Thursday, 14 February 2013

The uninvited guest (final part - 23)

He dismissed her apologies as being unnecessary. It was just life; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose on nature's giant, cosmic roulette wheel. However Chani's little monologue had moved him and it was becoming difficult for Leo, difficult to find a point of balance, an equilibrium, between what appeared to be mutually exclusive goals, desires, needs, as difficult to find a point of clarity as anything he had ever encountered. He was torn between preserving his sanity, his reserve, his aloofness, his solitude, the very things that enabled him to indulge his one true and lasting love, that visceral need to paint, and the compassion for the person sitting opposite from him, which he felt. Would he, could he, in all conscience, let this person that he had once loved, so hard that it had hurt, even though she had returned that love with real pain, true hurt, be deprived so of what it was that she said that she so desired at this, the end of days.

His relationship with Penny had suited both alike; when Penny was not in some capital city or other in Europe. or in New York or  Boston, consulting, doing whatever it was that she did, she was to be found in the study, writing reports running to hundreds of pages, poring over spreadsheets, company accounts or doing research. Even when she was at home, their mutual need to 'get the job done' allowed them only a short time together each day, in the evening; at the end of the day when they would eat supper and watch 'Casablanca', 'When Harry met Sally', 'An affair to remember' or some similar, hoary old romantic DVD or video on the now discarded TV set. However Chani did not work now. In two years, if she lived that long, she would retire. Chani would be in the house every day, potentially, all day; would his routine stand the strain? What if she required palliative care towards the end? Would she be able to afford a nurse? Or would he be expected, or feel obliged, to offer some or all of that care? Would he be able to cope with death again and at such close quarters? Would he be able to deal with Chani and his mother at the same time? He did not know the answer to any of these questions; he simply did not know what he should do.

"I fancy a drink," he said. "A large brandy!"

He moved to the 'drinks' cupboard and returned to his stool with a bottle of the Remy Martin XO Premier Cru, bought from Duty Free on his last trip to South Africa for the Verreaux's Eagles, and a giant brandy balloon, the largest Chani had ever seen. Uncorking the bottle, he poured a very generous measure into the glass and started to warm it in the palms of his hands.

"You can have a small sip of mine, to taste," he said with a smile. "I will not encourage you to drink and drive. I have made a decision, which is why I need the brandy; making decisions is always a traumatic experience for me and I need something to calm my nerves." He took a sip of the now warmer brandy and handed her the glass to taste.

"You may, as you wish, stay here, for as long as you remain alive," he said. "However one swallow does not a summer make and I think it would be best if we adopt a trial period, think of it as a month's holiday away from Wolverhampton, which, if we are not at each others throats at the end of a month, we can review and make it more permanent or you can return to Wolverhampton; whichever you wish. I should warn you that there will be many rules that you will have to abide by. I will apprise you of these over lunch. Of course, last night's stricture will remain in place. You have my word, no funny business!" He smiled.

"You may stay here another night, my jeans or cargo pants and t-shirts should fit you, I think, although you may need to roll the trouser legs up in the manner of youths thirty five years younger than us and I can wash yesterday's underwear today so that you have clean for the journey home. You can go home and pack a more capacious suitcase, suitable for a month, tomorrow and return whenever it suits you. Please, no flamboyant or extravagant gestures of thanks are required. A simple yes or no will suffice. How does that sound?" He smiled again.

"Are you being serious?" She asked. He nodded. "Then, yes, thank you so very much."

He stood up and went to fetch another brandy balloon. Pouring her the same generous measure that he had poured for himself, he handed it to her and raising his own glass, gently touched hers.

"The train, now standing at Platform Three, is the eleven thirty-five to Oblivion," he said by way of a toast. "Calling at: Tipsy, Drunk, Bladdered, Blootered, Asanewt, Legless-on-Thames, High Asakite and Oblivion. This train terminates at Oblivion. Passengers for High Sobriety, Little Boredom, Teetotal-on-the-Wold and Neveradrop should change at Tipsy'"

She laughed. She was still laughing when a beautiful, blond-haired woman of about thirty-five, with legs all the way up to her armpits, suddenly appeared in the doorway.

"Ania," he said. "This is Chani; she's going to be staying a while. Chani, this is the wonderful Ania, who I have told you about." Ania smiled at Chani and waved from the doorway; she reserved the leering grin and the raised eyebrow for Leo.

He returned her smile with an enigmatic one of his own. He smiled at the realisation that, in the end, life comes, eventually, full circle and what will be, will inevitably be. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos make strange and uncompromising bargains with the universe; only occasionally do those bargains seem to have happy outcomes and then, often, the happiness is only enjoyed for a brief time.


This is, I fear, about as close to a happy ending to a story as you are ever likely going to be able to drag from my pen; or keyboard.

The uninvited guest (part 22)

"I came here to apologise finally, after all these years, not for you but for me; I needed to expunge the guilt which I feel. This guilt, I buried deep within me these past thirty years, I certainly wouldn't want you to think I have been agonising for all of that time, but the chance, the coincidences, of events over the last two years have brought you increment by increment, more and more into my thoughts and I knew that, before it was too late, before I go to meet my maker, if maker I have which I strongly doubt, I should go with a semblance of a clear conscience and, at the very least, try and make peace with you if peace were possible, although I did not fully understand the reasons why, after so long a time, I should now think it so necessary. The time for apologies had surely, by now, passed me by and it was, likely as not, only going to be a fool's errand."

She paused again and raised the coffee cup to her lips, although, in truth, there was no coffee left in the cup, as she knew only too well.

"You see," she continued. "I feel like I used to feel in my granny's house in Kampala, in Kenya, after visiting her; it was only just around the corner from my parents' house. I knew I had to get home, to my brother, to my parents, and I wanted very much to, it's just that Granny Patel's was so dear to me, and her house was so wonderfully big to a small child, an adventure in the making, that I never wanted to leave, although I knew, at even that young age, that I must. I feel the same way now.

"You asked me earlier, what it was that made me go outside this morning, dressed as I was, in the freezing air, in only a T-shirt. It was a whistle, a whistling, that called me. I do not know why, but it was insistent and I had to obey. I now know what that whistle was; I heard it when you tried to get Eegit away from her pursuit of the pigeon and I do not doubt that you were calling Fjorgyn in the same way when it somehow impinged on my still sleeping or half sleeping mind, before I awoke, and stayed with me after I had woken up. I didn't get it at all until a half an hour or so ago, when you were calling Eegit back to the lure. It may seem strange to you but, in my mind, I have this awful and strange notion that I am, somehow, being called back to you.

"Don't worry, I am not about to get all sloppy on you and profess the undying love of a dying woman to you; this is not Madame Butterfly and I am not consumptive. As you, yourself, said last night, we are not the same people that fell in love all those tears, sorry years, ago, we are much older and, I hope, that much wiser than we ever could have been at twenty-five; the Pooh-sticks have long since passed under the bridge, the plank bridge by a pool, and I don't think Piglet and Pooh are even on the bridge anymore to find out who won. However, I would like you to know that, were it to be permitted to me, and I know that it should not and will not, I would so very much like spend my final days here, in this place; it is truly so beautiful. Although I am not Arthur nor Guinnevere, his Queen, I would still like to think that there might be a place for me in Avalon somehow; if only to compensate for twenty-five years living in the industrial heartland of Britain, the arsehole of the world that is Wolverhampton. If a place were not be found on that blessèd isle, I wish that I could demand one of Rory's pups, as Roy did, as a reminder of this place and all of its little pleasures. However there's little point to that request either, really; they'd scarcely be out of puppyhood before I croaked and who would then care for him or her.

"I am sorry, I am babbling, ignore me. Sometimes I think that I just like the sound of my own voice too much; perhaps that's why I enjoyed teaching so much! May I ask you one last, and no doubt impertinent, question before I make sure that nobody has stolen my little Peugot 306 during the night?"

"Yes, by all means," he replied. "There are few questions that I am unwilling to answer."

"What happened with your last partner, the consultant?" She asked. "You seemed to have been together for a long time and I doubt you argued much over money. You don't have to answer, I am just curious." She smiled.

"I took an axe to her head one night," he said.

"Joke, Leo? Tell me that was a joke."

"Yes, a joke," he replied. "In any event, she would quickly have turned the tables on me, if I had; mightily strong, our Penny. Cattle farmer's daughter. I think that she used to wrestle heifers in her teens instead of boys." He smiled. "Jokes aside, she died. One of those 'one in a million' deaths. She had no history of any real allergies but she was stung by something, I assume, on a business trip to one of the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, I cannot remember exactly where; she was in an office, alone, working in the company's main office block and, seemingly, went into anaphylactic shock; by the time that the people she was consulting for found her and an ambulance called, it was pretty much all over. It cut me up a bit at the time, but by that time we were more 'really good friends with added sex' as opposed to 'husband and wife' and I think that the older you get, and the more deaths of those close to you that you experience, the easier it becomes to cope with it without completely falling apart."

"I'm so sorry, Leo," she said. "Trust me to put my foot in it, again. I should never have asked."

The uninvited guest (part 21)

Leo rummaged in his bag for the spare glove which he had put there earlier and handed it to her. She put it on and he showed how to hold her arm and her fingers and thumb. He coaxed Eegit onto her fist and dragged the jesses past her fingers and into her palm, winding the leash around her ring and little fingers. She closed her hand into a fist as he instructed, keeping a tight hold of the jesses.

As they walked back down the narrow pathway, side by side, she looked as happy as a sandboy might. She kept one eye on the path and one eye on the bird, so fascinated was she with the experience of having a live falcon sitting on her hand. They had crossed about three quarters of the distance to the weatherings when she suddenly stopped and turned to him.

"Would you like to, be able to, maybe, bring some of these birds to my school?" She asked. "I'm sure the kids would appreciate what I have seen, even if not so much, although perhaps even more so. The school has playing fields adjacent to a park not ten minutes walk from the school so there would enough space and the children could walk there, supervised by teachers of course. Would that, in any way, be possible?"

