Don’t feed the pigeons

This is a short story I wrote on the way back from London.  Let me know what you think in the comments below!

 

As he stepped onto the platform the low, persistent rumble of the train was replaced by an altogether more muddled and frenetic ambiance. London. Liverpool Street station reverberated to the sound of idling machinery, countless footsteps, half-conversations and ringtones, all distorted by echoes from the previous second, or minute, or years, he could not tell which.

It was to be an unusually casual visit this time, simply passing through the capital on his way to Taunton to visit his grandmother. But thanks to an almost comedic experience trying to book his ticket online, which was punctuated by expletives of increasing volume and intensity, and nearly ending in a broken keyboard, he had ended up with nearly three hours between arriving in Liverpool Street station and leaving Paddington station. Normally he would expect to make the cross-capital trek on the underground in less than forty five minutes. But his stubbornness would not permit him to phone the train company and admit his error, so he would just have to live with it. And, after all, what’s the harm in a little more time in London?

His first objective was food. His lovingly prepared cheese and tomato sandwich, accompanied by a bag of Walker’s crisps (cheese and onion) and a supplement of tap water in a plastic Coke bottle, were on the kitchen table, enjoying an unexpected reprise. So he bought a tuna mayo sub and a bottle of actual Coke, and mentally apologised to his credit card for the inconvenience.

It was warm, for October. At least, it had been when he got onto the train at Chelmsford. London always seemed to have its own ecosystem, so it was never a guarantee that the weather would be the same half an hour away. But he would have to wait to find out for sure, because he was already descending into the bowels of the earth to board the circle line. Daylight would have to wait.

It wasn’t until shortly before the train arrived at the next station that he concluded he definitely was on the wrong train. He had meant to go anti-clockwise on the circle line, but this one was going clockwise. No matter. He’d get there eventually, and since he had more time than usual it wasn’t a problem anyway. In fact, now that the opportunity had presented itself, he decided to get off at Tower Hill and take a look at Tower Bridge. It would be a nice place to eat his lunch.

Signage at railway stations is big business, he mused. Posters advertised films he wasn’t interested in seeing, books he had no intention of reading, shows he didn’t have time to attend. Arrows pointed in all directions, frequently missing out the key bit of information that would have made them useful. He was informed not to leave baggage unattended, to mind the gap, and not to feed the pigeons. Most of them he simply ignored.

Tower bridge was only fairly impressive. He hadn’t actually seen it since he was a child. Not in person, at least. It was one of those landmarks that everyone knew about, and featured in every film wishing to let its audience know it was set in England. But for all its familiarity, he had never got round to actually visiting it recently. The sun shone on it brightly, but it nevertheless wasn’t nearly as vivid or as large as he had expected. He found a wooden bench to sit on and unwrapped his sub sandwich.

Pigeons are a familiar sight in London, so it was no surprised when one landed in front of him. Vermin, he thought, you’re not getting any of my lunch. It hopped around, head bobbing mechanically back and forth as it searched the ground for sustenance. He noticed it had only one good foot, and hence the hopping; the other was shrivelled, and since the bird didn’t appear to be putting any weight on it he guessed it was hurt. A fairly common injury, he presumed. Not being an ‘animal person’, as he put it, his heart strings rarely sang at the plight of creatures stupid enough to get themselves hurt. But this one was looking at him with such pleading in its eyes that even he felt sorry for it.

Thinking back, he’d never noticed birds being able to convey emotion before. Their eyes were always completely open, their face set. But this one definitely looked at him, so he thought, with a sense of yearning, longing, almost desperation. He stopped, mid-chew, and the two of them stared into each other’s eyes for a moment. He broke off a corner of his bread, and tossed it onto the pavement.

As he waited on the platform to catch the next circle line train, he noticed he was being watched. On the opposite platform stood a man, propped up against the wall, looking directly at him. There’s an unwritten rule, which somehow feels as if it should outdate the underground itself, that you never make eye contact on the tube. He found it quite unnerving seeing someone blatantly flaunting the tradition. He tried not to return the gaze, but curiosity is a powerful adversary. He looked at the floor, at the posters he had previously disregarded, at the hopping pigeon that had landed near him, at his watch, at the wall, at anything other than the man he could see was still watching him. Thankfully his train arrived, blocking the view, and he got on. He found a seat with his back to the other platform, so as to be sure not to see the man again.

