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The Magpie King - chpt 4

by  Mary Jane

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013
Word Count: 2228


No, it was no use – mice were too fast; even when dragging stuff!
Delilah watched resignedly as the mouse disappeared beneath the fence. She knew she couldn’t follow … the tummy forbade it. And jumping over the fence was out of the question too – she didn’t do fences: she might blunt her claws, and those had to stay sharp to rake down the sides of the daddy-person’s favourite chair. Delilah knew how he hated it. Besides, there was so much milk running from the step and pooling on the concrete, that to chase the mouse any further would have been silly. And it was creamy milk too, not that watery stuff the mummy-person used.
Delilah was so engrossed with lapping up milk that she didn’t hear the door to the cottage open. And when a large, nightie-clad, whiskery-chinned woman came out onto the glass-strewn doorstep, she still carried on lapping. Delilah also failed to hear the woman grind her teeth in anger, or to see her reach through the doorway for a stiff-bristled broom. The woman’s fluffy bunny-rabbit slippers came down from the doorstep and planted squarely behind the cat. Even as Delilah noticed the woman for the first time, she still couldn’t stop lapping; her tongue was a pink blur it moved so fast. Outraged at the cat’s unbare-faced cheek, the woman swung the broom and bellowed like a rogue elephant: ‘That’ll teach you to keep pinchin’ my milk, you nuisance!’ she yelled, the broom connecting with Delilah’s rump with a thud. ‘What am I supposed to put on my muesli in the mornin’s, eh? I’m sick of it I tell you! Sick! Sick! SICK!’
It was a blessing that Delilah had plenty of padding on her nether regions, otherwise she could have been very badly hurt. As it was, only her nerves were jangled. The cat shot across the whiskery woman’s front garden, mewling with fright, dove through a privet hedge which bordered Upham Street … and wiped the smile off Bert Bottomley’s face as he hurtled down the hill, pretending to be Zorro.
A black-and-white blur flashed in front of Bert’s front wheel, and a split second later he wobbled across the lane and braked … much too hard! A single word popped into his brain: Delilah.
Bert sailed over the bike’s handlebars. Strangely, he thought that flying through the air felt scary, but at the same time quite exhilarating … He imagined himself as a young Olympic gymnast, or one of those actors from that film: The Matrix: all billowing raincoats and slow motion. Those people almost always landed on their feet. Sadly, Bert was in the almost category, landing flat on his back in a grassy ditch beside the lane, driving the air from his lungs in one long Whoosh! The Chopper spun on the grass, landing on top of him. Orange spots danced in front of the postman’s bulging eyes and his mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. As the bike’s wheel turned lazily, its spokes glinted in the sunshine. Lack of oxygen made Bert’s vision unfocussed, so he closed his eyes for a second, and then opened them again. The last thing he saw before he passed out was a black tail with a white tip disappear through a hedge near his head.
He was probably only unconscious for a couple of minutes. He tried to move but, when he did, a terrible pain began in his ankle and rocketed up his leg. He stifled a scream; then he lay still and let his thoughts wander. It was really strange how that cat’s tail had looked so like Delilah’s? But it couldn’t have been, could it? His wife’s cat was much too lazy to have wandered this far from home, surely? But still, Bert couldn’t think of any other black-and-white cats in Upham. Only Mrs Dingle’s Ambrose, and he’d been gone for two months – dying at the grand old age of twenty-two years and nine months exactly.
Bert groaned and wiped a hand over his clammy forehead. How long had he lain here? Where was he again? Oh, yes … Delilah. What were the chances of being killed by your own cat anyway, a gazillion-to-one? Suddenly he laughed aloud. He knew his wife’s cat didn’t like him – felt it instinctively – the feeling was mutual – but this was ridiculous! No, it couldn’t have been Delilah! He had been mistaken. It must be some other cat, probably a wild one. They were a nuisance, feral cats, spreading their diseases and fleas everywhere. Have to phone the council … get the pest controller to sort ‘em out. Who would have thought it … death by cat! Bert laughed aloud again. A felony, that’s what they called a criminal offence in America, wasn’t it? In this case it was a feliney. His eyelids grew heavy, so he closed his eyes, still smiling. Not the cat’s fault, yours. Going too fast as usual … silly old fool, and at your age! The bicycle frame was heavy and dug into his thigh, causing a new ache. He opened his eyes. No, that can’t be right, he thought, blinking until his sight came back into sharp focus. He was lucky, he’d never worn glasses … never needed them. But he still couldn’t believe what he was looking at.
There’s a little fairy on my arm!
He clasped a hand over his mouth to keep from screaming. Concussed, that’s all, he told himself. Hallucinatin’! Or maybe there’s a speck of something in my eye? With his free hand he rubbed his eyes. Then he found he couldn’t bear to open them again. Just have another look. Go on, you daft apeth! Open your eyes! His eyelids shot open. She was still there, and it seemed to Bert that she wore an expression of concern on her little freckled face.
Freckles! What an earth was he thinking. Whoever heard of fairies in the first place, let alone one’s with freckles! The more Bert stared at her, the more he reckoned that freckles were a cause for concern as they’d never featured in any of his dreams or thoughts before, leading him to the conclusion that this particular hallucination might not actually be one, after all.
He watched, almost paralysed with dread, as the fairy walked the length of his arm and stood inches from his face, so close that she was just a blurred shape. Her head appeared to bend to one side, as though regarding him with curiosity.
