Sally-Anne Wilkinson: The Magpie Princess

The estate agent’s colossal backside swings in great undulations like a ship in a storm, though his footsteps up the stairs are surprisingly deft.  Despite his size, he’s not out of breath or breaking into a sweat, but he does look like he’s about to burst out of his clothing.   Tearing my gaze away from his bloated pinstriped bottom, I drink in my surroundings.  This place is so gorgeous, there isn’t really a decision to make. I want to move in right now.  I’ve not even seen the apartment yet, but from the hallway alone, I know this is where I’m going to live.  Since moving from London to the sea, all the places I’ve viewed have been hellholes, and anyone who knows me understands I have an eye for the more glamorous things in life.

I glance at the estate agent’s backside again.  I can’t help it.  My eyes are magnetically drawn; the rhythmical sway entirely hypnotic.  The strain of his flesh against fabric is as compelling as a disaster.  Maybe this is his ploy, I think, to mesmerise me and get me to sign a contract while I’m under the power of his posterior.  I snigger; covering my mouth.   Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye?  What if I think I’m in the safe hands of a mild-mannered small town employee, but in actual fact he is a demon-king taking over the world, one human being at a time?  I imagine myself in a few hour’s time entirely bewitched; my eyes, great white orbs, swirling with colour.  My lips twitch at where my imagination takes me. Dad would have been proud.  At the thought of him, one hand immediately zones in on the ring on my finger.

‘Jo, your head’s constantly in the clouds,’ Mum used to say, apron tied tightly around her waist, hands chapped with bleach. ’You’ll get yourself into trouble one day – mark my words.  Why can’t you be more sensible like your sister?’

Gillian?  Who wants to be like Gillian?  Obsessed with her garden, and singing to plants like they’re people.

Gillian’s my twin, though you wouldn’t think it.  She looks like me, but that’s where the similarity ends.  As a kid, she’d never go down to the old quarry, or play dare in the derelict church.  She always told the truth, saw the world in black and white terms, and regularly brought in presents for her teachers.  As an adult, she’s pretty much the same.  She’s never travelled anywhere that wasn’t organised by a tour operator, and she’d certainly never move to another town on a whim, without a job or anywhere proper to live.  Neither would she ever get involved with a married man.  For Gillian, everything is planned and written down, catalogued and categorised, now and forever.   She was born middle-aged, and the only thing she lives for is her garden.  According to popular opinion, twins are supposed to have some kind of cosmic connection, but if this sort of thing exists, it by-passed us.

Dad used to say I was created somewhere in the hinter world between fantasy and reality, but I think Gillian was born with her feet well and truly planted – pardon the pun – in the ground.  Dad would have also said there’s potential for magic in everyone, but I’m not so sure.  I remember a particular photograph Dad took of us as children – I’ve not seen it in years, but it’s ingrained into my memory like a brand – Gillian in a starched pinafore with a daisy chain around her neck, her blouse bleached white, hair in neat, uniform plaits like a Victorian schoolgirl.  Whereas me, I was in jeans and a striped top, a streak of dirt on my cheek, hair a-tangle.   Behind is a tree, drenched with summer foliage, and Mum to one side.  I almost fell from the top of a tree just before it was taken, and I remember after insisting to Mum there was an entire world up there.  She laughed, but I still possess the delicate silver ring set with purple stones I got there.  It’s not much to look at; it’s not got special powers or anything, but it’s mine.

When I told Dad where I found it, he didn’t make fun of me, or claim I had too much imagination, he didn’t even tell me off for stealing, but instead called me his ‘Magpie Princess.’   I liked the name – the outlandish, piratical connotations – and I liked being with him.  He treated life like it contained endless possibilities as he stood like a hero in his Fire uniform.  He died the next year, leaving me

with Mum and Gillian, and I no longer felt like an adventurer but a pain.  Funny how you become what people see – though whenever I look at the ring, it reminds me of him.

I wonder what happened to the Magpie Princess, whether she’s still out there, finding lost worlds at the top of trees.  When dad died, for me, the magic disappeared.

*

We reach the end of the first flight of stairs.  Thirteen steps.  I’ve never really grown out of counting steps since I was a kid.

