Grandad’s Little Magpie

I sat at the kitchen table building salt castles while Grandma peeled tatties over the sink. She hummed a song from the olden days and the lilt of her voice made my head dreamy. It reminded me of Grandad in a funny sort of way. I imagined myself sitting in his lap while he puffed his pipe and mumbled about the price of baccy.

Another train rumbled past the house with a rattle-tat-tat, rattle-tat-tat. Shards of sunlight lanced off the carriage windows as it ghosted into the distance. I wondered if Grandad was on that train, or perhaps one just like it, hurtling to places unknown. I thought to ask Grandma about it but her eyes were red and watery and I guessed she was chopping onions now. Onions made mum cry all the time.

Mum was lounging in Grandad’s chair, blowing smoke rings at the telly while my brother drove Tonka trucks up and down her legs. Why did she have to sit in that chair? It was Grandad’s chair. Where would he sit, when he came home?

“Do you want to chop carrots for me?” Grandma asked, wiping her eyes with a tea towel. She was wearing the pearl earrings Grandad had bought her. She had lots of lovely jewellery, but there was one piece I wanted more than all the rest.

“Can I play with your jewels instead?”

Grandma smiled. “Of course you can. Just don’t break anything, okay.”

“I won’t,” I promised.

I eased the bedroom door open and tiptoed inside. Red velvet curtains billowed at the window, casting shifting shadows across the threadbare carpet. I padded across to the dressing table and peeked inside Grandma’s jewellery box. There were gold chains and silver pendants, diamond rings, and sapphire bracelets, twinkling and shiny in spite of the gloom. I lifted the treasure tray to reveal the compartment where I’d hidden my prize but the box was empty. My heart shivered inside my chest as I rummaged through the rest of the jewellery. Where was it? Had Grandma moved it when she was cleaning? Could I have missed it? I looked again but my secret treasure was gone.

I ran into the kitchen to confront Grandma. “Where’s the dragonfly brooch?”

“Hmm?” She said.

“The dragonfly brooch. It’s not in your room.”

“Oh, that old thing? I gave it to your brother. You know how he loves crawly things. I thought he might like it.” Grandma ruffled my hair. “Oh, that reminds me…”

I couldn’t hear what she said next over the rushing in my ears. She’d given the brooch to my snotty-nosed little brother! She obviously wasn’t thinking clearly. Probably because of Grandad. It was quite common, apparently. Not to worry. It was fixable. I strode across the room to get my treasure back. Mum was gone, probably having a pee, and Jack had taken her place in Grandad’s chair. He was clutching the dragonfly brooch in his sticky, disgusting hand.

“Give. That. To. Me.” I growled.

Jack poked his tongue out at me. “Mine.”

“It is not yours!” I screeched. “Give it back!”

I heard the toilet being flushed and the familiar creak of the bathroom door. I snatched the brooch out of Jack’s hand. He didn’t even notice at first, then his eyes bulged and his fat little chin began to wobble.

“Shut up,” I said, clasping my hand over his mouth. “Shut up!”

“What’s going on in here?” Grandma had half a turnip in one hand, her peeler in the other. “Jack, pet, is everything okay? Rosie, release your brother. Now.”

I huffed and snatched my hand from Jack’s mouth.

“Osie stole it!” He wailed. “She hurted me. Look!” Jack held out his hand for Grandma to inspect. There was a tiny scratch. It was nothing. Nothing at all.

“Stole what?” said Mum, appearing behind me.

Jack sniffed. “My dragonfly.”

All eyes turned to me. I could feel the weight of those stares bearing down on my shoulders like a soggy towel. I took one look at the blood pooling in Jack’s palm.

“I hate you!” I snarled.

Before anyone could stop me I turned and ran, hurtling through the house and out into the garden. Dad was mowing the lawn and whistling. When he saw me he waved. I ignored him and carried on down to the trees that lined the back fence. Beyond them was the railway line and beyond that, freedom.

I tore through the brambles as Dad called after me. I squeezed between the fence slats and out onto open ground. The train tracks were just a few feet ahead. Up close they were huge and glossy like monstrous black snakes. Beyond them was the waste ground where they’d found that dead boy a couple of years back, and beyond that was the industrial estate where Dad used to work. My breaths came in raggy gasps and I had sparkles in my eyes but none of that mattered now. I cradled my prize in trembling hands and smiled. My dragonfly was set with fiery emeralds and mysterious opals, each one with a rainbow inside, and the eyes, a pair of lush rubies, fizzled with strawberry light. It was a thing of fairy magic and it was all mine. I turned the brooch this way and that, watching as the afternoon sun settled on the dragonfly’s wings in a thousand facets of joy.

“Rosie..!” Mum shouted. “Come back here this instant!”

I glanced up and down the tracks. How long had it been since the last train? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? I could make for the industrial estate, bury my treasure there, and come back for it later. It would mean trouble, a punishment for sure, but at least my dragonfly would be safe.

I pocketed the brooch and stepped onto the tracks. They were a lot wider than they appeared. The smell of hot metal made my nose hurt and heat shimmered on the ground like an army of tiny ghosts. I licked my lips and chewed on a thumbnail. Above the rushing in my ears, I was sure I could hear the whine of thrumming metal. Something occurred to me then, about the boy who’d died. He’d been crossing the tracks – maybe he was running from something, as I was running now – when he was hit by a train just like the one I’d seen earlier. Maybe the exact same one for all I knew. That idea made my skin cold.

Time turned to treacle, gluing me to the ground. It muffled my ears and blurred my vision. The metallic thrum grew louder. The tracks were singing now. Singing of my doom. Suddenly I was too hot. The sky tipped upside down and the ground rushed from beneath my feet like the sea rushes from the sand. I landed hard. My knee pulsed red hot. I couldn’t get up. A high pitched whine filled my ears. The train was coming. That’s when I caught the scent of pipe tobacco; so strong it made my eyes water.

I Shivered. “Grandad?”

“Rosie, get up!” It was Dad. “Rosie!” He yanked me from the tracks in the knick of time. Mum was there, Jack and Grandma too, with ashen faces all. We hugged as the train rattled past, whipping up dust and tying knots in our hair. When it was gone, I pressed the brooch into Jack’s hand. It looked dull, like a prop in an old movie; all silvery and shades of grey. Just like that, my dragonfly had lost its lustre.

When we got back to the house Grandma handed me a green velvet pouch. Inside was a butterfly pendant.

“From Grandad,” she said.

I held the little butterfly up to the light. The gold was dull and the chain was broken. There were no twinkly jewels, not a one, but it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.


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