[My thanks to R.]
In addition to the family pig, the Phosphorescent Family Compound was home to a filthy magpie. But while Baptiste the pig could rightly be described as a pet, the relationship between the family and the bird was less clear. Its nest was indubitably within the phosphorescent fence surrounding the property, and various Phosphs – particularly the tinier ones – liked to feed the magpie by scattering breadcrumbs and similar discarded food scraps near said nest, but there was no sense of ownership, as there is with a family pet. The ownership of Baptiste was of course a matter of dispute, as he had been abducted from a nearby farmer, but this was of little concern to the Phosphs, and the farmer happened to be a weedy, palsied farmer suffering from the ague and jellybrain, so he was in no fit state to try to regain his pig.
With the filthy magpie, there was always the chance that it might fly away one day and never return. Mordant Phosph, Old Pappy’s nephew by bigamous marriage to at least three of the septuplets, had at one time hatched a scheme to keep the magpie in a cage, but he was a butterfingers, and his attempts to construct a birdcage out of matchsticks, pipe-cleaners, and fusewire became the subject of a favourite family anecdote, often retailed around the fireplace of an evening when the wind outside howled and the phosphorescent fence glowed in the gloom.
I tried to find out how the filthy magpie came to nest with the Phosphorescent Family by leafing through bound volumes of The Hammer Of Christ. It was in this excellent journal that I had discovered the story of the family pig, so I thought it likely there would be a similar article about the magpie. But my searching was in vain, and the volumes criminally failed to include a cumulative index, which would be a boon to any scholar – binders please note! I then passed along the library shelves to consult the Bumper Encyclopaedia Of Distinctly Grubby Birds, but was disappointed to find no reference at all to a filthy magpie, nor indeed to any magpie at all.
My next port of call was the Pointy Town High Street offices of the Pristine Magpie Bureau. Obviously, the Phosph’s filthy magpie was the very antithesis of a pristine magpie, but I reasoned that the bird must – must! – once have been pristine before it became matted with filth, and that there may be a record of it in the Bureau’s extensive card index. There was not. This puzzled me, and I became ill-tempered, and was thrown out of the Bureau onto the street, whereupon I was splattered from above with the excreta of a bird. Whether or not it was a magpie I haven’t a clue, for I know nothing about ornithology whatsoever.
Above the mantelpiece in the Phosphorescent Family parlour was a large framed photograph, taken with a box camera, of the filthy magpie sitting on the head of Baptiste the family pig. The snap was taken by Mordant Phosph’s second or third wife, that is Flo or Pru, at a family picnic in the final days of the Tet Offensive. It must have been a fugitive moment, for magpies are not known to perch on the heads of pigs for any extended length of time. I may not know much about ornithology, but that I do know. The original photograph was blown up, over and over again, in the dark room of the Phosphorescent Family cellar, and though a certain amount of detail was necessarily lost in the repeated enlargements, one can still spot, in the lower left-hand corner, a speck of what might be regurgitated breadcrumb.
The question remains, of course : why was the magpie so filthy? We may never know the answer to that, though if anybody can track down a copy of Dobson’s pamphlet Half A Dozen Reasons Why Birds Sometimes Become Encrusted With Filth (out of print), we might be able to shed some light on the matter. Heaven help us, it might even be phosphorescent light!