‘So how long has the apartment been empty?’ I ask.  He’s very quiet for an estate agent, which is unusual.  Usually you can’t shut them up.  As he walks ahead, I notice there’s a patch of red on the back of his bulbous neck.  Eczema, I think.  Looks nasty.

‘It’s never been occupied,’ he says, his voice hollow in the wood-floored landing.

‘Really?’  I say. ‘Why?’

‘It’s difficult to rent out.’

It’s hard to believe it would remain empty.  The location is fantastic.  Exactly the sort of place I dream of living.  It’s down a quaint little back street, and with the sun shining, it could be in Spain or France or Italy rather than what is basically a cobbled ginnel in an old industrial area. The entrance to the apartment building is a vivid purple that exactly matches my ring.  The colour rouses feelings of extravagance, creativity, mystery and magic.   I smile, enjoying the stirring of something long buried inside.

The stairway through the building is a sight to behold – intricately detailed wrought iron railings, beautifully patterned cornices, and a ceiling rose from which hangs a huge copper chandelier.  I’m so excited I have to hold myself back from rubbing my body all over everything like a cat.

‘How many apartments are there?’ I ask.

‘Only two.’

‘Oh – it’s a lot smaller than it looks from the outside.’

‘Yes.  This was a separate storage unit.  It’s cut off from the main building.’

‘Right.  What did they do here?’

The estate agent doesn’t even hesitate.  ’Slaughter animals.’

‘Oh, right.  Okay,’ I laugh. ‘You wouldn’t know it now, though, would you?’

The corridor is long, and at the end, before we reach the second flight of stairs, we pass a door  painted in dark crimson.

‘So is that the other apartment?’  I ask.

‘Yes.  The owner lives there, though he generally keeps himself to himself.’

Oh, so the owner’s a man.  I want to ask if he’s good-looking, but restrain myself.  Hopefully he’s got broad-shoulders.  And he’s single.  Then again, if they’re single, they often try to tie me down.  There’s a certain appeal about a guy that belongs to someone else, even if they’re only on loan. We climb the second flight, and with each step I twist the ring, enjoying the smooth surface of the silver.

‘That’s a shame,’ I say

‘A shame?’  I sense irritation, as if he finds me a bore.

‘Shame he’s not more outgoing.  I mean, I don’t know anyone, being new around here.’

‘Yes, you said you were on your own when you phoned.’

We arrive at another door painted the same deep red.

*

In the apartment, I look around, my mouth gaping.  This is more like it: high ceilings, an orb-shaped chandelier, floor to ceiling Georgian windows draped with white voiles and heavy embroidered curtains, oak floor boards, and a four poster bed with a high mattress.  The deep-seated sofa is bestrewn with thick cushions glittering with sequins, and a velvet throw.  On one side of the kitchen, French doors open onto a balcony laden with a small table and two seats.  If my parents were here now, Dad would say it’s exactly what he’d expect for a Magpie Princess, and Mum would be worrying about how much it all costs.

Thinking of Mum makes me question whether the amount they quoted on the phone is a mistake.  The estate agent assures me that I have no reason to worry – the apartment is hard to rent out because it’s a thirty minute walk to the station with no other public transport in the vicinity. At night, the area is dimly lit and no bars and shops close by, which puts people off, but that doesn’t bother me.  I take another look around.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the keys.

*

After the estate agent’s departure, I am filled with glee as I examine the ink-stained contract and keys in my hand.  Of course, it’s all happened so fast – I was only in London two days ago – but then I’ve always been impulsive.  The keys are weighty; much heavier than you’d expect for Yale keys.

I’m relieved the estate agent has gone.  He held the paper for me when I signed the contract, indicating where I should put my signature.  I leaned away, grimacing.  His breath smelled of rotting meat, and the sore area on his neck appeared to be spreading.  From behind his tie a tuft of thick, black hair twisted out from a gap in his shirt. There were similar tufts from his watch where the flesh of his wrists bulged out.  He apologised as he passed me his pen.

‘I only have red.’

As I signed, the pen dripped, and my signature resembled a bloodied scrawl.  He didn’t seem to notice.

‘I must ask a favour,’ he asked, licking his lips, his eyes never meeting mine.  ‘The owner of the apartment is away on business and won’t be back tonight.  Usually he leaves a set of his keys with me in case of emergencies, but it would be a great service if you could keep hold of them.  It means that I don’t have to travel out from the office, or make a special journey at night.’

