‘And what are you up to, young man?’ Patrick’s mother – Mrs V McManus according to the little brass plates on her pale blue leather luggage – fell into step beside him. He had been following her, on and off, for the past twenty-four hours but it was something a shock to realise that Mrs McManus had also been following him. How could that have happened?
‘Oh, just keeping an eye on proceedings, Mrs McManus’ he replies. In his head Charles-the-detective had been puffing reflectively on an imaginary briar-root pipe. Charles-the-boy was not sure now whether he had also mimed the pipe-puffing ‘out loud’, an embarrassing thought.
‘Eye on proceedings, eh?
Me too, little Charlie.
Call me Veronica.’
Charles didn’t like being addressed as Little Charlie, and he didn’t think he could bring himself to address Mrs McManus as Veronica. She was more or less old for a start; you didn’t call old people by their first name. And she had a bullet point way of talking which, though undoubtedly efficient, seemed to leave all the hard work to the listener. It was difficult to think what to say back.
Away with the fairies, Veronica McManus decided. Brainless, but could be useful.
‘Oh, look, two magpies!’ blurted Charles. He had a tendency to blurt, when he was nervous. He pointed to two magpies, sitting on adjacent lamp-posts just ahead of them.
‘Do you know the rhyme, Mrs McManus?’
- ‘One for sorrow
- two for joy
- three for a girl
- and four for a boy
- Five for silver
- Six for gold
- Seven for a secret
- Never to be told.
Did you know that, Mrs McManus? So two for joy. That means the wedding’s going to go really well. It’s a good luck sign. Had you heard about magpies? They were in Wikipedia.’
On the TV screen inside Charles’s head, a storm of black and white birds flapped out of his favourite website, through the screen, into his bedroom, somehow becoming three-dimensional in the process, flapping around his head, squawking. If only the pavement would open and swallow him up, or Mrs McManus would disappear…
‘Tell me about your sister, Little Charlie.’
‘Oh, the large … no, not that one.
The little sl…Miss Congeniality.
The one who thinks she’s marrying my son.’
‘But she isn’t – is.
I mean, it’s all set.
Church in the village.
Charles had noticed he tended to pick up people’s accents and verbal peculiarities; in fact the more nervous a person made him, the less he wanted to annoy them, the more likely he was to start imitating them. Mynah birds did this, he knew. He had read it on the internet. I must have some Mynah bird genes, he thought. Maybe I’ll start growing a beak. Hopefully when I’m quite old. It would be very inconvenient to start growing a Mynah bird beak just as one was looking for one’s first girlfriend. Charles felt there were a few years yet before he needed to obtain an actual girlfriend, but lately he had begun to consider the idea. What would happen if you had already proposed to a lady, and the lady had accepted, and the marriage was all arranged, and then the great yellow-orange beak started to sprout? Could you have a beak amputated? Wouldn’t that hurt? And would your mouth still be there underneath?
Her voice broke into his thoughts.
Why is she marrying my son?’
‘For the money.’
Had he said that out loud?
‘She has mentioned the money?’
In her diary.
I read it.
Had he said that out loud too?
Curses! It seemed he had.
Charles was usually pretty expert at white lies where his parents and sisters were concerned and yet seemed quite impossible to lie to Mrs McManus. It was as if she was hypnotising him. It wasn’t as if rainbow-coloured circles were going round and round in her eyes. What was it? He decided it was something in the voice. Something about the way she barked questions out kind of compelled you to bark answers back, immediately, before you’d had time to think. Curses! Would Sherlock have said Curses!? No, Sherlock didn’t swear. And Sherlock wouldn’t have blurted out to the groom’s mother that the bride was more interested in her son’s trust money than his magnificent personality.
‘I – I’m sure she loves him too.
Apart from that.
‘That rhyme about magpies,’ said Mrs McManus.
‘There are many other versions of that rhyme. For instance:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth…’
It felt like some kind of spell. The words seemed to be going round and round in his head. Like the eyes. Except that the eyes were not. Going round. By the time the rhyme ended she had vanished, as quickly and silently as she had appeared.