Tomchik’s Ornithology

Tomchik reaches for his bag, which sits between us on the bench.

“I like it here,” he says.  He produces a thermos flask from within the bag’s khaki canvas depths, and proffers it.

I refuse.  I am meant to refuse, he is hoping I will refuse, “Me, too.”  I acknowledge, as he pours himself a shiny metal cup of tea.  “You’ve gone environmental, then?”

“This metal thing?”  He glances at the thermos, shrugs his shoulders; “Is alright, I guess.”

“Is it biodegradable?”

Tomchik turns his grey eyes on me in that analytical manner of his.  “I don’t know,”  He replies.  “I am.”

The wind sweeps down upon our backs, riffling through the heather and chattering my teeth on its way to more important business in the valley below.  “Sooner rather than later if you stay here,” I tell him.  “Or am I the only one who’s freezing to death?”

“Sometimes it is worth a little bit coldness to enjoy,” He waves expansively over the view before us.  “You see whole village from here.  Is worth it, no?”

I have to admit our situation is ideal.  We are sitting beside a path which cuts along the side of Carter Fell above the churchyard.  We have an unobstructed view of the squat grey roofs clustered three hundred feet below, of the winding snake of water that needs a few rushing miles yet to become the River Wenly, and the narrow road that follows it.  I can identify my home among the roofs, and I can see Tomchik’s too.  We are neighbours, he and I.  In a small village, everyone is a neighbour.

“How long have you lived here, Tomchik?”

“Why you ask me?  I am immigrant, yes?”  He takes a paper package from his bag and unwraps it thoughtfully, exposing sandwiches.  “Cheeses and pickles; you like?”  Again he makes a token offer and I respond with a token refusal.  “Many years.”  He nods, selecting a sandwich and dunking a corner of it in his tea.  “You think I shouldn’t be here, yes?”

The question surprises me.  I have known him for all of those years.  “No, of course I don’t think that.  Are you sensitive about it?  If we have to look at it like that, you’re one very good reason I approve of immigration!”

“Ah.” Tomchik munches solemnly.  There is silence.

I say:  “I can’t imagine the village without you.”

Tomchik points.   “You see the Harry Tulliver’s house?”

“Plainly.”   The cottage where Harry and Jane Tulliver eke out their fairly meagre existence is easy to identify.  “It’s sad to see the weeds, though.  Harry used to be such a gardener!  He doesn’t seem to do much now; I guess he is getting too old.”

“No, no.  Not too old,” Tomchik corrects me.  “You are right to say sad.  I am right to say tired.  Harry is tired man,   That is why he is sad.”

Sometimes Tomchik’s crooked logic leaves me behind.  “Alright then; why tired?”

He allows himself a tolerant sigh, “Tired two ways.  The bay tree is still prospering, you agree?”

I agree.  The tree in Harry’s garden is his pride and joy.

“One way tired.  The goldfinches, they used to nest in this fine bay tree – now is gone.   Two way tired.  Tell me another way you recognise house of Mr and Mrs Tulliver?”

I do not understand him at first.   Of course I recognise the house!  What is Tomchik driving at?  I decide to stoke things up with a little amusement.  “Well, their roof is a slightly different colour.  White polka dots!”

“Bird droppings, yes?”

“Yes,”

“So!  Two ways!  Sparrows!    Sparrows squabbling, mess all over windows, all over back path.  Sparrow fledglings in a row on the fence, squeaking to be fed.  Sparrows nesting – six nests in the bay tree already.”

“So, why the feeders?”  I wave a hand to indicate the three feeders filled with seed that are distributed about Harry’s blessed plot.  “They wouldn’t come if the spoils weren’t so readily available.”

“Exactly!  Mrs Jane, she tells Harry, put them out!  So Harry puts them out, and sparrows come.  Starlings, they come, seagulls, they come.  They eat everything – seed, Harry’s peas, raspberries, strawberries, everything he plant, they eat.  Every time those feeders empty, his wife she puts out more seed.  Those goldfinches, they leave, the bluetits, the chaffinches, the wagtails…”  Tomchik shakes his head,  “all birds Mrs Jane like, are gone.  She thinks she can feed them all, but she just get more sparrows.  Just sparrows.”

