Screws, metal brackets, exterior grade plywood, white paint. I bought it all for sixty pounds, dug about in the old chest in the shed for tools I haven’t seen for years and struggled to find, set up in the sinking heat of the patio and failed to put it together, split the timber, the saw head had rust kinks, kicked a box of pins into the bushes, I’ll never find them all.
Where are they going to live? I cannot build them a home with my bare hands.
Keeping calm is essential. Raising living things is never easy. Money is not an issue. I eat less than I used to and seldom go out.
Bought a new one, pre-made, two hundred pounds, a stack of wasted ply gathering damp next to the azaleas and a bucket of paint I don’t need, but now at least the house is there, greyer than I’d like, no fly-pen, they’ll have the sky and that should be enough, slots instead of holes in a cliff, no decorative woodwork or frills.
I bolted it to the wall of my own home. I guess we’ll be able to call each other neighbours. A net is now needed to keep them inside. Six weeks, water and seed and no freedom, then I can let them loose to see if they come back.
Doves and pigeons share the same blood, but it is pure, white rock doves that I want, not pigeons with their smut feathers, making the fences creak under their bulk. They recommend the rock dove for beginners because of its homing instinct, vital, since it is not their wheeling about in the world that matters most, it is that they find their way back.
I wanted to find out about their ancestors and cousins. My daughter began a family tree for us but she abandoned it when it grew boring. The roots went back three generations, showing our kin to be stubbornly native to the English soil. The furthest afield they go is Margate, a man called Peter Bentley, my great-great-grandfather. Had plenty of children down in Margate, few outlived their dad, according to the tree.
Not like my doves. They have brothers and sisters everywhere. Only the Sahara and the coldest hells of the Arctic have kept them out. The local library had a decent book, tinted photos, laminate and heavy, out of breath by the time I’d carried it home and there were patches of rain all the way, but I wanted to buy them all once I had seen them in those pages.
Yes, the places they’ve mapped. The eared doves of the South Americas, floating from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego on hot winds, though not as hot as those lifting their Sub-Saharan cousin, the laughing dove, cackling away like a child in the scrub and the dry farmlands. They are not as beautiful nor as sonorous as the golden whistling dove, marooned on Kadavu Island, shrilling out a clear, rising call which the book describes as having a cadence which falls away twinkling, whatever that means, but it sounds just fine. The crowned pigeon of New Guinea, the world’s largest dove, broad as a turkey, blue and shining like a peacock, with red devil eyes that must scare the villagers in their huts at night, too big for my garden or the cote, it could tear it from the wall. They are rare birds, peeked at and celebrated by enthusiasts with expensive binoculars and plenty of air miles, hunted down to their last slim patches. So important to have a homing instinct. Not like the Eurasian collared dove, homes everywhere, a true conqueror, stretching the whole length of the Silk Road and beyond, the Western continent through the Middle-East, India, Pakistan, the misty peaks of China, it can handle the heat and the wet and the winter, it has yet to be culled.
My doves cost ten pounds each. The farmer’s market had too many to choose from but the woman said ‘That’s a family there’ and pointed to a ruffled, jittery box in the boot of her car, so I took them all, seven in total, seven young rock doves, white as blindspots left by the sun, only a few blemishes. They won’t need to brave the Tibetan wilds or the Fijian gulf. They will be ringed by the A12, residential estates and the quiet woods on the horizon. When the weather turns they’ll have a roof. I’ll make sure there is always food.
I emailed an expert with my plans. Apparently six weeks is too long to keep them caged, they’ll lose their strength, better to net them in for a fortnight and then hope for the best. I don’t want to risk anything, so I’ll keep them locked for one month, a compromise.
The expert said I was right to get them young, before they’ve found their bearings. Old doves have a tendency to launch themselves in the direction of old memories and old cotes. Apparently they often get lost and confused on the way, although how anyone can tell they are lost I don’t know. You also need a group, the email said, at least five strong. Any less and they abandon the loft at first flight, gunning for a more active colony. They need a large enough family if they’re going to stay in one place.
