by Richard Hillesley
I went to sign on that morning. It was the usual thing. They had lost someone’s claim, and he wasn’t moving until he had his money. I was stuck behind him, standing in line for hours while they called in the polis, and still he wouldn’t move. He was short like a tack. He had bitten into the floor of the place, and it took three coppas to move him, with a fight.
It was the event of the week. They scrapped with him all the way to the door. He had one of them over twice. They bent his arm behind his back and hit him in the gut and still he wouldn’t give. I smiled each time he got one in. But it was stupid. I could have told him. You have to lie low and submit, call them sir and thank them for their goodness. That is the way it works round here. You have to smile as the knife goes in, or they give it an extra twist.
I saw Billy sitting on a bench in the corner of the waiting room in the remnants of his suit, his face falling apart, a tie pulled sideways around his neck. I hadn’t seen him for years, but he looked just the same. I meant to ignore him, but his eyes lit up when he saw me, and he waved me over.
—How lad, an’ how yis doin’?
he said, reaching out and slapping my leg.
—Canny, an yis?
—Eeh, a’m alreet,
—Divven worry yersel’ about me lad. A git by. A’m a nutcase, yi kna.
he shook his head slowly.
—A’m a nutcase.
—Well, A don’t believe yis.
—Na, iss true. An a’ve bin certificated to prove it, an a divven have to work.
He looked at me proudly.
—An’ when they gives us money a spends it all on drink an’ have none for me fud.
—Na, why d’yis do that?
—A likes it.
He grinned and jabbed his fingers in my ribs.
—Ah, stop it Billy.
—Gis a tab.
—Hey, what’s it like?
I said, and he shook me in the grip of his massive hands.
—Alreet, Billy. A’ll giv yis one.
I reached into my pocket, and his arm was around my neck, squeezing.
—A alwis said yi wus a good lad.
—Aye, thanks Billy.
His strange voice, suddenly loud, suddenly a whisper, boomed around the dole, and I was embarrassed. I could barely move.
—Let’s get out of this place, Billy,
—Yi’re hurtin’ me neck.
—This place is full of wankas,
and he looked around threateningly.
I had known Billy since I was a kid. He used to hang around the allotments where my grandfather had his patch. He took to Granda because of the pigeons. He was a grown man even then, and he would stand for hours about the croft watching the birds, nose through the wires, cooing at them. He would follow Granda with his hands together and say,
—Please. Can a hold her? Please,
and clasp the bird in his hands, soft and warm, stroking and blowing its blasted feathers like a bit bairn.
he would say,
Even then, we recognised that he was a bit soft in the head. His trouble was that he could not co-ordinate his huge body and had no awareness of his strength. He would bury the bird deep in his jacket, and stroke and coo at her just to feel the softness of the feathers and the warmth of a body that could not resist him, while my grandfather carried on with his digging or pruning. He wouldn’t let go of the bird. The bird was his until Granda, who didn’t let anyone else near his pigeons and didn’t like them to be handled, said he had to return her to the croft, and he would stand with his nose to the wire, moaning like a dove.
His favourite pigeon was an odd one like himself, with strange markings on its neck and wings, and a lopsided droop to her head. He called her Gracie, and would sit for hours with her wrapped in a pullover on his knee, stroking her wings.
—Leave her be, Billy,
my granda would plead, but he would go into a strange temper, and say,
—Na, gan awa’,
and sit there swaying and singing softly under his breath.
—Cooweee Gracie, beauty, beauty.
Billy’s enthusiasm took him away, and there was nothing anybody could say to him. Sat on the bench, among the mud and the weeds, he flew against the wind and the cold like a spinning gull, whinging and screwing over the Tyne.
—Why do you like her, Billy?
I would say.
—She’s a beautiful thing, and she smells nice. Smell her.
—Na. She smells like a pigeon, Billy.
One winter morning when there was a cold mist hanging over the river, I went with my sister Emma across the mounds to the croft. Emma was two years older than me, a wild child who always had scratched knees, a smudge of dirt on her face and a half smile that drove her elders mad, despite the cotton dresses and the ribbons my mam made her wear, but she grew up sensible, and married a computer programmer who works for the Social Security at Long Benton, and I don’t see her much any more.
