WHEN THE BUG BITES
by John Ghent
"Good luck everyone, see you tomorrow night." So I hoped. Thurso is a long way and anything can happen from 420 miles.
My Grandad and I walked back to the car, the old Toulet clock, encased in oak, swinging in my right hand. It was a crisp evening, you could see the stars twinkling away, even this close to the city centre. The hustle and bustle of The Ship Inn was starting to subside as we pulled away from the car park and made our way under the old railway bridge, which was a hive of activity for the local ferals, to head home and try to get some sleep before tomorrow, it could be a long day.
The birds had been basketed the previous evening at the Spinney Hill WMC, the reason for our visit to The Ship this July evening was just for the clock setting. As always conversations about tomorrow's big race, the final one of the old bird season, had dominated the evening. This race could make or break your season, it was the last one that everybody would remember going into the young bird season, the last chance to show your fellow fanciers what you were made of!
My Grandad and I chatted on the way home. "Do you think there'll get them away tomorrow?"
"I should think so Mush, forecast not too bad, got to get them away fairly early, it's a long way and got to give the birds a chance."
"Have you ever been to Thurso Grandad?"
"Nooooo, too far for me! I only went on a few shorter races. Mick's been no end of times though, says it is like the end of the Earth! He reckons when you look out to the sea from the liberation site you can see nothing but water, then look inland and there is nothing but grass!"
We strolled up the entry, I still had the clock, and we went in through the back door and into the kitchen. I put the clock down on the table with a thud and scared my Grandma in the living room.
"Bloody hell Johnny, thought someone had had crashed their car!"
"Careful Mush, that's got to clock the winner tomorrow."
Although he said it with a fleeting smile, as if to be joking, I knew my Grandad held out some hope for tomorrow. We had sent a team of 6, a mixture of older birds and yearlings. One or two in particular we could be fairly optimistic about.
My Grandma was in her usual spot on the sofa, feet on the old brown stool which had been a fixture in the house since before I could remember. It was pretty late but my Grandma always stayed up to wait for us to come back from the club, a real pigeon fancier’s wife! Within 5 minutes of our arrival my Grandma retired upstairs to leave my Grandad and I talking about pigeons yet again. We could talk all night, I would ask the questions and Grandad would give the answers. Always so descriptive, with so much passion, it felt like I was really there with him when he was describing an experience from 10,20,30 years ago even. He would talk about the old days and lots of fanciers in Newfoundpool, terraced yards, beans, peas and tares, successes at Lerwick and heroic failures. I was always mesmerised, the stories would illuminate my dreams and give me hope that one day I would experience a sport and hobby like my Grandad enjoyed all those years ago.
I awoke the following morning with sleep in my eye, somewhat disorientated. It's always the same when you don't sleep in your own bed isn't it? That said, I seemed to be spending more and more nights at the Grandparents with each passing week, such was my fascination with the feathered athletes in the garden. I made my way down stairs and got to the bottom just as Grandma was heading upstairs to get dressed.
"Grandad's up the garden."
"Are the birds up yet?"
"No idea, you better go and ask him."
I spun on my heels and bounded back up stairs, two at a time.
"Take your time......."
The voice disappeared as I burst into my bedroom to chuck my clothes on. Before Grandma was even in the bathroom as I was shooting back downstairs to get up the garden as quickly as I could.
"DON'T FORGET TO HAVE BREAKFAST!!!" My Grandma shouted from the bathroom.
Breakfast was the last thing on my mind as I flew up the garden at rate of knots.
"Morning Grandad, are they up yet?"
"Morning? It's nearly 8:30, it's nearly dinner time," he replied with a chortle.
"So are they up then?" I was becoming impatient.
"Yep, 6 o'clock in a light North wind. Perfect for them with this weather as well."
I hadn't even noticed! Not a cloud in the sky! As we know the weather in this country is changeable at best so I wasn't quite as confident as Grandad but it was a beautiful morning all the same. We went about the loft chores in tandem, we worked well together that morning, it all felt like it was coming together. All sections cleaned out, fed the birds, water changed in all sections and a bath in the aviary for the stock birds. I looked at the clock on the side of the loft, 10:04. Still a while to wait yet. Time for breakfast!
Although a few wispy clouds had developed towards the West of the city, the view over the allotments was clear, as it was in the direction of North. Looking over the other gardens at the estate you could see straight up between two rows of houses, built in parallel with each other, it was like viewing the world through a great valley of bricks and mortar. On race days if we were fortunate enough to get a bird come in that direction it was as if the valley acted as a vacuum and the bird would race down it, pitching onto the landing board that lay in wait. Would that be the case today?
The nerves were starting to creep up on me, I hadn't felt this way once since getting involved with the pigeons. Why was I so tense? Was it the sense of expectation that today could be the day? The day that that we "get one", a good one that is! Without realising it I was starting to make a small trench in the grass from pacing back and forth with my hands in my pocket! Grandad was feeding the fish and was busy with that hellish of all tasks, the removal of blanket weed! The weed came out like thick, green candy floss, he wrapped it around a stick and was pulling it out in sheets.
