Two pigeons have built a nest on Rachel’s fire escape. They coo at each other and shit through the wrought iron grate onto the grey paving stones below, and sometimes onto the heads of people entering and leaving The Cuppa Java Cafe. The steps into Rachel’s apartment building, as well as the doorway to Cuppa Java, have begun to resemble Galapagos.
Miguel, the plump, shiny-faced owner of the cafe, blames Rachel for the situation. The pigeons’ nest is right outside her bedroom window. This fact alone makes her guilty in Miguel’s eyes. In his heart he knows this is unfair, but Rachel had once called him a spineless moron and he’s held a grudge.
“You’d think they were my pets or something, and I was being irresponsible,” Rachel says to her friend Gina on the phone. “Miguel hates me, but all I asked him to do was put a stop to that guy’s piano playing.”
Three months earlier, a young man wearing a wide-brimmed black leather hat, a long black overcoat, black jeans and several black silk scarves, walked into The Cuppa Java Cafe, sat down at the piano and began to play The Entertainer. He banged out the Scott Joplin tune for four hours, and then came back each day and banged it out again from 7 o’clock in the morning when the café opened until 11 o’clock at night when it closed. Rachel was writing a Master’s Thesis entitled Ulysses: A Study of Life and Loss in Dublin, and was at home during the day working on it. Her desk was located directly over the piano.
After two weeks of hand wringing and screaming profanities at the floorboards, she ran downstairs, marched into the café, and barked at the piano player, “Hey. Could you just play it 399 times today instead of your usual 400, because that 400th time really grates on my nerves.” She was aware of the shrillness in her voice and that she was making jerky little movements with her hands, but she didn’t care. She was an enraged woman in a café, shouting at a stranger. There were plenty about. She had joined the ranks.
Ever since the abortion, the “procedure” they had called it at the clinic or, sometimes, “the termination”, Rachel had been short tempered and overwrought. “They’ll just use a tiny vacuum,” Gina had said when she was driving her to the health centre. “It’ll be over in minutes.”
The piano player took his fingers off the keys for a moment, turned to glance in Rachel’s direction, and said, “I’m a musician, miss. I play my music for the people. And the people want ragtime.” Apart from Rachel and the piano player, the only other person in the cafe was the laconic barista who was slowly wiping the steel nozzles on the coffee maker with a dish cloth. The piano player’s eyes held Rachel’s in a calm and steady gaze. His quiet dignity unnerved her.
Flustered and not knowing what else to do, she turned round, stomped out of the café and into the nearby picture framing store. The store, filled with prints by Mexican artists, gold frames and gilt mirrors, was another of Miguel’s businesses.
Miguel folded his arms neatly across his blue, pin-striped shirt while Rachel told him about the thesis, the piano player, the incessant, repetitious tune. Behind him was a giant print of Frida Kahlo wearing a white peasant blouse, a red shawl and an elaborate shell necklace. Frida’s gaze, like the piano player’s, was steady and direct. Miguel stared at Rachel for a long, long time as though trying to identify her in a police line-up. Finally he stroked his chin, shrugged and said, “I can’t stop him. He keeps coming back.” It was then that Rachel called him a spineless moron.
Not long after her talk with Miguel, Rachel woke up one morning to silence. No ragtime, no Joplin, no piano player. Walking past Cuppa Java later in the day, she’d glanced in the window and seen the empty piano seat. She’d felt relief then, but during the following weeks found herself thinking often of that moment when the piano player had turned and looked at her with his brown Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane eyes.
“How are the pigeons?” Gina asks on the phone. “Are they still out on the fire escape?”
Not only are the pigeons still out on the fire escape, but there is one small white egg in the middle of the makeshift nest and each time Rachel looks out there is a pigeon sitting on it. Every morning she pulls the curtain back and peers down. The pigeon always looks up at her, bobbing its head from side to side, and then readjusts itself on the egg. Its throat is iridescent, and the purple and green feathers there have the glow and sheen of something other-worldly. Underneath the bright slick of colour, she can see the soft, faint throb of the bird’s pulse.
She has named the pigeons Michael and Shakira after the actor Michael Caine and his wife of forty years. “Pigeons mate for life” she’d read on Feathersite.com. “The incubation period for common pigeons is 17 to 19 days” Rachel tells Gina. “That means that the egg should hatch any day now.”
Any day now turns out to be Friday morning. Rachel pulls back the curtain as soon as she awakes, but today there is no Michael or Shakira in sight, just the egg and the nest. The egg is cracked, and there is a gaping tear in its centre. Rachel can see a small yellow head with damp, gluey feathers, a closed eye, a pink beak. She knows immediately that the creature inside the cracked egg is dead.
It is still only 8:00 a.m. when she climbs out onto the fire escape with a plastic bag and a dustpan and brush. She kneels and begins to sweep the feathers that lay around the nest into the bag. Then she picks up the broken egg between her thumb and forefinger and gently places it in the bag too. The egg feels weightless in her hand. The nest is a shambolic affair, put together hastily by two clueless birds. It disintegrates as soon as the brush touches it. As she continues to sweep in ever larger and more aggressive strokes Rachel lets out a sob.
Miguel is underneath the fire escape and he is yelling. He is shouting “come down” over and over again, and he is gesticulating wildly, his finger pointing up in Rachel’s direction and then down at the ground. Around his feet are several feathers and pieces of dried bird shit and clumps of dirt. Rachel stops sweeping and sits on the back of her heels and stares at him through the wrought iron grating. “Come down!” he says again. There is something reminiscent of John Travolta on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever about the finger pointing move, something fluid and disco and confident. From above, Rachel can see Miguel’s bald spot, the curve of his paunch, and his gleaming, patent leather shoes.
The shiny, red buttoned booth at the back of Cuppa Java is cosy and intimate. Miguel had led her there by the arm when she came out of the apartment building weeping. He had placed a cappuccino in front of her, and then a bagel and cream cheese, and said “Eat, you need to eat. It will make you feel better.” Then he had sat opposite her while she stammered her way through the drama that had unfolded for Michael and Shakira up on the fire escape over the last few weeks.
When she has finished eating and crying Rachel feels calm, purged. “I’m sorry I called you a spineless moron,” she says, and Miguel nods and smiles at her.
As she leaves the cafe she glances at the piano standing by the window, its top down, its seat empty.
Outside the sun is high, and children are playing in the park across the street. The noise they make is raucous and joyful, and Rachel walks over to be near them. Young mothers look on as their kids careen down slides and spin on roundabouts. A small girl in a swing is being pushed by an older girl. The child in the swing is laughing, holding her arms wide to the sky each time the swing moves forward and higher. “More,” she is shouting in delight. “More.”
Kate O’Grady lives in Stroud. Her short stories have been long listed/short listed or placed in Bath Flash Fiction Competition, Reflex Fiction Flash Fiction Competition, The Phare Short Story Competition, Exeter Short Story Competition, Gloucester Writers Network competition, Stroud Book Festival Short Story competition, and published in Storgy Magazine and The Phare Literary Magazine.