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The Grey Ghost of Rome...
Author: BilcoTitle: The Grey Ghost of Rome
Date: 2012-03-11 21:07:36Uploaded by: Archie

"Old Nick" they called him - Nicholas Cox was his rightful name - and a kinder hearted character would have been hard to find anywhere. He was approaching his fiftieth birthday and the race of his life when the chain of events that make up this tale commenced. For months the talk throughout the Fancy had been the Rome race, no-one had thoughts for anything else it seemed - and though the members that participated were few, the interest in the sport was tremendous.

Names that were legend in their own time were entering the race, and others with an eye perhaps to the fame and fortune that must fall to the winner, were thinking hard and long that their 'old lags' might do worse than have a go at it - after all, as quite a few must have thought - what was there to lose but an old stager whose fast racing days were over? Nick Cox was not one of the latter school however, his champion "Greywings" was a winner right down the line from 60 miles to nearly 600, and as a 4-yr-old he had spent only one night out in his life and that only as a result of the weather that had prevailed on the day of his longest race (which he had won comfortably). So it came about that on the fateful day "Greywings" was despatched with the pitifully few other contestants for the longest event ever staged in the history of British pigeon racing.

Old Nick went home from the basketing and sat down in his favourite armchair and cried. All the remorse of a lifetime was evident in his tears as he quietly broke his heart, for he had sent his beloved bird on the hardest task ever demanded - and he knew that only the greatest hearted pigeons ever born would fight their tormented way over the Swiss Alps and the southern plains of France, before coming to the great water barrier that would test them all to the upmost, and Nick was not a cruel man. For 40 years he had kept pigeons, and enjoyed the love of every bird he ever owned - but of them all he had loved none more than "Greywings" the barless Blue cock he had bred down from the long line of champions and who was the culmination off all his experience.

Finally the great day of liberation dawned. News didn't travel so quickly in 1913 but it finally percolated to the quiet corner of England where Nick waited with nerves keyed to an unbearable tension. A thousand miles away to the south "Greywings" was aloft, and to Nick that meant that he would come home - and home he came - but not as his owner envisaged or ever hoped.

A week passed by, and all over England the pigeon men waited with fast beating hearts to hear if Rome could be flown. Silence was their answer. Another week came and went, and hope began to fade a little as still no news was heard of the gallant few pitted against such overwhelming odds. Nick grew quieter as the days passed, and spoke less to those who knew him. They for their part knew the torment the old man suffered in his heart, and left him be. Sometimes a neighbour started a half-hearted "Any news?" - but always the slow shake of Nick's greying head was all the answer they had in return. Then, one sunny afternoon the postman called at the lovely old cottage where Nick lived, and waving a postcard over his head he demanded the "Furrin stamp" that adorned the little white slip of pasteboard. nick took the proffered card with trembling hand, and in his heart he knew that the news it contained referred to his bird long before he lowered his eyes to read the brief message scrawled across the card.

The writing was in a foreign language, but for all that Nick could see the numbers that spelled out the identity of "Greywings" - and his heart chilled with the sudden fear as he made out the word 'Mortis' and although he was not a learned man he knew enough to tell him that his great pigeon was dead. Tears ran down his weathered cheeks as he turned away, and with stumbling tread he made his way across to the rustic bench that stood alongside his neat little loft. the postman stood silent, his hands made vague pawing gestures as he sought vainly for words to comfort the old fellow, and finally he turned away with a heavy heart as - a countryman himself - he knew nothing he could say could assauge the grief the fancier felt.

Nick read the postcard over and over again, searching for a clue that might tell him he had made a mistake, and that hope might still linger on. The date on the card was that of the day of liberation of the race, and in his sorrow the old man tortured himself with visions of "Greywings" exploding from the basket, only to collide with the wire stretched across the thoroughfare, waiting to claw the glorious life from feathered lustre that was the racing pigeon straining for home. Finally he raised himself from the bench and wearily made his way to the cottage, where, with the trembling hand he composed a short note to the Secretary of his local club tendering his resignation. Later he wrote another, longer note, and with it a few details of his beloved birds. A fortnight later the auction took place and Nicholas Cox was a fancier no more - save in his heart - and his cottage sold to couple from the town who cooed and clucked over the fading glories of the garden tended lovingly for so long.

After the sale, Nick went to live with a widowed sister some fifty miles away and never again in the years remaining to him did he visit the scene of his bitterest heartbreak. He heard some months later of the joy and acclaim that was the just reward of the Lincolnshire fanciers Hudson, and the partnership of Vester & Scurr, but never again was he tempted to hold a pigeon in his hand though sometimes - on balmy summer days - he turned his eyes skyward at sight of a team of racers fleeting across the heavens, and on these occasions his spirit was heavy with remembrance.