‘I saw it all,’ she said, in a peculiar, birdlike voice, tinged with a definite local accent. ‘It was that cursed cat, runnin’ out in front of you like that. Crafty things, cats … they keep on till they get what they want, usually. Are you badly hurt?’
Bert groaned. Vomit rushed into his mouth. He swallowed.
‘Have you hit your head, or are you just daft?’ she asked.
Bert stared silently.
‘I asked you if you were hurt. Don’t you understand Hampshire?’
Bert screwed his eyelids into tightly scrunched slits. Maybe, if he counted to ten? Yes, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll count to ten, and then she’ll be gone. ‘One – Two – Three – Four – Five – Six – Seven – Eight – Nine and TEN!’ He opened his eyes quickly. The fairy was still there, but she’d backed off a little, and now she was staring at him as though he was a definite loony.
She looked away suddenly, up the lane, and her wings flicked up and out, dazzling him with their brilliance as the sunlight pierced through them. He flung his free arm across his eyes, shielding them from the glare. Then, in his fear, he completely forgot about the reckless speed he’d gone, haring down the hill, telling himself that it had been that stupid cat’s fault all along. And that the creature had been Delilah. It had been too much of a coincidence for it to have been any other. Stupid – stupid cat! That’s when Bert had started tunelessly singing: ‘Why, why, whyeee, Dee – lilah … la, la, la, la, la, la, laaaaaaaa … My, my, myeeee, Dee – lilah … Go, befooore I come and break down the dooo – ooor … Forgive m–’
‘Are you all right?’
That’s strange, thought Bert, how the tiny thing’s voice has gone all deep like that? He removed the arm from across his face to see a large shadow loom over him.
He shrieked.
‘It’s all right, mate,’ said a young man in oily blue overalls. ‘I was on my way to work in my van. Spotted you lying here, thought you might need some help. Bike looks a bit of a mess, doesn’t it?’
Bert stared silently at his other arm. The little creature had gone, most likely flown away. He looked nervously around him.
The young man was worried. The old codger seemed a bit bewildered, as if he hadn’t a clue where he was. He tried speaking louder, and more slowly. ‘CAN – YOU – TELL – ME – IF – YOU’RE – HURT? CAN – YOU – STAND?’
Bert winced at the attack on his eardrums. ‘I can’t stand you shoutin’ into my ear ‘ole like that, that’s what I can’t stand! Just because I’m older than you doesn’t mean I’m deaf!’
What a miserable so-and-so, thought the young man, wishing he’d taken the longer route to work instead of cutting through Upham. He ignored Bert’s scowling face and removed the bicycle from the postman’s body, placing it several feet away on the grass verge. Then he dialled 9-9-9 on his mobile phone, even though Bert told him that he didn’t want any fuss and to ‘just take me home to Dot, she’ll have me right as rain in no time. Just put me in the van!’
But the young man didn’t appear to be listening. He finished making the phone call. ‘They’re on their way,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to go to work now. Sorry I can’t wait till the ambulance gets here, but it won’t be long. See you, and good luck with the leg.’ With that, he waved, climbed into his van and drove off.
As he waited, Bert scanned the trees and hedges for signs of the fairy. It was no more than ten minutes later that the ambulance appeared over the hill with its blue lights flashing and sirens wailing. Bert had always hated drawing attention to himself, and he wished that they’d turn the siren off. After all, a hurt ankle was hardly an emergency? But the ambulance crew quickly had Bert onto a trolley, his ankle immobilised. And they agreed with the oily young man, that Bert should go to hospital for a check-up, ‘just to be on the safe side.’ One paramedic placed Bert’s Chopper onto the grass verge on the other side of the lane for safe-keeping – where, sadly, it was promptly run over by a dustcart, squeezing past the ambulance in the too-narrow lane on its way to the local landfill site. Poor Bert, his pride and joy, once capable of being mended, was now a crumpled heap.
‘Nooooo!’ wailed Bert, covering his face with his hands.
Alerted by the siren in the usually quiet lane, the residents of nearby cottages came out to stare, including the whiskery lady in the bunny-rabbit slippers. After asking the nature of Bert’s injuries, they all agreed that he was being rather pathetic, weeping and wailing like that over a hurt ankle! They weren’t to know that it was for his bicycle that Bert wept, ridden with pride since the summer of ’74.
The dustmen apologised and loaded the remains of the Chopper into the back of the dustcart, while the ambulance crew loaded the remains of Bert into the back of the ambulance. The whiskery lady took Bert’s postbag, promising to deliver the last few letters inside. Bert tried to smile at her, to show his gratitude, but his chins wouldn’t stop wobbling. He cast a last, lingering look at the dustcart as it disappeared around a bend in the lane. ‘Bye, old friend,’ he whispered to his bike as the ambulance doors closed.

Sitting on a pile of letters inside a nearby postbox, Tatty Moon watched with a mixture of curiosity and guilt. She couldn’t help but feel responsible for the Biggun’s accident. After all, if she and Will hadn’t been after milk then there wouldn’t have been a cat to cause the accident in the first place! And the Biggun had appeared to be devastated at the loss of his bi-sickle: she could feel the impact of his grief still lingering over her like a veil, even after he’d been taken far away in that noisy motor-vickle.
It was no use, she would have to try and do something to put things right. And she realised that there was only one person who had the skills to help. Aggie. And after she’d met with Agatha Pottage, she’d try and find Will. He could be anywhere by now, she thought.
She got to her feet and climbed onto the ledge of the slot, then flew out of the postbox and headed towards Pottage’s General Store.