“Harry should tell her.  Harry should put his foot down!”

“This I say to him.  I say to him, Harry, you must take back your garden.  He say no, if he tell her she say without her food all sparrows will starve.  She is responsible, she say.  More and more money she spend on food for the birds.  Tullivers, they are not rich.  Harry’s vegetables he grew were food for them.  Now…”  Tomchik shrugs fatalistically, “No vegetables!  Nothing!”

“I don’t understand Jane…”  I begin.

“No-one!”  Tomchik cuts in,  “No-one understand Jane!”

“Have you asked her about it?”

“I do.  I ask her.  You know what she think?  She think without her these birds, they are dead birds.  She likes the pretty birds.”

Tomchik grasps my arm to gain my full attention.  He stares at me.  “You like the pretty Tomchik?  Chirp, chirp!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rose

<a style="background-color:black;color:white;text-decoration:none;padding:4px 6px;font-family:-apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, "San Francisco", "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Ubuntu, Roboto, Noto, "Segoe UI", Arial, sans-serif;font-size:12px;font-weight:bold;line-height:1.2;display:inline-block;border-radius:3px;" href="https://unsplash.com/@disguise_truth?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=photographer-credit&utm_content=creditBadge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" title="Download free do whatever you want high-resolution photos from Anastasia Zhenina"><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;"><svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" style="height:12px;width:auto;position:relative;vertical-align:middle;top:-1px;fill:white;" viewBox="0 0 32 32"><title></title><path d="M20.8 18.1c0 2.7-2.2 4.8-4.8 4.8s-4.8-2.1-4.8-4.8c0-2.7 2.2-4.8 4.8-4.8 2.7.1 4.8 2.2 4.8 4.8zm11.2-7.4v14.9c0 2.3-1.9 4.3-4.3 4.3h-23.4c-2.4 0-4.3-1.9-4.3-4.3v-15c0-2.3 1.9-4.3 4.3-4.3h3.7l.8-2.3c.4-1.1 1.7-2 2.9-2h8.6c1.2 0 2.5.9 2.9 2l.8 2.4h3.7c2.4 0 4.3 1.9 4.3 4.3zm-8.6 7.5c0-4.1-3.3-7.5-7.5-7.5-4.1 0-7.5 3.4-7.5 7.5s3.3 7.5 7.5 7.5c4.2-.1 7.5-3.4 7.5-7.5z"></path></svg></span><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;">Anastasia Zhenina</span></a>It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  He is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty-four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and gyrates dangerously on the wooden surface.

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were never at home.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helplessly as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend’?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!”

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she quails beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-four years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden

Catholic_monks_in_Jerusalem_2006“Will you be comfortable there, Father? Can I bring you a blanket?”

The novitiate is over-solicitous, as those fresh to the calling tend to be, and he tests Father Ignatius’s patience at times. “A blanket, indeed? Now that would be an indulgent sin, would it not? ” The old Abbot replies.“I wonder, Brother, would you ask Brother Thomas to come and see me when he is spared from his tasks? I would like him to sit with me for a while, if he can. Oh! (As the young brother moves to depart) And you might ask him to bring a blanket, should he be able.”

The novitiate fades into the green fog of the garden, leaving not a memory behind.

With a contented sigh Father Ignatius leans back on the hard timber bench while his rheumy eyes explore the mist, wandering among those vague splashes of colored flowers which are impressions on his palette of memory, remembered rather than seen. For he sees so little now. There is campion where Brother Paul will always plant it, already in bloom, a brave red slash along the bed before the wall, and there the meadow-sweet and flowering thyme, in softer more subtle hues. From the orchard on the hill a message comes, a gentle scent of apple blossom on the breeze – a breeze now chill to these old bones, though the sun is strong. And this is his garden, sight and scent, and this the hum of bees, and this, his world.

Left alone, his mind quickly fades to sleep. His breath cracks in his chest. Wafts of grey habit drift by, hither and thither, with greetings he scarcely hears.

“Good day to you, Father!”

“God bless you, Father!”

