The pigeon fancier’s daughter
After impulsively booking the day off work and with the recent bout of drizzly weather giving way to an unexpectedly bright autumn morning, I decided to grab my camera and take a closer look at a neighbouring village.
I’d passed through the village numerous times before, but until yesterday had never stopped to examine the place in any detail. It was while I wandered about, taking a turn up a side street that I met a mother and daughter tending to a flock of racing pigeons. The daughter explained that the original owner, her late father as it turned out, had sadly passed away.
"We used to have around sixty," she told me, "dad's pride and joy. But we're not sure what to do with them now...so we just look after them, you know."
As I stood there my thoughts turned to my own father who passed in 2008. I wondered whether tending to the birds and continuing with his old routines offered these women a sense of connectedness. Markers of another’s life now sadly beyond reach. A familiar pair of work stiffened gardening gloves on a shelf, the smell of creosote and ancient desiccated pigeon shit laying heavy in the air, so pungent that it would follow him around. I recalled the signature musty smell of the chicken coop that had stood at the foot of my childhood garden and my father’s old coat, a Donkey Jacket with reinforced seams cut from a heavy unyielding cloth that had been saved from the bonfire for just such a purpose and had hung from a nail in the shed for many years.
I was struck by the performance of it all. Was this a re-enactment I wondered, or maybe something less affectionate and closer to a chore, his hobby now a burden for the duty-bound who must tend to the flock in his absence. A few years ago my mother told me of a ninety year old whom she would visit a couple of times a month as part of a community project run through her local church. When the lady passed away her son had the vet euthanise the beloved pussycat that the woman had kept as a companion for the best part of twenty years. Much like its owner the cat had lived to a ripe old age, but still it was distressing to think that in her absence it was deemed a problem to be solved, and one likely to involve costly and increasing veterinarian bills, and so its life was taken, which may or may not have been a kindness.
Watching these two women go about their business with the pigeons it definitely seemed like a subdued but nevertheless tender act of memorialisation. I might never attend to someone’s grave, replacing dead flowers and weeding out the windblown crips packets, but I might feed your pigeons. There was a sense of involuntary remembrance here, and after snapping a couple of quick shots of the birds I suddenly felt that I was intruding so made my thanks and departed, leaving the two strangers to continue with their rituals of cleaning and scraping.
The spot was rather idyllic it must be said, tucked behind a row of terraces situated on a slight rise where the birds sat in a regimented line atop the loft while their boxes were being cleaned. I imagine that over time the cooing will lessen and then stop altogether. In time the sheds, so immaculate now might begin to degrade although I hope not. I like the idea of future generations of the family coming to commune with grandfather's flock. It could be that as the birds pass away themselves the sheds will fall empty and without a reason to maintain them will eventually fall into disrepair and be pulled down, the neighbours privately welcoming the additional off-street parking and reduced threat to vegetable plots. Pigeon keeping has been practised for centuries I’m told, and a few pigeons shared between local aficionados and family members seems like a perfectly wonderful pastime, a little piece of avian theatre for the everyman and woman.
Despite their bad press, pigeons are actually quite lovely in their understated way, at least I’ve always thought so, all of them distant descendants of Columbia Liva, the rock dove, which once heralded from exotic faraway places with strange sounding names where a person is as likely to hear a pigeon who-whooing as a parakeet squawk. I believe Mike Tyson is devotee.
As a kid I received a bright yellow bible after attending a specified number of Sunday school readings or whatever they were called. I don’t know why exactly, but as I walked away I remembered the cover of that children's bible, its cover adorned with a large line drawing of a dove, the universal symbol of peace, carrying in its beak the olive branch symbolising the return of hope. In that same moment I pictured the old man letting them out each morning and then sitting down at his little picnic table, reaching for his flask and daily newspaper while high above him the birds rode waves of slate blue and terracotta rooftop in ever decreasing spirals.