Uncle Bert’s Pigeons
Arthur sat in his armchair by the French windows that overlooked the garden and watched the birds flocking and flapping around the bird table. Tiny sparrows splashed in the bird bath. A brightly coloured goldfinch clung to a feeder hanging from a dew-soaked holly bush. Early morning was the best time of day; carers were busy, getting residents out of bed, washing and dressing them, preparing breakfast, and there was nobody to scatter Arthur’s thoughts and send them flying like his feathered friends.
In the far corner was the fattest pigeon he had ever seen. It reminded him of his Uncle Bert, with its head cocked on one side, its chest thrust out, bobbing and weaving across the crazy paving. Fat old Uncle Bert kept racing pigeons and loved them as if they were his children, but he happily ate Mother’s pigeon pie. You wouldn’t get pigeon pie these days, Arthur thought.
During the war, Arthur and his mother lived with Uncle Bert, her older brother and only living relative. Arthur’s father was a soldier. He tried to picture his face, his bristly moustache and hairy nose but he was just a faded photograph. Uncle Bert, on the other hand, was as real to him as the pigeon, a cheery chap, always joking and eating. While everyone else lost weight, Bert joked his way through their rations. Nobody seemed to notice. Bert would pop next door to the neighbours for a chat and a cup of tea and leave with crumbs and gravy down his waistcoat, his paunch straining the buttons. While Arthur went to bed with a rumble in his stomach, Uncle Bert sat by the wireless, gobbling down whatever was left in the pantry.
Uncle Bert’s pigeon loft took up most of his back yard. The pigeons were named and had numbered rings carefully placed on their legs. The loft was cleaned daily and the birds were fed with the best quality grains, no matter the cost. Bert not only bred racers but also carriers for the Signal Corp; they were his pride and joy. Throughout the war, Arthur’s job was to scrape guano from the loft and collect it in hessian sacks. The old men down at the local allotments used it as fertiliser and he would exchange it for boxes of vegetables to complement the pigeon and rabbit in Mother’s pies and stews.
The fat pigeon sat under the bird table, eying the scattered seeds before dipping its beak and picking at them one by one. It looked like a racer and Arthur strained to spot a ring on its leg. It was fatter than most of the pigeons that visited the garden and, sure enough, it was banded. Arthur would have liked to get a closer look, but his useless pins wouldn’t allow it. No need for a ring on him.
When Arthur was ten, most of his friends were evacuated from London. He was one of the few in the neighbourhood who stayed behind. Uncle Bert needed his nephew’s help to breed and train the carrier pigeons, and Arthur became quite the expert. He loved the squabs, which fed from his hand and came when he called, a gentle coo in the back of his throat. He learned to spit on the band, which made it easier to slip on the right leg so that you could read it while holding the bird. Uncle Bert’s pigeons were famous all over South London but they were not for eating.
The lounge door opened with a creak and a blonde young carer chirped: ‘Cup of tea, Arthur?’ This was part of the morning routine. He always had his tea in the lounge before the other residents arrived. Then one of the carers would help him into a wheelchair and push him down the corridor to the dining room for breakfast with Edna and Brian, a married couple who recommended the care home. Brian was an old school friend of Arthur’s; he was evacuated during the war and, being older, started his national service almost a year before Arthur. They came to blows over Edna. Arthur met her at the local dance hall and planned to marry her when his national service was over, but Brian got there first. Despite the rivalry between them, they remained close and nobody was surprised when Arthur joined them at Rowan Court.
Sipping tea from his ‘crazy bird man’ pigeon fanciers’ mug, a present from Brian and Edna to welcome him to the home, he watched as the portly pigeon was joined by another. They flew onto the fence and warbled at each other. They reminded him of the old men who dug the allotments, leaning on their spades, passing the time of day, discussing news of the war and the best time to plant carrots. That’s how his early morning rising began and he never grew out of it.
Uncle Bert was not an early riser. Arthur’s mother called him a lazy git and he lived up to the title. More often than not, Arthur had cleaned and fed the pigeons, delivered the guano to the allotments and arrived home with fresh vegetables, and sometimes eggs, before Bert had dragged himself out of his pit. It didn’t bother Arthur; he looked up to Bert. Only his mother was allowed to criticise him. Anyone else would feel the sting of Arthur’s wrath.
