I first met him as part of a group of people who didn’t know me at all but who knew friends whom I’d known for some years, but the first thing he ever said to me, quite out of the blue, at a pudding party run by the original friends, was rather off-putting to say the least. We were both digging away with large spoons at various choice desserts, such as layered sherry trifles, rich chocolate mountains, wobbly jellies, cheerful cheesecake, and much more that was difficult to describe or even put a name to. All scrumptious to behold.

“Where do robins go in the summer?” he asked.

“Excuse me,” I said almost instantaneously, not wishing to appear stand-offish in what appeared, so far, to be an opening gambit in a game of ice-breaking small talk. I later felt I wanted to continue to interact, in case this was a required collusion or collaboration necessary to uncover an apparent code to some deeper meaning. Passwords were always used for the benefit of both parties. Otherwise, why use them at all?

“The end of the chase,” I replied. He looked friendly enough and seemed to be open to creative opening gambits in the game of life. My own words had slipped out without me actually planning to say them. As if he had read my mind and made me say them. At first, what I said didn’t seem to be an answer to his question about where robins go in the summer. Did robins go away in the summer, in any event? I needed to get back to my wife who was a member of the RSPB. She was chatting away to her choral society friends on the other side of the room, a pudding balanced on her lap that looked suspiciously like a chocolate one. I was shocked. Through a long marriage, I had never known her to eat chocolate. Not a religion, more a belief.

“The end of the chase?” he queried.

“Yes, it’s a long road called the Chase, at the end of which there are hides for birds to use to estivate.”

“Estivate?” He wiped cream from his sparse beard.

“It’s sometimes spelt with an ‘a’ at the beginning,” I answered. “A E S T I V A T E. But more often than not without the ‘a’ at the beginning. It means to spend the summer moribund like hibernate means to spend the winter.”

Excited, we soon put the pudding party behind us. And anyone with whom we had gone to it.

I led the way through the late summer streets towards where I remembered the Chase to be. Would we be too late and find the estivation bird-hides now empty of robins and such like, with their having already smelt Autumn in the air and thus squeezed out one by one to join flocks of other birds, criss-crossing with soon-to-be hibernators until they all sorted themselves out? Not that the hides placed at the end of the Chase by the council were suitable for hibernation. They were only intended for estivation. How I knew this I wasn’t sure, but the further we walked, silently and determinedly, the more of an expert I seemed to become. What strange beginnings, what strange endings, small talk has.

Luckily, I had a small doggy bag of Pear Belle Helene in my pocket that I shared with my companion after a few miles, while sitting together on a park bench, not knowing whether we would ever reach the end of the chase. The whole journey had seemed to become a chase, in other words, something more urgent than its apparently trivial beginnings. We were, I thought, now colluding or collaborating in a race against each other as well as a race against time, itself. A race where we wanted the other one to win, that’s the only way I can explain it. I dabbed a tear from my eye as I suddenly thought of my wife sitting back at the party eating a chocolate pudding. I should have gathered then that things were not right.

“Look!” he suddenly said, grabbing my arm. The seaside air had taken an abrupt turn for the chilly. And there, before us, was a Christmas Card robin perched on a nearby branch.

“Where do you go in the summer?” I whispered almost to myself, as a sort of joke, not believing that I was actually asking this question of a bird!

“The end of the chase,” it tweeted. To nobody, because nobody was there. Gone to ground, man’s real hide, after life’s long chase. Long chase, or sometimes a short one. Sometimes even before the desserts were served. The bird had flown.

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