A distrust of magpies was instilled into me as a child: ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy.’ The rhyme has a merry bounce and sounds innocuous, even innocent. Why then the frisson of fear on seeing a single magpie? Why the involuntary spitting on the pavement and greeting said bird with ‘Good day Mr. Magpie’? And perhaps most puzzling of all, how was a thoroughly urbanized Liverpool toddler infected with such rural twaddle?
Rural twaddle my foot.
Within five minutes of setting out for our holiday in Pembroke a single magpie zoomed across our windscreen and vanished. I avoided spitting. It can’t be done in a car without eliciting comment. I did, surreptitiously, wish it a good day. Then, blow me, ten minutes later another single magpie shot across my line of vision. A chill ran through me, my thumbs prickled. I knew something bad was about to happen – but what – and when?
We had barely arrived in Nolton Haven when I almost stopped breathing. Some kind of invisible elastic band encircled my chest stopping allowing only a trickle of air into my lungs. Walking from bedroom to kitchen brought me out in a sweat and a pant. It also brought into relief how precious air is.
I’d experienced a similar revelation crawling out the Grand Canyon and, a few years after that, mazing my way through the ruins of Pompeii during a heat-wave. Water then was the ultimate treasure.
Water and air - finer than the finest champagne, finer than the finest malt – even Lagavulin. Such revelations invariably occur when it’s almost too late. Still, I was on holiday to enjoy myself and that involves swimming in a cold Atlantic. Take it easy, I thought. Go slowly. Just float. Big mistake. My lungs went on strike and twenty minutes in I juddered to a halt. Magpies danced and cavorted as I crawled on to land.
The doctor was sympathetic. She told me I had beautiful blood pressure but an infection in the right lung. Strike One to the Magpie. Just one more to go.
I didn’t have to wait long. The following night in fact.
It was a strange cottage with low beams that caught the unwary head. But the magpie had more serious intent than a cracked head. It was night and I was on my way to the toilet, concerned not to wake my wife, so didn’t switch on a light. I felt my way through darkness half asleep, dreaming or perhaps imagining myself to be Dirk Deadly on a mission…Gestapo close on my heels. Unfortunately for me the stair-case was adjacent to the toilet and I stepped on air, tumbling head first down the stairs.
I mouthed a silent prayer to God that there hadn’t been a third magpie. Two had done their worst. Enough was enough.
An X Ray showed a collapsed lung. Pneumothorax to be exact. And from X Ray to draining it was sorted out in a matter of hours. The NHS is both efficient and fast – when things go right. Just waiting for a final check up – fingers crossed and scanning the skies for magpies.
Damn magpies. There must have been one great windblown, flea-ridden specimen squatting on the car roof on the way home. Far from being alright I was called in again and attached to a wall by a tube sucking out excess fluid and air from my thorax. Two weeks later they said it wasn’t working. Three days after that I had a pleurectomy – something I’d like to do to every damn magpie in creation. Shooting’s too good for them
And thank you again here
And thank you again here