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by Sarah Callaghan

for Vee, because of Ellianne

There was a magpie at the bottom of Stuart's garden. He could see it, hop hopping along the line of trees that marked the far boundary, occasionally cocking its head as it peered more closely at something that caught its attention in the wet grass. He watched it through his kitchen window as he waited for the kettle to boil, staring through bleary eyes on that late Saturday morning.

Christ, but his head hurt. He'd been out down the pub with his mates last night after work, and they'd had a few to drink, and then a few more, and then someone had suggested a curry. It had gone downhill from there. Stuart had no idea who had suggested going to the local nightclub, but he did remember that it was a total disaster, all those women there, out on the pull, and no one had looked even twice at him. He swore as the kettle began to sing, the note going straight through his already abused head.

With trembling hands he made the coffee, after a few swigs of the strong black liquid he began to feel a bit more human. And then he jumped backwards in fright and swore as the liquid splashed over his hands. For the magpie had just landed on his windowsill and was staring at him with one bright and inquisitive eye.

It had to have been the biggest bird that Stuart had ever seen, or at least up this close anyway. Not that he was the birdwatching type at all. Rugby was more his scene. But this bird was sleek and well fed, the black feathers of its wings glinting with blue highlights in the summer sun. It stared in at him through the glass for a few moments, making sure he knew it was there, and then it began parading up and down along the windowsill, as cocky and as sure of itself as if it owned the place.

Stuart was intrigued, but a bit annoyed to. Bloody bird, he thought, who did it think it was, the queen? What game was it playing at?

What little he knew about birds he had learned in nursery school and what little he remembered of that was that magpies liked shiny things. He looked at the bird, who was showing no signs of going anywhere, and then had a quick hunt around the room.

In the pile of change that he had dumped on the table there were two bright and shiny coins, a silver fifty pence piece, and a new minted copper twopence. Unsure of which the magpie would prefer, Stuart picked them both up and went to the window again.

The magpie fluttered away a few feet when he opened the window, but soon came back cautiously, attracted by the glitter of the coins Stuart held in his hands. Closer and closer the magpie came, darting back at any movement on Stuart's part, but always closer, the desire for the shiny coins clearly warring with the natural instincts that urged caution.

Stuart was amazed by this behaviour. It was nearly acting like a tame bird. And now it was within inches of his outstretched hands.

The magpie made a snap and a grab and was gone, off down to the bottom of the garden, the fifty pence piece clutched firmly in its beak. He stared for a minute in shock at his now empty hand and then raised his voice in a shout.

"Oi, you! Come back with that, you thief!"

The magpie paid him no heed at all, just strutting up and down the garden, showing no fear at all. Stuart shouted again. The bird paid him no notice.

In sheer frustration he leaned as far as he could out of the window and threw the twopence at the magpie. He hoped to scare it off, and better yet, hoped that it'd drop the fifty pence when it flew away.

It was a sheer fluke, but the twopence hit the magpie square on one wing. It uttered an outraged squawk, dipped its head to pick up the fallen coin and took off, vanishing quickly out of the garden. He thought he caught a glimpse of it flying high above the house, but it was soon gone. And with it, his fifty pence.

"Thieving bloody bird," Stuart muttered to himself. "Well rid of it." And he closed the window firmly and went in to watch the football.

It was Monday morning, and Stuart was couldn't find his mobile phone. He had everything else ready for work, but no matter where he looked, he just couldn't find it. He knew he had it when he left work on Friday evening, but after that, things were a little bit hazy. He wasn't sure where he had put it when he had gotten home. Or if he had even managed to get it home. He clutched his head and groaned with frustration.

What a way to start the week. He looked at his watch and swore, no more time to look. He had to get going now and hope that maybe he had left it in work after all. And if he hadn't, well, he was in the office today, he wouldn't really need it.

He ran through the front door, slamming it shut behind him. The gust of wind that was created dislodged the tiny feather from where it was caught on the latch of the open window, and sent it spinning out into the garden.

It was lunch time, and Stuart was down the town centre doing various errands. It was fairly busy, so he didn't notice exactly when the first payphone started ringing. It rang for a few minutes as he walked past it, then stopped when he was a few feet away. He barely noticed it, stuff like that happened all the time. Though it was bit unusual for a payphone to be ringing.

