Maggie could feel the familiar tension coiling in her stomach as she locked her front door, the key slippery in her fingers. She wiped her hands on her jeans, picked up the cellophane-wrapped spray of white roses and was just turning when she heard the sound of running footsteps on the unmade road that fronted her cottage, followed by a woman’s breathless voice.
The woman, grey haired and with a vibrant yellow straw bag flapping from one arm appeared, panting heavily, in her front garden.
“Oh, I’m so glad I caught you,” she gasped. “You are the animal rescue woman, aren’t you, dear? They said in the pub I’d find you here.” She paused for breath and added in a bemused voice, “You don’t look a bit like I expected.”
Maggie smiled and wondered what she was supposed to look like. As well as the jeans, which had started off black, but were now faded to grey, she was wearing a cream tee-shirt – one of the few she owned that didn’t have a flippant slogan on the back, in deference to where she was going. She’d meant to be smarter. She’d clipped back her unruly brown hair and hair sprayed it within an inch of its life, but she hadn’t been able to find any more suitable clothes in her wardrobe. Probably because most of them were stuffed in the laundry basket and laundry was way down her priority list at the moment.
“I thought you’d be older,” her visitor gasped. “And bigger – stronger – you know.”
“I’m stronger than I look,” Maggie murmured, wondering what she was letting herself in for. Lots of people who turned up at the sanctuary seemed surprised when they saw her. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to look like. Evidently not tall and slightly built – she hadn’t been called beanpole for nothing at school – and most people were amazed when she told them she was twenty-seven, not seventeen.
“Are you all right?” she asked gently, because the woman’s face was scarlet with exertion and there were beads of sweat below the silver rims of her glasses. “Where have you run from?”
“Oh, only a little way – my car’s parked down on the main road. He flew straight at me, you see. I didn’t have a hope of stopping.”
“A bird?” Maggie said, concerned, because birds rarely survived run-ins with cars. “Do you know what sort of bird he was?”
“Blooming great thing – I was lucky my window wasn’t open, he’d have been in the car then and I’d probably have crashed it. I don’t know what kind he is, I don’t know anything about birds, see. He’s not dead though, he was fluttering about on the grass verge. I couldn’t get anywhere near ‘im. Tried to attack me, he did.” She was already backing away down the path, “You will come, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course I’ll come. It was good of you to stop.” Maggie caught up with her visitor, torn between not wanting to rush her – she was elderly and still out of breath – and worry about getting to the injured bird before a predator did. Mind you, not being able to get ‘near ‘im’ sounded promising. The bird couldn’t be too badly hurt if it was still trying to defend itself.
“I hope I’m not holding you up, dear. You were just on your way out, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but it’s okay, you’re not holding me up. I was on my way to see someone, but we didn’t have a set time.” That was the understatement of the year, Maggie thought, swallowing down a mixture of regret and relief that she had an excuse to put off the confrontation for a little longer. She grabbed a small animal transporter and a net from an outbuilding on her way past and followed the woman back along the lane.
She’d been expecting a buzzard – there were dozens in the Wiltshire countryside – but as they got closer to the stricken bird, she realised it was bigger than a buzzard. A lot bigger and not the right colour either. It had chestnut feathers and a pale-coloured head, almost white. Maggie frowned, racking her brains. She’d had a friend at vet school who was really into birds. They’d often spent nights chatting about wildlife and about how to recognise the different birds of prey. This bird had distinctive yellow legs and a yellow beak.
The memory of a photograph in Ellen’s bird book slid into her mind and her face cleared. “I’ve never seen one of these before, but I think it might be a red kite,” she told her companion, with growing excitement. “They’re virtually extinct in England. You see them a lot in Wales, though.”
“Well, if he was emigrating for the winter, Salisbury wouldn’t be too far out of his way, would it? Perhaps he got blown off course.” Maggie suppressed a smile, as the woman, whose geography was obviously a lot better than her knowledge of birds, eyed her anxiously. “You watch yourself, dear. Mind his claws. Poor little lamb’s none too happy – not that I can blame ‘im for that.” She hung back. Maggie approached cautiously with the net.
‘Poor little lamb’ were the last words she’d have used to describe the kite. Proud and beautiful certainly, but this bird of prey was far from a ‘little lamb.’ Maggie felt a surge of admiration as the bird glared at her and tried to rise in flight, but only succeeded in toppling sideways on to the grass verge. Its wingspan must have been a couple of metres and she knew that netting it without injury to either of them was going to be tricky, if not impossible.
