The Crime Readers' Association

The Wheatear – by Thomas Mogford

It was during that strange dead zone between Christmas and New Year that Andy saw the lights. They came flashing through the white gauze blinds they kept down to prevent people from looking directly into their sitting room. Andy got up on the sofa and peered through the bay window. ‘It’s that old guy from Number 24,’ he called back to his wife. ‘They’re taking him out on a stretcher.’

Christina barely glanced up from her laptop. Beyond her, on the sofa, the two kids were still mesmerised by the TV. Andy looked back outside. ‘They’ve got a mask on his face, so he can’t be dead, I suppose.’

‘That’s good then,’ Christina said, fingers still rattling the keyboard.

*

It was Christina’s idea for Andy to take the bottle round. She’d won it on the tombola at the kids’ Christmas fair, a strange murky half-bottle with a smudged label reading, ‘Eiswein’.

‘1980!’ Christina had exclaimed at the time. ‘That’s older than me!’

‘Lucky you,’ one of the school mothers had muttered.

The bottle had sat on their sideboard throughout the festive period. Then, when the ambulance had returned, and the old man from Number 24 was escorted back into his house by a community worker, it had been the only thing to hand.

‘Can you Google “Eiswein” for me?’ Andy had asked Christina.

‘How will that tell you if it’s corked?’

Andy remained silent: you could only be so demanding, he’d found, when you were no longer the breadwinner. Eventually, Christina finished her spreadsheet and dedicated thirty seconds to the task. ‘You can only produce Eiswein if the grapes freeze while they’re still on the vine. The frost makes them sweet like sultanas, and the extra sugar keeps the wine from going bad.’

Andy picked up the bottle and headed outside.

As part of the same Victorian terrace, Number 24 was identical, ostensibly, to Number 28, but the similarities were in structure only. Tatty net curtains hung from the bay window. A ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker hung peeling above the rusty letterbox. Andy looked about for a doorbell, then made do with the flimsy knocker.

It seemed an age until the old man answered. Close up, he was taller than Andy had expected, tall and thin, and with a long narrow head, completely bald but for a tuft of hair rising from his brow, like a coxcomb. He wore a towelling dressing gown over his clothes and a look of impatient frustration.

‘It’s Andy Dunn. From down the road?’ Andy held out the bottle. ‘I brought you this. To welcome you home.’

The man frowned, and his crest of grey hair flopped sideways in the evening breeze. Then he turned and walked back inside, leaving the door open behind him.

Old-man smell: Andy remembered it from social services at school. Must and dust and stale urine… They proceeded to the kitchen, to which nothing appeared to have been done since the seventies – buckling cork-tile floor, labouring fridge. So narrow compared to theirs, which had been bolstered by the side-return extension in those heady days when Andy had still had his job in finance… The old man sat down at the kitchen table, a half-drunk cup of tea before him, a greasy spot on its surface, glinting like a rainbow. Open before him was a book – some sort of spy thriller. ‘Haven’t read in years,’ the old man said. ‘Haven’t felt like it.’

‘Shall I leave this here?’

‘Why don’t we share a glass,’ the old man said, his manner lightening a little. ‘I’m Rex, by the way. Rex Lockhart.’

Andy reached across the table and shook his hand. It was cold and dry, and the grip was weak. ‘Have you got a corkscrew? Andy asked.

‘Should be one in the drawers.’

The wooden wall clock clicked arthritically as Harry rifled through the kitchen drawers, finding rubber bands and paper clips hoarded amongst the utensils. Eventually, he came across a rusty barman’s corkscrew and started to open the Eiswein. On the shelf above, piled side on, was a stack of faded cookbooks – Julia Child, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David.

‘The wife was a good cook,’ Rex called over, following Andy’s gaze. ‘What is that stuff, anyway?’

‘Eiswein. My wife and I…’

‘Eiswein?’ Rex said. ‘Haven’t tasted that in years. Should be drinking well, if it’s got a bit of age to it.’

The cork crumbled, but Andy managed to extract it, then he sat down with two thumb-smeared tumblers clutched in his hands.

‘Promising colour,’ Rex said, as Andy poured out the amber liquid.

They chinked glasses, and Andy took a sip of the wine. Sweet yet savoury, light yet heavy – a curious mix of everything, a thousand tones in a single taste.