The second phone he walked past started ringing in the very same pattern. He noticed this one, as it was in a somewhat quieter corner of the town, closer to his office. Still though, he brushed it off as coincidence.

The third time it happened he was starting to get edgy, and he fairly ran back to his office. That didn't stop a fourth phone ringing as he walked quickly by.

Back in his own office he relaxed for a bit and put his feet up. It was coincidence, he reassured himself. Simply coincidence.

By the end of the week, Stuart was suffering from severe paranoia. Without fail, every unoccupied phone box that he had walked past had started ringing, then stopped when he was far enough away. He knew he wasn't hallucinating, because other people heard the ringing as well, some curious souls even answering the phones, invariably to dropped lines. Stuart had even tried answering one or two himself, all he got was silence until he hung up.

He had thought about contacting the police, but he could just imagine what sort of fruitloop they would label him as. He couldn't bear to think about it. It had gotten so bad that he had consciously started planning his walking routes so they didn't take him anywhere near any phone boxes or pay phones. He thought he was going to go mad from it all.

And to top it all off he still hadn't found his mobile.

He left the pub early Friday evening, he couldn't stand the way the pay phone in the corner kept ringing before the manager finally took it off the hook. He paused on his way home though, stopping at a phone box and waiting while it rang and rang and rang.

Eventually he got up enough courage to pick up the receiver.

"Hello?" he said, hating the sound of fear in his own voice.

"Hello?"

Nothing, only an empty line. And then the line went dead and he hung up shaking his head in despair. He was going mad. Had to be. Because he could have sworn that the only thing he had heard down the line was the faintest birdsong. And even that sounded like it was laughing at him.

It was Saturday morning again, and the magpie was back, strutting around Stuart's back garden like the previous week's altercation had never happened. Stuart watched it from the kitchen window as it hopped along, looking at this and at that.

On sudden impulse, he grabbed a slice of bread and went out into the garden. The magpie watched him carefully, obviously aware of who Stuart was and what he had done the last time the two had gotten close. Still though, the bird's curiosity won over any fear for its safety and it hopped to within a few feet of him, wings tensed and ready to fly.

Stuart hunched down and started scattering breadcrumbs as he talked.

"Look," he said to the bird. "I'm really sorry about winging you last week, and I was wrong to call you a thief. I did offer you the coins after all. And this bread is sort of, like, a peace offering. So maybe we could work things out, or something. But anyway, I'm sorry."

He straightened up quickly and the magpie danced away, ready to flee. He made no move towards the bird though, simply heading back into the kitchen muttering to himself.

"Christ, I hope the neighbours didn't hear me, they'll have me locked up for sure. Talking to a bird! That's almost as bad as talking to yourself!"

His voice died away as he realised what he was saying. When he looked back to the scattered bread crumbs the magpie was gone.

It couldn't have been more than a few minutes later when Stuart heard the ring on the doorbell. He opened it to see a little girl standing outside with what looked like a mobile phone in one hand.

This girl was so cute it was untrue. Big blue eyes looked up from an innocently mischievous face. Her black hair was tied up in pigtails, adorned with red ribbon. She wore a blue T-shirt and bright red overalls, with a picture of Eeyore embroidered on the front pocket. The laces on one of her trainers were untied and trailing. She looked about ten years old.

She looked up at him and fluttered her long eyelashes, and Stuart, who normally hated children, melted at once. She held up the phone to him.

"Is this yours? I found it outside."

He took it carefully and examined it, surprised to see that it was.

"It is," he said. "Thank you very much. What's your name?"

"Martha" she answered. "I've got to go home now."

"Well, thank you very much Martha."

As she turned he noticed a fading bruise on her upper arm, just below the sleeve of the T-shirt. It was just the size and shape of a two pence piece.

"Martha," he said. "What happened to your arm?"

"A sixpence bit it!" she laughed as she skipped merrily off down the street.

When he went back into the kitchen he saw the magpie again. Hopping around the garden like it owned the place.

Copyright Sarah Callaghan 12th May 1999

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