Authors: Michael Morpurgo
For Daniel Bennett
I have often thought of writing a story in movements rather than chapters – like a symphony. But for this I needed a story with three distinct yet linked themes, each with a different mood. Perhaps it was the moods and rhythms of the seasons that suggested this to me. And for me, it is swallows that are the magical conductors of the seasons.
I came across two stories that enabled me to compose my symphony story: one movement here, at home on the farm in Devon, one in Africa – and the two themes linked by a third, the swallow’s flight from home to Africa.
I heard of a young Frenchman, so moved by the misery and horror of war and suffering in Rwanda that he gave up everything, and left at once to help in the only way he knew how.
Then, a good friend of mine suffered a dreadful car accident. Full of admiration, I watched how he coped with the pain, with the change it brought to his life. I charted his recovery, his rebuilding of himself.
is a story about nobility and courage, courage against all the odds – the young Frenchman’s, the swallow’s and my friend’s.
I hope you love reading it as much as I loved writing it.
lly was painting her toenails, light blue with silver glitter. She stretched out her legs and wriggled her toes. “What d’you think?” she said. She answered herself, because no-one else did. “Amazing, Olly, I think they’re just amazing.” But her mother and Matt had not even heard her. She saw they were both deeply engrossed in the television. So Olly looked too.
It was the news. Africa. Soldiers in trucks. A smoky sprawling city of tents and ramshackle huts. A child standing alone and naked by an open drain, sticklike legs, distended stomach, and crying, crying. A tented hospital. An emaciated mother sitting on a bed clutching her
child to her shrivelled breast. A girl, about Olly’s age perhaps, squatting under a tree, her eyes empty of all life, eyes that had never known happiness. Flies clustered and crawled all over her face. She seemed to have neither the strength nor the will to brush them off. Olly felt overwhelmed by a terrible sadness. “It’s horrible,” she muttered.
Suddenly, without a word, Matt got up from the sofa and stormed out, banging the door.
“What’s the matter with him?” Olly asked. But she could see her mother was as mystified and as surprised as she was.
For some days now, she had known something was wrong with Matt. No jokes, no teasing, no clowning. He should have been on top of the world. Just a week or so before, his exam results had
come in. Straight ‘A’s – he could go to veterinary college at Bristol just as he had planned. Olly’s mother had been ecstatic. She had rung up and invited everyone to a celebration barbecue in the garden, spare ribs and sausages and chicken. They all expected, as Olly had, that sooner or later Matt would get into his clown gear and do his party act. But he didn’t. He hardly said a word to anyone all evening.
Great Aunt Bethel, “Gaunty Bethel” as everyone called her, made a speech that took a long time coming to an end. “I just want to say well done, Matt,” she said. “I know that if your father had been here, he’d have been as proud of you as we all are.”
Olly never liked it when people talked of her father. Everyone else, it seemed, had known him, except her. To her, he was the man in the photo on the mantelpiece who had died in a car accident on his way to work one morning. She had no memories of him at all.
Gaunty Bethel had still not quite finished. “Now you can go off to college, Matt, and become a vet just like he was, just like your mother is.”
Everyone had cheered and whooped and clapped, Olly as loudly as anyone,
until she saw the look on Matt’s face. He was hating every moment of it. It was true that just occasionally Matt could seem very far away and serious, lost in some deep thought. Olly knew well enough to leave him alone when he was like that. But this was quite different. He’d gone out in a fury, slamming the door behind him, and Olly wanted to know why. She went out after him.
She knew where she would find him. All summer the swallows had been flying in and out of their nest at the back of the garage. Matt had constructed a well-camouflaged hide at a discreet distance from the nest, and would sit in it for hours on end – he had done most of his exam revision up there – watching and sometimes photographing the parent swallows, as they renovated their nest, incubated their eggs, and now as they flew almost constant hunting sorties to feed their young. He never liked anyone to come too close when the swallows were nesting – he had even made his mother park her car in the street until the young had flown the nest.
Olly found him sitting up there in the hide, his knees drawn up to his chin. “Stay there. I’ll come down,” he said.
They walked together into the back garden. “They’ve hatched four,” he went on. “One more to go, I hope.” He sat down on the swing under the conker tree. It creaked and groaned under him. He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he told her: “I’ve made up my mind, Olly.
I’m not going to college. I’m not going to be a vet.”
“What about Mum?” Olly said. “What’ll she say?”
