Carl muted the television and listened. Must have imagined it, he thought. After a couple of minutes, he went back to his programme, a scary film about a haunted house. There was a lot of running around and screaming going on but then the heroine sought refuge in a cupboard. Now there was only the sound of her breathing, which she tried to smother with a shaking hand over her mouth.
Carl heard it again, the skrit skrit coming from behind the gas fire. His spirits sank. Not a-bloody-gain! The man down the road kept pigeons, racing pigeons, homing pigeons, big puffed-up fluffy prize-winning pigeons – every bloody kind of pigeon you could think of and a few more besides. The man lived and breathed pigeons. Carl, uncharitably, suspected the man got up to all sorts with pigeons.
Last year, one of these flying pests had paused for a breather, so close to home, on Carl’s chimney pot and, by accident or design, had somehow managed to get inside the flue and find its way down to the living room, flapping and cooing in the fireplace and sending dirt and loose feathers flying out across the hearth.
At first, Carl thought it was a rat. He lay on the floor and with a torch tried to peer under the fire to see. The scaly pink leg of the pigeon seemed to him very like a rat’s tail and Carl sprang backwards into the coffee table and sustained a nasty bump to the back of his head.
When he had calmed down, he reasoned it was unlikely to be a rat. How would the thing have got in? There were no holes only the chimney. Perhaps a passing eagle, flying overhead, had dropped its prey… Don’t be bloody stupid, he scolded himself. It’s a pigeon.
He told the landlord but the landlord merely told him to be careful if he was planning on moving the gas fire. What? Carl had groaned, I have to sort this out myself? The line went dead. What am I paying rent for, he wondered?
He donned his thickest gloves and opened the front door. The idea was to move the gas fire, grab the bird and then dash to the door and throw it into the sky. The copper pipe was a bit of a worry. He daren’t pull the fire too far forwards in case he caused a gas leak. He didn’t fancy being blown sky high – although while he was up there he might take advantage of the opportunity to shit on the bloody pigeon fancier down the road…
He inched one side of the fire forwards. The fireplace was sealed by a metal sheet held in place by silver tape. He peeled back an upper corner and shone his torch. There, head bobbing and jerking, sat the pigeon. Carl reached in. The bird rose, flapping. Carl jumped back, panting. He pulled himself together. It’s only a bird, he reminded himself. Can’t leave it in there to die; think of the smell!
He held his breath and reached behind the metal sheet again. This time he was able to get his fingers around the bird’s neck. He brought it towards him and lifted it out of the gap, securing it with his other hand. The bird was calmer than he was. Used to being handled, he supposed. Only then did it occur to him he should have got the bloody pigeon man in to claim his bloody bird. Perhaps he could breed a type that didn’t fall down chimneys.
He rushed to the front door, lifted the pigeon towards the sky and with a small push, released it into the air. The bird, perhaps disoriented, flapped and darted towards Carl’s head. He screamed and slammed the door. A moment later he peered out. The bird was on the kerb, strolling back and forth, and apparently unharmed.
Carl thought nothing of it after that. But now, months later, it sounded like the same thing was happening again. Damn; he should have petitioned the landlord to install a grill or something across the chimney pot.
On the telly, the heroine screamed. Carl jumped. He switched it off and went to fetch his gloves and torch.
“Come on then,” he inched the gas fire forward. “Let’s be having you.”
He peeled back the silver tape, which had lost some of its adhesive properties, and moved the metal sheet.
There was nothing there. The dim beam of his torch played all around the fireplace. Nothing, except dirt and bits of grit and small, curly feathers from the last time this had happened.
Losing my mind, Carl thought.
He was just about to put everything back when something stirred. A feather, as large as his hand, bright and iridescent spiralled down the flue. Puzzled, Carl reached in to retrieve it but before his fingers, clumsy in the thick gloves, could grasp it, another feather fell. And another.
“What the f-“
A claw, scaly and sharp, grabbed Carl’s wrist, the talons digging into his flesh. Blood began to flow through his shirt sleeve. Carl screamed in pain and surprise and tried to retract his arm. But the claw’s grip was too tight. It pulled and pulled; Carl began to fear his arm would come off. He tried to hold onto the fireplace, the mantelpiece, anything, but the clawed thing was too strong.
With a sudden increase in effort, the creature pulled Carl right into the fireplace and upwards into the chimney shaft. Carl’s screams, echoing up the flue, were soon silenced by a loud and decisive snap of a beak.
Later, a clawed hand reached from behind the gas fire, and pulled everything back into place. It might take a while before the landlord realised Carl was no longer occupying the house but that didn’t matter. Someone else would be along to rent the property eventually.
The pigeon man could wait.