I like the easy back-and-forth of the trees, the movement of the clouds, the clear Autumn light.
Today, I also like the occasional sweeps of rain that make the wind visible – sorry, but I’m aiming for a slightly more pretentious tone this week – and if we have to mention it, the wet-look magpie that’s problem-solved my “Small Bird Feeding Station”. Scruffy bird.
He’s too big to land on it, so he knocks seeds from the seed-feeder and takes them from the ground. If I now say “clever bird,” it’s not because I’ve got him/her typecast as stupid – he worked it out just as I was deciding that I’d have to take out a dish of seeds and put it on the wall for him.
Cleverer than I am. Maybe we’re surrounded by clever animals (cue ominous electronic music) and we just don’t realise it because they don’t use facial expressions that we can recognise.
Did I mention the duckling? I think I did, but at this age I’m pretty much expected to repeat myself. Month or two back. Little tiny fluffy ball of duckling, swimming along and grubbing around for things to eat like he/she had just completed the How To Be A Duck training course.
Maybe that was instinct, but does it matter? Functional intelligence. At that age, I had the startle reflex and an instinct to cry if I wanted attention. If you’d dropped me in a pond, I wouldn’t have floated.
Let alone found breakfast.
And what happened to bird tables, anyway? “Small Bird Feeding Station” – ha! You hang things from it rather than put things on it. I suppose the clue is in the word “Small”. Big birds can’t get a foothold, so they can’t steal the seeds, etc., left out for the small birds.
Inclusion by exclusion; human nature.
Except that, in the grand tradition of unintended consequences, we’re training a generation of bigger birds – that magpie, crows, seagulls, escaped parakeets – to problem-solve. Their brains are getting bigger. They’re evolving.
Ah – there’s the other magpie. I read somewhere [It was on Quora – Ed.] that one defining characteristic of an English person is that he/she (this is exhausting) reacts to single magpies.
I remember being told, right around the age I learned to swim and pour out my own Rice Krispies, not at the same time, that if I ever saw a magpie alone, I should say, “Good morning, Mr Magpie, I hope your wife and family are well.” It was always morning in my childhood, and everything was masculine unless it obviously wasn’t.
Magpies pair up for life, so a lone magpie might be a bereaved magpie – and they’re creatures of myth and legend, so you don’t want to be impolite to an unhappy magpie.
But two magpies – remember the rhyme? I saw seven once, all picking up seeds on a lawn. I didn’t notice a Small Bird Feeding Station in the tree above them, but now I understand. Clever birds.
I’ve just looked up magpies in Country Life. If you’re not following any of this, here’s the link. And no, I’m not talking about the television programme. I was a Blue Peter man, myself.
Memories. Once, although this might not have been a morning, I stood on the edge of a field looking up at a tree that was noisy with crows, and the person holding my hand said, “That’s a parliament of crows.”
If that’s too topical for you, An Unkindness of Ravens is a 1985 book by Ruth Rendell, a 2009 book by Lucas Scott, a 2014 collection of collective nouns by Chloe Rhodes, a rock band and a song. So far.
Wikipedia also tells me that you can have a charm of magpies, or a murder of magpies – but you probably won’t. I came across a magpie trap once. You had to start by trapping a magpie. Other magpies would be so curious that they’d join it in the trap.
Not that I wanted to trap magpies. And no, I never came across a first-magpie trap. Although curiously enough, I do know a way to–
“What about the book?”
“Aaah… Oh… My heart! Give me a second…”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that – the post’s getting long again, and…”
“Ed. I’d forgotten you were there.”
Edgalcius the Mage is sitting on my sofa, still decently wrapped in the enormous multi-coloured dressing-gown. He’s platted his hair and his beard. His feet are up on the low table and his (multi-coloured, did I say) carpet slippers and hanging off his toes. This isn’t a story in which podiatrists make housecalls, although I might revise that in a future draft. Edgalcius’ feet–
“I told you it was Quora.”
“You spotted that from over there?”
He holds up a pair of opera glasses.
He isn’t. He thinks it’s funny. Smug, arrogant, old – person.
“Yeah, okay, you got me. But did you spot that reference to seven magpies?”
“Story yet to be told? Sure. Cute. But you haven't even explained–”
“Wouldn’t that have killed the momentum? You and I know that they spent another whole hour on the mountain-top. A whole hour! Most of it spent making tea and cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches. You're saying take them through that and make it interesting…”
“You haven't worked it out yet, have you? Your own story?”
“I’ve only just started! But I know the shape of the story. It’s a quest, it’s character-led, and increasingly, I like The Old Guy With A Thousand Faces as a title, if that tells you anything.”