“It’s not Mum’s life, is it? She wants me to be a vet because she is, because Dad was. Well, I don’t want it. She just assumed I did. They all did. Ever since I was very little, Olly, I only ever really wanted to do one thing.”
“I just want to make people laugh. I want to make people happy. It’s what people need most, Olly. I really believe that. And I can do it. I can make people laugh. It’s what I do best.”
Olly knew that well enough. Matt had kept her smiling all her life. Whatever her troubles – at school, with her mother, with friends – he had always
been able to make them go away. Somehow he could always make her laugh through her tears. He had a whole repertoire of silly walks, silly voices, silly faces, particularly silly faces – he had a face like rubber. He could mime and mimic, he could tell jokes at the same time as he juggled – bad jokes, the kind Olly liked but could never remember. And when, on special occasions, Christmases, parties, birthdays, he dressed up in his yellow-spotted clown costume, with his oversized, red check trousers and his floppy shoes, painted his face and put on his great red nose and his silly bowler hat with the lid on it, then he could reduce anyone to gales of laughter, even Gaunty Bethel – and that was saying something. He could make people happy all right.
Matt wouldn’t look at her as he spoke. “I’m going to be a clown, Olly, I mean a real clown. And now I know where I’m going to do it. I’m going where my swallows go. I’m going to Africa. Did you see that girl on the news with the flies on her face? There’s thousands like her, thousands and thousands, and I’m going to try to make them happy, some of them at least. I’m going to Africa.”
Everyone did all they could to stop him. Matt’s mother told him again and again that it was just a waste of a good education, that he was throwing away his future. Olly said it was a long way away, that he could catch diseases, and that it was dangerous in Africa with all those lions and snakes and crocodiles.
Gaunty Bethel told him in no uncertain terms just what she thought of him. “What they need in Africa, Matt,” she said, “is food and medicine and peace, not jokes. It’s absurd, ridiculous nonsense.”
Every uncle, every aunt, every grandmother, every grandfather, came and gave their dire warnings. Matt sat and listened to each of them in turn, and then said, as politely as he could, that it was his life and that he would have to
live it his way. He argued only with his mother. With her, it was always fierce and fiery, and so loud sometimes that they would wake Olly up with it, and she’d go downstairs crying and begging them to stop.
Then one morning, when they called him down for breakfast, he just wasn’t there. His bed was made and his rucksack was gone. He had left a letter for each of them on his bedside table. Olly’s mother sat down on his bed and opened her envelope.
“He’s gone, Olly,” she said. “He’s gone. He says he’s taken out all his savings and gone to Africa.”
Olly had seen her cry before, but never like this. She clung to Olly as if she would never let go. “I’m so angry with him, Olly,” she said, and then: “but I’m so proud of him, too.” It wasn’t at all what Olly expected her to say.
Olly read her letter again, sitting up in the privacy of Matt’s hide at the back of the garage.
I’ve got to go, I must. I don’t suppose I’ll write very often. I’m hopeless at letter writing, you know that. So don’t expect to hear much. But I’ll miss you a lot, I know I will. I’ll tell you all about everything when I get back. Time passes very quickly. I’ll be back before you know it. And don’t worry about me. I’ll watch out for all those lions and snakes and crocodiles, I promise. I’ll be fine. Look after Mum for me. And look after my swallows too. Make sure they all fly off safe and sound before the winter comes. See you soon.
Olly tried to do all he had asked of her, but none of it was easy. In those first days her mother was completely distraught. Olly kept telling her the same thing over and over again. “He’ll be all right, Mum, he’ll be all right, you’ll see.” It was all she could think of to say. But Olly didn’t even believe it herself. Night after night she lay awake, sick with her own worry, and as sad as she’d ever been. Without Matt there was no laughter in the house any more, no joy.
She did make sure that nothing and no-one disturbed the fledgling swallows. Like Matt before her, she sat for hours at a time up in the hide, watching them, guarding them, shooing away any marauding cats. Day after day she witnessed the comings and goings of the parent birds, how they would swoop
down to dive into the garage, and then flutter briefly at the nest, feed their young and be off again. Olly loved the sudden screeching chorus of excitement as the parent birds arrived, and the silence and stillness that followed. The young grew fast. Very soon the nest was impossibly full, full of beaks, gaping beaks.
