Sal and I were sitting in the usual place when a man came by dressed as a pigeon. Not as a bird, mind; just exactly as a pigeon would be dressed if it were human. Grey suit, white shirt, shiny red-brown shoes. Grey top hat, white cravat.
“Would you look at that?” I said to Sal. We were sitting a metre apart, as per the regulations, or I would have nudged him.
Sal looked over his glasses, shook his head, shook his paper, grunted. We watched the fellow walk up and down in front of us, staring at the ground like he’d lost something. The movement, the expression, all of it. He stopped and looked up. Looked me in the eye. No whites at all, just furnaces. Then my breath, flapping away.
Sal cleared his throat.
“Might be a message round his ankle,” he said.
It took a minute, but laughing made the blood move again. I could almost shake the pink inferno.
Satisfied, Sal went back to reading.
The paper was rubbish, nothing in it. I preferred to watch the river. There was no avoiding the news, anyway; it was everywhere. They were building a field hospital in the park behind us. White marquees like a terrible wedding, gas tanks in rows. Real hospitals were overflowing, the count going up and up. From our bench we could hear the sirens going down the avenue. We read about it, then we all heard of someone who had it, then we all knew someone that had died. And then we got tired of talking about it.
Sal and I had been meeting for years. Same bench. Don’t remember how it started, who sat next to whom, but there was an ease in it, an ease in his company from the start. It was like we saw the same joke in everything.
We were there most days, light chat lapsing into comfortable silence. A dog would pass, or a squirrel run up a man’s leg, and that would set us off again. Then the sun would go and one or the other of us would say he had better be off. Always soon, never tomorrow.
When he wasn’t there, I didn’t worry at first; I didn’t always feel like going out either. The next day it was raining. The third I started to wonder. I couldn’t remember if he had mentioned a partner, kids. We never talked about such things. I didn’t even know where he lived.
For weeks I didn’t see him. I bought a copy of his paper from the little kiosk, but it was terrible company. Full of pictures of the hospitals, the funerals. Took your mind off nothing. Not even the football. It was getting thin, except the obituaries.
By then it was a city of missing people. Thousands of them. Names, dates, ages. How would anyone remember them all? They went past like the river. There were a few Salvos on the list now and then but never the right one. I tossed the paper in the bin on the way home, and that day’s names went with it.
I saw pigeons every day, maybe the same birds, walking in haste along the edge of the water. Scattering leaves with their pink feet, searching. But I never saw that young man again. I didn’t see Sal either.
“Might be a message,” he’d said. The last thing. It got me thinking. His name wasn’t in the papers. What if nobody missed him?
I’d seen those benches before and thought it was sentimental. But maybe it was all right, a place for a name to stay in the world even if no one remembered the man it belonged to. I didn’t know how it worked so I went onto the internet, but it looked like I would have to call the local council offices, and get permission, and pay; it could take months, all up. So I decided just to go ahead. The local cops wouldn’t mind; they were too busy fining people without masks and breaking up picnics. I had brass screws at home, a screwdriver. I came with a little ruler and a notebook, took the measurements. I scratched a line in the notebook over and over, making different forms from the same material: In memory of Sal, a friend. Dedicated to the life of my friend, Salvo. Hard to decide which way to say it.
The weather got warmer again, in fits and starts. The field hospital was closing, the fences were coming down. The papers were talking about a vaccine. Young people were starting to strut and coo again, but the rest of us walked around with our faces covered, keeping our distance. Watching that empty space between our feet.
I had the little plaque made up in the hardware and put the screws and screwdriver in my pocket. I chose a sunny day, the first proper feeling of spring. I was happier, you know; I thought I’d found something. I was nearly at the bench when I looked up and saw Sal sitting there like nothing had happened.
You bastard, I thought.
I quickly hid the little plaque behind my back.
“Where the hell have you been?” I asked.
He didn’t hear me. I got closer, stepping just inside the regulation distance. His paper was folded on the bench beside him. Pigeons wandered round his feet, on pigeon business.
“You’re okay,” I said, more gently.
No response. His glasses were fogged above the mask. Maybe he’d had it, and got better. Maybe he was still unwell. I stepped back a little, raised a hand and waved it around a bit.
He bent forward, head in his hands. He might have been laughing. There was something shiny stuck to the bench behind him. I leaned in, closer than you’re supposed to. He didn’t flinch.
It took a minute to understand it. There was a name, but no message. There had never been a message. There was only the pink flame, the movement of wings inside me. No breath at all.
I took my seat.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Pigeon".
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