Oeufs de Caille. It was written on the label in a spidery cursive script, the type of writing normally reserved for wedding invitations, legal degrees, and the diaries of doomed Antarctic explorers. There were about ten small eggs in total, suspended in a stagnant-looking liquid, each about a third of the size of a regular chicken egg, their light beige cases flecked with brown. Somewhere inside, something was tapping.
The tapping started a few days after I received the hamper, a birthday present from my colleagues at work. The hamper was filled with a collection of almost entirely useless, though beautifully packaged items from destinations editorialized in travel supplements in The Guardian. In addition to the evidently French quail eggs, there were artichoke hearts in chilli-infused olive oil from Andalucia, Parmesan breadsticks from Lombardy, porcini paste from Prague, tapenade from Toulon, and a packet of dark-chocolate covered coffee beans, though these were of no obvious nationality.
I had planned to give the whole thing to my parents for Christmas, but a few days after dragging it home I had come back from the pub and torn open the cellophane wrapping covering the basket to get at the breadsticks, which seemed to be the only item with even a vague amount of nutritional value. As it turned out, they were virtually tasteless, and after chewing on one for about a minute, I fell asleep on the sofa with the whole packet beneath me, waking the next morning to a bag of croutons. I threw them out the window for the birds, and they had stayed on the grass ever since. Even the squirrels wouldn’t touch them, and they’re normally not fussy.
I threw most of the hamper’s contents away. The quail eggs however, I kept. I decided they lent a certain exotic air to my cupboard, normally filled with packets of crisps, Pot Noodles and Wagon Wheels. I liked the thought that I had quail eggs in my cupboard. It was all very Brideshead Revisited, dreaming spires of Oxford, tea at the Ritz and what not. They were eggs of aspiration.
I decided to open the jar to see where the tapping was coming from. The lid came off with a pop as the vacuum released, and for the first time I could see the tapping egg, a series of cracks creeping from a hole in one side. Not knowing what else to do, I carefully picked it out and placed it on the kitchen counter. As I lifted it up each tap ran through my fingers like a jolt of electricity.
Occasionally, I caught sight of a tiny beak as it tapped away at the egg from within, the hole growing larger and larger as it did so. As the taps grew more and more violent, the egg began to rock back and forth, so I screwed up a few pieces of kitchen roll and transferred the egg into the resulting nest.
The quail was making slow progress, so I sat down and made a cup of tea while I waited. I wondered whether I should give it a hand with the shell, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to seem patronising, and in my experience there’s nothing worse than a needy child.
I found myself staring out the window thinking about what Hannah would do in this situation. Hannah would probably have a plan. She was, she told me, a woman with plans. In fact, this was something she mentioned while breaking up with me two weeks before we were due to go away to Hove for my birthday. Which was evidently not the type of plan she was referring to.
At some point I realised the tapping had stopped, and when I turned to see what was going on, the shell was almost completely dismantled, and standing amidst the debris in the paper towel nest, staring out the window, was a baby quail.
Though I had never seen a baby quail before, much less one that had emerged from an egg in a jar, I was fairly sure it wasn’t supposed to look like this. It was lumpy and bald, with brownish streaks that ran across the length of its body, like a mouldy zebra. Its wings, without a feathery covering, were more like a pair of stunted, handless arms, and its claws were disproportionately long compared to its body.
I cleared my throat, and the quail slowly moved its spindly feet round so that it was facing me. It seemed to consider me briefly, then sat down and shot its neck up in the direction of the ceiling with its mouth wide open.
I was moderately certain this meant it wanted food, but I had no idea what to give it. An internet search suggested I should be feeding it a diet of fish meal and maggots, neither of which I had easy access to. I tried feeding a piece of bread to the tiny creature instead. It snapped at the bread, then made a series of jerks with its head before spitting it out again.
I experimented with a series of different food items after that. Boiled rice, baked beans, Pot Noodle, cheese, biscuits, cheese and biscuits, Wagon Wheels. It refused everything I had. Eventually I went out into the garden to try and find a worm but before I got to the flowerbed, I noticed the bits of Italian parmesan breadsticks on the lawn. They were somewhat damp from the past couple of nights of being outside, but it seemed worth a go anyway.
