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.”