Bath Children’s Novel Award runner up: The Magpie Garden by Sarah House

One

 

My collection started with a challenge to find three beautiful things.

Mum came up with the idea the first time we moved – she said it would help me settle in. I hunted everywhere in the jungly garden, under logs and bricks and crates and behind scratchy hedges – even inside the cobwebby shed. I found shiny fossil specks inside sandy brown stones, snail shells so white they glowed in the dark, and muddy coins that I scrubbed into bright silver treasure.

Every time we went somewhere new I did the challenge again. Once we stayed near a beach and I collected loads of sea-shells – heart-shaped cockles and brown-striped razors and fat spiral twists with pearl-pink insides.

Then we moved to the city, and I found a whole new kind of beautiful.

I saw this amazing scrap metal sculpture – a horse so huge I only reached up to its chest. It had a mane made from strands of clinking red chains, and a body of bolts and cogs and rusty round plates. Its metal-muscle legs were stretched in a gallop, and thick twists of cable made its streaming tail.

Now I collect all sorts of different things: scraps of metal and coloured glass; bottle tops, beads and buttons, even broken bits of jewellery. I know other people think it’s just rubbish, but I can see it’s got something beautiful waiting inside. And someday I’m going to use it to make something amazing….

‘Stacey!’

I jolt to attention. Miss Barton towers, arms folded, in front of my table.

‘Miss?’

‘I assume you’re gazing out of the window because you’ve finished your work?’

I slide my arms across my English book. ‘Um, not quite, Miss.’

‘Stop dreaming and get on with it, then.’

Someone sniggers behind me. ‘Yeah, back to earth, Spacey.

‘What was that, Calvin?’

‘Nothing, Miss.’

‘Sure? Because I’m looking for people to share their work at the end of the lesson, and it sounded like you just volunteered.’

Everyone laughs. Everyone but Calvin, anyway. He mutters and kicks at the legs of my chair.

Miss Barton claps her hands. ‘Settle down, Eight D. You’ve only got ten more minutes. Remember you are writing to describe, so use the techniques we covered last week.

I stare at the single line I’ve actually written.

For once I’m glad all the rest is still stuck in my head, because there’s no way I’m sharing that with the class. I made that mistake at the last school I went to, and I was bin-girl after that, right up to the day I left.

I’ll have to think of something else. Something that’s not going to get me labelled as weird.

My eyes drift to the window.

There’s a magpie outside, sitting on the grass. It looks kind of lopsided, with one wing trailing on the ground.

Is it hurt? My chair scrapes the floor as I lean forwards to see.

‘Stacey! Will you please focus?’ Miss Barton’s voice is sharp.

‘Sorry, Miss.’ I bend over my book.

The magpie chatters. It sounds like it’s asking for help.

When I sneak another look, it’s stretching its wings. One of them looks wrong, the feathers bent out of shape.

Far away, Calvin’s voice mumbles.

If the magpie can’t fly, it won’t be safe here.

Maybe I could help it. There are all those plastic crates stacked in our front yard – I could tie them together to make a sort of cage – keep it outside the flat until it gets better –

The bell rings for end-of-day.

‘OK, everyone –’

The room erupts like a pan boiling over. Voices and laughter bubble away.

I pack my bag one book at a time. Largest to smallest, and pencil case last.

‘You’d better hurry, or you’ll be walking home alone.’ Miss Barton is watching, her head on one side.

‘It doesn’t matter.’ My eyes flick back to the window.

The magpie shuffles out of sight.

Miss Barton sighs. ‘Stacey, is everything alright? You seem very distracted.’

‘I’m fine, thanks, Miss.’

‘If you’re having trouble settling in, you could always talk to Miss Marsh. That’s what she’s here for, to help.’

Miss Marsh is the Lower School Counsellor. She has a tiny dark office by the Maths Block stairs, where she lurks like a bad-tempered spider. There is no way on earth I’d ever go and talk to her.

‘Um – yeah. Maybe.’ I swing my bag onto my shoulder, and make a dash for the door.

Outside is grey and ice-cold. I run to the back of the building, my breath puffing in miniature clouds around my face. The magpie is still there, under the window.

