The Bird Man of Central

IT is strange what insights can come to you, what discoveries you can make about human nature, through the working of seeming mischance. Recently, returning from a class in town, I found the station fog-bound, trains delayed, the one that took me back to the country likely to be at least an hour late if it hadn't been swallowed up somewhere in banks of mist. There I am, with time unexpectedly on my hands, instead of the usual rush to catch the 10 o'clock train.

From the loudspeakers Vivaldi's ``Four Seasons'' echoes, a pompous railway official stalks around the concourse of Central Station, keeping a watchful eye on all possible interlopers - stray dogs and cats, vagrants who shamble in from the weather of the streets, seeking shelter, skulking and scrounging in the litter bins for pickings. ``Aff!'' the official commands. ``Beat it!''

The chief intruders evade him, for they are winged. Porters and officials kick at them but the pigeons soar out of reach. It was thanks to them that I chanced on the individual whom I came to think of as the Bird Man of the Central. In a corner surrounded by plants and potted conifers, a little green sanctuary in the station, sits an old man in a threadbare gray coat. He is remarkable by the density of pigeon population clustering around his feet and by his own likeness to a bird, with a beak of a nose and hands as thin as claws. He keeps dipping into a paper bag, glancing furtively around him and sprinkling bread crumbs.

The pigeons strut and coo, squabble over scraps. With their sooty gray plumage the only touch of color about them is the rainbow iridescence of their throats. Presently an even older and shabbier man comes up. ``How are you tonight?'' the Bird Man asks him as if they were long acquainted.

``Near deid,'' he replies morosely, eyeing the bread hungrily, but knowing it is not for him. ``You'll get into trouble,'' he goes on. ``No feeding pigeons in the Central.'' The Bird Man ignores his warning. ``They're not like my doos,'' he says almost dreamily.

There is a silence. The little Bird Man seems lost in some kind of vision. ``My birds knew the woods and the stars and the sky. The Central's the limit for these poor town pigeons. It was homers I kept as a boy,'' he goes on.

``Fine I know,'' grunts the old man.

``There would be a fluttering in the distance, like a cloud, coming nearer and nearer. Guess what it was! Wings! My doos coming back to the doocot.'' His face lights up. ``I'll tell you something else - there's nothing in life to compare with that moment. There they are, your homers, looking out at you from their loft, safe home.''

``So you tell me,'' says his lugubrious companion.

``I loved my homers most,'' he goes on, undisconcerted. ``There were others, of course, tumblers, high flyers, fantails, beautiful, snow-white fantails with coral claws and pink eyes and racing doos - they could reach a speed of 97 miles an hour. When there was a migration, thousands, tens of thousands of pigeons maybe, their wings could blot out the light of the sun. Imagine that! I could talk about doos for hours,'' he declares.

``Aye, I've heard you at it,'' says his companion wryly.

The little pigeon lover continues undeterred. ``Is there anything as peaceful in life as the sound of a ring doo calling far away in the woods on a summer's day? Tell me that! Nothing!''

Again a silence falls and I move closer. What will the little Bird Man come out with next? ``See all those trains?'' he asks suddenly.

``Of course I do. We're in a station are we no'?''

``They're off to the country, even to the sea, some of them. Know what I did one day?''

``Something daft I'll be bound,'' replies his friend, but he sounds curious. ``I sneaked on to one of them,'' the Bird Man brings out in triumph, chuckling. ``No one would notice a skinny old chap like me, I thought, but they did. `Whaur's your ticket?' the collector asks. ``Nae ticket?'' He comes closer, glowering down at me. `What's yon thing moving in your pocket? A DOO! Aff with you!' How could I explain to the likes of him that I wanted to smuggle a town bird out into the country and let it fly free in the woods? It didn't need a ticket.''

Another silence, then he continues. ``Funny when I think of it, smuggling doos! You have to laugh, you know.''

``I don't see much to laugh at,'' says the old pessimist with his rasping wheeze. ``What are we but a pair of trespassers on railway property. He'll soon tell us to move on,'' jerking a thumb at the pompous official who is glaring in their direction.

``Funny how you remember your childhood,'' says the Bird Man. ``A sign of old age,'' his friend grunts. ``There was a prayer we had first thing in the morning before the class began: forgive us our trespasses. Will he forgive ours?''

``Not when he looks at the pair of us, old derelicts. You can't say we've gone up in life.''

``Maybe not, but think of all the pleasure I've had with doos. I've found them here when life's not so easy - along with a roof ower my heid. There's luck! And I've known the sky and the woods that they'll never know, poor city birds.''

``Fine for you,'' says the old man, coughing more than ever. ``I'm near deid. And I'm feart,'' he adds in a kind of panic.

``Don't be feart,'' says his friend. ``Deid! It's only a flight into another element, one you don't know yet, a better one.''

The old man stops coughing and stares at the Bird Man as if he had suddenly stumbled on a comforting truth. ``Maybe you're right,'' he says.

``You know what?'' the little man goes on.

``What?''

``One day I'll go flying out of here, up and up. I'm not feart of the thocht. Don't you be.''

The wisps of fog that have come creeping as intruders into the station are lifting. My train has arrived, departure at number five platform is announced. The threadbare old men rise creakingly from their bench. ``See you the morn,'' says the Bird Man.

``Aye, if I'm no' deid,'' but as the old pessimist goes off he gives a funny grin, almost a chuckle, and flaps his arms as though in flight.

I look back as I go along platform five and see the Bird Man move off, very slowly, with cautious fluttering footsteps to avoid treading on any of the gray-winged flock. He disappears out into the mist and drizzle of the street beyond. What home is he heading for?

Vivaldi's ``Four Seasons'' ends abruptly in mid-``Winter'' as the loudspeakers are turned off. A stray dog desperately seeks its master. A policeman shakes the last of the sleepers - ``Aff! This is a station, no' a doss house.'' High up in the girders of the roof the pigeons, fluffed out in sleep, roost for the night. My train crosses the Clyde, lights twinkle over the water, the last wisps and swathes of mist weave where the great shipyards used to send ships around the world.

All the way home I keep hearing the voices of the two old men - ``L'Allegro'' and ``Il Penseroso.'' The Bird Man's eager ``There's nothing in life to compare with that moment...'' keeps coming back to me. I imagine the approaching cloud that turns into wings, the homers, safe back in their loft. I am fortunate to have overheard a most unlikely poet, someone who, in the fell clutch of circumstance has never lost his sense of joy. Through the inconvenience of a fog-bound train I have chanced on marvels.

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