Jack in the Box
Chloe de Lullington
© Copyright 2021 by Chloe de Lullington
That warm spring day when she and a friend took a day for themselves to drive to the beach, we all had our strict instructions. None of us were to use the hob, and any engagement with the kettle had to be supervised – although who was supervising who remains hazy in my mind – and she’d be back in time to make us our dinner. Mere hours after she had gone, and we’d become the adoptive family of a wild creature. Like I said – wherever Mum was, things were under control.
Our driveway gates were open and the driveway itself was empty, and the lady drove straight in. I don’t recall what she looked like, but she had an air of slightly daffy well-heeled well-meaning about her. You get used to the sort living where we did. She was earnest, but not looking to hang around.
“I took it to the owl man,” she explained, “but he said he only does owls.”
Well, you can’t say fairer than that.
We lived in a small rural Kentish village, as did the owl man. Swaying evergreens about thirty feet tall lined our road, and the ramshackle houses dotted along – the only blip in nature’s great expanse – severed tarmac from mile upon mile of open field out the back. I was always very conscious that we lived in the wildlife’s world, and not the other way around, and the owl man was emblematic of this quiet respect for nature. He was a nice old chap, and I knew little about him beyond the fact that he took in injured owls out of the goodness of his heart, a perfectly formed minor character in the great tableaux of local life.
We, though I’d modestly say possessed of similarly charitable inclinations, had never looked after a wild bird in our lives, and gave no indication of any expertise – quite simply, she just came to us because we lived nearby and our gates were open. We were just a doddery old man and his two oddball, under-socialised children – but I had been raised on such feelgood animal movies as Free Willy, Free Willy 2, Free Willy 3, Shiloh, Babe, Babe 2: Pig in the City, and my personal favourite, Fly Away Home, in which a moody, maladjusted child hand rears a flock of orphaned Canada geese.
As soon as the lady got out her cardboard box and showed us the baby jackdaw sitting beady and recalcitrant in its shadowy confines, I was absolutely determined to be the main character in my own avian drama.
Closer inspection revealed he was more a teenager than a baby; he still retained some of the gummy yellow edging of babyhood around his beak, like cheap sealant on a window frame, but his feathers were a dark charcoal grey and there only remained a small scattering of infant fluff – he was a stormy sky one monochrome gradient away from a thundering downpour. Beady black eyes stared balefully up at us, and three pairs of perplexed blue ones gazed right back down at him. It was as if he resented us already, not so much as individuals but as a symbol of the interference of our species in the lives of his. His rescuer, well-intentioned but idiotic in the kindest possible way, had found him on the grass beneath a tree and flown into a flurry of middle-class concern. Out came the cardboard box, in went the fledgling, bang went any chance of mother jackdaw returning for her child. She had essentially orphaned the poor creature, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he knew. We syringed water into his beak as he obligingly opened up, but beyond that he seemed to want to cower alone in his box, so we left him be and waited for the return of our matriarch in lieu of his.
When the car pulled in and Mum emerged, she reacted first with bemusement, then with her characteristic pragmatism. There was another mouth to feed – it didn’t matter that it was technically a beak, she was a good Christian woman. She had a shepherd’s pie ready to go in the oven, and since none of us fancied digging up worms to feed our little chum, minced lamb in tomatoes and gravy was the next best bet. We flattened it into baby-food style mulch for him and spooned it into one of my little brother’s green plastic toddler bowls, a relic of his own babyhood. We were delighted when he jabbed his beak right in there and made quick, sharp noises of approval around mouthfuls of haute cuisine carrion. He even had a go at the mashed potato on top.
That night, he slept in the animal carrier we used for our pet rabbit’s vet trips, bedded down in shredded newspaper, and I barely slept a wink in my own bed, because part of me knew he might not last the night and part of me thought maybe he would if only I could stay awake. (I was very much afflicted with Main Character Syndrome.) When dawn filtered through the crack in the heavy velvet curtains of my bedroom a few short hours later, I was overjoyed to find our guest very much awake and chirping briskly from behind bars, marching up and down in the white slurry of his own shit. He was alive, fed, watered, and pooping – all of which, in my limited knowledge mainly inspired by the Animal Ark children’s series of vet books, meant he was going to be OK. We, pragmatic above imaginative, named him Jack, and set about making plans for his transition back to the wild.
The next few days passed in a blissful blur of sheeny blue-black feathers that caught the hazy spring sunshine and, as each evening drew in, melded seamlessly with the dusky shadows. When Jack made it clear he was ready to come out and explore, we moved him from the pet carrier to the run we usually let our aforementioned pet rabbit roam around inside – I don’t think it was lost on her, the indignity of giving up her garden to a creature who would probably have no compunction in making her his dinner should he happen upon her corpse in the wild – and for a few days he strutted and hopped around in its wire mesh confines in between supervised garden exploration. He wasn’t quite ready to flex his feathers, but showed every sign of enjoying the vantage point up on my father’s shoulder (he also enjoyed occasional usage of that shoulder as a lavatory). They pottered around the garden together for a few days, Richard and Jack, the presence of the latter giving the former the quite remarkable air of an ersatz inland pirate.
