It had been a place of sanctuary for as long as he could remember.  Alec shouldered the door and paced the hexagonal, wooden hut, hunkering down to look through the belt of windows.  Even in the dark, he knew what was out there.

The present-day hide had been provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.  Hovering on stilts above the wetlands, it surveyed the expanse of marsh and water beyond the small town’s harbour.  Birdwatchers were effusive in their praise for the new facility and consigned their draughty old tents to garages and garden sheds.

It was in one of those old, canvas tents that Alec had his first encounter with the wetlands and their inhabitants.  Uncle Joe had offered to show him the cormorants nesting near the harbour and Alec was grateful for any small release from life at home. 

“Keep your old uncle company, eh lad.”  

Uncle Joe winked as he piled layers of crusty, mildewed equipment onto Alec’s outstretched arms and the boy dutifully carried it all the way down to the shore.   For the rest of the day, and into the evening, they watched cormorants emerge from concealed places.  They passed a pair of binoculars back and forth, and viewed the long beaks of curlews plunging repeatedly into the salt water, piercing the seabed for sustenance.  Herring gulls pitched loudly overhead, threatening to raid their sandwiches, and mallards bobbed underwater or plummeted from the sky, using their feet as webbed surfboards.  

Carrying the dismantled camp home, Alec saw Joe stop and stand still, listening at a dense hedgerow.  

“Come and have a look at this lad,” Joe whispered, nodding his head at the darkened tangle of leaves.  

Joe extracted something and handed it, reverentially, to the boy.  Instinctively, Alec withdrew his hand, as if expecting the Headmaster’s belt to crash down on it.  

His uncle laughed. “It’s alright, pal. It’s just a sparra’s egg!”

Joe placed the warm, dry sphere into the cradle Alec made with his hand.  He could hardly see it in the vanishing light but the boy smiled as he ran his thumb over its fragile casing, as satisfied as an explorer unearthing a treasure-trove of rubies in an underground tomb.

At school Alec garnered no accolades and made few attachments.  On turning sixteen he started work for a local haulage firm. By his early forties he had spent all of his working life on the road.

When Alec was working he was hugging his secret close.  For what had begun as an essentially outdoor pursuit, many of his activities now took place indoors.  He had long ago given up plundering hedgerows for sparrows’ eggs and had graduated from climbing trees and grabbing what he could from unattended nests.  These days, he spent considerable time surfing the web, meeting other collectors in carefully monitored forums under a variety of aliases.  He was always on the lookout, hoping to add to his collection. 

When he wasn’t searching for new eggs, Alec was caring for the vast quantities he already owned. Firstly, this entailed blowing, marking and cataloguing each egg.  He then ensured that they were stored in the right conditions so that they didn’t swell or crack.  There was nothing more upsetting for Alec than having to throw a specimen away, especially after meticulously planning and executing its procurement. Occasionally losing an egg, Alec felt an acute sense of bereavement.  He could understand how the mother must have experienced that first loss herself and felt a sad and profound kinship with her.  

His first eggs had been swaddled in newspaper, placed into shoeboxes and stored in the garden shed but now he produced purpose-built containers from chipboard and MDF.  Most of his collection was stored under optimum conditions in the converted attic.  Although he had few visitors, it was too risky to leave anything casually lying around.  Against his better judgement, he kept a sample of his collection in a foam-padded, aluminium briefcase that travelled from room to room with him like a grateful mongrel dog.  A selection of thirty to forty eggs was kept inside the case for Alec to take out from time to time and admire.  He could hold each egg snug in his curved palm, drinking in its contours and marvelling at the way light affected its colour and highlighted barely discernible details.  At times like these he felt rich in contentment.  That was, until Barbour arrived.

The stranger’s name wasn’t actually Barbour.  The ruddy-faced man had introduced himself the first time they met, but Alec hadn’t processed the information, not thinking for a second that it might be useful someday.  Alec only began referring to him as Barbour later, scornfully naming the man after the waxed jacket he wore.  They first met at the harbour car park.  Barbour was gathering equipment from the boot of a bottle-green Lexus and stuffing it into a backpack.  Converging on Alec’s route, he greeted him in such a strident, “hail-fellow-well-met”, way that Alec could almost have been persuaded that they had encountered each other in the past.  

“I’m looking for the viewing platform, sir!” he bellowed, “Point me in the right direction, there’s a good chap?”  

Barbour grinned and looked expectantly at Alec who replied at a quieter pitch.

“Am headed there masel.  Ah’ll get ye along.”  

Barbour filled the next ten minutes with chatter.  He commented on the scenery, the weather and fired rhetorical questions about the birdlife in the area.  He detailed his travel plans and confided which hotel had been graced with his custom. He outlined his fail-safe strategy for finding the best pint in whichever small town he pitched up in.  

Barbour was a recent convert to bird watching.  

“Saved my sanity of late, I can tell you,” he admitted as the two men sat in the hide, looking out at a small group of ducks making steady progress between clumps of reed.  “Don’t know what I would have done without the old twitching to concentrate the mind.”  

