Magpie – Chapter One

Little Yellow Rock

I stood on the wall of the bridge fifty years after he jumped off. The trains rumbled underneath my feet to the station behind me, making the air smell of oil and grease. Hot fumes sweltering in the atmosphere. I wiped sweat from my forehead and watched the other train shoot out of the tunnel and disappear into the horizon. I never met him. He was an Irishman, and for a long time, no one knew what happened to him, nor why he’d travel 200 miles to die.

The trains came and went, expelling wet-looking mirages of heat. I knew of him, but like everyone else, he was just a story. Just a ‘he’, a missing person. You see, he was –

‘What are you doing?’ Elizabeth’s voice came from behind me. The noise of her voice was like someone pulling me out of a dream and placing me in another. She rested her hands against the wall at my feet and looked out at the trains. My sister had a way of talking to you and ignoring you at the same time. It wasn’t meant to be rude, I’d learnt over the years, just that she was easily distracted by things that seemed much more interesting to her.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I’m just bored. Just thinking about life.’

‘What’s going on in your life?’ she said.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What are you up to?’

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

‘Great,’ I said. ‘God, I’m bored.’

‘You’re boring me, Jonathan.’ Elizabeth was eighteen years old and was going through a phase of changing her hair colour every week. This time it was ash-blonde. ‘At least come down from there,’ she said.

‘You come up here.’

Elizabeth sighed. She put her bag down and climbed up, straining with her weight in her arms, and when she stood up on the wall next to me, we both looked out into the distance. We looked at the infinite of the railway. Everything was lit up and coloured gold like syrup. Music came from a window nearby.

‘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 don’t know,’ she said. ‘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.’

‘So we both get bad luck?’

‘Yeah.’

The magpie flew away into the hot, bright atmosphere, enveloped by the whiteness of the sun. On a billboard, a giant woman’s head was selling shampoo. The road curved around the corner next to the post office and further down, the tall fence alongside the tracks had been eaten away with rust, making an impromptu entrance in the chain links. I didn’t know I was looking at it at first. I thought my eyes were just tired and lazy 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.

‘What’s that?’ I said.

‘What?’

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

‘It just looks like a rock,’ she said, but she kept looking at it, mesmerised as if staring at the sun.

The glare of light from the tracks shone next to it making it more yellow. I wiped my forehead again and there was the smell of sweat and car exhaust fumes and the atmosphere became heavier and heavier. Elizabeth, sleepily looking at the little yellow rock, said, ‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘We should go down there 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. What if it’s gold, Jonathan?’

I figured the size of it from that distance that it must be quite a large chunk of gold. ‘We would be rich,’ I said. ‘If it’s gold then that’s a big chunk of gold.’

‘Let’s go down 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 hill, 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 hill of hard soil. And the little yellow rock. I was so attracted to it I forgot my sister was there. I checked the trains weren’t coming. The thin, weedy shrubbery smelled odd, musty and toxic. My hands were cut from the climb down. Then 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 as the dust settled over her. For a moment, I thought she might have been unconscious – but then she screamed. I stumbled to the bottom of the hill as fast as I could without falling and helped her up. But 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. 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. The colour now like a tobacco-stain. A darkness inside its eyes.

There was the sound of a train coming.

‘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 hill, leaving the skull where it was, and the train shot past pushing a cloud of hot air over us. We went 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.

© Michael Holloway