The pigeon flew above the street with the fruit stands, the women in headscarves and tracksuits soaping away dog shit, the angel statue holding sleepy pigeons and the double-parked Fiats. It shat on a diamante-encrusted shoe, spread a brief shadow on a plastic table, dove towards the low rising sun and into the bicycle spokes of English teacher Anastasia.
In the part before the Torino morning bird slice, she had grown up cold and rural reading affectionate odes to pigeons with her babushka. In the part after it, she would be made late to a meeting with the pair of elderly sisters. Sisters who had between them three eyes, one husband in nappies smoking a pipe, seven English camps for Italian kids and countless euros. Because Anastasia was Russian, the sisters considered it acceptable to underpay her. When deciding our worth as teachers, they retraced the line where the east began. I watched the one-eyed sister boss flick through a novel of 50-euro notes. She asked about Anastasia’s whereabouts. I was busy imagining the world in half and wasn’t able to foresee a pigeon stuck in a bike wheel. When the bloody wheel of misfortune stopped, the beak from a mangled head pointed forward.
I told my housemate, Roberta, about the pigeon spinning in the bike wheel. She gasped, placed one hand on my shoulder and one over her heart and whispered, ‘Brutta storia (ugly story).’ Her hold on me tightened and the heart hand became a mouth hand as she arched into 90 degrees. The ends of her hair swept breakfast biscotti crumbs towards the cat litter. Her words dissipated into that wheezy laugh-talk we struggled to decode on late smoky nights in the downstairs apartment. When she came back up she was out of breath and a head taller than me. She reeled me in slowly and solemnly. We stood in an awkward embrace. The soft Canadian accent of Jenny was on the radio explaining the Riot grrrl movement in simplified English. My head pressed lightly upon a polar fleece breast in an orange kitchen, on the top floor in remembrance of a pigeon. ‘Poverino.’ Roberta’s body began to shake and those deep-lung wheezy chortles started up again like an old Ducati.
It’s difficult to see Torino without seeing pigeons unless you look above them at the dramatic French Alps. Then you’ll step on dog shit. Otherwise you just watch pigeons tumble out of the smog, land without grace, sometimes without a foot or with a head tumour that passes for a 1900s flying helmet. They’ll waddle into that flock like they’ve been there all along eating and hanging out with their mates (much like how I came to live in Torino). Sometimes a mate gets unlucky and explodes under those steamrollers that squash the tossed-away fruit and veg at the market’s finale.
The rest waddle away unharmed until they return to eat the seeds from an exploded beefheart and are claimed by follow-up bulldozers. More distinguished Torinese pigeons inspire romance in autumn drizzle and delicately brush your cheek with a wet wing as you pedal over flooded rivers (95 per cent of your soccer team say ‘che schifo!’ (how disgusting), 5 per cent think you’re a romantic foreigner). Some prosper, gaining access to kitchens and demolishing entire chicken pies, while humans, like my friend Dani, stand by in a towel screaming.
Finale bulldozers at markets are a greater spettacolo at Balon, the street flea market. Each Saturday at four, hundreds of pigeons and people, including me and Roberta in her weekend rosetta lips, scavenged through piles of abandoned items in the piazza. We worked meticulously as bulldozers collecting the miscellaneous piles of ‘treasure’ advanced upon us. It was an elaborate game show. The more skilled people were able to pull out half-decent items from the mouth of the bulldozer. Fishing from a shark’s mouth. Pigeons are shit contestants and 5 pm served the city up a piazza, empty but for dead pigeons, doll parts and colourless photographs of miscellaneous Italians on vacation, marked by the pattern of modern soles.
I wanted to live like a Torinese pigeon. To stay and eat with my friends. To work with what I found on the ground until life rolled me out flat among the soft fruit. This made sense. I didn’t want to return to Melbourne to rot slowly under a small plastic picture of myself swinging from a lanyard, tasting craft beers when I lost the sun each day between the Carlton and Coburg cemeteries. It’s easy to project onto a pigeon—a nonchalance towards squashed kin—when you don’t have access to their private emotional responses to their mate spinning into pieces. Who knows what post-traumatic stress they fly around with. Still, it was comforting to watch pigeons in Torino.
