Putin was naked and his skin covered in feathers

The idea of the president of all the Russias up there with claw feet shaking the chimney pot was not doing me any good at all

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I dreamed that the president of Russia was a cuckoo on my roof and he was shaking the chimney. Our chimney is not in good condition, and sometimes in winter the strong winds blow the rains up the tiles, underneath the flashing, and the white walls of the kitchen turn brown along the line of the chimney breast.

So the idea of the president of all the Russias up there with claw feet shaking the chimney pot was not doing me any good at all. What was worse, he was wearing no clothes and his skin was covered in feathers. Of course this was only a dream, but I didn’t know that, because we don’t know we’re dreaming when we’re dreaming.

Then I thought I was lying outside on the grass beneath the clear sky, and the cuckoo flew off the chimney and hovered above me, blocking the light. That’s when I woke up terrified in bed. It was about 7am. In the distance I could hear the real Mr Cuckoo singing his heart out.

A hard one to swallow
Later that morning I was in the studio, wondering if it was time to close up the stove for the summer, when a swallow flew in the glass patio door, carved a circle in the air above me and landed on one of the rafters that crosses the apex roof.

“I used to live here,” he said.

I said, “No, you never did, this room was only built last year.”

“Well,” he said, in swallow language, “there was a green shed here on this exact spot, when I came in previous summers. And it’s gone.”

He eyed me with an aggressive little eye. The thought occurred to me that, although he was not as big as Mr Putin, he could blind me with his beak fairly fast if he had the inclination.

“Yes,” I confessed, “there was a green galvanised shed here, but I was obliged to take it down in order to build this lovely studio.”

“Well,” he said, “it’s not so lovely for me, is it? Where am I supposed to go for the next five months to rear two new batches of little swallows?”

There was a black oily colour to his shoulders; it was almost blue.

“Can I stay here?” he seemed to asked, as he shifted sideways on the rafter.

“That would be lovely,” I said, “except that my beautiful wooden floor would be destroyed with bird poo. And I couldn’t keep the door open all the time, so if you were coming and going you might bang your head off the glass and kill yourself. Best thing is to go now while the going is good.”

And I flapped my arms and off he flew.

The Cavan cat
That afternoon I was in Mullingar talking to a woman whose horse recently won a grand prix at an international showjumping competition in Paris. We were discussing the weather.

“Windy day,” I said.

“Yes,” she agreed, “but not cold.”

“I heard the cuckoo this morning,” I declared, and as I spoke, the Cavan cat dashed across the patio in front of the house with a baby rabbit in her teeth. She’s called the Cavan cat because she was run over by a car near Kilnaleck one time.

Her back and forelegs were broken and her face almost squashed by the wheel of a lorry. The owner didn’t want her any more, but my friend in Mullingar insisted on paying a fortune to the vet to have everything fixed up. Now she’s fine except she has no tail.

I remember winter evenings at the stove while my friend was tending to horses in the yard, and I’d be watching the cat trying to suck milk off a saucer, with a wire brace in her mouth to hold the jawbone in place. I never thought she would mend, never mind have the strength to eat rabbits.

I’m fond of cats, but nonetheless it didn’t prevent me running out to save the rabbit. I chased her across the patio, tossing plastic chairs and a metal table where I had often sat on summer evenings, drinking wine and eating beef steaks and talking about horses, but I couldn’t catch her. Eventually she got behind a hedge, and looked out at me like a jihadi warrior on her way to heaven, the victim still clenched in her gob. But by now the rabbit was dead.

“Might as well leave her alone,” my friend said. And she brought me down to see the swallow nests in the stables.

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