This week, we dip back into the pool of prose within Kingston University with a piece by Catherine Franklin, debut writer to Words, Pauses, Noises. ‘The Magpie’ stumbles about the throes of mental disillusion in this short-story about one human’s compulsion for objects.
I have a photo of a man whose name I don’t know. I’m a hoarder, a magpie; I collect things I don’t need. It started with something I heard on the radio; a soothing voice explained how she was unable to walk past a discarded scratchcard on the ground, just in case it was a winning ticket that had been overlooked. And once I’d mimicked this, clapped and triggered the avalanche, I couldn’t stop. I also couldn’t bring myself to throw the scratchcards away. I pinned them over each other on my noticeboard until the pin wasn’t long enough and I had to start a new pile.
Receipts came next. I didn’t need them, but I couldn’t bin them, just in case they would be of some use some day. Consequently I’ve kept every receipt for everything I’ve bought in the last five years. I have thousands, tens of thousands maybe; more than I could count. It escalated until I was keeping and collecting just about everything.
There’s always that temptation, but I’d never set out to steal. When the opportunity is there, however, I just can’t turn it down. It began on a bus. A woman bent down , picked up a glinting silver key and held it out in front of me. She asked me if it was mine, but it wasn’t. My mind said no, but my lips released the affirmative. I had no use for this little key, but I slid it into my pocket after thanking her and later blu-tacked it to my bedroom wall.
In this way and through fortunate serendipity, I’ve gained a mobile phone, three wallets, four umbrellas and twenty eight train tickets, amongst other obscure objects. Piles of jewellery crowd my bedside table, and I’ve accumulated enough scarves to wear a different one every day for a month. I have a photo of a man whose name I don’t know and it’s the most prized possession I’ve uncovered in all these years. I found him in a wallet nestled between bank notes, removed him and sat him behind the transparent window in my purse.
It’s a lonely life as a magpie. Everyone knows it’s one for sorrow, two for joy. I’ve accumulated many beautiful things but my own beauty remains untouched. I’m well into my thirties, no longer young and promiscuous and the dreaded question never gets easier to hear. Aunties and grannies and long-lost cousins twice removed never tire of asking, “Have you found yourself a man yet?”. I was tired of letting them down. So I lied. It was only a tiny, insignificant white lie to begin with. I said yes, and opened my purse to show him off. He attracted a lot of attention; they told me over and over that I’d caught a good one, reeled in something really tasty. But somehow even the fishing analogies didn’t deter me.
It began to rocket out of control, just like the hoarding had done. I named him Ethan. My family happily believed that he was a soldier in Afghanistan, that we’d met whilst he was on leave but that he was back on the front line now. That was why they couldn’t meet him. Sometimes I’d find myself with a glass of wine in one hand, television remote in the other, scouring the news channels for his face, convincing even myself that he was real.
I became devoted to this imaginary character. Unsent letters became my latest hoard, addressed to the army barracks I’d told myself he was serving at. It scared me how attached I had become. At times I’d try to remind myself of the reality. I even thought about offering the photograph to strangers on public transport, in the hopes he’d fall into the hands of another hoarder. I could never bring myself to go through with it.
After an exhausting day at work one Friday evening, I breathed a sigh of relief as my train finally pulled into the platform. I fought my way into the busy carriage, squeezing through a mass of business people to a space by the window. Gripping onto the handrail as the train began to move, I caught sight of my pea-green handbag, lying unaccompanied on the bench I’d sat on for the last half hour. It was too late to get off; it was too late to do anything. I clapped a hand to my mouth as I watched my possessions fade further and further into the distance. My phone, my purse, my umbrella, my train ticket, gone, forever. And the photo of a man whose name I didn’t know.
I had never realised that you could grieve for somebody you never knew. Yet I slipped into denial with ease, racing back to the station as quick as the trains would take me. I checked every bench in case my memory had failed me, every bin and anywhere my bag could have been tossed aside. Torrents poured down my face as I began to realise that it was no use. An opportunist had pounced. He was gone.
I cried all weekend. I was so angry at myself for my carelessness. The television offered no comfort. I was expecting every news article to cover his coffin arriving home, draped in our country’s flag. It never came. I began to think that losing an invention of your own mind was worse than losing a genuine friend. You can’t attend the funeral of a fictitious character. Closure is merely a mirage.
On Monday, having phoned in sick to work, I returned to the station. After another fruitless search, I sought out the Lost and Found. It was my final hope of Ethan and I being reunited. A disinterested woman appeared at the window, waving me into her office. Spider webs draped like canopies across the ceiling. It was the room that time forgot. I waited while the woman checked through a log book. There were shelves piled high with forgotten items, arranged into boxes by type. My eyes widened; I was in paradise.
My green bag hadn’t been handed in. I’d made the woman double-check. All the while I was itching to leap over the desk and immerse myself in a hoarder’s heaven. My fingers twitched every time she turned her back. A storage box full with ladies’ purses was placed on the surface in front of me. Excitement flashed in my eyes. I began to search through them, first the ones that bore some resemblance to my own. Ethan remained AWOL. Then my attention turned to the leather ones, the hot pink ones, any whose contents interested me. I unzipped a sequinned wallet. A dark, chiselled man grinned up at me. It wasn’t Ethan, but somehow I didn’t mind.
I slipped the wallet into my pocket.
‘No luck, but thanks,’ I called out, turning to leave. The woman, preoccupied with filing, remained indifferent. Outside, the sequins caught every shard of sunlight. The magpie in me lusted after shiny things. I gazed at the photograph once again, letting my imagination roam wild and free. The crippling pain of losing Ethan began to ease and my sanity started to reassemble.
I have a photo of a man whose name I don’t know. But if you were to ask, I would introduce him as Darcy. He’s away on business a lot, working in IT. He’s a keeper.
A keeper, indeed. We cringe at the uncomfortable attachment some people hold with their belongings. Yet, we all indulge ourselves sometimes with a certain sentimentality towards things that distorts our grip on reality. Imaginary boyfriends like Ethan and Darcy on the other hand though…
Thanks again for stopping by Words, Pauses, Noises to get your weekly feed of prose and poetry. Don’t forget submissions are now open to everybody. Make sure to send something in to kingstonCWMA@gmail.com
Until next week, have a good Sunday from WPN!