In 2008, a friend of mine, Sophia Luck, a musician and film maker, called me to arrange meeting. She said she’d something to show me.
The venue was a small pub in Kentish Town, round the corner from Sophia’s flat, that had become a favourite of ours due to the wide range of ales stocked. We chatted for a while, about Andrey Zvyagintsev’s provocative and harrowing The Banishment, which we’d both seen the previous week, among other things. Then, after a couple of pints, Sophia drew, from her bag, a bundle of yellowing mildewed feint-ruled sheets tied up with string, put it on the table in front of me. It was a longish manuscript, written in an untidy hand.
‘This,’ she explained, ‘fell out of a tree in a small park between Kentish Town and Chalk Farm, nearly hit me. It looks as if it’s been out in all weathers a while. Don’t ask me why, but I took it home. I was compelled to.’
‘Have you read it?’
‘What is it?’
‘Well…’ she said. ‘You read it, let me know what you think. I think you’ll find it… interesting.’
What follows is the text of the document Sophia found. It tells a disturbing tale.
Soundtrack: Petrels, ‘The Statue is Unveiled’
Mark Percher – the Magpie – a drinking bout – Tabitha and Carrie – a Russian film – crows, ravens, and magpies – queasy fear
One evening, during the period when he, then in his early twenties, was studying for his Masters at King’s College, Mark Percher had spent several hours gulping down lager with other students from his seminar group in the Magpie, a dingy, cramped cellar bar near Holborn Circus, a drinking bout to celebrate the end of the first term of the course. Outside it was cold, and the scene framed by the sole window, set high up in the wall above the bar, was bleak – rimy iron palings, a gibbous moon girded by a pallid corona, rubbish scudding before a wind stropped keen on the scrub of the Siberian tundra – but logs blazed in the Magpie’s grate, and the place was snug and filled with chatter and mirth.
By ten, bingeing had laid the revelries waste; all save Mark had staggered off to make their ways home. He, though, having done better than anyone else in the mid-term assignment, the marks for which they had just got back, was heedless of the prospect of a sore head and queasy gut the following morning, wasn’t going to let it curtail his night. Not wishing to drink on his own, however, he looked about him for company. His gaze alighted upon two girls sitting together on stools at the bar. They were about his age, and both striking. Getting, a little unsteadily, to his feet, Mark crossed over, said hello, asked if he could join them.
One of the pair, a pale-skinned redhead with green eyes and a speckling of freckles on the bridge of her nose, looked him up and down. The other, who had dark skin and thick hair cut in a modish punk style, shook her head at him, lips pursed, then asked, ‘What’s your name?’
Mark told her, and she and her companion introduced themselves; she was Tabitha, and her friend, Carrie.
‘Delighted to meet you both,’ Mark said. Then, with elaborate formality, he took each of their hands in turn and bowed to kiss their knuckles. Both girls allowed him to do so, though Tabitha looked at him with disdain.
‘I see you’ve had a bit to drink,’ she remarked.
‘A little,’ Mark replied, grinning.
She took a sip from the martini glass she held by the stem with her thumb and forefinger. It contained a lime-green cocktail, perhaps a gin fizz, Mark thought. She looked at him superciliously over the rim.
‘Well, Mark, what is it you do?’
‘I’m doing an MA in Cultural Studies, at KCL.’
Turning to Carrie, Tabitha moaned, affecting an upper-class drawl, ‘Dahling, what is wrong with us tonight? First a terrible boorish financial type, now someone studying one of those new-fangled, meaningless ‘subjects’ (she scratched the quotation marks in the air) they have nowadays.’
Carrie smiled shyly, shrugged.
‘Dahling, it’s a curse,’ Tabitha continued. Then, switching to a Jamaican lilt, she addressed Mark, ‘Bwoy, you one dem culture studies bitches, uh? Rassclot!’
She kissed her teeth.
Mark held his hands up.
‘Very sorry for disturbing you. Enjoy the rest of your evening.’
He turned away, but Tabitha called him back.
‘Hey, sorry. Look, I was only taking the piss. Come on, grab that stool.’
So Mark whiled away the hours until closing time with Tabitha and Carrie. Tabitha was doing an undergraduate degree in Classics at Oxford, home for the holidays; Carrie was training to be a beautician. They had grown up together.
