Garden Birds

Mrs. Smith lives on her own. She lives in a detached house at the edge of the village. The front of the house is almost hidden from the road by a cupressus hedge, neat and darkly green, and the garden behind the house is hedged with hawthorn and crab apples. The house and garden are very secluded, and it is said about Mrs. Smith that she keeps herself to herself.

She is rarely seen about the village. It is a busy, active little village, with a playgroup, poetry‑reading, drama, a club for the old folks, and the W.I. There is a church, and a Harvest Thanksgiving, and a Christmas Fayre; and there are charity envelopes to be distributed and collected, and sponsorship forms to be touted, for hearts, or kidneys, or for the inner‑city homeless. Mrs. Smith leaves out the weekly money for the milk and for the papers, but she doesn’t answer the doorbell. Indeed, when people talk about her (which they now do very rarely) it is thought probable that her doorbell has been disconnected. But Mrs. Smith is not yet old, perhaps not yet even seventy, and people know that the milkman will keep an eye on the pints. She is to be allowed her little eccentricity.

Mrs. Smith can imagine very easily what ‘they’ say about her: that she is unsociable, or lonely, or even a little mad; that she is mean and a misanthrope, or perhaps is merely deaf. The fact is, Mrs. Smith enjoys her own company. In actual fact, that is not quite correct: she is often irritated by her own company and considers herself, though intelligent, to be rather silly and immature, but she enjoys the company of the birds and wildlife in her garden.

The back garden is narrow, not much wider than the house and garage, but it is long and curving, so that she cannot quite see the end. She likes to imagine that all manner of interesting birds and animals are carrying out their busy lives just out of sight. When she is not herself busy, gardening or shopping, she likes to walk quietly round her garden, examining the shrubs and trees; she knows where a blackbird nests in the cupressus, and which birdbox contains bluetits, and she throws out scraps for the robins and chaffinches, and delights in the return of the chiffchaff to the hawthorns. Always, when she reaches the curve that hides the end from view, she treads softly, alert for movement and the flick of wings. Once, a sparrowhawk swooped by, and another time she surprised a fox, who had been dozing in the grass beside the hut. He rose softly to his feet and stared, then slipped away quickly through a hole. Since then, she always stands for a few moments and looks carefully at the hut, hoping to enjoy again his company. She has not forgotten him, or his smell.

Nor is it likely that Mrs. Smith will ever forget Terry, or his smell. Of course, if he now smells at all, it is a socially‑acceptable smell, of shampoo and deodorant. But when he first entered her life he was as rank as a rain‑soaked fox.

 

It was afternoon. The hawthorn leaves were orange and faded green, and bullfinches fluttered among the berries. Crab apples lay in yellow mats beneath the trees. Mrs. Smith shut the garage door, relieved to be home, and went round to the back of the house. She left her shopping by the door and walked down the path, relaxing in the peace. She hardly knew what was around her, but the air was fresh against her face. A bluetit scolded from a tree, and she drifted out of her pleasant daze and saw that she had reached the corner. At once ‑ so deeply ingrained was the habit ‑ she became stealthy and alert. She looked: there was no fox. But there was a smell, a memory of a smell. She sniffed again, but it was elusive, gone. She trod on an apple which, compressed against the damp grass, shot out like a marble, a bullet aimed at the shed. The thud echoed like a groan. There was a growling rumble, and a rustle, as though a large animal were shifting on the ground. Bears! she thought, wildly. A bear escaped from the zoo! But there were no scratches or paw‑marks, or signs of trampled plants. More likely, it was a badger. She smiled in anticipation, and moved closer, slowly, a little apprehensively.

The hut was wooden, rotten, twisted as though the wind had leant against it. It had no door, the front was open, and it was so unreliable as a shelter that Mrs. Smith kept nothing there. Optimistically, but a little scared, she peered around the open end.

And gave a loud, hoarse cry!