With that unpleasantness behind him, he checked his watch. There was still plenty of time. He resolved to get off again at St James’s Park and have a wander, to make the most of the good weather. He was looking at the signs on the wall to make sure he found the exit, so didn’t see what was waiting for him at the other end of the platform.

Up the escalators, through the gates, and out into the sunshine again. It was London, so it was noisy, and you couldn’t exactly call it fresh air, but it was pleasant enough given that it should have been Autumn. He found his way into the park and reduced his pace to an amble. There was no need to rush, there was plenty of time.

He naturally expected the bird to move out of his way as he approached. Having nearly tripped over it, he wondered whether it was blind. It certainly had a damaged foot, like the other one he’d seen. Or was it two? He couldn’t remember. And he was distracted from trying to remember, because the bird definitely was looking at him, and clearly not blind. In fact, he could have sworn that the bird was smiling at him. Not in a friendly way, but with what he could only describe as a sense of morbid satisfaction. It was uncanny.

“So,” said a voice behind him, “you fed my pigeon, eh?”

He turned to find himself face to face with the man from the other platform, the one he had left behind at Tower Hill station. He looked more shabby close up. His waxy trench coat was stained, his hair was unbrushed and looked like it had bits of dead grass in it, and his topmost jumper (he appeared to be wearing several) was peppered with small holes.

“Excuse me?” He replied as courteously and confidently as he could, but wasn’t able to completely stifle the wavering in his voice.

“My pigeon,” the man restated, in a matter-of-fact tone, pointing at the bird at his feet, “you fed it.”

“Have… Have I done something wrong?” he answered, his mind thinking back to the sign at the station.

“No, no, mate! Of course not.” The man grinned, showing yellowed teeth, and a couple of gaps. “Now tell me,” he continued, producing a notebook and pencil from an inside pocket, “what’s your name, sir?”

Being called “mate” and “sir” in the same sentence seemed a little contradictory, so he still wasn’t sure whether he should consider this man an authority to be feared, a homeless nobody to be ignored, or something else entirely.

“Uh, my name is Martin. Martin Alford.”

“Martin… Alford, right.” The man scribbled the name illegibly in his notebook. “Good. I like to keep a record of these things. You know, for posterity.”

“And, when you say ‘your’ pigeon…”

“Oh, they’re all my pigeons. All the injured ones, that is. This one here has been mine for nearly a year now.”

“Ah, I see,” Martin replied, tentatively connecting the dots as he went along, “so you look after them? Are you with the RSPCA or something?”

The man looked directly at him out of eyes that seemed older than the body they were in, slightly misty, but which seemed to pierce the soul. His mouth attempted a grin at one corner.

“No, I’m not with the RSPCA. They would put this poor creature down, on account of his foot. Got it caught in a grating last winter. Gives him terrible pain, hardly sleeps at night.”

“Then, surely it would be kinder to…”

“Kinder?” the man retorted. “Kinder to kill it? You’ve got a funny sense of kindness, mate, I’ll tell you that. No, I don’t kill them.” He leaned in closer, as a drunk will tell a ‘secret’ to a ‘friend’. “I give them life!”

Martin looked around him. There were other people passing by in the park, but none seemed even slightly aware of his conversation with the man, none taking the slightest notice of the pigeon standing at their feet, looking utterly delighted with itself.  As far as he could tell, there was no escaping this conversation.

“Look, if you’re asking for money, I’m afraid I don’t have any,” he lied, as convincingly as he could manage.

“Money’s not my currency,” the man replied, with an undertone that Martin began to fear with increasing intensity. The man seemed to tower over him in a way that he hadn’t before. “Like I said, I deal in life. I help them, those poor suffering pigeons, cos no one else will. They’re alive as much as you are, except you treat em like vermin. Not much of a life, is it? So I help them. I give them the life they deserve, after all they’ve gone through. I guess you could call me a saint, if you like, sent to help them. To give them life. In this case, yours.”

