I wake to the clamor of the landline announcing a telephone call. I really did drink too much on the plane last night. How the hell did I drive home in that condition through the thunderous gale?
The ignored caller rang off without leaving a message, but now I am almost fully awake. I know where I am, in my loft room, my study, my sanctuary, until… No, once it was supposed to be my haven, back in the time when Jane was still with me, was still my wife. Now this room is a mausoleum for my broken soul, though I cannot will my mind to rest in peace. Even here, home on the rocky Jurassic coast of Wessex, my head is full of the images of Central Africa, the wanton poaching, the gun-toting safaris, all a mockery to the future protection of wildlife, balanced against the immediate desire for dollars, be it via Western hunter or Far Eastern hypochondriac.
I am naked under a duvet on the sofa, my lightweight tropical suit crumpled on the floor. It is bitingly cold and I hear driven rain hammering on the four roof lights, three small at the back and a larger one at the front. I really wanted dormer windows, so I could both enjoy the sea views or look down on the town below the cliffs from my writing desk, but that damn loft conversion guy, Wayne, said I’d never get the planning permission. Jane believed him, hung on his every word, well, she would wouldn’t she?
The phone rings again. I am never going to sleep any more today, am I? Besides, I remember that I have to pick up all the pets, our pets, my faithful dog Rover and her bloody cat and her damned parrot, from the local vet’s animal hotel this morning, my first day back from safari. I pad across the loft to the desk, pick up the phone, idly noticing that the red-lettered answerphone display reads “FULL”, which explains why the caller never left a message. Well, the house has been empty for a month. No Jane, my ex-wife, and no housekeeper either, can’t afford one with only one income.
“Oh, thank God!” crackles the young-sounding female voice at the other end, “Is that Mr Andrew Dolton?”
“Yeah, that’s me, at least, it was the last time I looked.”
It really is too early in my day for weak humour, the clock on the phone reads 06:44. When did I get in last night, tired and half drunk, to a damp, lonely house? Two-ish, I think. I had happily dozed in the plane, a private jet sent by my grateful publisher, until the bird strike knocked out one of the two engines and we limped in to my local airfield late; I didn’t sleep at all after that.
“Excellent!” The fuzzy distorted voice crackled through the white noise hiss on the line, “Look Mr Dolton, this is Annabel, researcher from the BBC News channel. We’d like to interview you, live over your Skype connection, on the 7 o’clock news, regarding the animal crisis-?”
“News? Animal crisis? What crisis? Why?”
“Well, since your radio broadcast about Nature going into a hard reset went viral on YouTube, and with your bestseller on the same subject leaping off the shelves, you’ve become the world expert on th-“
“Now hold on, that radio broadcast was a mistake, I was drun- er, distraught an’ distressed over my recent divorce and it was just supposed to be on our local radio station with only a couple o’ thous-“
“But the cameras-“
“Yeah, I knew the cameras were on for their simultaneous video blog on the web; I think a dozen lonely people watch it late at night, when every sane person’s asleep. They have since pointed out that I did sign a paper giving the station perm-“
“But your prediction about Nature’s reset-“
She (Annabel from the Beeb, was it?), never finishes her sentence, the crackly line abruptly disconnects, letting me off the hook. I consider leaving the phone off the hook, but hang it up anyway.
Damn that local radio station and my dumb drink-induced broadcast! When was it now? Maybe four, five months ago? When my agent sent me an embarrassing snippet of it, I was on location in Africa. Although I was pretty damned drunk at the recording, I do recall part of what I said at the time. I had only just got back from three weeks in Indo-China, shooting the digital equivalent of a thousand rolls of wildlife film, the first time in ten years I had gone on a shoot for a book without my wife, Jane, assisting me. She stayed behind, “for necessary nesting” she said, whatever that was supposed to mean.
On my return I had found the divorce papers on my desk, citing “unreasonable behaviour and irretrievable breakdown in the relationship”. The pencilled post-it note explained that she’d left me for Wayne, the builder, that she was expecting his baby, and didn’t want me to fight her over the divorce as it would only cost me more without affecting the outcome.
At the time I had just stood there in my loft study, stunned, her yellow post-it note in my hand when I had that epiphany. It was like I was a computer that had crashed, every file in my life gone down the Swannee, because I was actually the one who had invited Wayne into our lives like a relationship-wrecking virus and, while I had concentrated working on my latest book, he corrupted his latest conquest Jane, leaving me with nothing but life resembling a frozen screen.
It was a single fat flying insect that had splattered itself dramatically just then, all across one of my newly-installed skylights in my third storey loft, that first planted in my head the seed of impending doom. I knew my only cure was a hard reset, a clean break, reformat the hard drive of my life to exclude Jane, obliterating every lingering memory, every nestling cookie, and restart with a clean drive and updated operating system.
Then I extended that reset thought, maybe Mother Nature does the same thing from time to time when a relationship with a domineering species turns sour and comes to an end.
