One magpie. Just one solitary fucking bird; and the day is ruined. I groan and pull the curtains together again. I have the power to shut out the morning glow but not the rumblings of a nervous stomach.
“Babes, it’s early, get some more sleepy,” my girlfriend mumbles in that cute babyish way some lovers adopt.
“I’m awake now. Got work soonish and I doubt I’ll be able to get back to sleep, besides…” I think twice about mentioning the bird. I shouldn’t let my girlfriend know the curse. She’d realise I’m weirder than I’ve already let on.
I put a shirt on without doing all the buttons up and wear jeans with crusty flakes of mud at the bottom. Surely just the start of what will become a crescendo of bad luck, nuisances and problems.
After a burnt slice of toast I leave the house and the car doesn’t start. It is so obviously annoying that I manage to keep my temper. The calmer I keep now the more I can handle later events. I am aware of the magpies’ power. The only way is to keep focused. The car grunts after a few attempts and I eventually splutter forward. I forget to turn my head to see my girlfriend Sarah wave me goodbye. Her best wishes won’t help me today.
The car stereo plays a Radiohead song that I have not heard for years. It brings back memories of adolescent self-loathing. It brings back thoughts of my father. I recollect a darkened room with a crying man hunched in the corner. A match in a haystack. So hard to find, but if struck – nearly impossible to put out. I pass a farm as I drive and I see a cow staring at me, or just into space. Its tongue pokes out and I can see drool. I sympathise, but at least it is not governed by magpies. I think I hear a squawk but it’s the radio.
As I get nearer to my school the cars around me change. Though I am getting nearer to the city I see more 4x4’s. There is no mud on them. I stop at traffic lights and am beeped at from behind. From my rear-view mirror I can see a man, his face is screwed up and he grits his teeth. He gestures with his hands. No cars seem to be coming across the road in front. I check the lights and they are green. I had seen red. I drive just as the lights turn amber and the man behind me shakes his head in the way I do with my pupils. A hallucination? I feel sweat begin to accumulate at the back of my neck where my hair is a bit too long. I drive the rest of the way to the school attempting not to think but the radio plays a song from my grandfather’s funeral. It is so distressing that I giggle.
“Yes, Mr Miller.”
“Here, Mr Miller.”
I tick the names of my pupils and they are all here. When a couple are ill it decreases the workload. But what was I expecting today? I am sitting in front of fifteen children and they are all sat cross legged. Some stare intently, some look past me at the whiteboard; some stare out into the grey of the playground. One is busy excavating his nose with dexterous fingers. One looks green.
I have nearly dragged Steven Burrows to the boys’ toilets before his breakfast explodes all over me and the floor. It stinks. And it doesn’t look like good quality food either. Who has cheese strings and quavers for breakfast? As I wash blobs of what Steven calls, ‘chunder’ from his mouth I wonder what I can now wear. My Ted Baker shirt is temporarily ruined. Sarah had bought that for me in London, in the early days.
“Damn magpies,” I mutter under my breath.
“Huh?” Steven looks confused but I do not blame him. The whole notion is ridiculous. Perhaps ridiculous enough for a child with severe learning difficulties to believe.
“Mr Miller is just having an unlucky day today, Steven,” I say as I wipe crumbs of vomit off my shoe.
“I’m sorry I was sick, sir.” The boy seems genuine. He isn’t in on the magpies’ plans. Interrogation would be useless, he’s just a cog.
“Go back into class, I’ll get a new shirt and let Mrs Hamilton know you were sick. I’ll ring your mother as well. Do you feel okay to continue today or do you want to go home?” I wish I had that choice.
“I think I want to go home.”
“Good idea, and tell Thomas to quieten down I can hear him messing around from here.”
I can’t hear him but I know that after a couple of minutes he’ll be pulling someone’s hair or pulling his trousers down. He is the hardest kid to control; surely he will be playing up on a one magpie day. I watch as Steven makes the short journey back into the classroom, I can’t risk him being snatched by aliens or something.
