I’m sharing with you another short story, featuring Jen and Claire from my crime mystery novel, Hidden.
If you haven’t read Hidden yet, you can still read this story as a stand-alone, although, of course, I highly recommend you read Hidden too. You can buy it in the following places:
Amazon UK: http://bit.ly/BUYHIDDEN
This short story was originally shared in my November newsletter. I have a monthly newsletter where I offer exclusive writing pieces, updates, freebies, and competitions. If you’d like to be part of it, join me here: Lisa Sell’s Newsletter
There will be more short stories like this in future newsletters. Don’t miss out on reading them first!
Mr Avery of the Rembrandt Estate
Mr Avery was a loner. He wasn’t an enigma to the Rembrandt Estate. A person has to be of interest to be an enigma. Mr Avery was mostly forgotten. His existence bore little consequence to others, apart from when children came to look at his birds.
Mr Avery often wondered if destiny prescribed he would have an aviary of birds in his garden because of his surname. He’d always liked the creatures. When people discovered his birds, they would make the link between his name and the enclosure he had crafted for them with his own hands, then give a knowing, ‘Oh’.
Patricia, who lived next door on Renoir road, didn’t care less about the synonyms. The birds were a nuisance, along with their keeper. She tried to coerce residents into signing petitions to evict the birds, Mr Avery or both. The children of the estate wouldn’t allow it to happen. His birds were a source of entertainment. Mr Avery was content fading into the background as his birds took centre stage.
Mr Avery only interacted with others via his feathered friends. The more aware, such as Jen Taylor and Claire Woods, noted Mr Avery said little and left his birds in charge.
Mr Avery became a plinth upon which his birds performed. The estate children delighted in pairs of zebra finches, trotting up and down Mr Avery’s arms. Hilarity caught as lorikeets squirted crap on an unsuspecting child who hadn’t learned you didn’t go near them.
It was clear Mr Avery’s particular favourite were the lovebirds he called Chickadee and Em. The names confused Jen. A chickadee was a different breed and Em was a girl’s name, given to a male bird.
Whatever his reasons behind their names, Mr Avery had an obvious affection for the lovebirds. He spent hours laying on the lawn in the summer, letting them jump along his body, before they settled on his chest. Jen loved watching the touching scene from her bedroom window. She was sad when chillier temperatures came, and Chickadee and Em lived inside.
‘Has there ever been a Mrs Avery, Mr Avery?’ Claire shoved a microphone into Mr Avery’s face as he cleaned out the budgies’ cage. Claire considered once more how after all these years she still didn’t know his first name. No one seemed to. It felt right though.
‘So, is there a Mrs Avery?’ Claire continued, frustrated by his silence.
Jen cringed at her friend’s usual lack of tact. They were there to help Mr Avery clean out the cages, not to grill him. Jen liked the man, despite his introverted nature. She wished more people on the estate would keep to themselves and not interfere.
Mr Avery looked at the lovebirds and then at Claire. ‘Yes, there was a Mrs Avery.’
Claire’s eyes widened then narrowed as Mr Avery added, ‘My mother.’
Claire could tell she wouldn’t get any juicy gossip from him for Into the Woods Radio. She placed her tape recorder on the table. She’d been working on her radio show for a few months. Usually, the Rembrandt Estate offered reporter’s gold.
Mr Avery chuckled at Claire’s response to his answer. He laughed so hard he didn’t notice a fresh load the lorikeets had dumped over the floor. Jen tried to grab Mr Avery as he slipped and landed on his arm.
‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ Jen asked Claire as they walked up the path to Mr Avery’s back door.
‘Course I do. We’ve seen him feed them loads of times.’
Before leaving in the ambulance, Mr Avery handed Jen a key to his house and begged the girls to tend to his birds. Some would have found it odd he placed such trust in thirteen-year-old girls but Mr Avery knew they would care for his avian friends.
Mr Avery was more comfortable around children than dealing with inquisitive adults. Although, Claire was becoming nosier and a reporter in the making. Mr Avery hoped he would soon be home from the hospital.
Jen grinned at Claire as they entered the house. Neither had been inside. Knowing they could snoop around was too tempting to refuse. Out of respect for Mr Avery, Jen made Claire leave her tape recorder outside. It felt wrong to record aspects of a person’s personal life when they weren’t there. Claire sulked as she laid her treasured item on the bonnet of Mr Avery’s Cortina.
‘Remember we’re here to get water and feed for the birds before you get too engrossed in other stuff.’ Jen knew Claire well.
