The old woman is there again this morning, sitting on the park bench with her jewellery box nestled in her lap. Beside her is her shopping trolley, the fraying carrier bags within sheltered from the elements by a piece of old carpet. Dylan feels her staring at him as he passes through the park on his way to the office. Her eyes, he notices, never meet his, but rather focus stubbornly on his chest. It disconcerts him, and he enters the offices of The Herald, frowning.
“Morning, Chuckles,” Joe says. “Been at the laughing gas again, I see.”
Joe’s been on obits longer than anyone and knows just how deal with people at a low ebb. The trick, he says, is to act as insensitive as possible. Treat people like they’re made of china and they’ll feel fragile, breakable, seconds away from falling to pieces. Treat them like they can take a good ribbing, and they’ll take it like a shot in the arm.
“Morning, Joe,” says Dylan, breaking into a smile that, despite its sincerity, sits awkwardly on his face. He’s out of practice.
“Check this out,” Joe says, as Dylan takes his seat. “Got a call this morning. MacMillan is dead. Popped his clogs in the early hours. Massive stroke, apparently.”
“MacMillan the actor?”
“Didn’t you just finish his advance?”
“Yep, put the last full stop to it on Friday. Three days later, the man’s treading the boards in heaven. Joe’s Curse strikes again, eh?”
The obits desk at The Herald is not the grim, sombre place most people expect. People think that writing obituaries for a living is depressing work. It’s not, but it is the kind of job you dread telling people about at parties. They tend to frown or grimace, or say “oh” and then go quiet. Dylan used to enjoy putting people straight. “I don’t write about death,” he’d say. “I write about life.” Full lives. Thrilling, interesting, enviable lives.
“But what about those poor people who die young—musicians and poets and such. Surely that must get you down, writing about someone cut down in their prime.”
“Trust me,” he’d reply, “if you’ve done enough to warrant a write-up in The Herald, you’ve already done more with your life than most people ever will.”
Sarah had asked him the very same question when they’d first met; she later said his answer is what made her fall in love with him. His love for people and life.
At lunchtime, he goes to the sandwich shop around the corner and then sits on a bench in the park to eat his sandwich. The woman with the jewellery box is still there. A kid in a hoodie breaks off from a group of guffawing peers and comes up to her. “All right, Gran? What’s in the box?”
The woman, with not so much as a quiver, snaps open the latch and lifts the lid. “Treasure,” she says. The kid looks inside and laughs. “Fuckin’ hell. You really are off your rocker, in’t yer, love?”
The old woman smiles. “Not people treasure. Crow treasure.”
“Yeah, yeah, all right. Whatever you say, sweetheart.” He turns back to the group of boys. “Nah, no luck, lads; this one’s soft in the ‘ead.”
* * *
On her walk to school along the winding country lanes, Betsy drops pieces of her bread and margarine behind her and watches as the crows swoop down from the tops of the hedgerows to peck at them—to gobble them down straight or clutch them in their beaks and fly away to enjoy the bigger morsels in the safety of some tree branch, one of the rowans that burst red and bloody along the road side. By now, they wait for her, lining up on the roof of her aunt’s house, waiting for her to leave in the morning, then following her as she wanders to school.
One morning there is a gift on her windowsill. It is heralded with a tap on the window and a flutter of black wings—a piece of quartz, a silver bottle top, a mother-of-peal button, a twisted nail—things that birds see as beautiful.
She saves up her pocket money and buys a jewellery box at the village shop, red velvet with brass fittings, which Mrs. Whitgift, the owner, ordered for her especially from Hereford.
She lays her gifts in the box and hides it under her bed. But she isn’t careful enough.
“What you got there?” Charlie, her uncle’s sister’s boy, down from Manchester, asks her.
“Tell me, or I’ll tell Aunt Liza that you throw away yer bread and marge.”
Betsy turns red and squeals, “You’re a rotten little rat, Charlie Perkins! I hate you. I hate you!”