Being afflicted with various limiting disabilities, my father occupied his days primarily as an outsider artist and keen gardener, and was at the time experimenting with various rudimentary homemade air rifle designs; I sat in the sun and watched from over the top of my Biggles book as he sawed and filed and polished and drilled while the jackdaw on his shoulder chirped and crackled and oversaw proceedings with his beady black eyes. When my father’s attention turned to the nurture of the garden itself, Jack hitched a ride on the hosepipe as it snaked across the parched grass and sprayed the willow trees, scattering rainbow droplets over me with a customary cheerful one-word warning. I never wanted those days to end.
Jack quickly picked up all the life hacks nature had bestowed on his kind. We didn’t need to syringe water into his beak for long; he was soon splashing about in a bird bath (cobbled together and most definitely homemade, as was almost everything in our lives at the time) and although we still extended the courtesy of human dinners to our avian guest, he began fending for himself on a more regular basis. He was a remarkably clean creature, glossy perfection distilled into nature’s tuxedo, and as the yellow edging around his beak gave way to perfect matt black beneath, it was as if Mother Nature was wrapping him in his very own bow-tie and saying “here you go. You’re ready.”
That readiness occurred in stages, however, and was not without its false starts. We knew he had to leave, and although he voluntarily returned to his temporary rabbit-run hotel for a few evenings, we started letting him loose in the garden at night in the hope of encouraging him to explore. One evening, we got a call from the elderly lady next door: Jack was loitering on her bedroom windowsill and he would not come down. He had got himself up there through his God-given gift of flight, but he was damned if he was coming down the same way; he sat sullenly on the external ledge and glowered down at us as we congregated in her front garden.
I was shivering slightly in my Monsters Inc. pyjamas – more with adrenaline than chill – well aware, with my rudimentary knowledge of film narrative structure, that this was probably going to be a Big Moment. I remember with sharp clarity how the neighbours of the other houses (which were arranged in a rough approximation of a horseshoe shape just off the main road) emerged and stood in their gardens, everyone watching (but not necessarily with surprise) the unfolding feathery drama. Our elderly neighbour reluctantly let Mum and I in to try and coax Jack inside, though the notion of a jackdaw flapping about in her pristine talcum scented boudoir visibly did not appeal. We couldn’t quite grab him, however, and when it became apparent that we were trying to, the little bugger simply minced his way delicately, but with great pomp, into the middle of the long windowsill where neither of our pairs of hands could reach. I remember the feeling of my little heart beating twice as fast as normal, as if trying to keep pace with his – if he falls off and hurts himself, I remember thinking, this is going to be the most ridiculous and embarrassing moment ever.
Enter: Richard. Armed with a plastic flowerpot balanced on an extendable broom handle, he marched into the neighbour’s garden and appealed to Jack’s base nature. He’d sprinkled a slightly stale teacake atop the flowerpot, and after a few moments of rattling this comic contraption at the bedroom window, the lure of currants and raisins proved too great to resist. Jack stared us all down with sardonic magnificence, and deigned to take a step onto the flowerpot cherry-picker. It would be easy to say everyone clapped, but this is not that sort of story, and I think they all just sort of murmuringly dispersed back to their TV dinners. We returned Jack to his rabbit run that night and he settled in without complaint, then set off the next day into the sky to give it another go. We were proud of him, and I like to think he knew.
The day was approaching, though – the day we all knew was coming. He signalled it to us pretty plainly, simply by being with us all the time. He spent the daylight hours lovingly attentive on the garden hose, sliding about in whichever direction the hosepipe was pointed, hopping and cracking out sharp little bursts of approval and glee. He ascended once more to the shoulder and didn’t even defecate on it, which I took to interpret as an unspoken sign of respect between equals. When he flew away that evening in his now customary twilight departure, it was the last we ever saw of him, and although he may have fallen victim to any number of emotionless foibles of the natural world – or indeed the traffic on the nearby main road – I choose to believe, with perhaps the last hard vein of childhood naivete that runs through me to this day, that Jack spent the day with us saying goodbye, before returning to where Mother Nature had always intended him to be. It was his world, up in the trees and across the fields, our so-called civilisation nothing but a needlessly complex blot upon it – we just helped him get back to it.
I really truly believed for much of the spring during which this took place that I would be the next child star of a "based on true story" feelgood animal movie. That, of course, did not happen - but this is a close second and I hope you enjoy nonetheless! I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to animals and nature, and a hapless romantic about anything else. I've recently grown to love writing personal essays and reflective pieces based on my experiences, having spent the first couple of decades of my life oscillating wildly between sensations of being the most interesting person alive and the weirdest little weirdo who should stay schtum for her own self-preservation. As such, I am still very much a work in progress!