Jen’s words fell upon deaf ears as Claire opened the fridge. ‘There’s hardly anything in here,’ Claire said. She cast a glance over a plate of Spam slices, an unopened bottle of milk, and a decaying apple. The meagre contents signified a life of loneliness and lack of care.
Jen shut the fridge door and handed Claire a bag of bird feed. Unprepared for the load and being slight in frame, Claire toppled and landed on her backside. Jen checked her friend was unharmed between the hysterics.
Claire insisted on sitting, to rest her wounded backside. They moved into the living room. Claire reclined across the brown velour sofa.
‘Would you like me to peel some grapes for you?’ Jen asked, sniggering.
‘Why would you do that?’ Although a rookie reporter, Claire often didn’t understand certain references and words.
Claire rose from the sofa. Jen stifled the urge to comment on her swift recovery as Claire walked around the room. There were no photographs or pictures. The shelves were free of ornaments. The only decoration was bird books, taking up every available space. Claire flicked through a few, declared them “boring” and continued looking for clues.
Jen noticed an open cupboard door next to the television. She tried to shut it. The cupboard was so full the door wouldn’t catch. The contents spilled out.
‘What on earth?’ Jen said as a pile of 45s slid across the carpet. Jen’s surprise wasn’t at the amount of records. She loved buying vinyl too. The pile on the floor was of the same record.
Claire picked up a copy. ‘Why has Mr Avery got so many of these? He must have really liked The Wheatsheafs. Never heard of them.’
Jen looked at the cover. A bundle of wheat, a symbol of Oxfordshire, dominated the sleeve, with a pair of clasped hands in the middle. Souls Entwined didn’t look like Jen’s kind of music. It was hardly edgy, like The Jam.
Jen handed a record to Claire. ‘Look at the back. It’s got a dedication on it,’ Jen said.
Claire read the words aloud, ‘For my Chickadee, whose soul will always be entwined with mine. Forever, M.’
Jen could tell Claire hadn’t discerned the evidence. ‘Don’t you get it?’ Jen asked. ‘Mr Avery’s lovebirds!’
‘Yes, we’ve got to get on with feeding them,’ Claire said, flinging the record aside.
Jen gave Claire a swat across the head. ‘Mr Avery’s lovebirds are called Chickadee and M. It wasn’t Em, as we always thought.’ Jen waited for the realisation to dawn upon her friend.
‘Ruddy Nora! You’re right. I wonder what the relevance is and why Mr Avery has so many copies of this song.’
Curiosity ignited, Claire continued searching through the cupboard. It was full of the toot you try to forget about. Claire was set to give up when she discovered a tin box.
‘Mr Avery is a huge fan of the Wheatsheafs,’ Jen said, rifling through newspaper cuttings detailing the band’s beginnings and their only hit.
‘Who’s being dumb now and not seeing the evidence?’ Claire said. ‘Look closer at this.’ She held a photo of the band.
Jen scanned the line-up, marvelling at their style and eager faces. Her eyes stopped at the man, second from the right. ‘It can’t be.’
‘It flaming well is,’ Claire said. ‘That’s Mr Avery!’
Even though the photo version was decades younger, there was no mistaking Mr Avery’s dimpled chin, lop-sided smile, and the way he dangled his arms, as if too heavy for him. He looked dapper with his quiff and sharp black suit. Jen considered why girls may have fancied him. She felt ill at the thought of drooling over Mr Avery.
‘He was a bit of a sort, back in the day.’ Claire always spoke what others kept secret. ‘Looks like someone else thought so too.’ Claire laid out the photos and clippings of a young woman holding on Mr Avery’s arm. The way the woman looked at him showed she was in love, and Mr Avery reciprocated it.
‘That’s lovely,’ Jen said, hoping one day Johnny Rose, her best friend and secret crush, would look at her the same way.
The girls were immersed in piecing together Mr Avery’s past. As they read through the articles of how The Wheatsheafs were the next big thing and the rave reviews for Souls Entwined, they didn’t hear the front door open.
As footsteps neared, Jen and Claire tried to gather the items and put them back in the box. Jen passed her haul over to Claire, who spilled the lot onto the floor. Mr Avery was greeted by the sight of Jen, lifting the sofa, for Claire to stuff the evidence under.
Jen and Claire waited for Mr Avery’s justifiable anger. Instead, he burst into laughter as Jen dropped the sofa on Claire. He picked it back up and pulled Claire out with his good arm. The other was in plaster.
‘I see you two have been busy,’ Mr Avery said, accompanied by exaggerated raised eyebrows .
‘I’m so sorry, Mr Avery,’ Jen said. ‘We shouldn’t have been snooping. We’ll feed your birds and go.’