To my surprise, the quail gobbled them down with relish, and I found myself back in the garden, scooping up as much of the breadstick porridge as I could manage. After it had eaten an entire packets’ worth, the quail finally stopped opening and closing its mouth, and settled down in its kitchen towel nest. It seemed like a good opportunity to
By this stage I was late for work, so I just found an old shoebox and placed the quail and its nest inside and left the whole lot on the kitchen countertop.
After work, I met Ben at The Phoenix for a pint and explained what happened.
Jesus, he said. That’s not right. You should take them back.
I can’t, I said. They were a prize. And they’re from France or something anyway.
Typical, he said. Your round, isn’t it?
While I was at the bar I bought a packet of Scampi Fries for the quail. The Italian Parmesan breadsticks had all gone, and I knew I would need to feed it again soon.
The next morning, a Saturday, it refused to eat the Scampi Fries. The only thing I could think of feeding it was more Italian Parmesan Breadstick, and the only place I could find the same type was an expensive delicatessen at the end of my road. While I was there I bought a few other food items, as breadsticks hardly seemed to be a well balanced meal for a growing bird. I selected a jar of balsamic jelly, several tins of filets de Maquereaux, a wedge of quince jelly, and a selection of continental olives, which the owner, a thick-set Italian who looked like the offspring of Robert de Niro and a steamer trunk, insisted I buy. He also tried to sell me some quail eggs, but on this I put my foot down.
When I got home, the quail was making its hungry face again, so I fed it an olive stuffed with anchovy and coriander. To follow, it had a mackerel fillet, and for pudding, a slice of quince jelly with a spoonful of balsamic jelly. This meal seemed to leave the chick, which had grown to the size of a Mr Kipling’s Country Slice since the day before, exhausted, and it soon went to sleep.
While it slept, I wondered what to do with the rest of the eggs. They all seemed relatively normal, though I wasn’t entirely confident in my own judgement at this point. I didn’t really want more quails on my hands, but I thought it would be cruel to throw them away, just in case. I decided to reseal them and put the jar back in the fridge, guessing it would have the opposite effect to an incubator. If more were going to hatch, they’d do so at a later date, hopefully by which time I’d have worked out what to do with the first one.
A few hours later I came into the kitchen and realised the quail wasn’t in its nest. I also noticed most of the food I had bought and left out on the counter was missing, in its place a collection of empty containers, wrappers and cartons. The only thing that seemed to be intact was the jar of balsamic jelly, and I supposed that was because I’d left the lid screwed on. Clearly, the quail wasn’t that clever. However, I still didn’t know where it had gone.
I was fairly certain that despite its apparent cunning it wouldn’t be able to fly, and it didn’t seem to be anywhere in the kitchen. I was contemplating phoning the vet again when I heard the sound.
It was coming from my living room, where I found the baby quail sitting in front of the window that overlooked the garden and the flats beyond it. It was standing upright, its strange arms held out, and its little neck stretched even further out than before. And it was singing.
At least, that’s what I assumed it was doing. There was a strange, high-pitched gurgling coming from its general direction, and on the ledge outside the window about a dozen smaller birds were all bobbing their heads in unison, their beaks going down and their tails flipping up behind them every time they did so. None of the birds seemed to notice my being there at all.
The quail’s song seemed to get louder and faster, and the birds’ nodding sped up accordingly. This was when the metal started to pop.
At first I thought it was just the radiators pinking. But then I noticed the sound was coming from all over my flat. Little dents were suddenly forming anywhere where there was metal thin enough, like tiny lunar impact craters. The handful of coins I’d left on the coffee table were jumping up and down like popcorn.
My fillings were starting to twitch when suddenly, the noise stopped. When I looked over at the quail, it was sitting down again, facing away from the window, watching me. The birds on the ledge had gone.
I decided to call Gary.
What’s up, he said.
I told him about the quail and what had just happened.
Blimey, he said. That’s not normal.