When I was small I sat on a branch in the liquidambar tree in our back yard. I climbed down for discounted alphabet spaghetti on toast in the empty kitchen by a humming fridge. My mother bought discounts because of ‘the Great Depression’, which she claimed was threatening each of our middle-class suburban mealtimes. I spent my childhood years in fear of the depression arriving. I never understood what form it might take. I imagined a dirty kid with a shaved head in a black-and-white photo, from a distant era and country (shown in a school unit of ‘global learning’), banging on our flywire door demanding to sit at our table and be a downer. Being discounted meant the letters that fell on my plate were illegible. I just had to shut up and eat my ‘words’.
Neighbours looked up my tree and asked questions about school, sport and MS read-a-thons. When up a tree, nothing down there was interesting. This changed the day I found the squab under the feijoa tree. It was on its back among rotting feijoas screaming silently. I knew I was being screamed at. Its beak opened wide enough to consume its own mass.
Squabs are born the same colour as their parents’ shit in order to camouflage in the nest. They can grow from being their parents’ little shit to being the kind of pigeons that learn alphabets, ping pong, how to recognise themselves in a mirror or how to distinguish one human face from another. If they don’t master these great pursuits they will always find their way home at the end of the day, regardless of how important a human considers its face to be.
I had to give the baby a home to leave and return to if desired. I put the squab inside a discounted Roses chocolate box and padded it with toilet paper. My mother yelled out that toilet paper doesn’t grow on trees. My father yelled out, ‘Rat with wings!’
My father’s world was divided into three clichés—pigeons are rats with wings; every-thing that isn’t rocket science, isn’t rocket science; most people (especially his kin) were as thick as pig shit. His limited turn of phrase defined our family landscape like dead trees and we moved carefully between them. He told us that Guido, his employee, was thick as pig shit and that he wished upon my rat with wings a sure death. Even if death can’t always be sure. Dead trees can remain standing for 30 years.
‘Bang! Dead!’ He clapped his hands and laughed as if to demonstrate the finale of my squab taking place between the black-stained hands poking out of his overalls. Clapping was another of his repetitive habits. Often when his hands slapped each other, he’d sing the word ‘poofter’, intending to insult whatever thing, cat or person happened to be in view. ‘Poofter cat! Poofter pigeon! Poofter kid! Poofter poofter poofedy poofter chair.’ The real issue was that his upbeat ‘poofter jingle’ functioned too well as a jingle and would emerge from my young mouth at various intervals. I found it wasn’t cross-contextual, especially as it didn’t have a context to begin with.
The squab opened its beak at me. Each little thing I placed inside was like placing little things inside myself. From crumbs, the tiny bald bird and I could grow together. We were united by the failings of parenting, cheap words void of meaning and nourishment and being tossed out of the nest. I fluffed up the toilet paper, gently stroked its head and closed the Roses lid.
While at a child’s spa party that afternoon, I thought only of my squab. Being a new parent had made me look around and see that everything was nothing more than nonsense covered in bubbles. I sat idly next to nervous Aaron Briggs, who’d been dared to tongue me. The responsibility was too great. I feigned illness so my mother would arrive. This annoyed her, she was out stocking up the dented-can collection. Her premature arrival annoyed the spa kids, they had been touching tongues and accidentally grabbing genitals under the bubbles.
My squab had its beak to the cardboard corner. I cooed into the confectionary box. It stumbled back and opened its beak at the chocolate selection panel. To my sister’s disgust we hung out in my room all evening listening to The Proclaimers, ‘I’m on my way, from misery to happiness today … a huh, a huh, a huh …’
I woke early and happy with no desire to climb the tree. My days would now be dedicated to the orphaned baby bird. I opened the Roses lid and saw the squab lying in its shit, dead.