"It might be possible, I'll think about it," he said. "I am a shy retiring type, ill at ease in large groups especially of children, although much given to public performance in my youth. Give me a few weeks to mull it over and then drop me an email or call me. I also know a few people who do these kinds of demos, at game fairs and country shows, and who might be willing to do a freebie for the kids for a small painting of mine or a sheet of sketches of their birds."

They continued back to the weathering and transferred Eegit to her block, the usual perch for a captive falcon. Chani was fascinated by the falconer's knot, which is capable of being tied with only one hand, because, even though he had both hands free, Chani still had a firm grip on Eegit's jesses, he still tied the knot, or rather knots, there are two of the same on a leash attaching the leash to the block, with one hand. When asked why, with both hands free, he still tied it with only one hand, he had replied that the answer was quite simple; he had no idea of how to tie the knot using two hands! Eegit's remaining food from her day's ration was left on the gravel in front of her block.

They dropped Leo's bag and the gloves back on the chest in the Tea Party shed and were about to head off back to the house when Leo remembered the creance and Roy's guilty admission. Picking up a wooden dowel, about nine inches long, Chani was amazed at how Leo was able to wind so much twine so rapidly in figures of eight around the short rod; his arms and hands barely seemed to moved as yard after yard was wound.

"It takes a lot of practice to get this fast," he said, in answer to the unasked question that was written all over her face. "But it really is the best way of ensuring a tangle and knot-free creance every time. It's based around the cleats that sailors used to make in the days of sail and rigging but the earliest falconers provided a novel twist, just to make it harder to do. A sailor's cleat is all one sided because they don't move the dowel; the falconer twists his dowel one quarter turn with each winding which makes for a more balanced and even final product."

"It seems to me that your hobby, like your profession, entails an awful lot of practice," Chani remarked.

After a slow, leisurely walk back through the gardens, during which Chani spoke incessantly, obsessively about Eegit, the sheer joy of it all, asking all manner of questions about the falcon herself and falconry in general, they were back in the kitchen. While Chani went to pet Rory and her pups for a brief while, Leo had busied himself with loading the dishwasher with the detritus of that morning's breakfast crockery and making another round of espresso for them both. Leo called Chani to her coffee and they were, once again, sitting in their, now, habitual positions opposite each other. As they sipped the coffee, there was a strange, uncanny silence which was even more surprising after the exuberance of Chani's exhilaration during their walk back through the gardens; her excitement over what she had seen and the joy of having such a bird, not twelve inches away from her and resting on her hand, so close that she could touch it. Leo decided, eventually, that, as he was the host, he should break this silence.

"Will you be staying for lunch before you head on back," he asked. "Or would you rather leave sooner. It's a long and tiring drive, after all. It's just that I will need to think of what to do for lunch, if you are staying."

"No, you need not bother with lunch for me," she replied. "I should be getting home but, please, I cannot thank you enough for the last twenty four hours. Your unexpected hospitality; your time; your generosity; the food; the booze; your paintings; the garden, or should I say, gardens; Eegit, both the dog and the bird; even the fright I had this morning. I will remember them always, I can assure you of that! And it is, perhaps, time, at last, to be perfectly honest, or at least as honest as I can be." She paused, as if being honest was something she had had very little practice in and she needed to rehearse her lines before declaiming them, as if she were actively seeking the right words or phrases.

The uninvited guest (part 20)

As she entered the kitchen, it was clear that Leo had been cooking. A pan lay on the hob, inside of which was the sheen of a fine smearing of oil, a jug of maple syrup stood on the counter and a large plate, knife and fork lying side by side with a crumpled serviette, was in front of Roy.

"Ah, Chani," said Roy. "I couldn't leave without saying goodbye. Rory and the pups are doing fine. I am pleased to have met you and hope that the next time that we meet, it may be, well, different to our first meeting. 'Bye, Leo. I shall pop in one evening next week for a check up but in the meantime, any problems, just call; I'll be straight round. Oh, and one of those puppies is mine! A bitch if you please, more likely to inherit her mother's traits which you know I cannot resist! How I long for my very own red, Irish eegit! While I think of it, I didn't rewind your creance; you know that I'm rubbish at it."

Roy left by the more conventional route of the front door and, as it slammed shut, Leo spoke.

"You look and smell nice, find the 'Sanctuary' did you? Breakfast? Then sit down!"

Chani sat down as Leo took a plate of still warm pancakes out of the oven and two empty plates. Taking some cutlery out of a drawer, he laid the empty plates and a knife and fork on either side of the counter with the plate of pancakes between."

"Here's some that I made earlier," he joked in the manner of every TV chef who has ever existed. "Tuck in, there's maple syrup here or I can get you fresh lemons and brown sugar, if you'd prefer."

"Shrove Tuesday," she replied. "In January? No, the syrup will be fine. I have not had it in such a long time."

They ate once again in almost complete silence but, as Leo brought more espresso, the silence was broken with a question.

"Have you got time, before you head off home, to perhaps watch Eegit fly?" He asked. "I planned to fly her today after Fjorgyn, before the little, you know, and most people find it pleasurable to watch; you don't often see stooping falcons in the wild and while Eegit is not as good as a peregrine or a lanner, still it might amuse, pass a pleasant ten minutes."

"Yes, please!"

After donning their hats and coats, they both walked down to Eegit's weathering, stopping along the way to collect Leo's hawking bag and a lure, a weighted piece of old rabbit skin attached to a couple of metres of stout nylon twine, to which he had lashed one of Eegit's daily allocation of day-old chicks. They walked out, not to the Tea Party lawn but along a gravel path in the opposite direction that led through his vegetable garden. After about a hundred yards or so he stopped and told her that she must wait there while he went further on; if there were more than one person standing where the lure swinger stood, it made the swinging far more difficult, if not impossible. He walked about another twenty or thirty yards to where a small square of paving stones lay. He took off Eegit's leash and stood still, with his left arm raised, turned so that the falcon felt the wind against her face. After a couple of minutes in that position, she ruffled her feathers and then took off with a bound, beating her wings rapidly in great sweeps as she sought to gain height.

He rummaged in his bag and brought out the lure, while the falcon climbed in wide circles centred on Leo's position. He started to swing the lure, in great arcs parallel with his upright body. Chani was transfixed by the effortless rhythm of his action; he seemed as if he would be able to keep this up all through the day, if necessary. It took her a few moments to locate the bird in the sky again but, as she did so, she saw the falcon flip over and, beating her wings strongly, dived straight for Leo and the lure. As the bird approached at what seemed to her to be breakneck speed, Leo stopped swinging and presented an almost stationary lure to the bird away to his right. Even at this distance, she was amazed that she could see the falcon's legs coming forward from their position beneath the tail as Eegit attempted to grab the lure in her talons; she could hardly believe how long those legs actually were. At the very last moment, Leo whipped the lure from her path and she flew on past, beating her wings once more in further attempts to gain the height necessary for a another strike. Chani was stunned. When he had asked her to come and watch the flight, she could scarcely imagine that it would be as exciting as this was proving to be.

Leo had resumed his swinging; six more times, the bird tried to catch the lure with, what to Chani, seemed an impossible speed and each time the lure was withdrawn at the last second. As the falcon circled, climbing steadily, for the eighth time, she suddenly changed direction and flew fast along a tangential path to her original gyre, wings beating faster and now with more urgency.

"Bollocks!" Leo shouted, so that his voice would carry to her. "She's always doing this. Why do all of my animals have a bloody  obsession with pigeons."

As she followed the falcon's flight away from them, she could discern, far into the distance, another bird; the pigeon? And then, as she tracked the bird's flight, straining her eyes at the rapidly diminishing dot in the sky, she heard it. The whistle, long and insistent, like a banshee's shriek, but calling to her. Mere seconds later, it came again across the flat earth surrounding her. Again and again.  A call to arms? The Piper's plaintive melody? A call to home. The more it was repeated, the more insistent it became, the greater her need to follow the sound of its call. She was still barely managing to follow Eegit's flight when, suddenly, the falcon started to veer away from its pursuit of the pigeon and turned, with the same urgent wingbeat, and was flying towards Leo and his lure once more. In a flash of unexpected insight, she suddenly began to understood the whistling, the whistle that had so troubled her earlier, what the whistling might mean. She would undoubtedly divine further meaning and a fuller understanding later, she was sure; 'later, in the alone of my time', she thought.

Looking back towards Leo, she could see that the lure was still swinging but Leo had moved his left hand away from the cord, which he usually had a hold on with both hands in order to vary its length as he swung, and a thumb and forefinger were now in his mouth. As the bird approached, at a seemingly impossibly low level this time, so low that she could hear the sound of the wings brushing the stalks of the onions which were as grass along Eehit's flight path, he suddenly flew the lure high into the air, shouting 'Ho!'. The falcon, climbed almost vertically and grabbed the lure firmly with outstretched legs and talons. Once the lure had been caught, she flew in a more leisurely fashion, in descending circles, finally settling on the ground some fifteen yards away from Leo.

It took Leo ten minutes of cautious maneuvering, crouching low, before Eegit finally, once more, stood on his fist and he was able to stride back to where Chani stood.

"Enjoy that?" He enquired, grinning, as he stood before her.

"I think in more ways than you can possibly imagine," she replied. "I don't know what makes you call her Eegit, I thought she was truly magnificent. She's so fast. How on earth do you pull the lure away so that she doesn't catch it? Every time, I thought she was going to get it and yet..."

"Same way you get to the Albert Hall," he said. She looked puzzled. "Practice, practice and yet more practice! Would you like to carry her back?"

"Can I? Really?"

