A vast ball of starlings rolled and swished as they swooped in perfect synchronization. Cast against the salmon-pink sky of dawn, the murmur briefly exposed its flanks before flicking a thousand silhouettes into a corkscrew manoeuvre. Their tiny bodies rapidly vanished, appeared, vanished and re-appeared as their voices cracked through the air. Gradually they danced westward growing in number as others were drawn to their exotic display. The scene reminded Francis of a tragic ballerina in the throes of a fluidly choreographed pirouette: it was breathtakingly graceful.
‘Cute blighters, aren’t they? You wouldn’t believe how many people hate them.’ grumbled an old man.
Francis could have screamed as the magic of the display was broken by the slip of words. With a sigh he surrendered the moment. ‘Guess you’re right.’ he mumbled, feeling the need to comment. ‘Isn’t it an odd time of year to see them flying about?’
The man shrugged. ‘When you get to be my age, odd sights happen more often than not. Ah, sure isn’t it a grand morning? Starting to heat up nicely.’ The stranger said shifting himself forward from the depths of the arched doorway.
Francis looked down the road. The slush which froze solid during the night glistened as it wept the first tears of thaw. Dry patches along the pathway were visible where bins were left out for collection the previous evening. He was surprised the clanger and clanking of the refuse trucks did not wake him from his slumber.
There was no wind, he noticed, and it did seem to be a little warmer than the last few days. ‘Aye,’ he replied. ‘It couldn’t get any colder than last night. It was so, so cold. A bit of heat would do nicely.’ Francis shivered as the memory came back.
‘Both our poor souls will be warmed up in no time, me nibs,’ the old man said confidently as he edged his position to sit inches from him. ‘Name’s Peter, me nibs. I’ve seen you about from time to time. Heard you busking a couple of nights back. Sure, you’ve a fine voice. A voice like that don’t belong on no street.’
Francis looked down at his scuffed shoes. Embarrassed? Ashamed? Both?
‘It’s Francis, isn’t it?’
‘Aye. Fran if you’d like.’ Francis turned sideways to better view his new companion. He offered his hand by way of an excuse to get a decent look at the old-timer. One of the earliest lessons he learned on the streets was to be wary making eye contact with other homeless men. It often led to aggressive behaviour on the one hand, or overly friendly liberties on the other. Both were to be avoided.
Peter accepted his hand. Despite thin parchment skin stretched taut over brittle knotty fingers, the man’s grip was sturdy and safe. His palm was rough to the touch, but felt cosily warm. Peter had the same beard as many homeless men. It was semi-groomed with wisps of wild springy spindles left free to roam. In the morning light a few remaining flecks of brown whiskers appeared golden amid the mostly dusty grey ruffles. His nose was crooked, broken more than once, Francis wagered. High on his cheeks sat tiny sunburst of veins contrasting to his leather like, weathered skin. What could be seen of his mouth beneath the facial hair had a friendly grin, but it was his eyes that stood out. They held wisdom, those eyes. They had seen things nobody should ever see. Weary, and yet they twinkled, oddly so. They were calming pools of hazel, almost protective. It had been an age since Francis held anybody’s gaze for so long that he nearly wept at the simple intimacy.
There was something familiar about the man too. Something recognisable in his stare, Francis thought, but could not remember from where. It was not the first time he had forgotten a face. Years of alcoholism played havoc with his memory. Some faces he recognised instantly, but there were others that did not register at all. More often than not, he did not want to remember. It was better for him to remain in solitude.
Though he kept pretty much to himself, on miserable nights after the soup wagon left, he never protested to others seeking shelter in his archway. Behind Peter another body laid huddled in the corner. Slumped on a cardboard bed and concealed beneath layers of clothing similar to his Francis’, the figure slept quietly. Nestled in the crook of the man’s arm was a wine bottle wrapped snugly in its own paper jacket. Peter glanced at him too. ‘We’ll leave this one be, I think. Sure, he’s lost to the world, me nibs.’
Frances nodded his agreement. What good would it do to disturbing the man?
‘I’ve seen them all about the Mediterranean sea. From the Lebanese coast to Italy.’
Francis looked at him questioningly. ‘Winos?’
‘No,’ the old man laughed. ‘Starlings.’
‘Yeh. I knew a man once who used to work along the fishing ports and towns along the Roman coast. You’ll never guess what he did.’ Before Francis had a chance to entertain the question Peter told him. ‘He used to scrape their droppings off rooftops. Can you imagine? Night and day, he’d be up a ladder with his stick, or whatever it was he used, and he’d be scraping away. Form noon to moon. Seems they’ve destroyed and collapsed roofs along the coastal ways.’
