The familiar birds practice routines burned into their ritual memory. Blackbirds find new nesting sites in hedges, in rose bushes, in the gnarled limbs of old clematis. Lapwings twist against the blue like children’s kites slipped loose from control, sharing the lush sedge with the purposeful trill of the curlew. The sand martins had taken up residence in their familiar earthen banks as if to taunt and fool us. And still there were no swallows.
And then, as I step into the garden one evening, they are there; wheeling crazily in the evening sky like children released from school. They pause briefly on the telephone wires like crotchets on a stave and then they are away again, slipping across the air mercury-quick and fluid, as random and poetic as the water in a mountain stream.
There is no flight like that of the swallow. Not the shrill higher-and-higher loftiness of the skylark, not the effortless insouciance of the buzzard or the frantic skitter of the homebound thrush. Immune to gravity, they dance.
For five months these tiny birds, as familiar as spring, as exotic as Africa, will spiral and twist in our Cumbrian skies as though the air was created for them alone. And then, one day, an ancient memory will tug in the compass of their brains. Silently they will dream their impatient dreams of the south and feel the restlessness of movement in their evening hunting. On a September day when the sky is scarred with cloud we will wake to find them gone; the parentheses of our summer will have closed.