This is a fictional short story, in 1520 words
Eric knew the best time to get to the small supermarket. He knew exactly when they would reduce all the soon-to-be out of date loaves of bread, usually cutting the price to a quarter of what it had been a few minutes earlier. The young man knew Eric by sight, and smiled as he stuck the reduced labels onto the plastic packaging. He guessed the elderly man would most likely buy them all, as he did most days. And he was right, as Eric walked forward and piled them all into his basket, having to carry the four that didn’t fit. It didn’t matter to him if they were white sliced, wholemeal, brown, or granary. And it certainly wouldn’t matter to the birds he would feed them to, he knew that.
Back at his tower block, Eric was sure the broken lift would not have been fixed. He hardly glanced at the Out Of Order sign as he began the long walk to the sixth floor with his bags of shopping. But almost half a lifetime spent in the services, and later in other jobs that kept him fit stood him in good stead. He wasn’t even out of breath as he turned the key in the front door lock. Hanging up his coat, he took the bags through to the kitchen, and began his routine. A special knife, two wooden chopping boards, and some large plastic bags. Once it was all laid out on the work surface, he began unwrapping the loaves, and cutting each slice of bread into tiny pieces. Then the pieces were deposited in one of the plastic bags, to keep them fresh until tomorrow morning.
It took a very long time to do this carefully, but it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do.
When he was almost done, he saved the last two slices, and made himself a cheese sandwich with them. Despite supposedly being out of date, the bread tasted fine to him. Washing it down with a cup of tea, he went to sit in the small armchair by the kitchen table, and switched on the radio. There would be a play on later, and once he had listened to that, he would get ready for bed. No need to use the living room anymore. It had been years since he had bothered with the TV, and there was nothing to see from the balcony, except the car park.
Almost thirty years in the navy had left Eric with no time to meet a wife, or start a family. During his last tour on ship, he had been informed that his mother had died, and offered leave to go home and attend the funeral. But he wanted to see out the tour with his pals, so left it all to his older sister to sort out. Once the navy was finished with him, they found him a job as a security guard. Lots of walking around empty buildings, and always working alone. He had got used to it in time, and the radio had become his best friend. He knew the times of all the best shows, including the plays, and discussion programmes.
But then retirement had followed his sixty-fifth birthday, and he wondered how he would fill his days.
One morning, he went for a walk in the local park, stopping to rest on a bench to eat a sandwich he had brought from home. Almost immediately, he was surrounded by pigeons. They were bold, happily walking right up to his shoes, to eat the tiny crumbs falling from his lunch. He started to peel off slivers of the crust, and drop them on the ground, delighted to see dozens more of the birds appearing, tussling over the bread, and cooing excitedly. He resolved to bring more bread the next day, so that they would all get at least one piece.
What started with a few slices soon became a whole loaf. Then two loaves, until he was carrying two in each hand, bought from the small supermarket just for that purpose. It became something Eric did, and stuck to in all weathers, seven days a week. He began to recognise some of the birds, and named them in his head. There was Twisty, whose deformed right leg faced the wrong way. Hoppy, a bird born with one leg significantly shorter, and Long John Silver, a bird with one eye. After the first week of this, Eric could see the huge number of birds waiting by the bench for his usual time of arrival. As soon as he sat down, they fluttered around him. Many were keen enough to take the bread from his hand, but he still never had enough to go round.
It wasn’t long before Eric turned his pigeon feeding into an art form. The careful cutting of the slices into tiny squares, the plastic bags to keep it fresh, and special large bags to transport the bounty to the waiting birds. Then he discovered the cheap reduced price loaves, something that saved him a lot of money. After the first year of his retirement, feeding the pigeons had become what Eric did. It gave him purpose, a reason to get ready to go out, and a regular routine that made him feel relaxed in his mind. He couldn’t imagine his life without the park, the bench, and the pigeons.
That morning was crisp and clear, and Eric wrapped up well against the cold. Despite the bright sky, it was very chilly. Carrying his two special bags, he didn’t even bother to try the always broken lift, and just walked down to the street. He knew it would take exactly fourteen minutes to get to the park, and he also knew that the pigeons would be waiting. No sooner had he sat down and reached into the first bag, then close to one hundred birds were around him. Most stayed on the ground, bobbing up and down as they waited expectantly. Others tried to gain an advantage by flying onto the bench, and the really brave ones actually settled on his legs and shoulders. Eric smiled as he flung handfuls of the neat squares around, making sure that the birds at the back got their chance too. He spotted Hoppy, amazed how long his old friend had managed to survive.
The young woman walking toward him looked stern. In many ways, she looked more like a man, with close-cropped hair, shiny boots, and a green uniform. But he could tell by her face and complexion that she was female, and he smiled as she approached. Her tone was officious, deliberately unfriendly. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be feeding these pigeons, Sir?” She sneered out the ‘Sir’, as if reluctant to add the respectful term. The birds had scattered as she approached, but were soon back, rather than miss out on the bread. Eric looked up at her, reading the Council logo on the front of her polo shirt. “No, I didn’t. I have been feeding them every day for over a year. That’s what I do”. The woman shook her head, and removed a small notebook from a pouch at her waist. “Well not anymore you don’t. These things are dirty, and they are a pollution hazard too, with all their droppings. Besides, any bread they don’t eat attracts rats. The Council has banned bird-feeding, there’s a sign by the main gate. The fine is up to two hundred pounds you know”.
Eric flung another handful as he stared up at her. “I don’t come in the main gate, I use the side gate by the canal towpath. No signs there, not that I have seen”. She opened the notebook. “Please stop feeding them now. And I mean now. I suggest you put the rest of that bread in the bin over there, and go about your business. I will be taking your name and address, and issuing with a warning. If I see you here again, it will be a fine. Get it? Now, what’s your name and address?” It never even occurred to Eric to give her false details, and he supplied his real name and address. He watched as she picked up both bags and walked to the bin, emptying the contents deep inside. The confused birds gathered around the bin, seeing the woman as a potential new feeder.
She walked back to the bench and handed him the empty bags.”I did it for you, save you the trouble. Now you are welcome to use all the facilities of the park, but no more bird-feeding”. With that, she walked off, a smug grin on her face. Eric sat for a while, then stood up and walked to the bin. He stuffed the two bags inside, on top of the bread. He would have no further use for them now. As he walked back along the towpath, he wondered what he would do tomorrow, and who might buy the reduced loaves that evening.
And he hoped they had fixed the lift by now.