My dad, his birds, and me

My dad became a pigeon fancier after buying a pair, quite randomly, from a bloke that he met at a pub.  It was only when he got home that he realised that he had nowhere to keep them. Undeterred he emptied out and dismantled one of my mum’s cupboards. Frantically chopping and sawing, he bought and added more wood until he ended up with a huge white ‘loft’ which covered most of our tiny square of garden. It was fit for a pigeon king.

To my mum’s dismay, it wasn’t long before he added to his stock of birds.  Fed with the best pellet mix, they grew glossy, sleek, and fit and before we knew it, dad was embroiled in the pigeon racing club.  The birds would go off in their baskets on Friday evening, and we would spend every Saturday afternoon standing out in the garden rattling tins of food, and waiting for the pigeons to come gliding back home.  When they arrived my sister and I were drafted in to catch them quickly, remove the rubber rings from their legs and ‘clock’ them.

I used to love the pigeons. They were quite tame and were happy to be handled.  Dad taught me how to hold them correctly, and I knew each and every one by name.  So I was thrilled when one day Dad turned up at home with a present for me of two pure white fan-tailed doves.  I had never seen anything quite as beautiful or majestic.  Their shiny black button eyes were set into soft snowy feathers, their cooing was gentle and musical, and their tails when raised made a perfect half circle.  I bonded with them instantly.

However, despite their being ‘mine’, Dad had plans for these beauties. He was to be a magician.

Actually, he had always rather fancied himself as a bit of a magician.  He could pull a penny from behind your ear as good as anyone.  He could make a handkerchief disappear in front of your very eyes.  And now, he practiced and practiced until he could make doves appear from nowhere.  He practiced until he perfected his act enough to offer his services as performance artiste at the local conservative club.

Mum said she had never been so embarrassed in her life.

It was a Saturday night and the large smoke filled club was full.  There was a genial, drink mellowed atmosphere and apparently the act had started quite well with polite applause, and maybe a cheer or two, when Dad did his first couple of comparatively simple tricks. His sleight of hand was quite impressive and the crowd was attentive.  Half an hour later, a recorded drum-roll signalled the big finale and the doves were produced with a flourish. TaDa!

Unfortunately, they had become a little skittish having been jammed in a bag up my dad’s sleeve for so long, and decided to make a hasty bid for escape.  So instead of sitting politely on his hand as they had been trained to do, they flew up to the ceiling and round and round the hall, getting increasingly panicked and creating chaos.  Women were squealing as the men leapt about knocking over drinks and tables in their efforts to corner the fleeing birds. Mum said it took them nearly two hours to catch them.

I never saw them again. And dad didn’t do magic much after that either come to think of it.

He did carry on racing pigeons though, and had some success.  He became the secretary of the local pigeon club and it was in that capacity that the local paper came to him and asked if he would help to organise the release of pigeons from the roof of the local Granada cinema to mark the premier of the film ‘Custer of the West’.  He was, of course, happy to oblige, and arranged for the pigeons to be taken up in their special quick release baskets on the said Saturday afternoon.  They were not only his pigeons, but those of the rest of the club members too, and it was to be the start of a proper, timed, race.

Rather than having old men in their pigeon-pooed-on clothes to open the cages, dad had hired two young models to do the job. Unfortunately though, one of the said young lovelies was taken ill.  Undaunted, dad announced that I would be happy to stand in for her. Now, I was a skinny, underdeveloped, shy 14 year old at the time, so was mortified when I was marched off to a back office and given a white, plastic, rather inaccurate, ‘indian squaw’ outfit to change into.  The model whose costume I was forced to wear must have been of the Amazonian type, as the fringed dress was huge and the moccasins were a size 6 and wouldn’t stay on my size 4 feet. The elaborate feathered headdress constantly fell over my eyes and was stopped from slipping down round my neck only by my sticky out ears.  Dad didn’t seem concerned though as he, the manager of the cinema, the mayor, the other model and I climbed the usually off limits stairs that led to the parapet above the grand entrance to the old cinema. The gathered crowds and members of the press waited eagerly below.

The plan was that I and the proper model would pose either side of the roof while the mayor and the manager both gave speeches.  In the event, she posed in her properly fitting, mini skirted outfit, while I skulked, embarrassed, tepee like, towards the back.

The sun shone on us, the crowds clapped, and, speeches done, it was time for the big moment.  Dad had made it quite clear, briefing us at length on how to work the cage releases, and telling us with words of one syllable, that we should make sure the birds all flew off at the same time so that the race was fair..  We stepped forward, Hiawatha and mini-haha.  I tripped on my wayward moccasin, my head-dress went over my eyes blinding me.  I was thrashing about desperately trying to lift the head-dress and find the release at the same time, but before I knew it, Hiawatha’s birds were thronging off into the sky whilst mine were still behind bars.  Dad was bellowing at me to pull the cord out and shoved me unceremoniously out of the way.  Cursing rather too loudly he hastily managed to release the captives himself.

I’d fluffed his big moment. He was furious and in a huff,  barely speaking to me, for the rest of the day.  I’m not sure anyone else noticed though, and the crowds loved it.  I got free tickets to see the film, and our pictures were in the local paper.

Eventually of course Dad tired of his pigeons, and they were sold off, the loft dismantled, and a new hobby ensued.  She was the barmaid at the conservative club.

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