The man’s eyes flew open, the whites of his eyes, his teeth white, bright against the dark skin and shaggy hair. He seemed about to yell, but then his mouth relaxed, and the wet redness of his lips stretched into a smile within his beard.

‘Ah! Good morning,’ he said, and twitched the nondescript grey greasiness of his coat around himself more tightly.

Mrs. Smith’s voice was faint, but now outraged. ‘What are you doing here? How did you get into my garden?’ She could not stop. ‘This is my  garden! Go away!’

The man held up his hand, open and limply curved, near his face. He was apologetic, conciliatory. ‘Must’ve given you a shock. You gave me a shock!’ He tried to laugh, and shuffled himself upright, to lean against the leaning wall.

‘But how did you get in?’ Her voice was stronger, more indignant.

‘Ah. Yes. Through the hedge ‑ a small hole. I took care, there’s no damage. You’ll see. It was a yaffle brought me, tapping up there ‑’ he pointed to the branches of the apple tree above their heads ‘‑ he was up there, where it’s all rotten. I heard him.’

‘Are you a birdwatcher, then?’ (It might explain his strange behaviour, and are these clothes his camouflage? Is he, then, respectable, unthreatening? But the stale, dirty smell of him almost overpowers her. He is nothing but a tramp.)

The man looked at her from under ragged eyebrows, and again his beard cracked open in a smile.

‘I watch them. And they watch me. Look there, at that robin. See how he’s listening, cheeky little beggar!’

The robin, indeed, appeared to be following every word. His head was tilted and his skinny black legs quivered, then he flew down to some crumbs that the man had sprinkled on the ground. Mrs. Smith was astonished. The robin had never come this close before. The man bent down and held out his hand, and the robin flew up onto it, clicking nervously in his throat. Entranced, Mrs. Smith almost forgot her fright and anger. But she recovered and asked the man, again, to leave. After all, this is her private property and he is trespassing.

‘Yes, ma’am, if that is what you want,’ he said, apologetically; he seemed to become more stooped, and she saw then that perhaps he wasn’t very well. He coughed a little, gently, without any fuss. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to cause you any trouble. You seem a kind lady. Many people would have thrown me out at once, but I can see that you like birds. If you would be good enough to let me rest here another ten minutes, then I’ll be on my way again. And leave you to enjoy your garden.’

Mrs. Smith felt, briefly, embarrassed compassion, and that perhaps she was being unreasonable; after all, he has done no harm. But she hardened her heart, because her secret garden had been violated.

‘Ten minutes, then, no more,’ she agreed, and turned away quickly.

 

The garden is long and curving, and she cannot see, from the house, if the man has left.  For the rest of the morning, she was anxious and unsettled. She wandered around the house, moved and dusted ornaments, and watered potted plants. She stared out of the windows at the back, decided they were dirty, and polished them with milky smears of lavender‑scented cleaner. For lunch she ate an apple and some cheese, and chopped up the pieces of cheese rind to put out on the bird‑table. She was intending to sit and read the newspaper, as she usually did after lunch, and doze a little, but the uncertainty became unbearable.

He was still there. He was sitting in front of the shed with his arms held out in front of him, unmoving and stiff like a wooden soldier. Her first thought was that something terrible had happened, that he had had a stroke, even that he was dead and cold in rigor mortis. Images of police and coffins and undertakers’ cars flashed in her mind. But then she saw the chaffinches about his feet and on his hand, and the robin on his knee.

‘Look,’ he said quietly, without turning his head. ‘Even Missus Blackbird’s here! She came down to show me her foot, you see, just as I was about to be on my way.’

Mrs. Smith looked; the female blackbird had only one foot, the other perhaps bitten off by a cat. Even as she looked, the lame bird flew up and teetered unsteadily on the man’s knee. Despite herself, Mrs. Smith was enchanted.

‘You wouldn’t have a few scraps to spare, would you?’ the man asked. ‘I’ve nothing left, myself, finished it all off yesterday.’

