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One Magpie Day by Dave Appleby

 

 

It was a real one magpie day. The swans were hissing and the river geese had gathered underneath the concrete bridge to listen to the echoes of their honks.

 

I should have read the signs but I was such a city boy back then.

 

It was the earliest of mornings. I was walking my fiancées dog. She trusted me back then. She wouldn’t now. I cannot even trust myself today.

 

The footprints came from nowhere I could see. One moment there was nothing, then the path was marked with prints of wet, bare feet. They must be fresh, I thought. The sun, though still so early in the morning, was already warm. I studied them. A single trail of footprints heading down along the river bank. Small feet, quite close together. Perhaps a child.

 

The sun dimmed and the air grew cold but when I looked up at the sky I couldn’t see a single cloud.

 

When I looked down again I saw him. He was lying on the grass. He was as handsome as the very devil. His low slung eyebrows slanted in towards his nose and gave his sunken eyes a strange intensity that haunted me. He had high cheekbones, hollow cheeks, square dimpled jaw and full, strong lips. His hair was yellow. He was blonder than the sun. It seemed to make his whole face shine.

 

He was wearing nothing but a stained white tee shirt with a plunging neck line, and a pair of jeans. Of course his feet were bare but I could see at once that they were far too big to make those prints.

 

A pair of well-worn leather boots were next to him, one upright and the other on its side. I noticed that the fallen one was scorched. Its heel was coming loose.

 

At first I thought he’d been attacked and robbed but then I saw the chain around his neck, the sort of heavy golden chain that mayors and rappers wear. Though it was tucked inside his tee shirt it lay solidly across his shoulders. Any mugger would have seen it, taken it. I also saw his ring. He wore it on his right hand like an ambidextrous wedding ring. It was as delicate and feminine as the gold chain was in your face. It had a blood-red ruby as its centre stone, rimmed with a halo of what looked like diamonds. To get that ring, I thought, a thief would have ripped his finger from its hand.

 

My fingers twitched. I wondered what it must be like to wear a ring like that. I wondered if he’d wake if I just tried it on. I couldn’t keep it. It was worth too much. If I

 

had that sort of cash I could do anything. Perhaps, I thought, we’d put down the deposit on a little flat. He flaunted it upon his finger. I could make it work for me.

 

I noticed that behind his head there was a bottle. It was champagne. Of course. I didn’t recognise the label but it wasn’t Moet and it wasn’t Bollinger. Something a little more exclusive, I supposed. He was a posh boy then.

 

It fitted. In this town the river has two banks. Those on the north bank go to private schools. They get a Merc as soon as they have passed their driving test. They wear gold chains and ruby rings. They ski, play rugger for the network opportunities, and study Law at Uni. On the south bank we stack shelves. There was only one reason why this rich kid should have crossed the river. To rich boys, safe sex is to shag a south-bank girl. The north-bank boys had charm, had sculpted bodies and their cash-stuffed wallets had persuaded many of our girls to spread their legs. It’s not exactly prostitution. They do not exactly pay for it. The girl’s still dumped. Rich boys can brag, can tell each other they would never pay for it, that they don’t need to pay for it. They get their rocks off and they get their egos massaged too.

 

This was my chance to put a stop to that. His legs were slightly spread apart. With a judicious stamp upon his genitals I’d have him singing in a higher key or at the very least I’d make him suffer so he would think twice before he walked across the bridge.

 

As I stepped forward I could not help noticing his jeans were soaked below the knee. It looked as though he’d waded through the river. That was wrong. The water is too deep. It can’t be forded there. It puzzled me.

 

“Help me”, he croaked. I glanced across my shoulder. Somehow I had the impression that he spoke to someone else. But there was no one there. I looked at him again and I saw he had the most angelic smile upon his lips.

 

“Are you all right?” I muttered nervously.

 

The dog began to bark. No, those are not the words. The hound began to bay. It was as if it had reverted to its primal self. It was as if it had become a howling wolf. I saw the madness in its eyes. The hairs along my forearms stuck up erect as if I was transforming from a man into a monster. I was scared.

 

“Give me your hand,” he said and reached for me.

 

I did not want to touch him, this I swear. By all that’s holy, what I did not want to do was touch his flesh. I was afraid. More, there was something in him that disgusted me. They say that beauty is skin deep, that underneath the surface we are all of us a twisted mass of throbbing organs bathed in blood. Lust turns us into beasts. It was like going out for dinner with a new girl; watching as she shovels steak into her

 

mouth, hearing her chew at it, and watching as blood diluted with her saliva dribbles down her chin.