I creep closer.

It turns – hops – rattles a cry –

And flaps over my head in a black and white whirl.

A glossy feather loops through the air. Its colour shimmers and shifts as it turns, from blue to purple to a shining deep green.

It’s beautiful. Magical.

Perfect for my collection.

I catch it before it hits the ground, and head back to the flat.

 

 

Two

 

I smooth the feather as I walk. It glints with secret colours.

Magpies are unlucky, according to Mum. Which is stupid, of course. But I’ll still hide the feather before she sees it. No point upsetting her more.

This morning it was like she’d switched into slow motion – even her voice sounded at the wrong speed.

Maybe I should call Uncle Mike. Anytime you’re worried, that’s what he said. But I’m always at least a bit worried about Mum, so how much counts as worried enough? And what if calling him just makes everything worse? He might come over with Ellen, like he did last time. She cornered Mum in the kitchen while he was outside. Mike’s got his own family to worry about now.

We’ve always been his family. She’s the one who’s muscling in.

I turn into our road.

Uncle Mike’s car is parked outside our building.

Not parked. Slung. Halfway across the pavement.

Everything stops.

And then I run.

‘Uncle Mike!’ Blood thumps in my ears as I pound up the steps. ‘Uncle Mike? What’s happened?’

The door jerks open.

Uncle Mike looks sick. A blurry-eyed ghost.

‘What’s happened?’

The flat is empty and grey, like the day we moved in. Packed-up boxes crouch by the front door.

Uncle Mike tries to hug me, but I push him away.

Where’s Mum?

He rubs a hand over his eyes. ‘She had to go into hospital. To Norton House –’ He looks up as he says it, as if he thinks I mightn’t know what that means.

I wish.

Norton Nuthouse, that’s what the idiots at school call it.

‘To – to stay there, you mean?’

‘For a while, yes.’

‘Can I see her?’

‘They’ve said no visitors for now. She’s very –’ He stares at the boxes, as though the word he wants might be hiding behind them. ‘Very upset.’

I bite my lip hard. I am not going to cry.

‘What about me?’ My voice sounds pathetic, like it’s shrunk. I stretch it back to normal-size. ‘Will I stay with you?’

His eyes flick away. ‘I wish you could, sweetheart. But there just isn’t room, not with baby stuff everywhere.’

‘I could sleep on the floor – I wouldn’t mind.’

He carries on like he can’t even hear me. ‘And Ellen’s not feeling well, not now she’s so close to having the twins.’

‘I could help her. I could cook. I’ve been cooking lots here. And doing the shopping.’

He drags a hand through his hair. ‘I wish you could, Stace, but it just wouldn’t –’

‘Where, then?’

‘With your grandma.’

What? But I’ve never even met her.’

‘I know it’s not ideal, but to be honest, Stace, we’re pretty low on options.’

‘And Mum wouldn’t like it – they hate each other –’

‘Of course they don’t. They’re just very… different, that’s all. Your grandma says she’d love to have you –’

‘But she lives miles away. Why can’t she come up here? Then I could see Mum when she starts to get better.’

He shakes his head. ‘She can’t. I’m sorry, Stace – there’s something else, too.’

Cold creeps through me.

‘What?’

‘We’ve got to give up the flat. Your mum got behind with the rent.’

‘But we’ve only just moved again –’

‘I know, sweetheart. I’m sorry. We’ll find somewhere new when she’s better, I promise –’

I run to my room.

The magpie feather is still crumpled in my hand. It’s not beautiful now, just ragged and black. I drop it onto the floor, and curl up on the bed.

I am so sick of new. New town, new school, new girl with no friends.

I want to stay somewhere long enough to belong.

 

 

Three

 

Grandma’s house has white walls splashed with mud from the road and windows like mean little eyes. It’s called Primrose Cottage but there aren’t any flowers, just a broken plant pot beside the front steps, dribbling earth onto the pavement.

Uncle Mike sets down the suitcase and knocks on the door. I wait behind him, shifting my bag from one hand to the other. My collection rattles as it bumps against my legs.

