The Rookery – a short story

In accordance with English custom Doris’s home had a name, but instead of an attractive and loved descriptor such as Rose Cottage, The Orchards or Green Gables it was called The Rookery. All who heard it thought the name sinister, perhaps because rook sounds so like crook. Ironically, the Rookery was as sinister as it name suggested. It was a large brick Victorian house of no particular architectural merit, and during Doris’s lonely tenure it stood in a neglected, overgrown garden masked by a high fence and clothed by a prolific covering of ivy. Its introversion was further accentuated by the presence of dark shutters which remained closed over the majority of the openings. Even when Doris was in residence, inviting lights did not shine from its blank windows, and apart from the noise of the rooks no sounds emanated to signal life on the premises.

The Rookery after which the building was named occupied the copse of trees which overshadowed and filled the garden. To have given their name to the house the rook’s ancestors must have been nesting in those trees for almost a hundred years, a fact which was borne out by the pungent bird odor and the accumulation of sticks and other bird detritus on the ground. It is reported that Rooks are highly intelligent and have been known to use tools as Ravens do in Aesop’s fables. Perhaps this intelligence makes up for their other unattractive characteristics. They are members of the corvid sub-species of birds and are close relatives to jackdaws and ravens. They look evil, with black plumage tinged with a devilish greenish-purple sheen. Their long shaggy feathers on the upper parts of their legs give them an additional unkempt aura which is accentuated by a whitish-grey patch of feathers at the base of their grey bills. Even their song, if called song, is a squawked kaah, kaah. It echoes uncannily across their flocks and among the trees of their rookeries.

A dilapidated sign with black letters hung on the gate and proclaimed “The Rookery,” and even though the English law of 1765 required all houses to have numbers, there was no street number adjacent to the name. The house was located at the end of a long street at the edge of town and so its number might have been in the high double digits. People walking along the street always walked on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. It was either an attempt to distance themselves from the sinister ambiance around the site or a practical reaction to avoid bird droppings.

Doris was a recluse who fit well into the ambiance of her home. The superstitious might have thought her to be a witch for she was never seen in full daylight and when she did appear she held her tall, lanky body in a permanent stoop with her limbs protruding at odd angles. She had been raised by her grandmother and now, in her early fifties, still lived in the house of her youth. Her grandmother had bequeathed her the house and sufficient funds for her to live without working. This was a pity for after graduation from University, all Doris had to do was to live and so this is what she did, yearly withdrawing a little more into herself. Her dark expensive clothing hung off her body in ill-fitting drapes, giving the impression that she had recently lost weight – a lot of weight. This was not the case, for Doris’s constant state of nervous worry and lack of interest in food had kept her stick-thin her whole life. Her skin looked yellow and jaundiced which further accentuated her unhealthy aura. Her annuity did not allow for luxuries, so once a year Doris sold a piece of her grandmother’s jewelry and used the proceeds to finance a trip to a spa in Switzerland. She felt that the trip was essential for her to treat her various hypochondriac ailments, and she enjoyed being pampered by strangers.

Amy, an outgoing motherly woman who lived a few houses away from Doris, tried to befriend her. To some extent she succeeded, for, on random occasions when her loneliness became unbearable, Doris would walk to Amy’s house and tentatively ring the doorbell and then, immediately regretting her action, would turn and attempt a quick retreat. Amy was alert and generally opened the door before Doris managed to complete her flight. They would then engage in a bizarre exchange in which Amy urged Doris to come in for a cup of tea or a drink while Doris squirmed and stammered unending apologies for her presence and reaffirmed emphatically that she didn’t want to take up Amy’s time or be a nuisance, while her prolonged apologies did both.

One day Doris arrived in a visible state of dire distress to tell Amy that she had been robbed. On this occasion she accepted an invitation to enter and stood drinking a gin and tonic gazing out of a window without eye contact as she told her story. “My diamond ring, the one with the Sapphires has been stolen.” she moaned. She went on to explain that she had been at home the entire period during which the ring had disappeared and no one else, not even her cleaning girl, had been in the house. She looked vulnerable and assaulted. Amy suggested that the ring had probably been mislaid, fallen behind Doris’ vanity or come off when Doris was washing her hands. To this Doris violently objected, asserting that she never wore the lost ring. In desperation and kindness, Amy volunteered to accompany Doris home and to assist her in a thorough search. She further proposed to have her two daughters come with them to make the search go faster.

When Doris opened the creaking Rookery front door to admit her helpers, they all three gasped. They smelt the stagnant air and saw an interior resembling a Dickens stage setting. It reminded all three of Miss Havisham’s abode in Great Expectations. As they gazed around the dim room filled with ponderous old furniture, it would not have surprised them to see an old wedding dress draped over the torn lace on the sofa. They hastily searched the room, getting on hands and knees to inspect under the heavy furniture. Amy used a flashlight, glad that she had had the foresight to bring it, for the room had only one ineffective light fixture in its center. They went upstairs and searched Doris’ bedroom, spending extra time looking around the vanity where Doris had last seen the ring, with no luck. The room was cold with an open window next to the vanity.
“Brr, it is cold in here. May I close the window?” asked Amy.
“Why, yes. I opened it this morning to air the room,” explained Doris.

The unsuccessful search went on to the bathroom and kitchen. Doris steered them away from the other rooms, which she kept locked and told them that she never used. Amy advised Doris that it seemed unlikely that a thief, if there were a thief, would take only one item and suggested that Doris not call the police; but wait to give the ring time to turn up.

