She heard him before she saw him. The open window on the landing allowed in the early summer birdsong together with the less melodic sounds of her husband’s harsh but controlled breathing and fast, heavy footfall as he sprinted the last twenty metres to the gate. Chest heaving, he came in to their enclosed back garden and bent to rest his hands above his knees. She watched him, stopping herself from knocking on the window. His post run fruit smoothie was ready for him but she looked at him instead, moving back a little form the glass. He sat down on the garden seat and faced the lawn, his back to her. She noticed the slightly thinning patch on his tanned scalp, the way his breathing made his shoulders tense and the slight perspiration on the back of his neck. He liked to keep himself in shape and pushed hard – this was no jog but a race against middle age. A race he’ll lose eventually, he had told her, but ‘not yet’. She smiled at his attitude to life and for the thousandth time thanked her stars for the strength that allowed her to try again. This time she had found a keeper.
A bird had landed at the base of the bird table, searching the flower bed for the seeds that had fallen like manna from above. Lucy made a mental note to replenish the feeders as she watched the sparrow, she thought it was, busily scavenge amongst the Ribes stems and the last of the bluebells so recently gone off. The bird seemed oblivious to John who now sat statue still watching it. His breathing already back to normal, the sweat drying on his neck he was, she noticed, absolutely motionless, intent on watching the bird’s foraging. Manly perhaps but quite an old softly when it came to wildlife. Later he’ll come in and look up the bird in one of his guides, even though he’ll already know what it was, and write in his precious journal he kept in his bedside drawer. He claimed he was not a ‘twitcher’ and hated clubs but he would often go off alone when the birding network reported a rare sighting. Sometimes Lucy would go with him; precious trips when he had taken her away to find some migrant or rare summer visitor. For Lucy, the birds were irrelevant. It was the romantic hotel getaways she cherished. On long walks out to the marshes in North Norfolk or along a coastal path in Dorset, with his second best binoculars beating with her heart against her chest, he showed her just as much attention as he gave the plovers and even the bitterns.
So unlike her hedonistic ex whose self-preening with expensive gels, cologne and moisturisers – bought because he was so worth it – drove her to distraction and loneliness. Jay wore bespoke clothes, never exercised and spoke loudly about himself and nothing. His self-obsession wore her down and she came to the realisation that she was just another label for him to show off and, as with all labels, there was a time to display and a time to discard.
The bird flew off and the tension broke like the baited arm on a trap. She saw his shoulders relax. Poor dear, all that concentration for a sparrow; although he had informed her recently that sparrows are nowhere near as common as they used to be. Something about intensive farming and pesticides.
His sparrow had flown into the field maple that grew against the garden wall. Lucy watched him follow it there and smiled as he gently uncovered its nest like he was exploring a tomb. She read his lips as he counted and then carefully replaced the branch he’d moved aside. Five eggs or young. He looked pleased as he returns to the chair and again stills to catatonic immobility – waiting. The purposeful and deliberate care in his movements reminded her again how lucky she and her young daughter were. She looked again at his strong, content profile, so pleased to glean just a little more knowledge about even such a common bird. ‘There’s one for the book’ she intones in mock nerdiness.
Yet John was no nerd. No, she knew nerds. Lucy had swung pendulum like from the moronic, superficial Jay to the geekish Robin, a ‘scientist’. She had later found out that he was actually a laboratory technician whose worktime manipulation of variables were not the only experimentation he enjoyed. For a time his monotone recitation of remorseless factoids and cold and deliberate investigation of physical pain – giving not receiving, of course – had defined her life. Their relationship had lasted for what seemed an incomprehensibly long time. Her best friends could not understand the type of fear that kept Lucy rooted to the spot unable to move, terrified that she might give her position away; like the avocets John had told her about, that feign severe hurt so that the predator chases them and not their young. Not Tilly. Lucy winced and shuddered at the memories and put her hand out to the window sill that ran the length of the landing. Lucy hadn’t had to feign severe hurt. But that was years ago and this is now and she forces herself to leave the dark realm of old fear and pain, returning to the light of her husband’s patient vigil.
