Yes, it is hopelessly early for a Christmas book, but there are things like promotion schedules to consider, so it comes out on Sunday. This one is thanks to my cat Willow, who brought the sparrow in
“My first and most important new year’s resolution is that I will never, ever go to bed leaving a room looking like this again.” Anna did her best to sound positive and eager to build an exciting new future and all the other things that she knew she ought to be as she headed downstairs and into the living room after giving up trying to sleep. None of them helped at all and it was all she could do not to cry as it hit her yet again that there was no one for her to do it with any more. Actually, there hadn’t been for months but she’d been so deluded that she hadn’t realised how many dream castles she’d been happily building until they’d all come tumbling down on one awful night.
The smell that greeted her was almost as bad as the mess beside the settee because she’d become such a slob that she’d abandoned the remains of last night’s pizza, garlic bread and chicken strips and the empty ice cream carton she’d eaten out of rather than using a bowl and a spoon so she didn’t give in to the temptation to scoff the lot. Back then, she’d hoped having a break from cooking and healthy eating and spoiling herself with a rare takeaway might cheer her up. Not only hadn’t it worked, looking at it now made her feel even worse about herself, and she hadn’t thought that would be possible. Still, she told herself firmly, at least she could do something about it and there was no reason why she shouldn’t start right away even if it was barely six o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t as if there was anything else that she had to do over Christmas so she might as well cancel the whole stupid celebration because she couldn’t think of a single thing that she wanted to celebrate.
She took a couple of deep breaths because the night before had proved that crying didn’t help, and then began to pick up the rubbish. If it hadn’t been so early then she’d have put the radio on full blast because the house suddenly seemed as empty and lonely as she’d felt since that awful night at the staff Christmas party. The school nativity play that she’d spent so long making costumes for had become nothing more than yet another chore that was bound to be laden with potential disasters. Watching it had left her mentally ticking another item off what had felt like an impossibly long to-do list rather than feeling her usual joy and pride in her students.
Worse still, the handmade cards from her Year Three class who’d found Christmas as magical as… as well, a very magical thing, she decided as a suitable simile failed to present itself, had been yet another thing that she’d had to force herself to smile at and admire rather than loving and treasuring in the way that she always had before. In fact, the whole world seemed so pointless that she was beginning to wonder if she ought to go and see her doctor during the school holiday. She’d never felt like this before, but there again, no one had ever treated her like this before.
Maybe it was time for a complete change? New Year, New Start and all that sort of thing? If how quickly the house opposite had sold was anything to go by then it’d be easy to sell hers and move to a cheaper area where she’d be able to afford a bigger house. She definitely fancied somewhere quieter so maybe she’d start looking for a job in a little village school where no one knew that she’d missed what had been going on right under her nose for months?
Actually, it was even worse than that because she had noticed that Tom and Megan had seemed to be getting closer and closer. A couple of her colleagues had tried to warn her about what was going on, but she’d been such a gullible fool that she’d dismissed their concern as gossip. She’d asked Tom about it ever so gently and tactfully and then been so stupid that she’d believed him when he’d said he’d just been making a bit of an extra effort because he didn’t want Megan to feel left out because she seemed to be having problems settling in. She’d been able to see why he might have felt that way because the school team was so close-knit that it could be hard for newcomers and people hadn’t been very welcoming to the new secretary.
There’d certainly been plenty of gossip about why Megan had left her last job, but Anna had made a point of not listening to it because she’d always preferred to make her own mind up about people. Now she’d well and truly made her mind up and she could well believe that this wasn’t the first time that the wretched woman had been a man stealing… She pulled herself up because it might be old-fashioned but she didn’t like swearing. Besides, whatever Megan was didn’t matter anything like as much as what Anna Jones chose to be and do next and someday she’d be able to make herself believe that she was well rid of Tom.
She’d admit that she’d been a naive idiot, but that didn’t mean that she had to go on being one. The future would be whatever she chose to make it and she’d start it by having the clear-out to end all clear-outs. To quote from an old musical that she’d always loved, she’d wash that man right out of her hair. Maybe she’d treat herself to some new clothes after Christmas as well, but she wouldn’t do the cliched thing of having her hair cut because the long straight fine mass of dark hair worked well for her. On school mornings all she had to do was put it in a french braid and then, whatever else went wrong during the day, it would still be tidy at the end of it even if she’d been on playground duty or teaching PE. Obviously, it wasn’t anything like as glamorous as Megan’s bouncy Kate Middleton style blow-dry, but then Megan was in the office so she never got hands-on with the children.
