To Kill a Sparrowhawk - Valerie Mendes
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To Kill a Sparrowhawk

I’ve got a thing about birds.

The dead ones, I mean.

You can’t be a Cat owner for seventy-five years (I was given my first kitten when I was six) without having to dispose of a mountain of bird carcases.

Mind you, the sprightly young version of Master Sloop wasn’t a leaver of bodies. He was more of a find ’em in the churchyard, watch, jump, yum, yum, crunch ’em up, delicious, and walk away… Next?

When I lived in Home Close in Wolvercote with a former chewer of birdlife, a killer called Top Cat, he’d find birds while I slaved away in the daily office grind (remember them?) in Oxford. His one mission in life was to hunt everything that lived on Port Meadow and bring it back as Trophy of the Day.

When he’d done his dreadful deed, he’d meander home with the pile of feathers clamped in his jaw. He’d leave his conquest on the back doorstep for young Sam to deal with. Indeed, you could say it was Sam’s very first backbreaking domestic chore. Bury the Latest Bird.

Sam would cycle home from Magdalen College School (the best in town, natch) and before he was fed and watered by You Know Who, it was get out the shovel, man, and dig another grave. Sam’s reward was that his pipe and slippers would always be waiting, along with his freshly washed and ironed linen, a superbly cooked tea, and a special room called his study where he jaw-jawed for hours to his girl friends while his Mama paid the blithering bills. Then it was time for a piping hot bath, a cosy fresh bed and another day where his Only Domestic Chore remained being sole Burial Master of the latest sparrowhawk.

I don’t know how he had the courage. Me, I’m such a coward. I can’t even bear to look. Although in May this year, I had to. Master Sloop stalked and killed a baby pigeon in Blenheim. He carried it all the way home to the centre of Woodstock and left it in the alleyway of my small walled garden. Not bad, eh, for a cat with cancer who knows he’s on his very last legs but wants to prove he can still an killer be.

By the time I spotted it during my coffee break, the aforesaid naked pale green offering was crawling with ants.


I shut my eyes. I prayed that Sam might miraculously appear out of nowhere and rescue me from puking and faintness. ‘Let me do this, Mum,’ he’d say with that devastating smile of his. ‘Let me help you clear up the mess.’

Alas and alack, I was as usual on my own. Playing solo. Being really brave.

Blindfolded, I scurried to the shed, found a shovel, scraped up the naked green thing into a binbag and ran all the way to the Woodstock Museum. Well, to the bins right next to it. It wasn’t intended for display. I then marched home, threw a bottle of Dettol over the place where the ants had been and politely asked Master Sloop if he could find a tiny little caterpillar in Blenheim next time.

Did he listen? Not a snowball’s. He gave a yawn so large I could see down to his cancerous innards and sloped off for another long nap underneath the shed.

The day he was cremated I rang my Gardener and sobbed down the phone. ‘See you at two,’ said Michael Davidson. Together we planned a Memorial Garden to the Dead Cat, a glorious eiderdown of colour, real earth, not a cat’s lavatory, and real flowers.

And birds.

They knew withut being told that the ferocious tiger with the watchful eyes had disappeared through the Oh So Heavenly Gate. They were free to fly in and begin the ritual of their day. Fighting Fattie Pigeon comes first. Letting the jays feed is always second. My pheasant is Marmaduke. He arrives to sunbathe at noon and stays among the digitalis and hollyhocks and lupins and whatchamacallums until it’s time to return to his Blenheim brood.

I have a problem with Chapter Three? Easy peasy. I make a cup of tea and watch the birdies. I even smile for the camera, even though there is nobody else around. It’s my Robin, see? Swoop, swoop, rustle. Dance, peck, swoop. Off again into the sweet fresh air.

Freedom comes at a price, they tell me. My last Cat. I’ve paid it. Now it’s time to dance.