We found my grandfather in the shed, boiling the kettle and rubbing his hands together against the cold. He would sit there for hours looking through the cracked glass of the window at the river with its tides and its memories, grey clouds foreboding, and talk. But that morning he was subdued, sat with his chipped enamel mug, blowing the steam off his tea. He had come early and found Billy’s pigeon stiff and cold on the floor of the croft and had buried her in a corner of his plot. He was worried about how Billy would react.
—An’ yi can imagine that.
We were to stop by the allotments while Granda went off to look for Billy and break it to him slowly. Billy lived with his mam on the Estate. I went to their house once with Emma, a brick semi-detached house with pram wheels and loose dogs in the garden. Beyond the front door the house smelt badly of fish and decaying vegetables. Billy came down the stairs, heavy-footed and loud, and his mam made us sit on the sofa and wait for him, the air thick with the smell of the house and her perfume. She stooped over me and kissed my forehead, and said how nice I was, which I didn’t like.
I was left in the shed with Emma. She wore a cotton skirt, knees and face smudged with dirt. Billy appeared, his red face looming through the fog of the window.
He walked straight past the shed and into the croft, and Emma, more curious than I was, ran out to meet him. I stayed where I was until I heard the noise he made when she told him about the dead pigeon, and ran outside and found him on his knees in the dirt, clawing Gracie’s body out of the soil.
—Leave her be,
I said, but he ignored me, and Emma said,
—She’ll be happier now, Billy.
And she took his hand, and he cradled the pigeon’s body in his arm, and they walked between the rows and out of the allotments and down by the river.
Later I was hungry and I went home on my own. When Mam asked where Emma was I told her. She had gone for a walk with Billy and I had not gone with them. Mam didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until a few hours later when Granda came round and asked if I had seen Billy or Emma that I realised there was fear in the air. They had disappeared and no-one knew where they were. But I told them there was nothing to worry about. I was sure they would be alright. The worry really began at four or five in the evening when it began to get dark and Emma still hadn’t turned up. I didn’t know where they were but I couldn’t see the reason for a fuss.
—They’re alright, Mam,
I said when I found her crying.
The police came round and asked when I had seen them and where they had gone. The police cars went up and down the road and everyone in the street went looking for them, but they didn’t find them until they turned up themselves at eight or nine, Emma pulling Billy along by the hand. They had put the pigeon in the ground and Emma had told him that Granda would find him another one.
Still, they took him in and questioned them both. A social worker came round and we had to tell her,
—It’s only a pigeon, yi kna. It’s only a pigeon.
When we came out of the dole Billy grabbed my sleeve in his hand and his wide eyes came down the reach of my nose. He said,
—A still think of her, yi kna.
He looked at me matter of factly.
—She was very understanding of me.
We fetched up on a bus into town and sat in the back seats on the top. For the first time I noticed his smell. It hung in the air at about head height, stinging the air, punching the rivets out of my nose. I lit a cigarette to blow it away. Each time I looked towards him I could see his broken face open into a grin, and he would say,
—A alwis said yi wus a good lad,
and I would smile, wincingly. I felt sorry for him and could think of no excuse that would see him on his way without hurting him. But when I stood up to go he did not follow me. He said,
and grinning, pulled my sleeve, and said,
—Mind me to Emma.
—She’ll be glad to hear from yis,
—Aye, she’s a bonny lass,
—An’ say as a niver telt on her.
As the bus pulled away the rain began to fall, fat splashes, single drops, on the pavement, and I saw him wave to me through the window, a splat grin crossing his broad face.
Richard Hillesley grew up in Kenya, South Shields and North Wales. Curious and disaffected, he travelled widely through his twenties, across all parts of Britain and Southern Europe, the Sudan and Libya, working as a casual docker, book seller, railway guard, and yacht delivery crew. He became a computer programmer in his thirties before moving to Totnes in Devon as a feature writer and later editor of the first UK Linux magazine, and has since devoted himself to writing fiction and poetry. Unbanging the Nails, a collection of his stories, has just been released by Clochoderick Press.