The univited guest (Part 19)

She carried on up the stairs, again quietly surprised, and pleased, with his consideration and generosity. Entering the bedroom, she took off all her clothes and placed them on the bed. Opening the door of the small robe, she took out the kimono hanging on a padded hanger from the rail. He had not been kidding when he had said that it was wonderful. The ground was a rich and vibrant pink with flowers of white on brown and red stems dotted randomly on the fabric as though it were a portrait of a Spartan bush much like a rhododendron. She did not know the name of the plant but the flowers reminded of her of camellias, which were her mother's favourite English flower. They were always to be found on Sundays in the summer, in the two vases which her grandmother had left to her mother and which Chani's mother in turn had left to her, although Chani could never think of them as belonging to anyone else but her mother. She wrapped the Kimomo around her and padded barefoot across to the bathroom with her overnight bag.

As she ran the bath, the water cascading from the single spout as though it were Niagara Falls, she removed her make-up from the previous day in front of the mirror; something which she had not bothered to do the night before, too tired as she was. The mirror hung above a glass shelf on which stood the bottles and tubes of shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste, a safety razor with disposable twin blades and some pots of 'Sanctuary Mande Lular' bath crème and bath scrub. Would he mind her using some? He had said that all that she needed was already in the bathroom and, surely, if he would mind, he would have removed the pots. Unscrewing the pot lid to the bath crème, she scooped out a generous portion of the viscose fluid with her fingers and vigourously swirled it around the hot water; it started to foam. She rinsed her hands in the bath water and turned off the taps; the bath was already quite full.

Feeling the water with her elbow and finding that it was hot but bearable, she took some hair clips from her bag and clipped her short hair away from her face, took the bath scrub from the shelf and placed it within reach and lowered herself slowly into the water. Resting her head on the waterproof pillow that lay at one end of the bath, she stretched out. She was mildly surprised; her feet did not even come close to the other end of the bath. She did not think that it was possible to drown in a bath, unless one was completely drunk, she was, nonetheless, thankful that she could swim and that water, however deep, held no fear for her.

Relaxing into the scented water, she realised that she would have time for a good soak; Leo and Roy would be busy with the examination of Rory and her pups for a while. Her mind was not yet clear enough to gain any insight into the question most troubling her, the whistles and their strange attraction, and her thoughts ran back to the day before. How she had purposefully risen early; how she had put steel in her sinews, fire in her loins and courage in her heart; how she had nearly turned back home at breakfast in the 'Little Chef' service station, nearly three quarters of the way to his house; how only the concentration required of motorway driving had suppressed the fear that she had felt; the slow sinking feeling in her stomach when she heard his first angry response from the balcony; the pleasure she had felt at his slow, but inexorable, unshrouding of the man that she had once known all those years ago; the walk by the river; the risotto. Yes, she admitted to herself, it would have been nice to have had him hold her in his arms under the quilt once again, however impossible or unwise that might have been. However, the moment had, she thought, passed her by for a reason; a reason which was known only to the Fates. She was truly pleased, at least, that he did not seem to hate her or, at least, that he was an actor good enough to give that impression.

She unscrewed the lid of the bath scrub and, standing up, applied it all over her body; the ground walnuts shells taking off the dead skin cells with ease and making her skin more sensitive to the heat of the water when she resumed her earlier position, lying prone. She had been careful not to rub hard around the more sensitive areas of her body; she had learnt the ill-wisdom of that the first time that she had used such abrasive exfoliators. She ran the natural sponge, conveniently located on a shelf set into the tiled wall, repeatedly over her submerged body to remove the ground nutshells from her skin before stepping out of the bath onto the thick toweling bath mat which awaited her feet. Reaching over, she pulled the, by now, deliciously warm bath sheet to her and wrapped it about her, tucking the end of it into itself below the armpit. She toweled her arms and face dry with the smaller towel that hung from the same rail. She toweled the rest of body with the voluminous bath sheet and hung them both back on the rail. Naked, she used the shower head to rinse the bath and consign the remains of the walnut dust down the drain.

Satisfied that she was dry, she applied her facial moisturiser and then her make up; a thin layer of expensive Estée Lauder foundation cream, the anti-ageing lotion, one of her few extravagances; a hint of eye make, scarcely darker than her own skin tone; mascara, a little eye-liner and finally dark red, almost brown, lipstick. She took out her clothes from the overnight bag and dressed; underwear, baggy, comfortable for driving, trousers, a plain white, 'strappy' vest and a crew neck, cotton jumper and short socks. She brushed her short hair back and looked at herself in the mirror. She was quietly satisfied with what she saw for all that she was most decidedly the wrong side of fifty. Picking up her bag and the kimono, she left the bathroom, remarking to herself that she had not locked the door, and went into the bedroom once more.

Sitting on the bed, she drew on her sensible, driving shoes, straightened the quilt and puffed the pillows, neatly folded the clothes that he had loaned to her at the foot of the bed, packed her own dirty clothes in her bag and quietly closed the door behind her.

The uninvited guest (Part 18)

Without waiting for an answer, Leo raced back through the rhododendrons and into the main garden. As he ran across the lawn, past the privet bushes, the brick planters, he could see Chani dressed in his old clothes sitting, sobbing on the edge of the patio. When he reached her, without speaking, and as frail as he felt, he bore Chani quickly up in a fireman's lift and carried her inside. She did not struggle, did not cry out at being manhandled in this way. He bore her through the kitchen and lowered her upright by the stool, her stool, and grasped her by the shoulders.

"Chani, it's only the vet," he said quietly. "You remember, I told you last night that he might come through the kitchen to get in. What in the world possessed you to go outside dressed like that?"

"Leo, I am so sorry,"  she whispered, her cheeks still wet from the crying which had started almost immediately after Roy had left her, alone on the patio but which had now, thankfully, stopped. "I completely forgot about the vet and I was so scared, I panicked. My brain isn't working too well this morning, I think that I am more than a little hung over, all those gin and its and the wine yesterday and I didn't know how to work the coffee machine; that's why I went outside, to call you. Please forgive me. I hope that the vet is alright. I suppose that I gave him as much of a scare as he did me." She did not, could not, tell him about the whistling and how it had called to her like an old Anglo-Saxon Pied Piper; how beckoning, how welcoming its sound had appeared to her.

"Roy will be ok," he said. "When he thinks about it some more, I think he will be flattered to think that you mistook him for a rampant, sexual predator." He laughed.

"It's no joke," Chani replied. "I was really frightened." She paused. "Where did you learn to do that? That fireman's lift? I was so shocked that I couldn't speak, couldn't move; I couldn't do anything except lie there across you shoulder."

"Symi," he said. "That Dodecanese island from the book. It's difficult to get much equipment or building materials up to the buildings, hoists, jack-hammers, cement and the like, because there are no roads, just stairs up the hillside, from the new village to the old, and everything comes up by donkey. Hefting bags of sand and cement from the donkey to the cement mixer is made easier once you master the fireman's lift. Take a seat, calm yourself down and I will make you some espresso."

She settled herself into the stool and tried not to look as embarrassed as she felt. She was at a loss to understand how she could have forgotten about the vet, even if she were mildly hung over. She puzzled briefly over the whistling that had led her out onto the patio. As hung over as she might be, to be lured in such a way did not seem to her to be rational, comprehensible even. She could not have thought the whistling was meant for her, no-one except Leo knew that she was there, and Leo would have called her by name surely; perhaps it might become clearer after some caffeine, she thought.

"Coffee is served," he said, appearing suddenly and placing the steaming espresso on the counter in front of her together with a small bottle. "There's some ibuprofen in the bottle in case you have a headache to accompany your hangover."

As she raised the cup to her lips, Roy entered through the French doors. She could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks, her neck. She continued to hold the cup to her mouth, although there was no need, she had already taken a mouthful of coffee. It was as though its scant size could somehow obscure the red tinge which, she felt sure, was now making her glow with all of the incandescence of an electric fire. Roy strode to the counter where Leo stood.

"Do I detect espresso in the air?" He said. "Yes please, Leo. That will be most kind; doppio, one sugar. So good of you to ask. Do I have the time for breakfast? Of course. Pancakes and maple syrup? Absolutely. Happy to share anything you have, even muesli! The bill for looking at Rory? Breakfast will pay for all!"

Chani was surprised at this one-sided banter but, as Leo marched off to the Gaggia machine with a shrug of his shoulders, she assumed that it was a, somehow, normal exchange between the two friends. Roy moved so that he was standing opposite her, on the other side of the island, and proffered his outstretched hand.

"Chani, I am pleased to meet you," he said without a tinge of embarrassment. "Again!"

She put down her cup and grasped his hand and shook it weakly,

"I am so sorry, Roy," she said. "I do not know what came over me. Leo had said that you were coming but......"

She quickly took up her cup of espresso and took a small sip as Leo arrived with the one for Roy.

"No, the fault is mine," Leo said. "If I had told you that the back, secret way into the garden was to crawl on your hands and knees through two, what shall I say, optical illusions, that might not have made the fright that you experienced so bad. Besides, anything that transpires in my house is my fault, no matter what the circumstances."

Chani finished her espresso and said that she should be getting dressed and would be it alright if she had a bath instead of a shower; she was in need of a soak and a bath would avoid her getting her hair wet. Leo made some sweeping movements with his hands as though ushering her from the room and she got up, nodded to the 'odd couple' opposite, one a good twelve inches taller than the other, and made her way upstairs. As she turned to go up the 'dog-leg' half way up, a voice shouted from the foot of the stairs.

"I forgot to mention last night," Leo cried. "There's a short kimono in the hanging robe in your room if you want to use it as a dressing gown; finest Chinese silk and made in Japan. A most wonderful present, one of four from a client of my ex-partner's for whom I had painted a picture in the style of the woodblock artists of 'ukiyo', the 'floating world' of seventeenth century Japan, as a gift, in gratitude for their, the client's and his wife's, hospitality during my visit to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The kimono is, of course, clean!"

