One of my favourite family stories comes from way back before I was born. It was very late at night. My mother was living alone in her flat in central London. It was the 1970s, the sky was black and it was raining hard and sideways. The sound of the storm made it difficult to sleep, and so my mother switched on the television.
She channel-hopped as the sky filled with white flashes of lightning, and when she finally settled on something, she was just in time for the opening credits of The Birds.
As much as she had no stomach for scary films and never much cared for Hitchcock, she decided to watch it anyway. I put this down to the fact it was based on Daphne Du Maurier’s short story. My mother almost certainly thought it was going to be more ethereal and gothic, like Rebecca.
Multiple spoilers are coming, be warned.
Way before the crows on the jungle gym, long before the wrens pouring down the chimney, or the gulls chasing the children down the street… when Melanie gets pecked by the birds on the boat, my mother was almost awash with tears.
Too frightened to switch it off, too frightened to move from her couch, my mother reached over to her telephone and, at silly o’clock in the morning, called the lady who would later become the funniest but the sternest of my godmothers.
“Maureen,” she whimpered, “Maureen, you have to help me.”
“What are you… what’s happening?” Maureen asked.
My mother’s voice trembled, “I’m watching The Birds.”
Completely flat, “What?”
“I’m watching The Birds, and it’s scary.”
“The Birds, the film?”
“Yes,” she wavered.
“So – just to be clear – you’re phoning me because you’re watching a film?”
“And it’s scary,” my mother stiffened.
“So, switch it off,” Maureen advised.
“What if it gets better?”
“Trust me,” Maureen said, “it won’t.”
“Switch over, find something boring or easy. Watch something simple for a few minutes, have a cup of tea and then go straight to bed.”
“Have they come down the chimney yet?”
“All right, then. Switch over. And if you’re going to call people this late at night, make sure you have a good reason.”
“I had a good reason,” my mother insisted.
“No, I mean a good reason like – somebody’s dead.”
I should explain, my mother was pretty tough. Like everybody else, she had some genuinely appalling challenges in her life which nobody could really understand unless they’d been there, or seen it close up. For me, and now you, to know a story of my mother where she wasn’t uncommonly capable, is pretty rare stuff.
It can be jarring but it can also be quite wonderful, when we realise our heroes are human.