Maria’s scream is more of a shock than the pigeons – although, admittedly, there are a lot of pigeons.
‘You see? Do you see them?’ she wails. ‘Argh! Look! It’s disgusting!’
Both houses have a small patio immediately outside the back window, then a few steps down into a sloping garden. Whilst Maria’s lawn is trim and well-kept, the one next door is wild and neglected. Maria’s patio has a neat, white coffee table and two chairs; her neighbour has a rough wooden bird table. The neighbour has covered the bird table in seed, then scattered handfuls more around the base of it. It must have happened just before I arrived, because suddenly the pigeons descend in a great, grey storm, a soft thundering of feathers and excited popping noises. They mass on the table and round the base, climbing over each other, pressing down, using their wings to balance and shoulder advantage, frantically trying to get to the seed. Flapping up. Settling again.
‘Do you see them?’ says Maria, pointing at the window. ‘Do you see them?’
‘I see them. There are quite a few. It must be annoying.’
‘It’s a health hazard! All the poo. The noise. Would you like it?’
‘No. I wouldn’t. Have you spoken to your neighbour?’
‘It doesn’t do any good. She’s not right – up here,’ says Maria, tapping her temple. ‘She wanders. She came to my door in her nightdress. I called the police. All they did was put her back to bed. Her family don’t want to know. Why don’t they take her away and put her in a home? I don’t see why I should have to move.’
‘Have you spoken to environmental health?’
‘Every day. What’s the point? Nothing ever happens. What’s wrong with this country? I work all my life. Build a home with my husband. And now look! He’s passed away and left me with the pigeons.’
I want to ask why she doesn’t draw the curtains on that side of the window, or move the chair so it’s not pointing so directly at the patio. But something about Maria’s expression, the gaunt intensity of it, one eye bigger than the other, the way she grips the arms of her chair so tightly her knuckles whiten, the way she flicks her head between sentences for emphasis, looking for all the world like some giant, hyper-vigilant bird – well, it makes me hesitate.
‘So of course, I fell over,’ she says, as if it was the pigeons’ fault. ‘So the ambulance came and took me down the hospital. Hours and hours on a trolley. Me with my back! And then this person – I don’t even know if she was a doctor or not – I couldn’t understand ‘em – she said she didn’t like the look of my eye, so she packs me off over the road to the Eye Hospital. And I was there for even longer. All these people – walking in, going in ahead of me. I was there first! For what? Five minutes and someone to tell me it looks alright to them. They didn’t even give me an x ray! So they put me in a taxi at four in the morning and sent me home. It’s a disgrace. You wouldn’t treat a dog like that.’
‘I’m sorry you had such a bad experience.’
She stares at the writhing heap of pigeons on the table.
‘You see them, though? Don’t you?’ she says, leaning forward and pointing. ‘You see the pigeons?’
‘I do. I do see them, Maria.’
‘Urgh!’ she says.