“And obviously,” she said with a snort of bitter laughter, “it’d have been much better if she hadn’t decided to get hands on with my man.” But would it have been? Not only was it now clear that Tom wasn’t her man and quite probably never had been, it would have been far worse if they’d got married before this had happened and worse still if they’d had children. If she looked at it logically then she could see that she’d had a lucky escape, no matter what she currently felt like. She’d also spent more than enough time wallowing in grief and self-condemnation. From now on, she promised herself, it was going to be full steam ahead to a much, much better future and she’d use the unexpected solitude over Christmas and New Year to work out what she wanted that future to involve.
There didn’t seem to be any point in getting dressed when she was about to get satisfyingly grubby in such a good cause and it was still so dark that no one would be able to see her heading down to the bin. So she flung the old coat that she used for gardening over the t-shirt and stripy knee-length socks that she’d worn to sleep in, shoved her feet into an equally ancient pair of crocs and dumped the remains of her binge, a pile of junk mail and the Christmas card Tom had sent her where he’d had the gall to write inside that he hoped that they could still be friends into a couple of plastic bags. It might be freezing outside but she was still beginning to feel a bit better as she headed down her pocket handkerchief sized garden.
It was still so early that the heating hadn’t come on so she decided that she’d leave the back door open to air the house. She could open the living room window as well and let the wind blow through to get rid of every last trace of that stale smell. It would have been nice if she could have dealt with the staleness that was her old life half as easily but, as she often told her pupils, you had to start small if you wanted to achieve big.
Things were already looking up because she’d managed not to trip over next door’s cat as she headed down the path. But it wasn’t totally the start of a golden new future because it had been hard not to yelp when a cold wet stripy tail had wiped around her bare legs. She bent to stroke him because he must be missing his devoted and indulgent pet humans who were away on a cruise, but he was already heading off on patrol without a backward glance for her. That just about summed up her luck with men recently. It probably also explained why the takeaway boxes and the empty carton that had held Ben and Jerry’s phish food that she’d washed out had hit the bottom of the recycling bin so hard. She glanced around guiltily because she hadn’t wanted to wake the neighbours, but no lights had come on so she’d probably got away with it.
That, she told herself triumphantly as she headed into a house that already smelt far fresher than it had when she’d come downstairs, was just the start. Then she saw it and it was all that she could do not to scream. Or rather him. Or perhaps ‘them’ would be more accurate because the big stripy tabby cat that had followed her into the kitchen had something in its mouth. Something that was still fluttering. Something…
“No!” She yelled as loudly as she could. “Stop that right now.”
She knew hunting was part of a cat's nature, but why did he have to bring the poor little bird in here so that she had to see it die? And why did the wretched animal have to do as it was told for the first time since she’d known him? While she was asking unanswerable questions about a life that currently seemed to be full of things and people who were determined to wind her up, why did the bird have to fly up apparently unharmed and do three circuits of the living room? That had been unnerving enough, but it then headed back into the kitchen and come in to land on the top of the Christmas tree that she’d put on top of the freezer because that was the only place where she wouldn’t trip over it every five minutes.
The cat tried to follow it up there, but she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and carried him towards door. Seconds later she yelped again because the misleadingly named Fluffy had sharp claws and was more than happy to use them both on her bare arms. She dropped the flaming animal before it could make a second attack, then grabbed the broom and waved it at the cat threateningly.
“Get out! I’ve had enough of you, you horrible tom.” She yelled in much the way that she wished she’d yelled at the human Tom when he’d come round and made all those excuses that he’d claimed were rational reasons for his dirty, despicable deeds and hopes that they’d always be friends. According to him that was all that they’d ever been and he was sure she knew that too, and, oh, by the way, could he have his engagement ring back?
The cat showed far more sense than the man that she was really shouting at because he turned and headed for the door. She followed him with her broom raised threateningly, then stopped and blinked in the glare of next door’s security lights, because they were so over-sensitive that they reacted to movement in her garden as well as theirs. That had been useful while she’d been taking the rubbish down to the bin, but now they not only revealed her in all her lack of glory but gave her a good view of the best-looking man she’d ever seen outside TV or a movie.
He was tall, he was dark, he was handsome in a rugged sort of way and lean but with enough muscle that he didn’t look like a stick insect. Unfortunately, he was also looking at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. She could see why and couldn’t believe it either because she was horribly aware that her slightly too curvy figure was currently being well displayed by a massively oversized T-shirt that proclaimed that mistakes were proof that you were brave enough to try something new. When she’d ordered it she’d expected it to be much, much smaller and ideal for wearing on school trips, but she’d quickly realised that it wasn’t a disaster because it was so soft and comfy that it’d make an ideal nightshirt. Until then, the fact that it had a habit of sliding off her shoulders hadn’t seemed to matter. Now she wished she was wearing anything else and was anywhere else.
