The Pigeon has Landed
Foreword: All chapters of Pigeon on the Wing published on this website are in draft form only. The final version may include grammatical, syntax and content changes, as well as sidebars and illustrations to maintain a level of interest and to stop readers’ eyes from glazing over. All comments and / or criticisms of content or writing style would be most welcome. Masterpieces like this don’t just write themselves, you know.
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Pigeon on the Wing – Chapter 4 – The Pigeon has Landed
As the door was locked behind me, I looked around. There was no other person in the cell at that moment, but there were all the tell-tale signs of current occupation. On one side of the cell were two hard plastic bunk beds, affixed to the cell wall. The lower of the two bunk beds contained a dark blue mattress, a sheet, a pillow and a duvet, although the bed appeared unmade, with a hard-cover book lying face-down on it.
There was a door-less cupboard affixed to the opposite side of the cell that contained several shelves with a handful of toiletries including shampoo and toothpaste scattered on one of the hard plastic surfaces. On the top shelf were some tea-bags and several small cartons of milk. A pile of clothes occupied one of the other shelves and a pencil and some scribbled notes lay on the desk next to the cupboard.
Also on the desk was a computer screen and keyboard, with some wires leading to a locked box secured to the wall underneath the desk. There was also a hard plastic chair and a free-standing plastic wastebasket underneath the desk. It wasn’t exactly top-of-the-range furniture from IKEA, but it was functional and presumably likely to survive with minimal damage any sustained and frenzied assault from residents who might become annoyed from time to time.
The cell also contained an “en-suite” facility. A concrete partition in one corner partially enclosed a space containing a shower, toilet and hand-basin. I was impressed. It could be said that I am easily impressed, but years of watching prison dramas and documentaries on TV had left me with the impression that the undignified practice of “slopping out” was still the preferred method for keeping one’s cell relatively uncontaminated, even in modern prisons, so this was a welcome surprise. Although any privacy one might have wished for was negated by the angle of the partition affording a clear view into the en-suite from the observation hatch set into the door. I could see that this might take some getting used to.
There was also a window, set into the far wall of the cell. It was barred (no surprises there) and the glass seemed to be at least half an inch thick. I looked out of the window into the early evening gloom and saw a heavy-duty mesh fence, topped with razor wire, security lights and cameras, running parallel with and about ten metres away from the outside wall of the cell. Beyond that was a tarmac strip wide enough for two lanes of traffic, another heavy-duty mesh fence, and then there was a perimeter wall some ten metres beyond that.
I could see that the Birdman of HMP Thameside was likely to have his work cut out in trying to get past that lot.
From what I could see, this was a two-person cell, and given that the bottom bunk was in use, it seemed to be a reasonable assumption that the top bunk would be allocated to me. Having only just arrived, I didn’t want to cause any offence. I had no idea about cell etiquette, apart from the stories I had heard and read about cellmates being violently set upon and beaten for minor infringements such as inadvertently taking the wrong bunk, or accidentally using someone else’s toothpaste or deodorant.
On that thought, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t been issued with any toiletries of my own, apart from my own comb and nail clippers, and I wondered if perhaps this was a devilish prank by the prison officers to get my cellmate and I to fight to the death over a tube of Colgate’s finest. No doubt they were taking bets on the outcome at that very moment.
I climbed gingerly up to the top bunk – via a steep set of hard plastic steps – and sat down on the dark blue plastic mattress. That way, I thought, if my cellmate should unexpectedly enter at this moment and instantly fly into a rage, perhaps because of an earlier intention to switch bunks that very evening, I would at least have the advantage of height from which to fight him off.
I unpacked my kitbag containing the sheets, pillows, pillowcases and duvet, and set about making at least some semblance of a bed. The first thing I noticed was that the mattress was very hard. In fact, it was extremely hard. On a scale of mattress-related hardness, I put it at somewhere between the level that starts to induce serious discomfort in those of a sensitive disposition, and the level that one might feel when faced with the prospect of bedding down on a set of cobblestones for the night after having been thrown out of the house for coming home drunk at three in the morning.
Still, there was nothing else for it, and I stretched out on the mattress with my head on the pillow, and began to study the ceiling over my bunk bed.
