At the top of the hill there is a tree. A tangled web of leaves and branches splayed against the skyline. It broods over the valley. Strangely, no-one succeeds in capturing its image. They say the tree prevents the camera’s eye recording it; no photograph exists and no artist has ever successfully committed it to canvas. Once they have tried they never come back to try again – memory and desire to do so are wiped out – they forget it.
The magpies know about the tree, and warn everyone. Yet few people heed the old sayings any more, they don’t think about them, or if they do, they often think them superstitions or old-fashioned clichés, too old to be bothered about. Folk used to be more observant, remembered happening and consequences, less likely to label things coincidence.
The old folk have a rhyme about magpies. If you remember the TV programme Magpie, you will have heard one version, but the one that Jo knew was: one for sorrow; two for mirth; three for a funeral; four for a birth; five for heaven; six for hell; seven’s a story never to tell.
The magpies tell; just one appears. One for sorrow. The bird is noticeable with its black and white plumage, but here at the top of the hill not many notice the bird. The tree fascinates.
When Jo saw the magpie, she remembered the rhyme. Whilst Jo was not exactly superstitious she would say she liked to keep an open mind. Andy Jackson adored her, he loved what he called her fey nature. He was an easy going, arty kind of guy though he had a strong-minded, practical side. Everyone said they made a lovely couple.
It was a perfect day, sunny and bright. Jo asked Andy to leave his paints and canvas at home so they could relax and enjoy a day out together. She didn’t mind him sketching and doodling, rather liked it in fact, but today she wanted him to herself with no distractions, she had a secret to tell him, she put her hand to her stomach, a secret, she smiled.
They spent the afternoon wandering around the Cotswold village of Moreton in Marsh, had tea and walnut cake in an olde worlde café, strolled along by the brook that ran between the shops and the road, then decided to call in for a drink on the way home. Andy spotted the silhouette of the tree just as they pulled into the pub car park. He laughed when Jo said it was watching them but she felt uncomfortable and edgy.
‘I’m going closer’ he said and set off toward it.
Pointless trying to stop him, thought Jo, it would only make him more determined. Then the harsh chatter of a bird seemed to freeze him in his tracks.
‘Look at that,’ he shouted back to her arm outstretched to the looming shadow of the tree. ‘See the effect of that shape against the skyline?’
Jo was relieved that he had stopped, and then she again saw the chattering bird, the magpie. Like a disciple it sat at the base of the tree, eyes bright, curious. Andy walked back to her.
‘One for sorrow,’ she said.
‘One for sorrow,’ she repeated, indicating the magpie. She looked for another of the brown-eyed birds.
‘Oh don’t be daft,’ said Andy placing his arm around her to take the sting out of his words. There was no telling him about folklore and superstition, he did not want to know. They walked in silence to the pub. He intended, he said as he bought the drinks, to return to this spot tomorrow, to paint the ‘incredible’ tree. ‘It has the most marvellous silhouette,’ he said, ‘I must paint it’.
Jo tried to think of a way to stop him, tried to control the unreasoning fear that held her. That tree didn’t want to be painted; it was alive. She knew if she said that to Andy he would scoff and tell her to calm down, she could almost hear him saying ‘Get a grip.’ Nonetheless she tried.
‘You’re suffering from an overactive imagination,’ Andy smiled at her, ‘OK, so it looks sinister … that’s its appeal darling.’
Jo was glad they could not see its satanic shape or feel its presence from the darkened corner of the pub. She shivered, now was not the time to share her secret.
They didn’t talk much on the way back, each lost in their own thoughts, a companionable silence fell. Andy stopped outside Jo’s house, gave her a peck on the cheek and said he would call her.
That night Jo slept badly, she tossed and turned and fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed about an accident. Andy was alone in his car, his gear piled in the back: canvas, easel, paints, when suddenly the appalling silhouette of that tree loomed forward, the car skidding out of control. Jo awoke shaking and trembling, knowing he was dead. She was restless all night, kept telling herself it was only a dream; she could hardly wait for morning so she could call him.
His mother answered the phone.
‘He’s gone dear,’ she said, ‘He decided to make an early start. You know what he’s like when he has an idea. He talked of nothing else last night. First thing this morning off he went,’ she paused, ‘Were you thinking of going with him then?’
‘Mrs Jackson,’ said Jo, ‘I’m frightened.’ She started to tell Andy’s mother about the dream. Mrs Jackson interrupted her, impatiently.
‘Now, now, dear. Andy said you had some strange notion. Don’t panic, he’s only going to paint a tree. There’s no danger in that.’
Jo wanted to scream. Like mother like son. But instead she managed to give a polite ‘Goodbye’ as she put the phone down.