‘Don’t worry,’ said my sister, ‘it was supposed to die. The mother flung it from the nest. It’s science. I made biscuits. Here.’ Its tiny head rested on my thumb. A warm biscuit was shoved into my empty hand. A tear fell into the beak and disappeared. I thought science was as mean as my dad.
‘It’s not rocket science!’ piped my dad. Then, clap. ‘Dead poofter bird.’
Why were people always telling me how they feel about pigeons. I’ve never asked. ‘I hate them … stupid birds … too many … rats of the sky.’
People talk about their love for eagles, Spanish dancers, space travel, platypi and things they can’t get close to. Whereas pigeons breed too much, fly to places, eat everything, live in monogamous relationships in cities and shit on the world.
I dreamt the squab flew out of the nest that betrayed it. Bald, bold and awkward in the suburban sky. My sister told me dreams were ‘recycled mind junk.’ She had a talent for identifying waste, then eventually saving our world from it. Even if my father said that kind of career wasn’t rocket science, when she pressed that silver button she soared up a government lift closer to the moon than he would ever get.
Up there her rules of waste grew. We used to play a game called The Rough Game, when I was tiny. The only rule was that there were no rules. We tackled each other to gain possession of a multi-coloured ball. Despite its name, it was the safest I felt in my childhood, in that world we created. I later realised she created the game to allow me to be a kid. She stood between me and the waste of clichés and threat of depression. I was free to make it up as I went along. Anything goes. Until everything went. The rules of her new game were above me when they spoke logistics of gassing pigeons who shat on bike paths. It would be humane and easy to gas them all at once because they tended to stick together. I have always loved dreams. I needed places to go.
I met Roberta beside the bougainvillea that separated us from the train tracks in a car park on the Ligurian coast. There was a strong scent of piss that I came to associate with Italian railway and the skinny alleyways of Genoa where closed roller doors become wall poems. When the city was asleep the poetry was awake. But even reading the verses, you smelt the piss. It was August, all of Italy was on vacation. Roberta, a special-school bus driver, had arrived on a train from the city. The city in August isn’t a long description—closed window shutters, trains to the beach and Bar Patty. Bar Patty never closed. It was 365 days, 24 hours a day of a glowing neon palm tree and under it the same three locals sitting by a nut bowl.
Roberta stood in a disabled parking bay, a spent cigarette to the side of her mouth. Any step would land her in mozzarella or dog shit. She took no step and was perfectly still but for her arm sewing up the strap of her dress. I pointed to her needle, ‘Brava!’
She stopped and pointed the sharp end at me. The cigarette bounced between her lips. ‘Grazie.’ She told me the story that she told every English speaker before returning to silence, ‘Sorry I, no English. I go once to the England. To the Tabacchi. I tell to the boy, “One Lucky Strike.” He say, “Uh?” I say, “The Lucky Strike!”’ She performed an exasperated smoking pantomime. ‘He say “Uh? Wha?” I think, I can’t buy the cigarette, I go home.’
A hand emerged from the campervan door, asking to be tasted. Roberta stopped, the needle bounced on her bare chest and hung by a thread near her heart. Andrea had been making bread. Her face softened and she couldn’t find the momentum to change parking bays to taste the salt levels. She was immobilised in her broken dress beside that doughy hand. She was willing, as she always was, to be stolen by the arrival of Andrea. But how could we not all be stolen by that ten-minute candescent, orange light show? Some chemicals washed over into my parking bay. Right before the darkness arrived, surrounded by the dog shit and the purple flowers, I had decided I would stay. I would see Andrea make a lot of bread, Roberta forget many cigarettes in her mouth and the sun disappear many times. I was home.
Motioning that she was extinguished, I held up a lighter. ‘Si, si.’ She angled her head up to where the moon was due. When she was smoking once again, she said, ‘Bella storia.’
She said ‘bella storia’ (beautiful story) when she was happy. When she was unhappy she said brutta storia (ugly story). When she disagreed she fixed her eyes on you as though she had a hand slowly lifting popcorn to a mouth that would spit unpopped kernels at you. She wouldn’t miss.
