Fiction

Love is the Birds

Vicky might have the greenest eyes in Montreal but how could she compete with the greedy devotion of the pigeons of Dominion Square?

COLIN McDOUGALL July 15 1953
Fiction

Love is the Birds

Vicky might have the greenest eyes in Montreal but how could she compete with the greedy devotion of the pigeons of Dominion Square?

COLIN McDOUGALL July 15 1953

Love is the Birds

Fiction

Vicky might have the greenest eyes in Montreal but how could she compete with the greedy devotion of the pigeons of Dominion Square?

COLIN McDOUGALL

A SEA GULL FLEW into my bedroom and dropped a clam on the table beside my bed. It seemed obvious that the shell was too tough for him to handle and he wanted me to break it open for him. Well, I thought, I could drop it on the concrete walk below my window—that would certainly smash it. But then I realized the sea gull could do it that way too, if he wanted, so I pried the thing open and spread the pieces over the window ledge. That gull ate up every piece, and pretty soon he came back again, this time with a fair-sized turtle in his mouth.

Then I thought, this is getting nowhere, and I decided to wake up. I shifted from bed to window in about two jumps and poked my head out into the sunshine. One gulp of that sun, one look at the fresh-washed city spread out and waiting down below, and I began to tingle. I can tell about such things and I knew for sure that this was going to be a good day: this was a day intended for sun.

Just on the off chance I took a look for that sea gull. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he really had been hanging around because it’s almost eerie the way birds are attracted to me. A lot of people think I’m dopey about birds—in

my freshman year they even called me “Bird Brain”—but it’s just that I like birds; we get along well together.

Still, that sea gull was making me think. When they started coming into my dreams—I mean, a thing can go too far. There were lots of things more important than birds and I started to compile a list. But I thought of Vick first and then I couldn’t think of anything else. I began to squirm inside my pyjamas; the sunlight was getting warmer, but mainly I was remembering what happened last night. Well, I told myself, that fixes the agenda for this bright new day: I had to telephone Vicky at once.

I got showered and dressed in ten minutes fiat. There was nobody in the dining room except Fanshawe, my mother’s cat, and we didn’t bother saying hello. I poured myself out a pint of orange juice and put it down where the sun was trying to pretend that the table was a sort of golden lake. I sat down and let the sun bounce the calories around for several minutes.

To tell the truth I was just a shade nervous about phoning Vicky. But then I did away with a half pint of juice and I knew for sure that no one could stay mad on a day like this. I felt so good that I had to talk to someone. “Well, Fanshawe,” I said. “This is an all right day for you?” He pretended not to hear me although he stirred in his seat at the head of the table. There’s no bitterness between Fanshawe and me any more; we’ve reached a sort of working agreement.

Fanshawe and I sat at the breakfast table without resentment. There was a time, of course, when things were different. Two years ago I’d owned a white-necked parrot called Bwana. This parrot came from Portuguese East Africa and consequently spoke nothing but Portuguese. But Bwana had character—moody at. times, sure but a terrific talker and a bird with a warm personality when you got to know him. Even Vicky grew fond of that bird. As soon as Bwana arr'ved, however, Fanshawe slipped into a phony role as tiger and stalked him all over the house. In the end I had to move Bwana to the fraternity but the boys let him loose out in the country one night. And I didn’t even know where to begin looking for him.

1 mean, it was serious: that bird was attached to me and wouldn’t even open his mouth unless I was there to get him started.

I don’t mind admitting that for some time Fanshawe’s own life hung in jeopardy. But that was long ago, and now I was a senior, about to graduate next month, and I suppose we all mellow A senior? I sat holt upright and I spilled some of my orange juice. Boy ! was so senior that 1 was supposed to be writing a final examination in English that morning!

1 found myself sprinting through the hallway. “Good-by,” I shouted to the house. “I’m taking the car.”

I didn’t slow for an answer. There was always a riot when I took the car because sometimes I’d forget where I parked it. My father once spent two days poking around the college grounds before he discovered it up behind the cyclotron building. But 1 didn’t have time to worry about that now.