It happened at the end of the war, just as soldiers were returning and rations got even scarcer. As usual, Arthur got up early, saw to the pigeons and set off for the allotments with a sack of guano in each hand. As he trotted up the road, he whistled a medley of his favourite songs. Mother loved the wireless and sang along to Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn, with Arthur whistling the accompaniment. He worked up to a good pace and before long he was standing on the low wall, looking over the allotments.
It was summer. Arthur handed over the sacks, rolled up his sleeves, picked as many peas and beans as he could, and dropped them into paper bags, which he placed in a wooden box that already contained potatoes, carrots and lettuce as payment for the pigeon droppings – a fair exchange. He was delighted when the old fellows invited him back after dinner to pick soft fruit: raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants. His mother was keen on summer puddings, and so were Arthur and Uncle Bert.
He ran all the way home, holding the wooden box tightly against his chest. He felt the root vegetables bouncing off his ribs and hoped that the lettuce wouldn’t get too bruised. Arthur entered the backyard and his jaw dropped. The door to the pigeon loft was ajar and feathers littered the floor. His first thought was that a fox had got in, but he was sure he had shut and bolted the door and there wasn’t a drop of blood to be seen.
Arthur dropped the box of veg, pulled hard on the door handle and burst into the kitchen. His mother was making a pot of tea. She was wearing her dressing gown, her head was covered in curlers and she held a cigarette between her fingers.
‘What on earth is the matter, Arthur?’ she said, smoke billowing from her lips.
The words stuck in Arthur’s throat. He barged past Mother and raced up the stairs. He could hear his Uncle Bert’s thundering snores from behind the closed bedroom door. He didn’t knock, there wasn’t time for that.
‘Pigeons,’ he said. ‘Gone. Door open –‘
Bert shot up, mountainous under the bed clothes, his jowls wobbling.
‘What do you mean, gone? Did you forget to close the door?’
Arthur shook his head.
‘Well, they’re homing pigeons. They’ll come back,’ said Uncle Bert, turning his back on Arthur and settling back down into the warmth of his bed.
Arthur wasn’t so sure they’d come back. Neither was Bert when the pigeons were still missing after a week. They put up notices and contacted local pigeon fanciers. Uncle Bert alerted the regulars in local pubs that were still open. Arthur left word down at the allotment – they would miss the guano.
After another week, Uncle Bert was beside himself. So was Arthur. They had bred those pigeons themselves; they knew all their names and markings. They sat down together and planned how to replace them, if they didn’t return. Pigeon breeders all over London heard about the missing birds and offered squabs and breeding pigeons of their own.
Mother suggested that Arthur should help out more at the allotments, just until they got the loft back the way it was. She needed the vegetables. Arthur was happy to oblige and set off early every day to dig, weed and pick his way through whatever was growing. He missed the pigeons but enjoyed the fresh air and company. To celebrate his new job, Arthur’s mother planned a special dinner. Arthur brought home a marrow, some leeks, potatoes and carrots and Mother made a pie.
At the dinner table, Arthur sat opposite Uncle Bert, who had tucked an old tea towel into his collar to catch drips of gravy. A meaty aroma wafted in from the kitchen.
‘I’m starving,’ Bert pronounced.
Mother brought in two steaming plates piled high with vegetables and a golden pie crust filled with meat and rich, dark gravy. You couldn’t hear the big band on the wireless over the clutter of knives and forks on plates, and the sound of crunching and chewing.
So when Uncle Bert threw down his knife and fork and pulled a face, Arthur and his mother stopped eating too.
‘What’s wrong?’ Mother asked.
Bert raised a hand to his lips and pushed out something with his tongue. It was a piece of tooth.
‘I must have bitten on something hard,’ he said. ‘Did you check that the rabbit was properly boned?’
‘It’s not rabbit,’ replied Mother.
Bert felt around his mouth with his tongue and spat something else into his hand.
‘It’s pigeon,’ said Mother. ‘A man was selling them down the market.’
Uncle Bert opened his hand, and he and Arthur stared at the little ring that lay in his palm.
They never did replenish the pigeon loft. It stood empty until the council condemned it and they had to knock it down.
Arthur watched the plump pigeons preening and cooing at each other on the fence. He remembered the day he dropped off Uncle Bert at the hospital. He was stick thin; his paunch had gone, his eyes were sunken and his fingers waved like spider legs, picking an invisible band from between his lips.
‘Come on Arthur,’ said a voice. ‘Let’s wheel you down to the dining room for breakfast.’
© Kim M. Russell, 2015