Hatchlings

I’ve never liked guineafowl. Foul fowl.

It was the time of good-byes.

Uncle Bertie died on the night of my flight.

The elements seem unconnected, but somehow they’ve become yoked in my memory, lodged in such a way as not to be undone. I’ve resigned myself to ownership of this combination of narratives, much as one does to untruths that, in memory, sit better with one, and thus become fact. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

I suppose stories are like

eggs.

Where to begin? I guess with the scholarship. Uncle Bertie, my mother’s eldest brother, won a scholarship to read Classics at Oxford in 1931 after which he enjoyed a distinguished career as a pilot in the Second World War and then as an inspector of aerodromes round South Africa. After Oxford he returned to South Africa with his wings and a posh English accent. My mother’s family is Afrikaans and as a young girl she was in awe of her big brother’s British movie-star accent. When I was a child she expressed the hope that I would one day speak English like my Uncle Bertie. Perhaps partly because of this, 60 years after Bertie, I was heading for Oxford. I too would read the Classics. I too would acquire the posh accent of my magnificent uncle in his flying machine.

Because Uncle Bertie lived in Pretoria during his retirement I did not see him for many years at a time, but just before leaving for England, my mother told me he was coming to Cape Town to live in an old age home in Sea Point. She would be flying up to the Transvaal to fetch him. She said he had become senile, but I felt that when I saw him again I could make him understand that I would be winging my way to his alma mater, that I would be following in his footsteps. When Bertie arrived at the house I was shocked to see that the old man could only manage a slow shuffle and his mind was obviously in the clouds. I could find no way of navigating through the fog to him. Find a purchase on the incoherent mumbling. I asked him about Oxford, about his college, his rugby playing years, his time in North Africa during the war. Nothing.

However my mother did tell me that when they had boarded the Boeing in Johannesburg, his eyes had sparkled and he had been all attention. As the aircraft accelerated down the runway he’d craned his neck at the port-hole, his expression a strange look of contentment. I decided to cut down two of my plastic model aeroplanes from where they still hung on fishing-line in my bedroom. As a child I’d built dozens of Airfix aircraft. Only planes from the Second World War mind you: any flying machine of the post-1945 era held no allure. Perhaps with these I could get through to Uncle Bertie.

I knew he’d flown coastal patrol out of Wingfield in Cape Town, but the closest reconnaissance aircraft I had was a Consolidated Catalina, a lumbering flying boat that I felt sure Bertie would never have piloted. The Lancaster and Wellington bombers were also unlikely, so I hit on the Dakota. Just about every Allied soldier had flown in a Gooney Bird – as they were affectionately known – and there was a very good chance Bertie had sat in the pilot seat of one of these workhorses. My Dakota had United States Air Force transfers on its wings – a Korean War version – but I didn’t think this would matter.

I also cut down my Hawker Hurricane, that stalwart fighter of the British and South African Air Forces. Family lore had it that when Bertie became a Colonel he had one of these fighters at his disposal and had flown it up and down Italy in 1945. As a child I had imagined him chasing Messerschmitts from an aquamarine sky above the Apennines, although this was certainly far from the truth. The Hurricane had desert colours, all painted in mat khakis for my North African collection. Bertie’s would have been camouflaged in greens and browns. I felt that this would also not matter: the stocky lines of the fighter were unmistakable.

I went to his bedroom where I found him staring blankly at the wall and put the two aircraft down on his table. I held up the Hurricane and said, “Uncle B, what kind of fighter is this?”

He looked at the plastic model and at me with a confused expression and said nothing. “Damn,” I thought, “the thing is too small, too puny; it doesn’t look like anything at all. I am treating him like a baby.”

The transport plane was bigger, more detailed. It had taken me days to build. I would have a shot with it. “Uncle B. Please, Uncle B, what kind of plane is this?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said one word quite clearly: “Dakota.” Then he lapsed back into his hazy interior world.

Me, I could have danced a jig I was so pleased. Uncle Bertie was fine – if he could remember that old plane I was sure there was lots else he could access, if only we had the right tools. But he only stayed with us a few days before being taken to a frail-care home where his condition deteriorated rapidly. When I visited him there he looked like a child out of place in grown-ups company as he idled up and down the corridors. Within weeks he was bedridden and the prognosis was grim.

Meanwhile I had been preparing for my departure for Oxford, packing crates of books, clothes for the damp English climate, sporting gear, appliances for my college room. It was a storm of activity in those last weeks before the flight. My feelings were mixed. On the one hand I felt elation at the liberation to come, the adventures in store; on the other, a melancholy concerning the many good-byes, perhaps most of all the good-bye to my childhood room in the old house and all it meant.

A few days before my departure Bertie fell seriously ill. I went to the old age home and found his room on a back corridor. The sterile, institution smell made me gag. His face had sunk in upon itself and his skin was grey-yellow parchment; his breathing was erratic and laboured, like a pilot at altitude without oxygen. His eyes did not open when I spoke, so I held his hand in silence.

When it was time to leave I said, “Uncle B, I’m going to Oxford, to your old university, your old college, to follow in your footsteps.” I could think of nothing else so I said lamely, “Get well soon, uncle. I will see you when I return.”