She contemplated heading back to the Red Lion and enlisting some help. On the other hand, the pub would have been open an hour by now, which was long enough for the die-hard drinkers to be on their fourth pints of real ale. The last thing she needed was a crowd of rowdy onlookers who fancied themselves as bird experts following her down here.†
Deciding to have a go on her own, she edged forward. If she could restrain the bird with the net, she might be able to get close enough to immobilise it without frightening it into hurting itself further or injuring herself.
Luck was on Maggie’s side for once. When the bird felt the net, it flapped angrily, tried to back its way out and ended up trapped against the fence that edged the fields of fat golden hay bales beyond the road. Taking care to avoid the lethal talons and wickedly hooked beak, Maggie tightened the net, and the bird, no longer trying to escape but shrieking furiously, let her get close enough to touch.
Sweat dripped into her eyes as she crouched on the grass verge and talking softly all the time, let the bird get used to her presence. “All right, my sweetie, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to check out that wing. You are a beauty, aren’t you.”
When a car door slammed close by, Maggie assumed the woman had decided to wait in her car, but then she heard a voice. She glanced up and saw a man in jeans and denim jacket heading her way.
Great, that was all she needed. An interfering passer-by.
“Can I help?” He paused a few feet away, which she supposed was better than blundering in and frightening her prospective patient.†
“I’m fine,” she muttered, wiping sweat out of her eyes. “Don’t make any sudden movements, I don’t want it scared. And please don’t come any closer.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” His voice was wry and now she could see him properly she had an impression of a strong, angular face, fair hair that was slightly too long and cool, grey eyes.
He looked perfectly sober too, which was a relief.
“I thought you might have broken down,” he added, hunkering down on the grass verge, his movements slow and controlled. “That’s why I stopped.”
The bird fluttered, aware of his presence, and distracted, Maggie nodded. “You could do something to help, if you don’t mind. You could open the door on that cage for me and pass it over very slowly.”
“Sure.” He did as she said and inched the transporter across the grass towards her.
There was one sticky moment when she was edging the bird into it and the woman, who Maggie had forgotten all about, clapped her hands in excitement and shouted out, “Well done, dear! Good for you!”
The bird fluttered wildly and extricated a leg from the net and Maggie was only just in time to snatch her fingers out of slicing distance of its talons. She drew the net gently back into place, latched the transporter with a sigh of relief, wiped her face once more with the back of her hand, and stood up slowly.
The man who’d stopped to help glanced at her. “Nice work. What will you do now – take it to a vet?”
“No need, I can sort it out myself. I think the wing’s broken, but it’s not irreparable. It just needs strapping up for a while. If it survives the shock of all the human contact, it’ll be fine. I’m trained as a vet,” she added, which was true. She’d expected raised eyebrows, which was how people usually reacted, but he just nodded thoughtfully.
She smiled at him. “Thanks. And thanks for your help.”
“Pleasure.” He gave her a little nod and headed back to a white Toyota, which was parked behind the woman’s car.
“He was a nice young man, wasn’t he, dear? I’m Dorothy by the way. Dot to my friends.” The woman’s sunny smile told Maggie that she was now included in Dot’s circle of friends. “I’ll give you a lift back up the lane, shall I?”
“It’s probably better if I walk,” Maggie said. “Less stressful for our friend here than going in a car. It’s not far.”
“Well, if you’re sure, dear.” Dot’s voice was dubious. “I think it’s wonderful what you do. I’m so relieved, I can’t tell you. I felt awful when I hit him. I wasn’t going very fast. I never do around these country lanes.”
“It’s all right,” Maggie reassured. “There’s not a lot you can do when they fly straight into you.” She wondered if she should ask Dot back for a brandy – she could have done with one herself. And then she remembered she had a prior engagement. She’d been putting it off all day; she was amazed she’d managed to forget about it.
“Well, I’d like to give you a donation, dear. It’s the least I can do after putting you to all this trouble.”
Maggie shook her head, taking in for the first time her companion’s appearance. Grey hair, which was coiled in a tight bun, kind faded blue eyes, a face creased with years of worry and navy blue trousers shiny with age. Living on a pension, Maggie decided. “No, don’t worry,” she murmured. “Thanks again for coming to find me. Lots of people wouldn’t have stopped.”
She watched the woman drive away and then she lifted the transporter, which wasn’t much heavier with the bird in it than it had been when it was empty. she would settle her patient in more permanent accommodation and leave it alone for the night. then she really should get going before dusk fell. she’d rather have dealt with a dozen birds of prey than go where she’d been heading before dot had interrupted her, but there could be no more putting it off. bracing her back slightly and feeling a little guilty that she even wanted to put it off, maggie quickened her step until the lights she’d left on in her cottage came into view.