I cross the playground with its swirling patterns of fun and games emblazoned on the concrete. I sneak a look at the portable hut that is adjacent to mine and catch a glimpse of Miss Carter. Sophie. The only teacher at the school who is my age. I don’t want her to see me covered in sick but it’s the magpies’ choice. She glances at me through the decorated windows. I am visible to her through a crepe caterpillar. I wave awkwardly and she looks confused at my bedraggled appearance. I hope she doesn’t think I’ve had a heavy night on the booze. It’s been known before but she was there. Sophie keeps me sane in a school embedded with lunacy. She is wearing a bright green top that is vaguely revealing. Fine for a primary school with pupils who are too young to be sexually aware. Impossible in a secondary school where it’s the only thing on spotty kids’ minds.
Her hair is short and blonde, boyishly messy yet somehow totally effeminate. I know that out of everyone I see today I must avoid her. I can’t let her realise I’ve been cursed. She would never realise that I’ve been cursed. She grins and waves back, a couple of the kids I taught last year wave too. Most stare at me as if I am a stranger. I walk into the school with Sophie’s cleavage on my mind. I am jealous of her pupils.
I am supporter of Liverpool football club, and I am wearing an Everton top. The magpies are taking the piss. They have followed me for over a week now, and this is the pettiest attempt to anger me. The only spare top available was the PE teachers’ football shirt. Mr Bowman knows I support Liverpool and as I put the blue jersey on I seriously contemplate whether I would get away with being topless. For a few seconds I imagine Miss Carter in my predicament but the image melts into Mrs Grutter and I shake my head to destroy the vision of our veteran dinner lady.
“Wear it with pride my son,” Mr Bowman (Clive to his friends) says condescendingly. He has a habit of calling me his ‘son’, or ‘boy’, and even on occasions, ‘junior’. He is four years older than me.
“I feel dirty,” I mutter.
“How about you help me with sports today, I saw you dossing in your classroom last week.”
“Um…” by looking into his piggy eyes I can tell it wasn’t a question, “sure I’ll help.”
“Good good, just come to the pitch when your kids do.”
“Pitch?” I ask.
Bowman looks embarrassed, “The playground.”
I nod, mumble a thank you for the top and swiftly leave him to get on with whatever PE teachers do when no one is playing sport.
I walk the longer way back to class just to avoid Sophie. I can’t let her see me. I contemplate doing some art with the kids. Maybe get some poster paint on Bowman’s shirt. I bet it would slide off.
The magpie reminds me it is observing by squawking as I reach my portable classroom. The school is near the centre of town and situated on a small site. Sophie and my classrooms suffocate the little playground with a thin patch of grass running from the other side of mine round to the main building. The car park is cramped and I had to park outside the gates this morning. We have only one tree. The magpie glides off its branch. I see it climb and descend on a zephyr, it flutters nearby and I try and think rationally. There is no way a species of bird is giving me good and bad luck. It is impossible. And why would it choose me anyway? I twist the doorknob and go inside just as magpie shit splats the ground just behind me. For once I wished I’d got shat on. It could have dribbled down the Everton players name and rested in the curves of the number.
I have survived an hour and a half without much incident. Steven has gone home and the teaching assistant, Michaela Hobbs, has at last turned up. She mumbled something about ‘traffic’ but she couldn’t look me in the eye. The lie was in the words and the truth was in the awkwardness. I think she’s just escaped the grips of adolescence but her face has kept the scars. She wears clothes similar to the chavs I see on my drive home that cling to the outside of MacDonald’s like limpets on a rock. She stinks of smoke and coughs. Occasionally I catch her wiping balls of phlegm under the tables.
“I’m just going to take Ema to the toilet,” she tells me as I police the children. I am pointing to the board, explaining maths so basic I feel like my brain is crumbling.
“Yeah, that’s fine.” I’m not really listening to her.
She shuffles out of the small room and I accidentally look at her ass. She is the antithesis of Sophie.
“So what happens if we have twelve,” I point to the giant red number I have drawn, “and take away seven?” I put on my best ‘please try and work it out face’. I realise it is similar to my ‘can I have a blow job, Sarah?’ face and quickly change my expression. I look out onto minds struggling to work out the answer but one hand shoots up and I am pleased.
“Nineteen?” the boy smiles.
“Um… no, but I see what you’ve done, try the other way.”
“Is it six?” a girl called Harriet shouts out.
