All things considered, the neighbourhood has adapted pretty well to this lockdown malarkey. Each day follows the previous one in a well-rehearsed pattern: mornings bring the pastoral visit of buzzing bumblebees and the high-speed patrol of our resident parakeets. Afternoons, instead, follow a different schedule: as I wrap up the last calls of the day there’s a background noise of children playing football, the idiotic dog who barks at the holes he’s just dug and his equally stupid owners, the neighbourhood young parents’ association. Maybe Mr. Whippy will do a pass or two.
Not on that day, though. As the last meeting drew to a close, I had to shut the window to drown out the scream of a siren coming from right below us. Work done I did what every nosy parker would’ve done since we all lived in caves and not on the sixth floor of a modern block of flats: I went on our deck to check out what was going on. Other Half was already there.
“It’s the fire brigade”, she announced: sure enough, the bright red engine was parked downstairs, for the joy of the young parents’ kids. Get this, Peppa Pig. Neither you nor Bob the Builder can compare with the sight of four firefighters! And a truck!
Weirdly enough, the valiant firemen and women didn’t seem interested in our tenement. Rather, they congregated on the opposite side of the road, in the park, huddling beneath the gigantic planes and oakes that makes it feel as if we’re all living in a tree house.
“There’s a bird on the tree”, noted Other Half. Before I could point out that being on trees is sort of to be expected from birds she added “It’s looking as if it’s trapped, or somehow stuck there”. In fact, lo and behold, there was a magpie. High up in the upper branches, higher than our vantage point, flapping her wings desperately. Stuck.
“The neighbours say it’s been stuck there since yesterday, poor thing. They called the fire brigade”. She pointed out at a Polish lady whom I sometimes met downstairs in one of those awkward corridor encounters that are the norm in London.
It wasn’t long before we realised that the fire brigade couldn’t do much. With no way to climb up there all they could do was to shrug, shake their heads and drive off. At least they came, we thought as they left. The little magpie flapped a bit more, and then went quiet.
Daylight lasts for a while, this time of the year. We were returning home after a walk in the neighbourhood when we saw the Polish lady again, this time joined by another of her friends and a tall, muscular man in grey t-shirt and red climbing trousers. Ah, and harness, carabiners and a lot of rope.
“Is he going to do a Honnold?” I asked Other Half as we went back upstairs. It felt impossible. The plane was huge, with a trunk so big that three men couldn’t circle it with their outstretched arms, but… that magpie was stuck high up, where the branches get thinner and thinner.
“He’s doing it!” Other Half, being the climbing aficionado she is (I merely tried once and, in pure Italian fashion, gave up), had kept an eye on the green canopy that filled our view. The man, who turned out to be one of the firefighters who had previously attended the call, was climbing the tree. We caught glimpses of his red trousers as he ascended, leaves and branches rustling as he passed.
The whole building was out, Sky, Netflix and dinner be damned. This whole court of strangers was out there, rooting for the climber and the little magpie he was trying to save. Hating myself for having broken the only set of zoom lenses I had, I started snapping a few photos.
The firefighter was just underneath the magpie, drenched in sweat, perched on the very last branch that could reasonably hold his weight. “What is he gonna do now?” we wondered. He screamed below that the bird was tied up in a string. Wasn’t somebody playing with a kite, there, a few days ago?
“I’ll try and untangle ‘er” he shouted. Best Estuary English ever – actually, evah – outside of Billingsgate market, by the way. A proper Londoner. For a while all we could hear were some muffled curses, the rustling of leaves and the occasional squawk of the trapped bird. We didn’t need an Magpiese-English dictionary to know she was asking “what the actual eff?”. The sun was now sinking behind the buildings, the moon was rising to the south and the sky was turning indigo blue. Then, it happened.
“Got ‘er!” he exulted. “Droppin’ ‘er down now”, he warned our animal-loving Polish contingent below, lowering the bird with another rope. Moments later, our neighbour announced that the bird was fine. The whole building, those sitting in the park and us clapped, bellowed and whooped, including those whose cars have always been used as target practice by pooping birds. A few minutes later, the firefighter dropped to the ground, rappelling with the swagger of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a disaster movie.
The sun set as the crowd dispersed. The firefighter bundled his wares in a white Audi convertible, the Polish ladies left to care for the bird, so that it could have a great story to tell other magpies. As for all of us we returned to ignoring each other as is the custom in a London block of flats, revelling in the knowledge that, for once, the goodies won the day.