"Mush, come and sit down, I'll have to re-lay that bit of turf if you walk on it any more!"
"Sorry Grandad, dunno what's up with me?"
"I do, I've been there before. If he comes, he comes. If he doesn't, there's nowt you or I can do about it. What do I always say? Once they're in the air you can't ask um to come back!"
He was right, he was always right about pigeons! I sunk onto the picnic bench which sat on an angle in the middle of the second lawn, between the pond and the loft. The corn tin was on the table top so I started to undertake the most relaxing of all tasks, peeling peas! I find it most therapeutic to peel a few peas whilst waiting for the birds, takes my mind off things. The blanket weed was still being a formidable foe and I wondered how much was actually in the pond, I was surprised there was enough room for any fish in there! As we both went about our tasks, some more useful than others, the silence was broken.....
Grandma.....it was her catchphrase! Everybody in the family knew it and most pigeon men knew it as well. The thing about it, when she bellowed up the garden from the conservatory, the receiver was still very close to her mouth. I am sure there are several pigeon men in Leicester that owe their hearing aids to my Grandma, such was the volume of that all too familiar sound. We both plodded down the garden for Grandad to speak with one of his pals. I had given up asking who it was many moons ago as it could have been any one of a thousand and one men that he knew through their mutual fascination of the birds. As Grandad chatted away about various issues, Grandma made me a sandwich, I had a drink of juice and kicked my shoes off to sit at the kitchen table. The conversation must have lasted a good 15-20 minutes, Grandad's sandwich was staring at him, he looked hungry as well and on more than one occasion he tried to cut the conversation short, eager to fill his belly with the cheese and tomato sandwich, thick white bread it was as well.
We put the plates into the sink and sat back at the table. Grandad in the chair next to the pantry and I was perched opposite. The chair I sat in normally had its back to the door into the conservatory but I swivelled it 90 degrees, faced into the kitchen with my back against the wall, my feet pulled up onto the chair in a crouched position. The conversation returned to the race today. Was Grandad now starting to feel a little tense, I sensed he was.
"How long do you reckon then Mush?"
It was now 2:21, nearly 8 and a half hours on the wing.
"Well 10 hours would have them at 42 mph so I would say 4:30."
"I think they'll be a bit quicker than that with the North wind, I reckon closer to 3:30."
2:23, 2:24, 2:25....... Two more hours of this would be a bloody nightmare. The negative thoughts that no doubt all pigeon men get started racing through my mind. Would we get one? What if we're miles behind? Did they clear OK?
2:30, 2:31........All hell broke loose......
"F*#% ME HE'S HERE!!!!!"
My head spun round to glance up the garden following my Grandad's outburst and there he was, the blue clock was here, I couldn't believe it! Time stopped..........I was like a statue, Grandad pushed by, slapped me on the shoulder, we had no shoes on....
"MUSH, MUSH, GRAB THE CLOCK, IN THE LIVING ROOM, I'VE GOT THE THIMBLE!"
I snapped out of my trance like state and dashed into the living room, I yanked the handle of the wooden box encasing the old Toulet and hot-footed it up the garden after Grandad. He was taking the board off the trap to let "46" in, I stood in the lobby waiting for him to drop in so I could enter the loft. We were both still in our socks. I pushed through the sliding door, placed the clock in the trap and got the thimble ready, I was trembling. Grandad took "46" from his box, ripped the rubber off and placed into the thimble, I closed the thimble together, dropped it into the clock, Grandad struck the levers, we were in.
Wow, that's probably the most emotionally charged piece I have written to date, I had goosebumps just remembering the moment when I looked up the garden and seen him stood there, about 100 foot away. It was 18 years ago. GB 93 F 13946, what a pigeon, a quiet blue cock who had spent a year in the stock loft of a gentleman in Milton Keynes as a yearling. If memory serves me correctly we had won the South Leicester until the back nominations started coming through, the Aitchieson Brothers had beaten us, but the blue cock finished 2nd club, 8th Fed.
For me that was the moment that the pigeon bug bit hard. I had been interested for 2 years or so but this was the event that tipped me over the edge. Think back to that one time that did it for you. There will be one. It may have been 5 years after you first started, it may have been 5 minutes, but it's there somewhere. Sit down and re-live it as many times as you can during the winter months, this is what keeps me going when the nights are dark and it's damp outside. Forget about the money in the sport, the bickering, the heartache, and just remember the great times. We lost "46" from Seaham Harbour the following year at about 150 miles; he was being prepped for Thurso again. Cherish the moments of success - you never know when you will get another one. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't go to plan. This hobby of ours has a habit of bringing you back down to Earth with a bump if it wants to. Lastly, just have fun!
83, Newport Street
Elimar - November 2014