* * *
Dylan goes home every night to the too-small flat around the corner from his office that he had to rent short notice. Most of his belongings are still stuffed into duffel bags, carrier bags, the odd plastic tub and two suitcases—one, pink, with a broken wheel, the other black. He turns on the TV and makes himself dinner in the microwave and a cup of tea in a chipped mug that he hasn’t the heart to replace. It’s the one thing he has that was once theirs, not just his. His mug—black with and embossed silver inscription in large Gothic lettering: Fear not death, for the sooner we die, the longer we shall be immortal—got thrown at him and smashed to smithereens on the wall. In fact, he wasn’t sorry that it had. It was how he used to see himself. As someone who played a small part in other people’s immortality, putting the deeds and words of great men on record. Immortality. The only kind of immortality he believes in at any rate. But now, thinking about the mug makes him sick. He’s glad it got smashed to smithereens, even if it did nearly take his head off.
After dinner, he turns off the TV and moves to the window. The hazy orange of sodium street lamps permeates the night like the glow of a dying fire. He likes the type of light they give off—melancholy, soothing, non-intrusive. Not ostentatious like the brilliant white of LEDs. These lights are gentle, dim, prone to flickering.
On the street opposite, he sees the old woman, sallow and jaundiced in the dull light. She’s walking along at the edge of the pavement with her eyes trained on the gutter, searching for something. She stops, and slowly, like a collapsing bridge, kneels down to pick something up. He can’t make out what it is; he’s too far away. She opens the jewellery box which she keeps under one arm and slots the object inside. “Crow treasure,” he thinks. Magpies are a type of crow, aren’t they? They belong to the same family. They like shiny things. The old woman is like a magpie, he thinks. Julia liked shiny things, too. Trinkets. Baubles. Christmas lights. Anything that twinkled. A tear grows in the corner of his eye. It twinkles too.
* * *
After the war with Germany ends, Betsy returns to London. She writes to Charlie every week and relishes receiving his replies in the post. She moves into nurses’ accommodation at St. Mary Abbot’s and is terrified that the matron will read her letters.
Charlie writes that he’s moving to London to take up a teaching position. He proposes on Chelsea Embankment on a crisp autumn evening and she accepts. They marry in secret. Nurses aren’t allowed to keep their jobs if they’re married. She keeps the box of crow treasures under her bed still.
* * *
The next morning, on his way to work, Dylan sees the old woman with her jewellery box sitting in an alcove in the park, sheltering from the rain. He fishes around in his pocket for some change and finds a five pound note. More than he’d usually give, but never mind. He’s seen her so often, and he’s never given before. Consider it a back payment.
“Here you go, my love. Something for you. Get yourself a cup of tea when it stops raining, all right?” He tries to push the fiver into her hand, but she refuses. She raises her right hand, and stretches out a crooked finger. “That,” she says. He looks down. She’s pointing at his tie pin. The quill-shaped tie pin Sarah gave him for their first Christmas. His hand darts to it, and his fingers trace the tiny crenulations down to the pointed sliver nib. He loves it. Not just because of his job, but because the person who gave it loves him.
He takes it off. But he can’t hand it over. He finds himself crying. The old woman shuffles over, making a space in the alcove next to her. “Sit with me, dearie,” she says. “Tell old Betsy all about it.”
* * *
Dylan and Sarah sit at Julia’s bed every night, holding her little clammy hands, until they turn cold. Ever so cold. Sarah pushes her face onto his shoulder and sobs until his shirt is soaked through.
The fighting begins soon after. Sarah is either empty or filled with anger. They go on like this for weeks. They fight, then stop when the neighbours make a noise complaint. But they never quite make up after each bout. Julia watches them from the mantelpiece. Julia with ice cream on her nose. Julia riding her first bike—pink with tassels and giant stabilisers. Julia at Halloween dressed like a clown. The smiles seem cruel somehow. He used to think of Death as something grand. Now he thinks of Death as a joker—a tasteless stand-up comic whose gags not only fall flat but actively offend.
