The Ballad of Pigeon John, by Martyn Clayton

The day they buried Pigeon John the sky turned grey with feathers. Birds flew in from everywhere. Pigeons he’d known, flown and sold, others who’d only heard tell of his legend.  Their fanciers came in numbers too, gathering inside and outside his house for the wake.

Bella watched them in their subdued and respectful best, tucked in, trussed up, lachrymose with regret for that falling out, that sharp word they wished they’d never spoken. Some took a breather from the burial breakfast, adjusting their waistband, flattening down their hair, gazing longingly up at the sky perhaps wishing they themselves could so easily take to the air. They stood in pairs on the kerb, nodding, trying not to smile. It was a cruel world that expected you to look dignified whilst  trying to eat a vol-au-vent.  Their feathered friends gathered crumbs from the gutter and the verge.

It was funny to think there was now a John shaped hole in the life of the street.  She always watched him from her attic flat window. There was nothing funny about a young woman spying on an elderly man. If it had been the other way round it would be different.

She imagined in another life she might have got to know him. If she’d been a different sort of person she’d have knocked on his door one summer evening, probably with a plate of brownies and a winning smile. “Hi Mr Lidgett” she’d say, “I live in the flat across the way and I’m very  keen to learn more about pigeons.”

He was hard to draw your eyes from though. Particularly if like Bella you didn’t have any friends to keep you busy. Books were a joy of course, but sometimes you craved flesh, blood and intrigue. Not that John offered much in the way of intrigue. In his case it was all about the choreography.

Every morning he’d appear at roughly the same time, Bella setting her alarm fifteen minutes earlier so she could be in place, tea in hand to enjoy the gentle drama. He’d whistle as he walked down the crazy-paved path to the wooden shed where the birds were housed. Pigeon John was small, he had a squashed red nose and his face was flecked with broken veins. His grey hair was greased into a comb over, and  as he opened the door to the pigeon loft  he’d ask the birds how they were doing telling them how beautiful they were. One day the previous winter as a thick black cloud had smothered the city and fragile white snow had started to fall, she’d spied him standing stock still in the middle of the lawn. Birds landed on his shoulder, craning their necks coyly towards his face, others flew nearby waiting for a moment to replace them. He must have stood like that for ten minutes, as still as any Sadhu perfectly at one with the source of his joy. Bella wondered what it must be like to feel anything that intently. The birds would emerge tentatively each morning, finding berths on the bird cherry, and the top of the greenhouse. They’d crane their necks and look at him with their prehistoric eyes, something like affection warming their cold blood.

The world was losing its dreamers. This was the first line of her novel. It would be loosely based on John, a memorial of sorts to the man she imagined. He was perhaps young when he married, barely out of his teens to a war-damaged girl who’d lost her father to the Burma railway. With her treacle brown eyes and Victory Roll hair she minced with glamour down the cobbles setting the boys’ hearts racing yet always unattainable.  John, handsome back then, won her favour with the way he held his cigarette and how his words slipped so easily into poetry. Despite the smog, limited prospects and catarrh, they became sweethearts. She was shy, but strong-willed and it broke his heart when, a mere six years later, she succumbed to oblivion. Maybe some kind of neurological cyst, or a kidney that erred. Anyway, all that mattered is he was lost and lonely when, walking in the park with his badly darned socks and a heavy heart, he spied a pigeon. And not just any pigeon. This was champion racer, Cotterel Chieftain blown off course by bad weather over the Scillies. The bird seemed familiar to the broken hearted boy as if it wanted to befriend him. John seeing its wing looked dishevelled and that the  creature was out of sorts, cupped it gently in his not yet calloused hands and took it home. He took it as a sign, but not knowing how to sex a pigeon back then, he named it after his dead wife. Irene Lidgett went on to win countless races and John acquired an avian prefix.

Bella kept waking up at the same time even though she’d now changed her alarm to reflect her post-John reality. The pigeons had gone. Three men in a white van came the day after the funeral and took them away in little cages. For a moment she panicked that they might be going to the restaurant trade, but then managed to convince herself that John’s pigeons would be too valuable for the table. It was quiet though. Really quiet. All you heard in the mornings now were radios and pre-school arguments, the banging of front doors, neighbourly greetings and car alarms. It was unnerving. People in neighbourhoods with factories sometimes went mad when the place closed and the constant low level hum was gone.

Bella was convinced the feral pigeons in the neighbourhood seemed listless. John’s pigeons must have seemed impossibly glamorous to them. Just imagine all the places they’d seen. All that travelling on the back of transporter lorries to far flung parts of these islands and beyond, before the extreme sport that brought them home again. They’d fly over towns and great cities, they’d brush the high windows of stainless steel temples to mammon, over the buddleia blown remnants of once proud industries, they’d be a bit part in your heartbreak, a passing incident on an otherwise boring day, they’d rest on the roofs  of country churches, they’d dice with death as Atlantic storms blew in. They’d seen Swindon and Coventry, Newport and Leeds. How could a humble scavenging bird who’d spent its life on suburban streets wrestling with fallen chips ever compete ?

They couldn’t and neither could she. Bella felt herself to be another feral bird looking for the next feed. Temp work, a boyfriend, that exhibition thingy she’d read about in The Guardian, a room with a view. She had the latter. Or at least she once had. Now Pigeon John was no more, all she saw was the interminable suburbs. She gazed out over the rooftops, down into the city from her perch on the hillside where people had placed concrete order on all that was beautiful.  She’d begun scattering a thin row of bird seed on her windowsill. It grew wet and started to sprout, she thinking she should really clean up the mess.

Then one morning as she woke before her alarm she heard movement on the window outside; the drilling sound of something hard on wood. She moved towards the window, gently opened the blind to see a fluffy juvenile pigeon hoovering up the seed. Upon seeing her, it flew off down into John’s old garden. Bella wiped her eyes and looked out of the window. There on top of the empty pigeon loft sat a row of two dozen birds. As she watched, more arrived, sitting on the washing line, the greenhouse, the back fence. They bobbed and jostled impatiently looking toward the back door of the house.

Bella instinctively knew what had to be done. Grabbing her phone she went straight to an online bookseller and typed in the words;

   “Pigeon Keeping For Beginners”

Somewhere, perhaps not very far away in this thin suburban place, Pigeon John was probably smiling.

Copyright the author and first published by Friends of Rowntree Park 2015.


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