Man, bird, tree

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It was a bit of a grumpy Friday morning.

I blame myself. I’d bought the wrong thing, and now I was paying the penalty, a traipse to a distant industrial estate in the hope they’d see fit to exchange the wrong thing for the right thing.

The internal dialogue had gone something like this:

—Ah, here’s the thing I’m looking for.

—Are you sure? Because there are a couple of other similar things on that page and you wouldn’t want to get the wrong thing and find it doesn’t work on your system and then have to exchange it, because it’s in the sale and even though it’s a lot cheaper that’s not going to work out very well if they won’t let you exchange it and then you have to buy the right thing at full price, so just make quadruple sure before you click, won’t–


—Ah. Did you quadruple check before doing that?

—Shut up.

And sure enough it was the wrong thing. Hence the traipse. And the grump.

It wasn’t the full grump – not the floor-stomping, door-slamming über-grump of which I’m well capable when in my pomp. Just an everyday Friday grump.

The metamorphosis from grump to cheer came in three stages.

The Man

I’d been told to ask for Jason. Jason was the guy who would exchange the thing. But Jason is busy. And Jason has an air of harassment about him. Jason looks very much not like the kind of person who would exchange things bought in error at a huge discount and then clumsily repackaged. The fifteen minutes I wait for Jason to be free, fending off the are-you-being-serveds and can-I-help-yous of his lesser, non-Jasony colleagues, only serve as a grump-deepener. The traipse was bad enough; worse if it turns out to have been bootless.

I prepare my apologetic précis of the situation, along with my credit card and what I fancy to be a winning smile.

And then Jason is available, and looking at me challengingly.


The winning smile evaporates, replaced by a losing stammer.

‘Oh right, so I… this… I got this… bought it… you know, online… by mistake… my own fault… and they… the guy on the phone… I rang yesterday… anyway he said… maybe… and I should talk to you…’

A short pause, filled with impossibility. Then a tiny nod.

‘Yeah they told me. No problem mate, give us a minute and I’ll get the right one.’

I hold out my pathetic credit card. Jason – blessed, sainted, heaven-sent Jason – gives that little gesture of the hand and head that says ‘don’t worry about it, but also don’t shout about it, because I shouldn’t really be doing this and I might lose my job’.

I think of all the things he could have done: refuse point blank, charge me the full price, insist on my paying at least the difference, ask for the receipt, generally jobsworth his way through the transaction. He does none of those things, merely goes to the back of the shop and returns with the right thing two minutes later. The clouds lift, I rain gratitude on his head, and I go on my way with a song on my lips. The prospect of the return traipse, through uninspiring landscapes and along a busy main road, is now far less daunting.

May heaven bless Jason, bestrewing his life with plenty. A good man in a bad world, restoring my faith in the generosity of the human spirit.

The Bird

My usual tactic, when walking along those narrow tarmac corridors next to thundering main roads, is to walk quickly and turn the podcast up to 11. It’s not a long walk from here to tranquility – about ten minutes – but it’s singularly unappetising, and voices in my head distract me from pondering the ugliness too deeply. Greenery is scarce, restricted to the odd short stretch of grass verge and some hardy evergreen bushes and trees, the kind that can withstand any amount of pollution thrown at them by the ceaseless flow of traffic just two feet away. Nature is mostly in abeyance, bludgeoned out of existence by the relentless tide of concrete and metal and tarmac. The highlight: a flock of twenty pigeons on the corrugated roof of a Plumbase over the road.

But then, cutting through the voices in my headphones – Melvyn Bragg giving academics a hard time, as usual – I detect a series of clicks, rattles and fluting whistles. I’ve learned enough about birdsong in the last couple of years to recognise these as one of the treats of the natural world. A starling, in full song.

Headphones off, bird-scan to full beam. There are a dozen of them hanging about two lowish conifers up ahead. Some are doing shuttle runs between the trees and the gutter of the Topp’s Tiles on the other side of the slip road; but two of them in particular are happy to sit put and treat me to a little concert. One of them, with unwarranted generosity on a par with Jason’s, sits upright in plain view, the low sun illuminating the iridescence of his plumage and highlighting the little star-like spots on his chest that appear in the winter. Sturnus vulgaris – common by name, uncommon in beauty.

The spring is returning to my step, and I suddenly remember where I am. Or at least where I am near.

The Tree

South Norwood Country Park is 125 acres of wetlands, lake and meadows in the middle of suburbia – formerly a part of the massive Great North Wood, more recently a sewage farm, and converted to its current form 30 years ago. Rus in urbe.

It would be rude not to.

There are birds on the lake: mallard and shoveler and black-headed gulls and moorhens and coots in profusion. It was from here that I caught the briefest glimpse of a water rail – a shy, skulking bird most often experienced via its pig-like squealing from the depths of a reedbed – a couple of years ago. No such riches today, but some entertaining carrion crows hopping around on the island a few yards away, and a pair of mute swans floating towards me with idle curiosity. Few birds combine grace and elegance with power and weight like a swan, and within a minute they give a fine demonstration, heaving themselves off the water, necks straining, wings beating heavily at the air, feet cycling against the surface of the water to help with extra traction – the spectacle is fascinating enough, but the sound of it – a rhythmic humming/whistling/throbbing/wou-wou that needs at least four words to describe it and even then you don’t really come close, combined with the smack of wingtips and feet on water – is up there with the best non-vocal sounds in nature.

Their flight is short, and soon they’ve settled on the other side of the lake, all serenity and gliding calm, as if the drama of their recent flight belonged to different birds altogether. Jason and the starlings have dispelled the grump for good, and the swans have contributed to my rehabilitation, along with a watchful kestrel and a flighty stonechat – all this, remember, in the middle of bland suburbia – but it’s the tree that sends me home with the de-grump complete.

It is, I learn later, a Goat Willow, also known as Pussy Willow (Salix caprea), but I don’t know that when I see it. All I know is that I need to explore it.

It owns the space between two desire paths, spreading out and up from low, spreading branches. More like a small village of trees than a single tree, its gnarled and twisted geometry draws me in. I circle it, explore its fissured bark, look upwards through the crown to the blue sky above, briefly climb it via one of the offshoots that is not only plenty sturdy enough to bear my weight but has an inviting incline to entice even this non-tree-climber. I’m heckled by a nearby parakeet, but those warning cries aren’t enough to put me off. I’ve met a new tree, and I think we’ll be very happy together.

Up with trees; down with grump.

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