Sometimes April doesn’t keep its promise. It reneges. Burrows back down a hole, pretending it never was. It had been that way this week, when many of us had to check the calendar, only to utter, ‘Really? April 4th? Are we sure about that?’ Character building weather, one might call it, unless one is feeling delicate, in which case it can be character demolishing. Yesterday, whilst still in Northumberland, I sat looking out upon a morning that was throwing a tantrum. I was determined the dreary day would not demolish me. From the kitchen table I watched the hours unfurl, not deciding between hail, sleet or rain, so stirring all three into a hissy fit mix. I watched a plump sparrow poking its head out of the stones of an outhouse gable wall; it was neatly disguised, the same colour as the stone. Was it peering out with the same attitude as myself – I wondered – one of despondency? On the lawn, undeterred by the dreadful weather, a thrush bounced enthusiastically, pecking at the grass. Before long it had extracted its first fat worm, pulling it up gently like a thread through cotton. Then two more. How did it find them so efficiently? I googled it. Here’s what I’ve discovered: Birds find worms mostly through sight. They have exceptional vision, keen eyes that see the tiny end of a worm as it pokes out of the dirt. Who knew? Not me, at least. I do know that (unlike myself) worms come to the surface in the rain. It was an all-you-can-eat restaurant for the thrush.
The day broke its promise of letting the sun through, and by late afternoon I decided it was time to head north, to cross to border for home. Close to Scotland I saw a small sign for the Battle of Flodden. It sounded familiar. I took the turn. The empty roads narrowed and worsened – potholes, disappearing verges, flooded dips. On four occasions I slowed to a crawl whispering prayers that the deep pool I was crossing wasn’t going to sink my Mini. Still on the English side of the border (only just), and there it was – a dip in the road, a small plaque, and a flattened ditch by way of a lay-by. Flodden Field, the site of a military battle between England and Scotland in 1513, lay on either side of the road, a valley between rolling fields. The small interpretative plaque asked me to, ‘imagine that there is slashing rain and the ground is sodden and boggy.’ I pulled up my hood; no imagination required. History tells that the Scots had artillery second to none, but it was heavy and sank into the mud. The English guns were lighter, more portable, mud-friendly. Mostly it was hand to hand fighting, the English with short billhooks, the Scots with long pikes – by far the more difficult of the two to manage when knee deep in mud. England won. 14,000 men died, amongst them, King James IV of Scotland – the last monarch from the British Isles to die in battle.
I took a walk down the side of a muddy field, finding it almost impossible to imagine that this could be the place. The rain fell, some birds sang, no cars passed. My only company the sparrows, darting through bare braches of a hawthorn hedge. I said a prayer for those who lay under my feet and tramped back to the car trailing an invisible sack of sadness behind me.
Wet Evening in April, by Patrick Kavanagh
The birds sang in the wet trees
And I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him