What does it cost to be as free as a bird?
“It’s not right.” Nan said.
The homeless ‘pigeon lady’ was across the park, communing with her feathery kin.
She had fished out a half eaten packet of salt and vinegar crisps from the rubbish bin, and was breaking up the pieces, then sprinkling them like fairy dust out to her frenzied flock.
A putrid maroon sleeping bag was heaped at her feet, on top of the flattened cardboard packing carton she put beneath it each night.
“Look at her, she’s a skeleton. That poor woman should be in care.” said Nan, gravely. Her bushy grey eyebrows furrowed while the worry lines in her face became trenches.
Her stress lingered in the word “care”.
Why didn’t anybody seem to care about this woman? Why wasn’t there one single person in her life who cared enough to make sure she was was clean, with a safe roof over her head? That she was eating enough?
The woman looked the same age as Nan. Of course, she might have been younger, life on the streets could age a person. But Nan couldn’t help imagining this woman had probably spent years of her life caring for others only to have them forget all about her when she needed their care. Left instead to rot, someone thrown away. Seen only as a feral nuisance, much like her vermin birds.
“She seems happy.” shrugged Ash, pushing away the fringe she normally hid behind. Her maroon hair almost matched some of the cleaner patches of the woman’s sleeping bag.
“You can’t hurry love, No, you’ll just have to wait.” the pigeon lady serenaded the over eager birds as she wafted her crisp sprinkling towards some of the more neglected members of the flock.
Ash smiled to herself. She didn’t see tragedy here.
She saw a woman who loved her pigeons and loved hanging out with them. Someone who felt no pressure to live up to something others wanted her to be, who instead could just be.
She saw a wild woman who may not have looked in a mirror in years. Blissfully oblivious to the rest of the world.
She thought about all the girls at her school, turning themselves inside out to present the right image to the world, obsessed with what people thought about them. She mused on her own agonising efforts to craft her appearance to snare exactly the right amount of attention from the right people.
Everyone she knew was “just trying to be themselves” but according to some very rigid rulebook that Ash was still trying to even make sense of. You needed to have the right look, the right identity and the right label for it to be part of the right crowd. And you absolutely had to sound like you had this stuff all worked out, even if you didn’t at all. Because everybody else seemed to.
Ash felt a nervous knot forming in her stomach. In 48 hours she would again have to brave her own high school pecking order.
She imagined living as a homeless woman in this park, with pigeons for company instead of people, and the knot in her stomach disappeared.
In this life she did as she wished, without a single other soul to answer to, surrounded by what she loved, tuning out everything else. Living in a park and owning nothing but a dirty old sleeping bag would surely be well worth having that kind of freedom.
“Oh, I’m sure people are happy enough to go along with the idea that nobody needs to worry about her.” said Nan shaking her head.
Nan knew this woman was not nearly as free as the birds she surrounded herself with. She could not fly away from a threat. Not being part of a flock could be an extremely dangerous choice for humans, especially women. That was the source of most real vulnerability for them. It wasn’t just the cold and damp a woman had to think about when looking for a place to sleep at night. And some shelters could be even more dangerous than taking your chances outdoors. Nan knew all too well just how suddenly a sanctuary could reveal itself to be a cage.
It made her sick to her stomach that everyone in this woman’s life was prepared to let her live like some neglected animal with only pigeons for company. It was a blessing the pigeon lady seemed to be unaware of how thoroughly abandoned she was.
“I can’t give her money. She’ll just waste it on feeding those filthy birds.” Nan sighed.
She had learned this lesson from experience, having bought the woman food in the past only to watch her give every last crumb to her pigeons, sparing nothing for herself.
And that, for Nan, was perhaps the most heartbreaking thing in all of this, the woman’s wasted love. These creatures she starved herself to feed, and kept in her company, and cared so much for, they only cared about only what they could get from her.
As soon as it was gone, they flew away.