We tunnelled through mountains bound for an apartment block covered in superseded computer-junk art in Torino. Roberta’s desires manifested in a sad whistled rendition of a Beatles classic from the backseat. She was a whistler and this she would announce to our future all-girl apartment block band when asked what instrument she wanted to play. She had the lung capacity. All she needed was love but Andrea was up the front with a young Italian juggler he’d met in Melbourne, who was blowing smoke in his face.
The juggler had many hits on YouTube. There was a news report about ‘pest’ travellers breaking road rules and making hazards for cars. Channel Seven hid its camera crew in bushes to film these pests. At a red light in St Kilda she juggled joyously for a man in a Nissan Pulsar pretending to adjust his mirrors. The subtitle read: Angry Intersection Clown. When the camera shakily framed her, she turned her head, dropped her balls, raised her fist and put her best English to use, ‘You go and get you yourself fuc—!’ Cut.
Andrea liked it, enough to drift each summer day with an angry intersection clown on a tiny sailboat across our horizon. On the beach Roberta held on to Moby-Dick but stared out to sea. Beside her an old fat man stared out at passing boobs while his wife trimmed his back hairs with nail scissors. I watched the boat as it appeared to enter his hairy ear hole and exit the other. I asked Roberta what Moby-Dick was about to bring her back to shore. Her eyes remained at sea.
Beside the Ligurian sea Roberta became a little darker each day. By the end of summer she nicknamed me ‘the little mozzarella.’ Each time embracing me in her dark sweaty arms and shaking with laughter until that wheeze took her over.
When I moved in Roberta and I sat on the balcony watching Andrea juggle in the garden with his clown next to the almond tree he’d planted with another girl who once qualified for the front seat. Roberta mumbled offensive phrases about wasted almonds, youth, backseats and prostitutes. I pretended that non capisco. From nine to five Andrea programmed a rocket to send to Mars. Some people wanted to start over on a new planet. Not just anyone can live on Mars: ‘your blood pressure should not exceed 140/90, measured in a sitting position, you must be over 157 cm tall and be at your best when things are at their worst’. The mission needed footage to know what to pack. His rocket would take photos for those lofty, relaxed, sitting optimists seeking a space change. It was rocket science. He never discussed the mission. He preferred to talk about girls, solar ovens and what time the sun was capable of baking the best bread. He didn’t want to live on Marzo, oxygen was too expensive.
We lived under an attic full of pigeons that cooed gently into the night. Over time their shit gently consumed the roof over my head. Each morning I shook cement dust from my hair and acknowledged to myself that I was alive. This ritual made everything in my life seem a little less dusty. Ante meridiem was the only time the building sat in silenzio. Andrea left for work at 7.25. Jenny had a notice on her door instructing all neighbours to knock after twelve. If you saw any residents before twelve they would flash you an incredulous look and call God a pig for making them work or go to an early medical appointment.
Or they paced the stairs outside Jenny’s door, hesitant and in need of emergency washing powder, which Jen always had but only after midday. In our apartment block everyone knew la storia of everyone. Jenny hated Matteo’s feet in summer, for example. Matteo stood barefoot in the garden telling everyone Jenny couldn’t discipline her dog because she was Canadian. Gabriele locked Andrea out on the street in his undies when his nervous dog shat on his bed. Roberta watched him from the dark upstairs while he stood partially naked screaming fanculo at the moon. We knew that Roberta considered herself the undiscovered planet orbiting around Andrea. When he eventually landed she would be his oxygen.