My own teaching skills aren’t up to scratch today, I shouldn’t blame the kids but I can feel my anger rising. I give them a sheet of questions to answer and sit down at my desk. I have a small picture of Sarah and it calms me. The feline features, the glossy long brown hair, the curves. Yet why are cracks appearing in our relationship? That is something I definitely cannot blame the birds for. I rub my hand over her captured face, as if I am a giant. I look out the window, contemplating Sarah and wondering if the magpie is still about. I see a plume of smoke. Michaela is outside having a cigarette.
It is lunchtime and I am seriously considering going hungry and staying in my classroom until class starts again. Happy children burst with energy in the playground, the naivety they so luckily have draws me in. Maybe it was one of the reasons I trained as a teacher in the first place. The element of Never Never Land. Not in a Michael Jackson way of course, just in the sense of never growing up. Always a new flock of young children to delay the knowledge that you are ageing. One day you will be thirty. One day you will be forty. One day you will be fifty. Youthful innocence is a joy that kids always try to lose, yet when it’s gone and they become adults all they want to do is get it back. Or maybe it’s just me and my inability to accept growing old.
“Jack?” a voice echoes from just outside the classroom. I have a couple of important seconds to sort my hair.
Sophie walks in, smiling. She does not maintain much eye contact with me.
“Hey, Jack, you going to have lunch? Wanna go into the staff room?”
“I’m not too hungry. Don’t want to see Bowman looking all smug cos he has me wearing this shitty shirt.”
“It’s an Everton shirt.”
Sophie looks blank.
“And I support Liverpool.” I explain.
She still doesn’t understand. Weird how I’d find that annoying if it was anyone else but with her it’s cute. Definitely a dodgy sign.
“Well you have to eat,” she ponders, “I could go get you some lunch and bring it back?”
I laugh slightly because it seems too generous, and also makes me seem like one of her pupils. But I really cannot handle Bowman, Mrs Grutter or our Head teacher Mrs Stekelenburg communicating with me. It could end in disaster. Though I do not want to spend much time with Sophie today I accept and she leaves to go to the dining room for me. I watch her bum and she turns to smile and she notices and my cheeks rouge and her cheeks rouge and her smile widens and I lower my head and I wonder just what the fuck will happen between us because I know the magpies will create something. They are waiting. Sophie saunters across the playground packed with kids and I focus on her, her hips seem to swing more purposefully, as if she is performing for me. I sit back in my chair and my mind tricks me into thinking Sarah’s photograph looks pissed off. I am half way through the day and it can only get worse.
I am counting the minutes and they are obviously dragging. But the school day is nearly ending with just PE left to go. It is time to have fun with Bowman. I can see him preparing the ‘pitch’ outside. Cones for goalposts, beanbags marking the edges. I wonder what a man like him is doing at a school like this; he must have been kicked out of the army.
The kids are in their kits, the boys are jumping and stretching, raring to go while the girls twist their hair and bite their nails. Bowman chooses his two favourite kids (the ones best at sport) to be the captains. One of my favourite pupils, Mark, is one of them and I hope that his team win. He is gangly like I was and one of the few that seems to have genuine enthusiasm. When he holds his pencil, he wants to create something with it.
“If you go down the line while I referee, whistle if you see an offside,” Bowman throws a whistle at me, deliberately lightly so I have to pick it up from the ground. I glare at him but he is beginning the game. Offside? In an under-eight sports lesson? Bizarre.
The girls are constantly offside and if I blow the whistle the game pauses too much and if I don’t Bowman gets annoyed. Ema, a dark skinned girl whose parents are suspected illegal immigrants trundles up to me, frowning.
“We don’t like this game, Mr Miller,” I notice most of the other females are watching their spokesgirl with equally miserable faces. Liam Hawthorn darts past the group like my hero, Steven Gerarrd through the Everton defence.
“Son, come on, was Liam offside?” Bowman jogs over to me before I can reply to Ema.
“I dunno, no. He wasn’t. Look, the girls aren’t really enjoying it, how about they do something else. You still have enough for each team.”
Bowman mumbles something but agrees, the boys cheer because they don’t have to be tied down to passing it to the girls and everyone seems happier. One of the shyer boys, Wilfred, tugs at the back of my trousers and asks to play with the girls. He is the most effeminate of the boys and I worry that he’s going to have some trouble when he gets to the age when boys go out with girls. I think he’s the youngest homosexual I’ve met.