These, his children, some who will pause to touch his hand as they pass, some who will not. On the edge of rest he sighs in sorrow for them. Brother Thomas brings news often of the new King, so discontented with his Spanish Queen, whose dialogue with the Church is tainted by violence and hatred; and Thomas fears he would burn down this sanctified place. Father Ignatius makes a silent prayer for his King who, though god himself, needs his true God’s grace.

He has dozed awhile, has he not? The sun has dropped lower over the presbytery roof, casting its long shadow like a cloak across the grass. How long has he slept? Has he missed Vespers? Why has Brother Thomas not come for him? Some more pressing business, Father Ignatius suspects, for his good friend will soon be abbot in his place, an office he already conducts in all but name. Yet the bees still hum their own plainsong, and the birds’ jealous melodies of evening are scripture to eyes which can see the written word no more. So perhaps God will forgive him his omission this once? Father Ignatius settles his conscience with a word or two of prayer, and drifts.

Again? Has he yielded to sin and slept again?

I am cold.

“I am cold.” Father Ignatius says, but no words come. From deep within something is reaching for him, and someone stands behind him, someone he cannot feel or see. There is a roaring sound in his head like the surf he played upon in his youth, pounding and pounding. He sees himself, a child again. He sees the beach, and Marian whom he loved once, smiling her welcome, her skin fresh and shining in the salt spray.

A new journey has begun – a journey for which he has been preparing all his life.

Around Father Ignatius a mist is closing, a grey cloak that curls and swirls like speech, but has no sound. Yet there is sound. Voices: strange voices that speak in words he scarcely understands.

“Through here. Try this door.” A young man.

“You first!” A girl or a young woman, fearful.

A lance of light, stabbing, flickering! Suddenly, rapidly, they materialize before him. The young man bears the light in his hand. He is short-haired and beardless. The woman is dressed shamefully in just a loose vest and a strip of cloth about her hips. There, for a moment, Father Ignatius sees as though the veils of age have been entirely lifted, and the woman sees him too. Their eyes meet. She screams in horror. The young man drops the lance of light. Both figures turn, to be lost once more in the mist.

Brother Thomas will discover Father Ignatius still seated in his customary place in the garden after Compline, as the last traces of evening fade. With the neglectfulness of youth his novitiate never gave him the ancient abbot’s message. Filled with remorse Brother Thomas will drop to his knees to give his old departed friend the Last Rites. As he does so, his knee will find something hard half-buried in the grass and he will pick up this object, a black cylinder. He will be amazed to discover that in response to his touch it will emit a piercing light.

© Frederick Anderson 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

The Legend of The Pauncefoot Pigeon

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.

kr
Honey – not one of her studio portraits, I’m afraid. It must have been foggy.

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?”

“’Im’?”

“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’.Pauncefoot 1

“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 fmessy eaterormer 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.

Pauncefoot 2

“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…

Pauncefoot 3

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?

A Desultory Conversation

Every morning when I come into my office to work the first thing I do (after booting up the infernal machine) is draw back the window curtains. He (quite a familiar figure in my life – I might even call him a friend) has more often than not already arrived, comfortably perched atop the streetlamp in front of my house with the dawn, as yet still a bushfire line of muted orange behind the eastern hill, at his back.

“Morning.”  He eyes me through my window – warily at first; trying to judge my mood, I suppose.

“Good morning!  How are you?”

“Alright.  Mustn’t grumble.”

“Can’t be easy for you, this cold weather.”Image

He resents being patronized.  “What, being a corvid, you mean?”     

“I didn’t say that!  I just meant….”

“I know what you meant!  Racist, that is!  I’m a crow, mate, gettit?  Don’t judge me by the color of my feathers!”

“I didn’t – I mean I don’t.  Don’t be so sensitive.”

He bends his head, nibbling at breast feathers with a powerful black beak.  “We’re not all lamb’s eye pluckers, you know.  Some of us have taste.”  A big, lazy wing stretches.  “Well, mustn’t hang around:  places to be.”

He leaves his perch in an effortless movement, something between a fall and a glide, floating away on a dawn breeze as supportive to him as an ocean swell.

#

It is later and I am working, I am lost in thought.  My monitor stares back at me, contemplating as deeply as I, though we neither of us seem to be able to come up with anything.

“See this?”