The ceiling was about eighteen inches above my bunk bed, and was covered in elaborate graffiti. It wasn’t exactly on a par with Michelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel, but after a few moments I could make out messages to the effect that “Jesus Saves”, “The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands” and “Arsenal are a Bunch of Self-Abusing Onanists.” OK, I might have been paraphrasing with that last one, but the messages appeared to offer some insight into the mindset of previous residents. Religion and football featured strongly, and there were two or three anatomically correct drawings of the female form, complete with detailed explanatory wording which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medical lecture or a student gynaecologist’s notebook.
As I reflected upon the extent of this wondrous variety of artwork inscribed on the ceiling, the observation hatch slid open briefly and the face of a prison officer appeared. He scanned the interior of the cell briefly, and then unlocked the door. A man dressed in prison greens walked in, carrying a plastic bag of what looked very much like toiletries. This turned out to be my new cell-mate. He proffered the bag up to me with a wide smile.
“Hello,” he said, with a thick Nigerian accent. “I think these might be for you. They should have given them to you earlier, but you know what they’re like.”
At this point of course, I didn’t actually know what “they” were like at all, or even who “they” were, but not wanting to appear ungrateful, I took the bag with my left hand, extended my right hand and said “Thanks. By the way, I’m Tim.”
“No worries,” he said, shaking my hand. “My name is” – and here he gave a name that to me was completely unpronounceable, but obviously sensing my consternation, he said “But you can call me John.”
The prison officer placed two cardboard cartons – similar in size and shape to McDonald’s food boxes – on the top of the cupboard. “You missed dinnertime,” he said to me, “but we didn’t want you to starve.” An aroma of roasted chicken and chips filled the cell. I hadn’t realised that I was so hungry. Throwing caution to the wind, and completely forgetting about my defensive tactics in the face of a possibly deranged cell-mate, I clambered down from the top bunk to investigate. The prison officer left, and once again the door was locked.
It was indeed roast chicken and chips, complimented by a sizeable portion of baked beans, together with an apple and a carton of fruit juice. There was a plastic knife and fork in my bag of toiletries – and once again it was impressed upon me that I had to take care of them, because no others would be forthcoming in the event of my losing them, even in the event of encountering a freak cutlery-annihilation-related accident. I ate standing up, using the top of the cupboard as a table, as John was by now seated at the desk on the only chair in the cell, and I didn’t want to inconvenience him. He was reading through the scribbles on the sheet of paper I had seen on the desk when I first walked in.
He glanced up at me. “We’ll have to find you another chair,” he said. “I am just trying to write this letter to my brother. He has no idea I am in here. I expect he thinks I have just gone down to the shop for some cigarettes. I didn’t tell him I was going to court. I thought I would be back home by now.”
You and me both, I thought.
It transpired that John had been sentenced earlier that day as well, but at a different court. He had been sentenced for stealing bicycles. Not just one or two, but dozens of them. And not just the type of bicycle that your maiden aunt would have ridden to church on a Sunday morning with a wicker basket on the front, but top-of-the-range titanium and carbon-fibre framed bicycles with Shimano hydraulic disc brakes and Vittoria Rubino Pro tyres, worth around £3000 each.
What John didn’t know about titanium and carbon-framed bicycles wasn’t worth knowing, as I was to find out over time. It turned out that yuppies in the areas around the City of London and Canary Wharf would flock to work on these state-of-the-art machines and leave them locked up with chains and padlocks that had a surprising array of weaknesses. A vast criminal network had grown up around the combination of irresistible goodies and inadequate security, and John had seen his opportunity.
Unfortunately the City of London Police were not stupid, and had set up a sting operation, leaving an unattended Boardman Elite SLR bicycle just where John might see it. He was caught red-handed cycling away from the scene by a team of undercover officers, and just as he thought he had got away from the hue and cry of the pursuit, a burly policeman about 7 feet tall and with biceps the size of Bournemouth stepped out in front of him, stopped him in his tracks by grabbing the handlebars in a vice-like grip, and uttered the immortal words – “You’re nicked, sunshine.”
