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The Magpies
Mark Edwards

Prologue

She crossed out ‘Paradise’ and wrote ‘Hell’ in its place. The caption didn’t fit the photograph any more. She felt like tearing up the whole album, ripping each picture to shreds, or throwing it on a fire, watching her memories burn. But even that would not erase the images from her mind: they were locked inside her, and she could only hope that time would erode them. More than anything else, she wanted to forget.

It was hard to believe they had once been so happy here. No, that wasn’t right. Looking around at the bare walls, the carpet that bore the imprints of their furniture –which was now waiting in the van outside, ready to be transported to their new home far away from here – it was easy to believe how happy they’d been.

At this moment, the flat looked almost exactly as it had the day they’d moved in: untainted, full of promise, like a blank sheet of paper. Just as it did in the photograph she’d relabelled. Her dad – who had helped them move in – had taken the snap: her and David in the empty room, his arm around her waist, watery sunlight flooding the room. When the photo was developed she stuck it on the first page of the album, writing ‘Paradise’ beside it because that was what it represented. Her and David, looking at the future, full of excitement and hope.

She closed the album and threw it into a packing crate.

She heard voices outside and shivered. For months she had been hearing them, all night, every night, babbling men and women’s voices, sometimes whispering, or shouting, or just talking, talking, never shutting up. She had to sleep with headphones on. She had tried earplugs but somehow the voices got through. The only way she could drown them out was by playing slow, orchestral music that flowed into her dreams and created a soundtrack to her nocturnal life.

In her dreams she would often be carrying a gun. She would be walking down a hallway, determined, white-knuckled as she gripped the handle of the weapon, finger twitching on the trigger. Sometimes the gun would be replaced by a knife: a large knife with a long, fat blade. It didn’t matter. As the music played she would see herself walking down the hall to meet her enemies, the architects of her living hell. She was going to harm them, do to them what they had done to her, but in a more visceral way. As she had explained to her new therapist, she didn’t have time for games or psychology. She needed to deal with her problem more directly. In the dreams, she was filled with the urge to kill.

But she was always frustrated. Just as the people she wanted to hurt stepped out in front of her, the gun or knife would melt, liquid metal dripping to the floor, and the people before her would laugh, and in the worst dreams they would pull out a gun or knife themselves. Whatever: at this point she always woke up.

No more bad dreams, she told herself now. When we’re in our new place – our little house, in the middle of nowhere – there’ll be no more nightmares.

At night it will be silent. It will be dark. There might be animals or birds outside, rustling, hooting, scratching around. That wasn’t a problem. As long as there were no people.

She reached into her bag and took out her cigarettes. God, she hadn’t even smoked until a few months ago. Maybe in their new home she would be able to give up. Her lungs would be clean again. All of her would be clean again. She put the cigarettes away. Maybe she would quit right now.

She ran through a list in her mind. Had they done everything? Was everything packed? She opened the airing cupboard, checked inside. She went into the bathroom, made sure she hadn’t left anything in there. She didn’t want any trace of her and David left in this place. She didn’t want any connection with it at all. At that moment she decided she would get rid of her photographs after all. But she wouldn’t leave them here – she didn’t want anyone getting their hands on them. She would throw them away en route – park and find a bin beside a motorway, far from anyone who had ever known her or would ever be likely to meet her.

Yes, she had to erase all traces of herself from here. She had to wipe out this chapter of her life. The therapist had said that, although it was hardly a great insight, was it? So she vacuumed the place until the bag was full; she had scrubbed the walls until every muscle in her arms and shoulders screamed out for her to stop. She had disinfected the cupboards and the bath and the toilet. She had thrown open the windows and left them like that for days, so all traces of her and David would fly away, out the window, going, going, gone.

‘Are you almost ready?’

David came into the room, looked around at the empty spaces, at the final crates. He had been outside talking to the removal men, telling them to be careful, asking them to be quiet. ‘My girlfriend’s very sensitive to loud voices,’ he said, greeted only by a look of incomprehension.

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