‘I took my first steps in a harpsichord museum,’ said Malcolm. It was a June evening, between dinner and ice cream, a time filled with conversation and sampling the miscellaneous alcohol – apricot liqueur, vodka, Edinburgh gins – on Claudia and Malcolm’s bookshelf. Two rows for books, one row for bottles (a good ratio). Midway through a slowly sipped glass of Canadian gin, I pricked up my ears. How? And why? I don’t think I’ve ever wondered where my first steps were, but I imagine a family living room with dated wallpaper, pudgy hands outstretched to an encouraging relative, one and two and oopsadaisy. Taking one’s first steps in a harpsichord museum sounds like something from a novel, possibly including troubled genius and flowing Regency gowns. (Were harpsichords around in the Regency period? I have no idea.) But I digress.
I had been talking about the countryside, urging them to visit – to see the sunsets, the moonrises, to walk at dusk past the barn owl box and the rookery, a sharp eye peeled for hares and deer and owls.
It’s not the thing I had thought would most interest either of the pair but, Malcolm explained, his father has a passion for harpsichords. Indeed, it was in a harpsichord museum that one newly-toddling Malcolm had taken his first steps. It took a moment for me to realise that however ripe for romancing this idea was, as explanations went it was somewhat lacking. My musical knowledge is slim, I know, but it still seemed like a bit of a stretch to go from rookeries to harpsichords in one easy leap. However, to my immediate fascination, it transpires that traditionally the quills from crows’ feathers were used in harpsichords to pluck the strings. Malcolm’s father, the enthusiast, still used them – so their family walks were spent with half an eye out for crow (or indeed rook) feathers. And I lived near a rookery.
Which brings me to this afternoon. Fired up with the quest of bringing rook feathers to Malcolm’s father – whom I have never actually met, but whose hobby charms me – I sat barefoot on the lawn, surrounded by feathers and bits of wing. Mum and I have spent the past few weeks collecting feathers on our walks – she ventured one day into the rookery copse, emerging triumphant with a handful of feathers and a section of wing brandished like some grisly trophy. (I should add that she found it beneath the trees. No rooks were harmed in the making of this blog post). Today, armed with rubber gloves, I gingerly untied the two bags in which the feathers had been carried home. I expected a bad smell and steeled myself against it with wrinkled nose – but it was fortunately absent. The task of delicately plucking feathers from piece of wing was not so much gruesome as fascinating. The small, light birdbones came away easily from the quills, small clumps of tiny feathers still attached. The wing feathers fit together perfectly, unmarred by whatever assault had separated wing from owner. I looked for the primary flight feathers – long and asymmetrical with broad quills – perfect, apparently, for plucking harpsichord strings. (A family friend had once good-naturedly bestowed upon Malcolm’s father a bag full of goose feathers, knowing his interest in collecting feathers for harpsichords and reasoning, presumably, that one feather was much the same as another. Apparently not).
Rook feathers are beautiful up close – there are so many shades and subtle colours of black – where light hits, feathers are tinged blue, grey, brown. I sorted the feathers methodically – definites, maybes, discard. They’ll be put in different bags, posted citywards in a sturdy cardboard tube. A broken tile was used as a paperweight – featherweight – to stop the gathered feathers from flying away. Instead, their quills will pluck notes on a harpsichord, which seems at the same time like a beautiful end (although probably not to the bird) and a beginning. A murder of crows – a resurrection of rooks.