“Excuse me,” the stranger said so politely that she knew he was trying not to laugh and hated him for being well groomed and handsome and in control. “But that’s my parent’s cat and they really won’t want him to be hurt.”
“I know who he belongs to, thanks; although I suspect that he actually owns them and I haven’t hurt him and I wouldn’t either.” She used the tone of voice that never failed to quail Three C but the man’s grin still broke through as she went on furiously. “But he’s just brought me a live bird. I yelled at him to drop it and he did but it’s now roosting in my Christmas tree and no it isn’t a partridge. It’s a poor little sparrow and it didn’t deserve that.”
She was ridiculously close to tears because it shouldn’t die at Christmas, and it could well be hurt; although it probably wasn’t if the speed it had been flying at was anything to judge by. “So it’d be a massive help if you could just keep your cat indoors while I sort this out. Thanks.” She turned on her heel and made the most dignified exit that she could manage, which she’d be the first to admit wasn’t very dignified at all, but at least she hadn’t cried in front of him, and that’d have to do.
“Do you need a hand catching it?” He called after her.
“That’s very kind of you, but I’ll be fine, thanks.” That was an out-and-out lie, because she didn’t have a clue how she’d deal with it, but it couldn’t be that hard, could it? She’d get dressed and brush her hair, and leave the back door and front window open while she was doing it. The bird would be bound to fly away as soon as it realised there was no one around to threaten it, and by the time she came downstairs it’d be as happy and free as she currently wasn’t feeling.
“Are you sure you can manage?”
“Quite certain, thank you.” She was proud of the icy snap that she’d managed to get into the last two perfectly polite words and only felt a little guilty as Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome picked up the cat and headed indoors.
The first part of her plan went really well and she felt far more like her usual and competent self after she’d had a quick shower and dressed in old but snug-fitting jeans and a thick sweatshirt with a daft cat on the front of it. She’d even plaited her hair and had promised herself that she’d go on YouTube and learn some new and more glamorous styles during her unexpectedly quiet Christmas.
The second part was yet another failure to add to a list that was already too long for her liking because the sparrow hadn’t left. In fact, it looked surprisingly content as it sat at the very top of the artificial Christmas tree that she’d decorated with a mishmash of old, well-loved decorations that she’d brought with her when she’d left home or collected from charity shops and upcycled.
But it couldn’t stay there so she opened the kitchen window and suggested that it might like to think about going out through there instead. The bird not only stayed right where it was but looked as if it was grinning at her. She recognised the signs of a born troublemaker and wasn’t going to give it the satisfaction of knowing it had got to her, so she left it where it was. Then she made sure that the heating was still off, collected a couple of bin bags, and pointedly ignored the little bird while she began to pick up and sort out all the things that had accumulated in the kitchen since the start of the autumn term.
The Christmas jumper she was wearing seemed to taunt her as she worked. Not only wasn’t it remotely appropriate to her mood, but she’d been wearing it when Tom had… well, she wasn’t going to let herself think about that last meeting any more. She’d take it back to the charity shop that she’d bought it from as soon as Christmas was over, but today it was the perfect thing to get really grubby in and if she tore it then she wouldn’t care. In fact, she’d positively enjoy dumping it in the bin.
The long room that had once been a front room, dining room and kitchen was really cold by the time that she’d filled four bags but the bird still seemed to reckon that it was a better place than outside. Either that, or it had been hurt after all because it was still sitting where she’d left it at the very top of the tree, right beside the old fairy that she’d lovingly restored and made new wings and a net skirt for.
“Now what?” Anna asked the world in general and the bird in particular, but she wasn’t surprised when she didn’t get any answers. She tried climbing up on a kitchen chair so that she could reach for the bird but it hopped just out of grabbing range and took up a new position around the back of the tree, then sang happily at her. She didn’t want to grab it in case she hurt it but nor did she want it to take up residence for the winter. So she grabbed her phone, ignored the messages from so-called concerned friends including some that she suspected really wanted the inside info on what had happened so they could be first with the gossip and did a quick google.
“Righty-ho,” she said as she turned back to the bird a few minutes later. “I need to start by staying nice and calm so that I can reduce the sensory stress on you.” That ought to be second nature for someone who dealt with the dramas of thirty or so seven and eight year olds every day of the school term and luckily she hadn’t got round to drawing the curtains yet. That meant that all she had to do was turn the lights off and wait and the bird would fly free and solve at least one of her problems.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look as if the bird had read the article or maybe it just liked the tree better than a garden that had a cat in it? Because an hour went by and the bird didn’t move a muscle. Anna decided that creating a dark and calm environment would have to stretch to turning the light on in the hall so that she could see well enough to make herself a cup of coffee and some toast. She broke off some crumbs and put them invitingly in front of the tree but the bird just sat there and looked at her, beady-eyed and somehow challenging.
