Pigeon England: The Importance of Meaning and Unspecific Empathy in a World in Chaos

Hundreds of miles across the water, a forklift truck picks up unmarked white box after unmarked white box and stacks them neatly and objectively into a long, thin trench in the ground. The boxes are laid out in rows. Once a row is filled, another row is laid on top of it. The effect is neat and indistinguishable. Each box contains the remains of a human being, who died alone or did not have enough money for medical aid. There are forty of them in total. Their names are scrawled on the top. Elsewhere in the same country, the most powerful man in the world pushes an untested drug and claims he is number one on Facebook, perhaps anticipating the forthcoming election. So far, the mass graves go unmentioned. It’s an acknowledgement of sorts. He recognises that more of the unfortunate are going to die in America. Well, presumably good riddance, they were a drain on the economy anyway. Acknowledging this extermination would highlight his failure to act, but perhaps if he doesn’t mention it, it will cease to be a problem. These people were losers.

I watched all that over bran flakes. Every morning the world’s heroes, its kindnesses, its acts of indifference and cruelty are spelled out for everybody to listen. Daily we hear of selfless people who risk their lives to help in any way they can, and then, as a follow-up, people who bought all the toilet roll in the department and then sit at home smirking for a socially-distanced photograph in the papers. The whole thing feels like a compilation video for humanity, inspiring and horrifying and deeply, deeply sad at the same time. Socialising is out the window, the regular nine-to-five is gone. There’s no pattern or structure to anything anymore. So, I’ve been making patterns of my own.

What with all the clean air and lack of people around, nature is taking a bit of a joyride around suburbia. Case in point; two pigeons have recently taken roost on the fence at the front of my house. In addition to spraying crap everywhere, they’ve been using it to breed more pigeons on. Normally I’d chase them away, or try to. But then I saw them affectionately pecking mites out of one another’s feathers, and I had a change of heart. Here was a regular, functioning relationship. Who was I to say where love could and couldn’t blossom? I felt moved. Every other day, I made a habit of checking up on them. On my exercise time outside the house, I’ve even spoken to them, but only when no-one else is watching. Kept it brief, obviously. “Morning, lovebirds, how’s the food chain?” that kind of thing. It’d be weird otherwise.

Ian and Barbara (yeah, I’ve given them names) are still visiting. I’m honestly so glad, because otherwise I’d have nothing to look forward to in the afternoon. You can only keep yourself so busy with jobs and things to learn and whatever else people are using this time for.  I miss having friends around to visit. And in a world where the end to someone’s life is a trench filled with other someones who didn’t make the cut, random unspecific empathy can’t be a bad thing, can it? Perhaps, when all this is over, it might be best to move that idea over to people. Pigeons appear to be in less need of it.

Peter Thorn is a teacher of English living on a blasted heath somewhere in South Surrey. In his spare time, he goes bird-watching, blunders through Italian lessons and secretly thinks Coldplay are OK up to the fourth album. His writing, at times serious, tends to revolve around his own sad, horrible sense of humor, in the hope that anyone similarly disaffected will at last be able to have a reassuring chuckle. Goes well with brie. 


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