Short Story: Magpie


Over a cup of tea in his garden, Thomas Llewellyn rues a life full of mistakes as he faces his own mortality. Is he too late to put things right?

How can you make up for a lifetime of wrongs when you’ve got so little time left to put things right?

Tom Llewellyn pondered this problem as he sat in the small garden at the back of his house. Summer had arrived early this year. It was just as well as it would be his last and he knew it.

He reached for the cup of tea that his daughter Louise had put next to him five minutes previously. The sun was strong but the parasol protected Tom from its overbearing heat. Tom liked the shade, especially when there was a cooling breeze. It reminded him of the holidays he took to Spain with the family in the mid-80s. When life was good.

Tom sipped his tea. And thought some more.

His life, up until this point, and on the surface of things, had been pretty routine. He’d left school back in the late 70s and started a mechanic apprenticeship at the local bus station at the age of 14. By the age of 21, he was driving the buses on the local route. And it was there, driving the 63, that he first met his wife Kath, who boarded his bus at the Monico cinema one Wednesday night; she was all jet black hair and white dress.

Tom and Kath spent the early part of their lives doing what was expected of them. They got married at St Mary’s Church on a sunny Saturday in May 1981. It was a modest affair. Thomas borrowed his Dad’s suit as his wages didn’t stretch far enough for one of his own. The reception included jam sandwiches and cakes baked by Kath’s mum. The guests spoke about the cakes for weeks after.

The newly-wed couple bought their first house, a bungalow, which they named The Nest, with money given to them by Kath’s parents. Tom often felt indebted to them for giving them the money. He had no choice but to take it. He had none of his own.

The bungalow had three bedrooms and a modern kitchen. Kath was sold on the idea that she could do the washing in the new washing machine in the kitchen. Tom was proud of his new shed, where he started collecting garden tools.

Their first child came along in 1983. Another followed two years later. It wasn’t long after that that Thomas started putting a few bob on the gee-gees.

At first, it was a small flutter on the horses down at the local bookies. His friend Jim worked there and on one sunny June afternoon, Tom won £100 on a horse called Pica Pica.

Feeling flush, he bought his wife some new Tupperware. She was thrilled. He’d finally come good.

“They gave us a pay rise in work,” he’d said. It was the first lie of many.

Still on the high from his win, Tom took the remainder of his money and went back to see Jim.

“Any tips?” he’d asked Jim at the desk.

Jim wrote a name on a small piece of paper, turned it around, and slid it to Thomas.

With a stubby pencil, he’d written down the word ‘Magpie’; an outside shot on the 3.40 at Doncaster.

homas walked out of the betting shop half an hour later with £300 in cash. He treated himself to a few pints in the Three Bells on the way home. Kath had his tea ready but all Thomas could do when he got home was slump drunkenly into his favourite armchair.

Kath brought his food in on a tray. But Tom was already asleep. Without hesitation, Kath tipped the cooked dinner all over his head.

He jolted upright as he was rudely woken.

“How do you like that?” Kath had snapped. Tom curled his tongue around the side of his mouth to lick off some of the gravy that was slowly sliding down his cheek. He smacked his lips together to get a good taste of it and looked up at her.

“Thank you, petal. Could do with a bit more salt and pepper though,” he replied.

It was in that moment that Kath realised that Thomas William Llewellyn wasn’t the caring, doting man she’d exchanged rings with on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 1981. She retired to the kitchen, lit a cigarette and sat at the table.

Over the next half hour, she wondered what had become of him. The new Tupperware pots that sat on the table were just a token gesture. A pathetic attempt to make it look like he cared.

Kath chewed her thumbnail. She couldn’t go on living like this. Things were getting worse. Within a few years, the kids would have fledged and everything would be stripped bare, she thought. It would just be the two of them again, without the distraction of bringing up children to cover over the cracks.

Six long empty years later, a month after their second child left home, Kath packed a suitcase and walked out on him forever.

High in a tree, the rustle of a bird at the end of the garden brought Tom back to his cup of tea in the sunshine. A flash of black and white told him it was the magpie that had seemed to have made its home there for the last 20 years.

Tom looked down at his hands. He studied them closely. Now mottled with age spots and wrinkles, they’d got him through a lot. Then he studied his wedding ring. The one that had bonded him to Kath all those years ago. Its lustre may had faded but his love for her had never dimmed, despite her leaving. When she passed, he only found out from the man on the bus stop.

“I never deserved her,” Tom muttered. With his right hand, he wrenched the ring off his finger and threw it down the full length of the garden, where is disappeared into the uncut grass.

Louise appeared at the back door.

“You ok Dad?”

“Yes. I’m fine,” he replied as his daughter took a seat next to him.

Tom took another sip of his tea, hoping she hadn’t seen what he had done.