Of course I dismissed the thought immediately, it being far too ridiculous to consider seriously. But, fuelled by my anger at my wife and life, I filled my daily “Wildlife in Focus” blog with the idea that Mother Nature had destroyed the excesses of all previous dominant species of the world, notably the dinosaurs. It followed, that it was inevitable, once we got out of hand, at the point of causing real harm to the planet, that the same would happen to us in our turn.
Now, this morning, holding the phone in my hand, listening to the droning dialling tone, another fat insect has prophetically killed itself on my window, next to the baked on remnants of its several months’ old twin. It’s impossible to find a window cleaner with a long-enough ladder to reach my erie atop the cliffs.
It’s this room that I once wanted so much, that really bugs me now, but using the pair of empty bedrooms on the floor below are out of the question. Jane took the contents of both, plus all the lounge furniture and kitchen equipment with her. So I stumbled up here between 2 and 3 in the morning, even though it’s a constant source of pain every time I cross this threshold. But, like a medieval monk, my sanctuary is my cell, a constant knotted handkerchief corner memory of my broken heart. If only I had the emotional courage to reset my life and start over afresh.
The phone rings again, even as I stare at the insect’s innards stream down the window, helped by the driving rain. I have not seen such rain since Indo-China; Africa was dry as dust, too dry even for my tears.
“Hello?” I ask, my mind still half a world away, back on the Dark Continent.
“Andy, it’s Marjorie. When d’you get back?” The call is clear but sounds echoed, like she’s in her car.
Marjorie is my literary agent and editor, who had pestered me for weeks about putting out what she wanted to call “Nature Bites Back”. In a weak moment I allowed her to transcribe that rambling radio interview, merge it with any relevant entries in my blog and put out a soft-back book on my Nature Hard Reset for once, instead of my usual large glossy coffee table photographic books, which barely brings in a living for a lonely man on a single income.
“Last night, late, Marj,” I reply. She hates being called Marj, and I know I am being unnecessarily irascible. I try to deflect my ill-considered ire, “Thanks for arranging the chartered flight, Marjorie, I do appreciate being dropped off at my local airfield.”
“It’s fine, we can afford it now, wait’ll you see the sales figures! Look, Andy, the BBC rang me last night, wanting an interview with you for this morning’s News Channel. I gave them your number. I want you to put on your public face and do the piece; it will sell a lot more more books and you know I’m still pressing for that new documentary series for you to present.”
I’m a wildlife photographer and that’s what I love to do. I have written dozens of books about Nature in all her beautiful and sometimes terrible guises. They are expensive large-format hardbacks, full of facts and photos, but none have sold anywhere near as many as “Nature Bites Back” has in the past couple of months, apparently.
“Bites”, as I refer to it, was a slim volume which paints a gloomy picture of Nature challenging any dominant species which overreaches itself and spoils the environment. It was written at a time while I was deeply depressed and bitter over my failed marriage. I guess I still haven’t come to terms with that yet, not quite ready to draw a line under it and start again.
‘Jayne’ and Wayne come back to mind every moment I spend in this room. My ex-wife’s real name’s Jane, but since she ran off with Wayne the builder, I prefer to refer to her as ‘Jayne’ in all my bitter correspondence with or about her. Especially as a letter from my solicitor that reached me by messenger in the back of beyond a week ago, told me that Jayne is now claiming a share of royalties from the sales of “Nature Bites Back”, which was not included in the divorce settlement when the marriage was dissolved.
“The BBC already called about my silly little book but we got cut off,” I say.
“Yes, my TV’s up the creek too … the internet’s down, missed the news, so I’m off to get a newspaper, though I’m gonna get soaked running from the car. Anyway, your ‘silly little book’, as you called it, is a runaway bestseller and so much of what you’ve written’s coming true, like – oh! … What the fuck? Andy, I’m near Regent’s Park Zoo, the animals are out of their cages, seems like all of ’em, and … hey, it’s just like the stampede scene from ‘Jumanjii’ here! Unbelievable! They’ve seen me… They’re coming this way… Oh! Fu-“
Damn! That’s cut off now. The line’s dead.
I look up. A green parrot has just broken its neck on the window above my head. The rain pelts down like a monsoon and the body slowly slides down the glass, its head lolling away lifelessly before it drops out of sight. First the insect, then the parrot, it is hardly a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is it?
I strain my neck trying to look at the bird as if it was upright, to see if it looks familiar or not, but it slips away out of sight. Jayne’s blasted pet bird, that is staying at the vet hotel, is also a green parrot. No, it can’t be the same one. Apparently, as Jayne had explained in her loving Dear John post-it, Wayne rents a flat and is not allowed to keep animals, not even her blessed cat. So, muggins here, gets the smelly shitty end of the stick again.
I think about the last two calls. Everybody wants me for something, like ‘Jayne’ forcing me to look after her animals when she left me, “until I’m better placed”, she had said. If she needs half the value of this house, she can bloody well wait until I sell it.
