It was the third morning of May. Two days alone, and two days of rain. Steady heavy rain. Confined to the house.
I stood at the back door, watching the rain-rods bounce off the paving, smoking my first cigarette of the day, thankful for the little plastic roof above the doorway that kept the cigarette dry. I remember thinking that it was unlikely to get any lighter during the day. I saw no sky. The rain would never stop. Ever. Relentless rain.
He appeared – I was going to say “as if by magic” – around the corner of the house. A wide brimmed waxed hat with a matching full-length coat. Washed out eyes matching greying stubble, and a tanned worn face. He must have been a foot taller than me, and at least twice my weight. He smiled. He seemed friendly. I was not alarmed – not that I alarm easily.
“Are you Rosemary?” he asked.
He looked like a cattle rancher from New Zealand.
I grunted in the affirmative.
“Robert, from the pub, sent me. Said you might have a room.”
Despite his antipodean appearance, he spoke a soft English. Somewhere south of London. The man had just climbed the twenty odd steps at the side of the house, but he wasn’t struggling for breath, not in the least. Most people lean against the wall and say “Phew” or something.
“We’re not a hotel.” I was cautious. “Nor even a B&B.”
“Yeah, I know.” He said. “Just need a room for a few days.”
Why wouldn’t Robert have called?
“Is he full, then?” I asked, letting my voice and eyebrows rise in an affected puzzlement.
“No. Empty. He wanted to close.” He replied, a little over-cheerfully, I thought, for someone apparently cast out of the only letting rooms in the village.
I flicked my cigarette away and moved back inside to let him through. “You had better come in.” I mumbled. “Have you any luggage?” I imagined he had a car (a silent car?) at the front of the house: it was not a short walk up from the town.
“Only this.” He swung a small haversack and a long canvas bag that might have contained a fishing rod or some sort of long musical instrument from his back.
I led him wordlessly through the house to the apartment that we sometimes rented out in the summer. I let him in, showed him the key whereby he could lock himself in and me out, told him to be careful of the rugs slipping on the floor tiles, and left him to it. I heard the key lock as I went down the stairs to the kitchen.
I made myself a coffee, and sat at the table with the laptop, intending to look through the emails. I stopped and listened. I could hear nothing. The man above me was quiet. I hadn’t, I realised, heard a sound from above since leaving him there. Not a footstep, not a squeaky spring. Looking out of the window, I saw no car. I went to the front door and opened it into the rain. The courtyard was empty. My battered wreck was under the tarpaulin of the makeshift carport. There was nothing else. Just rain. I felt my caution level rise a little.
The man had, evidently, walked up the long hill from the village without losing breath. Impossible. Perhaps, I reasoned, he had stopped at the house to recover himself before coming to the door. Why would he come to the back door – albeit the one neighbours used – though he wouldn’t have known that – unless Robert had told him – and not the proper front one? I shut the door and went upstairs, glancing at the apartment door as I passed. I went on up to the bedroom where my mobile was charging at my desk. Before I picked it up I quickly changed my stained work shirt for a favourite soft sweater and applied some lippy. I felt a little disappointed with myself and wondered who I had changed for. I hoped it wasn't Robert, as I dialled his number.
“Hi Robert, Rosemary.”
“Ah, ma Bella, come sta?”
“Robert, who’s this guy you sent up to me?”
“Big guy, with a hat. English, looks Australian – or New Zealand. Antipodean.”
“Ma Bella, I have sent you no guys. I wouldn’t. I still live in hope myself.”
“Shut up, Robert. A man came here, said you sent him. Said you wanted to close.”
“Me, close? I never close. I am like the… the…” Robert sensed my anxiety and changed tone. “Do you want me to come up?”
“Please, Robert.” I was cross with myself for being feeble, but relieved just the same. I went back down to the front door, scurrying quietly past the apartment door on the way. I lit another cigarette as I waited, looking at the rain. Before I had finished the cigarette, I heard Robert’s old van at the bottom of the hill. No amount of rain could mask the sound of that ancient motor. I listened to it staggering up the hill, fading and growing closer in turn as it zigzagged up towards the house.
I waited at the door, until his van stuttered to a stop and Robert dashed towards me, jacket held above his head. I stepped back and let him in. He skidded a little on the floor, recovered his composure and hung up his jacket. I allowed him – I didn’t always – his three-kiss greeting, ushered him into the kitchen, sat him down and plonked a small cup of coffee in front of him.
“Thanks for coming.” I was still a little embarrassed at calling for help.
“No problem. You call. I come. It’s easy.” He said, lightly.
I explained how this guy had appeared from nowhere, and what he had said.
“OK,” said Robert, getting up from the table, “Let’s knock on his door and see what he says.”
He knew the house, so I followed him up to the apartment door. It was, as I had heard, locked. Robert knocked a cheerful rap. We waited in silence. Nothing happened. Robert knocked again. Nothing happened.
“Have you a spare key?” Robert asked.
“Yes, but the key’s in the lock, on the other side. I heard it before.”
Robert crouched down to peer through the keyhole. “Hmm… Problem.”
“What about the outside door?” he asked.
“We could try, but I usually leave it in the door, on the inside.”
“OK. So if he is in there, we have no way of getting him out, if he doesn’t want to open up?”
“Well, no, not if he wants to lock himself in.” I replied.
“Well, let’s give it a try anyway. Do you have a spare key to the outside door?”
“Yes. It’s in the greenhouse. Under a brick.”
“In the greenhouse?” He was going to get very wet.