Roberta seemed in attendance at a funeral in her mornings, except for a long, pink pastel T-shirt/dress that suggested summer and lightness. She moved about slowly, morosely but respectfully. She often dreamt of violence and being saved by otherworldly beings. In one dream her brother came to cause trouble at a techno squat party. There was a lot of swearing and then a police car. An elf-woman came out of the bin and saved her. The brother begrudgingly drove off leaving a tyre skid and a trail of ‘cazzo elf-woman’ this and ‘cazzo elf-woman’ that out his window. She took the elf-woman out for coffee to thank her. She knew her from somewhere. The extra-terrestrial gave her a knowing look, downed an espresso and winked. When she woke, Roberta emailed me to thank me for saving her. I was in Australia at the time but after such a descriptive recount I almost started to believe that I had.
I knew nothing of Roberta’s dreams before coffee. She sat in silence with a world map behind her, surrounded by a decade of passport photos of her ageing in red lipstick and a few polaroids of a cat. A decade she had spent in this apartment, living all her stories here. Stories since she had left Magico, a short charismatic man she once shared a flat and a cat with. Magico appeared in our kitchen from time to time drinking coffee and jiggling about the kitchen chairs until he rubbed his hands together and said ‘va bene’ and promptly disappeared again. He didn’t say ‘va bene’ (all good) in the wake of the passing of Morgi Morgi, their shared cat of 15 years. There was a certain stillness around everyone who popped in for coffee. The three photos of the deceased cat, close to the Russian end of the map, was where everyone’s eyes travelled to in
Roberta buried Morgi Morgi in a shallow grave in the local park, where she lay on top reading Treasure Island for a month. She sent an SMS from the gravesite to her close friends, ‘There is nothing to say. Morgi Morgi is dead. Don’t call me.’
When Andrea didn’t call, she placed a cracked phone on the table and called it a brutto stronzo, pezza di merda (ugly arsehole, piece of shit). We sat in the kitchen with Morgi Morgi’s last deposit, propped up like a relic in the cat litter. I wondered if a month was a sufficient grace period before I scooped it out. She just sat beside it and stirred her coffee into an endless black whirl.
The week before Morgi Morgi passed she was sitting in her usual spot, the legs of Roberta, when a visitor arrived. This period brought many visitors. Roberta and the dying cat stayed in a kitchen chair for as long as the cat needed, basically the time until death did them part. Even after that Roberta stayed a little longer. The well-meaning visitor came bearing dusty little toys from Balon market. Tiny plastic figures usually warmed Roberta’s heart. I often woke in my room to see new additions. One morning a family of plastic gorillas straddled my bedside table, bearing their teeth. I woke and screamed. Roberta rushed into my room, laughing and wearing a nightie with a bear holding a heart-shaped balloon. She leant over me with her hand on the heart balloon, ‘Ma Meggi, look! They are very bellissima!’
She had found them all hopeless and homeless on the piazza ground. The bulldozer was coming, what other choice did she have? The largest gorilla was capable of packing a punch when you pulled the lever in its back. I sat drinking coffee while Roberta and the gorilla punched well above their weight repeatedly into my arm. Roberta found this hilarious and spoke in English on the gorilla’s behalf, ‘Pam! Pam! I hit the little Meggi Meggi!’
Among the toys the visitor had brought was a 1970s version of Batman. Batman assumed a position on the table, with folded arms, next to the sugar and stared Morgi Morgi down. He didn’t looked away.
‘But Roberta, he can’t see …’
‘He look Morgi Morgi with a look in his eye. Brutta storia. Brutta, brutta! I see him do the bad look.’
She wouldn’t be convinced that the plastic eyes of Batman couldn’t penetrate the cat. Neither that the toy didn’t curse the dying cat and hold responsibility for the cat’s death a week later. She stopped talking about Batman. I forgot about Batman. He disappeared. Life moved on and I twisted my ankle dancing to Beyoncé, which led me to the freezer back home late in the night. Wedged between a chicken breast and a bag of peas was Batman, frosty and staring out at me with an icy stare that gave me a chill so deep I questioned everything I had ever said about those plastic eyes.
Roberta housed other plastic friends in her toilet, where she read comic books about space, smoked cigarettes, did crosswords and whistled Amy Winehouse. Whenever the flush reverberated in the old pipes around me I tried to leave the kitchen, but there were too many plants in my way. Roberta would then glide into the kitchen and I knew instantly the funeral was over.
