Bones of Birds is a book about flying and falling, about the earth and the sky, a celebration of all those who achieve the miracle of flight, and of those who struggle to accept our earth bound lives. Zeppelins and birds, transported lovers, angels and witches, Soviet women fighter-pilots and pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart fill the skies of Jo Colley’s imagination, wings beating frenetically in an attempt to rise above the constraints of the everyday. As ‘the chicken daughter of an eagle and a wren’ the longed for meridian is always beyond her grasp, although this doesn’t stop her launching herself into the fathomless blue.
Back then, it was different: us girls aspired to serve. Miles high in polyester pencil skirt, our taut thighs held in sheerest nylon a nifty cap perched on hair sprayed stiff as wire. Solicitous, skin pancaked to perfection, we soothed the weary men, always ready with lighter, ice and paper bag. Up there, heads hollowed out by butane, we communicated clink and fizz. Just in time, my unwavering lipstick smile bagged me my BOAC man. Grounded at 30, with a new life in the Cotswolds, I’ve adjusted. Turbulence is rare. I tend my garden, planted in neat rows, like the seats in business class. The flowers lift their faces as I pass.
Secure in your glass case like Snow White in no danger of an awakening kiss, everything you know contained. Your thick skin resists the January sea. You bob above the waves, whistle a shanty, as she strives, then slips beneath the ship’s stern. Time on your side, you float, oblivious, as another weaker vessel sinks. Sole survivor, you let yourself be hauled on deck, move on to glory. All her journeys hidden in your unreflective maw. You keep it zipped, lolling tongue firmly held in your pig’s cheek.
Museum of Air and Space, Washington, May 2011 All week, the heat of new summer, against the dark rain-heavy skies , thunder rumbles, spreads unease. Today, skies flag blue, people drink iced sodas outside cafes, the city loosens its belt. Unruly kids in coloured polo shirts roam in packs, click digitals in front of history, missing the point. Humble, I stand before the little red bus. Your cardboard figure leans, gazing back: the disguising fringe falls towards a shy smile, a wide mouth divides the flat plains of your face. I’ve crossed an ocean to be here, to see the bus, flamboyant, lipstick red its cheerful glamour refusing to fade. On a distant atoll in another dimension, your American bones and teeth bleach white beneath the sand.
I was so young: I didn’t know what it was to be afraid. Lying on my back in summer grass, long before the war clouds gathered. the sky called me: my element, more bird than girl. The Nazis came, darkened the sun like a flock of crows. I made myself eagle, clenched my tender heart into a fist, watched bullets stitch a perfect seam through the blue to undo the cocky boys, fine examples of the master race. Even as I watched my sisters die, melt like candles in their Yaks, I felt alive. Our days were short but we made them long: each night ended in song, our girls’ voices offered to the stars. Like Baba Yaga, I covered my tracks, swept away all traces, left them wondering. The lily painted on my side beguiled them as I unleashed a rain of burning petals. Dressed to kill, I led them in a dance more intimate than love. Now and then, drifting home, dawn colouring my cheeks, I would recall a night before the war swaying to a jazz band, a boy I hardly knew. His hands on the small of my back, my face against his chest. In the end, I didn’t see them coming. I was tired, and the sun was in my eyes. They tore at me like a pack of dogs, ripped away a wing. I spiralled down to earth, bid my mother goodbye. Such noise, such pain. Then silence. But here I sit, a grandma in a tidy German garden, my white hair carefully arranged, cheeks like wrinkled apples. The broken bones mended, though they feel the cold. I had to seal the jar to my past with a good thick layer of wax to make this trade: my country for my life. Only the sky knows no boundaries.
‘A very good book.’
‘deftly composed... a pleasure to read.’