The knocking usually starts early, around six. The first sound is the thud of a small metal hammer on wood. It is invariably followed by a scraping noise, then more knocking, more scraping. It will continue at intervals throughout the day, with the last session coming after tea-time. Like the howling propjets landing at City Airport it is such a part of my life now that I rarely notice it. The racket is made by Süskind, the pigeon keeper, whose house is on the corner. He is loosening and clearing the bird shit from the beams and perches of his pigeon house. His back yard runs parallel with my street and his daily routines happen in full view of my front window. The bird house is a large wooden shack, clad with faded, peeling plywood, and with a flat felt roof, which Süskind lashes down with a rope when gales are forecast. It sits on top of the sloping kitchen roof, supported at the front by metal girders. To access it there is an aluminium builder’s ladder which gives onto a small wooden landing above the yard gate. Set at right-angles to this is a short, unreliable-looking, home-made stair. He has replaced two of the rotten steps in haste recently and the new ones lie crookedly, as if in a young child’s drawing. They are already covered in a dirty grey-green film of algae. On the front of the shack there is a line of eight rectangular windows, covered with chicken wire and polythene. Above them is a shelf for the birds to land on; it has two further windows, one without polythene, and a hatch, which is hinged at the top. Süskind is in his fifties. He generally wears black — otherwise nondescript — trousers, and a brown jumper. His jumpers will often be patterned with bold, clashing stripes. The outfit does not change with the seasons — I have never seen him in his shirtsleeves, even on the hottest days. He wears a handkerchief around his neck, which is used as a dust mask when he is scraping out the shite; it gives him the appearance of a Wild West train robber. His head is topped with a mop of wavy, sandy, hair that is pushed back from his forehead. Although I often see him in the street, on his bicycle, we have never talked. His world is of the sky. There are rituals: at midday he lurches up the ladder with dishes of food and water for the pigeons. He is smiling, his mouth twisted into an evil-looking rictus, as if he is privy to some dark, secret joke. He disappears into the gloom of the bird house and after a few moments of footering about, the hatch is pushed open. His head and hands emerge into the light, and the singing begins. He has a fine tenor voice, and it projects Galway Bay and other Josef Locke favourites powerfully into the street. Passing pedestrians are startled by this unexpected performance and pause to stare up, but Süskind is oblivious to them; he sings for joy alone. As he sings he drums his fingers gently upon the shelf, and the pigeons flock down from the trees and rooftops where they have been awaiting him. They slip past him, through the hatch, and into the shed to get their feed. One has landed at the end of the shelf, and is showing no inclination to come inside, so he turns his head and makes a clicking noise with his tongue to encourage it. When this last bird has entered he belts out another verse, retreats inside and closes the hatch. The singing has stopped and instead he is now loudly humming a tune as he comes through the door and turns to padlock it. Caught up in the music he moves his legs to the rhythm, wiggling his arse like a hula-dancer’s. Today’s feeding done, he descends the ladder, still crookedly grinning. He is happier than anyone I know. Later, I walk past his front door on my way to the shop. As I go to cross the road I catch a flash of fluorescent yellow at the edge of my vision, and a muttered word, fuck. I turn my head instinctively to glance. It is Süskind, coming through the gate on his bike, but he is nowhere near me or the young man walking towards him from the other direction. As I turn back to cross the road I hear his rough voice behind me: What the fuck are ye lookin’ at? I turn my head again, but he is away, pedalling through the soft rain towards the Ormeau Road. His world is of the sky.

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4 Responses to Süskind

  1. Mark Keown says:

    What a wonderful piece of writing, I always wondered about him when I looked up at that mess from your front door! But I now feel obliged to call building control, they will be there shortly.

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Thanks Mark, glad you like it. I think getting the bird house torn down would be a bad job for the street – if he’s a grumpy bollox at the moment, imagine what would he would be like without the pigeons…

  2. Noel L. says:

    Good flow to this. The reader is hooked almost immediately. I would adjust the opening of the 3rd. paragraph. You say that what S wears is nondescript then you go on to describe exactly what he wears. In the penultimate sentence I would use Süskind’s name again to obviate any ambiguity seeing as there was another ‘he’ introduced. ‘I turn my head again but S is away, pedalling……….. ‘

    Good stuff,

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Thanks for the feedback Noel. I liked ‘nondescript’, and with undeserved optimism thought I might get away with describing his trousers just a wee bit, as ‘brown’. I’ll have a think about it… I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about who ‘he’ is in the penultimate sentence since S is on his bike, ‘pedalling’ and the other boyo is on foot, and in any case is peripheral to the whole paragraph. The pedestrian is only there to introduce an element of doubt as to whom S is talking. I didn’t want to over-use the word ‘Süskind’.

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