‘Bella storia! Oh my bella Meggi Meggi I open my stomach!’ She’d bend to my height, grab my head in her large hands and stamp my cheeks with her red lips, ‘Che bello to empty the stomach.’ Italians were always talking about opening their stomach and what had to vacate for that to happen. And what shape, consistency and smell it took. It baffled me that this could be standard mealtime conversation. But in their defence there was nothing more beautiful than preparing yourself for a big meal. Like cleaning your house before a party.
‘Meggi Meggi. Very very wonderful to open the stomach. I am in the paradiso,’ Roberta would whisper in my ear. I looked around at ‘heaven’ where I also, incidentally, was situated. Heaven is an orange room with The Smiths’ album covers blue-tacked to walls, many packets of pasta, plants clustered in each corner, tiny coffee cups scattered on a table next to a photocopied Chinese numerology guide stamped with lipstick and a map of the Earth you once inhabited before you took a shit.
After the morning funeral had subsided Roberta shared her contagious smile, laughed at events from the previous day, turned up Radio Nostalgia and moved around the kitchen greeting her plants. Her hair swayed around her like plastic straps in a milk bar doorway and she let me in. We shared our good dreams. We spoke each other’s language as competently as one another and so our conversations were a hybrid of both.
‘Meggi Meggi, I dream you in a bella dress, wonderful wuuuuundiful! Bella bella! Per favore, we go this day I buy you a beautiful dress!’
‘No grazie, Roberta. I am not wearing a dress.’ She ignored me for a week, except for the subtle gesture of leaving her favourite dress hanging on my doorknob. She shouted across balconies to neighbours about how beautiful I was wrapped in her long floral mind junk. How I was ‘very very girl’, she used English to ensure my comprehension. She woke one morning darker than usual. ‘Ciao Meggi Meggi.’
‘Tsk. No. No capisco. I don’t know you. Why? Why you don’t wear a dress? You were wunderful wunderful!’
I told her about a black dress I wore at weddings, funerals and garage parties for many years.
‘Tsk, brutta storia.’
By the evenings Roberta was always happier. We sat together on the balcony watching the pigeons come home. She was able to distinguish one pigeon from another and would tell me stories of particular pigeons that week. ‘Yesterday he really look me! I wet the plants and he look me and say, Ciao lady, why you don’t do the biscotti?’ In the mornings, when the neighbours slept, she left little crumbs for them. When they complained that the pigeons congregated on her balcony and shat on everyone below, Roberta shrugged and said she couldn’t help it if the birds liked her company.
Some evenings we sat under lamps reading our books to each other. When she read Treasure Island she said she felt strong in her heart like a pirate. Sometimes I would play my ukulele and she would whistle the melody. She could whistle for a long time. On the nights when the clown’s laughter bellowed up from below she closed her door and whistled Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’ louder than usual.
Orecchiette pasta (little ears) was Roberta’s signature dish and she made it for anyone in the building who was hungry. She shouted down to the balconies, ‘Andrea!’ But she didn’t offer her ears if an intersection clown came out.
Roberta’s mum called her each night at eight and interrupted dinner. ‘Ciao Mammy … Si, si, orecchiette. No, non ancora, non ha un vestito … Si, si è una brutta storia.’ (Hi, Mummy. Yes. Yes. Little ears. No, Mummy, she doesn’t have a dress yet. Yes, yes, it is an ugly story.)
Some mornings I found her as though she had been assaulted by REM sleep, in a neck brace and looking dead into space. I soon realised neck braces were as common on Roberta’s neck as exploded pigeons on market floors. One morning she’d neck-braced herself and was stiffly staring at the world map when her phone vibrated. She read between the cracks, carefully placed the phone down and flung her neck brace off. She was in the mirror applying her Saturday lipstick. When Andrea arrived, she was leaning against the world, smiling and covering all of Europe and most of Africa with her freshly brushed hair.
