Magpie

 Chapter One

Little Yellow Rock

There was a man who was not my father. He travelled over a hundred miles to die, and I found him when I came home to Liverpool one day in the middle of summer.

My father died ten years ago but I’m not talking about him. There was an Irishman who went missing fifty years ago. The trains rumbled beneath my feet, rushing out into the hot air, so loud it was as though a hundred people were talking at once. Heat rose from the railway 20 feet below, shimmered like water, distorted everything. I had to blink the salt out of my eyes. I looked out at the long winding tracks. The bridge was part of the road where the station stood behind me, and when the cars had driven off into the dense atmosphere, the magpies made sounds like maracas.

‘What are you doing?’ Elizabeth’s voice came from behind me. The sound of her voice was like someone pulling me out of a dream and placing me in another. My sister, Elizabeth, was going through a phase of changing her hair colour every week. This time it was ash blonde.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I was just thinking.’

‘What were you thinking about?’

‘The past,’ I said. ‘You know, when we were kids playing in the street. Remember that?’

‘Yeah, up on the hill.’ She looked at me, not intensely, but with the same indirect look a doctor might give a patient. ‘What are you doing up there?’

‘Just looking out at the railway.’

She put her bag down and climbed up onto the wall, straining with her weight as she pulled herself up, and when she stood up next to me we both looked out into the distance. The railway, the green shrubbery on the slopes, the dirt, the brownish colour of the buildings, the dull haze of warm light. Everything was lit up and coloured gold like syrup.

‘You’re just not used to being back,’ she said. ‘I saw Lily earlier on today.’

‘Did you?’

‘Yeah. She’s got her own place now. She moved out of her granddad’s a while ago.’

I didn’t respond. I looked down again, my eyes tracked the double silver shine of the railway up to the horizon where it was clear and lucid like cut glass.

‘One for sorrow,’ Elizabeth said. ‘There’s a magpie on the roof over there.’

And there was. One little magpie. Black and white and where the sun shone, blue. It ruffled its feathers and twisted its head to look at us. It flew away into the hot, bright atmosphere, enveloped by the whiteness of the sun. From the corner where a billboard advertised shampoo, the road turned onto another road ahead where the post office was and further along this road the tall fence alongside the tracks had been eaten away with rust.

‘What’s that?’ she said.

‘What?’

‘There. See?’ she said, pointing. ‘The little yellow rock.’

At first, I didn’t know I was looking at it. I thought my eyes were just tired from the heat. But it was there. I could see it from the bridge, a gold or yellow rock sticking out near the tracks.

‘It just looks like a rock,’ I said, but I kept looking at it. The glare of light from the tracks caught the yellow glow of the rock. I wiped sweat from my forehead, brackish and oily, exhaust fumes made the atmosphere heavier and heavier.

‘What is it?’ she said.

‘I don’t know.’

‘We should go down and have a look.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’

‘It could be worth something,’ she said. ‘It looks like gold.’

I couldn’t look away but at the same time I couldn’t figure out what it was. Too many drunk evenings with my brothers and the fat afternoon sun played havoc on my brain. I looked around, felt the dark and the light and the glaring orange sun. Birds flew overhead and vanished.

‘Let’s go and have a look,’ she said. ‘Come on.’

We jumped down off the wall and walked around the corner near the post office. The fence was so rusted in one place it had turned orange and flaked off into an oily, sand-like dust leaving sharp rough edges which we could push to one side since it wasn’t fixed in place at the bottom. It was hot to touch. The offensive vinegary smell of overgrown weeds filled the air. We crawled through the old rusted railings trying not to scratch ourselves on the sharp metal points. I looked back to see if anyone was around or if anyone from the post office had seen us climb through. No one had. The weeds entangled around each other in green knots and some strangled flower-heads lolled to one side. We slid down a small steep slope, carefully placing our feet into small invisible grooves within the weeds, aware of the ever-present danger of the railway at the bottom. Litter seemed to grow with the weeds where part of a rusted bicycle lay forgotten. Soon the weeds cleared and there was just the steep slope of hard soil. And the little yellow rock. I was so drawn to it I forgot Elizabeth was there. I checked the trains weren’t coming. The thin weedy shrubbery smelled odd, musty and toxic, my hands cut from the climb down. That was when Elizabeth fell.

She went down quickly, toppling over herself, her legs turning in the air, and then she rolled a few times, stopping just short of the tracks. At first, she didn’t move, and I thought she might have been unconscious, but as I called down to her she began to get up. Her scream was a sudden, unexpected sound like a wailing bird with a broken wing, which echoed from the slope to the black tunnel a little further ahead. I made my way down, keeping my balance as my feet slipped on the hard soil and I stumbled to the bottom of the slope to help her. I tried to calm her down in her panic. Her shaking hands gripped my arms. Her lip was bleeding and a dirty bruise had appeared above her left eye. But her eyes, I noticed, looked past me.

I turned around and saw the thing she had seen. What I saw was not a yellow rock at all. It was a skull.

We stared at it in the baking hot sun and didn’t say a word. The colour now like a tobacco-stain rather than gold. We just looked at it and it looked at us. Its old face partly crumbled to ash, smiling as if it was happy to see us.

I heard the rumble of an approaching train, and I thought we should move.

‘Who is that?’ Elizabeth asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘It is a person, though? Isn’t it?’

‘Yes. I think it is.’

The sound of the train became louder and louder as it got closer to us and soon it barged through with all its bluster, a wavering tremor through the ground and shooting electrical whips went through the rails. There was a hot electricity all around as if a thunderstorm was about to descend. We climbed up the slope, leaving the skull where it was as the train shot past pushing a violent cloud of hot air. We crawled back through the fence. We walked back home without saying a word as a magpie made a maraca sound somewhere above us.

© Michael Holloway

Cover photo by Darius K on Unsplash