Yeah, I said. What am I supposed to do?
Dunno, he said. This is like that thing with Emily Dickinson, isn’t it?
I know, I replied. I was thinking that. Don’t remind me.
What are you going to do?
No idea, I said. I was hoping you’d know.
Haven’t a clue, he said. What about Hannah? Have you spoken to her at all?
No, I said. You know.
Yeah, he said. Well. You about for a drink later?
Yeah, I said. The Swan at eight?
Nice one, he said.
On my way to the pub, I stopped off at the deli again. This time I selected a tin of organic polenta from Piedmont, some fig and chevre filo straws, a pot of 12 year old orchid honey, a jar of cuttlefish in basil olive oil, a tub of pine nut butter, and a demi-loaf of spelt bread. The suitcase Robert de Niro seemed pleased to see me when I put my purchases down on the counter.
Back again, he said.
Yeah, I said. Few things I forgot.
Ah, he said, holding up the Fig and Chevre Filo Straws. You know what goes well with these?
Pine nut butter? I suggested, not wanting to seem uncultured.
French Violet Mustard, he said. And pomegranate molasses.
He even threw in a jar of starfruit and aniseed pesto for free since, he said, it was their summer special.
You missed Hannah, said Gary when I got to the pub. She was just here.
In the background, someone was just getting into a karaoke rendition of Livin’ on a Prayer.
Oh, I said.
Tommy used to work on the docks, karaoke Jon Bon Jovi sang.
Was she here with Mark? I said.
No, Gary said. But he’s a twat, I’ll tell you that for nothing. Paid for packet of crisps the other day with a fifty and said it was all he had. Bet you’ve never even seen a fifty, have you?
Very funny, I said.
Come on mate, he said, only trying to cheer you up, what with your recent troubles and all.
Gary slapped me on the back and finished his pint.
Your round, he said.
Whooah, we’re half way there, sang the pub. Whooooho, livin’ on a prayer.
When I got back home later that evening I decided to leave the quail in the kitchen overnight, where I wouldn’t hear it if it started to sing again. But as soon as I went to pick it up, it sped across the window ledge and leapt onto the floor, where it scurried under my sofa, its claws clicking on the floorboards as it went.
I’d never seen it move out of its nest, so this came as quite a surprise. I peered under the sofa, where I could see its little eyes glinting back at me from the darkness. I couldn’t be sure, but I was certain it had grown since I’d been out. I didn’t fancy reaching under the sofa in case it pecked me, so I went into the kitchen to get a torch and a broom to drive it from its refuge. I also grabbed a bucket. I wasn’t taking any chances.
As I returned, I could hear its feet tapping across the floor again, and I caught a glimpse of it disappearing behind the curtains. Smiling, I held the bucket in one hand, ready to trap it, as I flicked the curtain away from the wall with the broom. But the quail wasn’t there.
Calculating it would be hungry before long, I set out a plate of cuttlefish in basil olive oil with a side of pine nut butter on spelt bread under an upturned bucket. I propped the bucket up with a pencil around which I had tied a length of string, ready to trap it when it emerged. But it didn’t, and I had absolutely no idea where it had gone. I searched the room for another half an hour before giving up.
Before I went to bed, I put the rest of the quail’s food in the fridge, even the items that didn’t require refrigeration. At least that way, I knew they’d be safe.
The next morning, something woke me suddenly, a noise in the living room. Deciding that the quail must have blundered into my trap, I pulled on a pair of jeans and cautiously opened the door.
The trap had indeed been triggered, but didn’t seem to have worked as well as I’d hoped. The empty plate was now sitting on top of the bucket, and the quail itself was back on the window ledge. It was looking out at the gardens again, or more specifically, up at the sky, where a number of birds seemed to be circling, a tight, close-knit halo about a dozen strong. I’d never seen anything like it. Suddenly, one of the birds detached itself from the formation and flew towards us. I assumed it would swoop down and land on the ledge, but it kept travelling high and fast, heading straight at the window. The quail simply continued staring up at the sky.