The sight of the telephone skidded me to a stop. If I didn’t call Vicky this morning the situation could become sort of desperate. But then I resumed speed. I’d call her right after examination, 1 promised myself without fail.

I like to sing when I drive and this morning my voice was sharp. I d remembered that it was English 412 1 was going to write. Here were all these cars pouring into the city, filled with thousands of people, and each one of them was going to spend the morning in an office —while I was on my way to spend the morning writing about the romantic poets!

A sad old guy in a blue convertible pulled up beside me while we waited for a light to change. Maybe he was too sick to press the button, but the top of his car was down and he looked as though the sun was killing him. Honest, he had his coat collar turned up and he was wearing gloves. Gloves! That poor guy needed help.

I leaned out my window. “Look. Mac,” I told him. “It’s always morning somewhere.”

I had planned to engage him in song but the look that old guy loosed at me would have made Fanshawe cry. 1 shut up then because 1 didn’t want to be certified as the cause of death, not on a morning like this. I thought about Vicky instead.

We were at a party on the lakeshore last night, Vicky and 1. It was an all right party until this old dame—she

was somebody’s sister and must have been over thirty—said she wanted to talk to me about sandpipers. And when Vicky found us out in the garden l was trying to talk about sandpipers, but when I said so it only seemed to make matters worse. It was going to be pretty vital today to get that confusion cleared up.

I sat blinking'at. a green light while 1 thought about Vicky. I never try to explain a thing because then 1 always manage to spoil it. But if you say that Vicky has green eyes and brown hair that’s enough to go on with.

Inside, of course, I knew that Vicky was also the morning, and the sunshine, and what made you sing on the way to work. Vicky was the importance of living, I decided on the spot, and I began to fit the words to a song. But then I saw old Kiss-of-Death’s blue convertible pounding over the hill ahead, and all the office workers were leaning on their horns. I poured on the coal to keep my date with the poets.

Well, I really socked that examination. I mean, it was funny enough to oegin with: a bunch of dopes sitting around a sun-filled classroom writing

about the poets, but when you thought about it, what was a better way of killing the morning? Up front Professor Wingate looked sad and wagged some sombre message with his eyebrows. He’s the only man I know who can speak with his eyebrows, but he’s not a bad old guy. We have a working agreement, this Wingate and me.

Once in my freshman year he’d called me into his office and handed me back an essay with a big “D” at the top.

He read off my name in a thought ful voice. “Mr. Tristram Bell,” he said.

‘Tm giving you a *D’ for this paper, and I have the odd sensation that I may be giving a ‘D’ to a genius.” “That’s all right,” I said. I didn’t want him to feel bad about failing me.

But his eyebrows kept telescoping up and down and I could see that he was going to get himself all excited. “Don’t you understand, boy?” he demanded. “I said that you might be a genius!” “Sure,” I said.

That particular day I knew I was a genius too. That’s the way it goes: today a genius, tomorrow a bum. I told him so. “It’s just the weather,”

T explained. And after that we got along fine.

Now I just burned his paper up. I never knew the dates or the middle names but the odd facts stuck to me. For instance I knew that Jenny—the one who “kissed me when we met, jumping from the chair she sat in” - was really Mrs. Thomas Carlyle, and I was prepared to write for several hours on how odd it was that Jenny was really Mrs. Thomas Carlyle.

So I killed old Wingate’s paper. It was a brilliant piece of work, probably good enough for a “C.” I drew a small

owl at the bottom of the page, signed my name, and beat it out into the sunshine.

I knew there was something important 1 had promised to do so I sat on the Arts Building steps to remember what it was. My hand came out of my coat pocket with a sprinkling of dried oatmeal and 1 ate a few handfuls without much enthusiasm. 1 don’t like it myself, but the birds do; and I always carry a sack of the stuff in my pocket. Anyway that told me what if. was 1 had to do, and I got up right away: it was time to feed the falcons

on top of the Sun Life Building.

Tho roof of the Sun Life Building was that much closer to the sky and even those dumb falcons were in a good mood today. It always beats me the way people think those falcons are hot stuff. Sure they can fly, but why not? Does a fish rate an “A” every time he makes it across the pool?