‘I don’t mind at all.’

‘You do understand,’ he clears his throat, as another patch of red appears on his cheek, ‘that under no circumstances must you go into his apartment.’

‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ I say.

‘He’s very private.’

‘It’s okay, I understand.’

He watches me twist the ring on my finger.

’He gets very angry if people break his trust.’

*

It doesn’t take me long to get my stuff from the hotel and bring it across.  I think of Gillian, and how much luggage she takes on even the shortest journey.  I like to travel light and move fast, whereas she takes her home everywhere with her.  Fleetingly, I experience a stab of guilt.  She sent a card for my 21st birthday a few days before I left the City.  God only knows how she found my address. Another card was inside, together with a note; something about how Mum misses me and we should keep in touch.  She also sent a gift of a rubber plant.  What the hell for?  Probably something for me to take care of, though knowing me, it’ll be dead in a couple of weeks.  I didn’t bother opening the other card – I knew it was from Mum.

On the return journey, I decide I want to celebrate.   Not just the apartment, but my birthday too.  I’m not sure why I care, but twenty-one is a milestone into adulthood; a new start.  I buy a couple of bottles of red and a big bag of crisps, and then feel ridiculous having a party by myself.  I consider finding a bar instead, meeting up with a random guy, but it doesn’t seem right with a sport’s bag and a houseplant in tow.

As the street lighting becomes progressively dimmer and I’m swamped in the shadows of the tall buildings around me, I finally understand why the apartment’s so hard to rent out.  The yowls of cats set my nerves on edge, and a rat scurries across my path from one building to another.  In the distance, a sudden scream, and I freeze, the flesh on the back of my neck suddenly cold. I rush back to the apartment building where, in the dull orange lamplight, the purple door appears black as tar.

*

I slam the apartment door shut and lean my back against it.  I’m back, I think with relief.  It takes a few minutes for my breath and heartbeat to return to normal.  My first inclination is to open the wine, and true to form, I follow my instincts.  I don’t even bother pouring it into a glass, but take a long swig directly from the bottle.  The warmth flows through me, and after a few minutes I begin to lose the tight feeling in my chest.  I take another large gulp for good measure, but this time the alcohol doesn’t have the intended effect.  I start to feel edgy again, imagining Gillian and Mum’s faces.  I put the bottle down, irritated.  I can never understand why I let Mum affect me.  Why should I care what she thinks about me getting drunk by myself?

Bored, I scan the room.  Very little belongs to me; I don’t even possess a tv to fill the silence.

Deciding to do something productive, I grab the plant from next to the door and position it on the sideboard.  It seems larger somehow and I wonder if it’s possible for it to noticeably grow in the half hour since I brought it into the apartment.  I scrutinise it for a minute – isn’t that a new offshoot? – then shake my head.  I need to pull myself together.  My imagination is working overtime.  Taking my bag into the bedroom, I start to unpack, but it’s a quick job as I have very few personal items.  Of course, there’s the ring I always wear, and a photo of me and Dad which I place on a cabinet in the living room, but that’s about it where possessions are concerned.  By the photo I place my birthday card.  It looks lonely by itself, a giant 21 emblazoned on the front.  Trust Gillian to get me a card. As usual, I didn’t get anything for her.

Ten minutes later, after pacing up and down the living room floor, I go in search of the keys the estate agent left.  They are engraved and painted with an elaborate red ‘M’.  I jiggle them in the palm of my hand, ruminating again on their heaviness.  I know I shouldn’t but I have the strongest urge to see the other apartment, inspect the richness of the decor, rub my hands over the rich velvets and furs I envisage are in there.  As I’m about to leave, I accidentally kick over the bottle of wine by the sofa.  Fingers of red spread across the floor and hurriedly, I cover it up with a tea towel.  The dark liquid soaks in and stains the white fabric, and briefly, I consider staying and dealing with the mess properly, but the compulsion to see the apartment is too strong.

I steal down the flight of stairs to the floor below, slip the key into the lock of the first floor apartment and, not letting myself consider the consequences, sneak inside.

*

The room is familiar, though I’m not sure why.  Immediately, I know I shouldn’t have come.  The walls, like the entrance, are purple, and a musty odour pervades the air.  A breeze from a slightly open window does nothing to reduce the stifling temperature of the room and I wonder if the heating’s been left on.  Snooping isn’t as much fun as I thought.  I decide to leave, but stop as I hear the click of the door.  At the sound, the sensation of familiarity changes to an overwhelming deja vu.