My daughter visited for lunch and when she saw them pecking at the net she said I was cruel to keep them bound up like that. I explained to her that they’d soon have the freedom of the wild as well as the safety of a domestic cell, and what could be more agreeable than that, but she disapproved. It was the first time I’d seen her in almost two years.
I burnt a packaged quiche in the oven and out of embarrassment said I’d made the whole thing from scratch. She looked like she was going to say something but said nothing, which means she knew I was lying.
I asked her about her husband and she said she was divorced, that I’d been told about it ages ago. We watched an Attenborough documentary before she left and when a Somalian dove appeared on-screen it took me by surprise and I spilled my tea. My daughter didn’t find it funny.
Why doves? It’s a question she asked and a question I ask myself every afternoon when I walk out onto the lawn to count them, absurd, because they’ve no chance of escape while the net is down, but it gives me great joy even to see them stationary and ringed with mesh, and I think it’s important to inquire after the causes of joy.
I couldn’t give my daughter a satisfactory answer, other than that they were beautiful birds, that I couldn’t wait to free them. She asked if I would put a net over the loft at night and I said of course not, once they’re free they’re free.
Nothing is harder than taking down the mesh, and the waiting. I wanted to leave it another week but I’m afraid of ruining their wings. Secateurs, a sharp tug, the door was open, and a pause in which I felt as nervous as the doves reckoning with their brave new world before they dropped into it, wondering if they’d prefer to stay inside forever, but then they gushed and spun away, furious in their unity, bound for the hedgerow and whatever they sought beyond.
They disappeared. I knew I was going to have to get used to all this.
I spent most of the day in the garden weeding the vegetable beds, but really I was waiting for their return and the weeding was only to keep warm. I’m not planning on growing anything in the ground I stripped.
The light began to fail and I was anxious. I found an old camping torch in my own loft, sat on the patio with two coats on, wondering whether doves could fly abroad at night, or if they had found somewhere better suited, or were they lost and how could anyone tell? I wish I’d sent more emails to the expert. I am ill prepared for everything.
They came back at half past six, when most light I could see by was coming from street lamps through the cherry trees. They were not so tightly packed when they returned, their formation had loosened, as if a day in a new sky had given them confidence in space and privacy.
After that first flight they do not bunch and follow each other so much. They pick their own divergent paths, fledgling independence, sometimes disappearing in twos or threes, or alone. I am learning to enjoy the feeling of them being out there above the houses, invisible to myself, seen by others, the feeling of throwing spirals of light into the suburbs, a hushed rising of fresh feathers, curious as tame dreams, stark in the dull seap of the woodlands and the scalped fields. I wonder if children with their parents catch them lingering on the edges of local parks, or green spaces even further out, spaces I have never visited, and do they wonder where they have come from, seeing that they cannot be from here?
I can never imagine them eating when they are away. Do they steal from other birds? I am certain my doves do not go chasing the worms and dregs of the earth, gutted up by tractors, not like the hungry gulls that dive, far from the coast, and what are they even doing so far from the sea, spinning over the grim farms and the mud? No, my doves are not gulls or pinched, frantic wrens. No other bird was chosen by Noah to check the receding of the flood, and he could choose from all the birds in the world.
I emailed my daughter to let her know of their progress, with a list of famous dovekeepers so she can see I’m not alone. Robespierre; Nikola Tesla; Picasso, who even named his daughter Paloma, an affectionate term meaning ‘pigeon’ in Spanish; Mike Tyson, in need of some gentle balancing; Queen Victoria; Yul Brynner, who was known to take private helicopter rides in order to look down on the aerial performance of his birds, to marvel at the patterns they carve when seen from space. I will never get to see these shapes from above, the arcs and strands of a silent language no scientist can unpack, but I can imagine them from the ground, and every morning I get to watch my doves departing for their day of pattern weaving.
My daughter has not yet responded.
I’ve had a complaint from an elderly neighbour, Mr Harsnett, even older than myself. He’s a war veteran, Parkinson’s disease creeping in, stiff grip on his cane which shakes even when he’s not angry. I can imagine him wearing his medals every Sunday, can imagine him wearing them in bed.