Actually they’re even dumber than the pigeons down below in Dominion Square who just stand around and cluck and look indignant when it rains. These falcons are stupid enough to nest on an office building, and that says it all. Birds of prey, are they? You should have seen those birds of prey mooching off my dried oatmeal.

I must have spent an hour or so up there, feeding oatmeal to the birds and looking down at the river. The tug boats were out and their sad tooting got all mixed up with the noise of trains shunting and the smell of smoke from the factories. It was a lazy, sort of slowed-up day and you could really invest some time on the roof of that building.

When I looked back at the city though the very first thing I saw was a golden streetcar lurching along the street. 1 remembered at once that this was the opening day of the season. For some it’s the first baseball game; for me it’s the day they put the observation streetcars on the road.

These obs are terrific things. The car is built in tiers, with no roof to get in the way, and it’s the only streetcar in the world where people smile at each other. Before something embarrassing has happened, I mean. And it’s the only streetcar I know where you can sing and no one objects. You can get yourself a bag of peanuts and sit on the top tier like a king, wallowing in the sunshine and singing just as loud as you like. Now that's the way to spend an afternoon. Well, I’d phone Vicky . . .

Even the falcons must have been scared the way my face dropped. And inside I felt as if the express elevator had already dropped me thirty-six floors to the street. Sure, now I’d phone Vicky . . .

Then when 1 did get down 1 was surrounded by telephones. Everywhere I turned an accusing platoon of telephones formed in front, of me. I needed time to think and I started to walk uptown.

I sat down in the lobby of the Mount Royal Hotel and tried to make myself feel less pathological. I just sat there, wondering what I would say if I ever did get through to her, and hating myself for being the kind of dope 1 was, dreaming about sea gulls and forgetting the things that really mattered. Even to the point of forgetting Vicky—the only important thing!

I got up at last, walked through the bar, and confronted the telephone.

She answered on the first ring and when I heard her voice I sort of choked and couldn’t speak for a moment. Surely, I thought, she must feel the same way, and a flood of joy surged through me. “Vicky,” 1 said with a rush, “let’s go for a ride on the ob.”

“Tris —.”

I missed the unfamiliar note of anger in her voice. I could only imagine her lips parting to say my name, the green lights shining in her eyes, and I loved that hotel telephone because it carried her voice.

“Tris,” she asked. “Where are you?” “In the Mount Royal Bar.”

That stopped her, and it sort of slowed me too. Look, I told myself, this is serious; bear down, fellow . . .

Something more than exasperation sounded in her voice. “You mean —you’re drinking now?”

“No,” I tried reasonably. “I’m telephoning now.”

I'll never understand how two people who really ache for each other can talk at cross purposes and end by saying the reverse of what they mean, and get ah mixed up and angry inside. But I happen to know that just this thing can happen. And right now I had to prevent it. A voice inside me was saying: tell her that you love her, tell her that she is sunlight and the importance of living—but, hell, if I could tell her that I’d have been with her long ago instead of out feeding falcons.

“Tris,” she said again. “I want to talk to you.”

“Swell!”

“No—Her voice hesitated. “Tris you’re not going to like what I have to say.”

“Vicky,” I swore. “I like everything you have to say.”

But let me tell you my hands were clammy and my mouth was dry. The inside voice told me, look out, fellow, this blade is sharp.

“How soon can you meet me?” Vicky asked.

“Well,” 1 hedged. “I’ve got to meet a man.”

“Where?”

“In Dominion Square.” And I heard the blade of the guillotine rattle in its socket.

“Oh, Tris,” she said. “Pigeons!” She was right, of course. That was always my excuse when 1 wanted to feed the pigeons.

“Look, Vicky,” I said desperately. “I’ll be in the square in two minutes waiting for you.”

When I got out on the sidewalk I had my head down and it was a few minutes before I realized that the sun had disappeared. And that really shook me. You see, at my window this morning I’d known for sure that this was a day intended for sun, and here the storm clouds were knocking about the sky like billiard balls. And it was going to get blacker. Boy I’d even loused up the weather!

