Birds And Beasts Are Human Too
It was a bright crisp day in 1966, and a friend and I were strolling through the grounds of Sandleford Priory. We had an unbroken view across the fields down to the road beyond, and then to more fields on the other side, climbing the hill.
Suddenly, we heard the sound of a horn, a hunting horn. Across the fields streaked a fox, with a pack of hounds about six hundred yards behind, horses and riders following. The fox reached the road, and stopped. He stood still, and waited. And waited. The hounds were nearly upon him, but the road was busy. We thought it was the end for him.
There were just fifteen yards or so between him and the hounds, when he suddenly dashed out, zig-zagging through the cars. The hounds, looking only at their prey, ran out after him – straight into the traffic. There was chaos and carnage, the air filled with the screams of injured and dying animals. The whippers-in were desperately trying to rescue what hounds they could. Some vehicles had stopped, more had accelerated off.
We looked up from the horrible scene, and way over the fields across the road, near the brow of the hill, was the fox, standing still, and looking back at his handiwork. Satisfied, he turned, and trotted away. ‘Gone Away!’
The dog and cat had lived happily together as long as they could remember. When she was a puppy, and he a kitten, they had chased round the garden together, and had play-fights. You could say they were best friends.
The house where they lived was fairly large, and very square. The drive, lined with trees and bushes, curved round, and then it opened into a circular space, where cars and vans turned. A flight of six steps led to the front door, and there were two windows on each side of it, with five up above. The people who lived in the house called each other Mabel and Ernest, and the dog was Polly, and the cat was Cyril. The dog and cat understood these names, and recognised who was being addressed when they heard them.
The old couple and their pets were very happy together, until one day Mabel found Ernest dead, lying on the bathroom floor. After that, nothing was the same. Mabel could be heard crying at night, and she became very thin. She got cross when Polly wanted to go for a walk, and often wouldn’t take her. Polly and Cyril’s meals were given at random times, and sometimes not at all. They huddled together, feeling frightened, and wondered what was going to happen to them.
This went on for a couple of months, until the event which changed everything. Mabel pitched head first down the front steps. She lay, unmoving, and the two animals could only look helplessly through the window.
It seemed a very long time before the postman arrived. Polly and Cyril saw him kneel by Mabel and touch her neck. Then he stood and got out his phone. Two things happened: an ambulance arrived, and then a police car. Mabel was put on a trolley, and wheeled into the waiting ambulance. Meanwhile, a policewoman rooted through Mabel’s handbag, which lay a few feet from where she’d fallen. The woman took out a key, but hesitated, looking at the window where the dog and cat were gazing out. She spoke into her radio.
More police came, and also a van. It had the letters RSPCA on its side. A man got out, and took the key from the policewoman. He mounted the steps, opened the door, and came in. Cyril and Polly pressed together in fear.
“Hello, you two,” the RSPCA Inspector said, and he crouched down and extended his hand to them. Each animal sniffed it, and then relaxed. Instinctively they trusted this man. Perhaps things would be all right after all.
Polly and Cyril were put in the Inspector’s van, and taken to a building where there were other dogs and cats. Once there, they were separated. They had never been apart before, and howled when night came, and the other was not there to share a bed. The howling went on, night after night, until in exasperation the Inspector put Cyril into Polly’s cage with her. There was great comfort in being together, but the noise of the other dogs barking terrified Cyril, and he cowered at the back of the run, quaking in fear. The inspector was at his wits’ end. Unless a home was found for them soon, they would have to be put down.
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It seemed like an answer to prayer when a man came into the RSPCA building, and said that although he was looking to acquire a dog, he’d be willing to take Cyril too, as Polly was just the sort of dog he wanted. He answered all the Inspector’s questions in a satisfactory manner, and in truth the Inspector was just glad to have found a home for the two together. It was with a sense of relief he said goodbye to the two animals.
The car journey to their new home was undertaken in silence. Even when they arrived, the man didn’t speak to them. They had become accustomed to Mabel and Ernest chatting to them all the time, so this was strange. The man shut them in a conservatory at the back of the house, and just left them there.