We drank coffee. It turned into lunch, dinner with all the neighbours, then a hip hop party in the local radio station. I danced into the night. Roberta swung me around the room, knocking drinks out of nearby hands. She swung her friend around in his wheelchair and accidentally flung him out across the dance floor. The pair lay in an embrace laughing hysterically in the middle of the dance floor for three songs. Andrea was making out with the clown but Roberta was laughing too much to notice.
When I got home there was a little black cat on the street. I patted it. It rubbed my leg and I went upstairs to bed. I was happy, I would be okay if the ceiling fell that night. Pigeons cooed and I drifted into a deep sleep. When I woke it was raining hard and still dark. I walked through the kitchen, half asleep and heard a hiss. I immediately thought of the dead cat’s poo and screamed. The black cat was arched on the table ready for a fight. Roberta floated in, dripping in her jumbo raincoat, a soggy cigarette in her mouth, a heavy bike chain around her neck like Biggie Smalls in a storm.
‘Ciao Meggi Meggi Meggi.’
‘Did you steal a cat?’
‘Tsk, No, he lost.’
‘No he’s not! I saw him all relaxed on the street. He’s probably the neighbour’s cat!’
‘Tsk. Nooo he look me sad and make the raaawr’. Roberta pawed the air with a pathetic look of woe on her face.
‘That’s what cats do.’
After a heated chat she agreed to put posters on the street. When I left the building Andrea and his clown entered with a drill and some wood. ‘We’re neighbours now! I’m moving in,’ the clown said, ‘us and the fucking pigeons.’ She laughed. I wondered if Roberta would be okay and walked the street looking for signs. I found only one, handwritten on a piece of paper no bigger than a five-euro note: ‘Found: a little cat’. There was a drawing, two circles and a tail. She forgot to write her number and to draw the fury in the cat’s eyes. Andrea’s wood came up the stairs all week, but our door remained closed. I didn’t want to mention it, instead I focused on the stolen cat and pleaded with her to let it go. She said she opened the door that morning, but it stayed. I noticed that she had cleaned the cat litter. It appeared as though she believed the spirit of Morgi Morgi had returned to empty its ghostly stomach.
The cat remained hiding, hissing and shitting for two weeks before it finally escaped. Roberta took that day off work and returned with A3 posters in bold capitals, ‘LOST! A beloved Cat!’ With her number. The posters lined the streetscape and the whole neighbourhood soon became swept up by her message. Her phone rang about eight times a day whenever someone saw ‘A beloved Cat’. She would run to the address and come home even more catless than before. A bank teller, whom she had never met, called to see how she was coping without her cat. She had once lost a cat and it was a ‘brutta storia’. The residents of Borgo Dora were united by the loss. An anonymous male text-messaged her for a week with new cat-finding strategies before inviting her to dinner and wine in a dark far corner of town. She was mid lipstick application when I made her promise not to go.
After the cat loss, it was nearly time for me to fly home. We finally heard the drill from Andrea’s apartment. He was building a loft bed for himself and his intersection clown. Roberta sat stiff in knee, neck and wrist braces like a taped-up doll. She stirred a little cup of coffee for a long time, as though she could dissolve herself along with the sugar. The cat litter was gone. I went to get her an ice pack and saw that Batman was also gone. Roberta said she was worried about the cat, all alone in the night. She closed her bedroom door and then she was gone too. She left her coffee spinning. I stared into the black whirlpool of coffee in front of a world map to the soundtrack of drilling from below, pigeons from above and a blaring Coldplay song, ‘The Scientist’, accompanied by the haunting whistle of Roberta: ‘Questions of science and progress don’t speak as loud as my heart. / Let’s go back to the start.’
Two hours of the same sad song spun me back to a start on the Ligurian coast. I had planned to leave Italy after that holiday but dinners and coffees kept coming. I remembered Roberta’s eyes on Andrea’s raw dough hand. All that potential. I had felt it too.
What happens when a pigeon doesn’t feel like returning home?