SO VICKY and I sat silent on a bench in Dominion Square. Above us the clouds were shoving each other around and getting madder all the time. At our feet the pigeons clucked uselessly against the coming rain.

Vicky’s eyes had never been greener, her hair never browner. Here was Vicky beside me, and my voice had gone dumb.

She ignored the speech my eyes were trying to deliver. “Oh, Tris,” she said at last, and her voice sounded hurt and sort of despairing. “Won’t you ever grow up? Look at the way those silly pigeons are crowding round you now, expecting a handout of that disgusting oatmeal.”

1 didn’t have to look. I could feel them trying to climb my legs.

And this could be so different, I thought. Vicky and I alone on a bench, ready to be united by the meek rain coming through the dusk. Instead there was only this misery, and 1 was scared. Brother, I was scared !

Then she pointed her small chin up and I knew that Vicky had reached her decision. It wasn’t only this time, of course; there were all the other crazy things I’d done. Oh, if only I was

able to explain things ... If I could only tell her ... I opened my mouth.

But Vicky spoke in a small, spent voice. “They were right when they called you ‘Bird Brain,’ ” she announced.

Boy—was I sick of birds! Instinctively my feet lashed out at those fool clucking pigeons. And yet, I knew —although I couldn’t tell Vicky; I couldn’t tell anyone—that I’d only made friends with the birds because they were like myself: dumb things

who never tried to explain. Even now I sensed that I’d outgrown them. 1

was going to leave the birds behind with my lost youth, and the crazy things I did, and the crazy jokes I tried to make. There was that dream about the sea gull for instance. I was sure that proved that the birds and I were about to end our working agreement. I knew that it was time to grow up.

The darkness lapped around our bench and a cold deadly fear seized me that any moment Vicky would get up and walk away into the dark. 1 decided then to tell her about the dream.

“Vicky,” I said, “this morning a sea gull flew into my bedroom."

She heard me to the end, her eyes turned away, the glow of her face velveted by the dusk. 1 finished with the dream, and 1 drew a breath before going on to the important thing. I was going to say that the birds really didn’t matter to me; it was only Vicky who mattered; Vicky was the world and living, and I hoped 1 was going to say that 1 loved her.

But she made a small choking sound and 1 knew she was tight ing to hold back her tears. 1 could only sit dumb again with my misery. Then the lights began to go on in the world. Across the square the hotel was a design of ragged squares winking through the dusk. The nearest lamp dropped a yellow hoop of light around our bench, and then the first bubbles of rain bounced on the ground beside us.

Vicky stood up and the pigeons scurried off beneath the bench. With the lamplight on her face she looked infinitely young, and lost, and lovely. I started to stretch out my hands.

“Tris,” she got out then. “Oh, Tris —now you even dream about birds. Tris—you’ve got a sea gull in your heart!”

I stood there and didn’t say anything because there was absolutely nothing I could say.

She took one step, another, and then her heels beat out a tattoo on the walk as she started to run into the darkness.

Now, I thought, it’s happened. Vicky has really left me. Here I am alone in Dominion Square with some stupid rain-scared pigeons.

But I stopped thinking at that point and I started to run. She was almost up to St. Catherine Street by the time I caught up. She knew I was trailing behind all right because her heel taps quickened and her small chin drove forward into the rain.

Up here the lights were bright; the street glistened with a fresh coat of rain, and the lights from the store fronts painted the sidewalk yellow.

“Vicky,” 1 called at her shoulder. “I love you!”

There was no sign that she heard me. Several smug passers-by turned to look at us curiously.

This was murder. I mean, at times it might be fun to trail after a girl and tell her on the street that you love her. But that would have to be when the sun was shining, and you were warmed with your love for each other, and you felt so good that you wanted to sing and tell the world.

But not when you were sick and

scared and helpless all at once. Not when your girl was leaving you because you were such a dope . . .

It made me even sicker to see the rain ruffling into Vicky’s hair. But she just pointed her little chin down and drove ahead. Tap, tap, good-by, went her heels.

I quickened my pace. “Vicky!” I yelled. I shouted my lungs out on that St. Catherine Street. “Vicky, I love you!”