On the eve of my departure I was packing suitcases in my attic room, ducking between low-flying Second World War planes, when I heard screaming coming from the street. I bounded downstairs and out the back door to find a young boy sprinting up the road. He was crying and pointing down Apple Lane as he went. I ran after the child, drew him to a halt and asked him what was the matter.

“Bird!” he blubbered, “Big Bird … wanted to kill me … I was just walking home to the flats at the bottom of the road … it came for me!”

“Nonsense,” I said, “this is suburbia; no bird would harm you. Come with me, I’ll lead the way.”

I took his hand and pulled him down Apple Lane towards the flats. He was very nervous and tugged at my hand to flee back up the road. I picked up his satchel which he’d discarded in flight and we pressed on. He began to whimper. I chuckled to myself imagining a nine-foot ostrich tearing up Apple Lane in a flash of black-and-white feathers and a hail of kicks from its reptilian toes. Or maybe a martial eagle had found the idea of a schoolboy rather appetizing.

Suddenly the child broke free and ran yelling from me. I watched him sprinting away, marvelling at his timidity and when I turned back towards the flats I had just enough time to duck as the thing flew at me, low, like a fighter-bomber.

As I came erect again the creature banked and I saw the black-and-white spots: it was a guineafowl, a common enough bird even in city suburbs. I caught the look of rage in its eyes as the ugly blue and red face fixed on mine and it came in for the kill, flapping dementedly. I ducked again, but it had seen me do this once before and timed its run to take my feeble evasive measure into account. It wanted my eyes. The bird hit me like a rugby ball kicked hard from up close and its talons hooked my forehead and ploughed a pair of tiny groove of flesh and hair across my scalp.

I covered my head with my hands and fended off in a whirl of confetti feathers. Like the boy I turned and ran yelling up Apple Lane pursued at head altitude by the furious bird. Out the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a squadron of guineafowl chicks crouched in the shrubbery fascinated by the dog-fight.

It was only afterwards, in the safety of the bathroom and after the ministrations of my own mom, that I pieced it together: it was simply a mother doing her duty to her young, protecting them until it was time for them to fly the nest, or in this case the shrubbery of number 7, Apple Lane. I had always thought of guineafowl as stupid birds, wild chickens, cumbersome in flight, loud and obstinate. They were irritating creatures: each morning I was woken, long before I was ready, by the clucking and chattering, the staccato chipping of their shrill voices. Now, at least, I would look upon them with more respect.

The rest of that last day was a stream of good-byes. Little time for tears and proper leave-takings. No opportunity to see Uncle Bertie one last time. I packed my toys in boxes marked “toys”. Some were to be given away. The model aeroplanes were to remain hanging and my mother received instructions as to which ones must be kept at all costs if my parents moved house or some covetous child-relation visited and demanded part of my air arm. The Dakota and the Hurricane were top of the “preserve” list.

Next morning there were the final farewells and before I could take full grasp of what was happening I was belted into my seat, taxi-ing down the runway in a Boeing bound for London. My mother and father were driving back along the N2 to the suburbs and I was as good as gone. The north-west wind scoured the airfield, bending the trees to its will. In the dusk, black clouds flooded overhead and broke against Table Mountain like a tidal wave. As the aircraft turned and its engines began to breathe deeper, raising their voices to a pitched crescendo, I heard the cracks and felt the emotion of leave-taking threatening to pour from me.

I looked out of the hole and tears streaked my cheeks as the bird rumbled along the runway. I replayed my earliest memories; my child-time, boyhood, teenagedom and coming-of-age in fast forward, accelerating towards the present moment, the here, the unstoppable now. Dandled on uncle’s knee, giggling till it hurt … El Alamein in the garden with Stukas and Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Hurricanes, doggedly fighting it out above the roses … sprinting breathless at wing towards the corner flag … the news from Oxford, the jubilation. I felt nauseous. It was happening too fast. It was heavy, this yoke, this thing that was being lifted from me and was lifting me into the air.

The thud of wheels over runway corrugations sounded like the crushing of shells. Bertie’s Hurricane slipped past the jumbo on a parallel runway and, lighter and more nimble, took to the air, hurtling skyward long before our bird had reached take-off speed. I could see my young uncle waving from the cockpit, World War II oxygen mask clipped over his face – he was going to be flying high tonight.

The nose of the jumbo began to lift and I wanted to howl with the engines. I imagined Uncle B lying in his cot, his breath rasping slower, confused images of flight flickering through his mind. The guineafowl dived out of the sun and strafed me full in the face, cleaving my cheeks with its talons, leaving tears of blood.

The great fowl heaved, ungainly, into the night air, lifting her bill, talons outstretched. The black-and-white polka dot fuselage submerged into the pitch ocean of sky. The egg was broken and I spilled into the night, alive to the new. Uncle B and I were free.

*

Here in Oxford all these years I have held this story, delicate as an egg – so easy to shatter with clutter. I have kept each element incubated – there to see me through the time abroad. I have fed long on the yolk of this narrative until now, on the eve of flying home to my suburb under the mountain, I can at last hatch the tale, spilling it onto the page where it can go free.

And so there are really two hatchlings:

me and my story.

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