Martin gazed up at the giant of a man that stood before him, in utter terror. Like that moment immediately after a nightmare, his scream was silent. His foot throbbed with pain.

“Seems like a fair trade to me,” the man said. He turned and bowed slightly to figure next to him, who looked much like Martin had, but who now wore an expression of relief and satisfaction, almost excitement. “No need to rush, my friend, you’ve got plenty of time now.” The figure nodded in return and walked casually away. The man flipped his notebook closed.

“Don’t worry,” winked the man in the wax coat to the trembling pigeon at his feet, “Jimmy will look after you. Welcome to my park.”

2011 round-up

Now that it’s 2012, and I have a little spare time before I go back to work, I thought this would be a suitable opportunity to reflect on the past year and summarise what I’ve been up to.

Family

Ellie’s operation

Ellie gave us a bit of a scare earlier this year.  What started off as just a niggling pain in the chest turned out to be gall stones, which was at times crippling and meant she had to avoid anything even remotely fatty for several months.  She found that change of diet difficult, what with not being able to eat cheese or chocolate.  Still, the operation went very smoothly and she was back on her feet and eating naughty things soon afterwards.  My biggest confession here is that I’m still ever so slightly jealous at how quickly she healed after her operation, compared to me and my hernia (which is mostly fine now, incidentally).

Peter leaving home

This year my littlest brother flew the nest, finding a lovely little church in Uffeculme to go and be a trainee youth worker at.  I went to his induction service, which was a great way to support him as he began his new ministry, and an opportunity to meet (albeit in passing) others like him and also the vicar he’s working with, who seems very nice.  Unfortunately, despite booking a date in with him, we didn’t get to actually visit Peter on-site this year (more on that later), so hopefully we’ll reschedule that for early 2012.  It does leave Mum and Dad’s house somewhat empty though; apparently their food bill has roughly halved now that Peter’s moved out…

Read Peter’s blog.

France holiday

Apart from a weekend in Weymouth, we as a family have never had a holiday until this year.  Ellie and I have been married for 4 years, and that was all we had managed.  This year we took advantage of Ellie’s Dad’s holiday home in France, and had a lovely week with them.  We had a fantastic day on the beach, generally enjoyed chilling and not doing too much, and although it was short it was much appreciated.  The travel was an adventure – driving on the wrong side of the road isn’t actually too hard at all, although the weather on our return journey made the ferry crossing quite uncomfortable (not that Samuel seemed at all bothered by that).

Samuel’s visit to hospital

Not to be left out, Samuel also necessitated a trip to the hospital, following a very high temperature that caused him to have a brief seizure.  That was a huge worry for us at the time, but thankfully it wasn’t anything to worry about in the end.  Apparently these things happen with young children, because their bodies aren’t able to deal with the heat as well.  No lasting damage, I’m pleased to say.

Grandma’s funeral

Ellie’s Grandma sadly passed away this year.  It wasn’t entirely unexpected, as she was very old and increasingly unwell, but it was still something unpleasant we all had to go through.  She had been growing increasingly senile, making conversation difficult, and although we’d managed to persuade her to move out of her bungalow and into a flat where she’d have people to help, she actually only lived there for a matter of weeks due to prolonged visits to various hospitals.  It was one thing after another, what with falls, blood pressure, infections, and so on.  In the end she had a fall while in hospital that led to a bleed on the brain which, in addition to everything else she was going through, was just too much.  Thankfully we happened to be visiting Ellie’s Mum at the time, so we were on hand to support her through it.  A useful bit of planning on God’s part, methinks.

At the bottom of the garden

This is a short story I wrote recently.  I had the idea while on I was on holiday last month, and when I got back I let it write itself in a couple of evenings.  Hope you like it!

 

At the bottom of the garden

Amber was the sort of person who truly believed there was a perfectly sensible answer to anything that appeared in the least bit supernatural.  She didn’t believe in monsters, or elves, or ghosts, or any of the fairytales she had been told when she was growing up.  She instructed her parents to stop telling her bedtime stories, informing them in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice that she was “too old for silliness”.

In truth, she rejected the tales because she was afraid one day one of them might be true.

