No matter what kind of weather, Gloria and I spent our weekends walking the parks and green spaces of our adoptive city. Though I’d lived in the capital for over a decade, these places were as new to me as they were to her. What we found were places of neglected, stunted beauty; havens where we could hold hands, kiss on graffiti-scored benches, and watch as children and parents flew kites or kicked balls. Though we liked the colours and heat-soaked movements when the weather was good, we liked it best when it rained and we could huddle under a large umbrella. This is real weather, Gloria would say, god’s own weather.
As the smell of pork buns perfumed our poky, wood-chipped bedsit, Gloria would trace a slender finger over the pages of her London road atlas. When she reached a name she liked, she would read it out loud: Theydon Bois, Perivale, Golders Green, Swiss Cottage, Rayners Lane. On her lips, each underground station or London borough sounded every bit as exotic as the names on her wall map of Hong Kong: Pok Fu Lam, Ho Man Tin, Kowloon Bay.
We’d been living together for about six months and her enthusiasm for exploring the city showed no sign of waning. That weekend we’d decided to head eastwards and were walking through Victoria Park. The rain fell intermittently and it was cool in the wind, but Gloria’s happiness was undimmed; she saw no reason not to exult in her surroundings. As we walked, I saw everything through her dilated eyes: her sense of wonder in the fallen leaves, the mulch she kicked with her baseball boots, the flowers she stole from overgrown beds, the blistered paint she peeled from park railings. When she did those things, I felt as if I was actually doing them too: like I could actually become her.
I was thinking about that when Gloria suddenly stopped on the cinder path we were following.
“You always do that,” she said.
“You know,” – she made a sudden movement with her hand – “that. Like a soldier.”
“Salute?” I said. She nodded. Ahead of us was a single magpie, a swoosh of blue just below its wing.
“Oh that?” I said. “Oh that’s nothing, really. Just a superstition.”
“You know, for luck. Like that thing you do before we make love.”
“You know,” I said.
On the bus home I was quiet, my thoughts chased by the lone magpie with the blue swatch below its wing. It had been my first wife who’d told me about the salute, the warding off of misfortune and calamity; my first wife who looked for bad omens in everything. The day she left, she told me I was born under a bad sign; and by then I’d begun to believe it.
That night, in bed, Gloria asked me again about the magpie.
“I don’t know why they’re bad luck,” I said, “they just are. There’s a rhyme. One for sorrow, two for joy, something like that.” Gloria put a hand on my chest.
“But if you salute the magpie, it’s okay? No bad luck?”
“Yes,” I said. “Supposedly.”
“Good,” she said. “From now on, I’ll always salute them. I promise.”
Gloria smiled, then kissed me. I turned away and closed my eyes. The room was damp and smelled of soiled clothes and dishrags. Downstairs someone slammed the door, and outside a car misfired. I stayed like that for a while, then got up and sat on the easy chair. I could see out of the window, the trees, the pavement, the rubbish collecting in the gutter. I picked up the bottle of whisky and drank some and continued to look out of the window.
I thought back to a dismal Sunday afternoon. My then-wife and I sat drinking Prosecco on the roof terrace of our three bedroom house, a black and white bird perched on the guard rail. The magpie looking back at us, its black eyes observing us without fear. And then my wife – still my wife back then, still the wife who was in love with me, still the wife possessed of a fervent belief in me – saluting the bird. And then me doing the same. And then the thick flap of its blue-black wings as it flew away. Then just the two of us, alone, admiring an empty view. And then me kissing my wife, the woman I loved, and making a promise; a promise that I would always salute those birds, and forever ward off bad luck and trouble.
Stuart Evers writes about books for a variety of publications in the UK, including the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman and Time Out. His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Book Club Boutique Magazine and Scarecrow. He is currently completing his new collection, Ten Short Stories About Smoking, and blogs.