by Martin Westlake
It began with the first dead blackbird.
Every Saturday morning, I got up at six and went for a run in the forest with the dog, a flatcoat. After the hours I’d worked during the week, those moments in the forest were important. I’d been doing this for many years, but the dog still got over-excited when I came down the stairs in my tracksuit and running shoes, chasing his tail and leaving a trail of slobber and loose hairs all over the hall. I told him off every time. I had to.
On this particular Saturday morning, I woke up as usual at five forty-five and climbed gently out of bed. My wife, Jilly, was snoring away on the very edge of the other side of the mattress. She hates the name ‘Jilly’ but, for me, that’s what she’ll always be. I don’t know how she did it. She’d been sleeping like that for years, but had never fallen out.
I crept past Jemmie’s empty room and tiptoed downstairs. As usual, the stupid dog made loads of noise. I was always afraid that he’d wake Jilly up. I didn’t want that. I wanted these moments to myself. I told the dog off in a whisper and, as usual, it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
I’d had a chain and two extra locks put in after a colleague of mine got burgled, and I always had to fiddle around a bit in the morning. But, at last, I got the door open and the dog rocketed out. And that’s when I saw the first dead blackbird. It was lying neatly in the middle of the front doorstep. It didn’t seem to have been wounded, but its little eyes were daintily closed, and its toes were bunched up.
A dead bird is always a sad sight, but I didn’t really give this one much thought. Birds have to die some time, somewhere. Sooner or later, I suppose, a bird is bound to die on your doorstep. I wondered if it was the blackbird that sung out in the back, of an evening. It made quite a racket, but Jilly liked it. Oh well. The dog hadn’t seen it, so I picked it up by the toe of one of its scaly claws and dumped it in the bin.
I always drove out on the same route: down the avenue, with its cherry trees and tramlines, onto the motorway, onto the ring road and then out to the forest. When I got to the junction between the motorway and the ring road, I frequently had trouble in concentrating on my driving. With the winds in the right direction, the planes coming into land at the city airport flew really low over the junction. It always exhilarated me to watch those improbably large chunks of metal falling diagonally towards the runway.
On this particular Saturday, the winds were good and when I got to the junction a plane was coming in. It was a BAC 111. You can tell immediately what they are, because their wings are above the fuselage and they have a sort of sporty look to them.
I slowed down to turn onto the ring road, and it was then that I saw a flare shoot up from a copse beyond the motorway. For a few seconds I thought I was witnessing a terrorist attack but, when the rocket got up to just about the height of the incoming plane, it exploded in a series of flashes, and I realised it must have been a firework. A second after the explosion, the nose cone of the plane flew right through the very spot. Maybe the pilot was concentrating on his instruments and didn’t see the firework. He certainly took no evasive action.
I wondered if I’d imagined it but, once the flashes and the twinkles had gone, little tell-tale wisps of smoke still drifted across the sky. Who on earth would want to set off a firework underneath the flight path of landing passenger jets, I wondered? So irresponsible! Or was it just a bizarre coincidence?
I had a favourite parking spot at the forest and hated it whenever anybody else parked there. In fact, one of the reasons I went so early was to reduce the risk of meeting anybody else. On this day I was happy to see that the spot was free. The dog was getting impatient, but I always turned the car around before letting him out. That way I gained time when I headed back. I opened the door and he shot off into the beech forest.
After I’d checked my pulse and done my stretching exercises, I started my usual circuit through the forest and around the lakes. That’s when I came across the blind crow. It was perched on a branch at head-height just near the path.
As I ran past, it started and flew off. It crashed straight into the trunk of a beech tree. The dog was far ahead. He’d have had it otherwise. I stopped and watched as the crow picked itself up gingerly, flapping its wings. It seemed to be OK. I wondered if I should kill it, but it flew off again. I saw it collide with another tree trunk some way off. I couldn’t be bothered to lose time by going after it. It wouldn’t last long, anyway.
I’d just reached the spot where the cormorants gathered when the beech tree fell. I didn’t like the cormorants. There was something sinister about them and the way they held their wings out, as though involved in a mass crucifixion.
Anyway, I was trying not to look at them when I heard a monstrous rending screech, followed by the sound of something crashing down through the forest. Seconds later, a huge beech tree fell across the path about fifty yards ahead of me, hitting the ground with a terrible thumping noise.