‘Hello Jo.’

That same hollow voice.  How did I not recognise it?  I flatten myself against the wall.   The stench of his breath is so bad it permeates the room.

It’s the estate agent, though he’s transformed completely from what he was earlier.  No longer wearing a shirt, jacket or shoes, his fleshy face and body is entirely raw.  Devoid of skin, horns erupt from the exposed flesh of his forehead, and his finger and toenails are claw-like.  His chest and arms are matted with clumps of coarse hair.  What draws my attention most of all is his eyes – huge, milky spheres, channelled with thick, red veins.  I understand why, earlier, he wouldn’t meet my eyes.

He grins, his teeth shockingly white against the bloody rawness of his lips.  Long remnants of skin dangle from his chin, like the broken necks of swans.  His tongue emerges slug-like as he speaks.

’Do you remember, Jo, I caught you like this before.’

I stare at him, too stunned to speak.

‘We’re in a different place, but it’s still the same room.’  He laughs as I look around, the fog of time dispersing.  ‘The miracle of magic.’

He’s right.  It’s exactly the same room.  I recall all those years ago, clambering to the top of the tree on the day of the picnic; my disbelief at what I found.

‘I knew you’d come,’ he said.  ‘I’ve been watching you all these years, waiting for the right time.’

I twist the ring, shielding it with my fingers.

‘Why didn’t you come for me before?’ I say.  The steadiness of my voice intimates a courage I do not feel, and I realise that somewhere deep inside I’ve always anticipated this day.

‘You had to come to me.’

*

Mammon is his name.  I remember now.  The demon of greed.   Though the ring isn’t important to him, he would never let it go.  I should have known.

‘You were spared as a child,’ he says, ‘but now, here again, breaking into my home… you’ve gone too far.’  His expression darkens. ‘Have the years taught you nothing?’

I stand there, frozen, thoughts coursing through my mind like fleeing buffalo, my eyes darting this way and that.  The exit is blocked; the window’s too high from the ground.  There is no hope of escape.  I’m out of resources; alone.  I can’t even rely on the one person I always relied on: myself.  For an instance, Gillian flashes into of my mind, and I’m consumed by sadness.  It’s a shame we never had that twin connection people talk about.  Whatever magic is in the world – the magic I fleetingly glimpsed – as sisters, it never touched us.

*

A shuffle, like an animal scurrying through undergrowth, catches my attention.  I look to the window.  Disbelieving, I see that where the opening was previously clear, it is now filled with lush, rippling green.  A head appears.

A girl, approximately nine years old, clambers up, using the foliage to hoist herself into the room.  She is dressed in a maroon pinafore and blouse, and a daisy chain rests around her neck.

‘Hi Jo,’ she says, shyly.

For a moment, I can’t speak, and when I do, the words rasp as they pass my lips.

‘Gillian,’ I say.

I want to say more, ask how, but Mammon grips my wrist, and the pressure makes my bones ache.  I struggle to concentrate on anything but the clench of his fingers.  Gillian doesn’t run to help me as I expect, but opens her mouth.  Peace settles on her rosy features and an exquisite melody weaves through the room.  Mammon growls and tightens his hold.  I cry out, my arm by now in agony.  Any tighter and I fear my bones will shatter.  Gillian continues to sing, the tune swelling and billowing like the pure white sails of a ship at sea.

Hearing the tune, I close my eyes, and through the pain I remember.

I remember it all.

*

Nine year old Jo couldn’t believe her luck.  Not only was purple her favourite colour, but she’d taken the ring and escaped.  Well, nearly escaped anyway.  She could hear Mammon, fast in pursuit.  She was quick though – she could make it.  She knew that the opening would spiral closed once she slipped through it, as easily as it opened for her earlier. She just needed to keep the distance between them to give herself time.

With the ring on her finger, Jo darted from the castle, down the path to the top of the tree.  She could see it ahead, the top branches poking through where the path ended and opened up to the blue of the sky.  Mammon feet pounded, his howls livid.   She didn’t hesitate as she approached the enormous void between the ground and tree-top.  With her usual confidence, she expected her foot to hit the tree soundly and have a good landing.  Instead, it glanced off, grating her ankle on bark, and she started to slip to the earth below.