Alec didn’t ask for further details but Barbour continued, “It’s been a helluva year, I don’t mind telling you.  Been through a messy divorce – turned out the wife was shagging her fitness trainer while I was working like a dog to keep her in designer sports gear.”  He shook his head ruefully at his own folly.

All that month and well into the next, Barbour occupied the town.  During the day he could be found at the hide, or roaming the edges of the wetlands, or in the viewing platform at the top of the county buildings scanning for hawks and ospreys.  When Alec sought a quiet pint after work, he would invariably find Barbour in conversation with the landlord, his substantial backside spilling from an inadequate barstool.  Whenever Alec went to the shops for a newspaper, a carton of milk or to rent a DVD, a jingle would emanate from a bell above the door and Barbour would greet him with surprise and wonder at the coincidence.  Most of the time, Alec responded diffidently, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him. 

“Bit of an extended holiday this, eh?  They not missing you at work yet?”

Barbour grinned, “Constantly on the phone, Alec, begging me to return, but I’ve taken some leave due to me.  I’ll have to go back eventually, but not for another couple of weeks at least.” 

It can’t come soon enough – Alec thought – then Barbour added, “I’ve loved it down this neck of the woods, really have.  I wouldn’t mind buying a wee bolthole here.  It’s near enough for weekends and anyway, remote working’s all the rage these days. What do you think, old son?” 

Alec let out a suppressed sigh.

On Saturday Alec got up early, determined to get as far away from Barbour as possible.  There was a forest park nine miles away and he walked over the fields to its perimeter.  The previous spring a lone hawk had made its home in the treetops and Alec wanted to find out if it had returned to the same spot.  He patiently studied the skies but there was no evidence of the hawk.  Cold crept into his bones as dusk threatened and he set out on the journey home.

At home, in the early evening, he opened his aluminium case and laid a grebe’s pale egg beside him on the sofa.  Soon he had taken out all the contents of the case and arranged them in order of procurement on the burgundy corduroy.  Muscles aching, Alec lay back into the spent upholstery and closed his eyes.   

When he opened them, it was dark outside and the street lamps glared in at him.  It took a moment to absorb the layout of the room but then he noticed an indistinct shape ensconced in the armchair.   Barbour was sitting in his chair, in his house, silently watching and smiling over to him.  

“Quite a collection you have there, Alec,” he said deliberately, not quite disguising his drunkenness.  

Alec leant forward, the balls of his feet flexing against the living room carpet, startled but mindful of the fragile shells in his care – not only those in plain view but the hundreds hidden upstairs. 

“Fuck are you doin’ here? “  

Barbour drew in a long breath, “It’s Saturday night, man.  Calum at the Drovers told me where you lived – I thought you might fancy a small libation.”  

He reached to the floor, pulled up four cans of lager still attached to each other by their plastic rings and gestured to the rows of eggs.

“I didn’t realise you already had a date!”  

Barbour grinned at his own lame joke and looked down, peeled a lager free and fiddled with the ring-pull.  Alec stiffened further and sprang from the sofa.

Alec’s fist flew and met Barbour’s face.  The blow connected with bone and Barbour fell sideways, rattling his head off the bannister as he crashed to the floor.  Alec lunged at him and kept on punching, his wiry frame electrified with tension. Barbour’s body flailed but seemed unable to summon the energy or the aptitude to right itself.  Alec’s fists were regular and relentless, bursting the man’s nose, shattering his jaw, and beating at his features until all that remained was a pulpy, slippery approximation of a face.  After he was finished, Alec hugged bloodied hands to his knees and waited until he was sure Barbour wouldn’t get up again.

He fished the keys to the Lexus out of Barbour’s jacket pocket and, after a shower and change of clothes, walked round to the pub to collect the car.  It was half three and he saw no one. 

When he had driven home, he wiped the staircase and carpet and placed the eggs that were still intact back into their case.  Most of them lay smashed on the floor near the sofa.  He brought a bowl from the kitchen and picked them up, piece by tiny piece, until the fragments became so small that he couldn’t be sure if they were eggshell or the ordinary flotsam and jetsam that had accumulated in the carpet’s fibres.  

At the harbour car park, Alec heaved Barbour onto his shoulder and lumbered under his weight as far as the marshes.  There was an old, battered dinghy near the hide and he tipped the dead man into it, fervently hoping it would hold.  The oars had long since disappeared, so Alec found a long branch from a tree and used it to punt himself and his cargo out into deeper marshes.  He inched Barbour into the muddy water.  Soaked through, he drove the Lexus to a gully in the forest park, set light to it and, as it burned, he pushed it over.  He left Barbour’s can of lager lying at the scene, hoping to implicate drunken joy riders.  He began the long walk home for the second time that day but something shifted in him and he kept walking, eventually reaching the hide.  

He sat down on the wooden bench.  His soaking clothes began to dry into a crust against his skin.  Alec looked out across the water, trying to determine where the grey liquid sea met the grey land and then the grey sky.  

©  Sarah Smith 2011