Pigeons in a time of famine
The world was a grey place once, concrete grey and striped with grey. Grey
was the sky, and grey the pavements too: slate and clay; slate and clay. The
pigeons all stretched out their scrawny lives and lived, as creatures must.
And in that colourless spectrum, between the puddles and chip-papers, they
would hop and hunch inside their feathers as the air grew dark or light
again. Before the dawn came, the Anglia Square would be a ghetto of pigeons,
between the glassy shopfaces, half out of the wind.
Before dawn there were only pigeons to mourn the city, to pity the cold
mechanical horse that bobbed forth-and-back all day when a pound was dropped
through its coin slot. Before the dawn came, even its red and blue paint
seemed grey; if it could only move for its self, or stop when exhausted, the
pigeons might not have felt so sad for it.
It was a terrible thing to be a pigeon in those days, to spread one's ashen
wings and swirl above the shoppers, the black coats and mousy hair; umbrellas
fighting with the wind or furled and dripping. It was a tragic life, to
scrounge at the corners of the city and feed oneās children on pickings and
Yet the pigeons were not hateful birds. They wore their poverty like
overcoats; they sat upon the highest places and drizzled the whole world with
their compassion. Their souls were dignified as tarnished spoons; pigeons
bore witness to the sadness and the tearing of the wind.
Every night they prayed. The god of pigeons was a bent old woman with a scarf
on her head, though nobody had fed the pigeons in living memory. The god of
pigeons was kindly like a hot-air vent. She was patient and grey, but bore
her greyness calmly for it was the curse of all things living.
The pigeons kept the image of their god beneath the mechanical horse,
crumpled and smudged from the damp. They rarely pulled her out, in case she
ripped from pulling; they knew she was there and that was enough. She was an
illustration on an old religious tract, perched all over with birds,
crosshatched with creases and printerās ink. The words around her meant
nothing, of course, for pigeons did not study them; the pigeons read the
writing of paving slabs instead, and the lines of spikes along the
Poundstretcher sign. But the picture was their most beloved thing; the god of
pigeons warmed their poor grey hearts.
Sunrise lifted the sky as the pigeons prayed, and they softened the morning
with their cooing as the light came. And though they did not gaze at her
face, the pigeons held the icon of the bent old woman in their great
The shops opened all at once and the people came after, to cross and cross
the Square, to make the horse nod in arcs as children clung against its
fibreglass bridle. It rained for a time, and the rain turned icy, and then
for a time it didnāt rain; a small girl tripped and fell against the ground.
The bleed of red against her shin made the pigeons shake their wings and cry.
The Square unfilled with people and the sky turned empty; in an hour more the
lights in the shops all stuttered out; alarms were set; doors were locked.
There were only pigeons then, until a knot of kids came to swagger and swear;
to hug their ribs and perch on the metal benches. They tried to prise the
money from the mechanical horse but found they couldn't, so they shared a fag
between them and laughed and kicked their shoes, and the look in their eyes
was just as grey as can be.
Then one flicked the flint on his lighter, made a little flame leap for one
bright moment. The pigeons gasped. His mate pushed at his arm and they shoved
each other, bickering, baring their teeth. And suddenly, there was a crisp
packet in the mate's hand, burning and melting away in clots, and he threw it
at the bin with a squawk of delight. It took the boys a while to get the
whole bin alight, for the litter was soggy and could hardly be coaxed to
burn; but suddenly there was a fire, lazy and gorgeous, licking at the
rubbish. Then they looked nervously at one another, and laughed away from the
Square with their shoulders slouched, as casually as they dared.
It is a fact that the opposite of pigeons is fire; the opposite of all that
ashen life is fire. Fire is all brightness, all rage, a bellow of joy that is
gone in a moment. Fire is the
blood of the world. The pigeons all shuddered and gaped, and they cooed for
ecstasy and fear. And they gathered by the ragged dozen and stared; the
pigeons of Anglia Square wondered at this strange pain, this leaping orange
The bin was not very full, and made of metal that would not melt, however
hard the pigeons wished; in a little while the flames sank deep inside. The
pigeons were possessed by grief at the losing of it; they found themselves
flapping to every corner and ledge, picking out tatters of paper, a flattened
latte cup. The pigeons gathered small things as though their existence
depended on that fire, and with them they fed the flames, begged as only
pigeons might that the light and hurting should last a little longer.
So the flames ate up all the stuff to burn in the whole of Anglia Square;
there was not very much. All the while the fire grew less and less, and the
pigeons gathered closer in.
In all their dusty heads were thoughts of the god of pigeons, folded and thin
in her hiding place beneath the mechanical horse. She might burn for a
moment, hold the night away for a second or two. But they made no move to
prise her out, for pigeons are wise creatures; so they filled the Square with
their gentle voices as the night grew cold.
Broken things and broken people: a woman becomes a gas explosion; a kitchen
knife crawls after a little girl to keep her safe; and an old lady hears her
mother calling from a cupboard.
Broken Things is a collection of
short fiction by Padrika Tarrant.
It will be released in September 2007 by SALT Publishing. Full details at