‘Oh. Yes. I see … I’ll … wait a minute, I’ll go and fetch something.’

She was flustered, unsure. She should force him to go. But he seemed to care about the birds, he just wanted to feed that poor hurt bird before he left. And did that mean he hadn’t eaten since yesterday? She hurried back to the house, puzzled and upset.

In the kitchen, she didn’t know what to do. She dithered, cut bread into cubes for the birds. She cut another slice to make a sandwich, put the slice away again, then looked in the cupboard and brought out a tin of soup. But that meant a bowl and spoon, and she’d have to wait, or he’d have to bring them to the house. So she cut another slice of bread, and made a sandwich, cheese and pickle. And then, at the last minute, she sliced up a tomato and put it inside the bread. She nearly forgot the bird‑food and had to return to the kitchen to collect it. By then, the birds had gone.

‘They’ll soon come back,’ he said, ‘when they see all this.’

‘The sandwich is for you.’

Thank you, missus. That’ll give me strength for my travels. You have been very good to me, missus, and I shan’t forget your kindness.’ He stood up and held out his hand. There was confusion as he tried to shake the hand with which she proffered the sandwich, and his teeth glinted briefly.

‘What’s your name, missus, that I may remember you by?’

‘Smith. Mrs. Smith,’ she said hesitantly, not really wanting him to know.

‘I’m Terry. Well, goodbye, then ‑ I’ll just eat this and go. It’s been very nice here, Mrs. Smith, you have a lovely garden.’

‘Thank you. It’s nice and private, too,’ she couldn’t resist adding. ‘But where shall you go?’

‘Oh, round and about, same as always.’ Terry was cheerful, dismissive.

‘Don’t you have a home?’ she asked, and regretted the silly question he was a down‑and‑out, a tramp. ‘A place to stay?’

‘Oh no. But I’ll find a shelter somewhere. Don’t you worry about me. You’re a very kind woman, to be concerned. But I shall find somewhere. Of course, not everyone’s as decent as you have been, and I can see their point of view. I mean, I can see why people don’t want someone like me hanging around in their nice quiet garden.’ He took a bite of the sandwich and chewed. ‘Nice bread. Your own tomatoes? Yes, I can quite understand why people are a bit nervous of having someone like me around, with me looking like this. Look a bit dangerous, don’t I?’ He laughed to himself, and shook his head. ‘But it can be a bit upsetting, though, sometimes. I just like to watch the birds …’

‘And you’re so good with them! You can’t be dangerous!’

She hadn’t meant to say that, the words just came out, but now that she had said it, it seemed true.

‘But who’s to know that?’ he asked. ‘Apart from you?’

Terry looked away into the distance, suddenly quiet and wistful. There was a long silence.

‘Yes. I see. Well ‑ perhaps …. it would be alright for you to stay a little bit longer, just a day or two. Two days, yes. No more.’

He swung round, delighted. For a moment, she thought he was going to grasp her arm.   ‘Do you really mean that?’

‘I don’t mean in the house. I mean down here ‑ in the hut. You do understand that, don’t you? I wouldn’t want you near the house.’

She immediately felt awful for saying that, but he didn’t seem to mind.

‘Of  course you mean in this hut! It’s a palace! I’ll just go and get my things.’

‘What things?’ She was shrill, imagined furniture and crockery appearing, the hut turned into a shanty‑town shack.

‘Saucepan, mug ‑ not much else. Stashed them in the field. Don’t you worry, Mrs. Smith, I can fend for myself ‑ plenty of wild stuff around to eat, catch a rabbit if I’m lucky.’ With a shock she realised that she hadn’t thought about his food and drink; he might have interpreted her invitation as including meals! Relief at her narrow escape from the potential misunderstanding blotted out further worry about his welfare. She suddenly wanted to be back in the comfort of her kitchen.

‘Two days. That’s all.’

