November, Norfolk Square

“Is that one of those games?”

“Sorry?”

“One of those games where you stand looking up a tree and everyone joins in?”

“Ah, no, I was watching the pigeons.”

“But you know what I mean, though?”

“Yes, maybe I’ll give it a go. Worth a try; it might work.”

“Oh it’d definitely work.”

I didn’t give it a go, and I was genuinely watching the pigeons. If I’d had a camera, I’d have been photographing the pigeons as clouds of them swooped and dipped over the square, and it wouldn’t have seemed that I was playing a hilarious prank on everyone. Which I really wasn’t. Would it definitely have worked? Well, even though I wasn’t trying, I apparently looked like I might have been, so maybe I’m really good at it without even knowing. On the other hand, even when I wasn’t doing it—which I really wasn’t—the first person that walked past sussed me out; so I’m less confident. I’d need more statistics about how good that woman usually is at spotting practical jokes to be sure.

Lowering my sights from the sky to the roofs, I see there’s a white pigeon on its own on the lower slopes of the roof of Astral Training on the corner of the square. Outcast. When I look back later a few more white pigeons have arrived and they’ve integrated, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a metaphor. I notice ‘Mother Goose’ is on at the Partington Theatre next week, their ‘family pantomime’. Are there adult-only pantomimes? I think I want to see one of those even less than I want to see a regular pantomime. No matter: the birdlife observations are really stacking up this month.

The Christmas tree, which has been here for a week already, now has lights on it. Luckily, they’re not switched on. It’s surrounded by barriers. Danger! Keep Out! Merry Christmas! Which is just as well, because by and large we can’t be trusted to think of any of those things on our own. Actually the signs say, ‘Merry Christmas…’, the ellipsis either making the greeting vaguely threatening or introducing a note of doubt which, though in keeping with the atmosphere created by the crash barriers, is not perhaps in the spirit of the season. The Market Hall across the High Street bears the message ‘Seasons Greetings’, also not yet lit up. But the clock on the roof these days insists continually that it’s midnight, so I don’t trust its apparently cheerful motives pending further investigation, or at least until they switch the sign on.

It occurs to me that, as I sit on a bench in the middle of the square, looking West, I have made several other spurious nature observations, including a children’s clothes shop—or, rather, ‘boutique’—called ‘Dandelion’, the RSPCA charity shop, a florist, and Heron Foods. I still half maintain to myself the conceit that there is only one heron, and that it follows me around. Thanks to either Dave or Stephen, about twenty-one years ago. There is certainly only one Heron Foods in Glossop, although I’m fairly sure it doesn’t follow me around. I saw the heron from a train speeding through Staffordshire last week. Sure gets around.

There are also quite a lot of people around the square today, walking, waiting for buses, smoking outside the goods entrance to the Masonic Hall. I’m not sure how natural most of them are, though.

The pigeons are skittish, or insatiably curious. One flies off, all its fellows on the surrounding roofs fly off as well. Fear of a predator that only their most observant mate has noticed? Fear of missing out on seeing something cool that only their most fashion-forward mate has heard about, from its trendy, city pigeon friends? Either way they quickly decide it wasn’t worth the effort and back to the roof of Astral Training. As far as I know, Astral Training is some office admin establishment, rather than an unusually bold branch of the Golden Dawn or something. The inheritors of Crowley and Yeats, I mean, not the Greek fascists. But also not them, I hope. I’m not sure the pigeons really have a clear preference for any of those things, though, so their antics don’t really offer me a clue. Maybe they love the smell of coffee from the Costa on the ground floor.

War memorials do seem to be following me around. Glossop’s still bears this year’s crop of poppies and crosses, but it’s dwarfed by the Christmas tree now, so perhaps everything’s going to be all right. When the lights go on.

The permanently resident trees, which haven’t been chopped down and trafficked for decoration and the public spreading of joy, have largely lost their leaves, giving the impression of barrenness and decay, though really of course they’re the ones only resting.

Sola Virtus Invicta, virtue alone is unconquered, the Market Buildings and the Duke of Norfolk, or I suppose hereabouts the Baron Howard, tell me. Can’t argue with that: a suitably Socratic message as I come to the end of term in Birmingham. Act well, no matter what might befall you, and your soul will be uncorrupted. The pigeons indulge themselves with another spasm of flying, and it’s cold enough to go home and leave them to it.

Three days later when I go past again, there are a couple of small marquees set up in the square, ready for the illumination of the decorations. It’s been pretty dark all day, and the rain has set in for the duration, but a brass band strike up a verse and chorus of Jingle Bells. Hearts lifted, we go about our days. A fairground of sorts has established itself in the Town Hall car park, but there are more staff there than revellers. I suppose it could be that they’re saving themselves for the big switch-on.

At five o’clock, the lights on the tree came alive. Everything, for the time being, is all right.

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