This story was first published in The Big Issue a few years back now. (It’s relatively long, so put on the kettle.)
He tells me about the pigeons. Racing pigeons. He tells me about the nuns. Swimming nuns. He tells me about skin cancer, and marathons.
He tells me about his pacemaker, and watching his daughter’s overseas wedding on Skype. He tells me about years and years of cutting grass and rolling cricket pitches, of a life under the sun.
Ivan and I cross paths a few times a week, at a suburban beach. He’s on his morning walk. I’m going for my short swim. Or maybe some snorkelling. Or I’m just back from the water, drying off.
“I only walk for two or three hours,” I think he once said, “before the sun gets too high.”
Sometimes we don’t see each other for a little while. A week or two. Missing each other by a few minutes, maybe even by just a few metres.
“The pigeons,” he tells me one day, “they don’t like those mobile-phone towers. Jiggers them up. They lose their sense of direction.”
He had pointed out a flock in the distance. At first I thought it was a smudge in the sky, a whisp of cloud. “They’d be Charlie’s birds. And mine. They’re not racing this morning, just out for some exercise.”
“How far do they race?”
“Depends. Mine can do a few hundred mile. Charlie’s can do up to seven hundred mile.”
The imperial measurements confuse me but I know enough to know seven hundred miles is a lot further than, well, seven hundred kilometres. Which seems a fair hike for a small bird.
“How long’s that take? Seven hundred mile?”
“About two and a half days. Depends of course. The weather, the wind. Falcons. Hawks. And the phone towers. They jigger them up no end. You know that satellite dish up in Parkes, in New South Wales? Birds get lost if they have to fly near there. Lose their bearings. Don’t always come back.”
He tells me, as I’m standing there beside my bike in just my wet bathers, still holding my snorkel, that he’s been racing pigeons since he was a boy. Early 1950s.
“My brothers and I had about twenty pigeons. Our mates too. We’d put the birds in boxes, strap the boxes to our handlebars and ride to Altona. Before the refinery was built, before there was any industry there. Only a few miles away, but far enough. The birds would get home pretty quick. Me and my mates weren’t in any hurry. No telly back then. We’d spend all day outside.”
Modern pigeon racing, I later read on the net, is said to date back to Belgium in the 1850s, stemming from the success of carrier pigeons, also known as homing pigeons, delivering messages behind enemy lines in times of war. Ancient pigeon racing might even go back as far as 2000BC. As a form of communication, I figure, carrier pigeons pre-date Morse code, telegrams, telephones, faxes, emails, mobile phones, Skype…
I don’t tell Ivan my elder brothers had pigeons in Mentone, on the other side of the bay, in the late 1960s, probably for less than a year. I don’t tell him about Sunday drives through the suburbs to a block of farming land, the pigeons cooing in boxes in the back of the station wagon. I’d forget about the pigeons the moment they flew off but was always surprised to see the birds back at home a few hours later. I don’t tell Ivan any of this, because I haven’t got much to tell. Some memories are vague, like a smudge in the sky. Next time you look up, the smudge has gone. Or changed shape.
“I guess pigeon-racing’s not as big as it used to be,” I offer.
“Nah, not anymore. Houses are bigger these days. Backyards are smaller. And some neighbours really kick up a fuss. ” Ivan knows this from bitter experience, having been to court to defend his birds.
“I won, eventually, but lawyers aren’t cheap.” And the neighbours are still next door. In a big house.
Ivan belongs to a pigeon-racing club, with its clubrooms in an industrial estate near the refinery. “That’s where we load our pigeons onto a big truck for a race, and then they’re driven hundreds of mile to the start of the race.”
“Weren’t their some clubrooms, just up the road?” I ask, recalling seeing a sign, years ago, on a building not far from this beach.
“Yeah, that was built in the 1950s. Knocked down a while back.”
I ride past one day. Big house. Two storeys. No backyard.
One morning I mention that part of the convent on the Esplanade is being knocked down. For apartments perhaps.
“The nuns used to swim in the rockpool opposite their place. You know the one?”
I do, I nod. It’s a bit further along the beach, a few hundred yards – metres – away. Good snorkelling spot at high tide.
“I’d see the nuns when I was doing my newspaper round on my bike. Some kids back then thought the nuns were bald because of – what do you call them? – the habits they wore on their head. But of course they had hair! I’d see the nuns coming out of the water when I was doing the paper round. Don’t know if they ever saw me.”
I don’t tell Ivan I was a paper boy too. Not delivering papers in the morning before school, but selling afternoon papers after school. Near Mentone railway station in the late 1960s. Back when there were afternoon newspapers.
I don’t tell him about my nuns at St Patrick’s Primary: Serene Sister Felicity in Grade Two. Jolly Sister Jude in Grade Five. Grumpy Sister Aiden in Grade Six. I don’t know if they went swimming or even if their convent was near the water.
I don’t tell him because there’s not much to tell. Some memories are a bird flying away.
The closest I come to flying is snorkelling. Floating upon the water, a few metres deep, and looking down upon the world: the fish, the stingrays, the sea grasses, the rocks, the urchins, the sand and its patterns.
If there is just sand below me I imagine an aerial view of a desert: its ridges and dunes and undulations, its trails. Its tracks and indentations, its peaks and troughs, it hills and valleys. And how it changes with the wind, with the waves. And then I remember to look up from the desert, to get my bearings, to make sure I haven’t drifted into deeper water.
Ivan was a runner. Marathons. Twenty six miles. All over the world. He crossed the finishing lines in good times. He and his pigeons know a thing or two about long distances.
Marathons, I read, are named after the plain of Marathon in Greece, where the Athenians defeated the Persians in 490 BC, and from which a runner took the news to Athens, just over 40 kilometres away. I imagine the runner setting a fair pace, given the importance of the news. But where, I wonder, were the carrier pigeons that day?
Running, and a lifetime of working outside, have taken their toll on Ivan.
He’s got a pacemaker under his skin, skin scarred by the sun and by surgeons’ scalpels.
He couldn’t go to his daughter’s wedding in London a few years back. “The pacemaker and the long plane flights. Too risky. I was disappointed – gees, I was – but they had a camera and a laptop in the church over there and I was able to watch the wedding at home on Skype. Imagine that!”
I imagine a satellite sending the wedding ceremony from a church on one side of the world to a loungeroom on the other side of the world. A modern day carrier pigeon, conveying messages across hemispheres, over mountains and cities, over backyards and beaches, over refineries and phone towers, convents and sporting fields, over deserts and oceans.
First published in The Big Issue: edition 474 (26 December 2014 to 8 January 2015).
Ivan passed away in early 2019.