared them with the same fervour. Did you know, she’d told me last week, the black plague is still alive? It’s in the permafrost with loads of other diseases and if the ice melts, they’re all coming back. Well, I’d said, I’m not sure about that. Granny, it’s science, said Lucia, with the world-weary patience of the initiated waiting for the rest of us to catch up. It doesn’t die, see. It just goes to sleep. I’d looked it up later on the internet. Lucia was right. The plague was out there, buried in Siberia, where it had been dormant for the past four hundred years. Shouldn’t someone in charge be concerned about that?

Lucia was different, I could tell. She was odd, but she was also special. I’d not felt that way about Matthew. This was new. 

*

I squinted at the computer screen. Gill had sent me a link to a website about power of attorney. I’d managed the rest—the probate for Ben, sorting out my own funeral arrangements and paying for it all in advance so nobody could change my wishes. But I’d held back on the power of attorney. It would be Matthew, naturally. I shouldn’t be hesitating. My son was a good man, with his heart in the right place, even if his decisions baffled me. The problem was Esme. I imagined the conversations, the way I could be phased out of their lives.

On the screen, the cursor turned into a whirling blue circle. Involuntarily I swivelled the chair, about to call out—Ben, can you give me a hand here! He’d always had the better handle on technology. The rituals were the hardest things to shake. All those habits laid down over forty years, limned into muscle and nerve; a head turned towards the opposite armchair, acknowledging a shared joke, his hand squeezing mine during a sad bit in a nature film, the paper dropping through the letterbox, his slippers squeaking as he went to pick it up. And then the later ones. The point where he couldn’t stoop any more, after that fall, so I fetched the paper. The lifting and washing and wiping. The gallows humour, our placard against an eternal hotness at the eyes. Rituals of wellness and sickness, long-learned and short, laid over each other as I moved through the house; the half-sugar stirred into earl grey and the divvying of pills on the worktop, scrambled eggs in extra butter, the doctor’s hold music on the phone. It made me think how much of Ben now existed solely in my head. That people only lasted as long as memories. It made me think about the swifts, fewer each year, and if they did stop coming how long they could be remembered, when the generations who’d known them were gone.

Even now I expected Ben to walk through the door at any moment, or find him dozing in the conservatory, a book face down in his lap. It wouldn’t have surprised me, even though every logical part of me knew he was gone, ashes scattered, particles afloat. In a hundred years time, would people look to the skies and expect to see swifts? Would they remember a bird that could sleep motionless in the air, ten thousand feet above us in the night?

The blue wheel vanished and the cursor returned. An icon appeared on the screen, blinking in the bottom right corner. I hated this machine. Ben was all for Macs but I’d used a PC at work and I could never figure out what was wrong. I moved the cursor across to the icon, hoping it would offer a clue.

WEBCAM DISCONNECTED 

I moved the cursor away, brought it back again. The same message. I stared at it, confused. How long had that message been there? Could it possibly mean…? I left the computer on and went outside, aware that my heart was pounding. I dragged the recliner to the edge of the wildflower territory and lay back, gazing up at the box, trying not to blink. Clouds moved fast overhead, revealing then covering the sun. My skin sweated and tightened in the heat. I started to burn, but remained where I was. I heard the bumblebees droning, the whistle of the blackbird who nested in the oak two doors down, a wood pigeon lofting overhead. It seemed an age before I heard the swifts.

Five of them screamed overhead.

A bird swooped down and dived into the nest box.

It happened so fast, I’d have missed it if I blinked. Seconds later the bird emerged again, tracking steeply upwards until I lost it in the blue. I lay there, amazed, appalled at my idiocy. The swifts had been here all along. Lucia had seen them, and I’d chosen to disbelieve her in favour of a malfunctioning camera.

I composed a text message carefully.

SWIFT IN THE BOX. LOVE GRAN. XXX

She replied a minute later. 

I told you gran!!!

The happy smiley followed, then a crying smiley, then:

Mum won’t let me go on the strike

I sent her the sad smiley. It seemed a poor consolation.

*

The man at the door had not come to check the gas meter. Nor was he trying to sell me something. He was, he declared, my gardener.

But I haven’t arranged for a gardener, I said.

Your son booked me, said the man. Said you’ve got some weeds to clear out?

I shut the door on him. Then I reconsidered, opened it, and said (because he was still there, bewildered), And don’t go poking round the back, either. That’s my granddaughter’s garden.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this angry. It was a good feeling, fierce and strong, and the cure for it came to me with sudden clarity.

I’d collected Lucia after school a few times so the receptionist in the school foyer recognized me. I handed over the letter I’d forged in Matthew’s name. My heart was racing. I felt like a criminal. The receptionist told me to take a seat, morning break was in ten minutes. I waited, unable to calm my nerves, certain I’d be rumbled. Finally the bell rang. The corridors flooded with children in summer uniform. I stood, craning to spot Lucia. There she was, with her friend Farah. I waved, catching her attention, and her face blossomed. She ran over at once.

What are you doing here, Gran?

Come on, I said. We’re going to the strike.