I felt the impact through my feet. The branches smashed down, some of them shattering, some splitting. Twigs and leaves fluttered about. To judge by the size of the trunk, the tree must have been over a hundred years old. The dog came racing back, tail wagging. I wondered how close he had been.
I’d read about the beech trees. They had notoriously shallow root systems, especially the older ones, and the forest soil was sandy. Every storm brought dozens of them down. On this day, there hadn’t been a breath of air, but the root system of that particular tree might have been weakened by past storms. In any case, something, however small, must have triggered the sudden fall.
Driving back, I had just reached the second set of overhead road signs on the motorway when the strangest event of the day occurred. At this particular spot the road broadened to six lanes, but a few hundred metres on those six lanes separated into three distinct two-lane motorways. I needed the one on the right.
I’d got into the habit of looking at my watch at this point. It was seven forty-seven; the usual time, more or less. Mine was the only car on the road, but I took care to put on my indicator before shifting over from the far left to the far right lane. I liked carrying out this manoeuvre. Crossing six lanes somehow gave me a feeling of freedom. I looked again at my watch. It was then I realised that I had apparently lost half an hour of my life.
The watch said eight-sixteen, which should have been impossible. Changing from the far-left to the far-right lane usually took me a few seconds. Even when there was traffic, it didn’t take me longer than ten seconds. Thirty minutes was just absurd. Had my watch somehow gone wrong? No, the car clock gave the same time. Had I somehow suffered a loss of memory? If I had, what had I been doing for those missing thirty minutes? Had I driven out to the forest and back again? I immediately dismissed the idea; it usually took me only fifteen minutes to drive there and back.
Maybe I had stopped, though not at that spot on the motorway; when I had first looked at my watch I had also looked at the speedometer, and I remembered that I had been travelling at precisely 65 mph, as I tried always to do; the limit was 70 mph and you could never be too careful about speed traps on that particular stretch. What on earth had happened?
I continued home and, once there, turned the car around and backed into the driveway. I preferred this to backing out of the driveway when I left the house.
I was still thinking about that missing thirty minutes — well, twenty-nine, to be precise. I let the dog out and crossed the lawn to the front door. And that’s when I saw the second dead blackbird. It was lying in the same spot as the first.
I wondered whether somebody had taken the first bird out of the bin as a joke. I went to check. The first was still where I’d put it. I picked up the second bird by its toe, chucked it into the bin and then went in to make myself a cup of tea.
I had just warmed the pot when I saw the letter on the table. ‘Brian’, it said on the envelope. My name had been underlined once. It was Jilly’s writing. I turned the envelope over. I made the tea, let it brew, fetched the milk from the fridge, poured the tea into my favourite mug, then sat down at the table and opened the envelope. There was just the one sheet of paper.
I have decided to leave you. There is nobody else involved. For years I had a lover, a most considerate and affectionate man whose attentions anaesthetized me sufficiently to be able to put up with the crushing boredom of living with you.
But my lover died last year after a short illness, and now that Jemmie has left home
That was our daughter, Jemima.
there really is no longer any reason why I should continue to endure living with you. I will be staying with friends for a while.
I wondered which friends; I hoped they weren’t any I knew.
I have taken everything I need. The rest is yours, including the dog. In due course you should be hearing from a lawyer. I’m sorry if this comes as a surprise. It shouldn’t really. I should have left you a long time ago.
I have quoted the letter in full so that you can see just what sort of a person Jilly was. A short letter — unfairly rude — was all the thanks I got for almost twenty-five years of companionship and support. Twenty-five years.
I sipped my tea and had a little think. Where on earth could those twenty-nine minutes have gone?
One of the first things I did after Jilly had left me was to have the dog put down. Truth be told, I was fed up with him. I only took him on my runs because, if he didn’t get the exercise, he’d dig holes in the lawn. Anyway, now Jilly and the dog are gone, I feel so much more relaxed.
But one thing still worries me. The way I see it, losing your wife is just one of those things. Maybe the scale is different, but it’s like finding a dead blackbird on your doorstep or encountering a blind crow in the forest. These are sad and strange things to happen, but sometimes sad and strange things do happen.
On the other hand, to lose twenty-nine minutes of your life inexplicably is really worrying. I think about it all the time. Until I have found out what happened I don’t think I’ll ever be able to relax entirely. I feel that something in my life has gone missing.
Copyright © 2015 by Martin Westlake