“Why don’t you ask him out?”
Sarah had just caught Ruth staring at the new Sales Manager for the third time that morning.
Ruth blushed and hid behind her monitor. Sitting opposite her, Sarah pinged an elastic band at the back of the screen.
“Why not? I would, if I was single.”
The man they were discussing stood on the other side of the office. Mark Gold looked like he could sell you the air you were breathing. Ruth watched him work his magic on the Senior Accountant. After a few moments he had the lugubrious old fogey smiling and nodding his head. He had to be good.
As he was leaving the Finance department, Mark turned towards Ruth and Sarah and give them a wink and an American salute.
The girls giggled. “I wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Ruth. “I’m too shy.”
“Just a bad habit,” said Sarah. “What you are is backwards at coming forwards. Not the same thing at all. I’ll give you a push, if you like.”
“No,” said Ruth quickly. “Please don’t.”
Sarah’s previous matchmaking attempts had ended in disaster. Ruth had gone bowling with Barry from software. She was beating him until an ambitious shot backfired and landed on his foot.
Before that, there had been Dave from Technical Support. Things had been going so well before Ruth headbutted him at the cinema. She had only been trying to kiss him.
“A glasgow kiss,” Sarah had chuckled.
“I’m too uncool for Mark,” said Ruth. “And I’m too clumsy.”
Sarah opened her mouth to disagree, but no words came out.
In the afternoon there was a Sales meeting. The air conditioning in the Conference Room was turned off and the post-lunch warmth made Ruth nod off. That and the business jargon.
“We need to ramp up our social media presence,” said someone earnestly.
Ruth’s eyes glazed over.
“We certainly need to take that on board,” agreed another. “We want clear blue water between us and them.”
Ruth imagined she was stepping onto a boat and sailing away through an azure sea. Far, far away …
“Ruth!” hissed Sarah, who was sitting next to her at the long black table.
Ruth felt a sharp pain in her ribs. Her head juddered into wakefulness.
Everyone was looking at her.
“Oops. Sorry. Must have nodded off. How embarrassing.”
“Try to keep up, Ruth,” snapped the Sales boss. “These changes impact upon the whole company.”
“I’ll try to take it on board,” said Ruth. She caught Mark Gold’s eye and he smirked.
After the meeting her colleagues gave her funny looks. In the corridor people did a double-take as she walked past. Their attention seemed to be focused on her bottom. Was her skirt falling down, she wondered?
Ruth was on her way to the Ladies’ to check out her rear view when Mark appeared at her side. He tried to take her by the elbow.
“Ouch! That was my funny bone.”
“Sorry. Must be losing my touch. It’s just that you’ve …” His hand reached down behind her.
“What are you … ?”
“This,” said Mark, holding up a large Post-It sticker. “You must have been wandering around with it stuck to you since the meeting.”
LOOKING FOR A BIRD? someone had written.
TAKE ME ON BOARD
YOU FLOAT MY BOAT
Ruth felt the blood surge into her cheeks. “Sarah,” she hissed.
“I think it was intended for me, actually,” said Mark.
Ruth forced herself to lift her gaze from the carpet. Mark’s green eyes sparkled with generosity. She felt honoured that he was sharing his valuable time with her. He had a kind of star quality. An actor’s charisma.
But it came too easily to him, Ruth decided. He was a salesman, after all. He was a professional charmer.
“Why should it have anything to do with you,” said Ruth calmly. Then she walked away, conscious that her bottom was being scrutinized once again. Try as she might, she couldn’t quite stop it from wiggling.
“I can’t believe you did that,” said Ruth when she got back to her desk.
Sarah pretended to be absorbed in her paperwork. “Did what?” she asked casually.
“Wrote that stupid note. It’s like being back in school again.”
“I was trying to do you a favour, Ruth. You’ll thank me one of these days. Anyway, I was quite proud of it. Witty, or what?”
Ruth glared at her friend. “But why stick it on my bum?”
