I ought to be editing – I’m working to three deadlines simultaneously – but I wanted to tell you a story. A true one.
In the outside wall of our kitchen, there’s a small hole in the stone. It leads into a cavity.
For the last couple of summers, birds have nested in there. As the chicks develop we hear them cheeping for food when their parents fly in. Inevitably, the fledglings look for the way out. Most of them find it but sometimes one ends up in the house – having flown over the back of one of the cupboards, we think. Getting them out into the world is easy; we just open the doors and windows and give them a bit of encouragement.
A few weeks back, we heard another clutch of baby Blue Tits chirping away behind the cupboard. Not long after that, we went on a camping trip. On our return, we found a Blue Tit by the leg of a dining chair. It was tiny, about half the size of an adult but must have grown enough feathers to fly the nest. It had found the wrong exit and died trying to escape the house.
Looking around the place where it had fallen, it was obvious how it spent the final hours of its very short life. There were hundreds of beak marks and feather prints on the east facing window. When the sun had come up in the morning the chick had flown at the light again and again, only to meet with a hard, invisible barrier. In the afternoon and evening it had done the same at the west facing window.
The evidence of its repeated batterings was all along the glass. It might have survived a few days without food but not without water; it’s reasonable to assume the chick died of dehydration rather than concussion.
I’ve thought about that baby bird a lot since then. How long did it spend trying to escape? What did it think about each time it flew towards the freedom instinct told it was right there for the taking? What, I thought, must it be like to never succeed; to die trying?
Know what I couldn’t help but compare it to?
Not necessarily young writers but people who batter away at the keyboard year in year out, doing their level best to be noticed. Maybe they meet with a modicum of success. A publication here and there. An occasional review. A flirt with self-publishing that goes nowhere. Many novels, almost accepted but turned down or passed over for reasons beyond their control. Deals done that go south before publication. Worse, perhaps, after an initial flurry of successes, a slow decline into unpublishablility and anonymity owing to ‘changes in the market’. Front list. Back list. No List.
As well as feeling sick over the poor little bird, the allegorical aspect of the whole episode really unsettled me. Some of us simply aren’t going make it. And even if we ever do, there’s no guarantee we’ll stay ‘made’. Scares the shit out of me.