Caught by the River

In Quarantine: a diary (Day 6)

Tim Dee | 23rd May 2021

A last quarantine diary for a while from our gaol-bird, Tim Dee.

The near horizon – moss biome on the quarantine hotel

Saturday 22nd May

Hamlet has bad dreams otherwise, as he says, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space. I sleep like Kafka’s badger, snug in its burrow, with nothing subliminally going on; I wake up feeling spaced out. 

Then I remember where I am: in a nutshell, I’m in a nutshell. 

I’m becoming a creature of it, creaturely with it. Newly disinhibited, I’ve started carrying on like a staircase wit, talking to everyone we pass (sometimes saluting too) as I am escorted to the dance hall. No one speaks back. A progress like mad King George. Beneath the palms (plastic) I broke into a jog. My guard from Lagos was looking bushed. Collapsing with wide-spread legs onto a chair, he stared at me in surprise, I was still talking about where the capital of South Africa was, but I went on, as the kings would, as George, and as Lear:

if you get it, you shall get it by running … sa, sa, sa, sa …

I did circuits, I did the fire-escape climb, I studied the moss micro-biome at the top of the stairs, I watched a jet plane in its measured descent towards Heathrow. The world as it was; the world as it is.

Back in my room, I went on the binoculars for an hour. I think that the peregrines I can see on the roof of the Holiday Inn might be breeding. If so, they could now have chicks. Extending along one side of the tall block, just below its flat roof, is a balcony. One falcon commonly perches half hidden by a concrete balustrade as it turns a corner there, and another sits more obviously on the railings or on the roof itself. If there are chicks, I guess they are on the floor of the balcony near the first bird. We might imagine a teenage bedroom, with parents forced (and mostly happy) to keep their distance. 

The adults were there, the dark bird on the roof appearing huge, and giving off a sense, even across the kilometre of sleety air between us, of great density. I felt the heave of its heft when it took off. Even though all it had to do was to fall from the roof, the bird looked weighty and as if it needed to tip itself into flight and fire some boosters to find momentum enough to overcome its chunkiness, like a rolling stone. 

I watched earlier today, the opposite of chunky, when one bird flew towards its mate that was perched on the balcony corner and the flying bird swung itself upside down as if to deliver an offering. The gesture made suggested a flamboyant waiter or a discus thrower, or perhaps a maestro of one of those careers seconded to the other for a moment. I couldn’t see if it let anything fall from its talons; maybe it was just a peregrine hello

Neither falcon was visible when, during an hour and more, in the late afternoon, two police helicopters – yellow and black – hovered near the birds’ tower on their own raptorial business. Somehow (I missed seeing them leave and return) the birds negotiated the slicing blades and the down-draft vortex, and both reoccupied the heights. When I found them again, I fed myself on them some more through my binoculars, while running the word peregrine through my head over and over. 

There are a handful of pigeons around the Holiday Inn. Three today. I have been a starved birdwatcher here. Not only have I managed just six species in a week, the total number of individual birds I’ve seen is a paltry twenty-five. There would be far more in a week in any desert, far more in a week mid-ocean. The pigeons on the tower come and go in a flutter and, at first, I thought they were abandoning the building and its aerial precincts when the peregrines were around. Pigeon is bread-and­-butter for an urban peregrine. But when the falcons returned to the tower, so did the pigeons. Could they detect then that their would-be slayer had done with death for the day?

The far horizon – last light on the peregrine inn

I watched at the last of the light. At nine-thirty in the evening the falcon I had in view disappeared from the gantry above the lit green Holiday Inn sign. I think it slipped to elsewhere on the roof, but it might have headed off into the night sky. Its disappearance seemed part of it, as if it lived its absence as much as its presence, as if it knew the atmosphere it made. It was magnificent in its going. And magnificent gone. A palpable exit. Doing time in infinite space.


Tim still has inside time still to do; he’ll be back with a last report on Friday. Meanwhile you might check out the London Review of Books online festival of birds that starts tomorrow with events every day for a week and a cast featuring our quarantine correspondent and other friends of CBTR.