And now it was her birthday, her coming-of-age.  And she hadn’t slept a wink all night.

*****

The day before had been fraught with tension, mainly her mother’s fault, fussing around making preparations for the party.  She was trying to be organised, but to everyone else it just looked like panic.

“You’re not sweeping the floor properly, Amber,” she called from the other side of the room, “I can see streaks in the woodwork where you’ve missed bits.”

“Well then,” Amber replied, almost to herself, “maybe you should get someone to sweep the floor who actually cares if it’s clean or not.”

“Don’t take that tone with me, my girl,” her mother retorted, waving her duster menacingly in a nondescript direction, “this floor needs to be spotless for the party, and you’re old enough to know how to sweep properly.”

“I never even said I wanted a party,” Amber complained.

“That’s not the point, dear,” her mother replied, pulling a dining room chair into the sitting room to be able to reach the corners of the ceiling, “you’ve reached an important age and everyone wants to celebrate with you.  They’re expecting a party.  And that means we have to give one.  And that means you have to be here, so people can wish you well.”

“But what if I don’t want to be here?  What if I just want some time to myself?”

“Don’t start that again, child,” mother said sternly, “you’re old enough now that you should respect other people’s wishes before your own.”

“Then maybe I’m old enough to go out and have my own fun, to be where I want to be, to see what’s at the other end of the garden…”

“You are NOT permitted to go to the end of the garden,” snapped her mother from on top of the chair, “you know full well your father and I have declared that to be off-limits.

“Fine,” Amber harrumphed, “I’ll just go to my room then.”

And off she stomped.  

Shiny and new (part 3)

Some may call it excessive.  Others may call it compensation for 3 months of inactivity.  Others still may call it boredom.  In any case, this is my third blog post in the last half hour.  And yes, it’s about something else that’s shiny and new.

Today was my first proper day out with Samuel.  Without Ellie.  Yes, I was let loose with our 15 month old son, equipped with little more than a changing bag and a packed lunch.  And it was lots of fun!

We first had to call in at Matalan in Yeovil to exchange a shirt that I’d bought on Saturday for one that wasn’t 2 sizes too big (my bad).  Samuel slept in the car on the way there, and pointed out imaginary cows most of the way back.  But finally we arrived at our exciting destination – the East Somerset Steam Railway!  Despite being just outside Shepton Mallet, we’ve never actually been there before, but now Samuel is old enough to appreciate it I decided it would be a good use of a bank holiday.

This weekend happened to be a Thomas the Tank Engine special, so the place was packed.  They had three small steam engines fired up, each with a different face on the front, and one of them was even painted to look like Thomas – and unlike some other attempts I’ve seen, this particular model of engine did actually roughly resemble the Thomas of the books!  This was Samuel’s first encounter with steam engines, so I deliberately took it nice and gently.  He wasn’t too keen on being in the carriage to begin with, but he soon settled in and started pointing at things out of the window.  We shared our compartment with an old couple, who seemed to love having Samuel’s attention.

The track is actually only 2.5 miles long, so the journey there and back only took about half an hour.  But that was ideal for Samuel.  We were sat in the rearmost carriage on the way out, but that meant we were at the front going back, so we could hear all the chuffs and whooshes.  And of course it smelt heavenly.  It was wonderful.  I think Samuel may have enjoyed it too, although I was perfectly happy being excited for both of us.

After the train ride we popped back to the car to pick up our lunch, then went back to the station, saw off the next train (Samuel was by now getting the hang of saying “choo-choo”, which was very cute), and found a picnic bench.  We timed it well, because the train came back into the station just as we finished our lunch, so we waved at it again.  Then we wandered round to the engine shed, where there were various engines and wagons in varying states of repair.  There was also a little tank engine on a short bit of track that members of the public could drive – advertised as a “Driver for a Fiver” experience.  Sadly, having Samuel with me meant I couldn’t take up that offer, although to be honest it was such a small stretch of track it would hardly have been worth it anyway.

And after all that, Samuel was exhausted, so we came home.  As it happens, I’m shattered too.  But it’s been a fun day out, full of new experiences for Samuel, meeting shiny old steam engines.

