Chasing Magpies

Earlier today, Mrs Jacobson stabbed Ronnie Arnold with pruning shears for stepping on her lawn. Amelia tells me this while I stand hugging the trunk of the Delarney’s big old horse chestnut tree looking up into its upper branches. Mrs Jacobson loves her garden. We see her pacing along by the flower beds in her broad rimmed white floppy sun hat, spray gun in hand. She sends her husband, Mr Jacobson, out to mow that lawn every Saturday and sometimes on weekday evenings too in the summer. Mrs Jacobson sits in a great big rocker on the porch pretending to do the crossword and watches him, her eye glasses perched right on the very end of her nose. She makes him cut it in a diagonal check pattern and we see him crouched over his mower at the end of each run changing the height of the blades to get the exact two tone effect that Mrs Jacobson wants. When he’s done she inspects his work while he labours back and forth with the cuttings to the compost heap around the back. If he’s done a good job she rewards him with a tall glass of lemonade which she brings out on a tray, like a photograph from an advertisement poster, a bobbing half moon of fresh lemon, ice cubes chinking against the side of the glass, shaded by a petite cocktail umbrella. But Amelia and I know this happy scene is all a sham. Amelia says Mrs Jacobson beats Mr Jacobson at nights with a broom handle. She says that sometimes when her legs are aching and she cannot sleep she can hear Mr Jacobson howling, even from across the street. Amelia says that’s why Mr Jacobson only ever wears long sleeved shirts and pants: so that nobody can see the bruises.

It was Amelia who saw Ronnie Arnold get stabbed. Nobody in this town likes Ronnie Arnold but that’s no reason for him to get stabbed. Amelia saw it all she tells me as I hoist myself up into the tree so that only my feet dangle below the lowest underbelly of leaves. Ronnie and Mr Jacobson were in Mr Jacobson’s tool shed, oiling up the mower for that evening’s cut. Ronnie is poor as a church mouse because his folks have disowned him and so he does odd jobs for people around town. Amelia says she’s seen him call round at the Jacobson’s before, usually when Mrs Jacobson has gone to the Methodist women’s guild meetings on Tuesdays and Mr Jacobson has been left at home to do fixing chores around the house. Amelia saw Ronnie come out of the tool shed but rather than going back out down the driveway he tried to cut across her lawn. I guess he was planning on hopping over the fence so he could take a short cut back down Eldridge Avenue. But he didn’t bargain for Mrs Jacobson. She was hidden away out of sight, cutting back a big clump of hydrangeas. Amelia says that when Ronnie put that very first boot print on her lawn she came rushing out of the shrubbery with a huge bellow like you’ve never heard a woman give before, screamed “you faggot bastard” and plunged her shears into his leg. Amelia says she heard the rip of flesh and could see the blood spurt in a great big scarlet arc, so fierce she thought Mrs Jacobson had hit an artery. Ronnie yelped like whipped dog and hopped around holding his leg but somehow he managed to make it to the other side of the lawn and half ran, half crawled away out of sight down the street.