‘You’re a kind and generous woman, Mrs. Smith. I could tell it the instant you began to speak.’ He waved goodbye, as she backed away up the path. ‘ I won’t trouble you. You won’t know I’m here. Oh ‑ and you won’t mind if I make a little fire, will you ? ‑ to boil up my pan. I’ll be very careful.’

She did mind, but of course she didn’t say so, just weakly shook her head. And of course she did know he was there. She thought of him constantly; she imagined him squatting on the ground, curled up in his coat. A faint scent of woodsmoke drifted into the house. She wondered where he got water, what he was cooking; perhaps even now he was sitting talking to the birds? How did he persuade them to come so close? She wished she could learn the trick. But she could never ask him. Why had she let him stay? She felt his presence, dark, smelly, choking up the bottom of the garden. He was homeless, he seemed harmless; but she wanted him to go. Sometimes her head hummed with fear and guilt. She must make sure he’d go!

 

For the whole of the next day she avoided the back garden. She tried to read, and to do some ironing, and she sat and listened to the radio. Stifled by the indoor air, she pottered in the front garden, finding minor tasks of tidying. A woman from the village, out walking her dog, was surprised when Mrs. Smith seemed disposed to chat, indeed seized on the woman’s perfunctory ‘good afternoon’ almost with eagerness. Such was Mrs. Smith’s relief at the apparent normality of this human contact, that she was almost overwhelmed by the need to tell about Terry and to ask for help. But a robin, that had been perching nearby on a branch, suddenly flew off towards the back garden, and Mrs. Smith was seized with the conviction that it was a spy. Terry’s presence was a dark secret that clamped her tongue, and she abruptly ended the conversation and rushed indoors. The incident was, of course, discussed widely, and those who were interested were gratified to have their view confirmed, that Mrs. Smith was alive and fit, but more than a little strange.

That night, it rained. Mrs. Smith awoke at two o’clock, to hear the rain drumming on the roof and spattering against her window. She imagined how the water would be blowing and dripping into the hut. He was due to leave today. She pulled the blankets over her head, trying to drown out the sound and stifle her fears; but she saw the pools of water on the floor and heard his chattering teeth. Then she was angry, and tossed and groaned. There were proper hostels, weren’t there, where he could go? She was not at all responsible for the wretched man, he had trespassed. He was trespassing or was she? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them ….

In the morning, tired and cross, she marched resolutely down to the hut. She was determined: he must go.

‘Morning!’ he called cheerfully.’A bit wet last night, wasn’t it?’ He stood by his tiny fire, wrapped in a filthy rug. His clothes were draped around on bushes and hanging from the trees.

‘Oh? Did it rain?’ she asked, coldly unsurprised.

‘Mrs. Smith, you sleep the deep sleep of the just and good! Did it rain! It poured, Mrs. Smith, and your hut leaks like a sieve. Not that I haven’t had a very pleasant stay, though, and I’m very grateful.’

‘You’re off, then?’

He was cheerful, exuberant. ‘Just look at my clothes! All soaked! Now,’ he added, seeing she was about to speak,’ it’s alright, I know you want to get rid of me today. That was our agreement. You’re saying to yourself, why doesn’t he go to one of those hostels, aren’t you? You probably were even thinking that you should get some help to ask me to move along …’

‘Oh no!’ she interrupted, embarrassed; the thought had crossed her mind.

‘Yes, well, I quite understand, Mrs. Smith, I sympathise entirely. From the goodness of your heart, you gave me two days, two happy days, I might add, when I could be free to enjoy this lovely world. And now my time is up! But, as you can see, I have a problem ‑ just temporary, it’ll soon be put right. You are a sympathetic and sensible woman, Mrs. Smith, and I know you won’t mind if I wait an hour or two until my clothes are dry?’

Of course she minded; but what could she do? She couldn’t force him to put on wet clothes and go, he seemed quite old, he might catch pneumonia.

‘Well … only an hour or two. That’s all.’

She knew the clothes would take longer than that to dry. It would be quicker if she took them in and put them on a radiator. But the implications of that action crowded into her mind until she thought her head would burst with fear.

