Do you think they miss us?’ I say to my wife. I’m really speaking to myself, she being unmoved by this wistful reflection. This is because she lacks my sparkling emotional range, but also because I say this kind of thing all the time, and the effect has somewhat diminished.
In fairness, even her blackened heart might have softened had I been wondering about the friends from whom we’re now cut off, or the family members we can no longer hug and hold. I’m not. I’m talking about the pigeons again. Specifically, the growing army of them that now flout social distancing regulations to form scraggly clumps of four or five in the middle of our road.
‘They must know we’re not leaving our houses any more,’ I continue. Seen from an upstairs window – as the outside world must now be viewed – our avian neighbours look like a scruffy gang of bemused prisoners who woke to find their cells unlocked, unsure what to do with newfound freedom, or whether they even want it. A few days ago they started congregating and now they spend each early morning pacing futile circles on deserted streets, in an oddly defiant shift towards pedestrianism.
I have time for such deliberations since I’ve partially suspended my working life. My wife takes the eight till four slot in the boy’s room. I take his two-hour nap to type in the kitchen, and whatever I can fit in after four, before we do bedtime, make dinner and relax over a depressing box set while I talk about pigeons.
You may be confused, perhaps even angry, that her work takes precedent over my own. You’re right, of course. My writing has provided so much comfort and wellbeing to the public, I should probably be classified as a member of the NHS. But she has an important job at a charity, helping the response to the biggest pandemic for a century. After much deliberation it was agreed that ‘writing gently amusing descriptions of things’ comes second.
My son, at least, is engaging with me. ‘A bird!’ he adds. ‘A bird. Aaaaa biiird. A bird.’ He hasn’t yet grasped plurals, so offers this same exclamation for each one he sees. He first started doing this in the park, but since we’ve reduced his outside time to one brisk walk each day, we do the bird-counting from the window now.
We worry about him being cooped up, but he seems content to see the world through glass. Dolphins may not have returned to Venetian canals, nor frolicking penguins to the newly clear waters of the Liffey, but a few weeks’ worth of lessening traffic does, apparently, cause this corner of Hackney’s birdlife to abandon flight, and freelance writers to grow wistful for the outside world.
One day soon we will return to the streets, kissing every bus stop. But, for now, we’re safe, healthy, worried and bored. Let the pigeons have their turn.