The Flying Rats Part 1 by Alexander Keeble

Jase sits on a hand-painted stool in the middle of the alley, smoking. Pigeons coo and mingle around him; he doesn’t kick them away. The stool is spectacular, the mottled rainbow creation of one of the artists who works in the community studio upstairs. Jase found it on the roof, toppled over and abandoned, and when he stopped in at the studio to give it back, an old woman with a bit of a beard said, “It’s yours babe, it’s got your name on it.”

Don’t call me babe, Jase thought, but the lady was genuine and besides, he wanted the stool.

Today, he wants everyone to appreciate its three-legged beauty, which is why he’s perched himself in the middle of the alley. But he doesn’t really want to be looked at himself, so he avoids eye contact with anyone passing. It’s a difficult balancing act.

“Cool chair, Jase.”

“Yep.”

He has a lot of mates here already, and he’s only been in Wellington a few months. He is young and handsome. He sweeps his long hair back into a pony-tail. At second glance, he has the face of a woman. He only ever wears loose shorts with workman’s boots and thick socks rolled down into cylinders. He has great legs – his best asset, people used to say – he carries himself like a dancer.

The alley he’s perched in is a universe of pigeons. They coo and sound more like cats or mammals. They don’t whistle – maybe that’s why they’re exiles from the bird kingdom. They spend all their energy in flight, wings describing fast half circles as they scatter into the air. So exhausting. They’re such unlikely travellers, and yet they’re all over the world.

So many pigeons, and they keep doubling in numbers. The city wants them gone – culling them with poison and anti-roosting metal spikes. Like others seeking refuge, the pigeons have gathered here in the alley. Jase loves their contradictions. Their grey feathers are dull and dirty, and when the massive bull pigeons puff themselves up for a fight, or a fuck, they are the ugliest birds around. Yet the smaller birds – the younger or less aggressive ones – move with grace. They wear their iridescent green and lilac wings like robes. Their pearl-coloured eyelids blink gently, front to back. They mate for life and show off less than their dovish cousins. Why they’re targeted by the city and not other birds seems illogical to Jase.

Later that evening, after the drop-in centre has closed and all its staff have gone home, Jason uses the pass card no one knows he has to get back in. There’s a false wall in the corridor on the fourth floor, where he’s stashed a sleeping bag and other supplies. He pulls out the panelling and reaches in for the boxes of breadcrumbs and bird seed and comes back down to the alley to feed the pigeons. The rich, ignorant landlord thinks the birds come here for no reason, can’t figure out how to get rid of them and won’t spend the money trying. They come for food. Why not?

After a feed, the pigeons drift up to roost in the rooftop carpark. The exposed ceiling of struts and sheets of corrugated plastic is covered in guano and the pigeons call out in human voices. Coo, move over, I’m cold. Move over, move over.

Some of them are so sick he can tell they won’t live to see the next day. They’ll crawl beneath the bushes of the scrappy rooftop garden bed, or huddle into the guttering, and give up. A lot of them die. He’s the only one in all of Community House to bother cleaning up the bodies. Well, there’s the lawyer from the legal service. She has a thick accent, maybe Russian? She’s young and loves the pigeons too. Sometimes she takes the sick ones to the SPCA. If she thinks they might get better she hides them in boxes under her desk. She tells him this in a whisper, as if she’s under surveillance.

Sometimes, if it’s a nice day, he takes the dead ones to the park up the road, Volunteer Corner, which is full of low scrub and fern. He picks his way through the greenery, lifts the birds out of his bag, and places them where they can’t be seen. Scatters a bit of dirt and some leaves across their feathers. Once or twice he’s dug holes, but passersby think he’s stealing the plants, so he doesn’t do it anymore.

But most of the time in this city it seems to be windy or raining, and there’s so many pigeons he normally just wraps them up in newspaper and walks them to the rubbish bin out on Willis Street. People think he’s throwing away fish and chips, but if they looked closely they’d see he never tosses the parcels, but places them with reverence into the darkness.