Mags’ favourite author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. She wanted a life full of glittering parties and scandal – waking each morning to days sewn around the edges with sequins. Hours would be measured by the number of diamond necklaces around her neck and it would be so dazzling that if the sun hit her she would refract, scattering rainbows like petals.
Instead, she was a check-out girl in a yellow fleece and brown trousers. The shabby uniform was a test, a trial to endure for six hours of the day, four days a week, while she served customers. “Would you like a bag with that? Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day”.
The other three days were owned by her. They were smothered in silk robes recovered from skips, and velvet dresses bought in jumble sales. A cheap wardrobe from IKEA was filled with metallic fabrics and sleek satins. She wore lurex, beading, pailettes, shiny pleats – layering bronze and pewter shades until her eyes hurt. Then she walked in the sunshine, kicking through afternoon flowers alone.
She spread jewels across every surface, draping them at the end of her bed and piling windowsills with glitter. To walk through her rooms was to hold ones breath, for fear of dislodging a mound of paste brooches or glass rings. The sparkle was a veneer though – any professional would note that the bracelets she clasped shut on her wrists were nothing more than costume jewellery.
It was habit that had begun in Mags’ early teens. Go to the shops, admire the market stall, slip the beads up her sleeve and wander away sedately. She’d felt the hidden items twinkling, and a place somewhere between her ribs had flickered with fear. But she justified these small liberties – told herself that they would not be missed, and were of little value. 'It was a cameo with a ‘£2.50’ label on it, not a Faberge egg'. Tiffany’s and De Beers and the other shops that lined Bond Street were mere fancies. She might occasionally visit a jewellery auction, but only to glimpse the lives of those who could afford Indian emeralds and filigree tiaras. She always assumed the part of course, hidden behind a smart black dress and a shawl, hair twisted and pinned with a starburst slide: like today.
Mags didn’t even meant to take the necklaces. An auction assistant handed them to her - to “take a closer look at, ma’am” – and then lost focus, listening to the conversation of an attractive colleague. Mags could feel the cold weight in her hands, the way her translucent shawl was slipping down her arms. It was quarter to twelve. No one was looking at her, or listening to the urgent tick of the carriage clock on the next table. She snapped her fingers closed and took three long steps. No shouts or stares. One foot in front of another, shoulders held back, she walked towards the staff doors.
Two hours later, lying on a hillside, she fizzed. Blue lapis lazuli beads were strung around and around alongside pearls, silver and crystal and her sash was pinned by a brooch. The afternoon was full of yellow fields and dandelion clocks. Oh, to fly like the grating rooks or crows darting above her head. A magpie circled. One for sorrow. Another joined it. Two for joy. She stood up – the heat on her face replaced by a breeze. It stirred the edges of her shawl so that light fell through it. She raised a hand. The fabric swelled like water.
Tomorrow morning she would be slumped behind tills, jewellery replaced with the 10p glint of change, or perhaps a two-pound coin; concentric circles of silver and gold in her palm. For now, though, she was here: this day, this hour, this moment. The breeze snagged her shawl again. The necklaces were heavy around her neck, crystals cold on skin. A jay flashed against the blue. Two buzzards hovered. Sparrows swung in and out of sight. Mags was tethered by routines; responsibility caged her. She felt the next few weeks pushing towards her, pulling at her skirt and tangling her hair. Now the jewels were chains. Why had she done it? What had she risked for a handful of glitter? No, no, better to stay here and not to think about it. Or maybe better to flee. Her white wings were eager in the wind. Birds called. With a run and a jump she took off - arms quivering as fabric turned to feathers. A single magpie climbed the sky, joining the others. Five for silver turned to six for gold and they soared together across the clouds.
'Magpie' - story by Rosalind Jana. Photos by Rosalind Jana.
Model - the always elegant Ellen.
Clothes: all charity shopped or from flea markets. Costume jewellery: family hand-me-downs or charity shopped.