Another google taught her that sparrows were insectivores who also liked sunflower seeds; which would have been wonderful if she’d had some insects or sunflower seeds. She didn’t, so she was still stuck.
“That’s outside,” she told what she now knew was a hen sparrow as she pointed towards the open window and tried not to shiver as she added. “You’ll like it out there.”
The bird looked back at her for all the world as if it was saying “Not bloody likely. It’s cold and wet and there’s a dirty great big cat out there.”
“Well, you can’t stay in here.” She said as she climbed back on the chair to see if she could coax the bird out. This time it hopped round to the back of the tree and she was only five foot two so the pesky feathered one had won yet again because she couldn’t reach it. “Don’t think you’ve beaten me.” She told her uninvited guest as she shoved the chair back more or less where it belonged, but deep inside she knew that the bird held all the cards; which currently felt like the story of her life
Maybe, she thought as inspiration struck, she’d fly away once she knew she was alone? It hadn’t while she was upstairs, but maybe it could still hear her the? She wasn’t so over-run with brilliant ideas that she could afford to ignore one and the kitchen bin did need emptying. So she tied a knot in the bag that lined her kitchen bin once she’d taken it out and then put another bag in its place in the way that had always made Tom laugh as he called her Little Miss Predictable. Then she picked it up, gathered up all the other bags that she’d filled and headed down to the bins again.
It was finally considering getting light, but it was going to be a grey, cold day and there was something about the sky that left her pretty sure that it was planning to snow. That’d delight the kids because snow on Christmas Eve was the sort of thing that usually only happened in story books. Better still, it’d mean that no one would expect her to drive anywhere so she could make her solitary not-Christmas a planning day for her new life.
“Is the bird okay?”
She jumped as Mr Tall, Dark, etc came and looked over the fence with what looked like genuine concern.
“She’s fine thanks. She’s sitting on top of my Christmas tree and I can’t reach her to catch her, and I swear that she’s enjoying herself.”
“Do you want me to have a go?”
If she was being truthful, then it was the last thing that she wanted. But there was no denying that he must be a good foot taller than she was and it was his parent's cat that had got her into this mess so really, it was only fair that he got her out again.
“I’ve rescued a fair few birds and mice from that bloody animal over the years. He adopted Mum and Dad after he’d lived wild for a few months but he doesn’t seem to care that he’s got all the food and toys that any cat could ask for so there’s no need for him to hunt any more.” He went on with an exasperation that gave them something in common.
“I suppose he finds it hard to rely on humans always being there to look after him?” She could see his point because she didn’t trust a lot of people now either. Not when so many of them had known what Tom and Megan were up to and hadn’t said a dicky bird. That was why she’d promised herself a solitary Christmas spent reassessing her life but instead she’d ended up starring in her very own version of ‘Wildlife Rescue.’ While she usually liked birds in general, she didn’t like this particular one at the moment. In fact, right then it felt as if she needed to be rescued from it, rather than the other way round.
“Quite possibly.” He said and his firm, nicely full lips tightened in a way that might have made her curious at any other time. Right then, she just wanted the bird out of her house so she unlocked the back gate and gestured for him to go ahead of her up the path. “I’m Anna Jones.” She said as they went past the tubs that had held summer annuals and were just starting to show the first green of what would be crocuses. They’d be followed by little daffodils, and then bigger daffodils and finally tulips. She’d planted them one sunny September day while Tom had watched and laughed about what he called her domesticity and she’d been happy and looking forward to spending spring with him while they planned their late summer wedding. That was yet more evidence of what a naive fool she’d been, but that somehow made it seem all the more important that she saved this sparrow. She wanted her to fly free and have a long and happy life as a sign that she’d be able to do the same thing and knowing that she was being daft wasn’t stopping her from feeling it.
“I’m James Clarke. Nice to meet you.” He said as he reached the back door.
“Mind the…” She began as he headed into the relative darkness, but it was already too late because he’d walked straight into the chair that she’d been climbing on. He stumbled, grabbed for it as it tipped over and then followed it down onto the laminate floor with a resounding crash that must have knocked the breath out of him.
“Are you all right?” She asked as she turned the light on in time to see Madam Sparrow flying out of the window with an indignant chirp that made it clear that she hadn’t appreciated the noise.