Coffee Shop Confessional

Pigeon English

As I grow older, I find myself thinking about my parents more. I think about who they were before children came into the their lives. Perhaps, becoming mother again has made me want to hold onto some of who I was before my life became consumed by sleep routines, or lack of, and baby giggles.  These thoughts are also quite powerful particularly with my dad. When I was younger he was a very kind but silent man. It sort of came as a surprise to me when I realised there was a language barrier between us. My parents came to England in the 70s and insisted we always speak in English to them. I can understand my mother tongue with no problem but I can’t speak it. I’d like to have more sophisticated conversations with my dad but I can’t because his language and my language don’t meet at the same level. I’m becoming locked out, tongue-tied, and I want in.

The other day I was in the kitchen chatting away to my mum and I asked where dad was. She said he’s outside talking to himself. I thought she was being sarcastic, and so I stood near the kitchen table and looked out of the door leading into the garden. I could see him sitting outdoors with three empty chairs around the square table. He was smiling happily to himself, his eyes shining– his face transformed from the usual tired distant look. I could have believed in that moment there were people sitting with him. I walked towards him.

‘Dad what are you remembering?’ I asked.

Perhaps I should have left him with his memories but I was intrigued and my dad shares so little about himself. I had caught him in the midst of a secret conversation and I wanted in. He was still smiling when he said, ‘I’m remembering talking.’

‘With who?’

‘Talking..talking.’ He repeated a half smile still there.

‘With who?’ I said again.

‘My friends, we used to sit outside and talk.’

I wanted to know what they used to talk about but my interruption had returned him to London. I imagined they hung out together, told jokes and laughed.  I sat next to him and looked at his beloved pigeons. My earliest memory is feeding the birds with my dad. My siblings and I would go running on little legs to feed the ducks bits of stale bread. As my dad has got older and we have flown the nest, he has formed a very strong attachment to his birds. It’s as if he couldn’t bear the idea of them going hungry…or suffering. We both looked at the three pigeons on the feeding tray. Every time the pigeon in the middle bent its neck to pick up some bread the other two beat it relentlessly with their wings. It carried on in this vein four or five more times until it eventually gave up and flew down from the feeding tray and turned its back towards them. Just stood there on the grass, sulking. The other two waited, stared at each other to see if there would be a fight to the last, but they tolerated the other, ate bread and drank water.

My dad and I laughed at the pigeons and I could see why he loved them so much. To him they were like little children who fought, didn’t want to share, fell out with each other and then played, but it was simpler – there were no suprises here. It was him, his friends and his pigeons.  By the time I was born he already had the responsibilities of a mortgage, providing for the family and working two jobs. I wanted to know who his friends were, the memories that he still kept alive. I took him back to our conversation.

‘Who were your friends?’

‘Which ones?’ he asked.

‘The one’s you were just thinking about.’

He laughed again, his eyes sparkling. ‘You don’t know them’ and that was it, they were his friends before I knew him. And if I could have looked into his mind I would have seen my dad at 16 with a group of four friends he had known since he was a child.

Fifty year old memories belonging to another time. Stories kept alive in my father’s mind but stories which I would like to know more of.

Perhaps I’ll take language lessons so we can speak freely, and in the mean time I’ll keep looking to the birds for clues.


12 thoughts on “Pigeon English

  1. A moving post. 🙂 What would your father tongue be? Hindi? Take lessons.
    (I spoke Urdu before French or English. Forgot it all. But whenever I go to India, I will take lessons beforehand.) 🙂

      • Now you probably know more why. My father was an Air France man. My parents were posted in Pakistan around 47-48, just after the partition. And stayed there until ’56. So I learned Urdu before my other tongues… 🙂 I’m a “Sindhi” by birth? Where is your family from in Pakistan?

      • I’m interested in that. Being Sindhi – does that mean your parents were Pakistani/Indian?Although in your parents you’re definitely a blonde baby or a ‘snowball’ as described..My parents are from Lahore. How come your parents were there after the partition…sorry…so many questions! But I love people’s stories especially their histories and yours in particularly fascinating

      • I’m a “Sindhi” Frog as I sometimes describe myself. Jokingly. 😉 My parents were French. From Brittany. I like paradoxes, and most people from India who I say I was born in Karachi don’t believe me. 🙂 But… though I don’t remember anything it is a part of me. I love Hindi music for instance. Now, they were in Pakistan, because my father was the deputy director and then director of Air France for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then he was moved to Cambodia and we followed. Lahore, I understand is a beautiful city. One of Pakistan’s oldest, right?

  2. Hi! I love this post. The last line is so awesome. …”I’ll keep looking to the birds for clues.” I wish more people would be inspired to do the same. It requires slowing down. And listening with our eyes. Keep writing.

    • Thank you so much. I spoke about your post the other day to an aunt who was struggling with ageing. It was such a lovely conversation piece to address her concerns. She found it very comforting.

  3. There’s sadness and beauty in this and I appreciate the honesty. There’s also mystery, for instance, why did he not want you, his children, to have the same primary language? Well narrated 🙂

  4. a moving story which resonated with me even though my father and I spoke the same language… but he was locked in with his memories of war, and I had other traumatic memories, and then he died before I was mature enough to listen to him…I often wonder how my children will see me when I’m gone !!!

    • I think it’s just that…our parents can seem licked out to us sometimes whether by language or because of their own experience. As I grow older I realise how much more I want to know. I think it takes a while before your children seen you as a person with an identity other than mother or father.

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