She had to stop then. We stood on the sidewalk and we looked at each other. We’d stopped outside some kind of chicken-barbecue joint, and the flame light from its window flowed over each lovely line of her tear-washed, rain-fresh face.

Neither of us was aware of the other citizens of the world who happened to be passing by. Some of them, I think, were stopping to watch. I only knew that she was looking at me now, her face was open and defenseless, and maybe this was my last chance, ever.

“Vicky,” I said. “It’s only you that matters —not those fool birds.”

My hands shook getting the sack of dried oatmeal out of my pocket. Then in the light of that chicken-barbecue joint I emptied the sack of oatmeal over the sidewalk. The rain pulped it up and gurgled the stuff into the gutter.

“There,” I said, and I was feeling pretty invincible right at that moment. “It’s finished. No more birds, just vou —Vicky.”

Then it was as though we were coming together after some sort of disaster—a war, or a flood, or something like that. But it was also like meeting for the first time, there on the sidewalk of St. Catherine Street. The rain danced at our feet, those barbecued chickens spun crazily on their spits, and the office buildings shouldered forward to soften the falling rain.

It can he a terrific place, that St. Catherine Street. On a rainy night it can be the warmest, gayest street in all the world—at least if Vicky i is beside you. If you’re laughing in the rain with Vicky . . .

I think it was several blocks before we realized we were wet. And when we looked and saw how wet we were we laughed some more. I licked the rain off my lips and it tasted wonderful.

For a long time we walked and got wetter and happier every minute. Then we stopped outside a restaurant.

Even on the sidewalk we could hear ¡ the accordion music. In the window there were things that looked like old china and cakes, and tea simmering on a hob. Anyway, this was certainly the place to come into out of the rain. We knew at once this was the place for us.

Inside we shook ourselves and for a moment we watched the fresh rain blowing across the glass. Then an old man came up to meet us and one look was enough to know his name was Papa. I glanced around for Mamma, and there she was, beaming at us from behind her counter.

Papa started to lead us down an aisle between the tables, Vicky in front of me. Just above the counter there was a cage with a parrot squatting glumly on his perch. He was a white-necked parrot, and as I passed him by I’ll swear that bird lowered one hooded eye at me!

Still, I was all finished with that kind j of thing. I kept on going.

Then I stopped in my tracks. Dimly j I was aware that Vicky still followed ¡ Papa up the aisle.

I turned around and I went hack : to that cage. 1 came up on that bird | from the rear and I looked at his sad | white neck for several seconds.

“Bwana!” I said to him, loudly and distinctly.

And then all hell broke loose. That ; bird went crazy. Honest, he looped | the loop and he took the cage with | him. The little restaurant couldn’t hold the fierce rattle of Portuguese that j blasted forth.

The customers came to their feet ¡ everywhere and it was a pretty tense j moment all right. At her counter j Mamma was sobbing and laughing all at once. “My little bird—he speaks . at last,” she was saying, and I thought I she was going to start dancing with that cage.

Papa was there too and he kept wringing my hand. The place was crazy with noise, and I must admit that it was sort of affecting to see that fool bird Bwana running with joy around the sides of his cage. It was a proud moment and I had the impression that everyone was going to start in singing.

And then all at once I got very still, and my silence spread right through the restaurant. What I mean is, this was silence, this was dead silence. Even Bwana froze on his perch. I knew that Vicky stood behind me, and I was afraid to turn round.

Well, it had to be done. The customers waited politely while 1 started a slow half pivot. Maybe they thought this was part of the show —like the accordion music.

But before 1 was properly turned about Vicky launched herself. She sort of fell into my arms. “Tris,” she said, in a shaky, tender kind of voice. “Here we’ve found Bwana after all this time, and now you’ve gone and thrown the oatmeal away!”

We must have been part of tne show because that crazy crowd applauded. They stood up on their chairs and cheered. I held on to Vicky tightly and I didn’t have to speak because the accordion was playing right in our ears. Then Vicky and I got even closer together, and at that moment I knew for sure that I was finished with dried oatmeal for ever.