What seemed to be a pigeon hit with a sickening crash, so fast that I barely saw its body as it bounced off the ledge outside when it fell. The rest of the birds kept circling in the sky.
The window didn’t break. In the place where it had hit, it had left not a crack but a mark, what looked like three-dimensional ghostly impression of a bird in flight. In fact, there were two, one either side of the window, above where the quail was sitting. I assumed the first was the one that had woken me.
Moments later, a third pigeon hit directly in the space between where the other two had hit. It left the same powdery shape as the others, creating a trinity of figures above the quail. The only difference this time was that the revolving circle of birds in the sky disbanded, each one scattering in different directions.
The phone rang. It was Spencer.
I heard about the quail, he said. That’s completely fucked.
Yeah, I said. I haven’t got a clue what to do with it.
It’s like that thing with Emily Dickinson that one time. Remember that?
Yeah, I said. I know.
No end of trouble, he said. So what are you going to do?
Dunno, I said. Wait and see what happens.
In the background, the quail started singing again. I could hear the teaspoons rattling in the kitchen.
Balls, I said.
What’s that noise? said Spencer.
It’s singing again, I said. It breaks things when it sings. You should see the state of my frying pan.
What did Hannah say, said Spencer.
No idea, I said. I haven’t spoken to her in a while.
Oh, he said. Well.
There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence, apart from the quail’s singing. Then Spencer cleared his throat.
Well, he said. Good luck and that.
Thanks, I replied.
I heard him put the phone down in the background, but I jabbed mine off as well in case. I’d obviously been trying not to think about Hannah, and now that he’d brought the subject up again, I was in a bad mood. She’d definitely have a plan by now, I thought. She always had plans, while I always seemed to flannel about making mistakes that just made things worse than they were in the first place.
The quail had stopped singing, so I went to make some tea for breakfast.
In the kitchen, the fridge door was open and the food I’d bought for the quail was gone. This included the items in jars, which were all empty, and the tin of organic polenta, also finished. This was particularly galling, since it was one of those tins with a little key that you need to twist in order to open it, and sometimes even I have difficulty dealing with them.
To top it all, with the fridge door left open, the milk, already several days old, had gone off, so I couldn’t even have breakfast. At least the rest of the quail eggs seemed normal.
I walked back into the living room, where I watched as two robins dropped a small rectangle of what looked like interwoven strands of grass and feathers on the window ledge. The robins were immediately followed by a crow, which held a small stone in one of its claws, which it deposited on top of the grass and feather square, anchoring it to the ledge where it fluttered slightly in the breeze. The birds stood in front of the window, and the quail nodded its head once, at which point all three slowly pecked twice on the glass, after which they flew off together.
Hannah clearly knew by now but wasn’t calling, but I was buggered if I was going to let it get to me. The quail watched me as I grabbed my jacket and the housekeys and my phone.
I’m going out, I said.
Back in the deli, bald Robert de Niro welcomed me with outstretched arms. I bought some mango tequila jalapeño salsa, a jar of Istrian pickled pistachio nuts, some flying fish roe with wasabi seasoning, a pack of chanterelle blinis, and some grape must with candied pumpkin which were apparently the latest special offer just for me, since I was now the shop’s favourite customer. Though he offered me condensed Yak’s milk, he didn’t have any regular semi-skimmed. I had to get that from the newsagent on the corner.
When I got back the quail was still sitting on the ledge and the little rectangle of grass and feathers was now fluttering in the breeze outside on what looked like a flagpole, made from twigs and bits of ivy. The quail watched me as I made my way through the living room to the kitchen. I had to admit, the flag gave it a certain official air.
I was about to make a cup of tea when the phone rang. It was Hannah.
Rory told me, she said straightaway.
How did Rory know? I said.
I don’t know, she said. Probably through Steve.
Steve probably heard from Spencer, I reckoned. But more importantly, the fact that Rory told her meant she was definitely still seeing Mark.
So have you got a plan, she said.
I’m working on it, I said.
I thought about mentioning the grass and feather rectangle but then I decided that would only complicate things.
What sort of plan, she said.
It’s a developing situation, I said.
She went quiet again. I decided to change the subject.
