Kirsteen McNish anticipates the arrival of this year’s Swifts – and reflects on the significance of the birds throughout her life.
I awakened early every morning then, due to unsettled dreams, to the still, hot air of last July’s heatwave, and with the light dancing across the floorboards. Conscious of not waking my partner I drag on yesterday’s clothes, bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed, making my way downstairs and out into the cooler air of the back garden with a coffee. Neck craning skywards, I spy the dark arrows of the swifts swooping and soaring above me and I feel my chest start to loosen.
Once upon a time the arrival of Swifts marked the start of a messy love affair that had a major impact on me, watching them out of my window in the tiny flat in Stoke Newington whilst on long-distance phone calls about when and where he and I might next meet. On one of these phone calls in the static of a bad signal – my head hanging out of the window trying not to lose the connection, he in his echoey house in the East of England – he told me that the arrival of Swifts would now always remind him of when we first took up together. I was heady with this flattery. Long since those words were spoken the Swifts’ screams have left a stain on me like the ghost of an old photograph faded into shadows by the sun.
The industrious nature of Swifts means that they eat, sleep and allegedly mate on the wing. Their relentless productivity, energy and sleeplessness are a motif for other things now too.
On 23rd March 2017, we lost our much-loved sister Rachael suddenly to Sepsis after a throat infection. She, 42, healthy, a mother of 7 young children and the keeper of the family flame, had been nursing her brood and had not noticed she was getting rapidly ill. She was always on her feet, caring, nursing, guiding, playing and relentlessly occupying herself until the wee small hours when others crashed. By her own admission she preferred to be busy from dusk until dawn. She had been in a happy relationship with her partner Malcolm since her late teens. They remained constant and true, whilst my own romantic life was tidal.
Whilst happy in her own home, Rachael got claustrophobic easily in other confined spaces, and walked everywhere with her kids, taking her brood in a snake-like procession on regular long walks through the green spaces and woods that weaved through parts of the industrial new town where she lived. Her favourite woods in nearby Fineshade were blanketed in carpets of nodding bluebells in Spring, and was where Red Kites were first re-introduced into Northamptonshire and had bred so successfully that the neighbouring farmers grew to resent their presence. Rachael was her happiest here with her partner and kids within the glades and trees. Willowy, private, and shy, she tended to her young ones and largely preferred to be self-sufficient, not needing people other than those found in her immediate family. As a child, I remember her vividly, in the corridor at school at break times, in a wintery halo of light rather than the scrum of the school hall, its politics and popularity contests. Quiet and elegant, she somehow existed in the realm between the shadows and light; gentle, resilient and wise beyond her years.
Sinking into various states of shock after her loss, my siblings and I slept-walked through the Spring and tried hard to help my sister’s partner and young children as best we were able. The family nest was re-built, somewhat brittle from sorrow but nevertheless willing to be built again. We talked more than ever, cried together, busied ourselves and muddled through. In London, feeling the distance away from them all like an ache in the bones, my partner and a hardcore of friends held on to me fast as I wept hot tears of disbelief, whilst in the meantime others fell away, unable to know how to even begin to approach what to say. I threw myself into work and most weekends into the trees in Epping forest, keen to escape people, the hustle and bustle of the streets — and started to gain a deeper understanding of the woods via a dear friend, who was completing his book on its history intertwined with his own. These trips allowed me to somehow feel distantly connected to Rachael and “her woods” and afforded me a place to run to.
On one car journey as a child where she and I were small and in the back seat of the car – around 2 and 4 years old – our father spied a bird struggling on the road near Gretton and stopped the car abruptly, with the early Summer dust kicking up, and lifted it into his cupped hands. He threw the young Swift into the air, and we watched as it looped away like an inky kite’s tail into the blue. Sliding back into the driving seat he said he was not able to leave it alone there in the dirt. Watching him all those years later in the still air of the suffocating hospital family room as the new shocking reality took hold, this nature-loving, industrious, practical man looked as lost as I had ever seen him, and like the rest of us, unable to know what to do.
Each Summer since we moved to Walthamstow, my young lad and I sit thrilled by the almost-violence of the Swifts’ paths as they swoop at great speed into the eaves above his bedroom, the young screaming for food and their debris oft littering his window sill like a line of strange artefacts in a dusty museum. As I lie on the bed with the darkness creeping across the walls, my thoughts drift easily to my sister’s partner and their children, going about their night-time rituals without her. As my son’s eyes flicker, nestled against me under his eyelids with the first stages of sleep, my throat pulls taut.
Today, alone on the back step in the quiet hours, between the Spring solstice and the eve of two years since Rachael passed, I start to look forward to these perfect black darts teeming above us soon again. With climate change bearing down on us, I wonder about the Swifts and what we must do now to protect the world around us for future generations before it is too late.
But for now, before the day grinds into action, I sit coffee in hand — with a renewed determination to visit my sister’s family soon and watch these birds together.
In memory of Rachael McNish, 26.03.74 – 23.03.17
You can find information about the conservation of Swifts here.
Visit the Sepsis Trust website here.