Magpies

magpies

I wanted to fly to the south coast. My wings were clipped so I had to get her to drive me. It didn’t take long but the air was stale inside the car. I opened a window but the wind roared at me so I shut it again.

When we arrived I could hear my brothers crying in the sky. They sought out scraps left by the people on the beach. They needed the people but they would never be their friends. I heard them cry and I felt like crying too.

The sea was a darker shade of blue than I remembered. How long has it been since I last saw it?

In the house, pictures of friends on the wall: a magpie, a thrush, someone with a brown and white speckled breast. He’s happy in an artificial kind of way. They’re trapped in their frames, stone still because they cannot fly.

I know how they feel.

*

Their first taste of domestic bliss was three nights and three days on the south coast. Self-catered, they meandered around the shops and treated themselves to extra special biscuits and fresh vegetables. They laid their toothbrushes down together, showered and brushed each other’s hair. At night they made sure all the doors were locked and the lights were out. Alone, they made love, talked for awhile, and fell to sleep in an embrace.

He made bacon and coffee dressed only in his underwear. She wore his t-shirt like a nightdress. He liked the way she looked in it.

By the second night they were both wondering if they could do this full-time.

*

I dreamed it was my wedding day. The ceremony was delayed because I couldn’t get my jacket on over my wings. I wanted to just cut some holes but a faceless best man insisted that the wings would have to come off. I tried to reason with him but it was one of those dreams where something bad is inevitably going to happen. Two men came in dressed as fire-fighters with the Jaws of Life. They clamped it on to the root of my wings and squeezed until the bones cracked. I didn’t feel any pain, just emptiness. I sobbed and the dream ended before my bride arrived.

When I woke I saw a single magpie perched on the roof of the house opposite. One for sorrow. Her naked body slept curled away from me. I lay back down and curled away from her. We lay there in our own worlds.

*

High up, the hotel watched over the bay. If it strained its many eyes, it could see the town on the far side. It was benevolent. The gulls worshipped it and the presents its children left them. The children came and went. Drinking tea inside. Walking dogs outside.

They sat in the hotel and she told him about how she would like to get married there. He drank his ale and let his head get fuzzy. The sun was shining intermittently. When a cloud blocked it the wind picked up until eventually they changed seats to get out of the draught.

On the cliff they took a picture and were satisfied by how beautiful they looked together. His hair was wild and tangled from the wind. Hers was dark and sleek and tied back to resist the breeze’s advance. She leant her head against his. He returned the pressure and watched the gulls circling overhead.

At the house, she complained of a headache and went to lie down. He sat in the garden with all the flowers and drank coffee. He wrote about how he was a bird and how he envied the other birds because they could fly and he couldn’t. Looking up at the roof of the house opposite, he saw that the magpie had returned. This time he had a friend. Two for joy. The magpies hopped and perched and flapped their wings and were thoroughly in love.

*

I dreamed that I was sat in the garden. She was in the kitchen baking a pie. The flowers bloomed all around me. They were so fertile they attracted hundreds of bees. The bees swarmed, clambering in and out to collect the nectar, bumping into each other and becoming angry. The bees swarmed around me. I tried to swat them away but I was paralysed. They covered every inch of my face and crawled into and out of my ears. I tried to call for help but it was one of those dreams where you have no voice.
She came outside and rested the pie on a table to let it cool. She asked me what was wrong. The bees began to sting me then. Short sharp pains like needles tingled in the side of my face and the inside of my ear.

The pie burst open. Three magpies flew out and perched on the roof of the house opposite. Three for a girl.

I woke up and found I had fallen asleep with my face on her chest. I put a hand on her belly and felt how warm it was.

*

On the last day, they went to the beach. Not soft sand but round pebbles that moulded to shape them when they sat. The sea lapped the shore. The sky turned from sun to heavy grey clouds and eventually it rained but not for long.

They returned to the house and cleaned it so well to give the illusion that they had never been there. They shared the chores, pinched and groped each other as they did them and he remarked that cleaning had never been so fun.

Then it was time to leave. He was content to let her drive. He didn’t feel the need to fly anymore. In the car he was caged, but the air was warm and comfortable. He held her leg and it was soft in his palm. He stroked her hair and she smiled at him for a moment before looking back at the road.

The heavens opened and a thunder storm raged around them but they were safe and warm together. Rain lashed against the windscreen and they watched it, safe in their womb. He grinned inwardly and counted the magpies he had seen. Seven for a secret never to be told.

*

I’m sitting alone in my attic bed-sit. The sky outside is grey. Raindrops fall against the window. A magpie stands on the terraced roof opposite. He hops. He pecks at the tiles. Mostly he watches me.

I walk around the neighbourhood going nowhere in particular and with no reason to go there. I walk past the abandoned church and look at the names and dates on the tombstones and the good things said about the dead. In the park two magpies loiter on the grass in front of me. They part when I pass through them but do not fly away.

I’m sitting alone with my face in my hands. She fixed my wings and set me free but I have nowhere to fly to. Out the window on the roof opposite three magpies sit and stare at me. They want me to come out and play with them. They want me to come out and fly.

I silently mouth the rhyme:

One for Sorrow
Two for Joy
Three for a Girl…

And the buzzer to my bed-sit goes off.

*

She came to him swollen. She came to him battered but with a resilient smile when he opened the door. He pushed the clothes off the sofa and let her sit. She took it gratefully. She was too heavy to be on her feet.

“I thought I wouldn’t see you again. It’s good to,” he said.
“I left him. I told him the truth and left him,” she said.
“Looks like he didn’t take it well.”
“I’ll live. I have to for her sake.”
“So it’s a ‘her’.”
“We’re having a daughter.”

She cried. He made her a cup of tea. He looked around and wondered if there would be enough room for three of them. She saw the look on his face and came over to hold his hands.

“I know you have nothing. You know I know you have nothing. That’s how you know I love you,” she said.

*

To be a father. I look at books with names in on the shelves of bookshops and libraries but I never buy them and I never find the right name. I wonder how a child will look at me. I sometimes look in the mirror and see a child looking back. Sometimes that’s the child I want in my life, not a new one.

The magpies are gone. I think they went to escort the stork.

*

They tried to do it full time. She bought a toothbrush and put it next to his. She bought flowers to add colour to the little room. They lay in bed together and alternatively watched each other sleep and wondered what the other was dreaming.

They walked together, until she was too big to go far. They walked around the neighbourhood going nowhere in particular for no real reason other than to get out. He watched as she filled more and more of his space.

Then the time came.

*

Our daughter is born. A little underweight but healthy. She’s too tiny to be an albatross around my neck. She’s tamed me. I have nowhere to fly now. She needs me. She’s beautiful. She has her eyes, but she has my wings.

story by Graeme McCann
image by Simon Matthews designer/illustrator, member of the design team den75.

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