Even through the pain, she understood that it would be worse as she hit the ground.  Beneath her, she glimpsed her family.  Her mother laying out the blanket with the food, her father lying on his back smoking a cigarette, and Gillian plucking daisies from the carpet of clover.  As she prepared for the impact, her sister looked up and their eyes met.  Without hesitation, Gill began to sing  – a song Jo had heard her father play many, many times on the guitar – Brownsville Girl by Bob Dylan.  The words rippled out: beautiful; silken.  Above her, Mammon’s screams cut through the air.

As Jo dropped, with the inevitable slowing of time experienced by those facing a trauma, she became aware of a movement.  It sounded like the ruffle of wind through the leaves of trees.   By her side, a small branch flickered and grew, as if caught by stop motion animation.  It thickened and extended, worming its way around her.  She looked up.  Was this Mammon’s magic?  Had he captured her?  Looking up, she saw that the sky visible above the trunk was now entirely blocked by leaves.  She heard a faint swoosh, and everything above became silent and still.

When she finally clambered to the safety of the ground, her parents were oblivious to what had occurred.  Her mother fussed, attempting to neaten her hair, while Gillian placed a daisy chain around her own neck ready for their family photograph.   Jo watched her sister for a few moments, her curiosity stirred, then shook her head and posed for the picture.

*

The pain on my arm decreases and I open my eyes.  Gill is still singing, her features angelic, though Mammon’s hold has loosened significantly. I’m able to wrestle my wrist away.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t put up a fight, and I see that one thick, rope-like tendril has stretched away from the now voluminous plant growing from the window.  It has wound itself around Mammon’s neck, and his hands clasp around the thick twines, desperately trying to release it.  His face transforms from red to puce, his milky eyes bulging.

I look at Gillian, not wanting to leave as the dense foliage rises around her.  I recognise the fat leaves as those of the rubber plant she bought me for my birthday.   She continues to sing and the winding plant directs me towards the door.  I pause – there’s something I need to do.  Standing inside the doorframe, I tug the ring off my finger and throw it into the twisted tangle of green.  Our eyes meet and for the first time, I feel it.

I feel what I thought there never was.

*

Outside, a figure is standing on the cobbles.  The shape of the body and facial features are obscured by the poor lighting, and for a moment, I’m scared Mammon has somehow escaped the shackles the younger Gillian created for him.

‘Jo.’

I let out a yelp.  It’s my sister.  I look behind to the building, as if searching for the girl in the pinafore, but I see a different scene from the one I expect.  The two apartments are no longer lit from inside, but stand bleak and brooding, as if they’ve stood empty for decades.  The front door is damaged and sheds flecks of paint, and the windows are fogged with cobwebs.  Some of them are broken; others boarded up.  No one has lived here for a long time, if ever.  On the second floor, all signs of the plant are gone, though I notice a handprint smearing the dusty glass.   I think about Dad’s photo on the cabinet.  That will be gone too, along with everything else.

I turn back to Gillian.  We face each other in the faded orange glow.  After a moment, she steps towards me, and under the scrutiny of her gaze, it’s my turn to feel shy.

‘That – that was amazing.’  I can’t think of anything else to say.

‘It’s not easy,’ she sighs.  She sounds tired.

I rub my finger, feeling an indentation at its base.  A memory of something that once was.

‘Where’s your ring?’ says Gillian.

I incline my head back to the building. ‘It’s gone.’

‘You loved it so much.’

I’m surprised to find tears coursing down my cheeks.  I touch them to see if they are real.  I thought I was all cried out years ago.  ‘I think it’s time to let it go.’

I notice she’s carrying something, which she hands to me.  It’s the picture of her, Mum and me at the picnic.   I don’t know why I’ve never noticed before, but Mum is looking at me.   Her eyes are dewy, and there is a whisper of a smile on the corner of her lips.

I trail my finger around the outline of the girl with the striped-top and the messy hair.

’I wonder what happened to the Magpie Princess?’ I ask.

Gillian links her arm with mine.

‘I don’t think she’s so hard to find.’

black tree

Photo by Aleksei Drakos.

You can discover more about Aleksei and his photography by following the link below:

https://storgy.com/aleksei-drakos/

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