I turn on the computer and, while it warms up, I ring the stored vet animal hotel number on the phone. Jayne was always calling those vets about that bloody parrot. I click the mouse on the TV app. It defaults to BBC News, but that channel is still down. I dial through the Internet TV choices, mostly American channels, but it’s all doom and gloom, weather disasters like hurricanes and typhoons, record high tides, and attacks on children by rabid pet dogs, etc. I mean, who in their right mind keeps a savage dog as a pet? My Rover’s a young black Labrador, the big lunk, he’s powerful, playful, but so soft, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Thinking he would be great with children sets my eyes watering; I’ll probably never have kids because the only woman I wanted to make a mother was bearing Wayne’s kid in a month or two.
I turn the computer off, disgusted how they could show a still photo of a hippo eating a native child. It’s clearly photoshopped, the original being overexposed and slightly out of focus. Anyway, aren’t hippos supposed to be vegetarians? The phone’s still ringing at the other end, but no one from the vets is picking up the receiver.
I can instantly imagine the exchange of emails about her evil bird’s demise via her money-grabbing lawyer.
Number 1 from me: ‘Dear Jayne [sic], sorry about this but your fuckin’ favourite vet hotel has only went an’ let your fuckin’ favourite parrot escape its environs, but then it fuckin’ died looking for it’s fuckin’ favourite fuckin’ adopted mother, by flying into the fuckin’ velux window that your favourite fuckin’ builder fuckin’ put in instead of the fuckin’ dormer windows what I fuckin’ ordered from the lazy fucker who, it turns out, happens to be your fuckin’ fucker!’
Her reply would probably be something like, ‘Oh, no! How could you let this happen to my lovely pet parrot, you cruel animal abuser?’
Further answered by me with, ‘Don’t fuckin’ know, Jayne, don’t fuckin’ care, and the vets won’t fuckin’ answer their fuckin’ phone either.’
‘This’ll cost you dear! I’ll sue you for gross negligence’ she’ll threaten. And I’ll say something horrible like ‘And I’d fuck you in your gross negligé, but they don’t make barge poles long enough!’
Yeah, that’s how I think the conversation will go. Childish I know, but cheating wives brings out the immaturity in me.
I had the light on in the loft, with the rain pouring from heavy clouds, it was dark, even with the mad-eyed reflections of my face on inside of Wayne’s windows apparently mocking me.
Tuning the computer back into the BBC News, but still there’s no signal, now none of the internet channels are showing up.
And now the blasted light’s gone out and the computer’s dead. Either a main fuse is gone or we’re in a power cut. Would not be at all surprised that power lines are down, the wind is blowing a gale out there and my house at the top of the cliff is pretty exposed.
Because I can’t see out the bloody windows, which point skywards, I can’t tell if it is just my house or all the houses affected. Even the battery operated radio I turn on is full of white noise around the dial. I gingerly step up on the wobbly computer chair to see out of the big skylight. I can’t open any of them, another planning restriction, apparently. Can’t see much, except the top of the street lamps outside. They have light sensors built in so they come on when it gets dark. Well, it’s still dark now, but they are not on. That confirms it, there must be no power.
The wind is increasing, must be tearing at the roof shingles, if any come free I will sue that bloody Wayne so fast…
There’s a scratching at the door. I can hear it even over the howling wind.
If it was Jayne’s parrot on the window, then maybe her cat did escape the vets at the same time. A tree blown over in the gale could have demolished a wall. Her bloody cat’s clever and sneaky. It can open all the downstairs’ doors by stretching and pulling down the lever handle. I changed the door handle up here to a round one, before I left for Africa. I fucking hate that cat and don’t want it in here.
It carries on scratching. What was it that both Annabel and Marjorie were saying? That what I predicted in my book was actually happening? I said so in my blog, and repeated it on the air, that Mother Nature would use everything in its power to destroy Man utterly, like it had to other species in the past, many of which we have no knowledge of other than the fossils they left behind. Only the fate of the dinosaurs jump out at you because their sudden inexplicable demise was so evident, despite their total dominance of the Earth in their day. Rather like Man’s…
I can hear the scratching higher up the door, the cat reaching up for the handle. Ha! Got you there moggie, you can’t turn a round knob, can you?!
Jayne had moved out weeks before I changed that knob. But she had been back, no doubt with “Sky Window” Wayne in tow. She had to come back to the house to move her furniture into store. Would she have stayed here, in preference to Wayne’s cramped flat, while I was in Africa? Would she? Would they?
He would! You bet your fuckin’ life she would too!
I wouldn’t put it past her packing up and leaving here just a day or two before I was due home. And, being the house proud bitch she was, needing all the door furniture matching, at least on the outside of my locked door, would she have got Wayne to fit a lever handle on the outside? I was tired and drunk when I got home last night; I didn’t notice the door handle.
The scratching stops and the door swings open. Yes, that bitch ‘Jayne’ had changed the handle. Her cat looks at me with what I swear is a superior pussy smirk, before she steps aside and leaves good old faithful wouldn’t-harm-a-fly Rover in the doorway.
“Hi boy,” I say, “have you missed me?”
Rover’s leg muscles tense, he bares his teeth and snarls.
“Down boy … Rover? … Rov-!”