So she waited until lunchtime, then went back. He was still there. But he was dressed, and the place was tidy. He was sitting on the garden bench feeding a robin; stroking it. His back was towards her, and he was whispering softly, humming. The robin was quite unafraid, not even eating, just watching.

Mrs. Smith crept closer, trying to hear; she was drawn towards them, a curious calm flowed into her body. She sat down on the bench next to him and watched the bird. Terry didn’t acknowledge her, but kept on with his strange murmuring. The robin was quite unafraid, almost sleepy in its calmness. She watched them; she didn’t know how long she had been there but she gradually became aware that he had stopped stroking the robin. He was stroking her instead, gently, his hand running down from her shoulder to her elbow, lifting, running down her arm, over and over again. She was mesmerised, and ensnared, caught in the limelight of his great dark eyes. The robin flicked its wings and was gone, and Terry brought the palm of his other hand up towards her face. Small pieces of bread remained. His low chuckle stopped her in the act of bending her head, her mouth towards the food.

Mrs. Smith sat like a statue, her glazed eyes staring at the ground. She felt sick with fear and ‑ what else? After a few minutes of immobility, Terry removed his hand and stood up.

‘I’ll just stay a few more days, if you don’t mind.’ He was matter‑of‑fact. ‘I’d appreciate it if you could order me some milk and get a few pieces of chicken to stew with the veg. I’m partial to the taste of bird …’

She looked up at him; his eyes were dark and mocking.

‘You’re such a generous woman, Mrs. Smith. I can tell that you’re longing to look after me. You just don’t want to embarrass me by admitting it, do you? You’re too good, Mrs. Smith, too good.’

She stumbled a little when she stood, and he moved to help her; he held her shoulder, and his smile was red and wet.

 

Perhaps the milkman thought that Mrs. Smith had taken a fancy to milk puddings, but he left the extra milk and the weekly bill without comment. Perhaps the checkout girl at the supermarket was surprised that the frugal Mrs. Smith was now shopping more copiously than before, but she made no comment as she handed out the extra carrier bags.

The garden needed attention, and Mrs. Smith forced herself to behave normally, to go out and work in the back garden. These days, the garden seemed to be full of birds ‑ a greater spotted woodpecker, a heron, groups of twittering long‑tailed tits. Often, she would feel a strong force pulling her towards the bottom corner, and there she would find Terry, sitting and making his curious mutterings, surrounded by birds and even, once, a mouse. He would nod at her, let her stand beside him, and later, she would want to give him something, and he would accept it with his usual comments about the goodness of her heart and her generosity, and how she must tell him when he should go.

She noticed that he had weather‑proofed the hut with boards, and that he had built a hearth, beside which lay cut wood. But she didn’t want to know where he found wood or water, or how he managed for a toilet. The hole in the hedge was now obvious, but he seemed to have a strange ability to merge with his background and disappear; once, from her bedroom window, she had seen him briefly in the field, but then it was as though he had vanished, for suddenly he was no longer there.

She wouldn’t let him near the house, and she didn’t feed him every day. She wanted to pretend he wasn’t there. But once, when she had a feverish cold, she stayed in bed and later, when she went down, there was only one pint of milk on the doorstep. After that, he took his milk each day, although she never saw him. The thought that he came near the house disturbed her, and she checked the locks each night.

 

One bright day in early winter, she decided she’d ask him to help her cut the hedge. After all, she reasoned, indignant, prepared to make a scene if he refused, he took her food and gave nothing in return. Except the birds. Terry agreed to her request, without comment, but with a strange sideways smile. He worked hard, too hard, because soon he began to sweat and stink, and the smell of him was more than she could bear. Perhaps it was also more than he could bear.