The uninvited guest (part 17)

Chani woke slowly from slumber. In the back of her mind somewhere was the notion that somebody had been calling to her, whistling to her; not a wolf-whistle but rather a summons. She looked at the small digital clock by the bedside, it was seven thirty-two. After last night, she was loth to antagonise him today by sleeping late and prepared herself to rise. What had she done, exactly? Had she come on to him? Surely not! She had been dog-tired, as tired as Rory after five pups, and yet she could not deny that it would have perhaps been pleasant to  fall asleep lying beside him or even in his arms again; chemo had somehow made her unattractive to men even if she wore her wig and, the further out of practice she got, the less inclined she was to bother, even after her hair had started to grow again. And did he mean what he had said; that no-one was to blame, that it was just life. This was likely going to get more complicated before it got simpler, she thought.

She drew back the quilt and remembered that she was naked save the briefest of briefs. Had she had too much to drink? She felt that she could not face anything without coffee. Not him, not a shower, not the long drive home to that empty flat, empty of anything but memories of disease; a home devoid of even a cat, a gerbil, a hamster let alone the most adorable puppies she had ever seen and their most adorable mother. She had never been so close to something so young, mere hours old, for all that they were just dogs.

She put on yesterday's bra. Ever since puberty, going without had never been an option for her, they were simply too large; she would put on clean after her shower. She dressed in the clothes which he had laid in the chest drawer for her; a 'Grateful Dead' T-Shirt which was actually baggy enough that it did fit without being tight across the chest. The shorts also fit; she had kept trim and toned until Timothy had arrived and she was scarcely a lard-arse even now, she thought. She put on her sensible shoes and opened the door to the bedroom. As she peered down the corridor, she could see that the studio doors were shut; he was elsewhere. Going downstairs in the dim light of dawn, she looked in on Rory, who she thought looked better, not so haggard, if ever a dog can be said to look haggard.

She went into the kitchen expecting to find him there but he was not. He was, however, quite up and about; all the crockery had been cleared away, she noticed. Would he be down with the birds? It was then that she realised that she had no idea of how to work the espresso machine. She could not go looking for him outside dressed as she was. She was in a quandary. She had surely drunk too much the previous day; her head was full of fog and cotton wool and she could barely think straight. It was then that she heard it again; the whistlong, the whistle that seemed to be calling to her. She had no idea where it might be from. She heard it again, this time longer, more insistent. She wondered if it could be Leo in the garden. She moved beyond the table and peered out through the French doors over the still illuminated lawn but he was nowhere to be seen. She heard the whistle again. Although she did not know why, the fog in her mind refused to clear, she knew that she had no choice; she would have to go outside if she was to discover the location of that incessant, demanding whistle. She opened the door and the icy-cold, bitter wind cut through the flesh of her legs like a knife. Then she heard it, clear and distinct, finally she was able to place it in space, the whistle was coming from somewhere out there, beyond the lawn, over that first hedge.

Suddenly, a voice cried out in exasperation.

"Fjorgyn, if you don't shift your fucking fat arse right now, I am going to kick it so hard, you'll be in the middle of next week by lunchtime."

She had at least found Leo.

"Leo," she shouted. "Leo!"

"Leo!" she screamed at the top of her voice.

As her voice trailed away, she could hear something rustling, as though autumn winds were blowing the leaves around, leaves as dry as parchment whirling in eddying gyres. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a tall, thin man appeared from out of the hedge on all fours and, standing erect, stepped onto the patio.

"Leo!" Chani screamed, terrified by the man's sudden appearance; a scream fit to make her lungs burst.

The stranger was taken aback for a moment but, recovering his composure, spoke in a soft voice with a lilt that Chani would find hard to place, both then and afterwards.

"Are you Leo's friend?" The stranger said quietly, although he was clearly agitated by her previous reaction to his appearance. "I'm Roy, Roy the vet. I am here to see Rory. Leo said to come in the back way if I was early. Few people know the secret way, Leo, Ania, Lucjusz, Rory, me, I would have thought he might have told you since you are staying here."

She did not seem to be listening.

"Leo, help!" She screamed even louder, if such a thing were possible. "There's a man, a man in the garden!" She backed away.

"I'm the vet," the stranger said once more. "I've come to see Rory." She backed further away, only too obviously scared out of her wits.

Just then, a shout rang over the hedge.

"I swear that if you don't..."

Roy knew Leo's voice and where, from the direction of the shouting, he must be and sped across the lawn. He ran across the lawn as fast as he could, through the hedge and across the rhododendron garden and found Leo on the Tea Party lawn, shaking his fist in silent rage at Fjorgyn.

"Leo," said the vet. "It's your friend, you didn't tell me her name. I think she's hysterical. I certainly gave her a fright just now, when I came up by our secret way, although she was screaming at the top of her lungs before I appeared. I think that you should go and explain who I am and the fact that I am not some peeping-Tom pervert or rapist. Didn't you tell her that I might be coming? The back way?"

"Lord, preserve me!" Exclaimed Leo with a shout. "Of course, I bloody told her! The saints preserve me from hysterics and menopausal women....and obstinate hawks! Look, Roy, do me a big favour. Leash Fjorgyn and put her back in the weathering and feed her what's left of the food in my bag. I need to get back to Chani, that's her name, Chani; as in 'Dune'. Please?"

The uninvited guest (part 16)

Once more in the kitchen, he sat down with his mug of chai and sipped it slowly. He started on his early morning ritual, the ritual of the list; the list that avoided troublesome distractions during the day, distractions which would take him away from his painting. Shower and brush teeth, shaving was always optional, check; dog fed and watered, check; dog flap unlocked, check; tea made, check; birds fed, this would be the next job. Finishing his chai, he put the mug into the dishwasher along with the rest of the washing up. He tidied up the table but left it standing in case Chani might wish to sit there when she woke up.

He looked out through the French doors into what was still essentially night. He could not see any sign of the dim glow which would herald dawn and he flicked all six switches on the panel on the wall by the garden doors. The lawn lit up as lights came on to illuminate his way to the weatherings. It had been a beastly nuisance, the weeks spent laying and burying all of that cable to provide power to not only the lights in the lawn but also to the sheds, greenhouses and the weatherings, but it did mean that he was not restricted to a torch's dim light and lack of throwing power in the winter months. He retrieved his old ski jacket from the cupboard under the stairs, accessed through a door in the laundry room, and went out into the chill night air.

He walked quickly through the gardens until he came into the 'Tea Party shed' in which his hawking equipment and furniture were stored. Donning the thicker of the two gauntlets, Fjorgyn was invariably grumpy and bad tempered in the morning and was apt to bite unless the sun was out, he first took one bird, weighed him or her and made a note of the weight in his 'ledger'; he noted whether or not the bird has flown the day before and for how long; he calculated whether any adjustment was needed in the quantity of food that day; what time it was appropriate to feed the bird on the current day, if not now, (a minimum of eighteen hours was required between feeds to ensure that new food entering the crop did not prevent the casting, the fur and feathers which are not digested, from being regurgitated); he made a note of any variance from 'yarak' (a bird's optimal flying and, therefore, hunting weight) plus or minus.

He followed the same procedure with every bird not in an aviary, the birds that flew free, when permitted. It was a tedious process, especially with more than one or two birds, but it was essential if the bird was to have any chance of remaining passibly healthy, let alone fly and hunt. Eventually the weighing process was complete and he prepared the day-old chicks which he had taken from the freezer the previous day, added the SA37, a necessary supplement if the bird is fed day-old chicks whose bones are not developed enough to provide the necessary calcium for a raptor and laid them out in order for each bird.

Finally he removed the next day's chicks from the freezer and took the ledger back to his study, where the information was all entered into a spreadsheet which allowed computerised graphing and charting to further reduce potential problems which may go unnoticed in a manual system. The ledger was returned to the shed only when dawn had come and the birds could be flown, if he chose to do so.

He could hear no sound from the upper floor so he left a brief message for Roy, the vet, in case he came early. His patio doors to the garden were invariably only locked at night. A very few people knew the 'secret' way into the main garden, the hedges were tall and thick and seemingly impassable, the metal railing through and over which the hedges grew, a legacy of the previous owner, made sure of that; in any event, you could get nothing out of the house unless it were staggeringly small.  One of the many reasons why Rory was called 'Eegit' was because it had taken five weeks of careful training, every day, to get Rory to recognise the path to 'her' field.

If he went away for more than twenty four hours, metal shutters made entry or egress through the front doors and windows impossible without Semtex. Only his hi-fi was worth that kind of effort and woe betide the man who tried to lift a speaker cabinet without first emptying the hundredweight of sand from the base!

It was slowing getting light and, in the absence of anything very much to do which would make little or no noise and he did not feel much like painting in early dawn light, even under daylight bulbs, the previous day's events had not helped matters in this respect at all, he decided that, as the birds had not yet been fed, he could fly Fjorgyn. She was just on the right side of her flying weight and he could put her on a creance for added protection until the light improved. Eegit, the falcon, was at her optimal flying weight and so might be tempted, when the light was brighter, to try her hand, rather her feet, at some of her usual perfunctory, feeble stoops at a lure.

He collected the ledger from the study, double checked his assessments of Fjorgyn's and Eegit's 'yarak' and made his way out to the shed. He hung the hawking bag across his shoulder, checked that the creance remained inside, donned his glove and went to bid 'Morn, Morn' to Fjorgyn. He approached her, crouching low, and gently coaxed her onto his fist from behind, teasing her rear toe to encourage her on to his hand; he kept his right, ungloved hand well away from the sharply hooked bill. Fjorgyn had a fondness for raw human flesh, unrivalled in his experience, and the taste of buckskin left a too sour taste in her mouth. As she gingerly settled on the his fist, he was relieved to note the leash and the jesses had fallen in front of his fingers. He merely had to open his gloved hand for the jesses to fall into his grasp. He wound the leash around his ring and little finger twice and untied the leash from the perch, the knot being released easily if you just knew which part to pull. Fortunately none of his raptors had ever learnt which part of the knot to pull.

