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There was something incongruous about the man’s back. My eyes followed him around the bookshop. He was slim, of medium height, dressed in beige, classic-cut mackintosh, and charcoal trousers. Black, polished brogues. Mid-sixties, maybe a few years older than my parents. A neat, well-ordered appearance but something was out of place. It struck me that he was one of those rare people, and here I must say I never understood how they managed it, whose clothes mysteriously stayed uncrumpled and whose footwear remained free of dust and smudges. Secretly, I admired that ability simply because it seemed wholly unattainable to me. In my imagination, such people lived in their own protected space, like an invisible bell jar, with their clothes immune to wear and tear. I watched as he floated between the tables, his feet barely touching the ground. When he stopped by a display of new titles, it dawned on me what jarred: a bird, a pigeon most likely, had left its mark on the back of the man’s coat and the stain, glistening, slimy green, ran almost the length of the garment. For most people, including me, a bird dropping on their clothes is a detail, an unfortunate incident, something to laugh about, before popping into the nearest public toilet to wipe it off. But with this man, this man who appeared so tidy, untouched by the filth of the world, the bird poo on his back might lead to something serious. Anyone who has seen the film Pigeon would understand. In the opening shot, a young couple sitting on a bench watch an old tramp shuffle past. Whenever she sees someone so ravaged by age and hard living, the woman says, she thinks that once upon a time they were a sweet little baby, loved by someone. She wonders at what point their life went wrong for them to end up alone, ruined and sick. If only, they had taken a different road at some point, she says. If only, there had been someone to help them. The story unrolls showing that same tramp, years earlier, living the life of a middle-class professional. One day when he is on the way to an important meeting, a pigeon’s dropping lands on his forehead. Shocked, and trying to deal with the mess, he misses an important meeting and his business is ruined. When he is subsequently too late to drive his wife and children to the airport, they take a taxi and are killed in a crash. Everything happens very quickly and the film creates a sense of inevitability, as if once the pigeon entered the story, the man had no control over what was happening to him.
I knew I had to do something. I wouldn’t say that I established a rational link between the tramp in the film and the man in the bookshop, but an instinct, a desire, whose origin would have been unconscious but no less power for that, urged me to act When I walked towards the man, I didn’t have a plan in mind. There was no time to consider whether and, if so, how to tell him about the stain on his back. I approached the table with the new titles and it all happened as if we were in a play and someone else, a third party, a director, was choreographing our encounter. Without thinking, but obviously trying to cover up my real intentions, I reached for a book. It was a random choice and at the same time, at exactly the same second, the man did the same. Our hands touched briefly. He withdrew his. It felt cold and smooth. He seemed embarrassed and apologised. I dropped the book. I laughed. He, however, didn’t find the matter funny. Quite the contrary, he blushed and scrambled towards the exit. His movements, so well-measured earlier, assumed a comical clumsiness. He knocked over a stand of postcards but, to my surprise, he didn’t stop to pick them up. He didn’t apologise. Perhaps he wasn’t as nice a person as I had thought. Perhaps he wasn’t worth saving. I remember saying to myself that I had tried and there was nothing else I could do. I hung around for a few minutes as a shop assistant picked up the postcards and placed them back on the stand. He was a young man I had spoken to a number of times on my previous visits when he had been helpful about a book I was after, so I felt obliged to help him recover the cards. His foreign accent was particularly prominent that day, and usually I would have wanted to locate it. As we were both crouching, from the way he looked at me, breaking into a smile, I could tell that he was flirting. On the previous occasions, I was curious about his perfectly shaped fingers. I’d wondered if he was a musician, a cello-player perhaps. As someone who is tone-deaf, I admire those who make music. He said he was about to have a break and perhaps we could have coffee across the road. I thought about the old man with the stained coat. Among the postcards we were picking up from the floor, I spotted a fountain Parker pen, still in its plastic box. I pocketed it and I told the young man I would be back. Outside, I ripped open the plastic packaging and ran after the old man. When I caught up with him, I had to pull his arm to get his attention. He looked at me as if I was a murderer pointing a gun at him. I had to make an effort not to laugh at how ridiculous he looked. I told him that he had dropped a pen on his way out of the bookshop. He looked at it for a moment, before pocketing it. A liar. He had to be saved.
We were married two months later.