I look up.  Outside, that red strip of expectation has grown into the bright sun of morning.  A blackbird is announcing his presence, loudly, to anyone who cares to listen. My friend is back on his lamp.

“See what?”  I ask.

“You blind or something?  This!”  He points with his beak to a sheet of bread beneath his feet.  “Breakfast, this is.”

I hadn’t noticed.  “Do you always stand on your breakfast?”

“Funny!  We’re not going to get into another argument, are we?”

“Of course not!”  I say. “Look I’m sorry I called you a….  That looks like a great start to the day.” What is the matter with me?  “I’m trying to work;” I tell him, “but the inspiration’s lacking.”

He nods sagely.  “It’ll be last night’s dinner sitting on your stomach.”

“Oh, really?  I think souvlaki’s a decent, light meal.  Brain food!”

“Greasy.  Foreign muck.  You can’t beat a good shepherd’s pie.”

“That ‘grease’ was the best quality olive oil.  Anyway, how do you know what I ate last night?”

I get an old-fashioned look.  “What, you think if you wrap your left-overs in newspaper when you throw them away I can’t get to them?”

“You’ve been through my bins!”

“Well, sort of.  It’s the fox goes through the bins.  I just follow him around.  He leaves more than he eats.”  He points at the sheet of bread with his beak.  “Where’d’you think this came from?”

I sigh my resignation, ready to consign my morning’s efforts to the recycle bin.  “I think I’ll switch off for now;”  I tell him.  “The old muse isn’t working at all well today.”

“Technology!” His sniff of disgust is almost – almost – audible.  “Flickering images jumping around.  No wonder you can’t work!”

I give him an indulgent smile.  “You wouldn’t have much of a grasp of electronics, would you?”

“Me?  No, no use for it.  Watch this!”  My friend shuffles his morning feast, repositioning it on the long- extinguished street light.  There is a pause.  The light comes on.

Honestly, I’m amazed.  “That’s brilliant.  How did you do that?”

“Simple.  There’s this little button thing on the top of the support.  Cover it over and it thinks it’s night-time.  There’s a special one down the end.  Cover that and every light in the road comes on.  Technology, see?”

The blackbird’s set is drawing to its climactic finale, its ample throat somehow managing harmony and a sort of descant screech at the same time.

“That blackbird!”  I lament.  “Surely he doesn’t have to be that loud?”

“Who, Des?  Dunno.  You better ask him.  Not this morning though; he’s in a right tiz.  Someone’s only been and cut his bush down!”

My thoughts flit guiltily back to yesterday’s gardening. “What, the laurel?  I pruned it.   There wasn’t a nest or anything in there.”  What had I done?

“Ah, you, was it?  Might have known.”  The crow shakes his head, makes a stab at his breakfast.

“It needed cutting back!”  I protest.

“Yeah.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  There’s less cover over the garden now, so I can sit and watch the whole place.  Des, he doesn’t see it the way we do, though.  That top branch!  I was up there myself early on.  You might as well hang a sign on it:  ‘Sparrow hawks perch here’.  Poor old Des, he’s spitting feathers!”

“Des doesn’t like sparrow hawks.”  I deduce absently.  My head is still getting around calling a blackbird by a familiar name.

“Not when they’ve got a penthouse view of his family billet in the blackthorn bush he doesn’t.  Five little chirpies squeaking away in there, beaks up like tiny trumpets.”  My friend lapses into what I can best describe as a hungry silence.  A faraway look has come into his eye.

In the pause thus provided I reflect upon the ancient enmity between sparrow hawks and blackbirds and realize at once the true consequences of my rashness with the secateurs!  But what can I do?  The prunings are in the garden refuse, and what is done cannot be undone.

My friend is dexterously folding his sheet of bread with his beak while pinning it beneath one foot – first into half, then into quarters.  “Easier to fly, see – when it’s small like this?  Anyway, can’t sit here talking all day.  There’s a field being ploughed up Wolsingham way, and time and tractors don’t wait.  I’ll just flap this back to my place for the memsahib (she gets really feisty when she’s on the eggs) then – dunno  – think I might drop back to Des’s.”

 

He stretches for the sky.  “I fancy something hot.”