He strode back to the shed, entered at a crouch to avoid the bird hitting her head on the door frame and picked up the bow perch from the floor. He went out onto the 'Tea Party' lawn and, in traditional manner, moistened the forefinger of his right hand and held it to the wind. The high hedges gave a certain degree of protection but the wind could be felt blowing from roughly north to south. He positioned the bow perch at the south end of the lawn and took the hood out of his bag. Holding it by the tassels, he gently slipped it over the birds head; if Fjorgyn could not see him, she could not bite him. Keeping a firm hold, he fixed the 'D' ring at the end of the creance to the jesses, replacing the leash, and unwound the fifty or so metres of strong nylon twine; the bird was now still on a leash, albeit a much longer one.

Carrying the bird to the perch, he gently coaxed her onto it. Fjorgyn was due a ration of 4 chicks. He crudely dismembered the bodies with his hands and found that he had nine morsels, he put those in his bag; 9 flights of one hundred yards, roughly two laps of an athletics track. He wrapped the free end of the creance around the ring and little fingers of his left hand and took off Fjorgyn's hood and put it in his bag. He advanced towards the north end. He stopped short about five yards from the hedge.

The bird was quite disinterested until he grabbed a chick head from the bag and threw it into the air, whistling as he did so. He did this three times and, finally, Fjorgyn ruffled her feathers with a deep shudder and he switched hands so that the chick head was firmly between his left thumb and forefinger. The bird took off. With deep strokes of her broad wings, she crossed the intervening distance in seconds and, as he raised is hand to slightly below head level, she pitched up and, in a near unmanageable stall, grabbed at his outstretched fist with her toes and finally settled after a good deal of wing-waving to restore her balance. She pulled at the chicks head and, temporarily distracted from the prospect of raw human flesh by the lure of a tasty 'chicken nugget', Leo was able to retrieve the jesses from behind his left hand and grab them tightly in his gloved fist. He released the sole object of Fjorgyn's attention into her mouth. When she had finished eating and the head had passed into her crop, he waved her away. She dutifully returned to her perch. Fjorgyn had been performing these early morning exercises for two years and was only too aware now of the rules and rituals of the game, if she was to indeed to receive food.

The uninvited guest (part 15)

Some five minutes later, despite the coffee, Chani could not resist the yawn which suddenly swept over her, despite her best attempts to stifle it; no matter how hard she tried to fight it, the sensation was overwhelming, stretching her mouth open until it hurt. She apologised, sincerely no doubt, but there could also be no doubt that she felt genuinely tired and, if truth be told, looked forward to nothing but soft sheets and pillows that her head would melt into.

"You need to make the bed," she said. "If you would let me know where you keep the bed linen, I can do it; fair apology for being so rude as to yawn in your company."

"Don't worry," he said. "I have already done it, while you were enraptured during Vivaldi's 'L'estate'. I didn't think you'd miss my company for ten minutes. Come, let me get your bag and I'll take you to your bed, in a manner of speaking."

Her overnight bag and small clutch bag were still on the kitchen floor, where she had left them by the stool and, gathering them both up in his arm, he beckoned for her to follow him. Climbing the stairs, he turned left, away from his studio, to the end of the wide corridor on the opposite side. He pointed to the open door of the bathroom and indicated that there was both bath and shower and that there was also shampoo, soap and towels on the rail, which heated up whenever the central heating was on, which was pretty much all day in this weather.

He opened the door to the bedroom. The room was of a more than adequate size for a guest bedroom with a plain double bed, a small hanging robe and a large chest. A lamp stood on top of each of the two bedside chests as well as a small alarm clock and a paperback copy of 'Tiger in the smoke' by Marjorie Allingham on the chest closest to the door.

"Do you want me to set the alarm or call you tomorrow?" He asked. "Or do you want to sleep out?"

"Sleep out."

"OK," he said. "I am usually up by six, whatever time I go to bed, so I'll try to be as quiet as a mouse until you rise. If I am in the studio, I'll leave both doors open; if not, I'll leave both doors closed, which means that I'll be down in the kitchen or off feeding the hawks; I'll leave you a note by the Gaggia, if I take any of them out for a quick flight. I don't plan to. I don't expect the vet to arrive until tomorrow afternoon but I'll leave him a message tomorrow morning to use the back entrance, to wit the kitchen, if he comes early. Oh, there's a big, baggy T-shirt, clean, and some shorts, also clean, which should fit; I'm afraid I can't run to bedsocks! The clothes are in the top drawer of the large chest in case you get cold in the night and you are still accustomed to go to bed butt-naked. That's everything, I think, so I will be wishing you a very good night. Sleep tight and don't let the bed-bugs bite!"

The embrace when it came was not entirely unexpected but was not entirely expected either. He expected a gentle hug, possibly; he had, after all, been the very epitome of politeness, restraint, good humour, generosity and, under the circumstances of their past, a perfect host. However, she clung to him with a fervour that was indeed totally unexpected.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you so very much. I really do not deserve this, I think. You have made me consider whether my mother was right, or at least was more right then I was, and whether I did not make a ghastly mistake all those years ago. You know, there's a part of me, right now, that thinks that tonight I..." Her words trailed off into the dark emptiness of the night.

He kissed his fingertips and placed them lightly on her forehead for a moment.

"You were who you were," he said softly. "And I was who I was. Nothing changes, can change, that. We are both different people now, in some small part, because of what happened to us thirty years ago. You always used to berate me for believing in the truth of happy endings; childish, infantile fairy tales, Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Well, I don't believe anymore and I doubt that I ever will again; that's nobody's fault per se, it's just life. So, once again, don't let the bugs bite!"

She broke away from the embrace, turned and closed the door behind her.

He woke a little after five am. He had not slept badly but he, nevertheless, felt as though he had. He did not feel rested, did not feel full of expectation for the new day, even if it meant more of the same as the old day. At least he had managed to avoid creeping back downstairs after the small 'incident' outside the spare bedroom; the last thing that he needed was a head full of grappa or, worse still, the aftermath of a head full of grappa. He padded into the en-suite bathroom and turned on the shower. No-one had ever complained about being woken by the sound of his shower when sleeping in that room so he was sure of safety; he needed some time to collect his thoughts. They had been in such disarray last night; no, all day. It would perhaps be hard to find two people who had sent such silent, self-contradictory, conflicting and ambiguous messages to each other all in a single, solitary day.

He got under the shower and, as water soaked his hair, he felt his mind begin to clear. He lathered the shampoo into his scalp and was pleased to find that, although he was nearing sixty there was no thinning of his hair at the crown, no Prince Charles patch. Of course, this had disadvantages as well; he lacked testosterone, which hormone he had read in numerous articles was the primary cause of your hair coming out in clumps. He rinsed his hair until the water ran clear down his face and rubbing the back of his head made the satisfying sound of 'squeak, squeak'; healthy and clean hair. He lathered the shower gel across his body and when he was satisfied that the last traces of armpit and crotch sweat had been removed, stepped out of the bath and toweled himself dry. He brushed his teeth but decided against that awful ritual which he so detested; the early morning shave with a razor.

He quickly threw on his uniform; skinny jeans, baggy sweatshirt, at least two sizes too big, and soft calf leather pumps; ideal for painting or mooching about the house, although he did sometimes wonder about the wisdom of dressing like a man at least thirty years his junior. He opened the bedroom door and crept down the corridor and down the stairs. He briefly looked in on Rory, who was dozing along with her pups but she raised her head at his appearance, looked at him with those 'eegit' eyes and wagged her tail briefly; she certainly looked perkier than she had the previous day. He picked up the now empty food bowl and carried it back into the kitchen.

He stepped into the kitchen and was thankful that the mess from the previous evening was slight; one more reason to be thankful for an evening spent in grappa abstinence. In his experience, mess seemed to accumulate in direct proportion to the amount of grappa consumed and the size of the ensuing hangover. He put the kettle on for his early morning chai and gathered up the dirty plates, cutlery, glasses, the paella pan and the dog bowl and loaded the dishwater.

He dropped a chai tea bag into a mug and poured on the now boiling water and waited for it to infuse. While he waited, he filled the second of Rory's bowls with food, filled up the empty Evian bottle with tap water and went to replenish the dog's rations for the day.

The uninvited guest (part 14)

As the ingredients were cooking in the pan, and he was careful to use the correct risotto method of adding the liquid over time instead of at the beginning as he usually did when cooking just for himself, perhaps seeking to impress, he busied himself with the minor tasks involved in entertaining guests. Wide pasta bowls were set in the oven to warm through; he baked a baguette in the oven, an aroma almost as enticing as fresh coffee and filled a small basket with slices of the bread; the gate-leg table was fetched from its home in the cupboard and was set by the French doors looking out onto the garden, its usual place in the spring and summer when the sun was not so late in rising, for his early morning chai; he switched on the lights dotted all over the lawn, perhaps one of 'his' badgers might venture outside the set in search of earthworms on his lawn even in January; the table was laid with a crisp, white tablecloth, the serviettes were rolled and placed inside their chromed steel rings, cutlery was set to the side of place mats and serving spoons laid on the table beside an iron trivet for the hot pan; two glasses of iced mineral water and the Pinot in a wine cooler completed the exercise. He toyed with the idea of candles but it was already looking too much like a romantic dinner for two as it was, without needlessly piling Ossa upon Pelion, he considered.

Chani had spent the previous twenty minutes or so in vain requests to allow her to help and subsequently watching with rapt attention as he shuttled back and forth, alternating his setting of the table with pouring more stock and stirring the risotto a few times with each new addition of stock. Finally, he decided that the risotto was now cooked and he asked Chani to take her wine and go sit at the table for dinner was indeed now served. Switching the oven and the hob to 'Off', and wearing an oven mitt on each hand, he removed the bowls from the oven with one hand and the paella pan with the other and walked briskly to the table. The pan was placed on the trivet and the bowls set on their mats; only then did he sit down and discard the oven mitts onto the floor.

