The cry was startling; a limp, less-than-manly wail in the night that hinted of embroidered slippers and silk dressing gowns. It was not the sort of cry a man could ignore. This man threw back the sheets and ran for the window.
There it was again. A trilling call that penetrated thick curtains and triple glazing.
‘My god, Dick! Where are you?’
I pulled back a curtain and pressed my nose to the window. My breath clouded the scene but the sight was unmistakable. There, standing in the middle of Judy’s best astroturf, was a luminescent Graham Norton sitting astride a figure dressed in combat camouflage whose struggling gestures merged into the terrain. Look again and the figure would disappear, leaving Graham squatting in the middle of the lawn. Either way, it was a spectacle I couldn't ignore.
‘Richard? What’s wrong?’
Judy sat up in bed, peering out from beneath her eyeshades.
‘It’s Norton,’ I said, grabbing my trousers and slipping them over kneecap. ‘He’s out there riding a stranger on our lawn.’
‘Not again! What time is it?’
The digital didn’t hold back with the truth. ‘A quarter past four,’ I said, arming myself with a shirt and sweater.
I was down the stairs and unlocking the front door by the time Judy was out of bed. I could hear her heavy footsteps as she marched to the wardrobe and began to dress. I was glad to have her as backup. It made me feel like I was a member of NATO.
This was the third occasion on which Norton has woken me in the last month. The first two times, he’d come hammering on the front door claiming to have spotted a prowler on our property. Now, by the looks of things, he’d bagged himself a suspect.
‘Thank god!’ said Graham as I appeared on the porch. ‘I was beginning to wonder how long it would take you.’
‘What exactly are you doing, Graham?’ I asked. ‘And who’s that you’re sitting on?’
‘The Prowler,’ replied Norton, the brazen ‘P’ standing out from the reticent crowd. ‘I’ve sensed that there’s been somebody loitering in the neighbourhood and I waited up to see if I could catch him.’
The figure said something like ‘earnest gnus eat liquorice’ but the whole thing was muffled by Graham’s cheeks. They were doing such an admirable job of keeping the man’s face pressed down into the turf that you’d think that they’d had plenty of practice. I just shook my head at the banality of it all. Since Graham moved into the neighbourhood a few months ago, we’ve hardly spoke. The fact that he’s the prime candidate to take over from Terry Wogan on Eurovision has been enough to put him in my bad books and this latest episode was not going to change that. It’s bad enough that my own cynical approach to European pop has been rejected in favour of his crude innuendos but now he was subduing a pair of boots that I recognised only too well.
‘Could you get off him now, Graham?’ I asked, too tired for manners. ‘Not only have you made a terrible mistake but you’ve probably endangered wildlife.’
‘Wildlife?’ he repeated. The poor man just had no idea.
I nodded down at the green Wellingtons. ‘I suspect that the man currently struggling for air beneath your buttocks is the BBC’s finest nature correspondent and the man who’s is single-handedly restoring the owl population of this undisclosed area of North London.’
Graham looked down between his thighs. I think he was surprised to find Bill Oddie lying there.
‘Owls!’ shouted Bill as the weight came off his back. He stood up and lashed out at Graham who took the blow manfully.
‘Ooh!’ he said, rubbing the spot on his right knee where Oddie’s blow had landed.
‘What’s your game?’ asked Bill. ‘I’m out here waiting to see if the barn owls are taking to their new home in Richard’s shed and then you, you great nancy, come jumping out of the bushes.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Graham.
‘Sorry? Do you know how many years it has taken me to get the natural musk of the forest? I spent a month living with moles just so I could move among animals without them fearing me. And now look at me? I smell like a teenage girl left too long in Boots.’ He sniffed an arm. ‘Is that jasmine? Is that jasmine?’
‘That’s "Charm For Men",’ protested Graham.
‘I knew it,’ cried Bill, as though his world had come to an end. ‘I smell of jasmine! Oh, my mole musk! Gone! All gone!’
I wasn’t for charm, jasmine, moles, or even Bill Oddie. It was nearly half past four on a Saturday morning and Judy had just appeared on the doorstep wielding her best fairway wood.
‘It’s been a terrible misunderstanding,’ I said. ‘Bill, you should be thankful that there are men like Graham looking out for his neighbours. But Graham, you should be thankful that there are men like Bill looking out for the owls. I’ve given Bill permission to come and go as he likes on our property and I don't take kindly to your hiding in our shrubbery. I think you own Bill an apology.’
‘Apologise! To him! I shan’t.’
Judy was now at my shoulder and looked menacing with her 3 wood.
‘Graham,’ she said, ‘you will apologise this instant or I’ll knock you into next week.’
‘She can do it,’ I said. ‘It’s only a short par 4 away.’
But Graham was too proud to be moved by threats. That's what comes of being a protected species in the BBC light entertainment schedule. He brushed a few flecks of mud from his sequined purple jacket before he aimed a spiteful look at the shortest man on the green.
‘Bill Oddie,’ he said, ‘you might fool some people with all this talk about owls but I know different. It’s not right for a grown man to be prowling people’s gardens in the middle of the night. It's not even right for him to be hanging around BBC2.’
And without another word, he flounced off into the shadows, taking the charm of jasmine with him.
Bill just stood there, looking as grim as he is really quite harmless.
‘Come on Bill,’ I said. ‘Let’s pop around the back and I’ll wipe you down with some old leaves. We’ll have you smelling of moles before you know it.’
‘Yes,’ added Judy, kindly putting her arm around his shoulders. ‘You go with Richard. There’s not a man alive who knows more about compost.’
And indeed there isn’t. But it still makes a man happy to hear such kind words coming from his wife of so many years.