John had refused to give up the names of anyone else involved in the network, and as it wasn’t his first offence, he had been sentenced to two years imprisonment.
“So,” said John, “what are you in for?”
I had known this question was coming, and so I had tried to prepare myself for it. I was a little reluctant to disclose the real reason behind my arriving at HMP Thameside, and whilst I knew that the prison staff would have access to my records, I had to trust that data protection laws applied and that details of my conviction would not be inappropriately divulged.
I was apprehensive for a number of reasons – one reason was that I knew that certain offences are looked on as being more objectionable than others, such as offences against women and children – and while that wasn’t specifically the case with me, if it were to come out that I had been sentenced for Religiously Aggravated Harassment against someone of the Mohammedan persuasion, then word might reach any number of Moslem inmates with unpredictable and possibly violent consequences.
This concerned me because it was only a few months previously that a man called Kevin Crehan – who was sentenced to 12 months prison in Bristol for the heinous crime of tying bacon to a mosque door handle – was found dead in his cell under circumstances that at the time of writing (March 2018) are still unexplained.
Therefore I had decided to take the course of admitting to something less controversial. I could hardly admit to bicycle theft, as my lack of knowledge in bicycle technology and the various criminal networks involved would have led the other prisoners to smell a rat. However, it had to be something of sufficient gravity to warrant a custodial sentence, especially given that I was a 64-year-old man with a serious heart condition, and would under normal circumstances have had leniency shown to him by the court.
So I had to think of something else. But I should provide you with some relevant background information before I come to the point.
When I was a gangly 15-year-old teenager I used to own an air rifle, and I spent many happy hours perfecting my shooting skills in the back garden, firing pellet after pellet into a paper target pinned against a large slab of wood. I had reached the point where, with a carefully adjusted telescopic sight, I could continuously fire pellets at will into a two-centimetre diameter centre of a target over 30 metres distance. That may not sound like much of an achievement, but it is harder than it looks.
Fast forward nearly fifty years to January 2016, and I was faced with a dilemma. We had recently had solar panels installed on the roof of our house, courtesy of a Government energy-saving initiative, and the local pigeons had decided that these panels made the perfect spot for roosting. Day after day, especially in the early morning, we could hear the patter of pigeons’ feet on the roof, the smell of pigeon droppings permeated the loft space, and the incessant “coo, coo” of the pigeons was driving myself and June (my other half) insane.
So I said to June, “I’ll get an air rifle. Give me ten days staked out in the caravan on the front drive and I’ll give those pigeons a good old-fashioned seeing-to, pour decourager les autres. The pigeons will find somewhere else to roost and the problem will be solved.”
“You can’t do that!” she said. “It’s cruel. Not to mention somebody might see you.”
“It’s not cruel at all,” I said. “I’ll aim just close enough to frighten them off. I promise I won’t touch a hair on their little feathered chests. And I’ll wear my ex-military camouflage outfit and balaclava to render myself inconspicuous to the neighbours.” But she wouldn’t have it.
The next day I came home to find she had purchased an enormous, lifelike plastic owl from the Internet. It arrived complete with a nodding, swivelling head on a spring, and I had to admit it did look quite impressive. “I’ll put this owl on the bird table in the back garden,” she said, “and the pigeons will be so petrified at seeing such an intimidating predator, they will fly off and never come back.”
Dear reader, the owl was not quite the success we had hoped for. Quite apart from the fact that the regular visitors to our bird table, such as the little finches, sparrows and robins who frequented our back garden, decided that they did not want to share their bird-table with a one-metre high, lifelike plastic owl – day after day, the pigeons would swoop down from their vantage point on the roof of our house, settle on the bird-table, and try to engage the owl in conversation.
After a few days of this, June handed me a lump hammer and an old metal plate on a leather strap that had once served as a dinner gong. “Get up in the loft and make as much noise as you can to scare them off.” I dutifully complied, and spent the rest of the day giving myself a severe case of tinnitus as the sounds of the dinner gong rattled the tiles on the roof and dust started to drift down from the seams in the roofing felt. No luck. The pigeons continued to go about their business, as pigeons do, completely unruffled, which was more than could be said for me. I defy anyone to spend half-hour sessions knocking seven bells out of a dinner gong in a confined space and emerge without any hallucinatory side effects.