At the office, he sits at his computer, his work half-finished. He can’t bring himself to finish a single piece. Lives, all of them full. It’s not fair that they should be so well-lived, and Julia’s cut short at twelve. The editor cuts him some slack and gets Joe to finish his pieces.
* * *
On the wards of St Mary Abbot’s, Betsy sees death every day. Mr. Churchill, a sweet old man, dies of scarlet fever. Mr. Taylor dies shivering and coughing of pneumonia after he spends the night sleeping drunk on a shop doorstep. A little boy called Francis dies of polio, suffocating under the weight of his own chest. There are men, too, who fought in Africa, who die years later of malaria. There are men who fall off ladders and brain themselves on the pavement. There are women who bleed away from trying to get rid of unwanted babies. She comes to know death like an old enemy, one who is relentless, greedy, and able to outwit her at every turn.
Charlie hugs her shoulders, “It’s all right,” he says. “It’s all right,” as he strokes her hair and kisses her head. But it’s not all right. Betsy clenches her shoulders and turns away. Death is winning.
Betsy resolves to rob him of his little victories.
* * *
“It was him that took your little one, same as took my Nancy, and my Charlie,” the old woman says to Dylan in the dripping alcove. “It won’t bring ’em back, but you can rest easy. He’ll get his comeuppance soon. I’m going to make sure of it.” She grabs his hand and gives it a weak squeeze.
Dylan forces a smile. She’s not quite right in the head, he thinks, poor thing. He considers leaving, but he can’t quite face the office yet. He’s going to get the sack soon anyway, so why bother being on time.
“Nancy and Charlie,” he says, “they’re . . .”
“Husband, daughter. Drunk driver. Never caught him. But it’s not him that took them. Not really. Not when you see past the tools and the trimmings.”
Dylan says nothing, but he nods.
“Don’t you worry, love. He’ll get what’s coming to him. The crows’ll see to it. When I can pay them enough.”
* * *
Betsy rises long before the breakfast bell in the nurse’s quarters and takes the box of treasures from beneath her bed. She opens it up and looks after a long time at the unlikely treasures within. She takes a shiny piece of twisted metal from the box and rolls it between her fingers. As quiet as she can, she sneaks out from her room and makes her way in the pale dawn light to the park. The parks are the few places in London where she knows there are crows. London is a city overrun by pigeons—stupid birds, not a jot of magic to them. They’ve spent far too much time around people. But the crows, they stay in the trees, near the green.
She sneaks into the park while the sun is still considering rising and sits on a bench beneath an old yew tree. The crows caw overhead. Kraaaagh kraaaagh kraaaagh. But she waits there patiently until one of them takes notice. She looks it in the eye, calling it down with her mind, flashing the metal as a hansel.
The crow circles, descends, kraaaagh kraaaagh kraaaagh, and lands beside her on the bench. It cocks its head. What do you want? She cocks her head in turn. Information. The crow’s black eyes are like two polished balls of obsidian. What information? She stares right back at it. Information about death. She proffers the twisted metal in her hand. The crow nods imperceptibly, and takes the metal in its beak.
* * *
The old woman lifts the carpet from her shopping trolley so Dylan can better see the contents of the carrier bags. One is filled to almost bursting with bottle tops, one with little shells, another sags bloated with cast off buttons, another with weathered nuggets of broken stained glass. “This is my main hoard.” She says, tapping the trolley and smiling. “My bullion. But this”—she taps the jewellery box— “this is where I keep the crown jewels, the really special pieces, for that picky bunch in the Tower—tough to please, all airs and graces, see, but they’re powerful.”