No sooner had he sat down than he remembered the wine glass; his wine glass that he had used to decant the wine into the risotto. With mock humility and profuse apologies he raced to his empty wine glass, retrieved it and raced back. He sat down again.

"Bon Appetit," he said, while rapidly filling his glass with wine and raising it towards the centre of the table. "Help yourself! I am afraid that I draw the line at actually serving my guests." He smiled and took a large mouthful of wine, swilling it around his mouth and over his tongue as soundlessly as he could. Swallowing, he exhaled. "Not bad, not bad at all; it will serve."

Chani had stood to serve herself the risotto; she was unable to reach from a sitting position and the pan was too hot to touch. She was careful to only take half of the langoustine tails and the tiger prawns but spooned the rice, clams and crayfish in steaming piles onto her plate.

As she sat down, he started to spoon what was left of the risotto onto his own plate.

"This is really rather good," she said after the first mouthful. "I particularly like the saffron, it really adds something to the rice. Now I will shut up and concentrate on the food."

They continued, as she had promised, to eat the meal in silence except for a brief exchange about where he had bought the bread and how cooking from a half prepared state made it so much more fresh-tasting, light as a feather on the inside, crisp and crunchy on the outside; the way French, or for that matter, English bread should be. They shared the final slice, broken in two, mopping up the final residue of the creamy starch, so typical of Arborio rice and so different from Basmati.

Pushing their bowls to one side, they both leaned back in the chairs, wicker in an armchair style, but still suitable as a dining chair.

"We're not very blessed with Michelin starred restaurants in Wolverhampton, I blame the sour climate, but I do not think that I have ever had a risotto which was better than that; texture, creaminess, the taste were delish and you were under so much pressure, all that running about!" She laughed. "I would have been happy to sit on the stool and eat from the counter; you didn't have to go to all that trouble, tablecloths, serviettes, place mats. For a brief moment there, I was thinking that the candelabrum was coming out!" She laughed again. "It's been a while since I have been spoilt so rotten, so generously treated. Thank you."

"It's a pleasure," he said. "And, truth be told, the pleasure is all mine. I am inclined to agree a little with André Gide, who said, I think, that the less you do something, the longer you wait for something, the more pleasure that you gain from it. Of course, he was likely talking about small Arab boys and forbidden pleasures but nonetheless. What would you like with your coffee; I am assuming that espresso is now the order of the day. As much as I keep denting my image as a restrained, moderate consumer of alcohol, I can offer you: straight up Stolichnaya or Kauffmann Signature; Amaretto; Remy Martin Cognac; Grappa di barolo and Grappa di Barbera; Sambuca and finally, Sliwowica, Polish plum brandy, which dear Ania brought back as a gift from a visit to her parents in Wroclaw earlier this month and remains, I repeat, remains unopened."

"Some Amaretto would be nice," she said. "I don't suppose that you have any of those biscuits, you know, the one where the wrappers drift upwards when you set light to them."

"Regretably, no," he said "I haven't actually seen them around much, even before I stopped going to restaurants. Maybe their heyday is gone."

As he refilled the water reservoir and set the Gaggia to produce 'doppios', he poured Chani a glass of Amaretto into one of his distinctive grappa glasses; most people, and Chani was to be no exception, were prone to comment on the odd shape, much like a conventional tulip glass but with a distinctive 'bulge' at the bottom.

"What a pretty and unusual glass," she said as he handed her coffee to her. "I've never seen one quite like that."

"They're grappa glasses," he replied. "Strangely, I picked them up in, of all places, Berlin, which is not renowned for its vast consumption of grappa."

The uninvited guest (part 13)

"The interesting thing about this recording," he said. "Is that no tape machine, digital sampling or technical jiggery-pokery was used. The microphones, and there were only two of them, were wired, via the mixing desk to control the overall volume, directly to the lathe which was cutting the grooves into the master disk; the only reason that they wanted to control the volume was to prevent the lathe running out of vinyl before the end of the music, louder sounds make wider grooves. If that hadn't been necessary, they would have wired the microphones directly to the cutting lathe. As recordings go, you don't get much more live and direct than this!"

It was strange to see him take the inner liner from the gate-fold cover and carefully remove the disc from its paper sleeve, it was as though she had stepped back in time to the 1970s; flared jeans and cheesecloth shirts, Mary Quant make-up and Biba clothes, hair by Vidal Sasson in person and curling tongs, platform shoes and Sunday afternoons at the 'Roundhouse' getting high. As he lowered the tone arm onto the vinyl and the music started, with only a very faint 'snap, crackle and pop', she was immediately drawn into the performance, its vibrancy, somehow alive, although she did not recognise the piece musically at first. She did however recognise the 'Dance of the Knights', although she nearly jumped from the sofa at the first snare drum roll; the instruments themselves were once again quite clearly in the same room and being played with a vengeance!

At the end of the first side of the disc, he got up, turned it over and made as if to leave the room.

"Listen to the second half, while I start dinner," he said and placed the tone arm back onto the disc; he then walked out.

He was chopping the last of the odd shaped shallots when she entered the kitchen at the end of her musical interlude. The chopping board had neat piles of garlic and shallot, the now defrosted crayfish tails, some tiger prawns and the tails of four langoustines were resting on absorbent kitchen paper to soak up the last of the water that inevitably comes in copious quantities from defrosted frozen seafood. He had been surprised to find the prawns, both the tiger and the Dublin Bay, believing that he had used the last of them at Christmas. A sieve full of small clams, shells firmly shut, the vongole, was perched, draining, on the small sink, set into the island. A tall cylindrical glass jar, three quarters full of rice grains was perched alongside the salt and pepper mills and a small glass of water in which saffron threads were soaking. She sat down on her usual stool and drained the last of her gin and tonic.

"Want another?" He asked. "Or would you prefer a glass of white? I need to open a bottle of Pinot Grigio for the risotto but will only need a glass or so. I do so not enjoy twenty-four hour old, opened white wine, which is what it will be when I get to finish the bottle, if at all!"

"Yes, why not, although I fear that you are spoiling me with good music, food, well-cooked and now, fine wine. Be careful, I am already seriously thinking of staying and just moving in! I can always wear your clothes; I always used to." She laughed.

He turned around and opened a door to what appeared to be a small fridge; it was filled with bottles of wine and a few examples of the distinctive cork shape which betrayed the presence of sparkling wine or champagne.

"I thought that you said that you did not drink a lot," she said.

"I don't," he replied. "Left to my own devices, that stock might last six months before I needed to replenish it; it's mainly for people who may visit, not that it happens often but it does happen, just like today." He smiled. "Besides, I wait for the special offers in the supermarket, half price or three for two and lay in a case or two. It's probably best that I don't show you the cellar; I've been laying wine down there for well over 15 years; it's amazing the prices you can get on Bordeaux, Amarone or Barolo if you're only prepared to wait five years or more before you open them! It's nice to be able to open a really nice bottle of red wine, perhaps for a special occasion, without needing to get a mortgage on your house to buy it."

Moving slowly behind her, he took a wine-waiter's corkscrew from the wall and two glasses from the cupboard. He returned to his usual place, uncorked the wine, levering the cork up with a satisfying 'plop' and poured two measures of the straw-coloured liquid into both glasses.

"D'us a fav'r, guv," he said, in an accent so redolent with the London where they had used to live; an accent so unlike their own. "Reach out behind you and put the bottle into the fridge door, please. I really did get this all wrong this morning. I should have had you sit on this side. Just about all that I've needed today has been on your side of the island! Well, no matter, I'm not going to change things around now!"

As if to reinforce his last comment, he moved once more to her side of the kitchen and from a cupboard, pulled a small paella pan of cast iron. Carrying the pan with one hand, he opened the fridge door and removed the butter. On the way back to his station, he removed the now defrosted and cool container of stock which he made in batches of two or three gallons in a huge jam-making pot, which his most recent 'ex', Penny, had bought many years ago; the batches were stored in the large chest freezer in the cellar and transferred periodically in threes or fours to the kitchen freezers. The pot has been bought by Penny with the express intention of using any surplus soft fruit in the summer months to make jam; needless to say, she was always too busy with work to spare much time for honing her skills in the making of strawberry or raspberry preserve.

Since becoming largely vegetarian some years ago, replacing animal protein with fish or fungal protein and pulses, he had become adept at risotto and paella. While potatoes were still a staple carbohydrate, they were tedious to prepare, especially when home grown, and simply messed up another pan. He had long ago appreciated the wisdom of 'Eintopfsonntag' (as the Nazis had called it), 'one pot Sunday', which could just as easily be a recipe for every other day of the week. He had therefore taken to risotto and paella as the true, quick and simple, one pot meal. He prepared great batches of lentils in rich vegetable stock; beans, lentils, chickpeas with Indian spices and more stock; Italian sugo with or without onions but always with garlic; pulses in chicken or beef stock made with bones from the butcher who visited the village in his van every Thursday and were collected by Ania for delivery on 'housekeeping Friday'. He froze them in single meal portions. At the beginning of the day, all that was required was to choose your choice of vegetables and liquid from what was available in the freezer and tip it into the pot when defrosted, add any vegetables not conducive to freezing or fungal protein, stir in brown rice and simmer for thirty minutes; a complete and balanced meal with the minimum of fuss, on the day, and effort. He had even been known to eat the dish straight from the pan to save dirtying a plate. Of course, the kitchen resembled the aftermath of a nuclear explosion or a riot at the end of a batch, or batches, but it was a small price to pay, he thought; one day of chaos and twenty nine or thirty days of heaven. He often wondered why it had taken him so long to hit upon this idea when he first became single and unattached again; it was so very painfully obvious and attractive.

The uninvited guest (part 12)

When she was seated in what was now becoming a favoured stool and he had poured the drinks, gin and tonic for her and plain tonic water for himself, she broached the subject of dinner.

"I really don't want you to go to the trouble of you cooking me another meal, however good the last one might have been, but I really cannot face eating in a pub, or a restaurant, for that matter, tonight. Perhaps another omelette or frittata, that would be quick and simple."

