So, this is England in November. A celebration of grey: grey shadows of grey chimneys, a faded carpet of smoke-green grass, grey trees naked, their discarded clothes in heaps about their feet, their limbs stoical and silent. Above, nothing: a featureless nonsense into which the thin branches of the young cherry probe and grope like tendrils in some underwater garden. But there are no fish swimming in this colorless sea; no currents to drive the unwary or draw warmth from southern lands. A prelude to winter, it is motion in suspense, a stilling of time.
If I wait a while the light will gather. The crow will appear upon his lamp-post and maybe, just maybe, the sun will break through.
But no, the sun does not arrive. The crow does, and he is not alone. He shares his customary resting place with another crow, a crow svelt and slender with glossy feathers and a more elegant beak. Close to one another on this meager perch the pair seems to share a bond of tenderness stronger than mere space dictates. My friend demonstrates his prowess as a lamplighter, placing a determined foot on top of the street light’s sensor to switch it on. They play with this together for a while, communicating in familiar language until the sleek one takes flight. I watch the bird depart, its wing-strokes even and graceful.
“Is she your mate?” I ask the crow.
“Yeah.” He preens with affected casualness. “Alright, ain’t she?”
“Remarkable.” I agree. I coin the idiomatic: “Well fit!”
“You wouldn’t fink;” He says. “Three years of eggs and a figure like that. You wouldn’t fink.”
“No. I wouldn’t.”
“There you are, then, see? Good lookin’ bird, the Missus. I still catch meself fancyin’ her, sometimes.”
“I’m sure.” I concur.
“Well fit.” I repeat.
“Yeah.” He is preparing for flight. “She works out, you know. She ain’t going to end up like no Pauncefoot Pigeon. Well, must rush. They muck out the cowsheds on Little Leazes Farm about now.”
With that he has launched himself and is gone, vanishing into the mist like a last dream before waking, leaving an accusation burning in my ear.
The Pauncefoot Pigeon. Will that subtle hint of censure in his voice ever change? Will he ever forgive me? Will the legend in the garden never fade? It is time to make confession.
First in my defence it must be said that pigeons, though very amiable birds with a strong sense of direction, are not the sharpest knives in the avian box. The very fact that they were able to fly as bearers of news good or bad, through the intense gunfire of several wars, is down more to their limited understanding of the effect a bullet may have, than to reckless bravery. Their long history as quarry for anyone in search of a pie attaches them to a small fatalistic family of ‘game birds’ who are really not game at all. Like partridges, pheasants, woodcock and the rest, given the choice they would prefer a quiet, reclusive life. However their fatal flaw, speed in flight, makes them ‘sport’ for anyone with bloodlust and a gun. If they were more intelligent they would learn to fly slowly and the sportsmen would lose interest. But there…
This is still no excuse for our treatment of the Pauncefoot Pigeon.
It was two summers ago. The garden was perfectly balanced, with just the final touches of a few jealously-sought perennials to add to the bed above the patio. Honey, our dog, patrolled and rousted amongst its darker places with enthusiastic efficiency, limiting Herman the neighbor’s cat to a program of taunts and carefully timed visits, usually at night when Honey was contained within doors. So the fauna of the garden was equally well balanced. Herman could manage to keep it in his territory (albeit with some care if he wanted to avoid Honey’s hatred) and Honey could roust. A bird-feeder, hanging from the large laurel bush, was well attended, mostly by house-sparrows.
I had recently made the crow’s acquaintance. He was in the habit of sitting on top of the lamp-post outside my window in the dawn hours.
“Have you seen ‘im out the back – in yer garden?”
“Yeah. It’s a pigeon, I fink. ‘Least, that’s the best description I can put on him. Nice enough bloke, though a bit too friendly, if you ask me.” The crow fluffed himself up. “He’s got poncy feet, hasn’t he? Yeah, poncy feet!”
Curiosity aroused, I went to the dining room to draw back the curtains, an action that normally provoked panic amongst the sparrows on the feeder. The object of the crow’s description was actually sitting on the back fence at the time, a triumph in silver-grey chic with well-groomed feathers and those distinctive extra ‘spats’ over his feet which the crow had scornfully defined as ‘poncy’.
“He’s an ice pigeon.” My wife informed me. “He’s really rather pretty, isn’t he?”