“Did you see how far I jumped, Mr Miller?” No.
“Yes, Elizabeth, that was a mighty fine leap,” the sarcasm is wasted on a girl who talks to her invisible friend so much her real mates get jealous. I have not been watching Elizabeth or the others skip, jump or throw because I have been spying on Sophie. It’s a dangerous game, even more tactics involved than the ones I notice Bowman imposing. Her face is constantly smiling, as if she has no worries in the world. When my girlfriend smiles, these days it doesn’t rest so cleanly. The problems with her art gallery are mounting and it’s not like I have enough money to bail her out. What started as Sarah’s creative dream is now a financial nightmare. It’s draining more than her bank balance; it’s somehow draining our love.
The magpie soars low through the playground, it spins midair like a ballerina and I wonder if they normally try such aerobatics. The bright blue of its wing merges with the white as it begins to ascend back out of sight. It makes no sound this time, but the hair’s on the back of my neck stand on end which is a feeling I always thought wasn’t true, just hyperbole to signify tension. It makes me shiver, is it the bird or a change in the wind? Is my luck guided by flying creatures or am I losing my mind? So many questions, where are the answers? Maybe I should concentrate more on Elizabeth’s jumping.
Mark’s team loses and he sprains his ankle and the girls pull Elizabeth’s hair because she tells her invisible friend, ‘Jojo’ that Ema smells.
“Cheers for helping, junior,” Bowman lies, his anger at me taking the girls away clear on his bullish features. I see broccoli in his teeth and recollect that was the school meal two days ago.
“That’s fine, I’m happy to do it again.”
“Oh, right, well…” I grin as he struggles with surprise. There is only one reason I want to help again: spying on Sophie, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“But next time I’ll bring my Liverpool top, with the five stars on it, those five European cups,” I can’t help but have a dig at Bowman and the team he supports, its petty but makes me feel better for a few seconds.
“Indeed, well, see you tomorrow. Don’t forget my shirt. Cleaned,” he scarpers off, jogging to the main building. I walk back to the room and the children are ready to be set free.
The road is jammed with cars and mothers in groups, a few fathers loiter alone, scanning their watches. I let the children go, they cheer and run, gazelles escaping a cheetah. It is a reasonably sunny day, and the kids have the rest of the afternoon to spend trapped in their rooms, staring at a box with a screen on it, in a darkened corner. Even Mark won’t be outside now he’s damaged his ankle.
I can leave relatively early because parents evening is coming up and I need to prepare. That really is going to be a test. It seems destined to be a one magpie day. Sophie waves from her car as I make my way through the car park to where I am parked outside. She looks at me and I hear the magpie caw but as I look into her eyes a fucking bird doesn’t bother me. I think I ignore mothers trying to speak to me about parents evening as I unlock the car door and swiftly get in. I am like a Z-list celebrity avoiding a couple of fans.
Now I am in my new car, a silver Honda Civic I purchased a few weeks ago (causing a huge row between me and Sarah) I can breathe. Parents disperse as their mini-futures hold their hands and tell them what they did in a building they will have forgotten when they are adults. The magpie is perched on the schools’ only tree, and it seems to grin. How can a bird grin? It just can’t and I know that, but I’m tired and want to get home. I have had a shit day and those flapping, cawing, swooping creatures seem to be the reason.
The car doesn’t start again, and I have to twist the key for seconds that crunch into minutes while I scream and shout and my face gets redder and redder. One of my pupils, Colin, with his attractive mother, walks past my car and waves. I look foolish. The car grunts into life and I nearly run them over.
“Sorry!” I mouth but they look petrified and hurry away.
The magpie is still on its throne of branches, observing me like I am a juicy worm. I am not a worm. I inch forward, looking left and right to make sure there is no traffic. Both sides are clear so I pull out. Dents and noise pop and bang as a mixture of metal and flesh topple over the bonnet. I have run over a cyclist. My car was going so slowly, he can’t be dead. Surely. The magpie caws and flutters away in the evening chill, leaving the scene of the crime. I am shaking all over. The cyclist groggily gets to his feet. He looks pissed off.