‘Now, I know you don’t want me in your nice house, Mrs. Smith, and I can quite understand the reason why. It’s your nice, clean house, after all, nice and clean and spacious for a good‑hearted woman like yourself to feel at home in. But ‑ I was wondering ‑ and I’ll quite understand if you refuse ‑ if you would just let me use your bathroom, and a bit of soap and hot water. Just to wash off this dirt. But only if you don’t mind, of course. I don’t want to be in your way.’

She wished she had a downstairs toilet with a basin. But she led him in and showed him upstairs to her bathroom, and gave him a towel and soap. Her agitation was so great that she dropped a teacup in the kitchen, and she felt too sick to drink. Yet, when she thought of his dirty clothes, she crept upstairs to her bedroom, to find the old pullover of her husband’s, and the shirt that she had kept for a painting overall.

Terry had washed his hair and beard. His hair was sleeked back, pressed down; he looked cleaner, stronger, and this new version of him frightened her still more.

‘Here!’ she said, hastily thrusting the clothes at him. ‘And now, please go!’

‘Go?’ He looked surprised, but then he smiled. ‘Ah yes, of course. I see now. You have been very tactful, Mrs. Smith. You realised that I was embarrassed by my great debt to you. And now that I’ve helped you with the hedge, you’ve shown me that I’m free to leave.’ He shook his head admiringly. ‘You’re a clever, good woman, Mrs. Smith. Even sending me out into the world clean and with new clothes.’

She was totally bewildered, by his words and his presence; he seemed to have grown, and filled the hall.

‘No … no … I didn’t mean … Please just leave the house … Oh, I don’t know. Please.’ She was near to tears, made little pushing movements against him, pushing him towards the door. She caught sight of a tin of meat on the table, that she had meant to give him, and pushed that at him, too. ‘Take this, too. Oh, go away! And thank you for your help.’

‘There, there, Mrs. Smith,’ he said, gently. ‘Don’t you fret, I don’t want to be in your way. I quite understand, and I’ll go back down to my little shed and keep out of your way.’

He reached out and held her shoulder, and made little murmuring noises in his throat, but she managed to pull away, and he let himself out of the back door.

Mrs. Smith sat at the kitchen table and sobbed hysterically. What could she do? Why was she unable to make him go? She avoided Terry for several days after that, although one evening she left some tins by the back door, and in the morning they had gone. She smelt woodsmoke and knew that he was there. In the evenings, she tried to read, or went up to her bedroom to watch television, but she imagined Terry wandering round the garden, staring at the house. One morning, she found a footprint in the soft ground beneath the sitting‑room window, and she pictured him prowling, peeping, peering. She was besieged! She drew the curtains tightly, and listened anxiously for noises in the night. She became thin and tense, and the supermarket checkout girl wondered if she was ill, but didn’t like to ask.

Then, one morning, after another agonised and sleepless night, she cursed herself for a weak woman. Today he would be made to go. She drove to the nearest charity shop, where she purchased, very cheaply, trousers, two shirts, a jacket and a scarf. She drove home, took up the carrier bag, and strode purposefully down the garden. She would not falter.

Terry was cooking: an appetising smell of stewing meat came from his pan. He stood up briskly.

‘Nice smell, isn’t it, Mrs. Smith? Blackbird stew!’ He grinned. He seemed taller, younger, stronger than before. She couldn’t think about what he’d said.

‘Terry. You have to go, I can’t have you here any more. Here are some clothes for you. Please pack up and tidy up. I’m going into town to the library after lunch, and I expect you to have gone by the time I return. If you haven’t, I’m going to call the police.’

She didn’t look at him as she shot out the words, rapidly like bullets, but she knew he would be smiling ruefully and shaking his head.

‘Mrs. Smith. Well, well, Mrs. Smith, what a wonderful little fireball you are! I knew that one day you’d have had enough. I respect your wishes, Mrs. Smith, I do indeed. You’ve been more than good to me. I’ll do as you say, Mrs. Smith.’

She looked at him then, quickly, to see if he was joking.