* * *
Betsy watches the man pass her on the street. He’s wearing a brown fedora and a tweed suit with patches on the elbows. The crow said as much. She watches him as he checks his pocket watch, and goes to cross the road. Not looking. A bus is approaching from the left. She sees it. He doesn’t. She runs up to him and grabs his hand. “Excuse me, mister.” The bus passes by. “I think you dropped your paper.” She hold a newspaper out to him.
“Sorry, sister,” he says, taking note of her uniform. “Not mine.” He flashes her a smile and hurries off across the road. She smiles at her small but significant act. Slowly but surely, she robs death of his victories.
* * *
Her jewellery box is now only half full. She keeps on trading with the crows until her belly makes it difficult for her to walk. Nancy comes into the world screaming and wailing like a banshee. But the crows have been paid. She is healthy and safe. Charles holds his daughter with tear in his eyes. Tears that twinkle with joy.
* * *
Nancy is ten, and the box is almost empty. It has emptied quicker since Nancy was born; she’s a reckless child, who rides her bicycle close to the road and stays out all day playing in the rain. There are only a few trinkets left. Only a few more favours to ask. Betsy begins to worry. She knows her enemy has time on his side, and that waiting means nothing to him.
* * *
The rain has stopped. And the park smells of the coming winter, cold, and damp, and full of wet leaves. “I spent a while in Bethlehem Royal after it happened,” the old woman says, “then nursing homes and the like.” She shuffles in her seat and rubs her liver-spotted hands together. They look as if they’re carved of ivory, pale and scrimshawed with thin blue veins. “But one day I found myself out on my ear, wandering about in the cold. And no amount of rain or hunger or thirst could see me off. He was enjoying it, see. My old enemy. Enjoying seeing me suffering. For a long time I wasn’t quite right, upstairs, you know?” She taps her temple with her crooked finger. “But then I came across this jewellery box in a jumble sale, and by God if it wasn’t the same one I’d bought all them years ago. My little box of treasures.” She pats the box with her ivory hands. “Well, I begged them, and they sold it to me for next to nothing. Probably took pity on me. But it didn’t matter. Just having the box again took that mist clean off me. I knew that if I could just scrape enough together, the crows’d do right by me.” She pauses, and Dylan looks into her clear blue eyes, “Off with you now, love,” she says after a moment. “I’ll get him. Don’t you worry yourself about that.”
Dylan takes off the pin, and gives it to the woman. “Will this help?” he asks.
“Oh, yes,” she replies. “They’ll like this a lot.” She opens the red velvet jewellery box and puts the pin inside. It lies there on quilted grey satin amongst zip fasteners, twisted nails and odd earrings.
* * *
“Looks like we’ll all be doing as little work as you soon, mate,” Joe says, coming in holding a coffee. “At least you’ve been getting paid for sitting there in front of a blank screen. Not sure the rest of us’ll be so lucky.”
Joe is rarely so cryptic. Must be something worrying him.
“Something up, Joe?”
“Yep. Us, mate—Obits—we’re all finished,” he sits down and flings a newspaper at Dylan before sinking deep into his chair.
Dylan picks up the paper.
Joe waves his hand. “Front page,” he grunts. Dylan unfolds the paper and scans the headline.
“The end of death as we know it: First mind transfer a success. Blimey.”
Joe buries his head in his hands. “Death or taxes, my mother said. Go into either death or taxes and you’ll always have a job. Should have got a job at the bloody Inland Revenue. All those advances I’ve written. All of them a waste of time.”
“The end of death as we know it.” Dylan repeats; then a sound causes him to stand.
“What the hell is that?” says Joe, raising his head from his hands. “Sounds like the bloody apocalypse.”
They move to the window, where the rest of the office is rapidly crowding.
Dylan looks up. With a sound like a hurricane, a black mass passes over the building and begins to circle, a black mass of feathers and caws and long black beaks clutching small bright objects, like a section of night sky covering the city, twinkling with stars.
“A Gift from the Crows” © 2017 by Dafydd McKimm. All rights reserved.