 

But he reached out his hand so what else could I do? He had asked for help. I touched him, palm to palm. He slid his hand across mine as if he was stroking me. His touch was gentle and exploring. I was stung. His flesh was colder than the grave. His fingers wrapped around my wrist. It was a devil’s handshake. Then he pulled. I fell and landed on the grass beside him. As I toppled, I reached out my other hand to save me and released the dog lead I was holding and the dog backed off and cocked his head, regarding us, and then turned tail and fled along the bank.

 

At least, I thought, I’ve saved the dog. That’s one good deed.

 

Now I was lying next to him, full length, beside him. I remember thinking that the grass would stain my shirt.

 

“Then take it off,” he laughed, and I obeyed.

 

“Some men are predators,” he said, “and some are prey.”

 

“Which sort are you?”

 

He laughed, a laugh like music at a picnic, clear and warm. “I think you know,” he said.

 

“Which sort am I?”

 

He laughed again and propped himself up on one elbow so that he could look into my eyes. “The question that you should be asking is: what do you want to be?”

 

I lay back on the grass. The sky was cloudy but his body next to mine was warm. He seemed to pump out heat. I felt so tired. Why should I worry, I reflected, when there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that I want to do. Lie back and let the world go by. To hell with it. I felt that I could not be bothered to do anything.

 

His irises were hazel with a scattering of golden speckles so it seemed as if each pupil had a halo and he looked at me as if he read all of the secrets of my soul.

 

The sun shone brightly but it had turned cold. I lay beside him and his frozen body seemed to suck the happiness and warmth from me. My throat was tight so that I found it difficult to breathe. I did not dare to cough.

 

“Nobody wants to be the hunted. We would all be mighty tigers if we could.”

 

I nodded weakly. Was it then? Was that the moment I was lost?

 

“Why are you lying on the grass?” I asked. “What is your name? Where do the footprints go?”

 

“So many questions. I can tell you everything. How badly do you want to know?”

 

“What is your name?” I asked.

 

“I asked first,” he said which puzzled me. My memories were not too clear upon that point.

 

“It’s John,” I said.

 

“Now that’s not fair,” he said. “It isn’t true. I haven’t lied to you. Why should you lie to me? Is that the action of a decent man?”

 

“How do you know I’m not called John?”

 

“Why do you hate me so?” he asked. “What have I ever done to you?”

 

“I’m sorry,” I replied.

 

“You’re very beautiful,” he told me. His gaze was fixed upon my stomach. I pulled it in a bit. I had worked hard. I worked hard on my shoulders and my lats and on my biceps and my thighs and on my glutes but most of all I worked upon my abs. I knew I had a six pack. I could sense him looking at my groin crease; I could feel his sight track down towards my trouser snake. I felt so proud.

 

“She thinks the world of you,” he said.

 

But I was still pumped up. I didn’t understand.

 

“I can see what she means.” He licked his lips.

 

“What? What you saying?”

 

He smiled.

 

“How do you know? You don’t know anything about her. You know nothing!”

 

“Well,” he said. “I think it’s time that I was going.” He sat up. “It has been such a pleasure meeting you,” he said. He took my hand a lifted it and then he kissed the back of it just like those dudes in old-time films when they are saying goodbye to their lady for the final time. He lingered. I could feel his lips begin to burn. And then

 

he turned my hand palm to the sky and licked it with his tongue, licked all the salt from it, and I was too astonished to say anything.

 

“Adios,” he said.

 

“Not au revoir?” I asked sarcastically but he shook his head.

 

He stood, picked up his boots and held them in his left hand, walked across the path and down the river bank into the water.

 

“What’s your name?” I asked.

 

He stepped into the water, wading out towards the other side.

 

“Stop! Wait a minute,” I exclaimed.

 

I heard him laugh. The water came up to his knees. It must be cold, I thought. It must be very cold.

 

“Remember me,” he said. “She has such lovely little feet.”

 

“Why are you doing this to me?” I shouted after him.

 

He walked a little slower now the water reached his waist. It swirled around his hips. He was the centre of the turbulence. It spiralled round him. I could feel it dragging at my hopes. I felt the iciness, the numbness, climbing up my belly, up my chest, I felt it drag me down. I felt the hopelessness.

 

I watched the water close across his head.