How’s Mark, I said.
Don’t, she said.
Listen, I said.
I’ve got to go, she said, before letting me finish. It was probably just as well.
Okay, I said. Well, thanks for calling.
That’s okay. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.
I’m fine, I said. Really.
Okay, she said. I’ll speak to you soon then.
You too, I said.
I put the receiver down.
When I turned around, the quail was still looking at me.
Piss off, I said. You bald little fucker.
I slammed the door on my way out.
There was nobody at The Eagle when I got there, so I sat at the bar and watched the telly while I had a pint. I’m not normally one for drinking alone but circumstances seemed to call for it on this occasion. In the end I called Chris.
When he answered the phone, it sounded like I’d just woken him up.
You alright, I said. You sound terrible.
Bit of a heavy one last night, he said.
Right, I said. Where were you?
The Pheasant, he said. It’s fucking horrible in there.
Yeah, I said.
I spoke to Nick, he said. Bad luck mate.
Yeah, I said. Any idea what I should do about it?
Haven’t got a clue. Did you speak to Gary?
Yeah. He didn’t know what to do either.
Oh, he said. I’m sure it’ll work out, though.
Yeah, I replied.
I heard Hannah called you, he said. What did she have to say?
Not a lot, I said. The usual.
Yeah, he said. Tell you what, that Mark’s a cock.
Yeah, I said.
Did you hear about the thing with the packet of crisps? he said.
Yeah, I said. Cock.
Twat, he agreed.
Listen, he said. You coming down the pub tomorrow?
Maybe, I said.
Alright, he said. Maybe see you then.
Yeah, I said.
Cheer up mate, he said.
I sat and stared out he window at all the people passing in the street. I wondered how many of them had the same problems I had. Probably loads, I decided. I was just about to order my second pint when someone slapped a fifty down on the bar beside me. At least, that’s what I assumed it was. I’d never seen one.
Packet of salt and vinegar love, a voice said. ‘Fraid that’s all I got.
I looked up.
Fancy meeting you here, Mark said.
Lucky me, I said.
Heard you’ve been having some trouble with a bird, he said. Makes a change.
Hilarious, I said.
Seriously though, he said. Have you got a shotgun?
A gun, I said. No
What about a crossbow?
No, I said.
Shame. I’d come round and sort it out for you, but I’m out tonight with Hannah.
I can sort it out myself, I said.
He opened the pack of crisps and stuffed half the bag in his mouth at once.
Better be off, he said, showering the bar with salt and vinegar flakes. Mustn’t keep the lady waiting.
Right, I said.
He dropped the rest of the packet in the bin on his way out.
Twat, I said, and then, Pint.
Over the course of the next two hours and six pints I concocted a number of plans to get rid of the quail. Traps, poisons, sharp objects, projectiles, each one resulting in heroic victory. By the time I staggered home, there was no way the little runt bastard was staying another night.
It was sitting on the ledge, watching me as I swayed my way towards it.
Come here, I told it. You’re going to learn to fly.
I was about six inches away when it bolted, taking a flying leap from the ledge to the floor, diving under my sofa again. This time, I simply pulled the sofa out form the wall and tipped it on its edge. It ran next to the coffee table, but this too I upended, followed by my armchair, side table, and then my stereo, which I threw on top of the sofa. Finally, ran behind my bookcase. It was a fairly solid piece of wood, and as I tried to pull it away, I remembered that it was screwed into the wall. So instead I started pulling out books so I could get at it. I had an armful of paperbacks when it made another run for it, and so as it clipped across the floor I flung books at it. It was as agile as ever, dodging Bleak House, A Passage to India, and Jude the Obscure before I scored a direct hit with The Alchemist, a book Hannah had given me. The book came to rest beneath the window, the quail pinned somewhere within its pages.
I approached it slowly with Pride and Prejudice held aloft. There was no sign of movement from the Coelho, and I nudged the book with my foot, ready to strike.
The quail was lying on the ground, motionless. I bent closer, and could see that its eyes were shut, though it was definitely breathing, its chest rising and falling and its little arms trembling.
