Postcard from a pigeon was the first story I wrote for the 2012 collection of short stories that is Postcard from a Pigeon and other stories. So, without further ado, oh, I do need to say this is by way of introduction, because this is what I do, write short stories (among other things, like photographs and poems)and here’s the one that inspired the title of a book and this WordPress Blog site, Postcard from a Pigeon, the musings of Dermott Hayes, a writer(comments, welcome and requested)
As the story went, Paddy was a local pigeon. Anyone could tell that from his general demeanour. He was scrawny and mottled. He had a shifty look about him and never seemed at ease when he was still. But he could strut with the best of them and was a regular on the steps of the pub when the chef tossed scraps in the morning.
It was down the same lane beside the pub where Tito first made his acquaintance. Poor Paddy took a tumble or was in a rumble with a scavenging crow. When times were lean the survival war continued, bird against bird, claw to claw, beak to beak, an eye for an eye.
Paddy’s wing was broken and he lay on the ground amid the fallen autumn leaves, discarded Tayto bags and used condoms. Flightless, he was a sitting target for every predator, winged or not. He would scrabble and peck but his days, if that’s how they counted time, were numbered.
Tito kneeled and spoke to him. He made pigeon sounds. He cooed and billed and murmured softly. Paddy squinted at him ferociously, scrabbling frantically if Tito moved. He kept his beak wide open but never made a sound.
Half the pub turned out for Paddy’s departure. It was like an American wake and the denizens of Bruxelles were seeing off a member of the family. Pigeon stories abounded.
Paddy blinked when he first came into the sunlight. Tito lifted him gently to his face, speaking softly to the bird. When he unwrapped the cloth and let him go there was a flurry of feathers as Paddy struggled to keep himself aloft, testing his wings for faults and strength. Then he flew away.
He flew to the top of the nearest building, a municipal edifice opposite the pub. There, he paused, perching on the paint peeling gutter, staring at Tito below. Then he flapped his wings and flew away.
Tito slumped. Everyone in the bar watched the drama unfold through the side window. When Tito came back to the bar, everyone was in their seats. Not a word was said.
Tito was like any other refugee or asylum seeker whose numbers had swollen in this city in the last years of the last century. And he was unlike them too.
He could speak several languages with ease which was why the rumour started about his command of ‘pigeon’.
He was Albanian though he spoke Italian fluently and carried an Italian passport of dubious provenance. He could converse with ease and facility in English, French and German and his Spanish went much further than ‘dos cervesas, por favor.’
If there was a language problem to be solved, Tito was your man and his services were engaged on a regular basis, to negotiate between the growing population of Central European workers from Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Albania and Romania and their Irish employers.
Occasionally, as he sat in the bar on a Thursday afternoon waiting with everyone else for their pay packets, Tito’s humour would change from the breezy sparkle that saw him through years of hard knocks and strife, to a morose and brooding sulk. He would drink more than his customary pint of Guinness and snarl and snipe at his co-workers, foreign and Irish.
Sometimes he shunned their company and in a show of defiant bravado, he’d lavish charm on the nearest pretty female customer. Other times he sat quiet and brooded, joining the afternoon pub talk only with monosyllabic and barbed asides.
Once or twice, if the numbers at the bar were less, he would open up and allow a brief and all too oblique glimpse at his past. There was an overbearing father, a protective but timid mother and brothers whose high and consistent academic achievements paved the way for their younger sibling’s wandering.
His travels, he confided once in a rare unguarded moment, had brought him to a succession of European capitals, menial service industry McJobs and in and out of love and trouble in equal doses. He honed his wits in a hostile world with a sharp wit and natural intelligence. An easy facility with languages helped his passage.
There was talk of a Croatian girlfriend who fled with her family to Dublin from a holding camp outside London. Tito, some people who claimed to know him said, was by then working and living in Islington. He packed in his job, they claimed, to follow her.
Some people thought he was a deserter and perhaps even Bosnian. There was even a whisper of his involvement with smugglers and the tough and ruthless Albanian underground. There were as many rumours as Tito had tall tales.
His friends, apart from those he worked with, rarely visited him in the bar. When they did they were a rum lot, possessed of a greater self assurance than their compatriots.
Loving the mischief he could cause, Tito played up to the legend and fuelled the rumours. It was only on very rare occasions people got a glimmer of light through the fog.