I did a last tour of my neighbourhood, walking past all the lost signs. When I returned to the apartment there was a note on the table:
Cara Meggi Meggi,
Non vai via! Che brutta questa storia.
Tu sei una stronzetta,
(Dear Meggi Meggi, / Don’t go away, what an ugly story. / You little arsehole. / Many Kisses, / Roberta.)
I moved into a house in Footscray where homing pigeons flew circles above me each day at 6 pm. Behind them the planes came and left. Everything seemed so ordered. People marched towards morning trains looking like Sinead O’Connor dressed by Frankie magazine, without the music. They didn’t look you in the eye. It was hard to distinguish one from the other. Perhaps my mother had been right, had the Great Depression finally arrived?
The only neighbour I knew was an elderly one with Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t remember my story, or hers. She only remembered to cut out the weeds with her steak knife.
‘You’re new, love. I’ve been here 75 years.’ The pigeons circled above us. She pointed the knife at me, ‘Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea. You can get lonely here.’ She was a violent speaker of truth.
The pigeons circled me until they no longer seemed like pigeons. They didn’t scramble across anyone’s path or make any decisions about where to tumble from the sky. The planes taking off behind them felt like a great insult. I started to doubt aero-engineering. I’m not convinced we belong in the sky.
When I finally flew back to the apartment, to the horror of the neighbours, Roberta had adopted two squabs from upstairs. She claimed to have seen the mother fly the coop and then heard the needy cries of two babies. She turned an old orecchiette box into a nest and drip-fed the babies for a month. She was in love with a new boy from another apartment. He had no girlfriend and introduced her to new music. She wore a new shade of red lipstick and whistled a different tune by a ‘wunderful wunderful girl’ called Lorde: ‘We’re bigger than we ever dreamed and I’m in love with being Queen.’
She had been reading less and had become addicted to a TV series called Doctor House. I had to ask because she kept casually referring to ‘the doctor’ and I worried she’d been sick. We all ate dinner in the garden, the neighbours asked how Roberta’s ‘children’ were going. ‘Bellissima!’ she said about her squabs, which were keeping each other warm upstairs. Andrea’s intersection clown wasn’t there, she had run off with a French stunt double. Her absence made the anxious dog shit in the hallway. Andrea’s rocket had finally landed on Mars.
Andrea was in the toilet, opening his stomach at the time it landed. His co-workers lost the signal and the rocket. He didn’t care, it was Wednesday, which was volleyball night. He loved volleyball because of the rotation of positions. No-one could dominate the space. The only issue was the girl he liked was two positions ahead. He was on an endless circuit, never able to get close, like the male pigeon, turning 360 degrees when wooing a mate. He didn’t care about his lost rocket orbiting alone around a distant planet. He was here eating little ears for dinner and listening to stories of those who were there to tell them. This I understand more than rocket science because it’s not rocket science. Andrea filled me in on the pigeon rescue, Roberta all bent over in the attic with a torch, sifting through sleeping pigeons, slipping in shit and finding her new family.
After dinner she took me upstairs to meet her pigeons. Their box was placed beside the attic door, which always remained open so the teenagers could choose to be human or pigeon. They seemed comfortable there in the middle. It’s true that they recognised Roberta.
‘It was very, very bella,’ Roberta told me later about finding the squabs. We were perched on the balcony as the sun went down, eating biscotti, dropping crumbs all around us and watching the pigeons return home. Roberta had been teaching me pigeon, a series of coos and whistles she had learnt from spending so much time with the birds. She had mastered their nesting coo.
‘When I go there, everybody, they sleeping together in the hug.’ She put her arms around me to demonstrate. When she’d finished gargling saliva she said,‘Oh Meggi Meggi, little arsehole, you came back home. Bella storia.’ •
Megan Petrie is a storyteller who lives in Melbourne and on an Italian goat farm. Her work has appeared in Melbourne Fringe, Melbourne Comedy Festival, Going Down Swinging and The Big Issue.