The hunter

The bird was small, but it was nimble, its spindly little legs proving vastly more useful than they looked. Ralph watched as it hopped from one branch to another, spending scarcely a second on each before moving on. It looked, he thought, not unlike a man dancing across hot coals, though he’d only ever seen one of those on the television.

The bird’s plumage was bright blue with black and yellow inflections, and its voice was high and sharp. Ralph had no idea what kind of bird it was – how could he? What he was all too well aware of was the fact it would make a very tasty dinner (or second dinner if the truth be told, since old Mrs Jessop from next door had put out leftover cottage pie for him not two hours ago. But then he was, as she frequently told him in her funny wobbly, gobbly voice, a growing boy).

Ralph curled his tongue lazily around his lips and sniffed the air with precision. He wasn’t hungry, as such. But he was feeling predatory and fully intended to employ his stalking skills. Slowly and silently he rose to his feet. He crouched low, narrowing his eyes so the little bird came into sharp focus. It was preening now, oblivious to him inching closer. Its vanity, it seemed, would be its downfall. Not that Ralph cared.

Sitting back on his haunches Ralph prepared to launch. The pads of his paws rested lightly on the ground; though lazy, he was nonetheless a skilled hunter. As he sprang up onto his hind legs he sensed a movement behind him and, all of a sudden, was spinning through the air in the firm hands of Thomas, his owner’s five year old son. “Whoosh, kitty, whoosh,” Thomas shouted as he tore through the garden, holding the cat awkwardly in his grubby little hands.

Behind them, oblivious, the little bird sat on his branch and continued to preen.

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2nd time lucky; making peace with the sky

Six years ago, the day before my 25th birthday (sob), I ventured to an airfield outside Oxford to do my first tandem sky dive. I should explain before I go any further that up to that point in my life I had been anything but a daredevil. Furthermore, I had a rather stubborn and borderline morbid fear of heights – in particular of falling. Which is why, when it came to thinking of what would encourage people to donate towards my impending volunteering trip to Tanzania, this came immediately to mind. Surely facing my most serious of fears would raise lots of cash? And you know what? It did.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. As I’d got confused over timings and had pitched up after everyone else I was relegated to the last slot of the day, which meant a whole day for my nerves to build into a terrifying crescendo. By the time we boarded the plane I felt physically sick, not that you’d know from watching the video as I grin inanely like a halfwit from start to finish (if you want to know what fear looks like, check it out – and don’t be fooled by the smile. Note that it doesn’t reach my eyes).

When we reached 12,000 feet I was rigid with terror, but by some miracle the instructor convinced me to inch towards the open door, close my eyes and leap into the unknown. For the first few seconds, as we flew through the air, I had no idea what was happening. But once we stabilised and I realised I was still alive I relaxed a little and tried to enjoy the experience. The problem came when the instructor moved my arm so he could pull the parachute cord and we began rocking wildly back and forth.

Now, anyone who has ever suffered from travel sickness will know a rocking movement whilst already in motion does not a nausea-free journey make. And sure enough, within seconds my mouth was watering and I began to realise there was a very real chance I would throw up – in mid air, on my instructor. After he pulled the parachute I became even more certain this would be our fate, and so when he asked if I was okay and I vigorously shook my head he cottoned on and sped up our descent as best he could. Fortunately I managed not to cover us both with my own vomit mid-air, but when we landed I lay face down in the grass for half an hour, my face entirely devoid of colour (the photographer had to physically lift me to film the final scene in the film, after which I lay back down, groaning).

Needless to say it was a rather unpleasant and somewhat scarring experience, which was a shame. And given that everyone I’ve subsequently met who has done a sky dive has said it was the best thing they’d ever done, I’ve always felt a bit short changed.

So you can imagine my delight when the opportunity presented itself to go back to the very same airfield – this time for a trial flight in a glider. A friend who is part of the Oxford Gliding Club (who are, incidentally, keen to get more members, so if you live in the vicinity and fancy giving it a try do pop down there and find out more – they’re a very friendly and hospitable bunch and they cook a mean post-flight BBQ) invited a few of us down last night and I jumped at the chance to have a go.