Grandma opens the door. She is tall and thin, with a hard-looking face and stiff waves of grey hair. Nothing like Mum at all.

‘Hello, Michael,’ she says.

Uncle Mike flinches. No-one ever calls him Michael.

‘Hello, Mum.’ He steps to one side. ‘This is Stacey.’

Grandma’s skirt and jumper are the colour of rainclouds. Her eyes are grey too, like sharp little stones. They flick from my frayed jeans to Mum’s faded old sweatshirt, rolled back at the cuffs.

‘Hello, Stacey,’ she says. ‘Nice to meet you, at last.’ Her mouth smiles, but her eyes don’t join in. ‘Quickly, then. I can’t afford to heat the whole road. And take off your shoes. I don’t need mud trampled everywhere.’

We shuffle inside. The hall is long and dark and smells of bleach and old dinners.

I peer through the doorway to the front room. A foggy brown glow leaks from the lamp in the corner. It’s one of those old-fashioned ones, with a silky pleated shade and a fringe of velvet bobbles. There’s a scratchy grey sofa and a tiny TV and a fireplace of shiny black stone.

Panic squeezes my chest. There’s no way I belong here.

Grandma bangs the front door closed. ‘Take your bag up, Stacey. Your room’s the first on the right upstairs.’ She turns to Uncle Mike. ‘Michael, a word.’

I don’t move.

Uncle Mike nods. ‘Go on then, Stace. I’ll bring the case in a sec.’ He follows Grandma into the front room.

I don’t even get halfway up before she starts.

Twelve years without a word, and now Joanna expects me to pick up the pieces?’

‘Shush, Mum. Jo’s too sick to expect anything right now. It’s me doing the asking, not her.

‘Always thought she knew best, right from a little girl. I told her she’d never cope with a baby –’

I let the bag thump the wall as I turn to the right.

The door handle slithers under my palm. It turns stiffly, like it’s not been opened for a very long time. I step into more greyness, and a damp, prickly smell creeps into my nose. A dark wardrobe and set of drawers huddle around the bed. They look like they’re trying to keep warm.

I unzip the sports bag to check on my collection. The box has got squashed, so I tip everything out to make sure it’s OK.

The phone rings in the hallway. Voices mumble, then Uncle Mike thumps up the stairs.

‘Stace?’

‘What? Is it Mum?’

‘It’s Ellen. She needs me home now.’

‘But I –’

He squashes me in a hug. ‘It’ll be fine, I promise. The beach isn’t far – try to think of it as an unexpected holiday. Oh – and I’ve got something here,’ he reaches into his shirt pocket, ‘I found this yesterday, when I was packing.’ He hands me a crumpled old photo of Mum.

She looks so happy, she practically glows. Her smile is wide and her eyes crinkled half-closed, and her hair shines coppery gold in the sun.

‘It slipped out of a book. Have you seen it before?’

I shake my head. I can’t squeeze any words round the lump in my throat.

‘Me either. Must have been on her travels. Spain, maybe, from the background?’

The glittering colours blur. Wherever it is, she looks happy there.

‘Keep it safe then, Stace.’ Uncle Mike’s voice is shaky. ‘That smile’s too precious to lose.’

‘Michael!’ Grandma shouts. ‘If you don’t leave now, you’ll get caught in the traffic.’

He kisses the top of my head. ‘I’ll call you, OK?’

‘Michael. Did you hear me?’

‘I’m coming, Mum.’ Uncle Mike gives me one last squeeze, and then he’s gone.

Grandma glares up at me. ‘Typical of Joanna. She should pull herself together and get on with things, not keep on bothering her poor brother. Michael’s got his own family to worry about now.’

She sounds just like Ellen.

A sour taste bubbles up from my stomach.

I charge down the stairs and run out through the door.

‘Stacey? Come back here!’

I keep running.

Past the space where Uncle Mike parked his car. Past a pub and a church and a row of new houses. Over a crossroads and down a narrow, twisting lane, blasted by horns as traffic squeezes by me. Past a row of boarded-up shops and down a cobbled alley with a rusty metal sign that points To the Beach.

And then I stop, as if I’ve smacked into a wall.