Magpie – Chapter One

Little Yellow Rock

 

I’d come home to Liverpool after I’d lost my job and I had fallen into the routine of walking around town and drinking with my brothers. It was the middle of summer. Hot, but not as hot as the summer of ’97 when everything fell apart, and here I was, trying to rebuild it all.

When the cars had driven off in the thick, hot atmosphere, the magpies made sounds like maracas, as though they were laughing, and the trains – where the road bridged over the tracks – went back and forth every fifteen minutes. I’d decided to climb up onto the wall and look out at the long, winding tracks like fingers reaching out into the distance.

My father died ten years ago. But I’m not talking about him. There was another man. There was an Irishman who went missing fifty years ago. The trains rumbled underneath me, rushing out into the hot air, so loud it was as though a hundred people were talking at once, and slowly became quiet.

For a long time, no one knew what happened to him, who he was, nor why he’d travelled 200 miles to die.

I was still standing on the wall when my sister, Elizabeth, saw me and came over. ‘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. Elizabeth, an eighteen-year-old art school drop-out, was going through a phase of changing her hair colour every week. This time it was ash-blonde. She was a quiet person, which was why we both got along, but she was also very curious like Alice in Wonderland, a mischievousness she picked up from her brothers, which sometimes got her into trouble, and very likely to sway her from her own path and down the rabbit hole.

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

‘What were you thinking about?’

‘I was thinking about the past, to be honest,’ I said. ‘You know, when we were kids playing in the street. Remember that?’

‘Yeah, up on the hill.’

‘I’m bored of everything now,’ I said.

‘I suppose you’re not used to being back. Did you know Lily’s back as well?’

‘Is she?’

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

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know. How are you anyway?’

She looked at me, not intensely, but with the same indirect look a doctor might give a patient. ‘Jonathan,’ she said, ‘I have no idea what’s going on in your life, and I love you enough to care, but I don’t care.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

Elizabeth sighed. She put her bag down and climbed up onto the wall, straining with her weight in her arms, and when she stood up next to me, we both looked out into the distance. At the railway, the green shrubbery on the slopes, the dirt, the brownish colour of the buildings, the everlasting warm light like the dull haze of partially smoked cigarettes. Everything was lit up and coloured gold like syrup.

‘One for sorrow,’ Elizabeth said.

‘What?’

‘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. I said, ‘Does it mean one for sorrow if there’s one magpie or one for sorrow if one person sees it?’

‘The number of magpies.’

‘So what’s the sorrow mean?’

‘I guess it’s just bad luck. You’re supposed to look for another magpie but if you can’t find a second one then you get bad luck.’

The magpie 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, which made an impromptu entrance in the chain links.

‘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 because of 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 as if mesmerised.

The glare of light from the tracks made the rock look more yellow. I wiped my forehead, and the smell of sweat and exhaust fumes seemed to make the atmosphere become heavier and heavier.

Elizabeth said, ‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘We should go down and have a look.’

‘Why would you want to do that?’

‘It could be worth something. Look how shiny it is. It could be gold.’

I figured from that distance that it must be quite a large chunk of gold. For some reason, I couldn’t look away, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The too-many drunk evenings with my brothers and the fat, afternoon sun played havoc on my eyes, but I thought that if it’s worth anything, it could be worth quite a lot of money.

‘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 and I looked back to see if anyone was around or if anyone from the post office had seen us climb through. But no one had. The weeds entangled around each other in green knots and some strangled flower-heads lolled to one side. We moved down a small, steep slope, carefully placing our feet since the tracks were right 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 attracted to it I forgot Elizabeth was there. I checked the trains weren’t coming. The thin, weedy shrubbery smelled odd, musty and toxic and my hands were cut from the climb down. That was when Elizabeth fell.

I tried to grab her but she fell too quickly, toppling over herself so that her legs flew into the air. She rolled a few times, stopping just before the tracks. She didn’t move at first, and for a moment I thought she might have been unconscious – but then she began to scream. I stumbled to the bottom of the hill as fast as I could, managing to keep my balance as my feet slipped on the hard soil. She was okay, bruised and dirty. I helped her up, but she hadn’t even looked at me. She was looking at something else and she was frightened. Then I saw what she had screamed at. What I saw was not a yellow rock at all. It was a skull. A human skull.

We both 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 rumbling sound of a train approaching, and I thought we should move quickly.

‘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 as it got closer and soon we felt the rumbling of it through the ground and the shooting electrical whip sounds went through the rails next to us. 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 cloud of hot air over us. We crawled back through the fence; the rust stained my shirt a brown-orange and tore at the shoulder. We walked back home without saying a word as a magpie made a maraca sound somewhere above us.

 

© Michael Holloway