"Or Chinese, perhaps?" He suggested. "Or a seafood risotto? I have some crayfish tails in the freezer and some vongole, clams in their shells, which I brought back from Rome before Christmas; in a jar, it is true, but you try buying fresh clams anywhere except in an Italian or French coastal market. Yes, risotto it shall be, unless you have acquired a distaste for rice over the past thirty years." She smiled at the thought of someone of her extraction finding the staple food, the basic accompaniment to almost the entirety of Indian cuisine, somehow distasteful.

"I shall use Arborio rice both because I should but also to avoid my still lamentable attempts to cook Basmati, for of all your mother's excellent instruction! When would you like to eat? Eight? Or is that too early, too late?"

"Eight will be fine," she replied. "I doubt that you cook basmati any worse than my mother did; false modesty does not, nor did it ever, become you! It's five-forty-five now, so can we go and listen for a while to those awesome speakers of yours?"

"Sure, you know the way."

She was surprised to see him, on entering the lounge, start to move one of the chesterfields around. He positioned it about eight feet away from the speakers and slightly off centre so that the seat on the left hand side of the long sofa made a virtual apex of an equilateral triangle; the two angled speakers making the other two points of a perfect triangle.

"You sit there," he said, indicating the leftmost seat while he carried one of the occasional tables to the space to the left of her seat. A coaster for her gin and tonic appeared as if from nowhere. "I have heard this before so you can have the best seat. Some Vivaldi? It's old hat now perhaps, but I have an excellent recording of the 'Four Seasons' where the violinist's virtuoso passages really do make sparks fly." She nodded and sat down, careful to ensure that the glass of gin and tonic was centred on the coaster.

He walked to what she had thought were bookcases lined up against the wall and threw a number of wooden panelled doors open; there were row after row, shelf after shelf of jewel cases; there must be thousands of CDs in there, she thought. Muttering to himself under his breath, he scanned shelf after shelf looking for the correct CD until, finally, after about a minute pr so of searching, he found what it was that he was looking for and took it from the shelf.

"It's always an advantage," he said. "To store your CDs alphabetically by composer and then alphabetically by title but it's not very useful if you happen to forget that the particular CD which you are searching for has the title in Italian. It takes a while to go through a hundred or so spines that all have Vivaldi written on them!"

He walked across to the chrome cages and started to flick switches on the back of each cage. She could see the dim light of the valves through the mesh as they glowed with the electricity flowing through them. He ejected the CD tray from the player and carefully inserted the disc into the machine.

"Just need to wait a minute for the tubes to warm up." When he was satisfied that all was to his liking, he pressed the 'Play' button on the CD player and returned to the chesterfield, choosing the seat next to her. She playfully squeezed his knee in mock anticipation.

She had not attended too many concerts in her life; Wolverhampton was a little off the beaten track for established orchestras or ensembles to play there and amateur players never seemed to capture the essence, the richness of the music. She preferred to listen to her little stereo at home, a recording of von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, or Vivaldi as performed by the Academy of St Martin's in the Fields on traditional instruments or simply an anonymous concert by a composer that she had never heard of, let alone heard, on Radio 4. What she heard that evening truly astounded her; spread out in front of her, the soloist slightly in front of the orchestra and to one side, the orchestra itself in two, or was it three, ranks was an experience so close to that of a live performers in the same room as to be indistinguishable from the reality of the concert hall. She closed her eyes. Never had Vivaldi sounded so wonderful. The orchestra was not confined to the space between the two speakers but somehow had grown to be much wider, closer to its real width on a stage and how was that illusion of three dimensionality achieved, that depth; it was so awfully real.

She sat silent throughout the entire performance, eyes wide shut, her drink forgotten in the majesty of it all. As the final strains of 'L'inverno' died away and she opened her eyes once more, all she could utter, in breathless tones was: "Wow! Wow!"

"See, I told you that it was good," he said. He was sporting a grin that threatened to split his face apart. She took a few sips of her drink and held it in her lap as if further alcoholic solace would be needed sooner rather then later. She was clearly exhilarated, although most people suffered from the same lack of comprehension about how good it could be compared to their own music player or hi-fi.

"I am sorry," she said. "I just don't understand how it can sound like that. It had depth, space, every instrument was not only distinct but seemed to occupy its very own, clearly defined space; how is that possible. It was as though the orchestra was actually playing in the room."

"A combination of two things," he said. "One is your ears', and your brain's, staggering ability to not only pick up in what direction a sound is coming from but they can also tell how far it is away from you. Most of the time, we don't take much notice of the subtle differences between the sounds; it's only when someone tries to purposefully capture the depth and width of a soundscape, that your brain is forced, impelled, to take notice, it can't help it once the impetus is there. The second reason is the quality and fidelity of the recording techniques and equipment used and whether it is truly a live performance, whether in the studio or the concert hall, and then how accurately the equipment you play the recording on captures the fidelity of the original recording. Not all recordings sound as good as this one, in terms of the illusion of space and I'm not sure if sampling rates and digital media haven't made matters worse instead of better.

"We've probably got time to play a little Prokoviev, Romeo and Juliet, on vinyl!" He added after a short pause.

The uninvited guest (part 11)

He led her back through the garden, through the unfamiliar and the familiar and into the cosy warmth of the kitchen. He took her coat and hat and, together with his own, hung them on the stand. He looked in on Rory; the pups had now returned to their place in the crook of her foreleg. Lifting the receiver of the phone, which hung on the kitchen wall, he made a brief call to the vet and asked if he could arrange a home visit to check to make sure that all was well with the dog and her brood. Chani had returned to her former place on the stool and he did likewise. He sat down on the stool opposite from her and let out a long sigh.

"Won't the vet mind, coming out to Rory?" She asked.

"This be farming country, lass," he said in a mock West Country accent. "The farmers can scarcely lead a cow by the nose into a veterinary surgery, populated by rabbits and guinea pigs, dogs and cats. The vet will simply include me in his endless rounds treating mastitis, getting crushed between gate and cow, testing for BSE and tuberculosis and extracting reluctant, and breech presenting, calves from their mothers with the aid of some rope and a good deal of muscle power; I, and Rory, will be a welcome change to his routine grunting and groaning." He laughed. "Actually he is both a friend and my vet. He was so keen to learn about the possible diseases of my birds, bumblefoot, sour crop, parasitic infection of various organs by worms and suchlike, when he first came here, that he is now a widely acknowledged expert in the field. His curiosity was first piqued when I told him that I was applying the same cream that people use when they have piles to a mild case of bumblefoot in the absence of any knowledgeable vet in the area. Would you like some hot soup or a hot drink to warm yourself up?"

"No, thanks," she said. "I am warming up quite nicely. Why is she called Rory? Rory is a boy's name, surely."

"Yes, it's an Anglicised translation of the Gaelic and means 'Red King'," he replied. "Although there is a precedent, one of Bobby Kennedy's daughters, you know, JFK's brother who was also shot and killed, was called Rory. Rory's named in memory of Rory Gallagher, whom I adore, one of the truly great guitarists of the twentieth century, who was both Irish and had red hair. Sometimes, the dog gets called 'Fecking Eegit', which is Irish slang for 'Fucking Idiot' because, on the whole, she is! Mostly, she gets called 'Eegit' for short. The Eleonora's falcon that you saw on the weathering earlier is called 'Eegit' for the same reason. Fortunately for me, falcons don't usually answer to their name, just food or a whistle, so there is little, if any, confusion."

"Well, I've seen your studio, your kitchen and your garden. Do I not get a tour of the rest of the house?" She asked.

"By all means!" He said and he ushered her from room to room on the ground floor. The dining room, bare except for a huge, quartered-walnut veneered dining table and chairs and a tall, narrow display cabinet with glazed doors, in which was displayed, as he had said, his matt black coffee set with the glossy gold figure of the phoenix, stenciled onto the ground. From there, they went into the lounge with its red, antique leather chesterfields and one similar chair grouped around two mahogany occasional tables, inlaid with what she took to be satinwood, so like the crumpled fabric did it seem to her; bookcases filled with books lined the two longer of the four walls, fronted by paneled doors, some with glass panels, some with matching wood. However, pride of place had been given, at one end of the room, not to a giant-sized TV in keeping with the size of the living space but two huge speaker cabinets, much taller than she was, filled with many smaller speakers which could clearly be seen; the front grilles had been removed. Perched on a low, thick plate-glass table, whose legs of chromed steel seemed to float an inch above the floor, there was, centred between and slightly behind the two enormous cabinets, what looked like relics from an age long since past. There was a record player for vinyl discs and three chrome boxes, caged in chrome mesh, through which could be seen large glass tubes; these surely could not be valves, she thought, valves had disappeared from electrical equipment not long after she was born. Below, on a shelf was, what appeared to be, a radio and a cd player.

As they crossed the room to a door on the other side, they passed close by the strange boxes and she peered more closely through the mesh cage of one. She was now also close enough to the table to discern that the legs terminated in thin, needle pointed spikes and were not held up by air, or magic, as she had first thought.

"My first and probably my last gratuitous indulgence," he said smiling. "After my first 'west end' exhibition, in which everything had sold and I had commissions coming out of my ears, I was so flush with money that I bought the contents of this entire room bar the actual books and CDs. The sofas and the tables are genuine antiques and cost a packet. I won't tell you how much the hi-fi cost in total but that little record player, only the actual deck, you understand, was a shade under £2,500 nearly twenty years ago; just the arm alone was £800. The amplifiers, one pre-amp, the one with three knobs on it and the two power amplifiers, one for each stereo channel, are valve not transistor and shove out the sort of heat usually reserved for large electric fires or industrial furnaces; replacement 'tubes' have to be specially ordered and, likewise, cost an arm and leg! Does sound good though! Isolated as I am, I get to turn the wick up to concert hall volumes; Wagner or Mahler, Black Sabbath or Deep Purple and, especially, Bach organ fugues are simply amazing and spectacular. You can have a listen later when you've finished your tour!"