“OK. So I run to the greenhouse, open up, find a brick, get the key, run back and try the key in the door. If he is inside, with a key in the lock, I won’t be able to get the key in the lock, but I will get soaking wet, catch my death of cold, and be down with man-flu for a fortnight before I die of pneumonia?” Robert grumbled as I opened the back door and handed him my best Rohan mac. He put it over his head and ran off through the rain to the greenhouse, a little way from the house, retrieved the key, came back to the apartment door and managed to get the key in and open the door.
I quickly splashed across to him and we went in, shaking ourselves like dogs.
“So,” I said, ”He must have gone straight out again. In the rain. Where to, for heaven’s sake?” I followed Robert round the three rooms.
“No sign of anything!” said Robert. “No case, nothing on the bed, nothing in the bathroom. Are you sure about all this?” He eyed me suspiciously.
“Don’t be silly. Of course I am.” I peered from behind him. “Look, he’s used the toilet, the seat’s still up. And the floor’s wet, from his coat – I hope from his coat! And, we got in - the key wasn’t in the door. He can only have gone out. Into the rain. Why??”
We went back to the main room.
“Well, if he had gone down the lane, I would have seen him as I came up. “ Robert still sounded doubtful. He can only have gone further up the hill to… to nothing. There’s nothing up there, is there?”
“No. Nothing. I suppose if you follow the path you will come out by the little chapel. That’s all. If you don’t mind fighting your way through the bushes. Wet bushes. In the rain.”
“What chapel?” Robert was puzzled, but losing interest.
“There’s a tiny ruined chapel on the hill above us. Some sort of monument.”
“I didn’t know that. “
I saw his eyes flick to his watch. He had lost interest. “There’s no reason why you should. Look, Robert, I am wasting your time. Thanks for coming up. I’ll call you if anything else happens.”
I saw him out, promised to keep my phone to hand, made some more coffee and sat again at the kitchen table, in front of the laptop, alone in the house with a big man who was a liar and may well – I remembered the long rucksack thing – be armed with a shotgun. I tried several times to concentrate on my emails.
I heard footsteps above me. He was back. What to do?
I told myself that my first impression of him was probably right and that subsequent events – or lack of them – were building the caution that now gripped.
I was not afraid. This was my house. I was not afraid.
I decided to confront him. I put down my mug so firmly that it spilled coffee on the table, and marched upstairs. I rapped in as friendly a way as possible on the door. Nothing happened. I tried again, more firmly. Again nothing happened. Just as I was about to try for a third and last time, the key turned and the door opened. My fist was left suspended in mid air, level with his chest. He smiled. He was wearing a black rugby shirt with a white collar and a green leaf embroidered on the front. I liked his smile a lot. I let it hang there for a couple of seconds before launching into my questions. Who was he really? Why did he lie about Robert? Why did he go out in the rain? How did he know my name? Why come to the back door? Was that a shotgun?
“Wow!” he said, gently. “You have been getting yourself worked up!”
“No!” I was a bit too emphatic. “Just curious.”
“Come in.” He said, still with that nice smile. “I will reveal all.”
I followed him into the little kitchen/diner. “Not all, I hope. Not yet.” Sometimes my brain does that. Just says things without thinking. I wished it hadn’t.
He didn’t seem to pick it up. I perched on the arm of a chair. His smile was beginning to irritate. I raised my eyebrows, waiting.
“My name is George. George Smithson. I didn’t lie about Robert, I just extended the truth. I stayed with him this time last year and I remembered him talking about you to someone in the pub. At length. He likes you, you know, a lot. And, this year, I wanted to be nearer, so I came direct to you.”
“Nearer the chapel. There is a little chapel on top of the hill above you.”
“I know.” This was making no sense at all. Nobody used or visited the chapel ruin.
He had stopped smiling. I felt safer. “What else?” Ah, yes. I went out in the rain to visit the chapel, to make sure no one else was there yet. I knew your name from overhearing Robert last year and… what was the next question?”
Now I was puzzled. What was all this about the chapel? “I… erm… the back door? Why come to the back door? And why were you not puffed out?”
“For that, I apologise. I didn’t realise. I know the path up to the chapel, and I had seen your door. I didn’t realise it was the back of the cottage. Sorry. You are right, it is a steep hill, but I am used to walking slowly and quietly. That way, I don’t make a noise – or get out of breath!”
I was getting a crick in my neck looking up at him, so I stood. I was still looking up at him. And now he was looking a bit sheepish and apologetic. My caution had slipped away. “The shotgun?” I indicated the bag stood in the corner.
“No. It’s not a gun. Sorry. It’s a telescope, with a camera attached.”
“Right…” Now I felt deflated, not wanting to question him further but still curious. I thought I would allow myself one last question. “Why?”
“Ah.” He brightened up again, smiling that smile. What was this happy hunk of a man doing in my house? Was he single? I looked down for his hand but it was pocketed in his jeans. “I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.” He laughed. I frowned. That didn’t sound so friendly.
“All right” he continued, and sat on the corner of the table so that I was looking down on him a little. “But you must promise not to tell a soul.”
“I promise,” I said, doubtfully.
“There is a bird. A bird called a wryneck. It is like a cuckoo, it is very rare. Every year for the last five years a pair has nested near the chapel above you. They will have arrived a couple of weeks ago and they may be the only nesting pair in the country. I want to take their photo. When the rain stops.”
My mouth opened a little. “That’s it? You are a bird-watcher?”
“Yes. That’s it.” He had his hands out of his pockets, locked together below his chin, as if praying. There was a big gold band on his wedding finger. “But, please, please, tell no-one or the place will be overrun by twitchers within the hour.”
I told no one. He stayed a few days, and returns every year. I look forward to May. No interest in wrynecks though, or any other sort of cuckoo!
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