Sarah exploded with laughter. “You did that yourself. When the meeting finished, I was getting ready to put it on Mark’s desk. But you got up from your chair before me and jogged me with your great big butt.”
Ruth slumped into her chair. “Thank God it’s Friday,” she groaned. “Thank God I’m getting away from it all tomorrow.”
* * *
The next day Ruth stared out of the windows at the Suffolk countryside as it flashed past. The coach was full of birdwatchers. Most of them were old enough to be Ruth’s parents. They were on their way to Minsmere Nature Reserve. This trip was the highlight of the year. It had them twittering like sparrows. Minsmere was the Disneyland of the bird world. The mixture of different habitats – coast, marsh, woods and heath – meant you were guaranteed to see lots of rare and exciting birds.
Ruth didn’t think of herself as a twitcher. These were the trainspotter types who ticked boxes. She liked to think that she saw the bigger picture. Being out in the great British countryside made her felt calmer, more relaxed and in love with the world.
Sarah thought she was a freak. But what did she know about it? Ruth had tried to get her best friend interested, taking her to a local bird reserve. “Boring,” had been the verdict. “It’s all too quiet and polite. Where’s the action?”
“Kestrel!” said Ruth as she spotted a hawk hovering by the roadside.
The rest of the coach swivelled their heads and murmured. But they didn’t get their binoculars out. A kestrel was a common bird, like a starling or a robin. It wasn’t an avocet or a bittern. These were the rare birds that they all hoped to see before the day was out.
Ruth was transfixed by the bird of prey – its stillness and grace. She watched as it suddenly dived into the grass verge.
She gasped as the coach swerved and braked to avoid an oncoming sports car.
When the coach stopped the driver scowled and shook his head. The passengers twitched in their seats, but nobody got off to see if the other driver was all right. Ruth took responsibility. She got off the coach and jogged towards the car.
A man stood with his back to her, hands on hips, examining the car’s bodywork.
“Are you …?” she started, then realised it was Mark Gold. “You,” she said in a voice that sounded alien to her. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi there, Ruth. I could ask the same question.”
“I’m going bird-watching,” said Ruth.
Mark raised an eyebrow. “I’m on my way to my cottage at Southwold,” he said. I go there most weekends. That bloody coach driver – could have written off my Merc.”
“I think you were speeding.”
The man frowned at her. Ruth noticed that his eyebrows joined when he did this. They looked like a brooding black caterpillar.
“Why don’t you come with us for a bit?” she said brightly. “The AA will take ages to get out here.”
“I can’t leave the car.”
“We’re not in London,” laughed Ruth. “Nobody’s going to nick it.”
On the coach, sitting next to Ruth, Mark stood out like a hummingbird among the sparrows. He was wearing an iridescent green Hawaian shirt. Some of the birdwatchers gave him snooty looks. Because of him, they had nearly had an accident. More unforgiveably, he had held them up.
By the time they got to Minsmere bird reserve Ruth felt quite protective towards him.
At the Visitor Centre Ruth read the daily newsletter which listed the different species spotted that day. “Fantastic,” she said. “Bittern – two heard booming.”
Mark appeared at her shoulder. “What? Exploding birds?”
“You don’t know anything about birds, do you?”
“Not a dicky bird, I’m afraid. But you can teach me.” He had bought an expensive pair of binoculars from the shop.
More money than sense, thought Ruth.
The group strode off in the direction of the first Hide – the viewing huts where you could sit and watch the birds through window slots.
Ruth and Mark straggled behind. She had to keep explaining things to him. It was difficult to avoid jargon, she realised, as his eyes glazed over. This was how she’d felt in the seminar the previous day.
She sighed as he interrupted her enjoyment of a warbler singing in the reeds. It was irritating having your peaceful day out hijacked like this. Mark was a loud reminder of the work-a-day world that she wanted to leave behind.
But she kept looking at him, in spite of all the birds vying for her attention. Standing gazing out to sea with his windswept dark hair framing his tanned face, he looked ridiculously handsome.
“What’s that big black bird skimming the water?” he asked.