He led her through a side door to the lounge and into a room which, in comparison to the size of the other rooms, was much more modest, more the size that she, inner city dweller that she was, was used to. As in the lounge area, books lined the walls; reference books. Thesauri; dictionaries in at least 5 languages including the 20 volumes of the OED; biology, anatomy and computer science textbooks; primers in quantum mechanics and organic chemistry; books on CAD and computer animation. However they were housed on open shelves, not in bookcases. Beneath the window stood a contemporary styled desk of the sort that you might find in a modern, open-plan office, a tower-style, desktop computer stood at each side of the desk. On top of the desk, was the largest computer monitor that she had ever seen, more like a TV set, so wide was it, a keyboard and mouse and what seemed like an A4 drawing tablet and pen. This was the study, he informed her; where he wrote, played computer games and tried desperately to come to terms with drawing on a computer screen, although with only sporadic and marginal success.

"So, do you like my little house?" He enquired. He saw little point in giving her a tour of the upper floor, she had already seen the studio and one bedroom was very much like another in his estimation. His bed, a charming four-poster in oak with voile curtains, was truly stupendous and probably was worthy of a viewing but he had little desire to add to the flow of 'double-entendres' which had issued from her during their long walk back to the house by showing it to her.

"I hate to say it, but yes; most definitely yes! You must earn a positive mint to be able to afford all this!"

"No, not really," he said. "Most of the work done, and the things that I own, these all go back years; I've been here for over twenty years now. My partner, during much of that time, earned an exceedingly good salary; she consulted on a freelance basis and was not only very good but also very much in demand. I had a steady and, strangely enough in my line of work, largely predictable income. Commissions came in at a steady rate and an exhibition was a bonus windfall to be savoured. We could afford many of life's little luxuries. Now, unless it is for a good client, I try to keep the commissions down to manageable levels, I am too long in the tooth now for the kind of eighteen hour days, seven day weeks of my youth, and, generally speaking, my income just about keeps pace with my modest expenditure.

"The house is paid for; I am largely vegetarian, although scarcely vegan, and I grow much of my own food from seed for pennies; the cost of my artwork more than covers the raw materials used in their creation; except for any initial costs for purchase, my birds are cheap to feed and maintain, the vet is usually paid in paintings and now has a healthy collection; heating the house is expensive but I have insulated it the best that I can and the cost is a minimum for something of this size; I have little interest in fashion, the clothes that I am wearing today I probably bought ten years ago; I have few vices. I don't smoke, I don't drink alcohol an awful lot, preferring a little of quality as opposed to an excess of the mundane; I have more music in the form of CDs and vinyl than I can usefully listen to; there are seldom books which catch my eye nowadays and so I re-read the classics, when I want to read. These I already possess or they are freely available on, being out of copyright. Even holidays are short, cheap weekends away in some interesting city like Rome or Prague; I have had my fill of the exotic, Mauritius, the Seychelles, St Lucia, the wildlife safari in Botswana. If I want a longer break, I combine it with a field trip; at the very least I can always write that off against my annual tax bill, providing that I have the sketch books to prove that it was really work! I spend every holiday filling sketch books anyway; it's what I do to relax. Another gin and tonic?"

She nodded her head vigorously and he guided her back to the kitchen.

The uninvited guest (part 10)

"Do the doctors know, have they said, how," he hesitated, wavered, stumbling over the words. "How much time you might have left; months, years, days? I'm sorry, I shouldn't ask but you appearing like this, after all these years, after so much time being 'out of sight, out of mind'. You know. Forgive me, forget that I ever even asked; blind, unthinking impertinence."

She slid her arm through his and squeezed his arm tight against her side.

"Oh, don't worry about it," she said. "No apology required or forgiveness needed from me. I came to terms with my mortality a while ago. The doctors say it's to be measured in months rather than years now; possibly I'll get to see the summer, possibly not. I just live each day now as it comes. I am on long-term sick leave from the school, I teach English at one of those giant-sized comprehensives; it is one of the few advantages to working for the state, it is generous with its benefits. Some days, I feel well enough to go back to work, days like today for example, but I went on sick leave when I started chemo some time ago and the school seems happy for me to stay away; no sick people cluttering up the staff room and, by their very presence, inviting your attention and sympathy which, after a while, will become tedious and tiresome, for me and for them." She smiled.

"I know, when did I become a teacher? It was about 5 years after....." She paused. "After I left you. I decided that it would be fun and I already had the English degree. I did an MA to get back in practice, back into education, and after that did a post-grad teaching diploma. In general, it's not been a bad career choice and fairly well paid, although spotty adolescents of the male variety, who only have 'World of Warcraft' and girls on their minds, can be, shall we say, challenging. It does, however, have its rewards and its compensations as well."

She still had a firm hold on his arm as they walked alongside the bubbling stream, the fast flowing and shallow water causing gurgling eddies across the stones which littered the bottom. The stream was as clear as his Waterford crystal and the trout lying with heads pointed upstream, gently flicking and waving their tails in gentle, sinusoidal waves to maintain their position against the current, could be clearly seen; their brown backs heavily spotted with black against the pale ochre of the stones and gravel. They walked in silence, save for her occasional question about the identities of the birds that they saw around them, feeding on the meagre pickings which were all that was to be had on a cold winter's day in January across England's farmlands; fieldfares, redwings, a solitary waxwing, winter visitors from Scandinavia; flocks, parliaments of rooks and jackdaws, prising leatherjackets from the hard, almost frozen earth; somewhere a pair of tawny owls were awake and the gentle call and response of the owls, one female, one male, could be heard over the bare fields, 'toowitt', 'toowoo' as each called to the other; some geese, pink-foot or bean geese, he could not tell which, flying high in long and ragged skeins.

After about an hour of tranquil, gentle-paced walking, his arm still tightly held, he stopped suddenly and pointed with his free hand across the field at a low hedge which marked one field's transition to the next; the stitching on the vast patchwork quilt which made up so much of the English countryside.

"Spar!" he shouted. "Sparrowhawk! Some little bird's in for a rough time in the next minute or so!"

"How can you tell?" She asked. "Both what it is and what it's doing; it's so far away."

Almost as if the bird was reading from a cue card, so timely was its action, at the very instant of her question, the sparrowhawk dived over the top of the hedge. Mere seconds later, she, the bird was too large to be 'he', returned to her previous flight path on their side of the hedge, clearly clutching something moving in its talons.

"A rare sight," he said. "You don't see that very often on some idle ramble. To answer your questions: I'd recognise a sparrowhawk anywhere, only a goshawk or a cuckoo even vaguely resemble it and a gos is very much larger and as for cuckoos, well it's not summer; it was a good bet that she was hunting, some birds have learnt to use the hedges as natural cover for an ambush, flying parallel to their prey with the hedge between them. I keep birds of prey for a hobby, you sort of get a feel for when a bird is actively in pursuit of prey, not merely flying from one place to another. Come, that's enough excitement for one day; we really should be heading back before it starts to get dark."

"You are so lucky to be living here," she said. "All this, on your doorstep. No, that's really not correct, is it? It's lucky that you found this particular place at that particular time but it is skill, talent, commitment, those nights when I used to despair of you ever coming to bed, so engrossed as you were in the painting, that have got you to this place. I am glad that I came here today, for all that I despaired of ever finding your house; watching you just now, that same childlike look of wonder and pleasure on your face, I am happy for you. It's good to know, or rather to be more inclined to believe, that a happy ending is possible, whatever I, myself, may have done."

They both turned and set off once more back towards the house, back along the way that they had come.

"You do realise," he said. "That you are still holding my arm." She nodded.

"How did you travel here?" He asked. Car? Train?"

"Car," she replied. "I left it by the locked gate at the entrance to your driveway. I would have thought to ask you for the key, or perhaps to unlock it, but it's not important and I just never seemed to have the opportunity to bring it up. It's parked in a dead end and so I suppose it will be safe enough. Why do you ask?"

"I noticed the overnight bag. Were you thinking of resting up in a hotel or a B & B before the long drive home?"

"Well, I planned on driving home this afternoon but thought it best to pack a bag just in case I became too tired to complete the journey. Besides, I don't much like driving at night or when it's dark, especially on the motorway. I find it hard to judge distances when it is dark and that is just an accident waiting to happen."

"You are welcome to stay at mine," he said. "I have the space, in fact more spare bedrooms than I usually can use. I can offer you clean sheets, a thirteen and a half tog quilt, your own bathroom, I have two, a fine wine with dinner, or a trip to the Boar's Head, if you prefer, for beer-battered fresh cod and some chunky, thick-cut chips. I cannot however guarantee the quality of any conversation nor the quality of my own food but perhaps some Bach or Vivaldi will make up for whatever is lacking; on my mother's life, no funny business, I swear!"

She squeezed his arm and laughed.

"No funny business?" She said. "No, that, at least, is likely. It took you positively months to try it on thirty years ago, I doubt that you have changed so very much in the intervening years. Although I never expected this, I accept your gracious offer, kind Sir; you are indeed most generous." She squeezed his arm against her side once more.

They spent the long walk back engaged in conversation, in catching up on old and more recent news; in remembering old friends, colleagues that they had shared; finally, as they neared the little wooden bridge, 'The plank bridge by a pool' he reminded her, they began to reminisce about holidays on Ithaca, Santorini, the Mediterrenian sun baking his skin dark brown so that they passed themselves off to others as brother and sister, merely to tease with suggestions of incest; 'Biggles', the kitten, the cat, who had ruined numerous curtains with his perpetual desire to be in the highest place possible in a room; the Sunday lunches spent in her family home and the never ending procession of relatives, who came to call to sample the food on offer, whether invited or not. Was it possible to lay to rest a ghost so firmly entrenched, a ghost so reluctant to pass over, a demon that steadfastly refused to get behind him, in but a mere day? To him, it certainly seemed to be, at the very least, a possibility.