This is just one of the things I love about Amelia. She gets to see the things that nobody else does. She sits so quietly in her chair that everyone forgets she’s there. This is how we first became friends. I had slashed the tyres on the school bus with my pocket knife while it was parked up behind the swimming pool. I had figured: no school bus, no school tomorrow. I went round each wheel in turn and plunged the blade deep into the warm rubber and listened to the long hiss of air escaping like the big contented sigh that our dog makes when he’s asleep in front of the fire in winter after a big bowl of mutton bones. But when I was done, as I was making my way back to class, I saw Amelia watching me from one of the science lab windows. She’d seen the whole thing. That afternoon the principal called the school together and demanded to know who had sabotaged the bus. We all sat there in the hall while he stalked up and down the aisles. I remember the silence, so quiet that you could hear your ears singing because they had nothing else to do. He told us nobody was leaving until the culprit owned up. After an hour, Cubit the janitor was called in. He thought he’d seen a boy cutting around the back of the swimming pool and the principal asked him whether he could identify who it had been. But Cubit is old and half blind and though he paused a little longer when he reached me, he finally shook his head and shuffled on. And all the while Amelia said nothing. She just sat in her chair silently and watched this little drama unfold. At five o’clock, the principal allowed the girls to leave, persuaded by old Cubit’s evidence that the culprit was probably male. After a further hour his will cracked and he released us too, with a grim warning that he expected each and every one of us at school the next day even if there was no bus and we needed to walk ten miles each way. When I reached the school gates Amelia was sitting there waiting for me. She had smiled at me as I approached and told me that I needed to help her get home since the bus wasn’t running anymore. It took us an hour because we needed to stick to the pavements rather than cut across the sports field but we finally made it. We talked all the way home. She told me about how Johnny Snowball the rat catcher used to be a drummer in a band called Chicago before they were famous and I told her about my favourite fishing spot. It is way down river and can only be reached by heading across the big corn field and then hacking through the dense ferns along the creek. I like it because it’s peaceful there. It’s a deep, gently circling pool, sheltered from the main flow of the current, covered by a high umbrella of trees. Early in the morning you can watch the mist rise like steam until arrow heads of light pierce the canopy and burn it off in shafts. She told me how she’d like me to take her there someday although we both know that won’t happen. I also told her about my sister. Shellie Marie is ‘the great hope for our dynasty’ or so my mother keeps telling me. She must have read this phrase some place or heard it in a movie. Shellie Marie has always been book-smart. She works as a lawyer in New York where she calls herself Michelle and she is dating some bonds trader. Amelia had asked me lots of questions and I had answered them as best I could although sometimes I find it hard to explain why I feel the way I do. But throughout our little journey together, not once did she mention the school bus and not once did I ask her why she’d not snitched. This I love about Amelia too. She instinctively knows when people don’t want to talk about something. And with my head the way it is, that’s important. So we became friends.  

By the time Amelia has finished telling me about Ronnie Arnold, dusk has properly given way to night. The bugs are crackling away and fireflies flit soundlessly though the gathering darkness. It’s hot and close up in the branches of the tree as I climb higher, mostly feeling my way along, groping for the next hand and foot hold like a blind man. Amelia holds the flashlight from below, illuminating the gnarled old branches just above me as best she can.

“Go easy now” calls Amelia softly. “They’re right above you”.

I look up and in the gloom I can see the outline of the two roosting magpies. They live in this tree and Amelia and I have watched them many times before. I pause and pull out a contraption that I have carried up with me looped through my belt at the back. It is a hessian potato sack into which I have fixed an old hoola hoop to give it some shape. I have also threaded a chord around the opening of a sack, leaving the ends as long draw strings so that, with a deal of luck, I can use this thing as a net-come-lasso, hopefully throwing it high enough into the tree to scoop up and bag the two magpies while they sleep.

Amelia shines her flashlight on the birds from below and I settle myself. I know I will get only one shot at this prize and so I take aim carefully, slowly swinging the sack beneath me to give it momentum as I try and visualize its intended flight.

But, before I have time to hurl it above my head, there is the sudden slam of the screen door from below and Mrs Delarney crashes out onto the porch in a gigantic tidal wave of light and noise.     

She takes a look around, squinting into the darkness   “Be Jesus, Amelia, what is going on here now?” she says. “And Charlie Fortune, you get down out of that tree this minute, you hear? It’s time for Amelia to go to bed”.

Startled, the birds scatter, flapping up and away noisily out of reach into the top most branches. Mrs Delarney helps Amelia back inside the house, fussing at the blanket around her legs and muttering to her in soft low tones which I do not catch.

“Night Charlie. See you tomorrow” calls Amelia as her mother bundles her back inside, the screen door clicking firmly shut behind them.

“Night Amelia” I say back, although by the time I get it out there is no-one left to hear me except the magpies.

I stay up the tree thinking for a while, cradled comfortably in a Y of branches, listening to the sounds of the night, warm and still. The irony of Amelia’s plight is not lost on me. That her parents should have named her after one of America’s greatest female aviators when she cannot even walk seems like an unnecessary added cruelty. But one day I shall help my Amelia because I’ve got a plan. One day I will catch those magpies and I’ll tie them to her shoulders and her feet. And they will lift her out of that wheelchair and we will fly. We will fly over that big corn field and down to my fishing hole, then up through the trees, high into the cloudless sky. We’ll soar above this tired little town and it won’t be able to hold the two of us anymore. And we’ll fly, higher and further and faster on those magpies wings until we’ve left it all far behind. One day, Amelia, one day.