A few days later Doris was back more agitated than ever. A second more valuable ring of emeralds and diamonds had disappeared. Doris explained that she had fired her maid in case she were the thief and that no one, except she herself, been in the house. This time Amy advised Doris to report her losses to the police. She further suggested that Doris keep any other jewelry locked up.

The police were responsive and assigned Tony, their best inspector to Doris’s case. Like Amy and her daughters before him he found the Rookery eerily locked in the stasis of Victoriana. He looked at Doris with compassion, for in all his thirty years as a policeman he had never met anyone so trapped in the past. He inspected Doris’s bedroom and her vanity, he leant out of the window and he viewed the ground below. Then he went outside and pushed the bird droppings and twigs aside to look at the hard ground underneath – he found no evidence of any disturbance in the dirt. He inspected all the doors for evidence of forced entry. He asked about tradespersons, the milk-man, the mail carrier, and any other people who might come to the home. But Doris explained that all delivered to a box at her gate without entering the grounds. As he made his tour, Doris trailed behind him, watching his every motion but saying nothing. He found her silence odd because most burglary victims keep nervously repeating their narrations. So, when he had finished his search he suggested that they go back inside to discuss what to do next, although he knew that he had no good recommendations.

He paused in the living room to give his eyes time to adjust to the gloom. He was tempted to give Doris some hope, but something held him back and he decided to be candidly honest. “In cases like this,” he said, “we seldom manage to apprehend the perpetrator. Our best hope is that one of the local pawn shops or fences identifies your rings and makes a report. However, I consider this to be a long shot as all we have is your description without a photograph or jeweler’s appraisal.”

Doris sighed and gave him an appealing glance. She looked fragile and vulnerable. Tony, as a widower of many years, recognized her loneliness with empathy. He quickly deduced that this was a far greater need than her need to retrieve her lost rings. He decided that he should change the subject in an attempt to divert her from brooding. He gave the room another perusal and noticed that there was a half-finished game of chess on one of the tables. He looked at the board more closely and made a quick assessment of the game. “Strange game,” he commented, “seems odd that one would leave a game when white is only three moves away from checkmate.”
Doris paused behind him, “I think that you are wrong. I think that if black castles, things may turn against white.”
“Maybe,” he countered, “but doesn’t that open up a line of attack for the white queen?”
“You have a point, but remember that black has another rook lurking over there on the far side. He could swoop in and take the vulnerable pawn in the front of white’s defense.” Tony heard anticipation and even a twinge of excitement in her voice and quickly deduced that they had something in common, for she obviously liked to play.
“Who is your opponent?”
“Me, I play both colors,” she said as she shook her head.
“Would you like a game against a real opponent, such as me?” He took her look of amazement as encouragement and pressed on. “I could come by next Thursday evening on my night off. I could bring fish and chips and we could finish this game or undertake a new one. What do you think?”

Doris nodded. She found the thought of a game with a real opponent alluring, and although she never bought fish and chips the thought of a meal which she didn’t have to prepare and eat alone also attracted her. She surprised herself when she almost whispered, “That would be nice. What time do you suggest?”

Over the next few weeks Doris and Tony developed a quiet routine of a weekly game accompanied by fish and chips. They were well matched. Sometimes Tony won; sometimes Doris. One day Tony brought a floor lamp as a gift, and another, a new colorful modern cloth to replace the tattered one on the table. Doris even spruced things up a little and added colorful scarves to her otherwise drab clothes. They both enjoyed their games, and over time began to spend as much time talking as they did playing. Then one momentous day Tony invited Doris to go to a film with him. The went to “West Side Story” with Natalie Wood and later followed this date up with “The Roman Summer of Mrs. Stone” with Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty, and Lotte Lenya.

Tony, who had previously been as lonely as Doris, began to think about marriage to this strange woman and humbly took his savings and bought a ring. It embarrassed him that he could not afford anything flamboyant, certainly nothing which could compare to the descriptions and valuations of Doris’s lost rings; but he rationalized that they were lost and he had never seen Doris wear any jewelry. He concluded that the two lost pieces must have been the extent of her collection. For weeks he carried the ring box in his pocket, fondling it when he was in Doris’s presence but never able to draw it out. For some perverse reason he worried more about the acceptability of his ring than about Doris’s response. He was sure that if his ring filled the void left by her losses that she would acquiesce. But each time that his hopes rose he again worried that his ring would be unacceptable – a poor substitute for the two stolen treasures.

Tony’s visits made Doris feel braver and more outgoing. She began to assert herself and when an intrepid tree trimmer knocked on her door with a proposal to trim the tree limbs which hung dangerously over the roof, she saw the logic in his proposal and agreed to hire him. She made sure that the crew came on Thursday so that they would complete their work when Tony arrived for their chess game. The work took longer than anticipated, and so the men were still raking up the dead branches when Tony arrived. The place was in uproar with angry rooks squawking around the felled branches, some of which carried nests.

Tony found the commotion encouraging. This was more life than he had ever encountered at the Rookery. He took the new ambiance as a good sign and was about to pull out his ring when the tree trimmer foreman knocked on the door. Both Tony and Doris responded. The man stood holding out his hand in which he cradled two shining rings. “Them rooks,” he said “In the nest; they love bright objects. This is the best I’ve ever seen!”

4 thoughts on “The Rookery – a short story

  1. I loved this Jane, nicely written in a style that echoed the subject material and with an excellent unexpected twist at the end. I do like a good twist and all the details are there to make it plausible. I seem to recall that the lady whom this story may be part modelled on once had a so called diet of oranges and cream….

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