Then one day, as Olly climbed up the ladder into the hide, she saw they were not there. They had flown. She found them lined up on the garage roof waiting to be fed. She could watch them better from her bedroom window now. It wasn’t long before the five fledglings were quite indistinguishable from all the other swallows and swifts and martins soaring and screaming around the chimney pots on a summer’s evening.
In all this time there had been no word from Matt, no address, nothing. Olly’s mother was fretting herself to a frazzle. Olly tried to reassure her that no news must be good news. They speculated endlessly, where he might be, what he might be up to, whether he was all right.
There was a succession of unwelcome
visits to endure. Gaunty Bethel came round almost every other evening. If she could, Olly would escape to her room and hide, but sometimes there was no avoiding her. Gaunty Bethel was so loud, so opinionated, so judgmental. “If you ask me,” – and no-one had, of course – “I put it down to the schools, the teachers. Children come out of school these days thinking the world’s their oyster. Not like it was, I can tell you. When I think, Olly, of all your mother has done for that boy, brought him up practically single-handed and then he just ups and goes off like that. And to Africa! To be a clown! What is he thinking of? It’s just not right, not responsible, plain thoughtless. I don’t know” – and then came the pained sigh – ”I don’t know. Young people these days.”
These were difficult times for Olly.
She was missing Matt more than she ever thought possible. She found herself alone in the house more than ever – there was always some crisis at the surgery that meant her mother was having to work even longer hours than usual. She went often to Matt’s room and sat on his bed. She felt closer to him there, but it didn’t help. It made it worse if anything. She went round to see her friends, but they were holiday happy and she wasn’t. So
that made her miserable too. Sometimes, to cheer herself up, she would go out on call with her mother, to carry her “bag of tricks” as she called it – her bag of medicines. They went to the bird sanctuary to mend a swan’s wing, to a dairy farm to help with a difficult calving – a breech birth. But once back in the car, talk would soon turn to Matt, and one or other, or both of them, would always end up in tears.
It was three weeks to the day since Matt left that the cards arrived, one each, from Rwanda. Olly read hers over and over again, soaking in every word. His writing was tiny, as always, and very difficult to read.
I finally got here. I’m working in an orphanage run by Irish nuns and nurses. Sister Christina is the boss nun. She’s over sixty, but you wouldn’t know it. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. She never stops. There are over two hundred children here. I help feed them and teach them, and every evening I do my clowning show and try to send them to bed happy. Some of them find going to sleep very difficult – not surprising when you think what they’ve been through. One of the boys, Gahamire, doesn’t speak at all because he’s been so frightened. I want to help him speak again if I can. From my window, I can see a big mountain with clouds around the top. They say lots of gorillas live up there. Haven’t seen one yet though. Lots of love, Matt
P.S. Did my swallows fly?
The card to Olly’s mother said more about the orphanage, about the plight of the children, how undernourished and weak some of them were, how terribly wounded – some without legs after stepping on landmines. He gave no address. He just said he would write again. They put their cards on the mantelpiece either side of the silver framed photograph of Olly’s father and, for a while at least, Matt’s cards were enough to lift the gloom about the house.
Olly went off to school for the new term with a spring in her step. The dark rings of anxiety under her mother’s eyes all but vanished. Now both of them could at least picture the place where Matt lived, and what he was doing. One evening, they took out the atlas. Olly’s mother remembered a film she’d seen
about a mountain in Rwanda where gorillas lived. She worked out it must be somewhere in the Virunga range, near Lake Kivu. So now they knew roughly where he was. All of this helped, for a time; but then fresh doubts and anxieties began to surface once again.
“Why didn’t he leave his address?” Olly asked. “Then we could write back to him.”
“Maybe he just forgot,” her mother replied. In their hearts though, both of them knew the real answer. Matt wanted to do what he was doing alone, without them. He’s flown the nest, Olly thought, like the swallows in the garage, he’s flown the nest and gone. Sometimes, when she was feeling sad, she even hated him for it, but never for long. It was hard, hard for her and her mother, but at least they knew that Matt was alive and safe and well; and as time passed, and they became more used to his absence, they found they could be glad for him that he was at least doing what he wanted.
Then Olly came back from school one afternoon and noticed a swallow flying in and out of the garage. She climbed up into the hide to get a closer look. There
was another swallow sitting on the nest. So once again Olly’s mother found her car banished to the street, and once again whenever she wasn’t at school Olly found herself on guard duty up in the hide. She took her mug of tea with her. She even did her homework there sometimes.