16th February 2007: Conversation with a Pigeon

Actually, you don’t have to fly away when I come into the kitchen. It was me who put out those oat-crumbs you’re eating. I threw them out into the snow earlier, and the last time I came into the kitchen there were four black birds out there eating them and they didn’t look up at me at all. You can come back, OK? OK. Just ignore me while I take the meat out of the fridge and put things on it to marinate.

See, I have all this nice food to eat. I didn’t toss the crumbs there because I want to eat you. I expect that’s all you can imagine — imagine, heck, you’re programmed, instinct, you evolved around people who wanted to eat you, not like moas or dodos or those tree kangaroos in New Guinea that Jared Diamond walked right up to. My ancestors may have eaten your ancestors, or your collateral ancestors who weren’t canny enough to fly away when my ancestors came into the kitchen, but these days I don’t want to eat you. You’re quite fat, probably from eating my crumbs, but in fact I wouldn’t eat you if you came on a plate in mushroom sauce, not a city pigeon. I don’t know where you’ve been. So it’s not a trap, OK? I gave you the crumbs because I can spare them and I like to see you.

Here, since you’re there and I’m going to wash these dishes, you can have some more out of this tupperware.

They’re crumbs, OK? I didn’t buy them specially. People do, I’ve seen wild birdseed in Super C, but I don’t. I started to throw out left over pumpkin seeds (left from when AM was here) in January when it got really cold and anyone that was going to fly away would have gone already. Then I started to give you crumbs, breadcrumbs, pastry crumbs, and the occasional handful of muesli on really cold days. All just leftovers, except the muesli. I don’t like muesli, but it’s perfectly good stuff, people could eat it. I think Tom was the last person to actually eat some of mine, but it’s oats and dried fruit, it’s not going to go off.

I give it to you because — this is complicated, and it’s a disputed theory, but I like it. Jack Cohen says in The Privileged Ape that because human babies take so long to educate, evolution has hard wired humans to feel rewarded by doing things for little cute things, even though it might seem evolutionarily a bad idea for us to take in cats and dogs and feed birds instead of maximizing our own children, it’s actually sensible because we need to teach our children so much, so we’re selected for people who do it. So that’s probably why we like pets, not that I have any, and why I give you the crumbs. I think though that I do it because it’s ever so cold and snowy, and I can spare them. I can afford them. I wouldn’t buy things specially — I wouldn’t buy a cheese and bacon fougasse just to give to you, mmm, a cheese and bacon fougasse from Premier Moisson. But I’m rich enough that the crumbs would be just wasted if you didn’t have them.

My Auntie Doris used to feed the birds outside her kitchen window. She wasn’t rich — the opposite, she didn’t even have an inside toilet. Mind you, she was rich compared to a pigeon I suppose. People are. She used to buy things specially to put out, to attract certain kinds of birds. Not pigeons, I’m afraid, she didn’t much care for pigeons. She liked little birds like bluetits and coaltits and robins and chaffinches. I think the birds were company for her. She lived on her own. She used to have a horrible smelly dog called Rebel, a black spaniel. Emma, my sister, was afraid of him. Then he died, and we were secretly glad. After that she only had the birds. Her sons were grown up and lived away and didn’t come home all that often. Her husband was dead, had been dead for years. I think he died in the War? I should know that. I must have been told. Children take so much for granted. She lived nearby, alone, and from my point of view she always had, because she had all my life, even though that wasn’t a very long baseline.

Evelyn Waugh starts his autobiography talking about his eight great-great-grandfathers. I’d need to do some research to do that. Auntie Marjorie’s Robin is doing some research on our family, I could use his. Not that I’m about to write an autobiography. Waugh is very much in favour of great-aunts. Auntie Doris was my great-aunt, but I don’t think Waugh would have liked her. She wasn’t as tame as his great-aunts, not as middle-class. She could be fierce, and she made odd passionate friendships that people didn’t quite approve of. She was about a thousand years old — no, that’s ridiculous, she can’t have been much more than seventy. Good age for a pigeon, but not all that much for a person. She died when I was eleven or twelve, between Christmas and New Year.

She used to make welshcakes on the griddle. She used to make them in the shape of initials. J was easy, but she always had trouble with E. Bits would fall off. Emma was very forgiving. She used to do that with toffee too, make initials. She made great toffee. I’ve never been good at that. There was a while when I was small when she’d collect us from school and bring her home-made toffee, and we’d walk home through the park and eat the toffee on the toffee-horse. I called it the toffee-horse for years. She used to make toys too, out of bits and scraps. She’d made Emma’s doll, Nicola, which was buried with her. She was a rag doll with a plastic face, Auntie Doris must have bought the face and sewed it on. I saw her face once in a wool shop, just the face, like a nightmare. I was nearly sick.

There was something uncomfortable about Auntie Doris, which is odd, because she was a comfortable shape, short and stout and squat, and she loved children, and animals, and birds. She had very sharp eyes, and she could say things that were sharp too. I don’t think she approved of my grandmother, quite, for class reasons. There was this minute class thing between my grandfather’s family and my grandmother’s that looked huge to them. My grandmother’s family all had indoor toilets. Auntie Doris lived in the house she and my grandfather and all their brothers and sisters had grown up in. She used to tell me stories about my grandfather as a boy.

She had a bath in the kitchen. I used to love having baths in it, by the coal fire — which she used to cook on. She had a gas stove, but it sucked, it really did, it must have been the worst stove in the world, certainly the worst one I’ve ever used. You couldn’t turn it down, if it wasn’t full on, it was off. Gah. I’d probably have preferred to cook on the fire myself, not that I know how, but my grandfather had modernised the house by then and got rid of it. This was after Auntie Doris was dead and he and I were living in that house. He got rid of the bath too, and while it was nice to have a toilet upstairs, I missed the bath in the kitchen. It had a green lid that got piled up with stuff, or you could sit on it and watch the birds upside down eating pieces of bacon pegged up with pegs, or nuts out of feeders hanging on the clothesline.

That was a long time ago. I wonder what thirty years is in pigeon generations? OK, dishes finished, goodbye pigeon, it was nice having this chat with you. Enjoy the crumbs! I’ll probably put some more out in the morning.

Posted in Among Others, Human culture, Whimsy