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I don’t usually give money to beggars. After all, they’ll only spend it on drink. So I’m really not sure what got into my head that July morning. Maybe it was the sunshine, maybe it was the girls in short dresses, maybe there was just something in the air. Whatever it was, I went over to the old tramp outside the station and threw a couple of pounds into his bucket. Instead of thanking me, however, he stood up, reached behind my ear and produced a single feather, as if by magic. Looking deep into my eyes, he pressed the feather into my hands, closing them over with his.
[private]“You’re a bird,” he said to me. The voice was quiet, steady and educated, with no discernible accent. He held my gaze for several more seconds before nodding slightly and releasing me. I didn’t really know what to say, so I simply nodded back and moved away, putting the feather in the inside pocket of my jacket.
Far from being discomfited by the morning’s strange encounter, I felt elated for the rest of the day. A bird! Yes! That’s what I was! I was an eagle, soaring with wings outstretched above the mundane pettiness of everyday working life, just waiting for the moment to strike. At last my destiny had been revealed to me.
Curiously enough, it turned out to be a rather good day all round. I shafted two of my least favourite colleagues in our Monday morning progress meeting, closed a half-million deal just before lunch and booked myself a few rounds of golf with the MD for the end of the month. The run of success continued for the rest of the week, and by Friday morning, I had installed a rather magnificent framed picture of an eagle over my desk to remind me of what I had become.
It was raining that evening, but when I got to the tube station, the tramp was still there, sitting behind his bucket, which now had more water in it than money. It seemed churlish not to offer to buy him a drink, and he readily accepted.
“So what … I mean … how …” It’s not always easy to open the conversation with a beggar. But he understood what I was asking.
“You may not believe it looking at me now,” he began, “But I went to university once. Studied zoology.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah. But after I flunked out, the only job I could get was as a zookeeper.”
“Well, at least you still managed to work with animals,” I said, trying to sound positive.
“Hah. Have you ever considered how much shit they produce?”
“No,” I replied, truthfully. “Rather a lot, I imagine.”
“Rather a lot,” he said, “Rather a lot.” He was silent for a few seconds before continuing. “Anyway, it all finished after the accident.”
“Bleedin’ hippo fell on me. Damn nearly killed me. As it is, I’ll never work again, but I did acquire this ability.”
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“Yeah. See those tarts up at the bar. Which one would you choose for a one-night stand?”
“I said, which one would you choose?”
“Oh, I dunno. Maybe the blonde one on the left. She’s pretty fit.”
He snorted. “Ha! No. You’re wasting your time with her. Nah. I’d go for the dark one in the middle.”
“But why?” I was genuinely fascinated.
“Y’see,” he was continuing, oblivious to my interruption, “If I look around this bar, this whole place is like a bleedin’ menagerie to me. See that guy over there?”
“The Asian guy with the newspaper under his arm?”
“Yeah, him. Penguin.” He started to scan the room. “Ooh, there’s an interesting
one. See that chap over in the corner? The one with the half-pint of shandy?”
“Where?” I said. “Oh, him?” He was looking at a weedy-looking middle-aged man with thick glasses.
“Yeah. Manatee. Don’t see many of them in this part of town.”
“Are you sure?”
“Course I’m sure. Anyway, it’s my round …” he waved his empty glass at me.
“Oh, thanks, I’ll have …”
“… only as you are no doubt aware, I’m skint.” He was still waving the glass.
“Another pint, I think.”
I went off for the next round. He spent the next quarter of an hour identifying a bizarre array of animals who were apparently sharing the bar with us. Finally, I drained my glass, and made to leave.
“Er … your round, I think?” he said.
“Well, I was just leaving.”
“I’m not. And whilst you’re at the bar, have another look at that dark one. Trust me, she’s red hot.”
“But what’s so special about her? I still like the look of that blonde.”
“Nah. She’s a rabbit.”
“Sorry? Excuse me, but isn’t that …”
He leaned in close, and whispered in my ear. “The one in the middle is an octopus.” He tapped his nose in a meaningful manner, nodding slightly.
Curiously, he turned out to be right about her. It was quite an exhausting weekend.
The upward trend continued for the next week. The new project was getting ready to start, and I was invited to recruit my own team. I was new to this, and the idea of selecting staff was more than a little frightening, but it occurred to me that I might be able to use my new friend. So next Monday morning, I stopped by to have a word with him.
“D’you fancy a bit of work this week?” I said.
“I need some advice picking a team.”