Talk in the bar had it that Tito’s girlfriend was in the advanced stage of a pregnancy. There was speculation that this was why she and her family, devout Christians of the Orthodox Church persuasion, had fled London. Tito, an avowed atheist by his own protestations, was from a Muslim family.
The girl, housed by the Social Welfare in a budget hostel in the Liberties, refused to see Tito. This much, at least, was known for sure. Tito said as much himself one day when he turned up late to pick up his wages. He had just come from a public confrontation with her at the hostel where she lived.
This was confirmed by Viktor, a Bosnian who lived in the same building as Tito’s ex-girlfriend, but his version was far more graphic than Tito’s ‘public confrontation.’
“He went mad,” Viktor, a kitchen porter, recounted later to everyone on ‘cowboys corner’, the part of the bar unofficially reserved for regulars, ” he shouted and banged on the doors. He wouldn’t go away when they asked him. Then they said they would get the police but he stayed and shouted and kicked the door.”
Everyone in the bar that evening, Irish and foreign, listened intently. “He is bloody mad, bloody foreigner,” Sergio, the florid Sicilian owner of the Pizza parlour announced with great indignation and with no hint of irony. His extreme views, like his pizzas, were well known, if not as highly regarded.
Jimmy stood up for Tito, whom he considered a friend. “That’s not fair, now, you don’t know the whole story,” he said. Tito and Jimmy had a strong bond. Jimmy had taken Tito under his wing and Tito, in return, adopted Jimmy, teaching him Slavic slang phrases he could use to trade curses with the bejewelled Romany beggars or berate his small army of casual lounge labour.
Molly felt strongly for the boy too, a mother of four from the Liberties with a flower stall on the corner. Her sons and daughters, two strapping pairs of each and their father, Bert, a man aged before his time, gawped in awe of her. “The young fella’s missing his family and he wants to be there when his child is born. It’s understandin’ he needs, not the back of her hand,” she tutted.
And on top of all the travails already heaped on his head, his pigeon was gone. Tito nursed the bird back to health on a bed of old glass cloths in a shoebox hidden in the cellar, feeding it every day with meal mushed with milk and water squeezed through an old sock.
For two days a palpable gloom descended on the pub. Regulars found excuses to go elsewhere and the crowd at lunch was smaller than usual. On the second day only Jimmy and Sergio stood at cowboys’ corner.
“Whattahella is the matter with everyone?” Sergio asked no-one in particular, “issa likea funeral in here.” Jimmy stared into his Guinness, his fifth of the day. It was just five pm.
“It’s Tito,” Jimmy barked hoarsely as he lit another Sweet Afton, “he’s depressed about de burd.”
“He’s berd?” Sergio scoffed aloud, “they’re likea rabbits, justa leeving and breeding. He’s a better off withouta her from what I hear and he’ll soon find another to takea her place.”
“No, Jaysus, I meant his burd, Paddy…” interrupted Jimmy.
“He’s a queer as well? That’s all we need,” continued Sergio.
“Paddy the pigeon, ye fuckin’ eedgit, the burd with the broken wing he saved,” corrected Jimmy.
“Oh?” said Sergio, having missed the bird saga while on a visit to his own homeland.
Ignorance never stopped Sergio from expressing a forthright opinion on everything from sport to abortion but now there was a bird loving Albanian to consider.
Jimmy filled him in as best he could, relating the story of the hapless pigeon rescued, harboured and nursed to health by the volatile Tito. Sergio had returned from his holiday on the day Tito had his confrontation and he scoffed derisively when told of the pervading depression that followed the bird’s departure.
But it was clear, even to him, the pub and its denizens had assumed a pallor of unspoken grief and loss. Something needed to be done.
This was where I came into the story. Being an occasional visitor to this city hostelry as much for the irreverent ribaldry of its denizens as its excellent ‘pub grub’, I was a familiar, if irregular, presence.
In this cosmopolitan pub populated by human refugees, I was just another face with a pint. Everyone knew what I did for a living and no-one cared or bothered.
That evening as I took up my customary perch at the bar on cowboys’ corner, Jimmy began his approach. “Tito’s good buddy has gone, he’s flown the coop,” he began. Somewhat cryptically, I thought, though I knew the vague bones of the Tito and the pigeon story.
“He has more than the bird to worry about,” I volunteered, being one of the people with whom Tito occasionally engaged in conversation. Sergio, standing on Jimmy’s other side, looked up from his Racing Post.