Before we arrived I hadn’t given much thought to whether my fear of heights was still alive and well all these years later, which I think was probably a good thing. By the time I was kitted out with parachute and having my safety briefing it was too late to back out, and within minutes we were being towed up into the sky on our breathtaking ascent. The first few seconds after the tow line is unclipped are just incredible; everything is silent and you feel a sense of weightlessness that’s hard to describe. Then you gently twist and turn through the air as you make your descent back to the ground – it’s probably the closest feeling to being a bird you could have, and it’s really, really special. I can’t deny the descent made me feel a touch on the fragile side, but it was worth every second of discomfort to have experienced that initial high.

It might not have been another sky dive, but I still feel in those few minutes in the sky I made peace with the air space that robbed me of what should have been an enjoyable experience all those years ago. And you know what? I might even be tempted to go back and do it again.

Swami

Dawn breaks over the Agastya mountain range in southern Kerala. As the sun begins its lazy ascent from the horizon, a Chestnut-headed Bee Eater swoops across a lake, its surface so flat that the bird’s bright plumage is reflected back in glorious and unbroken technicolour. Rising from the lake are vapour trails, the ghost of night evaporating into the air and making way for day. The air is still, with no discernible sound besides the whooshing of the bird as it dips and dives down to the surface of the water. All is calm.

Beside the lake sits a man. Clothed in robes of orange, his legs are crossed, the thumb and forefingers of each hand touching one another. His eyes are closed. He looks to be in quiet contemplation, yet he is transcendent; half in this world, half in the next. No earthly troubles phase him, no thoughts chatter incessantly inside his head. He is a master of the art of the still mind, having experienced the peace that comes with being fully in the present in a way that few can comprehend. He sees in, on, above, beneath and through all things.

He is a swami, a man of great religious faith, a Hindu god-in-waiting. He sought enlightenment, and found it. He is at peace.

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This is the late Swami Vishnudevananda, one of the two swamis who were revered at the ashram where I stayed for two weeks of last year. He was my favourite because of his big smile and open demeanour, and because of this image with the caption: One has to ask oneself, what do I really want from life? That is the fundamental question. Indeed it is Swami.

He wasn’t far from home

He wasn’t far from home when his phone buzzed in his coat pocket. He pulled it out, admired its shininess, swooshed his finger across the screen to answer the call and held it up to his ear. It was his mum. She’d forgotten to buy beans to go with the potato waffles for his tea. He’d have to go back to the shop. There should be enough change from the ice cream, she said. There was, but only just – he’d bought some penny sweets too.

He wasn’t far from home when a blackbird swooped down in front of him and landed on a nearby branch, making him jump. It cocked its head to one side and snatched a berry from the tree, all the while its beady eyes fixed on him. He imagined it was a monster and hopped, skipped and jumped past it as quickly as his feet would carry him. He heard it squawk and fly off. He wondered what it would be like to be a bird. But he could never be a bird.

He wasn’t far from home when he heard a whirring sound getting closer and closer. He looked up at the sky just as an aeroplane flew directly overhead, like a GIANT bird – now that really COULD be a monster, he thought. It was so close it felt like he could reach out and touch it. He tried to do just that. But it wasn’t close really, Silly. How could it have been? He wondered what it would be like to be an aeroplane soaring through the sky. But he could never be an aeroplane.

He wasn’t far from home when he stopped in the middle of the street. He looked about him, then down at the puddle in front of him. Then Splosh! He jumped in right up to his ankles, even though he was wearing his best shoes and not his welly boots like his mum had told him to in case he got wet.

He wasn’t far from home when he saw Mrs Metcalfe from Number Fifty Seven on the other side of the road and waved. She shouted over to him that she had some spare coins in her purse and would he like them to buy penny sweets? He thought that yes, he rather would like that, and so he ran across the road to get them.

He wasn’t far from home when he heard the screeching of tyres on the road and the sound of an old lady screaming. He turned too late to get out of the way, but as he flew through the air he thought to himself that maybe he could be a bird or a plane after all.

He wasn’t far from home.

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Writing this story made me think of these two cutie pies, who were delighted to pose for me when I came across them on a walk around Luang Prabang, in Laos. God forbid anything as horrible befalls them as the poor little boy in my story. I bet they’ll grow into handsome young men and break lots of girls’ hearts 🙂