I thought back to my earlier plans: knives, forks, sharpened chopsticks, a fly swatter, a toaster, my waffle maker. All intricate, clever, and much more original than a shotgun or a crossbow. But as I stood there, I realised they weren’t my plans. Not really.
Shit, I said.
I picked the quail up and carried it back into the kitchen, together with a cushion from my sofa. I placed the quail on the cushion and filled a dish with a selection of food items I’d picked up earlier that day. I waved it under its beak, and though the quail opened its eyes, it didn’t even try to eat.
I’m sorry, I said. Really sorry.
I left it in the kitchen while I tidied up my living room, and when I was finished, I brought it in with me and sat beside it on the sofa with its food. Eventually, I fell asleep.
The next morning when I woke, the quail wasn’t beside me. I panicked at first, thinking it had fallen off the cushion in the night, but when I looked up, it was sitting on the window ledge again. The flag was back, and this time, it was sitting on what looked like a little throne, made in the same way as the flag, though a bit sturdier, woven together with twigs and feathers. The windowsill was crowded with various types of bird, all silently watching the quail.
I walked over to it and knelt down in front of it.
I’m really sorry, I said. I’m glad you’re okay.
I filled its dish back up with food, and then showered and got ready for work.
I swung by the delicatessen on my way home from the café to pick up some more bits for the quail. Robert de Niro wasn’t there. Instead, standing behind the counter was a girl about the same age as me. She was slicing up what looked like a huge ham.
I picked out a bottle of mushroom and truffle sauce, a packet of Sicilian salt-packed capers, a jar of preserved spiced lemons, and a tin of prune and ginger tagine paste and took it up to the counter.
Hello, I said.
Hello, said the woman behind the counter.
She added up the things on the big old cash register.
That’ll be twelve fifty please, she said.
Aren’t you going to try and sell me some other stuff? I said. The other bloke usually does.
Excuse me? said the woman.
You know, the big Italian bloke. Looks a bit like Robert de Niro.
Right, she said. Sorry about that. That’s my dad.
Oh, I said. Sorry.
That’s all right, she said. So did you actually want anything else?
Not really, I said. It’s not for me. To be honest, I’ve got no idea what most of this lot tastes like.
Me too, she said. I don’t think my dad does either.
The breadsticks are alright, I said.
She pulled a face.
I tried them when I was drunk once, she said. They’re completely tasteless.
Yeah, I said. You’re right. They’re horrible.
She laughed again and brushed a curl of hair away from her eyes.
I’d stick to the ham, she said. Our cheeses are pretty good too.
Right, I said.
Try some, she said.
That’s okay, I said.
It won’t kill you, she said. Look.
She sliced off a piece of cheese, and put it on a little biscuit from behind the counter, together with what looked like the quince jelly I’d fed the quail the day before. She handed me the whole thing. It tasted good.
Thanks, I said. Not bad.
We aim to please, she said.
So how come I haven’t seen you here before? I said.
Oh, she said, normally I just help out with stuff at weekends. But I also work here Thursdays. It’s my father’s poker night.
The girl handed me the quail’s food in a brown paper bag.
Thanks, I said. So, maybe see you next Thursday then. You can sell me some ham or something.
I’ll be here, she said.
She gave me a wave as I left the shop and went back to her slicing.
The quail was still sitting on its throne when I got home, looking much better.
I decided to have an early night instead of going to the pub. Before I turned in, I fed the quail dinner. It just sat there on the window ledge and ate the food, and seemed to go to sleep again after it had eaten the rest of the stuff I’d bought. I turned the light out and left it in the living room. I fell asleep as soon as I turned the light off. That night I dreamed I was flying.
The next morning, the window was open and the quail was gone, together with its flag and throne. Only the images of the ghostly birds remained, glowing softly in the morning sun. Before I went to work I cleared out the containers I’d accumulated over the weekend, putting everything into one rubbish bag. I looked at what I had left and decided to go shopping. Even though I wasn’t sure about most of the stuff I’d been buying, I decided I could make a few changes. That cheese, for example. That wasn’t so bad.