Thievery: That Dark Remembered Day
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from the ever-charming Tom Vowler.
That Dark Remembered Day was published by Headline.
High above him a bird drifted idly on the thermals. He trained the binoculars upwards but it was only a gull, buoyant in its long arcs, slowly heading out to the coast. His father’s obsession with the pair of peregrines was at its most pronounced leading up to that summer. Whole days would pass where he was either out looking for them or shut in his room reading about their world. In his occasional lucid periods he would share with Stephen his new-found knowledge, explaining their habitats, how they hunted. How some of the eyries were hundreds of years old, with subsequent generations returning to their ancestors’ nests again and again. And whereas the summer months saw the birds remain in the uplands of the north and west, autumn provoked a relocation to the lowland marshes and grasslands to the east, where prey was plentiful. Kills were invariably made from above, often with the sun behind them, the falcon stooping from anything up to a thousand feet, at more than a hundred and fifty miles an hour, its wings tucked in, corkscrewing into its airborne target with a sickening blow. This impact was often enough to render the woodpigeon or gull or partridge dead before it fell to earth. Otherwise the job would be finished on the ground with talons and beak, swift and efficient. The prey’s feathers were then plucked, its bones picked clean with expert butchery, or the carcass returned to in the days that followed. As the falcon scanned its hunting territory, crows would rise to mob it, unleashing their fury amid the safety of numbers. Unperturbed the peregrine would perform mock attacks, practising as if honing its skills, before climbing steeply, preparing for another kill. First to die were generally those birds out of place: the sick, the old, the lost – the unlucky.
He made a long sweep with the binoculars, taking in the copse to the north, the hazel coppice on the hills behind Highfield. The peregrines took on mythical status for his father, each pursuit of them a pilgrimage, their sighting causing in him a jubilance that briefly lit up the darkness of his mind. Out walking one weekend, perhaps shortly after the shooting of the rabbit, he told Stephen how the hunter must become the thing it hunts.
That Dark Remembered Day has at its heart a family ruptured by an hour’s madness, the contrails of a horrific event riding the decades that follow. We learn the story from a father recently returned from war, from a frustrated mother who longs for more in life, and from a son whose own incipient first love was abruptly halted. The reader is taken from the rugged Cornish coast to the primeval beauty of the Falkland Islands, to a market town in middle England with a terrible past.
And so I had my characters, the worlds they all inhabited. I had a narrative, a sense of how I wanted to tell the story. But something was missing and it came from an unlikely but iconic piece of nature writing.
Midway through the novel, I was utterly seduced by J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, a masterful evocation of landscape and nature, a paean to the beauty of language, as the author becomes fixated with tracking a pair of wintering falcons, at the expense of all else. He shuns human contact, becoming almost feral as he seeks to be at one with the birds, documenting with lyrical magnificence their movement, their world. At the same time, my character was unhinging, immersing himself in nearby woods, attempting to come to terms with the horrors humans were capable of, and so it fitted perfectly to give him Baker’s obsession with the peregrines. This leant the prose an intensity that was until then absent, a way in to demonstrate the chaotic yet aesthetic inner realm of my narrator.
That Dark Remembered Day is out now from Headline.