Fly me to the moon. Or Brussels, if that’s closer.

It began with an early start.  Very early.  Just after 3am, in fact.  My boss was picking me up at 3:30am, to drive to Bristol airport, to catch a plane, to fly to Belgium, to catch a taxi to the office, to meet some people and talk about some stuff.  I had a brand spanking new passport, little experience of getting around while abroad, very limited French and non-existent Dutch.  And I felt very much like a very small fish in a very large pond.

Flying brings with it an array of emotions, provided you don’t do it so often that it loses its thrill.  First comes the fear.  Will I get to the airport in time?  Will I be able to check in?  Will they take my luggage?  Will they accept my passport?  Have I booked the ticket for the right day?  Have I remembered my ticket?  Have I remembered my passport?  Will they let me through the scanner things?  Will I be strip-searched?  Will they unpack my bags?  Will they find anything that shouldn’t be there?  Have I got my passport?  Will I look innocent enough for the security people to let me through?  Have I got enough money in the correct currency?  Am I at the right terminal?  How long until boarding?  Where is my flight boarding and how far away is it?  Have I got time to get there?  Have I got time to get a cup of tea first?  Have I still got my passport?  Will they announce my flight?  What happens if they announce my flight while I’m in the toilets?  Will they let me on the plane?  Have I still got my passport?

But having got past all of that, having negotiated the airport security, having found the right place and boarded the right plane, with all luggage intact, still in possession of my passport, sitting in my seat, I can finally relax.  This is my seat.  Right by the window, in fact.

Next comes anticipation.  It being a business trip, and with my boss sat next to me, I tried my best to remain professional, calm, blase about the whole thing.  But inside I was still a child, bouncing up and down in my seat.  There’s the inevitable wait as people take their seats and get comfortable, stowing their hand luggage in far-too-small overhead compartments.  There’s the unimpressive and predictable safety announcement, given via audio recording and a thoroughly unenthusiastic stewardess.  But then, sending a new surge of excitement into the atmosphere, the plane begins to move.  Slowly at first, but the engines are quietly roaring into life.  We taxi around the airport, and all the while I’m looking out of the window, trying in vain to see where we might be going, trying to see how far away the runway is, waiting for the main event to start.  Maybe we stop and start a few times as we wait for traffic.  The air conditioning comes on.  I can feel the cats-eyes as we drive over them.

And then, out of the window on the other side of the plane, I see it.  A runway lit with thousands of bright lights, beckoning and enticing like a funfair.  The plane lines itself up.  The excitement builds as we come to a stop, the pilot waiting for clearance from the tower.  I know it’s coming, I know it is.  The anticipation is killing me, and despite my efforts to remain calm I can feel my pulse racing, my breathing quickening, and I’m smiling as I watch out of the window.  And then it happens.  The engines are set to full with a satisfyingly surprising jolt, and I’m pushed back into my seat, the plane accelerating to impossible speeds in a matter of seconds.  Scenery blurs as it speeds by, ever faster, and I wonder for a moment if we’re going to run out of runway.  But then the nose begins to rise, signalling the ascent is imminent.  As the plane lifts its nose I catch myself briefly panicking that the tail will start scraping along the runway, but no, at the last moment the back wheels break free of the ground too, and we’re rising, rising into the air.  The world falls away impossibly, enormous aeroplanes and buildings shrinking as if the view is being zoomed out, cars and people seeming like tiny models, and all too soon the details are lost, and the world below seems more and more like a distant memory.

And then there are the clouds, which defy everything by looking even more beautiful from above.  Carpets of white hang in the air, as if they should be suspended on wires or held up by poles.   But no, they just sit there, seeming so solid, and yet so fragile.  The sun shines off the glistening tops, highlighting hills and valleys, bubbles and silky plains, all made of cloud.  God’s creation, as seen from above.  And it’s glorious.

Oh, and the business trip was good too.  Just not as good as flying.