Francis eyed him suspiciously unsure how to take the yarn. ‘Still,’ he said after a time, ‘isn’t it a funny time of year for them?’
‘Maybe, but that’s starlings for you. Never know when they’re going to show up.’
There was a lull in the conversation as the two men looked at the swirling trail of birds disappearing in the distance. Then the question came. Francis knew it would.
‘How’d you end up here, me nibs?’
Sooner or later the topic always raised its ugly head. How could it not? He considered giving the short version and leaving it at that: split up with his partner, got sacked, nothing to do but drink. And it was true. One hundred per cent true. It was a straightforward answer neither offering regret, nor seeking praise, but it was empty.
He heard hundreds of stories similar, more or less, to his own. He never pried for the seedier details, but eventually it was not long before they appeared, usually explicitly so. The last details of every story always ended the same. It was always somebody else’s fault never their own. Except addicts, they blamed the disease of their addiction. ‘To hell with them,’ he thought. True, circumstances had a part to play, but the only one responsible for him living on the street was himself.
For some reason, Francis wanted to tell his full story to this strange homeless man who seemed to appear out of mid-air. Or perhaps it was because of the starlings.
‘Do you really want to know?’
Peter smiled warmly. ‘I do. Every poor soul has a story, me nibs. But if you tell me it’s none of my business, I’ll leave it at that. Promise.’
Francis considered him, wondering if the man was working at some angle. He did not think so. For the first time in the seven years that he was homeless he told his worth. ‘I guess it began with my father. Now, He was one mean, miserable and angry bastard. He used to beat eleven shades of blue out of me mother. Often times, the only thing stopping her getting battered was my face. Sometimes I would pray to God and thank him it was her getting the punches and not me. Once, I must have been about fourteen or fifteen, he hit me and I swung back. I missed complete. He’d the height and reach.
‘Well, this big ugly smile twisted across his face. The one he sometimes had when he was beating my mother. Boy, did I get the pulp kicked out of me that night. Next morning he threw me out.’ Francis stopped and stared Peter straight in the eye. ‘Now, I’m not telling you this as an excuse, but so you’ll appreciate why I ended up here.’
Peter’s expression didn’t change as he conveyed his understanding with a gentle nod.
‘I was taken in by my aunts and uncles. Doing a turn between them like a ball in a tennis match. It was enough though, for a while. I didn’t have much schooling and had to worked doing hard grafting on building sites. Was better than what I had, so I didn’t mind. I worked everyday of my life since. Learnt a trade.’ A moment of pride washed over him as he said honestly, ‘There’s nothing in the building trade I wasn’t able to turn my hand too. And that’s the truth.’ Why he needed this man to believe him, he could not say, only it was important that he did.
‘Eventually, I started earning a little bit of money. It was about the same time when I met Laura. She was a beautiful lass back then, so she was, with the most amazing eyes you’d ever see. Blue-grey, they were, with speckles of green dotted throughout.’ He gave a slight laugh. ‘I was only thinking of those eyes last night. Although the colours are different, they reminded me of the white flecks on a starling. That’s what I use to call her: my Starling. Funny coincidence.’ He searched the distant sky for a final trace of the birds. His heart sank a little knowing they were gone.
‘I loved her so, and I know she loved me too. We ended up getting a small place together, nothing fancy, but perfect for us. Things began to get serious. We talked of marriage, but I was hesitant despite claiming it was a good idea. Then we decided to have a child. That’s when it all started to go pear-shaped. I suppose.’ Francis paused for a moment as he relived a snippet of his life before continuing. ‘Bless her. She really wanted kids. I wasn’t so sure, but after realising how happy the notion made her, I began to warm to the idea of having a little tot to chase about all day. Soon, I began wanting one too.
‘We tried for four years, in all. It was after the first two when things between us became increasingly tense. The little incidences of bickering gradually turned into yelling matches. Doors slammed regularly. Occasionally, cutlery was shattered.’ Francis looked up at Peter. With a grin he said, ‘She had a fine throw with a plate for such a little thing, I can tell you.’
Peter smirked back, ‘They usually do.’
Clearing his throat, Francis’ face darkened. His voice lowered. ‘One day we were arguing about something, or another. I can’t even remember exactly what it was over. Anyway, she said words to the affect of, “You’re not man enough.” That’s when I hit her.’
His face grew serious and grim. ‘I’m not proud of it. She wasn’t to know I got the results from the doctor a few days previous. You see, she had been nagging at me to have a fertility test for over a year. I didn’t tell her I finally got it done. I didn’t tell her…I’m infertile. If I had told her I know she’d never have said what she did.’