Jimmy continued, “We need to do something and you’re the man for the job,” he growled in his best 40 a day worn voice, “we want you to write him a letter.”
“From Paddy…the pigeon,” he continued, ignoring my question, “he’d feel better if he knew the pigeon was safe and happy…”
“He might snap out of this depression if he got a letter from the pigeon,” he continued, “and we thought (his hand swept the company, two waiters, three kitchen porters, a university lecturer, a newspaper vendor, two policemen and a Sicilian restaurateur) you’re the very man for the job.”
“You want me to write him a letter from a pigeon?,” I spluttered, “Have you lost your marbles? Are you taking the piss?”
“No, no…if he got a letter from Paddy it might cheer him up. He has enough troubles but he’s been very down since the bird left.” Sergio’s confusion deepened. The company watched with interest and anticipation.
I thought about it. “Let me think about it,” I said and returned to my evening paper and freshly poured pint. Sergio asked to see the racing pages. There was an evening meeting in Clonmel and he fancied a leisurely beer fuelled flutter. There was a murmur of agreement and the talk turned to horses.
I pondered the bird conundrum.
Paddy the pigeon was gone, of that there was no doubt. His departure left behind a downcast Albanian and a depressed pub. Sergio left to make the bookies before the 6.30 race.
An idea occurred to me. Although the situation was patently absurd so, without saying as much, was anything that was said or happened in the pub. That was its charm and they were all willing contributors.
So here’s what I did. I thought of the Pigeon House, a city port landmark, that like many features of the city, were ascribed an identity of their own out of familiarity than with any relationship to their origin. So a statue of ‘Molly Malone’ became ‘the tart with the cart’ and another of two ladies resting on a bench with their shopping, ‘the hags with the bags.’ Buses and city maps referred to the south port location as ‘the Pigeon House’ when it was, in fact, named after John Pidgeon, who cashed in, cannily, on his role caretaker by setting up a cafe, selling refreshments to boat passengers arriving from England and Europe.
First I thought I’d get a postcard of the Dublin port landmark and then dismissed the idea as patronising and obvious. A postcard of Bruxelles would do. It would save me a walk in the rain too.
“Dear Tito,” I wrote, “How’s it going? I’m back with me mates down the Pigeon House and I have you to thank for it. The lads here are great crack and the wing has come on so much, the pain has gone. I’ll never forget your kindness to me nor the taste of that bleedin’ sock. Take care of yourself, I have to fly. All my love, Paddy the Pigeon.”
Although I was unsure if the facetiousness of the final sentence might shatter the carefully constructed veneer of absurdity, Jimmy was very pleased with my effort and told me, stashing it carefully in the pocket of his jacket, he would pass it on to Tito when he saw him.
The following day Tito was like a new man. He strutted and preened about the pub, joking and laughing in a Babel of languages. To everyone who would listen he showed the postcard, brandishing it with pride and a hint of whimsy.
As the evening progressed and as these things go when drink and sentiment are mixed, there were tears in their beer and a plaintive note in the songs.
Occasionally, brandishing the pigeon postcard, Tito read it in bleary silence and sniggered as though, locked within its banal sentiment, he found a secret only he could see.
Curiously, that was the last we ever saw of Tito in Bruxelles. He disappeared without trace, allowing full range for speculation and fantastical rumour. He was deported, some said. Others said he followed the girl back to London.
After that, life got back to its daily routine. Tito and the pigeon became memories until one day, almost a month since his departure,Viktor, Sergio’s kitchen porter, approached him with a curious tale. Tito was dead, he said, shot down, in mysterious circumstances, in a Sarajevan back street.
The location added further to the mystery that was Tito, a nameless Albanian nomad shot dead in a Bosnian alley.
‘Jaysus, he was some boyo,’ Jimmy observed. ‘There was something very dodgy about ‘im,’ said another. ‘Fuck heem,’ Sergio barked, ‘he was no fuckin’ good. We’re better off without heem.’
Listening, I doubted it was Tito. ‘What makes you think it was Tito if the dead man had no name?’ I asked.
Viktor, relishing his moment of drama, produced a carefully folded and frayed newspaper cutting from his wallet and laid it on the counter in front of us.
The story, he explained, speculated the death was connected to a black market smuggling operation.
He faced a wall of blank, questioning stares.
‘’Eets in the hedline,’ explained Viktor holding the clipping aloft with a dramatic flourish, and translating, ‘PIGEON POSTCARD MURDER CLUE.’