“I let you down. I wasn’t there for you,” he said.

Louise looked at him, confused.

“What? When?”

“In life.”

“Course you were there for us! You worked all the hours God sent you to keep a roof over our heads. Of course you were there for us.”

Tom stared ahead. He knew in his heart this was true, but there was more to being a father than just working and getting the money in.

“I wasn’t there for you when you were getting bullied in school. I let your mother deal with it.”

“She was the feisty one though. It was probably best left to her.”

“That’s no excuse. I should have spoken up too. I was scared myself. I should have put my fear to one side and been there for you. To make you feel that at least someone was fighting your corner. That at least someone was there to protect you. That’s what fathers are supposed to do, right?”

Louise looked out into the garden. He had a point. He would often say that he’d be there for her but when it came to the test, he was found wanting.

“I was never brave enough. Not like your mother.”

“She was fearless,” replied Louise.

Tom looked at his daughter.

“No. Not fearless. That suggests she had no fear to begin with. She was just as scared as I was. She just put that to one side and stuck up for you. She did it frightened.”

“Hey Dad. What is all this about? Stop beating yourself up. It’s all in the past now.”

“I know. But I was never there. I was always wondering where the next win would come from. The next lucky horse.”

Louise took the cup of tea from her father’s hand and placed it on the garden table. Then she faced him and took his hands in hers.

She smiled.

“Dad. Do you remember when I was 12 and I went on a school trip to Paris?”

“Yes. You brought me back a French beret,” said Dad, chuckling. Then his face dropped. “But I wasn’t there to pick you up when the coach got back late at night. See? I wasn’t there for you.”

“No. You weren’t there. You weren’t there because you were working in that pub.”

“Oh, God yes. I wasn’t there long mind. I got caught throwing back a few shorts to keep me going on the late shifts. Sticky fingers.”

“The reason you were working in the pub was because you weren’t earning enough on the buses to keep us all going.”

“True,” Tom nodded. “They were long nights up that pub, I tell you. I’d finish at midnight and be up again at 5am to head to the bus yard,” pondered Tom.

“Yes. That’s right. I remember seeing you come home one night, drop your wage packet into the ceramic chicken that we used to have on the dining room table, and then disappear straight back out to start your pub shift. You worked hard, Dad.”

Tom nodded, the memories coming back to him in dribs and drabs.

“If it wasn’t for you Dad,” continued Louise, “I wouldn’t have afforded my school trip. And if I hadn’t gone to Paris, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the language and I wouldn’t be loving my translator job right now.”

Tom smiled. This was true. He looked at Louise proudly.

“So I did have a few good points?” he asked. “One at least?”

“You gave me life, Dad. A chance to experience this world. That was your gift. That’s all you needed to do. I figured out the rest. No one is perfect. And you didn’t need to be.”

Louise placed her father’s hands back into his lap. He was smiling an awkward smile.

“As I was getting older,” said Tom, “I realised that I was fast running out of time to fix all the wrongs I’d done in life. And then, when I got this diagnosis last month, I realised my life had been one long failure.”

“Failure is part of life. Failure is part of learning. Failure is part of success. You had to fail to win.”

A loud chattering from the magpie in the tree disrupted their moment together. The magpie fluttered down onto the lawn at the far end of the garden. They both looked at it.

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” said Louise.

“Yes. They mate for life apparently,” said Tom.

The magpie pecked at the ground where Tom’s wedding ring had landed.

“Erm! Can you fetch me a biscuit to finish off my cuppa?” asked Tom abruptly.

“What would you like?”

“Just get me whatever’s there.” Tom cast an eye to see what the magpie was doing.

Thankfully, Louise stood and stepped into the house just as the magpie lifted its head. There, in its beak was Tom’s wedding ring, gleaming in the summer sunshine.

“Shoo! Shoo!” Tom tried to usher the bird away but the magpie stood there defiantly, looking directly at him. And then, without warning, it hopped across the lawn straight to Tom.

“I can’t find the Hob Nobs Dad. Do you want me to open the digestives?” called Louise from the kitchen.

“Keep looking for the Hob Nobs, love. They’re in there somewhere,” replied Tom, tracking the magpie all the way to his feet.

The magpie stopped and cocked its head to the side, looking at Tom. His wedding ring was still in her beak and for a moment, Tom was captivated.

He cast his eyes over this beautiful creature. Up close, its black plumage had taken on an more colourful hue; there was a purplish-blue iridescent sheen to her wing feathers and behind, there was even a green gloss to her tail.

“You?” said Tom quietly.

The bird lowered its head and dropped Tom’s ring at his feet. Tom leaned forward and picked it up.

“Thank you, petal,” said Tom. “Thank you.”

By Patric Morgan