‘It’s good,’ he said in surprise.

‘It’s bloody fabulous,’ Rex replied.

They drank some more.

‘They’ve got me on this medication now,’ Rex said, wiping his flaking lips.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t…’

‘Oh, nothing that mixes badly with booze. They’re antidepressants. It’s only been a few weeks now, but already…’ He took another sip of the Eiswein. ‘I wouldn’t have enjoyed this before, if you know what I mean. You know what the doctor told me? She said I might be angry with her.’

‘Angry?’

‘She said I might feel angry because I’d realise that I’d spent too much of my life feeling rotten. Unnecessarily.’ He drank some more Eiswein, drawing the air over his palate, savouring the fragrance. ‘Pamela and I… We used to revel in the finer things. Couldn’t afford much, but a taste of something wonderful, that was all we needed.’ He met Andy’s eye. ‘Thank you for this. It means a lot.’

*

The knock at the door was so brisk that Andy thought it must be another Amazon deliveryman, looking to make his target for the day. But it was Rex Lockhart. He held up a brown paper bag. ‘My place in ten minutes.’

The door closed.

The man had been barely recognisable, Andy thought, wearing slacks, a sky-blue shirt, a loose flitting blazer. Even that strange, sticking-up crest of hair had been tamed, combed back across his pate to give a hint of silver-fox hirsuteness.

‘Whatever’s he’s on,’ Andy muttered to himself as he finished emptying the dishwasher, ‘I want some.’ The children were at school, Christina was at work – he had no one to talk to, he realised, as he slipped on a pair of socks and shoes and headed out.

The glass pane on Rex’s front door had been polished, Andy saw, and the ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker had been removed, revealing a glossy oblong of black paint beneath.

‘Come in,’ Rex said, ushering Andy through to the kitchen. The smell of the house was worse, though, Andy thought, until he saw what was on the table – a strange, orange-skinned cheese in a round wooden box.

‘Époisses,’ Rex said. ‘There’s a new cheesemonger on the Northcote Road. The recession can’t be so bad if they’re opening cheesemongers in South London.’ He took two side plates from the dresser and placed a teaspoon on each. ‘Pamela and I tried some once in the Loire. We said at the time – why bother with bread? It’s just a distraction from the main event. Here.’

Rex dipped one of the spoons into the cheese, breaching the glistening skin, and drew out of a dollop of white, creamy ooze. It wouldn’t come off onto the plate, so he simply handed the spoon to Andy. ‘Go on. Pop it all in.’

Andy obeyed, mouth filling at once with a salty, sumptuous smoothness. That was the thing about delicacies, he realised – they contained a multitude of contrasts within the whole. What was that famous line of poetry? I am large – I contain multitudes… Andy chewed and swallowed. Triple maths A level and here he was thinking about school poetry.

‘Good?’ Rex said.

‘Very.’

Rex dipped in his own spoon. ‘How’s the family?’ he asked once half the wooden pot was gone.

‘Not too bad.’

‘I see you all sometimes. Walking past the house. You never smile.’ They ate some more. ‘You got a job?’

‘I’m looking.’

‘Can’t be easy with your wife going into work every morning. But maybe I’m old-fashioned. Some water?’

Rex filled two glasses from the tap. ‘You know what Pamela and I always longed to try,’ he said. ‘Ortolans.’

Andy frowned.

‘They’re banned now, even in France. And that’s the land of foie gras! It’s a little songbird, a type of finch, I think, which you drown in Armagnac, then roast. You eat the thing feet first, guts and all, covering your head with a cloth to get all the flavours in. As Disraeli said – Let me die eating ortolans to the sound of soft music…’

Andy glanced over to the kitchen windowsill, where Rex kept his medication. ‘That would be quite a way to go.’

‘It would indeed, Andy. It would indeed.’

*

Andy couldn’t come up with any ortolans, but he did bring over some Valrhona chocolate, made of 70% cocoa, favoured by Michelin-starred pastry chefs the world over. Rex followed up with a ‘pomelo’ – a giant citrus fruit he’d found in a South Asian deli. Andy then ‘sourced’ a bottle of local craft ale, following up with some honey taken from a hive on a skyscraper near where Christina worked. Every time they met, Rex seemed brighter, cheerier – Andy had even helped him buy a pay-as-you-go phone at the local concession in the Post Office. Then, one afternoon, Andy brought round a bunch of new-season asparagus, and Rex’s demeanour had changed.

