Woven with song

WE heard Sorley before we saw him - our first impression was of noise. He arrived at our home in early May, hammering thunderously at the door and shouting in a hoarse croak: ``I'm Sorley. I've come to paint your windows.'' He had been recommended by a friend as a reliable worker, always glad of a job since he was often unemployed. ``There's one drawback,'' our friend added, without explanation. Sorley was a gaunt figure, pale with chalky city pallor and an expression of dour determination not to be beaten in the grim game of life. He lined up pots of paint, opened a bag, taking out his brushes and the drawback - a transistor radio. He switched it on, engulfing us instantly in sound, blotting out the songs of spring. ``I like to have my radio,'' he said. They were inseparable. All communication with him was at the top of our voices.

Toward midday there came so piercing a bellow that we rushed out to see if he had either spilled all the paint or fallen from his ladder. ``What on earth is up?'' ``The battery's deid,'' said Sorley, shaking his transistor furiously. The garden became once more like Prospero's island, full of sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not - larks soared, warblers and blackbirds sang, whaups flew overhead. The thrush, which had come to our window for years, perched above him, pouring out its song with infinite variations.

Sorley became aware of a new presence. He looked up at the bird and the bird looked down at the man. ``He's guarding his nest,'' I said, pointing to where it was in the shrubbery, as the thrush flew down to chase away a magpie. ``Protecting his property from his enemies,'' said Sorley, as if in fellow feeling with the bird.

Next morning he arrived without the radio and we had the wonderful sight of Sorley leaning forward on his ladder, whistling to the thrush. From an attitude of aggressive mistrust toward humanity, he gradually unbent. He grew curious, he had never been in the country before. What was the name of the bird with the yellow beak? And the reddish one? A chaffinch. And the one with the speckled breast that sits beside me? ``A thrush, you call him? He's my friend.''

He wanted to know the color of the eggs and when they would hatch. He passed the nest on tiptoe as if his footsteps might break the shells. When they did hatch out, he took the blue-black flecked fragments carefully away in his handkerchief. He painted more and more slowly and listened more and more. Each day became a voyage of discovery around the garden. In the green gloaming before he left, he lingered, flinging a last protective glance at the thrush's mate, half pushed from the nest by six gape-beaked fledglings. ``Mind my friend,'' he called as he set off down the lane.

He took to linking his personal struggle in life with the thrush's, watching its untiring flight to the nest, its beak garlanded with worms. ``That bird and I have the same idea,'' he said, ``how to keep alive and see that the next generation does, too.'' From that he came to speak of the most important presence in his life, the object of all his anxieties and affections, the one who, since he had lost his wife, must survive at all costs. He referred to him as the lad or the son. ``When I show him the eggshells and all the feathers I pick up round the garden, you should see his face. The neighbors think I'm daft - he doesn't,'' Sorley added proudly. We had the impression of father and son as friends and allies in a hostile world, the son becoming as familiar to us as the father.

Sorley developed something like cunning in prolonging his painting. He added yet another coat, went prowling off around the garden to survey his work from different angles, but in reality to look and listen. He talked to us with sudden spurts of self-revelation. ``Mind when I first came with my radio? All that racket, you see, it stops you thinking, and thinking mostly means worry for the likes of me - or it did. Fancy a bird teaching me a lesson! He worries but never gives up singing!''

Eventually he had to finish his work. One job sometimes leads to another and work, maybe permanent, down in Border country was in the offing. ``I've not charged you by the hour,'' he said, pocketing his pay, ``for I've taken my time. Maybe,'' he added with rare humor, ``you'll be charging me for all I've learned since I came here and that I've passed on to the son.'' ``We've learned a lot from you,'' I said.

He gave a funny kind of salute to the thrush, singing on the roof, then set off down the lane. ``Keep an eye on him,'' he called back to us. I felt a lump in the throat to see him go. The new job might fall through, he would lose heart and hope and be drawn back into the miseries of city life. He left behind him a penetrating odor of fresh paint and a strange sense of loss.

Weeks passed, the fledgling thrushes left the nest and went shrilling around the garden, chasing their parents for food. Sorley's thrush was weary, its feathers molted, but it still sang. We kept watch over it as over no other bird.

Early one morning there came a quiet tapping at the door. It was Sorley and, unmistakably, Sorley's son. We would have picked him out anywhere, a small, solemn boy with an eager eye.

``Have you taken care of my friend?'' Sorley demanded. ``I've got the job I was hoping for and we're off the morn. I wanted the lad to see him before we left.''

They set off around the garden. ``Isn't it just like I told you?'' we heard him say. ``There's the wren and that's a linnet. You're hearing a blackie now, he's good, but just wait till you hear my one sing!'' The boy bombarded him with questions, and Sorley replied with his vision of bird life and its likeness to our own. They peered in at hedges and bushes and returned again and again to the thrush's deserted nest. ``See how it's all woven with grasses and twigs.''

``Could I keep it?'' said young Sorley. ``He can't be needing it anymore.'' He put it carefully into his cap.

Just as we had begun to fear that the thrush might fail to appear, all at once, with a whirring of wings, there it was, perched high on its familiar singing post on the roof ridge. Never had it sung more beautifully, never with so many infinite variations on its theme. ``Did you ever hear the like!'' Sorley exclaimed and fell silent. We were not likely ever to forget the expression on the faces of Sorley and son as they listened to the song of the speckled thrush.

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