A Scrap of Paper
Henry wakes up at 4:59, precisely one minute before his alarm goes off. His alarm never goes off because the first thing Henry does each and every morning is turn it off precisely one minute before it begins playing his favourite song. Henry is painstakingly precise. For example: he always puts his right slipper on first, he reaches across his body to turn the bathroom light on with the ring finger on his left hand, he brushes his teeth counter clockwise for exactly four minutes (he keeps an egg-timer in the bathroom for this purpose) and he urinates sitting down to avoid potential overspray. When Henry was a boy his stepfather frequently missed the toilet and subsequently blamed him for the mess. Henry spent so much time cleaning up after his stepfather he developed an aversion to urinating while standing, and to stepfathers (of which he had five before the age of seventeen). Henry dresses in this order: underwear (left leg, right leg), pants (right leg, left leg), undershirt (left arm, right arm), shirt (right arm, left arm), tie (double Windsor knot), sweater (both arms at exactly the same time - and I mean 'exactly'), socks (left foot, right foot), shoes (right foot, left foot), hat (a derby cocked two millimetres to the left on odd numbered days, two millimetres to the right on even numbered days), and watch (upside down on his left wrist). This manner of dressing has not changed in forty years; it neither can nor will change moving forward. Once dressed, Henry goes downstairs for breakfast. He eats one cup of bran cereal with exactly one cup of almond milk. He eats a 15.24 centimetre long banana (assiduously measured at the point of purchase) and drinks one full cup of orange juice. The manner in which Henry meticulously prepares and brews his coffee is far too difficult to explain here, suffice to say it is brewed in exactly the same manner each and every morning, from the grinding of the carefully stored beans to the pouring of the hot beverage into the same smiley-faced mug he used the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that ad nauseum. When Henry first began drinking coffee, his mother forced him to drink instant. One need not explain the irreparable damage instant coffee had on Henry's coffee-drinking development. Fortunately Henry dated a barista during college (he mistakenly thought she was a lawyer qualified to represent clients in the higher law courts of England and Wales) who introduced him to the wonderful world of in-season beans and precise mixtures. Each morning Henry makes a twelve-cup pot of coffee. He drinks eleven cups watching the same episode of Dr. Who he watched the day before, and the day before that, and the day before…well, you get the idea. He takes the twelfth cup with him when he leaves the house. He also takes the following: an (empty) briefcase, an umbrella, and a pistol.
On his way to Antimony's Curiosity Shop, Henry tests the front door of every house. They should be locked: inside should remain unpolluted by outside as little as possible. He confiscates the choicest doorknobs and handles and puts them in his case, a reversed salesman. It begins to drizzle; the umbrella and teacup come into play. Henry sips rainwater. Not the finest he's tasted. It doesn't matter, for he's in love.
The caged magpie was an odd thing to find on Antimony's counter, too elegant to be seen among the sepia and dust of the shop. Henry fell for it straightaway, its voice like toy machine gun fire, its pied and petrol colours.
He tried to buy the bird. "Not for sale," mumbled Antimony in morose satisfaction. "Nor for trade. A comfort in my dotage, that maggot-pie."
We'll see about that, Henry thought. I can give it better than your cage. He bought something else from the tat on Antimony's shelves. Every visit, he came back with something else he didn't need, and never mentioned the bird. It pecked desultorily at its mirror; its jet eye caught his. Save me, the look said. He found himself mouthing back, Oh, I will. I'll give you the shiniest of homes.
Henry is something of a traditionalist. He's wondered how it might seem to others, a man and a magpie living together. Marriage, then. He drew up vows and everything before realising he didn't know the gender of his corvine amour. That gave him pause. But: love is love. He's had costumes made for either eventuality. Female: a doll's lace dress altered to requirements. Male: the bird already has a fine tailcoat; a perfect little top hat will do.
Thinking on wedded bliss, the rain in his cup tastes like champagne.
The clutter of the shop, Antimony's mustard-stained cardigan offend him. The magpie (he calls it "Pica" in his most secret of dreams) is a gem to be taken from a bad setting. It chitters in welcome.
He starts off sounding reasonable: "Again, I'd like to have the magpie."
"You've had my answer."
Desperately, Henry empties the door handles and knobs onto the floor. "Not even for these?"
"Not even for those."
Henry sighs and brings out his gun. "I'd rather not do this."
"Do you even know which end to use?"
"It's a crime of romance. I wouldn't expect you to understand."
Antimony chuckles, then faster than you'd expect for a man built like blancmange, has a blunderbuss aimed at Henry. "Get out, you daft bugger."
Henry fires. The bang is much louder than he anticipated; the crater in Antimony is an affront to Henry's fastidious nature. But it is done. He opens the cage, and Pica hops neatly onto his finger. The bird tilts its head coquettishly. His heart swells. "You're everything I ever wanted," he says, pressing a kiss to its beak.
But things have unravelled on him. He was expecting a tidier start to marital bliss.
But one man's tidy is another man's tide; and tides, especially when high, can sweep anyone off their feet, not just ladies and magpies; and high tides are doubly cold because they are cool, man, and chilled out, brother; and trying to get sense out of them while they are high is almost impossible; better to wait for them to come down from their trip.
Henry tripped as he ran out of the shop, his gun smoking.
"Don't you know it's bad for your health to smoke?" he drawled at it. There was already a tumour swelling from the barrel.
The cage swung in his other hand as he regained his balance and accelerated down the street. The bird within screeched as he turned the corner, like the tyre of a stolen car. He had no particular destination in mind, Henry did, which was a good thing and kept him going, because when one's destination is in mind there's no real need to go anywhere to reach it: the end of the journey is already right where you are, unless your mind happens to be far away.
Henry's mind wandered. He called it back with a sharp, "Heel!"
But the heel of his right foot misunderstood and shouted back, "What do you want now, you rotten rest-of-the-body?"
Henry didn't answer. He kept going.
When he reached the park, he weaved between the trees.
"This is no time to start making tapestries!" the magpie berated him. "Open the cage door and let me go. I deserve to be free."
Henry stopped using the abandoned loom and turned the little gold key in the lock. The bird hopped out but didn't fly away.
"Do you think the police will be on my tail?" Henry asked.
The magpie nodded. "You'd better cut it off. Here's a selection of swords and axes. I think this park must have been an ancient battleground."
Henry selected the nearest broadsword, hefted it and chopped off his tail at the root. The policemen who were standing on the tip, many streets away, felt the vibration, then they applied their thermometers.
"Drat! The tail has gone cold!"
"Tail? Don't you mean the trail has gone cold?"
"Maybe it's the tale, this one, that needs to be cut instead."
But the truth of the matter is that this tale was originally in three pieces and has been sewn together, so to cut it now would be to tailor the tail, or tale, badly. That doesn't suit me and didn't suit Henry either; though he didn't care about any of this because he hadn't heard the conversation of the policemen. He thought about the most stylish way to elope, a way that would make his adventure fit in neatly and correctly with legends and fiction.
"If you were a dragon I could ride on your back..."
"That's my line," Henry protested.
"Let's hold onto the line and maybe someone will reel it in."
And the reader did.