It was a year and half later, on Christmas Eve to be exact, that "Greywings" came home. The day was bitterly cold and the icy east wind that blew had travelled all the way from the Arctic wastes of Siberia. The snow that lay inches deep on the ground was frozen to a crisp carpet that squeaked when walked upon, and nothing moved abroad save only those poor souls that needs must. A leaden grey hued sky brooded over the desolation of winter, and in the hedges the starved bodies of the sparrows froze to their perches, dead - but unable to fall for the talons of ice that held them. The wind moaned through the wires and round the eaves of the cottages, and blew a stream of icy flakes along in a biting cascade, always seeking but never finding a resting place. Through this, then, tired wings driving him ever onward came "Greywings" - a thousand miles of frozen landscape away from the Italian peasant who had picked him up half dead a year and a half before, and who had been incautious enough to leave his decrepit loft door open some five days ago. His gallant heart still beat, though tired to the point of utter exhaustion, and in his innermost being the love of home and master was the flame that kept him going when he had long since passed the end of his endurance.

Clearing the last hedge with fast failing wings, "Greywings" half folded his pinions in preparation for landing on the roof of his beloved home - only to find that the loft he had flown so many miles to find no longer existed. For a moment or two he fluttered vainly over the spot where his home had been, then with a last desperate spurt he rose to the roof of the house. For a moment or two he clawed there in a failing attempt to hold fast to the frozen surface of the tiled ridge, then - wings flagging - he sprawled and spun back down the slope of the roof, propelled by the angry clutching grasp of the icy wind. Striking the frozen guttering at the edge of the roof, he remained posed for a timeless instant in space, then - hurled over and over by the bitter gusts he was flung to the ground where he lay, spent and tired to the edge of death. Twice he moved his wings as if to fly on again, but when the wind turned him over again to the place where once his loft had stood, "Greywings" was dead. The frozen flakes built up against his thin and wasted body, and it was not until the first sibilant whisper of the southern winds of spring that he finally rested on the carpet of leaves where he was soon to be buried forever.

It was over thirty years later that the cottage again went up for sale, and though it stood empty for some considerable time and grew dilapidated meanwhile, a car stopped by the rustic gate one day and a tall greying man stood erect and studied the place. He was joined by a pleasant looking women, who took his hand in hers while she followed his gaze over the contours of the house and the large overgrown garden. Finally she looked up into his face and smiled, "Well?" she queried. for answer he nodded and smiled, and opening the gate the couple passed inside and toured the perimeter of the cottage. Obviously they approved of what they saw, for only a week later a firm of builders and decorators moved in and industriously proceeded to renovate the old building to some of its former glory. A little later still a furniture wagon stopped by and there was much coming and going with the carpets and furnishings. Eventually the family moved in and the garden rang to the laughter of their two children - a boy of eleven and a girl of some nine years.

Ian Murdoch, for such was the man's name, was a man of some talents and considerable industry, and before a year had passed he had restored the garden to its flaming splendour, and on the exact spot that Nick Cox had once maintained his loft many years before - he too built himself a loft, rather larger, more modern in design and equipped with a little office in which rested all that was required to make his racing and waiting hours comfortable.

In the spring of the following year, Ian settled three pairs of old birds and in no time at all the loft resounded to the thunderous cooing of the cocks and the squeaking of the youngsters. The weeks quickly slipped by, and one late spring evening Ian and his wife let the youngsters - now rather strong on the wing have their liberty for the first time. For what seemed to be ages the babies pottered about the roof, and now and again one or another would stand on its tiptoes and flail the air with its wings, testing them with nervous eagerness - and lifting themselves a yard into the limitless sky every once in a while. Suddenly, for that unfathomable reason that every fancier has experienced at some time in his life, the whole bunch of youngsters exploded into action and rocketed into the air, all six of his homebred youngsters and the dozen of the same age that he had purchased, were aloft and scattering to every point of the compass. In seconds they were a hundred feet up and spreading away, and with an agonising certainty Ian knew that short of a miracle his hopes were about to be blasted - for that year at least - when from nowhere at all a great blue cock swept round in a circle by the madly panicking babies and with slowly clapping wings he marshalled them into a untidy pack which followed him like sheep. Three times the great blue bird circled, then with his pinions spread he glided downwards in a grand sweep and settled as softly as thistledown on the top of the loft. Ian Murdoch watched with bated breath as all his eighteen youngsters followed suit, and a vast sigh of relief was wrenched from his clenched lips as the last youngster fell onto its face as it landed.

