I am tackling bills at my kitchen table, a regrettable and tedious task which I have been putting off, so when a friend suggests popping over, I quickly agree. Having spent the best part of two hours trying to sort out what I had assumed was a simple matter with British Telecom, I am quickly losing the will to live.
My friend fills the house with his indefatigable energy. Tea in hand, we chat about our respective children, how work is going. He recounts a recent Bear Grylls-like adventure – a common occurrence in his life. Often reckless, they involve throwing himself out of helicopters to ski lethal black runs, or flying to the continent in a microlight. I say microlight but that conjures up an image of an actual aircraft. Having once foolishly agreed to go up in one with him, a more accurate description would be of a lawn mower with wings. This is a man with more lives than Henry VIII had wives. I don’t count myself so fortunate.
We’ve been talking for about an hour, when a distant tapping sound presents itself. I’d heard it earlier while deep in bills but paid it no head. This time I tune into the sound, trying to work out where it’s coming from.
I peer up at the glass atrium. Perhaps it has started raining? It’s been threatening to all morning. But no, the glass is dry. I soon convince myself that the sound is coming from inside. At this point, my friend joins in the investigation, placing his ear near to the fridge but almost on cue the sound stops. We stand still for a moment listening to silence then get bored of the task and resume chatting. I make more tea, unearth a half eaten cake which has somehow escaped the predatory eyes of teenagers, and have just divided up the remains, when the tapping returns.
‘Listen. Can you hear that?’ I ask, squinting up at the lights: an electrical issue perhaps.
‘It’s definitely coming from this end of the room.’
Tantalisingly, the sound comes and goes. We stop talking so we are ready for it and sure enough it starts again. It’s like the noise an I-Pad keyboard makes, a mid tone, rat a tat tat sort of a sound. We are mystified.
Finally, after much investigating, we narrow our search to the cupboard next to the Aga.
‘D’you think something’s in there?’ I ask, tentatively. My friend bends down to open the cupboard door, then almost immediately shuts it again.
‘What?’ I ask, alarmed by the speed in which he does this. He looks suddenly pale. ‘What’s in there?’
‘A bird,’ he says faintly.
I wait for him to add details but from the look on his appalled face, he doesn’t need to.
‘How the hell did it get inside there?’
I am both bemused and unsettled. There is a vent that leads from the Aga to the outside wall via the cupboard but even an insect would struggle to find its way inside it.
And then there is this discovery – life is full of surprises – that my Bear Grylls, outdoor adventuring friend, is about as keen on birds as Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s infamous thriller. He admits as much and though he tries to disguise it, now wears the look of a condemned man.
A plan is formulated. First, we open all the windows as wide as they will go, then prop open both doors. I don’t mind birds – except for the crows that occasionally set up shop outside my bedroom window and drive me to distraction with their incessant cawing – but my friend’s alarm is contagious. As I run upstairs in search of a sheet, my imagination goes into over-drive. I picture one of those Game of Thrones ravens released from its confinement. In my fantasy, it takes on the size of an eagle, flying around my kitchen in a state of panic, blindly banging into walls, pecking at my head with its massive beak and spraying excrement over the work surfaces. Make a massive mental note to remove everything in sight before we liberate the beast.
I return to the kitchen brandishing the longest sheet I can find and a towel to mop up with but which I am tempted to tie around my head as protection (memories of a holiday in France when a bat got caught up in my sister’s hair, looms large). As instructed, I hold the sheet wide like a screen. The hope is that this will encourage the bird towards the window.
For a moment we wait in great suspense. Then my friend says,
‘Ready?’ Taking one for the team, his hand hovers nervously over the cupboard handle.
‘Ready,’ I say in a voice that lacks conviction, watching with one eye shut.
He makes two attempts to pull free the door before, suddenly, it is open. Immediately, something darts out through the open window. When it is clear that nothing else is going to follow, we move to the window and look outside. Three feet away, a robin is perched on a low hanging branch, a tiny red blush against a green backdrop. It looks frail but untroubled by its recent confinement. Like a chorister settling into a church pew, it opens its mouth and sings as if announcing its arrival to the world. You have got to be kidding, I think. I turn to my friend who gives me a very sheepish look.
Neither of us say a word.