Edgalcius is still fixed on what he wants me to understand; he’s not hearing what I’m telling him. I don’t know how long I can spin this out, but he’s still convinced that either Pipsqueak or Roland is the hero in a book with Old Guy in the title. For a Mage, he’s quite thick, actually.
“Yes, but your readers need to know–”
“Look what’s happening now! Pipsqueak is explaining what happened on the mountain to Myrtille. The scene fits exactly where it’s needed, and it serves the purpose of establishing their relationship.”
“How can he explain what you haven’t worked out yet?”
The argument continues. Meanwhile, below the picture…
“So your dad killed that dragon?”
“Yeah – hang on, of course he did. How do you think its head got to be hanging over our fireplace?”
“I thought – maybe it was a tourist thing? Some kind of interior-design quirky conversation-piece thing?”
“He killed it.” Pipspeak takes a long drag of his cigarette and blows a smoke ring that morphs into the shape of a dragon and then a three-masted tea clipper (which he doesn’t recognise; he’s never even seen the sea). The smoke sails off into the distance.
He’s thinking back, in improbable detail, over the hour-long argument he and Roland had with Edgalcius the Mage after the genie had vanished back into its – Pipsqueak frowned. There had been something odd about that genie.
Quickly, in no more than a paragraph, he summarises to himself the details of the Hero’s Journey that he and Roland have so firmly refused to undertake.
He thinks: but I haven’t really refused it, have I? He had realised, as he told his family about his encounter with the Mage and then answered their questions, that he’d actually just rejected Edgalcius’ ridiculous idea that he might be the hero in this story.
Roland had done the same – for different reasons; Pipsqueak smiles faintly at the idea of either of them as hero.
Roland! Likeable guy, but really? For a Mage, Edgalcius had struck Pipsqueak as quite thick, actually.
Myrtille stubs out her cigarette. “Where’s Tobeya Nounced anyway?” she asks.
“He killed it in the mountains here,” said Pipsqeak. “What? Oh – it’s beyond the town, apparently. Way off in the fog.” Actually, it’s The Fog, he corrected himself. Not just any old fog.
“Can I come with you?” says Myrtille.
“What?” Pipsqueak’s astonished. He hadn’t thought for a moment – but a much bigger smile spreads itself across his face. “Seriously?”
“Yes, seriously.” Myrtille nudges herself closer to Pipsqueak and puts her hand on his chest. “You need somebody to…” He turns his face and his lips find hers and they – look, we needn’t get into this. They’re healthy young adults, they’ve known each other since childhood and they’re behind the yak shed, where they’ve made a comfortable nest of straw bales.
Myrtille slides her hand down Pipsqueak’s – and Edgalcius is doing something with a small pair of scissors and a nail-file, yeuch, we can’t go there, and Roland is telling his friends, again, about this really cool guy he met with the silly name, and they’re bored out of their skulls, so not there either – and Pipsqueak feels the warmth rising through – no, no, NO! This is none of our business!
Myrtille moves her body forward over his, and Pipsqueak feels the soft pressure of – and there’s a knocking on the door! A hammering! On the lintel above the main entrance! To the hut complex!
That was close. There’s a horseman. On his horse. He’s exactly the horseman you’d find in a story like this. Phew! Arrogant, impatient, but doing what he’s told. With bad grace. A caption shows briefly along the bottom edge of however you’re visualising this: Here is a messenger from Roland, bringing an invitation.
Myrtille helps Pipsqueak struggle back into his several layers of thermal underwear, and his jerkin, and his Authentic Peasant accessories, and after ten minutes of effort, Pipsqueak is ready to join his family.
He bursts out onto the street, still tucking something into something because that’s dramatically necessary in a scene like this, to find his family standing around the messenger (on his horse) like the other actors on stage when the main character misses his cue.
Pipsqueak’s father hands Pipsqueak a parchment. It’s roughly A4-sized, torn around the edges, and the colour a plain white parchment would be if you soaked it overnight in tea. On one side, a treasure map has been scribbled out. On the other, in really curly writing, we can read the word Invitation.
Pipsqueak’s father stares at Pipsqueak with an expression that suggests (a) he’s trying to suppress his irritation at being kept waiting, and (b) he’s a humble peasant dad impressed that his son is receiving invitations delivered by men on horseback. The rest of the family stand around looking variously humble, impressed, impatient, envious, annoyed.
A voice from nowhere hisses: “This is for you!”
“This is for you,” says Pipsqueak’s father, handing the invitation to Pipsqueak.
The messenger wheels his horse round and gallops off up the road towards the top of the map and the walled town beyond.
Pipsqueak stares down at the invitation for a long moment and then looks up.
“What’s a Frappuccino?” he asks.