Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Hearty Welcome to the Magpies

I'm delighted and honoured to be this week's stop on Elizabeth Baines's blog tour to promote her gem of a book, Too Many Magpies.

It's over a year ago that Elizabeth was last here, promoting her short stories  (busy woman, eh?).  As that took the form of an interview (which you can see here) this time I've asked Elizabeth to do a virtual reading.

First the intro:
Can we believe in magic and spells? Can we put our faith in science?

A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s safety as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain. Until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power… But is he a saviour or a frightening danger? And, as her life is overturned, what is happening to her children whom she vowed to keep safe? Why is her son Danny now acting so strangely?

In this haunting, urgent and timely novel, Elizabeth Baines brings her customary searing insight to the problems of sorting our rational from our irrational fears and of bringing children into a newly precarious world. In prose that spins its own spell she exposes our hidden desires and the scientific and magical modes of thinking which have got us to where we are now.

Got that?  Sounds good?  So here we go.  Top up your glass.  Make yourself comfortable.  An extract follows.


On the baby’s first birthday the Smarties on the cake went frilly round the edges. The first sign of odd things happening.

No one took it seriously.

He said it was magic. (He; he doesn’t have a name, not here, not in my head.). ‘I told you,’ he said afterwards, ‘things would start happening now you and I have met.’

‘Magic,’ said Danny too, four years old and excited, waiting in an agony of impatience for the start of the birthday tea in the garden, though never in any doubt that things would go as planned, or that birthday teas would go on happening, and Daddy always come to join them in time.

And, this time, he did. He came round the side of the house, Daddy, my husband, ducking under the honeysuckle and coming to kiss us all, smelling faintly of the lab, that sharp high chemical smell.

He was a scientist, my husband. He had a rational explanation. He looked at the Smarties and grinned. Lovely teeth, he had, not a single filling, and naturally curly hair. The kinks of it glistened in the sun. It came back to me then, all the reasons I loved my husband.

‘See,’ said Danny, pointing the funny way he did with his left middle finger, ‘they’re like little mince pies.’

And they were, each sweet surrounded by a perfect row of frills. My husband looked at them and laughed.

‘Osmosis,’ I think he said, I wasn’t in a state to remember the actual word. Something about things running, their contents seeping through their skins, leaving themselves behind. At any rate, he said I must have put them on when the icing was too wet.

Of course. Because of what had happened, I hadn’t been in a state to judge the drying time of icing.

But it was odd. Why, for instance, if things had melted, had the colours not run?

I cut the cake. I doled them out, the magic Smarties. A piece for my husband, and one for each child.

And the blackbird pipped confidently, as if that garden and those hedges would always be there for him to call across; and there we sat, husband and wife and two-point-four children, point-four being the child we might have had if certain chemical chances in our bodies had or hadn’t occurred, and which we’d never have now, now things had started to happen.

It was the day before the baby’s first birthday that I met him.

In the park there were magpies, too many to be counted. When I was a child there were never so many of them — one for sorrow, you said, two for joy — but now there were too many for such short rhymes or such simple messages, they’d multiplied and colonized the towns.

That afternoon we’d both been on a committee, educationists drafted in to advise on artists in schools, my first outside commitment since before I’d had the babies. My first time back in the world.

Though I wasn’t really back there; I couldn’t concentrate on the dry committee language, I’d got too used to simple sounds linked to the vivid senses, or to holding and
rocking without the need for words at all.

It was hot in that committee room, early May and unseasonably hot although there’d been no sun all day. They had the window open and puffs of engine smell rose up through the still air. They were discussing the database of artists, and I was thinking idly of how in the centre of town there was never the sound of birds.

A train rolled over the viaduct, blue-and-grey toytown carriages sliding unbelievably along the top of a sky-high brick wall towards the suburbs where my husband would be putting the children to bed.

Tonight, for once, the baby would have to go to bed without his breastfeed.

On cue, as I thought of that, my breasts tingled, automatic, with primitive life, and on cue the familiar sleepiness overcame me. I’d lost the drift of the argument in the room now. I’d gone too far, metamorphosing down those baby years, and I was gaping now, hardly breathing in this flat dry committee-land. I yawned.

He’d hardly spoken till then.

He didn’t speak when he didn’t have to. Knowing too much about words to squander them.

I looked, I noticed him, for the first time really, just before he spoke. I saw a careful tension around his large mouth. Fastidiousness reining in something else.

And when he spoke he held his lips as though tasting something. Testing.

I knew then. He had the power.

As we crossed the park afterwards, suddenly there were birds again. Magpies, dropping out of the trees, like bunting, like Jacks-out-of-boxes. They cackled, they seemed hilarious.

We tried counting.

‘Seven,’ he said. ‘What does that signify?’

I said, too sternly, that I didn’t believe in charms or spells.

He laughed. I saw that his teeth were bad, stained and very full of fillings. He said: ‘There are charms and there are charms, and there are spells and there are spells,’ and I had no idea what he meant.

The sun came out, dazzling and disorientating between the trees. The magpies glistened then, medallion green and alchemy blue. They were watching us sideways, they cocked their heads slyly over their bird-shoulders, waiting, or maybe taunting, it was hard to say.

We moved on, and they flapped away into the columns of sun between black tree trunks, still there but suffused and melted with the light.

He said, ‘Seven for a secret never to be told.’

I said quickly that I didn’t believe in secrets. And I told him all about my husband, and about the kids, to indicate at once that there was no chance whatever, should he be thinking along those lines, of any kind of intrigue, any kind of setup where I’d need to make divisions, protect him from knowledge or guard my family’s privacy from him. And, to nip in the bud any growing attraction, I babbled on about the children in the bourgeois way I’d guessed by now he wouldn’t approve of. But those shapes in the sun, I could sense them shifting. I lost courage in what I was saying, and he was laughing at it anyway, showing those big handsome teeth with all those awful brown fillings. I guessed suddenly what he’d meant: that the best charm, the real secret, is in losing your fear.

I’d stopped walking, I discovered. The bark of a tree was behind me, ridged and warm. Under my feet something crumbled, sugary, the dead catkins off the tree.

I said stupidly, no not stupidly, I thought it might protect me, it was one the things which Richard and I held most important in our life together: ‘We only give the children sugar at special times like birthdays.’

After all, it was my baby’s first birthday next day.

It didn’t work, that spell. And I knew, after all, that it wouldn’t. I sensed, didn’t see him come closer. He took hold of my hand. He knew that vivid power of touching, he knew without being told that once he’d made contact I wouldn’t be able to take it away.

The magpies flew off again.

The first time I’d seen so many was the day I discovered I was pregnant with Danny, my first child. Three for a girl, you once said, four for a boy, god knows what seeing so many could mean.

He had hold of my hand.

He said, ‘What are their names?’

If this has whetted your appetite, follow the rest of the tour here.
If you'd like to hear Elizabeth's podcast, go here.
Links to reviews can be found in the sidebar on Elizabeth's blog here.
Next stop on the tour is at Tom Vowler's blog here.
The last stop was at Nuala Ni Chonchuir's blog here.
For further insights, I really do recommend you check out the other stops on the tour.



Group 8 said...

Wonderful. What a great idea for a virtual tour stop. I may steal :)

Group 8 said...

Er, the idea, that is...

Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I agree - good 'un!

Debi said...

Steal away! Because Elizabeth's creativity has been so thoroughly investigated on the other stops - and because I've interviewed her before - this seemed like the best way to handle the tour this time.