But Mum said—

I’ve given the school a letter, I said quickly, hoping the receptionist hadn’t overheard. Technically it was true. I gave Lucia a t-shirt and shorts and told her to run and change. Beaming, she went to tell Farah the good news. While she was getting ready the receptionist picked up the phone and I waited in agonies, convinced she was calling Matthew. Then Lucia was back, chattering excitedly as we made our way out through the playground. What about the banner? It was in the car, I said. We’d drive to the station and get the train into town. She could paint her face in the car on the way.

But you can’t have any photos taken, I said quickly. Lucia gave me one of her penetrating looks and I bustled her into the car, pointed out the paints and the compact mirror I’d brought for her to use. We drove to the station, my hands clammy on the wheel at the thought of my transgression, and I went to pay the meter while Lucia finished doing her face. A blue and green Earth on one cheek and a fiery circle with an X through on the other, which I recognized nervously as the sign of that Extinction Rebellion group (was this who we were now?). Her hair hung in plaits.

The hair do’s for Greta, is it? I asked. It didn’t suit Lucia, but I kept my mouth shut.

Of course!

Right-oh, I said. Good job with the paints. Now let’s get this train, shall we?

I’d thought we might attract attention on the tube, but in London you could be wearing a bin bag and no one would give you a second glance. At Westminster I was relieved to spot several other groups with banners, a woman with a buggy and four teenage girls who I guessed to be about sixteen. I followed them purposefully, trying to appear as though I knew what I was doing, which I didn’t—I’d never been on a protest in my life. It fooled Lucia at least and we exited the station and made our way to Parliament Square. I’d expected a few dozen people standing about and I was astonished to find the square full, hundreds of children and teenagers gathered with assorted parents or other dutiful adults in tow. They carried banners and placards and several had plaited their hair in the style of that Swedish girl. Beside me, Lucia was bubbling with delight.

Let’s go in, Gran!

We are in, I said, my worry rising—what if these older teenagers got violent, or the police started a kettle?—but unable to resist the tug of Lucia’s hand as she pulled us deeper into the crowd. We were on the move now, caught in the surge of people heading towards Millbank. A girl with a Greta Needs You! poster saw Lucia and gave a salute of recognition; Lucia immediately claimed her as a soulmate and they started rabbiting away. The other girl was with her mother. We exchanged nods with a mix of shy pride and bemusement that seemed to be the modus operandi of the adults on the scene. This woman had taken the day off work to accompany her daughter.

Music blasted from enormous speakers. On a wall outside Westminster a dozen kids shouted ‘what do we want, climate justice, when we do we want it, now!’, and on the other side of the road younger children were doing supervised painting on a stretch of lawn, and older ones, the teenagers mostly and some Lucia’s age, took turns with the microphone to talk about the state of the planet and how everyone was fucking everything up and it was about time their voices were heard. The whole scene had a festival air, but like Lucia, the young people here knew their facts. Not long after we arrived, a massive cheer went round. The politician from the Green Party had turned up, although we were too far away to see the podium and I struggled to make out the speech crackling through the loudspeakers.

Out the corner of my eye I caught Lucia taking a selfie with this other girl. I rushed in.

Lucia, don’t put that on the internet!

Why not?

You can have it on your phone, I said. Just not the internet, please.

For a moment Lucia looked as though she might argue. Then understanding flooded her face. My relief bloomed and instantly dissipated when she said:

Gran, did you break me out of school? 

I tried, ineffectually, to look innocent.

Listen, Lucia, I said in a rush. I might not have had time to check with your father. Remember, I’m to blame. You can’t get in trouble if you didn’t know. We can go home if you’d rather…

You’re such a rebel, Gran, she said admiringly. No way am I going home.

She snuck the phone back into her pocket. I couldn’t be sure if she had or hadn’t put the photograph on the internet and I decided not to ask. My heart was already hammering like a trapped bird. Either way, there’d be hell to pay. I didn’t care. I’d take Esme’s rage and Matthew’s disappointment. I’d take it all for the beaming face of my granddaughter, talking about the world with her peers in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of at her age. Yet we did share something, I thought. Something Matthew’s generation had skipped, or forgotten. Lucia craved the kind of freedom I’d grown up with, the thing I’d failed to give my son, whether from fear of paedophiles and murderers on every corner, or an unquestioning surrender to technology and the inexorability of progress. This disruption that was happening with the swifts, the fluctuations in weather and seasons that were more than the natural cycles of the planet, Lucia understood it. And she wanted to do something.

Lucia, love? 

She looked up, distracted.

Your granddad would be proud, I told her.

He’d be proud of you too, she said.

I nodded, nudged her back toward her new friend. I didn’t want her to see my eyes were wet, it wasn’t a day for crying. Would Ben be proud of me? I hoped he would. I wished more than anything he could see Lucia now, so bright and fearless, and that he could see us together, know how far I’d come. Automatically I looked up, hoping for the signature arc against the sky as they barnstormed overhead, a sign that some trace of Ben might be out there, watching, but of course Westminster belonged to the common pigeon. I looked to our granddaughter instead. She headed for the microphone. When her turn came to speak she took it confidently, gave me a grin and a thumbs up. 

The world she belonged to was splintering away from everything I knew. I didn’t know how to react, whether to grieve for her or be terrified or hopeful. It was all of these things. No one had invented a smiley for my confused feelings. Maybe we’d need one, soon.


© E. J. Swift 2021