Later, he came back and gave them some food. Then he picked up Cyril, opened a door to outside, and put him out. “You’re on your own now, pal,” he said, closing the door, with Polly still inside.
Cyril looked round. The house was dark and ugly, its rendering dirty and cracked. An overgrown garden surrounded it. There were no other houses nearby. Cyril thought it looked a good place to explore. He looked back at Polly, watching him through the glass, and then he set off carefully, sniffing the bushes to see what other creatures visited the garden. When it was time for tea, he went back to the house. He couldn’t see Polly, and no-one came to let him in. When he became very hungry, he set off back into the undergrowth, and very soon had caught and killed a vole, which he ate.
It was just as well he was a good hunter, as he was left outside permanently, with only what he caught to eat. Polly was often alone in the conservatory, and the two were able to put their noses to the glass. When Cyril tried to follow Polly and the man on their walks, the man would throw things at Cyril, and yell. Once he aimed a kick at him. Cyril had been sleek and well-fed. Now he was thin, with a staring coat, and looked hungry all the time. He thought Polly must be cared for, though, as she had regular walks.
One day, as he looked wistfully inside, Cyril saw something which horrified him. He saw the man beating Polly with a big wooden clothes-brush. Polly was whimpering, and cowering in fear. Cyril watched helplessly. After that, he often saw Polly being kicked and beaten. It could not go on. He decided he would have to do something about it. He took to following the man when he went out on his own. It didn’t take long for him to find the man always took the same route, about half a mile walk to a big building with a sign, ‘Neo-Georgian Plastics’. Later, he walked back the same way. Part of the route was along a narrow path, and then down some steps to the busier road. Cyril thought of Mabel, and had an idea.
It was a wet, rainy day when he put his plan into action. He crouched concealed in the long grass by the path, at the top of the steps. As the man trudged towards him, Cyril crouched, ready. Just as the man reached the top step, Cyril dashed out, straight between the man’s legs, and watched happily as he saw him pitch forward and land head-first on the hard pavement at the bottom. Not waiting to see what happened next, he hurried back to the house.
The RSPCA Inspector, when the police called him, was mortified to see the state of the two animals. He recognised them at once. Cyril was found to be half-starved, and with a skin rash, whilst poor Polly, although fed, had cracked ribs. The inspector put out an appeal on the internet for a good home for the two, where they would be together, and loved. It was with a sense of immense satisfaction that Cyril knew he’d achieved what he’d hoped for, and went with his beloved Polly to their new home, one where both animals would be cared for and cherished, united at last.
The blackbirds built their home that Spring in the cherry tree. There were three detached houses in the Close, and the house with the cherry tree was in the middle. The garden there was carefully tended – as Richard next door said, “The grass is cut within an inch of its life.” His wife Tracey said it looked as though it was hoovered. Areas of the garden were occupied by flower-beds, and others had vegetables growing. There was just the one tree, the flowering cherry. It was a perfect place for the blackbirds, with no other birds jostling for space in its branches.
Each morning, as the first light began to brighten the sky, a blackbird sang. The beautiful; sound echoed across the gardens of all three houses, and it was the first thing Tracey heard when she awoke at seven. Their own garden was a wilderness, as yet. They were still busy every weekend, renovating their new home, their first together. They kept the grass more-or-less cut, and pulled up the odd weed, if they noticed it, but that was all. The neighbours with the cherry tree seemed to have made gardening their full-time occupation, now they were retired. Richard and Tracey had gone round to meet them, when they first bought the house, but beyond the neighbours saying they were Mr. and Mrs. Elphinstone, that was it. The young couple were not asked inside, and there had been no further communication between the two houses. The people in the other house, Josh and Julie, were very friendly, but they had two young children, and always appeared tired and fraught.
