I was born in a housing estate at the foot of a steep hill. The top of the hill is ringed with trees, ancient sessile oaks, wych elm and horse chestnut. The rooks owned the woods. These were big birds with heavy black beaks and bodies matt as coal dust but their hoods shone like satin and framed beaded eyes that saw everything.
Every evening the rooks welcomed nightfall with a great dance. The clamour, at first just one or two birds but soon dozens and then hundreds and eventually as many as a thousand rooks, swooped around and around in a black cloud as, in small groups, the birds returned from their day’s scavenging. In the valley below the housemartins and swifts zipped and flitted between the rows of houses but they flew in the shadow of the rooks.
Finally, at some unknowable signal, the rooks would drop from the sky to their roosts in the trees. For a few minutes the trees swayed and rattled as the birds noisily settled down and when all went quiet, night had come.
Nothing in the estate was safe from these birds. Cats, small dogs, rabbits – any kind of unwary pet or careless wild thing was a potential target. A ruffling of feathers, a chorus of rough croaks and something vulnerable would squeal. Afterwards the birds would stride casually across the road or on the little scrub of grass that was our playground and dare us to challenge them.
My mother was terrified of the birds.
I was the first baby born in our estate. It was newly built, a frantic response to the civil rights campaign for Catholic that was rapidly turning into the bloody Troubles – a door shut after that horse had bolted. My parents moved in while the houses around them were still being built and before people learned what it was like to live with the rooks. It was a bright spring morning and my mother left my pram in the garden – for all the shootings and the bombs erupting around them, that still felt a safe thing to do. She left me there and went back into the house to clean or cook or do whatever one of the thousand other things she did to make our lives that little bit better.
When she came back, just a few minutes later, a huge rook was sitting on the handle of my pram, staring in at me.
She screamed and rushed forward, waving frantic arms, trying to scare the bird away.
The rook just stared at her.
My mother stopped.
The crow looked at her, then back down at me, and then spread its wings and launched itself into the air.
My mother described the rook as a monster – vast as an eagle, darker than the night.
“The King Rook,” she’d called it and my dad had laughed at her.
But I know the King Rook is real.
He came back.
He came back and sometimes he took my things.
He took my Action Man from the garden, my toy car from the playground and my favourite tee-shirt from the washing line.
And I knew it was the King Rook because when he took something, he always left a gift.
A pyramid of snail shells, each one punched open and empty, the delicate skull of a rat, a pebble smoothed and polished by flowing water so that it shone like a jewel. And, one morning, planted in the centre of our tiny front garden like a banner, or a sign of ownership, a single perfect feather – so black that it hurt to look at.
They were magical signs. Signs that no matter how bad things got around me – and there were times when things got very bad – that I was protected. The King Rook was watching over me.
I have the collection of gifts spread in front of me now. If I concentrate hard, I can still feel the magic and the security. But it’s getting harder. My dad calls it rubbish, and sometimes I can see it with his eyes.
This is my last day in this house. Tomorrow I will leave for university. Tomorrow night I will be sleeping in a different country. I’ll come back, of course, but some part of me already knows this will never really be my home again. Part of me can’t wait to fly.
And part of me does not want to go.
It’s the end of September. The summer has been long and hot and even though you can already feel the days shortening, today has been warm and clear and the evening sky is bright and cloudless.
I wrap each piece of my collection carefully in paper and padding and place them in a plastic tub, then I put the tub carefully in the centre of my rucksack so it will be safe on the journey.
I go down stairs, give my mum a hug and go outside.
The rooks are coming home to roost, the first few already circling high above the woods, and tonight I want to watch them for the last time.
Tonight I am going to climb the hill and talk with the King Rook.