Art Pact 183 - The Hide

The air in the hide was muggy and laden with the scent of wood mold and wet canvas. The wide slit on the viewing side offered the promise of a pleasant breeze, but somehow the sound baffles at the back of the room that cut us off from a direct line to the door also prevented air from flowing through freely, making the place one big stagnant dead-end. Every breath I took in was like inhaling a damp shed, and every breath out went reluctantly, stirring the fragrant miasma listlessly before exiting through the viewing slit. I had come in wearing my long-sleeved t-shirt, hedging my bets against the shade, but before five minutes had passed my sleeves were rolled up and I was regretting my choice of wardrobe.

All of this I kept to myself, though, because Miranda was clearly loving it. Perhaps not the ambience of the hide, but she was pressed up against the far wall, binoculars glued to her face, scanning the wetlands in front of us with a grin on her face so big that I thought for a second she might vanish like the Cheshire cat. The one other occupant was utterly oblivious to us both, alternating between checking his notes and staring one-eyed through the viewfinder of his outlandishly-lens ed camera, a device so forward-heavy that I expected it to topple out of the hide at any moment, and of such a large caliber that the birds on the surface of the lake outside could have easily mistaken it for an anti-tank gun.

I studied him when he was not looking - partly as an exercise in observation, partly to keep myself from staring too hard at Miranda, which felt a little sleazy when she was so wrapped up in her bird-watching. He was obviously in his fifties or sixties, to judge from the wispy grey hair which had been combed over his pate, but beneath his wax jacket he had a sort of concrete bulk that hinted at muscles - or at least those ghost muscles made of fat that previously muscled men were left with when they aged. His trousers, like his coat, were dark green and waxed, and tucked into Doc Marten boots with some sort of waterproof spats over the tongue. A heavy black canvas strap ran over his right shoulder - a camera sash, I thought, although his camera was surely too large (especially with its howitzer-style telephoto lens) to hang off the thing without tipping him over. His notebook was a reporters-style, wire-bound at the top edge and - I stared hard for a few seconds when he was looking through his viewfinder - he was about half-way through it. His face was difficult to see in the dark of the hide, but it looked as though it might match both the body below it and the sparse hair above, and I could clearly discern wrinkles in the no-strands-land between his eyebrows and the dome of his head. Perhaps he was a bachelor, out on a Sunday morning indulging himself in one of the hobbies which people like my father's boss used to fill up the time they saved on tedious housework and human interaction. Alternatively, he might be a married man escaping from the little woman or a religious objector avoiding church or any number of other things, but as I mulled over all these possibilities in my mind (and paused occasionally to recriminate myself for going beyond observation into conjecture), I kept feeling that there was something wrong about the whole thing. None of my ideas seemed plausible - not that they weren't plausible in themselves, even if (I admit) they might be a bit cliche - but none of them seemed to fit him. He had a presence about him that made my mundane guesses nonsensical. I couldn't say why, but he felt at the same time both slightly malign and somewhat out of place.

"Here!" whispered Miranda excitedly. "Look! Look! You might never get a chance to see this again!" She beckoned me up with her free hand, still staring through the binoculars. When I joined her she pulled me close to her side to point out the source of her excitement, inadvertently pressing enough of her body against my arm to give me an entirely separate source. Blushing, I quickly took up the proffered binoculars and leant forwards, hiding my blushes in the dappling shade at the mouth of the hide. She adjusted my line of sight by simply moving the ends of the binoculars while I was looking through them, a rare skill that for the life of me I have not been able to work out how she developed. One quick movement and I was staring at a strange black-and-white striped bird with a short curved beak and a crazy frond of feathers extending from its pink head. It looked garishly out of place, stood on a dry hump of land that had pushed itself up out of the murky waters around it, and as I watched it flattened its crest, opened it out again, and opened its mouth in what looked like a yawn.

"Weird," I said. "What is it?"

"That, my friend," she whispered, "is a fucking hoopoe."

"A hoo-what?"

"A hoopoe. Do you have any idea how rare this is?"

"Uh, no," I said. I stood up, handing the binoculars back to her. She wasted no time, immediately gluing herself to the eyepieces

"They almost never come to Britain, only enough to get drawn in bird-spotting guides. You might be a bird-watcher in Britain your whole life and never see one. And you saw one first time out!"

"Just lucky, I guess."

I let my gaze wander over to our companion, expecting to see that he was snapping away as well, getting proof of this miraculous event.

Even without Miranda's skill, I could see that he was not. The camera was pointing up at a low slope, and definitely away from the crazy-headed hoopoe.

What are you photographing? I wondered.


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