The following day, I came home to find that the owl had been strapped to the television aerial on the roof by the handyman we had been employing to install our kitchen. “Andy said he would do it for nothing as long as we promised to look after his wife and children if he fell off the ladder,” said June, whose negotiating skills have become legendary throughout our neighbourhood. “They’ll be too scared to land on our roof now.”
Still we had no success. The owl gazed balefully down at us from the TV aerial, gently nodding and swivelling its head as the wind changed, and the pigeons continued to roost as if nothing had happened.
A day or two later I found June downloading what I thought was music from the Internet. “How nice,” I said, “not another Beethoven sonata to add to your collection of classical music?” June scowled at me. “No,” she said, “this is a recording of a peregrine falcon screeching as it searches for prey. Just go and set up the hi-fi system in the loft, will you? You have to do it by nightfall as the pigeons know that the peregrine falcon is a nocturnal hunter.”
I assumed that the pigeons probably had a better Internet connection than I did, because I didn’t know anything about the predatory habits of peregrine falcons at all, and I consider myself to be fairly well-read. Still, I did as I had been instructed, and soon the screeches of a peregrine falcon were echoing around the loft. “We’ll have to leave it on all night,” said June, “but the pigeons will be gone by morning, just you see.”
After the worst night’s sleep of my entire life, with dreams of enormous owls rampaging around the garden and terrorising the neighbourhood, punctuated by the intermittent screeches of a predatory peregrine falcon, I awoke to the pitter-patter of pigeon feet still running up and down the roof as the pigeons continued to take off and land at regular intervals. By now there were broken egg casings dropping regularly from the roof into the front garden as the pigeons had obviously decided that this was the perfect place to raise a family, and the soft squeaks of baby pigeons could be heard from the loft.
We had several more nights of sleeplessness as June was determined to give the peregrine falcon recordings another chance, but after three days it was obvious that the pigeons weren’t going anywhere. “That’s it,” said June as she slammed another slice of bread into the toaster at breakfast-time, “this calls for drastic measures.”
“So I’ll get the air-rifle then?”
“Not on your life. I’m going to ask Andy to get up on the roof again and deploy anti-pigeon spikes around the solar panels. I’ve already ordered the spikes overnight from the Internet, so there’s no point arguing.”
The spikes arrived the next day, and I came home to see Andy securing the last few rows of spikes into place. The end result looked as though a giant square hedgehog had been first run over by a steam-roller, and then nailed to the roof as a warning message in order to discourage other low-flying giant square hedgehogs. I watched as Andy descended the ladder cautiously. I could tell that he wasn’t really comfortable with heights, possibly because there were not many people in our part of Birmingham who wanted a fitted kitchen installed on their roof.
The three of us stood on the front drive and looked up at the roof. “I’d like to see the pigeon that could get under the solar panels through those spikes,” asserted June, confidently. As the words left her mouth, a pigeon landed on the roof, regarded the spikes for a moment, flattened himself against the roof like an avian limbo-dancer, scuttled between the spikes and disappeared under the solar panels.
The next day I bought myself an air-rifle, complete with high-resolution telescopic sight. Suffice it to say that I was as good as my word, and after spending ten days staked out in the caravan on the front drive, the pigeons had obviously got together and decided that the houses in the surrounding streets presented better opportunities and one morning they vanished, never to be seen again.
“So,” said John, “what are you in for?”
I studied my fingernails nonchalantly. “Oh,” I said, “discharging a firearm and shooting pigeons within fifteen metres of the Queen’s Highway.”
John considered this for a few moments. “Pigeons?” he said, incredulously. “Is that actually a crime?”
“Oh yes,” I said, “and an extremely serious one as well. If it hadn’t been for my dodgy ticker they would likely have thrown away the key, and I would never have seen the smiling faces of my dear grandchildren ever again.”
John looked a bit dubious, but said no more, and soon afterwards the call “Lights out!” reverberated around the wing. The cell was plunged into darkness and I settled back on my mattress for my first night in captivity.
End of Chapter 4
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