“What’s he doing here?” I asked. “There’s no ice.”
“He’s a show breed. He must have got himself lost somehow. Does he have a ring?”
“Not that I can see.” With all the feathering on his legs identification without capture was impossible. Catching him also proved impossible, though we tried a number of times in those early days (him havin’ the gift of flight, an’ all, and me a trifle earthbound).
We expected a brief acquaintance with this uniquely beautiful bird; we thought he might simply move on. He did not. Throughout that summer the Poncyfoot Pigeon (shortened to the more familiar Pauncefoot Pigeon) remained as our guest, either sitting on the fence or – his true reason for staying with us – waddling about beneath the bird feeder.
Let me lay a little ornithological expertise upon you, if I may: sparrows are messy eaters. This is in case you were considering inviting one out for a meal, or, more probably, leaving him some surplus pizza or pasta in your garden. In the former instance you will find the waiter politely asking you to leave; in the latter, your prized dahlias, your admired aubrietia, and your revered roses will be spattered with fragments of Quattro Fromagio. A serviette is no answer: only plastic sheeting is equal to the task.
The ground below the bird-feeder testified to the lax habits of these birds, covered with seeds carelessly dropped, and manna for the Pauncefoot pigeon, who made it quite clear that he was content to spend his life there in dexterous pecking, if left undisturbed. His only vexations were Honey, who hates anything or anyone trespassing in her garden, and Herman the cat. Honey’s efforts at arrest were, of course, doomed. She moves with all the stealth and guile of a rhinoceros, though perhaps with slightly superior eyesight. Pauncefoot could evade her easily and sometimes scarcely bothered to rise. Herman might have been a more formidable foe, had the choir of sparrows been less voluble in announcing his arrival. This, and Honey’s equal hatred of Herman, kept the equilibrium.
Those eagerly awaited perennial plants arrived; planting proceeded. Honey, who is a natural gardener, took interest. The usual procedure for planting out was simple: we dug the plants in, Honey waited until our backs were turned and dug them up. But these were expensive plants; these were greatly prized plants. We could not take the chance that Honey would ignore them. So it was agreed: until the new additions were established, Honey would be barred from the back garden.
Three weeks, we decided, would be sufficient.
We knew not what we did. Alright, ignorance of natural law is no excuse, but we still did not foresee just how much overspill of seed Pauncefoot could consume in three weeks. We failed to recognize the danger.
The sparrows did not cease eating, and nor, now, did Pauncefoot. Without Honey to chase him away his dining became a less troubled affair. Herman alone could bring a brief intermission, and Herman’s patrols became more frequent, his poses outside the patio doors while Honey foamed and frothed on the inside became more outrageous. His interest in Pauncefoot increased.
“That pigeon is becoming rounder.” Was my wife’s opinion.
I had to admit Pauncefoot’s ability to fly up to perch on the fence seemed impaired. He was, indisputably, gaining in stature. Avuncular, I considered. I made light of it.
Herman knew better. Herman, I am sure, was waiting – not fat enough, yet, the bird – still able to fly, still too agile. But Pauncefoot kept eating, as long as Herman did not disturb him, and in another few days…
On Wednesday morning of the second week I drew back the curtains and for the first time in a few months there was no sign of the Pauncefoot Pigeon. Nor did he arrive as the day progressed; not that day, not the next. Gardening in the corner behind the laurel bush on Friday evening my wife discovered a scattered array of grey and white feathers, dawn of an awful truth.
I was culpable. I will not deny that. Thanks to my lack of foresight a very amiable if somewhat naïve member of the garden community had been condemned to an early demise. I still picture him, floundering to surmount the burden of his obesity, unable to make the safety of the fence. And the garden remembers: the garden does not forgive. When I draw the morning curtains now the twittering sparrows no longer panic, but merely fall silent and turn their heads the other way. Snails crawl from my path as I walk, the blackbird sits on the fence where Pauncefoot once sat, his voice pitched in a song of mourning and loss. Below the feeder, where his neat white spats once trod, the seeds are turning into weeds now, and even the wood mice leave them where they fall.
Herman did not return for a while. According to my neighbor, he seemed off his food that weekend. When he did eventually return he found the soft earth around our fresh plantings particularly tempting. So I like to think that Pauncefoot is at peace, and in some way lies buried there?