Richard and Tracey loved to watch the blackbirds flying backwards and forwards, carrying bits of twig and moss in their beaks. “That’s like we’re doing,” Richard said, “building our nest. Just don’t go laying any eggs just yet!”; and he and Tracey exchanged a smile which said more than words.
Soon the flying about stopped. “I think the eggs must be laid now,” Tracey said. “It will be so wonderful to see the babies when they’ve hatched.”
A couple of days later, Tracey, always the first to wake, heard a noise she couldn’t quite place. It seemed to come from next door. She got out of bed and looked out over at the Elphinstone’s. She was horrified. Mr. Elphinstone had an electric saw, and he was cutting down the cherry tree. The blackbirds were circling round, making sounds of distress. She shook Richard awake. She was crying, and could hardly manage to tell him what was happening. As Richard looked out, he saw the blackbirds’ nest fall to the ground, and Mr. Elphinstone stamp on it, and squashing the birds’ eggs. Richard thought he’d be sick. He opened the window, and yelled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I can’t have this going on, these birds messing my paths. What’s it got to do with you anyway?”
“It’s cruel. Those blackbirds have all their hopes in that nest, and you’ve destroyed it.”
“Just because you and that woman you’re with live like pigs doesn’t mean the rest of us want to. Just mind your own business!” And Mr. Elphinstone stalked back to his house, and slammed the door.
Richard was furious. “If he ever needs anything, we’ll just let him stew,” he said to Tracey. “What a nasty man he is.”
It was six months or so later, and there had been no further communication with either of the Elphinstones. Josh and Julie had been very shocked and sickened when Tracey had told them what had happened, and they, too, avoided the Elphinstones. Josh had said he’d always imagined Mr. Elphinstone burying Mrs. in the garden, as they were the sort of people who turned out to be murderers, and the neighbours all said, ’They kept themselves to themselves’.
It had been a hot summer. When September came, the grass was tinder-dry. Every day people hoped for rain, and every day they were disappointed. A drought order was in force. When Tracey looked out of the bedroom window at about three o’clock one morning, on her way to the bathroom, she saw Mr. Elphinstone watering his garden. She and Richard thought about reporting him.
They hadn’t done so when something happened which meant they need not bother. Josh and Julie had a barbecue. Richard and Tracey were invited, but had already arranged to go out with friends. It was late when they got back, but they could hear a lot of loud laughter and music coming from the garden two doors away. They could still hear it when they fell asleep.
When Tracey woke, it was to find herself coughing, and the room full of smoke. She shook Richard awake, and they looked out to see what was happening. The Elpinstones garden appeared to have patches of smouldering flowers and vegetables; but what was extraordinary was that by each of two of the patches was a blackbird on the ground, busily flapping its wings, and fanning the sparks into flames, with no regard for their own safety. Suddenly, there was a roar as the whole garden erupted into fire. It was spreading rapidly towards the Elphinstones’ house.
“Ring the Fire Brigade, Tracey”, yelled Richard, and stopping only to put on his slippers, he ran out, and round to the Elphinstones’ front door. He hammered with the knocker, and pressed the bell repeatedly. Eventually a window was opened. “Yes? What do you want?” said Mrs. Elphinstone.
“Your garden’s on fire, and your house will be soon. You need to get out. We’ve rung the Fire Brigade,” he said.
Not waiting for a response, he hurried along to Josh and Julie’s, and did the same thing.
“I bet it’s sparks from the barbecue,” Josh said, appalled.
“Don’t mention the barbecue,” Richard advised. “Just get rid of any traces. We shan’t say anything.” And he hurried home again.
The Fire Brigade arrived not long after. Mr. and Mrs. Elphinstone were taken off by ambulance, suffering from smoke inhalation. They had tried to battle the fire themselves. Their house was utterly damaged, with both smoke and water wrecking it. The garden was completely laid waste.
Tracey and Richard could not help thinking of it as the blackbirds’ revenge. They had lost their home, and what they held most dear, and now so had the Elphinstones. The next morning, though it was the wrong time of year, Richard and Tracey awoke to the joyous sound of birdsong.