Virginia Barton

Our Silver Wedding Anniversary, fallen swift on my frock


Oxford, 10 May 2013


The gem for our 55th wedding anniversary this year is alexandrite. If, like me, you haven’t a clue what an alexandrite looks like, you can google “Gemopedia” and get this description: it is “the rare, phenomenal, color-change variety of the chrysoberyl mineral.” There are also some lovely pics. Or better still, look up Chambers Dictionary which gives this definition: “a dark green mineral, a kind of chrysoberyl discovered on the day of the majority of the Tsarevich, later Alexander II.” Chambers has no colour picture of course, but Gemopedia gave no origin of the name, did it?

The Internet makes one lazy. My poor Chambers, so faithful a friend for so many years, has lain unopened for too long. It has honourable wine stains here and there, and sarky remarks about words viz. bosh: “boo sucks, RG, see p.193 bottom right!” It is dedicated to me “for your correction and improvement.” It was a 53rd birthday present and obviously I still had a lot to learn. 

So just possibly alexandrite cuff-links and a pendant will adorn our anniversary.

7065_swift (2)It was rather different 30 years ago. Opening the door to get the milk in, I discovered a disheveled heap of feathers on the mat. Thinking it was an offering from some stray cat, I picked it up gingerly finger and thumbwise, but no, it was a swift in a state of collapse. It must have tumbled from the nest in our roof 60 feet above when attempting to fly. Unable to replace it in the nest as one is advised, I cradled it close to the bosom and went to find a suitable box. Luckily, I was dressed and ready for the day despite it being only 5.45am. I say luckily with good reason: the bird hooked its feet into the fabric of my cotton dress and simply would not be put down! There it stayed the entire day.

Have you ever seen a swift’s feet? Admirably suited for life on the wing but rubbish for feeding from a dish, squatting over a worm or trotting to a pond like other birds. They fly for thousands of miles without touching ground, feeding, mating and screaming. Harbingers of summer in England, they make their nests in the roofs of tall buildings like our four-story town house. We loved to see and hear them, and the house martins at the back of the house, in spite of the mess directly aimed at front and back doorsteps.

After a bit, with gentle stroking and soppy murmurings on my part, the bird recovered from the shock, poked its head up and opened a considerable beak. It spurned small bits of breakfast cereal, bread pellets and apple chunks. My husband, also up and ready for the day by now, observed it closely. “It has a hooked beak, it needs red meat”, he pronounced magisterially. He legged it off to the market while I, as best I could with a bird attached to my front, prepared for what was in fact, our silver wedding anniversary. Hence all that preamble about alexandrite.

In due course four ounces of best beef mince arrived in a plastic bag. My golly that bird couldn’t get enough of it. He (or was it she? I’m afraid I didn’t know how to tell the difference, and no, I don’t need enlightening at this stage of my life) gobbled it up as fast as I could shovel it down. It was insatiable. It seems swifts eat insects, and spiders floating in the sky on skeins of silk, but beef mince was a very acceptable substitute.

So the day went by. Family and friends came and went, and relations from Zimbabwe tactfully ignored the scratch lunch and hostess’s state of undress. The bird ate, peered about a bit, and clung like a vice to my old frock. I had to support him with one hand because he was well-grown with a considerable wingspan and weight.

The following day we were due to go on holiday to Cumberland. It didn’t seem kind to take Silver (by now he had been given this rather obvious name) so far north, away from his kin and home skies. We bethought ourselves of a young naturalist living in a nearby village and drove over with Silver and his luggage of best beef mince. He consented to be prised off me into Adam’s hands, and there we left him. The best thing was that the following May Adam had swifts nesting in his roof for the very first time. It had to be Silver and a gang of chums.

Any casualty on my doorstep this year will be called Alexander, of course.



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