StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Matthew and the Magpie

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 15, 2019

By Kyle Thomas Smith

magpie drawing

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(This is a story about why I’m heading to the U.K. next week.)

In London, people often build a little cat door in their kitchen doors so their cats can go in and out as they please. It’s not like here in America where the rescue shelters make you  sign a contract stipulating that you will not to let your cats out.


I have to say, I’m partial to the American model. Both our cats Giuseppe and Giacomo are indoor cats, and all my cats have been ever since I was 11 when the outdoor cat we had, Kasper, got hit by an Amtrak train. Outdoor cats are far more vulnerable to diseases and traffic mishaps than indoor cats. They don’t usually live as long. Outdoor cats also kill untold numbers of birds. In fact, they are the number one threat to birds over and above any other environmental hazard.


Our friend Matthew, who lives in Islington, has a cat door for his cat Jethro. He never saw any problem with it. He grew up in Nottinghamshire where it seemed almost cruel to not let your cats frolic in the woods and dales. Besides Jethro rarely made use of the cat door. He much preferred the sofa and, if he’d run around London more, Matthew figures he might make less of a dent in the sofa cushion over time. Even though Matthew is a strict vegetarian, mainly out of compassion for animals, he felt he could trust Jethro not to drag in a kill. Any cat who sings the arias that Jethro does at his food bowl every morning would seem too much the prima donna to target quarry.


A few Sundays ago, Matthew was working on a law brief at his kitchen table when he heard the cat door creak. Matthew didn’t look up. He just kept right on working as he heard Jethro pad over to the sofa. When Matthew did look up, he saw Jethro lick his paw and lay down on his side. Matthew kept right on working.


Matthew’s husband Neil, a novelist and freelance writer, had been working in his office upstairs. They had been together 20 years. Every Sunday night, Matthew always knew it was bedtime when Neil would come down to the kitchen to put his coffee mug in the sink. As Neil entered the kitchen on this particular Sunday night, Matthew stacked his papers, put them back in their file and moved his right foot slightly forward. Neil was washing his mug in the sink but fumbled it when he heard Matthew scream and kick back his chair.


Matthew shrieked at the sight of a decapitated magpie under the table. “My God,” Matthew shrieked, “Neil! Take care of it! Take care of it! I can’t touch it! I’m a bloody vegetarian!”


Neil walked over. The bird with the lustrous black feathers was big as the cat. The head was nowhere in sight. “Oh my God, Matthew,” said Neil, “That’s bad luck. That’s bad luck!”


“Oh, spare me your New Zealand folklore rubbish and take care of it!” Matthew shouted. He left his papers on the table and ran upstairs, past Jethro who sat up on the sofa cushion, eyes raised at how the one gift he had ever given them had been so poorly received.


A few Sundays later, Neil was upstairs working on an article. Matthew was in the kitchen working on a brief. Jethro was taking his twentieth nap of the day. The hours passed. Matthew finished his brief. He felt a little high from the achievement. When he’d first sat down to work on the brief, he didn’t think he’d get even halfway through it before bedtime. And yet here he was, finished. Jethro woke up and gave a little yawn from the living room. Matthew stretched and looked at the clock.


One a.m.


How had so much time passed? Neil hadn’t come down with his coffee mug. Matthew walked to the stairs. He could hear Neil snoring. He must have left his coffee mug in his office and gone straight to bed. It wouldn’t be the first time. Was it? Was it?


Well, in any event, tomorrow was work. Neil would be going in earlier than he would so he’d wake up when Neil would wake up. Matthew turned on the little nightlight near the closet and changed into his pajamas as Neil snored. He turned out the nightlight and crawled in bed next to Neil. He could go to sleep knowing he’d have all the less work to do at the office tomorrow now that the brief was done and dusted.


The room was flooded with light by the time Matthew woke up. Islington was going about its day. Jethro was asleep at his side but had now begun to stretch out. Matthew sat bolt upright. He looked at the clock.


9:40 a.m.


Neil hadn’t set the alarm, hadn’t woken Matthew up. “Neil!” Matthew shook him.


Neil’s skin was cold to the touch. “Neil!” Matthew turned him over. Neil’s face had the look that Matthew had heard so many families, dressed in black, describe of their departed—“peaceful.”


The postmortem was inconclusive. A possible brain aneurysm. At this point, Matthew says, it’d be of little comfort to know for sure.


Matthew said that going quietly in your sleep is a blessing for both partners when you’re old but not when your partner has just turned 57 and shown no signs of illness. Not when you were supposed to have decades more together. Not when you were already saving to retire in a newly restored castle in Dordogne. Not when you did not even get a chance to kiss goodnight because he didn’t come down to wash his coffee mug.


Now Matthew is putting the money he was going to put toward the castle down on one of the few remaining plots in Highgate Cemetery. We talked to him yesterday, also a Sunday, and he said the last thing he’d been expecting to do over the weekend was shopping for a coffin for Neil. “Highgate Cemetery is expensive but I don’t fucking care,” he said. I’d never heard Matthew curse before. I’m sure there will be more where that came from.


Matthew says his family and Neil’s have rallied. His own parents have come in from the Midlands and are staying in the guest room. The front parlor looks like the display window of a flower shop now. Neil’s niece had recently moved to Islington from Auckland and she drops by every day and helps with odds and ends. Matthew has gotten compassionate leave from work. When he can’t sleep in the middle of the night, he presses WhatsApp and calls New Zealand, where it’s afternoon and he and Neil’s family grieve together.


Matthew said that he and Neil had already been saying the house in Islington was too big for them but Neil liked the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood. Now Matthew tells us that he is planning to sell within a year and move to Highgate, a few blocks away from where Neil soon will be buried. Taking a page from Thomas Hardy, Matthew will only have Neil’s heart cremated. Half of the ashes will be given to his family. Half will be scattered near the beach that Neil so loved in his boyhood.


Matthew has not slept in the bedroom. He has thrown out the mattress, though, and will buy a new one when he’s up to it. Jethro can tell something is wrong. He comes up to Matthew for more and more pettings and has made room for him on the sofa, where Matthew will sleep until he feels he can sleep in the bedroom again.


Matthew hasn’t locked the cat door. Jethro can still come and go as he pleases. Yet he’s begged him not to bring in any birds, and absolutely no magpies.



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