‘They’ve found a lump,’ he said. ‘It’s…’ He gestured to his inner thigh, and Andy swallowed in sympathy.

‘Listen,’ Rex said, his blue eyes clear and shiny. ‘I haven’t got any relatives, and Pamela… well, hers never came to see me after she died. So I’ve rearranged a few things with the solicitor, and…’

‘Please, Rex.’

‘You were very kind to me,’ Rex said. ‘And I feel better than I have in years. I’m even back driving now – that old Astra out there is mine.’ He looked up and met Andy’s eye. ‘I want to do it, and that’s final.’

*

The next week, there was music coming from Rex’s house. Andy walked past, then doubled back and knocked on the door, and a young girl in a Puffa jacket answered. ‘Uncle Rex?’ she called back into the kitchen.

Andy watched Rex striding towards him. ‘It was benign!’ he said. ‘This is Martha, by the way. My grandniece. I wrote to her mother and – well, it turns out she lives round the corner. Just started at art college.’

‘D’you want music from the sixties or seventies, Uncle Rex?’ chimed Martha’s voice from the kitchen. ‘I’ve got it all at the touch of a button.’

*

It was Google that did it. Andy was looking up ortolans again, when he came across a mention of the English equivalent – the wheatear. In the 19th century, it emerged, the wheatear was a delicacy considered greater even than the ortolan. A small, migrating songbird that arrived in droves on the South Downs in summer, and was easy to catch as it nested on the ground, in little rock crevices or disused burrows, where the local shepherds would set their snares. At the peak of the craze, thousands of wheatears were being caught a week, and tourists would flock in from London and beyond to gorge on their tender bodies in the local Sussex hostelries. So many were killed that the number of birds arriving plummeted, and trapping them was banned. But there were still a few to be found on the South Downs. A particularly good place to see them was Beachy Head.

*

Andy chose a Monday for the trip. He’d given Rex a printout on the wheatear the week before; whetted his appetite, so to speak. Whether they managed to catch one or not was unclear, but May was the nesting season, so if the birds were about, they would see them at least. The satnav said it would take 100 minutes to get to Beachy Head. Andy had offered to drive, but then he pulled out at the last minute – needed to visit the school; one of the kids had forgotten her gym kit. Perhaps Rex could drive himself, and Andy would meet him there – he’d probably overtake him on the A22, come to think of it!

Andy could see Rex worrying, but then he went for it – anything was possible in his new upbeat state. Andy would give him a call once he arrived – they could ‘triangulate’ positions.

‘Triangulate,’ Rex repeated. ‘Have to tell Martha that one.’

Crouching at home in his sitting room, Andy watched through the blinds as Rex reversed carefully from his parking space, then drove off down the road. Ten minutes later, Andy got in the family estate and set off after him.

There were three car parks at Beachy Head – who knew? Andy drove through them all until he found the Astra, then parked up a few spaces away. There were a couple of students playing Frisbee on the meadow above the cliffs – an extra frisson in case the wind caught the thing, Andy supposed – but otherwise it was too early for picnickers, and Beachy Head was as quiet as he’d hoped.

He caught sight of Rex about thirty yards from the cliff edge, crouching down, no doubt searching for wheatear nests. The wind gusted as Andy walked towards him, combing through the long grass, buffeting the tote bag he held in one hand. ‘Any joy?’ Andy called out.

Rex looked up with a smile and shook his head.

‘Maybe nearer the cliff edge,’ Andy suggested. ‘Fewer dog walkers there.’

*

The funeral was sparsely attended. There was Martha at the back, ear-buds in. Rex’s community worker sat up front near the pulpit. ‘The funny thing is,’ the community worker disclosed to Andy after the cremation, ‘we all thought the pills were working.’ She pursed her lips. ‘But I suppose you never really know what’s going on inside someone else’s head.’

‘We contain multitudes,’ Andy said, and the community worker looked at him askance.

The flowers were pretty though. Andy had paid for them. It was the least he could do, considering that he now owned two houses on the same South London street.

ENDS

© Thomas Mogford, 2020



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