She resolved to follow him, made sandwiches and a flask, told herself to buck up and pull herself together. She was more relaxed as she started the drive to the Cotswolds. Still at the back of her mind there was a nasty, creeping, nagging doubt and the dream. Jo shoved the doubts away and concentrated on another lovely day the clear road and the fact that she would soon see Andy, perhaps she’d tell him today.
Jo pulled into the same car park they had used the night before, right next to his car. She was so relieved seeing his car it brought a lump to her throat. He was all right. She ran toward the louring branches of the tree and felt her steps slow as its malevolence reached out to her.
There he was, back to her, busily painting, stepping back now and again to weigh up his work. She had seen him like this a hundred times but could not recall ever feeling quite so glad to see him. As she drew nearer Jo could see the magpie at the base of the tree, alone.
Again she looked for a second magpie, two for mirth, or a third or a fourth, a clue perhaps. The words to the rhyme flew around in her mind and she found herself going up to Andy mouthing them silently. By the time she reached him her head was pounding like a tattoo: one for sorrow, one for sorrow, one for sorrow. She was trembling as she sank to the ground to rest.
‘I wasn’t expecting to see you today,’ he said, noticing her between brushstrokes, ‘Thought you didn’t like this place. One for sorrow and all that.’
His words weirdly echoed her thoughts, it was as if each one chimed against those in her head, she felt every one. The tree leered and loured at her.
‘You don’t look too good,’ said Andy, ‘Are you OK?’
‘Just a bit tired, didn’t sleep too well last night,’ Jo said, ‘Let’s see your painting.’
‘It’s not turning out so well,’ said Andy, ‘I’m not pleased with it. Think I’ll pack up and take you home instead,’ he grinned.
She sat, still and quiet, until he packed everything away, she remained in the grip of the inexplicable fear and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t relax and forget it.
‘I’m OK to drive,’ she said when he asked if he could give her a lift, she wanted something else to occupy her mind.
‘You sure, Jo? We can always come back for your car tomorrow.’ He gave her a gentle shake and a hug.
‘Yes, really, I’ll be fine when we’re away from this place,’ Jo said, shivering. She kissed him and held him tight for a moment; ‘Take care, darling.’
Jo watched as Andy drove out of the car park then started her own car. Dread gripped her. She squashed the feeling, shaking her head and refusing to listen to the persistent inner voice, which seemed to be snickering in her ear. On the road, she turned a bend and found his car … just like the scene in her dream.
Andy. This is what people mean by a living nightmare. She stopped her car and got out; stood in the middle of the road; sat down. People came. They took Andy’s car away. They took Andy away. Jo did not feel; did not think; did nothing; she could do nothing.
‘What’s she saying?’ asked a young policeman.
‘She’s whispering. She’s in shock,’ said his Sergeant. ‘Right out of it if you ask me.’ He turned to Jo, ‘Come on love.’ Jo was muttering inaudibly, involuntarily. She had seen the bird.
‘One for sorrow. One for sorrow. One for …’ the words were merging one into the next until only her lips moved and no-one could tell what she was saying.
Days later, Andy’s mother arrived at the hospital to see Jo. Mrs Jackson was disturbed by the sight of her. The nurses had warned her that Jo was still in shock, but Mrs Jackson was unprepared for the fragility of the girl. The doctor confided in Mrs Jackson, he’d been unable to get Jo to talk, did Mrs Jackson think she might be able to get through to her? They shared a loss, perhaps she might help? Oh yes, and, I’m sure you know, she’s pregnant, could be twins.
Andy’s mother didn’t know what to say.
‘My dear,’ she said to Jo, ‘Tell me what happened.’
Jo looked past her into the beautiful gardens surrounding the hospital. Somehow Mrs Jackson could see that Jo was not really looking at anything.
‘Painting?’ said Jo, looking vaguely at Andy’s mother, the question in her voice.
‘What painting, Jo?’ asked Mrs Jackson.
‘The one he worked on, the tree.’
‘There’s no painting, Jo. There were only blank canvases in the car, I thought you must have got to him before he started and talked him into coming home.’
Jo’s tears silently streamed down her cheeks and dripped from the bottom of her chin ‘I made sandwiches,’ she said wistfully.
‘Oh Jo, what happened?’ Andy’s mother started to weep bitter tears not only for her son whose life was stolen by an idiot bird that flew down from a tree into a car on a hill but also for this life, these lives. Then she recovered herself, dried her eyes and said ‘We have much to look forward to’.
Jo instinctively placed her hand on her stomach, gently stroking it, ‘One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, four for a birth …’
Polly Stretton © 2011