Over to you, Jeff!
PICA is the first in a trilogy that explores our relationship with the natural world, and how we can rediscover its ancient magic and secrets. It touches on environmental issues and has a modern setting. I’m going to give a little insight into a few of the main characters – hopefully avoiding major plot-spoilers.
- Luke is a teenage boy who hates being dragged out for walks in the countryside by his enthusiastic parents. They enjoy pointing out the ‘fascinating’ flora and fauna. He prefers computer games or shooting animals and birds with his air pistol. Luke begins as a stroppy and cynical teenager who finds anything that doesn’t involve a screen or violence ‘boring’. School is a mere treadmill for him, and he’s become disaffected, with no real aim in life. Until Guy turns up…
- Guy is the enigmatic ‘outsider’. He’s fostered and new to Luke’s school. His unkempt appearance and unusual features make him an immediate target for bullying. But Luke soon recognises that Guy’s differences make him interesting. Guy seems to have a power to attract wild creatures that allow him to handle them. He shows Luke some of the wonders happening around us every day, and then he begins to let Luke in on some of the more extraordinary and fantastical secrets of nature.
- A magpie (Latin name: Pica pica) is persistently knocking on Luke’s bedroom window, and however much the boy scares it away, the bird returns. He keeps seeing magpies. Is it the same one? Are they ganging up on him? Is it trying to communicate with him? One day he lets it in.
- Connor and Simon are annoyed that their so-called friend seems to have snubbed them for Guy – the weirdo. They begin to suspect that something strange is going on, and spread rumours that Luke and Guy are gay. This gets round school quickly and leads to homophobic cyber-bullying.
- Guy mentions his real mother who is too ill to look after him. He wants Luke to help him find her, and yet seems to have no idea where she is.
Luke is bunking school and decides to explore an overgrown roundabout near his home, thick with trees and thickets, which he imagines must be a great for a den or hiding-place. In the middle is a little clearing containing a surprise…
There – just a few inches in front of me – another face peered straight back into mine with cold blue eyes in a curious expression. I recognised it immediately. Guy.
I felt his hot breath. It smelt stale and its reek clung to the insides of my nostrils. But still I couldn’t move. His black hair fell in matted curls around his eyes and his teeth were yellow and jagged. To my horror he leaned in until his nose touched my cheek. And then he sniffed me. I swear it. He sniffed me! Like he was some kind of dog testing to see if I was friend or foe. His eyes scanned my entire face; covered the whole area whilst staying only a few centimetres from my skin. And then he suddenly pulled his head away from me and scampered back to the middle of the glade now filled with rabbits.
It seemed Guy saw me as no threat. Just like the first rabbit. He didn’t give me a second look after the very close inspection. Instead I watched him with mounting curiosity. What the hell was he doing in here? How had he got there without me hearing him?
My fascination grew as Guy fell over playfully onto the grass, miraculously without crushing any rabbits which now swarmed over what floor-space there was. He lay on his back and the rabbits came to him. They clambered on top of him; they nuzzled his hands and face; they hopped out the way happily when he shifted or rolled over. He played with them as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They appeared to respond to his every movement and sound. The rabbits crowded the space in their hundreds and yet all their movements were synchronised like liquid, flowing this way then that.
I watched this strange boy interacting with the rabbits until I wondered why the hell I was still there. Why was I so intent on watching this weirdo frolicking about? Had I suddenly turned into some kind of wimp who loved fluffy bunnies? Or worse ... watching boys roll around in the grass? Hell! What was happening to me?
One part of me wanted to leap forward and punch this saddo really hard in the face. Maybe I could stomp on a few rabbits too for good measure. Watch their guts and brains ooze out under my shoe, whose soles I could then wipe clean on Guy’s shirt.
What stopped me was the other part of me which insisted that this boy meant me no harm and didn’t deserve such treatment. In fact, there was something entirely interesting and mysterious about him. His incredibly strange behaviour was both intriguing and embarrassing – at the same time. Should I hate someone just because they were weird? Certainly, if the others at school knew my parents were friends of his I’d never hear the end of it and might just as well commit suicide. It would surely be social suicide to actually hang out with him.
Without really thinking it through I stepped out and into the clearing, but as I did so, all the nearby rabbits skittered away. I didn’t have the guts or even the desire to stamp on them. Instead I just found a place to stand, and waited.
Guy jumped up with impressive agility and walked boldly up to me. His eyes darted around as if checking different parts of me randomly before putting all the images together in his mind. I was grateful he didn’t sniff me again, but his lips definitely twitched into a smile. It occurred to me that he might fancy me and was ‘checking me out’.
Then he put out a hand – more in greeting than in intimacy. I offered mine cautiously and they gripped each other. His skin felt surprisingly gnarled and hard. I pulled my hand away quickly and began to retreat. He didn’t react, but just watched me with a look of curiosity as I backed off.
Deciding not to look back again, I shoulder-barged my way through the thicket in a direct line. It wasn’t the same way I had entered, but I just wanted to find my way outside as quickly as possible. I burst through the final section of undergrowth, feeling something scratch my cheek as I found myself back on the grassy edge, surrounded by speeding cars.
Jeff Gardiner is the author of four novels (Pica, Igboland, Myopia, Treading On Dreams), a collection of short stories, and a work of non-fiction. Many of his short stories have appeared in anthologies, magazines and websites.
Pica is the first in the Gaia trilogy – a fantasy of transformation and ancient magic, which Michael Moorcock described as “An engrossing and original story, beautifully told. Wonderful!”
“Reading is a form of escapism, and in Gardiner’s fiction, we escape to places we’d never imagine journeying to.” (A.J. Kirby, ‘The New Short Review’)
For more information, please see his website at http://www.jeffgardiner.com and his blog: http://jeffgardiner.wordpress.com/