The Big Issue : Edition 474
18 THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2014 – 8 JAN 2015 HE TELLS ME about the pigeons. Racing pigeons. He tells me about the nuns. Swimming nuns. He tells me about skin cancer and marathons. He tells me about his pacemaker, and watching his daughter’s overseas wedding on Skype. He tells me about years and years of cutting grass and rolling cricket pitches, of a life under the sun. Ivan and I cross paths a few times a week, at a suburban beach. He’s on his morning walk. I’m going for my short swim. Or maybe some snorkelling. Or I’m just back from the water, drying off. “I only walk for two or three hours,” I think he once said, “before the sun gets too high.” Sometimes we don’t see each other for a little while. A week or two. Missing each other by a few minutes, maybe even by just a few metres. “The pigeons,” he tells me one day, “they don’t like those phone towers. Jiggers them up. They lose their sense of direction.” He had pointed out a flock in the distance. At first I thought it was a smudge in the sky, a wisp of cloud. “They’d be Charlie’s birds. And mine. They’re not racing this morning, just out for some exercise.” “How far do they race?” “Depends. Mine can do a few hundred mile. Charlie’s can do up to seven hundred mile.” The old imperial measurements confuse me, but I know enough to know seven hundred miles is a lot further than, well, seven hundred kilometres. Which seems a fair hike for a small bird. “How long’s that take? Seven hundred mile?” “About two-and-a -half days. Depends, of course. The weather, the wind. Falcons. Hawks. And the phone towers. They jigger them up no end. You know that satellite dish up in Parkes, bigger these days. Backyards are smaller. And some neighbours really kick up a fuss.” Ivan knows this from bitter experience, having been to court to defend his birds. “I won, eventually,” he says. “But lawyers aren’t cheap.” And the neighbours are still next door. In a big house. Ivan belongs to a pigeon-racing club, with its clubrooms in an industrial estate near the refinery. “That’s where we load our pigeons onto a big truck for a race, and then they’re driven hundreds of mile to the start of the race.” “Weren’t there some clubrooms, just up the road?” I ask, recalling seeing a sign years ago on a building not far from this beach. “Yeah, that was built in the 1950s. Knocked down a while back.” I ride past the site one day. Big house. Two storeys. No backyard. ONE MORNING I mention that part of the convent on the Esplanade is being knocked down. For apartments, perhaps. “The nuns used to swim in the rock pool opposite their place. You know the one?” I do. I nod. It’s a bit further along the beach, a few hundred yards – metres – away. A good snorkelling spot at high tide. “I’d see the nuns when I was doing my newspaper round on my bike. Some kids thought the nuns were bald because of – what do you call them? – the habits they wore on their heads.” I don’t tell Ivan I was a paperboy, too. Not delivering papers in the morning before school, but selling afternoon papers after school. Near Mentone railway station in the late 1960s. Back when there were afternoon newspapers. I don’t tell him about my nuns at St Patrick’s Primary: Serene Sister Felicity in Grade Two. Jolly Sister Jude in Grade New South Wales? Birds get lost if they have to fly near there. Lose their bearings. Don’t always come back.” He tells me – as I’m standing beside my bike in my wet bathers, still holding my snorkel – that he’s been racing pigeons since he was a boy. Early 1950s. “My brothers and I had about 20 pigeons. Our mates, too. We’d put the birds in boxes, strap the boxes to our handlebars and ride to Altona. Before the refinery was built, before there was any industry there. Only a few miles away, but far enough. The birds would get home pretty quick. Me and my mates weren’t in any hurry. No telly back then. We’d spend all day outside.” Modern pigeon racing, I read later on the net, is said to date back to Belgium in the 1850s, stemming from the success of carrier pigeons delivering messages behind enemy lines in times of war. Ancient pigeon racing might evengobackasfaras2000BC.Asa form of communication, I figure, carrier pigeons predate Morse code, telegrams, telephones, faxes, emails, mobile phones, Skype... I don’t tell Ivan that my elder brothers had pigeons in Mentone, on the other side of the bay, in the late 1960s, probably for less than a year. I don’t tell him about Sunday drives through the suburbs to a block of farming land, the pigeons cooing in boxes in the back of the station wagon. I’d forget about the pigeons the moment they flew off, but was always surprised to see the birds back at home a few hours later. I don’t tell Ivan any of this, because I haven’t got much to tell. Some memories are vague, like a smudge in the sky. Next time you look up, the smudge has gone. Or changed shape. “I guess pigeon racing’s not as big as it used to be,” I offer. “Nah, not anymore. Houses are PHOTOGRAPHYBYiSTOCK Taking Flight VIN MASKELL NAVIGATES MEMORIES CAUGHT BETWEEN THE SEA AND SKY.