‘Don’t,’ he replied, gesturing for them to take a seat.
Claire contemplated if Mr Avery was a serial killer who became enraged by others unearthing his secrets.
If she sat, would he bludgeon her on the sofa? Mr Avery rested his feet on the coffee table and smiled. Claire decided to stop watching the horror films her mum had banned.
‘How’s your arm?’ Jen asked, hoping to change the subject.
‘It’s broken but I’ll manage. I guess you want to know what those clippings are about. I was the lead singer of The Wheatsheafs and I wrote the songs.’ Mr Avery’s pride was visible. ‘We could have been bigger than the Beatles.’
‘Why weren’t you?’ Claire leaned in, ready for gossip.
‘I suppose we’d better settle down for a story,’ Mr Avery said, tenderly stroking the face of the woman in the photo.
Once upon a time there was a man called Malcolm. He wanted to be a singer. Malcolm got his wish when he formed a group called The Wheatsheafs, with a merry band of school friends.
The Wheatsheafs plugged away for years, desperate to be famous. No one was ready for their type of music. They didn’t fit the 1940s scene. Then came the 1950s. The decade was made for them. They embraced the hairstyles, natty looks, and swooning songs.
Malcolm wrote many songs. All of them had been attempts at ditties about love. Love sold. Teenage girls craved songs about boys who would be their first kiss. Boys wanted music to woo girls to.
Malcolm continued penning ballads but they didn’t take the band far. Studios turned them down. Something was missing in the words and the way the band performed them. Then Malcolm fell in love.
Like many tales of woe, this is a story of potentially thwarted love. There must be a villain too. Malcolm fell in love with Caroline, the daughter of their tyrant manager, Wilkie. Wilkie loved The Wheatsheafs. He loved his daughter more. She was off limits to musicians’ grubby hands.
Malcolm couldn’t resist Caroline. She inspired him. He wrote songs for her. She fell in love with his words as well as him. The Wheatsheafs encouraged the secret union, known only within the band. Souls Entwined catapulted them to number one. The band rode the crest of a successful wave until Wilkie threatened to capsize them.
Wilkie found out about Caroline and Malcolm. Wilkie didn’t take well to his seventeen-year-old daughter fraternising with a man. Malcolm was given a choice: leave Caroline or leave the band. Malcolm made his decision in seconds. There was never any doubt.
Caroline and Malcolm married. Are you waiting for a happily ever after? This is no typical fairy tale.
For a time, the Averys lived in bliss. Malcolm became a carpenter, a trade he’d learned from his father. Caroline worked in a newsagent in Oxford, where they lived. Malcolm built aviaries in their garden. The couple tended to their birds together. Caroline’s particular favourites were the lovebirds. She sang to them a song her husband once wrote for her.
Without Malcom, the band never had another hit. Wilkie dropped them. There were no bad feelings towards Malcolm and Caroline. The Wheatsheaf lads were all soft in matters of love.
It could have been a happy ending if Gerry Walker hadn’t drowned his sorrows that night, after his girlfriend dumped him. The Averys’ life would have been a fantasy if Gerry had left his car keys in the pub and walked home.
Instead this becomes a horror story of Caroline, walking to meet her husband. It was their fourth wedding anniversary and they were meeting to celebrate with a meal. Caroline never made it.
The story escalates to a tragedy, with Malcolm sitting in the restaurant, waiting for his wife. Caroline was killed instantly by Gerry’s car, mounting the pavement. As Malcolm sipped wine, Caroline’s life ended.
Jen wiped her wet cheeks. She may have been young but she knew a sad story when she heard it. Claire contemplated the patterned carpet and how life could deal crappy hands sometimes.
‘Did you call Caroline, Chickadee?’ Claire asked, remembering the dedication on the record cover.
‘Yes.’ Mr Avery’s reply was so soft she barely heard it.
‘Will you play us your record?’ Jen asked, hoping her request wouldn’t cause Mr Avery further upset.
‘I can do better than that.’ Mr Avery retrieved a guitar from behind the armchair. He began to sing, ‘Souls entwined, forever you’ll be mine.’
The girls were mesmerised by his voice as Mr Avery sang to a photograph of Caroline, his Chickadee.
Malcolm didn’t see the girls’ responses. He drifted away.
Caroline held his arm as he sang. The plaster cast disappeared. Malcolm no longer wore a shabby cardigan. His beloved stroked the arm of Malcom’s jacket and placed a kiss upon his cheek.
Malcolm closed his eyes as his soul entwined with Caroline’s once more.