His eyes rested on a pile of blackened slush across the road as if seeking understanding and acceptance, but all he found was remorse. ‘The feeling of being inadequate and not being a real man, humiliated me. I don’t know. I guess it’s some bullshit macho thing, but I was so ashamed. I was looking for a way to tell her, but it was never the right moment. When she said what she did it was like a hammer blow. I thought not her. I can take a lot from a lot of people, but when she said what she did it broke me. It shattered the last strands of dignity I grasped onto. She’s only a little thing, five four in heels at best. And I hit her. I must have broken her cheek as she collapsed in a heap.
‘I tried to help her up, immediately apologising, but it was too late. Laura shot me a scolding glance. At the time I could’ve sworn it was almost a mocking look. I still can’t tell if she grimaced, or whether it was a grin of gratitude because now she had a definite reason to leave me. Up until that point, I think neither of us could accept the fact that it was over between us. This gave her a way out that no amount of apologies could change.’ Francis eyes welled up as he tried to cower deeper into his manky overcoat.
Gradually he looked up. Peter was staring at him strangely. It was as if his very soul was being weighed.
‘There’s more,’ the stranger stated with certainty.
Wiping his eyes in his sleeve, Francis nodded. ‘The worst part of it was the instant I hit her. In that split second, less than a heartbeat…I’m more ashamed of this than anything else. I’m so, so sorry…the moment I hit her, it was like a sense of euphoria. Can you believe that? It was as if everything negative in my life up until then was centred in that instant. Every snide remark, every embarrassing moment; every bloody beating from my father; all my fears and shame were compacted and condensed in the moment I hit her and the pressure of the impact. I can only describe it as an ecstatic moment of triumph grabbing hold of me, a moment of utter release.’ He gulped drily.
‘If it was anybody else bar her, I think I could have handled it, but it was my Starling. When the weight of what I did dawned on me I panicked. I left. I had to. I had become my father. When he smirked I knew it would be a bad beating. I came to fear his sinister smile more so than his fists. When I hit her I could feel his grin, but only this time it was coming from me. I turned into that bastard. The one thing I hated more than anything else in the world.
‘Not a word was spoken between us as I packed a small bag. I feared I’d hit her again. As I was leaving she looked at me one last time with her starling eyes swollen with tears. They were pitiful tears. Tears that still burrow through me to this day.
‘Some days later I was made redundant from the building contractors. There was no connection to what happened, it was just bad timing. Only then did I turn to drink. I followed it to here. Been on the streets a long time. I’ve done things I’m not happy about, but becoming that monster and enjoying it shames me as much, if not, more so than hitting my Starling. And I fear it will happen to me again, you see? I fear it more than anything else in the world.’
He swept his surroundings with a glance. ‘Out here, I avoid people.’ He laughed sarcastically. ‘It’s a hard thing to do when you’re panhandling or busking.’ Peter smiled, yet kept his silent vigil. ‘The thing that gets me, I mean, really gets to me is if I could go back to that one moment. I’d like to think I could restrain myself, but you know, I’m not sure I could have. I’ve had plenty of time to think about what happened. Only afterwards did I realise how angry and frustrated I was about the situation between us. I was never good with words and often became tongue-tied. I wanted to scream, but that’s not what grown men do, I was taught. My delicate Starling suffered by my own hands, and I don’t know if I’d ever have the control to stop it from happening again if she ever did take me back. It’s this realisation that taunts me, forever sneering and reminding me what I have become.’
Francis’s tone became calmer. ‘So, I drink, and if there’s a chance of getting pills, I take them. I know it doesn’t make things better and will never change what happened, but for a spell, in anyway, things don’t seem so bleak. I don’t feel so…’ He shrugged and glanced at Peter.
The old man nodded as if in deep contemplation, or listening to somebody else whispering quietly in his ear. It seemed as if the world stood still as he waited for the stranger’s judgement. He realised he had not spotted any traffic or noticed signs of passers-by since he began relaying his sins. He was surrounded by utter silence. Eventually Peter stood and offered his hand to Francis for support. If it was a hand of friendship, understanding or acceptance Francis did not know, but he eagerly took it.
As he stood to join the older man, the figure in the corner slumped forward a little. Fearing he would crash onto the pavement, instinctively, Francis grabbed him by the shoulder and carefully shunted him back into position. His head lulled backwards with a thud where it collided with steel grated doors he was sleeping against. Francis grimaced at the noise, and then staggered backwards when he saw his own grey-blue lifeless face and contorted mouth set in a rigid gape. An empty brown prescription bottle gave a hollow echo as it rolled down the two steps to the street. A frozen pool of red wine trailed from the capsized bottle still wedged in his dead arms.
Saint Peter gently gripped Francis’ hand and whispered, ‘Come now. It’s only a shell, me nibs. Didn’t I tell you that one’s lost to the world?’