Whether we admit it or not, most of us are superstitious about something to one degree or another. It is certainly true of me. Superstitious nonsense perhaps, but in my experience superstitions can be the source of great anxiety and obsessive behaviour. They are born of irrational fears and therefore i suppose belong to the same unpleaasant family as phobias. So what superstitions am I afflicted with? Well, I touch wood for luck, I believe bad things happen in 3’s, I don’t walk under ladders (although I would say this is more common sense than superstition), I don’t divulge my wish when blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. I refer to Shakespeare’s Macbeth as ‘The Scottish Play’ when in a theatre. The list goes on, but they are all pretty standard, silly little things. There is one superstition however, which for years enslaved me and became an almost intolerable nightmare…
Greeting a Lone Magpie.
This damned superstition plagued me and became my hell. I first heard about it whilst driving a van across Ireland from Rosslare to Kerry during a terrible storm in the mid 90’s. My passenger (who will remain nameless), was a friend of a friend and we were driving to Kerry with a van full of stuff for the wedding of that mutual friend… the Champagne, candlesticks, ushers suits, order of service etc. It was an eventful and memorable journey with roads flooded out, trees down, strange humorous animals running down the middle of the road in the torrential rain… Anyway, during this journey, we had stopped at a junction, somewhat lost, and my passenger suddenly saluted and shouted something along the lines of “Good day to you Mr Magpie and how is your good wife Mrs Magpie today”… I can’t remember the exact greeting he used, but I absolutely roared with laughter at this totally unexpected, seemingly random outburst. He explained the superstition to which I seem to remember responding something along the lines of ‘oh for gods sake that’s insane, I’ve never heard anything so utterly ridiculous in my life…’
…15 years later as I walked to work across Green Park in London, greeting each and every one of the 10 lone Magpies that I saw every single morning, with “Hello Mr Magpie, how’s Mrs Magpie today” through gritted, angry teeth, I would think back, seething, to that fateful journey across a stormy Ireland and curse my passenger for burdening me with this most terrible, crippling compulsion. The lone Magpie demanded a ‘greeting’, which absolutely had to be said out loud. Green Park was a busy park at that time of the morning, yet people walked in silence. So if the timing was particularly unlucky, I would have to greet the damned bird at exactly the moment someone walked past me… I perfected the art of ventriloquism so you couldn’t see my lips move, but it was always audible… this went on for years. I’m sure there are people who walk through Green Park to this day, who will forever remember ‘that mad bloke, with his teeth clenched in a peculiar way, looking shiftily at each passer by and talking to the Magpies thinking that nobody noticed…’
I remember I would see a Magpie ahead and swear angrily under my breath, knowing that I had absolutely no choice but to go through this ridiculous routine, even if it meant embarrassment and humiliation in front of complete strangers. To say it aggrieved me, would be an understatement. It crippled me, haunted me, infuriated me. It was a hateful thing… a burden, but I was compelled, it was law, I had to, I must…
About 3 years ago, my beloved female tabby cat had to be put to sleep. She had been with me for 17 years. I had the vet come to the house to do the terrible deed – partly for the cat’s sake, partly for my own. I lay on the floor with her at the end, looking into her eyes and stroking her head as I witnessed her final breath, and as her heart beat for the very last time, my own heart broke. I was utterly bereft and completely inconsolable. After the vet had gone, I held a large glass of Cognac in shaking hands as the wretched pain of loss raged through me. I looked through my tears, out into the back garden and all of a sudden, at the most inappropriate moment, a lone Magpie landed on the fence, startling me, mocking me in my moment of wrenching grief. It rocked me, like a slap to the face, encroaching upon my very private moment of terrible pain…. and I bitterly resented the intrusion.
At that moment, the curse was lifted permanently and forever, because I didn’t greet the Magpie in the usual, compulsory manner, instead I angrily shouted at it: “just fuck off and mind your own business!” …I then defiantly turned my back on that Magpie and have never since greeted another.
Now, when I walk through the park, and my eyes fall upon a lone Magpie, I merely look at it and marvel at its beauty.