He says my ‘pigeons’ are defecating on his car and scrabbling across the roof of his kitchen like rats. I held back from saying that they are doves, asked him instead if he had heard of Cher Ami, the homing pigeon, awarded the Croix de Guerre for delivering the message that saved the Lost Battalion of the 77th Infantry Division, Battle of the Argonne, 1916. He looked blankly through me and said he wanted me to pay for regular car washes, then left, although he came back later to tell me I’d got the date wrong, that the battle was in 1918 and that it lasted almost fifty days.
My doves do not scrabble, they drift. There is no violence or noise in them. Medieval naturalists concluded they have no bile, no anger, which is partly true because they don’t have gallbladders. I told Mr Harsnett that I’d pay for one car wash every six months, delivered my decision in a folded letter through his door. He posted one back days later saying that he’ll throw stones at them every time they trespass on his garden.
I opened a bottle of port I’d been given as a present ten years ago, drank half of it in one sitting. The first glasses calmed my nerves but then I felt giddily sick, and when I lay in bed all I could see were rock doves dropping from the sky, bent wings and crying, strung out on rhododendron bushes, or the tight branches of conifers, prickles and thorns, thick lines of dark blood at the beak’s edge, hanging like spoilt pheasants.
In the morning I rushed out to count them and found two were missing. The rest were calm and huddled together.
I’ll kill any man who touches my doves, I said in another email to my daughter, then regretted sending it. When I marched round to Mr Harsnett’s house I surprised us both by being very tearful. The veteran said he hadn’t seen my doves and if he did he wouldn’t hurt them. I went back to wait in the garden.
My doves are supposed to breed. They cannot abandon the nest. A colony needs numbers. I think of the fortified cotes of the Upper Nile, or the domed lofts of Iran, the bird-keeping of the ancients in the parched air before Christ, thousands of wings, the dung cherished and kept for fertiliser, not washed impatiently from the windscreens of parked BMWs. I think of the Chateau d’Aulney, its stone folly of two thousand slots, a status of power, heraldry, family pride, a pivot for the surrounding countryside and its birds to hold onto. Alexander Wilson was a botanist who claimed to have seen a flock of two billion passenger pigeons. Imagine that much weight in the air, the noise of the rush, the displacement of an entire atmosphere, and where is that species now, eaten and plucked into submission, extinct like their dumb, trusting ancestors, the dodo and the moa, which saw men for the first time stepping ashore from narrow canoes and did not know to run.
My daughter emailed back to say I should not be so ridiculous, but I have lost another bird. I scanned the cote before I went to bed and there were only four left. I tried to sleep all the way until dawn, staggered out with a strange head into the frost and a pink, rising sun in the east. It had not returned overnight.
The remaining siblings look uncertainly at each other, as if they are not sure of what is next. Where can they find another home if the one they have is emptying? Why didn’t the others take them with them when they fled?
No one knows how they navigate, or what trails they can see in the air. Some say they have a sense of smell more powerful than sharks. Others say they have internal, celestial clocks, steering by the sun and the moon and perhaps even the stars. Scientists wonder if they have sensory glands allowing them to see the earth’s magnetic fields as physical stripes, bending intensities in the ether. Or do they simply follow the lines that humans leave, train rails, telegraph poles, motorways? Is it the natural swing of rivers, the contours of hills? Do they know why they are leaving? What does it mean to them, to burn outwards, homing towards something they have never seen, or are they pulled by memory, like hauled anchors?
I am not giving up yet. Raising living things is never easy. I have to leave the garden for now and go indoors. The morning has turned over. There are grey and blunt clouds coming in low, but that is not a problem. No, it is when it rains and when it rains heaviest, that is when they come back to rest, cooped under the roof.
Rob Yates is a young writer currently based in London. He has released a book of poems entitled The Distance Between Things, and has had work appear via Agenda, Envoi, Bodega, and other literary magazines. Some of his writing can be found through www.rob-yates.co.uk.