“A cormorant,” said Ruth. “No, hang on – it’s a shag.”
“Tits and shags, eh?” Mark gave her an twinkly grin. “This birdwatching is disgusting.”
“Oh, grow up.” Ruth marched away from him towards the sea.
“Sorry, teacher.” His voice was soon drowned out by the roar of pebbles grinding on the shingle beach.
“Anyway,” she shouted when he caught up with him. “Shouldn’t you go back to your car now?”
But he was off, crunching up the slope, his arms open wide as if he were trying to hug the landscape. Up and down the shoreline he ran, bellowing into the wind.
“If that’s your courtship display,” shouted Ruth, “you won’t get many takers.”
A pair of Terns seemed to agree. Mark must have stumbled into their nesting site, because they swooped down at him, shrieking and pecking.
Mark fell down, clutching his head.
“You idiot,” fumed Ruth. “You’ve disturbed their nesting site.”
Mark’s suntan had faded. “I don’t believe it. It’s like that Hitchcock film.”
Ruth took a wad of tissues out of her rucksack and held it to the side of his head. There was a trickle of blood, but the cut wasn’t a deep one.
“You’ll live,” she said, “but try to calm down a bit. You’ll scare off all the birds.”
Ruth gave him a wink. “Though it’s nice to see someone else make a prat of themselves for a change.”
For the rest of the afternoon they walked around the reserve. Occasionally they bumped into their coach party in the hides. Mark’s cheery ignorance soon had the more serious birdwatcheres tutting and rolling their eyes.
“What’s that duck with the blue beak?” he asked a little too loudly.
“A ruddy duck,” muttered a man in a white sunhat.
“No need to swear, sport,” said Mark.
Ruth began to explain that a Ruddy Duck was the real name of a type of duck. Then she got the giggles. Soon she and Mark were forced to leave the hide: they felt like two naughty school kids laughing and joking at the back of the classroom.
“I think I’ll go and get the Merc now,” said Mark.
Ruth knew what was coming next. “Do you want to join me? We could have dinner together at the cottage. I’ve got salmon and a case of Rioja.”
“Thanks for the offer, Mark, but I’m not quite ready to leave yet.”
“I’ve got a boat moored down the coast. We could watch the sun go down …”
“We’ll see. Before I go, I want to hear a bittern.”
The bristly black caterpillar appeared again above Mark’s eyes. Ruth could tell he was accustomed to getting his own way. She expected him to march off in a huff. But instead, after a quick sulk, he stayed with her.
They returned to the Bittern hide. It was built on wooden stilts, high above the marshy reed beds. In the evening sun they could see an acre of reeds swaying and dancing in the breeze.
At first Mark was puzzled by Ruth’s fixation with bitterns and their mating calls. She could have told him that bitterns were like her – big, brown and shy. A bit clumsy. Rare birds that you didn’t bump into every day. But she didn’t want to do any more explaining.
They were alone in the hide now. Ruth was waiting for the right moment. She was waiting for her bittern to boom. And she couldn’t leave until it happened.
For the first time that day, Mark seemed to understand the attraction of birdwatching. He gazed out at the reedbeds, silent, calm and mesmerised.
“Am I a rare bird?” whispered Ruth suddenly.
“One in a million,” said Mark quietly.
She craned her head forward, trying to pick out movement in the sea of reeds below. She could sense something was about to happen.
Then her vision wobbled.
Mark was kissing her neck. Ruth shivered and tingled, dropping her binoculars.
She turned and reached out her arms to him. As her lips found his a strange booming noise broke the silence. Ruth’s eyes were firmly shut, so she missed seeing the bittern explode out of the reeds. But she heard the whirr of wings as it flew towards the sunset. And her heart boomed in reply.
* * *
When Sarah got into work late on Monday morning, a large Post-It sticker was stuck on her monitor. She recognised Ruth’s handwriting:
HE TOOK ME ON BOARD
HE FLOATED MY BOAT
THANKS FOR PUSHING ME IN
© Nick Walker 2005