For a moment or two, the strange cock stood poised watching the youngsters - as if to assure himself they were all there - then with strutting step he dropped on to the trap and disappeared into the loft. As one the entire team of youngsters hastened after him, anxious to regain the known safety of their home and perches, and within seconds the last of them had gone through the bob-wires and was busily pecking up the seed that Ian had left in the hopper to welcome them in.

Barely half a minute passed before Ian opened the loft door to see and handle the strange pigeon, but to his astonishment the bird was not there. turning to his wife who had witnessed the entire scene he blurted almost angrily - "That damn bird's gone". She looked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then - "Gone? You mean it's not in the loft? Impossible!" For answer Ian opened the door wide for her to see for herself, but the stranger had unquestionably vanished. The couple searched all the perches and every nestbox, they looked under and over everything- but there was no pigeon in the loft that they did not own, and they had no Barless Blue among their own birds. Puzzled, they eventually returned to the house where they talked over the strange incident until suppertime, and later when they repaired to bed Ian was still muttering to himself about the inexplicable disappearance of the bird.

A couple of months later during the early summer, they were waiting the arrival of their youngsters from a training toss when Ian suddenly started from his chair and pointed heavenwards in alarm, an exclamation of horror on his lips. His wife, who had been sitting with him did not see the ominous shape of the dark winged falcon at first - then she too gave a gasp as understanding flooded her mind. Powerless to do anything about the presence of the predator - for the bird was a peregrine falcon, they stood biting their lips and hoping against hope their youngsters would not arrive until after the huge hawk had gone, but it was not to be and their alarm increased as they saw the neat little pack of young birds appear over the trees a mere couple of hundred yards away. They saw with mounting tension the peregrine turn to face their youngsters, saw his wings close into his body, and Mrs. Murdoch buried her head in her hands as the dark shape bulleted earthwards - then - again from nowhere the vast spreading wings of the Barless Blue appeared as the pigeon soared underneath the falling hawk, and he - turning in his headlong dive - struck with hooked beak and curling talons to scoop up the apparently helpless pigeon, and missed! Turning on to its back the great hawk struck again at the underside of the Blue bird, and missed again and again though it seemed to the observers far below in the garden that he must have hit the pigeon every time. Eventually the pigeon with peregrine close in pursuit disappeared from view, and the youngsters who had dropped hastily onto the the loft trapped with an unaccustomed vigour.

Ian Murdoch was silent for a long while that evening, and intelligent man though he was he failed to find a satisfactory solution to the Blue cock's appearance, again in a moment of dire emergency. He did not dwell too long on the matter though, and with a promptitude that was commendable he soon made the purchase of a shotgun with which to welcome the hawk should it appear again. On a number of occasions that year they had reason to bless the strange pigeon, and once Ian mentioned the matter to a friend who was a journalist, who - sensing perhaps something stranger than fiction was happening - wrote an article on the affair and published it in the county weekly paper. It was in these columns that Nicholas Cox, now in his eighties and in failing health, read the news that gladdened his heart and made him weep tears of joy. Unable to go to his old home to see for himself, the old man wrote to Ian Murdoch - telling him the story of "Greywings" and of his deep conviction that the bird had come home.

Surprised that a previous tenant of the cottage had also owned and raced pigeons to that location, Ian treated the letter with some reserve and just a little misgiving, unsure perhaps that the writer was genuine. The following winter though he and his wife found that truth was indeed stranger than fiction, and that the loves of the fancier and his birds is far stronger and deeper than can ever be understood by mere man.

The wind howled again round the eaves of the old cottage that Christmas Eve, and the snow rustled against the windows and sifted into every crack in a vain attempt to percolate everywhere. Ian Murdoch and his wife stood - arms intertwined round each others' waists - looking out at the gathering dusk when they both started, electrified at what they saw. There, standing by the loft, appeared a grey headed old man, small and bent by the years but clearly visible to each of them. He seemed to have an aura of illumination round him and appeared impervious to the biting wind and driving fine icy flakes, and stood - a smile of joy across his face, arms raised to the sky where, with great grey wings clapping slowly above his head, there appeared the unmistakeable shape of the Barless Blue - also illuminated by the same strange glow that was light and yet not. For timeless seconds the couple watched while the bird settled against the old man's chest, and clearly saw him bend his grizzled head and kiss the pigeon and clasp it to his face - tears of sheer joy running down his lined and aged countenance. For a spellbound eon they watched the image of man and bird together, then suddenly they were gone and only the wind driven snow could be seen beating against the side of the loft.

The Barless Blue was never seen again. Perhaps it was the obituary that appeared in the columns of the county paper later that week that gave the answer, it said quite simply that Nicholas Cox, octogenarian and once resident of their village, had passed quietly away at four o'clock in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Requiescat in Pace.





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