Conversation flitted from topic to topic, seemingly at haphazard. At one point the discussion turned to cinema. Mark told the girls about a Russian film he had recently seen. He summarised the narrative to them. Three men enter ‘the Zone’, the site of some alien incursion: a writer, a professor, and a stalker, guide to the treacherous region. They wander the ruins of a factory complex, searching for ‘the Room’, a place where desires are fulfilled. A black dog dogs them. The stalker throws handkerchiefs threaded with hexagon nuts ahead of them to test for traps, flaws in the fabric of things. Their umwelten decay about them. They reach the Room, but decide not to enter, leave the Zone empty-handed. At the end, a freakish young girl, the stalker’s daughter, moves some glasses of water with her mind, or at least appears to – a passing train offering a more prosaic explanation of the scene.
When he’d finished describing the plot, Carrie looked at him quizzically.
‘Sounds a bit dull to me.’
‘I think it sounds fascinating, Carrie,’ Tabitha put in.
‘It is,’ Mark said. ‘It’s a great work of art. In deploying imagery with oneiric intensity that yet resists symbolic interpretation, it constitutes a riposte to simplistic myths of psychological integrity.’
Tabitha nodded, sagely.
‘Hmm, I don’t really understand that,’ said Carrie, ‘but I still think it sounds boring.’
‘What sort of films do you like then?’ Mark challenged.
‘Oh, you know, all sorts. I really liked ‘Saturday Night Fever’.’
‘Of course you did,’ Mark replied.
‘Now Mark,’ Tabitha said. ‘Don’t be cruel.’
But she was smirking.
Later on they talked for a time about Hampstead Heath. Mark asked the girls if they’d ever heard the noise of the Heath’s crows roosting down for the night in the branches of its plane trees.
‘It’s a hellish sound.’
‘Yes,’ said Tabitha. ‘I suspect that’s the real reason the idea the Tower’s ravens are the city’s guardians has persisted. There’s that stuff about Bran’s head, but to explain its longevity… Well, it’s because the clamour their wild brethren make mirrors London’s.’
‘I see what you mean,’ Mark mused. ‘But I don’t think that explains the resonance. No, I think it’s because London is a carrion city.’
‘Oh, what a carry on, eh Carrie? What does that even mean, Mark? Almost as absurd and pretentious as the nonsense you were spouting about the Tarkovsky film.’
‘Well, you seemed to understand that at the time.’
Tabitha laughed. She laughed silently, lips slightly parted, whole frame shaking, blinking, tears beading in the inner corners of her eyes.
Carrie was looking intently at the name of the bar on the drinks menu lying on the table.
‘Magpies,’ she said, after a time.
Mark and Tabitha turned to her.
‘I mean, you see as many magpies around as crows, don’t you? And they’re related to ravens, too. Maybe magpies are London’s true guardian birds. Isn’t it, after all, a city of thieves? And shiny tat? And there’s all kinds of folklore and superstitions about magpies.’
‘I’m not convinced,’ Tabitha said.
Mark swallowed a draught of his beer, wiped foam from his upper lip with the back of his hand.
‘No, I think she’s got a point.’
‘Maybe. Maybe you’re right.’
‘A city of paste and tin,’ Mark mused.
‘A city of paste and tin,’ Tabitha mimicked.
‘Oh Tabby, stop it will you,’ Carrie said, but grinning.
‘Alright. But only if he gets some more drinks in…’
Mark went home with Carrie at the end of the night. She lived in a two bedroom flat she shared with a friend. When, after she’d unlocked and opened the front door, they went inside, Carrie raised her finger to her lips.
‘Best be quiet.’
But there was a note from Carrie’s flatmate on the hall table – she was staying that night at her boyfriend’s. They dispensed, therefore, with whispers and went through to the living room. Carrie fetched them a glass of whisky each, put some music on. They drank, made stilted conversation, then had frantic sex, Carrie reclining on the sofa, Mark kneeling between her spread thighs, his fingers entwined in her hair, mouth at her breasts. Later on they went through to her bedroom and, lying nestled on the mattress, fucked again, more gently this time. Then fell asleep in each other’s arms.
At breakfast the next day, though, there was already a distance between them. They were only to see each other a few more times.
Carrie really was very beautiful, and, in subsequent years, Mark thought of her freckle-strewn pale skin, green eyes, and oriflamme of hair from time to time. The details of the night he met her grew vague, however, faded. Some eighteen years later, though, in a garret in a dilapidated Victorian tenement in Kentish Town, he would recall what she had said that evening with queasy fear.
To be continued…