The sparrow had just then moved into John’s long morning shadow and taken a seed from no more than an inch in front of his left trainer. That’s trust.
A child needs a nest with two to tend it and now she had met and married a man who led by self-reliant example and in whom, like the sparrow she could trust. They had created this refuge with its rich rugs, warm curtains and more scatter cushions than they needed. Their home was bright and yet cosy and she felt safer than she’d ever felt.
And yet they had nearly not been married. When she’d first heard the rumours she had immediately believed them, trained to expect the worse for herself and it had taken time to listen to the other side and much longer to believe it. Her friends, protective of their friend who had proved time and again that she could not choose a good man, warned her of what they’ve heard; tales of deceit and of a psychotic coldness. These venomous rumours sprang from a past wife and told of how he’d lost custody of his children, of restraining orders and dropped charges. In the end she’d confronted him, mere weeks before their marriage, and he’d gently explained. He’d been ruthlessly hen pecked, then bullied and to his shame physically abused by his wife. When he finally reacted, just once, she had told the police and in the ensuing court case he had been found not guilty of assault but a restraining order had been granted and the accusations stuck. He had been the victim he assured her. She couldn’t imagine what it must have cost him to be blamed for the breakup or for his marriage and for his own children to believe him a danger.
But in time she had believed him and now she would help heal him as he had healed her. She had not just given herself to him, but her child too. This gorgeous house had become a safe haven for all three of them.
He took a real interest in her life – even asked her friends, ‘What are you lot clucking about today?‘ He’d smile at them and he really wanted to know, his curiosity unfeigned and like no man she had ever known, he actually listened to the answers and in fact demanded them.
Peering out through the sash window’s lace, Lucy wondered how he keeps so still? He seemed so relaxed that only by staring could she see that he wasn’t simply dead (too much manly exercise would do that to you). The thought made her stifle a giggle and she moved back from the window. He tensed – almost like he knew she was there and looked up, head turning like a hawk. She waited and didn’t dare breathe. How silly of her; she should have waved, blown him a kiss, beckoned him upstairs; he was clearly recovered from the run and his shirt was clinging close to his broad shoulders and there was plenty of time before she had to leave for work.
Instead she hid.
When Lucy edged again to the window he was again sentinel still looking at the bird, which was clinging vainly from the feeder.
The bird alighted near his feet. There was an understanding there. Animals sense the goodness in people. She wondered why he wouldn’t allow them to have a pet, Tilly had wanted a dog all her life. But still the wild birds loved him. The sparrow hopped closer to him and busily turned over leaf litter and pecked not inches from his feet. Oblivious.
A breeze bent the mimosa towards her and Lucy shuddered and looked again at her husband who was staring at sparrow. She realised for the bird it was just as if John was not there. There was no trust to give here, no more than to give trust to the flag stones or the fence or the rockery. The man was merely a cold shape, a piece of weathered garden feature.
Lightning fast, John stamped his foot down on the bird. A clawed leg twitched and blood oozed from the side of the vibram sole of his running shoe. He kept his foot there.
Silence within and without. It was as if the garden had died five months early. The shock created a void inside the house, a void filled only by the sound of the blood coursing through Lucy’s ears and with it the sound of muted bird song.
When the fog cleared she could hear the sound of the hose from the garden. Somehow she had ended up crouched under the window sill, pressed against the wall. She couldn’t look out again but withdrew, lost in the implications of what she had witnessed. But his journal? He loves birds, he sketches them, plots their position on the map in his study, photographs them…
Willing herself to move, Lucy half crawled then stumbled numbly from the landing, the Persian rug coarse sand between her toes, the cold boards sapping her strength. In their bedroom she took the worn journal from his bedside drawer. Perched on the edge of the bed, she leafed through the pages and witnessed the extent of her husband’s successes. So much death. Each tick, a life scrubbed out, dates and times documented in fastidious detail.
She cocks her head to the light, predatory footfall on the stairs.