‘Oh yes. I’ll tidy up here and leave this little hut of yours, that’s been my own little home. It’s done me very well. And I’ll put on these fine new clothes and—’

‘Yes, Terry. Put them on and go!’ She couldn’t bear to listen any more. ‘I mean what I say. Goodbye!’

At that, she turned and walked away briskly, resisting the need to run. In the kitchen, she sat down and put her head in her hands, shaking, but proud of herself. She’d done it! And it seemed that she had won. Of course she wouldn’t call the police ‑ how could she? What would she tell them? That she had harboured this man whom she hated, for several weeks, had fed, watered and clothed him, had allowed him into her house ‑ and now wanted him to leave?

She thought how Terry had insinuated himself into her life. She pressed her hands over her ears to block out the memory of that compelling, curious humming that pulled her, the memory of the lassitude that swept through her, for which she dared not acknowledge, even to herself, her longing. The unsuccessfully repressed memory of his hands stroking her shoulder, her wing, smoothing her feathers, made her throat tighten with nausea. But he would go; she was certain. She couldn’t even dare to contemplate what would happen if he didn’t.

 

It is late afternoon, and the sky hangs grey and heavy as Mrs. Smith shuts away her car and carries her bag of library books to the front door. She is light‑hearted, free. As she searches through her handbag she realises that she has forgotten to pick up her key. There it is, inside, on the hall table. Irritated, but not dismayed, she goes back into the garage and looks under a pile of old newspapers. But the spare key isn’t there. She looks again, thinking it must have been displaced, and she looks under the empty petrol can and behind the box of softening cooking apples. Then, increasingly anxious, she hurries around the house, testing the back door, looking for an open window. But it is early winter, the windows are shut, and double‑glazed. And the toolshed, with the hammer, screw‑drivers and the spade, is locked.

She could walk into the village and ask someone to come and help, but she doesn’t want the bother of questions, and thanks, and cups of tea. Nor does she want people, now that the place is hers. She wanders down the garden, looking vaguely for a useful implement, and she thinks of Terry and what he might have left behind. Her heart beats a little faster, and she is breathless as she turns the corner (although she almost hopes that he is still there, to help her in her predicament).

But she can see at once that he has gone. The outside of the hut has been tidied, the ashes scraped up and scattered on the compost heap. She stands and looks round helplessly, wondering if she could find a piece of metal or a nail. And then she sees a light flash on, from the corner of her eye.

A light has been turned on in her sitting‑room. Startled, she hurries back up the path. She sees a figure ‑ Terry ‑ inside her house. But when she reaches the window, he has gone. She bangs loudly on the pane, and shouts his name. She scurries round to the back door and hammers with her fist. No‑one comes; but there is a light on in the kitchen. Gasping, she runs round to the side, and sees Terry through the window. His back is to her, he is standing by the kettle, pouring, making tea. The first few raindrops splatter on the ground.

‘Terry!’ she screams, banging with a pebble upon the window. ‘TERRY!’ Why he is in there she neither knows nor cares.  ‘Terry, let me in!’

He turns briefly towards the window. He is tall and straight, his teeth gleam through his well‑trimmed beard. He looks straight at her as he smiles. But perhaps he smiled only at his own smart reflection in the darkening glass, because he turns his back on Mrs. Smith.

The rain is suddenly heavy, wetting her hair, and she continues to bang loudly on the window‑pane. Terry picks up his tea and goes out of the kitchen, turning off the light. Mrs. Smith staggers weakly round the house, knocking and sobbing, but there is no response. The winter evening rushes in, and her hair is plastered to her head. The changing light patterns of the television flicker on her bedroom ceiling.

Mrs. Smith walks slowly down the path, slipping on old, wet leaves. The hut is quite dry inside, although it smells of rain‑soaked fox. Terry has piled rugs from the spare bedroom, and her favourite shawl, upon the plastic garden chair. He has even left her teabags, matches and a can of soup. He is so kind!

 

Shortlisted Ian St James Award 1993 (3700 entries), and published in Acclaim vol 2 no.10, 1994

 

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