He rolled his eyes, as if he’d seen it all before. “OK, I’ll do it,” he said eventually, as if he was doing me a great favour. “£500 a day.”
“Huh? That’s outrageous,” I said. “You’re a beggar!”
“£500 or nothing,” he said. “If you really believe I can help you, you’ll pay that.”
I thought about it for a few seconds. “OK,” I said. “Deal. When can you start?”
He looked from side to side, then down at his bucket. “Well,” he shrugged, “I can fit you in tomorrow.”
The next day I picked him up outside the station and took him along with me to the offices. The receptionist eyed him up suspiciously before relenting and giving him a badge to wear. Then the MD walked in, provoking an odd response from the beggar. He burst out laughing and started pointing at him.
“A pig!” he said. “Your boss is a bleedin’ pig!”
This did not go down well, and my planned golf session was mysteriously cancelled not long afterwards. I made a mental note to keep my friend out of sight for the remainder of his employment.
We spent the next few days going through the various applicants. The routine was the same every time. I would go through the motions of a formal interview accompanied by a stooge from personnel, and then I would take them on a tour of the office, during which the beggar would observe them covertly before giving his assessment once they had gone. I had already decided that my ideal team would consist of a fox (for cunning), a dog (for loyalty) and a cat (for stealth and speed), so all we had to do was identify one of each. As you may imagine, I had been thinking all this through in some detail, and I was beginning to see a whole new career opening up for me. I could see the title of my slim management treatise now: “Who’s in Your Zoo?” – available from all good airport bookshops.
Unfortunately, we ran into problems on the very first day, as one potential recruit who had interviewed extremely well turned out to be an elephant, and thus completely inappropriate. I had an extremely tough job explaining to personnel why I didn’t want her for the job, and it got worse when I also had to turn down a puffin, two sloths and an aardvaak the same day, all of whom had otherwise excellent attributes.
However, on the second day of interviewing, we struck gold, in the shape of a cat, a dog and a fox in rapid succession. To be honest, all three had turned in rather lacklustre performances, but I insisted that they were just what I was looking for, and eventually got my way. I arranged for my friend to get paid a grand in cash for his efforts and he went on his way a happy man. I was happy too. I really felt that I had learned something important.
Three months later, the project and my immediate career were both in ruins. My fox had turned out to be a thief, and had succeeding in embezzling an impressive amount of the company’s funds. My dog was indeed loyal to me, but then he was loyal to anyone and everyone who made the mistake of giving him the time of day. He was probably the neediest person that I have ever met, and he also turned out have appalling personal hygiene, to the extent that our customer had specifically asked that he should no longer visit their offices.
The dog was also making life difficult for the cat, although she was as useless as him, given as she was to spending most of her time preening herself and falling asleep in the corner of the office. Even when she was working, she tended to wander off on her own projects, ignoring the interests of the rest of the team altogether. She had also developed a habit of making unpleasant personal attacks on me, which didn’t exactly help with our working relationship.
As I walked back to the station for the last time, clutching my P45 in one hand and my framed eagle picture in the other, I was surprised to see the beggar again. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and I had assumed that he had used the money to find something better to do with his life. He did seem to have acquired a tan, however, and he was looking slightly fuller in the face.
“Fat load of use you were, mate.” I said to him, brandishing my P45.
“Didn’t work out, then, did it?” he said, as if he’d been expecting this all along.
“No, it bloody didn’t,” I said. He smiled, and reached into his coat pocket. He withdrew a handful of birdseed and held it out in his palm. A pigeon flew down from the roof of the station and started eating.
“Nice picture you’ve got there, Mr Birdman,” said the beggar, examining my eagle.
“Hah,” I said. “Well, that’s a bit of a sick joke now, isn’t it?”
“Hmmm,” he said. “Did you ever take a proper look at that feather of yours?”
I put down the picture and reached into my inside pocket where I kept the feather. I took it out and held it in front of me. Now that I studied it closely, it was actually a rather dull, unexciting greyish colour. I looked at the feather and then I looked at the pigeon, still eating out of the beggar’s hand. As I watched, the pigeon stopped eating and looked back at me. It cocked its head on one side and appeared to smile, as if to say: do I know you from somewhere?[/private]
Jonathan Pinnock lives in Hertfordshire. He is married with two children, several cats and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox. His work has won several prizes, shortlistings and longlistings, and he has been published in Smokebox, Every Day Fiction and Necrotic Tissue.