That’s not my children’s book

That's not my carMy son Samuel, who is 9 months old, has a book called “That’s not my car”.  Each page has a picture of a car on it, with wording along the lines of “That’s not my car, its windows are too shiny.”  Each car has a different tactile surface somewhere on it, illustrating the point.  The final page rejoices with “That’s my car! It’s bumpers are so squishy.”  Samuel loves it.  In fact it’s such a fantastic concept (stolen, no doubt, from Terry Pratchet’s Thud!) that children’s book shelves are now overflowing with variants on this theme.  That’s not my dinosaur.  That’s not my train.  That’s not my dog.  And so on.

And it got me to thinking – what titles might I have suggested if I had been in the publishing company’s board meeting when they were deciding to extend the range?  Here are a few possibilities, very few of which would have made it to print.

  • That’s not my telephone bill.
  • That’s not my tax return form.
  • That’s not my computer.
  • That’s not my underwear.
  • That’s not my cup of tea.

Overdoing it

I love living in the countryside.  There is warm sense of satisfaction in seeing tractors parked in the Co-op car park, of hearing cows mooing in a nearby field early in the morning, of the pungent smell of fresh manure wafting from the farm down the road, of knowing that rush hour traffic consists of maybe 5 cars.  However, it’s not entirely complete.  There are a few things missing.  The friends we’d made in Colchester.

So this weekend we made the journey to Essex, the car packed with all sorts of bits and pieces, mostly for the baby, to stay a couple of nights with some dear friends of ours who are still in Colchester.  Saturday was indeed the highlight for me.  We saw Phil and Jenny in the morning, we spent the afternoon in Wivenhoe with Phill and Phil and Anne-Marie and Sarah, and watched Doctor Who in the evening.  That in itself would ordinarily be enough, but in honour of this being our first visit to East Anglia with our baby, and having not seen people in yonks, Anne-Marie decided to make the barbecue one to remember for all time.

Like father, like son

I was taking some photos of our son Samuel the other day, and one of them reminded me of a photo I have of me when I was his age.  So I looked it up and compared them, and just couldn’t resist sharing the result with you all.  The attached picture shows me (top) and Samuel (bottom), both in a similar pose.  Can you tell we’re related?

As it happens, my Dad did a similar now-and-then comparison on his vintage bus blog, showing a photo of him as a lad in the driver’s seat of an old bus, and a more recent photo of him in the same position in a similar bus.  Actually, his blog is worth a read, in a geeky sort of way.  If you like old buses.  Or reading about my Dad.

Grab your coat, you’ve pulled

Let me start by reassuring my readers that I have not been cheating on my wife.  I’m talking about pulling of a different kind.

One of the great things about being married is that you also gain a whole new family, and whereas traditionally the in-laws are meant to be evil incarnate I’m pleased to say that I love my additional parents very much.  My father-in-law is one of those sort of people who has everything.  If you need a particular garden tool, he’ll have three.  If you need to rig up some lighting for an amateur drama stage, he’ll have more than enough cabling just lying around waiting to be used.  If it’s raining and you didn’t bring an umbrella, he has nine spares.  It does of course mean that going to visit is a battle of wills – if you even hint at not having something, it’ll have been smuggled into your boot before you’ve left.

And then he offered us a trailer tent.

Lego Build Day 6

18-09-09_1721It’s finished!  Hurrah!!  Well, at least as finished as it can be.  I’ve sort of run out of bricks.  So it’s as finished as it can be given the limited resources with which I am lumbered.  I did have a brief look online to see what Lego was being listed on eBay, but quickly ran away from that idea – I know that once I start buying Lego I’ll never stop, and then I’ll be skint.  Of course, if people want to give/donate Lego to me, that’s another matter…

Anyway, back the point.  My car is complete.  It took a bit of doing, and a bit of redoing of what I’d already done, but the end result is pretty satisfactory.  If you remember from my previous post, the front suspension was already sagging under the weight of the car, so rather than trying to reduce the weight I opted to increase the strength of the suspension to compensate.  17-09-09_1953That meant doubling up the springs, using the ones I’d been using for the rear axle and transplanting them into the front subframe.  Of course, that was easier said than done, and I had to make a few modifications to make room for two springs.  But I got there in the end, and the result is a front suspension setup that is twice as strong as it was – still with plenty of movement, but it feels like it’s actually capable of supporting the car now!